By Todd Downing, Deep7, £25/$34.95 Print
Three millions years into deep space... It must be about a year since I heard about the plans to do a Red Dwarf RPG. To start with I was dubious, the guys with the license were American, they spelled Kebab as Kebob on their web site. Out of interest I got in contact with them, to get the scoop that became this interview. I was pleasantly surprised. They had a strong idea of what Red Dwarf was about. They wanted to remain true to the show. How cool was that!
A year later, and I've got the book in my hands. It's slimmer than some RPGs, but the production values are very high. A mixture of full colour and 2 colour printing (black and red), it's well layed out and information is well presented. It passes the "decent index" test too, a rare thing in an RPG. There are lots of photos from the series, some of which don't seem to have converted very well to greyscale (only really noticeable on a few of the darker shots). There's also plenty of illustrations. These fit the style of the series surprisingly well, reminding me somewhat of the comic strips in the old Red Dwarf Magazine. The best bits of layout work are the wonderfully produced adverts. Similar to those in the old Starwars and Cyberpunk games, these nicely add atmosphere to the book (the small print of the ouroborous Batteries advert is great).
Writing wise the book is a pleasant read. Some chapters are better than others, but generally the writers do a good job of making roleplaying rules interesting and conveying the humour of the setting. There are occasional hiccups (some pop-culture references you may not get, or lose something in the journey over the atlantic). But then most of this is a problem with any comedy writing, and doesn't spoil the book. it's obvious that the writers payed a lot of attention to how to run a game in a Red Dwarf like universe. Their conclusion (and the best one to make, as far as I can see) was that your game takes place in one of the many alternate universes of the setting, using your characters, and so you should focus on the core concept: Man is alone a godless universe. Hilarity ensues.
There're a good introductory chapter answering the questions: "what is roleplaying?", "what is Red Dwarf?", and so on. Some nice colour text dragged form the series sets the tone well, and the writing style fills you with enthusiasm. There's a glossary (useful so that you know the GM is called the AI etc), and for those of us who are used to RPGs, there's a rules summary. It's around this point I had some nagging doubts about the system, but more on that later. For newbies there's an RPG primer in chapter 2, and it's pretty good.
In chapter 3 we are given rules on how to create characters, starting with some advice on thinking about what you want to play, followed by a series of character types. Here we have a list of the main options for player characters, Humans, Holograms, Evolved Pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, mice and iguanas are given as examples), Mechanoids (Series 4000 or Hudzen 10), GELFs (Genetically Engineered Life forms), Wax Droids (Intelligent wax works) and Simulants (Psychotic military mechanoids). Each type gets a bonus special ability and a particular drawback, as well as particular limits on how high their stats can go.
The actual creation rules are short and summarised on a sidebar. Distribute 20 points between 6 stats and 30 points to skills. You get extra skill points for Liabilities, and you can also buy Assets for points. This is further developed in the next few chapters, which deal with character traits in detail. The six stats are straightforward enough, Agility, Dexterity, Perception, Strength, Intelligence, Willpower. These follow pretty standard RPG lines. The only oddity here is the agility / dexterity split, which seems somewhat stretched (one overall coordination stat might have worked just as well, it's not like this split is obvious in the source material), and the fact that anything social is based off perception. From these stats, we get derived stats: Initiative, Save and Shrug. Both save and shrug, when introduced, seem to have a remarkably similar purpose (helping deal with damage). Finally, there is a stat called Destiny, everybody gets one point. This can be spent for a re-roll, if you do something heroic, you'll get it back and an additional point. I'd have liked to see this stat expanded on. It's one of the few stats that seems to really help with the Red Dwarf, "skin of their teeth", feel. I'd like to have seen it's definition expanded to give reward for comedy moments and keeping to the Red Dwarf feel, which I'll certainly do when running it.
Skills are all attached to a particular attribute, they follow a pretty standard RPG list. Values of 1 in a skill are ranked "loser", 4 "satisfactory", and 7+ "What a guy!". You can take a speciality that gives you +1 to a particular use and -1 to all other uses of the skill, some skills you also have to choose a category for (like Pilot: Transport). The skills are explained in an entertaining manner, and the list covers most of the things you'd expect to see in the RD universe.
The Assets, Liabilities and Behavioral tags follow a GURPS style "points for problems" system. It's here that the system adds in some of the setting colour, and so you get liabilities like Smeghead (+3 points) and Gimboid (+2 points). Behavior tags only give you one point each, and are pretty minor quirks that add character colour. My only problem with this aspect of the system is that it's entirely possible to ignore the liabilities completely. Since part of Red Dwarf's charm is that everybody in the main cast is a loser of some kind, I'd have like to have seen some compulsory points of liabilities, or some such. Another problem is that by taking lots of liabilities, you get to be really skilled or buy lots of assets. This somehow doesn't seem true to the setting, where people like Rimmer have many flaws, and no real skills or assets...
The system is pretty simple, you roll 2D6 and try to get under your stat + skill. If you roll snake eyes you get a critical success, if you roll boxcars you get a critical failure. All action results are narrated by the GM, who can give you modifiers for certain situations. Combat follows the 3 second rounds method (something abstract would work better for a comedy game, in my opinion, no time for cool quips if rounds are 3 seconds). Characters act in order of initiative. There's rules for running, dodging, surprise, targeting areas of the body, damage, wounds, saves, and so on. Again, this is a standard RPG combat system, nothing special, but then nothing seems particularly broken either. My main dislike for the system is that it tries to simulate how the universe works, rather than how the show is written. But this is a personal preference, and probably won't stop most people having fun with the game.
There's an example of play in chapter 7. As an example it works. I suppose. It shows how the skills work, how the AI should do its job, and how players should react. It's not very funny though, and doesn't really inspire me to play the game. That's a problem in any play example.
Practically everything that ever appeared in the Red Dwarf series is detailed in the Equipment and Ships chapters. From Starbug to Psiscan, it's all here. Some nice flavour text, images, and the relevant stats and rules are provided for everything. There's a deckplan of Starbug too. I'm somewhat dubious about lists of gun stats in a Red Dwarf game, they seem out of place somehow. The creatures chapter details all the critters you are likely to encounter. So if you fancy throwing a mutton vindaloo beast, polymorph, or space weevil at your group, then you have everything you need.
The worlds chapter is particularly well written (one of my favourites in the book). It describes most of the worlds visited in the series, but each has a "Worst case scenario" with it, which is ideal for coming up with scenarios to throw at your players. This is a nice touch, and I think the equipment and ships chapters could have benefited from taking a similar approach, as it gets you thinking about how you're actually going to run the game.
Speaking of which, the AI section is well done, and covers handling players and such like, along with some sidebars on optional rules. There's advice on playing the AI like Holly, dealing with causality, encouraging comedy, plus other issues of running a humorous game. There's a tendency to go for the "GM is God" style of roleplaying here, which spoils the chapter slightly. But it's not like this is a unique phenomena in RPGs.
The personalities chapter covers everybody you might want to meet from the series, from Rimmer to Nicey Ackerman, along with some generic stats for space corps officers, GELFs, and others. This is useful for providing instant non-player characters, but also for some insight into how to create characters. For example, the list of character traits for Lister match Rimmer's intolerences, an ideal recipe for comedy.
Finally we get a scenario generator and a sample scenario. The scenarios generator is well thought out, and involves playing mix and match with the situations and personalities form the series. Plenty of ideas to be had here. The sample scenarios "The Red Dwarf Shuffle" should be fun to run, and has the feeling of the series about it. Without too many spoilers,it involves what could be termed "Extreme Golfing" on a GELF planet.
Overall: I have mixed feelings about Red Dwarf as a RPG. It's well written and the setting information and game advice are comprehensive and entertaining. It has a good take on how to make roleplaying in the Red Dwarf universe possible, and good advice on how to go about it. It's just that the rules are a little uninspiring. In the end though, the play's the thing, and whatever system you use, the Red Dwarf universe is going to be a fun place to play.