Orbit is an older game, 2003, but we picked up a copy on the bring-and-buy table at Gencon UK so I thought I might as well review it. Some shops seem to still have copies for sale and you can, apparently, still get copies from the creator HERE.What the game is, or at least what it tries to be, is a sort of ‘Heavy Metal’ (the film) in game form, intermingled with some psychobilly retro-fifties styling. The book is soft back, reasonably well printed and weighs in at 258 pages all told. I had high expectations for this game as I sensed a kindred spirit to ’45: Psychobilly Retropocalypse but these expectations weren’t particularly fulfilled.
This thing is clearly a labour of love for its creator, Jeff Diamond, as – with assistance – he’s written and drawn practically everything within the book, taking an ‘auteur’ approach that I think is often a positive thing in game creation and other arts. You get a lot in the book for your money, a complete background, appropriate – but somewhat inconsistent – artwork and, overall, a lot of bang for your buck. Everything you’d expect in a science fiction game is here, from starship rules to high-tech equipment, a plethora of alien races and creatures and the alien-o-matic alien creator.This is a complete game in one package and nothing more is needed. My copy had an inserted piece of paper with corrected data for armour but the promised online support and PDF expansion either appears to no longer be available or never manifested at all.
Considering that the artwork is all by the same person it is extremely variable. We have everything from relatively cartoonish to relatively realistic. Some of it is coloured with flat grey tones, some of it is in full colour and some of it has highly detailed shading. The paper quality and printing process doesn’t show off the colour work to the best advantage and a lot of the pieces seem a bit flat but it does a reasonably good job of showing off the world of Orbit, particularly in establishing the races and people of the game world, less so the equipment, starships and so on. The layout is nothing special though there is good use of sidebars and boxes for specific information.
The whole game is a bit… skitzophrenic. On the one hand it is terribly excited about what it is and has a lot of comedy gold, bold ideas about rock-and-roll space and half dressed babes with plasma cannons, and then it hits you with this very detailed and quite overwrought background material. It is like the game wants to be two things at once, on the one hand this super-gonzo space opera, on the other hand a serious science fiction RPG, yet it can’t decide which it wants to be and ends up being neither.The writing reflects this, we go from little, almost Hitch-hiker’s Guide pieces about a particular alien race to intricate details about society, space travel or something else, almost in an instant. While the writing is reasonably good it, like the rest of the game, is inconsistent and this can leave your head spinning a little, trying to work out what the game really wants to be.
Frankly, this book could have been half, or even a third, of the size it is without losing anything and perhaps even gaining a lot. If your schtick is gonzo science fiction space opera then development a huge background and vast detail on anything and everything in the setting is not only unnecessary but it works against your goal. We don’t need to know the intricacies of interstellar policing, all we need to know is that they’re cops and that all cops are bastards and that they don’t like teenage hotrodders zooming around moons at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Equally we don’t need to know the mating habits of the Denebian Vulture men, all we need to know (besides their statistics) is that they’re evil, lecherous, look like vultures and that they’re the bad guys.
Less is more if you’re after creating a free-wheeling atmosphere of fun and adventure but for every Traxxian (little, green, eye-stalked, four-armed, space versions of Delboy Trotter) write up, full of good humour and sleazy role-playing potential there is a dull treatise on the Trade Guild and interstellar industry.
If you like detailed background worlds (and I normally do) there a ton of detail here on a multitude of alien races, technologies, worlds, organisations, starships and everything else that makes up the Orbit world, I just don’t think it works, or is necessary, toward the apparent goal of the game.
The main thrust of the game appears to be the idea of the Wandershen, a blatant, obvious, but welcome, way of getting an RPG group together and giving them something to do. Basically, in the Orbit universe, sentient species of age are required to go ‘walkabout’ off their home planet for four years in order to qualify for full League citizenship, and all its attendant benefits. This gives a great reason for characters to wander together and also ensures a vibrant interstellar culture, full of teenagers and young adults trying to get by on their own as well as extending League reach and sympathisers beyond their core worlds into the fringe.
The main power in the setting is the League of Allied Worlds, a more chaotic and somewhat fractious version of Star Trek’s Federation but they by no means control all of space and there are many non-aligned races and worlds. Some of which can be nasty, some of which can be nice.
The main races of the setting are:
Humans: Just like you and me.
Ketrin: Because what’s an RPG without sexy catgirls?
Ironkin: Space dwarves, sans beards.
Gelssk: Reptilian aliens, but not the invisible space lizards of David Icke’s imaginings.
Vangg: Toxic giants.
Rowglin: Because if you have catgirls you MUST have dogboys.
Pel’Tuurians: Half black, half white (or other combinations) these are the ‘special’ race in this setting.
Mezh: Naga-like semi-humanoids (I’m beginning to suspect Jeff Diamond to be a closet furry).
Traxxians: Little, green, many armed, many-eyed, chancers, rogues and reprobates. Like Ferengi with a bit more charm.
Xel: Living plants.
Arach: Sentient, bodysnatching, spiders.
Warg: Crossbreed between other races.
Then there’s a host of non-League races you can play as well, though these aren’t so recommended. The Baebians are worth a read though…
Orbit uses a fairly normal percentile based system as its basis with skill levels acting as multipliers of your basic statistic to determine a target number which is then used to roll against. Say you were an expert pilot, with a Tech stat of 30, the Expert gives you x2, so your target would be 60, though this can be altered by other modifiers and circumstances and can even go over 100. The better you roll, the greater your degree of success.
So far all pretty much well and good but the game interferes with the standard mechanics in two ways, author stance and gonzo abilities. Author stance gives the player control of the scene for a short period rather than the GM. This happens with critical successes but also with mastery of skills letting you dictate things for the duration of that action. It isn’t particularly well explained and seems tacked on to the system rather than incorporated into it. Gonzo abilities similarly step outside the base system and relate to special, unique powers or abilities that characters acquire that let them do things completely out of the normal scope.
Character creation is done by selecting your race, generating your background (similar to Cyberpunk 2020s Lifepath Generator), picking a homeworld, generating statistics (point distribution), adding traits and quirks (merits and flaws), selecting a career, then additional skills and finally adding your equipment. All pretty straightforward and par for the course and the background generator is always a godsend, though sometimes the results may not be to a player’s liking.
- Well envisioned world.
- Solid and expansive background.
- One man’s vision.
- Inconsistent presentation and style.
- The relatively simple system is rendered unwieldy by options.
- Poorly explained genre/story emulation mechanics.