|Machinations of the Space Princess
Cover Art by Satine Phoenix
©2018 Postmortem Studios
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
Engine: B/X D&D / Lamentations of the Flame Princess
A Note on Controversy
"Grim" Jim Desborough and Satine Phoenix are both at the centres of controversies in the tabletop role-playing game community. As usual, I leave it to others to sort out what they think about either the author or the artist. I am not interested in repeating gossip. Nor do I care to discuss it further here. Although I will say that when people become the target of a Witch Hunt has "Grim" Jim repeatedly has, it makes me want to see what they're about even more. And I rarely find that the gossip is even close to the Truth.
Machinations of the Space Princess was one of a handful of games I bought myself as a Christmas present. It's being sitting on my shelf waiting to be reviewed for months now. While I have not been able to entice my players into a science fiction game other than my own Eternal Ocean, I have been able to experiment with the key features of MotSP enough that I finally feel like I can give it a thorough review.
|Image from "Heavy Metal"
©1981 Columbia Pictures
MotSP is based on Lamentations of the Flame Princess. That is to say, it starts with a B/X Base and borrows many of LotFP's innovations. In a few places, "Grim" Jim has taken James Raggi's ideas and brought them to a natural conclusion. For example, all skills are built along the lines of the specialist class from LotFP. That is to say, skills are on a pip system, where characters begin with either a zero in six or one in six chance of successfully executing any given skill.
Other categories of skills start at zero, and your ability to purchase them is based on your character class. Knowledge of alien cultures or scientific disciplines, for example, or something that only the scholar can take.
Combat skills are not available to every class, but in many ways emulate combat feats from D&D3e: once you have put a pip in them, you gain an exceptional combat ability, such as ignoring five points of a character's armor class, or disarming them. However, your chances of success are determined by the number of pips you invest in a given ability.
Psionics are built heavily on use of this skill system. A character has the ability to focus their mind, activate psychic abilities, aor call upon reserves of power by spending pips into various skills.
Psionic powers are gained by putting points in certain skills or by getting levels in the Psion class, but the power success is at least in part reliant upon the skills selected.
Because this game draws heavily on 1970s sleaze science fiction, it seems appropriate that it includes a comeliness score on top of the six standard ability scores. It offers a range of ways to generate stats that are framed a "difficulty levels."
Rather than use either the five traditional B/X saving throws or the slightly modified LotFP saves, MotSP has one saving throw derived from each of the characters seven ability scores.
These saves aren't just used for avoiding danger, they also replace ability score checks. For example, instead of using a charisma check to see if you improve an NPC's attitude towards you with witty banter, you might roll a charm saving throw. The saves begin at 1/2 of the related attribute and then can be modified by skills, racial traits, and circumstances. To save successfully, a player character must roll a d20 and get under the appropriate save.
Race in MotSP feels a lot like how I imagine race is going to work in Dungeons & Dragons 6th edition. Instead of a definitive list of alien species to play, Player Characters can create any alien race they like by combining up to three racial traits from A massive pool. These are organized by general alien archetype. So, abilities like oozing through keyholes or having no internal organs are included in the gelatinous alien list. If you wanted to be a gelatinous alien, you could just pick solely from that list. Or you can mix and match as you see fit, taking traits from day the aquatic, gelatinous, and low-gravity lists to represent a jellyfish being. The sheer size of the pool of racial traits is staggering, with the race section spanning 20 pages of the book.
Players who want to play truly alien PCscan buy additional traits at the cost of charisma, as they become so alien that it is hard for them to relate to other species.
One of the most interesting innovations in the book is how it handles treasure. Between sessions, player characters can use their ill-gotten gains to upgrade vehicles, weapons, even buy cybernetics that enhance their character. By the start of the next adventure, however, unless they have the finance skill or have invested in a business, they start with no money left. Much like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the characters will forever be motivated by the need for the next score. This also makes treasure part of character advancement in multiple ways, and makes "the big score" important to play.
Experience points are weighted somewhat differently. Player Characters earn XP for taking down opponents as usual, but gain only one tenth of the GP value of treasure to divide among the party. Additional experience is rewarded for hours of actual time spent playing, and a final bonus for how well player characters met their objectives.
|Art by Satine Phoenix
©2018 Postmortem Studios
Rather than providing a large list of monsters, the game has a simple, fast system for generating alien beasts by size, and NPC goons and villains on the fly with a mix of templates and list of options. (An appendix includes a workable selection of examples. )
Machinations of the Space Princess is designed to be highly modular. Weapons, races, monsters, even character classes are all built around providing a menu of options with which to build something custom, well keeping that system fairly lightweight, fast, and flexible.
I have adapted Machinations of the Space Princess vehicle rules for airships in my Xen campaign.
The system comes with an intentionally loose and mostly implied setting that is created by a mix of the art of Satine Phoenix and one sentence facts about the universe on every page in a humorous tone that is reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
This setting is one in which a powerful Interstellar Empire, Urlanth, is collapsing after the death of its empress. Her ninety nine daughters now all vie for the right to secede her. Rather than all out war, the princesses are bound by a complex set of economic and political strictures that are forcing them to take subtle approaches to discrediting and eliminating one another, providing plenty of opportunity for unscrupulous player characters to find work.
Actual monsters, races, and coaches for the setting don't appear until the appendices. Ultimately, the game aims to give enough for players and game Masters to put together something very quickly if they want to, or build their own universe as they see fit.
|Art by Satine Phoenix
©2018 Postmortem Studios
MotSP is not as blatantly sexualized as Alpha Blue, however. In some places the attempt to add "sexy" to the games tagline of "sexy, sleazy sword and science fiction" feels forced. Certainly, there's nothing in the content of the game that would make me hesitate to use it for something I would play with a table of teenagers looking to simulate Metroid, as a TTRPG for example.
As an unusual inclusion, "Grim" Jim also offers advice on finding people to play with, which is something I feel some while playing games desperately need to include. Although, this advice is a little dated in the world after covid-19.
What I Loved
Pip Skill System
The d6 skill system has always been a part of D&D, but it was a covert part of the rules: every character had an X-in-6 chance of finding secret doors, hearing sounds, finding secret doors, detecting concealed objects, being surprised, avoiding getting lost, etc. One of the smartest things LotFP did was take this covert rules system and spell it out. Making these, and the thief skills all one unified mechanic was one of my favorite parts of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
Machinations of The Space Princess takes the same idea and turns all class features into a similar system. The mighty deeds a fighter pulls off can be expressed as a chance out of six to do more than just damage. Using psionic powers effectively can be expressed as a chance in six and as well. As can recollecting rare pieces of lore or flying starship.
This does make Machinations a lot more crunchy, and puts a lot more on the character sheet than in many OSR games, I don't think that's a bad thing. Sometimes I will looking for a little more crunch. I find this a happy medium between lighter OSR games and the more complex modern Wizards of the Coast games. And as flexibility as the name of the game, it allows a player to build a character that makes sense to them and has a skill set they want, rather than try to build a handful of character classes that fit every science fiction archetype.
The Race Building Mechanics
As I've said in recent articles, part of the problem the science fiction is that you don't have a grounding to work on. There are no fixed references like folklore and fairy tales to use as they jumping off point for building a campaign world. Everything has to be constructed by scratch.
This à-la-carte system both encourages players to front load, and makes designing creatures easy. I imagine that this is how race is going to work in the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons as Wizards of the coast attempts to distance themselves from accusations of being bioessentialist. You will see things like lists of dwarf traits and lists of Elf traits and you can simply select which racial traits you want or select the ones from dwarf only to play a traditional dwarf or pick the ones from Elf only to play a traditional elf.
While I don't necessarily like that idea for Dungeons & Dragons, for a science fiction game setting it is a great tool.
Ship Design and Combat
In general, the customized vehicle and equipment design tools are very clever. In particular, I have enjoyed designing ships in Machinations of the Space Princess, as these rules tend to be very straightforward and easy to use. Pretty much all gear rules follow the same pattern select a base object, and then select the modification since special abilities you wanted to have, then and together all the multipliers from the equipment modifiers you've chosen to apply and multiply the base price by the total to get a final value for the weapon.
I was easily able to simulate the custom armor suits from Metroid, DOOM, Starship Trooper, and the Halo series. I was also able to make a lot of the traditional weapon tropes such as freeze rays and stun beams without too much difficulty.
|Perhaps the Lexx would be Apropos?
Moreover, ship combat is designed to be simple, but allows every player to have a role to play in the combat. Players do not sit passively by and wait for the pilot to finish the battle.
I have ported it into my own Swords & Wizardry campaign, because it's an easy way to handle fantasy airships, as well.
A few of the one sentence prompts for helping you to imagine the setting are very funny. Some to the point where I laugh out loud. The game doesn't take itself too seriously and profits from that immensely.
|"Insectoid" by Satine Phoenix
©2018 Postmortem Studios
I find a lot of role-playing game writers, no matter where they are from, work hard to present their rules in a very straightforward, Technical, and American feeling Style. Machinations of the Space Princess instead is written in a conversational style full of slang and grammar that is charmingly English. Having someone write in an off-beat and personal voice rather than as if they were writing a technical manual is a plus for me.
The "Badass" Sections
Machinations of the Space Princess includes sections and tells how to be a badass player and how to be a badass GM that offer helpful guidance on how to be a joy at the table at either end. This is something that I wish was a part of game starter kits, along with the "How to form a group" guide.
Ships are Really Expensive
Allowing player characters to have access to a ship large enough to move the whole party but one that needs upgrading to be truly impressive wouldn't just expand the range of adventure options for this players, it also gives them an incentive to earn a lot of GP to build up and enhance the ship. Anything that serves as a money sink for the player characters early in the game is a great idea.
The Sleazy Tone Feels Forced at Times
The Race Trait Section Could Be Better Organized
The racial traits section is organized as lists of 4 traits per species archetype, with the archetypes listed alphabetically. During character generation, this encourages a lot of flipping and exploring. It also leads to a lot of repetition between archetypes. It might have been easier to sort all traits alphabetically (as it is in the appendix), and associate the traits with archetypes on a table at the beginning. The traits could include a reminder as to which archetypes they fit with.
While I enjoy the conversational tone, many of the headings in the book are oblique. For example, the section on money is entitled "Fill Your Hand", the adventuring rules section "Boldly Going." I appreciate the artistic flourish in theory, but in practice it makes quick browsing more difficult.
Confusing Order of Presentation
One thing I don't understand is that the game has pre-made monsters, vehicles, races, and gear that are included as appendices, while the respective rules for creating custom materials sit in the body of the manual, often shy on examples. Why not include these samples as a part of the rules section in a "Here is how they work", " Here's some easily used examples," and "Here's how to build your own" sections. This could have given just a little more meat to the bare-bones setting presented.
It often feels like MotSP tries to be both a very specific sleazy Sci-fi game and a universal space opera system, at the same time. While that encourages creativity, it makes it harder to simply dive in. And there are plenty of other attempts at generic space opera OSR games. Where it tries to set itself apart and create a compelling setting, Machinations of the Space Princess really shines. Embracing that and doing at least a little more world-building might have been a better move and played to a "Grim" Jim's obvious strengths.
Machinations of the Space Princess is a satisfyingly crunchy game without becoming bloated, and can be used either Sleazy Sci-fi, as it was designed to do, or generic space opera reasonably well. It has good tools for item, vehicle, and monster design that can be hacked out and used in other OSR games.
It also does something that a good introductory RPG ought to: it discusses how to get other people to the table and how bring your A-game to keep them coming back. This is a unique and excellent set of features that seems strangely out of place for a game made for adults with gaming backgrounds. But sometimes the best advice you can give is pointing out what seems to be obvious to you. Anyone writing a game for kids ought to take note of these sections.
|Ambush by Satine Phoenix
©2018 Postmortem Studios
Some of its design choices are probably prophetic of the future shape of D&D, such as à-la-carte race design and skill-based magic development.