Saturday, May 11, 2024

Game Review: Death in Space

: Christian Plogfors, Carl Nibeaus
Publisher: Stockholm Kartel, Fria Lagan
Engine: Mörk-Borg Compatible (OSR)
Marketplace: Fria Lagan, Amazon, DTRPG

Death in Space is a sci-fi horror game set in a distant future where the Universe is beginning the process of heat death, and humankind, after aeons of expansion across Space, are now in steep decline.

The game's setting, which is heavily baked into the structure, is the Tenebris System, a star system that had been at the heart of humanity's final war; many powerful mega corporations and space empires fought for centuries over gems found on moon in Tenebris which were so flawless and possessed such fantastic properties that they would revolutionize the manufacturing of spacecraft, computers, and hyperspace gates 

By the time the war was over, humanity was so beggared and in such steep decline that it didn't matter anymore: no one had the means left to use the gems.

Now humanity is clinging on to an existence where they make nothing new: everything has been repurposed and recycled over and over again. An alien force, the void, is creeping in, infecting, tainting, and mutating everything it touches, and that can be heard in strange whispers on radio waves across the Universe.

 Humans live in poverty in the wreckage of their once great empires. In Tenebris, most of the population lives in The Iron Ring: a hoop of fused hulks of space stations and starships in orbit around the moon where the gems were once discovered.

Because most travel involves cryosleep, despite the war being over centuries ago, people still remember it, and it's after-effects are still felt in the culture. Veterans from many different eras and factions in the war still walk around.

The PCs are a crew that has recently gotten together and built a functional starship or space station and are now trying to build up a nest egg and a reputation carrying out missions for various patrons or scrounging in the ruins in hopes of getting the resources to keep the lights on and the ship flying.

The System 

Like Mörk-Borg, Death in Space is a highly stripped -down OSR game, with just four relevant stats: Technology, Savvy, Body, and Dexterity rated -3 to +3 by rolling 1d4 - 1d4. All rolls are resolved by roll d20 plus a relevant stat against either a creature's defence rating or a universal target number of 12, with a 5e-style Advantage / Disadvantage system.

If you fail a roll you accrue a void point. You may spend void points get advantage on rolls, If a character fails after spending a void point, they gain a random corruption. Accumulated void points modify the corruption table roll, making it more likely that you will suffer a debilitating effect.  This gives players an incentive to spend void points quickly on rolls where they have some chance of success.

Characters gain a d8 of hit points and have a random background that gives them a couple of special abilities, most of which are simple but helpful.

A few additional tables provide PCs with a history and previous occupation, old allegiances,  and a personal trinket. Equipment packages can be selected or randomly rolled. The PCs don't start with a weapon. PCs with poor stats get a random bonus.

Objects have a condition rating, when it reaches zero the object is broken and unusable. Rolls of natural one on d 20 checks damage items being used.  Characters can affect repairs by using components, which they can gain by scrapping objects they find. Recycling technology is a survival skill of great importance in the Death in Space setting. Characters are assumed to have at least a basic understanding of how to refurbish parts.

Ships also have an abstract way of tracking provisions and air. In the early phases of the game, player characters will be spending much of their time scrounging for components, and trying to keep themselves and their starship or space station supplied with the necessary food, water, air, and spare parts to simply keep going. It can give the game a feel of desperation which is definitely intended  as a part of the core play experience .

Death in Space provides an elegant system for space travel and combat that is low-res but makes things very easy to handle, and makes spaceships feel like crumbling death traps, as apropos to the system.

Ships have a few statistics to determine hull integrity, responsiveness, power output, and fuel. Their capabilities can be expanded by adding a number of modules, which are limited by the amount of power the shop can provide.

Travel times between locations is determined by checking travel tables that cover the rough times to get from point to point in Tenebris, based on engine capabilities.

For any journey there is a chance of malfunction or mishap that makes extended journeys feel incredibly perilous. Some mishaps will simply damage. The ship's condition rating period others swell.

Starship battles are likely to be  nasty, brutish and shirt; broken into 10-minute turns and 4 distance zones (detection, identification, close, and boarding). Weapons can only be brought to bare in those closest two zones. Ships can choose on their turn to move one closer or farther apart. To move two zones to force a resolution requires a stunt that risks burning fuel and damaging the ship.

Ships can be damaged in two ways. They can lose condition fairly rapidly. Every natural one causes a ship to lose condition points. Any time a module is used by a character, or a risky manoeuvre is executed they must roll 1D6 with a 1 and 6 chance of the ship losing further condition. On top of condition loss. a ship has a frame rating that starts at 100 representing a percentage of a ship's hull integrity. Each time a ship is hit, the frame goes down based on the type of attack. 

Once a frame is below 50% integrity, they Gm rolls on a random ship mishap table that is replete with disastrous consequences such as losing vital systems or having modules blow up. Once either frame or condition reaches 0, the ship ceases to function except running basic life support. 

Restoring condition to the ship works in the same way as restoring condition to almost anything else, although characters may have to scrap their possessions to have sufficient parts, Repairing frame is relatively quick and can be done at a rate of 1D6 times 10% per hour. A night spent in a space dock will restore a ship to 100 frame.

Characters gain a small amount of experience points by meeting certain criteria for the adventure. characters gain experience points by meeting certain conditions in each session. A character can spend their experience points to increase their hit points, improve ability scores, gain a mutation, or get one of the other benefits from their character origin that they had not taken before.

What I loved.


Death in Space, like Mörk-Borg,  has a very intricate and detailed setting; PCs might be cultists of the void itself, people who have spent so much time moving at light speed they have become partially detached from time space, a member of a race of AIs implanted in clone bodies, a speed-grown clone with a perilously short life span, or a wandering space punk obsessed with self-reliance. The monsters are terrifying and strange, and the setting full of melancholy and wonder.

From the moment I generated characters for my solo playtest, I was immediately taken with just how strange and interesting the people you ended up playing were. The missions generated with the random tables have a lot of flare. Nothing about this game feels generic, everything ends up picking up the setting's strange and dark tones.

Unlike Mörk-Borg, Death in Space is not overwhelmed by its nihilism. While the setting is definitely apocalyptic, there is a sense of hope even in dark hours. There is a humanistic element to it I found lacking in Mörk-Borg

Information Design

Death in Space is really well-written and laid out. Rules rarely span more than a single spread, and critical information is always on facing pages. Book sections are colour-coded so that headings and font immediately let you know which part of the book you are in.

The book's order is well-thought out, you get the information in an order that means you don't need to go flipping to learn the game. 

The overleaf of the covers have a item price list at one end of the book (a tribute to the enduring quality of Lamentations of the Flame Princess' design) and a rules cheat-sheet at the other,

Death in Space assumes you are a veteran TTRPG player, and doesn't bother with "what is role-playing" and examples of play sections, which makes a certain sense. I would love to get a better sense of Plogfors and Nibbeaus' philosophy of gaming at some point.

There is a lot of quality art work in Death in Space, but it does not treat the book itself as a work of art in the same way Mörk-Borg did. It never compromises readability for aesthetics.

Physical Book

I took the time to pick up a physical copy of Death in Space through Amazon, and I am glad I did. Like most Fria Lagan products, there is a lot of energy put into ensuring a book that is very solidly built, with high-quality glossy paper, stitched binding that lays flat, a foil cover, and colour ink on every page.

Speed of Play

Any game that uses Mörk-Borg as a basis is going to play extremely fat. The game only gives you the minimum you use to play the game, and leaves a lot to GM adjudication and logic. The GM section is instead dedicated to random generation and gamable content, such as monsters, ship modules, and setting information. It has random tables that will make it possible to make an interesting and detailed adventure on the fly if the GM has little prep time.

Eaarly-Stage Play Loop and Power Levels

In the early parts of the game, PCs are going to struggle for fuel, provision, and parts. Just keeping afloat as your ship is falling apart around your ears is the driving force. As PCs get a few wins under their belt they start to find their feet and are able to start improving their ship and getting better equipment, which will likely build up along with a trustworthy reputation. Over time the PCs will become more independent and be able to handle bigger, riskier jobs leading to bigger rewards. The game's rules support this elegantly and seamlessly.

At the same time, as the PCs have carried out missions, thy will start to build up mutations that both give them powers, but also divorce them from humanity. Eventually, their time in the space staring at the void will leave them mad and mutated, so characters never get to the point where they feel super-heroic and the game becomes unchallenging.

Encouraging Non-Violence

When the PCs start, only  few unfortunate souls who got to roll on the low-stat starting bonus will be armed. Most PCs will be uarmed and it might be a few adventures before they are well-armed. In the meantime, characters have abilities that are useful for creating distractions, creating obstacles for enemies, using machines in the environment to their advantage, or tilting the odds of risky gambits to their favour. This encourages players to find ways to solve problems with wits rather than brute force. You are far more likely to see players launching a dangerous monster out of an airlock than gunning it down.

Starting Adventure

The included starting adventure does a great job of painting a picture of life on the Iron Ring. It presents a time-sensitive solution to a big problem for the PCs. It revolves around a feud between the leaders of two factions in a segment that has gotten out of hand and will result in a lot of deaths if it can't be resolved. The PCs as a neutral party can get paid (and get their starship out of hock) if they can solve the problem peacefully before the local crime-lord shoes up to start busting heads.

The PCs can solve this problem through theft, negotiation, sabotage, or making peace between the factions as they see fit. It can be handled in dozens of ways. But if it is not handled things will get bloody and the PCs may well end up caught in the crossfire.

This adventure is an incredibly elegant design that is built around a series of detailed NPCs with clashing motivations, secrets, needs, and valuable resources.


The initiative system in Death in Space is quite clever: Once the GM decides on the first actor in a sequence with logic, initiative becomes something of a Devil's bargain: the player with initiative decides which individual goes next. The last in order gets to choose who goes first next round. This can let you give the party some clear advantages, but if they get greedy, the enemy they leave to last will get to go first in the next round.

Growth Points

What is "Non-Phys"?!

Throughout the setting "non-phys" is mentioned. It is clear that it is some kind of virtual reality, but what it is exactly and how it works is left so vague it can be aggravating. Some times it appears to be something that works like a drug. Other times it seems to be more like a pervasive collective Internet. Other times still it is a private virtual reality. I would love a clear definition, because as it it is vague and frustrating to suss out.

Tenebris May Be the Centre of the Universe...

... but what else is there? The system gives the mechanical means of travelling between star systems, and even galaxies (although instant Faster-than-light travel is a rare and expensive beast, you and climbing into the freezer on your rust bucket may be suicide.) What's there in those far galaxies, on the other hand, isn't touched on in any meaningful way. There are no resources for out-of-system travel in the game.

A Little More Fine Detail Might Have Been Helpful

I appreciate that a lot in Death in Space is kept artfully vague to let the reader make their own inferences. I think it is an admirable principle of game design, and allows you to avoid the traps of dense, ever-evolving settings that Shadowrun, RIFTS, and the World of Darkness suffer from.

But when you just had a war of dozens  of factions where veterans, officers, and people who won or lost everything are still around, having your background being someone who was on "the winning side" or "the losing side" is perhaps too limiting. Even a vague profile of some of the factions still lurking on The Iron Ring from the war might have been helpful. Even just a name like "the Pyrrhian Salamanders" or "The Hyperion Company" might have given us enough to build more on our own.

Vagueness in game settings is helpful, but it helps if you give a few more artfully vague specifics.

Deeply Setting-Specific

While Death in Space pays some lip service to using the game for your own setting, between the way the Void mechanics work, the character options, and connected random tables, it is very hard to make any setting that isn't the universe of the Tenebris system work in it. You could pull out or re-write the void mechanics, redo the character generation tables, create new origins, adjust the conditions for gaining XP, and replace some of the random adventure generation tables to suit something that is sufficiently different - but by then you have effectively re-written a so much that you might as well have made a new game.

In order for a game to have the level of universality that you can just plug a new system in, there has to be a certain level of separation between the PC and the setting. Dungeons & Dragons can easily be treated as a universal setting because a class like Fighter isn't particularly deeply connected to the world lore, and  Paladin works so long as some of the basic vagaries of a Christian notion of good and evil exist in the setting. But a Velocity-Cursed and deeply dishonest asteroid surveyor who worked for the Losing Side, and has a pair of fashionable bionic hands that are the only solidly fixed part of himself is much more entrenched in Dead in Space, and doesn't really work anywhere else.

If you aren't interested in a universe where the strange remnants of humanity are huddled together trying to live on the detritus of the past while watching the heat death of the universe, and trying to shut out the hideous whispers of something Other that is washing in as the Universe collapses... then this is not a game you will find particularly helpful.

The True Death Table

This oddment is an artifact from the edgier style of game design that Stockholm Kult was creating for Mörk-Borg: when you character dies, you roll and this table and the player's character is supposed to get a pause fo soliloquy where they explain that this is not how they were supposed to die... if it were not for the void twisting the way history unfolds they would have died like this..." and then describe the different, and likely pointless, hideous, and painful death that they should have had.

It's a bit of pointless, nihilistic edge-lordery I can't imagine wanting to use at my table. It serves to enhance the gothic mood, I'm sure, but indulges in more senseless nihilism than I have time for anymore.


Death in Space is a slick, stylish "Borg" that gives you a fast paced, lush, experience. It has a game-play loop that keeps the PCs moving and engaged, which makes campaigning in it easy. From the moment I rolled up the characters, I was deeply immersed in its gloomy, strange world. The Stockholm Kult boys have an amazing talent for world building. 

If I wanted to create my own Science Fiction Horror setting, I would probably still reach for Mothership,

This is definitely a game I could enjoy running or playing in a campaign mode. I even know exactly who I would invite to play. If only there were more hours in a day.


  1. It sounds a bit like a darker, slicker Paranoia. Tenebris = the dark side of Alpha Complex.

  2. Congratulations! Achievement "spam comments" unlocked!

    1. I have no idea where that wave came from. Usually blogger is better about filtering it all out.