August 29th, 2005

Future Worth Fighting For3

My Impressions of the Serenity RPG

First off, my deep thanks to Bridget and Jason for hand-carrying the book to me from Gencon, to Ron for a lovely autograph, and to Jamie & company for all their hard work. On to the review:

The Contents

There are two pieces here. One is a set of role-playing rules, the other a description of the Serenity setting. There’s overlap, and the rules are customized for the setting, but the chapters are split up so that you can easily skip past the rules if you’re using a different system.

If you’re not familiar with Firefly or Serenity, come back when you’ve caught up. For the Browncoats, there’s lots of good stuff here even if you don’t play RPGs. Detailed drawings of Serenity, descriptions of the different worlds in the verse, and even the tale of the exodus from Earth-That-Was.

The game rules are a switch from what I’m used to—instead of an attribute or skill being set to a number, it’s described as a size of die. A dunce rolls a d4 for mental tasks, while a genius uses a d12. Attribute and skill dice are combined to roll the target number or higher. Combat consists of comparing the attacker’s roll to the defender’s to see if you get a hit. More details are available here (When the official website goes online I’ll update this post with that link)

The Good

Damn, it's pretty. Not just the pictures of the BDHs, but the layout design and beautiful, beautiful deckplans for five different ships.

Character creation. There's enough customization here for to me to say "yep, that's detailed", and I'm speaking as a GURPS player with a couple of books the size of the Serenity RPG just on character creation. The method is also one to make a GURPS player happy—you have a number of points to allocate among attributes, (dis)advantages, and skills. Ships are designed as characters. I like that. It looks effective and ships as characters is very true to the spirit of the show.

Reference material. Lots of ship designs. Also lots of planet descriptions (details on all those names which were tossed around casually in the show), gadgets, and NPCs—not only basic stats but also personality descriptions for many of them.

GM advice. This is aimed at new RPGers, and it’s nice that there’s support for people new at this. How-to-GM is famously the first thing cut from an RPG book when the word count goes long, I’m glad this one survived. The advice looks solid too.

Game mechanics. I hate change, so I’m not that interested in learning a new rule system. But this one looks solid. It covers the situations that could come up, is flexible enough for the GM to deal with unexpected ones, and isn’t too complicated for newbies. I do have one complaint (see below) but I think it’s a good set of rules. It doesn’t have the detailed lists of modifiers beloved by snipers setting up ambushes, but this is Serenity, not Twilight 2000.

Few Inconsistencies and Errors. Okay, on p72 a crewman is paid Cr 200/mo, on p104 he gets Cr 10-20/mo. But there are very few errors. That’s pretty clean for a first edition. Plus I haven’t noticed any of the homonym mismatches that say "we ran this through a spell-checker but not by a human with good spelling skills." Good quality work. Probably less than the usual amount for a first release, and I'd expect an errata sheet up on the webpage. Along with that character sheet. Something else to tuck in with the GM screen.

Plot Points. As players earn points during the game, they can save them to build up experience or spend them to alter events in the game. This can be simple die roll adjustments or adding elements to the plot such as walk-on characters. I’ve seen this for other systems (here's a method for GURPS) but the plot points method is elegant and smoothly integrated into the rules.

The Bad

Mixed dice. If a player wants an 80% shot at pulling something off, I can tell him he needs a 13 on 3d6, or 16 on a d20, or 80 on percentiles (if he needs to ask). I'm damned if I know where the 80% cutoff is on 1d4 + 1d8 + 1d12, and if someone asks "How many plot points do I have to spend to get to 80%?" I won't have a clue without firing up Excel and running out the probability tables. Those tables would be a good thing to put in the GM screen, as an insert flyer if they won't fit on the screen itself. (For those not familiar with the tables I mean, see the bottom of this page)

No starting adventure. There’s good advice on how to make one, and the vignettes describe the start of a couple of adventures, but a newbie GM could really use a couple of pages describing a complete adventure through climax and resolution. This would make a good addition to the website and/or GM screen package. (Anybody from MWP reading this must be sick of those words) GMs with some experience I’d point at GURPS Traveller: Far Trader or the BITS 101 Cargos/Patrons/Plots, but those are more inspirations for creating adventures than complete ones. The out of print (but often on eBay) Star Wars Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters is probably better for a newbie, but does require some cutting and filing to fit into the Serenity ‘Verse.

No fuel processors. All the Traveller players will scream "What you mean, liquid hydrogen for fuel but I can't buy a processor to make it myself from water?" Might want to toss stats for the processor up on the website.

The Ugly

No map. Yeah, there's a pretty image on p208, but using it as a map is like trying to get from Dallas to Houston with the New Yorker's "View from Manhattan" map of the USA. Worse, the only travel time info is Table 4.1 with ranges from "20 to 1500 hours", which roughly translates as "hey, you figure it out". And that table has references to "planets in the same system" and "planets in adjacent systems", while Chapter 7 says all planets are in "a system". The pretty map does look like several solar systems right near each other, but that doesn't match the text. The planet descriptions don't even mention which are neighbors or distant. So I have to A. map the system myself, or B. find players who don't give a damn about inconsistency or a total absence of useful data for planning voyages.

I recognize this is probably not MWP’s fault. Joss has been keeping that part of the ‘Verse deliberately undefined so they may have been required to leave this alone.

Just Nerding Out

The "exodus" describes people traveling in generation ships, even though cold-sleep tech is established in the ‘Verse. It’d be a lot easier to move everyone in storage than maintain functioning life support for generations. My wife points out that freezing people might require high-maintenance equipment, so this can go either way. But I think freezing makes a better story—you get to park people and thaw them as new planets get terraformed.

The space drive is described as inertialess, but they only get up to 2% of lightspeed (p105). Inertialess should go to almost light-speed, which you’d need if you’re getting to Regulus or another blue star with some time left over to create some history in only 500 years. Presumably the ark ships had much more expensive drives and nobody’s going to waste that kind of money getting around one solar system.


Either as a complete game or a setting book for another system, the Serenity RPG is well worth the money for anyone wanting to play in the ‘Verse. If someone’s never been an RPGer, or is thinking of GMing for the first time, this is probably a good book to take the plunge with.

EDIT: Later additions

The price conflict bit above was worse than I thought. The equipment chapter and ship chapter used different values for the credit, with a ship credit worth 10 equipment credits. So you have to decide which one you want to use and convert everything else to that.

The rules aren't as clear as it seemed either. Resolving actions requires rolling a skill and an attribute together, but it never says which attribute. So a new GM gets hit with lots of judgement calls. It's worst for flying a ship. The pilot and ship both have attributes and skills which apply to situations, so which do you use? Some examples would've been a big help but there's not much of that.

If you've got a system you know which will work for the setting I'd suggest staying with that. The Serenity RPG is still good as a sourcebook, but I don't think it's worth the full price.

Now the GM Screen . . . the deckplan in that is worth the price.