Review: MINDJAMMER, The Roleplaying Game

 Posted by on February 24, 2014  Filed as: Reviews  Add comments  Topic(s):
Feb 242014

MindjammerMindjammer is many things in one. It’s a space opera game that really has rules and mechanics for pretty much everything, all powered by the Fate Core system. It’s also set in an interesting and unique setting, with a lot of potential for exploration and adventures, and is well-illustrated with examples and tools for players and game-masters to experience a certain sort of adventure.

The New Commonality of Humankind is the central power player Mindjammer’s setting, in which humanity has essentially grown over ten thousand years into an openly transhuman society. The Commonality recently unlocked the secrets of FTL travel and has begun to rediscover other human colonies. This works incredibly well, integrating elements of exploration and high adventure that Fate Core begs for. Barring the unknown, there are many named places and organizations to explore in the standard setting. The Venu Empire, which is the most fleshed-out other faction, is the largest competitor to the New Commonality of Humankind. However the majority of the example setting content has nothing to do with the Venu, although references are made to a historical war between them and the Commonality, and they remain too mysterious to be a protagonist faction without modifications.

The standard setting, however, is a bit hit or miss. It has a lot of original and thought-provoking content, but it could likely be dissatisfying for players. Having the most advanced faction be an almost benevolent but often Orwellian and authoritarian entity is interesting, but its repressive undertones also mean that the Commonality can bring up some incredibly touchy and dark subjects, which are handled relatively loosely. For instance, the Commonality, until recently, implemented forced euthanasia, and engages in cultural manipulation that includes a lack of tolerance for freedom of speech and religion. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable playing with the Commonality as protagonists.

That isn’t to say, of course, that the setting is horrible for everyone. Warhammer: 40k (whose Imperium of Man the Venu resemble) has proven that people are more than willing to play cogs in a larger, often unpleasant, machine, and Mindjammer has certainly got a degree of complexity and many potential sources deep affinity for players that can easily draw them in when possible. There’s a lot of stuff to like, and only a few adjustments have to be made to find something that will interest pretty much any group, but the setting suffers from not trying to define the role of the players. Normally, this is not a problem for a narrative game, but with many different parts of the setting never meeting each other it becomes difficult to fully appreciate the breadth of the content and remain believable. GM’s and players have to be careful to pin down the setting, which even in the examples seems to be a problem.

My disappointment with the setting can be summed up in a single example. The Mindscape gets one of twenty-six chapters devoted to it, and its ten pages are devoted rather heavily to rules and mechanical explanations. There are a lot of term definitions throughout the book, and many things are like real-world analogues with a twist, but there’s just a general lack of the human aspect. For a setting with a novel, there’s only snippets of fiction, and setting elements remain distant and vague.

Mindjammer is built on Fate Core, which uses Fudge dice. As a game that really draws from the space opera genre and takes place in a setting where the question about what is possible generally boils down to individuals’ ability rather than technology limitations, it’s a good pairing. The mechanics allow richly detailed characters and scale well to the various other game constructs, such as organizations and even whole planets. The narrative style of the game is exactly what the Fate Core system was built to handle best, and Mindjammer’s mechanics are well-constructed and generally make sense.

Unfortunately, just because Fate can handle these scales doesn’t mean that it should. At over five-hundred pages to read it’s easy to have a GM burn out, and the length is extremely intimidating even for players who won’t have to master all the rules. Fortunately, common mechanics make adaptation more simple, but there’s still a lot of bloat in Mindjammer, some of which is a natural consequence of attempting to facilitate so many different scales of play and some of which just comes from repetition and an unwillingness to focus on any one experience.

Another major problem with Mindjammer is that working with things at different scales just doesn’t feel entirely right when working with the same mechanics. There’s a scheme for determining how things on different scales interact, but it doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense in outlier contexts. While Mindjammer allows for essentially down-scaling to achieve a desired scale result (for instance, you can branch an organization down to its branch in a city to see how it deals with a local threat on the fly), this also means a lot more work and bookkeeping to the point where using a simpler discrete mechanic would perhaps be better. The marriage of Mindjammer to the Fate Core mechanic works really well on personal and vehicle scales, but past that it’s impractical unless one is working with like types.

Mindjammer also includes random generation tools for a ton of things. They seem to be heavily weighted to create things that fit well within the Mindjammer setting. All advanced societies are going to be more and more like the Commonality. Some of this can be stated to be a result of the fact that the Commonality is the most advanced society in Mindjammer’s known universe, so all the other advanced societies are branches of it, but it also means that you’ll never find a high-tech anarchic society or a low-tech collectivist society. Part of this is, I believe, complicated by the use of Fudge dice for the random generation, which introduces the complications of a probability curve and relatively low resolution outcomes. When coupled with a setting that makes creating new content incredibly easy, it seems a little redundant and a little unnecessary to have such massive focus on random generation, especially if it just generates content that is much like the example suite. The few parts of the random generation I like I have other tools that I could use to replicate, and the parts I didn’t like felt too inflexible and inorganic to provide meaningful results.

In a sense, my gripes with Mindjammer could be conveyed by saying it is functionally the opposite of Eclipse Phase. Rather than being an incredibly detailed and vivid setting with mechanics that fail to meet its requirements, Mindjammer has many mechanics but falls into the trap of having a setting that fails to delve deep into the sort of things that give flavor and texture to the universe. I couldn’t tell you what the average citizen of the Commonality does, or even what the more noteworthy ones do-the human element is severely lacking, despite the fact that a major goal of the setting is to ostensibly examine what makes one human, transhuman, or posthuman. This is not necessarily horrible, as it leaves room for expansion, but it is also somewhat disappointing.

That said, Mindjammer is top-notch production value; for being a massive book it is very well edited, and the art throughout is high-quality. Page elements get repetitive early on, and remain the same for the whole book, but this is not an unforgivable sin. It’s easy to read and everything looks well-put together with no glaring errors, though it doesn’t have any interesting or fun layout gimmicks like, say, Eclipse Phase, that would provide some awesome visual effects to break up the lengthy read.

Mindjammer attempts to present a compelling, engaging, complex universe, and it has 500 pages in which it attempts to do so. It feels unusually long in some places while glossing over sources of potential interest. There’s a ton of content, but it fails to really present stuff in a usable state; it loves having mechanical expression but fails to create authenticity and meaning behind it. Too many mechanics and too few setting details makes it feel oddly impersonal. Mechanically, it’s a gold-mine if you like the Fate System, but be prepared to fill in a lot of gaps where the setting doesn’t deliver content you’d need to run a game.

You can get a free preview of Mindjammer here…

Kyle Willey

Kyle is a future educator as well as a game design theorist and practitioner, essayist, and reviewer of various, mostly gaming related, things. He can also be found at Kyle's Game Development, which he updates at least four times a week.

  2 Responses to “Review: MINDJAMMER, The Roleplaying Game”

  1. One thing I’ve noticed about Fate-based game systems is that the rules seem to be fairly light weight but the description of those rules tends to be rather heavily verbose. The idea seems to be that much of that effort needs to be put towards getting the players to grok the intention of aspects.

    • Mindjammer’s rules are actually not super verbose. They’re not terse, by any means, but they’re good at disambiguation as well. Of course, I was familiar with Fate prior to reviewing Mindjammer, so I might be more positive about the quality of the rules explanations than someone who hadn’t, and my verbosity levels are off the charts.

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