RPG review – Between Chains and Starlight
Between Chains and Starlight, by Space Potato Productions, is 228 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page SRD, 2 pages about the book, 2 pages ToC, 1 page blank inside the back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a whopping 218 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
We kick off this setting’s introduction with a flavour-text in character that gives us a brief (and surprisingly well-written) run-down of the setting: Essentially, it was not an AI that led to this dystopian future, but rather mankind’s own potential for less than savourysavory practices: In a vast war, a significant amount of planets was destroyed and made uninhabitable and now, the empires of Corinth and Kurion are at a stand-off -when Altair is discovered: A comparably primitive world, yes, but a populated one and one rife for the taking, one that dares stand up to those two entities. As you can glean from this introduction, the sci-fi setting as depicted herein is not particularly rosy, but it does have the makings of being potentially played in a more over the top space-opera style.
Now the first thing you’ll notice from the introduction of the setting would be that both magic and technology exist -some of the worlds covered in the setting may actually be of your regular technology-level of fantasy worlds or pre-industrial revolution societies – the opening of portals and interstellar travel to those can of course result in massive changes in the way demographics react to ideas – as a catalyst for change and sheer unlimited potential for cultural clashes, the premise could be described as “Magic offsets technology’s advantages in part” and “There is no prime directive”. In the meanwhile, the darker empires out there are on the verge of decline, whereas the fractured empires of Altair have united under the Admiralty, and much like other human empires, crafted space ships to defend them, taking half-understood knowledge salvaged from wrecks etc. to do so. On the side of most important technological advances should stand the 3D-printing and CnC-advances, Plasma Thrusters and cold fusion reactors – while computers have hit a dead-end, with sufficiently powerful AIs and systems usually running afoul of a weird wave that hampers their processes – hence, human presence is still essential in warfare, though drones and the like are still used. Trans-planar communication is handled via satellites and asynchronous, for the information only manages the speed of light, so in Simmon’s terms, information incurs quite a time debt. Travel between galaxies is undertaken via worm-holes in the (relative) proximity of the respective central stars. Surprisingly, only ships boarded by organic life seem to be able to make these instantaneous jumps – hence, the jumping is actually treated as a magical/psionic effect. So let’s sum up the status quo – we have two evil empires, an emergent light in the Admirality, Hazioth (more on that later) and some potential, including hostile galaxies.
Okay, that essentially are the basics – after that, we’re introduced to Altair, the first faction: Essentially a feudal, magical setting that has instantly been made aware of technology – hard sci-fi mixed with a backdrop of feudal fantasy. Much like the overall star-system map, we also get a map of one part of a planet and quite an array of fiction that goes into the peculiarities from this unique set-up, written in-character from various perspectives and covering thus some peculiarities – e.g. the problems of attacking undead with laser-guns. Each faction herein comes with nice in-character narratives, by the way!
The Corinthian Hegemony is a dystopian society where the rich and powerful have, via a tight control of education etc. – life-expectancy is 54 years (strangely for men and women), while only 10% truly hold power and live in comfort. the hegemony is considered an empire devoid of large innovation – as befitting a culture that deliberately enforces aggression and stupidity to create soldiers. Those guys should probably have read the memoirs of the “Alter Fritz” (aka Frederick the Great), the Prussian king – he understood that stupid and malnourished/addicted soldiers are bad soldiers and via his educational reforms turned a semi-backwater kingdom into a significant power with one of the most efficient militaries of his time… What I’m trying to get at is…I understand the intention of providing a dystopian, noiresque background, perhaps even one that may act as a kind of satire on our own culture. But systems like these here don’t work as flawlessly as depicted here – there always will be revolutionaries, brilliant minds born from idiot parents etc. and postulating an absolute class system sans means of ascending not only will prove to be fatal for the gene-pool, it also simply won’t work in the long run. I get that that may be the intention, but for me, I can’t truly suspend my disbelief for this society – it’s a tad bit too dreary, too grimdark to seem “realistic” to me.
Hazioth is the utopian equivalent to Corinth’s Dystopia – loosely based on egalitarian values as practiced in our world, this faction is most earth-like and un-alien, also in its aesthetics – the faction represents mankind “getting it mostly right” – and yes, that’s a direct quote from the book. The thing is – it feels TOO close. From the writing, I did not glean any information on how stellar travel, magic etc. has influenced society and this, honestly, makes the faction feel a bit like the obligatory bland goody-two-shoes faction for players to oppose the evil empires.
Speaking of evil empires . you thought the Corinthian Hegemony was despicable? Kurions use cybernetic implants to rule absolutely over a huge population of people, enforcing their will upon them – where the Corinthians are decadent, the Kurions are downright fascist bastards, complete with Running Man-like gladiatorial TV-programs and mass-deportations to refresh the ranks of their cyborgs. Environment is poisoned and ruined, military police is corrupt and overall, the living conditions are a total disaster – though at least here, we get a form of rebellion in the making, futile and doomed though it may be. Again, I feel as if this whole construct was born from dystopian concepts like the “Running Man”-like shows and similar disturbing visions and to an extent, it works, but overall was not consequently thought through – why oppress and bury in violence when you can rule and be loved by the population? All dictators that are truly “successful” have learned to sway the masses in their favor – you can antagonize adversaries, but you need to establish a common enemy, a cultural identity, an ideology to enforce properly such a system – essentially a threat that justifies being a tyrant. Overall, for me, this is too plainly and one-dimensionally evil. We also are introduced to some smaller factions, but in order to not bloat this review further, I’ll skim over pirates, patchers etc. here.
The basics of the setting out of the way, we are introduced to 5 new feats related to e.g. starship piloting. Computer-Use and Crafting of various technological tools are also covered, as is piloting and repairing items. Speaking of items: Sealed suits and integrating magic items into them is covered as are powered armors -the rules to create these are awesomely customizable, though they do leave some minor questions: One: They net DR 2/- – Does that stack with the DR granted by adamantine powered armors? What harness and hp have the exotic materials? It’s cool that armor may have chameleon skin for invisibility-camouflage, but does the spell see invisibility for example see through that one? It’s small bits and pieces like that make mixed settings like this one slightly problematic – there just are so many options – perhaps too many. Energy weapons, sonic weapons etc. are also introduced and while generally, I like the range-modifications (sonic weapons working e.g. better under water), they also suffer from some minor inconsistencies: Laser-weapons are blocked by sand clouds or smoke. And while lasers as weapons as a concept are problematic (slightest wiggles make them off-kilter, air becomes plasma that blocks the laser etc.) – smoke is NOT a problem for lasers. Even if you assume that lasers work as weapons, smoke and sand as obstacles are ill-defined -dusty room + gust of wind/ventilator: Does it still work? I don’t know. And yes, I realize this is nitpicky, but still. Burst Fire and auto-fire get their own rules, though the latter gets an easy, fixed DC of 15 + 1/+2 for focus/specialization to avoid: Why not tie that to the actual attack roll? Oh yeah, another issue here – it requires a hit versus a fixed AC 15 and covers 10 ft. x 10 ft. – why not make this area variable for different weapons? What’s rather cool on the other side is the inclusion of large weapons intended for powered suits and vessels as their peculiarities – it’s hard to shoot medium or small targets with railguns, for example.
Scanners, psionic receptacles (which can regenerate bullets, repair items, ships etc.) and similar items are introduced and rather cool. What about magic and technology? Well, there is an arcane technology school and a cleric domain (both of which violate standard formatting for lists like that) and essentially, magic and technology can be freely combined – true strike sniper rifles? Yes, possible. Spells to highjack machines, clear viruses etc.? Covered. Punch others through the web via Punch by IP? Yes. While cool and catering to my sensibilities, these spells make for problematic laws – while dealing only non-lethal damage, how authorities deal with options like this would be VERY interesting. Oh, and I want to cast Summon Ferret Inside Enemy Spacesuit – yes, this spell exists herein. AWESOME. Speaking of awesome – while I’m not wholly sold on the blending of technology and magic, at least the book wholeheartedly embraces the potential: Cold lasers, bayonets that cause machines to flee, crystals that can be substituted for XP in crafting and even medical units and regenerating pods can be found herein.
Now what about creatures? The setting herein has Cyborgs -quite a bunch of them, and yes, they can be hacked, their control/torture-chips over-ridden. And yes, we get all the DCs as well as neat artworks for most of the cyborgs – from strange assassin-cyborgs to walking turrets and the Kurian nobles, we get quite a neat array herein. Have I mentioned the Cyborg Tyrannosaurus or the optional ability-upgrade Kurian nobles may get by entering a pact with a demon? Or the fact that the Kurian emperor’s brain has been implanted into a gold dragon (yes, there’s a template for that!). Living machines are essentially free-willed machines that developed a sentience and have since turned away from their erstwhile creators: Taking imagery from insects, fungi and similar designs, these machines feel distinctly alien, with e.g. the fungi being able to reactivate defeated machines and huge mechanical mantises acting as “living” siege weapons. Per se, all of that is damn cool – take the mantis – it’s weaponry sucks the air from its surrounding area, drawing potential beings closer. Problematic – instead of properly using pull/drag-maneuvers as per the PFRPG-standard, the ability instead works via a fixed Str-DC, which is not only uncommon, its antiquated design more suitable for 3.X. Unfortunately, this does not remain the only example where a closer scrutiny of PFRPG’s rules-conventions would have made for a much smoother integration/unified feeling. Have I mentioned undead space pirates?
Now, we also get ship-to-ship combat rules – and they are actually rather good: Not using the basic vehicle-rules, though, they allow for multiple characters to act, with the pilot’s skill adding to the AC each round, gunners shooting, electronic warfare etc. – a rather significant amount of options are available, though distances are mostly handled on a relative scale, not a simulationalist’s scale. We also get a rather impressive array of quick-to-play rules here – mass warfare, Point-blank combat, planetside combat and combat as cruise speed – a surprising and more importantly, surprisingly easy to grasp array of options for proper ship-to ship combat that can keep more than one player engaged is presented here. Kudos! We also get a SIGNIFICANT array of generic ship classes including mass, hp, hd etc., including some planetside combat vehicles like hovertanks. Customization is also rather important -from shield generators, to increased speed, weaponry etc. to actual technology that can be further upgraded via magic, this chapter, if anything, could have been even longer for my tastes – it’s by far the most fun and versatile of the chapters so far, even before introducing jammer missiles and all those delightful ship weapons. And yes, all of these components are expensive as sin, but come on – you KNOW you want to blast something to pieces with a friggin’ fusion torpedo! I don’t get why mines don’t get an easily readable chart like missiles and instead have costs etc. in the regular text, though -a formatting oversight, I guess. What’s not an oversight, but a tinker’s wet dream, would be the massive rules for creating your own ship – tables upon tables upon tables upon tables – easy to understand, expensive, but oh so rewarding. Of course, we also get sample crews and ships by the respective major player fractions, with e.g. Corinthian ships utilizing modules to change type and weaponry – cool idea and solid execution! Oh yes, and there are star- wraiths and pirate ships herein, too!
The next chapter deals with vehicle combat rules – These work mostly analogue to ship combat and include spider-mechs, hover limousines and the like – a rather large array of vehicles, but by far not that many exclusive customization options as the ships – as such, this chapter feels comparably a bit bare-bones for my tastes. Some additional land-vehicle only-modifications to make use of varying levels of gravity (something btw. mostly ignored herein) and similar environmental peculiarities would have gone a long way here.
Chapter 5 then offers Missions, i.e. adventure-outlines, intended for characters between level 6 and 9 and providing basics as well as a general outline and maps. I’ll only briefly glance over these, but still: Players should skip to the end of the
Still here? All right! The first mission is all about two cults warring on Altair, both of which have purchased a biological weapon that now kills the primitive inhabitants. In order to stop the plague, the PCs have to unearth the origin of the plague, its design-specifics from a cell-phone, and request help from Hazioth. In the next mission, they are to follow up on this issue and thus defeat lizardfolk, kobold tinkers’ berserk reverse engineered Cyborgs and finally defeat the Kurion spy and his evil druid assistant. The next mission sees the PCs stranded on Tajano, a Kurion-controlled planet, where they’ll have to survive in the wasteland, deal in trading bunkers and scavenge in hostile terrain featuring both living machines and marauders – fully mapped, btw.! Finally, the PCs will need to travel to the city of Lixian, where they’ll have chances to interact with a living machine nursery and even infiltrate a military base before finally repairing the ship and escaping first the world, and then the system- I would have LOVED this mission being depicted in full-blown mega-adventure-detail – it is rather fun, but due to its format also requires severe work on behalf of the DM to flesh out. The next mission is more straight-forward and has the PCs hired to deal with pirates attacking a particular asteroid-colony -when properly played up, this one may become VERY creepy. Neato. The next mission has an uncommon target – the PCs are to crash a Kurion series and prevent psionic rift drive components from falling into the hands of either competing Kurion nobles. This, of course, is harder than it seems at first and includes infiltration and finally entering a huge ice-lump in space (with ship to steal the prize. Again, neat!
The appendix includes fluff-only write-ups of sample NPCs, random encounters (CR 6 – 15) and an example for ship to ship combat to help you get how the rules work.
Editing and formatting are still ok – I noticed a couple of instances where the font-size changed, where information was not put in item-boxes or minor formatting issues and here and there some clunky wordings/mistakes. Nothing too serious, though. Layout adheres to a per se nice 2-column full-colour standard and the background is essentially a leather-like skin spanned over dark techy engines and the pdf comes with quite an array of relatively neat full colour artworks that lend the product its own distinct identity. Some pages are black with white ink. The pdf has been updated to include a printer-friendly version and now also sports bookmarks, making navigation much more comfortable -awesome!
Benjamin Martinali’s “Between Chains & Starlight” is an extremely ambitious setting – planar and stellar travel, ship-to-ship combat, magic & technology – that’s A LOT to cover and indeed, in spite of this book’s massive size, I fear cramming all inside one book may have been over-ambitious. Why? Because magic and technology and their interaction is NOT that simple: What about divination-communication? How do humans treat other humanoids? The introduction of ONE such component creates a vast panorama of changes that can make for intriguing material indeed – and this book skirts the premise, but only grazes it. The introduction of two such components then would massively change the whole dynamics of how societies work – why not teleport/assassinate into Kurion palaces, for example? As much as I’m loathe to say it, “Amethyst Renaissance” has covered the results of magic/technology (though there in opposition to one another) in a more concise, mature way – in “Between Chains and Starlight”, the resulting blend essentially makes technology just an extension of magic – since it can be enchanted, the “real” component, the rationality implicit in technology, is lost. The fact that AIs don’t work, but Cyborgs and Living Machines are out there also feels a bit like a cop-out – Dan Simmon’s TechnoCore or similar scenarios show easily how such a concept can be included sans breaking humanity. Now I do love some of the ideas, but the web is also rather ill-defined and sketchy, while the factions are a tad bit one-dimensional, which also doesn’t fit with the more shades-of-grey mentality that accompanies most sci-fi settings – and the fact that this setting screams “Firefly with magic” to me. That is a good thing, for I’m a huge sucker for said series. Essentially, the book stretches itself too thin to provide anything but sketchy outlines of the factions and thus make them less believable than e.g. “Amethyst Renaissance”‘s cultures. Which sucks, for both some of the mission-outlines and the crunchy bits indeed do show promise, but could have used some expansion as well.
Unlike Necropunk, we don’t get proper Zero-G- (or phase-)combat rules and overall, this book feels like its respective cultures, as unfortunate as that may seem, make no sense to me. They are too stereotypical and they are most certainly not what I’d label “dark” – in fact, as an over-the-top fun space-opera setting where anything goes and hard science has no place, this setting probably works best and is thus, at least imho, misnamed. While we have two dystopias, there is more to being “dark” than having “Evil Places” – in order to be “dark” and memorable, one has to ask questions – transhumanism, relative morality and the choice of lesser and greater evils, survival – all these resonate and are NOT the focus here; instead we get a mostly b/w-morality that tells us plainly: “Here there be culture clash, here there be evil, here there be good, here there be more evil.” What about deities? Can they leave their planets? Demons etc. exist -can outsiders survive in space? Can planar gates be used to jump from planet to planet via the planes? By not limiting magic in any way, there are more question here than this book could ever have hoped to answer. And that’s before getting into the issues with technology/interaction. Magic weapons vs. rifles, breast-plates versus plasma guns etc. – nothing covered, though even per the regular firearm rules, old blackpowder weapons can shoot past armour like that.
As a setting, I can’t really get behind this book – it feels too undetailed, too black and white, too anything-goes and not logical enough to make proper use of its premise. Now does that make it a bad book? The answer would be a resounding NO. In fact, both the equipment and ship-rules are rather interesting and cool and really neat – seeing how “Sailing the Starlit Seas” was cancelled, this is, with reskinning, probably as close to space travel we’ll get in a while and these rules are actually rather fun. I’d also complement the monsters – idea- and style-wise, the cyborgs, living machines etc. are AWESOME. However, they also suffer from various instances where they simply don’t utilize rules as per PFRPG’s design-standards. Also: Don’t expect any support for non-core classes herein, vehicle rules, firearm rules in line with Paizo’s or the like.
This book oozes heart’s blood and passion and contrary to my nagging, I actually enjoyed several section in here, the irreverent tone of some spells/rules and several ideas just filled my heart with joy – in fact, this book should be considered a monumental achievement for such a small newcomer company. Benjamin Martinali can definitely be proud. That being said, the nitpicks accumulate. As a book for space ship-to-ship combat/ weapons/idea-mine via missions, as a scavenging ground, this book works well. As a believable setting, it fails due to too many unanswered questions and often one-dimensional depictions, at least for me.
And I probably would give this more leeway, were it not for how more mature both “Amethyst Renaissance” and “Necropunk” have handled the sci-fi/magic-technology/dark-themes. “Between Chains and Starlight” is by no means bad, but it also has MUCH room for improvement – for every nitpick there’s a cool idea and every neat idea offers one or more particular instances where additional information can be developed. I think that by splitting this in a proper setting-fluff and a proper crunch-book and developing both, this could have indeed reached a high pinnacle and cover all the things it missed. And I’ve only scraped the ice-berg. Now I’ve haggled a lot with myself, since the at times non-standard rules are massive detriments I have to take into account as a reviewer. Still, there is enjoyment galore to be found here, cool ideas, working rules – but within the context of all other books I’ve reviewed, I can’t ignore the issues that are here.
In the end, I’m settling on a final verdict of 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 for the purpose of this platform – the components that work in here are glorious, just don’t expect to have your work cut out for you or a truly dark setting as advertised. Instead, consider this as an anything-goes book that requires some development to work as a setting, but also offers some awesome ideas and for scavenging purposes, makes for a nice offering. Feel free to add +0.5 stars to the rating when getting this only as an idea-mine.
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