Review: Cosmic Patrol from @CatalystGameLab and @MLHeerdt
Welcome to Futile Position’s 2012 ENnie Awards spotlight (Check out the full list of coverage), where I will be bringing you reviews and interviews regarding many of the products current nominated for the 2012 ENnie Awards. Today’s review is of Cosmic Patrol from Catalyst Game Labs, which is presently nominated for Best Game. A review copy of this product was provided by the publisher to Futile Position and the review below is based a complete reading of the product and my own years of experiences as a roleplayer, but without actual play. This review is based off of a PDF copy of the book.
Short Version: A very narrative-heavy roleplaying game that concentrates on improvisation over rules. Well written in a conversational tone, Cosmic Patrol contains a ton of information about the world that the members of the Cosmic Patrol inhabit to get you headed on adventures with a very light-weight rule set which essentially has five attributes and Plot Points that can be used for any purpose determined by the players. It’s a great setting and a very nice looking ruleset for players that don’t mind a lot of improvisation and co-narration.
Catalyst Games’ Cosmic Patrol wears its improv influence on your sleeve, going so far as mentioning ‘yes and’ing at one point in the book (for those not familiar, this an improv technique that revolves around always agreeing with the person that went before you and then adding what happens next). It is not a game that is concerned about statistics or heavy customization. Instead, it is a game that concentrates on giving the players a ton of information about the world of Cosmic Patrol and a very light-weight rule set that gets out of the way quickly. The book itself has a very minimalist design (where there are illustrations, mostly in the sample character section, they are very nice, but there aren’t a lot outside of that) and crams a lot of setting into a small package. The base rules for the game provide for co-narration (each scene in a mission – think play session – has a different lead narrator), but that does not appear vital for the game to function, although, even when a player is not a lead narrator they will be doing a lot of storytelling.
The world of Cosmic Patrol is one built around the sci-fi pulps of the mid-20th century. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fully flesh-out world that they have provided in Cosmic Patrol. To the contrary, the setting takes up a full 25 pages of the book’s 135 pages and it’s really good stuff. If you are a fan of the sci-fi stories of the 20’s through 60’s then I really expect you’ll dig the story behind Cosmic Patrol. The people of Earth discovered alien life when they were attacked by a race of violent lizard men called Uth, resulting in the uniting of the nations of Earth and a push into space exploration. However, what the people of Earth find in space is more than they bargained for: humans on two other worlds (Venus and Mars) as well as a host of other strange and interesting creatures. The Venusians, for instance, had their highly-advanced civilization decimated by the uprising of the Automen, robots built to serve the Venusians. Neptune is a vicious jungle filled with deadly predators and fascinating ruins that could contain artifacts that could lead to humanity’s safety (or just more deadly predators, that’s up to you). A theoretical higher power called the Metatherions may be all pulling all the strings behind the scenes or they might just be silly, superstitious ramblings. And the Uth are still out there, violently raiding anything they come across. That’s just a small list of the interesting setups provided by the setting in Cosmic Patrol. The setting is clearly written to try and inspire you to come up with mission ideas and – to that end – it was certainly successful. Every time I read a new section I thought, ‘Ah, I could do this with that information.’ You play as Patrolmen, humans from one of the occupied planets that stand as the last and only line of defense against the unknown threats that lurk in our solar system and beyond. You are a highly-trained, specialized pulp hero.
So the setting is great, how does it play, you ask? Well, I would say that I am writing a review and you need to be slightly more patient because clearly I am going to get to that. Clearly. In any case, Cosmic Patrol is built on a very light framework. It is a game that is built to have just enough rules that you can decide what happens next and get back to telling stories with your friends. Whether or not that is to your taste is obviously up to you. There are five attributes in Cosmic Patrol (Brawn, Brains, Charisma, Combat, and Special – which changes by the character), each of which is assigned a die value of d4 to d12, which is rolled along with a d12 (plus or minus modifiers) against an unmodified d20 each time it is used (except for Combat, which is always an opposed roll against whatever is being attacked). Each Scene has a Lead Narrator that is in charge until the next scene. They act as the de facto GM during that time, setting the initial scene, controlling all opposing characters, and making any rolls against the other players, although they continue to play their own character as well. Modifiers are decided wholly by LN fiat based on the scene and both the players and the LN have a pool of Plot Points that have various effects (gaining health, interrupting another player, adding a bonus to a die roll, or any other effect that is agreed to by the players). Characters and scenes also have Cues and Tags that are there to remind you of what is going on so that you don’t lose the story as easily, but do not serve a mechanical purpose like they do in many games. Characters also have Dispositions to remind players of ways that the character might react. Armor and Health are derived stats (although you are free to fudge that, as well) and weapons have three ranges (determined by the LN once an attack is initiated) that determines if there is a penalty to the attack or not. Weapons mostly do a set amount of damage which is soaked by armor and then bleeds into Health. I am really fond of the Health system, which is similar to some miniatures games, where you fill in boxes starting at the left and when certain boxes are filled in your character suffers penalties. There is equipment in the game, but it primarily serves as a narrative device (or the LN could assign a positive modifier to an action if you have appropriate Equipment, but that is not set in stone). You also have a Luck score that determines a number that, if you roll it on your Stat die, you automatically succeed.
That game is primarily meant to be played in one-off form. You are provided with several Missions, ranging from one scene to four scenes, with varying degrees of narrative complexity. These Missions provide you with a narrative hangar to hang your roleplaying on, as well as the structure of the overall game. I see no reason that you couldn’t do without the Missions and just have the Lead Narrator frame each new scene, but the provided Missions look like they would provide a lot of play in several different scenarios so you can get up and playing quickly. They’re a great option to have and I imagine many Cosmic Patrol players will opt to use them, since it is a game that is meant to get going quickly. There are also premade characters, as well as brief character creation rules, but they don’t provide a ton of flexibility (although it notes that you are free to change whatever you want and break the rules however you like and – in fact – some of the more interesting pre-generated characters do just that). You do get a lot of pre-made characters in Cosmic Patrol along with enough stat write-ups to keep your Patrolmen busy for a good, long while, many of which are accompanied by some very nice art (that I wish there was more of). The advancement system is based off of becoming the most valuable player (basically) in a certain number of sessions (you get a point each time you get that distinction). It is a slow advancement system, but that is good because it looks like it would be easy for characters to get over-powered if they were allowed to have too many large dice. I think that the system fits perfectly with the rest of the rules of Cosmic Patrol, rewarding those that tell the best story.
And that’s really what Cosmic Patrol is all about: telling an awesome sci-fi pulp story. If you want fine distinction between your laser rifle and an ax or a lot of rules that cover myriad situations, this isn’t what you are looking for. If you want a game that emulates the sci-fi pulp genre very well (a genre that is typically about heroes that overcome the odds and save the day in the face of strange enemies) with a very light system, co-narration, and some practice improvising, you should absolutely pick this up. Honestly, if the setting is interesting at all to you, you should probably grab it anyway for that alone. Honestly, the PDF is only $4.99 or you can order the book with a PDF for $24.99. $4.99! If you need more information, you can go to the official web site or check out the quick start rules. The first expansion for Cosmic Patrol, Into the Cosmos, is also available now in PDF for $4.99 and for preorder in print for $24.99.