Battleshed Diaries

Thursday 19 January 2017

Rogue Stars: First impressions

Finally! I’ve had my first foray into Rogue Stars. My bio-engineered simian mercenaries successfully bid on a contract to assassinate a civilian target on Valtius IV. No questions asked. A quick job for easy credits. What could go wrong!?
After the Ucrian Harbingers had cleared customs on Valtius IV’s primary orbital spaceport, they took a scheduled civilian shuttled down to the city of Cruopharc where, according to decrypted intelligence, their mark was currently holed up. What it didn’t mention was that the target had been tipped off - he was accompanied by a hired bodyguard called Zegak Zan Pedag and his four reprogrammed AI Battle Droids. Oh, and the local the news feeds were frenzied with reports of an out of control antimatter vortex eating the centre of town!

And thus started my first game of the long anticipated Rogue Stars. Last year, with rumours of a new set of skirmish rules, published by Osprey Wargames, illustrated by Johan Egerkrans and written by none other than Adrea Sfiligoi of Ganesha Games, I was compelled to monitor the plethora of discussion boards and forums that sprung up to discuss the game's development and feed the communities rumour mill. And I’m glad I did.

It should be no secret to my reader that I’m a fan of the Ganesha Games skirmish engine; there's plenty of Songs of Blades and Heroes fantasy AARs permeating this blog. So an SF system from the same stable was a no brainer! I mean, Rogue Stars is just Advanced Songs of Blades’ in space isn't it? Well, um – yes and no.

Armed with the familiar blue liveried Osprey Adventures rulebook, dice, tokens and five Ucrian Harbingers I headed down the hill to Wee Blokes HQ. Which can only mean the Battleshed is still out of action due to my continuing (no, really!) labours with a certain chariot racing track! Similar to my first game of Broken Legions earlier this month, the following is more of a rule walkthrough rather than a full-blown Battle Report. For those interested in sampling Rogue Stars, what follows is a summary of the game concept, rules and my first impressions. So here goes. Buckle up!

The Rogue Stars premise: D20, 2-player, points based, small-scale character-driven Skirmish Wargaming in a Science Fiction Underworld. Like its Ganesha forebears, Rogue Stars is a set of rules that can underpin whatever SF miniatures you own or is just the excuse to add more to your collection. The rules are expansively set in the furthest reaches of a collapsing galactic empire where you can create a themed squad of individual characters; bounty hunters, cyborgs, mercs, psionics etc. Only limited by your available miniatures and imagination. It's focused towards narrative, mission-driven play with some role-play elements. 

Other than your miniatures – 4-6 per player – you’ll need three D20 dice, some scenery for your 3’x3’ battlefield, some markers (e.g beads, tiddlywinks, poker chips), tokens to represent special conditions such as Entangled, Hidden etc. (or make your own) and a tape measure.

Game set up: The pre-game sequence is divided into three steps: Intelligence determines whether your opponent has to reveal his squad's profile before deployment; Initiative – who will be the Attacker and Defender and finally Missions – rolling for the scenario, its location and any mission specific complications. These are all done via a simple D20 roll and referencing the relevant table. Some missions may even call upon specific environmental or weather conditions. A heavy gravity planet or a noxious atmosphere for example. 

For our playtest, we rolled the Bodyguard Work mission located on the Defender’s home planet with the Space Vortex complication. I won the Intelligence roll so Sam had to reveal his squad’s profile which handily was Zegak and his Battle Brothers from the 200XP example roster provided with Rogue Stars! Four are provided in all. I also won the Initiative roll so my Ucrian Harbingers were the Attackers. Yay! First into the Rogue Stars fray!
The Ucrian Harbingers on their inaugural Rogue Stars mission

And their mission was as mentioned earlier – fight through Zegak and his Battlebot squad to eliminate an unfortunate unarmed civilian whilst trying to avoid a troublesome antimatter vortex that could drag a character, or any loose equipment, towards oblivion on a critically failed activation roll. And this was only our first game. Rogue Stars was delivering the cinematics before we’d even got going!
Zegak [front, centre] and his Battle Brothers


The mechanics

Activations and Reactions: This is the core of the game. Those who’ve played Advanced Songs of Blades’ will be familiar with the concept, but with one big difference:

The player with the Iinitiative can keep on trying to activate their characters in any order and as many times as they like up until the opposing player manages to steal the initiative away from them, which will only then end the turn. 

Theoretically, the active player could retain the initiative for the whole game! It's unlikely though, as we’ll see.

Each player has three D20 which the player with the Initiative can use to activate any of their characters by rolling against a Target Number (TN). The active player can choose how many of these dice they want to roll. For each success rolled they get an Action. However – and this is where it gets interesting – any activation failures can immediately be used by any of the opponents characters as Reaction Actions, before the activating character applies any successful actions. This mechanic represents the chaos and confusion of the mission or battle. There’s more...

Stress, Pins and Wounds: This is the clever bit. For every Action a character performs it gets a Stress marker. These accumulate and act as negative modifiers for future activations and, crucially, are counted as a squad total to improve an opposing players chances of stealing the initiative. So the busier an active squad is, the more of a chance their opponent can take the initiative away from them and end the turn.

However, when this happens, all the Stress markers are removed from the previously active squad. So it’s a timing decision for the opposing player. Characters can also accumulate Pin markers from Ranged and Melee attacks and Wound markers from damage taken. These all act as modifiers to the simple Target Number rolls that are used throughout the game, including Psi and Morale rolls. Pin markers can be removed from characters by burning up Rally actions or Wounds can be healed by the first First Aid action. All conditional on various modifiers of course.

Actions: There’s a comprehensive list of available Actions that can be used with successful activation rolls. From making ranged or melee attacks to moving, picking up objects, priming grenades, performing complex tasks and so on. There’s a lot to choose from. It's entirely your decision as a player, bearing in mind any accumulating Stress, Pin or Wound tokens.
Of course, these Actions are available to your opponent too should you fail an activation roll – they’ll get an immediate Reaction. 

So you may chance a roll of three D20 Activation dice to move your sniper into position, take Aim and pick off some unsuspecting enemy. But you fail one (rolling under the Activation TN) and the enemy player uses his/her Reaction to immediate duck back behind cover before the sniper has a chance to work out why he can’t find the target in his scope!

Critical Failures and  Success: This is yet another facet to consider when going for an Activation or a Reaction roll. A '1' is considered a Critical Failure and a '20' is a Critical success. Both come with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, depending on whether you're activating or reacting. Its yet another part of the accumulating decision process that a Rogue Star player will have to become familiar with.

Range / Melee Attacks: This is basically a three-stage process. Firstly roll To Hit against the Shoot/Melee TN, taking into account various modifiers, including all those Pin and Wound markers the shooter and target may have accumulated. 

If successful, it's then a check on the Hit Location table to see which body part on the target was hit – torso, arms, legs, head. This is crucial as characters will have different types of armour which will give differing levels of protection for each limb. Attackers even have the option of making Called Shots, where they can announce which body part, or even a piece of equipment, they’re targeting prior to rolling the attack. 

Finally, it’s the Damage Results roll, where the Attacker rolls again to determine the actual damage inflicted on the limb. At the extreme, a character could be immediately put OOA but it's more likely they’re going to get a combination of Pin and Wound markers and possibly some Critical, Serious or Light damage with their own inherent effects.

Again, there are Critical Failure/Success modifiers to contend with. The combat sequence can seem a little complicated at first as there could be a number of modifiers to take into account before the final outcome is determined. However, after a few run-throughs, it does start to become rather intuitive. Of course, there are various other combat related situations covered too, such as outnumbering, breaking/firing into melee, grenades etc. But it's all pretty straightforward.

Morale: Yes, if all the above wasn’t enough, certain situations and effects will force a Morale roll. When called upon its simply a matter of making a modified Morale TN roll, the result of which may have a character Panicking, Surrendering or even completely Routing!

Weapons and Armour: when you design your squad you will.have kitted them out with various weapons, armour and equipment. Weapons and armour will come with their own stats and traits which will be used as part of the Attack process. Armour, for example, will have a defence stat depending on which limb it covers and its properties. Weapons will deal different levels of damage and some will have range restrictions or have modifiers depending on what type of target it hits. Ideally, your miniatures should reasonably reflect the kit its wearing or carrying (wysiwyg).

Squads: This is something you should have prepared before starting the game - organising you squad. Typically a starting squad is going to be a cumulative 200XP, which translated to 5 figures for the Ucrian Harbingers.

Players start by picking a Theme (Mercenaries, Pirates, Star Cops etc) for your squad. This determines which Traits are available for you to use when designing your individual characters. There are 10 Themes provided in Rogue Stars. Next, you choose a Tactical Discipline which a freely chosen special rule your squad can utilise. For example, my Ucrian Harbingers had At The Double, which allowed them to add 1” to any Walk, Run or Sprint on ten occasions anytime during the game.

Then it's down to designing the actual characters in your squad. It’s a simple process – give em’ a suitably SF name, choose their weapons, armour, kit and a Trait(s). As long as their XP cost is paid, up to the squad maximum. Traits cover everything from physical attributes to technical abilities. You can even recruit civilian or 'green' characters if you're squeezed for XP. Or Veterans or Elites if you're not! Its fair to say this can appear a little daunting for those flicking through the rules for the first time. There’s a lot to consider, with each character Trait having its own restrictions or level. However, at 200XP and maybe only 4 or 5 models it's not as onerous a task as it sounds.

My advice is not to be tempted to try and figure out some power roster. It simply won’t work with the Reaction system anyway. You may have the biggest, bad ass mercs in town. But fail to get those activations and they could easily find themselves being outflanked by a cybernetic manservant armed with a Zap Pistol. For your first few games, I would suggest simply picking out the miniatures you’d like in your squad and pick the kit and traits that best represents them.

The Campaign and other ingredients: Guidance for running your own linked campaign is provided so you can grow your characters between successive missions, agreed with your opponent. Basically, it shows you how to work out the XP earned for any surviving characters and how to spend it on such things as new or boosting existing Traits, healing wounds, buying/replacing equipment etc. It's not that elaborate but it is effective – this from a seasoned Songs of Blades’ campaigner!

Finally, there are various other game rules covering various situations you may encounter during your mission. Kit upgrades, advice on designing your own squads and characters, that sort of thing. And of course, Rogue Stars is the perfect springboard for your own universe and mission building.
The antimatter vortex in the centre of Cruopharc

So how did our game go? To be expected, it was all a bit cagey for the first two-thirds of the game whilst we both got to grips with our new squads and the activation system. My Ucrians, with the Initiative, naturally started accumulating those Stress tokens as they advanced, which led to an increasing rate of failed activations - and subsequent Reactions for Sam’s squad. Even I was surprised to find it was my least likely character, the Psionic Wayseer Rathek, who would make a rather bold attempt to eliminate the civilian target.

Prior to that, it was one of Zegak’s Battle Brothers that fired the first shot in our Rogue Stars debut. A crafty Reaction shot from its Molecular Slugthrower. The shot was initially calibrated by successfully activating its Combat Computer, targeting young Harbinger Kerduk before pulling the trigger. Luckily, Kerduk was behind heavy cover. Nevertheless, the first Pin marker was on! 

Then Psionic Wayseer Rathek responded by stepping out from behind a building and returning fire by discharging an psionic electrokinesis blast at the Battle Brother. It may have been a low damage attack, but it got a +1 boost against robots! The Battle Brother ended up with its own Pin marker and Light Damage to its weapon arm, causing it to drop the Slugthrower! 
Psionic Wayseer Rathek [top left] facing a rumble with chief bodyguard Zegak

Later, Rathek, barely surviving a Reaction shot from Zegak himself, took yet more pins and Light Damage. I was fortunate to get him activated and out of the line of fire, considering all the Stress piling up on him too. With a good roll, including a critical success, I got him sprinting away and then ducking back around a building to apparent safety. He even decided to Crawl the last part of his Movement to increase his survivability.

However, he soon found himself the target for another Battle Brother high up on a nearby roof. Desperate to activate him yet gain to get him out of there I, of course, rolled a Critical Failure. Not only did Zegak’s squad get a Reaction, poor old Rathek was dragged along the ground towards the nearby raging antimatter vortex!
Wayseer Rathek getting a good kicking from Zegak and his Big Brother droid!

By this time we were both starting to utilise the initiative stealing mechanic, with turns starting to come around much quicker. Rathek survived his vortex encounter and, even though badly stressed, pinned and wounded, he somehow still managed to activate and make a desperate attempt on the target civilian. He would've done it too if it wasn’t for another failed activation which allowed the civilian to sprint out of Rathek’s clutches. 

Instead, the Wasyseer found himself in unarmed melee with Zegak. Rathek put up a fight, bolstered by his Martial Arts trait, but was eventually knocked Prone. It was then that the huge Big Brother robot decided to stomp over and join the Rathek beating. There the game ended as we reached timeout. The civilian escaped the Ucrian mercenaries clutches!

Rogue Stars: Initial thoughts?

There’s a lot packed into Rogue Stars. It can at first seem to be a little overwhelming for a small-scale skirmish game. But the core mechanics are straightforward, easy to remember and intuitive. The rules and associated tables are clearly written and well laid out too, with examples to help players get to grasp with the fundamentals. Its pretty much a case of rolling the Target Number and checking various tables for any modifiers. The actual mechanics only make up about a quarter of the rules with the rest covering the various squad options and traits.

What was key from the outset was that Rogue Stars is very much focused on the player's adaptability and proficiency with resource management. By that I mean players will be presented with a fair few decisions to make, whether Activating characters or using a Reaction. Particularly with how they manage all those Stress tokens. How many activation die to roll? What’s likely to happen if my opponent gets a Reaction? What if I roll a critical failure of success? How can the squad best achieve the objective in constantly changing game play? Am I using the right tactics, weapons and equipment? Should I chance an another activation? Pass on a turn to clear stress? And then are all those accumulating Stress, Pin and Wound markers to take into account.

We came away with a coupe of minor rules queries, with support coming from the official Errata, player produced gaming aids and an active community on the official Facebook site. The Reaction system will possibly deter those looking for a more structured IGOUGO experience or a simple entry level set of rules like the original Songs of Blades and Heroes. Newer wargamers will likely need a little perseverance with a couple of games under their belts before it all clicks but I think they'll be rewarded with an immersive, pleasurable and fun game.

And that for me is the wargaming equivalent of a bulls eye. Rogue Stars has found a gaming niche that provides a relatively fast small-scale skirmish game with depth, complexity and narrative coupled with a straightforward mechanic at its core. And all for little outlay. It’s a definite winner for me.

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