By Christopher Helton
Originally published by the now defunct West End Games, Shatterzone is a space-born, science fiction roleplaying game now published by Precis Intermedia. According to the urban legends of gaming, the impetus behind creating the Shatterzone game was to give a home to ideas and concepts that had been created for West End Games’ Star Wars RPG, but had been rejected by Lucasfilm. I’m not sure if the evidence really gives credence to those rumors, but it is an interesting idea. Considering then West End Games owner Scott Palter’s love of dark and dangerous settings, I think that Shatterzone was likely an original concept that may have seen some repurposed material, but that wasn’t the reason why the game was created.
When the most recent incarnation of West End Games went dark a few years back, a number of the company’s intellectual properties were sold off. Shatterzone, the science fiction game, and Masterbook, a generic incarnation of the rules that power Shatterzone ended up in the hands of Precis Intermedia.
What you get with Shatterzone is a rich science fiction setting attached to mechanics that, while they might be dated for some, still hold up well in actual play. The bonus chart at the center of the game can be a problem, but a quick photocopy (or print out of it from a PDF copy) and you have something that you can reference without page flipping. Combined with a character’s Life Points (a game currency that allows plays to modify dice rolls, or even damage to the character), the bonus chart actually helps create a cinematic style of gaming because nearly all successful rolls will have some sort of modifier to them that will increase the odds in a game. While much more commonplace in games nowadays, a game currency like Life Points were much more revolutionary back when this game was created.
There is also a deck of cards, the Masterdeck that players can use for modifiers, or to even introduce subplots into the game. The Masterdeck is an optional add on to the game, but it can add a lot to play.
Shatterzone uses a fairly simple roll two ten-sided dice and beat a target number mechanic as its resolution system, making it easy to figure out and play. Character creation has two options, one being a “pickup game” model where you pick a Character Profile and customize it to your wants, and the other being a fairly standard point buy system with attributes, skills, advantages and compensations. Character creation with the point buy system is not as complicated as some, only because the options for your characters are kept to things that make sense with the setting rather than trying to account for every option that could happen with your character. There can be a bit of system mastery involved in character creation, but it isn’t as major as it would be with many other games.
For me, it is the setting where Shatterzone really shines. In addition to the “normal” humanity as a base that is prevalent in the science fiction genre, there are a number of exotic alien races that are available as character options as well. Fans of science fiction television programs like Star Trek or Babylon 5 can find hooks in the alien species of this game that could spur them into picking up the game and giving it a try. The science part of the science fiction is moderately hard, but can become squishy if needed for the fun of the game. The Shatterzone is a place within the setting of the game, as well as the game’s name. It is an unstable area of space with wild and dangerous fluctuations of energy, erratic asteroids and other more human dangers. All of these factors combine to make an area that is difficult to explore, but irresistible to adventurers. And beyond the Shatterzone there are other dangers gathering…
In the more “known universe” part of the setting you have many of the standard tropes. There are the “Core Worlds,” the confederation of planets ruled by a combined government, the megacorps who want to exploit the riches of the Shatterzone, weird fringe worlds that offer delights and delicacies that only the out worlds can give. The Shatterzone book outlines all of this, giving a group all of the pieces that it needs to have quality long term play. Fans of Firefly and Serenity will also find a game that supports the types of adventures that the show and movie presented; big damn heroes against a backdrop of a universe that ultimately does not care, with mysteries lurking in the darkness of space. Shatterzone stories can feature characters who are traders or explorers, corporate employees or freelancers, or humans and aliens out of the fringe, looking to find new experiences and adventures.
If any of these appeal to you, then you should check out this game. The Shatterzone Classic Reprint features all three of the original books (The Rule Book, The Player’s Guide and The Universe Guide) complete in one book. Everything that you would need to play, except for two 10-sided dice, is in the book. You can also purchase it in PDF, if that is more your speed as well. Either way you are picking up and excellent science fiction roleplaying game.
Christopher Helton is a blogger, podcaster and tabletop RPG publisher who talks about games and other forms of geekery at the long-running Dorkland! blog. He is also the co-publisher at the ENnie Award winning Battlefield Press, Inc. You can find him on Twitter at @dorkland and on G+ at https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherHelton/ where he will talk your ear off about gaming and comics.