Written by Ken Spencer and published by Cubicle 7. Rocket Age is a role playing game of retro space adventures set in an alternate 1930s.
Rocket Age wastes no time in setting up and introducing the tone of the game and setting. The game is grounded in melodrama and adventure with capitalisations and exclamation points. This world’s key point of divergence from our own is in 1931 when Tesla and Einstein built a radium powered rocket ship and flew it to an inhabited Mars. This voyage of discovery has started the titular Rocket Age and humanity now spreads out into the solar system. The setting’s technology stays away from mimicking our current advances with very limited replacements for our electronics. Interplanetary travel and ray guns exist, but are Art Deco is their design and technology. I’ve heard this is called diesel punk but I find myself preferring to call it decopunk after the aesthetic rather than the underlying technology. It’s a design choice I like as it makes it more distinguishable for our own reality and encourages problem solving within the constraints of the setting rather than just using a computer to solve the problems.
Earth is dominated by seven great powers that are competing for the spoils of the solar system. Japan, France, Italy, Germany, The Soviet Union, the UK and the USA have found that these new worlds are not uninhabited. There are Martians (feuding feudal city states), Venusians (philosophising jungle ape nomads), Europans (hostile psychic isolationists) and Ganymedes (plants with an honour culture). Rocket Age is thus a time of interplanetary imperialism and the ethical horrors that can bring. The text uses the phrase “in their primitive way” as an example of how many Earthlings could view the other species. There’s the potential here for the game to go to some dark places if it strays away from its melodramatic roots.
One example of this is the presence of space Nazis. The timeline diverges after the rise of fascism in Europe so their presence is not surprising. Pulp and melodrama stories of the period often featured Nazis as the inherently evil one dimensional antagonists such stories use. My complaint is more of boredom. Fascists are an overused trope and one that a setting full of aliens (particularly the Europans) doesn’t need.
In the pulp tradition, rather than the distant and unknown being uninhabitable wasteland, nearly every planet and moon in Rocket Age has life. Mars is a desert planet, Venus is jungles and dinosaurs, Europa is temperate and wet. Even the gas giants have life, with Jupiter’s sky filled with floating islands and flying creatures. The majority of the setting material is given to Mars, the most active frontier in the story. Martian society has stagnated into a rigid feudal caste system after the fall of Ancient Mars millennia ago. The hundreds of Martian city states compete with the Earthlings for the advanced technology found in Ancient Martian sites. The Martians also find themselves caught up in the Earthling politics of democracy, communism, fascism and empire, often to their detriment.
The detail given to Mars is a good example of the worthwhile effort that’s been made to give each world a distinct feel and, more importantly, culture. Every planet and location is given sample story hooks, a poetic theme, local slang and a key character. These add colour and useful direction to the game, giving both players and GMs starting points to build their narratives. In addition to this, rather than a dry and useless history lesson, you’re told what the characters will experience during the adventure. The cultures are alive and plausible, ready and waiting to be interacted with.
The chapter on game master advice starts with a very generic introduction to GMing. It goes on to give specific and useful advice on how to run the types of stories that Rocket Age is premised on – adventure, exploration, native stories and ship with crew. Five example adventures are given, each a half page and set out like 1930s drama serials. The key story points are defined but nearly all the details are left up the players to flesh out. The bestiary is a set of space monsters for all the worlds, each with their own set of story hooks. What’s missing are any non-player sophant character sheets, a puzzling absence given the detailed bestiary. I would also have liked to have seen some sample naming schemes to go with the excellent cultures.
The game system for rocket age being and ends with rolling 2d6 and adding an attribute, a skill and any modifier from traits. The target can be against a fixed number for challenges or the roll is contested when it’s against a character with agency. A yes and, yes, yes but, no but, no, no and table is used to convert degrees of success into roleplay and narrative when the result is not purely mechanical. Provided are lots of ways for characters to get hurt beyond violence – radiation, poisons and disease feature. The game also distinguishes between physical, mental and social damage; giving examples of each.
When things get particularly urgent or busy, play moves into what Rocket Age calls Action. The round and turn times are variable to fit the situation, as the time scales in a fist fight vary greatly from rocket ships exchanging missiles. The order actions are resolved is not left solely to initiative. Talking comes before moving before doing before fighting with a character only getting to perform one action per round. This is an interesting division because it weights the power to solve problems in favour of talking rather than violence. Speaking of initiative, the roll is 1d6 plus the attribute the character will be using. This is a nice change from just reaction speeds deciding play order and means the player will have decided what their character’s action before their turn, potentially speeding up play.
The character creation chapter starts with a summary of the process that includes tables with page references as to where you’ll find the details later. The process is by points spend, with a single pool of character points covering all aspects of a character. This mandatorily begins with choosing your sophant which sets maximum attribute values, gives attribute bonuses and grants a set of species specify traits. Occupations are sets of partially built attributes boosts, skills and traits specific for the setting. The six attributes used in Rocket Age are Awareness, Co-ordination, Ingenuity, Presence, Resolve and Strength. When rolling players are free to use whichever of these they think best fits with the skill and situation, giving the game more freedom.
There are a small number of skills but they’re more like open and wide ranging categories. The final piece a character is their traits, good and bad. These are mostly bonuses or extra options that are all tied to roleplay or characterisations, so using them encourages narrative and drama. Character creation is a free flowing customizable process that will easily let you build exactly the character you want. There’s also a fully worked example to guide you through the process.
I love the dark blues on the cover and their strong contrast with the yellow streaks make the cover art striking. The block colour background stays out of the way, letting the logo and figures take a preferred precedence. The art deco logo, space suits and ray guns immediately get across the tone of the setting. The interior art is of high quality but a lack of any colour in the books interior seems to give it a slightly deadened or flatter feel after the vibrancy of the cover. Also, the aliens are interesting but don’t diverge enough from the humanoid template for my personal taste. There’s a big beautiful map of Mars worthy of a serious cartography textbook.
Contents and index pages are present and compact. The pages themselves are two columns of black text on a plain white background. In most place this is aptly broken up by art deco headings and break out boxes with pale grey backgrounds. A minor complaint is that the page numbers are at the centre of the footer, rather than at the corner where they’d be easier to find when flicking through the pages. A clever piece of design is that the header drops down a sixth of the page to present the sub-chapter headings.
The provided character sheet is gray scale with some grading and patterning to the background. The art deco theme is present again in the typeface and the borders. It’s a shame the interior table lines couldn’t have been a bit more fancy to match. There are also a couple of boxes where the title text is so long and large that there isn’t a nice place to the put the requested information. In the main body of the book, the character sheet comes with a glossary that clearly explains the constituent parts.
Rocket Age is an excellent example of how to write a role playing game. The setting is well defined with lots of potential for character and drama. The mechanics are simple and easily capable of handling most situations. My only big complaint is that the book looks a little drab in gray scale.