Whispers To The Stars – A ‘Death In Space’ TTRPG Review Part 1
by Anton Kromoff
“Civilization is at its end. Slowly but steadily, the universe contracts towards an inescapable end. The void between the stars whispers strange and portentous phrases to the unlucky. “
Welcome to the table for what will assuredly be a multi-part review of Free League‘s science-fiction tabletop role-playing game “Death in Space”
As with most of Free League’s publications, the art and style of this rule book is beautiful. Each page feels intentional, from the choice of typography to the minimalistic post-cosmic-apocalyptic junk-punk art design. There were points when I was reading through this book that it felt as much a collection of rules and systems as it did a manual left on some derelict and barely functioning spaceship coasting through the great void between stars.
As if it was my only means of entertainment in a solar system so vacant I would go years between hearing a voice other than my own or the haunting whispers of the things beyond time and space. When a book full of rules, math, and ideas can evoke such a primal feeling of emptiness I would say that it is achieving its goal.
Out of the gate, the setting feels oppressively bleak. In that way that most science fiction films try and convey the vastness and crushing isolation of space but end up lacking, this book does the opposite. The font choice and black pages are laid out in such a way that subconsciously the tone oozes off the page and worms its way into your mind as you move from page to page.
Character creation is quick and easy. It makes use of dice rolls and charts that have vague enough prompts that give enough direction, you can take them at face value or you could easily go in multiple directions with a little creative thought. It allows the player to really determine their level of involvement with their backstory and depth of personality, background, and affiliations.
After you have finished building out your individual character the party is encouraged to group together and build out a Hub, the player character’s home that typically takes the form of a spacecraft or space station. The book outlines power sources, life support, mess halls, crew quarters, and more and really nudges the party to come up with what their home is like without giving too much flash or flair out of the gate. The Hub is intended to grow and change and upgrade along with the players as they adventure and explore.
As you dive deeper into the game you are confronted with the Void Point system. This system is put in place to illustrate that the universe has an unknowable force that is always watching and pulling on your inner thoughts. When a player fails an ability check or attack role they gain a void point. These points can be used to gain an advantage on an ability check or attack roll, or activate a cosmic mutation.
These mutations can range from “You grow an extra set of teeth” to “When you try to sleep, you see through someone else’s eyes” to “Another you start growing on you. The twin clone is fully grown and detaches after 1d20 days.” Each feels strange and otherworldly tugging at the edges of perceptions of what makes you… well, you.
It’s this devious and disorienting way to destabilize any form of status quo established at the table without taking the players or the Storyteller (referred to as the Referee) out of the game. These mutations and corruptions come in a multitude of flavors and all feel open-ended enough that the group storytelling that is such a core part of the tabletop experience had built upon them in strange and unusual ways. It’s really a fresh take on failure and the risk/reward that separates the tabletop gaming experience from something like a video game or board game.
Once you have finished filling your mind with the horrors of the effects of failure, cosmic mutations, and void corruption the game delivers to you the concept of repair and upkeep. Everything in this setting is cobbled together and barely functioning (including your player characters) and the addition of a system that takes into account the condition of objects, spare parts and upkeep really makes the weight of the decisions of the players feel even more weighted.
Rather than getting a sword with a minor enchantment that may not serve your party so you pawn it off on some lovely shopkeep for gold or potions, in Death In Space you can dismantle the items you find in an attempt to scrounge parts to keep your hub functioning and use as repair parts for your own gear. It adds to the feeling that the party needs to work together to eke out survival in this empty space between stars.
It truly feels that at every turn Death In Space is pushing the players together in fun and rewarding ways and encouraging group thinking, play, and strategy. In a world where so much is seeking to divide us a system that rewards and revels in positive reinforcement for group play is something, I for sure am a fan of.
In the next installment of my deep dive review of Death In Space, I will touch on Space Travel, Combat, Spacecraft Confrontations, Cults, Gear, and more. I am very greatful that Free League was able to provide a PDF of this book to me as my local gaming store is not wheelchair friendly and I was not able to just roll in and pick up a copy in store.
Until next time, may you look into the void and see only your own face staring back… grinning… with eyes that burn like dying stars.