From the Parallel Worlds Magazine archive.
Dark Stars is a cyberpunk roleplaying game set 300 years in the future. Humanity has expanded across the galaxy, developed artificial intelligence, and encountered alien life — but this is no utopia. The setting is dark and gritty, characterised by classic hallmarks of cyberpunk: shady corporations, deep conspiracies, and an examination of what it means to be human. Humanity is gripped by a cold war between the crumbling United Nations of Sol and the knowledge-seeking Collective, while aliens look on as humanity’s cosmic destiny unfolds.
This month, we spoke to Morgan Lean, writer, creator and designer for the Dark Stars system, to get some more insight into the making of this fascinating vision of the future.
I read your blog posts about the development of Dark Stars. What more can you tell us about the process and intention?
We wanted personal combat, hacking, and vehicle combat to all use the same system. Other games like Cyberpunk didn’t do this. Because Dark Stars is all based around a D100 skill check, we were able to stretch the system — it’s quite a stretchy system. Hacking works the same way as everything else, so players don’t have to look up a different thing every time they do netrunning. Our long-running task system works the same way as shooting another character.
The other thing we wanted to do was get this setting out. I’ve been working on the setting for a while, which combines semi-hard sci-fi with alien tech. Humans have got access to this tech which we probably won’t have for a considerable amount of time. Most people in Dark Stars are using regular projectile weaponry alongside this gravitic and wormhole technology. The setting also puts humans in a place where they’re not a universe-spanning or galaxy-spanning empire; it puts them on the back foot against the aliens, which have recovered from an interstellar war. The humans are expanding and exploring, which is what they set out to do; but there is this meta narrative about retelling ancient myths, with aliens visiting Earth in the distant past.
Does this tie in with Faeries Wear Boots (another of Morgan and his team’s RPGs)?
No, they’re separate universes. The Faeries do all these ridiculous things, while the aliens in Dark Stars, while they can do miraculous things, it’s not sorcery. The aliens which can do these miraculous things can really do powerful things, but it’s not sorcery. Humans don’t use this, but it’s always this thing under the surface. Humans were created during an alien civil war to storm an alternative dimension. There aren’t really good or bad aliens, but let’s say the ‘bad’ aliens lost, and humans lost knowledge of what they were. Humans are a left-behind weapon designed to storm the gates of heaven — but as a gamesmaster you can take it or leave it.
You seem passionate about your inspirations and influences. What has informed the development and world of Dark Stars?
Rune Quest and Call of Cthulhu for the D100 system. Call of Cthulhu really made the D100 system popular. D100 is our go-to system. We just feel that it gives a lot of flexibility in basic checks.
Cyberpunk was our main inspiration for the combat and the world. Hit locations were something different, though Cyberpunk has a head hit location. Things like Blade Runner, Aliens, and Soldier (the 1998 Blade Runner spin-off) were also big influences.
This is darker than Star Wars. The corporations are there to do exactly what a corporation does: bigger balance sheets, more profit. They have wars with each other, and entire sections of the population are enslaved to the corporations. This isn’t a utopia like Star Trek’s Federation, where they can replicate whatever they want. Everything has a cost. This is more sci-fi than fantasy.
And how does that ‘cost’ translate into the gameplay?
So, we’ve got this group called the Collective, which are AI living with humans. Rather than being enslaved by humans, like at home, here they run the show and are more scientifically advanced. They have a dystopia they think is a perfect society. Even though the humans get everything they could need or want, they aren’t on the same level playing field as the AIs. The AIs in the Collective are able to design really strange and wonderful weapons. They’ve got machines that can expand and contract spacetime! But, by advancing themselves, they’ve drawn the attention of the aliens, which use all their weird and wonderful weapons from a war hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Collective is something you can play; you can be an AI in this game, they play really interestingly. They need to spend more XP on new skills, or they can download them for a lot of credits.
Blade Runner, Aliens, and Soldier (the 1998 Blade Runner spin-off) were also big influences.Morgan Lean
We’ve also got this concept of perks, and they do things to your character which modifies the base systems. There’s a perk called ‘What’s this? This is nothing!’ which lets your character keep on going even if they lose a limb or two. Or there might be perks to influence corporations if you need to get a group to do something. I think there’s also a perk called ‘Ace Gunner’ which lets you make a single shot from your vehicle’s main gun hit automatically with double penetration once per session. This is really good in vehicle combat, since vehicles are very deadly; one shot is often enough to end a vehicle combat. These perks are more integral to Faeries Wear Boots, there’s a lot that could be transferred, but there’s a lot more in Faeries Wear Boots. We might add more in our alien supplement.
We wanted personal combat, hacking, and vehicle combat to all use the same system.Morgan Lean
There’s archetypes, rather than classes, which give skill ideas and starting gear and money. There are some alien archetypes in the Colonisation supplement. The idea is to let GMs [gamesmasters] run whatever kind of game they want to run. It’s a space game toolkit; for the longest time [during development] it was just called ‘space game.’ It’s very good and simple: establishing a colony just needs the right gear and the right skill checks, in the same way as combat. The whole system is mutable, you can say “I’ve got this gauss rifle, I want it to have this property, I do a research skill check, and make sure I have the right resources, and now it has this property.”
We’re thinking of releasing a book which just has perks and archetypes, as well as aliens. It uses a point buy system (players have a fixed amount of points to allocate to their skills when creating a character), but the aliens will have modifiers to their starting skills. The Bastazi, a feline race, might have higher dexterity, but lower self-control.
The GM has all the power in this system; they determine the progression by how much money they reward the players with, but players have agency by shaping the direction.
For the longest time [during development] it was just called ‘space game.’Morgan Lean
You’ve mentioned a few upcoming supplements; what are your plans going forward with Dark Stars?
We pack a lot into our books. It took a year for Colonisation to be released, it was on Kickstarter for ages. My emails were like essays explaining what there would be and what people could see! There would be random tables in the book for planets and who you might expect to find there. I love random tables as a player. We try to give a lot of content. Tales from the Block (the first Dark Stars supplement) has enough material for two or three years of a campaign set in the Block! We provide fully-statted NPCs [non-player characters], and a lot of world information.
Our next book is Corporations, which includes all of our major corporations, a lot of scenarios, and a lot of gear. There’s tons of gear in Colonisation. There’s humour, too: we have a corporation called ‘Choke’ as a play on Coke. We have neo-Soviets in Colonisation, which are using early-space age technology far from earth; they have a pretty bleak time, and terrible rations. We don’t know what we’re going to call the alien book, but it’ll have archetypes for playing all our aliens, like the Kruth, avian types with wings, the reptilian Brak, and the Bastazi.
Fans of Shadowrun will recognise elements of the cyberpunk setting, but there’s no magic or elves here.
We’ve got comics as well. We’re on comic three, CEO’s Tale. One day I want to make a computer game in the Dark Stars universe, with the D100 system, especially for hacking. I’m pretty proud of the hacking system, because it’s just like normal combat. The plan is to use the system for a number of games.
Sounds fantastic. Thanks for sharing that with us!
Looking through the Dark Stars rulebook, it’s amazing to see just how much content has been packed in. From the huge number of tables to help create a fitting background for a player character, to the entire chapter dedicated to unarmed combat, the book is an absolute treasure trove of ideas and tools. Fans of Shadowrun will recognise elements of the cyberpunk setting, but there’s no magic or elves here. The skill-based archetype system is also reminiscent of Shadowrun, but with its D100 system which adapts to any situation, Dark Stars’ core mechanics will probably be more familiar to Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy players.
Overall, Dark Stars is a perfect RPG if you’re looking for a gritty, cyberpunk setting that focuses more on classic sci-fi elements. Find it at their website.
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