Starset: The Great Dimming Universe Book Review

Cover illustration of Starset: The Great Dimming Universe Manual

Title: Starset: The Great Dimming Universe Manual
Author: Josiah Mork
Publisher: Hoodwink Games, 2023
Category: RPG Setting Book
111 Pages, $17 Softcover from the publisher, $20 from Amazon, Free PDF Download

Starset: The Great Dimming is a new tabletop sci-fi RPG with a 40k-inspired ‘grimdark’ theme but decidedly bright and positive aspirations. A sci-fi RPG created by a Christian author, in the service of Christian charity, and with an (kinda) open source agenda, it has a lot of features that should have put it on my radar around the time of its successful Kickstarter. As it happens, however, it penetrated my airspace without putting a single blip on the scopes until @cornishcrusade brought it to my attention.

Almost open-source? A Christian mission? Tantalizing stuff, but what does it mean? And does it succeed in its mission? I will try to answer those questions presently, but first a short explanation of my preferred style of review.

I prefer not to give a letter or number grade when reviewing gaming products, because it’s hard to come up with a legitimate objective scale when dealing with subjective tastes. So, I’m not going to say “you should buy this” or “you shouldn’t buy it.” Instead, I’ll focus on describing the more remarkable parts, tell you what I personally did or didn’t like, and leave the rest up to your judgment.

Disclaimer: This review is for the setting book only, not the RPG system itself, which comes in a separate volume, so I will not be discussing character creation, game play style, or game mechanics. I must note that author sent me the entire set of books in PDF format for free, but I also bought this paperback version with my own money, lest anyone think the review is tainted. On with the show!

Starset: The Great Dimming presents a grimdark future set less than 1,000 years from now, when mankind has spread its miserable, fallen nature to the far reaches of the solar system. The conquest of solar space, overseen by the totalitarian secular materialist Supreme Republic of Man and its violent subsidiary factions, has brought the opposite of a Golden Age. Conditions for the masses are desperate, with widespread poverty and starvation to the point of cannibalism. Slavery of various forms is common and the murder of children, elderly, the sick, and the disabled is legal. Things aren’t so great for the rich and powerful, either, as ritualized assassination is considered a perfectly legitimate way of winning elections. Property rights are absolute — provided they can be successfully defended against anyone who wants to take that property from you, that is. It’s a not-too-heavily disguised extrapolation of our current ‘kill your kids, take the drugs, eat the bugs, live in the pod, and watch virtual porn’ trajectory.

Thus we have established one pillar of the ‘grimdark’ setting. But there is another: the titular Great Dimming. Ultimately, it seems there’s no hope for humanity in the physical world, quite apart from any kind of moral, social, or political reforms the players might achieve, because the Oort Cloud is collapsing inward. Perturbed by some unknown mass during the sun’s millennia-long circuit of the galaxy, an endless barrage of comets are now falling back towards Sol. Already, the farthest installations in the Kuiper Belt have been blasted to smithereens, and the best guess of the authorities is that humankind has, at most, two generations left to it.

Having established this backdrop, the better part of the book is taken up detailing the rise of the Supreme Republic of Man and 13 of its most important sub-factions. These are obviously intended to drive most of the immediate conflict in your games, and each faction explains their philosophy and ambitions (usually more general than specific, alas!) and a bulleted list of rumors that can serve as plot hooks for your players. Some of these factions are more compelling than others. They run from the humdrum and de rigueur — such as the Terra Manufacturing Core which is your generic oppressive industrial zaibatsu, and the Pontificate, which is… well, it’s the Roman Catholic Church, mutated and postmodernized and fully integrated with the technocratic totalitarian state — to really captivating ideas like The Revelers, who possess a de facto monopoly on the production of art and culture.

Generally speaking, this section is a good start, but there may not be enough meat for a GM to build a campaign out of. Expanding the section of rumors and including a list of flashpoints in the solar system or ongoing feuds between faction leaders would have made the book much more useful. Some random tables for generating flavorful, setting-appropriate crises and nemeses would go a long way in a book like this. And this gets to one of my major criticisms of the book: it’s read more like a setting primer, or a story bible, for a movie or TV show than a really useful tool for the Game Master. It’s not bad, it’s just not enough.

One of the places where it does fall short as a setting primer is in its capitulation of history. It glosses over the intervening 1,000 years by focusing on a few key events, which is the right call in my opinion, but it lacks a clear, concise timeline which would help put many of the events described in the factions system into clearer focus.

The section that focuses on technology is surprisingly slim for a sci-fi game, coming in at under 10 pages. It is almost entirely devoted to space travel and a list of common space and transorbital ships that the players may find themselves in, attacking, or attacked by. Quite a bit of space is given to the main method of propulsion, known as the Jones Turbine, which is some kind of EmDrive-like reactionless engine, and its supporting Trellis Network, a series of ‘fixed’ (relatively speaking) space stations which can quickly decelerate and alter the trajectory of ships without crushing crew and cargo, and which make for a kind of spatial highway infrastructure, with all the piracy, sabotage, and military chokepoints that such a thing implies. I thought the Trellis Network in particular was a rather good idea, at least in terms of the kind of adventure opportunities they suggest, though its handwavium undermines the author’s stated preference for ‘hard’ sci-fi (a taste which I do not share!).

The ship list is good, but, again, limited in its usefulness for the GM. It’s just pictures and a capsule description. Since I haven’t run a game, it’s possible that’s all you need, but as someone used to Traveller or D6 Star Wars, I kind of doubt it. The descriptions are often interesting, but they are scattershot in the details, often omitting what are sure to be matters of great importance in a game, such as crew and passenger compliments, cargo space, number and category of weapons, etc… Some have them, but some don’t. This is another instance of the book being better suited as a ‘story bible’ than the GM’s guide that I originally expected it to be.

On the plus side, the ship schematics are good looking. In fact, they are the only good art in the book. I know what I said before about personal tastes and the subjectivity of aesthetics, but there’s no way around it: most of the art is dreadful, amorphous, Midjourney-generated crap, the bastard offspring of early ’00s Christopher Shy and Scrap Princess, overseen by an Abominable Intelligence. (I expressed this opinion to Mr. Mork and, in a testament to his own taste, he agreed with me. The art in the later-produced ‘Living Lore‘ stuff is much, much better).

An unnecessarily large section of the book is dedicated to solar system maps of dubious utility to the GM. There is a section explaining ‘PAN-R lines’, ‘Solar Directionals’, and the other mapping conventions the in-universe authorities came up with to represent the always-moving solar system locations on a 2D map, but the fact that the depicted worlds and orbitals intersect multiple lines makes it difficult to actually determine distances or fuel consumption. These may be good handouts to the players, revealing (at a very high level) the places they can go, but they don’t seem to be useful for route planning the way Traveller‘s sector maps or The One Ring‘s journey system and hex map is.

The last parts of the book are devoted to what I feel are most noteworthy about the game, the aforementioned quasi-Open Source nature of the setting and its Christian mission.

In what the author calls “Living Lore”, he lays out a way for players and GMs (or Overlords, as they are called here) to submit their campaign narratives, NPCs, points of interest, and so forth, so that they can be included in later sourcebooks and fleshed out by other players. On the one hand, this is very much like what I was doing with my Creative Commons Ascension Epoch stories, so it has a lot of appeal to me. But on the other hand, those were for novels and short stories, and this is a role playing game; I am very skeptical that such evolving meta-narratives can work at all in a distributed RPG, much less be good for play around the table. As any World of Darkness or Heavy Gear veteran will tell you, it’s only a matter of time before your game group does something that upsets the meta-plot, and then what? Well, you either reject it and therefore render the whole exercise useless, or your group gets railroaded by some bloke you’ve never met from Vancouver and who doesn’t even pitch in for the Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Anyway, the Living Lore idea is worth reading about yourself, and you can always take what you like and leave the rest.

Mr. Mork’s personal purposes are laid out in the concluding Author’s Note. He, like many of his Gen Z cohorts, was particularly affected by the extreme levels of atomism and social dysfunction in American society. He notes the high levels of mental illness coming out of Tony Fauci’s Big Chinese Lab Adventure of 2020-2021, but let’s be honest, the situation was already pretty bad for the Zoomers and younger Millennials before Peter Daszak, Klaus Schwab, and Randi Weingarten got involved. Well, Mr. Mork decided that gathering together — like, really together, like human beings are supposed to — to have fun and build friendships while playing games might help a lot of people overcome their anxiety and depression. You can read it in his own words here. This is the explicit purpose of the Starset game: an alms offering of spaceships, dice, and escapism. It goes without saying that this is a noble goal, and I wish him a lot of luck in it, though my own experiences in the last four years have made me very pessimistic about the plight of his generation. Kyrie eleison!

Now, one may fairly ask why Mr. Mork chose a grimdark RPG setting for this purpose. In fact, I did ask him! And he gave a good answer, with which I will close out this review:

The goal is to create a worldview ultimatum. Every citizen in the Starset Universe, and the players by extension, are forced to consider the destruction of this reality. Therefore, in its absence, they must decide there is either no meaning outside this reality (the nihilism you mentioned) or that meaning comes from a reality outside this one (faith). This subtly highlights irony in factions like the Sept and the Eris Engineers, whose infatuation with science becomes increasingly pointless as it becomes clear this reality will be destroyed. Utilitarian, but pointless. And it highlights the potential danger of religions, because despite all the Pontificate’s cruelty, people still flock to them because they have nowhere else to go. Somewhere in between, there are people with genuine saving faith attested to by their lack of fear and their lack of cruelty. Players find which of these buckets they fall into as they play. 

3 responses to “Starset: The Great Dimming Universe Book Review”

  1. Interesting concept, but lots of things are interesting concepts.

    I will support the author because supporting small Christian content creators is better than supporting giant God-hating corporations.

    As Jesus said, What you have done for the least of these brothers, you have done for me

    I’m probably misusing scripture for my own selfish desires again, but alas, it is my wont.

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