The Independents: Shadows Over Sol

The year is 2214. Humanity has spread across the solar system, but what should have been an age of progress and bright days ahead has been swallowed by conspiracies and horror. Things older than mankind have been uncovered, and they are not at all friendly. Society has fragmented, megacorporations wage wars and shadowy groups plot, and every shattered space station has some bioengineered monster hiding in the vents. Still, if you’ve got a ship and a crew and are willing to risk it all, there’s plenty of profit to be made. Such is the world of hard sci-fi horror RPG Shadows Over Sol from Tab Creations!

So how did Shadows Over Sol get its start? What planted the seed of the idea, what inspired it? Luckily for us, creator Thorin Tabor was willing to answer my questions, about this and more.

“Like a lot of GMs, there are a number of homebrew settings that have been kicking around my gaming groups for years. Shadows Over Sol started off as one of these.

Sometime around 2009 I was talking to some of the other people in the group, and we decided that we wanted to run a game with a mix of hard sci-fi and horror. And that’s how it began, although the setting has been fleshed out a lot since then.

The movie Alien was an early influence on the game. I’m a big fan of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, which inspired some of Shadows Over Sol’s subcultures. About a year after the original campaign I read The Expanse series, and was struck by just how close it was to the setting we’d come up with. And it’s since had a big influence on the game.”

Shadows Over Sol is built using the Saga Machine game system. I asked Thorin to describe the highlights of the system he’d created.. What makes the Machine unique? Why should people want to use it?

“Saga Machine is a rules-medium system with eight basic stats and two central mechanics: actions and consequences.

By default, action resolution uses a deck of poker cards, although there is a dice-based alternative in the back of the book. Generally, you will flip a card off the top of the deck and add its value to a stat, trying to meet or beat a target number. Higher is better.

Players will also have a hand of cards, which can be used to influence actions. These are a limited resource, however, so you can think of them similarly to the action/fate/fortune points that a lot of games have.

The system is quick to learn and resolve, once you’ve gotten the hang of things. And as a GM, I like the little tactile flourishes you can do with cards at the gaming table. For example, taking your time to slowly flip them over one-by-one to draw out a particularly tense moment. Or even just glancing at your hand and grinning evilly to make players sweat.”

While there’s a fair chunk of pagecount devoted to mechanics in various situations, for everything from how traveling in stasis works to gravity to sleep deprivation, character creation is actually very simple. Each character gets an array of values to spread between the stats of Strength, Dexterity, Speed, Endurance, Intelligence, Perception, Charisma, and Determination, and another array to spread between the various skills as well. Next you pick a Geneline, which gives you Experiences (more on those later) to spend on your main stats, such as the highly intelligent and determined Genius Deluxe and the increasingly rare unmodified Wild Type. Your chosen Subculture grants you Experiences to spend on skills. From there it’s mostly derived stats, the most important of which is Edge (average of Intelligence and Charisma, sometimes modified by your Geneline), which determines how many cards you can draw to influence events with. Which mode of horror you’re playing in (more on that in a bit) determines how much wealth and how many gear purchases you get, you can take some optional weakness, and you pick a lifestyle. You’re good to go! Try not to die.

Experiences function on a 1:1 basis. Want to increase Dexterity from 3 to 4? You need to spend 4 Experiences on it. Want to take a new skill at 1? You only need 1 Experience. Here’s the interesting bit, though: Experiences are tied to the stats and skills that were used to earn them. Want to increase Dexterity? You need to have used it in a session and assign an Experience (you can only assign one at a time) from that session to it, eventually getting enough to buy the increase. Skills also improve via what might be considered specializations. If you used the Thievery skill to pick locks, you would record a Picking Locks Experience that would granta +1 bonus whenever you use Thievery to pick locks in the future.

I got a few flashbacks to Final Fantasy II of all things.

Why did Thorin think it was important to have advancement in the Machine work this way?

“I like the idea that characters advance in ways that reflect what’s going on in the game world. It helps them grow in ways that feel organic and builds a sense of verisimilitude. I think it’s also satisfying for players to look at their character sheets and see their past accomplishments reflected in their listed experiences.”

One of the quirks of the Saga Machine is that it is not-quite-but-almost a universal system. By the time you’ve gotten to Page 8 of Shadows Over Sol the book has informed you that the system has been used for other games, and has been adapted for use with SOS. It’s not universal on the player and GM side of things, though; you don’t take the system and tweak it yourself to get sci-fi horror, Tab Creations has already done that work for you (although it is published under an OGL, so the potential’s there). Think more like a video game design engine that’s used for multiple games. So what other games has the Machine been used for, and what had to be done for it to work in SOS?

“We’ve used the Saga Machine system in two of our other published games, Against the Dark Yogi and Dime Adventures. For each of our games we keep the same base mechanic, but tailor the supporting systems for the specific game’s genre.

For Shadows Over Sol, to support the horror genre, I did a complete overhaul of the wound/health system and refocused the combat system on a theater of the mind style of play. I like to say that analysis is the enemy of horror. No mini or token the player sees on the table is going to be as scary as what they picture in their mind. And part of the horror genre is being able to give a sense of impending doom, and to draw that tension out for as long as possible.

In support of science fiction, we added lots of cool sci-fi gear. I also came up with systems for hacking and engineering, since coming up with tech solutions to problems is a staple of the sci-fi genre.”

As we’ve discussed here at CHG before, horror is one of the more difficult genres for tabletop games to pull off effectively. Shadows Over Sol has ‘Science Fiction Horror Roleplaying’ stamped right on the cover of the book, but as it turns out SOS tackles the challenge of horror by remaining flexible about what kind of horror it’s trying to present.

“Shadows Over Sol provides three modes of play: survival horror, investigative horror and action horror. I like to think of these as statements about the relationship between the player characters and the source of the horror.

In survival horror the heroes are just trying to get through the night-cycle, so to speak. In investigative horror they’re in a position to poke and prod, but not to confront the horror directly. In action horror they’re all geared up and ready to kick its ass!

Each of these modes outfits characters appropriately. I like to think of survival horror as the first Alien movie, and action horror as its sequel, Aliens.”

Pages 11-95 of the 240 page book are devoted purely to the setting of Shadows Over Sol. There’s a bullet point history from the 2030s all the way to the ‘present day’ of 2214. There are entries on the technology, from the necessary tools of space travel to the biotechnology that has shaped a majority of the population. There are details on what life in the 23rd Century is like, from relationships to law and government. Speaking of government, there are profiles for megacorps, actual governments, and various other organizations and conspiracies such as the interstellar ARC Project and the isolated Jovian moons. The subcultures of society in Sol are explained, such as the progress-obsessed Technos or the fatalistic Ghostmen, including their values and even some of their slang. Finally, there are ‘datawiki’ entries for all of Sol’s planets, and no few of its moons and stations, including basic details and a few locations of note.

So how did all of this get put together?

“I wanted to create a realistic(-ish) take on our own solar system that is primed for telling different types of science fiction and horror stories. And I wanted to mine real life facts about the solar system for cool hooks and evocative locations.

For example, did you know that mountains on Saturn’s moon Titan are officially named after mountains in Middle-Earth? So on Titan there’s a real life Mount Doom that towers over lakes of liquid methane.

For the game’s subcultures, I wanted something that would provide players with a hook they can fall back on if nothing else presents itself. It also means that characters come with a built-in social context that can be interesting fodder for roleplaying.”

As per usual, I did get curious about what didn’t make it into the book.

“There was a bunch of cool sci-fi equipment that got bumped from the core for reasons of page count, and made its way into the Shiny New Toys supplement. There is a spaceship design system that got similarly bumped.

Setting-wise, there was a bunch more information about the ARC Project, humanity’s first ever interstellar colony ship. Most of that, however, has made its way into our most recent supplement, Siren’s Call.”

So what does the future of SOS, the Saga Machine, and Tab Creations look like?

“We recently released Siren’s Call, our first major expansion to the game. 

We also release a new scenario (or other short supplement) every few months through our Patreon and DriveThruRPG.

Finally, we have a new fantasy RPG in the works using the Saga Machine system. (The final name for it is still pending.) The goal is to have an open beta test for it early in the new year and hopefully for it to see release sometime in the second half of 2019.”

What’s the most important piece of advice Thorin could offer to prospective SOS groups?

“If you’re going for horror, know your players. Have a conversation about what scares people and what they don’t want to touch upon. It’ll make the experience more fun for everybody.

Also, some players are more interested in running Shadows Over Sol as a pure sci-fi game, and that’s fine, too! Personally, I tend to lean more on the sci-fi than the horror in campaigns and lean the opposite way in one-shots.”

Final words for our readers?

“Have fun! Make the game your own!”

In reading Shadows Over Sol, asking Thorin questions, and working on a crew of characters I’ve found the game to be quite likeable. The system is unique and pretty easy to get the hang of, character creation is simple and advancement is interesting and rewarding, the setting has a lot going on, and the game is very flexible within the genres it’s chosen. Whether you want to be running for your life, ferreting out secrets, nuking it from orbit just to be sure, or just having a sci-fi adventure, Shadows Over Sol is worth checking out.

You can find all the Shadows Over Sol products, including a free quick start version, on DriveThruRPG. You can find more information about the game, as well as other games like Against the Dark Yogi and Dime Adventures, at the Tab Creations site. Thanks to Thorin for sending us a copy of the Shadows Over Sol core rulebook, and for answering my questions.

Try not to die in the Shadows.

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