Outbreak: Deep Space is a SciFi horror role-playing game from Hunters Books & Apparel and written by Christopher J. De La Rosa, printed August 2014, that tries to capture the horror of video games like Dead Space and System Shock 2 and bring them to the tabletop in a comprehensive survival horror system. The book is 240 pages and doesn’t waste space. Deep Space, as an RPG is probably ideal with 2-5 players and a Game Master, though larger tournament style games are certainly possible.
Inside the Book
Outbreak: Deep Space is a core rulebook that is 240 pages long, with 11 Chapters:
- Chapter 1: Terror in Deep Space; an introduction to setting and mechanics
- Chapter 2: Character Creation; how to make a character in Deep Space
- Chapter 3: Descriptors; how to use the Descriptor mechanic
- Chapter 4: Abilities, Disadvantages and Motivations; what these character options do
- Chapter 5: Skills; how to use various skills
- Chapter 6: Gameplay and Combat; the rules of play and combat mechanics
- Chapter 7: Locations; different locations and their effects
- Chapter 8: Gear; the details of various scifi gear options
- Chapter 9: Opponents; a list of scary foes and their abilities
- Chapter 10: Gamemastering; advice for Game Masters and Outbreak Level rules
- Chapter 11: Index and Reference; for quick lookup of specific details
Roleplaying in the Deep Black
Outbreak is probably best with about 2-5 players and 1 Game Master (GM). Although larger player groups are possible depending on whether a GM is running a tournament style game or similar. As with other tabletop RPGs, each player portrays a character that they have created using the book and the Game Master controls NPCs and runs the survival horror atmosphere and story of each game. Players control the actions of their characters in response to the changing story and encounters, rolling dice when an uncertain result is needed to be decided.
The main checks made in playing Outbreak require one set of two d10s (really a pair for rolling a d100 percentile), several six sided dice of at least 4 different colors (or alternatively, d5 “Hunter” dice with a special character instead of 1d6, though it’s nice that the game can be played without the special dice and reference cards mentioned on page 9 of the book). Not too many people are going to have special dice lying around and if the game hinged on it, it might be unplayable for a group that just picked up the book at random unaware of the specialty dice.
Success & Failure
The D100 roll for abilities succeeds or fails in degrees (10 percentile points failed or exceeding a difficulty is
considered a degree). This determines Degree of Success (DoS) and Degree of Failure (DoF) on a die roll. Rolling a Degree of Success (DoS) of 5 or more, is considered very special super awesome sauce success which the game calls a “Headshot.” Making 5 or more DoF is however, is a “Catastrophe” and very bad for your character. It’s also much more appropriately named. The DoS and DoF can be modified by character kits (equipment) and situational hazards to be less than 5, making things easier to really fail or really succeed. Static Thresholds appear to be DoS or DoF set by the GM that cannot be altered, and this is probably meant to reflect those cinematic moments, like when the character has to disarm the reactor before meltdown or what have you.
D5! and Other Special Dice
There are various uses of the D5! Hunter Dice in the game, though, again, a regular d6 can be used. Difficulty Dice are rolled to make things worse; there are various different types of difficulty dice and situations in which they could apply (this is the result of a 6 on a d6 or H on a d5 Hunter dice). With Gear Kits and Weapons, a Depletion die may add to a roll to represent an item being used up or degrading in quality. Speed Dice are added to indicate the time it takes to perform an action during Combat Turns. Lastly, Damage Dice are rolled when determining the damage of a weapon or attack on a successful hit.
Time and Space
Time in the game is a bit different than in some games, and this reminds me of the nebulous timing of “scenes” from World of Darkness games, meant to be more of a narrative focused passage and to prevent the game slowing down into combat turns unless the characters are engaging an encounter. This seems to be a good thing to focus more on the horror. A unit of time represents a period of time from 5 minutes to 45 minutes that represents the end of an encounter. It also allows a GM to give time restraints on specific mission objectives (you have 6 units of time before the reactor explodes). We don’t need to keep track of exactly how much time is passing between encounters on the way to the reactor, but you can occasionally have the ship’s computer voice a countdown just to keep the pressure up for the players.
In Deep Space, No One Can Hear You Scream…
Encounters are Outbreak’s mechanic for narrative flow during missions and other character objectives. Initially the Encounter % (or E%) check is something that I find a bit jarring as a GM – it’s essentially an old school random encounter table, but I think its geared to reflect the survival horror aspect of the game. If a character flees into a new area or would find an unexplored area they make an Encounter check. Degrees of success might mean they find supplies or survivors (friendly NPCs) in a new area, while DoF mean that they encounter some of the deadly opponents in a game. I feel that as a GM I would probably use this minimally during the game, but it would be good for new GMs running stuff on the fly without much prep. Some cool mechanics do come into play when a group of characters attempt to flee from an Encounter. They may end up having to beat the Encounter check (E%) or find themselves in hot water. This is a way for Game Masters to pressure the group into Risk, which has severe consequences. Characters can interact with an Encounter in the following listed ways: Engage, Hide, or Diplomacy:
– Though its not made explicit, characters essentially follow a normal initiative combat or actions against the opponents (Combat Turns are described later on in Chapter 6).
– The character is avoiding the encounter through stealth.
– Let’s talk our way out of it. Characters are choosing what type of social skill they use to begin talking with NPCs and possible allies, but I kind of like the idea of the social check being made at the very beginning of the encounter, so perhaps you can make a very bad first impression that leads to a misunderstanding by NPCs.
The Character Creation options in Outbreak: Deep Space are extensive and would be made easier if there was a program available to help speed things up. You have to hop around the book a bit to get everything you need to finish a character. Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and Chapter 8 are all necessary for the finished product.
The book generalizes a character’s core abilities in an acronym it calls SPEW. It stands for Strength, Perception, Empathy and Willpower. Here’s a breakdown of how each ability is seen in the Outbreak system:
– The Strength ability in Outbreak is rather straight forward, it controls athletic tasks like jumping and swimming, as well as melee combat.
– The Perception ability is an important one in Outbreak, it allows you to search for supplies, spot hidden dangers and influences your ability to shoot ranged weapons as well as do technical tasks.
– Interesting that high empathy denotes a better “team player” character while low empathy means someone works better as a “lone wolf”. I can see potential conflict with these types of character differences. But a party of all low empathy guys could be problematic during play.
– The Willpower ability allows a character to resist attempts at Diplomacy against them and resist pain, as well as keep their cool under stressful situations.
“Making you SPEW”
There are two methods listed for generating a character: a random die roll method and a point-buy system. In Outbreak, I feel like the worst possible method is the random die roll.
Skills, described in Chapter 5, are determined by either having 5 tiers to spend or by an intriguing way to generate stats using a deck of cards, dealing 4 cards to each player and determining which types of skills the character is proficient with. Skills are described further on, are a bit complicated to calculate, and along with games like Alternity and Eclipse Phase, help make the character creation process feel like something that should be handled by a well programmed Character Generator software (which I wasn’t able to find on the internet for the game, but hopefully they’ll release). With all the varied character creation options it greatly extends the actual time a player has to sit and try to decipher mechanics and decide the various aspects of their character. Skills range from Martial Arts, Science, Pilot, Survival, Navigation, Swim (things pretty straightforward), to more obscure or mechanically themed skills like Hold or Composure which have a specific niche in the game. To complicate matters, there are three levels of skills. Basic skills are stuff just about everyone can do: Spot, Search, Dodge, Grapple, Climb etc. Trained Skills are stuff that requires more experience: Barter, Command, Digital Systems and various types of Weapons like Energy guns and Melee combat. Expert Skills include Science, Martial Arts and Survival, etc.. I would say there is some skill bloat in that there are skills which seem like they overlap with other skills or could have been merged into one skill to simplify things.
Health and Dying
Characters have 5 Health points, but only lose health when something exceeds their damage threshold (which is calculated based on a variety of modifiers from expert skills and character gear).
Gear is an important aspect of a character in Outbreak and described in detail in Chapter 8. There are four ways of choosing gear, by Tech Level, random die roll, card draw or narrative. I find it kind of interesting as options the GM and players agree on for gear items could radically change the play of the game. One character may begin with power armor, heavy weapons and a starship if it fit the narrative of the game the GM was trying to run. As expected, the gear section in any SciFi game, Outbreak: Deep Space not being an exception – is a large chunk of the book with a lot of options and rules for customizing and building your own gear. Weapons include everything from Batons to Assault Rifles, Rail Guns, Energy Weapons and Flamethrowers. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have a list of different armor types already made, like EVA suits and Power Armor. Although there are rules to make these. Figuring out the Descriptor Level (DLv.) of some of the Gear Kits was very confusing to me, but otherwise the gear seems to be built pretty solid. Tech Level restricts players to certain tech tiers of gear items at start, but doesn’t require them to worry about buying anything – this seems good. I did not see rules for vehicles and smaller starships in Outbreak, so I assume they are more narrative or will be released in a supplement book.
The rules in character creation on playing alien races seem to something a GM should develop on their own, depending on the theme of their game and rules are not clearly made for how to play them, just guidelines on allowing alien templates for characters. There are two types of aliens presented far later in the book as basic templates, but with only a paragraph of detail and a lot left to the imagination. Personally I think the game would have been better to include character options like humanoid androids, cyborgs and similar to fit the theme of a more human-centric space game, but its more of my play style that influences me. GMs who want a horror game with a feel like Mass Effect that allows other humanoid races in the galaxy wouldn’t have to stretch too far to include that into their game of Outbreak Deep Space.
An intriguing mechanic for allowing characters a way to survive as the Outbreak gets worse during a game is something called the Gestalt Level. The book claims Gestalt Level is for when the player’s characters know more about their world than the player does. Essentially I see this mechanic is a way to let characters default on their Gestalt Level for making skill tests as things are getting more dangerous around them (this way characters who are even unskilled at something have a chance of succeeding just to move the story forward). I’d be interested to see this progress in a longer term campaign with this system. It lets the characters become a little more badass as the heat turns up as the aliens invade or the infection spreads off world, etc. Characters must spend “Gestalt Dice” to activate this ability and it adds to their percent chance of an existing skill depending on the Gestalt Level allowed by the Outbreak Level. Gestalt Dice do a ton of specific things, like those listed on page 24, to advance skills in different ways depending on whether they are unsupported, supported, basic, trained or expert, etc. This seems like a lot to keep track of in the moment, when you just want to spend dice and be great at something for a while. I love this idea, but the mechanical execution seems like it could be polished to be more streamlined for new players.
Gestalt Level (Based on the starting Outbreak Level and increases as a game goes on)
OL 0 – N/A
OL 1 – Gestalt Lv. 10
OL 2 – Gestalt Lv. 20
OL 3 – Gestalt Lv. 30
OL 4 – Gestalt Lv. 40
Determining Gestalt Dice
Characters can determine their number of Gestalt Dice based on the age of the character, though this seems a bit pointless to me. Everyone will want to play older characters just to meet the threshold allowed I’d imagine. Why play a 10 year old outcast hiding in the airducts of a space station, when you can play a 50 year old grizzled vet? The dice cap is your total Ability Bonus points anyway (so 11 total points would allow for up to 33 Gestalt Dice at start, so you would start at 33 years old). I think another method would have been simpler for determining this, maybe even a flat 30 Gestalt Dice per character would have been the way to go and it could have sped up character creation a bit. Factors like your character’s Paradigms and Motivations can influence your starting Gestalt Dice.
Throughout the game characters earn Survival Points (SP) and can spend the points to improve Ability Tiers and SPEW attributes. One thing I found a little interesting from a GM point of view is that how much they can increase their SPEW attribute is dependent upon how long and difficult the GM wants to make their game, rated like a video game (Easy, Moderate, Hard). Easy only increases it by 1d10, Moderate by 1d6 and Hard by 1d3, but they are spending the same amount of SP either way. This gives the GM some campaign control over how easy it is for characters to advance, although I wonder if the Gestalt Levels make this largely irrelevant anyway. Gestalt Dice are cheaper as well (100 SP to get 1 Dice, vs. 1000 SP to increase an attribute). Characters gain SP as a sort of experience point system, usually gained from completing missions in the game.
Character Paradigms represent more focused “character classes” in the game. Characters are not required to take a Paradigm at all, but can choose one for free at start. You can also spend 5 Gestalt Dice to get extra Paradigms (equivalent of multi-classing), but it seems that this means you’re both a burden and blessing for the party group as a whole (you’re more useful, but when you die its more traumatic to the group’s morale, the group actually loses SP from your injury or death). Here are a few examples of Paradigms in Outbreak: Deep Space:
- Daredevil – You tend to be a bit harder to kill as the daredevil.
- Hunter – This paradigm reminds me of the Ranger from D&D, you choose a special type of opponent and gain a bonus towards fighting them. Although, I find this paradigm might not be suitable if you’re trying to run a game where the players don’t know what they’re going to be up against (which tends to be a staple of horror). Although for a long-term campaign, Hunters who come in knowing what they’re up against is a good change of pace I’d bet.
- Last Survivor – You were the only survivor of some previous disaster, which gives you a bit of insight into the bad-guys, the special ability is even a quote from the “Aliens” movie, can’t go wrong there.
- Lone Wolf – A character who does better without a team, while I can see the appeal of this paradigm to players, as a GM Lone Wolf characters tend to fracture the player group a lot, wandering off alone (though maybe you want that to happen in a horror game)…
- Maverick – Sort of your lucky character who lives on the edge, there seems to be overlap with the Daredevil paradigm here.
- Moral Center – Kind of opposite of the Lone Wolf, this character is supposed to be the glue that helps a party get through the tough times and protects them from psychosis.
- Point, Middle Guard, Rear Guard – Each have special abilities are interesting dynamics if you’re trying to build a player team with a military theme, since they can make formations and operate tactically.
- Psy-Ops – With psychological warfare as an option, that allows you to use Diplomacy to delay your opponents or NPCs, kind of an interesting idea, although I’d like to see how it works in gameplay.
These should have been presented a bit earlier in the book in my opinion to make character creation more concise, but they contain a wide range of specific Abilities associated with an Attribute (SPEW) and some that are more generic. Abilities like Access Granted (Location) are interesting in that they provide a character a level of security clearance for getting through secured areas and checkpoints. Other abilities like Concealment and Craftsman are geared more towards enhancing specific types of actions. There are numerous Abilities, and while some seem important to the game, others seem needlessly thrown in.
Its recommended that players take at least 1 Drawback and a “Coping” descriptor for the character’s backstory to make “endearing” characters. While individual Disadvantages have certain bonuses to skills, I feel most players of this game would skip it because its of minimal mechanical benefit. The Disadvantages are a serious issue if their descriptor comes up during an Encounter or part of a Mission, for example: a character with a Lvl 3 Acrophobia who has to climb down a cliff face of a colony structure on some distant world is going to be in for a bad time. Homocidal Mania is one of those disadvantages that seems like it could be an interesting situation for everyone when combined with things like Lone Wolf or Assassin, especially since your only coping mechanism is actually killing X people during some sort of murder spree. While perfect if you’re playing Riddick from Pitch Black, its a little bit disconcerting and I’d hope GMs reign this kind of thing in a bit.
Motivations have their own section in Chatper 4. Characters start with a number of motivations equal to their Willpower bonus + the Outbreak Level in Tiers of motivations. There are ways to drop and add old and new motivations as the character evolves through play. Each Motivation provides a way to gain additional SP during a session, but it also has a “Foil” that can be detrimental under certain conditions as well. It adds some spice to the characters, but seems like they could have been tied in specifically with Backgrounds or Paradigms to make character creation run more smoothly for new players. A footnote after the Motivations list should have really been at the front of this section, which just says that if you want to develop party cohesion, have all the players take at least one overlapping Motivation (which is a great idea if the game starts with everyone taking the Escape motivation and they’re trapped on a space station overrun with infected humans).
A combat turn is made up of 24 total “moments” in-game. Certain actions opponents can take can disrupt your “Intent” on your next action. The “Intent” of your next action must be declared ahead of time, so you can figure out what someone is going to do and possibly disrupt it. So if your next action is at 13 moments and the big bad monster goes at 12, he can theoretically disrupt your intended action of shooting it by knocking away your gun, etc. It seems like it could get bogged down during gameplay, but since most things are handled in Encounters and only engaging into combat uses this turn system, it might just make those few moments of actual combat much more intense and desperate. Once an encounter breaks down into turns players may attempt to alter their initial reactions (such as flee an Encounter), once moment 24 is reached. Some opponents have to be defeated quickly or they summon more reinforcements (such as enemies with the “Hordes” descriptor). There are rules for holding or delaying actions. Characters can choose to accept Risk from a GM during these scenes, making success easier, but providing consequences later.
The combat rules in Chapter 6 present a lot of options, which might be daunting for new players or people unfamiliar with more complex RPG systems. Some of them are pretty straight forward, like Dodging and Grappling, though I find it interesting that damage dice are divided among opponents (doing more damage to the primary opponent), so its likely that everyone will get scuffed up in a fight. Some options I found most interesting is that there is a “Heroism” and “Cowardice” option for combat, where you can choose to take an ally’s damage or worse, force damage you would take onto another player out of cowardice. This definitely gives the game a bit more of a desperate tragic feel that you want in a horror game. When taking damage, things are again, a bit complex. Characters have to have their Damage Thresholds met before they actually take a wound point. When you take a wound, you have to make a Save Throw or become injured (which is bad if you intend on performing strength actions). If a character takes 3 or more wounds at once, they have a chance of Gruesome Demise which requires a “Toughness” check to avoid. Combat is apparently very lethal in Deep Space.
The Beatings Will Continue…Until Morale Improves
Morale is a key factor in Outbreak and described at the end of Chapter 6. When having groups get through dark scary corridors and encountering cosmic things that should not be, Morale will come into play frequently. This is probably my favorite part of the game so far, as its sort of a group psyche or “Sanity” score mechanism to determine not only how well a group can function together towards solving missions and side missions, as well as gaining benefits for formations. It’s also effected by how the players act in encounters and whether or not they decide to make cold-hearted decisions (like letting some critters chomp on some hapless NPCs). I think this idea with the way Encounters are set up are really what this game is about. Its about slowly losing trust in your friends and allies and eventually running screaming into the dark. There are rules for developing mental disorders and losing trust in allies, etc.
Another part of Deep Space that is essential towards getting the feel of the game, Missions can be activated during play due to certain conditions (a character who was injured earlier in an Encounter, now the mission is to get him patched up) and seem to flow naturally from the atmosphere of Deep Space. These Missions can get harder and more costly to undertake as the Outbreak Level increases in the game. Some mission types involve breaking through a bulkhead to get access to a new area, cleansing an area of alien infection, retrieving data from a computer system, repairing damage on some structure, or escorting a VIP through a hostile location. During pursuit of a mission, encounters can easily pop up along the way, complicating matters.
Another section I loved in this book. You’re given a lot of potential options of what the “Infection” or opponents really are. There is also the unique mechanic that allows a Game Master to spend Risk points, gained over time by various player actions, to make things more horrific. This could include presenting psychological or physical challenges and dangers, as well as spending points to directly upgrade or mutate monsters they may encounter. I’m not going to spoil these critters for you, I’d suggest you read them for yourself. I’ll only mention that the “Hydra” was one of my favorites. There are rules for other types of alien antagonists as well, so you won’t be disappointed if you had a different idea in mind for a game than parasite-infested zombies. There are some Transdimensional Horrors presented with a few subtle and not-so-subtle homages to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos.
Deep Space – Are You Alone?
Located at the end of the book, there is a section on Game Mastering. It helps clarify some of the rules and how to tweak them, it also gives some good advice on how to use the book to create a proper horror game. This part of the book is where they finally explain Outbreak Levels in detail and how to use Risk, as well as providing “Legendary Gear” and different types of settings for Outbreak: Deep Space. Activating Hazards using Risk is one of Outbreak: Dead Space’s shining moments, not only can you upgrade individual opponents with Risk, but you can cause atmosphere leaks, artificial gravity failures, areas to become sealed off without passcodes, activation of a Predatory A.I. and more. These really help ratchet up the dangerous nature of a Sci-Fi horror game, without breaking the mood of the setting.
The book’s cover design and interior art are fantastic. There are good indexes and table of contents for navigating the book. The artwork is cool and well themed for the survival horror sci-fi genre. However, I felt the book could have used more artwork. You may go for 6 pages without any flavor art. Although the page layout makes it look like you’re browsing through a ship’s database and its even color-coded for quick reference (a good feature when trying to look up a specific rule or detail).
So far the nature of the game invokes movies like Alien or Prometheus, games like Dead Space and Mass Effect, and TV shows like The Expanse or Dark Matter – which is a good niche to be in for a sci-fi game. It leaves a good deal of flexibility for type of sci-fi horror the Game Master wants to focus on – Interstellar Corporate intrigue, body-horror with aliens, exploration of remote worlds, etc. With the use of Morale, Encounters, Missions and Location options the book provides, even new GMs should have no problem creating an intriguing horror story in Deep Space. The setting provides fluff on the nature of the Deep Space galaxy throughout, but is lax enough that you can easily find a way to tell the story you want to tell.
There are additional products that support the Outbreak: Deep Space game. You can purchase specialized Hunter (d5!) dice for the game that may make things easier, also a deck of Reference Cards would help keep track of a lot of the specialized combat rules at the table. There is also a supplemental book I’ll be reviewing soon called “Outbreak: Undead” meant for more of a contemporary survival horror/zombie apocalypse setting. Online character sheets can be found on the Hunters Books website and an Interactive Character Sheet made by a 3rd party is available on the internet, though I found it had a few bugs.
Thanks to Hunters Books for providing a copy of Outbreak: Deep Space for review!
- Fantastic Horror Atmosphere
- Great GM support from Encounters/Locations/Risk etc.
- Terrifying mechanics for opponents
- Interesting options for building characters
- Artwork and Cover design are great
- Character Creation is lengthy for new players
- Rules mechanics can be dense to read through
- Lots of acronyms can make rules checks confusing
- The Book layout could have used more artwork