By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 09 October 2019
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with G. Michael Truran about game theory over the last year or two, and I have to admit that a lot has changed since I reviewed his ashcan game Plunderlight. This time around, I was requested to take a look at the recently updated game Ghost Orbit, a lightweight game involving life and survival on an isolated space station.
Since we are officially in October and in proper “Spooky Season,” I think it’s rather fitting to dive in!
I think the pitch can be pulled directly from the Ghost Orbit description: “[a game] about things breaking in space.” In this game, you play a group of spacers working on a space station on the day that everything could possibly go wrong, whether that was meeting aggressive alien life forms, civil unrest and riots, or even standard gross negligence putting lives at risk.
You tell the tale of your spacer, how they did (or did not) survive, and what they lost along the way.
==What You Get==
Ghost Orbit arrives in three documents: a one page character sheet, and eight page “Intake” player’s guide, and an eight page “Union Rep” guide. Each document includes simple artwork, and like Plunderlight, utilizes larger fonts to be an easy-to-use booklet.
While both documents go over the basic 2d6 mechanic used in this game (inspired by games like Apocalypse World), the Intake guide focuses on character creation and advancement, while the Union Rep guide covers creation of scenarios for GM use.
In all honesty, the lightweight elements of this game make this a wonderful tool. We have an easy-to use roll mechanic with a low cost of entry (3d6, one die must be different) inspired by Apocalypse World/Forged in the Dark, which makes the $5 cost the most expensive thing needed for the game (beyond snacks, anyway).
The materials are straightforward; no snazzy, hard to read fonts, no sidebars to mess with your flow, and sticking with black and white artwork (for the two pieces of art we have) make this an easy read. I found myself reading this and grokking it over the course of about 20 minutes.
In all honesty, if you need something at the last minute, Ghost Orbit absolutely would fill that niche.
I also have to admit that, while reading this, I was reminded of a number of media references: I can see this game handling Alien, Dead Space, Red Faction, and even Event Horizon. Essentially, survival horror or dystopian sci-fi in space fit the bill, and the possibilities really opened up for me. The very mechanics behind the game cement this, as your “stakes” for failure absolutely fit with these tropes: your suit can get damaged by the claws of an unknown creature, you lose your Calm when presented with a spirit, or maybe your Mechanical Master Class training just isn’t cutting it.
Even with a somewhat brutal element with loss and things breaking, the game doesn’t have the same level of character turnaround as Blades in the Dark or other games. By pulling a page from other narrative games, even being on death’s door isn’t the end until you are finally, officially abandoned by your compatriots. I’m loving that idea, and it really drives the feeling portrayed in this game home.
Finally, I am honestly just a fan of Michael’s approach to the gaming industry. In addition to being inclusive (by promoting preferred pronouns, flexible “training” elements, etc), the business practice of including a “Community Copy Pool” to provide the game free of charge to players in financial hardships is a pleasant surprise.
As always, “this isn’t a game for everyone.” For those who aren’t fans of sci-fi, the game doesn’t offer much, and for those who do like sci-fi but aren’t fans of grittier games, this game will probably turn out to be a hard pass.
For me, the big glaring weakness is simply in “progression.”
While Michael mentioned that this game is ideal for one-shots and convention games, his inclusion of gaining Scrip (the game’s progression currency) provides everything needed to progress…but it feels a bit odd. When speaking to him about the concerns of progression (and how certain awards and given), he stated that “Scrip is more of a ‘high score’ mechanism”, and that it was included “to encourage people to take risks and let their characters be in situations they could get hurt.”
While some games (such as Scavengers) thrive on that sort of competitive nature regarding wealth accumulation (even if some elements are shared in that game), I know some groups like to leave the “winning” element of games at the door when they run their RPGs. Running this for more than a session or two could lead to some unbalanced party dynamics as it stands, so if you use it for anything that’s not a one-shot, you might have some problems.
Outside of this personal gripe, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Ghost Orbit…beyond it might just be too short! I’d love to see some scenarios and additional examples, but would involve being rather nitpicky!
All said and done, I think Ghost Orbit has rightfully earned 3.5 spooktacular buns.
While sci-fi games are becoming more common, it takes a good one that can be fielded in under 20 pages of material and still be a worthwhile, complete game. The highest praise I can give it can be worded thusly: It reminds me of all the things I loved about John Harper’s stand-alone RPGs. Short, to the point, but an open and flexible story to let players and GMs have a field day.
If you enjoy compact, rules-light games, have an itch for a more “realistic” sci-fi, and want to emulate media such as Alien or Event Horizon, then this is absolutely your game.
If you’re not a fan of gritty sci-fi, want more mechanical depth, and/or have a greater disdain for Apocalypse World mechanics than I do, then you’ll probably want to give this a pass.
Ghost Orbit was created by G. Michael Truran, the brain behind Bad Quail Games. The game is currently available on itch.io for $5, and for every copy sold and/or additional $5 tip, a copy will be added to the “Community Copy Pool” to provide copies to those suffering from financial hardships.