Reading Solar System by Eero Tuovinen

A few years ago I ran a short campaign using the rules from Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday. We were all very impressed by how the rules bound the characters together through the innovative Keys mechanic. Now I am about to run the same campaign again for a new set of players, I thought I’d take a look at Solar System, which is a revision of the rules used in The Shadow of Yesterday. Solar System is also generic in regards to setting, instead of being coupled with a fantasy setting like The Shadow of Yesterday.

The book
The book is an 88 page US-letter sized booklet (also available in PDF), black and white and there is no stiff cover. Just like the rules in my old 2300AD box set, without the protective benefits of actually being in a box. However, at EUR 5 that is not a big concern. Should the book fall apart a new one can be had cheaply.

There are a few illustrations by Pyry Veteli, all done in a style that reminds me of 80’ies RPGs like Traveller and some SJG games, nice retro! While I envy Eero of his command of the English language I wonder if the book hadn’t been faster to read if it had been written using slightly shorter sentences and a somewhat more limited vocabulary. Still, everything is crystal clear, no ambiguities here.

The setting
Being a generic set of rules there is no setting as such in Solar System, however, there are instructions for how to build your own setting, or adapt an existing setting to the rules.

The rules
Solar System uses FUDGE dice in the base mechanics, special 6 sided dice marked +1, +1, 0, 0, -1 and -1. Roll a number of them, and count either the three highest or the three lowest dice depending on if the character had an advantage or disadvantage in the situation. Add an Ability and if the result is one or better the action was a success. Simple enough, however the real strengths of the rules are not in the task resolution, but in the experience mechanism.

In Solar System the players choose what kind of actions they want to be rewarded XP for. The rules call it Keys, and all characters have at least one such Key, select a Key of Bloodlust and get XP from fighting and killing. Select a Key of Romance and get XP from having dates with your love interest. Select a Key of Fraternity and you get XP just from being in the same scene as an other character. This may sound strange at first, but it is very neat. The players select the Keys that will reward them for doing stuff they think is fun, and then they are rewarded when they do those things, and have fun. When we played The Shadow of Yesterday this was a real eye opener.

Also there is a conflict/combat system that encourages the characters to surrender in fights that go badly, and that allows conflicts to end in other ways than the death of the opponent.

The form
The XP mechanics is as much an element of Form as it is an element of the Rules. From a Rules perspective it says ‘This is how you get XP.’, but from a Form perspective it says ‘You should do stuff that you think is interesting and fun.’ This is the core of Solar System (and the older version, The Shadow of Yesterday).

Further the text stress how important it is to first establish the stakes and then to roll the dice. The players should always know what will happen if they succeed, or if they fail. Bringing this into the open like that is also an element of Form.

Also the game encourages strong scene framing. First frame a scene, then play it and finally cut it when it is over. Then play the next scene. (Our experience from The Shadow of Yesterday showed that this allows for more actual play in a session. Unimportant things don’t take valuable play time.)

While RPGs in general have the assumption that the characters will form a party that goes adventuring together, it is not necessarily so in Solar System. You can play the game like that, of course, but if you want to play several stories in paralell, each around a player character, the game supports that to, and encourages it. Players are given bonus dice, that they can only spend on other players’ rolls, this gives inactive players something to do while waiting for their turn to play, they can be an active audience to the other players’ scenes. And they can actually influence them by giving bonuses to things they approve of. (After we played The Shadow of Yesterday we actually stole this mechanic for use in other games.)

There is no setting.

The rules are very good. They do what they aim to do, and without bloat or slowdowns.

The form is excellent. All the rules are clearly written to encourage a certain kind of play. (And a kind that I found very rewarding.)

Will I play it?
Yes, as a matter of fact I will. Character generation with the new group tomorrow.

I recommend other gamers that haven’t played either The Shadow of Yesterday or Solar System to do so, it may very well change the way you play RPGs. – The official Solar System page. – The official The Shadow of Yesterday page.

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