Planet Mercenary is a tabletop role-playing game based on the universe of Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler. As a comic running for 17 years now, an RPG based on the setting is unusual but not inconceivable – Tayler’s space opera has introduced several exciting locations and races. Additionally, Howard Tayler’s cartooning history includes illustrating XDM: X-treme Dungeon Mastery, and, as he mentioned in conversations I had with him a few years back, has had a fair amount of experience in tabletop RPG’s. While not my usual fare(I’m more of a fantasy guy than sci-fi), I’ve been reading Schlock Mercenary almost exactly as long as I’ve been playing tabletop RPG’s(I began reading it at my first DM’s recommendation), so the union of the two felt completely natural to me.
Schlock Mercenary readers will notice right away that Howard Tayler’s art isn’t present in the book.. at all. I’d attribute this to two reasons: a desire for a more consistent and serious tone throughout the book, and difficulty emulating Tayler’s art style. This has a mixed effect on the book – it separates the RPG from Schlock Mercenary and conveys a more serious sci-fi tone, but at the expense of a lot of Schlock Mercenary’s charm. The closest comparison I can offer would be the freeze frames which appear in Spongebob Squarepants from time to time, which illustrate every pore on a character’s face. Of course, the art is contradicted by Howard Tayler’s writing style, bringing the tone back from serious to silly.
The book itself is drop-dead gorgeous – the cover is practically one step removed from velvet(maybe it’s kreely skin?), and the pages are thick and glossy. With proper care, a copy of Planet Mercenary might survive to the real 3100’s.
In a group in which all but one player had access to a copy of the book, we wound up spending a LOT more time than we expected to get set up(2 hours, fifteen minutes getting set up). If you’re going to build characters for a game of Planet Mercenary, I highly recommend making them in advance or a “Session Zero” setting. The real problem was that none of these steps felt unimportant. It’s safe to assume that in future games we’ll be able to build characters faster or even on the fly, but at present, it’s a slugfest to pick your command package, background, sophont type, allocate all 40 initial skill points, collectively hammer out the company details and ship stats, assign resources, and finally assign roles to fire teams’ members.
Admittedly, I was expecting a game which was much friendlier to set up in a hurry and feel concerned that character creation wasn’t playtested as much since a lot of tabletop role-playing games consider it to be “homework” for players. The fact that the game is designed to have a high mortality rate for player characters also makes fast character creation a priority; a game in which your PC’s successor is “on deck” to run in and replace them should be fast to replace them.
When playing Planet Mercenary, the game has two speeds: breakneck and clunky. “Speak first, go first” is the system’s go-to turn order system, and the shyness of players new to a system will become immediately apparent, even with the most outgoing people at the table. The Mayhem Deck, which is arguably the biggest selling point of the game from a mechanics standpoint, will bog down a newer player with even more information.
After getting over that initial difficulty, though, the system can become much more fluid – the “Speak first, go first” mechanic will encourage a more confident player to take action and hopefully inspire others to do the same. The 3d6 system used gives you numbers in a similar range to a D20 game – 3-18 compared to 1-20 – and will, due to probability when rolling multiple smaller dice, favor static bonuses over lucky rolls.
Hacks and Fixes
Unlike my usual reviews, Planet Mercenary is a standalone product and its system of RPG, so I thought it might be prudent to offer some possible house rules which could make the game run more smoothly for you. In my group’s game, the biggest factor which hampered Planet Mercenary was decision paralysis when confronted with a daunting list of skills. To combat this, I’m offering two different solutions. If you use these solutions, you may have to adjudicate Mayhem cards on the fly to better suit the adjustments you’ve made. Additionally, take this advice with a grain of salt, as it deliberately runs against Designer’s Intent to lump so many skills together and has not been playtested with any meaningful degree of rigor.
Consolidate the Skill List – Instead of using the prescribed list of 38 skills with 40 skill points(plus specialties!), give each character 20 skill points and pare down the skill list as follows:
- Combine Carbines, Heavy Weapons, Long Guns, Pistols, Scatterguns, and Stationed Weapons into a Guns skill.
- Combine Chemistry, Computers, Engineering, Experimental Sciences, and Xenobiology into a Science skill.
- Combine Air Vehicles, Ground Vehicles, Space Vehicles, and Water Vehicles into a Vehicles skill.
- Leave Social Skills as they are – Mercenaries lack social graces, anyhow, so this can be left to inspire a player to think about how their character would interact with the world.
After trimming down the skill list in this fashion, all the specialties for skills lumped together in this way should be available as specialties of the simplified Guns, Science, and Vehicles skills and applied as appropriate. While this approach will remove a lot of the nuance in the skill list, it does so in favor of speed and abstraction, which you can easily expand upon by investing in Specialties. Additionally, since the skill list has been narrowed from 38 to 26, reduce the number of skill points at character creation by 10. For new characters, you’ll have 30 points to spend, an AI will have 10 X (Company AI Rating – 1) points to spend(a minimum of 10), and a Promoted Grunt will have 30 + 10 for each time they survived Ablative Meat.
Use Base Abilities – This method will make building a character much more abstract, but may produce some unexpected results because of the current classification of skills. In particular, you may find that because all offensive and defensive combat skills (except for Endurance) are tied together in this way, characters gain unexpected survivability. Use this option with caution! Before spending Skill Points, each player starts with 2 Aspect Points, which he or she can place into Combat, Physical, Mental, or Social Aspects. Each of these Aspect Points acts as a Skill Rank in all of the skills under that umbrella. Because the Aspect Points affect about 10 skills at once, reduce the number of skill points at character creation by 20. For new characters, you’ll have 20 points to spend, an AI will have 10 x (Company AI Rating – 2) points to spend(a minimum of 10), and a Promoted Grunt will have 20 + 10 for each time they survived Ablative Meat. To further diversify a character, you can also take a -1 to an Aspect and then have a third Aspect Point to spend, but be aware that doing so will also impose a swath of penalties not intended to be spooned out so liberally.
Planet Mercenary offers a unique sci-fi experience and a robust system. If you’re looking for those things, you may find this system to be what you’re looking for. If you’re a fan of Schlock Mercenary, you’ll enjoy the in-universe humor and the representation of the biologically diverse races of the Schlockiverse. The Mayhem Deck will add exactly what it says on the tin to your game, and the simple core mechanic can quickly teach players who are new to role-playing games the general premise of comparing some skill check to target that almost every RPG uses. Build characters before playing if you can, and don’t be at all surprised if your players are overwhelmed by the 17 years of comic lore codified into a single RPG setting if they are unfamiliar with the comic.
If I weren’t a fan of Schlock Mercenary, I’d consider giving the book a miss – Aside from some dissonance between the book’s art and writing, this is certainly an RPG meant for Schlock fans. If you’re looking for a unique take on an RPG which can handle high-lethality gameplay, you may want to give it a try, but be aware that you’re going to have to do a lot of legwork to make Planet Mercenary into what you want as an RPG.