Review: Five Parsecs From Home, 3rd Edition

Someday I will stop buying new solo SF games, but not today.

In a nutshell: Solo SF tabletop skirmish rules, with battles linked by campaign turns which provide excuses for the next battle. 188 page PDF from Nordic Weasel via Modiphius, $21 here on DriveThruRPG at time of writing. Dead tree version also available, but that is soooo last century, man.

What’s Inside?

It’s so long since I bought the second edition of this game that I approached it as an entirely new thing; if you’re interested in the changes between editions, they’re in one of the Appendices.

Five Parsecs from Home (10 pages). Usual introductory stuff; what ‘adventure wargaming’ is, conventions of the game – scale, dice etc – and also what miniatures and terrain you need to play both initially and as you expand.

Character Creation (24 pages). How to setup your crew and generate the stats for its members (typically 6). Characters may be human, one of half a dozen kinds of alien, or bots; they may also be ‘strange’, which usually means they have an unusual background. Each is rated for its Reactions (initiative), Speed, Combat Skill, Toughness (how hard it is to damage) and Savvy (a catch-all skill covering everything except combat); they may also have Luck Points, which can be used to avoid lethal injuries. Most of them have a randomly-determined background, motivation and class (basically, a prior career); they may also have Patrons (who give you missions) and Rivals (who follow you around trying to kill you). The crew as a whole gets a semi-random allocation of gear, which you parcel out among members as you see fit, and a ship. Finally, there are optional rolls for how the crew met and how they are best characterised, and a detailed example of crew generation.

Main Rules (27 pages). This section begins by outlining the game currencies: Credits (money), experience points, and quest rumours, which lead you into random quests. The main rules include the usual stuff for a skirmish wargame; terrain, cover, line of sight, movement, combat, wounds, weapon and gear statistics. As it’s a solo game, it also includes an ‘AI’ which governs how the different types of enemies move and fight.

Then, there are the starship rules. Ships can be affected by game events, and a desire to repair or upgrade them can drive scenarios, but by and large they exist off-screen, as a way to get you to the next scenario and provide bonuses to various rolls.

Campaigns (24 pages). You can play 5PFH as a one-off skirmish, or as a co-op game with friends, but it is really intended as a solo campaign game. There are dials you can turn to adjust crew size and difficulty, and assorted campaign victory conditions – will you play to complete a set number of battles or quests, to kill or upgrade specific characters, or gradually crank up the difficulty level? The crew may begin with a number of story points, which are used to reroll dice or gain one-off benefits.

To my mind, the heart of the game is the campaign turn. This is an episode of your TV show, if you will, and covers an indeterminate amount of time. In each such turn you will:

  • Travel to a new world (or not). Worlds each have a single tag which influences events on-planet.
  • Maintain your ship, allocate your crew to various tasks such as healing, repairs, trade, or finding a job; and find out why you’re in a fight this episode.
  • Fight a battle.
  • Conduct post-battle book-keeping – rivals, patrons, upgrades, events, that kind of thing.

This section includes a detailed example of a campaign turn.

Battles (32 pages). In this step you check for any special deployment conditions, what your objective is, and who the enemy is, before setting up the tabletop. Setup may include a side-quest which can get you more of one of the game currencies or some cool loot if you can divert long enough to pick it up. One of your rivals may also turn up to complicate your life.

Once we’re into the battle proper, reaction rolls are worth mentioning, as they determine whether each of your crew members acts before the enemy, simultaneously with them, or after them. There is an element of strategy in which roll you assign to which crewman, and also in whether you defer your action as a form of opportunity fire. This is also the section where we learn about morale rolls and random events during battles.

The chapter ends with a one-page summary of the combat rules.

Post-Battle (17 pages). After the battle, you see what has happened to patrons and rivals, check how much you got paid and whether any currently open quests progress, see who is injured and how well they recover, check who has how much experience and decide what they do with it, and a number of other admin tasks. This chapter also has a detailed example.

Setting (10 pages). The longer I play these games, the more convinced I am that settings are archetypes. Here, we have Unity, a galactic government whose territory is safe but boring, and the Fringe, a sort of pressure release valve where worlds have home rule and can do what they like. Implied but not really detailed is some other large polity, or perhaps many smaller ones, intent on invading bits of the Fringe, possibly as a precursor to taking on Unity as a whole.

The thing that does appeal to me is the idea that Unity can’t be bothered to understand all these petty system-states, so if they cause a fuss it just invades them. The invasion forces just get left there, and gradually meld into the population, leaving you with many planets that have a military tradition and lots of guns.

This chapter closes with a two-page map of a city somewhere in the Fringe. I’m not sure why, as it is neither named nor used in the rulebook, but there it is.

Appendices (39 pages). A variety of optional and supplemental material covering: changes from the previous edition, playing on a grid (to use RPG maps), red and black zone jobs (i.e., hard and really hard missions), problem solving (adding non-combat tasks to scenarios), story tracks (adding story arcs to campaigns, with a worked example), co-op play, GM-moderated play, neutral NPCs, sources of inspiration (movies, TV, books). This last also includes some artwork that could be repurposed as card figures.

We close with a set of forms to record play; a crew log, an encounter log, a world record sheet, and a two-page quick reference sheet.

What Do I Think?

I can see DNA from Traveller, 5150 and a couple of other games in 5PFH‘s makeup, but in a good way. You could easily replace Unity with the Empire of Star Wars, the Traveller Imperium, or the Gaean Hegemony of 5150, and nobody would see the join.

The game makes extensive use of random tables to generate everything that in an RPG you would ask your GM or be given by them. That’s a lot of dice rolls, and looks like it could take up a lot of time in the tabletop setup part of the game, so I might find myself sorting that out well in advance.

The advice on how to play and how to setup a table is good, and clearly written. I’m not sure why the combat rules are split between the Main Rules and Battle chapters, but I don’t see it causing a problem once you’ve read the whole book.

The appendix on GM-moderated play is an interesting read, and I could see myself appropriating its ideas for other SF campaigns. Like En Garde!, it may be that the shenanigans setting up the fight are more fun than the fight itself, in which case the Mass Battle rules from this appendix could replace the tabletop battles, all or part of the time.

Overall, this is an interesting game, clearly explained; but having seen some actual play on the excellent Me, Myself and Die YouTube channel, I think it is probably not for me. I could see myself stripping it for parts though, and elements such as the campaign system might make it into the Arioniad later.

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Is it simply that you prefer 5150, or are there aspects of 5PfH you are dissatisfied with? In most of the actual plays i've seen, tactics seem to be pretty limited (everyone just gets into range and shoots), so I was wondering are the combat rules a bit simplistic?
Simply put, nothing in the combat rules inspires me enough to invest the effort in learning and using them; they're serviceable enough, but they don't grab me and shout OMG YOU HAVE TO PLAY THIS RIGHT NOW! The non-combat rules are more interesting to me, but it takes a lot of dice rolling to get where you're going, quite a bit more than other games I've used the last couple of years. Those are all matters of personal taste and laziness, I think, rather than anything wrong with the game.

That said, I do lean more towards RPGs than skirmish wargaming these days, and 5PFH leans the other way. It's well-written and nicely laid out, it's just not the game I want to play right now. Since what I want to play changes over time, maybe I'll circle back to it in a year or three.