Knights of a Thousand Stars: Camelot Cosmos
Camelot Cosmos is the first in a series of tabletop roleplaying sourcebooks by author Daniel Jupp, published by Postmortem Studios. It describes the realms of Camelot, a system of planets whose identity and history have predominantly been drawn from the misremembered pages of Arthurian legend (think original Star Trek episodes “A Piece of the Action” and “Bread and Circuses”), where two great royal houses battle eternally for total control. In charge of one of these tempestuous houses is Gawain XXIII, King of Camelot and the chivalric realms of Pendragon. His rival is the cruel but beautiful Queen Morgan, an unnaturally long-lived combination of mortal and Ascended god. Their minions wage war across the cosmos, both covertly and not so covertly, with both sides locked in a seemingly unbreakable stalemate, watched over by a pantheon of deities that occasionally step in to lend a hand. Artefacts of great power from the lost First Empire still remain, and many seek these (and the legendary sleeping warriors from this period) to aid in their struggle.
This particular book is the players’ guide (although that’s not immediately obvious from the cover), and details the rules, character creation, basic setting and personalities of the Camelot Cosmos, with constant hints of what’s to come in the Gamesmaster’s (GM’s) Guide. The rules are based on a stripped down version of the FATE system from Evil Hat Productions, which makes them pretty straight forward and quick to grasp. A character’s abilities are governed by Aspects, which each give the characters a portfolio of skills. To achieve goals, characters roll 2 six-sided dice (2d6), one “positive” and one “negative”, subtract the negative die from the positive die, add the relevant skill bonus and see if they have beaten a difficulty number set by the GM and based on the FATE Ladder. Degrees of success or failure are determined by “shifts” (i.e. the difference between the target difficulty number and the total from the skill roll) and can be altered by spending Fate points, if required. Fate points can also be spent to remove stresses and consequences (damage) and to improve skills.
Character creation is also stripped down and speedy. A player rolls or chooses three Aspects: a Physical or Psychological one, a Racial or Regional one and a Professional one. They then write a quick sentence to describe how they came by these Aspects and assign skill points within them. What is missing are the quirky, evocative names for the Aspects that are normally found in FATE games; I quite understand the author’s argument as to why he chose not to use them, but personally I think it’s a bit of a shame, particularly given the rich setting. Still, within a few minutes you can have a fully functional character: mine (rolled up just to prove how quick and easy it was) turned out to be an Ugly, Lower Tintagen Spy, born to a slave in the court of King Mark, who had risen to a position of court entertainer despite the disfiguring birthmark he possessed, before being recruited as a spy by one of King Gawain’s minions. There are one or two niggles with the character creation section: there are lots of Aspect lists that aren’t immediately relevant to starting game play, meaning you have to hunt out the lists that are, and some of the Aspect definitions are a little hinky (just because you’re Charming doesn’t automatically mean you’re devious, and being Humble shouldn’t automatically make you poor, either). These are pretty minor, though, and the associated skills lists and descriptions are comprehensive yet mercifully brief.
The setting is certainly interesting, blending Arthurian icons with recognisable genre settings (such as the American Wild West, Ancient Rome and Aboriginal Australia with what sounded very much like dinosaurs) and there is quite a bit of information present. There are details on the Four Courts of power (King Gawain, Queen Morgan, King Tristram and King Mark) and the associated realms associated with each (effectively splitting the Cosmos into Kingsland and Queensland), and character bios on major players in each Court. The three churches are covered briefly (Seraphic, Nephilic and Druidic) along with fleeting glimpses of the First Empire. I’m not sure all of it quite gelled for me (particularly the appearance of the Pinkerton Detective Agency), but there’s certainly plenty of scope for a wide variety of adventuring within the Cosmos.
The book’s layout is uncluttered and straightforward and the use of printed circuit diagrams overlaid with stylised flower motifs is simple but striking. Not all of the artwork succeeds in conveying the feeling of the game, mimicking as it does Aubrey Beardsley which, despite its Art Nouveau swirls and sensibilities, feels more Shakespearean to me than Arthurian (despite Beardsley’s work for Le Morte D’Arthur). I was also a little distracted by the watermark, which for some reason stands out far more on an iPad than on a computer screen (but that really is an incredibly minor point).
The biggest niggle with this book is the fact that it doesn’t contain the GM’s Guide. Although a skilled GM will definitely be able to run an entertaining and varied game with what is provided, there are so many hints and references to the GM’s Guide that its absence is a bit of a slap in the face. One of the main things missing from this book, apart from a passing mention of nanites, is just how “magic” works in the Cosmos, and what’s going on with the whole First Empire plotline; there’s also no introductory scenario. I know all of this is in the GM’s Guide, but I do like everything in one place. Again, I understand and sympathise with the reason for separate volumes, but it does make it harder to give a fair and balanced review of the game as a whole when half of it is located elsewhere.
All in all, this is an interesting concept, a straightforward system and a potentially very rich world to play in. Other sourcebooks, detailing different parts of the Cosmos separate from Camelot, are also promised, as is an ability to trot between them. But, as mentioned above, this book is also a terrible tease – promising you a glimpse behind the veil, but never fully revealing itself. And whilst it’s always good to have a little breathing space so you can let your own imagination run riot to fill in the gaps, it could also serve to put off less confident players and GMs, which would be a real shame.
Still, I look forward to seeing what else Mr Jupp has to offer…