Cosmic Patrol is a retro-futuristic roleplaying game published by Catalyst Game Labs that focuses on storytelling and building a narrative from various cues provided by each player/character around the table and an overall adventure structure chosen by the players. I’ve had the main rulebook for a long time, but finally had a chance to sit down with some friends and play a session in late 2012. The game has a very evocative setting introduced throughout the rulebook and with short stories that highlights a very pulp/golden age style of science fiction space exploration featuring rockets, laser pistols, and asteroids infested with lizard men.
The best part of Cosmic Patrol for me is that, like Fiasco, sitting down for a great session of roleplaying with it does not require any preparation, the narrative control passes between players, and after only 2-3 hours you have told a relatively complete and engaging story. The way Cosmic Patrol accomplishes this is through the rotating role of the Lead Narrator, an outline-like mission brief selected by the players, and a plethora of tags and cues that provide crucial guidance for everyone at the table. Tags and cues are included on every character sheet, mission brief, and in the setting descriptions for locations such as planets and space platforms within our solar system.
The system utilizes plot points that are passed between the players and the current Lead Narrator to alter or interrupt the current player’s narration. Plot points also create an interesting exchange of resources between the rotating role of the Lead Narrator and the individual players/characters, if the players trade in their plot points to add to the narrative, the Lead Narrator ends up having more resources of his own, which leads to a very interesting progression of the story.
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The first aspect that really stood out to me about Cosmic Patrol is the long list of cues (18 each) provided on each of the pregenerated characters in the rulebook. Each cue is a catchy, clever, or funny quote that you might expect the character to think or say during an adventure. Taken as a whole, these lists allow you to understand the characters very quickly. The character cues came in handy many times when a player needed extra inspiration for their narrations. Each mission brief also includes a list of mission specific cues, so as we played we found it very helpful to glance at the list for the mission and on our character sheet and see which combinations jumped out at us and fit into the story as it unfolded.
In addition to cues and tags, the mission briefs present a list of objectives for the group and a rundown of potential enemies/obstacles separated as a sequence of scenes that can be narrated. At first it seemed a bit odd being able to read what every scene in the brief included from the beginning, but very quickly each one of the players started changing the narrative and we only came back to the scene descriptions when it seemed appropriate or one seemed to fit just right.
The Good Parts
The setting for Cosmic Patrol feels like it sits right in the sweet spot of pulp retro-futuristic science fiction. The pregenerated characters all feel engaging, and though a few of them are “normal human space patrol members,” I found it incredibly fun playing the human captain of the rocket offset by a cast of non-human characters that the other players chose. Other pregenerated characters include the classic brainy and aloof Moon Man, the boy genius and his battle robot, a tentacled psuedo-robotic alien cube, and a klepto robot pieced together from salvaged parts. Each Cosmic Patrol character has 4 main stats (Brawn, Brain, Charisma, Combat), one specialized skill (such as Pistol Expert, Memory Manipulation, and Expert Roboticist), and a Luck stat that is a number between 1 and 12 and if any of your rolls ever equal it you automatically succeed. The system uses the standard dice between a d4 and a d12 for determining success, and with the plot points that float around the table it was very refreshing how even failure on a roll led to the story progressing in interesting (and often much funnier) ways.
With the small number of character attributes the focus falls on the list of cues and things like starting equipment to really get things started for the players. For example, it did not seem like a big deal that the klepto robot secretly stole my character’s communication device early in the mission, but then my character ventured outside of the ship and made an important discovery only to have no way of telling anyone else in the group. Things progressed from there with a continuous loop of inspiration based on a small number of keywords (tags) and catch phrases (cues) that felt very natural and led to many events that we never would have considered without the framework the system provides.
The Rough Parts
While Cosmic Patrol provides you with a very defined character from the start, and a nice outline in the form of a mission brief, the game can still lead to players freezing up at the table. If a player is not comfortable with improvising or is thrown off by the a twist thrown in from another player, they might feel like they can’t do anything useful or effective with their turn. This is probably not the ideal system for players that prefer to be more passive at the table, though reacting to the actions of other players may help alleviate this to an extent. Even for active players, if events are resolved in between turns it can lead to a lull in the game’s momentum. The plot point mechanics include the ability to switch the turn order for narration, however, I’ve found some players tend to feel like they should do something with their turn without having to change turn order and become discouraged as a result.
The part of the rules that seems to be the most contrary to everything else in the game are the more detailed health, injury, and weapon damage rules. The pregen characters each have between 8 and 16 armor, then start to suffer mechanical penalties after 3-4 physical damage, and most are killed after 10-14 points of damage. The average weapons do between 1-4 damage, so your character can expect to survive 3-5 shots with a laser pistol before suffering any penalties. This didn’t come up as a problem until our patrol group got to the inside of an asteroid infested with Uth (lizard men) and we realized it would take at least 5 shots to drop even a single Uth Minion. Up to that point the narrative had been progressing beautifully and very quickly, so we decided to ignore the Uth’s armor and health and simply had them die based on how well the characters rolled in combat. This worked out, but we did decide to ignore rules as written.
The Cosmos Has a Million Ways to Kill You…
I hadn’t played in a space/science fiction RPG in far too long and Cosmic Patrol fit right in with what I want in the genre, with the added bonus of requiring no preparation and not being tied to the efforts of a single person to run the game. The setting and majority of the game system work together perfectly to create a lighthearted, compelling, and most of all fun experience. The core book’s mission briefs provide a wonderful range of adventures such as exploring a rogue asteroid, investigating derelict space vessels, and dealing with merchants on the surface of Mars. All of these could easily jump-start an ongoing game or provide a nice filler adventure for 3 or more players if your regular game session was postponed.
If that’s not enough to convince you, Cosmic Patrol was shortlisted for the 2012 Origins Awards and nominated in the ENnie Awards for Best Game. While I played with just the Core Rulebook PDF (only $4.99 on DriveThruRPG, or $16 for the hardcover on Amazon), in September Catalyst released the Into the Cosmos sourcebook (also available on DriveThruRPG) that includes new setting material, new characters/villains/monsters, and twenty three (TWENTY THREE!) new mission briefs for the game. They are also working on an adventure book centered around a giant moon dungeon called “The Moon Must Be Ours“ which I am very interested in seeing once it is released!