It isn’t terribly often that I run into an RPG with a distinctive theme that immediately makes me go “wow, that’s a great idea.” But I did just that with Transit. Transit is a science fiction roleplaying game where the players are a fleet of ships operating out of a headquarters out on the fringes of known space. What’s distinctive is that the player characters aren’t the people flying the ships – rather, each player is an Artificial Intelligence running one of the ships.
Or maybe that’s “installed” on one of the ships, because the AIs don’t directly control the ships. The players aren’t members of the crew, but there’s still a crew. So many of the moves (Transit is Powered by the Apocalypse) aren’t things like using scanners, fire weapons, or maneuvering – they moves are asking for a SitRep, ordering weapons to be fired, or ordering the crew to put the ship between an ally and danger (the player is still rolling the dice, of course). The AI has to pay heed to the crew – it can’t function without a healthy crew, needs its orders to be followed, etc. But, depending on the AI, this may be a strictly utilitarian relationship, one of genuine caring, or one of thinly-veiled contempt for the fragile biologicals. It’s really a great concept.
Thanks to being a science fiction game (and thus having a decent amount of technological options) and because of the multi-part nature of the entity the player is controlling, Transit has a double layer of attributes. The AI itself as User Interface (social), Analysis, Dedication (“stay on target”), and Rampancy (combat and going rogue generally). The ship being inhabited by the AI has Power (weapons), Handling, Systems (almost everything but weapons and maneuvering), and Looks. Note that if a ship is destroyed, the AI can emergency upload and live to fight another day, although there are real costs to this. Each of these attributes has the usual +/- value, and all rolls apply one AI attribute and one Ship attribute. Standard moves include asking for a PsychRep, asking for a SitRep, checking the database, engaging engines, firing, ramming, holding the line, manipulating the situation (a social action), negotiate by force (social with a threat), take desperate measures, and “think” (asking the MC for a hint).
During character creation, the AI and the ship aspects are distinct choices, although each combination of AI type and ship type has particular synergy abilities. The three types of AI are combat, command, and support. Like a typical PbtA playbook, each AI type has a list of moves that the player can choose a couple off of. This is one place where the nature of the crew can start to come in. For example, one of the moves that a combat AI can pick is the Ace Pilot, who reduces the harm taken by the ship in combat … conditional on the health, wellbeing, and cooperation of the crew, of course. In this step the player also gets to apply modifiers to the AI attributes, but these do not vary by AI type.
On the ship side, players can choose a battleship (big with heavy weapons), carrier (carries fast attack craft), corvette (fast and maneuverable), cruiser (close range fighting), destroyer, or frigate (less fighting, more systems). Each of these provides defined ship attributes (for example, the Destroyer has great Power and decent Handling, but poor Looks) and the AI/ship synergy bonus (for example, a combat/battleship combo has more health while a command/battleship combo has a bigger crew). Then the tech part of things starts to kick in, as each ship has a certain load of upgrades it can equip, a mandatory upgrade or two, and then options to use the remaining load. These can be more weapons, defensive systems, hangers, better computers, cargo space, a bigger crew, and so on.
The technological and split aspect nature also leads to a variety of trackers and resources to monitor. The ship can be damaged, fast attack craft can be lost, the crew can be killed. Or the crew can be cranky, making a lot of things harder to get done. A variety of weapons have different harm, ranges, damage types, and the like – missiles are different from lasers are different from torpedoes are different from ion cannons are different from autocannons and so on (and there are an equivalent array of defensive system options). There are assignment points to deploy crew, requisition points to get stuff (more crew, more fast attack craft, better gear, etc.), and then salvage and supplies and chemicals and materials, which are used in various ways to craft new components, keep the crew alive, etc. Note that, despite all of this detail, the ultimate combat system is still the standard PbtA narrative and 2d6 mechanics – there’s no worrying about the details of position or facing except as narratively described.
While the character creation process does involve determining their various compatibility scores with each other (which can open up various moves depending on how the group works together), HQ itself is created during the first mission, which is always the fleet’s first foray into the unknown. Depending on what sorts of stories the group wants to explore, the HQ might be a planet or a space station, might be dominated by a crime syndicate or scientists (or a lot of other options), and will have a variety of modifications to personalize (more population, more requisition production, lack of medical supplies, etc.). All of these choices will give the HQ ambitions (research, expansion, etc.) and vulnerabilities (greed, disease, etc.). Depending on how well the AIs have succeeded on missions and/or kept the ruling class happy (plus dice rolls, of course), the HQ may be well-ordered or a mess at any given point in time, and thus either able to advance its ambitions or required to deal with its vulnerabilities. The HQ hands out missions, but with these missions come parameters – do it this way, don’t do it that way, make sure to also get this done. The mission can succeed even if those parameters are violated, but there may be consequences.
From that initial HQ, the players must explore the surrounding space, creating a map of the local area over successive missions (literally, they will be making a map). Interstellar travel is not linear, but instead accomplished by transit. This means that the map will likely not expand out in a simple fashion, but rather get filled in some places but not others. The transit mechanic itself was one that I was not too fond of, because it (like everything PbtA) it involves rolling those 2d6. Part of PbtA is rolling with the random results, but anything less than a 10+ means a complication (a miss means two) and missions can require multiple Transits up front. This makes it likely that on most missions most of the players will be starting the mission with damage, nonfunctioning systems, or narrative complications. A little bit of complications is nice. Having different six things go wrong whenever you start a mission seems like more of an aggravation.
Despite that negative and the relatively high mechanical complexity for a PbtA game, the overall concept of Transit really makes it stand out. There’s a lot of space to explore interesting concepts that don’t get a lot of play in most science fiction media (where the ship’s computer is either in the background or going haywire).
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a PDF review copy.