To the Frontiers! – Reviewing Hard Nova II

Space is big. Really, really friggin big. Someone has to discover it.

So what are you waiting for?

Hard Nova II is the tenth-year anniversary, revised and expanded version of the 2004 role-playing game by the same name. It comes in smooth paperback form with attractive, hand-drawn artwork. Those with tablets may prefer the PDF version, which is readily available for the price of a latte and is of good transfer quality from the paperback form.

The rules themselves are quickly learned and will be very familiar to anyone that plays Savage Worlds. The system seems to stick to the model of “rules as resolution” and lets the mechanics be ignored in a typical game until they are needed to resolve a situation – something of which I, as a storyteller, am very much fond.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know anything about the universe of Hard Nova prior to receiving this rulebook. Some quick Google-mining reveals a decently-reviewed RPG videogame of the same name from EA back in the 1990’s, though I can’t confirm that this game is the same intellectual property. Aside from that, there’s really not much to go on. I entered this read quite literally blind.

For those of you like me that know nothing of this game, the world universe of Hard Nova consists of an expansive alliance of populated planets called the United Sovereign Worlds (at which Earth seems to be, naturally, the center). Each world is populated by one or more sentient species ranging from humanoid to insectoid to robotic to a puddle of intelligent ooze (seriously!). Humans themselves have branched out into two distinct species – the cybernetics-enhanced Earth-based line and the psionic-powered thread that has evolved on Alpha Centauri.

The game is fast-paced. The system is easy to learn. And the source material presented in the rulebook is quite extensive.

So is this game any good?

Sci-Fi role-playing is a convoluted market. And oh boy, do I mean convoluted. In order to stand out, a system is going to have to make a lasting impression – especially one that isn’t “Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, or based on a television show where people say “shiny” a lot. People are drawn to what they know, what they have expectations for. Something along the fringe, such as Hard Nova, needs to make a strong impression if it wants to carve itself a dent out of the traditional pillars of sci-fi role-playing.

But I’ll attack that topic later.

So before we go too much further, let’s talk about the strongest part of Hard Nova – the system.

Abilities are the root of character creation, as expected. There are five core abilities: Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, Reasoning, and Influence, each of which is assigned a rating. Nothing that strays too far from the typical RPG model. Ratings are classified from zero to 5, ranging from disabled to gifted, respectively. Skills are also ranked from zero (untrained) to 8 (expert) and are just that – numerical stats.

HardNova 2 Revised & Expanded

Skill checks come into play by compiling a character’s total ranking – core ability plus skill modifier plus whatever modifiers the dastardly GM decides to throw at the player (for example, a plus-two difficulty modifier for a “complex” task). Roll two six-sided dice, and if the die roll is less than the modified ranking, you have a success. Nice and easy.

Calamities and Triumphs are an optional component of skill checks, and remind me a lot of Savage Worlds’ raise system. This component uses the difficulty modifier assigned by the GM to set a baseline target value. If the difference between your die roll and your target number is greater than the difficulty baseline assigned by the GM, a calamity or triumph results depending on the success or failure of the task.

For example, the GM decides shooting a target at range is a complex task (+2 Difficulty, or +2DIFF). Joe counts up his skill ranks and adds them to his attribute, only to discover he stinks at ranged shooting. His target number is an eight. He roles 2D6 and gets an 11. Eleven minus eight is three, which is greater than the two difficulty – a calamity ensues. Joe ends up shooting wide and blows out the windshield of a police cruiser instead. Uh oh…

Character and vehicle health are both managed in stages. No hit points to be found here. Instead, there are five grades of injuries ranging from bruised to incapacitated, with difficulty modifiers kicking in at rank two. Weapons are assigned damage ranges. For example, a rifle might cause 4 INJ, which advances the injury scale incredibly quickly. Go beyond that fifth rank, and boom. Your character’s dead.

And really… that’s it. That’s enough to start playing in Hard Nova.

The rules are incredibly light and easy to pick up. This is quite a strong selling point for this system. Learning and teaching Hard Nova is not time consuming. The rules are mirrored enough that causing damage to characters or starships or vehicles functions in much the same way. This allows players to get into the game immediately, and really only fall back on the system rules when they are needed.

So now I want to talk about the lore of Hard Nova.

HardNova 2 Revised & Expanded

The creative minds at Precis Intermedia certainly did their homework with this universe. The rulebook is flooded with information concerning the species, lifeforms, politics, and landscape of this universe. There are enough entries about the different critters that roam the frontier landscapes to fuel several campaigns for a wild-game hunter. There are helpful maps that show off the whole of the United Sovereign Worlds and each of the expansive frontiers that push the border of known space.

Even more, the tenth anniversary edition rulebook includes a glut of premade campaign ideas. Basically the entire second half of the book is composed of ready-to-play adventures. I can’t fault the writers here. They certainly went out of their way to have a fallback of material ready for GM’s new to the franchise. It’s extremely easy to pick up this source book, select an adventure, and immediately start playing.

Where this rulebook fails, however, is getting a newcomer hooked.

I mentioned before that I knew nothing about Hard Nova coming in. After reading this rulebook, I still can’t say that I know much of anything about this universe. And that’s a problem.

The rules of Hard Nova are easily learned, and the writers of this rulebook knew it. Unfortunately, they then spent most of the rulebook flooding the reader with endless listings of skills, races, gimmicks, and creatures without ever truly fleshing out the universe in which all these things lived. Sure, the book talked about the United Sovereign Worlds and a little of its history – in a dry, very encyclopedic fashion.

And that, right there, is my biggest problem with this book.

Everything is presented as though reading from a history book. There is little love for the material in these pages. Worlds are mentioned with detached factualism. The book, for all its wealth of different and alien things, is so very dry. There’s no humor here. No passion. Just a regurgitation of fictional history and stale setting. After a few chapters, I honestly got bored of reading.

Not a good sign.

For a mostly-unknown IP, Hard Nova needed to hit me hard and make an impression. It had to give me a fierce reason to want to play in this world. It had to blow me away. Fiction is the easiest way to do this. I would have preferred the writers hit me with a quick overview of their rules and then give me a glut of short stories that let me see this universe they created in action. That gave me a glimpse of what to expect from their creation.

It’s not an unreasonable expectation. This is something BattleTech did in A Time of War. So did Call of Cthulhu, 5th Edition. My ancient copy of the West End Games’ version of the Star Wars RPG had multiple pages of a sample roleplaying game in a Choose Your Own Adventure-like setup. It was brilliant. And it did a great job of putting me in these fictional worlds and getting my brain churning. Once you glimpse these worlds and the pieces start falling into place, it’s then easy for the imagination to begin creating new stories. New gaming possibilities.

Those other books I mentioned did something that Hard Nova failed to do right off the bat – get me hooked. Get me involved. Make me want to be a part of this fiction. Get my mind spinning with ideas and possibilities for my own stories that fit right into the world I’ve just discovered.

I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Hard Nova’s universe other than encyclopedic information because the writers of this rulebook never felt the need to immerse me. Who are the heroes of this universe? What are its legends? Are humans respected, feared, mocked? Do all races live in a generic utopia free of racism that Gene Roddenberry would be proud of? Are there any prophecies to dread or fabled second comings to anticipate?

I don’t know.

I can’t tell you any of this because I’ve never had a peek into this universe. The only peek I can get into the worlds of Hard Nova come from the pre-built adventures. While these are excellent, pre-built campaigns heavily depend on the personality the GM injects into it, and not the other way around.

Don’t get me wrong. The system Hard Nova employs is functional and easy to learn, and that right there is a very strong selling point. You won’t be fussing around with an endless stack of rules or modifier sheets in Hard Nova. You won’t be endlessly looking for a single obscure modifier that goes along with one particular situation. Is the task difficult? Okay. Plus-two difficulty, now move along. In addition, character creation is a breeze, and your players will quickly start acting out a part in the universe you have set up for them, unhindered by the system itself.

But in most cases, it will be a world that you, as GM, conjure up. Not one you gleaned heavily from Hard Nova itself.

Hard Nova is a good system holding up a vague world, one that really needed to be fleshed out way more than the writers managed. I can’t say that it’ll become a part of my role-playing lineup because I’m not coming up with stories that need to be told in that universe.

For a voice crying out in a crowded room full of science fiction role-playing, that’s an incredibly painful sin.

THE GOOD

  • Attractive paperback rule book with high-quality printing
  • Easy system to learn
  • Wealth of pre-built adventures
  • Plenty of listings of weapons, creatures, vessels, and the like ready to be used

THE BAD

  • Very abstract, generic universe that borrows heavily off other sci-fi
  • Nothing in terms of lore, legends, or the like to build off of
  • No “hook” to entice gamers to come back to the universe

 

WPGL was provided both a print and digital copy of this product for review purposes and would like to thank Precis Intermedia for such!

Hard Nova may be purchased from Precis Intermedia in print and digital format, as well as from Amazon.


 

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