It was recently pointed out to me that I don't pay enough attention to the individual authors of these rpg books I read, and because that criticism was both completely accurate and completely fair, I rashly swore to try and correct that flaw going forward. But now that I'm at the point of writing my first post in the shadow of that vow, I'm wracked with uncertainty. What if I didn't like the book, and the author is anyone else besides Phil Brucato (who I assume is capable of defending himself with dark sorcery)? It's going to feel awkward calling them out by name? Lucky for me, then, that Heart of the Machine is pretty decent. Stefon Mears did good. We can both relax. Although, on a personal note, if Mr. Mears does someday read this - you dodged a bullet not getting hired to write the proposed sequel (A Peculiar Institution). And on a less personal note, Mystic Eye Games dodged a bullet when the line collapsed before they could publish a book about robot slavery called "A Peculiar Institution."
(Like, seriously, damn.)
Anyway, the book itself. Heart of the Machine is a simple story about a gang kidnapping people and selling them to aliens, who proceed to use blashphemous arcane magic to rip out their souls and put them into obedient robot bodies. But, really, it's only the first act. The PCs roll into this newly-conquered planet, encounter someone who is being chased by the gang, raid the gang's headquarters, and then follow the trail back to the aliens, who will probably just pack up their operation and start again somewhere else, but at least you rescued the victims now.
It's a simple structure that's perfect for a one shot - get in a fight, ask around town to learn what that fight was all about, then go to a place, then go to another place - but which could, pending a title that isn't ridiculously offensive, be the start of a whole series of thrilling adventurers as the PCs travel the galaxy seeking the mysterious secrets of the Sel-tava, a species that is both "ancient and evil" and apparently has the ability to animate the severed fingers of their dead into a kind of mad-scientist servitor species.
That last part confused. . . ? intrigued . . .? confu-truiged me. Why, specifically, fingers? Are the Sel-tava really huge and thus their fingers would become medium-sized creatures when severed and animated with necromancy? Except, if that's the case, then what's with the art depicting the Marbuzi (that's the name of these creatures) as humanoids, with eyes and mouths and their own arms and hands, ending in claw-like fingers. Does a living Sel-tava have wriggling, humanoid fingers? Do their fingers' fingers' have their own humanoid fingers? Are the Sel-tava horrifying fractal creatures, presumably with some kind of impossible layered sentience so that in the infinitesimal reaches of its farthest extremities, the appendage-that-is-the-creature can suffer with the full weight of the whole? Lovecraftian horror isn't something Dragonstar has attempted so far, but I can get on board with it.
Or maybe it's just that the Marbuzi are grown from cells cultured from Sel-tava fingers. That raises the question of why they couldn't be grown from other body parts (the book is very specific about this - Marbuzi come from fingers - it's stated, directly, twice). Maybe it's a symbolic magical thing. Marbuzi are meant to be an extension of their creators' will, and thus the hands/fingers represent a principle of acting on the world.
Or maybe the Sel-tava have genitals on their fingers! How gross would that be?! Eww!
I should stop messing around, though. This book isn't primarily (or even any more than very slightly) about the mystery of the Marbuzi's origins. It's only really half about their kidnapping plot. It's mostly about the town of Drelandan on the planet Drelga. The book describes the planet's political role in the Dragon Empire (a backwater centered around resource extraction) and the town's culture and economy (a sleepy refueling and vehicle maintenance spot, except for four times a year when the mines and fisheries rotate personnel, when it becomes a chaotic hub of interstellar migration).
It's a good adventure town, and honestly the book's plot is maybe the third or fourth most interesting pitch we see (the best is probably the one about taking a rock band out to tour among the planet's natives, in hopes of learning something about their music). The only real flaw is that the book doesn't seem to understand that town of Drelandan is a crime against humanity.
See, Drelga is a standard Outlands world, and thus pretty much an example of core-only D&D, with the slight twist that it is stone-age instead of medieval. And the Dragon Empire is coming in and mining all their rare minerals and subjecting their oceans to industrial fishing. That's pretty fucked up.
To a certain type of person (i.e. people just like me, John Frazer) this was an invisible issue in 2003, but if you ran a game with this book today, you'd pretty much have to address it. Is the Dragon Empire plundering the natural resources out from under their rightful owners because it is ruled by the cruel Mezzenbone, who desires only wealth, regardless of the wickedness needed to get it? Then where does the Lawful Good head of the Drelandan Port Authority factor in?
To sum up - it's kind of bittersweet to end Dragonstar with this book, because it is in many ways the archetypal Dragonstar book - a jack of all trades (setting guide, adventure, and an appendix containing new spells, robots, and spaceships, as well as a new monster type) that is only tenuously connected to the other books (perhaps more forgivable because it's licensed rather than produced directly by FFG), that nonetheless has a new piece of universal canon that's destined to never be developed (MacFolan's "The Galaxy's General Store" - i.e. Space Walmart, is introduced here for the first time). I think I would have liked to end the series with some closure, but this is likely more fitting.
Ukss Contribution: Are you ready for something ridiculous? I ask, because I want to append the disclaimer that the bulk of the book is non-ridiculous, so my choice is non-representative, but an idea wormed its way into my head and I have to let it out.
The adventure here is of the old-school "list of rooms with enemies, treasure, and furniture" variety, but with a modern twist - the buildings are laid out with an eye towards their practical function. Not necessarily the best choice for an old-school adventure, because you can navigate by inference and only have to visit a few select areas, but having the advantage of verisimilitude. So, in addition to listing laboratories and garages and barracks, you also get things like bathrooms and employee break rooms . . . three of them. Nothing happens in these break rooms. No treasures or encounters, and barely any furniture, but it struck me as amusing that Mr. Mears kept remembering to put them in. Proletarian solidarity, am I right?
Anyway, I'm going to honor this by putting something important or interesting in an employee break room, so that it can be the center of an Ukss adventure.