Space Aces: The New Guidebook (Early Access) Review
Steven D’s tabletop roleplaying game Space Aces has come a long way from the initial version which was a single page “business card” game. It is now a 25 page book with bright and punchy artwork, dozens of random tables, and a number of plug’n’play game systems that allow one to play in a universe of “campy sci-if” fun. The game was successfully funded on Kickstarter in January 2021 (pledges are still open!) and while Steven is still putting the final touches on the book he was kind enough to provide me with an advance copy for review (erm, play.) This means that some things may change between my experience with it and yours.
I’m going to be primarily looking at this game with an eye towards how it works for GM-less play (co-op or solo.) In additional I like to review a game through a mix of reviewing the materials and actual play.
A number of concepts are introduced before character creation but I’m going to discuss these as they come up in play. I did want to highlight a few things that stood out from the opening section.
The tone of the art hits my sweet spot: lots of detail, great color palette, and it strikes an optimistic tone. I’ve been complaining for a while that the GM-less/solo RPG space has been flooded with “grim-dark” and horror-themed products. Given the year I had in 2020, games where you might “die alone on a spaceship” do not stir up any level of enthusiasm in my heart. Space Aces on the other hand looks delightfully fun. A glance throughout the tables do reveal a mix of “monsters” and “menacing” and you can certainly tilt the tables towards a more sinister end if you like.
There’s a section right upfront on safety tools - that’s a good sign. Hopefully this means those concepts were put into place and they carry throughout the book’s content as well. In the solo space one could shrug off safety tools as meaningless but that’s entirely missing the point. It is important for us to take care of ourselves and also to remember that we don’t have to play out encounters or scenes that we are not interested in (whether that’s coming from a source of trauma or just lack of interest - you are in control of your game experience in solo play.)
Dice & Other Materials
We’re told up front that a d20 and d6 are rolled every time an action is taken. The d20 is the action die and to achieve a success you need to roll over a sliding difficulty number. The extra d6 die is used to determine if there is a complication or critical failure/success on an action. It is a simple system that should keep the story moving, particularly for GM-less games.
There’s no other required materials noted in the intro section.
Characters have five stats and you are given a stat array of +3, +2, +1, 0, and -1 to assign to them:
Nitpicking: I think I’d prefer something like Bold, Clever, & Swift for the first three stats as it still hits the tone but would be more accessible language for me. Friends might be better themed as Connections in some settings. Smugglers might not have many “Friends” but they always “know someone” who might help out in a pinch (and be willing to backstab our intrepid smuggler the first chance they can get.)
I don’t mind stat arrays but I do wish there was a method to randomly set them as well. I find I like using random character creation for creating the “grunts” of an adventuring crew without getting lost in over-thinking things like “party balance.”
The book is a bit ambiguous about the character creation process - there is no step-by-step walkthrough or checklist. You’ll need to refer to the character sheet and the initial few pages to put it all together.
There’s a lot of tables in this book but no name generator. Not to bother, I have my own lengthy table of “space opera” names, rolling up a pair I get:
I’m not entirely sure who Caalgen is yet, so I’m going to flip through the book and pick out a few tables to help me. You don’t have to do this, you might already have your character envisioned and assigning the stat array takes only a minute or two. For me I don’t know my who my character is yet. “Friends & Frenemies” (on Page 17 of the PDF version) has a few NPC related tables. There’s some good stuff here and I honestly wish these were closer to the character creation section because I think they set the tone for the expectations of your typical adventurer in this universe.
I’m going to give my character a Notable Quirk, Helpful Forte, Demeanor, Exploitable Flaw, Desire, and Secret. All of these can be flavored with an “Intensity” as well.
Notable Quirk (w/ Intensity):
2d6: [2, 6] Yells, 1d6:  Extremely
Helpful Forte (w/ Intensity):
2d6: [4, 1] Connected, 1d6:  Somewhat
Demeanor (w/ Intensity):
2d6: [6, 6] Menacing, 1d6:  Slightly
Exploitable Flaw (w/ Intensity):
2d6: [4, 1] Unstable, 1d6:  Slightly
2d6: [5, 2] Save/Escape Power/Justice - I like “Escape Justice” here
1d6:  Information
Finally, I don’t really know what “gender” they are so I’ll just roll a d6: (1-2 Male, 3-4 Female, 5-6 Non-Binary/Fluid/Whatever)
1d6:  Male
With all that, we can now say…
“Caalgen Nyhin, known for his frequent outbursts, is a slightly menacing looking human. Their slightly unstable nature has left them wanted in several systems. They are currently on the run and in position of a data-chit containing secret information.”
… and we can stat out Caalgen like so:
Caalgen Nyhin, Moxie +3, Smarts +0, Wiggles +1, Pockets +2, Friends -1. Gumption 6. Grit 0. Heat 1. Skill: Pilot
Gumption, an HP-like pacing stat, starts at 6. Grit, a stat that can be spent to turn a failure into a success, starts at 0 (you earn +1 Grit on a failure.) Heat starts at 1. Skill is a fill-in the blank field and allows you to roll with an advantage when relevant. There’s no guidance currently given about scoping a skill - is it a traditional skill like “ranged combat” or could it be a profession “Ace Pilot.” That’s probably up to you for now.
Mission Generator: Initial Adventure Seed
By using the “Friends & Frenemies” tables I’ve already gotten my character into some trouble but let’s detail out a bit more to get us going. The “Mission Generator” (Page 7 of the PDF) has several tables we can use to flavor our adventures with.
From whom did Caalgen steal the information from? (“Faction”)
1d6:  Explor-A-Corp
What is the information about? (“The Objective”)
1d6:  Massive Monster
Where is this “Massive Monster”?
1d6:  Nebula
How did Caalgen acquiring this information? (“The Opposition” table)
1d6:  Friend
What does the “friend” want Caalgen to do with the info? (“Their Agenda”)
1d6:  Sow Chaos
Where does Caalgen need to deliver the information to? (“The Location”)
1d6:  Space
Caalgen knows he’s in position of secret information of a massive alien “monster” that has been sprung from a nebula which Explor-A-Corp was studying. The threat is great and Explor-A-Corp has been covering it up in hopes of containing the fallout from their activities. A friend working within the project, maybe a subcontractor, realizes that Explor-A-Corp has unleashed something bigger than they can handle. They smuggle the information to Caalgen in hopes he can get into the hands of some local pirates who have a hidden base within an asteroid field. As the goal is chaos, I don’t think there’s much of a plan. Caalgen and the “friend on the inside” are just looking to gain some reputation with these pirates and probably get paid to some extent.
The Game Framework
Spaces Aces does not establish significant guidance on a suggested “game loop” but it is sorta there in the form of the provided tables and the Crafting An Episode guidance on page 6: Create characters then generate a mission. Figure out the 3 step plan to pull it off then generate an episode event. The rest of the content in the book is there to add flavor to these core game concepts (characters, missions, episodes).
Let’s say we open “In Media Res” - Caalgen is escaping the Explor-A-Corp after acquiring the information, a space chase. If Caalgen can do this then the next steps would be making contact with the pirates and delivering/selling the info.
We’ll use the Episode Event tables on Page 8 to flavor our opening space chase.
How many ships are perusing Caalgen? (Scuffle):
1d6: : 1d3:  “Goons”
Out of curiosity I wonder how “intense” they are so I use the Intensity table from earlier:
1d6:  Slightly
Goons to me implies what Space Aces deems as “Small baddies”. They will deal 1 Harm on a standard attack. The base difficulty for dealing with them will be “Easy (5)” There is no guidance for determining Gumption for NPCs in the “Scuffles” section but flipping through the book and thinking about the base character Gumption, Goons seem like they’d have 3 Gumption. I envision these goons are really more like AI-Drones than piloted vehicles given their weak intensity.
What are the Goons goals in attacking Caalgen?
1d6:  Destroy
I ignore a few other tables that don’t seem to apply but adding some flavor to the location seems good:
2d6: [4, 2] Volatile
Of course, we’re coming out of an alien-infused nebula - all sorts of navigational and sensory things are broken.
It is worth noting that this pages includes an “Ask The AI” tool that is the typical Yes/No “Ask the GM/Oracle” one would find in a game that bills itself as solo-friendly.
How about what kind of ship Caalgen is flying? Well the Starship Shenanigans tables on Page 11 can tell us that. I’m not sure if it is the small or medium variant so we’ll do a high/low 1d6 roll:
1d6:  Medium
Medium ships have Shields 4, Reactor 2, Damage 2, Speed Average.
From here I realize that the goon drones could be better though of as “small” craft so I’ll revise my starts for them: Shields 2, Reactor 1, Damage 1, Speed Fast. (There are 2 of them)
What’s a quirk about Caalgen’s ship?
2d6: [6, 1] “Uniforms Ride Up”
This seems to apply to Caalgen’s gear more than his ship and I find the result a bit disappointing. Looking over the list I like the option of “No Seatbelts” - there’s no restraining gear or it is broken. Given the “Volatile” nature of the location it could mean Caalgen loses his ability to reach the controls in the heat of combat.
What’s a perk of Caalgen’s ship?
2d6: [1, 4] Smuggler’s hold
Of course, that’s where the secret information data-chit has been secured.
How did Caalgen acquire the ship?
1d6:  Fair-n-Square
Actual Play: Starship Scuffle
Spaces Aces suggest that smaller ships move first. You can take that as-is or use it to influence the difficulty of a check or likelihood of an “ask the ai” question. I’ll just let them shoot first.
I’m not sure where the drones are and there’s not a table here for that. I don’t like “20 questions” with a Yes/No oracle for this stuff so I’ll use a table I have from a Star Wars game to determine their position:
Fore and Above
The drones are coming head on at Caalgen’s ship - where we likely open on a camera shot of Caalgen staring down the two fighters. He can see the nozzle on their laster blaster warm up to fire and he hopes dodge the initial attack. From earlier we know the starting difficulty is “Easy (5)”. The game notes that a player manning multiple stations makes tasks harder but in this case Caalgen is merely dodging (“Helm” in Space Aces language) so I’m not sure there’s reason to up the difficulty. Dodging two vehicles does seem harder though, so let’s up the difficulty there to “Tricky (10).” Caalgen would then roll 2d20 (advantage for his Piloting skill) and add his “Wiggles” and hope to best a 10.
2d20: [3, 6] - 6+1 = 7
1d6:  Benefit
I’m not entirely sure what the Benefit would be and I don’t see a table that would help. I’ll use the Mythic Gamemaster Emulator’s Action Meaning tables:
Caalgen slams the controls to the right but the AI Drones have been learning from Caalgen’s behavior throughout the combat we have not seen previously - they guessed this manuever. They open fire on Caalgen’s ship and the Shields (4) suffer 2 damage. Caalgen’s sensors though have recently been upgraded, he paid for the best model available, and on his HUD the sensors indicate the drone that can be most easily targeted by his weapon’s systems. This is the first time Caalgen his gotten into a position to fire so we see him flip the lid to open on the firing controls and he punches a few short busts into the buttons. I think that’s probably a normal action roll plus Caalgen’s Moxie against an Easy (5) difficulty:
1d20+3: +3 = 12
1d6:  None
It is a hit! The threat panel in front of Caalgen registers the damage immediately and Caalgen can see that the shields are down on one of the craft. The other ship has used this moment though to pair off and make an attack run. A stream of laser fire comes towards Caalgen’s ship and he again makes evasive maneuvers.
2d20: [2, 11] 11+1 = 12
1d6:  Benefit
This time Caalgen is feeling confident, having just ripped into the other ship, and his evasive action is successful. He’s pulled around and again can choose his target - he wants to finish off that drone from earlier.
1d20+3: +3 = 7
1d6:  None
1d6:  Engines
The twin lasers tear into the engines of the AI Drone and it is dead in the water. There’s not a “morale check” in the game but it is the sorta thing I’m used to. We’ll use “Ask the AI”: Does the AI leave combat? “Possibly” likelihood (10+)
1d20:  = 20 (Yes)
1d6:  -
The AI runs the numbers, it is outgunned in this situation and choose to report back to base. Caalgen pushes the hyperdrive lever all the way forward and we see the stars accelerated around his cockpit.
From here we’d play out the adventure as outline: make contact with the pirates.
This is a fun sci-fi supplement for a campy/fun/action-filled setting with a wealth of tables. There’s a lot of flavor tables that could be used regardless of your game system. There’s a basic game system here that you can play “as-is” and start to tweak to your liking. It is not 100% built out and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you wanted a crunchy, fully-fledged game system though you will be disappointed. I personally don’t find such systems are conducive to solo play but YMMV.
There are a lot more mini-games I did not engage with: diving into a ruin, generating a subsector, exploring a planet, building a monster, space encounters, building gadgets, and so on.
The layout of the book is clean, the many pages of tables are easy to read and interpret, and logically laid out. Several sections can easily be printed as 1 page front/back cheat-sheets to recall when needed.
I do think the game could use a more detailed character creation section and I would like to have seen a thematic “meaning” general purpose oracle such as the those found in Ironsworn’s Action+Theme oracle or Mythic’s Descriptor/Action Meaning table. A little bit more guidance on NPC creation (Gumption for example) would be helpful. Overall it is a worthy addition to anyone’s tabletop RPG space play and is particularly useful for the “unprepared” GM, a sandbox game, and solo/co-op GM-less play.