The Planet Mercenary RPG is a space opera game set in the same universe as the excellent webcomic Schlock Mercenary. In it, the players take the role of officers in a 32th-century mercenary company. They take on varied contracts from all manner of client, human or alien, lawful or shady. Said contracts often result in a copious amount of explosions with a healthy side order of humor.
This game started out as a Kickstarter project organized by the comic’s author, Howard Tayler. Being a fan of the comic, I backed it, and it recently reached a successful conclusion. The PDF can now be bought on the link above for US$25.00, and overall I consider it well worth the money if you’re looking for a relatively light and very chaotic action-oriented system. Familiarity with the comic only makes the whole thing better, but is in no way required for your group to have a good time with this game.
The main text of the book is presented in a double-column layout, in a font I found easy to read. The page background is white, with light purple margins on the “outer” side of each page. The page numbers and associated decoration are done in a “techy” style meant to give the impression you’re reading the text on some futuristic electronic device. As I have the PDF version, that turned out to be the actual case!
There’s a fair number of well-done illustrations here, most of which depict whatever is being currently discussed in the text itself, be it a typical member of a species, a specific individual, a place or a piece of equipment (from pistols to warships). The images use a more realistic and detailed style than the Schlock Mercenary comic, and some of the landscapes done in this style can be quite spectacular (just look at the cover above).
The text of the book also contains one of the best examples of game fiction I ever saw. Instead of a short story or comic at the start of the book, this one is told through a series of editorial notes on its margins. “Planet Mercenary” is the name of an in-setting corporation that specializes in selling weapons to mercenary companies, and the RPG itself is written like a piece of promotional material for them. The editorial notes in question are from the fictional staff responsible for writing the book, the idea being that they were supposed to be removed but were left in by mistake. They serve to both add color to some of the passages in the main text and to tell a story about the characters making the comments. I was going to say it’s a surprisingly good story for in-game fiction, but it’s not actually surprising at all given it was written by Howard Tayler, the comic’s author (who also, IIRC, wrote all the setting information here).
Anyone familiar with the comic should know the setting of Planet Mercenary pretty well already. Even if you’re not, you shouldn’t have much trouble understanding the setting with the information included in the book.
Planet Mercenary takes place in our Milky Way galaxy, in the year 3100. Galactic society is incredibly diverse, encompassing a very large number of alien species and AIs with intellects ranging from “quite dumb” to “godlike”. All of these people get into fights with each other often enough that there’s no shortage of mercenary companies willing to get paid to do fight for them.
Humans have been a part of this hodge-podge for about 900 years, but there are many species far older than ours out there. Heck, there’s more than a few individuals older than our species.
The book includes detailed information on several important systems and worlds, most of which were featured in the comic at some point. There’s also a few places that are new to this book, and provide new and interesting ways to kill your PCs even if they’ve read all of the comic already. The descriptions are humorous, but also succeed in being good space opera on their own merits.
Such a wide-open setting can theoretically allow for any sort of game, but Planet Mercenary helps you out by narrowing the focus to something that should feel quite familiar to fans of the comic. As mentioned in the introduction, PCs in Planet Mercenary are officers in one of the setting’s many mercenary companies. Character creation should be a group effort, since the last step involves creating the company the characters work for!
The system is almost entirely skill-based. There are no attributes like “Strength” or “Dexterity”, and stuff that would modify those in other systems (such as your species) modifies skills instead. There are two derived stats, Health (which is basically HP) and Defense (how hard you are to hit). Players begin by picking a Command Package that describes their function in the company, a Background Package that describes what they did before enlisting, and a Sophont Type, or species. While the setting has thousands of sophont types, the book provides details on twelve particularly interesting or common ones, four of which are actually from Earth (humans are prolific uplifters).
All of these provide you with a set of skill modifiers and one or more species-specific special abilities. With those in front of you, you then distribute 40 skill points to round out your character.
With characters in hand, players then create their company by spending Resource Points, with are the game’s abstraction for large sums of money. They use this to buy a warship and its controlling AI, and convert the remainder into Supply Points (i.e, smaller chunks of money) used to outfit the PCs with their gear. Gear stats are usually quite simple, but they get the job done.
As officers, PCs never go into the field alone. Each is in command of a fire team of three NPC Grunts, which has simplified stats and acts on the PC’s orders. They may also be accompanied by a larger, more abstract group of grunts not under their direct control.
In addition to acting as an extension of your character, Grunts can also act as, well, Ablative Meat. That’s the actual name of the rule. This basically means a grunt can take an attack that would normally hit a PC. The more times they survive the experience, the more detailed their descriptions get! Losing a seasoned grunt can feel like losing a friend… but if they stick around long enough they can get promoted to full PC status when their comanding officer finally buys the farm.
If the mechanics of Planet Mercenary can be said to have an overall theme, that theme is chaos. The galaxy is a big, chaotic place and the PCs are expected to get into messy, unpredictable and often violent situations. Even with the best-laid plans, anything can happen once the excrement hits the ventilator.
The basic mechanics are simple. Players roll 3d6, add a relevant skill, and try to get a result higher than a GM-set difficulty, which goes from 7 for super-easy tasks to 30 for nearly impossible ones. The GM is expected to mostly eyeball these difficulties - there are no detailed tables of modifiers to be found here. Combat uses basically the same system, with the target number usually being the enemy’s Defense. Combat initiative doesn’t use dice at all - whoever speaks first, goes first. Yes, this makes fights quite lively, and yes, there’s a fairly large advice section on how to deal with potential problems.
The other thing that really gives Planet Mercenary its unique flavor is the Mayhem mechanic. One of those three dice should be distinct from the other two somehow, and is called the Mayhem Die. When a test is successful and the Mayhem Die has a higher number than the other two, the person who just rolled draws a card from the Mayhem Deck included in the game and (usually) immediately resolves the effect described there. There are about a hundred cards, sorted into descriptive suits such as “Kill”, “Die”, “Bleed”, “Block” and so on.
Mayhem effects can happen on any test, not just in combat! The effects are pretty varied and described a bit vaguely: the players and GM are expected to work them into something tht makes sense for the current ongoing scene. Some are beneficial, some quite detrimental, and most are somewhat ambiguous but guaranteed to make things more interesting in the Chinese curse sense.
There’s also a “Roleplaying Points (RiPP)” mechanic, which combines with Mayhem to make things more varied. Players can use RiPPs to re-roll some of all of their dice in a test, to negate a Mayhem effect, or to invoke the Ablative Meat Shield rule (see above). The GM, conversely, is expected to hand out RiPPs to players for good roleplaying and to negate Mayhem cards that would hurt the game rather than make it more fun.
Planet Mercenary was something of a rarity for me, in that it’s a system I feel like playing after reading through it. It has enough unique mechanics that it would be hard to replicate the same “feel” in another system, and it’s very well-suited to its setting (which I love).
In fact, the Planet Mercenary rule set even has utility outside its home setting. I can’t think of any other system I would rather use to play in the Warhammer 40.000 universe. It does Only War better than Only War itself, and I feel writing psyker rules for Planet Mercenary would be less painful to me than enduring a whole campaign with that percentile system.