You might think that it was bad enough to be locked up on an automated spaceship and sent off on a one-way journey to an unknown destination in the company of people even nastier than yourself... but that's only the start of it. Science-fiction meets horror meets prison drama in this game - and digging a tunnel to freedom is not an option.
Chapter 1: History sets the scene, explaining the political, historical and societal changes on Earth that have led to the development of this rather drastic solution to the age-old question of what do you do with those people too mad, bad or inconvenient to fit in to normal society. Based on rather dodgy psychological theory, people were assessed for their potential to commit violent crime and those deemed most likely to become violent got locked away before they even had a chance to do something wrong. Naturally, that led to rather a lot of prisoners and the need to find somewhere secure to put them - a massive completely-automated colony ship that's been pointed off towards an unexplored direction of space and set going, containing some ten million convicts, a few thousand robots and an AI called the Warden in charge of the lot. Now if you just wanted a science-fiction prison drama, you could stop there, but no. This ship, the Gehenna, has encountered some kind of anomaly that has flipped him into another dimension, a distorted one full of unimaginable strangeness and horror... and one which has damaged both structure and control mechanisms of the Gehenna so that he too is coming apart.
Next, Chapter 2: Characters provides the systems necessary to create characters for the game. It's very freeform and wide-ranging, empowering players to decide exactly who they are and why they ended up part of the prison population. To start with, a 'Convict Identification Number' is rolled, a randomly-generated 7-digit number by which the individual is known to shipboard systems. As well as being an ID, it is used to determine (from a table) whether a character is an 'old lag' with plenty of prison time served or has been incarcerated recently and has little experience of life behind bars. Note that this is nothing to do with whether or not you deserved to be banged up... but it does have a profound effect on your character, as your attributes are rolled up using different tables depending on how long you've been in prison. There are six of these attributes - Prowess, Reflexes, Wit, Willpower, Social and Intimidation - covering the usual abilities attributes do: more interesting are the 'Guages.' These are based on the psycho-social theories that have arisen in this setting, a measure of the character's ongoing psychological state (and which landed him in this situation in the first place!). Called Despair, Guilt and Insanity, they vary during play according to circumstances that affect the character and the choices that they make.
Once these have been determined, by die rolls on tables, you then get a bunch of Build Points with which to equip your character with Traits - his abilities, the things that he can do and knows about. You also need to decide on the character's Conviction Record (and this may affect some of the Traits available to you). While these are broadly-defined - murderer, vice offender, dissident or anarchist - there is scope for you to define it in as much detail as you wish, much of this impacting on character Traits as well as aiding you in role-playing the character once the game begins. Note that 'murderer' includes those who served in the armed forces of former nation-states prior to the current regime's rise while 'anarchists' include those with such dangerous ideas as religious belief as well as the sort of thugs you might normally picture when you hear these terms. Many of the traits listed are things your character learned in prison, or which prove useful - including an impressive collection of prison-specific martial arts styles! Each character also needs to select a Personal Goal, which is known only to the player and the Warden (GM), as well as driving the storyline at times and giving a focus to your role-playing, it also can bring bonus Build Points when your actions in-game serve to further your goal. Finally, creation of a back-story is encouraged, not just for the normal role-playing reasons but to give the Warden inspiration when devising personal and psychological challenges to throw into what is intended to be an intense game.
Character created, we next come to Chapter 3: Contraband. This covers items legitimately in possession as well as those that would be disapproved of, did anyone in authority know you had them... and that universal currency, smokes! Yes, even in the far-distant future, people still puff away, and - in prisons - trade cigarettes for other items of value. Many items are basic, while others are improvised. Weapons are, given the environment, hard to obtain but there's quite a variety from stolen riot control gear to 'home-made' shivs and clubs. There's also a range of drugs from medical to recreational. Comprehensive rules for salvaging and constructing, well, whatever you can dream up are provided.
Next, Chapter 4: Gangs looks at prison society, in particular gangs. Originally discouraged aboard the Gehenna, they have risen in prominence since the dimensional shift. There are quite a few, conferring various benefits on those who join as well as a ready-made group of allies and protectors. Naturally, they also make fearsome adversaries... which leads neatly on to Chapter 5: Combat in which the rules for resolving violent situations within the game are discussed. The intent of the game - role-playing in a very suspense-filled atmosphere - is stated, but sometimes things will get out-of-hand and a brawl will result. Using a turn-based system, characters can do pretty much anything they please, although moving and/or using one of their Traits (which include combat skills both armed and unarmed, of course) are the most common actions. The order in which combatants act is resolved by a d12 roll to which the Reflexes attribute is added, highest result going first. When you make an attack you roll 1d12 and add your Prowess, any apposite Traits may add to this, and for your attack to succeed the total must be more than the defending individual's roll of 1d12 + Reflexes (again some Traits may help). Damage done by successful attacks depends on whatever weapons were used. Despite the open nature of combat, with participants able to perform a wide range of actions in their turn, the actual mechanics are so simple that this is one of the shorter 'combat' chapters I've read in a while! More importantly, it makes combat flow fairly quickly so a game session does not get bogged down resolving brawls, and yet they are exciting and dramatic, with scope to become a real part of the ongoing plot.
Next is Chapter 6: Warden Only! This contains information intended for the Game Master alone. It starts off by explaining the GM's role with particular reference to the sort of game that this is: it is all about setting the correct mood of the alternate reality in which the characters find themselves. An atmosphere of tension, with moments of excitement and plenty of out-and-out terror... yet presented so that the players have fun, whatever their characters might be thinking about it all! Next comes a run-down of the physical setting: the Gehenna. There is plenty of detail about what the ship was intended to be like as well as its present state following the dimension shift - useful if you decide to begin play as a regular science-fiction prison drama and spring the strangenesses on your characters later. A key thing to remember is how automated the ship is - the only human beings aboard when it was launched were the prisoners. Following fine lists of random finds and individuals to help populate wherever the characters explore (marred only by a lack of proofreading, the only part of the book where mistakes have crept through) there are further details on injuries, diseases and healing. There is also detailed guidance on how the Ludvico Guages of Despair, Guilt and Insanity can be used to drive the game to new heights of horror.
Next comes psychic powers. Some people have found that the dimension shift has awakened them, and taking the Guages to extremes or nearly getting killed off can also cause them to manifest. Extreme physical or mental stress can cause anyone to display a psychic power while those who are aleady 'awakened' to their abilities can call them at will as well as being able to develop psychic Traits used in the same manner as any other.
Then comes Chapter 7: Demons. In this strange dimension, there are frequent manifestations of horrible beings, hideous to behold and terrifying to confront - these have come to be known as 'demons' and appear to be summoned into existence by the emotions of the trapped human beings aboard Gehenna. Whatever they really are nobody knows, but they appear to be alien intelligences that live in this wierd dimension and 'feed' on, or at least relish, strong negative emotions, creating horror, death and corruption themselves. Naturally, this brings on a degenerative spiral, demonic manifestations triggering the very feelings that bring about yet more manifestations. The mechanics for when they appear, details of how to create your own and a collection of vile examples are presented here. These examples are many and varied, all horrific beyond belief...
... and then follows Chapter 8: Other Threats! As if terrifying malign manifestations were not enough, this chapter details the automated 'custodians' designed to control the prison population - and which, being robots, carry on with their assigned duties however inappropriate in the current situation. So flee from a demon into a restricted area and be greeted for a demand for your work permit! Oh, and the other convicts are often likely to pose a threat to the characters as well, so quite a few examples are provided. Then there are 'natural' hazards such as fires, radiation, hard vacuum and all the other perils of life on a spaceship that is battered and not being properly maintained.
Finally comes Appendix: Inspiration. This contains lists of movies and other games (a curious unsorted mix of role-playing games and computer games) that were used to fire the authors' imaginations in the creation of this game and which may help you set the scene as you run your own adventures in this setting.
For claustrophobic horror gaming in a clearly-defined setting this game presents a wealth of potential. It's not going to be for everyone but if a science-fiction prison drama with episodes of terror and despair appeals, this is the ruleset for you. As presented, adventures will revolve about exploration and survival, open-ended but with no scope for final resolution (save the grim one of all the characters ending up dead), it will be interesting to see the extensions in scope provided by published adventures.
[5 of 5 Stars!]