Space, Business Card Sized: Vast & Starlit

Epidiah Ravachol’s nano-sized storygame Vast & Starlit provides a framework for spacefaring tales using a very conversational, interactive system. Originally the game was only available in person or by sending the author a doodle and return postage, but more recently it’s been included in game bundles like the eponymous “Epimas” holiday set.

As an RPG it pushes the limits of rules per square inch to the limit, compressing everything down to a few double-sided business cards. Compared to the groundbreaking business-card format joke game “Hit a Dude” with its two rules (1. Hit a dude, 2. Play passes left), Vast & Starlit packs a hefty cargo into its 2 teensy pages (plus outside cover images).

The built-in premise introduces the characters as escaped prisoners who now find themselves in control of a starship. After that brief and open introduction, the author is hands-off about the setting specifics; everything from here out is created by the players either through question-and-answer or a clever procedural generation subsystem. Players ask one another a handful of questions to frame their characters, ideally using charged questions that imply deeper meanings, like “What would we lose by not listening to you?” instead of simple ones like “Where are you from?” The attention turns to the commandeered vessel, again using questions make the ship almost a character unto itself. “How is it temperamental?” for example, leaving more cosmetic details to be filled out later as needed. Rules for creating alien species, cultures, and environments are tucked in here too – yes, the stuff sourcebooks are made of, all summarized in a 3-step procedure where you start with something familiar and incrementally weird-ify it.

Players each step up into the Director stance, suggesting scenes with characters in locations dealing with whatever’s happening. Very loosey-goosey at first glance, but there’s still mechanics that spin up: the main characters in the scene are the focus/foci (ooh, proper Latin use!). If they attempt something Dangerous or Difficult, a player at the table is supposed to call it out. Depending on who is attempting it (non-focus or focus character) the action either fails during the scene or you cut away to something else, leaving the scene to percolate and build suspense, then return to resolve it and incorporate consequences from other players.

Writing, Artwork & Layout

The background of each card is sourced from NASA public domain images and while it is pretty to look at, it becomes visually overwhelming. Teensy micro-printed fonts in alternating swaths of white-on-void, black-on-orangegreen gradient, or blue! outlined in yellow made it damn near impossible for me to read the game. At this point, if I hadn’t heard such good things about Epidiah’s work (“That Jenga one” Dread and the game/zine (S)words without Master) and the company he keeps (Vincent & Meguey Baker of Apocalypse World and PSI*Run, Nathan Paoletta, etc) I probably would have just closed the file and moved along.

I ended up extracting the text for myself and that saved the day for me.

Fit & Finish

So, first off, the form factor gimmick is excellent. This was one of the first games I’ve come across to explore the “Your game is not a book, it is a…” problem and it reaches a few good solutions on the way. Fitting rules for Q&A character generation, scene resolution and procedural world generation into a booklet would be challenging, but Epidiah succinctly fits everything he needs to say onto 21 square inches. It introduces challenges to readability in a trade off for portability.

The game itself provides enough of a framework to hang a story on, but requires a bare minimum of players (rules calling for a 3rd player to weigh in preclude 2-p games, at least if you’re following the letter of the law) and pulls constant input from all those players. Vast & Starlit on its own doesn’t cover conflict resolution or equipment but a set of expansions (Bodies in the Dark, Renegade’s Technical Manual, & Stellar Atlas) cover those seemingly necessary aspects, and introduce more setting material.

I’ve watched a forum game come up with some compelling characters and setting details and then peter out from pacing issues. As an outsider, the feeling of “Okay, now what?” built quickly in the posts. So much of the game hinges on a player asserting something and then looking to the players left & right of them to confirm/alter/deny that detail. Playing face-to-face or at least in a continuous, low-latency medium like email or chat strikes me as a mandatory consideration.

Short version:

Vast & Starlit probably wouldn’t be my choice of a first foray into storygame, or of space game, or even of nano-game now that I’ve had a closer look. But that said, I thoroughly enjoy this game from a design point of view and appreciate the possibilities it packs in. I’d really like to lay out the four cards of the complete set (base game and expansions) and spend an afternoon building utterly bizarre aliens, frakking and/or fighting, hacking engineering technology and reversing the polarity of the ion fluctuators while we’re on the run.

Three warp capacitors out of five, overall – but it’s easily in my Top 10 Tiny Games list.