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Expanded Universe

The Expanse | How the Roleplaying Game is Filling the Void Beyond the Books

Green Ronin Publishing’s Chris Pramas and Steve Kenson take us to worlds beyond the series in The Expanse Roleplaying Game.

The TV show has concluded and the final book in the series has been released. Aside from Telltale Games keeping the flame burning with their forthcoming video game, it could be argued that this is the worst possible time to release gaming products set in The Expanse

Green Ronin Publishing doesn’t care about that. Much like the dream of a fully self-sustaining Outer Planets Alliance, The Expanse lives as long as there are fans prepared to fight for it spend their time in it. 

“I just like The Expanse books,” explains Chris Pramas, founder and president of Green Ronin, publishers of The Expanse Roleplaying Game. “Now I had the good fortune of knowing Ty [Franck], one of the two authors who make up James S.A. Corey. Ty used to run George R.R. Martin’s business. And for a long time, we had the Game of Thrones license, the literary one.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, authors of The Expanse series under the name James S.A. Corey. | © 2019 James S.A. Corey. All Rights Reserved.

“So our license predated the entire TV show and all that stuff. One of the difficulties that we had was that George himself was doing the approvals. And, you know, George R.R. Martin – pretty busy guy. Looking at a 250-page roleplaying game book – it’s not a light task. We were having great difficulty keeping up the momentum of that game, because we wrote a book, and we couldn’t get the next book finished and approved for a year and that’s not great for building up a game audience. So, Ty at a certain point just took over. He was my contact, and he would facilitate things through George. And then later when he had his own success and went off to do The Expanse, George finally got some assistants who were empowered to do the approvals themselves. Anyway, I knew Ty and I had worked with him for several years on the Game of Thrones stuff. 

“In essence, The Expanse, the TV show, had already started and we had not picked up the literary license before that. So I honestly figured it was just off the table at that point; either it’d be too much money because of the show, or we’d be outbid by some bigger company or something like that. But then one day on Twitter, Ty was like, ‘I’d really like to see an Expanse roleplaying game, like, drop me a line if you’re interested.’ I contacted him and basically, he thought we did a good job on the Ice and Fire stuff and thought we’d do a good job on this. So we got the deal.”

As with A Song of Ice and Fire, Green Ronin holds the license for James S.A. Corey’s series of Expanse novels and not the Amazon Prime show that increasingly diverged from them (so don’t go looking for Drummer’s stat box). Uniquely, these strands have the same creative warp cores blazing away at their heart – Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the constituent pieces of the Megazord that is James S.A Corey. 

They wrote The Expanse books, they guided The Expanse show as writers and producers, and they’re involved in The Expanse Roleplaying Game too.

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Working with Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham

The Expanse wouldn’t be the first table-top roleplaying game to have inspired a TV series which then inspired a roleplaying game – that acclaim must go to Firefly, which began as a setting for a game Joss Whedon was running at college, most likely using the Traveller system, before it became a TV series and eventually its own licensed TTRPG. There’s something particularly neat about the way The Expanse Roleplaying Game has made its journey from the tabletop to the bookstore and then the TV screen and back again.

In a 2017 interview with Polygon, Franck explained that the setting originated in a pitch for an MMO. When that failed to materialize, he continued to tool around with the setting, eventually bringing it to the gaming table with the aid of Wizards of the Coast’s d20 System. “I just used d20 Modern,” Franck said, “and then kind of added my own futuristic stuff. [This] is why The Expanse feels very grounded in today. It’s because the rule system was very ‘today,’ so no laser guns, no plasma weapons.”

Enter fantasy novelist Daniel Abraham who took his place around Franck’s table. Many of the characters in Leviathan Wakes (2011), the first book in the series, were born around the table, including Amos Burton, Alex Kamal, Naomi Nagata, Shed Garvey, and James Holden. Abraham’s own character was the seedling that would flower into world-weary Star Helix detective Joe Miller. After three or four sessions, Franck and Abraham realized they had something bigger than themselves.

The rest – to cram a nine-book series, a six-season show, and a showering of Hugo Awards into a single sentence – is history. In their Kickstarter video for the launch of The Expanse Roleplaying Game, Abraham explained: “The depth of worldbuilding and opportunity for storytelling [is] literally what made me want to the project, so now we’re in a place where we can start passing that on to other folks to play in the same sandbox.”

The Expanse Roleplaying Game core rules are available for $49.95 hardcover and $26.95 PDF only. To get a feel for the system, you can download a free Quickstart PDF. | © Green Ronin Publishing.

“Ty and Daniel both have been very flexible and receptive to the sorts of things that we want to do, which is nice,” says Pramas. “We’ve had some other licensors that at a fundamental level didn’t even understand what we were doing and didn’t understand how they could help us” – he laughs – “or why they would want to.’

Don’t forget, when the game launched – the Kickstarter was late 2018, and the core book was released in early 2019 – the two were also working on Seasons 3 and 4 of the show, and the eighth novel, Tiamat’s Wrath (2019). They could have been forgiven for flashing Green Ronin the occasional thumbs up and leaving them to it, but instead, they’ve been available creatively – the core book even opens with a new short story by Corey, The Last Flight of the Cassandra.

“It’s great to have their participation and feedback,” says Steve Kenson, the lead designer on the core book and writer on the range. “I have worked with other licensors who are very hands off and – apart from the approvals process – honestly don’t have all that much interest in an RPG product, which tends to be fairly small potatoes for a lot of big licensors.”

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Space Combat The Expanse Way

Franck and Abraham’s passion for not just their setting, but for roleplaying, was key to getting The Expanse Roleplaying Game off the ground and having the rules – built around Green Ronin’s Modern AGE System – reflect the reality of their universe, from the brutality of space combat to the bleakness of dwindling resources in the empty void. 

To be blunt, it’s the sort of detail that a game needs to embrace in order to justify its existence as something other than a licensed reskin of a proprietary rules system, but that’s the challenge that Green Ronin has a record of rising to and the AGE System has proven itself flexible enough to change and resilient enough to be stronger for it.

“There are very particular things about just the physics of ship combat in The Expanse that are very different from people’s expectations of a more space opera kind of scenario,” says Kenson. “For example, in ship combat, there are evasive maneuvers that you can use to avoid an attack but we don’t really have to hit rolls per se. Because you know it early on in our discussion, Ty and Daniel were like, ‘The weapons are all computer targeted. If you’re not using some kind of evasive maneuver, they will hit you – a miss is pretty much not going to happen.’ 

“As long as you’re in range of the weapon and it can target-lock you, it will hit you. It’s more of a question of how are you going to avoid getting hit, rather than how are you going to hit your target?”

Steve Kenson

As with the books, the physical cost of maneuvers is punishing and not something taken lightly. Just look at the sorry fate of Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) in the finale of The Expanse Season 5, ‘Nemesis Games’ (S5, Ep10) – lifeless eyes staring vacantly into the abyss, a droplet of blood hovering around his nostrils. If it’s not the high-G burn that kills you, it’s the ‘juice’ – a cocktail of blood thinners, blood vessel reinforcers, adrenaline, and various other stimuli.

“We built that into the system,” says Kenson. “There are specific tactical choices that you can make, that are punishing to the characters – that are a risk. So if you want to take a high G maneuver, it has benefits and risks built into it, and those are things that the captain and the pilot need to decide upon, as far as whether the risks are worth the rewards.”

For the most part, there was already enough material in the series for Kenson and his colleagues to start working with. Franck and Abraham didn’t need to answer every question on their compelling dark and dangerous world, because the bulk of it was there in the text.

“Having ebook versions of the books is very useful,” says Kenson. “It’s very easy to highlight and make notes and to download all of your highlights from an ebook, and share them. So we did a lot of that and a lot of keeping track of the key elements of the setting and having a sense of what all of the important things are. Then it’s trying to maintain that vision and stay very true to it. Sometimes that involves providing people with notes, sometimes it involves correcting things.

“One of our challenges for The Expanse [is] always reminding artists that there aren’t any windows. There’s a constant tendency to do ships and space stations with portholes, or windows, or big vistas, were like, no, there are screens. If you want to do screens, that’s fine. That’s how people look outside, there’s a camera feed, and it shows up on a flat screen. But we’ve occasionally had pieces of art where we’re like, ‘No, like, take out all the windows, make them screens.’ Nobody puts glass between them and vacuum.”

Steve Kenson
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Beyond the Ring… and Beyond the Books

A huge part of what makes The Expanse perfect for a roleplaying game is the sheer melodrama of merely existing, the absolute epic undertaking that is getting by. You don’t have to work too hard as a GM to embroil your PCs in adventure, when they’ve got one eye on dwindling air, water, and kibble, and another on the warring powers over the proverbial horizon. This was key to Franck and Abraham’s vision for how the game should be played.

“They particularly were interested in ensuring that there was a sense of urgency in terms of the characters’ day-to-day survival,” explains Kenson. “There was a need for characters in The Expanse to always be hustling, to be looking after not only where their next meal was coming from, but you know where their air was going to be coming from.”

As with the books and the show, life is a fragile thing that can be snuffed out at the whim of arrogant Inners, vengeful Belters, or the capricious whims of wayward space rocks. Leviathan Wakes literally ends with Holden and Miller being treated for cancer – it’s not quite the medal ceremony on Yavin IV. It also gave Green Ronin a license to start small.

“When we were originally looking at The Expanse as a setting, we very quickly realized that The Expanse is actually closer to four or five settings, depending on how you break it down. And rather than trying to encompass the entirety of the series in one core book, we realized that we were far better off to break The Expanse down into particular eras and then address them one at a time.”

Steve Kenson
Beyond the Ring is the next major release for The Expanse Roleplaying Game, covering Ring space and Medina Station, the known worlds beyond the ring, and rules for creating your own colonies. Beyond the Ring is available for $34.95 hardcover and $18.95 PDF only. | © Green Ronin Publishing.

“We decided to set the [core book] in between the events of the first novel in the series,” adds Pramas. “So the Protomolecule is known, but what it really means is yet to be seen, and then our idea has been in source books to then push that timeline forward. So the next book is called Beyond the Ring and that takes place after the whole gate network has opened up. That creates like whole new styles of adventures that you can then you can have these big exploration adventures where  your group and their ship go through an unknown gate.”

“You have that whole diaspora of humanity spreading out to the stars,” adds Kenson, “and one of the great things about the series is that there are over 1,000 ring gates and we only explore a handful of them in the books. We know that there are named systems and the like beyond them, but even then it’s maybe 100 that actually get named or given any detail in the books. So there’s a tremendous amount of room to play around with making up your own systems, and doing exploration and colonization, which is basically what Beyond the Ring is all about. We present a system for generating star systems and planets, and a system for building colonies of your own.”

The Expanse Game Master’s Kit ($24.95 physical and $9.95 PDF only) and the standalone scenario Salvage Op ($3.99 PDF only), two of the earliest releases for The Expanse Roleplaying Game. | © Green Ronin Publishing.

Chronologically, The Expanse Roleplaying Game is still firmly within the timeline of the fourth novel, Cibola Burn (2014) – or Season 4, if you’d rather follow it that way – with three standalone adventure scenarios (Salvage Op, Secrets of Lemuria, and the Ganymede Insurance Job in the Game Master’s Kit), a campaign sourcebook (Abzu’s Bounty), and a ship sourcebook (Ships of the Expanse). In the immediate future is a setting book (Beyond the Ring) and the first splatbook (Trades of the Expanse: Bounty Hunters). There’s plenty left for Green Ronin to mine.

“There’s still the whole Free Navy conflict that happens in the solar system,” says Kenson. “There’s the rise of the Laconia Empire, there’s the whole interstitial period where Laconia is sealed off from the rest of the galaxy and the shipping guild is essentially running things through the gates. That’s a very rich period for setting an entire Expanse series. So we’re in the process of fleshing out that stuff. 

“We’re well behind the books in terms of our RPG releases, so we have at least another two or three major years to detail for The Expanse and there’s a lot of space in there for inserting your own stories and campaigns.”

Steve Kenson

You could argue that with the show and the books both cooling down, rather than Green Ronin having missed the boat or arrived late to the party or whatever your cliche of choice is, it’s actually the perfect time for us to step up and step into that world with the help of The Expanse Roleplaying Game. Grab some friends, set aside a weekend, and build out your own drama, your own worlds, your own triumphs, and your own tragedies.

Tenye wa chesh gut, bosmang.

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James Hoare is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.

You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare

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