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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.

Salvage Op cover by Lukasz Jakolski. | © Green Ronin Publishing.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Expanse episode ‘Nemesis Games’ (S5, Ep10), and the novel Leviathan Wakes (2011) by James S.A. Corey. Proceed with caution.

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 stand against a brick wall.
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.

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.”

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?”

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.

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