When you try to convince a group of people to try a new TTRPG system, it’s usually best to have a quick, pithy pitch to sell them on it. If you’re pitching Call of Cthulhu, you might say, “It’s like old timey noir detective stuff but with unfathomable cosmic horrors that drive your character mad.” Perhaps you’re trying to get a Starfinder game going, “It’s like D&D but in space.” If you were trying to get somebody to play the subject of today’s review, Salvage Union, you could open simply with, “Giant…”
Wait for it.
The cover of the quickstart rules for Leyline Press’ Salvage Union features an elegant line work drawing of a mech suit. It easily grabbed my attention on a crowded Twitter timeline. Why aren’t there more games where you get to pilot a mech? Seeing as the quickstart rules are free, I decided to give it a look. I was pleasantly surprised to find a system that takes a slam dunk concept like piloting a giant robot and delivers a simple, cohesive, and unique game.
Setting, Lore, Backstory
Salvage Union takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth-like world. A confluence of globe-spanning wars, climate catastrophe, and pollution have rendered large portions of the planet uninhabitable wastelands. Humanity clings to existence in two dramatically different spheres. The wealthy inhabit mega-structures known as arcologies, which are owned by resource hoarding oligarchs and corporations. Everyone else is forced to scratch a living out in the wastelands heavily relying on fusion powered mechs for their day to day survival. The only unified force in the way of the “corpos” dastardly greed is the Salvage Union. Operating from massive mobile settlements called “Crawlers,” members of the union scramble for remaining resources among the ruined cities, bases, and installations dotting the landscape.
The setting itself isn’t too far afield from other post-apocalyptic worlds. It shares many similarities with the Mad Max and Fallout universes, but Salvage Union throws enough interesting wrinkles our way to keep it fresh. The juxtaposition of the arcologies and the crawlers is fertile territory to explore socioeconomic and cultural themes. Although the quickstart guide only gives a cursory overview of the setting, I’m really hoping the official release explores the underlying conflicts in much greater depth. After all, it’s a game where the only thing standing in the way of corporate domination is a union, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect issues of labor, class, wealth inequality to be woven into the fabric of the game.
You need only a single D20 for Salvage Union. For most rolls, a 20 is a stunning success that adds an unforeseen benefit, 11-19 is simple success, 6-10 is a success that necessitates some kind of sacrifice, 2-5 is a standard failure, and a 1 entails a knock-on bad result. I absolutely love systems like this. It brings to mind the immensely engaging “ghost die” from the Ghostbusters RPG or the “wild die” from WEG Star Wars (like we covered last week). I especially like the 6-10 “tough choice” outcome. Rather than let the GM handle all the narrative lifting, this mechanic lets the players flex some creative muscle. If a player rolls in this range, they may hit the opposing mech with a blaster, but now their weapon is jammed. Maybe they’re able to hack a corporate network, but leave behind evidence that ties the breach back to them. This works especially well to keep combat sequences fresh and entertaining. It really elevates battles that could easily become static slogs into dynamic, exciting encounters. This system is sure to keep players from checking their phones when it’s not their turn, as fights are constantly evolving with new complications.
My only concern about the core mechanic is that the standard table provides a 75% chance of success at any given roll. The quickstart rules note that the GM can modify the ranges or impose bonuses/penalties according to the situation, but it doesn’t go into much more detail beyond that. I’m hoping when the official rules are released, there’s a touch more guidance on the best ways to approach success and failure ranges.
As the name implies, salvage is pretty important. Salvaged material acts as the game’s primary currency. For you to be able to take refuge on the union crawler, you have to pay your dues with some salvage. Depending on the area your crew is searching, you can find salvage of varying rarity on complexity. The salvage tables reminded me a bit of the types of technology you craft in No Man’s Sky. Not unlike No Man’s Sky, you don’t level up in the traditional sense. Advancement in Salvage Union is primarily via crafting. There’s no shortage of recipes for building new chassises, weapons, and specialized tools for your mech. It’s a simple and intuitive system that’s rarely done well in pen and paper games, but it’s pulled off nicely here.
The quickstart rules feature 6 pilot and mech archetypes to choose from running the gamut of roles you’d expect in an RPG. Although the quickstart rules don’t provide the rules for character creation, it promises further options in the official release. However, the sample characters offer quite a few options and abilities, so I wasn’t hurting to create a pilot and mech from scratch.
Interestingly, there are few social skills or abilities. The only one I could find is the engineer archetype’s “Talk Shop” ability that makes NPCs more likely to share information with you. You won’t find the traditional persuasion, deception, or intimidation style bonuses in the quickstart guide. I’m not sure if this is something that will be more fleshed out when the game releases in earnest or if this is a deliberate choice on behalf of the designers. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, as characters don’t possess any ‘soft stats’ like intelligence, wisdom, or charisma. I can certainly see the benefit of this as I’ve been at many tables where my inspired plea to the guards is scuttled by rolling a 4 on the accompanying check. Although this does all but rule out the option of a character being more witty and charming than their player. If roleplay-centric abilities are critical to your style of play, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t easily homebrew in some expanded social abilities.
Ease of Adoption
This is one of the few rules sets I was able to read once and feel like I could run or play a game. Once you’ve looked over the quickstart guide a few times, you could easily explain the basics to a new group in under 15 minutes. Because Leyline Press has opted for a single die core mechanic, it’s remarkably easy to pick up. I don’t know if I’d classify Salvage Union as ‘rules light,’ but that label isn’t far off. To illustrate what I mean, it took me less time to digest the core rules of Salvage Union than it took me to adapt from 3e to 4e or 4e to 5e of D&D. If you have a less experienced playgroup or are newer to running RPGs yourself, this is a perfect system to broaden your horizons because the barriers to entry are so low.
The Kickstarter for the official core rules finished just recently. I reached out to Leyline Press and was told there should be a limited quantity of hardbound books available for purchase when the game launches in December of 2022. PDF copies will be available as well. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes out for physical copies as the art direction featured in the quickstart is gorgeous. If you’re looking to keep up with the community or find a group to play, their discord is a great place to start.
This game gets a strong recommendation from me. It’s easy to learn, has a great core mechanic, and a setting with endless possibilities. Needless to say, Salvage Union is quite a bit more than the sum of its parts (pun intended).
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