Roleplayer
Roleplayer #27, February 1992

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Reviews of Gameable Fiction

by Steve Jackson

The "Sten" Books

Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

This series is something of a paradox. It's space opera of the wildest and bloodiest type, but it's intelligently written. The hero is Sten (no first name, just Sten), an assassin, military officer and general troubleshooter in the service of an interstellar empire and its Emperor.

The child of migrant space-workers, Sten was orphaned at 17, and a revenge-driven space-dreg within a year. When an Imperial covert team is sent to investigate the Company that killed Sten's parents, the young thug becomes a "local asset." He survives, and they decide to keep him. Before long, Sten is part of a "Mantis Team," an elite and deniable crew of special-ops troopers whose boss reports directly to the Eternal Emperor. As the series progresses, Sten is moved to different branches of the service – he's obviously being groomed for something big – but his early sneak' n' peek training is always handy.

Not only is Sten fast and tough, but he also has one very unusual advantage: a hideaway knife built into a flesh pocket in his arm. Made of a crystal so hard it can cut metal like cheese, it can't be detected by sensors, and Sten can fast-draw it one-handed. Hold the arm just so, and it slides from its sheath into his hand. A nice gadget.

Sten's associates include a number of interesting and deadly characters, many of whom have about the life expectancy of a red-shirt on Star Trek. Some of the more durable include:

Alex Kilgour, an incredibly strong heavy-worlder of Scots extraction. Kilgour's passion is shaggy-dog stories, delivered in a near-incomprehensible accent. He's Sten's extremely strong right arm on special-ops missions.

Doc, a furry alien with the psionic talent to make people like him. It helps that humans think he's a cute, cuddly teddy-bear. Carnivorous little Doc would just love to tear their throats out for that.

Ida, the brilliant Romany agent (and hot star-pilot) whose hobby is making huge amounts on the stock market. She could easily retire, but she loves the challenges and danger of Mantis Team work. Fat, mustached and foul-mouthed, she delights in harassing authority – even on her own side.

Ian Mahoney, Sten's first patron. A top military man, Mahoney excels at both cloak-and-dagger and more conventional warfare, and prefers to lead from the front. He is totally loyal to . . .

The Eternal Emperor, ruler of the far-flung stellar empire. The Emperor is truly immortal – at least as GURPS defines the term. He rules by persuasion and guile when he can, force when he must. He's brilliant, charismatic, ruthless, lonely, has secret access to technology far beyond that of his subjects, and cooks a really mean pot of chili.

Campaign Ideas

This is an unbeatable sourcebook for a starfaring special-ops campaign. A party would be a "Mantis Team" of four to eight widely-assorted specialists in mayhem. They could be sent anywhere, to snoop, assassinate or support more conventional troops. Mantis Teams have the best training, the best equipment and by far the worst missions.

This would also work as a background for a more conventional space-battle campaign. At one point in Sten's career, he commands a small unit of space raiders – starfaring PT boats, with lots of room for individual initiative. In a campaign situation, this would probably mean that each PC would command a small ship, with an NPC crew . . . attacking shipping, sneak-attacking planetary bases, convoying friendly craft . . .with the occasional planetside R&R.

The Background

Sten's universe is typical space opera, with an interesting and cinematic mix of tech levels. Interstellar travel, powered by AM2 (Antimatter 2) is very fast indeed; ships use both Yukawa (normal-space) and AM2 drives. However, ships fight with guns and missiles, land battles use tanks, and infantrymen (and women – all military forces are equal-opportunity) carry slugthrowers. Of course, the slugs contain a speck of antimatter!

Most of the known galaxy seems to be human-dominated, but there are lots of aliens, allied and otherwise – many with interesting special abilities. The Empire is the strongest interstellar government, but it has many rivals.

The Books

There are six books so far, all published by Del Rey, and no reason to think Cole and Bunch are planning to stop. Sten introduces our hero and his allies, and sends him through training and early missions. The Wolf Worlds is a special-ops adventure, in which Sten and Alex raise a small army and expend it in a nasty little war. In The Court of a Thousand Suns, Sten becomes an Imperial bodyguard as an interstellar war is starting. Fleet of the Damned and Revenge of the Damned drop Sten into the Imperial navy and track him and Alex through that war, with a stint as POWs. As the latter book – and the war – end, the Eternal Emperor is assassinated, thoroughly and messily. But he is immortal, after all. Book 6 is The Return of the Emperor . . .

(Later note: Cole and Bunch wrote two more books to end the series. Vortex is, to quote Allan Cole, "special ops and diplomatic chaos." In Empire's End, Sten and Alex track down the Emperor's secret laboratory and learn how he became immortal.)

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