Even in the busiest of seasons, smaller games deserve some attention. In that spirit, welcome to Month of Coverage Club. Come back each day in November for a full-length impressions piece based on a hidden gem you’ve probably never heard of.
Note: The vast majority of our Galaxy of Pen and Paper playthrough occurred before the recent +1 update went live. The update contained numerous quality-of-life changes, as well as offering more playable classes, races, and roleplayers. The core gameplay remains unchanged.
The 90s are a cultural cornerstone for geek fandom. Star Wars, Ursula K. LeGuin, Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke; while all of these series and authors had their genesis in the latter half of the 20th century. The proliferation of technology and the Internet made their imagined futures seem closer than ever. Galaxy of Pen and Paper is set during these late 1990s, blending turn-based RPG action with a healthy dose of self-awareness and sci-fi references. A spiritual sequel to developer Behold Studios’ earlier Knights of Pen and Paper, Galaxy of Pen and Paper captures the essence of 20th-century tabletop gaming, though not without mistakes.
At its core, Galaxy of Pen and Paper is a tabletop RPG simulator, right down to the DM and the players you create. Included are simulated dice rolls, a smattering of NPCs, stat sheets, constant real-world interruptions and more. As you might expect, players trade in their swords and magic for laser blasters and “psi powers.” You create roleplayers by choosing from any number of different archetypes. You can also pick from a number of fabulous hairstyles and clothing options.
In addition to a party of your own design, Galaxy of Pen and Paper pushes the responsibility of battle design on you too. You can stack up to six enemies, making fights as easy or difficult as you want. The tougher your fights, the better the rewards. Galaxy of Pen and Paper further mixes up the combat by limiting characters to just four skills, both passive and active. While this may seem restrictive, all of your party’s skills play off of one another and trigger different effects. Subsequently, all of the classes feel useful and play an essential role.
It’s not just battles you’re creating, either. Nearly all of the sidequests are player-created too. Escort missions, exterminations, resource collection, the list goes on. You select the quest giver, the target, and the planet it takes place on. You add text and visual flair to avoid monotony. While giving players the ability to design their own quests sounds like a brilliant idea, there’s too little mission variety to make sidequests anything more than a dull chore. Completing sidequests may earn you more reputation and unlock further passive boosts, but the rewards are so meager that there’s little incentive to do them.
The traits/stereotypes you select earlier come into play when exploring the various systems and worlds scattered across Galaxy of Pen and Paper. Random encounters are a staple of any tabletop game. Your role players’ character traits inform what choices you make therein. Will you start a bar brawl? Sneak into a room in a hotel? Gamble in a dark corner? Perhaps just try to strike up some friendly conversation? All of these choices stem from your created traits, and each one has different consequences. There’s far too little variety in the random encounters, but it’s a nice way to keep exploration interesting.
In keeping with its 90s themes, Galaxy of Pen and Paper comes with a jammin’ soundtrack that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Genesis or SNES game. There are plenty of rad synthesizer tones, both in battle and out in the world. There’s a peppy, upbeat tone in the music that complements the writing well and fits the sci-fi themed universe that Galaxy of Pen and Paper inhabits.
The campy narrative and lighthearted writing is easily Galaxy of Pen and Paper‘s strong suit. Sure, your roleplayers and DM are all stereotypical nerds and dorks who eat too much pizza and make thinly-veiled references to Star Trek, but the earnest nature of the characters is more charming than suffocating. The persistent “can-do” speeches and unflappable personalities blend well. The writing endears itself to you in the same way as a SyFy Original Movie.
Strip away its veneer of meta-humor and tabletop simulations and Galaxy of Pen and Paper is a frighteningly dull game. Even if you consistently design difficult encounters for your party, there’s almost no challenge to be found. Worse yet, there are no real consequences for losing. Additionally, story missions and boss fights award heaps of experience. It’s to the point where you’ll quickly never need to do extraneous encounters. The ship-to-ship combat is mindless and scanning for resources on planets reminds one (unfavorably) of Mass Effect‘s Mako sequences.
In giving players the choice of how to create roleplayers, DMs, and their characters, Behold Studios opted not for character development. They instead focused on some lovable character archetypes. Your created DM is the one who steadily evolves over the story. They grapple with untimely interruptions from Mom, chat room trolls and a cousin that’s a little too eager to play. The DM’s missteps and improvisation have the same awkward and panicky feel of playing a tabletop game in real life. The character arc shows promise, even across my eight or so hours.
Even with a dorky cast of characters and self-referential wit, Galaxy of Pen and Paper can’t escape the gravitational pull of its tedious gameplay. Better mission design and gated progress may be products of modern RPGs, but their use here would be invaluable. For all of Knights of Pen and Paper‘s innovations, Galaxy of Pen and Paper could have used something more. While the recent +1 update shows that Behold Studios is listening to feedback, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
TechRaptor covered Galaxy of Pen and Paper on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer. The game is also available on Android and iOS devices.