The New OSR 2: The Many Engines of Cepheus

In my last post, I tried to make a case for using the Cepheus Engine (open source Traveller) as the basis for a OSR-like community. Since it’s a completely open-source game, anyone can make their own version, and a number of people have. In this post, I wanted to talk about some of the major variations of Cepheus. The intention here is that a prospective Cepheus game designer could choose what version of Cepheus was closest to their vision of what their game or setting should be, and use that version as a starting point.

Cepheus Engine SRD

The original version of Cepheus was the Cepheus Engine SRD by Jason “Flynn” Kemp. This initial version is probably the most like Traveller. It’s particularly indebted to MegaTraveller and Classic Traveller. There’s an editable DOCX format version available, that’d be particularly useful for making your own games based on this. I prefer the later variations of Cepheus for designing stuff, but this is still an excellent game, and where all of this started. Many, if not most of the existing Cepheus settings use this as their source.

This is probably the crunchiest version of the Cepheus Engine, with the most old-school feel. If compatibility with Traveller is important to your project, this is certainly the best choice.

Important Points:

  • Generation of stats is completely random – 2d6 for all of them
  • Like Traveller, Cepheus uses careers to generate characters – sort of an early lifepath system. There are 24 different careers to choose from.
  • Also like old-school Traveller, you can die during character creation.
  • Damage goes directly to characters stats: END/STR/DEX
  • Detailed world generation and space travel rules

Here’s an online version of the SRD you can look at.

Cepheus Deluxe

Cepheus Deluxe is a much more stripped-down version of Cepheus by Omer Golan-Joel and Josh Peters, published by Stellagama Publishing. If you’re designing a new system, or a setting for Cepheus, there’s a Word version of this available as well. This might be my favorite version of Cepheus for developing new stuff. It’s just a bit more clearly written, and a little easier to customize. I’m also fond of some of the changes they made to the original system.

Here’s some of the big differences from the original SRD:

  • Instead of rolling stats, Cepheus Deluxe defaults to an array of number the player can assign to stats.
  • 10 Careers to choose from
  • Damage in Cepheus Deluxe goes directly to the derived stats Stamina and Lifeblood. Initial damage goes to Stamina, after that it goes to Lifeblood. When Lifeblood is zero, the character is dead.
  • It adds Traits – special abilities to customize characters.
  • Hero Points: Optional rule to make the game a bit pulpier. Players can spend these to re-roll their dice, or force the GM to re-roll their dice.
  • Encumbrance is simplified, instead of counting kilograms, the player can carry a number of items equal to 7 + their STR bonus.
  • Robot design rules

There’s a free version called Cepheus Light (available for free download) that is equivalent to Deluxe, but with a lot of the extraneous rules removed. If you’re just designing a quick setting or adventure, Cepheus Light is good enough to get started with.

The Quantum Engine

As the original OSR went on, a lot of the games that came out of it gradually separated themselves from the specific mechanics of old school D&D, while keeping a lot of the flavor. I’m thinking of games like Whitehack, Cairn, and Mörk Borg.  Something very similar is happening with the Quantum Engine, a PWYW SRD from Stellagama Publishing. It’s not quite as compatible with some of the older Traveller stuff, but would be a great basis for smaller, lighter games that need to be heavily customized to a particular setting. Currently, Barbaric!, (a sword-and-sorcery RPG) and Cepheus Atom (A post-apocalypse Gamma World-style system) both use this ruleset. You can download the SRD in multiple formats here.

Changes from the original Cepheus:

  • Instead of the usual STR/DEX/END/INT/EDU/SOC stats, it uses a standard set of skills. It’s usually Combat, Technical, Knowledge, Physical, Social, Stealth. It’s assumed different settings using this SRD will add their own skills (Sorcery, Survival)
  • It uses Endurance/Lifeblood rules to track damage.
  • In addition to traits, it includes a series of combat moves, that could be used to make combat a bit more tactical.

There’s also a free one-page version of the Quantum Engine called Cepheus Quantum. It’s designed for use at the table, more as a light system to actually be run, rather than as a design tool. 

Inspired by Quantum, I made my own version designed to fit on a business card for an old game jam. It’s called Planck, and is free to download. Not really useful for designing anything – I’m just fond of it.

What’s Next?

Next post in this Cepheus as a New OSR series will list a number of sources of useful stuff, on and offline, for designing your own Cepheus setting.

4 thoughts on “The New OSR 2: The Many Engines of Cepheus

    1. That’s interesting, I hadn’t seen that one before. Thanks for the link.

      It seems to be in a specific niche – crunchier than Cepheus Quantum, lighter than Cepheus: Faster Than Light


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