This article was supposed to be the start of an occasional series on what I call revenant games: long out-of-print gems (or near-misses) cluttering up my bookshelves. However, I can’t class Laserburn as a revenant, because it’s still in print and available for purchase through www.15mm.co.uk. Dedicated miniatures for the game are also available from the same website.
Laserburn is a science-fiction skirmish wargame written by Bryan Ansell (co-creator of Warhammer and one-time owner of Games Workshop, and now of Wargames Foundry), and published by Tabletop Games of Nottingham in 1980.
The main rulebook is 40 A5 pages, typed and staple-bound in a beige card cover. It had several supplements – Imperial Commander, and Forces of the Imperium, Advanced Laserburn & Aliens, and Robots. I lack Imperial Commander, which I think was the full wargame supplement.
The books were inexpensive, even for the early 1980s – my copy of Laserburn carries a Virgin pricetag of £1.95 (about $3). That also tells me I probably didn’t get my copies until 1983 or later, after Virgin Megastores started stocking RPGs and related geekery. Yes, kids, not only did Virgin stock games, they went into the field with gusto – for a while in the mid-80s they were absolutely the best-stocked shops for RPGs. Even today the rules are cheap (around £6).
I only got to play Laserburn a handful of times – most of my friends were into fantasy, not science fiction – but I found it fast and fun, particularly good for pick-up games lasting an hour or two. I’ve found another gamer an hour or two drive away who also has a copy, so I hope I’ll be able to play it again soon (he’s also going to introduce me to Warhammer 40K, which I’ve never played).
Ansell’s introduction to Laserburn lists his reasons and its purpose:
These rules were written originally as an adjunct to the various Sci Fi role playing rules available, to give a detailed and satisfactory method for simulating the heroic deeds of our characters in the assorted robberies, skirmishes and boarding actions they were involved in. But they soon grew to be a set of self-fulfilling Sci Fi rules that can be used as a role-playing system in their own right.
LASER BURN rules are designed around a game involving about 12-20 figures a side, but can be used successfully with far fewer or many more. You can use Laser Burn as a method of resolving combat situations in your role-playing Sci Fi campaign, or you can use them as we do, to play a connected series of games which will form a kind of saga involving your own characters.
We use them mainly to simulate battles involving roving bands of space pirates, outlaws and revolutionaries, intent on commiting sundry felonies, versus the forces of Law and Order, or rival groups.
Note the inconsistency of the game’s name. It’s variously presented as Laserburn, LaserBurn and, most commonly in the body text, as Laser Burn. I prefer Laserburn.
The game, which uses d100s and d6s, assumes each player will have a personal character and several sidekicks or henchmen.
Figures (or characters, the terms are used interchangeably) are rated as Conscript, Regular, Elite, Grizzled Veteran, Hardened Space Pirate or Hero. Each has a standard set of stats, which can be rolled randomly if preferred, and a points cost typical of competitive wargames.
Statistics are extremely simple: there are only three, all utterly practical – weapon skill, combat skill and initiative. A Grizzled Veteran’s statblock looks like this: 150.70.15, which means a weapon skill (ranged combat) of 150% (that’ll be reduced by range, target’s armour and other factors), combat skill (melee) of 70% and initiative of 15. Highest initiative moves first, but players can opt to hold a figure’s action until later.
In addition, each figure other than conscripts or regulars has a chance to have one or more skills. The number of skills is rolled randomly; all characters have a 1/3 chance of having no special skill, a Elite may have one or two skills, a Hero might start with as many as 6 skills.
The 14 skills presented are all extremely combat oriented: weapon skill, reflexes, survival instinct, nerves of steel, jetpack, jetcycle etc. Streetwise functions only to find blackmarket weapons (there’s an availability table).
1983’s Advanced Laserburn, by Tony Ackland, another designer later associated with Games Workshop, introduced more detailed character stats and 10 non-combat skills.
Anyway, roll to hit in either melee or ranged combat, and if sucessful move to the damage rules, which although simple, have a little more detail than I’d expect from a skirmish game. In particular, there’s a hit location chart, which determines the damage done and its effects. The game has no hit points – you end up with instant death, KO, serious wound or light wound, the latter two reducing a figure’s effectiveness in that combat.
There’s a morale system intended to stop suicide attacks, and a brief experience system so characters surviving a combat can improve statstics and have a chance of learning a new (randomly determined) skill.
Available equipment is also entirely combat oriented. Melee weapons include swords and daggers, SF weapons like power gloves capable of ripping a limb off, and force swords. Ranged weapons include lasers, bolt guns (which should be familiar to W40K players), needlers, slug throwers, flamers and the iconic sunguns, which fire “superheated burning chemical at high velocity”. I like the name sungun so much, it’s become the nickname of fusion guns in my Traveller games. Amour ranges from flak jackets to powered combat armour and culminates in Dreadnought armour.
There are no vehicles in basic Laserburn except for jetpacks and jetcycles. Jetpacks allow a jump across the battlefield, after a turn of powering up, and jetcycles can race across the ground or, if they build up enough speed, take off.
Medical supplies and three combat drugs are also available.
The optional setting for Laserburn occupies two pages in the back of the book. Warhammer 40K players will find it strangely familiar. There are no space orks or Eldar, but the Imperium, the Inquisition and the Lord Knights are there. The Imperium’s main rivals are the Red Redemption, a splinter human group of African and Middle Eastern origin said to be identical to the Imperium, except these chaps worship Allah. The Redemption’s leaders have their flesh flayed and their armour welded onto them. I don’t really detect any Islamophobia in the presentation of the Redemption (though there may be some ignorance); it’s made perfectly clear that the Imperium and the Redemption are as bad as each other. That being said, I’ll ask Muslim friends what they think.
It isn’t clear whether or not the Imperium has a religion, though the presence of the Inquisition gives the impression that it’s supposed to be a warped form of Christianity.
Frontier worlds away from the direct influence of either the Imperium or the Redemption are the haven of smugglers, pirates, and freedom-loving rebels, and it’s here that Laserburn seems to suggest most adventures should take place.
Despite Ansell’s assertions that Laserburn can be used as a role-playing game, I don’t see it. It’s a miniatures-based skirmish wargame, and an excellent one at that. There’s no fluff except the two-page background, just a fast and furious combat system.
If you’re interested, I’d highly recommend getting a copy of the basic Laserburn rules yourself. As I mentioned, the game is still available in what appears to be the original edition. (Update- shortly after writing this, I did order a box of 15mm Laserburn minis, which came with the new set of the rules; it’s a spiral bound A4 photocopy of the original A5 booklet – but still a great system. The minis are as good as ever.)
And, incidentally, those 15mm Laserburn law officers make great minis for Judge Dredd games.