Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Role Playing Games Part 4 - Science Fiction Games

I was in love with role-playing games, not D&D specifically … but, role-playing games. I couldn’t get enough of them. I loved trying out new settings, new genres, new methods of play and game mechanics. I was the guy in my game group who always wanted to bring something new to the table. Sure, there was Timemaster, but that was a pale imitation of the game that I really wanted, Doctor Who!

I have a copy of the Doctor Who Adventures Through Time And Space boxed set sitting on my game shelf. The game is ambitious in its attempts to simulate every possible contingency in every period of the past, present and future. The game was published by FASA a company known for producing a very complicated tactical space combat game based in the Star Trek universe called, Starfleet Battles. I ran Doctor Who for a very short time.

Doctor Who is a solid game, but it’s too complicated for Doctor Who. I actually only own a copy (currently) because I received it as a gift. Given that it represents a cherished piece of my past, it is a valued gift. But, I don’t often look at it, and I know that I won’t play it again. It’s just too complicated, and I own better games.

One thing that the Doctor Who game did demonstrate is that a game can be very complex and very thorough, and utilize only the simple six-sided dice as its randomizer. Remember that I mentioned creating my own D&D(ish) rules so that I could use ordinary dice? Well, collecting game systems that feature the humble six-sided cube has become something of an obsession. In fact, two more such games soon found their way into my collection: Traveller and Star Wars.

Traveller is an interesting game. It’s resolution system is super simple. Roll 2 dice. Add your skill modifier (usually a 0, 1, 2 or 3.) If the result is 8 or higher, you have achieved whatever it is you were trying to do. Traveller didn’t try to do anything tricky or clever with the dice or its systems. Despite this, the game itself was very detailed. Traveller is still in print today and the version I have is a hard cover book published in 2008. The Mongoose edition updates the rules a bit, but stays true to the original. I like it.

Traveller is considered “hard” science fiction by most. The design of the game took into consideration the science of space travel. Space battles and dog-fights weren’t really a thing in Traveller. Mostly, players were tasked with finding enough work just to make their payments on their ship and to keep it in the air. This non-heroic vision of the future, makes Traveller an acquired taste for many players. (I personally theorize that playing Traveller was an inspiration in Joss Whedon’s creation of Firefly.)

While Traveller was a “non-heroic” look at a hardcore sci-fi future, the Star Wars RPG was the complete opposite. Star Wars introduced me (and the world?) to the concept of dice pools. The idea here is that you roll one die and if you get a 5 or a 6, that’s a success. To add some utility, the more skill your character has, the more dice you get to roll (a dice pool) increasing your odds of success. To push this just a little further, difficult tasks required more than one success, and so you have a nice little escalation of skill vs. difficulty. Dice pool systems are clean and easy, and Star Wars may be the first place this kind of system was used.

Star Wars the RPG was fast and furious. Rolling handfuls of dice was fun! The original Star Wars RPG book is a masterpiece in capturing the Star Wars theme. Unlike the Doctor Who game, Star Wars was perfect at capturing the spirit of its source material. The Star Wars license has moved around over the years and the company that originally published the Star Wars RPG is long out of business. The recent owners of the Star Wars license, Fantasy Flight Games published a deluxe reprint of the original Star Wars RPG a few years ago. If you can find one of these, I recommend picking one up.

As a side-note, my copy of Star Wars has a small red Kool-Aid stain on a few of its pages. This stain was put there by my little brother Chris, marking the book as one of the few original RPGs in my collection that I have not replaced. I have somehow managed to keep it for over 30 years, following its original purchase by me from a comic shop in Belleville, IL in 1987.

I began this post mostly chronologically. Timemaster, Doctor Who, Traveller, and Star Wars were some of the first games I played following D&D. They all also happen to be Science Fiction games. Glancing over at my shelf, I do have a few other Sci-fi games. Tiny Frontiers is a super clean and simple six-sided dice driven Sci-fi game of space exploration. I love the “Tiny D6” system and will be touching on it again soon. I also have a supplement for Tiny Frontiers called: Mecha And Monsters.

I have Buck Rogers XXVc, Dream Park, and Mekton II all designed by a game designer named Mike Pondsmith, whose work I really admire. Dream Park is another solid system that uses the much beloved six-sided die. It’s based on a series of books by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. The Buck Rogers game was published by TSR (the Publishers of Dungeons & Dragons) and is the first time that I know of that a designer applied the D&D game system to a different game. It’s really well done. Mekton II is an anime inspired giant mech pilot RPG. (Pondsmith is an anime fan and he produced some of the earliest anime inspired RPG work that I know about.) It uses a random “life path” system to create your character’s backstory by rolling dice, and I really like it.

I have Rogue Trader which is a RPG set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Rogue Trader uses a version of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-play rules. (I have fond memories of that game and will speak about it again.) And finally, while I may imagine that Joss Whedon created Firefly after playing Traveller, I still had to rush out and buy the Serenity RPG when it came out. Like Star Wars before it, Serenity is a masterpiece in capturing its theme in both its game system and its presentation.

The success of Serenity led Margret Weis Publishing to produce a number of RPGs using variations of the game system introduced in Serenity, and I will be talking about another of those in the future. Margret in addition to being a successful RPG publisher is a fantasy author who originally wrote fantasy fiction for Dungeons & Dragons (the Dragon Lance novels.) She is from Independence, MO and graduated from the University of Missouri like my Julie!

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