Saturday, May 13, 2023

Mike Pondsmith is AWESOME!

During the late 80's and early 90's Michael Alyn Pondsmith was my absolute favorite RPG designer. Mike was way ahead of his time. His designs were clean and innovative and not at all D&D. Any of Mike's early game designs could easily find their way to my gaming table today. They all still work.

One thing that sets Mike apart is that he doesn't care for the fantasy genre that drives the bulk of the RPG industry. His biggest early influence wasn't D&D, but Traveller. Mike was open to experimenting with different genres and settings that no one else was looking at. Mike's first published game was Mekton. The system for Mekton was based on an unpublished game by Mike called Imperial Star. Imperial Star was Mike's first TRPG work: a redesign of Traveller. Mekton was inspired by the Mobile Suit Gundam manga. 

In 1984, manga was not widely available in the U.S. Mike was creating content for a very niche and untapped market. (This trend will continue.) Mekton was popular enough that Mike decided to make a go at publishing RPGs professionally. To that end he founded R. Talisorian Games in 1985. The company is named after the father of a friend, who fronted the start-up money for that original publication of Mekton. I don't believe that this was any kind of requirement from Mr. Talisorian, but rather a gesture of appreciation from Mike.

R. Talisorian Games' first publication was a reprint of Mekton (Mekton second edition) in 1986, followed by another manga/anime inspired game: Teenagers from Outer Space in 1987. Where Mekton was inspired by mecha anime, Teenagers was inspired by comedy anime like: Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2. (I love Ranma 1/2!) Also, in 1987 was the release of Mekton II, which upgraded the game mechanics of Mekton and introduced the world to the "interlock" system.

In 1988 Mike published, Cyberpunk. This is arguably Mike's most successful property, and the newest edition: Cyberpunk Red was released in 2020. (Each Cyberpunk edition has a different name to distinguish it. The first edition of Cyberpunk is now often referred to as Cyberpunk 2013 after the time period where that game is set.) I never much cared for the cyberpunk genre, but I tip my hat to Mike for again pushing RPG content in new directions.

In 1992 Mike published the TRPG called: Dream Park based on the 1981 novel Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. I LOVE the Dream Park RPG. As a game designer, Dream Park is my single greatest influence. It is one of my favorite games of all time, but because it's tightly tied to an existing property that R. Talisorian no longer has the rights to, it is probably forever relegated to the domain of abandonware.

In 1994 came Castle Falkenstein, a steam punk TRPG. Castle won the Origins award for best RPG rules the year it came out and is Mike's most critically acclaimed design. Again, Mike is way ahead of his time. Castle uses cards called fortune cards instead of dice because he felt that it better fit the genre and the time period. Two years later, Dragonlance Fifth Age is published by TSR using cards called a Fate Deck. Coincidence? No.  Mike worked for TSR briefly in 1990. The only thing that I own from that period is the Buck Rogers XXVc game. (It's awesome!)

There are numerous parallels between 5th Age and Castle not only in game design, but also in presentation and aesthetic. I am certain that I have Mike to thank (at least indirectly) for TSR's SAGA system and my favorite all time superhero TRPG, which is the design inspiration for Royal Treasures! (My newest work on Double Trouble borrows heavily from Dream Park. I owe Mike a lot for my current design work.) 

In 1997 Mike worked with Hero Games to create a system that combined the Hero system and the Interlock system. This new game system was called Fuzion. Sadly, I don't think Fuzion is a good system. I think both original systems are better on their own. I did own the Champions: New Era game that used the system. (I don't have it anymore.) It was around this time that R. Talisorian Games announced a publication hiatus. Mike left the TRPG industry to work in computer game design. (Don't worry. He's back now.)

Mike is one of the legacy greats of the TRPG industry right up there with Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax ... a trend setter ... a visionary ... an innovator ... an incredible game designer. Mike Pondsmith is awesome!

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