Let’s start, as we always do, with some personal updates. I’ve been a busy
little bee since my last column. I’m hard at work on three contracts for White
Wolf, one for Green Knight, and
another one for Microtactix. I’ve
also landed a very nice contract from Dream Pod 9,
the results of which you should see before summer 2001. Fourth Millennium
also has a new home on the Web at (not surprisingly) www.fourth-millennium.com.
Assuming I can find the time between all this other work, you should see 4M
(using the spiffy Simply
Roleplaying! game mechanics) sometime next year.
My latest publication is Shattered Coast for Pinnacle’s
Deadlands: Hell on Earth. It was a fun project to work on, so if I you
like it, petition the good folks at Pinnacle to bring me back in the future.
I’d love to work on Lost Colony.
What a difference two years can make, huh? A little over
two years ago, I began this column with what I called “The State of the Genre
Report.” In it, I presented an overview of the science fiction roleplaying
game genre and how well it was faring. I also made a number of predictions about
the future of the industry and SF’s place within it. To celebrate two years of
“Hard Science,” I thought it’d be interesting to take a look back at that original
column and see what I got right and what I got wrong and why. Then, I’ll
present some additional reflections on how I see things as of September 2000.
Let’s start by looking at the various games I discussed way back in 1998.
Traveller: Since 1998, GURPS Traveller has proven a
remarkably successful addition to Steve
Jackson Games’ growing GURPS line. I have been told that the books
regularly sell better than many GURPS title, doing much better than
anyone had anticipated two years ago. Moreover, there have been ten releases
since August 1998, which is a respectable pace of publication. GURPS is
still far from my favorite game system, but I cannot fault its ability to inject
new life into what I feared would be a moribund setting. Heck, I’ve even written
for GURPS Traveller and expect to do so again in the future.
However, the revision of Traveller produced by the game’s creator, Marc
Miller, has yet to see publication. I still doubt its likelihood, particularly
since Mr. Miller has been releasing reprints of Classic Traveller supplements
over the last year. From where I sit, it’s probably just as well. Like it or
not, GURPS Traveller is Traveller now – and its future looks
secure for the next several years at least.
Star Wars: Back in 1998, West
End Games had only just lost the license to produce Star Wars roleplaying
materials. In the meanwhile, industry giant Wizards
of the Coast has acquired the license. Its version of the Star Wars RPG,
using the D20 system of Dungeons & Dragons, will appear this
November. As I’ve said in previous columns, I remain hopefully optimistic that
WotC can produce a quality product that’s both true to the source material and
not limited by it. Having become very familiar with the D20 system over the past
few months, I have no doubt that it could be made to serve Star Wars quite
well. My only concern remains whether the support material will show the depth
and breadth that the setting has to offer, rather than rehashes of what we see
in the movies or read in the novels.
Of course, being in the hands of WotC, it’s a certainty that the new Star
Wars RPG will reach a wide and receptive audience. Coupled with its
mechanical similarity to the hugely successful D&D3, it’s my hope
that it’ll once again become the entry-level drug into this hobby of ours for
a whole new generation of gamers.
Fading Suns: This game is alive and well and living in 2000,
having released a second edition just over a year ago. If anything, Fading
Suns is stronger than before. The game mechanics are still a bit clunky for
my tastes, but the setting is as rich and detailed as ever. In fact, the second
edition pushed the boundaries of SF roleplaying with its emphasis on passion and
personalities, making it the “Pendragon of SF RPGs.” At the same
time, the pace of supplement production has slowed somewhat, which may make it
less visible to new players. Fading Suns continues to impress me. I only
wish it had a wider audience and that Holistic
Design did a better job of promoting the game to SF players looking for
something different than the usual space opera.
Trinity: White Wolf’s
foray into the world of science fiction was less than successful. Two years ago,
I didn’t much care for Trinity. Since then, I’ve grown to like it
quite a bit more, which is why I suppose it was relegated to the ArtHaus line,
White Wolf’s imprint for less popular game lines. The first and only ArtHaus
supplement for Trinity was released early this year and sold quite well,
I am told. However, no new supplements have appeared since then and I am not
certain when – or if – new supplements will appear. Even if they do appear,
I don’t think Trinity will be a significant factor in the SF gaming
market again, which is a shame.
Alternity: Wizards of the Coast’s generic SF game is now dead,
although WotC’s preferred euphemism is “complete.” I’m sorry to see it
go, since I think it had some potential. At the same time, many of its best
elements have been incorporated into WotC’s D20 game system, which will in
turn be used in the Star Wars RPG. I didn’t expect Alternity to
die so quickly on the vine, given the effort and promotion WotC put into the
system. At the same time, its demise is perfectly understandable. WotC believes
its D20 engine is capable of adaptation to non-fantasy genres and see no need to
maintain multiple game systems. Time will tell whether that belief is correct.
Heavy Gear and the Jovian Chronicles: Both of Dream
Pod 9’s anime-inspired games are going strong, with many new releases
every year. While another Canadian company, Guardians
of Order, has appeared on the scene to produce games for the same niche
market, DP9 remains a significant contender. With the release of the Heavy
Gear cartoon series early next year, the RPG may get a higher profile. At
the very least, DP9 may get an influx of cash that’ll enable them to produce
more of the high quality games that have garnered them such respect among their
legions of fans.
Blue Planet: Now in its second edition, Blue Planet almost
didn’t make it to 2000. Its creators, Biohazard
Games, did a very poor job of supporting this innovative new game.
Fortunately, Fantasy Flight Games has come
along to save the game. The new edition is a two volume affairs with an improved
game system. I hope that FFG will support the game as it deserves. Otherwise,
the second edition will undoubtedly fade into the obscurity the first edition
Star Trek: Now things get interesting. Back in 1998, Last
Unicorn Games hadn’t yet released its new series of Star Trek RPGs.
When they did, I have to admit I was impressed. While the Icon System used in
the games was a serviceable effort, it was the quality of the writing that
impressed me most. The designers and freelancers who worked on the game clearly
loved Star Trek in all its forms. However, LUG proved financially
unstable, perhaps due to a lack of experience in handling such a high profile
license (I suspected as much back in 1998).
Enter Wizards of the Coast. This past summer, WotC appeared as a white knight,
acquiring LUG and – it was thought – its Trek license. With WotC’s
cash flow and distribution network, the future of the Star Trek RPGs
seemed secure. However, things are never simple in the world of licensing,
especially where Paramount is concerned. During the time that WotC was acquiring
LUG, customizable card game company Decipher
stepped in, using a loophole in LUG’s license with Paramount, to acquire the
license for themselves. This left WotC with LUG (now called “Wizards of the
Coast South”) but not the Star Trek licenses. For its part, Decipher
has indicated that it’d be creating its own game system for their version of
the Trek RPGs, to be released sometime in 2001 (I’m betting GenCon). In
addition, Decipher’s license terminates in 2005, guaranteeing (barring another
acquisition) that it stays with them for the next four and a half years.
Dune: In 1998, this game was scheduled for release “soon.” Two
years later, it’s only seen print in a 3000 copy limited edition. When WotC
acquired LUG, it also acquired rights to the Dune RPG. Unlike Paramount,
the Herbert Limited Partnership seems to have transferred the rights to Dune to
WotC without difficulty. However, in keeping with the WotC’s paradigm, Dune
won’t see general release until next summer, when it will become the third
D20 game, after D&D and Star Wars.
I have high hopes for Dune, but I fear they will
probably be misplaced. As much as I love Herbert's universe, I'm not certain it
has the pull with fans that something like Star Trek or Star Wars
does (or even Babylon 5, for goodness sake). Consequently, I suspect
it'll see print and die a quick death, as WotC decides that the license doesn't
generate enough revenue to be worth their efforts (Alternity was killed
for similar reasons, too –– that and its competition with D20). Too bad
really. I think Dune, done right, could become a SF version of Birthright,
another WotC setting that suffered from being a little too different from the
typical roelplaying paradigm. Time will tell, I guess. Here's an instance when I
hope my prognostications prove quite inaccurate.
Speaking of which, how did I do with my predictions from
two years ago? Not terribly badly but not hardly perfect either. I did give Alternity
a 60/40 chance of survival and came up on the short end of the numbers. I
also predicted that Star Trek would do better than I proved to. I did,
however, express some concern about Last Unicorn's ability to handle the license
properly, even if I turned out to be correct for reasons other than those I
suggested. I did predict that no "niche SF RPG" would reach the big
time, which was certainly true. I also recognized that Trinity would
probably fail to attract the numbers needed to keep it alive.
So, what does this all mean? It means that my previous
ebullient prediction of SF's rise among roleplaying games may need to be scaled
back somewhat. The release of D&D3 has turned a lot of people's minds
to fantasy. The release of the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy
next year will probably continue to add fuel to that fire for some time. At the
same time, there are a few new SF RPGs preparing to make their way to the market
within the next six to nine months, not counting the D20 version of Star Wars,
which could well reignite interest in the genre the way that D&D has
done so for fantasy.
Thus, I remain optimistic that SF is far from dead as a
roleplaying genre, but that optimism is tempered by the reality that it is and
probably always will be a "second stringer" in the industry's lineup.