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Hard Science

Second Anniversary Extravaganza

James Maliszewski
September 18, 2000

Lets start, as we always do, with some personal updates. Ive been a busy little bee since my last column. Im hard at work on three contracts for White Wolf, one for Green Knight, and another one for Microtactix. Ive 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 Pinnacles 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. Id 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 SFs place within it. To celebrate two years of Hard Science, I thought itd 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, Ill present some additional reflections on how I see things as of September 2000. Lets 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, Ive even written for GURPS Traveller and expect to do so again in the future.

However, the revision of Traveller produced by the games 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, its 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 Ive said in previous columns, I remain hopefully optimistic that WotC can produce a quality product thats 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, its 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, its my hope that itll 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 Wolfs foray into the world of science fiction was less than successful. Two years ago, I didnt much care for Trinity. Since then, Ive grown to like it quite a bit more, which is why I suppose it was relegated to the ArtHaus line, White Wolfs 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 dont think Trinity will be a significant factor in the SF gaming market again, which is a shame.

Alternity: Wizards of the Coasts generic SF game is now dead, although WotCs preferred euphemism is complete. Im 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 WotCs D20 game system, which will in turn be used in the Star Wars RPG. I didnt 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 9s 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 thatll 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 didnt 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 suffered.

Star Trek: Now things get interesting. Back in 1998, Last Unicorn Games hadnt 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 WotCs 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 LUGs 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 itd be creating its own game system for their version of the Trek RPGs, to be released sometime in 2001 (Im betting GenCon). In addition, Deciphers 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, its 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 WotCs paradigm, Dune wont 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.

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What do you think?

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