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Hack For More

MORE FILLER: Science-Fiction

by Edward McEneely
Sep 07,2004


Hack For More

MORE FILLER: Science-Fiction

Well, I'm tired of numbering my filler columns, since I'm not counting them as part of my total number of "actual" columns. So from now on, they're all just "More Filler". Take a slice of THAT piece of pie, if you will.

At any rate, the last filler column I did that wasn't the result of fever dealt with the conspiracy genre. This time, we'll look at science-fiction.

I used to consider myself a science-fiction fan when I was younger. I loved Dr. Who, Star Wars, Battletech, and Star Trek. In retrospect of course, most of these are sort of prepackaged mass-consumption-friendly alternatives to the "real" thing, but I didn't know that at the time. I was really just in search of books that transposed the military technology of yesteryear into the deathspitting gadgets of the future. I didn't want the trauma of growing up as a gifted pawn of the military-educational complex a la Ender's Game, I wanted deathspitting dreadnoughts and battlecruisers falling into formation, holographic White Ensigns snapping in the ether as they prepared to refight Jutland, this time with the war-ending decisive outcome to end all wars, at least until the sequel. I wasn't interested in ethical implications or plot, just the capabilities of the weapons and whether or not the creatures behind them were human or not.

I got into gaming originally with WEG's Star Wars RPG, pretty much a classic '90s-era rules-light game in the best West End tradition; I haven't played a D6 system game in years, but I still think it's one of the best introductions to gaming ever. It was a nice, reasonably smooth and well-adjusted introduction to gaming, without all those bothersome fantasy trappings. I confess, AD&D had never intrigued me; I wasn't interested in elves, or magic, or any of that. Oh, lord, no. I wanted my blaster and my spaceship with the secret smuggling compartments from Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters. But you know, simple mechanics and a universe I knew and loved only primed me for more. I moved on, to FASA's Mechwarrior 2 RPG, cunningly named after the computer game, rather than the more jejune "Mechwarrior, Second Edition", or perhaps "Changes That Belonged In An Eighty-Page Supplement". I loved Battletech the tabletop game; still do, in fact. I have the better part of a reinforced regiment of the 3rd Crucis Lancers RCT all painted up and waiting for the unlikely moment when all 100+ of them are hurled into battle against the despicable cardboard counters of my more fiscally-prudent foes, who all realized that you don't need a metric ton of lead to play Battletech. Of course, the Mechwarrior RPG suffered from the serious problem of being a mere adjunct to a tactical game involving fairly heavy-duty recordkeeping. If I'd cut my teeth on, say, AD&D or (God forbid) Rolemaster, I might have had the organizational smarts necessary to plan out complex formations of random foes to fling at my PCs at any moment. But I never really did, and the game was optimized for played---you guessed it---Mechwarriors. (The latest edition of the game, retitled the Classic Battletech RPG, discards the old rules system, which at least had the virtue of being combatible with the tabletop system and replaces them with a not-terribly-well-thought-out new system. At least you're encouraged to explore the universe, I suppose, although the current state of Battletech's universe is kind of unsuited for adventuring in the way that the original era was. But whatever.)

It was about that time that I read about Conspiracy X (during a brief stint as a library shelver, fired for reading too much and not shelving at all) in a Dragon magazine article, and science-fiction was temporarily abandoned for conspiracy role-playing (q.v.). But around the same time, I picked up the first of the Honor Harrington novels.

Now, I know that among a certain segment of the population, David Weber has achieved a certain stature; like Michael Stackpole (Battletech and Star Wars novels), he's a sucessful hack who knows what his audience wants: wooden, predictable characters, a few big battle scenes, and a little catering. To be fair, it isn't as easy as it sounds; plenty of other hacks have tried and failed to follow in their footsteps; only one or two others (R. A. Salvatore and the unspeakable Kevin J. Anderson) have achieved anything like near their stature. It's interesting to note that both Stackpole and Weber got their starts as game designers, not of RPGs (although there's a little of that), but as wargame writers; Stackpole for Flying Buffalo, Weber for, uh...crap, I can't remember, but they made Starfire, and we might have known their names if (like the Battletech novels that got Stackpole started on his upward climb) there had been any mention of the actual game anywhere in the books, which in true game-fiction style, are populated with cardboard characters who make you yearn for the next space battle, when a lucky hit might remove a few more of them from the book. Unless there are flashbacks. Oh, God, don't let there be flashbacks. Basically the four books that Weber wrote about Starfire (Crusade, In Death Ground, The Shiva Option, and Insurrection) are painful reading if taken solely as novels. If you listen for the dice rolling during fight scenes, though, they do suggest a fairly interesting game. I'll be honest: the books made me grind my teeth, but I would never have bought the game without them. So, I suppose that in the end, they served their purpose.

Whoa, that was a long digression. Sometimes I just put those in to see if anyone even reads this column anymore.

At any rate, at the time, there weren't any RPGs that really did the Honor Harrington thang. (I understand an Honor Harrington game is coming out soon, probably for D20. TOO LATE, DAVID WEBER! Nice try!) I soon became involved in the horrid infection that is Warhammer 40,000, weathered the narrow shoals that are the gothic-future genre, and wound up playing Fading Suns. (I could have mentioned Rifts as a science-fiction game, but I prefer to think of it as some sort of weird double-y chromosone of games, the crazy karyotype, if you will.)

Fading Suns was the last science-fiction game I really played. I own dozens of games, but most of the ones I purchased after 1999 or so are just glorified collectibles. Somewhere along the line, I just plain lost the ability to memorize the vast amounts of information that you need to GM a game sucessfully; I can recite Star Wars by heart, I know most of GURPS 3rd Edition, but I can't for the life of me tell you how either LUG or Decipher's Star Trek games work. Actually, come to think of it, the designers seemed to have the same problem.

I've always enjoyed comfort food. I'm not a gourmet. When it comes to RPGs, I have a lot that I like conceptually, but when you get right down to it, I only play a very few.

So, here ends another long, rambling column. Until RPG.net pulls me, there should be one a week.

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