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Science Fiction Games


This past year has been fairly busy for science fiction games. We've seen the release of TSR's mega-rpg (trust me, this has to be what they want to compare with AD&D) Alternity, the release of Gurps Traveller, a Star Trek rpg, more support for Fading Suns (as someone once commented, what AD&D should have been-- systemwise that is), and Dream Pod 9's Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles. There were certainly more games but these caught my eye. Oh, Babylon Five seemed to go under, and Star Wars-- God only knows where it was or where it is going to go. Though it was encouraging to find out that they were selling a new printing of the Second Edition Revised rulebook.

There's some good stuff out there, but its almost too much trying to figure out system, and background. So this Screaming Jackass is going to do some explaining and extrapolating.

The single best world background-- perhaps for all time-- is found in Blue Planet. This book has a hard science fiction edge to it, and its central character of a beautiful water world is spectacular. I've never read of a more convincing world. This stuff is beautifully put together. Its too bad that they didn't spend as much time on the game system itself, because its a mess. Combine this book with Alternity or Gurps and you have the makings of an awesome near future campaign.

Dream Pod 9 has continued to support its Jovian Chronicles and Heavy Gear lines. Though over the past year it has seemed that Jovian Chronicles is just twisting in the wind. I have to admit that sometimes I am bored reading through this stuff-- though the last ship book was interesting for its look into the life of some of the people who serve aboard these ships-- and the diagrams were exquisite.

Heavy Gear has been retooled recently with a lot of second edition stuff floating around. I never wanted to get involved in Heavy Gear, but I bought a copy of the Tactical Boxed set ( a week before it went on sale for %10 off-- always wait in December for the end of the month when companies try to blow through inventory for tax purposes). What a mistake on my part. Despite the fact that it was grotesquely overpriced (as much DP9 stuff seems to be) this set grabbed me. The background is compelling, and I had to learn more about this world. As far as worlds go Heavy Gear is a close second to the world in Blue Planet. Those folks at DP9 have done an exemplary job of designing a world that gamers want to play in!

Fading Suns has really filled in its product line over the past year. We've been able to get information on Nobles and Church in the past, and it was nice to get information on Merchants. Apparently we'll also be getting more information on the various aliens in the setting in their War In The Heavens trilogy of modules. I like what Holistic Design has done throughout there Fading Suns line, but I have never felt that this was a true science fiction game. Its a weird mix, and the mix works-- but this game straddles a number of genre fences.

The recent boxed set Noble Armadas was very interesting, but I was disappointed in the expense of the set. I have also felt that more attention has been given to the setting of the universe as a whole than to individual planets. They have released a sourcebook on Byzantium Secundus, the Imperial throneworld, but it was just okay. It will be interesting to see how they fare with the release of smaller and cheaper books that will detail the holdings of the various rulers in this universe.

Star Trek was interesting-- though for the life of me I cannot figure out why they called their system the Icon system. I just felt that the book was kind of "fluffy." It lacked some races that I wanted to see in there, and despite its thickness it felt incomplete. I do not like having to buy other books in a line to collect information that the main rules lack!

Gurps Traveller was a huge disappointment. The books have been marred by too little playtesting, and an unwieldy mix of writers who know either Traveller or Gurps-- but not both. This game needs someone who can do both-- then the whole line will pick up. Gurps Traveller was nice for one thing though, it really helped to put to rest in my mind some of the mysteries that had been a part of the Traveller universe for many years. There they were in the main rule book explained for my enjoyment. That was a nice bonus, to find things wrapped up in one book-- with new mysteries yet to come. Steve Jackson Games is also selling some items from BITS (British Isles Traveller Support) that have really rekindled my interest in Classic Traveller.

Perhaps the greatest failing of this new version of Traveller is that it translates the background in Gurps terms, without taking some of the mechanics as well. In Classic Traveller the Universal Planetary Profiles served to describe planets, but they were also lynch pins in describing the ecology and economics of a planet. In Gurps Traveller these rules will be scattered over two books Far Trader (economic rules, that may or may not integrate with First In) and First In (planetary rules, that may or may not integrate with Far Trader). Basically what this game did was make me homesick for an old game.

Alternity is the new 800 pound gorilla on the block. Its mechanics are amazingly well-integrated-- but it lacks the comprehensive nature of Classic Traveller's ability to generate ecological systems and economic systems on the fly. That is its only flaw. The Star Drive background is very good in the main book, but it does a quick fade in all of the supplements released for Star Drive so far. That seems to be typical of TSR, create a compelling setting, then kill it off with mediocre support.

Personally I have come to a greater appreciation of two old science fiction games over the past year. One as you can guess is Classic Traveller-- that was one heck of a well-integrated game. While I never got a feel for a single planet, like in Heavy Gear or Blue Planet, the setting of the Imperium really gave you the feel of a star spanning empire. I have also come to a greater appreciation of 2300AD. This was a very nice near future game, that seemed doomed by a gratuitously complicated combat system.

But this is one of the few games that really had good alien critters. The Kafer (terrible name especially given the reality of Apartheid in our world-- I know this wasn't intentional on the part of GDW, but it does detract from the game) were a great creation. This was an alien that wasn't simply some guy in a rubber suit. They were a compelling creation, and with Kafers GDW even outshone Chaosium's superlative Trollpak.

I do not know what the future holds next year, but I have to admit that I am scaling back on my new purchases of science fiction games. For now I'm going to reread Classic Traveller, 2300AD, and try out Shatterzone-- Alternity may tempt me with its new book on planetary systems, and its alternate dimensions campaign possibilities. Besides, Alternity should be the new AD&D. The old game should be adjusted to the superior mechanics of Alternity. That's just what one Screaming Jackass is thinking late one night.

Scott Shafer

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