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Last Column (of the Millennium)


Let me begin by making two things clear. First and foremost, I'm one of those snobs who doesn't accept the branding of AD 2000 as either the beginning of the 21st century or the New Millennium. Which brings me to my second point: I don't really have a topic for this month. I've been too busy working on several freelance projects (more on these later) and preparing for the imminent birth of my firstborn to think much about "Hard Science." So, I thought I'd use the media circus surrounding Y2K (How I hate that term!) to save my bacon. Never fear -- this laziness isn't a trend. I'm sure my impending fatherhood will make me more responsible and clear-headed. Expect my January column to be the usual potpourri of insightful commentary and sterling (or at least less rambling) prose.

"Best of the Millennium" lists are very popular now. Lots of people -- including some I even respect -- have decided to compile lists of this or that as a way of summing up the last 1000 years. I'm not sure why people feel the need to do this, except perhaps a weird mathematical fetishism that worships zeroes as avatars of Something Important. Be that as it may, lists often reveal a great deal more about the people who create them than it does about the supposed topic of the list. So, in keeping with my recent trend in Internet exhibitionism, I thought I'd offer up my Top 5 Science Fiction Roleplaying Games of the Millennium.

Yeah, it's a very grandiose title. I feel a little goofy doing it, especially given that RPGs have existed for only the smallest fraction of the last 1000 years (less than .03% for math fetishists in the audience). But, hey, I needed a quick topic for this month's column and here we are. I'll at least offer some explanations as to why I've chosen the games I have. I hope this will make up for my lethargy.

Why only the Top 5? That's simple. If I made it a Top 10 list, I'd hardly leave any SF RPGs off the list. I may be less than inspired this cold December, but give me some credit.

So without further ado, I bring you The List in classic Dave Letterman-style reverse order.

5. Fading Suns. The fact is this game is one of the only original, non-licensed SF RPGs to come out in quite a while. That alone distinguishes it. However, it helps that Holistic Design has produced a wonderful setting that combines far future technology with medieval sensibilities. Fading Suns is a thoughtful game and vastly underrated. It's often been called the science fictional equivalent of Pendragon and that's a fair comparison. Both games emphasize personal drama and the clash of passions. Both are about the fight against the dying of the light. And both are often overlooked. That's too bad. More so than any other game on this list, I'd encourage you to take a second look at Fading Suns.

4. Shadowrun. It pains me to include this, as it's not really SF. That and I dont really like much at all. However, Shadowrun is the sole survivor of the cyberpunk craze of the late '80's. Somehow, despite all odds and logic, this game survives and perpetuates the weird Gibsonian vision of net-as-giant-computer-game in the service of the Man (or the Corp) that by all rights should have died years ago. Yet, it's still alive and kicking and in a new edition to torment my sleep. However, never let it be said that I allow my good taste get in the way of acknowledging the importance of this game. When all is said and done, Shadowrun is still the classiest cyberpunk game out there (not that that's saying much) and a good example of why SF RPGs are always a few years behind the curve on the trends of literary SF.

3. Star Trek. I'm torn here. I loved FASA's version of the game back in the '80's, but Last Unicorn has done an excellent job since acquiring the license, especially on the Original Series game. In any case, Star Trek in all its incarnations is an eminently gameable setting and deserving of star treatment. Most of the comments I make below about Star Wars apply to Star Trek as well, so I see little need to repeat myself.

2. Star Wars. I'm talking about the West End version, not the pretender Wizards of the Coast plans to release this coming Fall (attn: WotC. No hard feelings. If you ever need a slave to help you rake in the millions on your version, please give me a call. Thanks.). I suspect more new gamers were minted through this game than any other outside of Dungeons & Dragons. Ken Hite has always referred to Star Wars as the "entry-level drug" of gaming and he's right. I can't think of a more attractive way to introduce newbies to the world of roleplaying.

Star Wars was helped by having a great cinematic system and some of the best support in the industry. Many of West End's products are among the best ever written for a RPG. I haven't played the game in years (a sad fact), but I still refer to it as an example of how to put together a great game that goes beyond its source material. A lot of the credit goes to writers like Eric Trautmann and Tim O'Brien and a host of others. They did great work and it's a real shame they'll probably never produce another Star Wars product. If WotC has any sense at all, they'd do well to look at their illustrious predecessor for inspiration (and maybe a few writers).

  1. Traveller. Like this is a surprise. Look up "science fiction roleplaying game" in the dictionary and it'll say "See Traveller." This is the game that started it all and, even today, it exerts a strong influence over its predecessors. It's the first SF RPG I ever played and I'm sure my experiences aren't unique. Among a certain generation of gamers, Traveller is their first experience of gaming outside the dungeon. For me, it was also my first experience of published writing and for that I'll always have a place in my heart for it.

Of course, Traveller didn't get to the top of my list simply by being first. Traveller benefited greatly from a simple (some might say elegant) system and a wide-open setting. Players could do and be almost anything in the Third Imperium. GDW (and some of its licensees, like early FASA and the dear departed DGP) consistently produced excellent supplements that were often thought provoking without being preachy or pretentious. When I think of SF RPGs, my mind always turns to Traveller. The game survives today only in its GURPS incarnation, but it's a testament to the power of Traveller that Steve Jackson Games even chose to re-release this old chestnut after so many years.

So, there you have it, my Top 5 SF RPGs of the Millennium. Feel free to disagree, as I'm sure many of you will. However, in the spirit of Christmas and the new beginnings engendered by the year 2000, I'll do my best not to dismiss any disagreements as pointless prattling. But then again, I may not. I've never really been good at turning over a new leaf, especially if that means changing my mind. Oh well.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in the future.

James Maliszewski

What do you think?

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