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The State of the Genre Report

by
 

As a roleplaying genre, science fiction has always been an "also ran." Sure, there have been SF games, like Traveller for example, that are venerable institutions, almost on par with Dungeons & Dragons in their antiquity. Yet, none of these games has ever enjoyed the consistent popularity that has been commonplace in other genres, like fantasy or even superheroes.

Science fiction roleplaying always seems to be waiting for the next fad to bring it to prominence again. A decade ago, it was cyberpunk that brought SF to the fore once more, with games like Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0 and Shadowrun. Now, as we approach the third millennium, science fiction is again becoming, if you will, the future of roleplaying. But before we can see where science fiction roleplaying is headed, we need to take stock of where it is now.

In the beginning, there was Traveller. Since 1977, Traveller has appeared in four different incarnations (Traveller, MegaTraveller, Traveller: The New Era, and Marc Miller's Traveller), each emphasizing a different portion of its detailed history. Traveller has always been a classy space opera derived from the writers of the Golden Age of SF, like Asimov, Heinlein, and Piper. For a long time, it was the standard by which all other SF RPGs were judged. No other SF game has ever achieved the dominant position once enjoyed by Traveller.

Those days are long past, however. GDW went under while in the midst of publishing Traveller: The New Era, the third iteration of the game. The license for Traveller passed back to Marc Miller, its creator, who then published the fourth version of Traveller, popularly known as T4. T4 suffered from poor editing, layout, art, and clunky, antiquated rules. Its publisher, Imperium Games, now seems to be defunct. Yet another revision of the game, has been promised, but its release date is uncertain.

In the meantime, Steve Jackson Games has announced GURPS Traveller, set in an alternate Third Imperium where the civil war of MegaTraveller never occurred. This game is scheduled for a Fall release and has Loren Wiseman, formerly of GDW, as its line editor. Many old-timers see this as a great boon for the setting and the best chance the setting has for survival.

I am sure that Steve Jackson will make good use of its license, but I wonder whether it is really too little too late. The T4 revision may itself never appear, I suspect. Even should it do so, any future edition of Traveller may well be destined to be nothing more than a nostalgia piece. Despite this negative appraisal, I will always have a soft spot for the game. I cut my teeth on it long ago and launched my writing career in its pages. Nevertheless, its time has probably passed and I think it best to let it rest in peace.

Despite Traveller's current sad state, science fiction is far from dead as a roleplaying genre. At the moment, science fiction is in a state of flux. No new fad has taken hold of the gaming world and new one game dominates the market in the way that Traveller once did. Instead, we have a balkanized landscape marked by a large variety of different SF RPGs, none of which is the veritable "800 pound gorilla" of the gaming scene. Indeed, few of the sci-fi games currently in print have been around more than five years. It is, therefore, too early to tell which, if any, of the current batch of games will become "the next Big Thing."

West End's Star Wars is probably the only exception to this generalization. The game has been in print for over ten years and has a sizable library of supplements and adventures. Unfortunately, West End's recent financial difficulties will probably seriously upset their production schedule for some time to come. This could not come at a worse time. As the rest of the world is gearing up for the release next May of Episode I of a new trilogy, West End may not be able to capitalize on it as well as it otherwise might have.

Nevertheless, Star Wars remains the license to end all licenses. Simply due to the strength of its name, it is major force in the market. It helps, of course, that Star Wars is actually a very good game. Its mechanics are very well-suited to its cinematic, larger-than-life style. Indeed, it's one of the few games (aside from Chaosium's Pendragon) whose setting is so beautifully integrated into its rules as to be almost flawless.

In recent years, West End has expanded the Star Wars universe beyond the good vs. evil, Rebellion vs. Empire setting we saw in the movies. Numerous supplements have detailed a wide variety of environments and character types, some quite off the beaten path. Consequently, Star Wars has turned itself something close to a generic space opera game. If you're looking for swashbuckling adventures and heroic daring-do in a SF setting, look no further than Star Wars, a genuine classic in the genre.

Of course, some people like their space opera a little darker and more brooding. If so, Holistic Design's Fading Suns may be more to your liking. This is a unique game, one whose setting combines elements of fantasy and horror into what is generally a science fictional setting. Set in a futuristic Dark Ages, Fading Suns features feuding noble houses, scheming priests, and opportunistic guilds in universe where hope and even the star themselves have begun to fade.

Fading Suns is good setting that should appeal to fans of White Wolf's World of Darkness (no surprise given the pedigrees of Holistic's staff) as well as those who prefer a bit of gloom in their space opera. The game is well-supported with a host of supplements, many of them quite good. A starship warfare game, called Noble Armadas, was recently released to good reviews.

I like Fading Suns. The game mechanics are clunky, but the setting is one of the best currently on the market. Fading Suns just drips with atmosphere. Reading through the rules or any of its supplements is a wonderful way to get into the proper mood for playing it. I think it offers a lot of potential for adventure, especially for those who prefer their SF with a healthy dose of gothic sensibility.

Interestingly, White Wolf has released its own sci-fi game, called Trinity (formerly on). Although Trinity's setting is not as dark as one might expect from White Wolf, there are plenty of elements in the game that reveal its ancestry. The game uses a modified version of the Storyteller system that, in my opinion, is not much of an improvement over the original. In fact, I believe that Trinity's system takes away a lot of the flexibility that made the standard Storyteller system so attractive.

Trinity is set in the near future when a battered Earth is under siege from the Aberrants, humans warped by hostile aliens into living weapons. Against the Aberrants stand the Psions, psychically-gifted humans who (conveniently) possess mental powers that can be classified into easily-defined Orders. The Psions' powers are, to my mind, rather "comic booky." They're the sorts of things you'd expect superheroes to possess, not psychics.

For this reason, I found the central premise of Trinity not to be to my liking, which is too bad. The game setting is fairly well-realized, with a few nice touches. China, Brazil, and Africa are important centers of power on Earth. Religion in various forms has made something of a comeback. The technology, while not as impressive as I'd hoped, is also well done. All in all, if playing superheroes in a SF setting is your game, then Trinity might be for you. Knowing White Wolf, you can sure that it will be supported.

After years of inactivity (since this justly disdained Star Frontiers), TSR is back into SF with a vengeance with its Alternity game system. Alternity has been called "AD&D in space" and with some justification. It's a generic rules set for use with any setting, just like AD&D. Alternity even has character classes, although they're a lot less rigid than their counterparts in AD&D. The game is skill-driven and offers a lot of options for players . This is important if Alternity wishes to establish itself as a truly generic SF rules set.

In the end, though, Alternity will succeed or fail based on how TSR uses it. A "baseline" setting for the game, called Star*Drive has just been release. If the setting is good (I haven't had a chance to look at it yet), Alternity could become a serious contender in the SF genre. If not, TSR will have to rely on Alternity's generic nature to give it a high profile. These days, though, setting seems to be everything. Star*Drive must appeal to a wide enough range of people, while still being original, or Alternity may not repay the investment that TSR has obviously placed in its development (the core books look gorgeous, BTW).

No overview of SF games currently available could fail to include Dream Pod 9's Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles. Both of these games bring the sensibilities of Japanese anime (complete with mecha) to SF roleplaying. While I am not a huge fan of anime, I can't help but admire Dream Pod 9's work. Their products are consistently well-made, with excellent layout and illustration. They also support their games well, especially Heavy Gear, which has a large number of supplements currently available for it. Dream Pod 9 dominates the niche market of anime science fiction.

Although it has yet to have a single supplement since its release last year, we mustn't forget Biohazard Games's Blue Planet. Blue Planet takes place a few hundred years from now, after the Earth has undergone a series of dire ecological disasters. Exploration through a nearby wormhole has led to the discovery of Poseidon, a lush water world that promises untold riches to those who might exploit it. Poseidon, it seems, is the sole source of a miraculous "mineral," nicknamed "the Longjohn" that extends the lifespan of human beings. Now, corporations fight do-gooders from the Global Ecology Organization to take advantage of Poseidon's bounty.

Blue Planet is a good setting. Its rules are nothing special, but it's milieu is a nice reworking of classic cyberpunk themes, combined with some fairly hard science. The game's not perfect, of course. I found it annoyingly preachy at times, kind of like a bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that's to be expected. Its designers obviously take global ecology seriously.

That's probably why Blue Planet is unique among the SF games I've mentioned thus far: it's about something. I found this refreshing. Although I don't completely share Biohazard's commitment to the environment, I do believe that roleplaying games should afford players a chance to think and ponder not only the fictional setting, but also their own world. Blue Planet succeeds in this admirably. Its first supplement, Archipelago, should be available by the end of the summer.

Chameleon Eclectic's Babylon Project is another game that cries out for support. Unlike Blue Planet, it's not very deserving of one's attention, however. The game book is printed on glossy pages with wide margins. Rather than use stills from the Babylon 5 television series, Chameleon Eclectic opted for uninspired color illustrations. The game system is mediocre and the many possibilities of the setting are not adequately exploited. Unless you're a really rabid fan of B5, I'd pass on this one.

Propaganda Publishing's The Shattered Sky is set far in the future amid the fragments of a shattered Dyson sphere. The setting is a good one. What makes it even better is that it utilizes Clarke's Law about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. The technology in this case is nanotechnology, which allows "mages" to manipulate their environment like sorcery. As a result, Shattered Sky feels like a fantasy game set amid the ruins of a high-tech civilization.

Science fiction is a broad genre and includes games like Eden Studios's Conspiracy X and West End's Men In Black. Both games capitalize on the "alien conspiracy" sub-genre that never took off as much as I'd have expected. Of the two, Conspiracy X is the more serious treatment, dealing as it does with government agents fighting against aliens and the supernatural. Men In Black, like its namesake movie and comic book series, is a somewhat humorous version of the same setting.

There are, of course, other games currently on the market, but few of them seem to have established a significant presence. Nevertheless, the brief overview above shows that SF is far from moribund. There are already a large number of sci-fi games on the market, some of which could become quite significant as the current upsurge in interest continues.

Of course, Last Unicorn Games hardly needs any assistance in promoting its two upcoming games. The first and most significant is its line of Star Trek games. When the first game (based on Star Trek: The Next Generation) hits the shelves in August, it'll be the first time since 1987 that there's been an official Star Trek game available (please don't mention Task Force Games's Prime Directive). Consequently, Last Unicorn expects it to make a big splash. I think that's an understatement.

I was surprised when Last Unicorn landed the coveted rights to Star Trek. After all, their only roleplaying game to date was Aria, whose abstruse and overly academic style hardly seemed suited to roleplaying on the Final Frontier. Still, their words to date have been encouraging. They seem to understand what is needed to produce a good Star Trek RPG. They are even working with Paramount to produce new and original material, like ship designs, never before seen in the series. This is important. Unless Last Unicorn (and Paramount) expand the roleplaying universe beyond what we see in the series, we could have another Babylon Project on our hands. Instead, I think they are aiming for something more like Star Wars: true to the original, but not constrained by it. I, for one, am looking forward to it with bated breath.

Last Unicorn also has the rights to Frank Herbert's Dune. A roleplaying game based on these popular novels comes out in October. There are no details yet, but I imagine that the RPG will coincide with the new novels to be written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I have always thought that Dune offered rich roleplaying possibilities, provided the game was set in the past, before the events of the novels. Let's hope that Last Unicorn thinks this as well.

What does this all mean? I think it means that SF is alive and well. As a genre, it's certainly never been number one. However, the large number of SF RPGs available right now is a good sign, especially given the general decline in non-computer roleplaying over the past few years. In fact, there are certainly more strong science fiction games on the market than fantasy games.

The situation is unstable, though. Aside from Star Wars (and perhaps Traveller if you wish to include it, which I don't), none of the current batch of SF games has been available for more than a few years. In fact, most of them have appeared within the last two years or less. The odds are that many of them will not survive. Those that do may go on to become "the Next Big Thing" and join the ranks of the Immortals.

Were it not for West End's recent financial troubles, there would be little doubt that Star Wars will continue to do well in its niche. The release of Episode I of a new trilogy next May would only help to solidify its market share. Star Trek, too, should do very well, especially if Last Unicorn gives it the support and (most importantly) diversity that it needs to survive. Fading Suns will, I think, make the grade. Its setting is unusual and Holistic Design seems to have its head screwed on right, a rarity in the gaming industry sometimes. I doubt, though, that it will ever come to dominate the SF genre in the way that Traveller once did.

As I mentioned above, I can't be sure about Alternity. It has a lot going for it, not least of which is the check book of Wizards of the Coast. However, money isn't everything. If it were, my beloved Orioles would be in first place right now. At the same time, SF needs a good generic rules set and Alternity is one of the few options available. I give it a 60/40 chance of succeeding.

Every other game will either hold on to its niche market or fail, barring some miracle. It'd be great to see things like Blue Planet or The Shattered Sky take off, but that seems unlikely. They're both idiosyncratic games with lots of charm but with little potential to catch lightning in a bottle. The same is true of Trinity, I think. It has its good points, but it's hardly White Wolf's best effort. Loath though I am to admit it, I think Mark Rein•Hagen's ill-fated Exile would have been a vastly better game.

Now, if you're really interested in the Next Big Thing in science fiction, did I mention that I'm designing a game of my own . . . ?

Feedback encouraged to sf@rpg.net.


Other columns at RPGnet

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