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James Maliszewski March 8, 2000

Greetings and Salutations. It's been almost three months since I last graced these virtual pages. Lest you think I did so out of sheer sloth, allow me to give you a rundown on my activities in the months since.

I trust then that my loyal readers will forgive my prolonged absence. I promise you it won't happen again unless some large game company drives a dump truck full of money up to my house and asks me to join them. After all, I'm only human!

By now, you've probably all heard that Alternity is dead or to use Wizards of the Coast's phrasing "complete." After this year, there will be no more new Alternity products produced, although there is the promise to make the core books available for as long as current stocks allow. While I have my problems with certain elements of the Alternity system (like its weird probability curve), I'm sorry to see it go. I had high hopes that, with WotC's backing, we at last had a chance for a renaissance in SF RPGs. In fact, I began my Hard Science columns a year and a half ago with just that prediction. Now, I'm not so sure. 

Allow me to explain.

Looking over the SF RPGs currently on the market (and there aren't as many as there used to be), few could be called serious "hits." Yes, some of them are popular within their niche groups. For example, both of Dream Pod 9's anime-inspired games are quite well-received by fans of Japanimation. However, how many non-anime fans do they attract? No many, I'd bet. I mean, I have great respect for what the Pod has done with their games. Both Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles are some the slickest, nicest looking games out there, but the fact is I'm not a big fan of anime. Consequently, I've never seriously considered buying those games, let alone playing them. Now, that might not matter much to DP9 now that they've got their sweet cartoon deal with Sony (Bravo, guys!). It does matter to the future of SF RPGs, though. When games as well done as their don't break out into the broader market, it's not a good sign for the genre.

If you look at the game currently out in the science fiction category, most of them fall into two categories: niche markets or licensed properties. I love both Fading Suns and Traveller, but even I won't suggest that either of these great games are Top Ten properties. They do well enough in their small corner of the gaming industry, I suspect. That's it, though. The same is true of other niche games (like Blue Planet or Conspiracy X) as well.

Once we get into the licensed properties area, we run into Big Boys like Star Trek and (soon) Star Wars. These are the games that have immediate name recognition and have a big head start over their rivals for that very reason. Everyone knows these two licensing behemoths and it doesn't take a marketing genius to find ways to make them sell (profitability is another issue that does depend on the business acumen of the licensees involved that's another story).

Add to this mix the recent announcement that White Wolf's SF RPG, Trinity, has been moved over to its ArtHaus line (a kiss of death if there ever was one) and its inaugural line developer, Andrew Bates, has left the game studio to pursue other interests and you have the potential for a bad year SF-wise. Or perhaps I'm being overly alarmist?

I don't think so. The end/completion/phasing out/death of Alternity is bound to have dire repercussions for science fiction gaming. SF has never been as successful a roleplaying genre as fantasy. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest seems to me that SF, unlike fantasy, is a very broad genre without standard conventions. Where most fantasy settings are the bastard descendants of Tolkien, Howard, and Moorcock (with a few mythological and legendary influences thrown in for good measure), SF has no such pedigree. It's not really the descendant of anything except perhaps the "scientific romances" of the late 19th century. These tales of a century ago shared only an interest in technology and how it would change society. SF in all its forms retains that fascination, but has little else in common with its various siblings. Both cyberpunk and space opera are SF, as is 2001 and the works of Kim Stanley Robinson. Other than the tech, what do all these settings share?

So, really, to survive and flourish, there are two approaches to SF roleplaying. You can either create a generic system that gives players the tools to tell their own stories in their own worlds ( la Alternity) or you can create a really cool setting that uses SF conventions in a new and exciting way ( la almost everything else these days). Both approaches have a number of problems inherent to them. If you go generic, you have to create a game broad enough to capture all manner of science fiction. That's tough because, as I've noted, SF isn't as narrow a genre as fantasy. Almost any system you create won't work with every sub-genre within science fiction. Alternity was a valiant effort to bridge these differences. Its solid support over the past year and a half has made it possible to use it for a variety of settings. Nevertheless, even it had its problems and detractors.

The other approach is to go for a specific subset within the SF RPG market and appeal to it. This is what DP9 and numerous other companies have done. In some cases, it's proven fairly successful. Shadowrun, for example, survives and prospers largely due to its being the only serious cyberpunk game out there these days. And the fact of the matter is that none of the niche SF games on the market has captured as big a chunk of the gaming market as D&D or even Vampire. This suggests to me that there's not enough of a consensus on what is science fiction to allow a single game to capture a large block of supporters.

Except for licensed properties, of course. I fully expect WotC's version of Star Wars (employing a variant of the D&D3 engine trust me on this one) will do remarkably well. Star Wars always was fantasy with SF trappings, a fairy tale for the modern age. So, I have few concerns about its ultimate success. The same is probably true of LUG's various Star Trek lines, although I do worry a bit about the slowness with which they release products and some of the design choices they've made. But it's Star Trek and it'd take some serious foolishness to kill it.

So where does this leave us? I'm not at all certain. I do know that my own confidence in a science fiction resurgence has been shaken. The death of Alternity and the downgrading of Trinity are both symptoms of a larger concern, namely the long-term viability and profitability of SF RPGs. One might reasonably argue that my concerns about SF only echo those of most RPGs anyway and that's true to an extent. Roleplaying has always been a marginal industry. Yet, WotC and its new owners Hasbro seem to think they've got a good shot at broadening the hobby's appeal with D&D3. I think they're right and I wish them the best of luck. However, their phasing out of Alternity isn't a good sign and I wouldn't be surprised if other small publishers don't take it as an omen as well.

Of course, it could be a good thing after all. Without a potential 800 lb. gorilla in the SF market, it may provide openings for new companies to mine the fertile fields of science fiction. Who'd have guessed Vampire would be as big as it became last decade? Is there a SF equivalent waiting in the wings? Only time will tell.

James Maliszewski

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