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Millennial Angst


In general, science fiction concerns itself with The Future. With a few notable exceptions (Star Wars being the primary one), SF stories and, by extension, roleplaying games take place in some future era. Whether that era is ten years or ten thousand years from now, sci-fi is often an exercise in prognostication and prophecy (with a healthy dose of doom-saying in some cases as well). Sometimes this exercise is less a prediction of how things will be than of how they should be. Nevertheless, I think it I can safely say that we often view the future as a blank slate on which we can write whatever sorts of tales we wish. The future, because it has not yet happened, offers us myriad possibilities and options. It's little wonder that SF should flourish in a century that has witnessed as much change in its span as the twentieth.

Yet, the twentieth century is rapidly coming to a close. In a little over a year or two (depending on whom you believe), we will have crossed over into a new century and a new millennium. Will this have any effect on science fiction roleplaying? I doubt that it could not. In a strange way, the twenty-first century is the future. For so long, SF authors have used the next century as the staging ground for all the funky changes they wished to wreak upon mankind. The 2000's would be when we develop cool new technologies or encounter aliens or suffer an ecological disaster or a multitude of other wondrous and horrifying events. Scan the literature and you'll quickly see that I'm correct. For that matter, take a look at the timelines of Blue Planet, Trinity, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, and even Traveller. For a long time now, the twenty-first century has been the "SF author's best friend," a conveniently far off time when anything was possible.

No longer. The future is now, my friend. We stand on the cusp of a new millennium and it doesn't look all that different from the world we now inhabit. I doubt that I need genuine clairvoyance to see that we won't develop off-the-rack cybernetics, artificially intelligent toasters, nanotech body lotion, or make First Contact with the Vulcans within the next twenty years. I likewise doubt that we'll have a permanent moon base, develop FTL travel, or suffer the effects a worldwide nuclear war in the same period. Does this mean that SF will have to change to keep up? I certainly hope so. As Yoda so wisely put it, "Always in motion is the future." I see no reason why SF shouldn't be the same.

The 1980's and `90's were a time of darkness in science fiction. That is, "dark futures," as exemplified by the implausible cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson and others were all the rage. Life was cheap and easily expendable. Megacorps ruled the world -- or was it Japan? Or maybe it was Japanese megacorps. No matter. There were no real heroes anymore, just weirdos who got their jollies by replacing their limbs with cybernetic replacements for no good reason and then played an immense video game against corporate mainframes for the fate of secret information. These were the days that could try SF fans' souls (or at least this SF fan's soul).

Nowadays, cyberpunk seems a quaint affectation, an odd eccentricity, like libertarianism or communism. Shadowrun is one of the only RPGs left that descends from these dark days. It survives primarily because it wrought enough changes on this prematurely-tired genre that it could have any staying power at all. That said, what sort of SF will the new millennium hold for us, and how will it affect RPGs? Now it's my turn to engage in prophecy and prognostication, with some doom-saying thrown in for good measure.

If there's a unifying theme to my columns thus far, it's that I think that a boom in SF roleplaying is just around the corner. I stick by that prediction. The question remains, though: what sort of SF roleplaying? Leaving aside the unlikely possibility of the collapse of all civilization on Earth due to the Y2K problem or an unexpected asteroid strike (in which case the issue is moot), I firmly believe that the early twenty-first century will prove a time of great optimism. The "blank slate" mindset I mentioned earlier will be in full force. Everyone, from national leaders on down to the average citizen, will see the wide open expanse of the next century as (at least initially) a time of great promise and possibilities. This happened at the turn of this century and remained so until the Great War gave people second thoughts about the whole thing. Keep in my mind that I'm not saying that such optimism is reasonable or praiseworthy, only that it's the most natural thing in the world. Human nature being what it is, I can't imagine why people wouldn't begin the 21st century with a goofy grin of pleasant expectation.

If I am correct in this assumption, (just look at some of the wacky ways that various nations plan to celebrate the Big 2000), SF will finally shake off the darkness that has covered it since the dawn of cyberpunk. Dystopian SF will fall out of favor. Dark futures will seem needlessly gloomy. After all, aren't we going to be living in a new age? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that people won't think that they are. As a civilization, we seem obsessed with round numbers and attribute great significance to them. 2000 is, after all, a very round number.

With that in mind, I imagine that science fiction of a more utopian bent will come back into vogue. This could well be a boon time for things like Star Trek that offer a hopeful vision of the future. If so, Last Unicorn Games could become a serious force to be reckoned with in the gaming world. Their rather ambitious Star Trek lines will be slowly released at regular intervals well into 2000. Strangely enough, that old gaming chestnut, Traveller, could also fare well in its GURPS incarnation. Based as it is on the gung-ho, golly-gee fiction of SF's Golden Age, Traveller offers a hopeful, if somewhat out of date, vision of exploration and colonization under the banner of a noble and just interstellar empire. While I remain doubtful that Traveller will ever be what it once was, I do believe that the twenty-first century offers it a better chance to prosper than it has had in many years.

I have always thought that part of the long-standing appeal of Star Wars was its large-than-life focus on the battle between good and evil, millennial themes if there ever were ones. As such, the Star Wars RPG would seem to be a shoo-in to fare well in the next century. Unfortunately, the sad state of West End Games makes such a prediction far from certain. Furthermore, the general tenor of the new trilogy (to which I am looking forward) is much darker and concentrates on the fall of the Old Republic and the rise of the evil Empire. While I do not doubt that Mr. Lucas's new efforts will do exceedingly well at that box office, I believe it that it will be in spite of, not because of, its generally darker theme.

For the same reason, I wonder what the future holds for Fading Suns. I like this game setting very much, as everyone knows by now. Nevertheless, its gloomy and decaying milieu may not suit tastes in the optimistic age that awaits us. Of course, the folks at Holistic Design are a wily bunch and I get the impression that there's a lot in store for the Known Worlds. Provided that the setting maintains its dynamism and that the decay is always counterbalanced by the promise of a new dawn, I think they may be able to avoid the "millennium bug" that I see lying in wait for dark futures.

But enough of the games that already exist. What about those that do not? This is where I feel less confident in my ability to prophesy. Predicting trends before they happen is a dangerous business under any circumstances. Still, my near-Ph.D. in Philosophy better be worth something, considering the amount of time and money it's costing me. We must also bear in mind that roleplaying is a very derivative sub-set of the media world. As such, it tends to be a few years behind the curve when it comes to embracing new trends. This could mean that the optimism I see in the offing might not manifest itself for a for more years. Be that as it may, let's forge ahead.

Here then are James's Top Five Predictions of the kinds of games that you'll see coming your way (in no particular order).

  1. Star Trek knock-offs, i.e. space operas focusing on exploration and discovery.
  2. Near future, in-the-solar-system SF games with an emphasis on "realism," whatever that means.
  3. Kooky new age stuff that riffs off "the dawning of a new age." Blah.
  4. The importation of certain fantasy elements into SF RPGs.
  5. Pulpier, larger-than-life type stuff that focuses on epic storylines.

There you have them. None of these is mutually exclusive. Indeed, I suspect that many of them will be combined in interesting ways.

What? I haven't explained what all of my predictions mean? Come, you must know by now that a prophet is only as good as the wiggle room he gives himself.

Feedback encouraged to

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