Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Some Love for the Science Fiction Game

I know I have posted some sci-fi stuff but it's mostly been Star Wars so I thought I would spend a post on other non-Star Wars RPG's that I have liked over the years.

Traveller was my first non-D&D RPG and I encountered the "3 books in a box" back in  1981. I never ran much original Traveller but I spent hours and hours generating subsector maps and planets, rolling up characters, and designing spaceships. The fun toolkit aspect of it cannot be overstated and I spent much time at the library photocopier ensuring I would have the proper sheets to record my experiments. There wasn't a lot of "chrome" or fluff back then, just hard-science mechanics and economics. I doubt many kids are asking their parents what "amortization" means at the age of 13 but if you got into Traveller it was important to know. It's not only Hard Science in the Traveller universe, it's Hard Economics too. We played through some of the original adventures and there was a fair amount of support in Dragon as well - remember, it wasn't always a WOTC house organ. There was an article on robots around issue 64 that I used far more than the official supplement.

Megatraveller came out in 1987 and it was huge - finally Traveller had a unified task system and full vehicle construction rules and even more detail on planets and systems and I ate it up. I ran and played a lot of Megatraveller and had a blast. It was backwards-compatible too, similar to how 2E D&D games could easily use 1E modules with about zero changes. This is the version I have played the most over the years. Despite having some interesting adventure material published for it, we pretty much always played our own campaigns, albeit set in the Spinward Marches. It was very much the classic "Merchants and Merenaries" type gaming that has been used with Traveller since the early days. Most memorable character was Sonny Crockett, former space detective (Hey they had a "Law Enforcer" career that was interesting and gave some good skills like Stealth, Intrusion, and Pistol.)

Then Traveller the New Era came out about 1993 and crashed hard - people hated the background, people hated the new mechanics (it was completely incompatible, mechanically, with the 15 years of prior material). I liked it as an environment and I had already seen the mechanics in Twilight 2000 2E so I still thought it was a good game it just wasn't Traveller as we knew it.  We played it a little but if anyone brought up "Traveller" in this period it  pretty much meant "Mega" not "New Era".

Traveller 4 came out some time after this and sucked. Ugly books, pointless changes to the mechanics, the worst editing I've ever seen across an entire product line - there was just nothing good about it. There were some interesting ideas like the Pocket Empires supplement that let players run a space empire (kind of like the dominion rules in the D&D Cyclopedia) but the execution was so bad that no one wanted to give them a try. T4 was so bad that it has the distinction of being one of the few games I have completely disposed of after purchasing. I got it, picked up most of the supplements, realized it was a dog, and dumped it. Bleah.

GURPS Traveller was another version that overlapped with TNE and T4 and if you like GURPS it's a cool game, using the technology and background of Traveller with the mechanics of GURPS. I've played it briefly and while I like GURPS fine for many things, it has a different feel than the original Traveller mechanics which puts it in a position similar to TNE - some people like Traveller for the system and if that's the case then you're not going to care for GURPS. My crew was never all that into GURPS so when I suggested it one time the response was that we could just play Mega and not bother with yet another system.

Eventually Mongoose Traveller came out and I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality - it went back to much of what made the original popular, smoothed out the system from the original books but didn't get as detailed as MegaTraveller and found that magic balance in the center of simplicity, elegance, familiarity, speed, and effectiveness that is so rare among game systems. It has a unified mechanic of 2d6 + skill or stat vs. a target number of 8 - that's it! There might be some modifiers to fix the maneuver drive if you're under fire and venting atmosphere, but the core mechanic is darned simple and works well. It brought back semi-random character generation and much of the good stuff from he original version without focusing solely on the Third Imperium universe. I've only played it a few times and I have not run it but it rally impressed me and I hope they keep making it for a good long time.

The second sci-fi game I picked up was Star Frontiers and it was very much the "light science" counterpart to Traveller. More playable alien races, more weapons (but still oddly fixated on current tech like Jetcopters and ATV's and bullet-guns) it was more Star-Warsy in feel but still went for some level of realism. The original box was packed with basic rules, advanced rules, a two-sided poster map, counters scaled for the map, and a starter adventure that was good enough that I am using it to kick off my Star Wars campaign 30 years later. It was awesome and much time was spent one summer fighting off the escaped hydra and chasing down smugglers on the big city map. It didn't have the subsystems like Traveller did, but it had its own kind of cool.

A year or so later the spaceship expansion came out, Knighthawks, and it was pretty cool too since there were no space rules in the original game. There was a whole series of adventure modules too, many of which didn't suck. SF as a whole continued to receive really good support in Dragon magazine as well, including a set of vehicle combat rules that we adopted instantly and never let go.

After about a 4 year run Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space came out, tried to convert the whole thing to a color chart system ala Marvel Super Heroes and Gamma World 3E and pretty much killed the whole thing. TSR was under new management and went off after Buck Rogers as their new space game. We never used Zeb's guide and we didn't think much of Buck Rogers either.

The other space RPG of my "Big 3" is Star Trek the RPG, mainly the FASA version. From 1982 on thorough the rest of the 1980's this was Trek for me. It had great production values, the system felt like it fit the universe, and it was well supported with adventures, a starship combat came, miniatures, and magazine articles.  When a new movie came out, we got a new supplement describing it. It made Klingons (and later the Romulans too) interesting and multi-faceted characters instead of orcs in space. People used to rave about Trollpak for Runequest as an example of a home-run monster supplement, but my standard has always been the Klingon supplement this set. I played it with my Captain character for years either in a party or even solo if no one else wanted to play sticking with the same ship and some of the same crew throughout that time.

It's the only game I can remember where "Luck" was a stat. It served as a sort of hero point mechanic in that you could take a luck roll at times as substitute or a backup for a bad roll or a low skill. humans were the only race that did not have a negative modifier to their Luck stat, which explained quite a bit of their success as trusting to your luck was actually viable for many human characters, unlike many aliens.

Combat used an action point system, counters, and a grid map and could be very nasty - as it should be when you can disintegrate opponents in one shot. Ship combat had several levels of detail and used counters on a hex grid plus the very cool control panel approach. In combat each character (running a bridge crew member presumably) ran a different panel - engineering for power allocation, navigation for shields, helm for weapons and movement, etc so that each player had something to do during space battles. This is something many space games have struggled with yet this effective system was published 30 years ago!

At the end of the 80's Next generation was the cool new thing and FASA lost the license. Eventually Last Uncorn came out wit ha new Trek game and I just didn't like. Decipher came out with one a few years later and I do like it, but I've never run or played it. I have all the books for it and they sit on the shelf and await their baptism of fire. If I had a choice to run a Trek game I'd go for Fasa first, then the Decipher version.

There was also "Prime Directive" - I played a whole lot of Star Fleet Battles and I know the universe pretty well and would love to play in it, but PD has been cursed with bad mechanics since it firat appeared in the 90's. The GURPS version isn't bad but I would probably go Savage Worlds for mechanics. Heck, Mongoose Traveller might work too with some customization.That's an interesting idea.

The last entry in this list is Mechwarrior, or the Battletech RPG. The 1st edition came out in 1986 just as BT was getting popular and we jumped on it right away. It was a fairly limited RPG as it was totally focused on having the players play the guys who drive the giant fighting robots used by various noble houses in an almost post-apocalyptic universe 1000 years in the future. If you were into the premise then it was awesome. if not, well, you probably didn't like Battletech either. There was a 2nd edition in 1990 and a 3rd edition in 1998 and all were heavily supported with regional supplements, unit supplements, and of course books of new mechs and other vehicles.

The problem with Mechwarrior was that most of the RPG rules kind of sucked. It's not even so much that the rules were bad it was that they were very narrowly focused and pretty clunky. Sure, we played them as they were the official game at the time, but we also converted them to GURPS (with one group anyway) and experimented with other systems too. Today I would probably use Savage Worlds (I know that's a real surprise to anyone who reads the blog regularly). Sooner or later I will be introducing the apprentices to this game but not just yet.

Campaign-wise we usually played mercenaries - less interference that way. We usually started out with 4-6 characters with 1 mech apiece and built our unit up over time - or died horribly, depending  on how the battle went. When the Clan invasion happened we stayed with the inner sphere and slowly built up our tech whenever possible.  Most memorable character: Wolf Blitzer the XXVIII rd "reporting to you live with the famous Atlas-Cam during our orbital drop on Galtor" -yeah I made him a freelance combat reporter. With an assault mech. He was fun.

Some of the others:

Babylon 5 - a mechanically dull d20 game with a ton of background from an awesome show. Had it, never played it or ran it, eventually dumped it.I had hopes for the Traveller version but it was so full of errors that I skipped it entirely.

Shatterzone - kind of cool from West End Games that kept the card mechanic from Torg. Never ran it, never played it, still have it.

Space Opera - friend had it, tried to run  it, gave up and went back to Traveller as it was complicated for no good reason. Had some interesting ideas but that was about it. This is one I've never bothered to pick up.

Star Hero - I like the Hero System, I like sci-fi games, but I've never played or run it

GURPS Space - played some, but weapons get very deadly and GURPS out of the box is not particularly cinematic or forgiving of severe injuries. If you want gritty in space, GURPS works very well.

Robotech - the game where Mega-Damage first appeared and where it was a good idea. We played around with this a little bit and it was a lot of fun. This and TMNT were my introductions to the Palladium System and I thought it worked just fine at this level. It never took off here as we were a Battletech group but we didn't hate it and broke it out every once in a while for short scenarios.

Anyway, there's a bit more background on my gaming past- it hasn't ALL been D&D. It is funny though how the focus has narrowed over the years. In the 80's I would say Traveller not something we played much more than Trek or Mechwarrior but since then it's been the only consistent sci-fi game in our rotation. Even then, it doesn't get played a ton. These days I can't get anyone interested in Star Trek (I thought the new movie would help there -nope) and Babylon 5 was a non-starter even though a) everyone I know liked the show and b) everyone liked d20 games. I'm not sure why.

I would say maybe we don't like playing in other people's universes, but Star Wars has made a few appearances over the years. I would think maybe it's not playing in places where the main story has already been told but again - Star Wars always has at least some interest. Maybe it's the action element that makes the difference, but B5 was pretty much about a war and didn't lack for action. With Trek I blame the Next gen to some degree - back when all we had was Original Trek there was a fair amount of butt-kicking going on but then the later version got all righteous and decided that meetings were the best way to resolve conflicts. I'm pretty sure FASA Trek didn't have Facilitation or Presentation in the skill list so maybe that killed it for my guys. I suspect the later versions of the show also started to look like playing a Paladin in D&D - there are a bunch of rules you're supposed to follow and to many that equals unwelcome restrictions on what they can do. There's enough of that in real life so they would rather play something where they can cut loose like D&D. I think it's the biggest brake on Jedi players in a Star Wars game too - some don't want to deal with the Jedi Code anymore than they want to hear about the Prime Directive, so they will take a smuggler with an old beat-up ship and a 100,000 Credit debt over cool powers if they are likely to get lectured about them.

So maybe that's my insight from thinking through all of this: People (my people anyway) want to play games where they have a great deal of freedom of action and potentially important choices, even moral choices - they just don't want to be harangued or lectured or berated by NPC's for those choices. The restrictions should come from the player's head, not from fear of (or the hassle of) NPC disapproval. 

I've never really broken that down in quite that way but it does fit the pattern over the years.  Now I have to figure out how to use it. I knew this was a good idea!

Anyway if you have a thought or an insight here, or if you spent time with one of these games, post it down below.


Barking Alien said...

You beat me to it.

I was about to make my next post all about my love of Science Fiction gaming.

I still will as Science Fiction is my favoritest of all favorite subjects for a game and certainly my post will be quite different from yours. That said, this post in quite comprehensive.

I find it interesting to note that while you did like FASA Star Trek (as did I), you did not like LUG's Star Trek, which is perhaps my favorite game of all time. You also liked Decipher's version which I do not care for. Decipher's Star Trek is was too D20/D&D like for my tastes and as I don't play D&D I don't my Trek to feel D&D-ish. Perhaps, as a D&Der, there is something in the Decipher system (called CODA) that appeals to you.

Great to see someone giving a bit more attention to the what has sadly always seemed like the B-List genre for table top gaming (even C List at times). Its still my favorite.

Keep on Trekkin'.

Blacksteel said...

That timing is funny. I just noticed that most of my recent posts have been D&D and Star Wars with a sprinkling of Supers and I felt like it was coming across as a pretty narrow focus when I have a half a garage full of game materials for a whole bunch of things.

D&D has always been the main game here, whether I was running it or someone else was but Sci Fi is probably the most common other game amongst my main group and it's one I've spent a lot of time on solo as well.

I thought I was going to love LUG Trek the first time I laid eyes on it - that Next Gen book was a thing of beauty and at the time was the most I had ever spent on a new rulebook. I got it and then the TOS book when it came out and thought it was gorgeous as well. Once I dug into the system just didn't have the granularity that I was expecting, probably due to the FASA experience. Six levels to define the entire spectrum of competence seemed really really broad, and they nearly genericized the ships as well when I was (and still am to a degree) a rivet-counter at heart and want to see that THIS ship's shields are just a tiny bit better than THAT ship's. It catered to a more story-type game than I was used to or wanted at the time. Nowadays I might ought to look at it again as I'm a little less caught up in the details.

Decipher I can say I like better but I've never run it either so it's theoretical like rather then experience. It reads d20ish but I'm not sure it would play out that way at the table. B5 was much worse in that regard and I generally LIKE d20.

The Trek option that got me fired up recently though is the Microlite 20 version that was on somebody's blog a few days ago (I think I saw a comment from you there too) as it suits my tastes even more and looks like a lot of fun, maybe enough to talk some of my regulars into at least a one-shot game.

I still have my FASA Trek stuff, a nearly complete set, and even today if I suggest a Trek game, everyone assumes that's the one I mean, if that tells you anything. D&D rates about 5 shelves, Shadowrun has 2 Shelves (lotta books for that game), and Trek and Traveller and Battletech each rate about 1 shelf apiece, not counting minis. They are in the top 5, clearly.

I knew you were going to comment on this one - I saw your Trek game artifacts a few weeks back and I knew there was a kindred spirit there.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Well of course the combat reporter has an assualt mech. He's not going to run around in something that can get destroyed by one shot from anything there, is he?

Blacksteel said...

Yeah I had a lot of fun with him. This was back around the time of the first gulf war when Wolf Blitzer first popped up in the national consciousness and I thought it sounded like a D&D character's name more than someone who ought to be on national TV.

The Assault mech turned out to be a good idea as in his very first hot drop he got nailed in the leg 3 times then blew his landing. Let me tell you, an Atlas down 2 leg actuators is not a confidence-inspiring beast, but at least it can stand still and still hurt people.