Tuesday, August 18, 2015

RPGaDay 2015 Favorite Science Fiction RPG

I have always enjoyed science fiction more than fantasy. I like that it looks forward instead of backwards, that it celebrates humanity's ability to innovate, and that it has cool spaceships. There is no way I can discuss my favorite science fiction game without also discussing my love for science fiction in general, and especially Star Wars.

It is almost impossible to overstate the impact that Star Wars had on my early life, the movies hinted at a universe that stretched far beyond the screen, more adventures to be had, and new worlds to discover. In some ways, Star Wars, a movie series that is not about exploration, did more to imply a giant universe to explore than Star Trek, a show focused on exploration.

Maybe it's the lived-in look that does it, or the greater variety in alien appearance, or the many different kinds of aliens gathered in one place, even in a backwater. Whatever it is, the series has always been a call to adventure for me. I didn't want to go to the Star Wars universe to fight the Empire, I wanted to explore it.

But, there was something about Star Wars that interested me more than its world, and that was how they made it all look so real. There were several TV specials describing how the modeling effects were produced, and I was fascinated. My parents recorded a Nova special (I think) for me and I watched it almost as much as the actual films. It was this aspect of Star Wars that led me to hard science fiction, because it almost seemed like science fiction itself. I became interested in the "how" of science fiction, I wanted to know how things worked both in and out of the story.

My first hard science fiction experience was Asimov's "I, Robot". I loved how each of the stories was its own little puzzle, to be solved using the fictional rules of the world. I can also remember reading Rendezvous with Rama the first time, a book I still love today. While my love for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Robotech has not diminished over the years, my interests have grown in a different direction since I was about 12. Most science fiction I read today is solidly in the Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter camp.

My first scifi game was WEG Star Wars. As I discussed in a previous post, I played a very long campaign using this system. It remains one of my favorite systems, and one of the few from that era that I would not be hesitant to go back to today. Right as I started playing WEG Star Wars RPG, something great was happening to the Star Wars universe; Timothy Zahn. His Thrawn Trilogy came along at exactly the right time, I was in the eighth grade when Heir to the Empire was released, so I fell right into its target demographic. Not only did Zahn do a good job capturing the feel of the universe and the characters, he took Star Wars in a more legitimate science fiction direction. Zahn recognized that a simple retread of space opera serial tropes would not be as interesting in written form as on the screen. Instead, Zahn took a different approach that was more suited to the medium.

Zahn added structure to the Star Wars universe. He defined how things worked and interacted, but just enough to allow his characters to use those interactions to solve problems. He didn't turn it into a realistic setting, but he made sure it was a believable one, even absent the great special effects. There were no ham-fisted midichlorians, he gave just enough information to allow the reader to play along at home. He took a similar approach to galactic politics, he moved away from good vs. evil to something more nuanced. Again, we are not talking about Iain M. Banks here, just enough to hang a believable story on. Zahn made Star Wars feel larger and more believable, he didn't just go back to the same places the movies went to, and have the characters interact with the children of the movie characters. He took us to new places, and brought in new characters from very far away. I do not believe that anyone else working in Star Wars since the original trilogy, other than Mike Stackpole, has pulled this off.

This approach fell in line, not only with my developing habits as a reader, but also with the direction my gaming group was heading. The Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebooks injected new life into our campaign. Star Wars was exciting and developing again, and we loved it.

Unlike our fantasy gaming habits, we were constantly trying new science fiction games during high school. We played Cyberpunk, GURPS Black Ops, and Traveller: The New Era. I also ran a long campaign in Alternity: Star*Drive, which I liked despite how fiddly it was. Another game we often got to the table was WEG's Shatterzone, a game made of TORG's system and Star Wars spare parts. I would gladly revisit either of those settings again with different rules.

After a return to fantasy gaming during my college years, I moved back to hard science fiction with GURPS Space. 4th edition GURPS gave me what I was looking for in a hard science fiction game. I could get very detailed during world creation (Traveller TNE-level detailed!), but the game played fast at the table. I ran two linked campaigns using GURPS Space and I hope to go back to finish that series some day. My most recent science fiction gaming experience brought me back to my roots with FFG's Star Wars: Edge of Empire. I loved that they had their first game focus on smuggling and exploration instead of the Galactic Civil War.

There are many science fiction games that I look forward to running. I would love to dip back into Star Wars and try the rest of the FFG games. I think a Star*Drive or Shatterzone game using Savage Worlds could be great. I also want to try Ashen Stars, it seems like a completely different style of game. But, more than anything, I want to get back to GURPS Space.

None of that changes the fact that my favorite science fiction game is WEG Star Wars.