Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Flagship Sci Fi

Brennan Taylor just announced the kickstarter for Bulldogs, his Fate based RPG of kick ass sci fi. It's for play in the Firefly kind of mode but with broader Sci-fi trappings. The best description I've seen to date is "The Han Solo RPG." Fred's been doing layout, so I've had the occasional illicit peek, and it looks fantastic (no surprise there) but it's also going to be really interesting from a rules perspective. Brennan's done some great things with ships and tech, but I'm most excited by what he's done with the presentation of skills - something I intend to steal shamelessly down the line!

Anyway, I was happy to throw some money into that particular hat, but it also got me thinking. This is going to be the third big sci-fi title rolled out under Fate (the others being Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora). This is kind of interesting to me, especially in the context of sci-fi rpgs in general - specifically in terms of the relative lack of them. As delighted as I am with these games, I kind of wonder why it is that sci fi and fantasy follow such different paths in gaming.

The most obvious answer is that there's never been a flagship sci-fi game the way that D&D was for fantasy[1] (and which, arguably, Vampire was for modern fantasy/horror), so the market's never really had the opportunity to get traction. I think there's something to that, but at the same time it's a little bit of a chicken and egg situation - asking why there's never been a sci-fi RPG flagship product brings us back to the first question.

It's also possible to look to the roots of gaming, wargaming. Fantasy wargaming, as an extension of historical wargaming, was focused on individual troops in a way that made it a reasonable step to give them names and send them on adventures. Sci Fi wargaming has some of that, but that focus must be shared with vehicles (robots and spaceships) so the impetus went in a different direction. And, indeed, I can think of many flagship sci fi war-games, so it seems there may be something to this.

The problem is that if this were completely the case, I wouldn't imagine we'd see any really successful sci-fi RPGs, yet we have: Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly have all put up big numbers at one time or another. So why hasn't that meant more for sci-fi in general?

My hunch, and I clearly label it as such, points to the fact that these are all licensed products with a passionate fan base. Fantasy has similar iconic IP - Tolkien most obviously, but Howard, Lieber, Vance and others all merit mention, and their fingerprints are all over D&D. But, and this is critical, D&D is not a Tolkien RPG. It's derivative as all hell, but that's part of its charm. I wonder sometimes if Sci-Fi is less tolerant of knockoffs, especially in regards to Star Wars & Star Trek. They have such vast canons (layers of canons, even) that writing something derivative raises the question of why you left the core IP in the first place. A game that "rips off" either IP would be derided.

It's with this in mind that I think a lot of the big successes have done little to help Sci-Fi RPGs as a whole. Firefly is not quite as bad, but the enthusiasm of its fans is a little volatile. Heck, I think a lot of what Fading Suns did right was derive from material that was popular but broadly unavailable for RPGs (specifically, Dune and Warhammer 40k) so there was less of this culture clash.

This problem is not just one for RPGs, but a tough part of the genre as well. If you ask what "Fantasy" is, there's an easy stereotype to point to (Tolkien) and finer distinctions are left to the nerds[2]. If you ask the same about Sci Fi, it's a lot fuzzier. Star Wars? Star Trek? Knight Rider? Lost in Space? Flash Gordon? Buck Rogers? The Foundation? Dune? Master Chief? Lots of good stuff, but there are so many icons that even the non-nerds mix them up. In that context, asking "What is a Sci Fi game?" introduces similar confusion.

Which is why, I suspect, that the fragmenting of game publishing is probably good for Sci Fi. It's got a lot of voices that haven't been served, and in this day and age, it's good to see them get a chance.

There are, by the way, at least two glaring omissions in my thesis which I'll get to tomorrow when I talk about Military Sci Fi and Cyberpunk.

[back] 1 - Some people might argue that Traveller was that game. I will concede that it's important and iconic, but I would be hard pressed to suggest that it created a broader market for things that weren't Traveller.

[back]2 - Specifically, the nerds who are indignant that I did not say "Howard"


  1. "sic fi" is such a perfect typo, I can understand leaving it in.

  2. I wish I could take credit for that one, but it's an artifact of writing this on the ipad. Apple's autocorrect doesn't seem to want to learn that "sci" is valid and keeps fixing it. Looks like one slipped the net.

  3. It's interesting to note that early Traveller could be, and was, used for many types of different science fiction games back in the day. But then the focus of most players narrowed as the Third Imperium was developed (from Adventure 1: The Kinunir.

    It's actually much the way that early D&D games weren't at all generic, at least until TSR started publishing modules. I mean, take a look at some of the famous early campaigns and see how different they are: Arduin, Tekumel, Midkhemia, Greyhawk, Blackmoor, City State of the Invincible Overlord, and many others that your readership has probably never heard of. Most of my friend's campaigns at the time were decidedly un-Tolkeinesque.

    [I find it interesting that these have now become the expectations of these games, and I've encountered people that get indignantly angry if these expectations aren't met.]

    Personally I thought the absence of a defined house setting was great. It allowed you to create something unique to yourself (and your players). To be imaginative.

    But you are right in that there tends to be both a greater number of different tropes in SF than there is in fantasy, and the choice of tropes generally has a more pronounced effect on play. After all the canvas of most fantasy games is rather small, but the canvas of most SF games is usually rather large.

    Whilst the fan base has had an undeniable effect on the success of the popular licensed products, I think a big reason that these games are popular amongst the non-fan gamers is the sense of familiarity with the background. Players have expectations of what they are supposed to be doing and the context they should be doing it in, and don't have to download a whole lot of setting information before they can begin play.

    [This applies to fantasy settings too, but it's a lot easier to fake it in a fantasy world, until you get the sense of how things work.

    Then again, one of the reasons for Pendragon's popularity (beyond being an excellent and evocative game in and of itself), is that players (and gamemasters) start play with a good idea of what's expected of them, even if they are newbies.]

    Thanks for the heads up with Bulldogs.

  4. D&D is sort of unique not just in fantasy, but in the world of RPGs. It is not just the flagship fantasy game, but the flagship RPG period.

    In the context of sci-fi RPGs, I'd say Traveller and Star Wars (WEG) are both widely popular sci-fi games in earlier periods of RPG history, and to an extent with the WOTC D20 Star Wars books. More recently though, no, I don't think any sci-fi RPG has really emerged as a popular 'flagship' title.

  5. I have some thoughts on this, that I'm not entirely sure are fully formed, but I wonder if part of the reason Traveller wasn't able to become a sci-fi Flagship was that you played as ex-military rather than military?

    Lemme explain: All TV and much film sci-fi is a reaction to Star Trek kinda like most fantasy is a reaction to Tolkien. So much of this tradition (and some of the earlier stuff) has the protagonists as current military. Star Trek, Star Wars (Luke and Han don't start out as Rebel Military but they join up by the end of the first movie), old BSG, Buck Rogers. And this continues for TV sf as we go through to the present, not with all, but a lot of them. other Star Treks, Stargate (SG-1, and Atlantis), new BSG, etc.

    The only major space-going sf TV I can think of that don't have this active duty thing going on are Farscape and Firefly.

    In "generic fantasy" you're all diverse wanderers who form a team to go on a quest of some kind (like D&D)

    In "generic space-going sf" you're all serving on some sort of Space Patrol vessel. (unlike traveller).

  6. I love scifi settings in gaming. Dawning Star stands even today as one of my favorites. I think one of the reason scifi games don't do as well is scifi is very much a genre about ideas. When it is at it's best, the genre will make see some aspect to the world you might have missed or postulate something that you actually have to think about to get. It is not always straight forward action.

    Sure there is Star Wars, but I think maybe that is the exception that proves the rule. If the hook is not clear cut action, it is a harder sell. Give a guy a gun and laser sword and he knows what is the point. I put forward a game based on Asimov's Foundation series and involving the use of psycho-history to influence the future...well that one needs a bit more explaining.

  7. I think the big reason is that sci-fi is ultimately more complex and diverse than fantasy. The differences are generally greater between different sci-fi worlds than those between different fantasy worlds.

    As a result, it's harder to come up with a "generic" sci-fi game that can serve as a flagship.

    That said, I think you dismiss Traveller as a flagship too easily. It did serve to expand the market in a way similar to D&D. That is, it created the sci-fi RPG market, and directly inspired others to enter it.

    Most notably, FASA started out making supplements for Traveller before going on to create BattleTech, and the original Star Trek and Doctor Who RPGs.

    I think the better question would be why its reign as the flagship game for sci-fi was so short, and I think it goes back to sci-fi being more diverse than fantasy.

    Traveller was very much tied to the "imperial" sci-fi written largely in the 50s and 60s by the likes of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and others. It was not very adaptable to new themes, and thus ceased being the "flagship" as such new themes emerged, most notably cyberpunk.

    While new themes emerged in fantasy, the dominant form continued to be variations on sword & sorcery. Wheel of Time is not that far removed from Tolkien when it comes to the types of actions being portrayed.

    If modern urban fantasy become popular around the same time as cyberpunk, then I think the history of D&D as the flagship fantasy RPG might have been quite different.

  8. I was slightly distressed when I first heard about Bulldogs, as I am in the process of writing another FATE sci-fi game: Fly by Wire

    However, now that I know it is space opera (instead of cyberpunk, as FBW will be), I am not only relieved, but interested.

    Hmmm ... I may have to budget for Evil Hat related Kickstarter expenditures if you guys keep up this rate of publishing.

  9. I agree with a lot of the posts here, when you say "fantasy" you're expecting barbarians, elves, wizards and dwarves fighting dragons and trolls and goblins. There are some exceptions like mouse guard but in most people's minds, that's not "Fantasy" it's . . . something else (?).

    When you say Sci-Fi, what do you think? For some it's very specific, Star Trek, Star Wars maybe Doctor Who. Or is it giant robots or Godzilla? Near future or far future? What makes one Sci-Fi fan excited, may get a roll of the eyes from another. There have been attempts to roll all Sci-Fi into one system but it usually comes off contrived and humorous rather than serious.

    So for a RPG to be a flagship Sci-Fi it needs to narrow the field in a way that is so awesome that every Sci-Fi story after it wants to be it.

  10. I've long thought that this is because Sci Fi settings depend on so many assumptions that there isn't a clear expectation for Sci Fi gaming. FTL? How? Antigravity, yes or no? Aliens or no aliens? Psi or no psi? AI or no AI?

    Refining this idea a bit in response to your post, it may be that fantasy is more fault tolerant than Sci Fi. For instance, it's much easier to imagine a party that includes Lancelot, Gandalf, and the Grey Mouser than a party that includes Luke Skywalker, John Carter, Harry Seldon, and Susan Ivanova. I've played in many fantasy games where the players start with very divergent character concepts that slowly devolve to conform to the setting. In a Sci Fi game, it usually helps to have a general understanding of the setting before you generate a character. This is why licensed Sci Fi settings seem to work so well.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.