Monday, January 3, 2011

Buck Rogers, Barking Aliens, and Stars Without Number

AKA Why you should buy MY game instead.
; )

Okay…let’s see if I can draw this all together in a coherent statement of some sort.

First off, everyone’s going to have to agree on a few points. If we’re not in agreement…well, I certainly welcome discussion!

Point A: A science fiction RPG is desirable, as the idea of exploring a fantasy version of outer space (with sentient aliens, FTL space craft, laser guns, etc.) sounds like fun.

Point B: While it may be desirable to have a SciFi RPG that fulfills a gamist (Mutant Chronicles, Terminal Space) or narratavist (FutureShock) creative agenda, for purposes of this discussion we are going to assume a simulationist agenda (exploring fantasy space is the desirable outcome…whether this results in a overcoming challenges or addressing premise are secondary considerations).

Point C: Traveller just isn’t enough…for whatever reason.

If we’re in agreement, let’s get down to the discussion.

First Discussion Topic: Level-Based Characters

Levels are typically used to measure characters in terms of relative effectiveness to each other. For example, a 2nd level character is considered MORE effective than a 1st level character. The D&D basis for modeling this effectiveness difference in “experience points;” characters with more experience are more effective. Some natural talent (e.g. ability scores) might also influence effectiveness, but in general more experienced characters are more effective than lesser experienced “rookies.”

Is this appropriate to the genre? I say, yes…and tends to be modeled at least somewhat between all existing games (including Traveller, though CT assumes “improvement” has ended prior to play beginning).

Is it appropriate for effectiveness (and experience) to increase at a rapid rate in play?

This is a tougher question to answer…it depends on what you want to model in play. The Firefly heroes do not improve in ability/effectiveness over the course of their series…but Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan and Anakin sure do over the course of their saga.

Do you want to distinguish characters of different power levels within the game? Do you want characters to get ass-clowned by Count Dooku one week, and then hand the geezer his hands (and head) the next? If you don’t wish to distinguish these changes in power relationship over time, than it’s not necessary to have levels. Levels allow characters to demonstrate change in relative effectiveness and (in some systems) to open up new “content” for exploration.

Any game that features rising conflict as part of its backstory/setting (including Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, whatever) can probably benefit from in-game increases in effectiveness (whether by “leveling” and/or increasing base skill chances). Without setting-specific conflict, such upwards scaling of effectiveness seems unnecessary (and would tend to devalue the “old school” ideal of challenging the player rather than the game mechanics).

Second Discussion Topic: Class-Based Characters

Class and level need not always go hand-in-hand, though they often do (based, of course, on the “D&D paradigm”). There are many reasons for class-based characters, but in this particular type of game I think “class” is best considered an indicator or direction of the style in which a player wishes to play.

Now, this may just be me, of course, but I’m not too worried about “niche protection” or game balance. Personally, I hate the idea that players feel forced to choose particular character types in order to “round out the party.” I do NOT want individuals saying, oh, we need a medic…or a pilot…or an engineer…or a xenobiologist. Or whatever. That blows chunks. All characters are adventurers, their class is the “classification” of adventurer they want to play.

Are classes appropriate to the genre? This is a trickier bit of discussion than the first topic. Certainly it feels more appropriate to “space opera;” defining people by role or archetype (she’s a warrior or he’s a scientist) is appropriate for ease of recognition. It’s pretty obvious what “type” of hero Flash Gordon is (robust, physical) versus Dr. Zarkov (scientific, intellectual) versus Dale Arden (charming, resourceful)…and based on their “type” they have different strengths and special capabilities. It doesn’t mean they’re limited as adventurers, just that they’re gifted in certain ways.

But for “grittier” space adventures, one might want to emphasize player ingenuity which means keeping characters on a more level (no pun intended!) playing field. If all the characters are ex-Brown Coats with similar training, than it is their background and personalities that will distinguish them in-game.

Or their “skills.” But I hate skill systems.

Third Discussion Topic: Skill Systems in SciFi RPGs

Every goddamn game I mentioned earlier has an f***ing “skill system” in it, taking up room that could be used for…oh, I don’t know. Illustrations? Space ship construction? Random planet creation tables? A sample adventure scenario?

Are skills appropriate, necessary, and/or useful to the genre?

You’ll have to forgive me if I say, no, but I understand everyone else thinks the world of skills. What is it that makes people want such granularity in their characters? What’s the difference, skill-wise, between Jean-Luc Picard and William Riker? I mean, maybe one speaks French or something? Doesn’t that just mean he took it as a bonus language?

Okay…maybe this isn’t a discussion I’m capable of facilitating nicely.

Fourth Topic of Discussion: Episodic Serials

What’s the point of play in a SciFi RPG. I wrote before that I think folks that are drawn to these games are drawn to the opportunity to “play pretend in space;” like fantasies about working magic and killing Halflings, space exploration is something in which we are seldom(if ever) allowed to indulge…and any kind of “adventures” a real astronaut might have is probably of the “terrible explosion and death” variety.

And IF we want to explore this particular imaginary starscape and IF the game is a fun one, we probably want to indulge in it more than once with the same character…whether or not any over-riding goal (defeat the Empire, address the premise) is in process. Imagining oneself doing cool/fun things in a space fantasy is its OWN reward, thank you very much.

Subsequent returns indicates the necessity for serial adventures.

Now, there are many ways to run RPGs in a serial format. Well, at least a couple-three:

1) You can have do random-ass adventures that don’t relate too much to each other. A good example of this is the Firefly TV show. A bad example would be the old Buck Rogers TV show.

Why is the former “good” and the latter “bad?” Despite the randomness of the adventures, there is still character development that occurs over episodes (as well as recurring themes) that carry-over and impact later episodes.

2) You can have a linear, episodic plot where each episode builds on what happened in the last one. A good example is Battlestar Galactica (the re-imagined series). A bad example is the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, and VI).

Why is the former good and the latter bad? The first Star Wars (in RPG terms) is a classic case of GM railroading. I can’t go to Alderaan, I’m working on the farm. Bam! Farm burned. Let’s get the hell away from this giant space station. Bam! Caught in a tractor beam. Jabba, I don’t want to destroy you. Bam! He won’t negotiate and your mind tricks don’t work…guess this is going to be a fight regardless.

BSG on the other hand builds on each episode, but the characters are constantly exercising their own free will, often with disastrous consequences. The whole series feels like a massive space RPG where the GM allowed players to just “do what my character would do in this situation” and then playing out the results (like the Cylon internment/oppression on New Caprica…for years!). The thing to remember, of course, is that BSG is just as scripted for TV as Star Wars was for the screen…and an RPG should NOT be scripted at all. But with linear plots, railroading is a definite pitfall (in part because allowing free will can be so burdensome on a GM trying to determine consequences).

3) Um…connected episodes, unconnected episodes…what am I missing? Non-chronological episodes? Perhaps…something using flashbacks or telling stories out of synch. This is really outside my realm of experience (review Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer and Sword for more info/ideas and see Firefly and the Star Wars prequels for “light” examples, Star Blazers and BSG: Razor for heavier ones - where things in the flashback influence in the “present time”).

Without serial episodes, space opera turns into…well, into one-off B-movie equivalents, like Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Ice Pirates or whatnot.

My point is this: it would seem to me that some thought needs to be given to the episodic nature of the genre, whether an un-connected series of random adventures or a connected series built on consequences besides “you leveled up.” It’s not enough to say, “oh here’s a 100 random adventure ideas;” discussion in the book can and should address character (or series!) development over time…and not just how many new “hit points” are gained.

Which is all a precursor to the topic: give me a reason to adventure…but that may be a little too much to include in this post.

; )


  1. I think you've made some interesting points here, but I suspect we differ on some basic assumptions regarding the obligations of players and GMs. To point at an earlier post, you note that your goal in playing a sci-fi game is to experience and explore a sci-fantasy world through a surrogate character. The reward for you is the exploration itself. By the same token, you mention how you've picked up all manner of sci-fi RPGs only to have the play die on you after a few sessions. I think these data are connected.

    The model you've presented places a crushing burden on the GM. He needs to understand you well enough to grok what it is you'd find interesting, be inventive enough to express that in the idiom of the particular setting you're using, and predict all of this far enough in advance to give your character occasions for personal character development without the mechanical crutch of stat or skill improvement. He has to keep your attention purely by giving you a world so engaging and fascinating that it can, as you put it, "give me a reason to adventure".

    There's a reason that the first section in SWN's first chapter specifically calls out to the player their responsibility for motivating their character. The player is the one who has to decide what his character's reason to adventure may be; it is not the GM's problem to convince the player to seek adventure. Likewise, I don't place any responsibility on the GM for facilitating character development. Why is this? Because it's just too much to demand of a GM.

    It's hard enough in a game with a story line that's been pre-plotted in advance, such as Firefly or BSG. (In my opinion, there are absolutely no examples of sandbox gaming in popular media. Every last TV show, comic, or movie was planned out in its essentials before it was executed. Some just end up *looking* more random than others.) In a sandbox game, where you have to leave open the possibility that the players in any situation might decide to bugger it for a game of soldiers, it's just more than any GM can be expected to shoulder. I don't think it's impossible that the correct game mechanics could somehow facilitate this end well enough to make it feasible for a GM, but I'm pretty certain that said mechanics would look absolutely nothing like anything the OSR community would accept.

  2. I think you've brought up some interesting points, and a full reply to them would take more space than can be decently put in a blog comment. But just a few abbreviated points come to mind.

    In my opinion, there are exactly zero examples of the process of sandbox gaming in popular media. Firefly, BSG, or any other TV show, book, or movie one might name are all processes that were directed from the start and plotted in their essentials before execution. Looking to popular media for sandbox technique cues is, I think, fundamentally unprofitable.

    Your model seems to place an enormous amount of strain on the GM. There's a reason why the first section in the first chapter of SWN tells the player "It's your problem to motivate your character. Don't make a PC without a motivating goal." I just don't think it's feasible to expect a GM to be so perceptive of his player's tastes and so inventive as to create a sci-fi context that can motivate the players by its sheer undiscovered potentiality.

    I don't think it's impossible that the correct mechanics could make this a manageable burden for GMs, but I don't believe it'd be any system that OSR enthusiasts would tolerate under their roof.

  3. @ Sine: Despite the title of this post, I didn't actually get to my thoughts on SWN...mainly because I'm still formulating them!

    Right now, I am in the process of thoroughly reading the game, and I see that there is certainly more to like than what I saw at first glance. I agree that the discussion points above would seem to indicate an impossible burden on the GM regardless of choice...this is actually one of the problems I see with these "simple, 'old school' SciFi games." They DO put a huge burden on the GM...more than *I* want to have (as a potential GM).

    My own game, takes different routes to similar objectives...but if I'm being "cagey" about it, it's mainly because the damn thing isn't done yet. All will be revealed soon enough (I hope!)!

    As far as "sandbox in popular media", I agree. But only because the sandbox RPG is such a very different thing from other artistic mediums (which generally have a constructed plot). What I'm talking about is more the ability to model genre as if the genre WAS a sandbox. Firefly is carefully scripted, but the ILLUSION is: "these guys are just bopping around the solar system, take job X or job Y or getting involved with scandal Z. Does the RPG sandbox model the illusion? THAT's (part of) what I'm looking for.
    ; )

  4. I'm not sure I fully understand the idea that you're describing- that of an RPG that models a sandbox in play while actually serving a different game model. I can dimly imagine something that might work like this- a system where a GM develops a story arc and then "skins" each individual node in the arc with a narrative overlay generated either randomly or as a function of the party's last established goal. The fundamental elements of the arc would remain intact, but the manner in which they were presented to the PCs would vary.

    But I'm pretty deeply committed to the statement "The only story is the recounting of what your character did." when it comes to sandbox games. I'm completely willing to see a campaign that has absolutely no character development whatsoever if that's what the players make of it. Other styles of games can be great fun, certainly, and much stronger in providing certain kinds of entertainment, but for SWN, my only concern was building a tool for sandbox sci-fi. That meant being worse for some other purposes, but if players want a game that's good at them, they know where to find Dogs in the Vinyard.

  5. @ Sine: Something like that.

    The thing is, the "GM developed story arc" with "skins" is just illusionism, which is generally undesirable (well, undesirable to Yours Truly) based on principle and the fact that I'm too lazy to do it.

    Instead, consider the story arc to be player created/developed or rather, collaboratively created based on player decision.

    And yes, there is no requirement for character development to take place at all...PCs can just "hang out" or whatever for as long as they want. But the system as designed doesn't reward that style of play to the same degree.
    ; )

  6. Surely NuBSG was one big sparkly railroad, what with all that prophecy and space angels nonsense?

    I suspect that the TV series format disguised this a bit, because they had to come up with lots of filler between the mythology episodes, but I don't see it as that different in structure to Star Wars really.

    All of which does not invalidate your point, just that I don't think NuBSG is a good example.

  7. I love that you're discussing this and there are many areas where I totally agree with you. I'm not sure I agree because we share the view that there is a positive outlook on these elements (Classes, Levels, Lack of Skills) but more because if your basing a game on OD&D or Basic D&D you need to be true to these factors.

    I like Skill Systems, dislike Classes and Levels as presented in the old D&D games. Yet I'll be damned if I wouldn't put them in this type of game. The games I've seen so far, while excellent, seem to veer too far off from the model.

    As to the nature of the adventures, I'd generally leave that up to the individual GM. A mix of the styles you describe is what my players usually see. A random encounter here, a three episode story arc there, a little "So where do you want to fly to today?" and so on.

  8. Isn't wanting people with specific skills to "round out the party" the most plausible way for a small spaceship crew to work?

  9. @ Anarchist: Depends on the particular type of space opera you're running. All the Star Wars characters appear to be able to fly and shoot the Falcon, for example...they don't all need "piloting" skill.

    @ Kelvin: Thanks for not invalidating my point!
    ; )

  10. I like what you've been saying in this series, although I should warn you: I'm planning my own sci-rpg at some point, too. Here's my take on your discussion points.

    Point 1: I think levels work fine in a sci-fi game, but the *range* and starting point might need tweaking for a particular setting. If your heroes are square-jawed '50s star pilots and space cadets, you want levels 1 to 5, but probably no higher. If you're going Lensman, you may need levels in the 20s and 30s, and your characters may have to start in the teens.

    Point 2: I'm with class, too, as long as they're archetypes and not professions. Fighter works fine for those square-jawed heroes. Thief might need some tweaking to make him more generally a subtle/stealthy class instead of a criminal profession. You can change the names of the Thief skills to make a techie archetype equivalent, and you might want to add some kind of charismatic archetype who has lots of friends. I've actually made these changes for optional FRPG classes, so using them in a sci-fi RPG doesn't seem off at all.

    Point 3: I've got a rant brewing about skills, so I'll just say here that you could get away with using the AD&D 1e secondary skills re-skinned for the setting. No skill rolls, no huge bonuses, just a "oh, you know how to use mining equipment, because you were an asteroid miner before you joined the star patrol."

    Point 4: My own preference for designing space adventures is to provide tools to create initial situations and potential complications, rather than set plots. You roll for a mission, the result says there's a crippled star cruiser in a dangerous nebula; as the players try to rescue the passengers and crew, random complications crop up. Any of these might develop into future adventures, resulting in unplanned plot arcs, or you can resolve them all at once, resulting in disconnected episodes.

  11. @ Talysman: Thank you for your thoughts. The only thing I'll say is I think a game with levels (even Lensmen level) can be condensed to the point where you won't need 20 or 30.
    : )

  12. @JB: If the game book is focused on that level of play, yes. But if the book is more general and has instructions on how to retool the game for different levels of play, it just might be easier to include the full range.

    Incidentally, the "rant about skills" I mentioned has been posted. =)

  13. > What’s the difference, skill-wise, between Jean-Luc Picard and William Riker?

    Riker can play the trombone, Picard is an amateur archeologist and picks up playing the flute later on.

    I'm not saying you need a skill system to model that. :)