Monday, January 3, 2011

Space Race (Part 3)

Let’s step back for a moment.

I’ve blogged too much about it for anyone to believe that I don’t think Dungeons & Dragons is a wonderful game…for a myriad of reasons, ok? But it isn’t above criticism. Frankly, nothing is “above criticism.”

D&D is good at a number of things, but is best when used to create “dungeon crawls.” It provides all the rules needed for creating a static, dungeon environment, stocking that dungeon and putting together a mercenary group of adventurers.

Dungeon crawls are weird.

I mean, the whole concept is a bizarre one, not really found in fantasy literature prior to the publishing of D&D. Now of course literature is different from role-playing…but the latter does (originally) follow from the former. Dungeon crawling (and dungeon design) arises from some very specific objectives of game design…though they may not have been conscious decisions from the outset, they certainly were refined to meet the needs/assumptions of the designers:

- It’s fun to fight fantastic monsters, survive dangerous environments, and discover valuable treasure.
- Heroes start small and get better over time (becoming “experienced veterans”).
- “Getting better” means being more effective at fighting fantastic monsters, surviving dangerous environments, and discovering valuable treasure.

The dungeon environment gives a great delineated part of the imaginary world to explore. Tying the reward/advancement mechanism to the action of the game (fighting monsters, finding treasure) puts the whole game in a tidy little package. Economy of game design and straight-forward…for as far as that goes. The more the campaign starts “opening up” (including exploration of the wilderness and the business of intrigue and politics) the more hazy things start getting.

Okay, now let’s look at the SciFi RPG. I’m not talking about “near future/post-apocalyptic” games (and I include both Rifts and Mutant Chronicles in the PA category), but games that feature “adventures in space.” Here are the ones with which I am pretty familiar:

Albedo Platinum Catalyst, Mekton Zeta, Big Eyes Small Mouth, Star Frontiers, WEG Star Wars (both editions), D20 Star Wars (various), Traveller (Classic and Mongoose), Aeon Trinity.

I’ve got problems with ALL these games, of course…if I didn’t, I’d probably be content to play them rather than design my own game. None of ‘em “do” what I want or need from a game, though in general all appear to be designed with the aim of allowing EXPLORATION of the SciFi genre (with the exception of Albedo and BESM…the former is more about exploring military operations in a SciFi environment, and BESM is a little more about modeling anime-style cinematics).

For the others, we generally find a lot of similar stuff going on:

- Fairly specific settings for exploration (Classic Traveller and Mekton Zeta being exceptions…though I would imagine many MZ games would look very, very similar despite different styles of mecha/spacecraft).
- Glacially slow or nonexistent character improvement; the reward of play is being able to play (i.e. explore the setting/environment).
- A presumption (for the most part) that GMs will be able to organize a long-term campaign (or “episodic series”) based on their own ideas. In other words, there may be some “adventure ideas” (and for some of these games, that's not even present), but for the most part it appears there is an assumption that GMS WHO CHOOSE TO PLAY THESE GAMES KNOW WHAT THEY WANT THE GAME TO LOOK LIKE.

Certainly the SciFi games based on licenses (Battlestar Galactica and Serenity, for example) presume that the GM/players are familiar with the “gist” of the setting and will use this knowledge to design a whole bunch of linked episodes.

This is total bunk.

Or maybe it’s not…maybe instead I’m just a totally unimaginative chump. Because I pick up these games and I completely lose my way after just a single session or two.

Likewise, I’ve found GMs running the games to be at total losses…the Traveller games I’ve played in lasted…mmm…perhaps one adventure spaced over one to three sessions? No more than that. Mekton Zeta was worse. Star Frontiers at least has some (fairly linear) adventure modules that can be used in a similar fashion to the old Dragon Lance module-storyline.

[Star Wars is a little better because it embraces its formulaic/pastiche aping of its license in a light-hearted manner (at least WEG’s version)…but it fails in other ways that I’ve discussed before]

I find this problematic in the same way I did with ElfQuest. I know ElfQuest backwards and forwards (at least for first 30 or so issues). Doesn’t mean I was ever able to put together a long-term chronicle. And as a player with someone else running the game, I was equally at a loss of “what to do.”

All right, now back to the new, old school SciFi games: Stars Without Number (SWN), X-Plorers, and Terminal Space.

Terminal Space is simply OD&D in space. Instead of exploring dungeons, fighting dragons you are exploring forbidden space outposts or asteroids and fighting bug-eyed aliens. For what it is (i.e. limited in much the same way D&D is) it is fine. If you want galaxy-spanning space opera adventure, it’s not enough.

X-Plorers and SWN try to be a little more “far reaching,” but they also start with the D&D chassis…and because of this (and the closeness with which they adhere to it), they feel at least as limited if not moreso than those earlier published RPGs.

[CAVEAT: having not PLAYED any of these, I can’t say whether this is the case or not; I’m just talking about my “feel” for the games based on my past gaming experience, ok? Maybe they’ll surprise me if I ever get around to trying ‘em out]

Two of these games (Terminal Space and Stars) take a similar opening tactic: marrying the basic class/level system of D&D to Traveller’s random universe creation. The latter is fine…dandy, in fact. A designer really only has three choices when it comes to “setting” in one of these games: include a detailed version of your own, provide the tools for a GM to devise their own (Traveller), or punt the whole thing (as X-Plorers does). Nothing wrong with providing some tools as opposed to letting GMs flounder around.

Let’s talk class and level, though, in relation to the wide-open space sandbox. Remember the design assumptions of D&D? Well, the design assumptions of these level-based SciFi games seem to be:

- It’s fun to explore a fantastic space environment.
- Heroes start small and get better over time (becoming “experienced veterans”).

And “levels” are the measure of that advancement in effectiveness…levels gained through the accumulation of experience points.

So how does a character go about acquiring XP in these games?

  • Terminal Space: (presumably) fighting monsters, getting treasure.
  • X-Plorers: Showing up to games, fighting monsters, mission "bonuses" (no guidelines provided on the latter).
  • Stars Without Numbers: Showing up to games (more XP provided for "good performance" determined subjectively by GM and kept mysterious to players).

None of which really suggest ways to craft a long-term campaign that addresses the basic desire to explore the imaginary setting (i.e. “fantasy outer space”) in relation to the reward mechanics.

Oh I know I'm going to hear it from the SWN fans because, yes indeed, SWN provides extensive info and discussion on how to create adventures, addressing several different ways of playing and also provides 100 random "adventure scenes" that can be extrapolated into an episodic series of adventures. This is all good...great in fact. This whole section is something that would be very useful to earlier space opera games of non-level-based systems (and indeed, the mystery mission rewards would probably be a boon to other GM-fiat reward systems)...but it is less useful here. Ugh...I probably need to write a whole post on SWN by itself; there are multiple points to address with this game.

Terminal Space, on the other hand, really isn’t much different from D&D, so keeping it site-based (for example, throwing out much of the Traveller stuff) might make it the same “tidy little package” that D&D is…but then you’re failing the people who want a galaxy-spanning adventure, in favor of Space Hulk-esque horror-adventure. Which really isn't space opera despite the laser blasters.

And X-Plorers? Well, I can't see that it does much more (and a bit less) than Classic Traveller, being a "jumping off point" for building your own space game using D&D as a base (as opposed to the 2D6 CT system). Again, this leaves a GM hanging...or at least presumes the GM knows exactly what the hell to do with this DIY system, which isn't always (or often!) the case.

Mmm...more later (and more on Stars Without Number).


  1. These recent posts have been great fun, a kind of grand tour of approaches and systems. It's a refreshing step back.

  2. I'm certainly interested in seeing your take on SWN. I've got my own ideas on the game's relation to the goals you've laid out in the past few posts, but I'll listen a bit more before I chime in.

  3. minor nitpick: Dungeon crawls have existed at least since Moria. ;-) But you're right; they are weird.

  4. Without getting into too much detail I'd have to say my experience has been different with the Sci-Fi games you've mentioned.

    We've (myself and at least two other members of my group who GM) have had successful, long term campaigns of very different types using Mekton (II not Zeta - Started with plain old Mekton).

    Traveller, some long, some short, some misses and some where we hit it out of the park.

    I've run Star Wars D6 some much the Empire owes me frequent flyer miles to Tatooine.

    One I didn't see mentioned was my favorite, Star Trek. Any reason? I've run Star Trek more than I've each addition of D&D combined.

  5. @ Bighara: I DID consider Moria and discarded the idea...the fellowship wasn't treasure-hunting in Moria (which to me is the main impetus for the dungeon crawl).

    @ BA: I know there are people out there who have more success than myself at running this sort of game (or I assume there are...). But I have no idea why...a devotion to a particular high concept? A marked propensity for wandering around imaginary space? A GM who has an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction literature?

    For me with my average to above average investment of time and interest, they've failed in the past. I'm interested in a game that won't fail me.