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 (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. 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”