Just over a week ago, Janice and I drove to the Compleat Strategist in Boston and Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass., for Free RPG Day. The proprietors of the shops were happy to see us, although they were probably disappointed that we didn’t stay for any of their game demonstrations.
The Strat has a good selection of tabletop role-playing games and board games, while Pandemonium has used books and wargames. I wish that they and comic book shops would carry and run more of my kind of games rather than host so many collectible card tournaments, but that’s what brings younger folks in.
Of the free products I picked up, I liked the nicely retro Dungeon Crawl Classics preview, the “We Be Goblins” fantasy scenario for Pathfinder, and the Stellar Horizons space opera sample the best. Since I’ve been running my “Vortex” campaign again, I’ve been looking for science fiction support for Game Masters.
As much as I like Traveller, I’ve often found that science fiction classic a bit dry for my tastes, which veer from pulpy planetary romance to transhumanist speculation. (See recent updates for examples.) At least numerous supplements are available for Traveller.
What do I look for in a science fiction game? Simple character generation with varied development options; streamlined and cinematic combat; and rules for gadgets, vehicles, planets, and aliens. A single rulebook is nice, although it doesn’t have to be thick enough to stop a bullet, like Star Hero or Starblazer Adventures.
An implied setting is helpful, especially if a game is based on a book or movie series, but it’s not as important because I tend to run homebrew campaigns such as “Vortex.” (I have been hunting for good 2-D, hex-based maps of all the real stars within 50 to 100 parsecs of Earth that are likely to have inhabitable planets, however.)
As readers may recall, before my current Boston-area groups chose Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (FATE) Third Edition for “Vortex‘s” latest iteration, we also considered rule sets including Basic Action Super Heroes! (BASH) Sci Fi Edition, D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition, and Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) 4th Ed.: Space. Any one of these systems was a fair contender.
Even after coming to a consensus for FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures, I’ve incorporated other FATE sourcebooks, including Mindjammer for psionics, Diaspora for some skills, Limitless Horizons for occupations, Strands of Fate for some gear, and soon, Bulldogs (formerly D20) for aliens. I also routinely consult my GURPS, D20, Serenity, and other references when trying to stay ahead of two Player Character parties.
Following my recent interest in retro-clone games, I’ve picked up several for space opera, including X-Plorers, Forgotten Futures (more retro than clone), and Humanspace Empires. Although neither is a true retro-clone, I’m a big fan of Star Frontiers Remastered, and Galaxy Command is based on D20 Future. Stars Without Number is one of my go-to references, partly because it’s so helpful for sandbox campaigns.
The rise of Internet self-publishing, open game licensing, and niche games has been a boon to role-players. I confess to having “gamer attention deficit disorder” — looking at lots of systems for ideas. While I wish that more systems were as polished as Star Wars or Traveller, I still appreciate the effort that went into Ad Astra, Astral Empires, Dead Stars, Frontier Zone, Fspace, Galactic, Space Rage, Star Mogul, and Terminal Space.
In addition to FATE, I’ve been favorably impressed by rules-light (and often pulpy) science fiction games such as Danger Patrol, Lady Blackbird, Rogue Space, and Vanguard. By contrast, noteworthy longer and more polished indie games include Icar, Imperium Chronicles, Star Quest, Stellar Winds, Terran Trade Authority, and Valence. I’d put StarCluster 3 in this category, and its random-generation tables are as useful as those in Stars Without Number.
I’m looking forward to still more space opera games, such as Thousand Suns Revised, Ashen Stars, Cthonian Stars/Void, and Infinite Futures (for Pathfinder). Beyond nostalgia and wanting cheaper and easier games to run and play, I have a wealth of options for speculative fiction!