Science fiction games at GenCon 2011

To boldly go...
From the recent Trek MMO

Rounding out my look at some of the news around this year’s GenCon in Indianapolis, here are some observations on science fiction role-playing games. As previously noted, one recent trend is the shift of well-known licenses among game publishers, such as The One Ring for fantasy and Marvel Heroes among comic book games. The Dresden Files RPG (for which a third book may be coming) is another example of a successful tie-in across entertainment media.

Fantasy Flight Games’ announcement that it had won the Star Wars license is in keeping with this trend. There had been some speculation about which company would make the next Star Wars tabletop game, joining West End Games’ popular D6 adaptation and Wizards of the Coast’s polished D20/Saga Edition versions. FFG may look first to the youth market with miniatures, board games, and wargames, since Star Wars: Saga Edition was pretty complete and will be difficult to immediately surpass in quality or sales.

Margaret Weis Productions, whose Cortex system underlies Dragon Brigade, Leverage, and Marvel Heroes, apparently lost the Firefly/Serenity license. Mongoose, which made middling D20 splatbooks and been successful with the latest edition of Traveller, has dropped the Conan and Babylon 5 licenses, even as fans hope to revive those franchises. I’ve enjoyed the sourcebooks for all these fictional universes and look forward to seeing who gets them next.

On the other hand, Mongoose did get Star Fleet Battles and Prime Directive, which are based on the original Star Trek television series (and not its many sequels or J.J. Abrams’ parallel-universe reboot). I already have the GURPS and D20 versions of Prime Directive. I’ve been reading up on Traveller, the granddaddy of space opera RPGs, as part of preparing for my homebrew/sandbox scenarios, so a Traveller/Trek combo could be interesting. Trekkers can also look forward to a board game from WizKids, which used to make Star Wars minis for WotC.

Speaking of my FATE 3e “Vortex” campaign, I recently got Bulldogs. The pulpy SF game (previously in D20) is a good fit for my game — so much so, that I’ll probably refer to it ahead of the hard science fiction Diaspora and the thin Limitless Adventures, if not Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer, which we used to create characters. The stunts may need tweaking, but Bulldogsrules for alien creation, equipment, combat, and starships are all clearly presented.

In other speculative fiction role-playing, the excellent Stars Without Number will be published in an expanded edition by Mongoose, but the PDF of this retro-clone, sandbox game is still free. I’d compare SwoN favorably with StarCluster 3. I’ve got my hardcopy of the comprehensive Stellar Horizons, and I’m looking forward to the science fiction/horror Ashen Stars and Cthonian Stars/Void (the latter will use its own system).

One reason I’ve enjoyed running “Vortex” is that there’s little danger of either of my face-to-face adventuring parties overlapping in storylines with the many fantasy, horror, or other games that the current Boston-area players are participating in. I’ll blog more about their sessions soon!

Fantasy at GenCon 2011

Cover for Issue 62 of Dragon Magazine
Larry Elmore's cover for Dragon 62

Right on the heels of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was GenCon Indianapolis, so I’m still catching up on the news from those conventions. In addition to the usual game demonstrations and costumed fans were announcements of new role-playing games and licensees of well-known intellectual properties. Let’s start with some fantasy RPG news that I thought was noteworthy.

Cubicle 7‘s The One Ring is the successor to Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle Earth Role-Playing (I’ve played MERP, which uses the RoleMaster rules) and Decipher’s movie-based Lord of the Rings. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s (and Peter Jackson’s) Middle Earth wonder whether the choices of specific eras, locations, and character development options for various sourcebooks are the best approach to that epic fantasy setting. I’ll take a closer look at The One Ring in the next week or so. I’m also curious about WizKids’ Lord of the Rings HeroClix miniatures.

Tabletop publishing giant Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition‘s return to the Neverwinter Nights setting (actually a part of the Forgotten Realms) across media, with role-playing, board, card, and video/online game supplements. I think speculation about D&D5e is probably premature.

WotC’s D&D4e continues to face stiff competition, however, from Paizo’s Pathfinder. The Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat splatbooks for Pathfinder provide a wealth of options for Player Characters, restoring some of the “code bloat” from D&D3.5 but doing so stylishly and in a fairly organized fashion. I’ll be using them in my current teleconferencing fantasy game, minus the gunpowder rules.

I liked its D&D3.0 incarnation, so I hope to eventually pick up the Tome of Horrors Complete for Pathfinder. Green Ronin has released a second boxed set for Dragon Age, another fantasy competitor to D&D4e that uses tiered advancement and is oriented at newer role-players. A few of the people in my Boston-area groups have expressed interest in it and A Song of Fire and Ice (for fans of Game of Thrones).

Even though there was a hiccup in plastic miniatures for D&D4e, we’ll soon have prepainted figures for Pathfinder. I understand the economics behind randomized sets of minis, but as a Game Master, I’d prefer, say, a set of Undead, or a set of low-level forest creatures, or a set of Clerics.

After getting inspiration from the retro-clone Lamentations of the Flame Princess (for which there are already some cool hacks), another indie game I’m looking forward to is Adventurer, Conqueror, King. “ACK” or the rules-light Old School Hack might be closer in feel to a lower-powered vision of my “Vanished Lands” fantasy setting than the D&D3.x or D&D4e versions. I’m also still considering the FATE3e Legends of Anglerre.

My Pathfinder/Skype: “the Vanished Lands” campaign has yet to resume after last month’s hiatus and various scheduling snafus, but I look forward to continuing the latest teleconferencing party’s adventures. When we left those Player Characters in the northwestern borderlands, they had returned to the haunted hamlet of Alarn, only to find that several of the knights sent there had been slaughtered…

I first ran games long-distance by “snailmail” back in the mid-1980s with friends such as David I.S. and Cheryl I.L. Later, I tried several “Vanished Lands” and “Vortex” scenarios by e-mail and play-by-post, but they tended not to last more than a few months each. I’ve had more success with the Skype telecom teams — now with members in New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Missouri, and Colorado — but busy parents and my own travel have acted as speed bumps lately.

Other tangential G.M.s also running fantasy include Paul J.’s Pathfinder: Crossroads of Eternity,” Dave S.C.’s D&D4e “Attos,” Josh C.’s Pathfinder: Golarion/Inner Sea, and Bruce K.’s Conan. I haven’t had time to try any of them out, but I wish every game success! Next up — steampunk RPGs