Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs Part 4

I've been under the weather this past weekend, and as I've demonstrated in the past, I tend to deal with such misery by doing thought experiments. Since a comment by Erin on my musings on Sci Fi RPGs brought my attention to this particular thought experiment, that is how I spent my weekend. Since Scott of Huge Ruined Pile has done much of the hard work with the rules themselves, I busied myself with the Inspirational Source Material at the end of Molday's Basic D&D. I felt entirely justified in doing this, because I vividly remember staking out literary territories that inspired and informed D&D worlds that my friends and I built and played in when we were first trying to feel our way through the game.

I did give myself a limitation, however. I only allowed authors and works that I had not read before. As I was ill, I was limited to free on line resources. One of the first authors that I had success with was Leigh Brackett and her fabulous tale "The Black Amazon of Mars," which was the original title and version of The People of the Talisman — one of the titles cited by Moldvay.

Please note, Leigh Brackett is a sci fi writer and "The Black Amazon" is a sci fi tale. Interstellar travel is a given. The story begins with the aftermath of a gun battle. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are all mentioned as places the hero Eric John Stark has been.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Having been completely drawn into Brackett's vision of Mars and her version of the solar system and inspired enough to put on paper some kind of D&D version of this vision, I have come to the conclusion that I think James' question makes an erroneous assumption. Despite the sci fi source material, D&D (especially Moldvay's edition) is a perfectly suitable game with which to create a world and universe inspired by Brackett's work. Thus, D&D is a science fiction RPG, and the most wildly successful one, at that.

We forget that the classification of sci fi and fantasy as two separate genres is a fairly recent phenomenon. Although James is very good at mining and giving homage to the past, his question fails to remember this reality. Which brings me to what I think is the real answer to his question. D&D has been as successful as it has because it so good at pastiche. It is perfectly capable of being high fantasy, dark fantasy, pulp, sci fi, horror, etc. It doesn't matter what you want to do, D&D is quite capable of handling it. In contrast, games like Traveller are too much tied to their niche within the sci fi/fantasy spectrum. In other words, you could do the Third Imperium with D&D, but you couldn't do Greyhawk with Traveller. That narrow focus necessarily limits their appeal and thus their audience.

So the real question isn't why these other games have failed, but rather why D&D succeeded. The answer is the wonderful goulash that sci fi used to be and the fact that D&D was not only was born out of it, but embraced it.


rainswept said...

Thus, D&D is a science fiction RPG, and the most wildly successful one, at that.... So the real question isn't why these other games have failed, but rather why D&D succeeded. The answer is the wonderful goulash that sci fi used to be and the fact that D&D was not only was born out of it, but embraced it.

That's a lovely little bit of insight there. Cheers!

Scott said...

Glad you're getting some enjoyment out of the Moldvay/Cook post. It's on the backburner for me at the moment while I put in some more work on the Wilderlands, but I think it's a pretty neat idea.

I think D&D is great for planetary romance like Leigh Brackett's Solar System stories, John Carter, etc. I include those elements in my D&D settings pretty frequently, and I've been thinking about ways to include them in my B/X project. (It wouldn't be too tough to put in an interplanetary gate and reskin X1 as "Planet Dread.")

I don't know that D&D is so hot for modeling harder science fiction, though.

FrDave said...


Thanks for the whole idea, it has been really rewarding (and "Planet Dread" sound awesome!). However, I must disagree with your assessment that D&D isn't so hot for hard sci fi. Sure, you'd have to do some work (which other games have already done), but the built-in archetypes of D&D will be just as applicable to a Third Imperium campaign as they will be to Planet Dread. And remember, all PC weapons do d6 damage, so laser pistols etc. don't require a whole lot of work. Just about the only thing that D&D doesn't do is space combat. Practically, this can easily be accomplished using your favorite rule-set of an established space combat game or doing a simple abstraction of it. Personally, I'd choose the latter, because, in practice, space combat does two things I don't like: it mechanically buries the characters in favor of the ship they are in, and, when, things don't go well, it can punish players who had no real say/choice in the combat (including a good chance for a TPK if they are all in one ship). Given this choice, D&D is quite capable of hard sci fi.

Matthew Slepin said...

If you liked Black Amazon, you ought to get your hands on Queen of the Martian Catacombs (aka The Secret of Sinharat), which is even better IMO. Reading it was one of the things that kicked off my Under the Dying Sun project.

FrDave said...


That's next on my reading list...

Anzon said...

Enjoying your thoughts, though I suspect the commenter at Tales to Astound who ran a dungeon crawl and adventures in Chaosium's Thieves' World using Traveller ( might have different mileage :-)

FrDave said...

Thanks for this link. I would really have loved to have been a part of that campaign; however, I would argue that as presented D&D does a better job of making sci fi easy. I could never get my head around CT as a referee and neither could any of my friends. Thus, despite the fact that we loved the game, we always ended up doing D&D. Over the years, one of my biggest complaints about GDW was the lack of examples and how to do stuff. I even remember trying to reverse engineer a ship design and I couldn't make it work with the system provided. Maybe things would have been different had I been around someone who taught me CT in the same way someone taught me D&D but I still maintain that when I read the old D&D rules, especially B/X, everything just makes sense. I can't say that about CT.

Anzon said...

Good point - I had a long while away from CT, and it's the work of bloggers like Tales to Astound and Ken Pick at Freelance Traveller, who do pull things together and work their examples, that's got my attention. Keep up the good work