Thanks to Thomas for the great prompt.
I haven't got on the Starfield bandwagon. Honestly, I'm not even sure I have the hardware to run it. But it certainly has revitalized an interest in space opera and classic scifi pulp in the gaming world.
Personally, I've caught the same bug from playing No Man's Sky lately. I got it for my birthday in June, played the hell out of it for a bit, then went traveling in the Summer. To keep scratching the itch for space exploration NMS gave me, I created the Starfarer setting, and ran a pretty lengthy solo game using a combination of Mythic GM Emulator and RPG Pundit Presents #100: Star Adventurer
Being able to blast off into space and enjoy some campy Sci-Fi action is definitely on the minds of myself, my gaming group, and a lot of my friends.
That in mind I'm going to talk about some of the classic science fiction role playing games out there if you're looking to scratch that itch and you're not interested in something as new school as Starfinder.
Starship combat was detailed in the first expansion, Knight Hawks, which also included a war game for large-scale space combat, and a battle map of a space station.
Shortly after the publication of Knight Hawks a second release of Star Frontiers entitled Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn was released that included additional rules for playing robots.
Including Knight Hawks, there was a total of nine modules released for Star Frontiers between 1982 and 1986. Each module including two adventures. They were wildly inconsistent in tone, with the later ones handed over to the UK division to write. Two modules were recreation of Arthur C Clarke's Space Odyssey novels.
Player Characters were members of a starship crew exploring frontiers of a massive galactic federation, often employees of a massive interstellar corporation. It was built with campy space opera in mind. Most published material involved defending young frontier colonies from incursions of a mysterious and hostile alien race called the Sathar.
In 1985 a source book was published with an overhaul to the rules, new character races, and more setting details. It was intended to be the first of a series, but was the last book published for Star Frontiers.
Star Frontiers was not the most successful of TSR's products. In fact, they didn't do a very good job of marketing it, and it had pretty hefty competition from Traveler. There have been a few OSR games attempting to capture it. Stars Without Number is the closest modern equivalent. I will describe it in detail a little later.
Wizards of the Coast has not made great use of the Star Frontier product line, even though they had purchased the rights to it when they bought TSR. It appears as a possible setting in the science fiction expansion for d20 Modern. But doesn't even really get much more than a few pages of text. The races from Star Frontiers do appear as aliens in the d20 Modern books.
Howard Taylor's space opera comic Schlock Mercenary shows a lot of heavy influences from Star Frontiers. Including the fact that the titular character, Schlock, bares a stunning resemblance to the Dralasites in the setting, and many of the characters early in the series were uplifted apes who strongly resembled the Yazorians from SF.
The fact of the matter is that Star Frontiers at the moment may have become a poisoned well. Late in 2021 a image began circulating around the Internet. The image, a list of character races detailed for what appeared to be internal play test material for the new TSR's version of Star Frontiers, titled Star Frontiers: New Genesis.
Having acquired the right to produce Star Frontiers was, in some ways, the biggest claim that the new TSR had to being a legitimate reincarnation of the original corporation, aside from having acquired the original offices and turned them into a museum, and having someone with the name Gygax on the payroll.
Tthe image featured human subraces based on categorization of races that was common in the late 19th and early 20th century, namely "Nordic" and "Negro". These characterized African people is having inferior intelligence and Caucasians as having superior abilities.
Given that the image used free stock are from Pixabay and Google fonts, it was awfully hard to be certain it was produced by the new TSR, and debate over is legitimacy continues. However, merely accusation was enough to cause several of the developers on hire to leave the company and take their intellectual property with them. It effectively killed TSR 3 before it even brought up to market. And many of its developers went on to publish Giantlands under the Wonder-Filled imprint separate from TSR.
Traveler was a fairly simple and rules like system even for the time, but had effective rules for space travel, high tech weapons, zero gravity, and radiation, all of which made it well suited for science fiction play of a wide variety of subgenres. With variable technology levels for different planets, you could easily jump from traveling from planet planet to getting yourself entangled in cyberpunk crime stories on a lower-tech dystopian world, exploring strange new planets, and counting civilizations that had fallen into barbarism, or roaming post-apocalyptic radioactive wastelands fairly easily.
The faster than light technology in the setting requires ships to spend a week in another dimension before arriving at their destination. Depending on the engine, that jump can take them between 1 and 3 parsecs away. With each parsec represented by a hex on the campaign map. Space travel was treated as a randomized hex crawl.
Traveler's real power lay in its random star system generation. Has characters moved along the frontiers at the outer edge of the Imperium, the GM had a selection of tables that could determine star type, this celestial bodies, the economy, the government, random encounters, and crises happening in that star system. Likewise it had great rules for smuggling and trading commodities from one star system to another.
Effectively, a GM could simply roll up a star system for the players to explore before each session. Each session could begin with the end of a hyperspace jump, as the GM presented them with new opportunities, new adventure hooks, new encounters, and new jobs to take. The staggering cost of Starships and maintaining a crew to run them itself kept the player characters constantly scrambling for enough money to buy fuel, keep the NPCs happy, and keep making mortgage payments on their starship.
While it hasn't had a strangely light impact on role-playing culture overall, Traveler has had a huge impact on science fiction and space opera in general. Space trader video games such as Elite and Wing Commander: Privateer in particular imitate the experience of playing Traveler extremely well. No Man's Sky with its procedurally generated universe, economy levels, and rapidly shifting commodity prices definitely takes several notes out of the Traveler playbook.
One thing that sets traveler apart is that it has been continuously available since it's first publication. It's original publishers, game designers workshop continue to release traveler material until 1996. After that it was briefly bought by Imperium games.
After Imperium games, it was picked up by Steve Jackson games and also license to Quick link interactive, and comstar games. In 2008 it was purchased by Mongoose publishing, who released two editions of their own of it.
Currently, Mongoose licenses the property to far Future enterprises.
Every edition of Traveler has been backward compatible with the original material from 1977. Rules have been tweaked, clarified, and simplified, but never so radically changed that you couldn't pick up hey module published in the late seventies and use it with whichever version of traveler you happen to have.
Versions of traveler have also been published for d20 and GURPS by Steve Jackson games. I have personally played the gurps version several times.
There are some amazing online resources for Traveler, including a massive star map of pregenerated star systems, helpful wiki's, and multiple rules-free guides to the setting. The setting of traveler itself is fairly heavy on lore with a lot of interesting secrets, and unusual playable alien races. It is worth noting that there are several variations that and send the player characters forward or backward in the setting to offer slightly different play experiences. These can include the war of Earth's humans against the humans they discovered waiting them in the rest of outer space, or moving from petty empire to petty empire helping to rebuild civilization after the collapse of the Third Imperium.
When Mongoose picked up Traveler, they released it under a slightly modified version of the open game license. To be honest, I'm not sure why they did this: Traveler has no common mechanics with Dungeons & Dragons, aside from the fact that it has six ability scores. It had no reason to be released under the OGL and they could have put forward their own license.
There is also a free and open version of the game called the Cepheus Engine. The Cepheus Engine is setting neutral, but uses most of the same mechanics, ideas, and tables, and has an open SRD.
After the OGL crisis earlier this year, Far Future Enterprises made it clear that they intended to support third party publishers, and have instituted their own third party publishing program reminiscent of the Dungeon Masters Guild. They also i I have stated an intention to release traveler under the ORC license when it is finalized.
I a, currently reading through and testing Cepheus Deluxe, with an eye to making a version of my software compatible.
Gamma World offered mutants as a class as race choice, alongside pure human survivors, Sapient plants, mutant animals, or pre-war androids.
Aside from killer mutants, radiation, and Raiders that one is used to in post-apocalyptic settings, regions of the world taken over by aliens, and nightmarish nanotech and AI driven hellscapes also appear in the setting, just as they do in the aforementioned Philip k Dick novels.
The first four editions of the game were released by tsr, with an ever-expanding selection of strange new places to visit filled with bizarre often surreal perils.
Like Traveler, Gamma World has quietly remained in publication in some format for a great deal of time. The first four editions were released by TSR and used the AD&D engine. When Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR, they released a 5th edition of Gamma World using the d20 rules. They then license to 6th edition from Sword and Sorcery Studios, also using the d20 system. A 7th edition of Gamma World was later released by Wizards of the Coast after the license was not renewed to Sword and Sorcery. Rumors of an eighth edition in the works occasionally cross my feed, but I haven't seen anything as of late.
Gamma World is a frequently cloned game in the OSR. Just as Dungeon Crawl Classics is an attempt to go back to the source material of Dungeons & Dragons and make it closer to the weirdness of the original books. Mutant Crawl Classics goes back to the post-apocalyptic fiction of the 1970s, with a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick, and tries to make it just as weird as those stories.
Some other noteworthy OSR clones include Goblinoid Games' Mutant Future, which is in effect a direct clone of the first edition of Gamma World, the Wasted Hack, which is a black hack take on gamma World, and atomic Punk by the basic expert, which is a 2d 10 fallout inspired osr game, and so is a slightly toned down, less weird take on Gamma World through a number of indirect sources.
Palladium games: Robotech, After the Bomb, & RIFTS
The Palladium games engine was one of my favorites as a kid, despite having a well-deserved reputation as being one of the most convoluted and strange role-playing game systems to have been published.
(I played Phoenix Command: Palladium is easy by comparison. )
While Palladium itself was never released as a universal system, Palladium released quite a few games, both licensed properties and original that all use the same rule set in all were highly intercompatible.
The three of these that really provided amazing science fiction experiences were Robotech, After the Bomb and RIFTS.
Macek adapted Macross, Southern Cross, and Mospeada, and rearranged the order of events, heavily edited each series, and interwove them into a multi-generational science fiction epic that included the major plot beats from each separately, followed by an original film that unified the plot and brought it to a close. The end product, Robotech, was released as a series of YA novels, comics, and video games in the late 80s and early 90s.
Palladium games licensed the Robotech series from Macek, fine tuned it, and collaborated with him too create a unified fiction full of giant aliens, cybernetic bugs, otherworldly clones, robots that transformed into jet planes and back, and living super starships. In many ways, the role-playing game helped build the cannon for the final phases of the animated series.
The Robotech property has managed to stand the test of time, being formative for younger members of Generation-X. And while Palladium no longer owns a license, other role-playing games based on Robotech of being released multiple times, each bearing the mark of the original Palladium design principles. Of all of Palladium's licensed work, the only one that was even remotely as successful was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness.
After the Bomb
An After the Bomb Core Book was not released as a self-contained TTRPG until it had Bern out for some time.
AtB essentially provided a setting where characters from several different Palladium role-playing games including ninjas and super spies, tmnt, and Palladium fantasy could all interact in the same setting.
Set 300 years after the atomic disaster, RIFTS is a setting with a little bit of everything. Magicians, psychics, and jedi-like cyber-knights can adventure alongside dragons, uplifted dogs, advanced cyborgs, power armored super soldiers, and giant robot pilots.
The initial setting focused on the struggle between the free peoples of the Eastern United States against an emergent totalitarian superstate called the Coalition. interestingly, while the coalition were clearly drawing a huge amount of their influence from the nazis, given what humanity was up against, they weren't always the bad guys, and were offered as playable characters from the get-go. After all, a unified superpower, however dark, might just be Humanity's only hope in a world where demons roam the surface of the earth. In many ways, the original RIFTS book played very much on the same dark sense of humor, satire, and ironic moral exploration as Warhammer 40,000.
However, RIFTS did not confine itself to that struggle. But in a few years almost four dozen Source books detailing different parts of the world were included. From a super high-tech japan, to a abysmal diesel Punk superstate controlled by cybernetic soldiers in Russia, to a druid-ruled Arthurian fantasy England with a touch of Doctor Who snuck in, to a Magic versus technology struggle at the bottom of the ocean.
Not content to stick to Earth, RIFTS also expanded out into other dimensions, with multiple Dimension Books detailing alien worlds that could be visited by passing through the rifts, and transdimensional empires that threatened to consume Earth.
They were all so supplements for outer Space adventures in Earth's orbit and the Stars Beyond it that borrowed heavily from the earlier Robotech mechanics.
With the presence of frequently opening portals to other worlds, characters could be imported from any other Palladium role-playing game and plunked down quite comfortably in the middle of RIFTS, and assuming they were allowed to get contemporary armor, even had a ghost of a chance of survival
Riffs was also one of the first games to focus on an ever-evolving metaplot. With several of the source books advancing the war between the wizard-ruled nation of Tolkien (set in Minnesota) and the Coalition. As well as the Coalition beginning to collapse when Quebec secedes.
(The political satire in RIFTS was subtle but dense.)
RIFTS was truly a wild grab bag of every science fiction convention and possibility in one place. It's default felt like Gamma World hopped up on anime and steroids. But could quickly turn into almost any sort of Science Fiction or fantasy adventure you could possibly want to put in it
RIFTS definitely had a strong following, and I doubt that any other role-playing game has had as much official content released for it as RIFTS has. Palladium's release schedule for the game was almost arranged in its scope, with a bi-monthly magazine at reached over 100 issues, and a source book every two months for a stretch of almost a decade.
A recent Ultimate Edition was released by the game's original designer Kevin Siembied u Der husband own imprint, Siembieda Games. This edition is not very different from the original release, but with thr old errata worked in and some characters classes imported from the RIFTS video game.
Despite having being around since the late '80s, the Mutant setting only received an English translation when Cabinet Media, formerly (Paradox Entertainment,) acquired the property around 2018.
The original Mutant told the story of the survivors of a post-apocalyptic world coming out of their shelter and trying to build a new settlement in the ruins of a destroyed city. It used the old school hex (or, I this case grid-) crawling method to allow player characters to go on forays further and further into the ruined city of the GM's choice. Along the way they would discover resources they could either keep for personal use or donate to their community to help it develop.
Using Dominion level play as a keystone of the game, the player characters got to make decisions about how their community would a lot the resources they gather during game sessions, what they would build, and what scientific pursuits they would follow in order to go beyond mere survival and into thriving.
The original Mutant game was one of the few that made dominion important from the get-go. And planning sessions for where the community was going where as much a cornerstone of play as the actual forays into the ruins.
What mutant did that was particularly unusual is that it also added a metaplot. Characters can make discoveries about the cause of the destruction of the world and their own Origins through a series of set encounters that would be seated by the GM across the map. Eventually leading them to discovering adventures in modules that told a more linear story.
The second and third editions of the game switched genres to cyberpunk, then to space opera before returning to a post-apocalyptic setting in the later editions released by The Iron Ring and Fria Lagan.
Cabinet, which also has the current movie rights to conan, and Edgar Rice Burroughs is collected works, went into a media blitz in 2018 in hopes of turning the property into a multi-million dollar franchise. They simultaneously released Mutant: Year Zero in the original Swedish through Fria Lagan and in English through Modiphius alongside a turn-based strategy video game entitled Mutant: the Road to Eden and a Netflix original film The Mutant Chronicles, all detailing a reimagining of the original metaplot to mutant.
The recent Modiphius re-releases have included additional modules seeds that can be placed in the post-apocalyptic City that eventually point to a plot and adventure location included in the module. They have also released additional games allowing you to play uplifted animals and Androids in separate communities to play through the same cycle or import characters across communities.
PARANOIAtalked about PARANOIA at some length, even tried to build my own game engine for it here on the blog in the past.
One of the crowning achievements of West End Games, PARANOIA creates a unique gaming experience where player characters are the cloned citizens of a totalitarian underground bunker ruled over by an insane computer.
PARANOIA is a darkly humorous piece of satire that pits the players against each other even as they work as a team, by giving them each hidden mutant powers, membership of secret societies with competing agendas, and superiors would like nothing more than to pass the buck for their own incompetence or treasonous behavior.
Whether you're playing it relatively straight as a dark dystopian tale, tongue and cheek so it feels something like Terry Gilliam's Brazil or playing it as a zany cartoon game, it is unique in that it gives the players a chance to blow off steam and blast each other and still come out laughing at the other end of it. It's it's fairly unique in the TTRPG hobby for the way it encourages PVP but also makes it the core of the fun.
PARANOIA has gone through multiple editions. The first edition was mechanically complicated, but it's modules were nothing short of brilliant. While the second edition started with West End Games, a change in the company's fortunes (they were funded as a passion project by an importer of Italian leather) forced the company to move, and almost none of its original staff went with the company when it left to New York. The staff hired to replace those who opted not to move with the company we're not nearly as adept at working satire and dark humor into the pieces. The game suffered an extreme drop in quality for the second half of its second edition.
A third edition that was released as the 5th edition as a joke, threw away most of the metaplot and structure of PARANOIA second edition, in favor of attempting to parody the World of Darkness setting, by putting the players against each other as agents of rival factions in an Alpha Complex where the computer is no longer functioning. It is widely regarded as being such a poor offering that brings down the whole product line, and has been declared an unproduct in true Alpha Complex style by later editions.
XP and the 25th anniversary edition (further broken down into Troubleshooters, Internal Security, and High Programmer versions) are simpler and clearer than the PARANOIA 2e rules, and are generally regarded as the best version of the game. That is all so not so far off that second edition versions of the game can't be played using it with minimal conversion.
The 2017 Red Clearance edition, on the other hand, has been fairly unpopular with long-time fans. It requires specialized dice and cards to play, and has opted for a sillier more zany style of humor that feels much like second edition after the move out to New Jersey.
"West End" Star Wars
It has been my good fortune, thankfully, to have many people tell me about their experiences with the game. I love hearing the war stories from my fellow TTRPG players, and "Star Wars d6" is one that comes up a lot.
Because of when it was made, the late '90s prequels and the recent Disney sequels were not a major part of the background of the game. Instead, it was built primarily on a combination of the original three movies plus the novels that came out in the '80s and early 90s. This gives it a very different feel and canon to more recent iterations of Star Wars.
What players of the game have told me they love most about it, however, wasn't the setting, but rather how much attention was paid to making sure that the game did not cleave to the formula of the movies. Players could most certainly be members of the Rebel Alliance resisting the Galactic Empire. Or rogue Jedi on the run. However, it's big focus was on making sure that players could explore an expanded world using any character they liked. It was just as exciting to play a starship pilot, a smuggler, a thief, a droid, or an explorer as it was to play a Jedi Knight or a Rebel Starfighter pilot.
Most of the stories I've heard from avid players of the game have had nothing to do with the structure of the original film trilogy. Other sorts of adventures available in the same reality have been the big focus of every campaign I have heard about. And to the credit of the gms, that players have a lot of vivid and fond memories.
In 2018 a 30th anniversary edition was released by fantasy flight, which has its own Star Wars role-playing game that is more consistent with the universe created by the prequels and the recent Disney material.
A more setting neutral version of the same game was released under the name Space d6, for players who are looking for the same gaming experience but not the setting.
Star Trek: The Role Playing Game
When this role playing game was put together, Star Trek: the Next Generation had not yet been conceived of. And so much of the metaplot we now considered to be a core part of the Star Trek universe was not yet in place. There was no Q, no sense that the Romulan Empire was part of a vast network of seeded worlds, no Borg, and no mention of a dystopian 21st century in which genetically engineered super soldiers warred for domination of the earth before Vulcan contact.
The Source material was a combination of the television series, the animated series, the first motion picture, the novels that were available at the time, fanfiction, and the short and concise setting bible that was used by the writing staff in the 60s.
It is, accordingly, a much brighter, and in many ways, more heroic setting.
Rather than being focused on the conflict with alien races, the military clashes, or Humanity's struggle to comprehend aliens far more advanced than us, it's a story of going out to new places and being ambassadors for humankind and a liberal way of life as we reach out to the stars.
Devoid of much of the cynicism that crept into the Next Generation, or the grittiness of Voyager, it presents a much more light-hearted experience.
I will confess that I have not managed to play it, only read through the manuals and their source books. Newer Star Trek role playing games include material from the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and usually include Enterprise and Voyager in their continuity as well.
I have plaid a fair bit of 2020 in my time, and it has some amazing concepts, a great setting, and compelling design philosophy. Unfortunately, mechanically, the system was sluggish, bloated, and unwieldy. I am assured by a friend and fellow GM that RED has managed to repair most of the flaws of 2020.
Cyberpunk as a specific game setting kind of disappeared in the early noughties. It was fan-supported heavily, but publication of the game had gone on furlough for quite some time.
It reappred in a media blitz as Cyberpunk RED released closely with with the video game Cyberpunk 2077, and the Netflix series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.
For its flaws, CP2020 and its descendants remain really fun games once you get into the swing of them.
Shadowrun is a cyberpunk game that mixes in elements of high fantasy and Swords & Sorcery. After magic is reawakened in the world during a severe geopolitical crisis, many humans and animals mutated into hidden magical forms: some humans were born mutated into Dwarves or Elves. Others transformed in painful, sanity-wracking ways into orks and trolls around puberty. Some animals did likewise, some dogs becoming barghests, some snakes nagas, etc. Dragons and demigods were able to return to their true forms after centuries of being trapped in human guise. Spirits coukd once again manifest on Earth.
With survival even harder in a world plagued with pandemics, massive secession wars, economic collapse, monsters, etc., large corporations managed to all but replace governments, as the technology they provide is the only advantage most humans have against the increasing threats. Cybernetics, medical nanites, advanced drones, and virtual reality have been forced light years ahead.
The end result of this scenario is that you have a setting were elves and wizards live alongside super hackers and cyborgs. The setting is stylish, strange, and very complicated. The PCs in this setting are criminals for hire doing Espionage and sabotage for megacorporations and organized crime syndicates.
Which is its biggest problem.
Shadowrun has been in continuous publication for 30 years, with a massive following that keeps it somewhere in the top 10 most of the time. But each module and book released for it has added new material, metaplot, and wrinkles to the setting. Even if you have been playing regularly since the early 90s like I have, it is impossible to keep up with all the information. Even regular setting books just meant to catch players up on the meta are overwhelming and go out of date within a year of publication.
Mechanically, Shadowrun has gotten simpler and better with every edition, but meta-wise it is increasingly becoming a Gordian knot of Scifi chaos.
And every edition needs about four splat books in the first year just to make sure they have equivalent content to the previous edition.
It got to the point that recently a spin off Shadowrun 2050 edition was released that returns to the original 1st edition setting using the 5th editions game mechanics. Players are feeling incredible fatigue with keeping up. Especially as with the advent of Virtuakinetic kids who can hack without computers, digital spirits, alien worlds beyond the Matrix (Internet), AI, nanotechnology, and increasingly free-form magic, reality itself feels like it is steadily breaking down in the setting.
That said, Shadowrun is fun and fast. Each edition has streamlined the game somewhat better than the previoys one, and 3rd and 4th editions were extremely easy to pick up (at least mechanically. ) Most of my longest, most fulfilling TTRPG campaigns were played in Shadowrun 3e or 4e.
For my money these days, however, I find that I can get the same experience with even easier rules using Pickpocket Press' Lowlife 2090. It offers a similar Fusion of Cyberpunk and D&D in a much lighter package. It is not a clone so much as a spiritual successor built on an OSR chassis.
This article is taking me pretty far down memory lane, and I found it's a lot bigger than I expected it to be. In my next article, I will cover newer role-playing games that attempt to catch both old school science fiction vibes and an old school role-playing game feel to them. I hope to cover stars of that number, the CVS engine, and star adventurer. If there are others you want me to review, please let me know.