Part Two: Science Fiction Failures
In my previous article, I examined several roleplaying games which utilize varying degrees of fantasy elements while still being considered science fiction. Each game discussed was at least marginally successful, though none held the market position that popular fantasy RPGs currently hold. Even former major company games, such as Shadowrun and Rifts, have held a decreasing presence in the hobby. The RPG market is not particularly forgiving to science fiction games, and there have been many promising games that have slipped from the echelons of success and into obscurity.
One of the first science fiction roleplaying games I learned was Alternity. Alternity was written by Richard Baker and Bill Slaviscek, and it was released by TSR in 1998. It enjoyed a brief but exemplary life before being cancelled in 2000 following the Wizards of the Coast buyout.
Alternity was the science fiction answer to Dungeons & Dragons fantasy, providing a universal system with modular setting information. Not wholly belonging to any one style of science fiction, Alternity offered a space opera setting called Star Drive, a modern conspiracy setting called Dark Matter, and a post-apocalyptic setting called Gamma World. The game featured rules for alien races, mutations, cyber technology, and a variety of science fiction elements.
Supplements went into further detail with psionics, space travel, dimension travel, and other more specific sci-fi aspects, allowing GMs to customize the style of game they wanted to run. Alternity’s primary mechanic – rolling a d20 and adding or subtracting another die based on the skill involved and comparing it against a target number – created a dynamic and different style of play that no other system has copied since.
Unfortunately, Alternity suffered from bad timing on the marketplace. Being released in the last push of publications by TSR, Alternity entered into a market already saturated with other failed products. Without a tie-in to an existing setting, the game struggled to find a wider audience. It still maintains to this day a devoted fan base, but it was not successful enough for Wizards of the Coast to continue publishing it. Most of the setting material created by Alternity would go on to be incorporated into Wizards’s d20 Modern line. Star Drive was made into part of d20 Future, and Dark Matter was released as its own setting. Gamma World was rereleased by Sword and Sorcery Studios in 2002, and later as its own stand alone game in 2010 from Wizards of the Coast. Currently, the core rulebooks are not available electronically through online retailers and can only be found through second hand sources.
White Wolf’s Trinity explored an Earth where superpowered humans waged a devastating war before leaving the Earth, and their humanity, behind. They departed for space, leaving the world in varying states of ruin in their wake. As the planet recovers, bio-engineering takes the forefront of science, and the study of psionics has created a sizable population of psychics with varying aptitudes.
Written and released in 1997 by White Wolf Studios, the game eventually was cancelled in 2001 due to poor sales. It used a modified version of White Wolf’s Storyteller system, where players created dice pools of d10s using their character’s skills and attributes and rolled against a set target number on the dice.
The beauty of Trinity lay in the world it created. The first of White Wolf’s Trinity Universe games, it held a rich history where underdeveloped nations were spared the worst of the devastation and had since risen to international political power. Various psionic Orders each sought to fulfill their own shadowy agendas in the world, while advancing their own style of psionic ability. Strong cyberpunk elements of corporate espionage and bio-modification mixed with the existential threat of the aberrant Novas, and there were supplements that focused on the more post-apocalyptic or space opera elements of the setting.
Like Alternity, however, Trinity suffered from being released at a time where the marketplace for RPGs was going through downturn. Similar to WotC’s push for another edition of Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf focused its resources on updating its modern urban fantasy World of Darkness lines for their Revised edition. Poor sales moved Trinity to White Wolf’s much smaller ArtHaus imprint, where it eventually was cancelled. Even the release of Adventure! and Aberrant, also set in the Trinity Universe, was not enough to boost sales or fanfare. Trinity was then adapted to the d20 OGL engine in 2004 and rereleased to even less success. After several years of obscurity, however, things are beginning to look up for Trinity. Electronic copies of the game can be found at DriveThruRPG, and Onyx Path Publishing has begun work on a new edition of the game with a prospective release date in August 2014.
Originally released in 1988, Cyberpunk is best known by the title of its second edition, Cyberpunk 2020. Written by Mike Pondsmith and produced by R. Talsorian Games, Cyberpunk was an iconic game of the 1990’s, embracing a world inspired by the writings of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. An economic collapse followed by a systemic military take over left the United States in the control of several megalithic corporations. These corporations influence all levels of society, pushing scientific advancement forward without care for the cost in human suffering, all in service to the all mighty dollar. In the fringes of this society, hackers and mercenaries carve out a living, fighting the secret wars between the corporations. The system emphasized stealth and tactics in its combat resolution, as Cyberpunk 2020’s lethality served as a defining aspect of the game. Every single bullet fired had a greater than insignificant chance to kill someone. The setting was regularly updated in a series of supplements until 1993, and it continued in a series of novels in 1997 and 1998.
While Cyberpunk 2020 had supplements being released for it by other companies, very little was officially released between 1998 and 2005. In 2005, Mike Pondsmith released the third edition of Cyberpunk. Called Cyberpunk 203X, it updated the setting to after the Fourth Corporate Wars of the novels, and it was released both electronically and at conventions.
Unfortunately, the reaction to the third edition of the game was not positive. The setting of Cyberpunk 203X had moved past its roots in Gibson and Sterling, and instead had developed into an examination of transhumanism and singularity. Rather than featuring conflict between amoral corporations that had eclipsed governments, the world of Cyberpunk 203X was influenced by radical subcultures, each of whom embraced their own unique brand of hyper-advanced technology.
Moreover, there was a strong reaction against the sheer structure of the sourcebook itself, with it being described as terribly laid out, poorly edited, inaccurately illustrated, and just plain hard to read. While several improvements in the rules system were made with the third edition, the vast changes in the setting and flavor to the game lost the interested of most of its fan base looking forward to its next iteration, and it has since faded to reasonable obscurity. A computer game set in the Cyberpunk universe is set for release in 2015-2016, though whether its success is at all tied to future tabletop editions remains to be seen.
While many science fiction licenses have enjoyed their own roleplaying games, few have been quite as troubled as Star Trek. The first Star Trek game was released by FASA from 1982 to 1989, and was eventually replaced with the Star Trek the Next Generation Role Playing Game released by Last Unicorn Games in 1998. Licensing issues prevented Last Unicorn Games from being able to release a single core rules book, and instead they were forced to release one each for Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and the Original Series. The Last Unicorn Games version was the most successful edition, earning an Origins award for Best Roleplaying Game in 1998.
Two years after their acquisition by WotC, however, Last Unicorn Games lost their license to Decipher Games in 2002, who had existing gaming rights with Paramount for a successful Star Trek CCG and was looking to expand. Decipher released a new edition of Star Trek, featuring their CODA system. It was noted for its similarities to the d20 system of Wizards of the Coast, and it eventually ceased production in 2007.
As with many licensed games, the fate of Star Trek’s numerous versions were tied heavily to their source material. With the cancellation of Star Trek: Voyager in 2001 and Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, there has not been a Star Trek television series in several years. Furthermore, with the cinematic reboot of Star Trek in 2009, no new licensed version was released, despite the film’s commercial success and the franchise’s new focus on action adventure. No official electronic copies of the three different editions are available through retailers, and even the Decipher edition has gone out of print. As successful as the license once was, the future of the Star Trek universe in roleplaying games has become extremely in doubt, and the game has become almost impossible to find outside of second-hand book stores.
No discussion of science fiction games can be complete without mention of Traveller, however. Originally released in 1977 by Game Designer’s Workshop, it has remained in print for nearly three decades. Designed by Mark Miller, Traveller has been through five complete editions, three separate publishers, and has been modified into a d20 variant, a GURPS variant, and a HERO variant. Traveller is not strongly tied to any default setting, though later versions began providing one. The general traits of Traveller’s space opera assumes a human dominant universe, interstellar travel by jump drive, no faster-than-light communication, a new growth of feudalism due to said lack of communication, and a failure for humanity to have reached either an utopian or more enlightened state. Traveller is best known for its “lifepath” style of character creation, where characters gain skills by choosing career paths, spending years of their character’s life pursuing a career, and then rolling to determine how it went for them.
It does not always go well. In its older versions Traveller even developed the reputation of being one of the few systems where characters could be permanently maimed or even killed while still in character creation.
Having lasted since 1977, the game has a history that is rivaled only by Dungeons & Dragons in age. Despite this, Traveller has never had the presence on the market that its fantasy counterpart has garnered. Game Design Workshop went out of business three years after producing Traveller’s third edition in 1993. The various parties that sought to pick up the banner of Traveller since have been plagued by issues, including the rushed fourth edition from Imperium Games.
This does appear to be changing, though, with two versions of Traveller currently on the market. Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller has licensed products for Babylon 5, Judge Dredd, and an upcoming line for Star Trek. A full fifth edition of Traveller was written by Marc Miller himself under his new Far Future Enterprises publishing group, and it has been one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns for a roleplaying game to date. With both versions of Traveller on the market, as well as the continued presence of the other system adaptations of the game, the market may finally be turning around for Traveller. Time will tell.
In the history of roleplaying, science fiction gaming has been a troubled but recurring part of the market. Many games have arrived and succeeded for a time before falling under market pressures and being discontinued. While many of these games have had innovative mechanics, unique visions, and popular licenses, few have managed to establish themselves will enough of a presence on the market to be able to survive downturns and instability. This lack of long term success may be one of the contributing factors in the lack of science fiction role playing games on the market. That said, there are a few exceptions worth mentioning. In my next article, I will talk about currently successful science fiction games, and certain intellectual properties currently missing a roleplaying game which really should have one.
Until then, may you continue to look to the stars despite all these setbacks.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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