Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Spaceships and Special Guest Stars

I mentioned a while back that I'd picked up a copy of a science-fiction game titled Starships and Spacemen that I'd considered running. I had chosen not to, but I still found myself intrigued by the idea of playing a space travel game.

One advantage to our gaming group was that it was set up as an official club of the university, which meant that we were actually disbursed funds. But since we didn't do anything except meet once a week in the basement of one of the buildings, we had no expenses. So once a year, the club's president would just go around and ask if there were any games we wanted, then buy them for us. I got myself a Monster Manual and a Fiend Folio that way. And one semester, I asked for a copy of Traveller.

Traveller was the science-fiction role-playing game, put out by Game Designers' Workshop. I was really looking forward to getting the game, because unlike Starships and Spacemen, there was a wealth of supporting material for Traveller: adventure and campaign supplements with intriguing names like "The Spinward Marches" and "Research Station Gamma," along with supplementary rules for giant ships, space trading and smuggling, or being a mercenary. And the game was a proven success, a big seller dominating the science-fiction game market the way Dungeons and Dragons did the fantasy market. Even the books themselves had a distinctive identity, with each book featuring the same sleek black design. Traveller looked like a quality product that I would love playing.

So I eagerly opened up the box and looked through the books. I wasn't as thrilled after paging through the books a little. The game seemed really dry, and the space travel rules looked complicated and technical, closer to real space travel than the swashbuckling fun of the "Star Wars" movies I really wanted to emulate.

Still, I didn't want to judge the game without giving it a try, so I dug into the first booklet and started rolling a sample character. One feature of Traveller's character-building concept was to give your character a past to justify his skills. All characters had past military experience, and you would roll for how their military careers had fared--how their skills had developed and how many times they'd been promoted. And, just incidentally, whether they'd been killed while in service.

Three dead characters later, I'd had enough and quit.

I could have ignored the results, I guess, and just kept playing, but I felt a bit like that chick in "The Emperor's New Groove" when she says, "Why do we even have that lever?" Planting a big, stupid, non-fun gotcha in the character creation process made me not trust that there wouldn't be more.

Never have actually played a game of Traveller to this day, and the books are long lost (though I just downloaded a free PDF of the original starter rules for the cover image above; checking the Classic Traveller rules, I see that the survival rule is still in there, though there is an optional rule that says you can waive the death and just make it so the character was injured and therefore booted from the service). And with two bad science-fiction game experiences under my belt, I decided to give up on science-fiction gaming.

Then one Saturday, I found out that Jose was going to run a Space Opera game. Space Opera was another Fantasy Games Unlimited release that competed directly with Traveller. And though it didn't have quite the wealth of supporting material that Traveller did, it had a lot, and the flavor seemed closer to what I wanted to play. I forget why I missed the start of the campaign, but when I sat in on my first adventure, the characters were already in the middle of assaulting a secret base. Rather than have me roll a new character and sandwich me in somehow, Jose let me take over the two NPC's he had accompanying the players: a certain roguish space smuggler and his eight-foot-tall furry co-pilot.

We were assaulting some military base or something. It was pretty fun for me, less so for the other players, just because the base was very tough, and they were first level characters barely able to do anything. The NPC's I was playing were higher level, and so were doing most of the actual fighting. My two characters would sweep through the base, taking down defenses while the PC's followed in my wake.

The next adventure, I rolled up my own character and joined the party. We got swept up in another attack on some military base or something (I think we had joined some kind of "rebellion" fighting against some sort of "empire," if you can believe it), and it was very tough. Space Opera had sounded like a fun game with the "Star Wars" flavor I was looking for, but combat in the game was tough and deadly, totally unlike the movies. Jose's solution to that was to have a couple of Mary Sue NPC's tank for us, which left the players feeling futile and useless.

We played for a few weeks, but nobody was having a whole lot of fun, so the game petered out. Never have played a proper sci-fi game since. I did buy one other game called Homeworld: The Mechanoid Invasion Book 3, with humans and alien allies fighting an invasion by giant bug-shaped robots (the only Kevin Siembieda/Palladium game I've ever bought), but I don't think I ever even got a far as generating a test character. I think I just bought it because the illustrations looked cool, and I wanted to steal ideas for my V&V campaign. I don't even remember now.

If you've had a good experience with Traveller or Space Opera or one of the other space games like Star Frontiers or even (gasp!) the Star Wars Roleplaying Game itself, let me know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, I never played Traveller either. We had the books laying around, but the rules always seemed too try and technical - and we played Battletech, so we weren't all that scared of technical. Had some fun with Star Frontiers, even though the rules were pretty crappy. I played a psycho vrusk (the insectoid race that was supposed to be all logical and shit) with an eyepatch and a gyrojet rifle. Later I played Star Wars with a different group. I played a Tusken Raider who got force powers and became a jedi, which was stupid but fun. Our ship's computer was called "Ono", as in "Oh no what is that?" or "Oh no, star destroyers!"