Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Jeffro’s Sci-Fi Gaming Tips

I love the “just open the box and start playing” nature of games like Star Frontiers and Gamma World.  Those games were great in their day, but… times have changed.  On the other hand, I hate the “Gamemaster, get ready to spend 100’s of hours before you even play your first game” mentality implied by the new monster games of today.  Even so, for science fiction gaming, I still suggest a blend of Classic Traveller and GURPS 4th Edition.  Here’s my reasons:

Classic Traveller is dated and unrefined, but it’s also got two of the coolest gaming concepts ever invented:

The World Generation System:  The “retro” look of the world maps and subsector maps is completely rad.  I don’t see how people can’t get into that.  There are trade-offs with the “flat space” approach, but there are huge gains in usability and playability.  The coding format creates what amounts to a compact paper “mushware” database.  (An expanded/updated/debugged version of this appears in GURPS Interstellar Wars– the lack of something like this was a major shortcoming in 3e GURPS Traveller, in my opinion.)

The Character Generation Mini Game: You can do character design in half an hour or so and then immediately start playing.  (I hate the preliminary rpg planning session thing– I’m too old to waste a game session on that!)  It’s amazing how such a simple system can produce such characters.  The combination of folks that a whole gaming group rolls up together will imply all sorts of adventure ideas.  (The genre here is basically that of Firefly.  How cool is that?)  All you need here is Book One and Supplement Four.

GURPS is a much more consistent, streamlined, and refined gaming system– but it’s a toolkit for constructing campaigns and not really a full game in and of itself.  Classic Traveller is a full game… but you will likely end up in house-rule hell if you try to use it by itself.  (Hardcore Traveller fans actually get really into that, actually.)  Using GURPS by itself can leave you feeling like you’re in a vacuum.  There’s just no focus to a design that’s built from the ground up to be universal.  A few key Traveller tools like those mentioned above can give you the necessary grounding you need to successfuly pass your sanity checks.

GURPS 4e Characters is very useful for fleshing out character concepts.  GURPS Traveller 3e contains guidelines for converting from previous versions of Traveller.  If you’re overwhelmed by all the options in GURPS, “upsizing” the old barebones Traveller characters will help make sense of things.  And even with just Basic Set you can work up a whole cantina of aliens quickly if you keep in mind that the full details are only necessary for people playing PC’s.

Regardless of what sci-fi rules you’re using, keep it simple.  Ignore advanced combat rules.  Ignore epic space combat.  Ignore physics, climatology and biology.  If you want that other stuff, go play Advanced Squad Leader, Star Fleet Battles, and Battletech between study sessions for the college science classes you’re signing up for.  Focus instead on character concepts and story.  Use the science fiction setting as a springboard into thrilling locations that boggle the mind.  Don’t get wrapped up in details and accounting.  The setting is merely a backdrop for action and adventure.  Don’t obsess over it– you need to let the players become the “stars of the show.”  Game mechanics and setting data are the rpg equivalent to matte paintings and special effects: they’re just tools for communicating a story; don’t get bogged down into them.

Also, don’t feel like you need to work out the nature of the entire universe at one time.  George Lucas didn’t and neither should you.  Make things up as you go.  Work things out in detail only after a game session reveals the need for it.  You’ll work in much more useful directions this way whereas if you try to make everything you need before playing you’ll never get started.  This is another place where GURPS system pays off.  You won’t use but a fraction of its rules when you start, but whatever direction your campaign ultimately goes, there’ll be solid rules there to help you out if you want them later.  In other games you’d be left with working out your own house-rules.

(One last note: GURPS has long had a reputation for being a decent system for “realistic” genres.  With Fourth edition, they retain a lot of that strength, but have put forth a lot of effort to address the fantastic side of things.  Superhero and fantasy monster type stuff has been retooled and integrated into the core books.  This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the system is much more flexible than before.)

[Adaen of Bridgewater asked me a quick question… and my answer quickly raged out of control, so it ended up here as a blog entry.  Be sure to check out their site.]


7 responses to “Jeffro’s Sci-Fi Gaming Tips

  1. Adaen of Bridgewater February 7, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Wow, thanks Jeffro…That is exactly the kind of stuff in which I’m interested. I’ll have to think about GURPS a little more and see how it applies to Traveller.

    I’m also interested in taking a look at Spacemaster, Star Frontiers, d20 Future (including the Star Frontiers refit called d20 Star Law), Other versions of Traveller, Star Wars d20, Star Wars d6, Other Suns, Space Opera, etc. Another idea is to look at other generic systems such as FUDGE, FATE, Masterbook, etc. for adaptations to the settings provided in one of the “Space Games”. If you have comments on any of these, fire away. I’m sure there are others out there who have some passion for some of these (or others).



  2. jeffro February 7, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    D20: If your gaming group is already into D&D, it makes a lot of sense to stick with something they know. On the other hand, I’m not sure how well levels, miscellaneous bonuses, and weird feats stack up in the long haul. The learning curve will be easy going to start, but you’ll pay for it later, I’d imagine. Though if the choice was between D20 and no game at all, I’d figure out a way to make it work.

    Mega-Traveller: They took the stupendous Striker miniatures rules and integrated it with advanced versions of all the CT systems and overlaid a new task system. In spite of CD compilations and so forth today, no one can tell me where to get a revised set of rules that takes into account the huge amount of errata. I guess I’m too spoiled by Steve Jackson Games to put up with that kind of malarkey, but MT does have its fan base for good reason: this is the “Wargamer’s Traveller.”

    TNE: This is where GDW took Traveller and rewrote it for their house system, so it’s really more like Twilight 2000 than Traveller. The plot threads of the new canon material drove many fans insane… they still argue over heatedly to this day. The decisions made here were so questionable that Steve Jackson could later launch the GT line on the premise that this and MT never happened. Fire, Fusion and Steel is widely regarded as a classic in world building and vehicle design tomes.

    T4: Traveller connoisseurs all agree there were some pretty good stuff in here in parts, but this version tanked for a reason. Beware.

    I’m not sure about the other games you mention. For better or for worse, Classic Traveller is the definitive version.

  3. Adaen of Bridgewater February 7, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks for the additional info. Are you on RPGnet? There’s currently a link covering Sci-Fi Games….no GURPS though:

  4. jeffro February 9, 2007 at 9:07 am

    No I’m not on RPGnet… I mostly lurk on the Steve Jasckon and the C.O.T.I. Traveller message boards.

    I’m really curious about Spacemaster… and there’s another forgotten 80’s game called Universe that I wonder about. Also, I’ve always wanted to see if Savage Worlds is as fast playing as they say. There’s only so many games you can make time for, though….

  5. Adaen of Bridgewater March 20, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    You know I was sure I had this electronically, but in the reconstruction from my computer-crash wreckage, I’m unable to find it. The following link to Jeff’s Gameblog includes a summary of its main selling points (also in the comments):

    p>Five Overlooked RPGs


  6. jeffro March 21, 2007 at 10:01 am

    Oh yeah, that’s a great post there. (I have the 007 game and the Octopussy adventure. I’m surprised at how many positve comments that game musters from such diverse folk.)

    It’s worth a read just to pick up the Erol Otis link. That was some great artwork… the D&D “Green Dragon” Basic Set was one of my first games. Probably the right after Car Wars and just before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (I bought that last one well before they achieved media over-saturation– it was back when they were just a trendy independed black and white comic.)


    What were we talking about??


    Space Master! Yeah. Thanks for the link. Sounds like it’s notable mainly for its extra crunchy combat system.

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