Monday, November 7, 2016

Putting the Fiction in Science Fiction Gaming

    It’s seven days until the big reveal, RocketFans, and there’s already so much anticipation for the new secret project that I’ve decided to let the cat out of the bag.  On November 15th, Blue Max Studios will release a prototype issue of what will be a monthly digest of science fiction and gaming: LAUNCH WINDOW.
    Thanks to the overwhelming response to my survey (which I will keep going indefinitely), I finally feel like I’ve found a clear sense of direction.  There are a lot of RocketFans out there, who enjoy this blog and what Blue Max publishes for different reasons.  There are people who like the fiction, the hard science, the space opera, the game rules, and almost any combination of the above.  There are people who only play Traveller, or D6, or Diaspora, as well as a growing group of folks who swear by OSR systems.  LAUNCH WINDOW is a way that I can consistently put out quality content that gives everyone something that they want.  
    What does this mean for the blog? Obviously I’ll be putting the majority of my efforts into the digest, so the amount of fiction and gaming articles available on the blog will be limited somewhat.  Every week, there will be a preview of material that will be published in that month’s issue, whether it’s the first part of a story, an overview of an article, or work-in-progress images of up coming artwork.  That being said, I’ll still be posting nano-fic, “Five things” articles, and other goodies just on the blog.  Like this article, for example.

Do you have a favorite Fiction or Article series that we do?  Let us know in the comments!

    Back in 2010 I started Blue Max Studios with the intention of finally being able to write game material for D6.  This was just after West End Games went under and the D6 rule system was released as Open Game Content. I had been inspired by Atomic Rockets (You could tell, couldn’t you?) to create a Hard SF setting, which was the beginning of The Black Desert.  One of the things I always wanted to do with the setting is create fiction for it - but I haven’t gotten around to it for many and various reasons.  One of the big reasons is that Gaming Fiction - stories set in an established RPG setting, has received a lot of negative feelings.   I did not fully understand
that feeling when I was a young gamer, most likely because my all-time favorite RPG was the Star Wars Role-Playing Game.  The game was literally built around a fictional setting, and the game fiction released in the Galaxy Guide supplements and especially in The Star Wars Adventure Journal are among some of my favorite short fiction stories, period.  In point of fact, the WEG material was given to authors working on the Expanded Universe (Now Legends) Novels, so I could argue that the bulk of Legends material is Gaming Fiction.
    From a certain point of view.
    But I won’t make that argument, because that’s not what most gamers mean by Gaming Fiction.  Rather than make specific examples, and thereby possibly insult someone’s favorite game, I’ve made a list of some of the most common complaints I’ve heard about Gaming Fiction:
  • A Core Rule Book or major supplement has more pages devoted to fiction than to useable gaming content.
  • A published adventure is more fiction story than game module.  It seems that the adventure is devoted to a plot that revolves around NPCs, while the Players are bit actors at best and merely spectators at worst.
  • The fiction presented as being based on and showcasing a game system or campaign setting features characters doing things that cannot actually be done in a game using the rules as written.
    I honestly thought there would be more complaints than this.  In a way, there are - but many complaints can be grouped under just plain poor writing.  The above list of grievances are frustrating even if - or perhaps especially if - the Gaming Fiction is of high quality.

What’s your biggest complaint about Gaming Fiction? Leave a comment below!

    Do RPGs even need companion fiction? Is it all just a way to make money? In my opinion, the answer is no - for fantasy and modern setting games.  Science Fiction is a different animal.
    When I say, “Science Fiction”, what’s the first thing you think of?  Is it Star Trek or Star Wars?  Maybe something cyberpunk?  Classic Heinlein?  Honor Harrington? Rayguns and Rockets? Transhuman philosophy? Mass Effect?  I borrowed that last one from Omer Joel of Stellagamma Publishing.  In a recent blogpost, he praised the setting of Mass Effect as an excellent foundation for a Military SF campaign.  The post reminded me of the Rebel Operative premise from WEG Star Wars that goes all the way back to its first edition.  And that reminded me of how easy it is to run a Star Wars campaign compared to a generic science fiction game.  Everybody knows what they’re getting when they play a Star Wars game, because the movies and TV shows and media presence provides us all with a common context.  Generic Fantasy and Modern games, being based on history and the real world respectively, also provide a common context that we all share to a certain degree.  With science fiction, a genre that makes very specific assumptions that are very different from setting to setting, that common context is not present.  An easy way to see what I mean is to try to run a certain style of SF game using a system that isn’t custom made for it, like Star Trek with Traveller, or Third Imperium with WEG Star Wars, or Shadowrun with either one as written.  There are generic SF rule sets that provide a huge variety different technologies you can pick and choose from to make a unique setting, but having done so, a Game Master must explain to their players just what does or does not exist in that setting.  This requires such awkward choices as telling everyone before play, which when you include chargen may use up all the available time, or writing out a document detailing the assumptions of the setting that the Players may or may not read, and may or may not be very interesting in any case.
    Or, you could provide a work of Gaming Fiction that puts everyone on the same page, both literally and figuratively.

What are some games that get adding fiction right? Comment below!

   I’ll use my own work as an example.  I’ve developed a Stardrive/FTL system using Negative Matter that is, if not completely new, sufficiently unusual as to require custom rules and lengthy explanation  In fact, I’ve already spent several thousand words trying to explain how it works without even touching upon the game mechanics.  In contrast, the story The Gentleman Scoundrel tells you pretty much everything you need to know about not only the technology of the setting. But the flavor, the themes, the species, the government, and a host of other things.  It’s not in any detail, to be sure, but the main thing is, if you’ve read the story, and I as a Game Master say that my setting is based in that universe, you know enough as a Player to get into the game without the frustration of finding out later that the campaign is not what you expected.
   Now all this is easy for me to say:  I’m a science fiction author as well as a game designer.  I have no problem with introducing my settings with fiction, and because I’ve been game designing for a while now, I feel reasonably confident that I can do it without being too intrusive.  If you like making your own SF worlds but have no desire to write stories, there’s no reason you should.  With me, it’s different - for one thing, I’m not writing stories to fit, reasonably or unreasonably, an already established game setting.  I’m writing stories, then writing rules that will allow a group of players to tell their own stories in that setting. I think that that’s an important distinction.  A good example is Rob Garitta’s Tesla stories.  They started with the universe of Starships & Spacemen, but they are so clearly part of their own distinct setting we published a supplement for them that was longer than the S&S Core Book!  
   In my opinion, the best use of game fiction was by West End Games in their Star Wars Products.  I mentioned them at the beginning of this article for a reason - When I was in high school, I wanted to write for the Adventure Journal when I grew up.  So that’s exactly what I’m finally going to do.

    That’s what LAUNCH WINDOW is all about. It is very much based on the model of the old Star Wars Adventure Journal: Short stories that include game information like character stats, ships, and equipment, as well as articles and rule expansions to support the settings presented.  With LAUNCH WINDOW, however, I’m going a couple of steps further.  Not only will stories and game material be presented for multiple settings, but it will be presented for multiple rule systems as well.  LAUNCH WINDOW will support Open D6, the Cepheus Engine, OSR, D20, and Diaspora.  The main release of the digest will showcase one or two systems that fit most easily with the settings featured within, but throughout the month after each issue’s release there will be DLC packages updated to the ebook file.  This way, you can be assured that everything in the magazine will support your favorite system. Every item, every issue, every month.  I hope you enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. That is ambitious and feasible. I look forward to seeing what you can do with it.


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