Dealing In Futures

Marcus L. Rowland

Copyright © Marcus L. Rowland 1998

Science fiction role playing games (SFRPGs) have been around nearly as long as the hobby as a whole, and are second only to fantasy in the number of games produced. The first, GDW's Traveller, appeared only three years after Dungeons and Dragons, and a version is still published by Imperium Games today; a Traveller supplement for Steve Jackson's GURPS rules should appear in 1998. There have been many others.

SFRPGs have always ridden an uneasy balance between the needs of a game, the realities of science, and the simple fact that the future is inherently unpredictable. It's difficult to write realistic rules for technologies that are centuries in our future, next to impossible to guess where human society is going, or what alien life will be like. In far-future games the science is essentially magical; nobody can really explain how force fields, psionics, FTL, antigravity and blasters work, except by pseudo-science, so they can do whatever the game designer likes. This can occasionally lead to mistakes; the classic example was a drug in FGU's Space Opera which could revive the dead if injected, lightly skating over the fact that a drug won't circulate through the human body if the heart isn't beating. At the opposite extreme Traveller, set several thousand years in the future, originally had computers that were less powerful than machines of the 1980s. With a long enough lead time history and sociology can be mangled to meet the needs of the game designers, allowing the formation of implausibly large interstellar empires and federations; our era is so far in the past that its events are only of interest to historians, and the route to the future needn't be mapped in great detail.

Near- to mid-future games are generally based on harder SF, and run into a different set of problems; the designers have to describe a future that is convincingly derived from the known present, extrapolating everything from science to fashion and politics from the world of today. A setting even ten or twenty years in the future can lead to a world of grief - nearly all of these games published in the 1980s assumed the continued existence of the Soviet Union - while a lead time of two or three hundred years means that the designers must still fill in all the historical gaps, and have a harder job extrapolating technology to the limits of the possible. It's a tough job, and few games have managed to get it right in every detail. Since near- and far-future games tend to be more popular anyway, this area of SF has received relatively little attention.

The main mid-future game of the early nineties was GDW's 2300 AD (originally published in 1989 as Traveller 2300), which came up with some reasonably convincing explanations for FTL travel, and did a good job of extrapolating current history into a future that included a small USA/USSR nuclear war and subsequent expansion into space. Unfortunately the game's background was a little pedestrian in some ways, and GDW's attempts to boost sales by adding an invasion by some vicious but boring aliens didn't help much. When GDW went out of business nobody picked up the rights.

1997's big mid-future game should have been The Babylon Project, Chameleon Eclectic's game of the TV series Babylon 5, but somehow it failed to strike a chord. Part of the problem is a setting years earlier than the TV series which omits Vorlons, some other alien races and all of the main characters. Another is the omission of such apparently essential features as space combat rules for later supplements. At the time of writing (December 1997) it's selling but doesn't seem to be being played much, and gamers may be looking elsewhere for their SF fix. All of which brings us to Biohazard Games and Blue Planet, which recently went on sale in the UK at 20.99.

Blue Planet runs to 352 pages of moderately dense text, and all but the last hundred-odd pages are descriptions of the background, technology, alien life, etc. The main setting is Poseidon, a colony on an alien world at the opposite end of a wormhole from our solar system, in 2199 AD. The wormhole between Earth and Poseidon appears to be artificial, but was not created by mankind; there is evidence that life spread from Poseidon to Earth by meteor. Even with the best ships the journey takes six months. The planet is largely ocean, with a few island chains; it was colonised by genetically modified humans, dolphins, and killer whales in 2087, then abandoned in the chaos following a bioengineered plague which destroyed most of Earth's food crops. Afterwards the colony fell apart into hundreds of independent communities, on land and underwater, with no central government. Now contact has been resumed, and immigrants are pouring into Poseidon, a world whose massively outnumbered colonists (now known as the "natives") generally don't welcome them, but have no real way to stop the invasion. To make matters worse many of the new arrivals work for gigantic corporations which plan intensive exploitation of Poseidon's natural resources, most notably "Long John", a complex chemical used in longevity drugs. Standing between them is the Global Ecology Organisation (GEO), Earth's main environmental agency which now administers Poseidon and tries to enforce the law.

Poseidon also has a native intelligent species, the squidlike aborigines, as well as numerous animal species. Almost everything about the aborigines is shrouded in mystery, and may eventually be important in scenarios published for the game, so it's difficult to say more about them. Most of the unintelligent animals (and some of the plants) are sufficiently alien and nasty to keep players busy, often lethally so.

Technology is plausible for this era and the background, if rather conservative; very advanced computers but no true artificial intelligence, fusion power plants and spacecraft engines, "skyhook" orbital towers on Mars and over Ecuador, various types of space shuttle, implanted electronics and other bionics, and complex medicine and genetic engineering. Several animal races have been enhanced by this means, an obvious tip of the hat to David Brin's "Uplift" novels. Weapons are "smart" and link to computer implants but usually fire bullets, not energy beams.

Against this background the main thrust of the game is ecological, the "natives" and various peaceful and militant environmental groups versus the more exploitative companies, while the companies are also involved in various rivalries. GEO generally acts as peacemaker and arbitrator, although there may be concealed motives for some GEO activities. There are many other possibilities in this setting; careers in law enforcement or crime, scientific research and exploration, asteroid mining in Earth or Poseidon's solar system, and reconstruction of the devastated Earth. It's an extraordinarily rich background, packed with useful events, ideas, and locations, and should easily support extended campaigns.

After all this exciting background, the game system itself comes as a surprising anticlimax, a rather clunky throwback to an earlier era. Character design in particular is a complex and lengthy process involving an unusually large number of characteristics, skills and dice rolls. Using the statistics generated by this process is also complex, and isn't always explained particularly well, although examples do help to make things a little clearer. As in many games combat is the most complicated part of the system, and runs rather slowly. The level of detail in combat is very high, extending to graphic descriptions of wounds to different parts of the body - you don't want to know how a level 5 injury to the groin is described - but this isn't necessarily useful in a fast-moving game.

Given the length of this book, the most surprising omission is an introductory adventure, even in outline form. Although Poseidon is described in immense detail, referees are thrown in at the deep end and left to fend for themselves. There are ideas in earlier sections, most notably in the "Access Denied" sections of data for the referee, but a lot of work is needed to flesh them out. The book includes advertisements for an additional source book, Archipelago, and a bimonthly newsletter, Undercurrents, both of which should contain scenario ideas. Biohazard's web site allegedly carries the newsletter, but seems to have problems; I've yet to get off the opening page.

Despite these drawbacks I'd strongly recommend this game to experienced referees, who will be able to cope with the shortcomings or adapt the background to another system. Inexperienced buyers may want to look elsewhere, since getting to grips with these rules will be a lengthy and confusing process.

Marcus L. Rowland