Yesterday on #RPGaDAY2015, our topic was Favorite Sci-Fi RPG. This topic is a bit difficult for me because a science fiction roleplaying game is different from a fantasy one. In fantasy, you’ve got your default setting of a pseudo-European medieval-ish feudal system where magic works and the countryside is plagued by green-skinned monsters that need killing. Where you get your specific game branches off that there, adding or deleting elements, but pretty much sticking close to that core. Science fiction — oh, man, that could be anything: are we talking Flash Gordon, Star Wars, or The Matrix? For a sci-fi RPG, setting and system matter so much more than fantasy.
I’m drawn to Apocalypse World because of the various science fiction RPGs to consider, it has the best marriage of a system that l like and a setting that’s interesting. Setting-wise, there’s a ton of games that are cool. Topping the list is Blue Planet—a setting wide open for gaming possibilities but whose system is an unfocused haze.1 Shadowrun, I love the setting (as gonzo as it is), but the ruleset seems to be stuck in that decades-old mindset of trying to realistically simulate the physics of shotguns and grenades in a world where magical dwarves can very easily instantly conjure 40 foot wide explosions of acid to attack a pack of guard dogs that breathe fire.2 Eclipse Phase is interesting, but intimidating. Other games have an amazing system, but the setting doesn’t do much for me. (Specifically, I’m talking about FFG’s Star Wars RPGs.)
Apocalypse World has a system I really like. It’s simple and the system is really tied to the game. The system doesn’t seem like Vincent mashed together something and stuck a post-apocalyptic theme on the framework, it guides a play style. Unlike Blue Planet’s directionless game system, each character has custom moves that tie into what you’re supposed to be doing in the game. If you’re playing one type of character, it’s spelled out that you, and only you, are able to do these cool things, like open yourself up to the psychic maelstrom that’s threatening (?) the world to heal someone. These aren’t class abilities, like in other games, these are actual rules for how the game is played.
I kind of like that. It’s a bit niche protection, but it’s more like character spotlighting and taking ownership of one’s place in the world.
And the world of Apocalypse World is interesting, too. There’s not a setting here—there’s an implied setting. The change to the world took place over a generation ago, but not several generations back; there’s a “psychic maelstrom”; there are settlements of humanity, biker gangs, cults, and the like. However, the flavor and location of your apocalypse is up to you. We had a game where nature took over, and we were set in a vine-choked Manhattan. I’ve heard of games as diverse as a Las Vegas-area setting where the ghosts of the deceased were used to power electric generators, a cluster of satellites fused together in Low Earth Orbit with no contact from the planet below, a ski resort in the mountains of Colorado trapped in an ice age, and a drowned city being invaded by other-dimensional weirdness.
Yeah, it’s that combination of ur-setting and game-driven system that really calls to me.
- Blue Planet’s system is good, it’s the implementation that’s particularly awful with how the skills and attributes are broken down. But my biggest complaint is there isn’t any guidance on what to do with Blue Planet: the rules don’t point you in a particular direction, so the massive list of skills/attributes have to cover anything your group decides to do. [↩]
- It takes over a dozen steps to cast that force 6 Toxic Wave spell and find its effects on the targets. [↩]