Starbursts, Cylons, Starkillers, and Fireflies – Oh My!

This first appeared on the New Worlds site, but I'm reposting it here for the heck of it.

Role Playing in Science Fiction’s Universes

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is not only the grand-daddy of all Role-Playing Games (RPGs), it’s also part of the mental image that most people associate have with the hobby: a handful of players sitting around a table, rolling dice, pretending they’re fighters, mages, thieves and clerics in a generic fantasy setting.

Nothing wrong with that, of course – many gamers have a fond memory of the time they triumphed over slavering hordes of orcs or vanquished an obscenely powerful dragon. It’s just that the vistas that are open to aficionados of RPGs include so many genres and subgenres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror that RPG players often find it painful to explain their hobby as “Dungeons and Dragons, but with spaceships.” Furthermore, generic settings can sometimes lead to a desire to adventure in specific, familiar universe. Perhaps some would find it more satisfying to say: “We’re playing ex-Peacekeepers in the universe of Farscape”; or “we’re playing members of an anti-Cylon conspiracy”; or “we’re playing cash-hungry cutthroats on a Firefly-class ship”.

Generic Settings and Intellectual Property

Of course, it’s not the fault of D&D that it started the entire hobby, and it’s certainly not it’s fault that it has been labeled as “generic” despite a healthy run of novels set in its wildly successful Forgotten Realms fantasy universe. D&D carved out its mindshare across the decards despite early run-ins with the intellectual property police: some of its earliest races included hobbits, balrogs, and ents before they ran afoul of Tolkien’s estate and some of its earliest spell names were lifted from Jack Vance’s works, along with its famous “cast-and-forget” spell mechanic.

Learning lessons from D&D, some of the earliest forays into Science Fiction RPG settings had universes big enough to handle the Science Fiction novels and movies of the time: Traveller, Star Frontiers, and Space Opera allowed you to explore strange new worlds, engage in blaster duels in darkly lit space stations, and triumph over overwhelming numbers of starships in space dogfights.

Fortunately, because of the original Star Wars trilogy’s success with merchandising, RPGs have – at last – become acceptable forms of merchandise, allowing licensed RPGs to come out for a variety of popular movie and TV properties.

There were some early successes – the original Star Wars RPG by West End Games, along with some beloved also-rans (the Ghostbusters RPG and the Men in Black RPG, also by West End Games) – that helped spur on an ever-increasing number of Science Fiction universes into licensed RPG-dom.

If your taste of Science Fiction gravitates to playing rogues and criminal on the run, you may wish to try out either of the following RPGs:

In the Farscape Roleplaying Game, you get to adventure in the most dangerous region of populate space, playing battle-hardened Luxans, sly Nebari, or starlost humans, experiencing the thrill and terror of being pursued by relentless Peacekeepers. With D20 system stats for characters from the show, you can test your cunning against Scorpius, armwrestle D’Argo or race your own stolen leviathan against Talyn.
  • In the award-winning Serenity Role Playing Game you can carve out your own corner of Joss Whedon’s ‘Verse by taking on every paying job that a tough-talking, gun-slinging, silver-tongue ship crew can handle. Just be careful: there are dangers aplenty awaiting you – Alliance patrols, rival crews, thieves, assassins, and the much-reviled Reavers.

  • If you haven’t had your fill of terrible odds and difficult choices, you might want to try your hand at the Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game! Try your hand at being one of the outgunned and outnumbered survivors of the Twelve Colonies struggling against their human-looking Cylon oppressors.

If you can’t find these games in print at local game stores, you might want to get them in PDF form from online stores like RPGNow (

But hurry – if sales for an RPG dip low enough, the game publishers may not renew their license, or perhaps the owners of the intellectual property may wish to go with another publisher and another incarnation of the licensed RPG; this is what happened to Babylon 5 and its ill-fated RPG line.

Babylon 5 – Hope and Faith

In 1997, The Babylon Project was released – the first licensed Babylon 5 RPG, published by Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment. Sadly, due to insufficient support and financial problems, it failed.

In 2003, The Babylon 5 RPG came out, licensed by Mongoose Publishing. It was well-supported, with sourcebooks and adventure material churned out on a regular basis. Encouraged, Mongoose Publishing released a Second Edition of the Babylon 5 RPG, with rules additions and refinements designed to bring the game closer to the feel and scope of the epic TV series.

Sadly, in the absence of any new Babylon 5-related stories in the media, Mongoose Publishing has decided not to renew its license this year, meaning that at some point during 2009 available material for this game will just… stop.

But nothing is forever, so if you want a opportunity to adventure using official Babylon 5 RPG material (or any of the aforementioned RPGs) – get your copies now, while the game publishers still have the license.

Unless, of course, you believe that the current incarnations are not your last best hopes of adventuring in these universes, and that you have faith that something newer and better will appear some time in the future.

After all, it happened to Star Wars….