Thursday, January 15, 2015

Science Fiction with gear

A friend of mine (not part of my gaming group) recently purchased the relatively-new Firefly RPG, which I've talked about here and even run a few sessions of with my group.  Her response on Facebook?

Wow. I thought the Serenity RPG book was bad. The Firefly RPG book is far, far, far, far worse. Did I mention it was worse?
When I asked her why she thought that, this was her response.
They mixed the rules for the game (which I don't use but still) in with the 'Episode Guides' so there's no actual rule section, ability/skill charts, equipment lists, etc. It then goes into how to write your adventures as episodes - just like the TV show. They finally give system maps but they don't give an over 'Verse map so you have no idea how the systems relate in terms of distance and position. Overall it's a poorly designed book for anyone who wants to play the game.
I'm with her on how the writers used the "episode guide" portion of the licensed RPG as a way to introduce the rules.  For example, the writers introduce the idea of "beats," which is when you have to successfully make a series of skill rolls to accomplish a single task, through the episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds" when Saffron takes a series of actions to attempt to hijack the ship.  You'll find references to "beats" elsewhere in the rules, but no description of it outside of that episode description.  Annoying.

No list of skills in chart format?  Also annoying, although there is a section of chapter where each skill is gone into in detail, and since every skill is on every PC character sheet, that's not such a big deal.

Describing gaming sessions as being akin to TV series episodes?  Who doesn't do that now in their rulebooks these days?  And since you're emulating a TV series, even more natural.

But now to the two things that really interested me.  The lack of equipment lists and the sketchy nature of intergalactic geography.  Let's take the map thing first.

In Firefly the series, there wasn't a lot made about where things were in comparison to what.  Firefly had a push-a-button-and-it-goes thing going when it comes to space travel that was really reminiscent of Star Wars.  How are we traveling faster than light?  We just are.  What mattered in the series was how advanced or primitive the world was in conjunction to the 'Verse.  The closer you were to the middle, the higher the technology (and possibly more oppressive the government).  It was a socio/economic/political spectrum that made each planet what it was, not how they were physically one to another laterally.  As for actually traveling, it seemed to me that it sort of took as long as it took, as my father used to say on our driving vacations.  Moreover, since it seemed like the writers themselves didn't really care, trying to extrapolate from the source material seems speculative at best.

Although when it comes to not giving a flying fig about relative intergalactic geography, nothing beats these guys.
But the gear issue really interests me, because I noticed it when I got the rulebook myself.  Most science-fiction RPG's dedicate some portion of the rules to equipment: guns, armor, ships, sensors, portable computers, robots, etc.  There's a "science" in "science-fiction" that seems to dictate some way in which technology is interfacing with humanity (or whatever ersatz human is involved).

Firefly, on the other hand, despite its starships and biological augmentations, is really a Western set in space.  It's a romanticized story about freedom and ethics and family and personal character with a hearty splash of class warfare thrown in.  The show deliberately thumbed their noses at the whole technology thing by using spaceships to transport adult livestock, rather than, say, frozen embryos that would be much more efficient in terms of space and cost.

For me personally, I'm at the point in my RPG-life that the chapter in the rulebook about equipment has become a big turn-off for me.  Why?  Because so many of my sci-fi RPG experiences have been players scrambling around for bigger and better gear.  Do a job, earn money, buy a bigger gun.  Of course, since the GM wants to continuing challenge you, he'll just pit you against guys with better armor, so ultimately you have the Zero Sum Gain issue FATE talks about in their rulebook.  I like equipment when it helps PC's do more interesting things, but I'm not a big gun-porn fan who gets all excited about the possibility of mounting a grenade launcher under the barrel of my assault rifle.  The most recent edition of a Star Wars RPG was atrocious in this regard.  It went from a movie that just had "blasters" to an equipment list that got into every electrified brass-knuckle and ceramic chest plate you could dream up.  It's one of the reasons why I like Star Trek as an RPG format, because you just say to the PC's, "here: you and everyone else can have a pistol that disintegrates people.  Now that we've established how bad an idea it is to get into a gunfight, let's continue..."

In our gaming group, I feel like Firefly tanked for two reasons.  First, the gaming group was so large than the lack of PC differentiation at a rules level meant that everyone was stepping on everyone else's character concept's proverbial toes.  Second, Fifth Edition D&D came out, and my fantasy-loving gaming group jumped on it.  It's too bad, because it was the first real foray into science fiction (or futuristic Western) that the group had really done, and I was hoping to see what a new genre could do.

What are your thoughts about lots of equipment, and how it relates to science-fiction RPG's.  Comments welcome.


  1. Agree with you both that hiding the rules in the episodes was just terrible. Distances didn't bother me because JW specifically stated that Serenity moved at the "speed of plot." Much like you I find huge equipment lists irritating anymore. I don't mind a few pages if most of the items are unique but endless pages of almost-but-not-quite-identical weapons (or worse, many pages of weapons when everyone just picks that one gun that is statistically best) are tiresome. Personally I would still like to see where that campaign would go, perhaps next time we could go with your smugglers and starfleet idea?

  2. While I find huge equipment lists annoying, I think I would be more annoyed if this were a game of Star Wars, Star Trek, or Ghostbusters, and there weren't any stats or lists for some of the canon gear.

    Firefly has so little canon, well, stuff, that it makes perfect sense in that universe.

    Unfortunately, it is for me, one of the reasons I can't get into Firefly. The setting has so little identifiable material that connects to that fan center of my brain that knows what a Lightsaber is, what Dilithium Crystals are for, and the fact that you shouldn't look at the trap when it's activated.