A Great Time for SF Fans

If you’re a fan of science fiction (or speculative fiction, or whatever you want SF to mean), then things are pretty decent right now.

If you’re a SF fan and a gamer, then things really couldn’t be much better.

So I thought I’d touch on some of the things happening in RPGs right now, specifically focused on science fiction.

Dune is Back!

I read Dune many, many years ago—I was thirteen at the time—and it became one of my favorite SF books of all time. I ended up reading the entire series, by which I mean all the books written by Frank Herbert. (The less said about the painfully terrible books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the better.)

I was not one of those lucky people to get my hands on a copy of the one and only Dune RPG, Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium by Last Unicorn Games. With only 3000 copies ever printed, it has become a collectors’ item that fetches some rather high prices on the rare event that one actually becomes available.

But just ten days ago, Gale Force 9 announced that they had acquired a license to produce official Dune tabletop games. And within that announcement was the amazing news that late 2019 will see an official RPG from Modiphius, the same company that has published the Conan RPG, Star Trek RPG, Tales from the Loop RPG, Mindjammer RPG, Coriolis RPG, and Infinity RPG.

Modiphius Games

Which brings me to some of those SF properties I’ve just mentioned. If you’re a SF gamer, then Modiphius pretty much has you covered, with a bunch of great games (not all developed in-house, but all published by them).

  • Star Trek—while I have not personally played this yet, by all accounts this is a fantastic game that totally captures the feel of the ST universe. Modiphius’ house engine, the 2d20 System, has been heavily modified once again in order to ensure that the rules fully support the kind of games that would be expected by fans of Star Trek.
  • Tales from the Loop—the setting for Tales comes from the very cool narrative art books by Simon Stalenhag, and the RPG expertly captures the same vibe of young people living in a world that has been affected by the construction of a massive particle accelerator that has resulted in some strange events. Consider this a SF version of Stranger Things and you won’t be far off the mark.
  • Infinity—this RPG takes place in the setting developed for the tabletop miniatures wargame, and provides an amazing take on digital and social conflict in addition to the standard guns and powered armor one would expect. Unfortunately, this game is coming out very slowly, as by all accounts getting approvals from the license holder is a painstaking and time-eating process. However, the core book is amazing and one could run any number of great campaigns using just one part of the rich universe developed for the wargame.
  • Mindjammer—written by the very talented Sarah Newton, this game uses the Fate Core engine and takes a very interesting approach in how cultures are affected by one another when people interact. Another very deep setting that provides nearly limitless campaign options, this game is very obviously a labor of love for Ms. Newton.
  • Coriolis—described by the authors as “Arabian Nights in space,” this game drips with flavor and interesting mysteries.

Warhammer 40K

Ulisses Spiele just released their new Wrath & Glory RPG, based in the Warhammer 40,000 setting from Games Workshop. This game is only one week old, but already the book has garnered some great reviews.

This edition of the game breaks with the past system developed by the Black Library and continued by Fantasy Flight Games through their Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War, and Black Crusade games. The new edition uses a d6 pool system, and provides a great deal of flexibility for characters of different types to all band together.

Yes, that means you can have an Inquisitor, a Space Marine, an Eldar, and Rogue Trader in the same “party,” though of course you’ll have to come up with your own explanation as to why they’re together.

The other major break from tradition is that this game takes a slightly lighter approach to the Empire, reflecting GW’s relaxing of the relentless grimdarkness that smothered their properties for so long. Hope is an actual thing in the WH40K universe now. It may not be easy, but at least it’s possible to hope for a better future.

I haven’t picked this one up yet, but I can pretty much guarantee I’ll end up buying the PDF fairly soon just to give it a more in-depth look.

Eclipse Phase

The second edition Eclipse Phase, the transhuman horror game—though it can be so much more than just that—has experienced significant delays, but Kickstarter backers have had access to the playtest documents for some time. At last update, this one is going to be released within the calendar year, but there’s no definitive date just yet.

Regardless, Eclipse Phase is an amazing setting, and the sourcebooks are fantastic. This, like Infinity, is a game where one could run multiple, entirely different campaigns within the setting and still not touch on all of the elements that could be used.

I know a great many people are waiting for the second edition to drop, and while I didn’t back the Kickstarter, I will likely pick this up shortly after it’s released.

On a related note, I posted a series of articles on how use the HeroQuest 2E rules with the Eclipse Phase setting (1, 2, 3, 4).

Cyberpunk

The Cyberpunk 2020 game from R. Talsorian Games was one of my favorites back in the early 90’s. I ended up picking up the vast majority of sourcebooks for it, and I always preferred it over FASA’s Shadowrun.

With CD Projekt soon releasing their video game Cyberpunk 2077—and it looks freaking amazing—word is that the RPG will be getting an update as well. Unfortunately, R. Talsorian is not the company it once was, and many of us fans are worried that we’ll get another terrible game like Cyberpunk V3.

If the new Witcher RPG is any indication of what they’re capable of, I’m going to suppress my enthusiasm and excitement in order to avoid the likely disappointment when the product actually comes out.

Then again, as silly as it is to use their Interlock system for The Witcher, at least it was a good enough system for Cyberpunk back in the day, so there’s a chance that they’ll just update the tech and timeline and put out a new version that is at least playable.

The Expanse

I was so excited at first to hear that The Expanse is getting an official RPG. But then it was announced that Green Ronin got the license, and that pretty much ended it for me. They’ve already put out a quickstart, because they’ll just be porting over their AGE system used in the Dragon Age RPG.

This one is a real shame, as the AGE system is a terrible choice to use for running a game like The Expanse. Like R. Talsorian, Green Ronin isn’t the company it once was when it was putting out Mutants & Masterminds first and second edition, and the great Freeport setting materials. For various reasons that I won’t get into here, they are also not a company that I want to support in any way.

But for those who want sourcebooks for The Expanse, this is going to be your chance. Even if the system is totally inappropriate, there will likely be a lot of material consolidated in one place to let you run a game in The Expanse setting even if you use a totally different system.

Other Great Options

Without going into a lot of detail on these other games, I want to mention some standouts that SF gamers might want to check out:

  • Stars Without Number 2E—a great game based on the OSR, Sine Nomine always delivers amazing tools for developing and running campaigns, even if you don’t use an OSR-adjacent set of rules.
  • SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists—this game has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s easy to see why. An interesting premise married to what is, from all accounts, a decent system.
  • Alternity—another very recent release, this is a new version of the game published by TSR in 1998. I don’t know much about this one, as I wasn’t a fan of the original Alternity system, but it does have a following and if you have fond memories of the original, it might be worth checking out.
  • Esper Genesis—an alternate Player’s Handbook for D&D 5E, this book provides SF character classes and associated abilities using the 5E rules. A Esper Genesis Dungeon Master’s Guide (to be called the Master Technician’s Guide) is coming.
  • Torg Eternity—some might not consider this SF, but I’m including it here because Torg was a pretty popular and innovative game back in the day. Unfortunately, this edition is marred by some sloppy editing and some truly broken rule bits. Reviews from customers have been uneven, so if you’re a Torg fan, take a look but definitely read up on it before you drop your cash.

Conclusion

Fantasy has dominated the roleplaying game industry throughout its history. But these days there are so many good SF games out there, that a group of players should be able to find something that meets their preferences without a whole lot of difficulty.

Now, I didn’t mention a bunch of other SF games (like Mongoose’s Traveller, for example) because I wanted to highlight some new games or games that do something different. But any game that I left off this list shouldn’t be taken as any kind of sleight—I just need to keep this post to a manageable size.

What is your favorite SF RPG? What do you like most about it and what does it do really well? Tell us about it in the comments.

Books I wish I had written

(Or…What Inspires Me as a Writer)

We all have our favorite books—those we read again and again, that speak to us directly and touch something inside of us.

Writers have a slightly weird relationship to novels, especially great novels. Before I wrote my first novel, I could get sucked into a great story and let myself go, enjoying it for what it was and reveling in the world unfolding in the page and in my imagination. But things are different now.

Reading a truly great novel brings me a strange mixture of emotions: joy at finding a story that resonates with me, jealousy that I didn’t think of this idea first (and that I may not have done such a wonderful job with it), interest in the craft that went into the creation of the story, curiosity about the influences on the author both before and during the writing, and others.

It’s rare that I can lose myself in a story that I’m reading anymore. In some ways, I’ve lost something that I can’t ever get back. On the other hand, I know what It’s like to write a novel (or a few), and I’m intimately familiar with the hard work, the emotional roller-coaster, all the behind-the-scenes stuff, and that almost makes up for what I’ve lost.

Almost.

To be sure, the joy of actually writing—and make no mistake, I do absolutely love the process of writingdoes make up for what I’ve lost when I’m reading someone else’s work. But that’s a different kettle of fish, as they say.

As a reader, I’ve got a list of books that I love. And as a writer, I’ve got books that I wish I had written. The lists certainly have some overlap, but aren’t exactly the same.

And I’m not talking about the obvious books, either. Sure, it would be nice to be the person who wrote the Harry Potter series (and have the money that came with that incredible success), but that has nothing to do with the words on the page.

It’s also hard to put these in a particular order, so I’m just going to go alphabetically. I originally was going to name my top five, but keeping to a particular number was difficult, as you’ll see.

Amber by Roger Zelazny (1970 – 1978)

I’m cheating here a bit with this one, because the first chronicle technically consists of five novels (Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos). However, these are very short books (all but one are under 200 pages), and these five novels make up a single, continuous story. As I wrote last month, the prose is an absolute joy to read, and the characters are amazing. Zelazny makes the twists and turns of the chronicle seem effortless, and I’m driven to study his style of writing and figure out how he does what he does.

I’m not nearly as much of a fan of the second chronicle, which suffers from some problems. It’s not terrible, but also not a series I plan to ever reread.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I’ve read Dune too many times to count. In fact, I’ve read every Dune novel by Frank Herbert, and then went on to read every other novel by Herbert that I could get my hands on. But this was the epic science fiction story that started it all, and it has everything I could possibly want in a story.

Herbert himself played with the elements of narration in this book, burying haiku poems within the prose and other fun experiments, and it flows like no other book I have ever read. If there had to be a #1 on this list, Dune would be it.

It’s also great to note that Dune was turned down by over twenty publishers before “a little-known printing house best known for its auto repair manuals” published the book in 1965. It then went on to win the 1966 Hugo Award and inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel, and is considered the best-selling science fiction novel in history. Yeah, big publishers are the gatekeepers of quality all right.

Important Note: I suggest you avoid the Dune novels that were not written directly by Frank Herbert (which are only the six books Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune). I have literally nothing good to say about any of the others.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979)

This is much more than just a horror story, and Straub’s cast of characters are about as real as they get in a piece of fiction. Forget the movie, which simply couldn’t capture the weight of this story (and changed the villain to make it easier on viewers). Sure, Ghost Story is scary at times—in fact, it’s terrifying at times—but it’s a lot more than that, an exploration of how the past can come back to haunt you, both figuratively and literally.

The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (1990)

I’ve been a big Clive Barker fan for a long time, and I’ve read almost every one of his books. But I honestly wish this particular one was mine. While the theme of the hidden supernatural world that exists behind the scenes of normal, everyday life is present in most of his stories, this is the one grabbed me and didn’t let go. From the very first chapters in the dead letter office, to the hut of the sorcerer Kissoon that exists in a few looping seconds of time, to the veil that protects the world from the Iad Uroboros, there is so much there. It’s not just what he includes in the book, but all the stuff that its existence implies that really touches me, and it’s masterfully done.

The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons (1989 – 1997)

Like the Chronicles of Amber above, I’m cheating here a little, but it’s nearly impossible to choose one particular books out of all four in this series by Dan Simmons (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion). They are all fantastic, and together they make up one amazing story. The Hyperion Cantos (as the series is called) is an epic science fiction story, broken into two parts. The first two novels make up the first half of the story, and the last two novels make up the second half that takes place 272 years after the first half ends. I’ve read a few other novels by Simmons, and it turned out I didn’t enjoy them at all. But that’s okay, because these four books really inspire me as a writer.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2008)

As much as I love this book, I know I could never write something like this (which makes even more painful because I really wish I had it in me). As the most recently-published book on this list, I’ve had the least amount of time to reread this one (though I’ve already read it three times since it came out). This is an amazing combination of heist novel, fantasy story, and world-building. The dialogue is a joy to read, you can’t help but love the characters even when they’re being annoying, and Lynch makes the complicated plots-within-plots look effortless. Some people feel the sequels aren’t as good, but I think that’s mostly because the next books don’t have that feeling of discovering something brand new that the first novel had. Besides, when your debut is this amazing, it’s nearly impossible to meet fan expectations for any follow-up books.

Conclusion

Looking at the above list, it’s quite a mixture of horror (Ghost Story, The Great and Secret Show), science fiction (Dune, The Hyperion Cantos), and fantasy (Chronicles of Amber, The Lies of Locke Lamora). I hadn’t really given that any thought when I decided to make a list for this post, and it surprised me a little as all my novels so far sit fully in the sword & sorcery sub-genre of fantasy.

Now there are plenty of other individual novels and series that I love, and some I have read multiple times, but I love those purely as a reader. These are the ones that inspire me and, yes, do make me a bit jealous of the skill these authors display. But writing is an ongoing process, and all writers who keep writing continue to learn and grow.

And I’m driven by the combined process of creating and learning that is writing, which is why I see myself continuing to do so as long as I am able.

If you’re a writer, what books have you read that make you think “I wish that one belonged to me?” If you’re a reader, what (ideally fiction) books inspire you the most? Tell us about it in the comments.