I was thinking about why it was that generic scifi games don’t really work. The problem is only compounded in games that purport to be rules-light. When compared to the success of generic fantasy games, the question becomes positively glaring.
Why can’t there be a scifi game that’s both light on rules and not tied to a particular setting? Oh, and that doesn’t suck.
I recall when the original 3BB version of Traveler came out, and I occasionally see that mentioned as a “generic” scifi game. But no; it still has a bunch of assumptions built into it about the setting. The “vaguely Imperial” setting. The races. The technology. FTL drive. Social structure. Economics.
Is it perhaps a function of the fantasy genre that designing a game that is broad enough to incorporate all of the fantasy tropes is relatively easy, compared to scifi? After all, fantasy has its basis– at least broadly– in real history.
Everybody knows what a sword is, and a sword in Lankhmar is the same as one in Aquilonia, or Furyondy, or Waterdeep. But what is a blaster? A blaster in Star Wars might be very different than a blaster in Flash Gordon. So a scifi game must, perforce, define what a blaster is and how it works, and in doing so might cut out a particular use of the term in some other milieu, unless one resorts to endless variations encompassing every possibility, or resorts to sticking with a specific setting. In the former case, it’s no longer “rules-light” as far as I’m concerned, and in the latter, it’s no longer generic.
Consider, for example, the problem of designing a game that could cover Conan, Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser, Elric, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. The original D&D game could, I would argue, do that. A few tweaks here and there, adjust some spell lists, and voila! It would work. Hell, they had rules for Conan, Elric, and Nehwon in the original A/D&D rules!
Imagine a game, though, that could cover Dune, Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator, and the Foundation Trilogy. GURPS might manage it, with a separate world-book for each setting. But there goes the “rules light” idea, and probably the “generic” idea as well, since it would turn each into it’s own sub-game with its own special rules. Even Star Trek, arguably a genre unto itself, needed separate games for different time periods, as Unicorn Games ended up doing it (a fine game line, I might add). But it was all very setting-dependent. You couldn’t use it in a “generic imperial” setting without completely reworking it. You might as well make a new game. But whatever you came up with wouldn’t work in a post-apocalyptic setting, or a Transhumanist near-future setting, or Babylon 5.
I would argue that science fiction is simply too broad to allow a single game system to encompass it all. Fantasy (pulp, high, or swords-and-sorcery), which by its nature is based at least somewhat in history, has a coherent and somewhat well-known background upon which to draw. Science fiction, which is much more speculative by nature, doesn’t afford that same comfort. What’s a blaster? What’s FTL drive? How do psionics work? Do they even exist?
I’ve long looked for a rules-lite scifi game that didn’t come with any pre-prepared background. I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s just not possible. You either have a background that limits your options, or you are forced to accommodate so many options that it’s no longer rules-lite.
Or am I just missing something completely basic?