Is a Rules Lite, Generic, Sci-Fi RPG impossible?

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?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

20 thoughts on “Is a Rules Lite, Generic, Sci-Fi RPG impossible?

  1. TLG's StarSIEGE might come close. It has a setting included in the boxed set, but it's just one of the three booklets and can be completely ignored if you don't want to use it (think of it like an introductory adventure – nice to see how the rules work, but totally optional).

    Also, I don't know what exactly your definition of "rules light" is, but the player's guide and GM's guide are both fairly slim volumes (put together they're probably not even as many pages as your average GURPS sourcebook).

    Give it a look and see what you think. I agree with you that it's not easy to find a "generic" RPG that can deal with more than a very blandly generic sci-fi setting (and indeed, is there such a thing as a "generic sci-fi setting"?), but I think StarSIEGE might get as close as you'll ever get and still remain "lite".

  2. Of course.

    D&D is itself a hodge-podge of different genres of fantasy…it doesn't represent any one particular literary reference. Vancian magic? How many books (not based on a D&D "world") feature that?

    Just because D&D CAN be used to represent multiple pieces of fantasy literature (with tweaking) doesn't make it the best game for the gig. Traveller can be tweaked to fit a variety of sci-fi stories…from Foundation to Star Trek to Firefly and Cowboy Beebop (if you tone the FTL drive down to just make it a fast intra-system jump). It can even do Star Wars if you want to spot rule for the Jedi.

    I've seen WEG's Star Wars D6 used for non-space opera…Apple Seed manga is one. Anything cinematic. Both D6 and Traveller are "rules-light" enough that you can fit it to most settings. But the more specific the setting the more a dedicated system 9s needed to do it justice.

    Mutant Chronicles, for example…simply easier to use the game as written rather than convert a different "generic" sci-fi game. Same with ElfQuest (I've seen Dragon magazine script D&D stats for them, but come on! D&D magic is NOTHING like the EQ comics!). Same with Stormbringer IMO. Wizards that use swords and wear armor? Not very D&D.

    : )

  3. Savage Worlds can do it, though you'll have to (very slightly) tweak equipment lists.

    You old-school types should look into it — yeah, it's got some newer sensibilities, but among other things, it does swords-and-sorcery better then D&D ever could.

  4. It's not impossible. You need to keep your fluff and your crunch in discrete boxes until you play and focus on what's interesting.

    Say your rules set says a blaster does 2d6 damage. Unless you're in a specific situation that changes the baseline, how doesn't matter.

    My problem with sci-fi games is your character matters less and your equipment matters more – it's then a matter of shopping to win. A peril of the technology I guess.

    Take a look at …in Spaaace! or Alternity Fast Play.

  5. It's all in the details. Fantasy is often loosely defined while sci-fi is much tighter.

    In fantasy most people don't' care How teleportation actually works, do the magic and it works.

    In sci-fi people do seem to care how FTL works. Even if it's mumbo-jumbo it's mumbo jumbo with a set of rules.

    Sci-fi universes are often more tightly defines then fantasy universes. For Sci-fi it's all ultimately in the details and how people deal with them. In fantasy the details can always be a secret.

    For a sci-fi game to be successful it has to hit the details close enough to satisfy it's audience. A Treker doesn't have the same assumptions as a nerf herder and details straying too far from either baseline just makes the game not resonate for them.

    The second a mystic space knight turns up in Trek, I'm all done. But in a fantasy game where we don't' have the details and actually accept a broader universe i'm not likely to complain when a astral warrior turns up.

  6. I don't see why you're willing to make tweaks to fit a fantasy world to the mold, but unwilling to, say, tweak Tarveller to do the same for an SF world.

    Similarly, why does GURPS need to come out with a sourcebook to make Dune, Terminator, etc. work, but you're not requiring D&D to do the same for Elric and Harry Potter?

    So the comparison isn't exactly fair.

    On the other hand, there is the matter of what SF is supposed to be. Space opera is not the same kind of story structure as Postapocalyptic or Time Travel or Cyberpunk, and yet all can be categorized as SF. Similarly, isn't a horror game filled with vampires and zombies NOT fantasy? And yet we call it Horror (Call of Cthulhu, for its part, is SF, and again, not required to work like SF). I think that when people talk about an SF game, what they really mean is Space Opera. If not, it may really be a Military, Horror, Cyberpunk, etc. game and should look for a system that suits its ACTUAL story.

  7. Actually it was x-plorers that sort of got me thinking along these lines. I was hoping it would be the sort of "generic" game I'd been looking for, but looking at the way things seem to be progressing, the setting is getting more and more central.

    I know I could just jettison the setting and the rules that are specific to it, but I'm thinking I shouldn't have to.

  8. "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!"

    The problem is, like technology in Sci-Fi, magic in fantasy is never "generic". Magic in Conan works differently than in the world of Elric which works differently than Vance's Dying Earth which works differently than Harry Potter.

    Actually, I have no idea how you'd do HP without completely re-writing the magic rules, at which point, they are no longer "D&D magic rules". I'm no big fan of HP and have only a rough familiarity with them (mostly from the movies, but have listened to a couple of the early books on tape), but the "original D&D game" could, in no way, mimic the way magic works in the HP-verse without being completely re-written.

    The same, really, goes for Hyboria – I've read every Conan story ever written, as well as all the Kull stories and the Bran Mak Morn and the Cormac Mac Art and the Solomon Kane (all of which are, supposedly, in the same "setting", albeit in different time periods), and at no point is there ever encountered a magic-using character who resembled a D&D wizard. People of the Black Circle comes closest, but the magic used there is still not very much like D&D except that some of the "spells" used are vaguely like a couple of high-level D&D spells.

    Could you do it? I guess, but again, you'd have to tear down the magic-user and cleric classes and rebuild them into something unique from the ground up. Just because you can house-rule the crap out of it doesn't make it "generic", something D&D advocates seem to want to dis-believe.

    And I don't say that last bit as an insult to D&D or its players; I just agree with Dwayanu that the only fantasy genre that D&D does really well is "D&D fantasy".

  9. Actually, I have no idea how you'd do HP without completely re-writing the magic rules, at which point, they are no longer "D&D magic rules". … the "original D&D game" could, in no way, mimic the way magic works in the HP-verse without being completely re-written.

    I confess I'm not a Harry Potter fan either, and what I know of it comes mostly through osmosis from my wife and daughter. But…

    1) Magic-users, once spells are learned, don't use spell books. They rely in their innate knowledge of the spell to cast it.

    2) There are no limits on the number of times per day a spell may be cast.

    3) All spells have a unique material component; the magic-user's wand.

    Ummm… am I mistaken, or did I just "re-write the entire magic system" in about three lines? I guess you could gussy it up with something about spell failure based on intellgience or something, but I think that's the gist of it. Close enough for government work, at least. And certainly nothing more radical than we saw being touted about in the early days of Dragon magazine. The beauty of the original D&D game was precisely that it *could* take this sort of stretching and still come out whole.

    And I'm sure I could do something similar for Conan, with which I am very familiar.

  10. Hi, this is David Bezio, author of X-plorers. First, thanks for giving the game a fair shake.

    I have already put a lot of though into the very topic you are discussing. I came to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to make a totally generic sci fi RPG. I mean, you always have to have some starting point and limitations…unless you try to cover everything. Games like Gurps try to do this, but end up feeling almost totally flavorless (IMHO).

    In any case, I did have some specific goals with X-plorers, and I was going for a certain feel. That feel is more based on trying to bring back those feelings you got when you opened up, read, and started playing those early games (mostly the boxed sets of the 80s). So for me, getting the feel right was the major priority, and from feedback I got that right.

    As far as setting, I kept it very light, and it will continue to be light. I did feel a basic backdrop would help people start playing with a minimum of muss and fuss. I wanted to give PCs a built in role, and referees a built in reason to send PCs on missions with the minimum of effort (like the games of yore that didn’t put too much time into these things).

    The game is “generic”, in the fact that you can strip away the light information on the setting and implant your own setting…but it’s not a toolkit for creating an entirely generic sci fi game. That is something that is beyond the scope of these rules, and not what I was really trying to accomplish.

    Still, I hope you give the game a chance. It’s really designed for house-rules and to do whatever you want with it. 🙂

  11. Sure, but guess what – it's not the D&D magic system anymore.

    Beyond the fact that you'd need an entirely new catalog of spells (since 90% of HP spells have no D&D corollary), and you'd have to re-write how spell levels work (since there are some spells that, in D&D, would be extremely powerful, but even a very inexperienced wizard is able to cast).

    You'd also need to take into account that certain individuals have a talent for certain kinds of magic (some are better with charms, some with plants, some have an affinity with creatures, some have the ability to tell the future, some can see invisible creatures, etc.).

    You'd also need some actual rules for creating potions, since that's a major part of HP magic. You'd also need rules for "cantrip" effects, since HP is rife with little magical effects that are far under the radar of 1st level D&D spells.

    Even the wand thing is debatable. Typically you need a wand to cast spells, but some people can perform magical effects without them, and it's not based just on power, either. I mean, that's how people with magical talents discover they have them in the first place – they start performing magic.

    So yes, you could de-Vance-ify D&D magic and make it superficially similar to Harry Potter, but it really wouldn't emulate the setting with any authority. In the end, you'd be designing a whole new RPG around the setting in order to actually mimic the setting, at which point…you just created another non-generic RPG.

    Again, hey, you can take GURPS, get rid of point-based character creation, generate stat values via die rolls, add levels to the character progression, give new ability scores, and create non-ability score derived rolls to avoid catastrophic effects, but hey…it's not GURPS anymore.

    And the other side of the coin is, of course, that if you can re-write half of what makes D&D "D&D" just to shoehorn it into a setting it was never meant to emulate, then people shouldn't complain that D&D 3E and 4E "aren't D&D", because these systems are just professionally "house-ruled" versions of the game.

    About a year ago I wrote a column arguing against generic systems that I still think is germane to this discussion, if anyone cares to take a peek.

  12. What makes it still D&D with a completely different magic system, while Traveller with (say) warp drive is no longer Traveller? Another double standard?

    There are many kinds of "sword", and even "claymore" or "rapier" means different things at different times. Why would you put so much stock in such an obviously vague term as "blaster"?

    The way to go about it is to decide just what your "blaster" does, then find the thing that does that in Space Opera, GURPS Ultra-tech, or whatever.

    Alternatively, you could just ignore the "simulation" details and use a "game-function" equivalent. "Re-skin" something in 4E, or even get as mechanically abstract as Risus.

    That's the direction "rules light" takes you. That a "medium gun" does X damage is in the book. You've got the special rules for your "blaster" or whatever in your head — or else how could you judge someone else's writeup?

    How, and how fast, do your spaceships move? You know that, so what is the major malfunction in going with what you know?

    Blazing comets! You want something "generic", AND you want everything spelled out for you?!

  13. Hi David, and thanks for checking in.

    As you know, I was on your X-Plorers list for a while, and my impression that the game was getting setting-dependent was based on what I saw there. Perhaps it was just my own impression, but I was struck by the thought, "what if I decided to publish my own game setting for X-Plorers? I'd be competing with the game designer, and that's a losing proposition." Kinda like publishing an alternative Traveler setting. It might have a miniscule following, but it's ultimately doomed to failure.

    My advice (and original hope) would be to publish the game itself sans any sort of setting whatsoever. Publish (or authorize, contemporaneously) two, or three settings, completely different from one another, to illustrate the versatility of the system. Then open it up to the world to do the same. Sort of like the "Savage Worlds" model.

    I *do* love Savage Worlds, btw, for those fans who commented. I just don't like any of the settings that have been published as of yet. Where's my Savage Cthulhu? Where's my Savage Swords-n-Sorcery? 😉

  14. What makes it still D&D with a completely different magic system, while Traveller with (say) warp drive is no longer Traveller? Another double standard?

    You miss the point completely; it's no double standard at all. When you have two quantities that are so completely different (traditional fantasy vs. traditional scifi), it's no double standard to judge them differently. They cannot be judged by the same standard in the first place.

    Traveler with Warp drive is, as you say, no big deal. It's not the minutae that matter; it's how the big things interact. What's Traveler without FTL travel at all? It starts to fall apart as a system in ways that a less setting-dependent game would not. Pluck druids out of AD&D, and it's still recognizable. Take the Vilani out, and you loose some ineffable quality.

    Subjective? Maybe. Sue me.

  15. "what if I decided to publish my own game setting for X-Plorers? I'd be competing with the game designer, and that's a losing proposition."

    We wouldn’t be “competing” as there are only going to be a limited amount of fans for such a game anyway, and most of those will probably be more than happy to gobble up a new setting and all the goodness that comes with it (I know I would).

    Seriously, the only real point of the setting is so the GM can use the premise that “Company X has hired your team of X-plorers to do Y” and get to playing. Sort of like the “you are sitting in tavern when a mysterious stranger approaches you” of classic D&D.

    Galactic Troubleshooters won’t contain a whole lot of material that will be considered “setting material” other than brief details of a corporation…an that could be used in any setting. I never plan on getting setting heavy, because, well, I don’t care for that myself.

    IMHO, if you like the core of X-plorers take it, make the changes you need, and run! I’d certainly love to see your setting as a supplement for the game. It’s a lot less work than starting a rule set from scratch (this I know for a fact ;)) and there seems to be a small but loyal fan base starting already.

    Setting is not high on my personal priority list, adventures (that are themselves are fairly generic) and useful stuff like planet profiles and creatures (again, generic) are.

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