Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Tales We Tell, The Games We Play: Part 2 - The Games We Play

(Lynne Hardy)

Not only is man a story-teller, he is also a player of games. Dice developed independently in many different cultures, with the oldest known examples being over 5,000 years of age. Perhaps the most familiar is the six-sided die (or d6), where opposite faces traditionally add up to 7. However there are many different types, often based on regular polygons (also known as Platonic solids), giving 4-, 8-, 12- and 20-sided dice. Varying the numbers of sides on a die is not a modern invention, either: icosahedral dice have been found on Roman archaeological sites.
So why am I talking about dice when I said last time that we’d be looking at interactive storytelling? Because dice are fundamentally important to one particular branch of it: table-top roleplaying games (RPGs). But what is an RPG? Anyone who’s ever daydreamed or told stories, placing themselves in the hero’s shoes, has roleplayed, just a little bit. All those games you played as a child, tearing round the school playground pretending to be someone else? That was roleplaying, too. But when you say roleplaying to a lot of people, the first thing they think of (okay, maybe the second, after corporate team-building exercises) is Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The game, written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, was first published in 1974. It had developed from table-top wargames, where players use a set of rules, dice and miniatures to replay historical battles.

In table-top RPGs, players take on the roles of various characters in order to achieve some sort of goal. Although one person will usually be responsible for creating the over-arcing plot of the story (the games master or GM), all of the players collaborate to determine the exact details, making the whole process very interactive indeed. In that respect, table-top RPGs fall somewhere between improvisational theatre and a murder-mystery party. The rules are there, as in any other game, to ensure balance, fair-play and a common framework for the story-telling that takes place.

The rules tend to fall into two distinct categories: those systems which attempt to provide a near-perfect simulation of real world events, and those which are there purely to facilitate the dramatic proceedings. And as you might expect, science fiction has proven a popular inspiration for RPGs. For the most part, simulation systems tend to underpin hard sci-fi settings, with dramatic systems appearing most often with space opera type backgrounds.

But what about the dice? When there is a conflict or challenge, the players will roll dice to see if they succeed or fail, with the exact details determined by the system they are using. Simulation games often use “percentile” dice in order to model actual probability distributions; you roll two non-cuboidal dice (either 10- or 20-sided), with one die acting as the “tens” and the other acting as the “units”, to obtain a percentage. Some games will only use one specific type of die (for example, WEG’s dramatic d6 system, used in the original Star Wars RPG), whilst others will use pretty much every size and shape available. Some, such as Eric Wujik’s 1991 Amber game (based on Roger Zelazny’s novels), even do away with dice altogether, although they still retain some sort of conflict resolution mechanism (often involving that other great gaming device, playing cards).
The very first official science fiction table-top RPG, Metamorphosis Alpha, was produced by TSR in 1976. This particular game, set on a spaceship inhabited by the descendants of those who survived an onboard disaster, is in essence a science fantasy game, borrowing heavily from its predecessor D&D. It was closely followed by GDW’s Traveller in 1977; very much a hard sci-fi system, it used vectors to calculate the movement of spacecraft, but could also be played as space opera if all the complicated maths wasn’t your thing.

Both Star Wars and Star Trek have had their own RPGs (in the case of Star Trek, quite a few different ones). Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a hard sci-fi classic, got its own RPG in 1984 and the scientific romances were the inspiration for GDW’s Space: 1889 game in (confusingly) 1988, making it technically the first steampunk game. The same year, the first cyberpunk RPG appeared: R. Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk 2020. This was quickly followed by FASA’s Shadowrun in 1989 which, like its predecessor Metamorphosis Alpha, blended science fiction with fantasy elements. Scientific romances were the subject of Marcus Rowland’s 1993 shareware game Forgotten Futures, which lovingly plundered the sci-fi stories of Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle and George Griffith (to name but a few). A year later in 1994, R. Talsorian’s Castle Falkenstein became the steampunk equivalent of Shadowrun with its mix of fantasy and technology.

Although many gamers see the 1990s as the golden age of table-top RPGs, such games are still in production, often as re-releases of earlier games or as new rules systems for popular settings (such as Star Trek). Some however, are original like Cubicle 7’s Victoriana (steampunk) and Robin D. Law's upcoming Ashen Stars for Pelgrane Press.


  1. Nice summary! There are a couple of very good hard SF RPGs that you didn't mention though - Steve Jackson Games' "Transhuman Space" and Posthuman Studios' "Eclipse Phase". Both focus on more modern Transhuman SF, with the latter being somewhat post-apocalyptic with some horror elements. They're well worth checking out!

  2. Glad you liked it!

    There were lots of other excellent games I had to miss out thanks to the harsh mistress of the word count, which just goes to prove that science fiction has indeed been a massive inspiration for the gaming industry.