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Thousand Suns — Designer Notes — Rambling Thoughts on SF Gaming

July 13, 2007

For obvious reasons, the nature of science fiction roleplaying has been on my mind lately. It’s a topic I think I know well and have talked about at some length for pretty much as long as I’ve been a professional writer, even before. Thousand Suns, is, in many ways, an experiment, a conscious attempt to put into practice some of the theories I’ve been developing about what makes a good SF RPG and why. The thing that I find a bit disconcerting, as I work on it, is how rarely any of the things I’m purposefully choosing to do have been done in the past. I tend not to think of myself as being deeply original or insightful, so, when I look around and find that everyone else is constantly attempting to reinvent the wheel with shapes other than circular ones, I have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, I’ve missed something somewhere. Can it really be that no one has ever really given much thought or taken much time to observe the trials and tribulations of SF RPGs?

A couple of data points:

1. Aside from licensed games, the only truly successful SF RPG was GDW’s classic Traveller. Its success was real and is well-documented, selling, if I recall, over 100,000 copies of its various books between its release in 1977 and 1981 or so (after which it started to sell much less, for reasons I’ll mention shortly). Let me note that, for the purposes of this discussion, that “SF RPG” basically means a space-oriented game and not cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic game, though both could quite rightly be called SF RPGs.

2. The decline in Traveller’s sales started about three or four years after its initial release, which is certainly to be expected. I imagine D&D sold far fewer units even back in the heyday of tabletop gaming after a few years on the shelf. However, Traveller’s sales of supplements, for example, show that the decline was far more steep. The first supplement to the game, 1001 Characters, which was just a collection of randomly generated characters for use as quick NPCs or even PCs, sold almost 50,000 copies in 1978. The last supplement, Veterans, also a collection of randomly generated characters, albeit much more detailed ones to go with a much more complex character creation system, was released in 1983 and sold just over 10,000 copies. The same general trend can be seen in other areas of Traveller publishing, from rules books to adventures. By the end of classic Traveller in 1987, most products sold less one-fifth what the first releases did.

Now, I suppose it is possible, even probable, that most game lines suffer the same fate as classic Traveller did. It’s just the natural cycle of publishing anything for many years. There’s certainly a great deal of truth in that. As I said, I’m sure even D&D suffered the same way. That aside, I can’t help but think that Traveller suffered because, as the game line wore on, it produced fewer and fewer “generic” supplements and became ever more entangled in its Third Imperium setting. Believe it or not, lots of people back in the day didn’t use the official setting for their Traveller games. I know I didn’t. In fact, it wasn’t really till very late in the classic period that I paid much attention to the GDW continuity, setting all my games in one of the earliest incarnations of the setting that would become Fourth Millennium. This was hardly uncommon and it’s certainly why I didn’t buy many classic products when they were released.

Obviously, official settings have utility and many people like them. Indeed, nowadays I’d wager that vastly more gamers use official settings than homebrews, particularly if, like me, they’re older and have children and other adult responsibilities that prevent them from poring over hand-drawn maps and statting up NPCs by hand for hours on end. At the same time, I also know that, even time-starved adult gamers don’t like being hemmed in or constrained by settings that detail every last detail. Younger gamers who are mystified at the continuing appeal of the World of Greyhawk among their elders probably just see it as a big map with evocative names, a rough history, and some fuzzy details and they’re right. What they fail to understand is that those are features, not bugs, and it’s Greyhawk’s “creative roominess” that makes it so appealing. Traveller’s Third Imperium was initially like this, so that even those guys who used the setting weren’t necessarily locked into a single interpretation of the setting or couldn’t make all sorts of changes to it with relative ease. I remember very well that, when I finally did start running an “official” Traveller campaign, I portrayed the Imperium as pretty much corrupt from top to bottom, with only the frontier nobility of the Spinward Marches holding true to the traditions of honor and virtue long since forgotten by the decadent core worlds. That was a perfectly valid way to run a Traveller campaign back then, because we knew so little about the Imperium or how it functioned. And, again, that was made the setting appealing.

The problem for SF gaming is that there aren’t any Greyhawks out there, not anymore. Instead, we have either licensed properties (which, by their very nature, tend to alienate people who either aren’t fans of the property or who think the property isn’t being handled “right”) or intricately detailed settings that leave too little scope for individual creative initiative. For reasons I have never understood, RPGs, whether SF or otherwise, simply do not adopt the “big box” approach to setting design: provide a largely canvas with broad swaths of detail and lots of hastily-sketched areas onto which GMs and players alike can add their own colors and shading. Part of it, I fear, is because RPG companies nowadays aren’t building roleplaying games for their own sakes but instead are creating IPs they hope can be mined by novels or movies or computer games. I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what drives a lot of WotC decisions and I’d be amazed if it weren’t foremost in their minds when they chose Eberron as the second official 3E D&D setting.

Now, I have nothing against such calculations and, let’s be honest, if I felt there was a chance in hell someone would want to make a Thousand Suns movie, you can bet your Dillingham Drive that I’d design the setting differently. Fact is, it’s unlikely that’ll ever happen and I so I’ve decided to design it, both as a game and as a setting, to be a modular, customizable, and creatively “roomy.” I want it, well, to be a roleplaying game setting and not a vehicle for anyone’s stories or characters but yours. That’s why I’m presenting the material in a format that is “hard” enough to provide more than simple guidelines but “soft” enough to let you use them as you wish. A lot of games claim to be toolboxes and some even make good on that claim. Thousand Suns will be different because not only will its rules be a toolbox but so will its setting (or meta-setting as I’ve taken to calling it, in my one concession to pomposity). Want the Thousand Suns to be governed by a corrupt federation? You can. Want it to be a benevolent, virtuous federation? You can do that too. An empire? With psionic secret police? And alien janissaries? And …? Can do.

Obviously, I can’t, even were I infinitely creative and writing an infinitely long book, offer advice and suggestions on every possible way to interpret the meta-setting or every possible element you might want to include within it. I’ll hit the highlights and throw in some quirky options as well. But most importantly what I’ve tried very hard to do is to create an environment where pretty much any sci-fi idea you have has a place or at least could have a place. Richard has taken to using the tagline “a thousand possibilities” when describing Thousand Suns and, while part of me rankles at it, another part of me thinks that it nicely sums up exactly what I want to do with this game. Traveller, back in the day, was a game where a kid with some dice and an imagination could play out his favorite SF stories without having to worry about someone quoting from some supplement about why x, y, or z couldn’t happen or was impossible. I’d like Thousand Suns to be that kind of game too. I certainly don’t want it to become a game where fans argue about minute details of its back story or speculate on how signature character A or B will influence events. What I really want is to make a game where, if I meet people who play it, they can tell me about their version of the Thousand Suns and their characters and their adventures.

Call me crazy but that’s what roleplaying is all about.

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