Tabletop roleplaying is in a bit of an odd place at the moment. Dungeons & Dragons, long the flagship and millstone of the hobby is now effectively two churches, Pathfinder and 4th Edition, old stalwarts like GURPS and World of Darkness are starting to wane and the prophets of doom who’ve predicted comicmageddon for the last ten years are predicting the same for tabletop gaming. Stores are closing, no one’s buying anything, the sky, it seems, is falling.
The thing is though, the sky’s always falling and tabletop roleplaying’s current state is as fascinating as it is unnerving. There’s a food chain developing, with the leviathans, things like D&D, GURPS etc at the top, licensed games in the middle and some fascinating small press stuff sitting at the bottom, picking at the scraps the big boys leave. In many ways, it’s a lot like comics were ten years ago, with the indie scene undergoing a renaissance, the top titles looking stale and the stuff in the middle working out how to survive. Which isn’t an ideal situation by any means but it’s better than nothing and offers an interesting challenge to potential GMs. Namely, how well do you play with other people’s toys?
Licensed games are big at the moment and they’ll only get bigger. Doctor Whol Supernatural, Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age and more are all sitting on the shelves of your local gaming shop and they offer the chance to step into someone else’s character, to wear the licence like a coat and see where it takes you, see if you can tell stories like their stories, speak like they do. It’s not so much the creation of a new world, as most tabletop is, as stepping into an existing world that you all know about and seeing if you can fit in or bend it to your will. It’s Mr Benn instead of The Storyteller and as a result it offers different challenges for everyone involved. For players it’s a challenge to act like the characters, to make sense of the world they live whilst for GMs the challenge is twofold; fit into the existing universe without contradicting it and tell a story that stands on it’s own.
This is on my mind at the moment because in about three hours, as I write this, I’ll be starting a Battlestar Galactica campaign. The Galactica tabletop game, designed by Margaret Weis Publications, is a pretty solid example of the licensed genre and the rules system, Cortex is actually quite elegant. Attributes and skills are measured not in levels but dice, so if you’re unusually strong you roll a D10 for Strength tests, if you’re a great shot you have Ranged Weapons-Pistols at D12+2 and if you’re phenomenally smart you have Intelligence at D12+4, you’re secretly from Space Yorkshire and, chances are, a slightly scary blonde lady only you can see talks to you.
Cheap shots aside though, the question of how faithful to be remains an interesting one. I ran a Doctor Who adventure a little while back with three players taking on the roles of the Doctor, Donna and Jack and it went like a charm. The Doctor’s player worked out, instantly, that he works out what’s going on early and never tells anyone, Donna’s player happily took the most sensible approach possible and Jack’s player spent the evening swishing his coat around the streets of time-locked Whitby looking cool and humming the Torchwood theme to himself. It wasn’t exactly serious but it was fun.
Galactica though, is serious business. There’s not a tremendous opportunity for light hearted yuks when twenty billion humans are incinerated in the first half hour of the show and that, along with it’s ‘bottle’ structure offers a real problem. How do you get that level of grim? How do you fit your characters into a series where the passage of time is pretty constant and every major command position is filled?
For me, the short answer is; you don’t. The plan is this; to take that opening Armageddon, that defining moment where humanity sees it’s end hurtling towards it and realises it has to run, run as far and as fast as it can, and turn it upside down. There are twelve colonies, tens of billions of humans and it only makes sense that more than the bear hundred or so ships of the Galactica and Pegasus fleets escaped. So, the first question becomes:
Who else survived?
The second question becomes why?
And then the third question, the one that lies at the heart of the campaign becomes this:
What if someone was warned?
That’s my selling point, that’s my hub. It incorporates the paranoia of the original show but comes at it from a different, chilling perspective. What if someone had advanced knowledge of the attack and took action? What if they stockpiled equipment, ships and personnel for a journey out of the Solar system? How could they live with themselves?
Straight away that central question defines some things. We can’t be on Caprica because that’s glassed and the only ships to escape it get out with either the Pegasus’ fleet or the Galactica’s. We get glimpses of the other colonies in Caprica but there’s one that’s only been mentioned in passing, and which has a really interesting background; Libran.
Libran is described as being the home of most of the 12 Colonies’ lawmakers and I’ve extended that to include most of the 12 Colonies’ knowledge. Libran is neutral ground for everyone, a Camp David with continents if you like, somewhere the other colonies have come to settle their disputes and somewhere with a single unifying purpose; the preservation and extension of human knowledge.
That goal is, in turn, solely in the hands of Jotoun technologies. Run by Freya Jotoun, the great grand daughter of Lars, the company’s founder, it has interests in everything from law enforcement to medical research. Jotoun have numerous defence contracts with the fleet, run Themis, the city-sized Colonial Archive and have a close working relationship with elements of the Fleet. They are the other side of the coin to Graystone, a company who are open, honest, altruistic and reliable.
Except, one year ago, Freya Jotoun had a conversation with a small, wiry blonde man with a face she’d seen on two other people, who told her when the world would end and offered her a choice; save some, or lose everyone.
Strings are pulled, people reassigned and, one year later, ninety ships are in the vicinity of Libran when the bombs fall. They range from the Alexandria, an immense cruise liner retro fitted as a library ship to the Agricola Nine, a colossal farm vessel carrying livestock and crops and with it’s own bio sphere. Together they can hold 115,000 people. Libran has a population in the billions.
The Libran fleet isn’t entirely civilian though. A deep range ReconStar, the Autolycus, was seconded to the colony six months prior to the attack. The Autolycus is half the size of the Galactica with half the crew but is uniquely positioned to lead the fleet with it’s knowledge of the areas out past the red line. The only problem is, what’s Karl Vaski, a decorated intelligence officer, doing in command of it? Even more unsettling is the realisation that the Cylons only attack them when they move outside a corridor of space, as though the fleet is being herded towards something…
The idea is that there’ll be less immediate friction between the two factions but the players will slowly uncover the truth behind both Freya Jotoun’s actions and the reason why the Autolycus, instead of a BattleStar, was stationed at Libran. With the discovery that the fleet’s trajectory is being controlled, the fact that a prototype AI has been hidden in the fleet by it’s development team and the revelation of whether or not anyone’s a Cylon, that should be enough to keep them busy for a while.
If it works I’ll have got the paranoia and the epic nature of the series down without the endless crying. I’ll have done something ‘to the left’ of the normal narrative and hopefully, which has entertained my players. If it doesn’t work my Baltar’s pretty good but my Edward James Olmos impersonation leaves a lot to be desired. Regardless, this idea of digging to the left of established continuity, doing something at the same time but in a different place is unique to licensed roleplaying, a welcome alternative between the known quantities of the big guns and the demented indie invention of the small press.
Speaking of which, if any of you are small press RPG designers and want me to talk about your work or have any suggestions or questions that don’t involve Space Yorkshire? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Next time, the other science fiction of Russell T Davies, starting with Dark Season, the best kids TV show that, odds are, you’ve never seen.
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