Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Retrospective: Other Suns

First, a little history, both personal and about the hobby.

Long ago, there was a game company called Simulations Publications, Inc., or SPI for short. Though primarily a wargames company, SPI also produced several roleplaying games, such as DragonQuest and Universe. It also published, starting in March 1980, a bimonthly periodical called Ares, "the magazine of science fiction and fantasy simulation." Like its "big brother," Strategy & Tactics, Ares included a new game with every issue, complete with maps and counters. SPI ran into financial difficulties and went bankrupt in 1982, at that time being acquired by TSR. That's a sad moment in the history of the hobby, one with wide-ranging consequences better described elsewhere. For a brief time after TSR's acquisition Ares survived as an independent periodical, but it was eventually folded into Dragon as "The Ares Section," which many gamers remember fondly for Jeff Grubb's "Marvel-Phile" column for Marvel Super Heroes.

Me, I remember it mostly for its SF gaming articles, including a neat multi-issue series devoted to describing the Moon in a variety of science fiction RPGs. One of these, entitled "Luna, the Empire, and the Stars" was written by Niall C. Shapero and concerned itself with a game I'd seen ads for in previous issues of Dragon, Other Suns. Since it was a SF RPG published by FGU, I'd always assumed that Other Suns was basically Space Opera 2.0. I'd never actually seen a copy of the game, let alone read one, so all I had to go on were those ads and this article written by the game's designer. The article presented a sci-fi setting in which humanity's first forays into the stars were under the direction of an empire descended from a US/Soviet military dictatorship straight out of Jerry Pournelle's "CoDominium" stories. Just as interesting was that the article used H. Beam Piper's "Atomic Era" dating system, which took 1945 as the starting point of a new calendar. Based on what I'd read, I had every reason to believe that my initial assumption was correct and that this 1983 RPG was simply a different iteration of Space Opera -- hopefully with better organization!

It wouldn't be until a decade later that I finally got my hands on a copy of Other Suns and discovered that it wasn't quite like I had imagined. In terms of its game system, there were some vague similarities with Space Opera, mostly in terms of its complexity. Characters had twelve randomly determined characteristics (including Length, Build, and Size), in addition to twelve more derived characteristics. There are no character classes, as in Space Opera, only a wide selection of skills, including psionics. Personal combat -- though not starship combat, strangely -- and world creation are both lengthy affairs, with many tables, one of which I reproduce below just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about:

Even more bizarre was a table of military ranks, with 263 grades! That's a level of detail that even Space Opera never felt necessary. Still, like Space Opera, Other Suns was a very complete game, covering just about everything you'd want in a SF RPG of that era. It was written in a very dry, almost academic tone and employed the wargames-descended case system (i.e. 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc.) for organization, making the book somewhat off-putting to readers familiar with other styles. Had that been the full story of Other Suns, I doubt I'd have even bothered writing this retrospective, since, truth be told, its rules are pretty unremarkable examples of their time and the default setting, which had so intrigued me in that Ares Section article, is only lightly described in the two volumes of the boxed set.

But that's not the full story of Other Suns. To fully appreciate the shock and surprise I experienced when, a decade after its release I first got hold of a copy of this half-remembered game from my youth, you need to see this:

Those are the alien species found in Other Suns. That's right: it's a furries game. Now, you have to remember that Other Suns came out in 1983, years before I'd (thankfully) ever heard the term. As I understand it, the game predates most of the major milestones in the development of this peculiar fandom, though someone better versed in such things could probably provide more details (better yet: don't). I have no idea what, if any, relationship Niall Shapero has to furry fandom. I can only assume that he was an "old school" fan rather than someone who jumped on the bandwagon after it had become more mainstream.

Regardless, I had not expected to see illustrations like the one above. Those ads in Dragon gave no evidence that Other Suns included anthropomorphic animals as its alien species. The article I read made no mention of them. For all I knew, Other Suns was yet another undistinguished military SF RPG that liberally borrowed from classic science fiction, as Space Opera had done before it. I expected a game that drew on Piper and Pournelle, not a game where you could play a telepathic fox-man. What makes Other Suns unique, though, is that it's both. It's a military SF game in the classic mold that just happens to include furries for its aliens.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

44 comments:

  1. That's fascinating. And well before the best-remembered furry SF game of the era, Albedo.

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  2. The ship construction rules were very granular, allowing you to develop exactly the kind of starship you wanted, but forcing you to balance tonnage, cost, and performance. I liked that.

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  3. And Traveller didn't have furries for aliens? ;)

    I played quite a bit of DragonQuest and loved the flavorful Colleges of Magic (esp. black magic and greater summonings, which would have made Pat Pulling crap her pants), and the Jaquays module The Enchanted Wood was a classic. It mystifies me that there's not much of an old-school following for that game.

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  4. And Traveller didn't have furries for aliens? ;)

    I suppose, from a certain point of view, the Vargr and the Aslan bear some superficial resemblances to furries, but the artwork and presentation of these species are very different than what you see in Other Suns and true furry RPGs.

    It mystifies me that there's not much of an old-school following for that game.

    DQ was always a minor player in the RPG scene, even back in the day. I don't think many people ever saw the game, let alone played it, so that probably explains its relative obscurity. Plus, the fact that TSR (and, later, WotC) locked the game away in a vault and never re-released it probably didn't make it any easier to get into it. I'm still trying to find a copy of the game for my collection.

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  5. I consider myself pretty tolerant of "crunchiness" in games, but that table crosses even my bounds.

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  6. It's the same year (1983) that the Albedo Anthropomorphics comic books began coming out.

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  7. Your mention of H. Beam Piper (and my recollection that you did a supplement for Thousand Suns based on his books)sent me looking for Kindle books by him. I found one called Little Fuzzy (for free, thank you Project Gutenberg!), so now I wonder if you could tell me, before I read it, how Little Fuzzy relates to furry fandom.

    Just kidding! Thanks for the laugh, James.

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  8. > but the artwork and presentation of these species are very different than what you see in Other Suns and true furry RPGs

    So the interior artwork (as opposed to the box art) defines the genre?

    Guess we'd better stick to "classic" humanocentric science fiction. :)

    http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/File:Vedala_ground_vehicle.jpg
    http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/Kzinti
    http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/Vedala
    http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/Caitian

    > I expected a game that drew on Piper and Pournelle, not a game where you could play a telepathic fox-man.

    Darn, they're in my fantasy RPGs as well as my SF RPGs... :)

    http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5045/5244531212_108fb29a59_o.jpg

    Lee Gold can answer most of your other questions you don't want answered since it was their crowd that upset the purist Gygaxian RPGs-are-for-humans mentality more than any other group aside from Traveler fans.

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  9. I remember SPI and even had/have some of their games.

    A real nostalgia trip.

    Thank you.

    Tony
    http://dampfpanzerwagon.blogspot.com/

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  10. I can't blame you for the flinch re: the (un)popular image of furry fandom, but the use of animals (even anthropomorphic ones) as characters is a powerful narrative tool, and I think it's short-sighted to reject it out of hand. (See also Disney's Robin Hood, the Pulitzer-winning Maus, etc.) Given all of the talk about archetypes on this blog, well, animals are powerful archetypes. I think I know as much or more about a bear cleric as I do about a dwarf fighter, just from the two words.

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  11. TSR did do a very nice reprint edition of Dragon Quest that had a blue cover.

    It should also be noted that DQ is the inspiration for the Chronicles of the Raven series of books by James Barclay one finds advertised from time to time in the SF Book Club ads.

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  12. Brad caught it. Albedo was a famous "hard" sci-fit comic series featuring anthopomorphic animals as the characters, and it is indeed just that old. I haven't gone poking around doing any research at this point, but it certainly looks to me that Albedo and Other Suns were directly connected.

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  13. "Erma Felna, EDF" was the name of the comic series that the Albedo RPG was based on. It's actually a pretty decent scifi series and it's easy to forget that the characters are furries.

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  15. My friend picked up "Other Suns" and we all passed around and read the rules. It was exactly what you've described and if wasn't for all the furry critters we might have played it. It was really just too twee to actually play.

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  16. @Jackfool

    I don' think anyone here has a problems with Maus or classic Disney films, but material that resonates that over-saturated cuteness that reminds me of what the Japanese call " Kawaisa", Sometimes those elements work really well like the old super Nintendo game Starfox, but others for one reason or another it doesn't. Looking at that picture above of those humanoids with their big furry heads kinda makes me want to turn the page as quick. as possible.

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  17. I don't see the point of such a table. Okay, it was 1983, but still, if you want (DP * RP^2) ^ (1/2), tell them they're going to need a scientific calculator to play the game. It'll be as quick and easy as the table, and a TI-30 only ran $25 at the time.

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  18. @Prosfilaes: "...going to need a scientific calculator..."

    Did anyone else ever use a scientific calculator with a random number function to play D&D in class (to avoid having to roll dice, a dead give away).

    I'd forgotten that I used to do that in the mid-80s...

    Oh, SPI cool...furries no so much.

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  19. I've never understood why we, as gamers, accept little bearded men who live underground or skinny pointy-eared men who live in trees, but balk at a fox that walks on its hind legs, or a talking bear. Is it because anthropomorphic animals are associated with children's entertainment?

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  20. No, it's because they're associated with adult entertainment.

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  21. I don't think there is so much a revulsion at anthropomorphism in RPGs, as there is in such things being the primary basis of an RPG. D&D with a couple of beast-man races OK, every character being a humanoid fox or ferret is kinda creepy in the current climate.

    Personally I don't have a problem with animal like aliens from parallel earths that went another way, I'd just like to see them developed as interesting species in their own right rather than humans with fur and animal heads.

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  22. It was actually rather common to describe alien races according to their terrestrial analogues in a lot of SF games of the time. I mean take a look at the list of alien races in Star Probe (TSR, 1975):

    [1-5] Amoeboid [6-10] Plant [11-20] Insect [21-30] Feline [31-45] Canine [46-70] Humanoid [71-80] Ursoid [81-85] Avian [86-90] Mammalian [91-93] Reptile [94-96] Icthyoid/Amphibian (50/50 either) [97-98] Silicate Base [99-100] Unknown

    You'll find that a lot of SF (from fairly reputable authors) of the time also described many of the aliens in terms of their nearest terrestrial equivalents. It was a simply shorthand that allowed them to communicate the nature of the alien to the audience. This was the procedure used by Other Suns. Technically they are not anthropomorphised animals, but alien species described in terms of their terrestrial analogies.

    I always found it amusing that people who are rabidly opposed to playing what they consider to be "furry" rpgs have absolutely no problem playing a mutated animal in Gamma World. [Or a Kzinti in Ringworld. Or a Vargr in Traveller. Or Werewolf. Or for that matter, anything non-human in any role-playing game.*]

    And there are some excellent games out there. From the purely anthropomorphic** (Furry Pirates, Ironclaw, and Usagi Yojimbo) to the serious hard SF featuring engineered creations (Albedo, Justifiers), to actual furry rpgs (Mouse Guard and Bunnies and Burrows).

    [* OK. I'll agree with them about playing Ducks in Runequest. But that's a matter or personal taste. And having encountered too many highly irritating ducks in RQ campaigns.]

    [** where humans are replaced with the anthropomophised animals]

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  23. but it certainly looks to me that Albedo and Other Suns were directly connected.

    You may well be right. I have no knowledge of Albedo beyond a vague memory of their having been an RPG with this name back in the late 80s.

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  24. I don' think anyone here has a problems with Maus or classic Disney films, but material that resonates that over-saturated cuteness that reminds me of what the Japanese call " Kawaisa", Sometimes those elements work really well like the old super Nintendo game Starfox, but others for one reason or another it doesn't. Looking at that picture above of those humanoids with their big furry heads kinda makes me want to turn the page as quick. as possible.

    Just so. My beef with Other Suns is that the interior art -- of which there is a lot -- paints the setting as one filled not with aliens vaguely analogous to terrestrial animals, which is a longstanding SF tradition, but with aliens that look like "cute" animal-people that militate against the ostensibly military SF thrust of the game.

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  25. It was really just too twee to actually play.

    That was certainly my first impression upon encountering the game back in the 90s. It's a case where the style of illustration had a profoundly negative impact on my interest in the game.

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  26. I don't think there is so much a revulsion at anthropomorphism in RPGs, as there is in such things being the primary basis of an RPG.

    I think that's right.

    Personally I don't have a problem with animal like aliens from parallel earths that went another way, I'd just like to see them developed as interesting species in their own right rather than humans with fur and animal heads.

    To its credit, Other Suns doesn't paint its alien species as just humans with fur and animal heads. They're not particularly inspired alien races, but an effort was made to make them more than just humans in furry suits.

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  27. Roleplaying (both at "game" and "real life" levels) does not operate merely within a physical space, but also a cultural one. If there is a failing to comprehend the potential for use of the imagination (whatever happened to this being one of the key selling points of "RPGs"?), it lies with those around the table not the authors of rulesets or pregen'd "worlds"/"universes".

    Even attempting to think in terms of differences in sensory input to your in-game character is barely touched upon in actual play. (recommended reading Olaf Stapledon's "Sirius", given the familiar RL physical space, this helps focus on the sensory and cultural).

    It's remarkably easy to scoff at a "humans in furry suits" reductionist critique while so-called-roleplaying a "human in a dwarf suit" or even a "human in a human suit" within a totally different cultural framework as though they might be the sort of person you meet every day in your own town. Looking in the mirror usually answers why /that/ should be because, in reality, most characters actually /are/ you, not what they want to be in the game universe they find themselves in.

    02.5c, anyhow, fwiw. :)

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  28. I had a similar reaction to that described by James and others, though not simply based on the fact that the furry alien were furry aliens. It was that there were, or seemed to be, only furry aliens.

    Traveller has Vargr and I love Vargr. They also have Hivers. Star Trek has Caitians. And Vulcans, Andorians and Horta.

    It seemed, from what I can recall, that this was simply a furry universe and at the time that's not what I wanted. To be honest, I normally play aliens who resemble Earth animals on the rare occasions I get to play and not GM Sci-Fi but not normally of this particular vein.

    My Hunter Planet character (one of my favorite PC characters to this day) was an anthropomorphic otter-like creature. Otter-like. His ears and snout/muzzle were closer to a dog, he was 5 ft tall and blue-green in color. Otter-like, not an otter than stands up and uses tools. In a fantasy setting that idea would be fine and I've had reoccuring otter NPCs in Ars Magica. But I like my Sci-Fi a bit more Sci-Fi-ish.

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  29. The folks making a connection with modern alternate-sexuality "furries" are missing the point that this game and comic predate that stuff by what, 15-20 years?

    Thanks Akira, for the correction. Erma Felna, EDF, was a solid sci-fi comic, as I recall. Certainly more serious and grownup in tone and subject matter than most comics.

    The furry animal cast may be disconcerting to some tastes, but several independent comic artists in the 70s and 80s used this device for various purposes, including personality shorthand. You can instantly convey something about a character's personality, or an alien species' temperament, by making them look like Otters; or Doberman Pinschers. Or you can subvert the expectations the image draws.

    The perception of the game concept as "twee" because of the art seems superficial. That said, if the game itself didn't make any connection to Erma Felna, it'd be very easy for gamers to not get the idea and see how the juxtaposition was handled in the comic.

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  30. > The folks making a connection with modern alternate-sexuality "furries" are missing the point that this game and comic predate that stuff by what, 15-20 years?

    By zero.

    If you're talking absolute numbers rather than relative, you might as well similarly dismiss everything in "RPG" history prior to 1977, say, as being irrelevant to the "big topic".

    > The furry animal cast may be disconcerting to some tastes, but several independent comic artists in the 70s and 80s used this device for various purposes, including personality shorthand. You can instantly convey something about a character's personality, or an alien species' temperament, by making them look like Otters; or Doberman Pinschers. Or you can subvert the expectations the image draws.

    Mhmm... agreed; but make what you will of the relative absence of other hominids in that context.

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  31. Okay folks, I can fill in a few holes about some of the aliens in OS, what they have to do with 'furries', and why I want to build a time machine, go back and meet the editor of this game who thought that including these things was a good idea, and pistol-whip him until the butt of the gun falls off.

    The whole mess starts with a man named Mark Merlino, who created a race of creatures called
    The Skiltaire for use in science fiction stories back in the day. Okay, no big deal, right? Well, he wound up hanging out with a loose organization of writers and artists who were into anthro stuff, and hit it off with them, so much so that he organized some of the first events for the relatively new genre. Again, not that big a deal.

    The trouble started a few years down the road when Mr. Merlino came out of the closet. He not only came out of the closet, he came out with an agenda, essentially telling the fannish communities he was a part of at the time 'We have to do our part to make fandom more accepting and tolerant of alternative lifestyles.' the nascent anime community (which at this time was still limited to the west coast and a handful of other cool-kid cities) essentially said, 'yeah, riiiight' and ignored him. The furry community, on the other hand was so small that there was only one major event inthe genre, and he ran it. So guess who's tune got played. Within the space of three years he turned a community of writers and artists who liked animal characters into his own little den of iniquity, chasing off all the DECENT artists and giving the whole scene a rep that they're still trying to clean up...

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  32. As some people have previously hinted at or stated outright, there's a difference between furry RPGs and RPGs with furries in them. Traveller, Paladium RPG, Other Suns are RPGs with furries - Humans and other races (elves, aliens, etc) are present as well. The furry RPGs have anthropomorphized animals only - no other races, especially humans, are present. Albedo, Jadeclaw, Ironclaw, Usagi Yojimbo are all these type. And I think that the absence of humans has a distinct effect to the game play.

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  33. /Matt: Properly speaking, Albedo has humans in its background (one of the storylines in the original SF comic includes the discovery of a human corpse in a ruined spacecraft in cometary orbit).

    On the main topic: Like others, I have a negative reaction to the highly sexualized furry community. I try not to let that become a prejudice that affects my impression of works that include characters that are varieties of anthropomorphic animals. Other Suns, as a game separate from its artwork and connections to sexualized furries, has a number of good ideas (though none really great) interspersed with a number of bad ones (including some really, really bad ones). It's certainly a game that could be used by a designer or kitbasher as a good resource. For myself, I wouldn't be interested in playing the game itself, but I'm glad I own a copy of it to go through when considering methods of implementing various ideas in a gaming context.

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  34. We played it without furries nor tables. We landed on a hi-tec japanese feudal planet and dealed with antigrav-bike ninjas and electric samurai. No energy weapons allowed. Only guns and katanas. Kind of c-punk in space.
    We could have played storygamey things as well I guess...

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  35. I remember the furriness of both Other Suns and Albedo turning me off the games mostly because it seemed like an unnecessary complication: I was already working on what I would do as a gun-happy spaceman; I didn't want to worry about how having an animal head would complicate that. I would happily tolerate complexity if I thought I was getting a payoff from it - like a completely realised alien world I knew nothing about - but animal heads struck me as half-hearted. Kinda alien, but not really. Maybe a bit Aesoppy.

    Regarding furry hate, though: I've always been a bit perplexed by it among RPGers. I think it can't be about fear of sexualising the hobby per se, what with all the Frazetta. It might be about what I'd call gender normative sexual tastes, but I confess that I don't understand how vampires and blood play suit sexual conservatism (although they plainly do)... my guess is that the cringe really is about looking silly, and specifically looking childish - looking like cartoons that were aimed at a younger demographic in the 40s-80s. Somehow seafood aliens don't bother me at all. I've played meerkat-inspired aliens, squid aliens and formless aliens cheerfully. None of them set off my Chip'n'Dale reflexes like these guys here.

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  36. Eh, the Furry hate comes not from sensible guys or gals who read Usagi Yojimbo or Grandville, play Gamma World or have fond memories of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers.

    It's the stuff like Doug Winger's illustrations,consepts like "babyfur" and online fandom obsessed with fetish material that would be pretty hardcore with or without the furry components crying about being persecuted minority of some sort when folks don't share their enthuism for yiffing scenes with vore or scat.

    After being exposed to open sewer people will flinch at anything even remotely similar looking.

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  37. Really? Some *here* are going to presume to get high and mighty over folks dressing up like bunnies and pandas? Look around, people. You're participating in an internet discussion on fantasy RPGs. That puts you one step away from donning elf-ears and prancing through the woods, if you haven't already, and it's an even shorter step away from dressing up like Thumper. Live and let live. Get over yourselves.

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  38. Traveller has an awful lot of critter aliens - Vargr, Aslan, K'kree, Gurvin, and Bwaps, just off the top of my head. And the first three are basically "how would a dog/lion/horsie think?" species.

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  39. Before things get too out of hand -- I want to take a moment to note that while I have some problems with comments like "someone better versed in such things could probably provide more details (better yet: don't)" because of the atmosphere they promote, I have a lot of respect for you and this blog, and I don't think you're a terrible person or anything. I'm mostly reacting to stuff that popped up in the comments section more than what you directly posted. I'm going to put an explanatory note to that effect up on my blog sometime tomorrow (er, well, later today), but I wanted to make that clear here first.

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  40. Prejudiced much?
    In spite of the (better yet:don't), here are some details.
    Niall, the creator/editor of OS, also created the Altani/L'drey fox people in the game. He and the rest of us hung out at the LASFS with Niven and Pournell. We play-tested the game for years before it was published. The species I created, the skiltaire, were invited to join the game, and are in the released version.
    The game system was, unfortunately, full of errors as it was hastily modified when Niall had to change publisher over rights disagreements. The game was originally based on Runequest. Many space gamers liked the species and adopted them to other games like Traveller.
    The artists who did art for the game are some of the most well known in the anthro (furry) community. There are many examples of animal based aliens in SF and fantasy. "furry" is a relatively new term for those types of characters. Some people happen to like the concept of animal-based characters, in stories, games, comics, films. Some of them call themselves furry fans. A lot of them are very creative artists and writers. Some are social misfits and some love playing "freak the mundanes" Are you "mundanes"? Either you are aware of the joke, or you are the butt of it...
    I suppose it's good for a group of "fans" like gamers to have another group handy to rag on... but the misinformation, troll created BS and sensationalist media coverage are nothing to base an opinion on. Consider how the media treats gamers?
    OS may not be perfect. Is there any game that is? Perfect by who's standards? Is OS "bad" just because it was made by people who love SF AND animal-based aliens?
    Seems pretty petty to me...

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  41. Scott wrote: "Traveller has an awful lot of critter aliens - Vargr, Aslan, K'kree, Gurvin, and Bwaps, just off the top of my head. And the first three are basically "how would a dog/lion/horsie think?" species."

    Sure, and D&D has lizard men. But they aren't depicted as cute fuzzy Disney characters, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, who would be perfectly at home decorating a crib.

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  42. Dudes...

    I played this game back in the day. I think we used 25% of the rules, mixing in CoC and some traveller / ring world.

    At no point did we think eewwww....furries. We went from that to a mix of tmnt and add1e.

    I admit I do not understand the furry cosplay cons, cosplay or even larp for that matter. But as a bored teen on long daily bus rides, we had a blast.

    Just sharing some perspective...hating on this game ( and not saying anyone is ) because of the aliens is like hating on judas priest now that you know the lead singer was gay. If you hated on jp back in the day that's diff...anyway first time poster just had to jump in here at the end.

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  43. My, my, the things you find when you go poking about the net. :) I see this is left over from last year, but if you're still interested in actually talking to Niall Shapero, he's got a blog over on live journal, under the name niall_shapero. Or you can talk to me - I've been married to the guy for the last 33 years. :)

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  44. Thats just a little bit crazy!

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