Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Retrospective: Fringeworthy

Fringeworthy is one of those games for which I remember seeing advertisements in the pages of Dragon but never actually saw on the shelf of any game store I visited. Heck, that can be said of the entirety of Tri Tac Games's catalog. Consequently, the game acquired an air of mystery about it in my imagination. Mind you, other RPGs were similarly out of reach for me as well. What made Fringeworthy different from, say, Witch Hunt or Ysgarth was that I was actually intrigued enough by its ads that, had I seen a copy, I would have bought it.

As it turned out, I never did get my own copy of Fringeworthy. However, while in college, I met someone who did own a copy (the 1984 second edition pictured here) and I was finally able to read it. First published in 1982, Fringeworthy is the brainchild of Richard Tucholka, whose name has appeared here before as one of the authors of The Morrow Project. Fringeworthy, though sharing a certain "family resemblance" to Tucholka's earlier effort rules-wise, is very much its own game in terms of its subject matter. Fringworthy postulates a near-future world in which a team of Japanese Antarctic researchers stumbles upon an ancient system of portals that allows travel to alternate and alien worlds. Use of the portals depended upon an alien crystal-based technology that worked only for a select few individuals. Such individuals were deemed "Fringeworthy" by the press and the name stuck.

Naturally, the PCs are among those rare individuals who can use the alien crystal technology to travel between worlds. Such travel is placed under the jurisdiction of an international body, the United Nations Survey Service, which organizes Inter-Dimensional Exploration Teams to visit the other worlds accessible through the portals for knowledge, technology, and allies, the latter being especially important as it turns out that others already have access to the portal system and not all of them are well-intentioned. It's frankly a terrific set-up for a roleplaying game campaign, all the moreso when you consider that this game is nearly thirty years old. In 1982, there was nothing like it on the market and science fiction RPGs were invariably space operas of one variety or another. Had I been able to snag a copy when I first saw those ads in Dragon, I have little doubt that I'd have wanted to run Fringeworthy with my friends.

Except, of course, there's that similarity to The Morrow Project I mentioned above. As amazing as Fringeworthy's central concept is, its rules left something to be desired. Characters possess a large number of stats, both generated and derived. There are also skills, the list of which is quite extensive, including such invaluable ones as "Food Processing" and "Cosmetology," among many, many more. This level of detail is found throughout the rules, with lots of attention given to combat, damage, and weaponry as you might expect from a game of this period. However, there's also similar detail given to most other subjects, including disease and the nutritional value of various foods. Fringeworthy is thus a perfect exemplar of Silver Age RPG design -- "realism" and "completeness" are vital, even if they require an increase in complexity and a concomitant decrease in easy playability.

For all that, though, Fringeworthy remains a good idea for a RPG. The game includes lots of useful and inspirational random charts to aid the referee in creating the various alternate and alien worlds accessible through the portals. I remember finding them remarkably clever, with examples provided to show how to make best use of them. Though written dryly, Tucholka's enthusiasm for his game nevertheless comes through. Reading through the rulebook, I found myself regularly coming up with ideas that either riffed off what was written in its pages or were wholly of my own invention. To me, that's the measure of a good RPG book. My issues with the rules system aside, Fringeworthy is a classic and it's a pity that it's not more widely known than it is.

24 comments:

  1. "Fringworthy postulates a near-future world in which a team of Japanese Antarctic researchers stumbles upon an ancient system of portals that allows travel to alternate and alien worlds. Use of the portals depended upon an alien crystal-based technology that worked only for a select few individuals. Such individuals were deemed "Fringeworthy" by the press and the name stuck."

    Pardon me, but I think you just explained the origins of the Stargate franchise.

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  2. Umm...I'm thinking they could have sued the Stargate people.

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  3. I recall seeing Fringeworthy in my FLGS when it came out, but the system always looked too complicated for my tastes. It's a shame, because, years later, I became a big fan of the Stargate series and thought "that would make a great game."

    Well, what do you know. ;-)

    Actually, the accusation that Stargate "borrowed" from Fringeworthy has been around since the 90s, and the passage quoted by Rob is striking, but the idea of alien portals to elsewhere is older than both: Pohl's "Heechee" series, for example, though that used little ships instead of walking through a portal. One might as well say von Daniken could sue the makers of Stargate, too, since they ripped off his "ancient astronauts" books.

    Regardless, I still think this idea is one of the great premises for a RPG, ever.

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  4. Forgive the double post, but I just took a second look at the cover; there seems to have been a better case for a suit than I thought.

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  5. Tri Tac is still alive: http://www.tritacgames.com/

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  6. That is almost Stargate SG-1 to a tee. The movie doesn't get into the technology much but man this sounds like out the script bible of SG-1.

    While the gates can be operated by anybody they have an ancient gene that certain human possess that allows them to operate various artifacts.

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  7. Had a friend in high school who owned this and I borrowed it for a couple of weeks. I never played it though he did run some sessions with it. At the time we were enamored of complex rules systems like these. I remember loving the fact that it modeled the protective armor capabilities of a belt, that's the defining characteristic of the system that's stuck in my head for all these years ;-)

    I do also remember loving the setup of the portal system.

    Anyway thanks for the walk down memory lane, and for the link to their site, I had no idea they were still updating and publishing the system 20 something years later.

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  8. Bizarre. Following the links, I discovered that the outfit now publishing The Morrow Project is located less than a mile from my home...

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  9. I gamed with Richard back in the early '80s, but never played Fringeworthy. I do recall the D&D campaign that was the precursor to this...the giant ring that brought us from epoch to epoch was affectionately nick-named the "Time Bagel".

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  10. One of my friends has this. Every time I visit his house I flip through it.

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  11. Forgive the double post, but I just took a second look at the cover; there seems to have been a better case for a suit than I thought.

    Yes, I was about to retort "look at the cover!" but you beat me to it. The cover image is a Stargate; it's even got the little ramp.

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  12. At the time that the first Stargate film came out, Tucholka stated that he thought they had ripped him off.

    The rules are pretty dire, but there's nothing to the story setup that can't be handled by any system that can handle both modern and futuristic settings.

    Even though I never got to play it, I have a soft spot in my heart for Fringeworthy. As a kid my mother once took away all my RPG stuff until my grades improved, but she somehow missed the Fringeworthy rulebook. I spent the next three months trying to re-write it into a playable system.

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  13. There was a hostile race called something like the Milar which spawned a corny running joke about it being "milar time" whenever the hostiles were encountered.

    Fringeworthy was pretty comprehensive but I never got to play it very much myself.
    It wasn't "Star Gate" because the gates of Fringeworthy don't limit one to our physical universe but instead open to a wide variety of alternate universes as well as far removed worlds.

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  14. Stargate made frequent use of parallel worlds. The crossings usually happened because of a gate accident.

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  15. All this talk about crystals and Stargate, and yet no one's mentioned Syd & Marty Krofft's Land Of The Lost?

    The Sleestaks and their crystal-powered "Pylon Portals" know what time it is.

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  16. Today's e23 release announcement over at SJG is an issue of Space Gamer with a review of Fringeworthy mentioned on the cover.

    Not available in the store yet, though.

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  17. The game certainly sounds interesting, but I think I'd have a hard time playing it without making "spongeworthy" jokes.

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  18. In fact, today's e23 release of Space Gamer includes not only a Fringeworthy review, but a Designer's Notes column as well.

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  19. I had both Fringeworthy and its sister game Stalking the Night Fantastic (later called Bureau 13, I believe - the characters played Men in Black in a horror milieu, basically) and both had great settings and absolutely horrible, unplayable rules.

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  20. Argh! I'm offline for part of a week but reading through my copy of Fringeworthy 2E in prep for a review and now James goes and mentions it the same week! Too funny! I'll post my thoughts up next week but it's remarkable to me how a fairly obscure game can cross two minds at about the same time like this.

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  21. Fringeworthy, FTL 2448, Stalking the Night Fantastic; all of them had one thing in common. An amazing core concept and 325 soul-destroying rules to kill it. Richard was a genius in several ways. He did a lot for the hobby, and is especially well remembered for Stalking the Night Fantastic.

    He originated many of the concepts we think of in the fan culture today.

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  22. Fringeworthy D20 version PDF only version is available on tritac website. Looks like a Savage Worlds version is coming soon. Weekly podcast too. With a great concept and some cleaner rules I might give Fringeworthy another try.

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  23. Savage Worlds isn't my first-choice system, but it strikes me as a good fit for a "Fringeworthy/Stargate" kind of game. It would almost certainly be better than the original rules. I'll look forward to seeing it.

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  24. Every version of Fringeworthy is available as a pdf on the Tri Tac Games website. The d20 version is mostly concept and setting with minor reference to the D20 Modern rulesystem. I hope everyone gives it a try.

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