Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Retrospective: Starships & Spacemen

Growing up as a kid, it was hard to escape the gravitational pull of Star Wars. Released in 1977, at the end of my second grade year, I, like pretty much every other male from 6-60, was a huge fan of George Lucas's space fantasy. But, when it came to adventures in space, Star Wars was neither my first nor my true love. That distinction goes to Star Trek, to which I'd been introduced a year or two earlier by my favorite aunt, who shared some of my nascent geekish interests, and who was unmarried at the time and still lived with my grandparents whom I visited nearly every week. Together, we watched reruns of The Original Series on Saturday afternoons on an independent DC channel and I was forever bonded to Gene Roddenberry's creation. Over the years, my fondness for Star Trek has waxed and waned considerably and, in recent years, the latter has won out. I'm frankly tired of the franchise and would much prefer to see it go off gently into that good night, but I doubt that Paramount will ever allow that to happen. I expect Star Trek -- or something claiming to be it, at any rate -- to outlive me.

When I got into RPGs, it didn't take me long to start imagining a Star Trek roleplaying game. To my mind, Star Trek was ready-made to be converted into a terrific RPG. I remember attempting to use Traveller as the basis for a Star Trek RPG, but this met with limited success, as there were simply too many points of divergence between them. I tried a couple of other approaches as well, but none really worked as well as I'd hoped. Then, just three years after I'd entered the hobby, FASA released an official Star Trek RPG, and my prayers would be answered. I finally had my long-desired Star Trek roleplaying game and I ceased my search.

Before FASA released their game, I never managed to come across an already-existing attempt to produce a Star Trek RPG -- FGU's Starships & Spacemen. I suspect I never noticed S&S, because I never saw it back then; it would be years before I ever came across a copy and, by then, I was already too devoted to FASA's game to care about alternatives. Plus, unlike FASA's RPG, Starships & Spacemen wasn't "official." It was simply a pastiche and, as a younger person, I didn't see much value in a "knock-off" when the genuine article was available to me.

Even if I had come across S&S, I doubt I'd have been much impressed by it. First released in 1978, the game consisted of a single 86-page book of exceedingly amateurish appearance. Its text is presented in a single typewritten column. Art is sparse and strangely generic, being mostly vague "space-y" images rather than anything more specific. And significant portion of the game consists of random tables for generating star systems, random encounters, alien beings, artifacts, and so on. There are no lengthy discussions of creating "episodes," using cinematic jargon. Neither are there discussions of "themes" or other such philosophical matters.

Instead, S&S is a very simple, straightforward game that gives the reader stuff -- the germs of ideas from which to create his own science fiction campaign based very loosely on the structure of The Original Series. It's a lot like OD&D in this respect, which is either a virtue or a vice depending on one's point of view. The game presents us with a thin setting, in which the Galactic Confederacy consisting of the Terrans and the "ultralogical" Taurans (and several other races) face off against the warlike Zangids, bent on the conquest of known space. Adventures are assumed to consist of the exploration of new worlds, where any number of threats and obstacles present problems for officers of the Confederacy's Spacefleet, from hostile aliens to weird diseases to temporal paradoxes and more. What's really amazing of S&S is how compactly it presents all these options. Certainly, there's little in the way of detail in the game; everything is presented very briefly that's because it's simply assumed the referee (or Starmaster) will do most of the heavy lifting in this regard.

Compared to later SF RPGs, or even earlier ones, like Traveller, Starships & Spacemen is certainly what one might charitably called "quaint." Its rules are simple, even simplistic, in places and there are lots of ambiguities throughout. My comparison to OD&D isn't an idle one. Despite this, I find something really compelling about S&S, although I'm not certain I'm in a hurry to play the game (which is now available, in print and PDF form through Goblinoid Games). There's an enthusiasm that comes through in this little game, a sense of creative abandon that's often lacking even in my own true SF RPG love, Traveller. Reading through S&S, it's difficult not to find one's brain percolating with ideas for space opera adventures. They may not "serious." Indeed, they may be somewhat silly, but they're also likely to be fun. Nowadays, I place a higher premium on that than I did as a know-it-all kid, which is why I'm more favorably inclined toward Starships & Spacemen than others might be.


  1. We played a bunch of Starships & Spacemen back when it first came out, and I picked up the PDF for nostalgia's sake. I doubt I'd want to run it again, mostly because I like making up my own games now, but I'd probably return to it before I picked up Traveller again.

  2. IME 'pastiche' consistently beats 'canon' when it comes to role-playability. In canon Trek, Captain Kirk is the Hero. In pastiche Trek, YOU are the Hero! :)

    I think this is even true of literature. I get more RPG-useable ideas from frankly rather cruddy Marvel Conan comics than from REH's darkly sophisticated original modernist works. I get even more ideas from crude Conan pastiches like Raven and Thongar.

    The one really classy writer I find I can easily make use of is Fritz Leiber.

  3. What's really interesting is how Goblinoid Games was planning to integrate Starships&Spacemen with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future, creating a really free-wheeling set of rules to handle some really off-the-wall in the old days...I hope they see that plan through. It would be very, very cool.

  4. IME 'pastiche' consistently beats 'canon' when it comes to role-playability.

    I agree. A friend of mine was fond of saying that "bad literature makes for good roleplaying" and I've found him to be right.

  5. "Released in 1977, at the end of my second grade year,..."

    That was my first year of college. Excuse while I go check into the Home, now...

    "Instead, S&S is a very simple, straightforward game..."

    Given my experience of FGU games comes mostly through C&S, that genuinely surprises me.

  6. Beware the Videni suicide ships!

    [Admittedly we encountered them in someone's (non-standard) Traveller campaign, but they did leave an impression. Literally.]

    Admittedly I found Space Opera more suitable for a Trek style game. At least, until FASA put out their version. Even if the rules were full of typos and errors. And characters had 14 prime characteristics.

  7. I've had a copy of this since before it was cool to appreciate old-fashioned games, and would really like to give it a go someday. Its not so much a game system as one would be recognized today as some organized notes showing how one guy used OD&D as a starting point to run a space opera game in which Star Trek was only the largest influence. The encounter tables include sandworms after all, and the Zangid suicide ships are modeled after TIE fighters. What I really like is the game has clear direction to it; it lays out explicitly what kind of things make up an adventure, then lays out how to prepare and handle those things. As much as I respect Traveller, I don't think it's quite as good on that kind of follow-through.

  8. Ah.. you found it, James. Compare with your earlier "In 1980, Fantasy Games Unlimited released its own entry into the genre, Space Opera."
    Which was, in effect, the crux of the reason for its quietly vanishing into the night. Too much effort had been invested into Space Opera from an early date, whereas S&S was a case of "let's just put it out there" without much thought to longer term support. Rather a pity to be honest as your comparison between S&S and OD&D is an apt one...

    > Given my experience of FGU games comes mostly through C&S, that genuinely surprises me.

    *lol*. FGU published material covering a pretty wide range of approaches rather than enforcing any particular house style (of complexity). "C&S" was complex /before/ it arrived at FGU.