Thursday, April 7, 2016

Space:1977, or Set Coordinates for Planet Funhouse Dungeon

It occurs to me there's never really been a sci-fi equivalent of D&D. (At least back in the day. Maybe someone's doing it now, and I'm just unaware.) By D&D I mean D&D of OG (Original Greyhawk) Gygaxian mode: a stupid, freewheeling, game of exploration that borrows promiscuously from genre media (of multiple genres) without bothering to particularly try to emulate any of it. Traveller is too interested in emulating specific source material and is more serious; Space Opera is goofy enough, but it still wants to be that sci-fi thing you like (whichever one it is) rather than being not any of those things but wearing their clothes. Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World get the vibe, but their scopes are more limited.

What I'm talking about is something a bit Vancian, definitely picaresque, where exploration for the purpose of profit is the order of the day. The character archetypes are from all over. An adventuring party might look like the ragtag protagonists in Battle Beyond the Stars (except that John Boy guy would be a Jedi in training and the lizard man would be Tars Tarkas) and act like a more disreputable Serenity crew. Only Silver Age comics truly encompass the level of crazy alien worlds ought to embody--given the appropriate figleaf of Gygaxian realism, of course. I figure adventures would often go down like an episode of Lost in Space, except more people would die. And then the Robot would take their stuff.


Kerry Harrison said...

Check out Hulks & Horrors.

Legion said...

I too have this dream.

Agreed re: Hulks and Horrors.

Rogue Space takes a stab at it too.

Leo Knight said...

Check out the Exonauts blog, especially his Rad Astra setting. He uses the X-plorers rpg, an old school, D&D-ish system.

Gus L said...

I like this idea a lot in the abstract, but I think there's needful space for refinement of the idea.

A) "D&D" and "Greyhawk" or "Gygaxian" what exactly does that entail - I know, I know we've all been thinking on this for a good long while and Sorcerer's Skull is one of the bright place where this definition has been pushed, but still... I mean both mechanics and playstyle what is it that needs to get pushed into gonzo sci-fi? The main reasons I mention mechanics is because D&D is first a system for making the dungoen crawl interesting (just look how wilderness adventure never quite works). The playstle supported here is one of a very well defined "place of adventure" in the mythic underworld or dungeon vs. a larger overworld that is more a place to resupply and play at a high level of abstraction (dominion play, purchases, hiring sages etc). Yes I know that many people since the 70's have pushed beyond this, but the heart of classic D&D still seems to be the mechanics for 10' hallway dungeon combat and exploration. Room by room, challenge by challenge, with detail oriented mechanical solutions based on the use of a selection of simple items (lard, rope, mirrors etc.)

B) Sci-Fi, even zany Vancian Sci-Fi is about great distances and scenes in unique locales (In a sense fantasy is as well - D&D doesn't really emulate even the few 'dungeon crawls' in fantasy - say the passage through Moria). Problems in sci-fi are often solved with high tech, and while tech as magic works well, there's some distinction between sci-fi problems and solutions and D&D problems and solutions that seems hard to bridge.

How does one reconcile this - the minutia oriented problem solving of dungeon exploration play and the expansive fantastic of planetary romance? Heck I don't know. I'm sure it's possible it just seems like something one has to mull - distilling Greyhawk Gygaxian absurdity to it's essential elements and then feeding them through a sci-fi setting without just making a clumsy reskinning.

I'm interested to see where this goes, because I suspect this is the place where such a thing could happen.

Trey said...

Kerry, Legion, Leo - Good suggestions guys. Leo, I figured Jay had done something along these lines though I couldn't remember if he had tackled it explicitly.

Gus - Good questions. I did define my terms regarding D&D, but I'll concede that's hardly operationalized. My thought is the place you start is the wilderness adventure (I know you point out it doesn't work, but it has a long and proud history and is played to great effect to this day in places like the Hill Cantons' Feral Shore) perhaps informed by innovations like the pointcrawl. I guess I would ask where you feel like things like Feral Shore, Carcosa, or the Wilderlands break from the D&D rules in unsatisying or at least suboptimal ways?

In a separate point, I think much of what makes D&D (and Greyhawk as an exemplar) as I frame it here feel like what it does to me is an approach to worldbuilding, some of it intentional, but some of it not.

Trey said...

Regarding sci-fi problem solving (which I forgot above), I would say it's just a matter of what sci-fi models you emulate. Problems in Vances stories, Flash Gordon, or John Carter are seldom solved with technology unless tech was the point of the particular story. Even Star Wars isn't solved by tech any more than 3 Musketeers is solved with a sword (which is to say sorta, but only as a tool not a deus ex machina).

Trey said...

Regarding sci-fi problem solving (which I forgot above), I would say it's just a matter of what sci-fi models you emulate. Problems in Vances stories, Flash Gordon, or John Carter are seldom solved with technology unless tech was the point of the particular story. Even Star Wars isn't solved by tech any more than 3 Musketeers is solved with a sword (which is to say sorta, but only as a tool not a deus ex machina).

Gus L said...

@Trey - well some people have made good with Wilderness/Hex Crawl or Point Crawl D&D - heck I'm trying it myself now, but it's a fundamentally different style of play then the dungeon exploration that is the core of older D&D.

Some newer scene based and more combat based games might be more natural for wilderness exploration - though even then maybe the travel itself is glossed over or mechanically at a very high level of abstraction. Carcossa, Hill Cantons and such seem to work because the wilderness is more or less broken into encounters much like dungeon rooms and acts as space between dungeons - but largely the most interesting elements that to me seem inherent to wilderness adventure (weather, supplies, the cataloguing of new resources and places)are unsatisfying in D&D that I've played or run compared to the exploration of smaller scale locales. I'm not saying it can't be done - I'm just saying it seems like a different set of mechanics might be warranted.

On the thematic angle I just wonder how getting past the vehicles and starships inherent in Sci-Fi (especially pulpy sci-fi) to the space of a small group of adventurers alone against the strange universe without the dodge (or built in setting) of shipwreck is possible? I mean shipwreck is how Star Frontier's big module series does it, and it's also kind of the basis of Metamorphosis Alpha. Gamma World is of course more science fantasy I guess.

I'm interesting to see how you manage it, and while I've always seen you more as a setting guy then a mechanic guy I have this weird inkling that the failure of D&D based systems (playstyle or mechanical) to "do sci-fi right" might involve some mechanical things more then creative setting.

Trey said...

Ah, I think we may be working at not entirely congruent trains of thought. I never specified that it would be necessary to use D&D and mechanics. While I think mechanics may influence some of those characteristics I’ve outlined, I don’t think they’re essential for it. Scott Driver, for example, has certainly created some settings that seemed very “D&D” in the ways I describe using Tunnels & Trolls, for instance.

As to the wilderness stuff, I think we’re into the realm of preference. From Gygax on down, people have certainly felt D&D could do wilderness—indeed that was part of the expected growth/escalation of the campaign.

I think you’re exactly right when you talk about the modular/dungeon approach to wilderness. Like I alluded to in the post, Silver Age Krypton is no more coherent or realistic an environment than Castle Greyhawk or Tegel Manor; it’s a series of encounters/funhouse rides.

Good discussion! Rare on blogs (or at least mine) in 2016.

Gus L said...

@Trey - Agreed it's nice to discuss these things pleasantly and with someone who isn't looking to take positions or spot errors.

You're right that I tend to focus on D&D, I mean I talk about what I know - and I haven't played anything else except a couple games of rules lite stuff since the 90's. That said when you're discussing getting the "feel" of old school Greyhawk/Gygax and such the key jumping off point is defining that feel and how the mechanics of older D&D create it. For me that feel has always been first Dungeon exploration, and wilderness exploration always a sort of overwriting. That's not to say talented GMs can get the feel right with other systems or in wilderness scenarios - it's just that for me the core questions are A) What is that "feel" or playstyle - specifically what makes it fun and enjoyable to emulate? B)How can a sci-fi setting promote that playstyle and are thier setting/genre based obstacles that need to be addressed?

Now a "room" approach to wilderness might work well for a sci-fi game, simply because of the technological/vehicle aspect of sci-fi. Say a planet broken into regions, but since the characters don't move by horse or hiking - instead using jumppacks, jets, or orbital insertion the entire becomes a set of rooms or scenes to move between. The issue here is one of limiting access to each region/room to make sure there's some element of the dungeon pathfinding and exploration that seems to make a dungeon crawl work. Maybe issues of vehicle fuel or detection? Anyway it's fun to think about.

Trey said...

Jetpacks were exactly my thought. It gives it a very Mysteries in Space Adam Strange feel. The early drafts of Star Wars included jetpacking across a planet, too.

I think I'm probably guilty of paying too little attention to the role the mechanics play in creating the "feel" I like. I'm aware of it, certainly, but it isn't an area I tinker with too much--certainly to to degree you or Chris has.

I will say though that D&D dungeoncrawls can be very different in tone depending on presentation, so it isn't strictly down to the rules.

Not to put you too much on the spot, but do you feel like using the basic D&D chassis as so many have done for other genres or fantasy games with another focus is inherently a less desirable approach?