It is time once more to take up the dice
November 23, 2009 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a pen and paper RPG, science fiction, certain other specifications required.

Some friends and I just got back into playing pen and paper RPGs recently as adults. We've been playing D&D but I have to admit I don't really care for the system or for standard fantasy settings. Since I'm the one who wants to do something different I figure I should volunteer to GM it. So I'm looking for a science fiction themed game with the following:

-Easy to just buy a single book (or set of books for player/GM) and play.
-Fast-paced rules, easy to learn.
-More of a casual action-y game than something with "deep" role playing... I don't think the group is up for that.
-Not D20.
-If I could buy a PDF, that would be double fantastic.

I'm pretty open to themes/worlds; post-apocalyptic, space opera, cyberpunk, whatever. I tend to prefer something that has closer to real-world equipment (rather than Star Wars science fantasy stuff) but I'm flexible on that.

I haven't been interested in these games in a long time and I'm having trouble finding good resources online... and I don't really know that there are any local game shops that really sell anything beyond D&D. So suggestions for either specific games or pointers to resources are much appreciated. Thanks!

PS. Just to be totally clear, I am talking about pen-and-paper games, NOT computer games.
posted by selfnoise to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not up to speed on these sorts of games, but my brother-in-law raves about Wushu. It's a flexible and fun-sounding system that may or may not be what you're looking for. It's not a commercial brand, so there are no official implements you need to buy to get into things.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 7:44 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seriously, check it out. The grand-daddy of Cyberpunk and it hits on pretty much all of your requirements.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:53 AM on November 23, 2009

Seriously? Something very, very drastic must have happened to Shadowrun since I messed around with it then.

I'd start with a more casual system than that. Maybe something generic that can be pushed in your kind of realistic SF direction. Maybe BESM?

Though I've been out of the field long enough that there are probably better choices.
posted by Naberius at 7:59 AM on November 23, 2009

Well for flavor and plain weirdness I would recommend Rifts, lots of bizarre crap in there, and it does manage to fit almost every imaginable genre into one convoluted setting. That being said it is a total mess, the rules are arcane, there is a huge disparity in power between different classes (you can be a homeless person, a full conversion cyborg, a holy knight, and intelligent psionic capyberra, a mecha pilot, or an archdemon). It is also very book heavy, but many of those books are easily obtained online.

When I had just read your title I was going to recommend D20 future, but as that is out (it isnt for everyone, but it is a fairly mature system, even if it is one that is also incredibly easy to break). So since you want something different I would suggest the WoD system from white wolf, it is D10 based, very modular and it can span a couple of different genre's. Personally I am not a huge fan of it (I prefer 4th edition right now), but it is a solid system and it doesn't need to be all dark and gothy if you dont run it that way.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:07 AM on November 23, 2009

Dittoing WinnipegDragon, Shadowrun may not fulfill every requirement you have, but I always found that the format was a pretty quick road to FUN. The game lends itself to actiony excitement and well, jokes. I built a Street Paladin once (take off on the game's "Street Samurai", with a dicoat longsword, cross shaped flaregun, and a motorcycle with a lance attachment.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:15 AM on November 23, 2009

I've been playing Dark Heresy lately and it's been tons of fun. For a background novel which sets the tone, I highly recommend the Eisenhorn trilogy by Abnett.
posted by reptile at 8:20 AM on November 23, 2009

Holy crap! When I was going to go a little more snarky on the Shadowrun suggestion, I was going to say something like "why not just go all in and play Rifts?"

Maybe we could be more helpful if the OP talked a little more about what he wants from a system. Because I'm reading this as fairly simple mechanics without a lot of complex systems to weird things that the game probably won't use anyway. And most of the suggestions so far seem like the polar opposite of that to me.
posted by Naberius at 8:25 AM on November 23, 2009

Shadowrun used to be very steep on the learning curve but it's a lot of fun to play once it's in motion so to speak. I heard they have newer, simplified rules but I haven't played them. I 'll add there's a free "lite" version in PDF from their website so you can check out the basics.
posted by anti social order at 8:25 AM on November 23, 2009

I have heard that the MouseGuard RPG is well-designed and fun for adults as well as kids. I haven't played it; have been planning to get it for my family.
posted by not that girl at 8:31 AM on November 23, 2009

I fail to see what's wrong with Shadowrun. Looking at what the OP asked for:

- Science Fiction -> Yup.
- Single book -> Yup, although you can add as many more books as you'd like.
- Fast paced, easy to learn -> I would say so. Roll D6s, count up the number of success. Done. This mechanism is used for all rolls. The sumple play rules are even easier and are free on the site.
- Action-y -> Very. Depending on the style of the GM of course, but the game has a robust combat system along with the amusing magic and hacking systems.
- Not D20 -> It's not.
- PDF -> Yup, the publisher has totally embraced PDF.
- Cyberpunk is one of his/her acceptable genres.
- Close to real world-equipment -> Yes, the firearms and melee equipment all have modern-day equivalencies. The hacking and cyber-gear is of course strictly Sci-Fi.

So, I'm not sure why you don't think Shadowrun is a good suggestion?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:33 AM on November 23, 2009

Yeah, most sci-fi RPGs have rules that are tied pretty tightly to the setting. You might try a more generic system that would allow you to build a setting around it. I played in a pretty fun sci-fi game using the Hero System rules a few years back.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:35 AM on November 23, 2009

This is probably a question great for or's recommendation forum
(It's an offshoot of that juuust kicked off... not too much information there, but lots and lots of users floating around. Your question would get answered quickly.)

You might want to start looking into Diaspora, Traveller, (maybe) Shadowrun, (maybe) Star Wars d6, Blue Planet, Starblazer Adventures... hmm. I think I did that roughly in the order that I would start looking. I can't give more detailed recommendations because I haven't actually played these.

Really, your best bet to get in touch with people that habitually play a lot of RPGs is to make a post on the forums. Both websites are great resources.
posted by Suciu at 8:41 AM on November 23, 2009

There's a Serenity RPG that's pretty fun, if you're a fan of that universe. If you'd be interested in doing some world-building, Savage Worlds is a solid generic rules system. If "post-apocalyptic" extends to zombie apocalypse, then I can't recommend All Flesh Must Be Eaten highly enough.
posted by EarBucket at 8:47 AM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'll read the quick rules on Shadowrun... I remember the rules being impenetrable when I was in 7th grade but then again... I was in 7th grade.

We played Rifts endlessly as a kid and I think that's not really what I'm looking for.

Thanks for the reminder on Blue Planet. I think I might actually have a book for that somewhere. I'll see if I can find it.
posted by selfnoise at 8:52 AM on November 23, 2009

More on the goofy side but lots of fun, you might have a look at Paranoia.
posted by roue at 8:52 AM on November 23, 2009

I think Traveller and Shadowrun are two really good options, and I'd like to add Feng Shui into the mix. Feng Shui is subtitled as "The Hong Kong Action Movie Roleplaying Game", and it's exceptional. It's based off of an interesting time travel/alternate history/War to control Reality mashup, and is great fun to play. The combat system is designed around the idea that combat should be fast, fluid, and filled with people doing amazingly cool things. All you need, dice-wise, is 2d6, which is kind of nice. :)

The Wikipedia article on it is quite good and gives a good short overview of the game itself.
posted by Concolora at 8:54 AM on November 23, 2009

Steve Jackson Games' GURPS is head and shoulders the best and most flexible RPG system I have ever seen, and the condensed version of the rules, GURPS Lite, is a free pdf online.

The full-on system is two books, one for characters (Characters) and one for GM stuff (Campaigns), both of which are available in hardcover or as pdfs through e23, their online store. And there is no shortage of science fiction stuff they have created as support. (Note that GURPS is now on its fourth edition and that some of these are for the third, but the differences are minor, and there is of course a free conversion document on the site.)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:07 AM on November 23, 2009

Mutant Future is a great gonzo retro-clone that captures a bit of Gamma World and a bit of Star Frontiers in one shot (and free to boot), and true scientific realism* can be achieved with Encounter Critical. But these two really capture more of the "early days of RPGs."

Mongoose's Traveller is much more streamlined and true to the original black books than I expected. It's pretty flexible too, and good for Firefly type games, hard sci-fi, or even Space Opera.

* No true scientific realism contained within, but still hilarious.
posted by ktrey at 9:26 AM on November 23, 2009

Diaspora which is a sci-fi FATE-based game. I'd recommend picking up the pulpy and very awesome Spirit of the Century, which is oriented for fast play powered by the things that matters to the players. SotC is a bit more narrativist and less-crunchy than, say, D&D - it doesn't try to simulate reality, but instead the crazy reality of the pulp serials. Diaspora was developed off of FATE (which also is the core of SoTC) and I can't speak to play experience with that one.

I have to second Feng Shui as a hella-fun RPG romp. Template characters and basic mechanics will have you up and runnig pretty quickly, and the martial arts crunchiness is a lot of fun.
posted by canine epigram at 9:29 AM on November 23, 2009

I have a lot of nostalgic fondness for Feng Shui, but I have to say the mechanics haven't aged all that well. It feels like an early evolutionary ancestor of today's more rules-light games, but it's on the clunky side in practice. Massively due for an overhauling and new version.
posted by EarBucket at 9:37 AM on November 23, 2009

They don't give you much in terms of setting etc, but as a lite rules set, you can't go wrong with RISUS.
posted by juv3nal at 10:06 AM on November 23, 2009

Oh! Can't believe I didn't think of 3:16 Carnage Among The Stars, which is both one of the simplest games I've played and one of the most fun. Players are Starship Troopers-style space marines dropped onto hostile planets to mow down wave after wave of alien natives. It might be exactly what you're looking for.
posted by EarBucket at 10:12 AM on November 23, 2009

Here's a review of the Battlestar Galactica RPG. Same core system as Serenity, so choose your flavour. It's one book, which I have, but haven't played yet as the book is go godsawfully written that I have only made it through about 6 frakkin' pages.
posted by Iteki at 11:57 AM on November 23, 2009

Ok I'll go old school and suggest Space: 1889. A really wonderful game and easy system. I think you can still find copies. One book (and a few modules, but you dont need them).

And of course there's always Nobilis if you're ready for that.
posted by elendil71 at 12:38 PM on November 23, 2009

OK, I've played all the games listed below, and would recommend any of them wholeheartedly. Dogs in the Vineyard and Primetime Adventures are the cream of this list IMHO, but I haven't played Burning Empires or Free Market yet. Disclaimer - I am a friend of Luke Crane, who is one of the authors of BE and of Free Market. I love his Burning Wheel system (which is fantasy, and thus not listed here). I am an acquaintance of the authors of all the other games listed. The indie gaming scene is a small world.

Bliss Stage - If you were ever going to run a campaign based on Neon Genesis Evangelion, this is the system for it. Giant robots and dysfunctional relationships.

Inspectres - Comedic game based on opening up a paranormal pest control franchise.

Shock: Social Science Fiction - At the core of the world-creation system is the Grid, a method of world creation that uses social concerns and Shocks, to build a fictional world custom-built for the type of story the players want to experience. It cross-references concerns of the players with Shocks to create characters devised to confront those issues.

Dogs in the Vineyard - OK, it's a stretch, but if you grant me alternate history as an SFnal genre it fits. Players are God's Watchdogs in an alternate 19th century old west setting. Brilliant game. I've seen it pull a lot of great gaming out of even the most diffident player.

You stand between God's law and the best intentions of the weak.

You stand between God's people and their own demons.

Sometimes it's better for one to die than for many to suffer. Sometimes, Dog, sometimes you have to cut off the arm to save the life.

Does the sinner deserve mercy?
Do the wicked deserve judgement?

They're in your hands.

Prime Time Adventures - PTA's premise is that the players get together, brainstorm a TV series and each player controls one of the main characters in the series. Works very well for SF (and just about any other genre, really)

Burning Empires - This is the precursor of Mouse Guard. The setting is pretty heavily Dune-like.

Free Market -
We are a society of functionally immortal, cybernetically modified, telepathic infovores. Our society is centered on a reputation-based economy in which the basic needs of all—sustenance and shelter—are accounted for. If you wish to do more than just survive—if you wish to create, perform, build or destroy—you must win the approval of your friends and the community at large.

Our “community at large” is currently about 80,000 strong. It is contained in a Stanford Torus-style space station parked at a lagrange point between Tethys, Titan and Saturn. Our habitat was designed to hold 40,000 comfortably. We’ve modified it to accommodate our expanding numbers. Considering that there is no death, no laws and no crime in our society, we think we’re doing a fair job.

posted by ursus_comiter at 1:28 PM on November 23, 2009

Gah. Shoulda reread that one more time for clarity. To clear up the contradiction - I have not played Burning Empires or Free Market (which is just out in beta at the moment). Thus cannot endorse them directly.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:30 PM on November 23, 2009

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