Roleplayer #19, April 1990

The Return of Triplanetary

Reviving a Classic Space Game as a GURPS Tactical System

by Steve Jackson

Triplanetary, released by GDW in 1973, was the first science fiction game I ever played. It is an excellent game; its clean, playable simulation of inertial movement, with gravity, can't be improved on. I know; I've tried. For at least ten years, I've played around with various space movement systems. The closer I got to something that was both realistic and playable, the more it looked like Triplanetary.

Time passed. Triplanetary went out of print, and was reissued in 1981. That edition went out of print, too. At Origins 1989 1 spoke with Marc Miller, the designer of the game. Was GDW going to re-release it? No. Would he be interested in licensing it to me? Quite possibly. A couple of months later, we had a deal. He gets royalties. I get to revive one of my favorite games.

Right now, we're planning to release Triplanetary sometime in 1991. It will be in a boxed format, almost certainly with an erasable map and a grease pencil for plotting vectors. We may do something fancy with the counters as well; we have some ideas for letting the planets move. (They stayed still in the original game; that didn't hurt playability, but most people dreamed about ways to let them move around the Sun.)

Design Goals

I've been playing with modifications and optional rules for Triplanetary for a long time. My first published article in Space Gamer was a Triplanetary scenario. When I unearthed the game boxes (both editions, of course!) after my first talk with Marc, I found rule notes so old they were handwritten . . . they date back to before I owned a typewriter, let alone a computer.

Now that I can make "official" changes, I've got two major design goals for the Third Edition of Triplanetary. First and foremost, it has to remain a good, stand-alone tactical space game. That's what it is now, and it would be a crime to injure it. I plan to leave the movement system just as it is. The combat system will get a complete revision; while playable, it is over-simplistic by 1990 standards. And I would like to add a system to allow players to design their own ships.

The second goal – and the reason this article is in Roleplayer – is to make Triplanetary more than just a stand-alone game. I want to link it to GURPS, with a link that runs both directions. Players should be able to use GURPS rules to add a little bit of roleplaying to a Triplanetary game. And they should also be able to set up a Triplanetary board to play out an in-system combat in a GURPS Space game. (Triplanetary assumes inertial movement, and ships are affected by gravity. It probably wouldn't be interesting for a TL12 + combat, though I admit I haven't really tried yet – maybe we'll come up with something.)

The Monster Game

Here's another thing I've dreamed about for years . . . and now it looks like it's possible. I'd like to run a gigantic, big-map, long-term Triplanetary game at a big convention like Origins or Worldcon. The basic scenario would be Pirates / Merchants / Space Patrol, perhaps with asteroid miners and the Fuel Cartel thrown in. The game would run a long time . . . 24 hours a day, if enough referees could be found, for days. Each player would control one ship; some players might have no ships of their own, but command several captains. A separate map would keep track of the locations of the pirates, who remain unseen when they can (once spotted, pirates would go on the big board). Actual scrip would be used to represent money, leaving open the possibility of hidden transactions and even bribery. There would be no roleplaying rules – but nobody but a dead fish could avoid roleplaying the part in a scenario like this.

Time for Feedback

So . . . it's time to start making comments. We're not ready for playtest – we don't have a playtestable draft yet. But we'd like to know what everyone out there wants in a game of interplanetary combat. We'd especially like to hear from old Triplanetary players . . . there must be a lot of you out there! What kind of changes would you like to see in the game – and what would you consider sacred? Would you enjoy playing in, or refereeing, a monster game? What will make this the game, both stand-alone and roleplaying, that you will like as muc h as I do? Let us know.

Added Notes, Many Years Later

The above article appeared in issue #19 of Roleplayer. That was the April 1990 issue, which also carried the story of the Secret Service raid on SJ Games. And the way it worked out, we were a bit distracted there for a while.

We didn't get much farther. The original article drew some comments, which were read and filed away. A playtestable draft was created, but it never got played by anyone outside the office, except at a couple of convention demonstrations. Mostly it sat in a corner while we fought to stay in business, and I never got back to it.

I still think this is a good game. It's not the style that's popular these days, but maybe that means it will count as "something different."

And I like the big-map idea as much as I ever did. With live-action convention games becoming more popular, I think it would be easy to get a crowd of people to be ship captains and play a lot of politics in between shooting at each other. I'm making notes again, and talking to a couple of conventions about actually running it.

We are not currently looking for playtesters for Triplanetary. When that changes, we'll make a big announcement.

Steve Jackson

(Back to Roleplayer #19 Table of Contents)

Copyright © 1997-2024 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.

Steve Jackson Games | GURPS | Roleplayer Index