Roleplayer #24, June 1991

Primary Sources

Reviews of Gameable Fiction

by Steve Jackson

This column – the first of many, if your feedback is positive – will look at works of fiction that I've found especially gameable.

However, I am emphatically not going to offer "game translations" here. I'm not going to give character stats, weapon descriptions and so on. . . that would infringe the rights of the authors. Instead, I'm offering this column as a pointer to some of the best source material I know for the creative Game Master. Go out and buy these books. Read them for enjoyment; then read them again and think "What kind of a campaign could I set in this background? What can I borrow from this background to add to other campaigns?"

(Yes, I'd love to do "official" worldbooks on both of these, and on dozens of others. But that's not the point. The point is that these books, as they stand, are wonderful source material. You can do a great deal with them without any "game translation" except your own. Enjoy what the authors have created, and fill in the details as you go along!)

This issue I'll look at a few of the most gameable science fiction titles on my shelf. I have more. . . Another day I'd like to talk about fantasy, horror, and whatever else comes to mind. If you have any suggestions – or if you would like to review a gameable book yourself – drop me a line.

The "Miles Vorkosigan" Books

Lois McMaster Bujold

These books – there are several out now, and more on the way – chronicle the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, a young noble in the space force of his Emperor. Sounds like space opera? Hardly. The author obviously read and loved those old books – not to mention Robert Heinlein's young-adult "space cadet" stories. But she comes at the material from a different viewpoint, and she's produced a hero who many gamers will find very easy to identify with.

Miles Vorkosigan was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's the only son of the Regent of the starfaring world of Barrayar. He's brilliant and a military genius. But he has a few problems.

To start off with, he's a fragile-boned dwarf, thoroughly crippled before his birth by a terrorist gas attack on his parents' home . . . on a planet racked by anti-mutant prejudice. His position as the Regent's son puts him on the bulls-eye of assassination attempts and intrigues – Barrayar takes its politics very seriously. He's a member of a force with a proud military tradition – but by galactic standards, Barrayar is poor, backwards and brutal. And though he's brilliant, his superiors in the military either assume that they have to treat him with kid gloves, because he's the Regent's son, or seethe with resentment at the smart-assed high-born "mutant."

How does Miles overcome it? By thinking faster than anyone around him, and talking much, much faster. He's arrogant, manipulative and far too clever for his own good. A born warrior-aristocrat trapped in a fragile, twisted body, he compensates and overcompensates. Honor and duty are the breath of life to Miles, but he's a natural intriguer. And he never gives up.

Because of his position and his personality, he gets into incredible trouble . . . not situation-comedy trouble, but dirty, gritty trouble that threatens the lives of those who depend on him, the honor of his family and Emperor, the safety of his planet. And the way Bujold describes Miles' desperate triumphs, and his occasional bitter failures, is engrossing. I've read these books over and over.

As I think about Miles, I can't help but try to cast him in GURPS terms. He has significant advantages, but monstrous disadvantages as well. You can do Miles on a total of 100 points, but he has a lot more than 40 points of disadvantages! I think he's more true to Bujold's vision as a 150- to 200-point character. (Once he's in command of the Dendarii Mercenaries, for instance, he has a potent and terribly loyal Ally Group.) Trying to play Miles himself would be a real challenge, and any player who isn't Miles will have to run hard to keep up. It might be better to play a team of Dendarii Mercenaries – highly trained, well-equipped, with brilliant "Admiral Naismith" (Miles, of course) as a Patron.

The Background

Bujold's universe develops more in every book. There is no galactic government. Most worlds are independent, but there are a few small "empires." One of these, Cetaganda, is competent and aggressive, and has already tried to conquer Barrayar. They failed; they'll be back.

Many worlds have been touched on only briefly, and none have been described in encyclopedic detail. But we know enough about several places to use them as backgrounds . . .

Barrayar itself is an Earth like world with a feudal culture. Long isolated from the galactic mainstream, Barrayar is adapting painfully and often unwillingly.

Beta Colony is a liberal (if not decadent) planet with some of the best scientists in the galaxy, and some of the worst weather. Miles' mother, Cordelia, is a Betan.

Kline Station is an artificial world built to orbit a dark star with six jump routes and no planets at all. It's been growing, a little at a time, for over 300 years.

Jackson's Whole is ruled by a criminal aristocracy; anything can be bought and sold there.

Space travel, by the way, follows the standard "wormhole jump" pattern, making space very easy to map and game. A system may be "connected" to one other system, or to several – or to none, in which case it won't be visited. Systems with one connection, like Miles' native Barrayar, risk becoming backwaters. A system with two connections can benefit from trade; a system with several wormholes becomes a nexus of commerce. This drives the economics – and therefore the politics and strategy – of Miles' universe. A map of the worlds and jump routes near Barrayar is included in The Vor Game (a good thing, since the plot makes little sense if you don't understand the territory!)

There's not much detail about technology in these books. They're stories about people, not gadgets. Genetic engineering is very highly advanced; new races of man-kind, like the Betan hermaphrodites and the zero-gee "quaddies," can be created to order. Star travel is routine. Weaponry is advanced but follows standard SF patterns, with stunners, nerve disruptors, needlers and plasma arcs – e.g., blasters.

The Books

"Miles" books out now include The Warrior's Apprentice, which introduces Miles; The Vor Game, Brothers in Arms and Borders of Infinity.

Bujold's other books explore different times and places in the same universe. Shards of Honor tells how his parents – impressive people in their own right – met, fought and married. Barrayar, now being serialized in Analog Magazine, continues their story. Miles pulls a few strings from offstage in Ethan of Athos, but it's really about his beautiful and dangerous lieutenant, Elli Quinn, and an unwitting hero from a very odd planet. Finally, Falling Free, set at least a hundred years before Miles, tells the story of a race of humans genetically engineered for zero-G.

They're all good stories. You'll find no unique gadgetry or weird creatures here; the emphasis is on cultures and people. It would make a wonderful campaign background. Buy these books and see what they do to your games.

The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring

Larry Niven

Far from Earth is a solar system with no habitable planets. Nevertheless, it is populated. A torus of gas – breathable atmosphere – surrounds a neutron star. Floating within that belt of atmosphere – the "Smoke Ring" – live human colonists, descendants of a seeder crew launched hundreds of years before. They are adapted to an environment with almost no gravity, and no solid ground bigger than the miles-long "integral trees" that orbit the neutron star Voy.

The Ring people have lost almost all memory of their origins, and almost all technology – though a few of the original colonists' devices survive, including computer database readers. There is also at least one "carm," or Cargo and Repair Module, a small ship ideally suited for getting around the Smoke Ring. But most of the Ring people live simply, in small tribes, hunting and farming in their strange environment. Some are empire-builders and slave-takers. It's an energetic, rough-and-tumble, adventurous "world."

The wild card in the Smoke Ring is Kendy the Checker. Kendy is an artificial intelligence – a computer programmed with the personality of a long-dead political officer, inhabiting the seedship orbiting outside the Ring. Kendy is loyal to the dictatorial, practical State that sent him out, and he will ruthlessly manipulate the people of the Smoke Ring to recreate that State. He has few tools with which to work, and can communicate with the Ring people only through a few surviving bits of technology. But he is inhumanly patient.

However, Kendy is by no means a "soulless machine." He's a very sophisticated device. He can worry; he can rationalize his errors. And he can also recognize an error and change his mind. In a game background, Kendy would make a perfect GM tool, with information and powers far beyond what any character can possess . . . and an agenda of his own.

The Background

The strange solar system of the Smoke Ring is scientifically possible, and the weird creatures that live there are believable. So are the human societies, with their varying degrees of adaptation to microgravity, and their various sorts of "appropriate technology," using the native plants and creatures of the Ring. And those creatures make up a fantastic free-fall bestiary. Some are useful; some are dangerous; all are strange and marvelous.

In the distant background is the universe of the State, which Niven has explored in several other stories. The hive like inhabited worlds of the State would probably not be an interesting place for adventure . . . but by the very nature of space travel in this universe, the State is not likely to come calling. At the most, another seedship might show up, with a small crew but lots of wonderful technology. (And how would Kendy react to that? Good question. He considers himself loyal to the State, but he's had hundreds of years of practice in using his own judgment. If he didn't care for the newcomers' orders, he just might find a way to ignore them.)

The Books

The Integral Trees, the first book, introduces the environment, the ancient devices, and the computerized Checker, Kendy. In The Smoke Ring, we encounter a larger, well-organized community with more technology and more politics.

Through both books, the emphasis is on the weird and wonderful background, with plot in second place and characterization a distant third. Use these stories as detailed sourcebooks . . . the setting for an unusual low-tech campaign, or a unique environment with a primitive culture for starfarers to visit or even to discover and explore!

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