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I'd like to GM a sci-fi game, one that falls, preferably, somewhere between space opera and hard sf. I've been looking at options, reviews, etc., but haven't found anything to my taste.

Please, recommend me an SF game that

  • is modern and relatively recent (this other Q is rather dated SF-wise, unfortunately), yet traditional, that is, more simulationist than narrativist (FATE's not my cup of tea, sorry). By "modern" I guess I mean its world and setting is extrapolated from recent scientific and technical developments and forecasts.
  • is not too rules light (a single roll determining an entire battle, etc), but
  • is not too crunchy (in a single combat move, don't make us roll attack, then dodge, then damage, then soak, all of these with a myriad modifiers - let's just shoot and damage with a single roll, then deduct armor from that damage... or something like that.)
  • is, preferably, not d20 based
  • doesn't require me (and the players!) to read hundreds of pages of setting, yet has some interesting selling points background-wise as well (without a metaplot stretched over dozens of sourcebooks and novels, though)
  • is not Star Wars or Firefly or Battlestar or... based on a TV show (but computer games - like Mass Effect - would be okay)
  • is, preferably, not fan-made
  • not too posthuman (sorry, but no Eclipse Phase this time, too much sleeving)
  • is not Gumshoe-based (I know, I know, I'm getting nitpicky, sorry, but it's not over yet)
  • can be learned quickly
  • has quality artwork and layout... the more awesome the artwork (wishful thinking), the better (sorry, but we've got some grumpy graphic designers on the team, for whom supporting visuals and artistic vision are important)
  • is not humorous by default
  • is not retro-SF (including WH40k's otherwise excellent permutations)
  • is not science-fantasy (meaning: there are no pure fantasy elements in it that couldn't be explained away by pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo)

Emphasis on top priorities (but everything is important on the list.)

I hope I haven't forgotten anything (but I reserve the right to extend the list later on.) :D

Yep, I know I'm asking for the impossible / non-existent. Should it be so, please, recommend a generic rpg (no, not GURPS!) whose system I / we could use to relatively quickly develop an SF world & game along the abovementioned lines.

(Sure, an official Mass Effect (ep1, ep2, NOT ep3) adaptation would be cool. But it doesn't exist, afaik.)

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

closed as off-topic by BESW, Purple Monkey, MrLemon, KorvinStarmast, nitsua60 Jan 14 at 13:42

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

Luckily, this system you search for is not only existent, but also has a free pdf available! (Although the extra content in the book is definitely worth getting)

Stars Without Number is a futuristic sci-fi system and setting. Essentially, humanity reached the stars and spread out across the galaxy using 'spike drives' to travel between solar systems faster than light. Eventually, the exposure to this created psychics (I'm not sure whether you'd classify this as science-fantasy, but it's explained in-setting), who enabled the use of 'Jump Gates' to send vast amounts of material across half the galaxy in the blink of an eye. When the scream happened, all the psychics and everyone with an active spike drive died instantly, except those few psychics who went insane. The lack of jump gates meant that all the non-frontier worlds were without a food supply and quickly became barren tombs. Now, hundreds of years later (3000 CE, to be precise) the frontier worlds are becoming more powerful, and starting to head towards the skies once more. That's pretty much the entirety of the setting - it's about 10 pages in the pdf, iirc. Most of a game will take place in a single sector (group of systems) that is generated before play.

There are 3 classes (Warrior, Psychic and Expert). They receive either a d8, d6 or d4 hit die (Warrior>Expert>Psychic) and get a varying number of skills (Expert>Warrior>Psychic) as well as a unique ability (Psychic abilities, a free skill check re-roll per day, or a dodging a hit that already landed per battle). They are all able to use all weapons but non-warriors have a harder time getting good at using them. In the full pdf, there's the addition of AI, which have their own rules that differ from this - basically, they're their own class.

The skills system scales from untrained, which gives a -1, to legendary, which gives a +4. Skill checks are made with a roll of 2d6 compared to a target number. All classes can learn all skills, but some skills are easier for certain classes - an expert gets the most skills at the cheaper rate, and the psychic has it worst.

Stats are generated by a straight 3d6 for each ability. A 3 gives a modifier of -2 to all skills, psychic abilities or weapons that use that ability, and an 18 gives a +2, while 4-7 and 14-17 give -1 and +1 respectively. Other than that, they don't really have many mechanical impacts. In most cases, the stats aren't that important for the character.

Combat uses a d20 roll to determine whether you hit, and the damage roll is based off the weapon, but it's not a 'proper' d20 system because you don't use a d20 for skill checks. Each round, all participants get to act in order of initiative. Basic weapons (clubs & spears) can't get through the really techy armour, though. Low-level characters die fast because a single good hit will take them down instantly. My players got around this by never fighting fairly, but still had two close shaves in the first session alone.

Stars Without Number is fairly recent and not fan-made (see the link above - you can buy a book or pdf, or get the slightly smaller free pdf). I personally like the artwork, but it's black and white, so I'm not sure if that's a deal-breaker for you. There's no humour involved, except for that which you bring yourself, and learning the core rules takes about 10 minutes for anyone with experience of other similar systems.

Personally, I've had a lot of fun with this in both the core setting and cobbled together with a more heroic setting and plot. It works really well as a sandbox, and has great rules for large-scale interactions between entire planets as well. The one warning I will give is this: getting to space in the core setting is quite difficult, and takes a while.

Main Advantages

It's a fairly simple system that lets you model most sci-fi archetypes, due to the way the skill system works. The sandbox-style world creation also makes it easy to create adventure hooks and the systems for generating planet-spanning factions and their conflicts at a suitable level of abstraction are quick to learn and use.

Main Disadvantages

Space travel is expensive and not viable for large volumes of good, and a large space fleet consists of dozens of small ships and a handful of slightly larger ones, rather than hundreds or thousands of vessels. There are also not that many aliens in the core setting, so you'd have to create your own. The high lethality at low levels is not for everyone, and there aren't any guidelines for monster strengths (it's more like TSR-D&D than WotC-D&D in that respect).

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When I came to write SWN up as an answer, the asker had already rejected it in a now-deleted comment. Glad someone persisted in answering! – gomad May 10 '14 at 5:19
@gomad Indeed, it doesn't seem to meet all my points, but, hey, who am I kidding, I know it's very unlikely that any game currently out there would. I've downloaded the free copy, and will try and look into it asap, evaluate it. I highly appreciate Daekyras' effort in writing an answer up, anyway, so def +1. – OpaCitiZen May 10 '14 at 7:24

Traveller is the only one I'm familiar with that fits your requirements.

  • It's moderate hard SF. There are jump drives, psionics and a few weapons and propulsion systems based on future tech, but it's all pretty limited, and older tech is very common. How exactly you handle this is largely a matter of taste. It's certainly tweakable.

  • Modern? Well, there are modern editions. I'm not personally familiar with the 5th edition, and I'm personally more of a fan of the classic setting as described in the first edition and GURPS Traveller, but your taste may vary. Mongoose Traveller is based on Classic Traveller, but is updated and very recent, so that might be your best bet. And if you're going to make your own setting out of it, the exact setting an edition is tied to won't matter to you. And Traveller has always been a great toolbox to build and tweak your own game.

  • Not too rules light? Well, each shot is a roll, so you don't have a single roll for the entire combat.

  • Not too rules heavy? Certainly not. It's traditional, but its roots go back far enough that it hasn't become weighed down with tons of extra stuff. Although this could of course vary per edition. I'm not familiar with all the differences: I've played only Classic Traveller and Megatraveller, which are fairly basic (though character creation is a game in itself); and GURPS Traveller, which is GURPS, so quite heavy.

  • Not d20 based? Well, that rules out T20, but all the other versions are still valid.

  • Not required to read tons of setting. It's a fairly generic setting with an unbelievable amount of background material that can be safely ignored or included later. There's loads of open space in the official universe where you can define your own subsector, and there's no reason to feel restricted by the official universe.

  • Not based on a TV show (though I wish there was a TV show based on it). It is by far the oldest and most classic SF RPG in existence, though.

  • Not fan-made, though I believe the latest edition is Kickstarter-funded.

  • Not very post-human at all. Do robots even exist? If they do, they're rare. There are of course all sorts of aliens (some of them genetically engineered to intelligence in a distant past).

  • It's not Gumshoe, and the system is fairly easy. That is, Classic Traveller and Megatraveller are fairly easy. GURPS Traveller is GURPS, so that's pretty crunchy. I'm not sure about other editions, as I haven't played them. 5th is said to be pretty crunchy, whereas Mongoose Traveller is based on Classic Traveller, so it's probably fairly light.

  • Quality artwork and layout? That varies a lot across editions, and depends a lot on taste (I quite like the artwork in GURPS Traveller, for example, despite it being black & white). I'm not sure about the 5th edition, but @okeefe said it's not very good. There is, however, some very cool fan-made artwork out there.

  • Not retro? Depends on what you mean by retro. Next to plasma and laser weapons, it also has firearms and cutlasses. Modern computer tech (and particularly AI) is lacking or very much in the background in all editions I'm familiar with. Though most of these retro aspects still make a lot of sense in the setting. The fact that travel is slow and there's no FTL communication other than by ship, creates a very realistic excuse for each planet being fairly isolated.

  • Not science-fantasy. Well, there's psionics, but they're rare and easily ignored if you don't want them.

I think artwork is really your only potential issue here.

My advice would be to check out Mongoose Traveller in particular. I haven't played it, but it's apparently based directly on Classic Traveller, which is still one of the most popular editions of Traveller.

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Can you discuss your personal play experience with traveller in this context? – Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 11 '14 at 7:47
+1 Traveller is an excellent answer to this question (though 5th edition traveller fails the "not too crunchy" requirement; Mongoose Traveller is a safer bet). – GMJoe May 12 '14 at 6:03
@GMJoe I didn't comment on Mongoose Traveller because I'm not familiar with it, but according to the site, it's "Based on the 'Classic Traveller' rules set, streamlined and updated for the 21st Century". CT is definitely not crunchy, and Mongoose Traveller is very recent. If it has good art, it looks like it hits all the notes. – mcv May 12 '14 at 11:51
@BrianBallsun-Stanton I could, but I'm not sure what more would be relevant to the answer. I suppose I could add what's true for which edition, and which ones I haven't played. My answer could be a bit too general considering the crazy number of editions Traveller has. – mcv May 12 '14 at 11:55
Incidentally, Traveller does have robots, but they're almost exclusively the kind that can only play chess, assemble cars, and/or vacuum your floor. The kind that debate philosophy and paint original artworks are usually only found in Ancient alien ruins, and even then they're pretty rare. – GMJoe May 13 '14 at 3:21

I don't have one solid answer, so here are some systems and their compromises.

  • Burning Empires, but possibly too crunchy and not necessarily quick to learn (all the players need to know the rules). It's based on a comic books series called Iron Empires and the Burning Wheel rpg system.
  • Diaspora, but it's Fate.
  • Microscope, which can play scifi but which isn't exclusively scifi. The players can decide what they want to include at the start of play. Playing generates a shared world and history.
  • Shock: Social Science Fiction and Human Contact, but not sufficiently simulationist and possibly too rules light.
  • Traveler, but lacks quality art and layout. (I'm talking about the recent Fifth Edition.)
  • Vast & Starlit, but it's extraordinarily lightweight—the core rules are fewer than 500 words, as is each of the three supplements.
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There are some interesting alternatives, compromises (as you said) in there. I'll try and take a look at these, check out in-depth reviews, and so on asap. Thank you. +1 – OpaCitiZen May 10 '14 at 7:28
@okeefe, remember our game rec guidelines. Please suggest systems you have personal experience with. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 11 '14 at 7:49

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