Friday, August 24, 2012

GURPS Alpha Centauri: The Unity Incident

There’s a cardinal sin in reviewing about the gap between the product you hope for and the product you actually get. I try not to comment on that “ideal” product too directly, unless the publisher built up my expectations too highly in a particular direction. I know that I’m not the target audience for many games and products. I’ve read any number of games in recent years where I pictured something very different (and to my mind very interesting). But the actually product isn’t that- and doesn’t come close to what I imagined. Yet smart people like the items, find uses for the material, write glowing reviews, and give them awards. I can't fault that. Today, though, in this review, I’m going to verge into the imaginative landscape a little and consider "what-might-have-been."

Part of the problem is that Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri - SMAC (and its add-on Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire- SMAX) is my favorite video game: PC, console, handheld, arcade…it wins across the board. If I had to pick the three PC games which gave me the most sheer fun, it would be SMAC, followed at a distance by Unreal Tournament and Might & Magic VI. So to say I wanted a great deal out of this game supplement would be an understatement.

GURPS Alpha Centauri came out in 2002, towards the tail end of GURPS 3e’s lifespan. That’s three years after Alien Crossfire hit the shelves. Like many GURPS adaptations, it felt more like a labor of love than a viable product for licensing (see also GURPS Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, GURPS Myth, GURPS New Sun, GURPS Humanx). The book itself is a nice hardcover (unusual for sourcebooks like this) clocking in at 128 pages. The interiors are full-cover, with illustrations from from Firaxis’ game materials. Strangely, Steve Jackson seems not to have licensed any of the art assets from the Alien Crossfire expansion. The text and rules cover ideas introduced there (like the Cult of Planet and the warring aliens), but none of the iconic images of the leaders or advancements from that expansion appear. It’s a strange oversight. The book uses a dense three-column layout, with two-column box insets. It feels like a dry run for later text design in GURPS 4e. It ends up harder to read than it has to be- making working through the text something of a chore. The writing’s competent, a weird mixture of dry and slightly goofy (especially the adventure hooks). Author Jon Zeigler worked on a number of other sci-fi products for GURPS. Overall the book looks good- with that crisp and clinical precision of later GURPS materials. Some might uncharitably call it cold…

Adapting Alpha Centauri for a tabletop rpg requires some interesting designer decisions. For the few not aware, SMAC is a civilization building game- literally building off of the work of the Civilization series. It came out between Civilization II (from MicroProse) and Civilization III (from Firaxis). In the PC game, players choose one of several factions and guide their crashed-landed colony to expand, explore, and conquer the alien world of Planet (aka Chiron). Beginning with one city and a couple of units, you must grow your population, wealth, military, and technology over the course of years, decades, and centuries. That means two major span axis vastly different from the focus of traditional tabletop rpgs: multiple abstract units and cities spread across a vast world (space) and the passing of generations (time). Unlike many other video games adapted over to pen & paper, there’s not “protagonist” in a conventional sense. Perhaps the closest to this might be something like the adaptation of the RTS Starcraft. True, in the PC game, the players take on the role of factions with distinct leaders- but those feel like icons rather than roles you inhabit.

So how do you make that work here? The designer takes a fairly conventional approach, providing a simple setting sourcebook for Planet. That allows freedom for the GM to do what they want with it. At the same time, it doesn’t deal particularly well with the question of time. The book has to cover the hypothetical history of a world- a world which might have evolved in many different ways. So he has to present things as happening in the abstract without tying them to specific factions or persons. I think that makes the material harder to get a handle on and actively rejects a narrative. But that also rejects some of the basic form of the original source game. There’s material here on using play and the world builder tools to create a campaign, but why isn’t that front and center? Shouldn’t that toolkit be the most important aspect. Instead that’s an add on and the focus remains on the traditional tabletop approach- individual characters and PCs. Which leads to another question, especially given the separation the PC game suggests between the factions. How do you create a diverse game? How do players contact and interact with the other factions?

After a brief prologue, the book breaks into six major sections, plus appendices. The brief prologue and set up does a nice job of outlining the set up- and providing the most concrete information for the history. A little more set up about the structure of the book and campaign formats would have been useful here.

Planet (7-22): This covers all of the technical details of the planet gravity, atmosphere, terrain. There’s a lot of sidebar information. Some of the most colorful elements of SMAC like the landmarks get only a brief discussion. About six pages cover the local life forms and their dangers. Some of these are vast and overwhelming- more on a military than personal scale. Three pages cover the Progenitors, the warring aliens from SMAX. The omission of art depicting them stands out here.

Factions (23-54): Each of the fourteen factions gets a three+ page write up here. That includes beliefs, relations, strengths/weakness and lifestyle. Sidebars give just a little (very little) on characters from that faction and a single, brief adventure seed. The seeds oddly vary between aiming at characters of that faction and having players interact with that faction. There’s a character write-up with stats and history for the leaders of each faction as well.

The Road to Transcendence (55-83): This section attempts to translate the Tech Trees of SMAC into a loose timeline. The goal is to allow the GM to emulate a particular period in Planet’s history. Each era has a tech level (TL) associated with it and discussion of the advances of that period. These break into four areas: Exploration, Discovery, Building, and Conquest. The discussion expands a little on the material from the SMAC game itself. It thankfully doesn’t bog down too much into crunchy numbers and points. I like the loose discussion here. There’s room for GMs to add these new advances and play out how they impact the campaign colony. Sidebars in this section also cover the Secret Projects of the campaign- wonders and unique advances. Some of these represent significant milestones in the history of the planet.

Colonists (84-95): This gets to some of the crunch of running an actual campaign in this setting. At this book, the book hasn’t really talked about what that would look like. Still it presents a series of character types, with suggested buys. I’m a little surprised that we don’t get character build packages- something GURPS had begun to do with other parallel supplements. There’s a discussion of other character build options: advantages, disads, skills, psionics, racial templates, and wealth/status. It is pretty by the book.

Hardware (96-114): For those players who want crunch, equipment, gear and vehicles, this covers everything. It has to take in many different tech levels, but does a decent job of that. In some ways SMAC offers a fairly conventional sci-fi milieu, so there isn’t too much unique or outstanding.

Campaigns (115-119): This all too brief section discusses using the world editor to create the planet. It touches lightly on the problems of a multiple faction campaign. One page+ actually comments on campaign types: Military, Probe Team, and Secret Project. These are pretty conventional, as are the three adventure seeds offered. Half a page considers cross-overs with other GURPS sci-fi books like Bio-Tech, Space, Vehicles, and Transhuman Space.

Appendices and Index (120-128): Appendix A offers guidelines for better adapting the SMAC technology to the tech rules of other GURPS products like Ultra-Tech. Appendix B goes over direct conversion of SMAC details to GURPS terms. So if you had a vehicle with X parameters and Y special abilities, how would it look in GURPS. I have to admire the work that went into coming up with that, but at the same time it is well beyond the level and kind of detail I want from a supplement. GM’s who enjoy that kind of number crunching will like this.

So what kind of a game does this supplement net you? It assumes a pretty straightforward space colony game taking place in a slice of time. So Planet becomes a standard backdrop- like the world of Blue Planet, for example. And yes- you could run that campaign, but what does that gain you? How much of the flavor of Alpha Centauri is lost in that version? I You need to think bigger.

I hope you’ll indulge me- here’s where I go a bit off the rails with my review.

1) IMMORTALS: Alpha Centauri allows you to see the sweep of history as you play. Things change and evolve over time- the political situation, the environment, the status of your rivals. Campaigns focusing on a single slice of time miss out on that and lose something important to the SMAC experience. We want a saga which is generational, which traces the world from beginning to end. I want the epic feel of something like Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

In this campaign framework, the PCs all begin with the early days of the colony. When the Unity crashes, they are there. They can come from the same or diverse factions. The key point is that something happens to them to create a certain kind of immortality- a staggered one. They carry out their role and adventure with the colony and then we jump forward X years or decades to another crisis point in the history of the colony (or world). Things will change in between eras, factions will rise and decline, the planet itself will change. Because they’re outside of the changes, they may bring a unique perspective.

What kinds of devices could you use to do this? Involuntary time travel’s an obvious one- perhaps linked to an alien artifact with a purpose. Perhaps the PCs are “brain-taped” at a point in time and downloaded into new bodies when they’re needed. Maybe they become a genetic consciousness reawakening in their descendants. Suspended animation? Robots? Hard-light holograms? You don’t even necessarily have to have all the players operating under the same system. The PCs pop back in when a turning point has been reached. They have to orient themselves and then find a way to help. Ideally you’d find a fix or deus ex machina for catching them up on tech and the like. They could develop a set of legends around themselves. Maybe they’re like gods (ala Lord of Light).

If you want even more control, you could use the PC game to figure out changes in between eras. Or you could use Microscope to have the players involved in the evolution of the colony.

2) I, COLONY: Another, more radical approach increases the scale and scope. Several existing games have rules for running groups or organizations. I put together a lost of those earlier: HomeIs Where The Sword Is: Communities and Groups in RPGs. Perhaps the players could collectively run the colony in an abstract way. Or they could each run colonies competing for resources. You could use a matrix argument system to resolve this kind of interaction. It might work really well as a PbF game- I can imagine building a set of tools for doing this using something like Amber Diceless, Reign, or FATE.

So who is GURPS Alpha Centauri best for? GURPS players with a sci-fi bent will likely find something useful here. It offers a solid example of world-building, but I don’t think it brings anything really new to the table rules-wise. General GURPS players and GMs looking for resources may want to hunt elsewhere. Sci-fi rpgers using other systems will likely be able to adapt most of this material pretty easily. The GURPS terms don’t get in the way. Fans of the Alpha Centauri PC game will find a cool and expanded material here- but they may end up wanting more narrative and background and less game mechanics. The book ends up in a kind of middle place- trying to appeal lightly to all of those audiences. It could good further in any of those directions- but at the risk of alienating another. The chosen approach- all times and all places without a campaign echoing that- means the product has to breeze through everything. There's no solid and compelling narrative thread for play. That the book skimps on campaign creation may speak to how the publisher viewed this- as a fan book rather than a viable setting.

I still like it- and it does make me seriously consider how I would run an Alpha Centauri campaign. It would definitely have to be more rule-light, perhaps using Diaspora. GURPS Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri would be an awesome resource for that, though one which leaves me wanting more.