Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Silicon and Solitude
by Shane D. Rhinewald

Expedition of the Arcturus
by JZ Murdock

Nude Bargain
by Olga Godim

Dirtsiders on Cinnabar
by Patrick Lundrigan

by Tom Tinney

History of Humanity’s First Alien Contact in the Year 2023
by Eric M. Jones

Space Cadets of the Apocalypse
by Dave Fragments

Illegal Alien
by Betsy Streeter

A Tangle of Brilliance
by Charles Barouch


Playing a Role in Science Fiction
by Clayton J. Callahan

Prof. Pickering’s Practical Plan
by The Editors




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Playing a Role in Science Fiction

By Clayton J. Callahan

FOR SOME SCIENCE FICTION fans it is not enough to read or watch good science fiction—they have to live it!

You and your friends, are completely cut off from your starship and its powerful weapons. It’s dark on this world, but you think you see a small light piercing through the swamp. It could be that the aliens have discovered your escape and are coming for you? If so, you probably don’t have enough firepower to fight them off again.

Joe checks his laser pistol. “Only three charges left,” he reports.

You nod to him. That last shootout cost your little group dearly. Marty is still limping from a hit to his leg. Sahara did her best, first aid for his wounds, but he’ll need a doctor’s skill to fully recover.

You take another look at your scanner. There are so many life signs in the swamp that it’s hard to tell if any aliens are near, but you think you pick up something substantial near the source of that light. It’s a life form with characteristics of a sentient creature, but that’s all you can tell.

Only one alien, I think. If they are hunting for us, I would figure they would send more,” You tell your comrades.

Maybe it’s not an alien? Maybe that old star-pilot we met at the bar has come looking for us?” Sahara suggests.

That sure would be a relief, but can you be certain? The whole party is looking at you. Your character is the captain. What do you do?

Your friend Allen, repeats, “What are you going to do, man?”

You look around. Marty is sipping his soda, Joe is re-reading the rulebook’s weapons chapter, while Sahara just stares at you. Running up to the mysterious light sounds like a bad idea. Maybe you should try to send out some kind of signal?

“Does anybody have a flashlight?” You ask.

Marty and Sahara pick up the papers they each have in front of them. They look at their character’s equipment lists and both shake their heads. Crap! You check your character’s sheet too ... nothing.

Joe looks up at you. “I could set the power of my laser pistol to low? We could maybe use its light beam to make a signal?”

Allen asks, “Can you do that with a Mark Two laser pistol?”

“You’re the GM. You tell me?” Joe replies.

Allen checks the rulebook and nods his head.

You tell Joe to go ahead and try it. Joe takes out a pair of dice and rolls an eight. He checks his character sheet and adds in his Weapons Skill, which is six. “I made it!”

Allen checks the rulebook. “Yes, you did.” The laser is now sending a beam of light across the gloom that can be seen by whoever is behind that distant light. You hear the old star-pilot’s voice, “Is that you, Captain Valance?”

And the game goes on ...

What kind of game is this? It’s a science fiction role-playing game and it’s popular with science fiction fans around the world. Still, it’s a part of fan culture many have never heard of. So, before you walk in on a game in progress and wonder what’s in the drinks, you might want to get the lowdown on the lunar landscape. From the hobby’s origins, to how the games are played and marketed, here is everything you need to know to be cool in circles of gaming geekdom. I’ve been playing these games since Ronald Reagan was president and I now write and publish them for “Quick And Easy Games.” It has been quite a trip, so let me draw a map for you.

Role-playing games have been a part of science fiction fandom since 1977 when Mark Miller first published “Traveler.” The game was to science fiction fans what “Dungeons & Dragons” was to fantasy devotees. “Traveler” allowed players to imagine themselves to be space adventurers in a rough and wild star imperium that spanned the galaxy. The game was very popular though the 1980s, but soon it had competition.

Based on the same role-playing idea, but in different settings, new games broadened the popularity of the hobby. “Gamma World,” originally designed by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet, first published by TSR, was aimed at fans of post-apocalyptic science fiction and was popular when the Mad Max movies came out. Other games like “Shadowrun,” originally published by FASA Corporation in 1989, took place in a cyberpunk tomorrow. Few of these games could directly benefit frostar runm the big franchises like “Star Wars.” The fledgling hobby industry couldn’t possibly afford the licensing. This encouraged a lot of creativity and gave the science fiction fan plenty of space to explore.

In 1999, a game company called Wizards of the Coast, the Renton, WA, publishers of the “Pokémon Trading Card” game, did some market research. It estimated that up to two million people take part in role-playing games on a monthly basis. The hobby has also gained a lot of clout since the ’80s. Now, every major science fiction franchise, from “Star Trek” to “Firefly,” has its own dedicated RPG rulebook. So how are these games played?

Unlike video games, traditional RPGs are uniquely social gatherings. Friends enjoy each other’s company while exploring certain what-ifs over beer and pizza. In a good RPG, you can pilot a star-fighter, or mix it up with space pirates in a bar on Orion-3, while spending time in the company of like-minded science fiction fans.

The concept of an RPG is similar to improvisational theater, where actors make up their own script as they go along. Games usually involve a group of three to five people. One player takes on the role of “Game Master,” or GM for short. A pompous sounding title to be sure, but the GM brings a lot to the game. The other players are “the party” and they play the heroes of the story. The job of the party is to resolve the plot that the GM lays before them. Often this is a mystery to be solved or a foe that must be defeated. The game can then be seen as a kind of problem solving exercise with elements of play-acting.

Of course, people have been known to do this sort of thing for centuries. I can clearly remember a history teacher asking me, “Clayton, if you lived in Nazi Germany, what would you do?” The class talked about the options German citizens faced and it was a pretty good class discussion, but it wasn’t a game.

To begin with, to play a game, there must be rules. There is a whole industry that exists to create and sell rules for science fiction RPGs. Each game tries to appeal to a different type of science fiction fan in terms of complexity and style. All of them however, have a common core that defines them as RPGs.

The games have rulebooks to guide play. Each player in the party is given a form called a character sheet to fill out. When finished, the character sheet describes what his character can and can’t do. In the example above, Sahara’s character was able to help Marty because she had “first aid skill” written on her sheet. When Marty was shot, we can assume she rolled the dice to see if she could stabilize his wound, and she must have rolled high enough to succeed.

In most RPGs, a roll of the dice determines whether or not a character can apply one of their listed skills. “Rolling high enough to succeed” is also defined in every rulebook. For example, to hit a target with a blaster one must roll. If you hit your target, you must roll again to see if you killed your enemy or just ticked him off. As the game is played, players must not only think of ways to solve their character’s problems, they must be lucky with the dice as well. Of course, players try to stack the deck by creating characters with as many bonuses as possible. Just as naturally, the GM tries to confound the party by posing the toughest challenge he can think of.

The GM plays the part of all the minor characters and villains in the story. It’s common to walk past an RPG table and hear the GM speaking as a ship’s ensign or galactic overlord to one of the seated players. The player will often answer back as his or her character, using a voice fitting of a space captain or maybe a star mercenary. The more the GM encourages this kind of play the more fun people usually have, and that’s the beauty of an RPG—stepping out of yourself and into the game.

Since its inception, this hobby has grown in several directions. Some people feel too confined sitting at a table and have created Live Action Role-Playing games, also known as LARPs. LARPing involves the same concepts as above. However, instead of sitting at a table, the players get up and act out the parts. This often involves elaborate costumes and simple rules to keep the fantasy going. At the opposite end of the spectrum is on-line gaming. In on-line gaming, people play out their space fantasies from the privacy of their own home, with people across the country and around the world.

Traditional RPGs are still popular, however. Most colleges have RPG clubs that meet regularly in dormitories and student centers, killing storm-troopers to rescue politically active princesses. Game stores can be found in the phone book of every major city in the USA. Often these stores host games in their back rooms or hold regular RPG tournaments. And of course, this being a science fiction fan thing, there are conventions; huge gatherings of hundreds and sometimes thousands of role-players taking over some otherwise swank hotel for a weekend.

Personally, I prefer a small game with a few good friends. People who share my love of good science fiction make ideal gamers. We get together every so often to explore alien planets and fight evil on behalf of The Great Confederation of Mankind. It usually involves beer, soda and a big bowl of nachos. I honestly can’t imagine a better time with my clothes on. Give a science fiction RPG a try. infinity

Clayton J. Callahan is the author of “Star Run,” a science fiction role playing game set in a universe of comedy and adventure. He has also written “The Gamers Guide to the Military.” He blogs often at the Quick and Easy Games website.



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