XXVc RPG Cover

XXVc RPG Cover

In the latter half of the 1980s through its sale to Wizards of the Coast in 1997, TSR was run by Lorraine Williams. This is viewed by most games as a “dark age” for TSR and I can’t really dispute the allegation. Adventurers were made that allowed PCs to watch the stars from various novels perform heroic actions. Page margins expanded to a rather impressive size, filling up an absurdly high portion of pages with “whitespace”. There’s several tales on the internet that Lorraine Williams did not at all care for gamers, an odd attitude to have for someone running the company that created Dungeons & Dragons.

Lorraine Williams is the granddaughter of Flint Dille, the man who had been responsible for the Buck Rogers comic strip being syndicated in newspapers an it is the Dille Family Trust that has the rights to Buck Rogers. Contrary to what many believe, Flint Dille was not the creator of Buck Rogers (though I don’t believe he ever made that claim) – he worked with Phillip Francis Nowlan, author of the proto-Buck Rogers works Armageddon 2149 and the Warlords of Han, starring Anthony Rogers (changed to Buck in the comic strip per Flint Dille’s desire for a more marketable name).

I’ve been reading IDW’s reprints of the comic strip over the past week or two. It’s a fascinating look at the future from the perspective of 1920s and 30s America – and also an interesting look at newspaper comics, the standard medium for comics prior to the emergence of superheroes in the late 1930s. Of course the casual racism of the era is also evident, reflected in the “Yellow Peril” influenced Mongol overlords of Earth.

In the late 80s TSR began publishing products for Buck Rogers under the XXVc beginning with a boardgame and series of novels. This was followed in 1990 by the release of the XXVc roleplaying game. (Note to self – do not do a google image search for “xxxvc” without adding the word “rpg”.) I imagine there were strong economic reasons for a member of the Dille Family Trust to want her company to make games and books based off of Buck Rogers.

Whatever the reasons for its genesis, the  XXVc RPG is an interesting entity. Its primary designer is Mike Pondsmith, best known for his work at R. Talsorian Games (Mekton, Cyberpunk 2013/2020/203x, Castle Falkenstein). Its rules engine is a remaking of the then-current Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition rules for science fiction. While Gamma World’s first and second editions had some similarity to D&D, I believe this was the first time most of the concepts from the AD&D rules were ported. The 4th edition of Gamma World later followed a similar strategy of AD&D rules reuse and this became far more commonplace with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition.

To be honest, the rules are a somewhat clumsy fit for a science fiction game. Skills are very important in this setting but AD&D’s nonweapon proficiencies are not really up to task of realizing this. But the setting shines. It is an unusual mix of hard science fiction and space opera. It also shares quite a bit of feel with the Firefly universe, though I doubt it was an actual inspiration. All the action in the setting takes place in the solar system. There is no faster-than-light drive, rocketships cross the solar system at speeds that make interplanetary travel take place in the order of days as opposed to months or years. Planets have been terraformed as best they can be. Mercury has underground cities and mobile track cities, always staying ahead of the dayside of Mercury. Venus has cities atop plateaus. Earth is a war-ravaged planet, with civilization ranging from advanced arcologies to primitives in the blasted ruins. Terraformed Mars is the most “civilized” of the planets. It gained independence from Earth and has since brutally exploited it. It is ruled by RAM, Russo-American Mercantile, an alliance of Soviet Russia and the United States (recall the setting was developed in the late 1980s), an eerie preview of the Alliance of Firefly, made up of a unification between Communist China and the United States.

Freedom fighters from Earth, the New Earth Organization (NEO), try to regain Earth’s independence. Genetically engineered beings, “Gennies”, have been created to dwell in the more inhospitable parts of the solar system, from the Desert Runners of Mars to beings designed to exist in the outer solar system. The setting has room for idealistic freedom fighters, mercenaries, smugglers, etc. – an excellent setting for campaigns.

It’s my impression that the game never really caught on. You can find a few fan sites for it on the web, but Star Frontiers, which preceded it, is more popular to this day. I’ve never managed more than the occasional one-shot out of it. That said, I have mined it for ideas. The Desert Runners and terraformed Mars became the inspiration for the planet Ares and its native Aresians in several of my Star Wars games. I’ve raided adventure ideas and settings for a Serenity RPG. I very strongly doubt there will ever be another incarnation of this game (indeed, TSR abandoned it and tried a second Buck Rogers RPG of which I’ve never read). But Buck Rogers itself is one of those properties which gets reborn from time to time. It is possible that somewhere along the line some incarnation of Buck Rogers will again appear in an RPG.

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