Review: SpaceQuest

Something else from the Box of Lost Games; a 112 page digest-size book from what Ken Pick and Jeffro refer to as the Burgess Shale period and nothing to do with the series of comedic computer games. It’s written by George Nyhen, who I never heard of again, and Paul Hume, who went on to work on Aftermath, Space Opera and Shadowrun, amongst other games. SpaceQuest disappeared almost without trace before 1980, but I fancy I can see strands of its DNA in Space Opera and – more recently – Stars Without Number.

This was a game that I played at college; a small group of us took it in turns to act as game master – that was a thing in the 1970s – and adventured with no thought of logic, plausibility or series continuity across the frontiers of the 20 Suns Combine for a year or two. Gradually, we adopted house rules and parts of Traveller and Star Probe until there was no actual SpaceQuest left, and the campaign faded away shortly afterwards. While it lasted, though, it was fantastic. Get any three of the players together and mention SpaceQuest, and you’re guaranteed a nostalgic smile and a “Do you remember the time when…”

From a content perspective, the rules are… strange. You have 30-sided dice, armour with variable damage reduction, a vastly complex system for generating alien star systems and the life-forms that live there, random encounters with all manner of spacegoing life-forms that want to eat you and your ship, spaceships built of modules which appear to be strung together in a long, thin line… it was insane, and it was glorious, and we loved it. The first volume was focused on space travel, and a second book was planned for surface adventures, but we waited for it in vain.

As far as format goes, like many other first-generation RPGs, SpaceQuest laughed in the face of logical sequencing and attractive layout. Before DTP software, text was typed on an actual typewriter, and cut and paste meant exactly what it sounds like, including glue and correction fluid, which you had to fight off dinosaurs to bring back to the room where you were doing the typing in your spare time after work or school, and by the time you got to page 108 and someone told you yesterday’s playtest session meant a change on page 7, you were very much inclined to leave it alone, or put in a contradictory footnote on page 109 when you got to it. If you remembered. Some of the artwork is pretty good for its time, though.

I’ve read that Traveller seized the ecological niche of the premier SF RPG because GDW was already an established game company when they published it; but speaking as one of the early adopters, the real edges it had over its competition were that the rules were neatly laid out, in a logical sequence, and legibly typeset.

So what was good about SpaceQuest? I’ll compare it to Traveller, because you’re more likely to have played that than Starships & Spacemen, which was the only other SF RPG readily available in 1977.

  • SpaceQuest had a setting, detailed enough to inspire, but not so detailed as to stifle. At that time, Traveller had no setting but what you made yourself.
  • It had illustrations of the characters, equipment, playable races and so on. That was a real help in visualising what was going on. Traveller didn’t go in for illustrations.
  • It had lots of SFnal equipment. Much of Traveller’s technology was stuff you could’ve bought off the shelf in 1977; in SpaceQuest you could have an energy sword, an antigravity skateboard, and a crossbow firing nuclear-tipped quarrels.
  • It had a 3-D starmap and multi-world star systems; Traveller had neither. That felt important at the time, even if those systems and worlds were a real pain in the posterior to generate.
  • It had alien races, both playable and otherwise. Back then, Traveller did not; you landed on a vaguely Earthlike planet full of, well, humans mostly. In SpaceQuest, you could be standing on the core of a gas giant in your grav-resisting powered armour, negotiating with a samurai squid with a plutonium-based metabolism carrying a sword made out of Ice V.
  • Cheesy as it was, there was a certain satisfaction in hiring a flock of zaps to protect the ship from voidsharks.

So, while Traveller felt gritty, realistic, and not too different from what was going on in the real world, SpaceQuest felt pulpy, cool, and full of bug-eyed monsters you could shoot with a wide range of exotic weaponry. Once Traveler grew a setting, playable alien races, and high-tech weapons, SpaceQuest’s lesser production values and availability meant it fell by the wayside.

Many early RPGs are now being reprinted or updated, but the odds of that happening to this little gem are remote; as I understand it, the authors would rather it wasn’t revived. Periodically I toy with the idea of resurrecting it; married with a contemporary rules engine such as Green Ronin’s AGE or Savage Worlds, I think there’s still a pretty good space opera setting in here. Not that I’m short of those.

Someday, maybe, Savage SpaceQuest? We’ll see. Perhaps when I retire.

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