All This Space and Nothing To Do There

It really isn’t Chaosium’s fault that their Ringworld RPG didn’t last all that long. Shortly after its publication, the movie rights to Ringworld were picked up, and Larry Niven was obliged to pull the RPG licence because supposedly there was some sort of clash between the licences. Of course, given that the Ringworld movie has spent the past thirty years or so in development hell that’s a bit of a shame – and it surely isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility to work something out. (One suspects Niven’s agent just doesn’t consider it worth the hassle.)

As such, it’s become a major rarity, prized by gamers and fans of Niven’s Known Space setting alike. When Niven started the Man-Kzin Wars series, in which he set aside a particular span of time in his future history for other authors to play with in a shared-world fashion, he needed a writer’s bible for the setting – rather than writing one from scratch he just photocopied the RPG.

That right there cuts directly to one of the issues the game has: on the one hand, it’s very information-dense and provides stacks and stacks of details on Known Space. On the other hand, it presents this information in an extremely dry manner, and the more details I read the more convinced I am that this isn’t actually a setting that’s especially well-suited to RPG play.

On the dryness, that’s admittedly a risk of writing for Known Space – it’s a very hard SF-oriented series with lots of stories that exist purely to illustrate various physics thought experiments. (The Ringworld novel itself decidedly falls into this category.) Even so, Niven’s narration retains a certain wry sense of humour which is largely missing from the game, which is a huge shame. As to the suitability of the setting for gameplay, the problem with the Ringworld era of Known Space, which comes quite late in the timeline, is that it’s just a bit too buttoned-down and safe. (Indeed, Louis Wu in the original novel is burned out largely because of having nothing particularly exciting to do until the discovery of the Ringworld by the Puppeteers opens up a wide new frontier.) The sort of technologies available in the game and the safety features built into them – canonically unavoidable due to the Known Space stories including at least one yarn that’s specifically about those – feels sufficiently advanced as to be basically magic, at least as far as keeping people alive goes, and the society of Known Space has more or less reached a peaceful equilibrium.

In principle this shouldn’t be a problem – you have the Ringworld itself to be your vast frontier for exploration. Given the logistics of the Ringworld even providing a map would be a colossal undertaking, and Chaosium don’t even make the attempt. Unfortunately, we get so much detail here on the settled part of Known Space and so little on the Ringworld that the place ends up feeling as culturally bland as it is physically impressive: you have all this space and only a tiny number of associated cultures described, with the result that the situation on Ringworld feels static in its own way. If one part of the ring is much the same as any other part, then exploration becomes pointless because you’ll just unendingly see more of the same, and much of the potential of having such a vast setting is lost.

Really, it feels like a much more game-worthy era of Niven’s setting would be centuries earlier, when colonisation was ongoing, humanity and the Kzinti were getting into scraps, and ARM agents like Gil Hamilton were on the tail of organ bootleggers. That’s a universe which feels more dynamic, where it seems like there’s much more up for grabs.

Additional issues arrive with the game system, which has some rather startling gaps where it isn’t irksomely overdetailed. For a Basic Roleplaying game, this is one of the more over-fiddly and complex ones, perhaps a casualty of the studio’s fad for high-crunch that culminated in RuneQuest 3. The inclusion of rules for making Kzinti and Puppeteer PCs is welcome, but it feels like Traveller beat them to it – sure, Traveller‘s Aslan and Hivers are direct lifts from Niven, but Traveller drew so deeply on this style of science fiction that it feels like it already provided a better Known Space RPG than this official one. For one thing, Traveller actually has rules for space travel and ship-to-ship combat, which are completely lacking here.

In short, Ringworld is an RPG which is a bit of an oddity – fine if you want a dry encyclopedia of the setting, a chore if you want to make a game out of it. These days I suspect the core Traveller rules plus a decent Known World wiki could provide you a much better hard SF gaming experience.

3 thoughts on “All This Space and Nothing To Do There

  1. Alex B

    Just wanted to say I really enjoy this blog – and loving the more frequent updates of late. Really nice to get a modern viewpoint on these older games. So thanks for all the hard work!

  2. Pingback: The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now? – Refereeing and Reflection

  3. Pingback: A Chronological Exploration of Known Space, Part 2: 25th-32nd Centuries – Jumbled Thoughts of a Fake Geek Boy

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