Tabletop RPG Review: 2300AD

2300AD cover

I’m a big Science Fiction fan.  It’s my preferred genre of film, book, video game, comic, and tabletop RPG.  So, it’s kind of weird that in all my years of tabletop RPG playing (I started in the late 80s), I’ve never played Traveller.  I was always aware of it, but never tried it.  I was also aware of GDW’s other big Science Fiction game, 2300AD (and of course, their Cold War turned hot game Twilight 2000).  As an outsider, I never knew what connections or lack of connections there were, but I was interested.  At some point, I think I was acquiring a game collection from someone, I ended up with a copy of 2300AD and some supplements.  Years later, I found another bundle of material very cheap and added it to the lot.  I figured, I should probably try actually reading the books sometime, so here I am.

It turns out that 2300AD is a sort of sequel game to Twilight 2000, but at least in this edition (things get complicated with these GDW games, between originals, new editions, company changes, etc.), it has nothing to do with Traveller.  OK.  Fine.  What does that mean?  The general premise is that things took a really bad turn in the late 20th century.  World War III happened and the world order was shaken up.  Though some nukes were dropped, it didn’t end up as the feared nuclear annihilation we were all afraid of when the setting was created in the 80s.  From those dark days, humanity built itself back up (though not together) and reached for the stars.  New global powers, dominated by the French, the Chinese, and some other factions stretched humanity out and created colonies on newly discovered worlds.  Conflicts between the groups still raged on Earth and occasionally in space, though the more distant folks got from their Earthly roots, the less tied to old world hatreds they became.  And then they met sentient aliens.

The world of 2300AD is now a sort of ‘retro-future,’ like what Space 1889 was designed to be and Cyberpunk 2020 has become.  It imagines a different timeline that carries humanity to the stars for reasons and in ways that might seem off to us now, 30+ years later.  Yet, details aside, it is an essentially realistic or “hard” science fiction setting.  There are a few hand-wavy bits of technology, like the stutter-warp ships that get you places faster than light.  There are aliens, which are one of this game’s strong suits.  The aliens are unique, alien, well designed, well thought out, and plausible.  As a retro-future game, you have to be able to accept that things went down a different path.  Cellphones and the internet didn’t happen in the same way in this universe.  Humanity took a different path.

I ran into an odd problem while reading through this game.  There are some games where I read them and I’ve immediately got a thousand story ideas and character concepts.  There are some games I want to run right out, grab a handful of friends and run without delay.  There are some games I can’t wrap my head around at all.  And there are some I feel like I’d need to play once or twice to get it right in my head, before being able to run it myself.  With 2300AD, the more I read, the more I came to the opinion that this is a game I should not run.  I think I’d enjoy the heck out of playing it, but I don’t think the setting or the mechanics would fit with my style of GMing.  It’s an odd thing to say or think.  I like the game’s setting.  I think I could run a semi-near future science fiction game.  Something about this one, however, makes me think I’m not right for it, and I can’t say exactly why.  Yet, I still find myself wanting to make a character and get to exploring.

Another problem I see with the game is the mechanics.  They seem a bit too detailed on some things and a bit vague on others.  My goodness, I mean your eyesight and hearing occupy important places on your character sheet…a character sheet which is not set up in an intuitive way.  I’d want to actually play for a few sessions before I could speak to how well the rules actually work, but reading them, I wasn’t super impressed.  A lot of games from the 80s tended to lean too heavy on the crunch, maybe favoring the wargame/miniatures game origins of the hobby over the storytelling/character building side of things.  There’s a lot about gear, vehicles, ships (though much of the ship stuff is contained in a separate boxed set) and such.

I find this game fascinating, yet frustrating.  I have no idea if any of my issues were addressed by the most recent edition put out by Mongoose.  I know they achieved some success with their edition of Traveller.  As it stands, this is a game I would like to find a GM for, but I’m not sure that’s realistic.  There seems to be very little interest in the game these days.  Traveller is still the dominant ‘hard’ Science Fiction game.  So, 2300AD may remain interesting and somewhat inspirational reading material.  

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