Genesis of the River of Heaven

In support of the OpenQuest Bundle of Holding that is currently running until Tuesday 4th April, here’s the second of a series of posts about how our D100 Sci-fi game, River of Heaven (which is included with its supplements in the bundle) came about.

Jon Hodgson's River of Heaven cover

Jon Hodgson’s River of Heaven cover

Science Fiction was a big part of my upbringing as a young gamier in the 80s and in some ways a more accessible and immediate part than Fantasy. It’s easy to forget that it’s only been recent that we’ve had a bounty of Fantasy films and TV series.  In the 80s that sort of stuff was books and roleplaying games. Sci-fi had already hit the mainstream in terms of TV and Film, and as well as a solid base of literature to dip into, TV programmes such as Dr Who, Blakes 7, Space 99 as well as comics such as 2000AD and Starblazer were readily available and eagerly consumed on a weekly basis.

It was also really strange that my early gaming habits didn’t feature sci-fi at all.  I found Traveller too dry for my tastes and FASA’s Star Trek game to fiddly. The only one that got any time at my table was Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd Roleplaying game, due to my group’s shared love of this character from 2000AD, which was intensely played for six months to the point it we were burnt out on it.  When I got into Call of Cthulhu in the late 80s, Chaosium’s Ringworld game briefly crossed my radar via adverts in White Dwarf buy I certainly didn’t see sight nor sound of it in our local Games Workshop.

And so this pattern was repeated throughout the 90s and 00s. Traveller remained too dry for me and other sci-fi games were either too obscure or fiddly to catch my attention. I dallied with West End Games’ Star Wars, but it wasn’t anything too serious. Besides by this time I had a serious Gloranthan RuneQuest habit that I spent most of my time feeding.

In the early 2000s one of the players in a Delta Green game I was part of introduced me to Cthulhu Rising by John Ossoway, which was a fan made Cthulhu meets Aliens/Bladerunner that was published by Chaosium as part of their monograph range. It was a pitch perfect serious but accessible sci-fi setting. I already loved the system from my RQ love affair and to walk around the mean streets of the not too far future that was depicted in Cthulhu Rising rang all my bells too. Unfortunately we only played a couple of sessions but it stuck in my memory and I put it down as one to explore – once I had run that final epic RQ campaign that I was planning .

I’d almost forgotten about Cthulhu Rising when in 2005 I actually met John at the first Furnace convention in Sheffield and learnt that like me he was from Manchester and actually worked just down the road. So we arranged to meet up once a week and a series of chats both personal and about our gaming were had. One of the things John raised early on was did I think Cthulhu Rising could use the Mongoose RuneQuest SRD to become a standalone game? Yes I did, for I had just finished writing the first draft of OpenQuest. So more lunchtime chats and then John came to me with a new idea.

By this point he was pretty burnt out with Cthulhu Rising, which had already taken up up 5+ years of his gaming life, and he wanted to put out a less dark more hard sci-fi game and would I be interested in publishing it. So I asked him give me an elevator pitch of what the game was and why I should play it. So he quickly described River of Heaven a Pre-Singularity/Pre-Transhuman setting, where the drama came from the fact that the human society was near those tipping points, and while it was enjoying a Golden Age of Space Exploration, The Bright Age as it’s called in the timeline, there we forces at the edges looking to make things look a lot less happy. The setting while firmly human centric had in the past had the touch of enigmatic alien races which had left traces.

John wanted to use  OpenQuest  as a rules set because its flexibility and we were both keen to make it so players familiar with OQ can move straight to River of Heaven and easily get the rules concepts. For example the Augmentations, biological and nanotech based enhancements that all characters have, are based off Battle Magic rules at their heart and John used the Ready Made Concepts system of OpenQuest (which is pretty much an optional system there) to outline the iconic professions of the River of Heaven setting.   Don’t just think though that River of Heaven is a Sci-Fi version of OpenQuest (that’s not what I wanted). John wrote big chapters on Transport/Equipment and Setting to make RoH its own thing.

Talking of the Setting we decided early on to paint River of Heaven’s default setting in broad strokes. We had tired of settings that detailed every last interesting detail, leaving no space for the GM to create their own ideas. We had the fact that Space is big on our side and because setting doesn’t have Faster than Light drives then we only have to detail a system at a Time. The core rule book only details (with scenario seeds) the Sol system and nearby Alpha Centauri system (or the Kenturan Hegemony as it’s called ).  Sol is a mess of old National Powers fighting over the planets, since an ecologically damaged Earth is no longer viable. The Kenturan Hegemony is ruled by a Byzantine like culture, which is made of noble Houses who struggle for dominance. The two systems share some of the same organisations, such as the Space Pilot’s Guild, so there’s a natural connection between the two systems.

John put a lot of effort into a core rule book which was at the time of its release the biggest project we had undertaken. So finally it was decided to do a Kickstarter to pay for the iconic colour art of Peter Frain, and the full colour layouts that John (who is a graphic designer by trade). As an unexpected bonus, my friend Keef, an electronic musician, who was initially asked to do a ‘theme’ tune for the Kickstarter video got carried away and wrote a whole soundtrack for the game, about 100 minutes of music which is available via bandcamp.

Overall while it’s been a huge undertaking, it took about eight years of solid development, I find River of Heaven highly satisfying and coming full circle meets what I want out of a Sci-Fi game.

Curious to see if River of Heaven meets your expectations of what a Sci-Fi Roleplaying game should be? Then  check out River of Heaven in the Bundle of Holding.

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Games Designer, Publisher, Web Developer, Dad.

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