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Was Firefly Inspired by a RPG?

Joss Whedon is an American producer, director, screenwriter, comic book writer, and composer. He's had a hand in bringing to life a wide variety of geek-friendly franchises, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Toy Story to the Avengers. But in gaming circles Whedon is known for one of his smaller television series, Firefly, because rumor has it he was influenced by a...

Joss Whedon is an American producer, director, screenwriter, comic book writer, and composer. He's had a hand in bringing to life a wide variety of geek-friendly franchises, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Toy Story to the Avengers. But in gaming circles Whedon is known for one of his smaller television series, Firefly, because rumor has it he was influenced by a tabletop role-playing game he played in college.

Pilots-Guide-to-the-Drexil (1).jpg

Firefly and Serenity

is an American space Western drama television series that ran for just one season in 2002, executive produced by Whedon. The series is set in the year 2517, after the arrival of humans in a new star system and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a "Firefly-class" spaceship. Firefly's blend of Western tropes in a sci-fi setting is noteworthy in how it differentiated the series from other sci-fi shows. The series did well enough to launch a 2005 film, Serenity, which continued the story of the series and wrapped up some of the storylines. Wikipedia described the inspiration for the show:
Whedon developed the concept for the show after reading The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara chronicling the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. He wanted to follow people who had fought on the losing side of a war, their experiences afterwards as pioneers and immigrants on the outskirts of civilization, much like the post-American Civil War era of Reconstruction and the American Old West.
But if rumors are true, that wasn't the only inspiration.

The Rumor

In an interview that is no longer online, Whedon allegedly stated that the Firefly universe was inspired by a campaign of a "major sci-fi RPG" -- a campaign he quit playing after college. But which game?

Much of the detective work in determining what game Whedon might have played is explicated on Scifi Stack Exchange, using Whedon's college years (1982-1986) as a reference point. It's also worth noting that Whedon was in the U.K. at the time, so the mystery game would likely be distributed worldwide.

The verdict? Traveller. Traveller was one of the few sci-fi games featuring projectile weapons (slugthrowers), ship creation rules, and a focus on the mercantile lifestyle. ak_aramis lists the similarities:
  • Tech level range
  • Lack of inexpensive energy weapons (Tho' the setting does have laser weapons)
  • nature of the intended adventures
  • travel times
  • engaging the long-distance drive in atmosphere is a bad idea
  • highly variable local goverment and law
  • locals expected to protect their own interests (see The Train Job)
  • unreasonably small bodies with breathable atmospheres. Down to a couple hundred KM
  • Size range of ships
  • nature of the carried cargos
  • Presence and nature of psionics. (River's about PSR12)
  • Many names in common. Over a dozen from Sup 3... plus several more from other sources. This is, however, the weakest of the lot evidentiarily.
  • The dynamics of the group are much like those of most RPG groups - there's little reason they should be so loyal to each other, but they are. Even, after a while, Jayne.
  • Shuttles lack interplanetary range
  • Many episodes are "patron" driven adventures.
Clave Jones sees more parallels:
  • Traveller features “slugthrowers” as weapons, as does Firefly.
  • Traveller has a mercantile focus, just like the Firefly verse does. In fact, the game itself is about living hand-to-mouth, trying to pay off debts by trading, smuggling, or whatever else it takes to survive.
  • Traveller has a big, bad government. Classic Traveller adventures often have PCs living outside the law to do good deeds in the end, and/or to make enough money to keep flying. The central government is often the enemy in those adventures.
  • The Firefly class is very much feature-for-feature comparable to the specifications for the Type R Subsidized Merchant in Traveller.
  • In the opening episode Wash shouts, “Hang on, Travellers!” during some sharp maneuvers.
  • Regina is a major world in both settings. Bellerophon is a water world in both settings. Ariel appears in both. Persephone is a low-population world in the Spinward Marches. In Traveller, it’s an Imperial Way Station, with a thin but breathable atmosphere, close to Earth size.
  • In War Games Wash reconfigured the launch controls on the shuttle in a manner eerily similar to an “in character” Traveller write up for space pilots. Meanwhile, Mal, Zoe, and Book all seem like textbook Traveller characters.
  • In 1984 the Traveller release A Pilots guide to the Drexilthar Subsector by J. Andrew Keith described “Reavers Deep” being laden with pirates.
There are several worlds in common too:
Regina is a major world in both settings. In CT, it's a subsector capital, and important trade center. Bellerophon is a water world in both settings; See CT Adventure 9: Nomads of the World Ocean. Ariel (Ley Sector, Ikhnaton subsector, hex 0103) is a significant world in the Judges' Guild produced Ley Sector - on a major route, but not actually core. Persephone is a low-population world in the Spinward Marches. In Traveller, it's an Imperial Way Station, with a thin but breathable atmosphere, close to earth size.
Finally, there's the ship itself, as per ak_aramis:
Of the possibles, the number of coincidences is high if it's not based upon Traveller - the Serenity can be seen as a variant of either the type A or type R. My money's on a Type R - especially with the forward opening cargo bay. A lot depends on just what the dimensions of the cargo bay are. I make her externals to be roughly a 400-600 ton ship... a type R with 2 launches and a 30'x60' x30' cargo bay puts her with the right amount of cargo. (The Serenity RPG, however, would put her with a much smaller bay - 30'x40'x30' - commensurate with a variant type A - but the Type A carries an air raft, not launches. Come to think of it, Serenity does carry both a small ATV (the mule) and an air-raft (in the movie).
For further evidence, we can look to the scripts themselves.

Traveler vs. Traveller

"Traveller" as a title is distinct from the American spelling of "traveler." It doesn't necessarily mean it's an endorsement of the RPG, but the phrasing and the spelling together seem like a curious coincidence. Wash shouts, "Hang on, Travellers!" during some sharp maneuvers while trying to evade the Dortmunder in the pilot. And from a leaked shooting script (Bushwacked, Act 1):
Zoe: Travellers pick 'em up cheap at government auction. A few modifications and they serve well enough for a one-way push to the outer planets.
Also from the pilot script:
We see a sparse but none-the-less inviting spread - Book and Kaylee have made a salad of tomatoes, and grilled up some root vegetables along with the pasta and protein/starch mush that is the usual diet of space travellers. To us, not much. To this crowd, a banquet.
And then there's the man himself.

What Does Whedon Have to Say About It?

Whedon's geek cred is well-known, but he has surprisingly little to say about gaming in general. In reference to a possible Firefly-themed massive multi-player online game, he said:
I always felt this universe absolutely lends itself to gaming, and the kind of really immersive multiplayer gaming where there are so many planets, so many agendas, and so many things to do besides shoot at things. I think it’s absolutely a perfect fit.
And of course, things have come full circle with a Serenity tabletop role-playing game.

Was Firefly inspired by Traveller? Until Whedon weighs in we may never know. If the setting was inspired by a tabletop role-playing game, Traveller seems like the most likely fit.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Kobold Enthusiast
After that many years, who knows how intentional it all was. Glad to see good ideas bubble back up in mass media.

Wasn't Firefly all in ~one system too? I thought it was a star complex.


Old story in the trav community, that Firefly is based off it; Whedon also did Alien Ressurrection that is a trav adventure. Though I also find a distinction between Whedon seeing the story from the context of The Killer Angels as disaffected losers that didn't think the side they were fighting for as wrong. What struck me about the book was that Longstreet saying to Lee, of how they had broken their oath, such maybe as had Lucifer, another "Killer Angel"; and the story of betrayal.

So before you claim any one system, how about at least giving a passing nod to all the other possible sci-fi RPGs that could have been an inspiration? From your list, Traveller does seem likely, but you've only presented one set of all positive coincidences. What doesn't match? What matches fromother systems like Star Frontiers? (which was published in 1982 and had a strong UK market but also had non-human races). How many other possibilities?


Community Supporter
The links to other articles all do much of that work to explain the other possibilities. Here's one of the articles I linked to: Is Joss Whedon's Firefly based on the Traveller RPG he played?
  • Major Sci-Fi games in print included: GDW's Traveller & 2300, Palladium's Mechanoids trillogy & Robotech, FASA's Star Trek, FGU's Starships and Spacemen and Space Opera, TSR's Star Frontiers, and ICE's SpaceMaster, and SPI's Universe.
  • If we eliminate the games without slugthrowers, we're left with Traveller, 2300, Universe, Mechanoids, and Robotech.
  • Universe was not in very wide circulation; SPI went bankrupt in 1982, and the Universe game was one of SPI's last RPG products. My experience is that SPI games didn't have much of an impact in the UK.
  • 2300 was later in the era - summer 1986 - he wouldn't have been playing it during his college career.
  • Mechanoids lacks ship rules, and is focused on active duty games. Plus, no big bad government. No Mercantile focus, either.
  • Robotech is very light on the slugthrowers, and lacks a mercantile focus.
  • 2300, Space Opera, and Traveller have world generation rules, but only Traveller and 2300 have system generation rules.
  • Space Opera has everything but the right weapons.
  • Also, Traveller and Star Frontiers were available worldwide by 1983... and Traveller was even produced in local editions for the UK.

aramis erak

It feels really weird seeing myself quoth such. (I'm ak_aramis.)

Yeah, the main difference is just that's it's all in one system, with no FTL travel.

Traveller has a system generator in Book 6 (1983 release), which was unusual. Not unique - Spacemaster had system gen, in the right timeframe. Also, the boxed set, Tarsus, was in 1983, and presents a single system in some detail; So also does Beltrike (1984). Beltstrike is even fully suitable as a campaign setting by itself. Most of the other space operatic games lacked system gen, and many lesser known ones, plus Star Frontiers, don't include even world gen.

Also note: it's possible to generate the 5 star cluster of the official 'Verse using Bk 6.

Mr. Tresca left out the most important bit: Mr. Whedon has stated that he stopped gaming after graduation. Which means the game had to be in print before 1986. Also, it likely needs to have been available in the UK, as that's where he did most of his college and gaming.

In no small irony, that now gone article is what got me interested enough in Firefly to watch it...

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