No Power in the Verse Can Stop Me - Thoughts on Firefly Gaming
Yes... Yes... This is a fertile land and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land and we will call it... This Land.- Wash, Firefly Episode 1: "Serenity"
With the Smallville RPG, the Cortex System evolved into Cortex Plus. Though the character sheets might look rather similar, the engine changed quite a bit to be a far more "narrative-based" RPG. For example, one of the most important aspects of a character in Smallville is his or her relationships with other characters. For example Clark Kent could use his rating in his relationship with Lex Luthor in his interactions with Lex or in other situations where that relationship could be helpful. While the Cortex System seemed somewhat similar to Savage Worlds Cortex Plus seems to be more a cousin to the Fate RPG.
So how does this relate to a Firefly game? To my mind there's two broad ways you could run such a game (I'm pretty sure one could rattle off a lot more as well as find hybrids of what I propose.) On one hand, you could run, for lack of a better term, a gearhead type of game. Careful tracking of the multiple stars, planets, and moons in the Verse, tracking money, fuel consumption, etc. This is the model one finds in countless Traveller games and I remember similar logic when using FASA's Trader Captains and Merchant Princes supplement for their Star Trek RPG. The appeal in such a simulation is as a player you can truly get a feeling of being in control of one's destiny, of making decisions which have a logical outcome. On the other hand, there are some players who find such a simulation as exciting as a tax return.
The other side of the coin is to try to simulate the drama of the television show. Serenity is short on funds because it is interesting to be so. Simon can persevere against incredible odds not primarily due to skill but out of the love he has for his sister, River. From reading the pre-release materials for the new Firefly RPG it is clear that this is the direction they have taken. Their previous Serenity RPG certainly had this in mind but the mechanics dud not fully embrace this the way the new Firefly RPG does. The trick I find with such games is to avoid a game where the players serve as actors in a story defined by the GM. The players really need to have the ability to drive the narrative themselves, to scatter the designs of the GM in all directions (Dan's GM-ing Secret Number 38 - I actually enjoy it when players in my games go massively away from what I've planned - it's a huge challenge to be sure, but awfully fun.)
What would I do with a Firefly game? Probably the first thing to decide would be if I wanted to run a Firefly-like game or a Firefly game. For example, one could very easily create a similar setting, perhaps more customized to one's individual tastes. The Diaspora RPG, using the Fate engine, excels at creating a setting for your group - a cluster of systems linked by jump routes. The group shares responsibility for defining the systems of the cluster. Despite being a very narrative game, it embraces fairly hard science fiction. One could also shamelessly borrow the cluster creation of Diaspora while going for a more space western feel of Firefly.
Going away from a narrative game, one could simply whip out Traveller and very easily construct a sector with a strong resemblance to the Verse in Firefly, whether in the Official Traveller Universe or in one's own setting. A sector recently brought under one government with some disagreement as to if that is a Good Thing.
Setting in the official Firefly Verse seems a pretty reasonable idea. One danger I do see with it is science fiction fans love to define things and Firefly, for a show that ran about half a season plus a Big Damn Movie, has had a lot of definition. For example, I love the various products that Quantum Mechanix have produced - maps of the Verse, blueprints of Serenity, etc. But if you're going for a more dramatic/narrative realization of the Verse it becomes important to not let those details limit you. Joss Whedon has freely admitted to science not being his strong suit and it shows in Firefly and the move Serenity. Until the movie Serenity it was unclear if the Verse was one system or several - and even when Serenity seemed to settle it as one (admittedly huge and scientifically impossible) system you still had the Operative making references to the galaxy.
I'd be pretty tempted to expand the setting with my own ideas - and invite my players' to make their own contributions. For example, why does the Alliance have such a huge navy? Just for Reavers and pirates? The answer can certainly be yes, but even that answer has its own implications. Is it possible there are other powers in the setting beyond the Alliance? Not all Westerns took place in the United States, with a fair number taking place in Mexico and there's often foreigners paying visits. I've often considered the possibility that there might be other star systems accessible by some sort of "jump gates" at the edge of the system. With the Verse being so huge doing so would in no way contradict what's been shown on the show and film. This need not contradict the slower-than-light exodus from Earth That Was - constructing jump gates might require construction at both sides of the gate and not be something that robots can do. Sure the Alliance got the best system, but there might be visitors from the Holy Russian Empire just waiting to pay a visit.
Also there's thing suggested in the show that never really had a chance to be fully developed. The opening scenes of the pilot episode "Serenity" suggested criminal tongs. One might get inspiration from the tong wars of San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the film Serenity we know the Alliance botched at least one social engineering project at Miranda, along with attempting to create human killing machines. Mal referred to River as a "reader", the existence of such a term suggesting her abilities might not be unique in the Verse. And might there be a moon settled by a gazillionaire who used dinosaur DNA to make his own little Jurassic Park. Perhaps he called it... This Land...