A role-playing game published by TSR from 1988 to 1996. The game's title is shorthand for "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Role Playing Game" and was truncated for obvious reasons. Interpretations of the Buck Rogers universe have varied greatly over the decades since the character was invented, and the setting of XXVc has very little in common with the Buck Rogers TV series, books, films or comics.
The only definitive concept linking all Buck Rogers fiction is the character of Buck Rogers, a 20th century American fighter pilot who is cryogenically frozen by accident and is awakened five-hundred years later by an advanced, space-faring human civilization. XXVc derives no other concepts from prior Buck Rogers lore, other than a few supporting characters such as Buck's primary romantic interest, Wilma Deering.
The rules for XXVc are based on a slightly modified version of TSR's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) rules system. Because one system converts to the other fairly easily, SSI released two XXVc-based computer games as a sort of spin-off to their monolithic "Gold Box" series of AD&D games. Titled "Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday" and "Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed", the games started out on the Commodore 64 platform. A somewhat simplified version of Countdown to Doomsday was eventually released on the Sega Genesis/Megadrive. These titles have the distinction of being the only computer/console games to feature the character of Buck Rogers, other than an obscure and unpopular Sega shooter titled "Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom"
For most people, the mere mention of the name "Buck Rogers" is likely to convey images of "golden age" 1930s/40s-style sci-fi and Flash Gordon-esque camp. The Buck Rogers seen on television in the eighties or in comics during the Great Depression could scarcely be further from the sort of gritty, industrial post-apocalyptic dystopias conceived in late 80s/early 90s sci-fi.
As such, it may easily come as a surprise that XXVc is a grim, dismal universe clearly designed for nineties sensibilities. Central issues of the setting include unchecked corporate domination, ecological devastation and the potential of humans to play God through use of genetic engineering.
In the 25th century of XXVc, humanity has explored and colonized parts of the solar system but is not yet capable of interstellar travel. Humans have extensively colonized and terraformed Mars and Venus, and colonies also exist on Luna, Mercury, the moons and outermost clouds of Jupiter, and the asteroid belt. Most of the colonies are owned by massive corporate organizations, and as the colonies rose in power and influence they began to demand independence from Earth.
The most powerful of these corporations, the Mars-based Russo American Mercantile (or simply RAM) launched an attack of apocalyptic magnitude on Earth. The planet was left in ruins, its inhabitants descending into a dark, barbaric age as civilization survived only in a scattering of sealed, isolated arcologies. RAM easily intimidated these city-fortresses into submission, ruling over the remains of Earth with an army of elite, genetically engineered soldiers. Resistance groups organized on Earth, but found themselves without capable leadership.
Hope for the people of Earth came in the form of the most significant resistance group, the New Earth Organization (otherwise known as NEO.) Stumbling upon the legendary Buck Rogers in cryogenic sleep in the year 2456, NEO revived him and quickly persuaded him to join their cause. Buck successfully led a decisive attack on "Gauntlet", a weapons platform central to RAM's orbital superiority.
Though RAM's military still severely outclassed that of Earth, RAM leadership determined at this point that the occupation was no longer profitable. Withdrawing its forces, RAM began to seek a more cost-effective way to control Earth. In the present day, NEO and RAM forces continue to skirmish as NEO attempts to forge and maintain interplanetary alliances against RAM.
While the decision of the game's authors to cast Buck as the underdog in a bitter, deadlocked war confined to a few inhospitable planets might seem a bit daft, the influence of sci-fi territory more familiar to Buck shows in the setting's associated artwork and literature. The science fiction involved leans far closer to fantasy than realism, and cheesy cliches of classic sci-fi abound. Venus is teeming with life and covered with swamps and jungles, ostensibly as a result of terraforming. Computers have become progressively larger rather than smaller, and huge, awkward mainframes are standard in all ships and installations (complete, of course, with wall terminals covered in tiny viewscreens and lots of blinking lights.)
Spaceships aren't just spaceships, but rockets. Each class of ship from fighter to heavy cruiser to battleship is smooth, sleek, phallic, cylindrical, and decidedly retro. They scream through space, enduring ridiculous acceleration factors in dogfights where maneuverability always takes precedence over armament. Meanwhile, the hapless occupants of each rocket float around in zero g, artificial gravity on a starship being either impossible or cost-prohibitive. The ability to maneuver and fight in zero g is essential to survival.
Humans immortalize themselves by digitizing their personalities, interacting with reality from inside the computers that house them through holographic projection. Combat is conducted with laser guns, rocket pistols and monofilament swords. Biological warfare simply means creating progressively bigger and meaner monsters through genetic engineering. Said monsters are usually just giant hybrids of different earth animals (examples include the ursadder, a cross between a bear and a snake, or the desert ape, which is basically a huge gorilla with blades for arms.) If RAM wants to wipe out a large population, they simply build a laser big enough to fry them off the face of the planet.
NEO maintain their role as the heroes and underdogs of the story, while the forces of RAM are clearly defined as the villains. As such, the ideal campaign setting for XXVc casts the players as NEO agents fighting against RAM oppression and subterfuge. Buck himself is generally cast as an NPC, though I suppose a player could play as Buck with the game master's approval. The computer games make good use of his character, having him keep track of the players from afar and show up occasionally to offer advice or even help out in times of dire need.
Of course, the players aren't required to play as NEO agents. They could work for RAM or a neutral party, or they could simply make a living preying on both sides as space pirates. It is generally advisable, however, for all players to be on the same side.
Characters are created using a race and class system much like that of AD&D. One can play as a human from any major planet. Each planet of origin counts as a different race, with subtle ability score differences. For example, Terrans and Venusians are tougher than the other races while Martians and Mercurians are faster. One also has the option of not playing as a human at all, but one of several genetically-engineered humanoid races referred to as "gennies". These include the feral Desert Runners of Mars (expert warriors, but inept with technology) and the small, delicate tinkers (great at engineering and medicine, but incapable of being warriors.)
Character classes, referred to as "careers", include rocket jocks (pilots who are by definition required to fill the "brash/arrogant/cocky" stereotype. This happens to be Buck Rogers' profession,) warriors, medics, engineers and rogues (in addition to the standard sneaking, lockpicking and pickpocketing, they can bypass advanced security systems and bluff or fast-talk their way out of awkward situations.)
Characters are further defined by the game's skill system. Characters can train and advance in skill as they rise in level. Skills and hit points are tied entirely to character level, with an experience system similar to that of AD&D. Certain classes rise in level more quickly than others.
While XXVc should certainly not be thought of as an attempt to launch AD&D into outer space, one must admit that if this was TSR's goal then they succeeded admirably on a technical level. The combat system lost nothing in the translation despite the obvious shift from hand-to-hand combat to ranged firefights. The adaptation of the combat system in Countdown to Doomsday and Matrix Cubed set a standard for turn-based tactical combat that greatly surpassed that of the AD&D gold box games and would endure for most of the following decade.
Though the territory is significantly darker and more foreboding than what Buck is used to, the setting is a charming and effective adaptation of an age-old sci-fi franchise. There's just enough relevance included to prevent the setting from seeming campy, but there's just enough flash, glitter and "high adventure" remaining to prevent the setting from seeming gritty or depressing.
In practice, the game suffers from a limited selection of character archetypes. While a little imagination is enough to work around the inflexible class/race system and develop a unique character, the roles of different characters can easily come into conflict. A well balanced team requires one character of each class, and a team of fewer than five or six characters can easily find itself handicapped. Conflict arises when multiple players want to play the same class; while any number of warriors can effectively cooperate, there is seldom room on a team for more than one rocket jock.
The universe behind the game is so distinct and detailed that the inclusion of Buck Rogers seems almost arbitrary. At worst, one might suspect the use of Buck as a cynical attempt to modernize, revitalize and market an obsolete, "unhip" franchise. The fact that a smirking, top gun, aryan-alpha male, American as apple pie stereotype (named "Buck", of all names) is fighting space-capitalists rather than space-communists is a bit difficult to stomach.
Regardless of the motives of the authors and those of TSR, the game and setting seem fairly relegated to cult status. And this cult seems to be of the sort that just dwindles rather than grows over time. It's not easy digging up a copy of the rules on ebay, either. The best hope most people have of experiencing this game and setting are through the computer games, which are shining examples of just how clever, unique and engaging the XXVc universe can be.
The Genesis cartridge of Countdown to Doomsday is difficult to find, and the rom has difficulty running on most emulators. The computer games can be found on your standard abandonware site. Though modern computers are so fast that you'll miss most of the details and animations that occur during combat (trust me, slowdown utilities won't make a lick of difference,) the games are entirely turn-based and are quite playable on all PCs.