RPG Creations and Musings.

Science Fiction is Hard?

Since I’m organising a Science Fiction RPG convention, it’s high time I wrote something here about science fiction RPGs. On forums and such, I often come across the statement that science fiction roleplaying games are tougher to “get” than fantasy. I don’t think this is true for me, but I’m not going to argue with this statement- if someone says something’s tougher to do, then it genuinely is tougher to do, at least for them.

However, there certainly are a few features of science fiction gaming that don’t always come up in fantasy, both from a player and a GM viewpoint, and which need some thought.

The Technology

Okay, in fantasy, the erm fantastic element comes mainly from magic. In science fiction it usually comes from high technology. Okay- so far, so good, right? Now, the only players in an RPG who needs to know anything about magic are those playing characters who use magic- and even then, they only really need to know what magic their own character knows (sure, a GM might give a quick explanation of something else encountered with a relevant skill check or something, but that doesn’t change this point). The thing is that magic is the exception rather than the rule.

Now when it comes to technology, some of it’s going to be omnipresent. What sort of communications are out there? Travel? Access to information? Medical nanotechnology? Are things like quickfire universal 3d printers easily available? There are things the players need to know, as well as the player characters, unless play begins in an isolated or backwards location.

It’s only technology that’s above the norm, and isn’t available to everybody, but only available to some characters, that really works like RPG magic.

Big Ideas

For me, the big inspiration for RPGs is books rather than films or TV series. I don’t see RPGs as a very visual medium. This is not to say I don’t picture things when playing or running a game, or even preparing it- the same way I picture things when reading. This is maybe a topic worth returning to in a future post, but for now I’ll leave it.

Now, most fantasy novels map reasonably well to RPGs. The classic quest to defeat the dark lord through a hidden weakness, or sneaking into a heavily guarded and trapped wizard’s tower to steal a ruby the size of an egg- both feature heavily in RPGs. So does fantasy worldbuilding, backstabbing political intrigue, and all sorts of other features from good and bad fantasy novels.

When it comes to Science Fiction, many stories (especially “hard” SF stories) don’t have a plot based around a quest, politics, or anything familiar from fantasy. They involve a BIG IDEA, and it’s logical consequences, along with a dollop of good old-fashioned sense of wonder from them. The BIG IDEA might be genetic engineering, an explanation of the Fermi paradox, the science of psychohistory, the laws of robotics, time travel paradoxes, relatavistic time dilation, or the heat death of the universe.

The BIG IDEA isn’t just background in such stories- it’s what the whole thing is about. The BIG IDEA is often an extrapolation from genuine science. I’m not saying fantasy doesn’t feature big ideas, and exploration, and a sense of wonder, and logical consequences- of course it can and does, certainly at its best.

But this notion of a BIG IDEA is harder to capture in roleplaying, and not something that’s present in most Science Fiction RPGs. In an RPG, it may well be better in the background than the foreground. It means most Science Fiction in roleplaying isn’t going to feel much like a big chunk of science fiction literature.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s worth looking out for- and a big difference to fantasy.

Comments on: "Science Fiction is Hard?" (3)

  1. Mitch A. Williams said:

    It is a common thing for some of my players to complain about Sci-Fi games with something like “I just don’t know what my character would ‘know’ “. In a fantasy or historical game they think they have a better grasp on what is ‘the mundane’ and what is ‘the fantastic’.

  2. Frax and I are watching Star Trek: TNG on Netflix at the moment. Some would say this is pretty lightweight sf. But a couple of the episodes really hit the big idea test: pitting the prime directive against conventional morality and asking if the two are compatible, and examining how a 20th century human would appear to their distant descendants (and vice versa).

    Both are cultural Big Ideas rather than technological, and I think this is something sf does very well indeed. I think it’s prime territory for rpgs, because roleplayers love to play quirky alien races and espouse weird philosophies.

  3. doctormitch said:

    Mitch- yes, that’s a better way of putting the first point I was trying to get at. One might get the same thing in an unusual or involved fantasy setting (Tekumel, Legend of the Five Rings, perhaps Glorantha), but it’s definitely a thing.

    Josh- in terms of physical science Star Trek doesn’t go for the big ideas. I like the fact that when it comes to technology there’s a fairly small uniform base of futuristic technology (Warp Drive, Phasers, Tricorders, Transporters, Replicators, Holodeck) which is fairly consistent, and easy to internalise. But you’re right that there’s some good “big ideas” in the best of the episodes, and they’re cultural rather than physical (for the record, I’ll count the Borg as a “social big idea”- it’s easy for me to forget how striking they were at first). The social big idea theme is probably a better one for RPGs. Good catch!

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