Would a near-future science-based space exploration roleplaying game work?

Yesterday I stumbled upon this post at the famous BoingBoing blog which featured two pieces of awesome NASA artistic renderings of possible future space missions. I love science and space exploration. Even as a kid I read and watched everything I could about astronomy, space exploration and physics. And of course I almost devoured any SF novel I could find in the house.

Ever since I started roleplaying I thought about running a science-based space exploration campaign set into a near future using only what today’s scientists deem possible. So there’s no FTL travel, no psychic powers, space travel is dangerous and very expensive. Think of a campaign where the players are astronauts exploring Mars like in Ben Bova’s novel “Mars” which I read with much enjoyment a few years back.

The problem is that even if you are into science and space exploration it’s pretty hard to convey that excitement in a roleplaying game. Let’s face it: while doing actual science (or space exploration) may be exciting, most of it is hard and sometimes boring work. And that’s the last thing you want to have in your roleplaying game. In RPGs it immediately gets more exciting if you move away from realism and add fantastic elements or some kind of conflict (combat in most cases).

That’s why why the heroes in our games are for example Starfleet officers and not NASA astronauts. But I have not given up. What is necessary to make a scenario like the aforementioned Mars mission exciting for a group of players without adding unrealistic elements. Would realistic conflicts and problems be enough to keep things interesting? What are your thoughts on that subject? Please share your comments below.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

17 thoughts on “Would a near-future science-based space exploration roleplaying game work?”

  1. Let's face it: actual science is boring to most people. Maybe the RPG community has a higher amount of people who are into physics and rocket science, but I dare to say that they are also a minority. If you want to stay true to the actual work of space explorers, most of it is boring science and nothing "cool".

    However, I think that this can be circumvented by making the player characters be cool and important in some otherwise. How about a game about the first colonists on the Moon, who might not fight aliens but are worried about keeping experimental terraforming equipment running? Cool and interesting scenarios can be created even inside the harsh boundaries of actual science.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Markus. And I think you might be onto something here. I think games more focused on characters and their interactions may actually be the best choice here. The suspense in the game must come from social interactions and non-violent conflicts.

  3. You might find this post somewhat relevant, since it (eventually) gets around to talking about an asteroid-exploration/mining game that I once tried to run. The reasons it failed had nothing to do with either the premise or the setting, which establishes the viability of both. The big problem is with keeping it exciting, as you've noted.

  4. I think it could work, but you would definitely need dedicated players. It strikes me as the equivalent of the "low-magic" fantasy game; smaller scale, higher risks, limited tools, an unforgiving environment. I think, pitched like that, it has lots of potential and appeal.

    Unfortunately, I could never run such a thing because I'm a bit of a dud at science…
    My recent post Space Station Welcome to Vacuum Hell

  5. I would recommend the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson for ideas. Sources of conflict include: sheer mechanical error, differences between preservationist (eco-terrorist types) and terraformists, differences between the settlers, earth militaries, and transnational corporations ending up in bloody revolution. Of course, these things play out over decades.

  6. Please forgive me, if this isn't horribly relevant, but I hate Wilderness Survival Adventures. Placing characters without resources out in the middle of no where, with no clear direction and no exact goals but to survive in an alien setting is boring to me. I don't want to gather sticks to make a hut to survive the night. I don't want to find sources of water. I don't want that kinda realism in my games. I just don't find it interesting.

    As long as the game doesn't devolve into just "Can you Survive the most alien landscape of Mars?", I'd probably be good. Intrigue with other Expeditions could be interesting, for example. Decontaminating because a dormant mold becomes active, maybe not.

    1. I can fully understand that. That's why I was asking that question. What works well in books or even movies might be terribly boring in a roleplaying game scenario, especially if you want to stay in the realm of science.

      Since I enjoy books like the aforementioned Mars by Ben Bova if was wondering if a scenario like this could work at the gaming table.

      1. I went and looked up a synopsis/review to get a common point of reference. I think Trope style play might work well for the game concept. Spliting the action between a "Discovery" phase where you have your scientists exploring the dangerous alien mars (I mean, just because there is no life doesn't make it not dangerous) and then flipping back to earth and playing out the "Political Phase" where political ramifications at Space Command/U.N. could be interesting. If there could be interplay between the player's different characters, so much the better.

  7. Getting your oxygen tank punctured, your rover fail, breaking a leg or a hand, and other accidents in a harsh environment can be exciting to roleplay to me. 🙂

  8. Any environment could potentially work as an rpg, you just need to create an engaging story. The key to making something like this work would be some sort of conflict. Maybe there is someone sabotaging the mission (either a crew member or a HAL-ish computer). Maybe there is a competing venture from another country, and they are very confrontational; I could see a group of scientists on Mars with only research equipment having to deal with a rival group who is armed full of potential for drama.

    The one limit would bump up against however, is your own purported sense of realism. In the real world the same group of explorers don't have story after story. So you would have to limit it to a one shot, be making lots of new characters, or abandon this aspect of realism.
    My recent post Extreme RPG Makeover part 3

  9. I think you'd be better off looking at settings like the one in the film outland (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082869/) with old Sean Connery. The level of advancement is a bit beyond current scientific hopes but is still along way away from lasers and FTL travel. Planets and mooons within our solar system have been colonies (but not terraformed) and travel to and from earth is still slow that hopes of a rescue mission or support are not applicable. If you keep the habitation to small sealed buildings and require any significant travel to be blokes in bulky spacesuits I think you could hit the feel and setting I think you are aiming for.

    1. That's a great idea, sodiumnoir. An Outand-inspired campaign might be a bit beyond the scope of what I initially had in mind, but it's still in the realm of what is deemed possible. I believe it might be pretty easy to run an interesting game with that premise.

  10. I would probbaly have a similar type of settlement (as the miners in Outland) but maybe on Mars, lower mankinds Penetration of the planets and the ability to go very far from the habitats etc. rewatch 2001 and 2010, Armageddon and outland and hide a copy of 'boys own book of science' behind the GM screen. 🙂

  11. Hi!

    There is this sci fi rpg, Shock, at http://glyphpress.com/shock/ , which I think it may be a great example of a near-sci-fi game where the social and political implications of technology can bring several kinds of conflicts to the gaming table. I have not read the game yet, but I have had very good references so far.



  12. You might consider reading Legacy of Heorot. It might give you some ideas about an SF game that is about exploration and isn't boring.

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