The sword is mightier than the laser gun – or is it?

My love for everything SF started back when I was still in elementary school. For a while I had been admiring the silver hardcover books with those fancy covers that my father had on his bookshelf. I think I was about 7 or 8 years when I finally picked one up and starting reading.

That book was the first issue of the hardcover edition of the Perry Rhodan series. When I remember correctly the first few pages described in much detail how a rocket was prepared for its launch towards the moon. This was much more exciting than everything I have been reading until then.

Since then I have read countless SF novels, short stories, watched almost every SF TV series and movie I could get my hands on and played quite a few SF computer games. And as you can imagine I was always trying to run or play in any SF roleplaying game. It’s probably no surprise that the first roleplaying game I ever bought was Marc Miller’s original Traveller.

But for some reason I played a lot more often in Fantasy or Horror games than I ever played in SF games. From time to time I just wonder why that’s the case. And when you have a closer look at our hobby you’ll notice that it’s totally dominated by Fantasy roleplaying games.

There’s of course the 800 lb. gorilla Dungeons & Dragons, forefather of all other roleplaying games. Without a doubt D&D and it’s cousin Pathfinder are now the flagships of Fantasy gaming. When it comes to horror games, there’s of course Call of Cthulhu and the more recent World of Darkness games that are pretty popular. But when it comes to flagship SF RPGs things are getting more complicated. Traveller might be close to being the flagship SF RPG, but compared to D&D the whole SF RPG hobby is just a small niche. Or do you think that anyone outside the hobby has ever heard about Traveller?

But when you look at popular movies and TV shows you realize that Science Fiction is extremely popular. Most modern superhero movies are in fact SF movies, there are a lot of incredibly popular SF TV series (including Stargate which has been running for ages). Even when it comes to computer games SF is as popular as ever. Alas when it comes to roleplaying games no SF game has ever been a huge hit. Even games based on popular franchises like Star Wars (which is not really SF in my book, but I digress) or Star Trek are much less popular than fantasy or horror games. As far as I know no SF RPG was ever close to being as big as D&D.

Rob Donoghue has written an interesting blog post about that topic a while ago. As he pointed out there are basically two problems: a) the SF genre is extremely fragmented and b) there’s no flagship SF RPG. I definitely agree with his conclusions. In a way the strength of the SF genre, the fact that it’s extremely broad and diverse, is probably a major weakness when it comes to roleplaying games.

Let’s face it, most roleplaying games rely a lot on clichés. And since the majority of fantasy RPGs are at least loosely based on Tolkien’s world, the common tropes of the genre are known to a lot of people. But in SF things are more complicated. Depending on your definition of SF everything from Steampunk over Hard Science Fiction to Star Wars might be counted as part of the genre. But the steampunk tropes definitely won’t fit into a SF game modeled after Niven’s Ringworld setting and vice versa.

But is this the only reason? Or are there other factors at work, too? One thing I’ve noticed as a GM is that a lot of players prefer to play games in “easier times”. Of course there’s nothing easy or romantic about living in a world without clean tap water, central heating and electric light, but a little romanticizing goes a long way. I believe for many players science fiction settings feel too much like the real world with technology, jobs, taxes etc.

What do you think are the reasons why there have never been any hugely successful SF RPGs? Or do you disagree with my theory completely? In any case I would love to read your comments on that matter.