Some thoughts on roleplaying in the SF genre

FlyingCar While I am currently a fantasy campaign I am already thinking about what I could run next. And as so often before the idea to run a SF game crops up again. I actually decided on a system I want to use and now I am collecting ideas for a campaign. Of course I could run an preexisting campaign or use a background my players are already familiar with, but in my opinion creating a whole new universe is half the fun.

When I started thinking about what elements I want in my SF game I immediately noticed some of the problems with running games in that particular genre. Especially when you want to have at least some semblance of science in your science fiction things get complicated pretty quickly. Fantasy is easy. We all know what a sword is, we have a pretty good idea what an orc is and magic … just works. When creating a SF universe you have to put a lot of thought into almost any aspect. Of course you can just call it Space Opera and treat technology like magic. How does the hyperdrive work? Just fine, thank you. 😉

But that’s not what I want out of a SF game. I am looking for a setting that is at least scientifically plausible. One thing that usually causes me headaches is whether to include something like psionics. Telepathy, ESP etc. are all common tropes of some subgenres of SF but are scientifically implausible. And then it depends a lot on how you explain the existence of such powers in the game universe. I actually think that Mass Effect did that pretty well with Biotics.

Another problem I often have is visualization. When watching a SF TV series or movie you can see all the cool technical gadgets, space ships and aliens. It’s the same with modern computer games. You don’t have to explain everything to the player/viewer, you just show it to them. In roleplaying games (especially when creating your own setting) you don’t have that luxury. You have to explain everything. And listening to an explanation of that super-cool, holographic, touch-sensitive, force field input thingamajig is usually way less cool than actually seeing it.

At the moment I am not sure what subgenre of SF I want to use for my game, but I think a galaxy-spanning space-faring campaign may be fun.

So what are your thoughts on roleplaying in the SF genre? How do you avoid the common problems? As always your comments are highly appreciated.

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.

10 thoughts on “Some thoughts on roleplaying in the SF genre”

  1. hi,
    I know this problem. In my own SF-RPG-System I describe everything with a lot of (pseudo realistic)-explanations. Some times this description can help to imagine the situation, but sometimes you discuss with the players why and how that’s works. -> Not good!

    I my (current) opinion is, that a player who would like play a SF-RPG, have knowledge about SF Worlds. If you explain something, you can use this knowledge and can use cliché-ridden and stereotypes from other SF Worlds. Do not explain how some thing works. Tell them how the player can used it.


  2. As the author of a (not too widely successful) sci-fi RPG myself, my take to that is actually to remove high-tech stuff as much as possible from the picture and rather focus on what doesn’t work.

    Example: in my game universe, the three major “mc-guffin technologies” — antigravity, forcefields and hyperspace — are based on the same subset of technology. Let’s call it bogotronics. The trick is that bogotronic-based technology is very sensitive, especially to other bogotronic-based devices. Hences, forcefieds don’t work in starship because of the artificial gravity (and artificial gravity “hiccups” when you enter hyperspace, which you therefore cannot do while accerating madly).

    Another aspect is the cultural differences. Unless your sci-fi world is a one big mishmash melting pot kind of context, you are bound to find the PCs in cultures they are not familiar with. Play on that; let them visit an inn from a culture that doesn’t have a nudity (or public sex, for that matter) taboo or have them find their way in a subway network where signs are written in an unfimilar language their personal computers have a hard time to decypher.

  3. The PCs know what a sword is, despite their player maybe not knowing exactly how to craft a sword, know how to use a sword or even know how to appraise one. The same should hold true in a Sci-Fi game. The players don’t need to know how to do something, their characters do.

    I drive a car, and I understand (in theory) how an internal combustion engine or automatic transmission works. However, even if I had no clue about how they worked I would still be able to operate a vehicle.

    I think you should make your setting plausible enough for you to be able to suspend your disbelief and not worry about the finite details of how everything works. Otherwise it becomes a science exercise.

  4. As for the scientifically plausible, I spend a fair amount of time reading science and tech blogs. I used to get discover mag and they were fairly good at extrapolating current science into the more entertaining possibilities of a body of research.

  5. Alias is right on the mark there. By all means, make your future tech plausible and internally consistent, but after laying down the most basic ground rules of cans & can’ts for your tech, refocus on who is doing what in your setting. After all, the interesting and important parts of any rpg setting are the events that occur and involved the PCs. This is equally true for any genre. Gothic horror can dwell on all the minutia of the supernatural horrors it wants, but what the investigators do in fighting them is the captivating part. Similarly, in fantasy one could get all anal about medieval engineering or weaponsmithing, develop massive treaties about crop rotation and the economics of thatching distribution throughout a kingdom, but all the players care about is where where are the bad guys, how much treasure is there, and what kind of damage does my new sword do?

    Look at your prospective sci-fi setting from the perspective of your players and what will be important to them in telling the story of their characters’ and that should guide you in developing your setting.

  6. I found, with the last few Sci-Fi games I ran (among techie people even) … most of them didn’t read my tech background. They wanted to know the broad strokes (hard sci fi? science fantasy? interstellar or intrastellar? basic history?) and that was about it. They didn’t want or need to know any more about how to make a blaster work than they wanted to know how to make a sword. Only one of the players read the full 60 page handout.

    My point being (as it often is): know your audience. Does your game group really dwell on those details? If they don’t, then don’t waste your time on them, either.

  7. I don’t play “sci-fi” because my scientific mind tends more towards archaeology and paleontology rather than theoretical physics, so I play “space fantasy”. My players don’t really care HOW things like hyperdrive works. They only care that once their PCs make the right moves that it DOES work. How many of us can say, in detail, how an automatic transmission works? Some of us, I’m sure, but most of us just put it in “D” and go. I differentiate the two by classing things that look like Star Trek under sci-fi and things that look like Star Wars under Space Fantasy.

  8. Gene Roddenberry answered this question by saying: Nobody today really knows how technology works, but they know how to operate it. They came up with a set of guidelines for Star Trek, but rarely explained them.

    One of my favorite sci-fi games is Teenagers From Outer-Space, which explains none of it.

  9. I’ve been running a sandbox-style space opera game for some time now, and I have encountered some of the difficulties you mentioned. Some role-players are understandably more familiar with fantasy tropes, having come to gaming through D&D, but I’ve made an effort to find out what sci-fi books, movies, TV shows, and games they do know.

    I don’t think that speculative fiction is necessarily any harder to run than fantasy. If people can imagine a dragon or a fireball, a giant space squid or a psionic backlash should be no harder to convey. Exposition about the setting and hard-SF elements are best shared gradually as the characters explore a wider universe.

  10. This is a problem I know all too well. Technology, which is a big part of a Sci-fi game’s draw, can be the very thing that bogs it down or makes one lose their sense of verisimilitude (yeah, I used THAT word).

    In the end, though, you’ll just have to find a solution that works for everyone. My solution is to run a game similar to Serenity. It’s definitely futuristic, but without a bunch of techno-babble. Actually, I recently decided to run such a game in a few weeks – here’s hoping for the best…

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