I’m not going to debate your own anecdotal data on why YOUR campaign for Space Rider 6000 was so awesome. Good for you. We need more examples of successful scifi campaigns. But this post is an intellectual exercise to examine why — as a whole — Scifi RPGs suck. To do that, we need to do some taxonomic work and then we can break down what goes wrong when interrossiter X and hydro-spanner Y collide.
- When I say suck, I’m clearly being provocative. I’m about to examine why it’s so hard to run a good science fiction campaign. It’s okay if you disagree with me.
- Fantasy games are defined as sword and sorcery adventure hackery. That is, limited tools, magic, and adventure mixed together in any combination. We know these when we see them. Even when they are stupid, we still know what we are doing in them.
- Traditionally, science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change. Some people have said it’s about whether or not we have the right to rule. In either case, that’s high-brow chatter. Most of us just want to shoot a laser blaster.
- Because science fiction is sometimes high-brow, we often have a hard time defining what it’s about. The debate over what science fiction and scifi are is so rampant (even I’m guilty of it) that it has no place in this article. For my purposes, if it has advanced technology, it is scifi. I will explain this as I go. But knowing that science fiction started a long time ago to tell moralistic tales about the present only to morph into giant mecha robots is a wide umbrella to stand under. In order to talk about scifi, we have to know what it is. And because we don’t know what it is, it makes talking about it very difficult. As such, this will not be an easy post. Wish me luck.
- Veneer is not genre. It is a component of genre. Oftentimes scifi is just a veneer. In these instances, there is no possible way to make an argument for or against something being scifi. It has laser guns. Woohoo. It’s scifi.
- Genre has become a meaningless term in roleplaying games. Everything is a mashup, devoid of theme, and heavy on veneer. Therefore, talking about scifi in any context is most likely about the veneer of it and not the structure.
- For the purposes of this argument, roleplaying games are any tabletops game where you play a single character or agent in a story and there is a gamemaster. Roleplaying games can be divided into games about adventure and games about drama. The best games are about both.
- GMless games have their own challenges and strengths. Some are perfectly suited to address scifi gaming.
- This is a complex topic. If anyone has written about this in the context of scifi gaming, I’ve not read it. Feel free to point me to it.
- I don’t think this can get resolved with only 5,400 words. But I’ve started something here. And dammit. I’m going to finish it. (Puts on sunglasses and 8-track tape in stereo.)
- Maybe this is a rough draft for a larger piece of work?
- In the process of writing this, I realized that I gave up on scifi games a long time ago. There may be a good scifi game that came out in the last 10 years and I just never tried it. But this isn’t an attempt to win anything or even be right. This is an attempt to ask meaningful questions about scifi gaming and how to make it ‘not suck.’
In order for a traditional roleplaying game to succeed at what it does, there must be a gamemaster. If your gaming background includes mission-based or location-based adventures, you know that the gamemaster must know the characters, logic, physics, plots, rules, storylines, and world better than anyone else. This mastery is necessary for any game environment. Without it, you might as well just let the PCs ‘win’ on round one. And for scifi gaming, trying to master all of these details can be crippling. In fact, data creep is a real problem in games like Pathfinder, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and so on. Gamemasters have trouble keeping up with the sheer volume of data available in the 86,000 pages now available for these gamelines. Nevertheless, the gamemaster can often trump this data creep by simply saying, “Well, in this world that isn’t true.” This solution is often met with the crook-eye or outright hostility. I would argue that it’s a difficult tool to wield when running scifi for a given group.
If the gamemaster is not the expert on these details, a mission-based game will derail instantly. Players with more knowledge of engineering/physics/programming/science will solve a problem quickly, rendering conflicts inert. In a fantasy game, ‘magic’ explains away everything. “Sorry. Your magic fireball fails this time.” In a science fiction game, you can’t do this. “Sorry. Gravity… uh… fails. This time.” The gamemaster-veto cannot stop science.
For the players, this isn’t really an issue. If you’re solving all of the mission-based obstacles and side-complications in one round with your advanced degree in Theoretical Quantum Physical Statist Egoism, then it might not bother you when the 4-hour mission is over in 30 minutes. But for the gamemaster, this threatens the entire campaign. How can anything be a challenge if the players can solve it all with technology the gamemaster doesn’t understand? By extension, gamemasters with a penchant for writing story, but a low threshold for understanding every nuance of the Rutherford-Bohr model aren’t likely to want to run a science fiction campaign. Conversely, someone who salivates over the second law of thermodynamics but who lacks the skills to write an adventure well, may not be a good gamemaster. As the pairings of these two skill sets narrow, the Venn-diagram of science-adventure-game-writing has virtually no overlap. Those few GMs who have feet in both camp are so rare as to be virtually non-existent.
Spheres of Control
As stated above, the gamemaster must feel like he or she is in control when running a traditional roleplaying game. This isn’t always true. Expert gamemasters may enjoy playing games by the seat of their pants, acting like a cosmic force to disrupt players’ plans. But most gamemasters like to have an adventure, plan, or sandbox to operate in. Via technology, scifi games give players a lot of power and control, moreso than in other genres. Scifi games do not come with a master’s degree in physics. All of the magic in D&D is explained at the end of the player’s handbook. Every spell. Every miracle. Every ritual. Every religious pathos. But scifi games lack a chapter on ‘Science for Dummies 101.’
It’s easy to say, well if the PCs can use technology to solve a problem, the gamemaster can use technology to create new ones. This would be true if all gamemasters were cut from the same cloth, but they are not. In fact, roleplaying games succeed only when they can be run well by novice gamemasters. So, here again, scifi games fail. D&D has many introductory tools to help gamemasters build one-shot adventures from scratch. And because 50% of the environment of fantasy games is rooted in history, we can easily visualize a fantasy village without prompting. If the gamemaster fails to explain that it’s dirty, we can probably assume it is anyway.
But scifi environments are alien. The technology is alien. The cultures. The physiology. All of it needs to described to the players, because they cannot assume anything. Licensed products have a little bit of a leg up here, but it’s not a slam dunk to set a campaign in the Star Wars universe. Unless the entire campaign is set on Hoth or Tatooine, each planet is a new landscape that must be described, with new cultures, conflicts, rules, and so on. Removing Star Wars from the equation and running a pure science fiction exploration campaign causes this problem to multiply. Each new planet means new aesthetics and thematic complications. For example, people living on an all iron planet must deal with a lot of toxic dust when then mine the ‘soil.’
I know it’s not scifi, but I should probably mention this. Years ago, a friend of mine ran a short-lived Earthdawn campaign. His descriptions of dungeons were amazing. Detailed. Rich. Original. I could have listened to them for days. Sadly, he had no skill at running any other part of the game — including encounters, fights, and NPCs. Having mastery over the environment is only part of the skill set a good gamemaster needs.
I’ve stated this before, but it can’t be ignored that if one player has a better understanding of engineering and science, than it is likely that the gamemaster will have trouble challenging that player. Spheres of Control means knowing your stuff. The go-to crutch for some gamemasters (like me) is to soften the importance of science and recreate otherworldly or foreign sciences beyond the realm of what humans know. Interstellar (the movie) is a great example of this. All of the science of the movie holds up until they reach the edge of what we know. It’s just guesswork in the last 30 minutes of that movie, much like scifi games are with technology.
“Sure. In the future they’ll invent a pill you can take after you die to come back to life. Why not?”
All of these complications aside, this doesn’t stop people from making science fiction games. Nor should it. But the field of who can play these kinds of games is limited. In order to make them work, we often have to chip away at the science, until the games become nothing more than generic fiction. In fact, the entire genre of science fiction gaming starts to become suspect when everything is reduced to another genre with lasers. And since entire game books have been written without any advice for gamemasters to effectively run a particular game, what you do with it is questionable. After all, what is the goal of Star Trek? To explore? Why do I have a hundred different skills diplomacy and science skills at 99% if I’m supposed to explore? If there’s zero chance of failure, what do I need stats at all for? And if it’s about exploration, why was the 1982 edition essentially a table-top war game? Even at a design level, science fiction games are often reduced to something else other than science fiction to make them work.
One part of the problem is that in most scifi games, we really don’t know what we are doing. As stated above, what is Star Trek about? The original series claimed to be a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. But at the end of the day it was about Captain Kirk always doing what his gut told him, despite Spock’s logic telling him otherwise. If the show is successful, it’s because of the relationships and certainly not the crappy-costumed aliens they encounter. Or the techno-babble they spew to solve the episode’s core conflict in the last four-minutes of the show.
Another part of the problem is that we can’t agree on what science fiction is. The umbrella is so wide, that it’s meaningless, and attempts to narrow its definition lead to debates about rhetoric and taxonomy. But in design, taxonomy is not rhetoric. Taxonomy is everything. Now. It’s true, entire genres of games have nothing in the way of a mission statement and then continue to succeed. But just because something succeeds, doesn’t make it good. Or playable. It just makes it succeed. But that too is rhetorical, because now we have to define the terms of success.
And that’s not what this is about.
So. Rather than argue semantics, let’s explore what constitutes a scifi roleplaying game, so we can understand what does and does not work. Star Wars is a great place to start.
Star Wars, at its core, is a Western film set in space, with laser swords, mysticism, and imperialistic overlords. If you remove the words laser and star, you could be describing a Wu-Shu film about the Shaolins’ corruption, with Wong Fei Hung as Luke Skywalker. All of my reductionism aside, none of this stops Star Wars from being a great game. In fact, it’s the best example of a non-fantasy game succeeding in the gaming market. And even if I include it as a scifi game (and I never would), it does a lot of things really well. But, in order to be fun, it takes a lot of short cuts and trims away many elements of a ‘true’ scifi game.
In this context, Star Wars is about to make a liar out of me, because even I — a noted snob of Star Wars — must admit that every edition of Star Wars has been fun. But, let me continue my logic. Star Wars has no thermodynamic laws to confound play. No computer programming C+ language to confuse the players. No engineering logic that would stop the gamemaster from knowing just as much as the players. In fact, because Star Wars is so foreign to real-world “logic,” anyone can gamemaster it. Star Wars is successful, because it’s adventurous, fun, light, and for all intents and purposes a game everyone can enjoy without the inherent debates of math and physics that hinder traditional scifi games. So. In order to be a fun scifi game, Star Wars has to reject everything about scifi and just become an adventure game.
Am I splitting hairs? No. Not really. If Star Wars is truly scifi, then it is the exception that proves the rule. It has nothing in common with Eclipse Phase, Fading Suns, GURPS: Space, Star Trek, Tekton, and so many others that wear the veneer of scifi, without actually assuming the responsibilities. Sort of like a little kid wearing dad’s clothes, but not actually going to work. As you’ll see, this rhetoric is an important distinction to get us to a where we want to be as scifi designers and gamers. Star Wars succeeds by understanding what it is and playing upon its strengths.
And this is why scifi fails.
GURPS: Space is a great example of too much garbage gunking up the works. There are skills for every single scientific minutia one can imagine. Star Trek did this too (see below). Scifi seems to bring out pedantic spreadsheeting fetishism on a scale which fantasy gaming cannot compete. Don’t get me wrong, Chivalry & Sorcery had its deluge of nonsense with armor plating locations, and deflection values and whatever else the ren-faire enthusiasts thought was important to enjoy the game. But nothing competes for the depth and length of scifi charts. If it’s not skill charts, it’s weapon charts. If it’s not weapon charts, it’s equipment charts. If it’s not equipment charts, it’s bionetics charts. If it’s not bionetics charts, it’s computer program charts. Should I go on?
Shadowrun understands (and ignores) this rhetoric better than any roleplaying game. Let me explain. Cyberpunk is an entire genre of fiction invented by writers like William Gibson. The roleplaying game based on this namesake genre is arguably about the cultural divide between statists and those living on the fringe. But one could also argue that Cyberpunk 2020 is about creating your identity in a world where identity isn’t valued. Insufficient mechanics aside, the game gave players the opportunity to create vibrant characters in a world filled with bland oatmeal. In order for Cyberpunk 2020 to be a different game experience than other adventure games, it needed to feel desperate and mean; deadly and final. In its time, Cyberpunk 2020 thrived in an environment where scifi games hadn’t before.
In comes Shadowrun, stealing all of the veneer and none of the substance of cyberpunk.
Now. In full disclosure, I hate Shadowrun. I want to love it, because the world is so rich, but the game is nothing more than D&D with panther cannons. I wouldn’t play Shadowrun if you paid me. So I can’t be 100% objective here. But I’ll do my best.
Players take on the roles of fantasy races — dwarves, elves, etc. — armed with magic and weapons and going on missions to retrieve money from others. These missions often involve vaults of hidden data (gold pieces) and caches of secret tech (magic items) that will help the characters take on bigger missions later. The veneer is so thin, that I have literally played the game three times and only enjoyed the moments before the first die roll.
“Why are we playing this instead of D&D?”
So. If Shadowrun is scifi, then in order for it to succeed it has to become something else. It is not about the exploration of societal change. This is not discovery of new worlds. This is not a struggle against the status quo. This is the metaphoric murderhobo wearing a flak jacket instead of a cloak. Once again, in order to be effective, this version of scifi becomes something else. Or something else pretends at being scifi.
And this is why scifi fails.
Now. I promised I wouldn’t do exactly what I just did. But I am trying to make a point here. Because scifi can mean anything, it means nothing. I cannot refute that a game is good at being scifi, because frankly, we don’t even know what scifi is anymore. So new questions get raised because the old debates are tiresome. Is Stargate (regardless of mechanics) good scifi because it’s about adventure with laser pistols? If that’s your criteria for good scifi, then yes. You win and you can stop reading now. But if scifi is more than that, we have a lot more questions to ask. What are the key ingredients of a Stargate scenario? New races? Conflict that cannot be solved by anyone else in the encountered world? Diplomacy? Secrets? Military secrets?
If you were ask “What is the quintessential fantasy adventure?” most people would say Temple of Elemental Evil. Without question, it has all of the hallmark elements that define fantasy for traditional gamers. But can you say the same thing of scifi? Can anyone at the table agree of what they are expecting when they sit down for a Star Wars campaign? Star Trek? Traveler? Jovian Chronicles?
Speaking of Jovian Chronicles, years ago, my buddy Aaron ran a short-lived Jovian Chronicles campaign. We played on Mars and dealt with Bradbury-esque social issues. But Jovian Chronicles tried to be so many things to so many players, that I think we may be the only people in history to play Jovian Chronicles that way. The most popular part of Jovian Chronicles might have been the mecha combat. And I’m sure you can imagine what I think of anime mecha. Jovian Chronicles is so so so good. And yet, it suffers from everything I’ve stated above. It doesn’t stop me from loving it, but when I run it, I know exactly what I have to trim away to make an effective campaign out of it.
One of the things that separates historic life and modern life is the cultural evolution of roles into goals; your place in society vs. your relationships. It’s also what separates traditional roleplaying games from modern games. Who you are is only half the equation of your role in the group. Who you know is the other half. Changing one means you impact the other. And this is a strange new merit of roleplaying games that confuses and bothers people who think World of Warcraft is roleplaying. Using the tired trope of fighter-cleric-rogue-wizard to explain roles is how most people gravitate to adventure gaming in the first place. Even if it’s a game you’ve never played before, someone at the table is asking, “Which is the tank class?” And this kind of thinking doesn’t hold up anymore outside of adventure gaming.
Science fiction gaming has traditionally been at odds with its own paradigm because it is made in the vacuum of roles, without taking into how people know and interact with one another. If Star Wars is a game about a kid, an old man, a scoundrel, a walking carpet, and two droids meeting each other and dying for one another within the span of 90 minutes, then it is really silly. Star Wars, as a universe, is pretty well-defined. It’s huge. It’s so overpopulated, there is no way your character doesn’t have 50+ contacts, friends, and associates. But every campaign opens with five strangers getting involved with the rebels, or taking a mercenary job, or just running into each other in a bar. Maybe the gamemaster asks how you know each other, but that’s not in the rules.
If you want to run a great Star Wars campaign, you need to make the characters care about one another. Or at least be invested in one another… even if it’s hatred. (Cf. Dark Stryder campaign)
But relationships aren’t in the books.
If you’ve been gaming a long time, you’ve made characters for Traveler. In fact, you’ve made hundreds of characters for Traveler. Back in the day, there was no better game for making characters. It was fast, fun, and deadly. You always went back in for more training. And you always eventually died before you were done creating your character. I don’t think there is any proof of a single Traveler campaign existing ever. But there were a lot of characters created. All jokes aside, Traveler was a combat and exploration game, wearing the veneer of science fiction. In fact, it was so heavily combat oriented that a character’s rank was a vital part of the character creation. You even ‘mustered out’ when you finally stopped making your character. This doesn’t make it bad or wrong, but it was just another way of playing D&D as far as I was concerned.
Once again, Traveler may be the game that makes a liar out of me, but it really wasn’t about science.
I have been working on a science fiction roleplaying game for a while. I intend to make it ‘about something’ and put my money where my mouth is. But, like its predecessors, it will be low on science and high on fiction. But I’m doing everything I can to not make it D&D with lasers, but instead mold a specific game experience. Your mileage may vary.
I love Blue Planet. I think it is genius. I could talk at length about why it’s so great, but that wouldn’t help my case. I will say this — I never ran a successful campaign of it, and I think a lot of that was players’ attention spans. The other part was probably that scifi games fail and you can’t ramp up the gonzo in the same way you can with fantasy.
And there it is. If you’re not familiar with the term, gonzo is slang for ramping up the stupid. In movies, it’s when John McClain intends to save everyone in the building by slowing destroying the building. It’s the moment Stallone walks onto the screen. It’s that tonal shift that you make in game that once you make it, you cannot come back from. Going gonzo is essentially turning a realistic game into a hyper-active affair by introducing a new ‘elevated’ element. It’s a sloppy trope for gamemasters that have run out of ideas OR who seeing the player’s attention waning.
“All of a sudden, a giant black dragon the size of ten red dragons comes over the horizon. It is so big, you can’t tell how far away it is. It might have its own gravitational pull.”
If a gamemaster does this in a fantasy game, magic usually explains it away. And there’s always bigger magic, right? But if a gamemaster tries this in a scifi game, it’s over. There is no coming back. This is the ultimate limit of what science knows. If you’ve pulled out the gonzo hammer, you are now throwing out science. I’ve never watched Doctor Who, but based on its themes, I have to assume the show thrives on this.
The Mr. Fantastic Effect
I always hated the Fantastic 4. Yes. I know it’s superheroes. Stay with me. Every issue, Mr. Fantastic always solved a problem using techno-babble nonsense that came out of nowhere. I could never understand what he was saying and therefore I could not appreciate what he was talking about. Granted I was 12 at the time, but still. Dr. Doom always had these corporeal plans that one could see and understand. And on page 20, Mr. Fantastic would come along with his own version of the sonic screwdriver and undo all of it. I call this nonsense the Mr. Fantastic Effect. It’s no different than magic or god coming along with some deus ex machina, but worse. Because at least when Sophocles used deus ex machina, I knew I was in for some awesome human tragedy afterwards. Fantastic 4 just used it as a punchline.
Scifi sometimes uses this trope to solve problems in as uncreative a fashion as it can. If the players employ this tool, with a simple die roll about a subject they don’t understand it’s sometimes a fine contrivance. If the gamemaster ever did this to the players, there would be mutiny. You can argue all day about how the players are ‘supposed to win,’ but it doesn’t make the game any better when this tactic is employed from either side of the screen. Scifi, as I’ll soon address, needs to be about more the science die rolls.
My experience with transhumanist science fiction is limited to Blue Planet. Fundamentally, transhumanism is so far removed from what we understand that it’s essentially magic. Which brings us back to the argument above that in order for a roleplaying game to work, the gamemaster must have god-like knowledge/power above and beyond the players, lest the challenge that he or she creates be limited to areas that the players can ruin with their expertise. Transhumanism works because it ignores all those other potholes that stop scifi games from becoming ‘playable.’ The game isn’t about debating engineering knowledge.
But there’s a flaw to transhumanist scifi. What do I do in it? If transhumanism is a true genre, then it is about people who have evolved into something better. Greed, jealousy, and all those petty problems are not faced by the collective. What conflict is there if we are not bound by petty human problems? What are we dealing with? A good designer will be able to answer this and give us a conflict that we must deal with, but what is it that keeps us transhuman, but still invites us to this conflict? What do I do?
Mass Effect is a great example of transhumanism that is disrupted by forces that challenge that ‘utopia.’ In essence, it becomes about the conflict and less about the society. An ideal roleplaying game version of this would have you playing a character at a political level, military level, and societal level. Now that would be an awesome game. (Scribbles notes.)
Now. An argument could be made that transhumanism is about the ‘transition’ from petty humanity to something greater. Which is great. That sounds like an awesome place to game in. Since Vampire already does that so well, I know for a fact stories and games about the duality of human nature are among the best out there. If a campaign truly offered me an opportunity to play in a group setting where we are all struggling with our past humanity and morphing into something greater, I would sign up for that in a heartbeat. But I can only speculate on how it is handled. I know Blue Planet has lots and lots of charts for biogenics, mutations, and cybernetics, which means I’m once again defined by my equipment instead of by me.
A lot of what I’ve said so far is rhetorical. It’s actually quite easy to pull apart any one of these arguments because game X isn’t exactly what I think scifi should be, but game Y fits your needs perfectly. And that’s okay. As stated above, games are either about adventure or drama. Everything on top of that is veneer. Technically, the sword and sorcery of D&D is veneer. The true purpose of a game is to define the ‘intentions’ of the game. What is it about? What will the player characters be doing? What is the zeitgeist? How is this any different from this other thing I already play? Answering these questions is vital to a good gaming experience. If it you’re not doing it extrinsically, most good gamemasters are doing it intrinsically.
And this is why scifi fails.
Because I have so many questions I have to ask about it. Because I have so much work to turn someone else’s game world into a playable thing. Because I am always left asking, ‘how is this different?’ I will always treat scifi as a veneer. Maybe that’s my anthropology background speaking, but I don’t want to solve human-made problems with more technology. I don’t want to displace my value to the game with an equipment list. I don’t want to displace human interactivity with engineering die rolls.
This is why scifi fails. This is why it belongs in other mediums and not roleplaying.
So. What Would Make Scifi Work?
Let me be very clear here. I want to see good scifi games. Not pew-pew scifi, but Logan’s Run scifi. Or Equilibrium scifi. Or Foundation and Empire scifi. Caves of Steel scifi. Rendezvous with Rama scifi. China Mountain Zhang scifi. V for Vendetta scifi.
And I think the only way to accomplish that is with specificity. Games with narrow subjects that don’t address how the technology works. I don’t want to debate with the other players about why the theoretical threshold of a gamma radiation concussive force is between 1.5 and 2.6 mhz per liter. Just like I don’t want to argue about the movement rates of a hippogriff. This isn’t gaming. This is spread-sheeting and data porn. Regardless of system.
I think that’s it in a nut-shell, really. Not only making games with focus, but creating game space with shared expectations. Some people hear science fiction and they immediately want to play the pilot, because that sounds like fun. It never is. Other players want to be the engineer so they can apply their real-life knowledge to problem-solving inside the game. And that’s no fun for anyone else. If scifi is about fixing broken parts and buying cargo, it might as well be a worker placement board game. If the medium of roleplaying games isn’t part of the equation of what we play, then why even have this debate at all. Let’s all just mix Rifts with Mario Cart and be done with it.
In my opinion, scifi games need to be about something intangible FIRST and the technology and transhumanist equipment lists can come second.
I would like to end on two notes. One is that this is a difficult exercise to undertake. Arguing about whether or not sci games are any good without the context of defining what scifi is, is difficult if not impossible. And defining what scifi is, is a tiresome argument that rages across the net. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in making games that are about something, and if possible, games that matter. And my path to that has rarely involved science fiction gaming.
Secondly, I’ve had this conversation numerous times over the years with people. Never at this length. And while I think it is tired and outdated in the modern roleplaying medium to even worry about these things, the exercise of asking what works and what doesn’t works is valuable. To me anyway. I’ve personally never played in a science fiction campaign that lasted longer than a few sessions and whenever I say that people bring up Star Wars. And while I’ve never found that to be true, I know people have made it work.
Star Wars may very well be the best and purest scifi roleplaying game ever. And if it is truly scifi, then I’ve been bested by George Lucas. And no writer wants to admit that. Ever. Ever ever.