Saturday, June 13, 2015

I am Sci-Fi

I've been on a pretty strong Superheroes kick lately, but getting back to my roots for a moment, this blog owes much of its genesis to my desire to talk about Science Fiction gaming.

For my tastes, not enough people talk about Sci-Fi RPGs.

Remember, it isn't called Barking Cowboy, Barking Faerie, or even Barking Cape. It's called Barking Alien and there is a reason. Science Fiction is my first love, my default field of interest. It is my go-to genre when I'm running what I love to run most.

Mars 2030 - Concept Idea and Art by Рем Борейко

The Play On Target Podcast recently posted an episode in which the group discusses Science Fiction gaming. You can, and you should, listen to it here.

This isn't the first podcast on Science Fiction gaming, and it won't be the last, but it is, in some ways, typical of the SF RPG podcasts I've heard before.

It is also a Play On Target episode, so it has an identity all its own, and for that it is definitely worth listening to. It made me think, and to me there is no greater praise I can give to such an endeavor. At the same time, it didn't do what I was hoping it would - explain why Science Fiction gaming is so awesome.

I'm in space, by M0tt0M0

Although it was the Play On Target episode in question that inspired this post, I don't intend this to be a review of that episode. I don't really feel much would be served by overanalyzing the podcast, and what each individual said. Rather, I want to address the big picture elements I heard, and didn't hear, from the discussion, and tell you my feelings on the subjects. This is more what I took from it, mixed with what I already think, if that makes any sense.

First, there seems to be (generally speaking) a difficulty in locking down what one is talking about when they say Science Fiction. This was evidenced clearly by the PLOT hosts, who seemed to feel that everything from Shadowrun, to RIFTS is Science Fiction. is. And, it isn't. I'll explain...

I have one hard and fast rule for identifying the genre, or subgenre of something (be it books, movies, games, etc.), and that is:

'If you can identify something by a name, other than the genre heading, then it is that thing, and not the genre heading'.

In other words, Cyberpunk 2013-2020 are considered Cyberpunk games (duh). Although Cyberpunk is a subgenre of Sci-Fi, it is also it's own entity. Therefore, Cyberpunk isn't (IMHO) a Science Fiction game. It is a Cyberpunk game.

Eclipse Phase is Transhumanist Science Fiction.
Gamma World is Post-Apocalypse, though possibly crossed with Science Fantasy.
RIFTS is a Multi-Genre game. If you Google, 'What Genre is RIFTS' it will say just that.

So what qualifies as straight up Science Fiction for me? Anything that doesn't easily qualify as something else in Science Fiction, is plain ol' Science Fiction.

Traveller, especially 'Classic Traveller' is to me, Science Fiction.

I guess it could be said there are few others. At the same time, I would place Star Trek, Star Frontiers, Ringworld, and Dune in this category as well, even though it could certainly be argued that some of these are also Space Opera.

Second, I often find these kinds of episodes are done by a group of people who aren't especially fond of the subject. A Science Fiction podcast by people who aren't into Science Fiction...well...perhaps not the easiest thing to do.

The members of the group who do like Science Fiction didn't really assert their opinions, or their past, successful experiences, over those who haven't had such experiences, or have negative opinions.

Taken from the final thoughts, it felt a little like a Science Fiction podcast that said, "Yeah, Sci-Fi is OK I guess, but isn't Fantasy awesome!"

Sardu Reef, By Alex Ries

At one point Sam notes that modern gamers are more sophisticated because of our increased exposure to both Science Fiction, and Science Fact. I would word it differently. Spoiled is the term I would use.

Because of this more extensive exposure he speaks of, modern gamers expect to be spoon fed all the ideas they will need to play Science Fiction (or any genre for that matter, but that's a different conversation).

When I started running, and playing Science Fiction games, we made up a lot of stuff. How? We read freakin' books. We loved Science Fiction novels, and comic books. We looked at issues of National Geographic, DISCOVER Magazine, and other sources of information on technology, and science. Also, tons of easy reference existed/exists for Science Fiction in pop culture in the form of movies, TV shows, computer and video games, and animated series.

For reasons I've mentioned before, but to this day do not understand, D&D, and Fantasy overall has always been viewed as more understandable, and accessible, but there is barely 1 Fantasy movie for every 5-10 Sci-Fi movies. I don't remember a single Fantasy TV show on television while I was watching Lost in Space, Star Trek, and Space:1999. Somehow everyone knows what medieval Europe looks, and feels like. How? How at 8 years old was I supposed know Fantasy better than Sci-Fi?

Sorry. I was ranting. A little.

Lowell notes that Fantasy is easy, conceptually. It is. And how much is an easy thing worth?

The thing is, if Science Fiction, the genre, is something you know, and love, you will make the effort to understand the elements that make it work. This goes from the basic tropes, to the basics of the science, to more advanced theoretical concepts.

You will then figure out what works, and what you want, in the Science Fiction Role Playing Game you want to play, if indeed you really want to play a Science Fiction Role Playing Game.

Barking Alien


  1. I mentioned that this wasn't the first Science Fiction RPG podcast I've listened to that didn't seem so into Science Fiction RPGs. Here is another:

    Note that I found the Play On Target one far better, mainly because the problem wasn't lack of familiarity. The PLOT boys know their stuff, but it just didn't seem they loved their subject enough to get into the meat and potatoes of it maybe.

  2. I love SF RPG too but it seems much harder to get everyone on the same page for it than fantasy (or even supers) RPGs.

    Possibly because the particular sub-genre of SF makes a huge difference to the game, a player expecting space opera is going to crash into a hard SF game and not have fun and vice versa, a Star Wars fan will probably want more space fantasy and so on. So I have not had much luck with SF gaming though I too enjoy so much of the genre.

    1. I've thought about this. The thing is, if I am playing Traveller, I rattle off a few inspirations for my approach to it, everyone nods, and we have no problem.

      A Star Wars fan may want Space Fantasy, and that's fine. Go play Space Fantasy. I love Star Wars, and when I'm in the mood to play it, I grab the Star Wars D6 RPG by West End Games, as I've mentioned here numerous times.

      But if I say, "Hey gang, let's play a Science Fiction Space Adventure game that's sort of like Mass Effect meets Bourne Identity", then I am running a Science Fiction game my friend, not a Space Fantasy, a Cyberpunk game, or a Post-Apocalyptic one.

      Actually, Mass Effect meets The Bourne Identity is pretty much what my current Traveller game is like.

    2. Mass Effect meets the Bourne Identity sounds way too cool. Maybe even more cool than my Timothy Olyphant IN SPACE campaign I'm working on. Now see what you've done? Now you got me thinking Bourne Identity with robots and spaceships instead of Justified with rayguns. This is why I can't ever finish anything!

  3. It's not as if there aren't several sub-genres of Fantasy as well as SF. Or that there's no games which 'hybridise' SF and Fantasy, such as the mentioned Shadowrun. Identifying a games genre is not a scientific process as with taxonomy in biology, and even that has a lot of arguments about what should or shouldn't belong into a particular family or order.

    Anyway, I think you can split tabletop RPG play into D&D and Everything Else. And within EE, I'd say SF is as popular as other genres. It's just that D&D is such a large part of the hobby that it looks like fantasy is dominant. It's not. D&D is dominant, it's just that happens to be fantasy (with a side order of superheroes at higher levels).

    1. I've noticed from experience, that because many of us talk about the difficulties inherent in running Sci-Fi because of the many subgenres, and how different each one will make a game about them, that we fail to consider the basic, middle ground of SF.

      D&D is a particular type of Fantasy made popular by NOT being a subgenre. It is not historic Medieval Fantasy, not Fantasy of the folklore variety, not completely Sword & Sorcery, but rather a hodge-podge of all these things.

      Can't Sci-Fi be the same?

      I remember a conversation a long while back on some gaming message board which went something like, "It's so hard to create a good Science Fiction game because everyone see Sci-Fi differently, and wants something different out of it."

      This was followed by 20-30 responses by gamers saying:

      "Yeah. I want Spaceships and robots."
      "Me too. And aliens. I want to be able to create my own."
      "Yeah! I also want to create my own aliens. And I'd love to do the same with robots."
      "I want all those things and laser guns."
      "Definitely! Laser guns, space ships, aliens and robots. Strange planets would be cool."
      "I'd totally be down with planets. And all the other stuff."

      And on, and on! Thirty responses of people basically looking for the same thing, but Science Fiction has too many dissonant elements. *Facepalm*

    2. I'd argue that D&D is a sub-genre, one inhabited solely by itself and very close imitators. It's not as if it does anything that isn't itself really well, compared to games meant for more specific things. No SF game has of ever has had the market size of D&D to create that sort of separate genre of its own (except WH40K but that's not primarily an RPG and some computer games that aren't tabletop) and so they have to work within the constraints of existing genres or end up looking like a rather strange mish-mash that doesn't have a pre-existing audience. And without the ability to open up a whole new field of games that made D&D popular, I'm pretty sure that an attempt to write an RPG that was "General SF" would be unsuccessful.

    3. I think you are definitely on to something here Tim. Your argument is sensible, but...

      I also believe that the SF mish-mash game with wide spread popularity we've all been waiting for (at least those of us who have been waiting for one) is completely possible, and viable.

      At the same time, I don't know if I believe it will ever be made.

  4. The best explanation about this (I don't remember where I read it, maybe here) is that fantasy is more generic, and thus adaptable. Why? Because SF is the exploration of what changes about humans when technology advances. So, small changes in the setting asumptions lead to huge changes in the feel of the game. As seaofstarsrpg says, some people may don't like that.

    That said, I hever never found that problem, and indeed every body seems to love my one-shot Sci Fi games. But it is also true that D&D seems easier for the crowd.

    1. I will definitely concede that Fantasy, being essentially anything, and not needing to make any particular type of sense to work, is much more easily adaptable. I am think it's easy for people to adapt to it, since all they need to know is sword, magic, monster, kill, money. It's more than straightforward. It's practically effortless.

      Science Fiction requires some thought.

      To me, D&D has always been the American Football of RPGs. It's the regular game for regular people. Nothing wrong with that.

      When I hang out with bohemians, artists, hippies, intellectuals who are also gamers, my experience has been that these individuals, and groups, rarely list D&D as their go to game. As a matter of fact, when I attended my Art-focused high school, and Art college, I was really in my element. Most of the students who were gamers were into Superheroes, Star Wars, Star Trek, and other Science Fiction games.

      I wouldn't put this up as any sort of confirmed, universal truth, but it is intriguing to me having had the background of this dynamic in my head.

  5. I'd go even farther to the point of saying that D&D's interpretation of fantasy has so deeply ingrained not only what the public's idea of fantasy RPG's should look like, but also fantasy as a whole, and for that matter RPG's as a whole. If a TV series for the public, like say, Warehouse 13, were to do an episode where some nerdy young adults are trapped in a MMOPRG, care to guess the genre, and how the participants trapped in the game are depicted. Hint, it's not Science Fiction.

    Elves, dragons, dwarfs. These fantasy concepts have become so homogenized in people's minds that you can port them into other genres of RPG's, like Shadowrun. Science Fiction, on the other hand, lacks that sense of commonality. That's probably a good thing at some level, but if you were gather around a bunch of players who are new to gaming and say, "you can play a human, or you could play a Martian," there is not going to be a shared and familiar notion of what the Martian is like.

    That's what makes fantasy more accessible at some level, but by the same token kind of blah in its sameness for some.

  6. I'm going to level with you here - I don't "get" science fiction, but each to their own and I didn't want to miss you out :)
    Popping by on the A to Z Road Trip