RPG Design – SciFi Settings and Rules

   Like it or not, science fiction involves science.

   It doesn’t have to involve much of any science to get into the science fiction” category at the bookstore or library of course. A sizeable part of all the “science fiction” there is made up of books that simply transplant a western to mars, or spin tales of espionage or police procedurals against a background with a few ray guns, or leak over into pure fantasy – but genuine science fiction really should involve science somehow.

   Perhaps it explores the implications of some new invention, or discovery, or an advanced concept or two from relativity, or uses some discovery to make an otherwise fantastic setting plausible – but some bit of science is always a central element. Without that, it’s just fiction. Spaceships, calling any strange powers “psionics”, and alien planets won’t make a work science fiction if they could just as readily be replaced with sailing ships, witchcraft, and distant islands on an unexplored mystical sea without changing the plot.

   Science Fiction is usually split up into “Hard” and “Soft”, depending on just how big the departures from known science are. Personally, I use a few intermediate categories as well.

   Hard SciFi is a difficult genre. It’s very hard to predict the future in any detail – and if you could reliably accomplish such a feat, you could probably do much more important things than write science fiction.

   That’s why “sometime next week” stories rarely age well. If you stick to what you know to be possible, and to minor improvements and extensions of existing technology, you’re unlikely to put in anything too blatantly “impossible” – as far as anyone knows at the moment. On the other hand, you’re pretty well guaranteed to miss many of the applications, social responses, and implications of whatever you do introduce – some of which will shortly prove practical, and some of which will shortly prove impractical or apparently impossible. Right there, you’ll probably have dated your story (or game) – and possibly dropped out of the hard SciFi category – before you’ve even finished writing it. Oddly enough, these stories are often considered the “hardest” type of science fiction, despite the fact that “all conclusions are tentative” and “new observations – and thus new theories – are always possible” lie at the very foundation of science. Denying that something new COULD turn up takes us straight from “science” to “religion” in a single, treacherous, step.

   Most “hard” SciFi sticks to things that are throughly plausible within our current understanding of the universe. It may involve things that are currently impractical, or extrapolations of current ideas – but most of the material in this category firmly respects relativity, logic, conservation laws, and other rules. It won’t upset a physicist or cosmologist too badly. Sometimes, it’s so hard that it leads to collaborations on physics papers, as happened occasionally with Robert Forward.

   Hard SciFi backgrounds are wonderfully through and self-consistent. They also tend to be kind of dull as far as role-playing games are concerned. Here you’ll find realistic injuries, very dangerous combat, a distinct lack of exotic powers, and a great dependence on equipment. Even if we throw in genetic engineering, limited (plausible) nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, most of the things the characters can do are going to be strictly realistic.

   That’s why hard SciFi role-playing games are never quite as popular as softer ones. People tend to play RPG’s because they want to do things they can’t actually do in real life – and hard SciFi games are rather restrictive that way. They also tend to be less dramatic; characters in hard SciFi settings who attempt to act like cinematic action heroes, or who count on luck to favor them as it does the heroes of many books, will soon wind up dead.

   If you’re going to create a hard SciFi game, you’ll want the characters limited to skills, proficiencies with equipment, social advantages, talents which actually exist – perfect pitch, a natural sense of time, being a lightning calculator, and so on (most of those can be handled as bonuses to limited aspects of particular skills or characteristics), and (perhaps) a few, fairly modest, biological improvements – whether from genetic engineering or from being members of exotic species.

   Similarly, the advancement system will be relatively slow, skill costs will be progressive (making it hard to improve things the characters are already good at), most characters will have realistic professions, the combat system will often be quickly lethal, and wounds will cause temporary (and often permanent) penalties as well as being slow to heal.

   Count on doing a lot of research – and count on a relatively limited appeal. Quite a lot of players want to play to relax, not to solve complicated problems. There’s a reason why the good old “Kick in the door!” style of dungeon-crawling remains popular.

   Firm SciFi goes beyond the known laws of physics, but only in limited ways – and usually with at least some justification. Firm SciFi authors will usually go out of their way to either justify their plot devices, whether as new discoveries (which aren’t yet fully understood) or with elaborate fictional sciences and explorations of those sciences implications. They keep things as consistent as they can and stick to reality whenever they can. Any story which revolves around exploring the implications of a few truly major changes in our understanding of the universe will usually fall into this category.

   As a well-known example, one of the most common sticking points with firm science fiction is faster-than-light travel. A great many critics will complain about that – and will usually complain about it even more if whatever system the author introduces does NOT allow time travel. After all, relativity insists that the two are pretty throughly linked. If the author attempts to get around relativity by citing “new physics”, the critics tend to  ask the author what the new theory is, and then get to work quizzing him or her as to whether or not it is consistent with prior observations and experimental results. Thus, as stated on the Atomic Rocket site under “Respecting Science“, you get statements of the general form:

   “If you just state that in the year 2525 Professor XYZ came up with the “Take THAT, Einstein!” theory of FTL travel, you still have a problem. You have to explain how the TTE theory allows FTL flight while still giving the same answers that relativity theory did for all those experiments it confirmed. Experiments that were accurate to quite a few decimal points. And, since your desired breakthrough is functionally equivalent to breaking a theory of physics, you also have the problem of unintended consequences.”

   With all due respect to Atomic Rocket, in this case it’s flatly wrong. Science is about coming up with testable explanations for observed phenomena. That’s why science can’t provide a definite statement as to whether we are or are not simply part of a simulated reality – and has nothing much to say about whether or not other universes with differing natural laws “exist”. If it can’t be observed, sciences ability to make statements about it is very limited. If a confirmable observation conflicts with a theory – no matter how well-respected and established that theory – it’s the theory that gives way. That’s why you can write science fiction that revolves entirely around an observed phenomena which even the science of the setting cannot yet explain.

   An author is not required to be a technical genius who can come up with – say – a modified theory of relativity that will match all prior observations and still give the results he states have been observed in his setting. He or she is responsible ensuring internal consistency – for describing the limits and applications of the laws and technologies of his world, coherently explaining them (and where they differ from the familiar rules) to his or her audience, and for plausibly exploring both their applications and those applications social effects. Just as with non-Euclidian geometry, the rules can be different – but they need to be consistent and they need to be stated.

   That’s even more important in a game setting than in a book or screenplay. With those media, you’re simply along for the ride – and a lot of things can pass unexplained. In a game, the players are going to be trying to use those laws. They’ll be pushing and prodding them to find their limits, trying to take advantage of them, and wondering why the rest of the world hasn’t followed up on any obvious implications.

   I’ll say that a high-powered particle accelerator experiment that should have simply confirmed a minor point of particle theory turned up an unexpected result; the beam showed a massive loss of energy which – apparently – just vanished. A number of unexplained phenomena occurred nearby. It was eventually discovered that the energy lost from the particle beam had been stored in nearby matter in a previously-unknown form which was somehow linked to the not-yet-fully-understood phenomena of consciousness – and produced strange effects when channeled and directed (whether accidentally or purposefully) by a conscious wielder.

   It doesn’t matter where I go from there. I now have occultly (as in “a hidden force”) charged talismans which empower exotic effects when manipulated by a skilled user. As long as I set some limits and respect the broader physical rules governing energy (since we have set this up as a form of physically-generated energy), remain self-consistent, and do a decent job of exploring the consequences of this development, I’m still in “firm” SciFi territory – whether or not I ever present an actual theory as to how this is supposed to work. Postulating a new phenomena does not violate any scientific principles as long as I wedge it in somewhere where no one has looked yet.

   Firm SciFi settings stick with the realistic end of things for the most part – except for whatever weird new principles the setting introduces. Quite a lot of SciFi games fall into this category; they may have FTL, giant mecha, some unlikely weapons and gadgets, or psionics – but there will be some kind of underlying principles, there will be firm limits on all of them, and the world will function fairly normally outside of those limits. Most of the “Hard SciFi” rules will still apply.

   If you want to write a game like this, the first questions are going to be “what am I allowing?”, “what limits does it have?”, and “what kind of effects will this have on the world?”. This can be a lot of work; if your answers don’t work together, your game is going to be pretty unsatisfying for a lot of players and game masters. On the other hand, a good job will make for a good game – and a memorable one.

   Rubber SciFi is what you get when the “science” is pretty much “whatever is convenient for the story – but consistent”. “Science” – whether it’s in the form of a set of gadgets or in the form of a self-consistent and well-developed magic system – will perform it’s little miracles in the same way, and with the same limitations, each time. The characters will generally be aware of, and work within, those limits, and will understand the implications of the “sciences” they use – unless it’s a set of imported alien gadgets or some such, in which case they’ll know that there are only so many and what most of the various types do. The laws of physics may be broken all the time, but the laws of logic are in full operation. Quite a lot of Rubber SciFi winds up in the “fantasy” category when you find it in libraries and bookstores. It’s still “Science Fiction”, however, as long as it explores the logical implications of whatever-it-is the setting permits. It’s only when it starts ignoring such implications that it slips over the border into Science Fantasy.

   Most games are actually Rubber SciFi systems, even when they’re set in “Soft” SciFi settings from books and movies. It comes of having to have consistent rules about what the characters and their equipment can do. Fortunately, most such worlds have enough fantastic elements that the characters can be allowed some wish-fulfillment powers, fully abstract injury systems can supplant realistic ones (and allow frequent dramatic, as opposed to rare realistic, combat), and the characters can be substantially “larger than life”. The Star Wars games, most d20 systems, TORG, and older-edition Shadowrun all fall into this category. All you need to do is make sure that your chosen game mechanics are reflected in the setting, and you’re good to go.

   And yes, there’s usually something more satisfying about role-playing a larger-than-life hero than about portraying an average guy. You can have fun playing an average guy – but if your average guy keeps getting into terribly unlikely and dangerous situations, he or she is either going to grow and change quickly, demonstrate amazing powers of coincidental survival (and not be average), or wind up dead in short order.

   Soft SciFi – or “Science Fantasy” – often uses a lot of science fiction trappings, but the demands of the plot, and the “Rule of Cool” (if it’s Cool, it Works), now trumps consistent principles. That kind of setting is easy to write. Whether it’s Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, or the Marvel or DC universes, “technology” does whatever’s good for the storyline, any explanations run towards technobabel, and drama takes precedence over logic. The implications of various technologies will never be explored, and they only affect the setting where that’s convenient for the story. In episodic series, new discoveries will often simply vanish once the episode or arc is over, never to be heard from again.

   Games in this category are easy to write and run. You don’t need any consistent principles, or to do any fact-checking, or even be reasonable. All you need is a character generation system, a list of exotic abilities, and some sort of more-or-less abstract combat and action-resolution system, and you’re good to go. The original Marvel Super Heroes system and Talislanta fell into this group; most things could be played by ear, simply because there was no underlying system.

   Games like this can be a lot of fun to play, but the players often have trouble, simply because it’s hard to figure out solutions (or even what’s going on) when the laws of nature vary wildly. Do solar flares send you back in time or just irradiate you? What will the glowing blue rocks do this time around? Do you stay away from black holes, or dive through them to reach hyperspace? Does gamma radiation kill you, or turn you into the Hulk? Inquiring players want to know – and there’s nothing in the system to tell them.

   The only trouble is that, if they don’t know, their decisions really won’t mean much. That may be all right if you’re running a “preset ending” game – after all, in many worlds the Superheroes always win eventually, you can’t really expect to override the game master in a storytelling style of game, and episodic settings (Star Trek, Futurama) tend to revert to the status quo no matter what you do, so some logic-skips are only to be expected. Still, running a long-term campaign in such settings can be quite difficult. Like it or not, the players usually expect their actions to have rational consequences, and find it jarring if they don’t.

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