Although I like listening to people talk about “What is Sci Fi?” I’ve never really cared what the answer was – I just like what I like.
However I watched a couple of youtube vids which touched on / extended the question to “What is a good sci fi RPG?” (which i’ll extend to games generally as i’m currently mostly messing with board games) and this made me think about the subject more as “what is a good sci fi game?” is built on top of “what is (good) sci fi?”
The two vids were:
What is (Good) Science Fiction?
The original core of it is hinted at in the name “Science Fiction” and more so if you include the other name it often went by in the past “Speculative Fiction.” If you join the two with emphasis added to stress the point you get “Speculative-Science Fiction” i.e. fiction based on speculative science.
I think most classic science fiction from Frankenstein onwards has that – you take some aspect of science or technology, extend it into the future and then speculate about some of the possible logical conclusions. This doesn’t have to involve space at all e.g. genetic engineering, extreme longevity, AI, robots etc.
If it does involve space then it either means STL ships and speculating on the logical consequences of that e.g. generation ships, sleepers etc or some as yet impossible FTL travel – and the logical consequences of that.
It doesn’t have to be focused on physical science either – it can also revolve around the social consequences of science / technology
Speculative-Science Fiction and Games
Given this definition a good Speculative Science game might be a game that provided a solid platform for a kind of “Trope of the Week” type of gameplay. The rules would be fairly generic as each episode would revolve around some issue caused by a different trope and the solution of that issue would depend on the particular trope.
Trope of the Week Design
This could be designed
- around creating a series of one offs with different, probably pre-generated, characters facing a different trope each session like a separate movie
- around the platform of an episodic series where the same characters travel around bumping into examples of particular tropes.
Some examples of the latter design might be
- Fallout: surviving vaults that went down different paths coming out and creating wasteland towns based on some social concept or other, the players are part of a caravan traveling from vault to vault
- Traveller: a human imperium collapses leaving the isolated colonies to evolve in different directions, similar to the above except the players are in a space ship and the physical planetary conditions could drive the social concepts or add physical adaptations
- Star Trek: as above except unexplored space so using aliens as proxy humans
- Others: Stargates, Timeslips etc
So once you have the platform that allows players to bump into a series of “trope of the week” encounters then you need your list of tropes to encounter.
The GM would mine existing sci fi movies and books for a concept and then build a game session or mini campaign around one of them at a time.
However there’s a problem.
Sunshine is one of my fave sci fi movies and i think it sits squarely in the realm of speculative science fiction i.e. the speculation is the sun is dying and the team set off to fix it. Now whether this is *plausibly* scientific or not, I don’t think matters, it’s a sci fi premise and makes people think sci fi thoughts about stars, God, survival etc.
It also tries to have a realistic feel – at least in the sense of what people today imagine to be realistic when it comes to space flight – which i think helps to reinforce the speculative part.
Some of those elements are:
– fragile spacecraft: unless building them in space, everything has to be lifted from the planet hence minimum weight is an issue
– sling shotting to reduce fuel
– shielding: radiation, mini asteroids etc
– resources: DIY oxygen with plants
(apparently they had a clever explanation for the artificial gravity but it didn’t pan out hence the lack of spinning)
So if Sunshine is good sci fi (imo) how would it do in a standard sci fi RPG game?
Not that great in my experience.
A Series of Interesting Decisions
One well-known definition of a good game is “a series of interesting decisions.” That may not be a 100% perfect definition but it works for me.
(This is why imo combat encounters are such a big deal in RPGs as combat naturally provides lots of decisions in a dramatic life or death context. As well as the tactical decisions there’s also the resource management decisions with the players managing wounds/health/hit points and maybe limited special attack types or equipment.)
However in most speculative-science fiction there is little or no combat. It’s often very talky, often almost a science detective game and the non-combat obstacles generally involve journeys, mishaps and either repairing technology or manufacturing special technology.
If you picture the events of Sunshine as RPG encounters most of them are either social interactions or repairing stuff and most sci fi RPGs will have character skills for social interaction and repairs so most of the dramatic events of the movie would boil down to a few engineering skill checks.
Some game types can get around this easily – like a first person sci fi RPG where if you need to go outside in your space suit to fix something the game can make navigating around your ship via little puffs of air into a risky mini-game.
So I think turning speculative-science non-adventure sci fi into a game requires turning whatever their equivalent of combat encounters is into an alternative form of drama involving a series of interesting decisions.
(For example a lot of sci fi involves a journey to the boss encounter and one way to make it more dramatic might be to copy the “The One Ring”‘s idea of a journey as a kind of resource management process. Various mishaps on the journey and the player’s characters success or otherwise at dealing with them, as well as possibly losing NPCs, equipment etc along the way, add to a cumulative “strain” score which affects how prepared the players will be for the boss encounter at the end.)
I don’t know if there is a sci fi rpg like this but there are probably social / narrative / detective type RPGs which have interesting mechanics for the social interaction / NPC malfunction part and maybe mechanics for non-combat encounters which can be reworked to make things like repairing stuff more dramatic so probably the best bet for a game like this is find one of those and add the sci fi.
I’d guess an actual game book based on this idea would be light on rules and heavy on examples of book/movie plots reworked into game sessions.
“I’ve done one-shots similar to stories like Sunshine. True, there may not be a lot of combat in a game session. I treat combat as I do any other skill. And not all characters will have such a skill. So other skills are made use of instead of combat.”
Yeah, i’m not saying it can’t be done with standard RPG rules. I’m mostly wondering about how non-combat mechanics from other games might be applied to space journey type situations.
Part 2 – Space Fantasy