I'm a little late with this, but last week Play on Target released a new episode covering Science-Fiction gaming. This complements our previous show on Star Wars. We've discussed particular genres before: Supers and Horror. Throughout you'll hear and interesting shift as some of our love/hate with this genre comes through. Or maybe attraction/frustration might be a better way to put that. This episode ended much longer than we expected. Part of that comes from a split in the middle of the recording session. We had to catch up with the second half after a week break. It might be hard to notice over my domination of the conversation...
Since this is my 993rd post I’m filling these entries with countdowns as we head to 1000, therefore....
EIGHT THOUGHTS ON SCI-FI ROLEPLAYING
- The Philip K Dick Problem: We talk a ton about sources in our discussion, mostly novels and some of the big property series (BSG, Star Trek). I’m not sure exactly why, but we rely more on touchstones here than in our other genre episodes. That poses a problem for me; if I had to pick my favorite sci-fi author it’d be either Philip K. Dick or Howard Waldrop. On the one hand you’ve got surreal, psycho-social spec-fi and on the other you’ve got mostly dense, alt-history short stories. I’m not sure I could do either of those justice at the table, even with something like Shock. Maybe one of Waldrop’s frames could work for a one-shot, but it'd be challenging to bring the twist.
- The Polemical Posit: Shock’s an interesting game which puts the social and philosophical implications of science fiction at the forefront. It’s easy to forget how much science-fiction literature addresses these issues, across the spectrum. Heinlein, Brunner, Russ, Delany, Le Guin, and many more have offer rich settings and stories delving into those questions instead of just space-ships and laser guns. So why don’t we have more of these ideas in games? Like games, most pop-culture sci-fi addresses these themes only loosely or in snippets (Black Mirror for example). The same seems to hold true for sci-fi rpgs. The obvious answer is that games focus on escapism. Is that the case, or is there more to it?
- The Gender Divide: I have a goofy memory of being certain as a kid that boys read sci-fi and girls read fantasy. I’m not sure where I got that. My sister read voraciously and omnivorously. She always went three or four times as fast and I ran through books rapidly. I think I wanted to differentiate myself from her, so I created this split in my head. I'd probably seen her reading a fantasy series. So I worked through Asimov, Herbert, Niven, and so on. But at some point I shifted; I started enjoying more marginally sci-fi books like Moorcock’s "Cornelius" volumes, Lem’s Cyberiad, Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle. That eventually led to fantasy books that sucked me in, mostly notably Tanith Lee's work.
- The Power Supremacy: Weirdly I left off from our recording the sci-fi gaming I’m most comfortable with: superhero games. In my Superhero History lists, I talked about the supers sub-genre that aims for a “realism.” It eschews magic and the supernatural. Where that appears, it becomes a kind of Hyper-Science (Supreme Power, Warren Ellis’ Wildstorm work or the explanation of Asgard in the recent Marvel films). My two longest-running superhero campaigns had strictly “scientific” rationales for powers. In one, a PC claimed to have magic and the others continually joked about that. In rpgs, several games explicitly take this approach for very different results: Aberrant, Underground, eCollapse. In fact, these games all share a tone: focusing on the impact of such powers on the world.
- The Reese's Collision: On the other hand, I can handle fantastic elements in my superheroes (I dig Astro City and the DC Universe for example). But usually I’m not so fond of sci-fi in my fantasy. I’ve never been a big fan of the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks mix of things. These kinds of revelations have undercut my enjoyment of books like Tepper’s “True Game” series and Wurts’ Stormwarden. In rpgs, even if the GM wants to have those ancient lost technologies, it shouldn’t break the fiction at all. In fact, I think it’s better if the players remain unaware or uncertain of that. All of this may explain why Spelljammer leaves me cold.
- The ET Paradox: Here’s another genre question: where do modern conspiracy games fall on the sci-fi continuum? Hidden Invasion, for example, which has the PCs fighting back against an alien assault. Strangely, that’s the only one I can think of. Most of the other games in the genre add in magic and fantastical elements: Conspiracy X, Dark*Matter, Over the Edge. There’s almost the sense that just sci-fi isn’t enough to hold the players’ attention or give them enough choices. They might be right given the modest success of modern sci-fi conspiracy shows (New War of the Worlds, Dark Skies, The Invaders).
- The Mecha Maneuver: While skip over it in the episode, except for our Robotech digression, I don’t think you can overstate the impact of manga and anime on science-fiction gaming. Cyberpunk may have begun influenced by Gibson’s work, but it quickly absorbed the style elements of Bubblegum Crisis and Appleseed. That’s spilled over into many other sci-fi sub-genres. We wouldn’t have Mechwarrior & Heavy Gear, Teenagers from Outer Space, Double Cross, Cthulhupunk, and a host of other games without it. Or at least they wouldn’t look the same. Beyond design elements, anime offered an approach which hand-waved science while embracing “Science” as a theme.
- The Ego Principle: I can pick three pure science-fiction games/settings I’d run today. Ashen Stars would be top on that list, albeit with a seriously reduced and condensed skill list. I like the concept of “problem-solvers” for hire from that. The abandoned space setting presented makes sense and has lots of room. Second would be Fringeworthy, done straight with questions of exploration, contamination, and interaction with unusual societies. That game came out well before Stargate and has almost exactly the same premise. Finally, I’d probably run Star Wars if push came to shove. I’m leaving out sub-genre games here- I can think of some Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic, Cyberpunk, or Supers games I’d like to run.
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