Science Fiction versus Fantasy Cage Fight

Science Fiction versus Fantasy Cage Fight

Okay, we can do this. Question #9 of the #12rpg thing.

#9: You’re planning to run some science fiction, in a setting of your choice. Is there any particular technology you want to include because the possibilities intrigue you? Is there any standard piece of “future technology” you’d rather leave out?

Aaaaallright, I’m gonna be super ultra charitable about the trad assumptions Paul Mitchener is bringing to this question especially, because sci-fi is my jammiest of jams.

There’s a question, I think, at the core of this and #3 (the fantasy one) about the purpose of science fiction and fantasy. That’s some deep litcrit navel-gazing and there are others far more qualified than I am to answer it. But in the realm of RPGs, I have Opinions.

Since this particular question, and my approach to it, fundamentally requires understood and shared definitions, I’ll start with those. I have no interest in relitigating my premise, so if you want to participate or comment on these things as I see them I welcome you to it! Especially my women club members. Just like during #indiegameaday, I’m getting bummed out by the dude-heavy comments.

(Basically, if you’re a dude and want to reject my premise, feel free to start your own thread. I promise you do not need to pee in my yard. Plus me in! I’d love to participate.)

When I’m thinking about fantasy, the themes that come to my mind are exploration and psychology. Like, learning and building on what is known and understood. It’s an unearthing. I’m also generally more interested in interpersonal relationships and thought modes in fantasy. Fantasy has been a really great platform for me to think through how people got to be how they are today.

When I’m thinking about science fiction, the themes that come to my mind are about extrapolation and current events. Extrapolation is fun because it is, in my heart, an essentially hopeful extension of my own life. Like, I’ll never see interstellar travel but maybe my daughter will! Or my dad may never talk to a conscious AI but some kind of intelligence will probably aid him in his final years. You know, stuff like that. On the commentary front, I’m generally not super keyed into on-the-nose metaphors when I run games, but I think they inevitably find their way in. And current tensions in the world make for great inspirations if I want to run a science fiction game that cares about theme. Sometimes I just want a space adventure! Which I think moves it back into how I think about fantasy, above: exploration and psychology.

If I’m thinking about actual science fiction and not space opera or futuristic adventure, sure, there are some technologies that get me feeling extra-speculative:

* All the variations on non-realistic space travel, you know, wormholes and stargates and hyperdrives and jump lanes. All of that. Because the first place I go is the logististics of where the pain points play out in society. One of my favorite weird little Traveller bits was that you needed ships to haul mail (and data I suppose, never really followed Traveller in the internet age) between worlds. Neat!

* If we’re going realistic space travel, then inevitably you’ll need some small handwave to make it possible and interesting. So like the balance they’ve achieved in The Expanse, I dig that. The Epstein drive makes the solar system accessible, but it’s also limited. It’s what makes the three-maybe-four-maybe-five sided conflict in that setting possible. So that’s cool too, right up to the moment my science-minded players start picking apart the other science. Then it gets super not-fun.

(So basically bullets 1 and 2, “space travel,” is huge for me.)

* The notion of being able to move one’s consciousness into different bodies, or just generally treating it like a software problem, is super fascinating. Not a single RPG has taken this on in a way that interests me, though. (No, not even Eclipse Phase. Please stop recommending Eclipse Phase.) It’s probably at the top of my sci-fi premises that I’d like to figure out someday.

* I’m a huge goober for time travel, but I hesitate to call that “technology.” I mean it is, but that’s kind of not the point. My favorite abstract game design problem, because all the best time travel is entirely about the people doing it, not the tech itself.

* I confess I’m super jazzed about the focus on augmented reality in The Veil. Probably because it seems so inevitable from where we are today. Everyone’s an unreliable witness to their lived experience! Amazing. It’s gonna wreck civilization.

Stuff that just doesn’t get me going:

* Psionics. Mehhhh. Magic dressed up with science-y words.

* Cybernetics, I think, are just … generally not well handled. Superpower upgrades are just dumb, but so is cyberpsychosis. There’s gotta be a better way.

* Cyberspace feels overplayed and unlikely, at least in its 80s era Shadowrun style iteration.

In every one of these cases, though, I think it’s just that the topic hasn’t grabbed me long enough to think through how I’d make it my own. Honestly there isn’t a single showstopper tech or futuristic idea for me. Well, maybe psionics.

One thing this question’s trad assumptions leaves out entirely is the realm of social science fiction. I’ve been itching to get a game of Shock: up and going, because it’s just so clever. If you don’t know the game: you basically come up with a grid of technologies, rows and columns (two by two I think? Maybe?). The intersections create questions that you then explore through the society of your setting. So maybe your row is “immortality” and “generation ships” and your column is “self aware AI” and “suicide booths.” Then you’d have these intersections to play with, immortality vs suicide booths, or whatever. It’s the single smartest sci-fi authoring tool I’ve ever come across.

There’s also the freeform space that social scifi opens up. I’ve designed a few of them myself! Last year’s Game Chef finalist, Intake, uses a futuristic setting to dress up a contemporary issue (immigration). Rachel E.S. Walton ‘s Mars 244 is a terrific, wrenching melodrama in three-or-so acts between the crew of a rescue vessel and escaped prisoners headed to a bad end. I liked Montsegur 1244 but I loooooved Mars 244, I think probably because “futuristic” people have a more accessible contemporary head space. It takes less creative energy, I guess, than trying to internalize the values and beliefs of ancient peoples who actually existed – and of course the tension of “getting it right” and “not being a perfectionist.”

And in conclusion: I have a dream RPG I’d love to design someday. It’s dumb, though, because it involves a license and I almost certainly cannot make back what it would cost. Anyway! I’d love to someday build a game that uses the cards from Race for the Galaxy to create situations and settings. It is such a rich implied setting. It’d probably be more space adventure than Actual Serious Science Fiction, but it’s been niggling at me for a decade now.

0 thoughts on “Science Fiction versus Fantasy Cage Fight”

  1. I’m just going to plus one for now. As ever you’ve given me food for thought.

    I agree it’s an important distinction between science fiction and space opera (which is basically fantasy which happens to be in space, which is to recognise what it is rather than to knock it).

    I also dislike lots of the cyberpunk assumptions. Why would someone graft tools onto their body, when external tools are easier to replace/upgrade and easier to service, as well as having the same functionality?

  2. While I definitely feel that Psionics and time travel (with some exceptions) are basically just fantasy … I wonder how you feel about cybernetic psionics? Things like direct brain comm (fairly ubiquitous in Ghost in the Shell) … is that still too “super-power”? Nano-machines+ telepresence ~= visible telekinesis … bio-metric sensors giving your doctor “super powers” of perception? Possibly directly if they’ve got complimentary implants?
    I guess what I’m asking is, if your Psionics are informed by, and explained with, technology/cybernetics … and not just handwaved … is that enough to move it to the realm of SF for you?

  3. Yanni Cooper it can, but it seems like a lot of work to rationalize stuff you could probably do with just…tools.

    Maybe not the nano stuff. That is a great handwave! I even used it in my collapsed-future Torchbearer game to justify all kinds of magic. When they defeated an animated skeleton, the out of control healing nanites would leave in a cloud of grey in search of other corpses in need of “healing.”

  4. The Race RPG sounds great, almost using the cards like a quasi Tarot. (I mean, not quite because Tarot is emphatically not literal, but you get the gist.)

    I’ve really been coming to appreciate the impact of travel in a space setting, especially because of the Expanse series. (Oh just you wait…) Distance fuels culture and relationships, and you can see that even now. Families spread out across the USA because you can fly coast to coast in a matter of hours! Now imagine that prior massive distances like “Earth to Jupiter” undergo that transition. What does that mean for society?

    (I really dig communication tech too, ever since reading Ender’s Game, and I think it’s pretty much the same dynamic, just applied to a less personal sphere.)

  5. Ah great! I was about to post that link.

    “Human Contact” is the next iteration of Shock: but I don’t know if it’s more than a small PDF. I have some version of it here and it seems ashcanny. Maybe Joshua can explain better.

  6. The full Human Contact is much longer than the original Shock: and is available (like all my PDFs) to subscribers to my Patreon! ! – Joshua A.C. Newman is creating xenoglyph | Patreon

    Also, I’m working toward Shock:2, and have been doing critical essays in that direction. I’m almost done with that series and am hoping to reach the next goal of $340/post (about 3 a month) in the near future so I can start publishing playable experiments! You can help that happen by telling everyone in every science fiction/gaming circle about it (and, of course, backing me if you can)!

  7. Paul Beakley, yeah, I did some early playtest pamphlet things. I’ve been basically publishing games as a developmental series for years now so people can play with it and I can get feedback as part of the creation process. It’s pretty much what I’m doing with The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze. Soon as I get my shit together, there will be a lushly-illustrated, color edition of it. But the design has been done for almost a year, and the game’s been published in increasing scale for almost three years now, starting with literally a business card.

  8. Oh! I should say that a new edition of Human Contact is really the reason I’m working on Shock:2. It’s only out of print because I don’t think Shock:1.2 (or even the exceedingly rare 1.3, only available in Italian) is up to the task of making it flow the way I want.

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