Science Fiction is Hard

Most of the gaming that I have done – both GMing and playing – has been fantasy. Whether it was Dungeons and Dragons (or one of its various offshoots, such as Pathfinder), Ars Magica, Runequest, Warhammer, Legend of the Five Rings or whatever, fantasy has been the sort of gaming that I’ve done the most of.

Which is possibly unusual, since I prefer Science Fiction to Fantasy in other sorts of media that I consume. So why haven’t I run as much SF?

In RPGs, I’ve always found SF to be harder to run. With a few exceptions, SF often lends itself to a more complicated environment which is harder to understand, come up with plots for and manage as a GM.

Firstly, I’ve generally found that the learning curve for both players and GMs is often a lot easier in fantasy. Many fantasy settings are based on historical Europe, often inspired by Tolkien. Everyone understands what a village looks like, or how a horse works. Many of the choices available to player characters are also shared, such as elves, dwarves, fighters and wizards.

Except for some well known franchises, there’s often little that’s shared between science fiction settings. As well as the general lack of common default ‘races’, what things look like and how they work can be radically different. In one, it can take months to cross a solar system, in another the galaxy can be crossed in a matter of days. The level of technology can vary greatly – some have computers from the 70s, others have advanced AIs and system spanning networks that give instant access to information.

How galactic empires, trade and space combat works often all needs to be explained because players often lack the concepts they can safely assume for fantasy. Telling player’s that they’re starting the campaign as owners of a horse drawn wagon will evoke very similar pictures in everyone’s heads. Telling them that they’re owners of a small star freighter will require a lot of explaining.

And this is compounded by the fact that in most fantasy settings, the players know more than their characters. Characters often know very little about the world because information travels slowly and education is rare, whilst players often know far more from reading the blurb at the front of the book, or just through basic historical knowledge. Even with non-European settings (and I’m writing as a European) such as Five Rings or Maztica, there are enough similarities and basic historical knowledge from school to give people a good start. Even a setting based on the Songhai Empire would probably have enough shared features to get started, even though it was a topic largely ignored by my education system.

Taking a game like Traveller, Eclipse Phase or Mechwarrior, there’s nothing historical that players can draw upon. Unless they’ve actually read up on the setting before hand, the characters know significantly more than the players. Not only that, but it’s really easy for a character to find out things by looking up the information on a computer system, or even doing a video call halfway across the galaxy to talk to a potential contact.

Compared to fantasy, where PCs may need to walk to the next village to find out what’s there (allowing the GM to throw in an encounter to delay having to come up with information until the next session), it means that the GM also needs to have a lot more information at their fingertips.

These issues are somewhat simplified in popular settings such as Star Wars, Babylon 5 or Star Trek, where the players may know a considerable amount of lore, and also have images from TV and films to draw upon to get a feel of the setting. This might be way I’ve generally found Star Wars relatively easy to run compared to other SF settings.

But the final problem I have with Science Fiction settings is that it can be harder to come up with sensible plots. An SF setting is often (not always) a lot more civilised than the frontier edge of most fantasy games where the players are often the only viable enforcers of the law.

In a modern day or futuristic setting, there is often a complicated civilisation and set of laws. If there are problems, then the police or army will get involved – there’s little room for a bunch of vigilantes. Breaking into a suspected necromancer’s tower is all in a day’s work in a fantasy game, but if you want to do the same for some suspected drug lord’s (or cultist’s) warehouse in the middle of a high tech city – it’s going to be a lot harder. There’s a whole legal system in place which makes doing it illegal, and a much better set of investigators to find who was responsible.

Urban based fantasy campaigns also have the legal systems, but you don’t need to worry about CCTV, or leaving behind fingerprints or DNA evidence. We’ve been causing a lot of property damage in our Zweihänder game, but the city officials have no way to trace it to us. Fantasy often has well defined enemies as well – undead, orcs, demons etc which nobody cares if you kill. Unless you’re in a military campaign, that’s not often the case in SF.

So in science fiction, PCs often have to work within the law, and there also needs to be a reason why the normal legal apparatus isn’t getting involved. There are fewer potential enemies which aren’t protected by those legal systems, meaning direct violence is less often an option.

This doesn’t apply to all SF settings, especially space opera settings like Star Wars where Stormtroopers are the equivalent of Orcs and Undead, and always viable targets, and in Dark Heresy you are the Imperial Stormtroopers so can get away with a lot of things.

So not all of these issues apply to all game settings, but I’ve found they’re quite common.

I’m currently running Traveller, and still trying to figure out how to run adventures in that setting. I’ve relied a lot more on published scenarios than I’ve generally done in fantasy, but I’m now branching out into my own scenarios and giving the players a bit more freedom in what they want to do.

How well that will go I don’t know. I’m trying to flesh out more of the background ahead of time in order to come up with plot lines and patrons the PCs might be interested in. The fact that PCs can move between several planets in a single session means I need to think in a broader scope than I might do for most fantasy. But it’s an interesting challenge.

Samuel Penn