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July 9th, 2007

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03:12 pm - Thoughts on Familiarity and Science Fiction Gaming
Thinking some more about my previous post about Star Wars has helped crystallize some of my thoughts about SF gaming. Science Fiction has always been a somewhat problematic genre in gaming. Other than Traveller, and various Star Wars and Star Trek RPGs, no SF RPG has ever done particularly well. Sales have always been dominated by fantasy and modern-day settings, and it has been clear to me for quite a while why this is: familiarity.

In games set in some version of the modern day (including both the fairly recent past and near future settings that are not too wildly divergent) players know roughly what the setting looks like, what their characters are likely to having in their pockets, what walking down the street looks like… If the setting is especially particular and unfamiliar, like post WWII LA, players can watch L.A. Confidential and Chinatown for background details.

The same is true for most fantasy RPG settings – as much as I dislike them, there are a vast number of fantasy novels set in pseudo-medieval, Tolkien-clone settings, and these days there are also a wealth of (generally wretched) movies with similar settings. So, once again, almost every gamer has a basic idea about the setting. The same used to be true of SF. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, space opera made up a vast amount of the SF that was published, and the space opera universe was moderately consistent – characters from H. Beam Piper's Federation, Andre Norton's future history, and Poul Anderson's Terran Empire could all interact fairly well, and the settings are similar enough that roleplaying in a generic space opera universe is possible. From there, GMs can personalize the details of their setting to their taste confident that players will be sufficiently familiar with the basics of blasters, rocket-shaped hyperspace starships, antigrav cars, and suchlike that everyone will be able to easily and swiftly understand the setting. One of the reasons that the various versions of GDW's RPG Traveller from the 1970s and 80s were so successful is that they were all set in a version of this space opera universe, and most people gaming in the 70s and 80s had likely read a fair number of the books it was based upon.

Unfortunately, while fantasy has remained fairly generic despite a vast increase in publishing in the past 25 years, the explosion of SF publishing in the last 25 years has been far more diverse. There's now everything from cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk, to a vast diversity neo-space opera to parallel world and time travel novels many of which are based on vastly different technological and social assumptions. Because cyberpunk is relatively close to the modern day in both time and the details of daily life, and also because there are a fair number of cyberpunk movies and a sense of a generic cyberpunk world, cyberpunk gaming took off in the late 1980s and did will for almost a decade. However, for space-traveling SF settings, the situation is far more difficult.

However, there is nothing remotely resembling the consensus about the look and feel of the space-traveling future that was found in most SF of the 1950s & 60s. Options range from Charles Stross Acclerando and other heavily transhumanist SF, to Jack McDevitt's old-style space opera, to Alastair Reynold's and Linda Nagata's new-style STL space operas. Also, because there is so much SF being published (especially compared to the 1950s & 60s) there is no guarantee that people in a gaming group will have read the same SF novels or even the same sub-genres of SF novels. As a result, common assumptions of what a space-traveling setting looks like are few and far between and so running or playing in a space-traveling SF game is difficult, because some people are thinking of Poul Anderson's grav cars, blasters and well-muscled human heroes, and others are thinking of Charles Stross enhanced posthumans and data-warfare. Reconciling these different views is difficult and everyone agreeing what street scenes look like and what a character is likely to carry in their pockets can be even more challenging.

However, almost every gamer has seen lots of Star Trek and Star Wars. With movies, TV show, and a wealth of novels and technical guides the look and feel of both settings is well known. You also have Babylon 5, Stargate and Farscape (which unsurprisingly were all made into RPGs), which were both around long enough to produce easily identifiable settings. Also, and perhaps of equal importance, all five shows clearly have their roots in the space opera of the 1950s & 60s. Star Wars & Babylon 5 both look a whole lot like E.E. Smith's Lensman setting, and the other three all fit into various standard old-style space opera molds.

In any case, what this means on a smaller-scale is that widely familiar settings like Star Trek and Star Wars are excellent choices for SF gaming, because every member of a gaming group is likely at least moderately familiar with the setting. This also says to me that either of these settings would make a good choice for a non-specific SF game, which need have nothing to do with Starfleet, Jedi, or any of the other specific features that are foregrounded in most media involving either setting. Instead, I can see either either setting as the basis for a standard SF merchant or exploration campaign, and having an excellent time.

In contrast, literary-based settings are going to be more difficult to run, unless most or all of the members of the gaming group have all read the same books. Extensively detailed RPG settings like Trinity or GURPS: Transhuman Space face very similar problems. However, the most difficult SF settings to use in a game are any sort of homebrew SF setting.

As much as I would dearly love to play in or co-run a coherently worked out setting using Centauri Knights as a basis, with wormhole travel (expanded to a large wormhole network) and other elements from Blue Planet and perhaps some elements from GDW's 2300 AD, unless everyone else I game is willing to both read Centauri Knights cover to cover and also read several Linda Nagata and Alastair Reynolds novels to help understand the inspirations for such a setting, it's simply not practical because translating my idea of the setting to other people who are not familiar with most or all of the inspirations I'm using is impressively difficult.

Of course, all of these observations apply most strongly to immersive detail-focused traditional RPGs, but given that I have absolutely no interest in any other sorts of RPGs, I'm happy with those limits.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2007 02:30 am (UTC)
I agree with your assessment, but I also add that specific settings are sometimes too familiar. A fanboy friend of mine left a game because the GM changed the Jedi too much from how they were in the comics and movies. The GM had the Jedi smoking cigarettes and babysitting drug addict senators. A more generic setting like Dungeons and Dragons or World of Darkness creates, allows for familiarity with the overall system based on a genre, but is not any of the particular series, therefore fan girls/boys can play without getting all butt-hurt that the GM is taking creative license. In fact, I hear players gushing about how a new GM runs WoD differently and it is so cool.
[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2007 05:27 am (UTC)
There’s probably an art to crafting a set of adventures that introduce players to the world without requiring extensive background information; you’d need a gimmick like “corpsicles brought out of cold freeze”, “bumpkins from colony world that lost tech and has recently been recontacted”, or “refugees from a criminally operated virtual reality have been decanted into physical bodies for humanitarian reasons before shutting down the outlaw VR”. (I have one campaign planned that has three phases inspired respectively by Stargate SG-1, Transhuman Space, and Farscape, with the players getting from the first to the second using coldsleep to survive in a dying starship, but that’s still in a very early stage...) A possibility would be creating some pregenerated characters and handing them out for a few scenarios where the players get to roleplay through some key historical events and get used to the system, and then create their own characters who live in the world that they helped create.

One interesting challenge is having a mix of players who would happily tear through that whole stack of background material (e.g.: me), and others who just want to get to the roleplaying with a minimum of learning rules (e.g.: my wife). The former type can help the latter type out (at character generation time, and playing a character who is in the role of guide), but it’s important to make sure they have a good grip on how the world is supposed to work.

[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2007 05:46 am (UTC)
An interesting discussion, and probably bang-on. I am glad to see a shout-out to Blue Planet, my all-time favorite SFRPG setting.

I would argue that the other reason why mass media-based SF thrives in the RPG medium when more "literary" SF doesn't, so much, has to do with the fact that television and movie science fiction isn't just visually familiar and accessible, it's also narratively relatively straightforward. SF novels can and do explore ambiguities and complexities having to do with technology, transhumanism, etc., that daunt many a roleplayer; whereas even as labyrinthine a plot as Babylon 5 offers ultimately tells stories in a limited number of narrative modes, using familiar tropes. Star Wars doesn't just offer a world where everyone knows what a lightsaber looks and sounds like -- it offers one where everyone knows what to do with one, too.
[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2007 06:53 am (UTC)
I somewhat agree, but only after the mid 1970s SF. I can do plots from E.E. Smith's Grey Lensman, Poul Anderson's A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows or Andre Norton's Android At Arms (which features one of the best party introductions and game concepts that I've ever seen) in RPGs as easily as I can do Star Wars or Star Trek plots. In fact, given the nature of many Star Trek plots, it's often easier to do classic space opera plots than Star Trek plots.

OTOH, when you get to Stross Accelerando or Reynold's Revelation Space ideas become as important as plot and things become more complicated. However, that's not to say that useful novels don't exist today - Eluki Bes Shahar's (aka Rosemary Edghill) Hellflower trilogy or David Trowbridge and Sherwood Smith's Exordium series are both modern space opera series that are full of exactly the sorts of situations that one can find in Farscape or many good SF RPG campaigns.

The problem I see is that the setting of those two series are moderately different from on another and vastly different from the space operas of Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, or Linda Nagata, and among those four authors you also find significant differences in style, tone, tech, and general ideas about the setting. There is plenty of good written SF that is massively gameable. I could do much coolness with the setting from Reynold's Pushing Ice, but because it's just one novel, I'd have to make a whole lot of it up. I could also run riproaringly fun adventures with the setting from the Hellflower trilogy. However, there is absolutely no way to put them together, and little way to explain either setting w/o having the entire gaming group read the books.

I'm not much of a dramatist gamer and so have no problem with (and often enjoy) decoupling story from setting. Essentially, I see a difference between the sorts of stories you can do with the setting while still respecting the setting and taking it seriously, and the sorts of stories TV and movie writers do with the setting, and I see the first category as being vastly larger than the second. I can see doing a Firefly/Farscape/</em>Traveller</em> style merchant campaign in both the Star Trek universe and the Star Wars universe. Clearly both settings have private merchant starships, so everything you could do in any standard space opera setting with a merchant campaign you can do in either of those settings. Naturally, the setting would greatly impact these stories. For example, merchants are going to be keeping phasers strictly on stun when dealing with sentient beings in the Star Trek universe and can also call on the Federation for help, while Star Wars merchant ships will be well armed and PCs will have blasters at the ready. However, I can also see doing the a Star Wars merchant campaign where not only does no one play a Jedi, but the PCs likely run into one no more than once during the entire campaign.

My problem with non-video SF settings is that they are now vastly more idiosyncratic than they used to be 20 years ago. I love reading such novels far more than most older fiction, and honestly, I love gaming in such settings better than in more generic ones, but doing the later is considerably more work, and from a commercial standpoint, it seems almost universally doomed to failure.
[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC)
I would extend this issue to real life. We have people walking around with vastly different conceptions of how "real life" works based on vastly different cultural and media experiences. This results in what I refer to as "No-Brainer Divergences", ie to many people it's a no-brainer that gay marriage should be allowed, to other people it's a no-brainer that marriage is "one-man, one-woman". I think this is a result of the increase in cultural and media diversity. Which isn't to say that I think we should do away with such diversity, but that we need to be aware of its' consequences and start to develop techniques to ameliorate the negative ones.
[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2007 09:52 pm (UTC)
Thank you Ken, I had not considered that angle, but I'm fairly certain you are correct. With increasingly diverse and specialized media (including everything from many-channel cable TV with it's increasing number of specialty channels, to the ability to rent almost any movie imaginable through Netflix, to the internet, the mainstream consensus of the radio and broadcast TV era is gone. Studies a decade ago showed that US teens watched the major broadcast channels no more often than any other TV channels and that TV preference was based on sub-culture rather than TV having served as a medium for shared mass culture like when you and I were children.

I'm all for this, for both practical and spiritual reasons (diversity, along with intelligence are my two primary spiritual principles), but it does make living in a large and diverse (the US now being by far the most ethnically and religiously diverse nation on the planet) nation exceptionally complicated - I think there's a lot to be said for balkanization as a solution.

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