Friday, September 10, 2010

Open Friday: Science Fiction RPGs

Needless to say, this week I've been obsessed with science fiction topics and likely will be for some time to come (more on that later). Historically, though, SF has been an "also ran" genre of the hobby. There have been science fiction RPGs aplenty, even a few very successful ones, but, by and large, their success pales in comparison to fantasy.

So, today's question for discussion is this: why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games? Is it something inherent to the subject matter or is it simply a matter of presentation? That is, has there been some flaw in previous SF RPGs that have limited their appeal, a flaw that could possibly be fixed?

I'm still trying to catch up on various things, so I need to be intermittently online today, unlike most Fridays. Expect no further posts today, as usual, since my online presence is mostly to play catch-up rather than anything else.


  1. Just speculation on my part here, but I wonder if it's because fantasy settings make it easier to create that 'unholy goulash' of mythology+pulp fantasy+high fantasy+fairy tale+weird tale that many fantasy games cover.

    With science fiction, it seems harder to blend hard sci-fi+space opera+cyberpunk+speculative fiction+alternate history.

    People's minds aren't as quick to reject the idea of Conan, Sir Galahad, Circe and Rand al'Thor teaming up to battle orcs, minotaurs, Chthuloid horrors and dragons.

    They are more likey to reject the idea of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Malcolm Reynolds, Neo and Robbie the Robot teaming up to battle hackers, galactic princes, strange star-spawn, Romulans, and tentacle-aliens in flying saucers.

  2. I think the main factor is broad consensus on what constitutes a fantasy world (elves, dwarves, magic, orcs, dragons, castles, swords) versus the vast and varied scope of science fiction.

    I'm not suggesting that there are no other types of fantasy than the Tolkien-meets-Howard-meets-mythical Earth history, but that milieu is far more "standard" than any science fiction world I can think of.

    Perhaps another factor is the ability to limit starting characters to a village or kingdom, as opposed to the frankly imposing task of creating and refereeing an entire galaxy.

  3. It's the science part. People don't like science. Fantasy you can just make up stuff and it's legit.

  4. I can't even keep up on gadgets and how they relate to life now. I don't even carry my cell phone with me and I don't even know how to hang the damn thing up after someone calls me at home. I follow a couple of game design types on Twitter and they're constantly talking "apps" and I don't understand a damn bit of what they're talking about. I've never used an mp3 player and blah blah blah.

    How am I supposed to conceptualize the future? I couldn't even run a reasonably believable present-day game because I'm not familiar enough with the setting. :P

  5. Many fantasy stories have historical elements the anyone can relate to, ie knights in armour wielding swords rescuing damsels in distress.And in the modern media fantasy was given a more serious treatment perhaps because of this historical relevance. Whereas Science Fiction in its relative newness was an unknown quantity. And was given to being thought of as "kids stuff". The slap-dash low budget productions in the 50's and 60's did much to reinforce this idea. It took until Star Wars for a more mature attitude towards the genre.

  6. I think fantasy tales are about creating myths, ala Gilgamesh or Beowulf, while science fiction tales are about creating prophecies, ala Blade Runner or 1984. People would rather play a character in an epic myth than a prophecy. It seems more archetypal somehow, good vs. evil, and less ambiguous and morally gray. There is enough of the latter in real life.

  7. I thing Fantasy is more popular than SF because it has more to offer gamers looking for wish fulfillment fantasies and power tripping ie Munchkin powergamers.

    I've observed most Fantasy RPG (often level based) rulesets are easier for power gamers to exploit than (mostly skill based) SF ones. An ambitious D&D Magic User can aspire to be a 20th level Wizard and god-emperor of his domain. The best a Traveller Space Pilot can probably hope for is to get better at shuttle driving.

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  9. I've tried several SF settings, including Rifts, certain GURPS supplements, Alternity, and even Dragonstar (Now there was a strange experiment). None of them resonated particularly with myself or anyone in my group, and I think the problem comes down to complexity and innovation, and how the two interact. In a fantasy game it's fairly easy to say "I want to magic-up some stuff" and, through rolls and quests, make nearly anything happen. Magic systems don't tend to be sketched out in exhaustive detail, and the very real presence of mythical beings, gods, and demons lets everything about reality feel a little more morphic. People don't spend a lot of time questioning how gnomes came about, or why Minotaur females are depicted with only two breasts instead of an udder in the middle of their abdomen. It's all just magic, and gods are crazy, and pick up your sword because that lizard in a monocle at the door wants the village's nubile women.

    A science fiction setting, on the other hand, have to make the choice between providing a set of very specific, defined available technologies and their effects, or provide none of that and let people wave their hands around in superscience. If you go with the former, by the time all the rules are crafted and set games tend to feel less "heroic" than DnD. After all, most armed forces today use, at minimum, guns to conduct their warfare. You can shoot someone from miles away, or blow up his city from orbit. It's difficult to have knock-down, drag-out fights when everyone is armed with a plasma emitter, because the lethality is either ridiculous and instant or countered by personal force fields and ceramic armors in such a way that the guns feel pointless. The same problems crop up with vehicle combat, whether it be space based or something on a speeder bike...the sheer velocity of such craft require battles to be fought in incredibly vast areas that are difficult to engagingly map and describe for DMs, and envision for players.

    If the game goes with the unrestrained scientific experiment (and doesn't tack on a post-apocalyptic interpretation that allows for all sorts of limitations on what players should run into as they travel) then all of the science we know exists already again comes into play. That evil overlord doesn't have an undead army; he targets you with an orbital laser and you're dead before you realize you two were having a spat. Random encounters feel silly when you're walking through the woods and keep tripping over orcs; soaring through the vastness of space and continually and conveniently running into distressed derelict after derelict stretches, ironically, the very credulity the game experience is supposed to enhance.

    This is not to say I hate SF; I'm eagerly awaiting the second Deathstalker novel's delivery right now, actually, and I think that that would be an incredible rpg setting. It works because it manages to move all of the characters so far over the top that, while the "players" are ridiculously powerful and lethal, they're up against foes whose resources command entire star systems and track the movements of nearly every citizen. But actually running a game in a setting like that is a tall, tall order. Writing a system that allows the DM the tools to do so is even more demanding, and I think that's why the SF games don't see more success.

  10. No freakin' clue.

    I mean I've heard a thousand and one theories but the bottom line is I just don't get it. In nearly every other entertainment field (video games, TV shows, movies, comic books) the number of popular Fantasy franchises pales in comparison to SF.

    I love SF gaming and really don't care for Fantasy that much. The reason for this, in my personal case, may give some insight into answering the question. Fantasy, which can be totally gonzo, usually has a feeling of generic sameness when I've observed it being run and played. SF seems to me more diverse in nature.

    To clarify what I mean...Most fantasy has Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Wizards and is set in a place resembling medieval Europe. Now you can say..."Well the Elves in MY world" or "There are no Dwarves in OUR campaign" but often it really just feels like the same stuff. This is especially true of the fantasy settings in pop media.

    Now most awesome SF has Aliens...oh wait, except Blade Runner, Serenity, the Foundation books...and Trek has Warp but in Traveller 'Jump'...Babylon Five has gates...the environment is space...or a desert world of Sandworms and spice...or a space station...or a massive city world...

    Sure you can set your medieval game in the frozen land of the Vikings but few actually do. Yes you can have magic that works completely differently than standard D&D but I've never seen anyone run a D&D game and do that. I'm sure they do it somewhere but its uncommon.

    SF doesn't have a default setting or style. SF isn't the same thing to everyone. The majority of gamers see a similar past but very different futures.

  11. Traditional earth (or Middle Earth, or Oerth, or whatever)-bound fantasy harkens back to our collective history and all the myth and majesty therein.

    Most importantly, it does so in a way that's relatable and comfortable.

    Science fiction, in many ways, is the opposite. It's about constructing situations that are challenging to relate to and make us uncomfortable. What is our place in a universe with one, a dozen, or even hundreds or thousands of other sentient species?

    How do we deal with the potential for technology to redefine what it even means to be human? I can't be the only one who reads so-called transhumanist fiction as skin-crawling cosmic horror!

    In short: The past is what we've collectively lived through and can warmly romantisize. The future is uncertain and more than a little scary.

  12. Fantasy often deals in mythological archetypes and reflects epic inner journeys that reside in the psyche of humankind...The Hero, wise old warrior, the evil wizard or terrible monster, the beautiful princess. All of these things are very visceral in nature, they pull at us from the inside....calling us to venture into the unknown. And these primal stories can be dressed in any clothes, from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker.

  13. The crazy thing about console RPG gaming, is that the most popular ones of all time are JRPGs in the Final Fantasy series that combine fantasy and scifi. The most obvious example is FF VII.

  14. I would argue that it's easy to make a case that Final Fantasy doesn't incorporate "science fiction" at all, but rather it remains pure fantasy.

    The fact that you have millions to spend hiring concept artists to make Magic Thingamajig #99 *look* like a prop from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner instead of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" has no impact at all on what it fundamentally is.

  15. Does Shadowrun count? Does RIFTS count? Does Call of Cthulhu? What about Tekumel?

  16. Speaking as a GM I find Sci-Fi too difficult to run. The PC's often have too much mobility and too many choices and the more sandboxy style of play I like is just not doable with any ease.

    Also the Sci-Fi I like (gritty, lower tech) is not what my players like. They want Star Wars I want Outland

    As a player I've never been offered a game that interests me. Most GM's in my circle don't own or play any Sci-Fi games and of the few that do, they rarely can get enough players

    I've messed about with Star Trek (the campaign lasted one session as the motivation was zer0) Megatrav (same) and badly run CP2020

    More recently I was offered a slot in a poorly conceptualized Traveller campaign . I declined on account of distrust of the GM (this is the guy that ran the Greek game I mentioned back on my blog) but since I later found it it tanked after a couple of sessions anyway no loss...

    Lastly, I am not a big technology guy. I am a bit ahead of JimLotFP on the tech curve ;) but I am just not interested in tech all that much.

    I want to play games about people, not scanners and 24-7 real time surveillance grids, information technology and such. Heck I have trouble enough doing that in the "right now" or "near now" much less 2347 or whenever ....

    I suspect my basic issues are pretty common and as such, Sci-Fi takes a back seat

  17. Take D&D and Pathfinder (which is essentially the same game in different clothes) out of the equation and I'm not sure fantasy is more popular. Personally fantasy RPGs leave me cold, I guess due to their sameness more than anything, but I get other people prefer it.

    I think it is in part generational as well. A lot of people grew up with fantasy and D&D as their default setting. Being a little younger, I don't feel the same affinity for it and I wondering if things will change in the long term.

  18. I'm going to echo what others have said, and hopefully expand on it a bit. It is Sci Fi's very breadth that I think hurts it. While most fantasy settings are basically just a Gygaxian version of the Middle Ages with various odd looking short people, Sci Fi settings have a great deal of range. This makes it difficult to explain to potential players. Does the setting have faster than light travel? If not, how do they get around in space? Are there aliens? What kinds? How advanced is computing technology? Are there any religions? etc. It just takes longer to explain a Sci Fi setting.

  19. I think the reason may be the fact that SF is more "real" than fantasy.

    After all, some of the things we see depicted in SF RPG's could take place and become real in a distant future even in our world (on Earth) sooner or later, whereas Fantasy is the realm of the impossible, thus it conveys more freedom and "wild" imagination.

  20. Maybe it's indicative of the relative popularity of the two genres across media. Over on sffworld right now there are 5 people viewing threads in the SF forum and 25 people viewing threads in the Fantasy/Horror forum. And that ratio stays more or less consistent over time. It could just be that one site; maybe the SF people just don't go there. Yes SF films have generally been more popular than Fantasy but then Fantasy films have typically been an inferior product even when they're adapted from great source material. Computer games? I'm not sure SF is as dominant as people think when we have the behemoth that is World of Warcraft.

  21. Slightly tangential, but it's always puzzled me that we've never had a major RPG that covers the crime/police procedural genre.

  22. I wonder if fantasy's greater popularity and narrower focus are the result of D&D's success rather than the cause of it.

    I also wonder whether D&D might not have been taken as a 'fantasy and space opera' game if it had had slightly different rules. After all it cites Conan and John Carter, and to me adding Han Solo isn't a huge stretch.

  23. I think Anarchist might be more on to something.

    Its not Fantasy.

    Dungeons & Dragons is basically THE RPG and everything else is an also ran sadly.

    One tale I had was during early D20. Getting D&D players to play D20 Star Wars?

    "Its not Fantasy"


    Ok, howabout Runequest?

    "Its not D&D"

    Sadly, that's gaming. Whatever is popular stays popular because it IS popular.

    To me, Sci Fi is so much cooler than swords and elves its not even funny.

  24. Because it's too dangerous.

    Early SF roleplaying, like fantasy role-playing, grew out of wargaming precedents. And the reality is that any half-decent adventure SF RPG is going to be too dangerous for player characters to operate in. There is less opportunity for individual heroic endeavour as well. To compensate for the lethality you have to move the genre of the game to another form, such as investigatory, financial, or political, but with SF tropes. And a lot of early games weren't used to doing that. Take a look at all the early games. They still had the same focus on characters and combat. With the unsatisfying result that if they were at all vaguely realistic the player character had limited viability if they indulged in the latter.

    Alternatively you could set it so the battlefield was survivable by the character by enclosing them in powered armour or a battlemech. Thus you could destroy the container whilst giving the player inside a chance to escape. That allows you to reintroduce heroic endeavour in a much more reasonable way.

    Of course, you could resort to space opera, which usually relies on downgrading weapons (or upgrading armour which is much the same thing). For example, in WEG's Star Wars RPG it works because the weapons are downgraded (and not just because of the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy). But space opera falls back more into the fantasy realm. Just with different toys. [And you lose out on the ability to make a (literally) Earth-shattering ka-boom. Which removes much of the fun.]

    Of course later role-playing games tended to realise this and branched off to engage the players in other directions than the combat models many of the early SF RPGs assumed. Usually by changing genre away from adventure whilst keeping the tropes. Demphasing combat makes them much more survivable, but it does mean that you have to teach players (now conditioned to the ideas of "adventure gaming") to look for satisfaction somewhere else.

  25. @Crusty One: Check out Pelgrane Press' Gumshoe line, particularly Mutant City Blues. It adds minor superheroics, but that's basically a schtick that can be abandoned to make a decent police procedural.

  26. It seems more archetypal somehow, good vs. evil, and less ambiguous and morally gray. There is enough of the latter in real life.

    This, and Will Mistretta's comments, seem on the mark to me. I'd even say that fantasy stories are at root comfort food - epic quests have the same basic structure and they lead to familiar moral points: they agree with what we already know using familiar symbols and we can sing along fairly easily. SF (before, say, the 80s) tended more to be about novelty and what-if explorations: it was a medium for manifestos (prophecies, if you like) and often surprising moral conclusions. And those are neither easy to present nor comforting. In fantasy stories you know where you're going, ultimately: good will triumph, the hero will get the girl. In SF stories you often don't know where you'll finish and, in the golden age of SF, it often wasn't anywhere good.

    RPGs are both free from the constraints of genre-defining stories and hyper-bound by them: your story does not have to end the way all the source epics end - in fact, if you pay attention to dice it almost certainly won't. But at the same time the players rely on genre signpost to situate themselves, to decide what actions to take, and what will be satisfying. So the expectation of a known ending shapes the fantasy game - gives it meaning, a trajectory - even when all players know that expectation is unlikely to really come about. The lack of the same expectation makes it hard to act or plan in SF: the stakes are more up for grabs (and therefore the setting has to work harder to provide cues as to appropriate action); success is harder to assess/understand/anticipate, and those are very big difficulties in a game.

    ...and to those who protest that, eg, Star Wars is an epic not a manifesto, I would say that exactly that epic quality makes it a fantasy in SF drag. It agrees with our preconceptions, we know where we're going, even if we don't know how we'll get there.

  27. OK, have now seen preceding Harrison Ford interview post. Sorry about revisiting the previous topic here.

  28. I think it is fourfold, and all the points have been raised, but they are the reason I love SFRPG.

    1. Lethality, in most Sci-Fi games, you never gain more hit points. It stays the same, and an inexperienced character has just as much chance to kill a big bad as an advanced character.
    2. Wide-openess, most sci-fi games that AREN'T licenses, can be interrupted in different ways. Cyber-Punk, Galactic Heroes, Space Infantry, Starship Fighters, Mobile Suit Mecha, Super Heroes, and of course, Ripped from the Pages of Weekly World News.
    3. Hard to build, sci-fi settings and to a lesser extent, adventures are hard to write in a convincing way. In a SF game, there is no reason for a big monster in the big room. It doesn't work like that.
    4. Mobility and Communication, without exception, a good sci-fi game has both. Which can also make it hard when your characters can just jump in a star ship and leave the scene. However, proper use of communication by the bad guys can stymie this.

  29. It is a curious thing about sci-fi gaming. Our culture has a long history of sci-fi in popular media. You would think the imaginations would be aflame with interest in those stellar worlds. While fantasy is ill represented in film and TV. Fantasy usually being limited to just literature, a few older animated movies, and some terrible live-action films. Yet it was fantasy that caught on with only the thinnest concept of what it is in the popular imagination. And that might be its strongest feature. It is open to your imagination in ways that sci-fi doesn't quite happen. Also the future is constantly changing. I was at a coffee house other day and they were watching Hackers from the 90's. There is one future that didn't age very well. Sci-fi takes a lot of work to work really well. And it needs to blend genres a bit. I can see now see myself running something inspired by Cowboy Bebop or Serenity. But, back in the day I was hard pressed to create a campaign I considered interesting over multiple sessions.

    One difficulty I always had with sci-fi gaming is that it bordered a bit too much on real life. In fantasy you start out with next to nothing and amass wealth and glory in a slow progressive way. You don't even need a story. You sleep in inns or build castles. Sci-fi usually has the player needing to have a job of some sort. My experience is limited to Star Frontiers back in the day. And you started out working for corporations or governments and eventually worked your way up to freedom of movement. But, initially you were often given equipment, transport, and credits by your employers. It just didn't have the same feel as the fantasy campaigns that were more down to earth and wide open to the path you wanted to take through the imagined world.

  30. I think a lot depends on type of sci-fi.

    Post Apocalyptic is science fiction in a lot of ways, and that seems to be a very close second to fantasy genre in the hearts of gamers.

    I think there might be a gem in that of why certain genres of sci-fi are less popular, and I think it has a lot to do with social constraints placed on the characters in the game world.

    In most sci-fi worlds where the society hasn't broken down completely, there's an assumption of a larger culture that the players belong to. Be it the Federation, or the Space Cops, or some big corporation, or the Galactic Empire, or whatever. (I've found this exists in superhero style games too. You fight the law or work for it.)

    There is a perceived club in the GM's hand of telling the players what to do. I think this is less present in fantasy or post apocalypse because if any kind of authority exists, it's remote, owing to the communication issues other posters have brought up. In Sci-Fi, Star Patrol can call you up anytime over the ansible and tell you to stop blowing up the aliens with your disintegrator ray.

    Which is funny, because in fantasy you often have gods or whatever supernatural beings bossing you around. I think it's because as modern civilians we can envision our boss or whatever bossing us, but have less experience with supernatural voices compelling us to take certain actions. (Certain gentlemen in bus stations and standing on milk crates at street corners notwithstanding.)

    So long story short, I think fantasy and post apocalyptic, with their assumptions of vast wilderness' and unknown, underground mazes, offer more personal agency to players.

  31. Several commenters have hit this topic, but I'd also reiterate that it's tough to get a group together based solely on the "let's play sci-fi!" idea, because there's so much inherent variation.

    My group tried to cook up our own homebrew sci-fi setting a couple of times over the last year. Each time we were like "OK, what do we want to keep in? Hyperdrives? Do we want lasers or railguns or both? Humanocentric empire or myriad alien races? Do the spaceships look like the freighter in 'Alien' or like a Star Destroyer?"

    Of course, down that path lies madness. With fantasy, even a custom tailored campaign, you can just be like "It's medieval, but the elves in my world live in the swamp." You can literally launch a D&D campaign with that sentence. Sci-fi is much, much harder.

  32. Very interesting read.

    I think one issue is many people (gamers and not gamers, here and "on the street") making the assumption fantasy=D&D (adding to the bag anything with swords or elves).

    But sci-fi is too fragmented, and even more so in RPGs (Traveller is space merchants in the Imperium, Twilight:2000 is post-apocalypse, Cyberpunk 2020 is... cyberpunk).

  33. Fantasy never dates. It is set in a mythical (in the literal sense) past, where life (apart from the addition of elves and magic) was supposedly simpler. Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in an unknown future - and the future dates very badly.

    Two examples of badly dated future. Star Trek TOS looks badly dated now. While it has a good design aesthetic (admittedly not as good as Raumpatrouille Orion), the technology looks woefully out of date even for now. Video conferencing, flip-communicators, miniskirts ... Let's not talk about TNG.

    RTG's Cyberpunk is the other example. Supposedly we would all be living in corporate nation states, with direct mind interfaces to the net and the ecosystem dead from pollution. No. We're not quite there.

    Ultimately, I think it is the attitude. Science fiction is there to question. Fantasy is there to reassure.

    Mind you, in the Soviet Union, science fiction was considered to be appropriate literature while fantasy was counter-revolutionary. What effect would that have had on Iron Curtain RPGs, if they had existed?

  34. I've ran successful and fun SF games. The most recent and most popular was a Firefly-GURPS game. The key is to make it about the PCs and keep the tech secondary.
    Most DMs don't spend too much tome describing the intricate details of stalactites and stalagmites in their dungeons. GMs shouldn't spend too much time describing the spaceport. Its easy to get lost in the details of SF games.

  35. Fauxcrye may be on to something-- the universe in SF is usually pretty organized (Imperium, Federation, Foundation, etc.).

    I think I read in the designers' notes from Twilight:2000 that the designers thought that an RPG needed chaos; thus for that military RPG, they set it after the destruction of WW3. The player characters, through their abilities and powers and deeds, can have a noticeable impact on the world around them. In a lot of fantasy game worlds, there may be kings and Evil Overlords and patrons handing out treasure maps, but the PCs can still gain the power to challenge them. They can be big fish in a small/medium/large pond.

    In most SF games (in my experience), there is usually someone or something so much more powerful (Star Fleet, The Empire) that the players cannot have more than local impact. They do what they do, but the world(s) won't be changed forever. Call it the "big fish, far bigger ocean" problem.

    Contributing factors can be the lethality, mobility and communications issues of technology raised above.

  36. I couldn't even run a reasonably believable present-day game because I'm not familiar enough with the setting. :P


    I actually think that this comment, and a number of other comments here, are getting at something that makes modern settings, and to a lesser extent sci-fi, very hard to do: these settings tend to overlay some of the assumptions of modernity over your world and characters, and that makes it very hard to run a game that doesn't devolve into psychopathic behavior on the part of the PCs.

    The fact that "good vs. evil" is much easier in fantasy settings, as mentioned above, makes dungeon crawls possible without drawing the players' attention to the fact that they're invading somebody's home, slaughtering their friends and family, and stealing their stuff. Sci-fi makes that sort of adventure much harder, and it's impossible in modern settings.

    Furthermore, a dehumanized Other is necessary for guilt-free violent conflict. Orcs and evil wizards fit the bill nicely. Space aliens are okay, but honestly they have a more limited range. Modern settings are a horrific minefield for this sort of thing -- how am I supposed to feel about delivering beatings or worse to muggers, soldiers, securirt guards, gangsters, etc without considering the actual real-life situations that produce these kinds of people and the problematic nature of violence as a solution to the problems they represent?

    More closely tracking James' comment above is the fact that, as we get closer to a modern setting, the character "types" become more and more recognizable as laughable stereotypes of the sorts of people that we, as sheltered middle-class nerds, know absolutely nothing about except from their depictions in the media. How do you play an Italian mobster from Brooklyn without sounding like an enormous buffoon and a racist to boot?

    So in short, I'd say your answer is as follows: in fantasy, violence can be presented as a legitimate solution to every problem. In other settings, violence will inevitably become problematized as you run into recognizable modern situations where you know from personal experience that violence is an inappropriate response, but the game provides few tools for resolving conflicts in any other (compelling) way.

  37. Quoting from others:
    Many fantasy stories have historical elements the anyone can relate to...

    Fantasy is more popular than SF because it has more to offer gamers looking for wish fulfillment fantasies and power tripping....

    A science fiction setting, on the other hand, have to make the choice between providing a set of very specific, defined available technologies and their effects, or provide none of that and let people wave their hands around in superscience. If you go with the former, by the time all the rules are crafted and set games tend to feel less "heroic" ...

    All of the above.

    Yet I had the chance to play in a successful and very fun Spacemaster campaign (and I hate the ICE system!).

  38. I'm with 5stonegames and Bigfella. SF is harder to run convincingly. When you want magic in your fantasy game, you make it up. With SF, if you want science in your game, you need to know some science, and so do your players.

    The social constraints argument carries some weight, too. I know that in the Traveller games I've played and run, the characters almost always wind up as outlaws eventually.


  39. I think part of it comes from fantasy being the first setting for rpg's. If Traveller had come first, and been the only game in town for a while, then I think SF would be more popular than fantasy today.

    D&D is *still* the big guy on the block, and (in its various incarnations and clones) probably accounts for the majority of gamers and product dollars. No other fantasy game tops it, they just vie for a piece of its consumer base. Leaving SF games as an even smaller subset.

    The majority of rp games are aimed at adolescent, teen or college-aged males. While we are usually exposed to fairy tales as children, we tend to outgrow that and are bombarded with mass-market SF stories and tropes as we grow older. SF evolved from a sort of niche genre as we became more fascinated by advancing technology, then broke into mainstream via movies, and eventually TV. It's everywhere, and more folks will watch SF media than fantasy media any day. (LOTR being the huge exception in recent years.)

    OTOH, SF does have a lot of different subsets, ie space opera or post-apocalyptic. That tends to break the consumer base up into smaller, less-influential groups. And there isn't always a lot of cross-interest among the consumers. Just because you like to play giant Japanese robots doesn't mean you have any interest in playing a Star Trek rpg.

    But fantasy = rpgs to most people. At this point, it's just inertia. Things will evolve and change, just as fashion does. Also in the 60's/70's there wasn’t such a sharp divide between fantasy and SF. You could find elements of both in early D&D. That's changed as the pendulum has continued to swing more towards fantasy. I hope something recognizable as an rpg is still somewhat popular when fantasy loses its attraction again.

  40. Teresa raises a good point, and it's one that's percolated through the hobby and the larger world of fandom. You can run an SF game like a Fantasy campaign if you just roll with the shared cultural assumptions, a la Star Trek, Star Wars, and their imitators, and don't worry about creating the next "Dune" or "Foundation".

    In some ways, SF vs. Fantasy is a matter of window dressing, the old laser vs. wand of magic missiles example. The only difference between the two functionally is one requires an epic quest to acquire and one requires a trip down to LaserMart. (And some might argue, and have, that the commodified approach to magic items in RPG's (especially 3+ Ed. D&D) kind of turns the former into the latter very easily.)

    To cite my earlier statement about social constraints, I think experience & perception play a lot into this. In functional terms, what IS the difference between getting your marching orders from some king or ancient prophecy vs. getting it from the Central Computer of Star Command? The GM is the keyhole through which the game world is viewed, and in some ways the voice he speaks in is immaterial. Although I suppose this is more relevant to plot driven campaigns than sandboxes.

  41. One, all of SF has undergone a steady decline in popularity in roughly the last third of a century (or a bit more, really): literature and movies as well as RPGs. During the twentieth century, society has soured on the ideas of progress and materialistic improvement that were fueled by the developments of the late 19th and early 20th century. Wars as well as other social and economical problems have shown that the gung-ho promise of a brave new world carved out by technological progress was empty, and much of SF was standing on the ideological foundations of this promise. This coincides with the growing popularity of fantasy, which offers escapism into simpler world where the ambiguous complexity of real life is replacement by convenient moralization: the hero wins simply because he's the Good Guy, and he doesn't even need to resort to the same weapons of mass destruction that the Evil Enemy possesses.

    Another issue is the common ground (or lack of it). A huge amount of modern fantasy (meaning created since the, say, 60s onwards) has... how shall I say this nicely? "Common roots" in Tolkien. This is certainly true in literature, and the statement could be supplemented by "and D&D" when talking about RPGs. While I don't wish to condone this lack of originality, it does create a common ground which allows for a circulation of players (and their ideas) between systems and settings. If you're familiar with Lord of the Rings and D&D, you'll "get" Warhammer Fantasy: it might have slightly different elves, dwarves, and orks, but it's still basically the same.
    In contrast, SF is inherently much more varied. You might be familiar with Star Wars, but that won't help you in a game influenced by Dune or Asimov's Foundation.

  42. Curious what role, if any, the greater preponderance of TV shows and movies with a SF bent vs those of D&D type fantasy? Most people will have seen at least one of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, Babylon 5 or whatnot. Everyone has preconceived notions of what sci-fi is and "should" look like, while fantasy settings have been fewer and further between. Most people have had to get their fantasy fix through a myriad of books (and thus use their imagination to fill in a lot of details and images) which might set a foundation that makes RPGing easier for its fans.

  43. For an RPG to work, everyone playing has to have some shared defaut assumptions that can be apprehended quickly. If you're talking about the future, a GM can't say "this campaign is based on Earth in the 23rd century if it were colonized by aliens in the 22nd century by aliens who after about 30 years of extracting resources suddenly departed, never to return," and expect players to understand anything by it. They might think it sounds interesting and want to know more, but we can't expect to contribute anything consistent.

    The alternative to this is to refer to fictional SF works that everyone knows. Any maybe this is why Traveller fans have invested into developing a shared understanding of the default setting.

  44. I think that:
    (1) Fantasy has a deeper, richer tradition of real-world myth and legend to draw on for inspiration and homage; and,
    (2) SF is "harder" in the sense that many of us expect some reasonable science to back of the fiction, whereas fantasy can just say "it's magic" or some equivalent.

  45. I'd say the main difference is in problem solving. Most roleplaying is about solving problems creatively - and the "primitive" culture of fantasy makes this sort of problem solving simple. Need to get across a pit? You have a rope, a pole and a knife. Objects we all understand, facing a challenge we can grasp.

    Now, try to defuse a force-field with a bunch of made up equipment? It's a hazy area. Hard to work in.

  46. SF is "harder" in the sense that many of us expect some reasonable science to back of the fiction, whereas fantasy can just say "it's magic" or some equivalent.

    It's not just the physical sciences, either; it's also economics, sociology, etc. In a modern-to-futuristic setting, it's natural to ask why some amazing technology hasn't been commoditized in a certain way, or why people behave the way they do under certain circumstances. In fantasy, bizarre behavior (wizards not using their magic to seize political power, monsters living in caves full of treasure) can be explained away more easily.

  47. now I've thought a bit more I see my first response was really to the question: "why is there no Asimov or Lem or Heinlein game?" It does not answer the question: "why didn't WEG's Star Wars RPG sweep the gsming world?" After all, they had the mother of all brands to work from, a ton of canonical source material, and a universally shared idiom for Jedi adventures across the galaxy. But Star Wars failed to dislodge EGG and Arneson's zero-budget legacy system.

    I don't know why that might be. But I note that one of the other big properties to emerge since, Pokemon (which has RPG elements even if no pen'n'paper version has ever been published), has lite SF and fantasy elements, in a near-present-day setting. And the game revolves around collecting knowledge concerning a bunch of monsters engineered to be reminiscent but novel. My conclusion is that the market makes some weird decisions sometimes.

  48. Wargaming--->Chainmail--->D&D.

    Medieval Fantasy works for roleplaying games because the units on the battlefield are all men and horses. The trebuchet and catapult got turned into a wizard. It was man vs. man it is no surprise in retrospect that arneson wanted to not play 1:25 men at a time, but 1:1.

    Futuristic Fantasy that isn't played in a after an apolalypse (dying earth) as Tavis Allison wrote in the escapist magazine recently,

    Is difficult to do because the units are not men on a battlefield, but giant spaceships. Basically, there is a more difficult step from going from wargaming a star destroyer and an X wing and some how turning the star destroyer into a character class. Nobody wants to role play a character and then have them be useless wants the battle starts (i.e. 1 person on a ship with 10,000 people on it). Nobody cares if you're captain kirk and get to say "fire torpedos". It's not you doing the actual "fireing".

  49. Didn't magic as described in "The Dying Earth" and Vance's other works supposedly have some sort of scientific rational behind it all? Used math and whatnot to discover "spells"?

    If I'm remembering that correctly, it's interesting at least that the ancestor of themagic component of D&D essentially had a Sci-Fi origin.

  50. Try looking at what kids read. Young adults especially.

    Its all opera - big themes, easily identifiable good and bad, etc. From the earliest of days there is a greater focus on the basics of fantasy (knights and princesses and ogres and dragons, etc) - fantasy fits the theme and the theme fits fantasy.

    Most sci-fi doesn't fit a simple theme. Star Wars: yes. Star Trek: not so much. I remember Rip Foster and Ride the Gray Planet from my formative years and that is about it.

    Look to what people read.

  51. Man...I tried to figure this out once. Then I quit.

    Yeah, I know. I'm not helping. But I'll tell ya what: At this moment, on my coffee table, you can find a pen, a notebook, a copy of GURPS Space 3rd Ed. and a StarSIEGE boxed set.

    So that's how I answered the question.

  52. Why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games?

    In a word, technology. Even for someone who has never read Howard, Leiber or Tolkein, improvising with low-tech tools like swords, ten-foot poles, ropes, spikes and torches is pretty straightforward. And magic is not even low-tech, its no-tech. Tachyon drives, deflector shields, tractor beams, phase cannons, space suits, star cruisers and so forth are fun to watch in movies and TV shows, but are not as intuitive to use in actual gameplay, unless one is already steeped in the genre conventions.

  53. RE: JUST ABOUT EVERYONE -- I can understand when you say that SF is hard to run/counter-intuitive/prophetic-instead-of-mythic, but, to speak for myself, I just cannot sympathize with that. I mean, I just don't feel that way about it AT ALL, so it's a bit like --

    -- like an alien mindset, to me.

    Not that anybody is wrong, or dumb. Just that Doc Rotwang is...I dunno, messed up, I guess. SF presses my WOW button, so off I go.

  54. @Dr Rotwang
    SF presses my WOW button!

    Mine too! I prefer sci-fi to fantasy in both fiction and gaming. However, James' OP question was about the "broad appeal" of fantasy RPG vs. sci-fi RPG. I think that the low-tech of fantasy roleplaying is relatively easy for newcomers to improvise with, even those who are not experts in the conventions of the fantasy genre. When I first started playing D&D back in the day, I was actually more of a sci-fi fan (still am) and had never read Tolkien or Howard. But the gameplay with torches and 10-foot poles and sleep spells was pretty easy to pick up. However, I suspect that most avid sci-fi RPG'ers were already sci-fi fans and already immersed in the genre tropes before they started to play. But I may be wrong.

  55. The reason I don't do sci-fi RPG is that I find it much harder to run sci-fi scenarios. Putting together a dungeon is pretty easy in comparison, toss in a few monsters & traps and you've already made your way to an "average" dungeon without much effort.

    A sci-fi scenario takes a whole lot more work. You have to take a lot of NPC interactions into account, to get their motivations right, to get them to have secrets. And it's different for each game session.

    In a fantasy campaign you've only got a few important NPC's (at least I do) where you have to worry about their secret motivations, plans, etc, and most of the rest are there for flavor (not that you let the players know which is which). And that's over the whole campaign.

    I have the same problem when trying to come up with Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Fortunately there's a ton of well-written prepackaged scenarios, so I tend to just use those.

  56. For me alot of it has to do with where you began. When I started in RPG in 1979 I NEVER picked up D&D (mostly because my parents succumbed to the devil-worship hype) and instead went into Traveller. Been there ever since. What I can't understand is the fascination with dragons in RPG. These days I try Mouse Guard with the kids but they keep harping for Star Wars Saga....

  57. Really, I think Picador has got a lot of it.

    Fantasy or Science-Fiction are perfectly acceptable "escapist" genres, but because Sci-Fi takes place in "Earth's future" there is the feeling things need to be somehow "realistic" or include things that "could really happen" somehow.

    In the OLD days (say 20-30 years ago) much of science fiction SEEMED "fantastical" -- you might as well use the terms interchangeably (c.f. the film Krull for example). Now, the old "communicators" of Star Trek look positively clunky to today's IPhones and Droids. The pressure for realism is much greater than with scifi than fantasy (and again, all the "questions" of today as well...the economics, the politics, if these things didn't exist in the uncivilized and unsophisticated realms of the past).

    "Lazy" fantasy...all too prevalent (why are there "elvish thieves?" 'Cause it's kewl, duh!) easy to do. For people without developed campaign know, most "kick-in-the-door-kill-the-monster-etc" adventure campaigns...require little thought. SciFi SEEMS to demand thought as default. And a lot of folks looking to play RPGs as escapist games are looking for something simpler.

  58. maybe,
    women relate to fanatasy better
    while sci - fi is typically a guy thing

    RPG companies and their players
    try to please the 'ladies' at the table

  59. I've played D&D on and off since the early 1980s. Over that time I have never (I mean never) played a Sci-Fi RPG.

    Part of the reasson is time. A good DIY D&D home game is like a time vampire. There's literally no gaming time left for other stuff. It is as simple a that.

  60. @UWS guy: "The trebuchet and catapult got turned into a wizard."

    Technically, it's the large catapult and heavy field gun that turned into Chainmail wizards.

    @Coldstream: "Didn't magic as described in 'The Dying Earth' and Vance's other works supposedly have some sort of scientific rational behind it all?"

    Somewhat overstated. Yes, it says math is the language of magic. That's as far as it goes.

  61. Dr. Rotwang said that he got how "SF is hard to run/counter-intuitive/prophetic-instead-of-mythic, but, to speak for myself, I just cannot sympathize with that." I'm with ya.

    From where I sit, a lot of these comments overestimate the universal/mythic/epic whatever of genre fantasy. This notion of universally appealing myths is pretty open to question (and the idea that WoW has any actual mythic content is even more questionable). Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have been pretty thoroughly taken apart because they constructed their theories of universal archetypes without considering their own interpretive filters--Freudian in particular and European-western in general. The world of myth is huge and varied, and it's not actually one world. While we Americans and Europeans tend to look for the hero cycle that Campbell wrote about, that's not necessarily what people in other cultures look for in their stories. (For more on this, check out Laura Bohannon's classic and very readable article ""

    I think the historical arguments about D&D fantasy's dominance are more powerful than any that depend on qualities of the fantasy and
    sf genres themselves. D&D was first and grew explosively, and has forever after dominated the market, and in fact has shaped what people think of as fantasy nowadays. Fantasy was a very different and more various animal before 1980 or so, and it was much harder to separate from SF (as James has noted more than once).

    If we want a genre-based argument, here's mine: narratives that allow the characters to be free-floating agents of fortune, self-determined and aggressively confronting the world, will be privileged in gaming over narratives that root the characters in a strong social structure. (Ever notice that PCs tend to be orphans?) This is harder to pull off in SF, but cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic scenarios do it pretty well, and space opera does it well if the basic unit of agency is thought of as the starship crew, instead of the individual.

  62. Reading some of the posts, it looks that the only possible fantasy RPG game out there is dungeon crawling...
    As I have never played a "dungeoncrawl", then I have never played a fantasy RPG :P

  63. @Reverance Pavane: During the MCB playtest, one guy was even the 'token regular human' in the squad.

  64. It's instructive, I think, to look at what else besides 'traditional' fantasy IS popular in RPGs. I'd argue that probably the second most-played genre is post-apocalypse. PA can skew toward SF (as in The Morrow Project) or toward fantasy (Gamma World). Most 'traditional' fantasy, however, IS either apocalyptic (something evil is about to bring about the collapse of all that is good and civilized) or post-apocalyptic (the empire has fallen and heroes are exploring its ruins and trying to facilitate its return). Lord of the Rings combines both, which might account for some of its popularity.

    That, I think, speaks to a fascination most of us have with mucking about in forbidden places. The childlike lure of sneaking into the darkness armed only with a flashlight never leaves us, or at least some of us. It doesn't matter whether the place is the Mines of Moria, the Tomb of Horrors, the storm sewer at the bottom of the hill, or the back of Dad's closet (what is he hiding in those old shoeboxes?). The Freudian, sexual undertones are best left to readers' imaginations.

    Science fiction's allure is more intellectual, more along the lines of "what wonders await us in the future?" Fantasy's allure tends toward, "what delicious terror awaits us in the darkness?"


  65. Fantasy seems to do better being generic (hence D&D) and it has the historical/cultural thing going for it.

    Sci-fi is 'newer' in the collective consciousness and there's so many types that maybe it's too difficult to get everyone to buy into one generic type.

    Star Wars comes closest (but then that's probably because it's "space fantasy"!).

    How can something like (and I'm not saying it's not cool) Cthulu Tech catch on in a big way?

    Sci-fi needs to be able to be more than the flavor of the moment--it needs to have that flexibility.

    It will happen eventually, I'm sure--somehow somebody will hit the right formula at the right time--be it a licensed property or something new.

  66. Reading over these comments, I think there's actually two separate questions here:

    1. Where is the D&D of SF RPGs? Or, why isn't there a universally-acknowledged D&D of SF RPGs, or even a Vampire of SF RPGs?

    2. If you take D&D out of the equation, how big a slice of people's game-playing pie is SF? I'd say that it's probably a bigger slice than people admit (I've played in at least two long-running SF campaigns in my gaming career so far, three if you count MCB) but that D&D-related gaming is so dominant for a certain generation (and WW-related for half of another generation) that it overshadows the impressions from games like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Battletech, Traveller, the FASA Star Trek, WEG Star Wars, toolboxes like GURPS or HERO, or any of the other SF mainstays available, which do feature prominently in people's gaming recollections.

  67. why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games? Is it something inherent to the subject matter or is it simply a matter of presentation?

    Fantasy is written into our brains when we first encounter fairy tales and believe in talking teddy bears. Science Fiction, like other genres is something we acquire as we get older. Sometimes, we get another genre and other times we do not. It depends how it was presented. Therefore, if the medium was multimedia, we might be more inclined to accept it. And, what's more was there a good story on the backend. Whereas, almost every fantasy will incorporate some elements of fairy tales into them...and even as we grow into adults those Jungian archetypes persist especially as they are shared by many different genres of literature. Whereas, the other worldliness makes it harder to make reference to the Past. RPGs have followed broad trends that literature and film did before it. And, which has been mentioned in a zillion other postings...SF suffers from a prejudice of alleged complexity, as it requires that you master the language of science. Which sometimes is obscure and requires greater understanding of the larger world that fantasy does not demand - saying something is magic is much easier than explain that frequency of the burst caused by weapon disrupts the binding agents of the quarks of the material. Both are describing disintegration. But, one is grounded in a subset or specialized vocabulary that the High Priests of Science keep guarded even to Geeks (although Geeks are usually the first ones to learn this Nerdish

  68. It's actually pretty simple, and "Chief Henchman Abuser" is on the right track. When Traveller first came out, someone I know observed that its biggest problem was that it had no default adventure. Whereas D&D does: you go down in a dungeon to fight monsters and find loot. Otherwise, it's not anything inherent in either genre (SF movies, for example, have tended to be more popular than fantasy).

  69. Well, I'm thinking of things now. It seems that alot of people commenting are people who play SF RPGs. However, when was the last time someone BOUGHT one? I'm still using the same Alternity and Star Wars rulebooks and references that I bought with my first few paychecks way back in '98. However, I am still occasionally buying new D&D stuff.

  70. However, when was the last time someone BOUGHT one?

    I got a free contributors copy of X-Plorers...

  71. @Infamous - "However, when was the last time someone BOUGHT one?"

    Last month. I bought a new setting...Reign of Discordia...

    Two weeks, ago was when Amazon delivered the latest Traveller supplement...

    Ok, I bought an AD&D 1e module for a Convention game that I was running. Before that...maybe 3yrs ago...when did Return to Castle Greyhawk come out?

    I also think that SFRPGs also do not get the support they ought to.

  72. The answer is simple... most sci-fi RPGs were one (or a combination) of the following:

    1. Crappy, hastily constructed RPGs (e.g. Star Frontiers)

    2. Very difficult to keep character experience/power in line with the universe around them. Think about this folks. In AD&D... a level 1 character is going to start with basic, crappy equipment and no skills. In Sci-Fi RPG... they can have starships, advanced technology, formidable weaponry, etc... Really no limit to the characters acquiring such things. Especially since laser guns are rather ubiquitous while +2 flaming tongues are not.

    3. Fantasy came first, set the standard, was highly imitated. Sci-Fi RPGs are an afterthought. In the world of RPGs, fantasy really is the dominant force... other styles (sci-fi, vampires, superheroes, etc...) are purely secondary.

    Just my opinion.

  73. How many games are out there that we would consider "Sci-Fi" anyway, as opposed to a D&D Fantasy-type game with vehicles/weapons thrown in to make it "futuristic"? I was trying to think of games I would have considered Sci-Fi that I've played in the past (off the top of my wine-addled head):

    Shadowrun- has more than its share of magic plus your standard elf/orc/troll races.

    Rifts - magic abounds and one can even be a dragon as a PC.

    Mechwarrior - no magic, but what was the point really? Didn't care for it. Battletech as a tabletop wargame ruled.

    Metamorphosis Alpha (& Alpha to Omega)- had some of that D&D "dungeoncrawl" feel to it, especially since your environment was set. Which makes sense as a TSR product.

    Star Wars - never really was part of a good game of it. Too much material and backstory seemed to get in the way. And even there you have the equivalent of "magic" with "The Force".

    I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but if there was a plate of mashed potatoes in front of me I'd be sculpting them into a Star Destroyer or something while muttering "This means something".

  74. I think it's worth bearing in mind S John Ross's five elements of commercially successful roleplaying design - cliche, combat, fellowship, anarchy and enigma. The first two are problematic for science fiction roleplaying games, as people have already noted.

    Cliche: Traveller, the most successful generic SF roleplaying games relied on the consensus future of what our host calls "Imperial Science Fiction" so readers familiar with Asimov, Anderson, Piper and Pournelle could figure out what was going on pretty quickly. That's broken down in more recent science fiction. To make matters worse, there's an awareness (see the Atomic Rockets web site) that a lot of the old SF cliches simply aren't very plausible - e.g., the space equivalent of a tramp steamer would be a weapon of mass destruction. The other successful sf rpgs relied on known properties - Star Trek and Star Wars. Like D&D, Star Trek started as a genre emulator before evolving into its own genre, so the original Star Trek rpg could drawn on not just Star Trek but the space patrol sub-genre. Star Wars was such a huge phenomenon that you could simply run with "You're rebels fighting the evil Empire."

    Combat: As others have noted, any remotely realistic sf weaponry will be incredibly deadly. D&D style hit points will work for Conan fighting a gang of thugs. They feel a lot less plausible for Dominic Flandry in a blaster fight. You can build game mechanics to get away from this, but often the solution is to keep personal fights low tech. The FASA Star Trek game explicitly encouraged this.

    A lot of this boils down to that we sort of know what the past was like, but not the future. Unless a consensus SF future emerges again, I think fantasy rpgs will continue to dominate.

  75. "Reading some of the posts, it looks that the only possible fantasy RPG game out there is dungeon crawling..."

    I don't recall any discussion of dungeon crawling at all. Are you sure you're not thinking of the comments on another post?

  76. Perhaps another reason is that fantasy can more easily 'absorb' science-fiction elements than the other way round. For example, was there ever a Traveller module analagous to 'Expedition to the Barrier Peaks'?

  77. @Infornific:

    Can you give the address for the Atomic Rockets site you mentioned?

  78. Winchell Chung's Atomic Rocket site:


  79. As someone very intelligent once said, "D&D is where Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula." This is why D&D works. I think futuristic fantasy/sci fi has failed is because no one has been able to write up a game system where luke skywalker and spock team up to fight cylons, yet.