A multifaceted blog on RPGs

Science Fiction for Fantasy GMs I, aka Orcs in Spaaaaaace!!!

In D&D 4E, Generic on March 18, 2009 at 10:20 pm

I’m not very much into fantasy literature. The little non-work-related reading I manage tend to be more in the Science Fiction genre. When it comes to roleplaying however, it’s all orcs and elves. It wasn’t always like this, of course, I’ve done my share (and still do) of non-fantasy gaming: steampunk, cyberpunk, espionage, cold war supers, pulp and so on. But when it comes to campaign staying power and player satisfaction, nothing compares to run-of-the-mill, vanilla fantasy. For me as a GM, this is highly unsatisfying, I want to run Science Fiction dang nabbit! However I try though, my epic SF campaigns rarely last more than 4-5 sessions. So a while back, I asked a couple of friends of mine: what’s so hard about science fiction gaming? I then realized that the question should be: what’s so easy about fantasy?

To that end, I start this series of posts about Space Fantasy, the hows, the whys, the dos and the don’ts. Read on for the first post in the series, What’s the deal with fantasy anyway?

Space Fantasy?

Alien Battles

Alien Battles

So, what I’ve just described could be any one of the last five Star Wars games? Well, yes and no. Though there are definitely space fantasy games out there, most of them are book or film adaptations or very sub-genre specific (Slipstream for Savage Worlds for instance). This post is not about recreating DragonStar or Dune, these posts are about creating your own campaigns in your own universe and imbibe them with that certain something that make them as attractive to the players and as easy to run for the GMs as the fantasy settings you’re used to.

To make it even clearer, I’ll start off with a few caveats:

  • This series of posts won’t try to help you simulate any specific setting, for Trekkers or Farscape-fanatics, there are already options. This is for BYO campaign-making.
  • We’re not talking cerebral SF here. I love me some Greg Bear fiction in the morning, but I wouldn’t dream of subjecting my players to a Blood Music RPG.
  • This post is about applying working fantasy conventions to SF. If you don’t lika fantasy, you probably won’t like those conventions.

Enough about what these series is not and onto what it actually is.

What’s the deal with fantasy anyway?

I postulated in the introduction that fantasy is easier than science fiction. When saying this, I hear the protesting cries of a thousand Traveller GM’s (well, I would if they read my blog and I could hear them, also, if there actually were a thousand Traveller GMs left ;)). The following are some aspects of generic fantasy roleplaying (with a lean towards D&D) that I find make it particularly easy to make long, engaging campaigns:

It’s recognizable

When playing western-europe, tolkien style fantasy, you’re adhering to a number of conventions that make it easier for the players to comprehend and visualize the GMs descriptions. Some of these conventions are based on historical references such as castles, knights, blacksmiths, kings and noblemen. Some, such as the elves, orcs and wizards in pointy hats are mythical, or sometimes even specific fantasy roleplaying conventions. The less time you have to describe the “normal” setting, the more time you can put into the specifics, what makes this setting stand out from the rest. Forcing the players to visualize their characters riding three legged Qu’Athiathi into battle, fighting the horrifying Kudummm in the Jaboon Mushroom Forest with their Surit-crystal lances will make their brain hurt and will easily lead to them losing interest.

You can start small

This aspect actually comes in part as a result of the aforementioned recognizability. A typical fantasy campaign starts in a village or in the slums of a larger city or something equivalent. You don’t actually have to map out the rest of the details. Part of this is because you can assume that unless stated otherwise, the world behaves as you’d expect it to. This means two things. First of all, the GM doesn’t have to create a vast empire with languages, culture, laws, organizations ad regional differences, only to use a tenth of it in actual play. Secondly, and more important, the players don’t have to read a ten page primer on the world just to get the hang of it. Even if you play ice-barbarians under the yoke of the slithering god of a thousand faces, you basically just have to say “you’re all born in an arctic village, you hunt seal and polar bear for a living and pray to the slithering god. It’s cold. What do you do?”.

It’s magic!

Wouldn’t it be cool if the lizardmen could breathe fire? How they do it? It’s magic! I’m all for coherent worlds where magic and the like makes sense, but still, if you want a cool effect, or a nice plot hook and you can’t really find a real world rationale, then it’s magic. You want one of the characters to be accused of a crime he didn’t commit, only to realize that he actually did it unknowingly – mind controlling magic. The players need to find this ancient artifact to help them save the world. How does the artifact help them? Ancient magic. The fact is, by accepting that magic exists, the players’ have also accepted a blanket explanation for a whole slew of things that would otherwise ruin their suspension of disbelief.

Character development – it’s like crack

In literature, character development usually implies some kind of deepening of the character’s motives and personality. In fantasy roleplaying it usually means new and better ways to hit things with other things. Still, it’s a very important part of what makes fantasy appealing to players, just ask Wizards of the Coast or for that matter Blizzard. In most fantasy games you have a level of character development not seen in other games (notably SF-games). You gain new abilities and new items on a regular basis, often every single adventure. This means that even when hitting a low spot, the fantasy campaign survives because the players want to get to the next level. Too much of this and the campaign probably dies anyway, but when a campaign that is not as heavily invested in character development experiences the same kind of doldrums, players and thereby the GM may lose interest and wander on to something else.

Low expectations on story depth

This also happens to be my personal theory on why 80% of all fantasy literature sell in the volumes they do, but I won’t get more into that argument :). Basically this works the same way action movies sell. If you have big explosions, you don’t need good dialogue. Of course, a move with big explosions and good dialogue is still a better movie, but people will still pay up even if they only get the explosions. This means that if you’re low on inspiration, a dungeon hack will keep everyone at least moderately satisfied because they don’t expect intrigue anyway. In eg Call of Cthulhu, this would be harder (though not impossible, CoC can perfectly well be run as a pulp action game). The players would come to the table expecting deep character portraits and a layered intrigue, something that is hard even by the standards of accomplished writer, let alone potentially uninspired GMs

Wasn’t this supposed to be about Science Fiction?

Well, I had to start somewhere, didn’t I? In the next post in the series, I will show you how this can be generalized and applied to, eg the Science Fiction genre. Until then use the comments to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong about my assumptions as to why I find fantasy roleplaying so easy.

  1. Potentially, you’re missing out one important point: The expectation of realism / suspension of disbelief. One obvious example is battle, in particular damage and injuries; It is easier to except that a swing of an Orc’s axe hardly effected you than if your character were hit by a ThrillTech(TM)-SuperVenom-400kW-plasma bolt, or a round from a cultist’s Tommy-gun.

  2. You’re right. This could be said to be a corollary to the “It’s magic” clause, but when it comes to combat, it’s very specific. Somehow, people have come to accept that being hit by an axe repeatedly and then just shrug it off is plausible, while being shot and still stand is not.

  3. Great post, good logic and a fantastic layout on this blog you got here! Let me chime in: One reason my players always gravitated back to fantasy was that in SF there is no emotional attachment to the world the players inhabit. If it gets blown up (and it will) they just pop over to the next star system and starts over. In fantasy, the map is finite and the end of the kingdom actually means some heart wrenching drama when the liche king’s horde tramples your orchard and slays your unicorns.

    Ergo, where fantasy is heart warming, gripping, dramatic, SF is cold, vast, empty. Heartless.

    I did GM a very successful campaign in Robotech that ran for years and years. Even though that is SF the players had an emotional attachment to their army and their space ship. They were literally the last chance of humanity in the face of destruction at the hands of a ruthless alien race. Hence, we had the emotional attachment missing in most SF campaigns.

    But in all honesty, the players actually popped back to Earth several times, so it probably wasn’t pure SF. Rather, as you call it, Fantasy SF. Looking forward to the next post!

  4. Sufficiently ridiculous science-fiction is indistinguishable from fantasy.

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