A multifaceted blog on RPGs

Science Fiction For Fantasy GMs II – Waiter, There’s A Magic Sword In My Space Soup

In Generic on July 2, 2009 at 12:34 pm

To say that the posting on this blog has been infrequent lately is akin to saying that Palin for vice president wasn’t a particularly good idea. In both cases, those responsible would prefer to just move on with their lives and forget the whole thing. With that said, posting frequency will continue to be low for a while, due to real life stuff.

In my first post on this subject, I looked at the staying power of fantasy campaigns in order to find the reasons why my D&D games can run on low fuel for months without people losing interest, while my SF ventures need a constant flow of fresh ideas to stay alive. I identified some areas where a fantasy campaign stands out from its SF counterpart and I got some more tips in the comments. In this post, I will look at some ideas on how to incorporate common fantasy themes in SF campaigns while keeping the SF flavor an not delving too much into midichlorians and light sabres.  Read on for more tips on how to make your SF campaign successful by taking a page from the fantasy book.

I’ll take the areas from my last article one by one, so you really should read that one before going into this.


Fantasy wins many points by being recognizable, so how do I go about making my SF campaign as easily recognized. Here are a few pointers:

  • Near Future: The more your campaign world looks like our world, the easier it will be to describe to your players. Mention Paris and you will conjure up images of eiffel towers and croissants (wether you want it or not). Too near future and you’re actually doing a modern day campaign though. Good for you, but not the focus of this post.
  • Commonly Known Design Elements: Fantasy uses them all the time, elves, orcs, swords and caves. If you want an easily recognizable world, you might have to give up somewhat on originality. Use rayguns and warp drives and space marines in power armor or model the world on some commonly known patterns, like WWI technology or rubber forehead Star Trek style aliens. The purpose is to provide a default value for your descriptions. If you describe a scene, the players should be able to fill out the blanks in your description using commonly known design elements. This actually applies equally to all settings. The more original and mind-bending concepts you introduce in your world, the more time you will need to put aside to describe and explain those concepts, leaving less time for actual interaction and, well, playing.
  • Commonly Known Design Elements, With A Twist!: Building on the last point, this adds a twist. You put a filter on the world to provide some originality. Everything is like Star Trek, but gritty with oil smears and steam vents. This allows for you players to easily visualize the descriptions, but still keeps some originality.
  • Coherence And Transparency: In case your world is very unique and you don’t want to base it off any known paradigm, be sure to be coherent and transparent. Concepts such as FTL-drives or PSI should work the same way every time you use them and the way they work should be inherently transparent to the players. Don’t overdo the mystique part of your setting as it will make your world less predictable and thereby harder to visualize. This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything. Midichlorians are bad, but force powers working in some kind of predictable way is good. Only when you have established a pattern in which your force powers or psi knights work can you surprise your players by deviating from that pattern.

Start Small

Again, this helps cutting down on the explaining necessary to visualize the world. The problem with SF lies in scale and ubiquitous communications.

  • Small Scale: This works exactly as in fantasy. Start in a village on a colony, or in a block in the metropolis. Set two or three adventures in the same setting first to let the players get used to the basic premises of the world and then expand gradually from the sugar plantation into the city, up to the orbital space station and onto a space freighter and then the interstellar adventure begins, five good adventures later.
  • Communication Breakdown: Communication is your enemy in SF, if you can devise a way in which communication is very limited without blowing the feeling of your campaign, use it. When the players have full access to communication, it’s impossible to start small. All information is one internet search away, meaning that you, as the GM, need to be able to provide that information and also taking away your control over the information flow and in extension, the scale of the adventures. Also, if the legal authorities have access to instant communication, it makes the lives of people living on the edge of society (eg shady PCs) that much harder. The future might be all about intellectual property law and economic crime, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to roleplay.

Next installment of this post series (hopefully less than two months away this time), I’ll take a look at how you should use classic fantasy magic and character development to enhance your SF campaigns.

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