Today’s inspiration for sci-fi

…comes from the virtual pages of Space.com. This is actually similar to a conversation I’ve had in real life. In the hunt for extraterrestrial beings, the focus doesn’t need to be on what makes life possible for us.

Now, by us I mean Homo sapiens. When I read space news about new planets that could sustain life, it basically just means scientists believe they’ve found a planet that could sustain us. Yes, the phrase used is, “life as we know it”, but that’s a bit weak right? At this point biologists could be doing better. We already know that there are lifeforms which synthesize light for food, as well as chemicals. The way “life” is defined is narrow.

Which brings me to table-top gaming. It is highly, highly unlikely gaming will have very much to do with the actual search for extraterrestrial life. It could, but doubtful. However, it is a staging ground for all kinds of great hypothetical approaches to what life could be. There’s no reason a game couldn’t go explore oceans of methane and come across new life.

Personally, I’ve often wondered how the periodic table might be amended. What other minerals, chemicals or what have you might exist? What might their existence have on other lifeforms? Maybe this is what makes light speed travel possible? I’ve often though this was a lot of fun, and seeking out these raw materials with a willing group is a very appealing adventure. At least to me, but hopefully to others as well. Who knows, maybe it’ll happen in real life and gaming will have aided the search.

Further considerations for sci-fi

Some of this stuff goes without saying, but the devil is in the details when it comes RPGs. Sci-fi games are no exception. Placing the right level of nuance to the games can really make t shine.

For example, what system of measurement is being used? Imperial system? Sure. There’s no reason not to, but most actual scientific literature will be written in the metric system. While its possible to make the conversions, it may be easier to stick with metric measurements. Same goes for temperature and everything else.

Also consider narrative elements such as, what is it like to travel at light speed? Faster than light speed? Are the fun little effects that you all might describe from time to time? What about travel through asteroid fields? Can you travel at the speed of light through obstacles? What happens if you do?

While some of this may fall on the GM, the players should be encouraged to contribute as well. Shared world-building is a lot of fun and makes the game richer. This can be a topic for a another post though.

The essence of great game lies in how little quirks can add to the experience at the table. Taking into consideration like systems of measurement, or inventing scientific laws to explain odd technology can be a lot of fun. Is it necessary? No. Is it fun? Absolutely, and its the kind of thing that makes a good campaign great. Next time you and your group get together, try to brainstorm some fun little ideas you can write into the game. Over time, you’ll be able to flesh whole new realms of gaming to draw on.

Other options in sci-fi

I’ve spoken heavily about space opera over the last couple of weeks, but there was good reason for that. My first entry for #RPGaMotth was a space opera game. I had wanted the subsequent blog posts to reflect what I had read to compliment that one text. Later in the year I intend to read other variations on sci-fi, and so when I do I’ll blog the same way as I did for Hunt the Wicked.

One of the other games I plan to read is Iron Kingdoms, which is steam punk. The game is decidedly different from Hunt the Wicked and will be much more  blend of science-fiction and fantasy. I’m looking forward to it, but for reasons of simplicity for organization I stayed away from discussing too much any other genre, or sub-genre.

One variation on science fiction I haven’t really explored at all is anything that takes place in the “here and now”. My first thought for a topic like this would be something like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. That book took place in present day and was hard sci-fi. I had even heard an interview with a paleontologist that said that when Jurassic Park had been published, the science it was based on was good science. The idea of blending frog DNA with dinosaur DNA has largely been abandoned, but its fun to consider the possibilities. Fortunately for all of us, Crichton did. My point though is that there are other avenues to science-fiction I just haven’t been talking about, but may hit on later.

Variety is the spice of life

If nothing else, science-fiction offers exceptional variety. Often in fantasy, the scope of a story tends to revolve around cities. Sometimes kingdoms or regions, but often the focal point of the tale is fairly specific. This is not necessarily the same in science-fiction.

Science-fiction requires a re-imagining of the whole planet. Therefore, it invites diversity in a way that fantasy often does not. Everyone needs to be included in order for the world-building to operational.

Not only does it necessitate that Earth is re-defined, but every other planet is as well. Space exploration doesn’t need an entire intergalactic senate to look compelling. Even just one sentient race is enough to make the story interesting. I’ve seen numerous sources discuss the existential crisis human beings would likely go through once they discovered another intelligent life-form. In the world of table-top gaming, this offers very intriguing possibilities for narrative and steering game play in and around encounters.

Another way this variety presents itself is in the way world-building a sci-fi game asks for answers to contemporary problems. For example, if you’re playing a game that assumes cryogenic space travel (some kind of stasis pod like the ones in the Alien movies), how might such a thing be created. This isn’t an obligation, but having that kind of information available to players could push the game in interesting directions.

Gene Roddenberry believed that space travel would unite people all over Earth in a way never before seen, as evidence in his creation, Star Trek. Maybe this is the case, and maybe it’s not, but its an example of how technology in a sci-fi setting can radically alter how we view the world we currently live in. This is food for thought for the gaming table as well.

Science-fiction asks for solutions to contemporary problems. Not just little answers, but big ones. Let your imagination run wild, and embrace diversity and variety in your gaming. It’s a core concept in science-fiction, and something that should be at the heart of table-top gaming narratives as well. You won’t regret it.

A moment to remember…

This week saw the passing of Ursula K Le Guin. I’ve been a fan of her for, dare I admit it, decades (I’m getting old!). She was a masterful writer, and I’m glad she was able to put pen to paper and create such wonderful material.

Three books immediately jump out as must-reads for anyone interested in science-fiction and fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Left Hand of Darkness

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness

The Dispossessed

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

 

These are three fantastic books that present the genres of fiction they are written in with a strong and unique voice. The quotes are presented to give people just a tiny taste of her insight, and memorable points in the texts. The books are political and poetic, and strongly recommend people who are unfamiliar with her work try these texts.

 

*The link on Le Guin’s name leads to the New York Times Obituary

More science-fiction inspiration

A story came out a couple of years ago, a real story, that scientists had been picking up mysterious repeating radio signals from space. No one really knew what it was, or its precise point of origin. The debate continues for what might be causing these signals.

If you needed a plot hook for your game, this is it. You’ve identified mysterious signals from space. What do you do? Investigate? Prepare for invasion? Prepare for diplomatic missions? Work to develop greater technology (meaning seeking out knowledge and resources?) The scope of the game is wide open.

Then there are things to consider like, level of technology. Has science achieved interstellar travel? What kinds of communication is possible? Could humans “read” the transmissions, and beam their own back?

I love the idea of deep space communication, and the possibility of contact with another sentient life form. For gaming, the possibility for some kind of confrontation is clear, but it is wide open for the players. Take the game where you want and just go for it.

Seeking sci-fi inspiration

There are many ways and places to seek inspiration for gaming. I’m going to discuss one that I find a great source of fantastic plot hooks for games, the news. While people in some corners will insist that it’s all fake, news is a vital part of people’s daily lives.

Where this is interesting for games is that headlines can be amazing plot hooks. For examples, NASA may have funding removed for the International Space Station. Well, that’s a surprise. Why? In a game the ramifications could be interesting. While there is a clear political/diplomatic side to this, interesting for games without combat, the possibilities don’t end there. What if the characters are given the chance to prove the station’s usefulness? Where might something like that lead? Could be interesting.

What about the fact that Jupiter is hot? Pluto has a blue sky. A doomsday asteroid may strike any time. A world-renowned scientist has called for the colonization of space to ensure the safety of the species.

There are a variety of paths a game can take, and the news of a lot of fascinating possibilities, and I haven’t even touched on conspiracy theories or grainy photographs! Add in some fringe theories and you’ve probably got material for a long time to come.

While I’m a strong advocate of a well-informed public, the news is a gold mine for the gaming table. There’s just so much going on in the scientific community that there is great material to use for campaigns. When you have the chance, try changing up the settings on your browser so that “Space” or “Science/Technology” are the kinds of things you want in your news feed. You won’t be disappointed.

A campaign to fit

As I’ve noted, science-fiction can offer a lot of variety to the gaming table. The type of campaign can vary, and that means people can sort out exactly how they’d like the game to go for them. There can be moral questions that play themselves out. A desire to foreground specific technology. Inter-species contact, i.e. “You’ve discovered a sentient species previously unknown, how do you proceed?” All of these and more are completely legitimate options for a game.

In Hunt the Wicked, the game focuses on characters who may have carte blanche to take paths that would otherwise be largely immoral. A character could eschew a rigid moral code in favor of a purely personal one that may, or may not, be acceptable to other people. While this isn’t something that is strictly applicable to science-fiction, how the conflicts resolve may be strongly guided by the genre. For example, a character may cause significant injury to others, but if there is advanced healing technology the significance of this may be very different from in our world. The action for causing harm may be illegal, but the gravity of the injury may be viewed altogether differently.

The need for diplomacy may take center stage and completely cast aside any kind of violent confrontation. Imagine not knowing the scope of an entire species capacity upon meeting a member from it. There’s a very interesting possibilities here. Are the players diplomats? Soldiers? Refugees? Criminals? A campaign could go in many directions.

Science-fiction has great options available to players, but is much more than simply “fast space ships” and far-off planets”. Being heroic in such a setting will mean different things to different people. The possibilities are as extensive as people’s imagination, but more on that in a future post.

Beyond Space Opera…

Now that I’ve completed my first #RPGaMonth entry, I’m going to stick with science-fiction until February. Science-fiction is a diverse genre, and offers a lot for table-top RPGs. There is a considerable amount of diversity in the genre, and there are games available for almost all of those different variations.

Let’s make a quick list of some possibilities.

Cyberpunk – I would definitely suggest Shadowrun.

Space Opera – I just spent the last couple weeks talking about Space Opera. Hunt the Wicked, obviously, but also Star Wars and Star Trek. Both of the big two in Science-fiction have current games out that seem to be very well-received.

Science Fantasy – The anything goes approach to science-fiction? Maybe a little bit, but both Starfinder and Numenera have this covered.

Post-Apocalypse – I find this one splitting hairs. I’m not sure I’ve ever really agreed that this is the exclusive domain of science-fiction, but that’s my opinion. Despite any objections I have, Apocalypse World is a very popular game that has spawned popular spin-offs.

Dying Earth – This is a weird one, but definitely one that falls within the realm of science-fiction. Pelgrane Press publishes a game called, “The Dying Earth”.

The various “punks” – Steampunk, Biopunk, and so on…these are various on dystopias that focus on things like, level of technology, impact on the natural environment, and so on. Each of the different “punks” carries a specific phenomenon that it focuses on. Iron Kingdoms is a good example of a steampunk game.

While this list could grow, what is available here is a taste of what the genre offers. If you want an established RPG, the classic Traveler has been around for decades and has loads of material. While fantasy may be the driving force in table-top RPGs, science-fiction offers some very robust offerings.

 

 

The verdict is in…on Hunt the Wicked

hunt-the-wicked

The first entry in my #RPGaMonth campaign is complete. I completed the entire text of Hunt the Wicked, and will jot down some notes on the text. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I acquired this game as an add-on for an “all digital” Kickstarter campaign run by Nocturnal Publishing. Now that I’ve read it, I’m glad this game was part of the package. As a quick explanation, I’ll start with the good, proceed with the bad, and end with the ugly. Actually, that’s not true. I’ll offer some closing thoughts to round out the review.

The good

 

This game is unique. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a rule system quite this one. It is billed as a “rule-light” system, and I find that I have to agree. The fact that the GM never rolls is quite interesting. Not allowing the GM to roll fundamentally alters bookkeeping, prep, and the flow of in game play. Most of the game play seems oriented towards forcing the PCs to make choices, and then accept the consequences of those choices. In fact, “consequence” is an actual in game mechanic. In addition, almost everything in the game can be handles through simple mechanics like, “Difficulty”, “Severity”, and “Consequences”. Literally everything. This makes a lot of play very streamlined. For people who like smaller rule systems, this would seem to fit the bill.

The bad

While the game purports to focus on narrative, I found myself think there was something missing mechanically. Basically, it feels weird to use the same, or very similar mechanics to solve almost every obstacle. To that end, some part of me wanted to see something that accounted for the difference between punching someone, and shooting them with a blaster rifle, or laser gun. This didn’t really seem present. The game offers bonuses through equipment, but I feel like this is something that was lacking. I know its supposed to be rules-light, but I would have liked to see things like equipment handled differently.

The ugly

Even though it is rules-light, it was an awkward read. While it doesn’t have a lot of rules, it does have a lot of jargon. Throughout the book there were lots of terms used that instructed people how to make use of the few mechanics that do exist. Even if the game is rules-light, the amount of concepts make it feel like it is still a complicated game.

 

Concluding thoughts

This game offers a different approach to gaming. While the use of terminology to facilitate narrative effects can be confusing, the game offers a simple mechanical system. After reading the core rule book just once I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the game. It would be interesting to see how the game develops over time. The mechanical system is so simple and narrative based means that things like a Bestiary/Monstrous Manual aren’t really needed. However, setting materials and one-shot adventures would be a great addition to this game. I think the game was worth a read, and I’d like to give a run to see what it was really like. The game looks promising, and if nothing else, I tip my hat to Ben Dutter for pushing innovation in TTRPG. To play or not to play depends on how much you like a narrative heavy game. If you do, then definitely check it out. If you don’t, and you prefer well-tested mechanics, this may not be your game.

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