Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Dominance of Fantasy

One of the things I've been struggling with lately is the question of science fiction roleplaying games. I've been thinking about several science fiction projects that I have in mind. In fact, I am drawn to science fiction games more so than swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and found myself picking up and flipping through more scifi RPGs than any other when I was at the Complete Strategist. I wanted to pick up the latest editions of Traveller and GURPS Space, and kept flipping through In Flames and Cosmic Patrol; I actually picked up a copy of something called Human Contact. 

You see, science fiction is the vector through which I came to roleplaying games. I used to watch a lot of Star Trek and Space: 1999. In fact, this was the only kind of speculative fiction TV you could find back in the day. There was no Xena, Hercules, or Game of Thrones on TV. It was all scifi. I suspect it was the same for many of you. If you wanted swords-and-sorcery fantasy, you had to rely on books. To be honest, I only started reading fantasy after starting to play D&D. 

So why is our hobby dominated by swords-and-sorcery RPGs? 

I think it has to do with the nature of the genres. You can boil down the tropes of fantasy into an over-arching, generic model much easier than you can with scifi. Lord of the Rings, Conan, Game of Thrones -- they all have the same basic elements. Fighters. Wizards. Swords. Chainmail. So it's easier to watch Game of Thrones and say "oh, Tyrion is a fighter with a short sword" and make that. Not so with science fiction. You can't "genericize" it very well. 

Let's look at the two biggest scifi settings -- Star Trek and Star Wars.

Star Wars: What do you think of when you think of Star Wars? You think of lightsabers, space planes streaking across the stars. Blasters zapping everywhere. You think action. You think adventure. You think scoundrels and rebels and Jedi in a small ship, having adventures. 

Star Trek: What do you think about Star Trek? Phasers, transporters, and a new planet every week. There's a lot of talk. It's more cerebral. There's some kind of moral or ethical problem to be addressed. You're part of an organization, and you're on a big ship, and going on some kind of mission assigned to you by Starfleet. 

How in the heck do you reconcile those two very different science fiction properties into one generic RPG? Even if you did, half your group would want to play Star Wars and the other half Star Trek; then what do you do?

More so than fantasy, science fiction is rooted in its setting. Think about all the great scifi settings out there. Transhumanity. Blue Planet. Fading Suns. Traveller. Star Wars. Necropolis. There's some great scifi gaming right there. But you really can't play Blue Planet using the Star Wars rules. Well, you can, but now you're buying two games, and combining them. 

If you want to play Game of Thrones, all you've got to do is pick up Pathfinder and start making characters. You don't have to do any conversion work; in fact, you don't have to do any work at all. There's no explaining to do, really. In fact, I've started many D&D campaigns where I didn't have the slightest clue about the world at large. Was the kingdom ruled by a king? A council of wizards? Where was the nearest city? Who cares, just roll the dice. We'll figure it out as we go along. 

But with science fiction, you have to say something like "Ok, we're going to play Traveller, but not in the Traveller universe. We're going to set it on a colony on a planet that's mostly water..." You can't just wing it. You immediately start to get questions. Is there a galactic empire? Are the corporations in charge? Where are we? What are we doing? Is my fighter just a guy with a gun, or is he a stormtrooper, or a bounty hunter, or a security guard? 

You can't start out by saying "you're a corporate security guard" because automatically you ask "which company? What do they do?" You've got to start with "you're a corporate security guard on Pandora, where RDA mines unobtanium, which is extremely important." There's more set up required. The setting, by and large, sells the property and sells the game. 

And if that game isn't well-received, well, you don't get the sales. You end up creating a niche product. Something that sells far less than Swords and Sorcery. Which is why fantasy dominates our hobby. 


  1. There have been a lot of very well done sci-fi games. IF YOU INSIST that Star Wars is sci-fi (it isn't, imo), then there have been at least two amazing offerings of that sort (d6 and d20). There are at least three different Star Trek games, and let's not forget everyone's favorite sci-fi RPG: Shadowrun. I don't care how many fantasy elements it may or may not have, Shadowrun is cyberpunk, which at its heart, is sci-fi. This doesn't take into account steampunk (also a sci-fi sub-genre) and other such offerings, as well.

    Truth be told, most TTRPGs are fantasy because 1) it's traditional, which you can blame on a combination of Gygax and Tolkien, and 2) because it's escapist. It's fun. You don't have to think about your job or your car or politics or anything else, you just smash things with a comically-sized weapon, or incinerate something with a magic spell.

    Sci-fi, however, holds a mirror to our current lives. It shows us, veiled in metaphor, our own struggles, our own social and political failures. Sci-fi is a downer. That works amazingly in fiction, because it inspires people to get off their collective bums and make the world a better place, but it is not what most people want in a game.

    1. Yes, M. Star Wars has had two great games. Star Trek has had great games. I didn't say there were no great scifi games. I said that if you're playing Star Wars, then you're playing Star Wars.

      I can use D&D to play: Conan, Elric, Game of Thrones, Greyhawk, Empire of the Petal Throne, Forgotten Realms, Oberron, and any number of homebrew settings.

      There is NO scifi game that allows me to do that. The reason is that scifi is married to setting. Whereas fantasy is not. I don't think this has anything to do with "escapism." I believe you're closer to the mark when you say it's "traditional." However, that misses the salient point -- you can make a set of rules that handles *any* fantasy setting, but you can't really do that for scifi.

  2. I've always been of the opinion that sci-fi is all about asking big "what if..." questions. Since Fantasy is just asking "what if... magic were a real thing?" it's a sub genre of sci-fi in my opinion. I've heard arguments that say the exact opposite though, that sci-fi is a sub-genre of fantasy.

    I think you've hit the nail on the head that fantasy, specifically because of the "it's maaaaaagic" effect is much more general. Can you play a furry in Game of Thrones? I suppose so. It's maaaaaagic after all.

  3. I don't want to sound too stupid here, but it strikes me that sci-fi RPGs are too familiar to us. You touched on it with your talk of corporations; we equate technology with being connected, almost to the point of being a collective -- and a sci-fi game connects people across a galaxy. When is the last time the particulars of a fiefdom became important in a fantasy RPG? The intimate involvement with the machinations of a fiefdom's government are not assumed as they are in a technological society.

    The fantasy RPG feels more intimate, not only because the world feels smaller, but because we're not as familiar with the trappings of magic. It can be anything. It's a mystery. It's not created in a lab or a factory. We don't approach it with the preconceptions that we have of technology, so it is much more dependent on imagination -- making it a more effective escape from our day-to-day technological reality.