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Hard Science

There's No Place Like Home

James Maliszewski
December 5, 2000

Like RPGnet itself, I havent ceased to exist; Ive just been busy dealing with the embarrassment of riches that is my freelance writing career these days. I cannot complain, of course. This is what I want to do with my life, but I have to admit that Im a bit taken aback by the success Ive had in the past few months. I just completed the first of three contracts for White Wolf and am hard at work on projects for Dream Pod 9, Steve Jackson, and Green Knight, among others. It certainly appears that 2001 will be a good year for me. My little girl turn 1 year old and I can actually begin to call myself a writer with a straight face. Rest assured, your favorite SF RPG columnist wont be abandoning RPGnet. As long as its here, Ill be here as well.



One of the commonest criticisms I get about my column (besides Why do you hate cyberpunk? Dont you know Gibson is a genius?) is that I too often equate science fiction with space opera. While thats not completely accurate (well talk about why next month), I must confess my critics have a point. My knee-jerk conception of SF does revolve around space travel in the future. Most other SF genres tend to fall through the cracks, much to the chagrin of their fans.


There are a couple of reasons why Im guilty of this. The first, quite simply, is that I was raised on Star Trek and Star Wars. When I think of science fiction, I reflexively think of Captain Kirk or Darth Vader. Ill grant that thats a narrow perspective, but Im sure Im not the only one who lapses into this kind of thinking. The other reason I do this is pretty simple as well. This column is about science fiction roleplaying games. But for a few exceptions, almost every SF RPG in print today (never mind those out of print) includes FTL travel in some form or other, even if its not the primary focus of the game. Consequently, I tend to focus on this conception of SF, since thats where the games are.


Now, science fiction is an exceedingly broad genre. Indeed, its awfully hard to pin down exactly what constitutes science fiction. Theres no universally accepted definition and the definitions that do exist cause as many arguments as they resolve. At the very least, I think its safe to say that science fiction must deal with the effects of science and technology upon society and culture. Beyond that, all bets are off. Most SF takes place in the future, but theres no reason it need do so. A game about aliens landing on Earth could just as easily be set in 2000 as it could in 2100. In fact, theres something a lot more intriguing about a SF RPG that uses the present day as its timeframe at least for certain types of scenarios.


Which brings me to this months installment: the role of the Earth in SF RPGs. More specifically, Im thinking about entirely earthbound games. Rather than traveling at FTL speeds across the galaxy, the characters spend their time stuck on good ol terra firma, the Mother of us all. Do such games exist? And how do they treat the Earth?


Most obviously, both cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic games are almost always set on Earth, usually in the 21st century. The nature of these settings is dark and pessimistic. The Earth suffers horrendous mistreatment, either as a result of war or corporate mismanagement or both. Cyberpunk settings occasionally include space travel, as the corporations and wealthy prepare to abandon the Earth theyve damaged beyond repair. Blue Planet follows a parallel train of thought, in that the Earth is badly damaged that colonizing another world offers a fresh start. Interestingly, Blue Planet doesnt provide as much detail on the Earth as it does on the eponymous Poseidon, meaning that its not a game that places Earth at its center.


Once we eliminate the cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic genres, we arent left with many options when it comes to earthbound SF. In fact, Im hard pressed to think of any that dont fall into either of those two categories. The main exceptions are games where theres a sourcebook for Earth in what is otherwise a star faring setting, although even these are rare. I can think of only a handful of them as well and most, like the Earth/Cybertech Sourcebook for 2300 AD, are for games long defunct. If I am correct in my assessment (and Ill glad admit Im not use the forum to tell me so), the question must be asked: why is Earth the focus of SF RPGs only when its going to be trashed or otherwise abused? Is our home planet fit for nothing more?


This is a tricky question to answer, since it requires getting into the heads of game designers, always a dangerous undertaking and one I dont recommend for the squeamish. More seriously, there are some possible explanations. One is that all drama thrives on conflict and the simplest type of conflict to model in a roleplaying game is violence. Thus, trashing the Earth creates a ready-made source of conflict for a game, one that doesnt require much thought or effort. Now, I know for a fact thats not the whole story. Id never accuse the good folks at Pinnacle, for instance, of creative laziness because they decided to set Deadlands: Hell on Earth on, of all places, Earth. Nevertheless, theres a grain of truth in what I said. Its always easier to destroy than it is to create. When it comes to the development of dramatically interesting game settings, destruction is rarely a bad way to go at least for starters.


Another explanation is that science fiction often focuses on change. In order to make it easier to recognize and appreciate that change, a baseline is needed, something that everyone already understands. There can be few things human beings recognize as readily as the world in which they live. By taking that world as a baseline and changing it according to various principles, writers (whether of SF stories or SF RPGs) hope their readers will be better able to approach the setting theyve created. After all, setting a story or game on a totally alien world demands a great deal from those who read it. While I remain convinced that SF fans are quite capable of such flights of fancy, the fact remains that an alien world adds an another level of complexity to a story, thereby removing its impact from the same level of immediacy one would get by setting it on Earth. As a derivative medium, roleplaying games require that immediacy all the more.


If you doubt this assertion, consider a related point. Most SF is also profoundly conservative in its predictions. If its not, its conservative in the application of its predictions. Take a look at Star Trek. While its possible (though not likely) that technology will progress as far as the TV series shows by the 24th century, society will certainly progress (or, if you prefer, change) just as much. Yet, Star Treks human society isnt all that different from the one you and I inhabit. The technology hasnt affected society nearly as much as it should or will. Why is this? Is it because the series writers are lazy? Maybe, but, again, its more than that. If Star Trek showed a human society as greatly changed as its technology is advanced, the familiarity needed for good storytelling would be lost. Certainly it could be overcome with effort and excellent writing, but the medium of television tends to work against these factors. The same is true of roleplaying games. By emphasizing the familiar and adding changes here and there, it becomes much easier to tell interesting stories.


In the end, I think thats why Earth gets treated the way it does in SF RPGs.


This isnt to say that other possibilities dont exist, but theyd require effort to succeed. The writer of such a game would, first and foremost, have to find a way to create drama without overt violence. A happy, utopian Earth could offer sources of dramatic conflict. However, they wouldnt be as easily translated into a gaming context as violence. Thats why you dont see such game on the shelves of your friendly local gaming store. Even if you did, would anyone buy them? Would you find an earthbound setting in which the characters are diplomats working toward the creation of a world government as compelling as one in which theyre corporate mercenaries in an ecologically damaged planet? Would you play a game in which Earth becomes a refugee camp for aliens fleeing the destruction of their homeworld? Or would you prefer one in which youre a masterless man wandering the radioactive deserts in search of ancient technology?


These are the questions Im sure lots of game designers have asked themselves over the years. In the end, I think we know what sorts of answers they came up with.


Too bad.

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What do you think?

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All HARD SCIENCE columns by James Maliszewski

  • Esprit de Temps January 30, 2002
  • The Stars are Right . . . December 28, 2001
  • Three Perfect Settings May 29, 2001
  • Cyberpunk Done Right April 24, 2001
  • A Night at the Opera March 30, 2001
  • There's No Place Like Home December 4, 2000
  • Second Anniversary Extravaganza September 18, 2000
  • Philosophy for Geeks July 18, 2000
  • I'll Play Short Round! May 2, 2000
  • Requiem March 8, 2000
  • Last Column (of the Millennium) December 23, 1999
  • Aliens Among Us November 2, 1999
  • Personality Conflict September 28, 1999
  • Keep the Faith August 31, 1999
  • Worlds Enough and Time July 20, 1999
  • The Future is Small May 4, 1999
  • Star Wars: The Phantom Game March 23, 1999 (prereleased before GTS'99, though!)
  • Apocalypse Never February 16, 1999
  • Millennial Angst October 26, 1998
  • The Importance of Setting September 8, 1998
  • The State of the Genre Report July 28, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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