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Hard Science

Philosophy for Geeks

James Maliszewski
July 18, 2000
As has become standard, allow me to fill you in on the latest activities of your favorite science fiction gaming columnist. Those of you whod rather not be kept ignorant can jump ahead to the beginning of the column proper. Ive been very busy, both with fatherly duties (yes, Mary is doing fine, thanks for asking) and the usual flurry of writing. Since my last column, Ive finished the first draft of a world pack for Simply Roleplaying! and landed two contracts from White Wolf. The recent acquisition of Last Unicorn Games by the ever-expanding Wizards of the Coast (more on that in my second anniversary column next month) has also convinced me the time is ripe for me to release my own non-licensed and wholly original SF RPG, Fourth Millennium. I cant provide you with many details at the moment (more next time), but I will say that Fourth Millennium should see the light of day in late 2000 or early 2001 (in time for the real third millennium) and you can bet itll be worth the wait.

By training, Im a philosopher. Well, thats a little pretentious. Perhaps itd be better to say Im a student of philosophy, having spent the better part of the last decade in grad school working toward my Ph.D. Not surprisingly, Im attracted to science fiction (both literature and games) and that have a strongly philosophical edge to it. Unfortunately, that doesnt leave me with as many options as Id like, especially in the case of roleplaying games. This got me to thinking about why this might be so and I present forthwith my observations.

Im one of those rare people who think you lose a lot by underestimating the intelligence of the average gamer. By nature, I think gamers particularly SF gamers are a thoughtful and intelligent lot. I mean, they got into this hobby in order to express their creativity and expand their minds, right? Well, maybe not all of them, but then I dont usually have much truck with the anime crowd anyway (Im kidding, Im kidding). My point is that I think many publishers dont want to give their games a properly philosophical edge for fear of alienating their fans. This industry is small enough that you need every paying customer you can get. Thats why most SF RPGs these days (or any day, for that matter) arent bursting with profound meditations on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

What do I mean by a philosophical edge? Glad you asked. Philosophys nothing more than the love of wisdom and by wisdom, we mean (or maybe I mean) the Big Questions. Admittedly, everyone has a different set of Big Questions, but thats OK. There are enough that everyone holds in common to make for meaningful discourse. Moreover, the differences in ones personal set of Big Questions is what makes philosophy an ongoing project, one thats yet to be finished (leaving aside for the moment Benjamin Jowetts claim that all philosophy is just a footnote to Plato.). At its best, science fiction is yet another medium for the discussion of these questions. Just take a look at the works of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne and youll see theres more there than a childlike fascination with newfangled gadgets. Wells in particular had an abiding interest in philosophical questions, especially those relating to the proper ordering of human society. To varying degrees, many science fiction authors since have shown an interest in the Big Questions. Why not RPGs as well?

At the moment, there are a handful of games that could be used as a vehicle to ponder the Big Questions. Two of them are produced by Last Unicorn Games, namely the various Star Trek games, as well as the upcoming Dune. Star Trek has a long history in pondering imponderables; this was one of the elements that set the Original Series apart from the unreflective space opera that had previously appeared on the small screen. Dune, of course, is filled with all manner of philosophical and theological meditations. Yet, do these games stay true to their source material in this respect (theres no question they do in other regards)?

While I cannot yet speak about Dune, I can honestly say that all three of the Star Trek RPGs contain excellent advice on confronting the Big Questions in a gaming context. I am particularly impressed with the advice offered in the Original Series game, although the other two are no slouches either. Star Trek is, of course, helped by the fact that, as an intellectual property, its fans expect a certain amount of philosophizing to go hand in hand with its tales of adventure on the Final Frontier. The same is true of Dune, no doubt. Thus, gamers who pick up these games do so with the understanding that Deep Thoughts (or at least, what passes for Deep Thoughts on TV) are part and parcel of the Star Trek way. Its no more unexpected than a lightsaber duel at the end of a Star Wars movie.

But what about other games? Thats where things begin to become less impressive. That old chestnut Traveller, for example, never really hard a strong interest in matters philosophical. This isnt to say it was a thoughtless game, but weighty matters of the mind take a back seat to high adventure and scientific conundrums. The late unlamented Traveller: The New Era tried to change that, often meditating on the moral failings of the Third Imperium setting and the consequences of those failings (namely, a massive interstellar Collapse), but its fans would have none of that. TNE proved largely unpopular with its Old Guard and died along with GDW in 1995.

Most cyberpunk games are decidedly amoral in their tone. While a friend assures me that Shadowrun has much to say on the topic of racism and prejudice, I suspect thats more the exception than the rule. Most cyberpunk settings revel in their amorality to no obvious purpose other than sheer adolescent gleefulness. Of course, Biohazard Games Blue Planet (soon available in a second edition) differs in this regard, using a post-cyberpunk sensibility to treat a number of Big Questions, including Mans relationship to and responsibility for the world he inhabits.

At its best, Fading Suns comes close to examining some fairly Big Questions. I dont think it ever quite achieves its full potential, but I am hopeful that that will change as more products are released. The games second edition offers some excellent GMs advice on doing just this and its emphasis on Passion Play Roleplaying is a welcome experiment. White Wolfs Trinity likewise had moments of beautiful philosophical clarity, no more so than in some of its excellent adventure anthologies. I can only hope that the line will not die under the ArtHaus imprint and return to give us more of the same. Its prequel game, Aberrant, is avowedly about a Big Question: What would you do if you had the power of a god? While many of its supplements to date have yet to exploit that theme as much as they could, many have been quite good. Id love to see the game get away from its obsession with yet more quantum powers and concentrate more on the truly meaningful questions that lurk beneath the games surface.

Dream Pod 9s aesthetically appealing Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles games (see, I can say nice things about anime?) dont seem very interested in Big Questions, but perhaps Ive missed something somewhere. The same is true of most of the small press SF RPGs that I havent examined in detail (with certain exceptions like Clockworks Asylum, for instance). Im sure Ive forgotten several and I trust my readers will use the forum to jog my addled brain. Nevertheless, I think its safe to say that the number of SF RPGs that give pride of place to examinations of philosophical issues is limited. Why is this?

My first thought is that game designers dont think gamers are interested in this sort of thing. If thats true, they are deeply mistaken. As gamers, were a naturally argumentative lot. We discuss and debate all manner of setting-related issues, as if they had meaning beyond the game itself. Why not then introduce genuinely Big Questions into SF games in order to give us some real meat to chew on? I suspect its because philosophy has largely become equated with religion in many peoples minds, game designers included. Its one of those off-limits topics that polite people shouldnt discuss except in the direst of circumstances. If thats the reason, thats also too bad. I think roleplaying can be greatly enhanced by the presence of Big Questions for players to ponder, argue over, and act upon. Conflict is the essence of drama, after all, and violence isnt the only form of conflict or even the most satisfying one.

On further reflection, though, I think I know the real reason: its never been done before, or at least its never been done on purpose. Even Star Trek isnt about the Big Questions. Its a sci-fi adventure series in which the Big Questions are sometimes the focus of drama. Thats true of many of the roleplaying games Ive mentioned as well. This isnt a criticism; its just an observation. Philosophical roleplaying (if you will) isnt something anyones really tried before, except in the most tentative of ways. The ironic thing is that science fiction is ready-made as a genre to handle this approach while still providing an intriguing story in its own right. Thus, a philosophical SF RPG neednt be a one-trick pony with nothing to offer except didacticism and pedantry.

Only time will tell if anyone decides to take up the gauntlet Ive thrown down. I firmly believe theres a new kind of SF gaming waiting to happen and we may yet see it.

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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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