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Hard Science: Science Fiction Gaming

Three Perfect Settings

by James Maliszewski
May 29, 2001  

Let me make two things perfectly clear: One, this column is about what I consider three perfect science fiction roleplaying settings. I make no claim to their absolute perfection, although I obviously think enough of them that I'm willing to say so in public forum. Two, none of these settings currently exists in published form. I have them all stuffed in the back of my brain and I hope one day to unleash upon the world in one form or another. As an addendum, I'd like to state that none of these settings is fleshed out in much detail. Hard Science isn't a game design column and I don't intend it to become one. There are already enough of those on the Web these days as it is.

Instead, what I'm offering here are the outlines for the concepts, themes, and conflicts that I think would make for some excellent science fiction RPG settings. Feel free to use them as you will. Should I ever get around to using them myself, you can be sure they'll be sufficiently different and fleshed out so as to be virtually unrecognizable when compared to the outlines presented here.

And now, on to the Three Perfect Settings.

The "Big Idea" Setting: This is the setting that I've come closest to realizing in some form. My own Fourth Millennium is an example of a "Big Idea" setting. By this term, I really mean a category of settings rather than a single setting. In that respect, it differs a lot from the other two I'll be examining momentarily. This category includes any SF RPG setting that's explicitly about something.

That is, a setting that examines or otherwise reflects upon a theme or an issue is a "Big Idea" setting. As the name suggests, not any old theme or issue will do. What you need is a question of broad significance, such as "the nature of intelligence" or "the meaning of humanity." Only themes that loom as large as these can possibly serve as the basis for a fully-fledged "Big Ideas" setting.

Now, I realize that I've probably lost a good many of my readers already. Many gamers feel that roleplaying shouldn't be about anything at all. The very idea of a setting that examines the possible existence of God or whether unfettered technological growth is a good thing smacks too much of evangelism for their tastes. I sympathize with these concerns. We've all watched movies or read books that don't examine an issue so much as advance an agenda. These ham fisted attempts at philosophical musing serve no purpose except to scare people away from the idea of a "Big Idea" setting.

Yet, there's no reason why "Big Idea" settings need be like this. Neither do they have to be pretentious or self-indulgent. Some of the best science fiction -- some would say the only science fiction -- is about grappling with difficult questions, whether they be the sentience of artificial people, the ethics of genetic engineering, or any one of a myriad of other issues. Without such things at their core, many science fiction settings are nothing more than fantasy clothed in technological dress.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course (as my next two settings will show), but I think it's selling SF and roleplaying games short by not occasionally looking for something more. Done properly, I think science fiction can be a terrific vehicle to deal with political, moral, and religious issues. I'd like to see more RPGs realize this and run with it.

Balkanized Earth/Balkanized Aliens: I used to think I liked the old GDW game 2300 AD. I know I had a blast playing it back in high school. Heck, I liked it enough to sell off all my Classic Traveller materials, because I believed I'd come across the perfect science fiction roleplaying setting with 2300 AD. Well, I hadn't. 2300 AD had a few very cool elements, but was largely a failure that required a Third World War in 1996 to work, never mind all the flawed logic that kept the game from becoming exactly what it could have been (more on that in a future column, perhaps).

Even so, 2300 AD did a couple of things really well, at least on the macro-scale. Chief among these was that it didn't have a unified Earth. No United Nations or world government or anything like that. Instead, we had the French Empire, the European Union, Mexico, and so on. I liked that because nationalism is an extremely useful dramatic device. Patriotism or national rivalries add a lot to telling a good story. It's a lot more fun to do battle with "perfidious Manchurian agents" than it is to fight against nameless power blocs. The same holds true for aliens.

Long before Star Trek made this a clich, SF has long suffered from monolithic aliens species without diverse cultures or any hint of ethnicity. While one could make a case for such a thing under certain circumstances (and perhaps to serve as the focus of a "Big Idea" setting), I think it implausible that aliens would be more unified than humanity. Why shouldn't there be alien nations with distinct cultures of their own?

The perfect setting I have in mind involves contact between humanity and a single alien species. However, these aliens are much like human beings in that they have multiple cultures and nation-states. These alien groups interact with humanity not as a whole, but on a state by state basis. Thus, one alien nation might be allied with the United States, while another favors Japan or Australia. The conflict of this setting stems not only from the difficulties inherent in understanding another lifeform, but also in navigating the ever-stressful waters of international diplomacy.

I think such a setting has a lot of possibilities if you're interested in intrigue and espionage. 2300 AD showed some strengths in this regard, although the aliens in that game weren't as disunited as I'd have liked. Perhaps someone will follow in its footsteps one day and learn from its mistakes.

The Decadent Empire: A staple of science fiction is the galactic empire. It's also fairly common in science fiction RPGs as well. Most of these empires are impossibly huge and ancient, but very few of them seem appropriately decadent. That's certainly true of Traveller, whose thousand-year Imperium has a tech curve that would make ancient China look dynamic. Yet, somehow the Imperium remains vigorous and spry, without any of the decay that one would expect in such a stagnant society.

Of course, dynamism is often overrated -- or at least there's a lot to be said for stagnation. A vast, ancient, and decadent interstellar empire has lots of dramatic possibilities. Besides the usual "where's Earth?" stuff you can do, there are bizarre assassin cults, black box technology, and palace coups. This is the stuff that I've wanted for a long time, but roleplaying never seems to give it to me. Instead, gaming empires tend to be either dully noble or laughably sinister. Only the Known Worlds of Fading Suns comes close to my ideal, but it's insufficiently amoral and sybaritic for what I need here. I need ancient Egypt or Persia in space, with ages-old dynasties, Byzantine court politics, and outr customs.

A decadent empire offers plenty of opportunities for a band of scruffy ne'er-do-wells to make a name for themselves and grab power at the same time. There are a thousand intrigues at any time, as well as a crumbling social structure ripe for new ideas. With sufficient daring and ingenuity, the characters can exploit this to their benefit -- or suffer the consequences. This sort of setting is a sub-set of space opera in that it deals with things on the grand scale. However, its focus is on moral grays rather than on the good versus evil mentality prevalent in many versions of the genre. Yet, the decadent empire shares space opera's focus on characters and their quest to "make a difference," however unusual that difference may be.

So, are these three settings perfect? Perhaps not, but they are three settings I'd like to play or write given the opportunity. I'm sure everyone has their own unfulfilled gaming longings. I'd like to hear about them in the forums. What sorts of science fiction settings do you think haven't been adequately supported by roleplaying? Which companies do you think would do a good job filling those niches? Science fiction is a rich and untapped resource for gaming. Let's see if we can identify some of the most interesting paths not taken.

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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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