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Hard Science: Science Fiction Gaming

Esprit de Temps

by David Martin
January 30, 2002  

Another year has arrived, and I can't help but wonder what happened to the atomic air cars, space elevators, and shiny silver jumpsuits we were promised. Where are the rotating space stations, moon colonies, missions to Mars, and Jovian odysseys? Unified world government and peace on Earth? Long life and happiness courtesy of a biotech magic bullet? All we've gotten for Christmas lately is 24/7 internet leather porn, a New Type of War, and I Can't Believe Its Not Toxic! gene-mod food , drugs, and mail. The more things change, the more we stay the same.

Maybe I'm just a grouchy old cynic. Sure, we're human. We eat, sleep, reproduce, fight for reasons real or imagined, but we're not just depilated megalocephalic monkeys in funny suits. We can dream, and hope, and imagine a better world and a better life. Now these dreams may seem pretty weird, even nightmarish, and they often focus on sex, sleep, food, and wealth, but it's the thought that counts, right?

For millennia we humans have sat around pondering our navels after a hard day of preserving our butts. Eventually some egomaniac decided that the best way to preserve his perfect wisdom for all posterity was to write it down. The belly lint has been piling up ever since, and before long we had so much of the stuff we had to come up with ways to organize and analyze it all. Today, after some five thousand years of recorded rumination, we're left with the philosophical hydra of modern Art, Religion and Science.

Science in particular has grown rather large in the last few hundred years. Though it may attempt to consume everything it can, if something isn't quantifiable and reproducible, Science will find it a little tough to chew on. As a result, ironically enough, Science can be somewhat unpredictable at times. You can never exactly sure what it will manage to get a hold of and cough up next, or how it will change us and the way we view and shape the universe. We can speculate of course (food, sex, material wealth, and better ways to kill each other), and it is here that we enter the hallowed halls of science fiction.

In between Science and it sibling Religion stands the capricious jester of Art, a mercurial messenger. Composed of Science and Art, science fiction at its best merges our understanding of reality with the possibilities we dream of, while telling a good story with interesting characters to boot. And I ask what better way to explore these strange seas of thought then as compelling characters in exciting stories of our own devising? If chess is the game of kings, then surely role-playing is a very fine game as well.

Surely the huge volume of RPG products released this past year demonstrates the vitality and relevance of role-playing games in this modern age. Gaze upon bookshelves filled with new D&D3E core rulebooks and Star Wars supplements. Lose yourself in the World of Darkness and its younger sibling Exalted. Get crushed under the Wheel of Time and that growing stack of d20 stuff that reaches halfway to heaven.

Wait a second. Where's the SF? No Dune or Star Trek, nor any other licensed properties. Except for Centauri Knights, there are no new games in my line of sight. A few new sourcebooks for Fading Suns, Blue Planet, and other well-established lines, but nothing else to waste my time. Science fiction took a beating at the box office this year as well. Lord of the Rings versus Plane of the Apes. Harry Potter versus ... what was that other SF movie released this year? You know, the one with Arnie and his clones. Maybe that was in 2000. (Arnold Clone Chorus: "We'll be back... on DVD and VHS in 2001") Ah forget it. No contest.

What happened? James, in his first column, asserted that science fiction RPG's have always been an "also ran" genre. I'd say that the whole of science fiction is an "also done" genre, which is a shame. I discovered science, science fiction and role-playing games when I was about ten years old; they were something of a pole star to me growing up, and I still wonder as to why they're not more popular.

I can speculate on a variety of reasons. Perhaps it's the social stigma, the 'geekiness' associated with science, science fiction and role-playing. Maybe most people just don't get science; it's too hard, too dull, too big, too small, too obscure, or too weird. Maybe hard science fiction seems too real, and what people really want is sensational sex, violence, and suspense without the nagging moral lessons and dull scientific reasoning. I don't know for sure, but it's nice to have a forum like Hard Science where SF gaming geeks like myself can meet and flame each other's esoteric opinions as equals.

A few years ago, it was Hard Science that prompted me to contact James and show up on his doorstep, a prodigal gamer returning once more to the fold. A few months ago I cornered him in his subterranean lair, and asked why he hadn't written a Hard Science column recently. His answer was roughly along the lines of "What do you care? You get to talk to me every week anyway." after which he broke down and admitted he didn't have the time to do Hard Science any justice, and that he was working on a good-bye column. He finished by asking me "Why don't you write it?"

With James' permission, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dave Martin, and I am a mad scientist (Hi Dave!). I received my B.Sc. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Guelph (go Gryphons!), and for three years worked towards a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto Department of Medical Biophysics, studying the imaging and 3D reconstruction of biological macromolecules by electron microscopy. A few months ago I took an extended (and probably permanent) leave of absence to pursue a career in programming (or something, I don't know). I'm currently looking for a rewarding career where I can make use my unique background and abilities. I told you I was mad (a parenthetic commentary accompanying my own prose should demonstrate this if nothing else).

In the meantime, I'm taking some courses to improve my skills, spending time with my wife, wasting a lot of time gaming, and doing a spot of writing, including Hard Science. Now, I not as eloquent, erudite or grammatically gifted as James, but can I ever alliterate! I also have a broad base of scientific knowledge floating around inside my silly old skull, and I'm curious to see if it's actually of any use to Hard Science and its readership. In my estimation, one of the toughest aspects of science fiction role-playing is the science. Not just knowing the science, but effectively incorporating it into a game.

Let's face it, most players are happy as long as they have cool starships to scoot around in, exotic aliens to interact with, and a nemesis with cool tech that they get to blow up with their even cooler tech. A plot is good, but a good plot is probably superfluous. This is the 'fun factor'. In theory, it might be interesting to inject more hard scientific realism, but this should not come at the expense of fun, nor rob the PC's of their spotlight. Realism vs. Fun rears its ugly head. Let's go for broke and tackle both, shall we?

I propose to begin each bimonthly column with a relatively brief primer on one scientific topic, and then speculate on how to incorporate that material into the background, setting, plot, characters, and other elements of science fiction role-playing games. Inspiration for these ideas could come from games, fiction, movies, current events, and my own twisted imagination. Topics will alternate between physical and life sciences. Though I have an initial set of topics mind, I'd also like to hear what you want to explore and learn more about. I also want your ideas, experiences, criticisms, idle thoughts, and whatever else you wish to contribute to the discussions. I'm hoping we can take it all and distill it down to the essential spirits perfect for imbibition during play.

Will it work? I'll admit, I'm a bit skeptical, but I'm also hopeful. Traveller d20, GURPS Transhuman Space, Fourth Millenium and maybe even Narcissist are coming soon to a bookshelf near you, and I hope my contributions can only add to the great year of science fiction gaming ahead of us. In the meantime, let me leave you with this ancient Vulcan/Chinese blessing for the New Year: May you live long in peace and prosperity, but play in interesting times.

See you in two months.
David Martin TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

2

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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