Thursday, May 6, 2010

A shot of science fiction feel

(edit: I managed to mess up the line breaks. Hopefully it looks better now)

I will continue on with the science fiction theme from last post. Now I want to focus on mood and atmosphere, the sense of "being there".

Many years ago I read an article in a gaming magazine about how to evoke the mood of fantasy. One thing that stuck in my mind was how the author had once been running a game for his friends, and when they were packing up for the night one of his players got to see the cover of the module they were playing. He gasped (I'm paraphrasing) "Oh! I didn't know that place was so fantasy!", which for me was very interesting.

That story show how important it is to try to plant the right picture in the minds of your players. Now, some of you might protest that it's the players own business what kind of mental perception they have of the game world. Maybe they just want to roll some dice and hang out, right? True, but if you are playing a game where mood is important, like horror, it might be crucial. Also, it will probably help to give the players a better picture of what to do in the world, and what actions migth be appropriate. Since I wrote that I was going to keep talking about science fiction, I'll start doing that now.

Imagine you quickly, and forcefully want to set the mood for science fiction, and to get the message across that "you're not in Kansas anymore", what do you do? In fantasy you could always resort to having something to do with magic, gods or weird monsters happen. Travelling through the woods, the characters have an encounter with a faun. Fantasy Feeling(tm). Keep trekking and you encounter some standing stones, and the place makes you feel a icy feeling run down your spine and a shimmering haze can be seen around the stones. Fantasy Feeling(tm)!

How about science fiction?

Weird aliens show up! Nah. Too much like fantasy. Weird technology! Isn't that just like magic by another name? I have some trouble with this, actually. For me, things that can happen in science fiction is the vast vistas of space, the impact of science and technology on society. Kind of hard to put into play unless it's a long campaign.

All the time I have tried to start a sf campaign it have fallen apart. Maybe not that surprising, considering the confusion that have come clear from thinking about it this way. It will take some more work for me before I try to run sf again. I did find a page about Star Frontiers which almost made me want to do it again, at once. We will see.


  1. Okay, I'm a little confused--you're looking for a sci-fi RPG, correct? Are you looking for one that's more "hard" science? Maybe something like Traveller perhaps?

  2. Read again (hard with that lousy line breaking, will remedy that).

    I'm pontificating on how to set a mood that feels "science fiction", in order to make my sf games work better.

    Games I have, a plenty.

  3. I've always felt that nothing sets the classic science fiction mood better than spaceships.

    * You are on a spaceship, traveling to...

    * Your spaceship crashlands on...

    * You are traveling to (X) when suddenly a spaceship (lands/crashes) on the other side of the hills...

    Bam: science fiction. Think of all the classic sci-fi: War of the Worlds, Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, all of those old Twilight Zone episodes, the latest Star Trek reboot, every Star Wars movie. They all start with "a spaceship." Whatever other technology or aliens or environment you have, you have to have the idea of space travel to get the "feel" of science fiction.

  4. I'm working on the same problem myself right now, and you inspired me to post my thoughts.

  5. Cool! I like your thoughts on the matter. Worth following up on, I think.

  6. So long as we're talking about Space Opera, yes. But I think there are some short cuts like that for other types of SF. Cyberparts and hacking the net - Cyberpunk. Giant robots - Mecha. Time travel - Time Travel (since there isn't a lot of that in other types of games). Postapocalyptic games are perhaps the most like fantasy, though that can be prevented by the non-inclusion of mutated people and animals.

    I think all you need for SF is for things happening to have a scientific basis rather than a magical one. Shy away from "Science fantasy" in which the science borders on magic (example: ST III The Search for Spock).

    But yes, spaceships usually work as shorthand.

  7. Yeah, science and technology have to play a part, that's clear. I'll think upon this, I gather.

  8. Andreas, I just thought of something kind of interesting? Have you ever seen the film THX-1138? It's George Lucas' student film turned experimental project (circa '71). Anyway, if you can find the DVD it's a great example of shoestring sci-fi in a purified form.

    Anyway, I remember seeing an interview with Lucas talking about a scene where a crowd is watching what seems like some sort of futuristic tennis match--only you never see the match. Just the crowd looking back and forth.

    Lucas said he loved that scene because it never explains what's going on. It's not scene about the future so much as FROM the future. He explained that if you were to really watch something from the future there would be plenty you just don't understand because you have no reference for it.

    I don't think you could get away with an entire setting of weird/unexplained occurrences, but sprinkle them in--like say the Space Jockey in the original Alien film, or the long skeleton that C-3PO walks past on Tatooine in the original Star Wars (before it was given a backstory!). Sci-fi has technology, sure--but it also has WEIRD stuff that's alien and defies explanation.

    Anyway, just a thought! :)

  9. Good feedback. Thanks, Jay!

    I haven't seen THX-1138, but I think I understand what you're trying to say. Cool idea, that.


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