Tabletop 101: Sci-fi vs. Fantasy — A Problem of Abstraction

By Mike

I’ve been working on designing a tabletop RPG in my spare time for a little while now, based on an original sci-fi setting I’ve been working on for the past few years. In the time since I’ve started working on this system I’ve found that sci-fi has some odd bumps in the road compared with a fantasy RPG. The main issue at hand is abstraction.

A fantasy RPG is very easy to run and develop, mainly due to the conceit that a fantasy game will typically take place in a setting that, apart from concessions made for magic, is less advanced than our own. The idea behind a tabletop RPG is that if players can think it, they can do it, and 90% of people can most certainly think of most of the possibilities at hand in a medieval setting.

By contrast, sci-fi demands abstraction, owing to far future technologies and complex knowledge bases that players, in all but a few rare cases, can’t be expected to understand. It leads to a lot of knowledge and skill rolls in place of the players actually understanding what their characters are doing or thinking. Someone does an engineering roll — is the ship fixed? Yes/no. Someone does a piloting roll — did they dodge another ship? Yes/no. Someone does a biology roll — can they identify that animal? Yes/no. Making the game feel exciting is a big problem, and it’s easy for all too many things to feel like a coin flip.

Tying a bunch of sticks and bells together, poking traps with ten foot poles, slipping a vial of poison where it doesn’t belong, and occasional feats of acrobatics and strength are things people can access without having to try too hard. A lot of tactics come down to simple spatial reasoning and some creative problem-solving, putting players nearly 100% in control of what’s going on, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in doing so much with so little.

But in sci-fi games characters are a kitchen sink wish list of ultra-advanced skills that most people can’t hope to grasp in the real world, and there’s an awful lot of binary logic that has to be adopted in order to condense these complex skill sets. What could have been a fascinating episode for Geordi LaForge on Star Trek ultimately gets narrowed down to just a quick roll a lot of the time, unless the GM really knows what he’s doing and can structure an engineering challenge as an encounter.

That’s the real hitch on a good sci-fi game, I think — the game’s ability to flesh out the different characters’ “spaces” and make these complex and esoteric sci-fi activities something that the players themselves can unpack into a more conventional encounter. To illustrate what I mean, I want to point a finger at Shadowrun, which I’ve found to be one of the most successful sci-fi RPGs I’ve played.

For those not in the know, Shadowrun is basically a fusion of Dungeons and Dragons with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, featuring a high-tech/low-life world in which cybertech is ubiquitous and magic has re-awakened all over the world. If it helps, think of Ghost in the Shell or Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings and a couple of drops of acid and you’re about halfway to how trippy this setting is. Characters in Shadowrun are very much organized as a huge list of skills, but what makes it work is that certain roles in the game are “unpacked” in such a way as to flesh out and structure the details of how encounters utilizing those skills should work.

Mainly I’m talking about the Matrix, which in the Shadowrun universe is a ubiquitous virtual reality network overlayed on normal reality. When hackers go for a dive into the net they don’t just make a roll, they go exploring in a techno dungeon where they engage in cybercombat with security programs. While this abstraction certainly isn’t accurate to the actual act of hacking, it provides a way to structure an otherwise inaccessible concept into a more concrete problem-solving space. Players are more able to look at the problem with their own eyes, make judgment calls, and employ creative problem-solving as opposed to attempting to make a decision and leaving whether it works up to the dice.

And this isn’t the only space that Shadowrun fleshes out in this way. Mages are similarly able to look upon and interact with astral space, a spiritual realm that coincides with the material plane and visually represents magical relationships that would otherwise boil down to “I cast detect magic and roll spellcraft.” Drone riggers have all kinds of ways of interacting with their remote-controlled toys, and there’s plenty to be said for the intrigue and mind games of the social space reserved for the party’s Face. Suffice it to say that the Troll carrying a minigun and a pair of samurai swords isn’t at a loss for things to do either.

In a sci-fi setting, then, it would seem that any of the major activities you want a game to be able to represent call for their own entire chapter. A successful Star Trek game would necessarily call for an “Engineering” chapter detailing a fistful of the common technologies that a Trek engineer deals with, like the warp core and the transporter, and how to interact with them beyond their intended use. All the strange transport buffer tricks and the limits of matter replication would need to be laid out very thoroughly, and in fact there needs to be some structuring to the activity of engineering that introduces players to the mindset of being an actual, real-world engineer. It’s easy to go overboard with this, but then what are Trek fans if not people who love to go overboard?

My setting isn’t Star Trek, mind, but I’ll be considering this food for thought as I condense my ideas. I think I’ve got a little research I need to indulge in.

Time to break out the Outlaw Star DVDs.

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