SF Campaign Quiz

I stumbled across this when going through my old emails, and I thought it might interest some of you.  This was a survey I sent out for a group I was going to run a SF campaign for once a month online; they had agreed they wanted to play some kind of SF campaign, but they weren’t sure what.  Usually I’d start with an idea for the kind of campaign I felt like running, but since I was play-testing Zap! at the time, I was open to almost anything they wanted to try.


How serious do you want the tone of the campaign to be
  • Played for Laughs (Galaxy Quest)
  • Campy but played straight (Flash Gordon)
  • Straight, with leavening of humor (Star Trek Original Series)
  • Straight, with little or no humor (later season DS9)
  • Grim (Battlestar: Galactica remake)
  • Other:

Hardness of SF

How hard do you want the SF to be?
  • Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic
  • Anything goes as long as you wave your hands sufficiently vigorously and invoke nano, quantum, or tachyons.
  • Stick to standard SF tropes like FTL travel and cloning, please.
  • At least make a stab at plausibility, don’t include anything known to be impossible without flagging it
  • Stick to actual speculative science
  • Everything has to be vetted by Scott (one of our two resident physicists)
  • Other:
Which of the following elements would you like to see? *
if there’s a conflict, these choices will override the previous answer in specific areas
  • Space ships
  • FTL Travel
  • Psionic powers
  • Alien life forms
  • PC alien races
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Teleportation/Matter transmission
  • Near Future
  • Alternate Present
  • Farther future, but Earth still known/relevant (3-400 years)
  • Far future, Earth history known but Earth lost
  • Earth? What’s that?
  • Terra-forming
  • Interstellar civilizations
  • Time travel
  • Extra-dimensional travel
  • Virtual worlds
  • Resurrection/Restore from Backup
  • Increased Longevity
  • Robot PCs
  • Interstellar War
  • “Uplifted” animals
  • Genetically engineered humans
  • Allegory and social commentary
  • Universal translators
  • Matter replicators
  • I’m good with any or none of the above
  • Other:

Campaign Structure

Episodic or Epic
  • Episodic: I want the stories to have discrete beginning, middle and end
  • Seasonal Arcs: I want the individual episodes to eventually add up to a larger arc, but that arc might be only one of several with these characters
  • Epic: I want one overarching story, with the bulk of what happens being driving that story forward
  • Non-dramatic: I want to explore and do stuff, and if I see any dramatic structure happening, I’ll zap it with my blast pistol.
  • Other:


Should PCs die?
  • Never.
  • Only by player choice.
  • If they do something everybody agrees is lethally stupid
  • If they do something that the GM thinks is lethally stupid
  • If the dice say so
  • If the dice say so, but with player veto
  • Inevitably
  • Multiple times per session, thank goodness for backups
  • Multiple times per session, thank goodness characters are easy to create
  • Other:

Are the PCs special?

ordinary schmoes or heroes?
  • Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. And then there’s the PCs
  • Ordinary folks thrown into extraordinary circumstances, trying to get by
  • Competent professionals, doing their jobs
  • Elite, the special squad within the ranks of the pros
  • We’re the A-Team, we get called in when the elite have failed
  • Legends, the ones that taught the A-Team everything they know
  • Mary Sue Squad
  • Other:


How far and wide do the PCs roam?
  • Based in a particular city-sized locale
  • Globe trotters
  • Interplanetary is an adventure
  • Interplanetary is a commute, Interstellar is an adventure
  • Interstellar commuters, Intergalactic adventurers
  • Time travelers
  • Dimension hoppers
  • Other:

Hard SF The Easy Way

“Hard” SF is science fiction that makes a conscious effort to make the science and technology in the story stick to what we know, or at least surmise, and tries to be modest in its extrapolations.  The resulting “hardness” of the SF falls on a continuum: the less extrapolation and the more established the science, the “harder”… the farther out and more speculative, the “softer”, until at the far end of the spectrum you get “science fantasy”, which is essentially magic in technological drag. Allowance is often made for implausible science needed to make the story work, such as  faster-than-light travel or time travel, but even there “harder” SF deliberately tries to reduce the number of impossibilities and often to disguise the ones it has by at least cloaking it in not-yet-absolutely-disproved speculative science.  Sometimes that the whole point of the story: what would it be like if everything we knew for a fact was still the same, but easy and cheap teleportation was possible? (This is often contentious where it shouldn’t be, because people confuse their taste for harder or softer SF for the quality of the story and get tangled in arguments over whether this or that is “really” SF, but I’m going to ignore all that.)

SF RPGs are often on the soft side, if not outright fantasy, with some notable exceptions such as Blue Planet and Traveller.  Partly this is because RPGs tend to be inspired by action-adventure stories and, particularly in the movies and comics, verisimilitude has never been a high priority compared to thrills; partly it’s because making games seem like Hard SF sounds like a lot of work, and likely to be boring to the players or the GM, and GMs aren’t always confident that their knowledge of science is up to the task and would rather spend time working on the setting than doing research.  Visions of players actually being required to calculate orbits, or long arguments at the table over the scientific accuracy of particular features of the setting make Hard SF RPGs seem like more trouble than it would be worth for a little bit of extra S in the SF ambience.

Neither strict scientific rigor nor big swaths of in-game tedium are necessary to have a game that feels like Hard SF, and any system or setting can be tweaked to move it at least a little farther towards the hard end of the spectrum if that’s your goal.   Hard SF can be easy, if you keep a few principles in mind.

Verisimilitude, Not Accuracy

Very few games in any setting deal with things at a sufficient level of detail that you could really check the accuracy, even if you wanted to, and players by and large don’t want to as long as you can avoid gross implausibilities that shatter their willing suspension of disbelief.  Even in a strictly modern day RPG with no SF or magical elements, nobody tracks, say, how much fuel is in their car, what their mileage is at what speeds, and when and how much they have to refuel; running out of gas might come up as a plot point, but if it’s not important to the immediate action players are perfectly willing to assume that because cars must be refueled regularly, they’re doing so “off screen.” The fact that they never have to play out getting gas without some specific reason to focus on that scene doesn’t lead them to question whether the cars they drive are realistically requiring fuel, let alone that the mileage they’re getting fits in with what is known about that model of car.  The same principle applies to make-believe tech in an SF setting.  As long as you establish that the tech has certain constraints, such as space-ships needing to refuel, you don’t need to make the players track their fuel or calculate its consumption or provide accurate details of what specific impulse their engines deliver.  At most you may have to make sure to remind them once in a while, since you won’t be able to rely on the common knowledge that (hopefully) prevents players in a modern day setting from proposing to drive their Ford Focus from LA to New York without ever stopping or spending money on gas.

If It’s Broke, Fix It

Since one of the goals is to avoid tripping the players up with thoughts of “that couldn’t possibly be true”, or “well, I guess since this is just fiction…”, if somebody has a problem with something that strikes them as implausible given what’s known, fix it then and there.  In a setting with magic and gods it’s routine for the PCs to encounter phenomena that are completely beyond their ken, and for only the GM to know the principles that govern magic if indeed there are any, but in Hard SF you’re trying to avoid that.  Even if the PCs encounter a mysterious phenomenon in a Hard SF setting, the assumption is that it can in principle be understood, and they will be able to figure it out if they work at it.  That means that as the GM you should try hard to keep things congruent with what the players know, and you should attempt to reward their efforts to reason from what they know about real-world science and technology as well as what they’ve learned about stuff that you’ve made up for the setting.  If it seems plausible to them that given how you’ve described forcefields as working, you ought to need an air supply to use a personal forcefield for more than a few minutes, then you should roll with that or correct them immediately, not leave it dangling or mysterious whether that’s true.  If they notice a contradiction or hole in the setting that you didn’t, try to fix it or retcon it, rather than putting on your inscrutable GM face and pretending that it’s all part of a deeper truth that they aren’t privy to.

Science is Universal

Whatever is true for the PCs and their civilization ought to be true at all places and times; even if different alien races and cultures have different tech, that tech should obey the same physical laws, and the PCs ought to be able in principle to understand and use it (and vice versa), even if there are practical difficulties such as being built by methane breathers out of substances that are unstable in the presence of oxygen.  Apparent violations of this rule ought to cause consternation, and perhaps even become the focus of the adventure.


As Heinlein put it, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  I’ve mentioned this before, in Clarke’s Law and SF Roleplaying, but it bears repeating and emphasizing: one of the biggest things about science and technology in the real world, and so one of the biggest things to emphasize if you want your made-up science and technology to feel realistic, is that there are always trade-offs.  In technology, this is often expressed as the engineer’s trilemma: Fast, Cheap, Good, pick two.  In your game, this can be expressed in a lot of ways to make the technology feel more real: bigger vehicles can be slower  and less maneuverable, or require a lot more fuel; more powerful weapons can be more expensive and require more expensive ammo; more advanced technology can require a lot more maintenance and crew (think about what it takes to keep an F-16 flying compared to a Piper Cub, or a Sopwith Camel);  more advanced tech can also require more support infrastructure (you can land a Camel in an open field, an F-16…not if you want to be able to take off again); cybernetic implants can require a regular supply of drugs to keep the body from fighting them, or people with them can be more susceptible to disease and infection because their immune systems are compromised. Medical technology should have drawbacks: if limbs can be regrown, perhaps it requires rehabilitation before you can learn to use them again; drugs to regenerate nerve damage can be addictive; nanites that destroy cancer cells can work, but still need the destroyed cells to be flushed from the body regularly through blood filtration in the sick-bay, etc. Even completely make-believe science like psionic powers can be made to feel “harder” by presenting it as having major drawbacks, which probably explains why it’s so common to depict using them as causing nosebleeds….

Another aspect to TANSTAAFL relates to how technology is presented as being used in the setting.  If star-ships require regular refueling, then places where you can do that are going to place constraints on the routes ships take and how far they can go, even if the tech doesn’t limit them to travelling along predefined paths (as with star-gates or hyperspace jump lines).  This kind of thing can make the limits of the technology used visible to the players without requiring any book-keeping at all on their part to track fuel consumption.  One easy thing to do that applies to almost any sort of tech is give it a limited duration or fixed number of uses: spacesuits, airplanes, cars, laser pistols, power plants, forcefield belts, teleportation pads.  Even if you don’t make them track it, as long as the players have to consider whether their proposed use falls within the time constraints of the equipment and plan around that, it will make even the most exotic technology feel more grounded in physical reality.

Ground Your Science and Technology in the Familiar

You want the players to be able to say “that sounds like good science” and “if it works like X, then it stands to reason that Y”  In particular, you want to use existing names and ideas when possible.  A lot of technology doesn’t become obsolete that easily, and the science behind it almost never does.  Telescopes have been around since at least 1608, and the principles behind them described as far back as the 13th century.  We’ve made major advances in constructing them, using them for wavelength unknown back then, putting them in space, adding innovations (themselves dating back to 1868) in using multiple telescopes and a bunch of math to simulate a much larger telescope… but they’re still telescopes.  Your star-ships could employ vaguely-named and vaguely-described “sensors”, but it’s more concrete to call its various instruments telescopes, spectrometers, radar, and so on.  This serves a dual purpose in both keeping the science of the setting tightly coupled with real science, and with letting the players recognize and employ their knowledge appropriately without needing to give them an “info dump” on make-believe technology.  Even with new, make-believe technology, see if you can analogize it to existing tech: “subspace radio” suggests that your FTL communications works in a way similar enough to radio that the players can assume, or at least not be surprised by, it broadcasting in all directions and detectable and maybe decipherable by anybody in range with the proper equipment, that its power falls off with distance, that it can be interfered with either deliberately (jamming) or by natural phenomena (ion storms or the like), perhaps even that its bandwidth makes it more suitable for audio than full duplex video.  On the flip side, if the tech doesn’t work anything like that, avoid names that would suggest false analogies and come up with something obviously new such as when Ursula Le Guin’s coined “ansible” for an FTL communication device that instantaneously transmits from one device fixed to a planet or other large body to an attuned device at a known location anywhere in the cosmos.

Keep a Sense of Scale

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space. -Douglas Adams

Even with FTL, planets and stars are a long, long way away…and there are a whole lot of them.  Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across.  That means that at 1,000 times the speed of light (somewhere between Warp Factor 8 and 9 in StarTrek) it would take the Enterprise 100 years to cross the Milky Way. We now know of a star system within 20 light years of us that has a planet within the “Goldilocks Zone” where water can exist in liquid form.  That doesn’t mean it’s habitable, or even that it does actually have water, but it’s right on top of us, galactically speaking.  If two such planets (us and them) in such a tight space are typical, then there could be millions in our galaxy.  Space. Is. Big.

A Hard SF game will emphasize that. It might forbid FTL travel completely, or even interstellar travel without generation ships, but even if it doesn’t, it will take significant chunks of time to get from system to system, and even if known space in the setting is huge, it will likely cover an insignificant fraction of the galaxy.  A galactic empire that spanned a thousand star systems would still be just peanuts to space.

Even a single planet is huge.  Just look at the incredible variety of different terrains on Earth, and that’s before you start adding various ecologies, man-made structures and cultures.  As Larry Niven has written:

“It was raining on the planet Mongo.” Lots of SF feels claustrophobic, as if planets were all about the size of a village. It makes the storytelling easier for a lazy writer.

You can easily make your planets seem bigger, and the SF harder, by making the habitats, whether they’re planets, space stations, or futuristic cities more varied.  Even if you have a world that’s locked in ice, or a completely dry desert, you can still have a large variety of different terrains… look at Mars.  No, literally, do a quick Google for some of the terrain features of Mars, ranging from the largest mountain in the solar system, to enormous systems of canyons 4000 km long and up to 7km deep, or a crater 2000 km in diameter and 6 km deep. If the world has water and supports life, layer a bunch of different ecosystems on top of that, modeled after the ones on Earth, appropriate to where they’re situated: near the poles, the equator, in a giant crater, ranged up and down the walls of the canyons, on the mountain slopes, and so on.  If you add human or alien habitations, even if they’re just scientific outposts and not full fledged cities, you can make a sketch of a single planet that seems large and varied enough to support an entire campaign.  You don’t need to work it out in any detail until and unless the players elect to spend a lot of time there, but if you do this for the first few places they’re likely to encounter and then every one that they spend any significant time interacting with, it will be easier for them to accept the illusion that the whole galaxy is filled with places just as varied and interesting.  It doesn’t matter if they know it’s an illusion, and that you sometimes might have to call for a halt while you work out some more detail on the place they want to visit next; what’s important is that they can know that as they’re actually playing the places they go will have variety and they won’t land on Mongo to find it’s raining all over the planet.

You should emphasize the size of planets, and other large objects the characters might encounter, by pointing out how long it takes to travel from place to place.  It’s easy enough to say that the characters are on a ship that’s ten kilometers long, but the players aren’t likely to really come to grips with that unless you remind them from time to time that it would take them two hours to walk from one end of the ship to the other, and that’s why the ship has trams, or turbo-lifts or however the crew actually get about.  Then if the ship comes under attack and the trams break, needing to get to the engine room becomes something they can’t just hand-wave past…  When travelling from place to place on a planet, the same considerations apply; just because in space there’s FTL travel doesn’t mean that crossing 600 km is negligible.  Even on a high-tech world, unless there’s some kind of teleportation system, it’s worth at least mentioning that it takes them an hour by maglev to get from the spaceport to Nova Paree, just to help them picture it, even if it doesn’t become a plot-point in the future.

Make Technology Commonplace (For the Setting)

Even if the equipment is capable of doing things like teleportation or matter duplication that we don’t have a clue how to achieve, to the characters it generally shouldn’t be mysterious or awe-inspiring.  Expensive as hell, maybe, impressive, even, but not astonishing or inexplicable. Unique, one-of-a-kind technology that confers vast powers should be the exception rather than the rule; if it exists at all it will probably be the thing that the whole campaign revolves around as the PCs get hold of it and either become the saviors of, or targets of, the rest of known space, or they will have to wrest it from the main villains of the setting before it’s too late.  Almost all the technology the PCs run into or use that’s not the focus of an adventure should be immediately recognizable and understandable, the kind of thing that you could purchase if you had enough money (or whatever passes for it in the setting)…even if only governments or giant corporations would actually have enough; the PCs should be able to assume that they’ll know what it is, and be able to look up its parameters…and if they find out they can’t, that is a mystery perhaps worth exploring.

Putting it All Together

To make the SF in your game “harder” you want to: aim for verisimilitude, not strict scientific accuracy; quickly fix any spots that the players notice strain that verisimilitude; ensure that whatever the tech and science you come up with applies everywhere and to everyone in the setting; emphasize that in your setting There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch when it comes to technology; name things and employ existing technology and science such it seems familiar enough that players can reason correctly about in-game consequences;  remind them of the real-world scale of things in the game; and make the  technology in the setting to be commonplace for the characters unless the fact that it isn’t is what’s driving the adventure.  If you can do all these things, you can make practically any setting, using any system, feel more like Hard SF as it’s played.

Reversing the Polarity

What if you don’t want the SF to feel harder, but instead want to make your game wilder, wackier, and more like Science Fantasy?  Simple: you just reverse all the above advice.  Try to break verisimilitude by emphasizing things we know aren’t true, like air in space, space being filled with “ether”, perhaps even fire being caused by “phlogiston”; if the players notice an inconsistency or contradiction, don’t correct it, elaborate on it and invent some esoteric explanation for it (which may become a feature of the setting); make the rules that govern the setting arbitrary and vary from place to place or character to character; make the technology and science deliver free lunches to all, with equipment that inexplicably has no apparent trade off between power and weight and never needs maintenance, medicine that has no side-effects,  generators that create unlimited clean energy cheaply, perpetual motion machines, new elements with mysterious properties such as anti-gravity; make the science and technology unfamiliar, even it it’s just renaming things to seem exotic such as calling radio waves “etheric vibrations” or telescopes “panopticons”; ignore scale entirely, so that everything travels at the speed of plot…if the PCs have a rocket ship or etheric sailing vessel take it as given that they can get wherever they want to go by the next scene unless something interesting such as a ionic storm, shipwreck or attack by pirates intervenes, and reduce all the places in the setting to their single salient feature (the desert planet, the ice planet, the casino planet); make the technology in the setting arcane and unique whenever possible, don’t allow the players to assume that they know or can reason out what unfamiliar devices do…make them experiment.  The result will be quite far along the spectrum towards rollicking Science Fantasy.

Commerce… in Spaaaace!

Here’s a quick take on doing commerce in Zap!

Space Trucking

For simple “Take this cargo and deliver it” runs, roll the Cargo Bay power of the ship vs. Difficulty 13 for how far (how many scenes) you have to travel before you deliver the cargo and get 1 Wealth Point payoff.  You can use the usual rules for combining powers to boost your roll by narrating how your shticks such as Merchant or Smuggler improve your chances.  The presumption is that this is the best deal you can currently find, and that you’ve cleverly arranged it so that you’re not going out of your way to do the delivery; that is, wherever you find yourself after that many scenes of travel is the destination for your current cargo.  This kind of commerce is incidental to whatever goals you’re pursuing, and should be relatively risk-free; it’s just background texture that give you extra wealth for bothering to make up some details of your merchant activity.

Special Delivery

If you’re hired specifically to take cargo X to place Y, that should be the basis of an adventure, and the GM should make up the details and the payoff in WP.  This would be the meat of a campaign like Firefly, where the PCs are trying to scratch a living.

Space Trading

If you want to be more of a wheeler and dealer, and actually accumulate wealth, then you would buy and sell commodities. You decide how valuable a cargo you want to take on (expressed in terms of Power Level), and the between you and the GM you make up the details of exactly what might be available at your location.  You then pick the power you want to use to acquire it, such as Cargo Bay, Smuggler’s Hidey-hole, Wealth, and apply any narrative “juice” from combination with other powers and shticks to roll against the cargo’s PL roll; if you meet or beat the roll, you get the opportunity to purchase it at the value the cargo rolled.  If that’s acceptable to you, you take it on and make a note of the purchase price; the power you used is now committed until you sell the cargo somewhere.  Subsequently, wherever you go you can try to negotiate a deal to sell it.  Roll the cargo’s PL combined with any narrative juice vs. the Wealth power of the location (depending on the scope of the campaign, this could be a whole planet, a settlement, or even an individual); if the cargo wins, they want to buy it and their offer is whatever they rolled.  If that’s acceptable, they get the cargo and you get a profit (or loss, if you’re desperate) in WP of the selling price vs. the purchase price.

The upshot of all this is that you have considerable leeway in how you trade, and pretty large scope for using your powers and shticks creatively to make trading more interesting and improve your profits, while keeping the amount of book-keeping low (no tracking how much space cargo takes up, what your exact current wealth is and if you can afford to purchase the cargo, what prices various planets have offered in the past, etc.).

  • Valuable cargoes are harder to acquire, but have a bigger margin for profit; cheap cargoes are easier to get, but have smaller profit margins.
  • Poorer buyers are more likely to want what you have, but usually will offer less for it; richer buyers are pickier, but more likely to pay more.
  • There’s an “opportunity cost” to keeping goods until you get the best possible trade.
  • Gains from trade can be much more than just getting paid for delivery, but it’s possible to lose wealth if you’re unlucky or trade poorly.

Niven’s Law and Fantasy Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology – Niven’s Converse to Clarke’s Law

In my last post I discussed the application of Clarke’s Law to SF Roleplaying, and how too zealous an application can mar the SF feel of an ostensibly SF setting, by making tech seem magically limitless.  It might be objected that in good fantasy fiction, magic does indeed have limits, and omnipotent magic is just as problematic to Fantasy settings as  omnipotent tech is to SF settings. I think that’s true, but the kind of limits that seem magical differ from the kind of limits that seem scientific.  I’d go so far as to say that a too-literal application of Niven’s Converse is as bad for Fantasy as a too-literal application of Clarke’s law is to SF.

The kind of limits that seem scientific/technological are limits that at least seem like the limits we observe in physical laws:  the square-cube law, exponential decay, the laws of thermodynamics.  In SF settings for instance we tend expect that just making something bigger won’t make it more effective (if a robot the size of a house is good, a robot the size of a sky-scraper is even better!), that effects drop off with range (no pistols that shoot from the Earth to Proxima Centauri), that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (you can’t just get unlimited power for your ship by using your antigrav drive to create a perpetual-motion pump).  It doesn’t really matter if the phenomenon is entirely fictional, like hyper-drive, or psi powers: if it seems to follow some of the same basic principles that we’re familiar with, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.  An example might be Psi powers being blocked by lead or strong electromagnetic fields.  There’s no particular reason that they should be, and nothing in particular in real-world accounts of people who claim to have experienced such phenomena that suggests it should be true, but we’re used to other physical phenomena being constrained in exactly that fashion so it makes it seem more plausibly a physical/biological phenomenon instead of purely supernatural.

Magic, on the other hand, at least in fairy tales and legends tends to have completely different things that serve as stereotypical limits.  Magic usually has very narrow limits on the circumstances in which it can be invoked, such as requiring hard-to-get materials, being cast in the dark of the moon or at a solstice, not being effective against a virgin or a man not of woman born, requiring a special status to attempt (genii or fairy, having sold your soul to the devil, being the seventh son of a seventh son).  Within those limits, magic doesn’t seem to be at all concerned with mundane physical limits. Transformation of a human to a toad, or to a dragon, doesn’t need to account for different masses. Nor is distance any obstacle: if you can fulfill the conditions under which the spell can be cast, such as requiring a drop of the victim’s blood or a lock of his hair, it doesn’t matter how far away the target is, or how many intervening barriers. Transportation all the way across the world requires no greater expenditure of magical effort than across the room, nor is doing it in the wink of an eye more taxing than a more sedate pace, say as fast as a horse can gallop. Above all, magic is about getting something for nothing, or at least something concrete and physical here and now for something metaphysical and down the road, such as your soul, or some years of your life–or somebody else’s.

In fact, even thinking of magic as requiring “effort” or some amount of “power” tends to put it on a physical basis that is at odds with the magic of legends and fairy tales, though it’s become extremely common, if not the default mode of thinking about it in modern day fantasy tales and especially fantasy games.  This is where Niven’s Converse starts to bite, and I think rob fantasy of a lot of its magical feel.  Once you start to think of magic as being a sort of technology, perhaps with slightly different rules but having the same sort of underlying assumptions as mundane tech, it’s hard to stop before you’ve essentially turned magic into its own sort of electricity, powering devices that might as well be from an SF story as a fairy tale. The fact that it’s super-convenient to do so when it comes to writing game rules that balance character types against each other and keep the magic users from just waving their hands and solving all their problems makes it even more tempting to the game designer/GM.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my Elves and Espers setting does that good and hard, but I do it knowing full well that it makes magic in the setting seem more like SF…that’s more or less the point of the fantasy/SF mash-up. Unfortunately, I think, I also tend to do it in settings that are supposed to be pure fantasy, and I think they feel less magical for it. It’s just so easy to think of spells in physics-ish terms as having range, area of effect, duration, requiring more “power” the larger the target or greater the duration, having power for magic be as interchangeable as electricity, weakening with time or distance, and so on. Doing so also automatically makes it easier to compare against abilities that are based on nothing more than physics, such as firing arrows, riding horses, or digging tunnels.

As time goes on, I have a greater appreciation for some of the features of the original D&D magic system. Leaving aside the peculiar Vancian “memorizing” of spells (which I covered elsewhere), it had some magical seeming properties:

  • Spells were sui generis: each had its own rules and properties.
  • The “power source” of a spell was unique to that spell, you couldn’t trade them off or increase or decrease them except by using a different spell.
  • There was no real balancing of the effects of spells against physical “work”.  Spells were graded by level, but within a level it wasn’t, say, harder to create something out of nothing than to influence somebody’s emotions or gain some information.

For instance, take the 5th level spell Teleport:  “Instantaneous transportation from place to place, regardless of the distance involved, provided the user knows where he is going (the topography of the arrival area). Without certain knowledge of the destination teleportation is 75% uncertain, so a score of less than 75% of the percentile dice results in death.”  To me that is a ton more magical than 3rd edition’s rule that you can teleport 100 miles per level of caster, with 15 paragraphs and a table detailing how much you can carry, how familiarity with a locale is rated, the chances of arriving off-target and so on.  But even that is more magical than, say, Hero System’s Fifth Edition, where Teleportation is just a movement power with normal Endurance cost, and with a maximum range of 1 scale inch per 2 character points, to any location within range that can currently be perceived with a “targeting sense”.  (In its defense, the Hero System is supposed to be generic, but that naturally comes at a cost of losing flavor when it comes to specific genres.)

To be sure, there were other features of white-box D&D magic that undercut the magical feel, and made many spells seem just like a special ammo load (precision about ranges, a legacy of its miniatures war-game heritage comes to mind), but I think many later efforts to rationalize the system, including my own, went off in the wrong direction, falling afoul of Niven’s Converse. Instead of just removing the inconsistencies and arbitrariness of the war-gamey parts of the magic system, but leaving the inconsistencies and arbitrariness of magic operating by a completely different set of rules than physics, FRPG magic systems tended to both make expression of the rules concerning spells more voluminous, consistent and precise and make those rules much more like the rules of physics, or at least SF physics.  At the end of the day, there was little discernible difference in feel between spells cast by a wizard, spells cast by a priest, psionic abilities of one kind or another, or “spell-like” abilities from using a hi-tech item.   Magic had become sufficiently “advanced” that it really was indistinguishable from technology, at least from the point of view of the game and its players.

This isn’t an original observation, and there have been many attempts over the years to address the problem, such as trying to create magic systems that reflect more clearly the “Laws of Magic” gleaned by anthropological study of magic as real-world cultures have believed it to have worked. John Kim has a rather lengthy essay Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems that’s well worth reading (btw, I was the player of the character mentioned in Example 1 of Section 5). One problem with modeling your FRP magic system too closely on real-world magic is that real world magic doesn’t work, and some of the stuff that’s “true” according to real world magical tradition is there to make it harder to test and verify, or to give an easy out to the practitioner when it doesn’t work. Most of the time in an adventure-oriented FRP game, you want magic to be practical, so for instance death spells that take months to cast and if they work appear to be coincidence, aren’t what the players are looking for. Fairy-tale magic is a lot better for settings where there is overt magic, but fairy-tale magic is often so potent that it’s only found in the hands of NPC antagonists or sometimes mysterious mentors. It can take a lot of work on the GM’s part to create magic for the players to use that doesn’t end the adventure with, in essence, “and I magic us out of trouble.”  Giving players one or two specific abilities, like being able to talk to animals, or a pair of seven-league boots, can be a lot easier on the game than letting a player be a full-fledged sorcerer–but doesn’t really answer for the player who wants to play fantasy so he can play a sorcerer.

There’s also the factor that, after thirty years of D&D, and countless stories and games derived from it or influenced by it, some second or third hand, there are a lot of people including some who’ve never actually played D&D whose conception of magic and what feels magical is much more influenced by D&D than by earlier sources. To them being able to throw a fireball is the hallmark of a wizard, even if you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a pre-D&D source in myth or legend. When it comes down to making magic in your game feel magical to your players, you may have to include fireballs if that’s what’ll give them that fantastic tingle.

There’s no easy answer to preventing magic from feeling just like another technology, if that’s your goal. We’re so steeped in technology that even for things that aren’t technological in origin in our world, we often think about them as if they were technology, or try to treat them like technology. (Insert long rant about social engineering and/or modern management practices here, if you will.) Next time I try it, here are some approaches I’m going to consider:

  • Make spells sui generis. The way one spell works may not imply anything about any other spell, including spells of similar effect. Perhaps depending on where you learned it, Magic Missile is a physical arrow that needs a to-hit roll, or an unerring blast of light, or something else.
  • Make many spells the results of negotiating with sentient entities: you summon a djinn or elemental and it can do whatever is within its powers, but you actually have to role-play out the process of cutting a deal with it.
  • Have spells have no common source of power. No mana, or end cost, or magic points. If the conditions are right to allow you to cast the spell, including restrictions on ingredients or time of day or what-have-you, you can cast it. If certain spells do require power, have the power be the result of a specific action such as sacrificing an animal or praying in the sacred grove at the full moon, and have the source of power be thematically appropriate to the type of spell.
  • Design spells so they employ magical reasoning (effects resemble causes, contagion, similarity, etc.).
  • Grant characters specific magical abilities, without necessarily allowing them to learn new abilities…new abilities have to be gained through adventuring or deals with magical creatures, if at all.
  • Downplay physics-like considerations in spell-casting such as range, volume, density, duration. Spells should mostly cause permanent effects until reversed voluntarily or through being broken (spells should always have some way of breaking them built-in, such as a kiss from a prince).
  • Emphasize conditions for casting/breaking spells that have mythological or fairy tale resonance, including what John Kim calls morality, ethics and intangibles.  Spells that cannot work on the true of heart, or that can only be cast by evil creatures, or the seventh son of a seventh son, or can only be broken by true love, etc.
  • Do not allow the commodification of magic items: even if you have Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, each item in it is unique and has its own story.

Clarke’s Law and SF Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Clarke’s Third Law

Any technology indistinguishable from magic might as well be fantasy. – Macy’s RPG Corollary

Old-time SF author E.C. Tubb died on September 10th, 2010, which prompted me to begin reading his most famous series: Dumarest of Terra.  Dumarest was the inspiration for several  features of the early SF RPG Traveller, most notably the concepts of “Low” (risky but cheap cryogenic suspension) and “High” (expensive but safely awake) passage on starships, but a lot of the feel of the setting as well, with humanity spread out so far among the stars that there’s no central political control and Terra is just a legend.

Dumarest is entertaining enough in a pulpish way, but one of the things that strikes me when reading it is how much it feels like science fiction, despite having no recognizably “hard” science elements. The mechanics of interstellar travel, for instance, isn’t explained at all, not even in the hand-waving way of “hyper-space” or “FTL” drive.  All you really know about it is that it takes a long time: not so long as to make interstellar tourism impossible, at least if you’re rich enough, but long enough that even  in “High passage” people have to take a drug called Quick-Time to slow their metabolism and perception to endure the journey.  Worlds exist with unusual features such as not rotating that aren’t worked out at all, let alone with Hal Clement-style rigor. So what makes it feel science-fictional, in a way that many modern SF stories and RPGs do not?

I think the thing is that even without any attempt at explanation or justification in terms of real science, the technology is portrayed as having limits and inconveniences that give it a distinctly un-magical feel.  Cryogenic suspension isn’t a Sleeping Beauty spell. Besides having a 15% fatality rate per trip and being incredibly painful to wake from, such that without pain-killing drugs passengers will scream their lungs raw as they wake, low passage takes its toll on the body.  Low-travel passengers such as Dumarest have used up a lot of their body’s reserves, and are literally half-starved.  High-travel passengers, no matter how wealthy, even be they princes of their home planets, must endure side-effects from the Quick-Time drug slowing their reflexes fractionally for days afterwards.  Solar storms can make travel impossible, even for the most heavily shielded starships, high winds on a planet can make air-travel impractical even though there is anti-grav technology, and so on.

It further seems to me that this sense of the limitations of technology and science is something missing from a lot of recent SF and SF RPGs.  It’s as if people have taken Clarke’s Third Law too much to heart and decided that if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the best way to go about imagining advanced technology is to treat it as if it were magic and anything is possible.  This may be exacerbated by movies, TV, and computer games, which powerfully influence our imaginations when it comes to picturing SF worlds. Advances in CGI mean that anything we can imagine depicting can now be shown on screen, with no real constraints.  A space-station the size of the moon is no harder or more costly to depict than a space-station the size of an oil tanker.  Or maybe not: it was always possible to write about a space-station the size of the moon with no more effort than a more reasonably-sized one.  And yet I wonder…did convincing the reader take more effort before people were used to seeing photo-realistic depictions of such wonders, moving in real time?

It’s not that I think SF games are better if you have to plot realistic Newtonian orbits, or if they have no tech that you can’t point to at least a pop-sci article in the paper to justify…Heaven knows Dumarest doesn’t even make gestures in that direction. It’s that what’s missing is the sense that the physical universe places constraints on technology that cannot be overcome with “sufficiently advanced” tech.  The result is that all these SF worlds feel as if they’re taking place in a virtual reality, and if that’s the case then for all practical purposes they might as well be fantasy games instead of SF… the  difference coming down to nothing more than the style of accompanying illustration.  There’s nothing wrong with playing fantasy with SF trappings, after all that’s more or less the point of my whole Elves and Espers campaign setting, but I can’t help feeling that a steady diet of it isn’t taking full advantage of the unique features of SF as a genre.

Take Firefly, for example.  There’s nothing the least bit realistic about some of the basic features of the setting, such as all the terraformed asteroids and moon-lets of the ‘Verse, or the ease with which ships travel between them or run across each other while travelling (c.f. Pournelle’s Those Pesky Belters and Their Torch Ships), but there are features that give it a strongly SF flavor despite it being largely and unapologetically a Western in Space.  The biggest thing is that ships require fuel and constant maintenance, and both of those require money.  (This was an important feature of Traveller, as well.)  Even Star Trek, which makes worries about fuel and maintenance irrelevant except for the occasional plot-point, and which introduced truly fantastic tech such as transporter beams at least took the trouble to include limitations such as being unable to beam through shields which made it feel a little more “grounded”–even if the limitations were really there to plug the plot holes that having an instant “Get Out of Jail Free” card would have introduced.

I think this gets exaggerated in SF RPGs, because there is a tendency to gloss over such limitations and difficulties that are implied to exist in the technology as being irrelevant to, or worse detracting from, the sense of adventure.  That tends to happen even in fantasy games, where logistical rules such as encumbrance or spell components are often the first things to get tossed aside in the pursuit of more “heroic” feeling games, but at least there the typical low-tech setting implies constraints that the characters tend to live with.  Without a spell, nobody tries to converse with somebody in a city hundreds of miles away; in a modern setting, people think nothing of pulling out a cell phone… in a future setting, players now tend to assume that they ought to be able to do at least that much, but without stopping to consider whether that implies infrastructure such as cell towers and satellites that the world they’re exploring might not have.  Surely whatever far-future they’re in where they’re exploring worlds ought to have licked whatever technical problems that might present?   The recent Doctor Who series (in)famously introduced a cell-phone that could make calls not only across whatever planet they are on, but even across time itself.  That’s a bit magical even for Doctor Who fans.

I think that, especially for RPGs, even if you’re really aiming for SF with no hard science at all along the lines of Star Wars or Doctor Who, it’s helpful to avoid falling back on Clarke’s Law to justify all your tech doing whatever is most convenient at the moment.  Think about some limits that might be implied by the fact that this is dealing with physical objects in a “real” world, and not CGI or magic, and enforce them.  Consider whether the items require power and how much,  or have limitations on range, reliability, maintenance, and so forth.  RPGs are about making interesting decisions, preferably ones informed by your character’s beliefs and personality, but at least ones with tactical and strategic trade-offs  It just strikes me as more interesting if your communicators can only contact the ship as long as it’s in line of sight above you and not when it’s blocked by the bulk of the planet, unless you take the trouble of dropping a bunch of geosynchronous relay satellites in orbit first.  Even more so if they’re expensive enough that it’s worth the trouble to retrieve them when you leave, and it takes time to do so, so that one day you might be faced with the choice of cutting and running when some enemy shows up or leaving your comm net satellites behind and it’s actually a hard choice.  Every game should have interesting decisions the characters face, but game that aim to be SF should make an extra effort to make those decisions feel like they’re grounded in the science of the setting however outre.  Bonus points if the players can reason about the “science” to arrive at true conclusions and workable plans…such as by tricking the enemy into thinking the landing party is still on the planet by programming the abandoned comm satellites to keep pretending to relay messages.  Avoiding the reckless application of Clarke’s law is, in my opinion, a big help in keeping your SF feeling like SF.

Elves & Espers: The Broken Spire

The Broken Spire is the Westernmost of the spires that comprise the New (upper) part of New Ark City.  It is called Broken not because the physical structure has been compromised, but because all the systems have failed and cannot be repaired.  When queried, Gax–the Giant Thaumaturgic Brain in charge of the city–always replies that repairs are underway as he has done for at least the past millennium.  No broadcast power reaches the Broken Spire, and all equipment that hasn’t been modified to be self-sustaining, including but not limited to all standard models of air-car and beam weaponry, cease to function well before they get to the edge of any of the Broken Spire’s discs.

Visual inspection with image amplification shows that the discs and tower itself are mostly intact, with some signs of wear, but the Web connecting them is in tatters, and all the cables that ordinarily connect the spires to each other have fallen.  Most of the visible buildings are at least partially ruined, and appear to have been damaged by some combination of fire, weather, weaponry, and neglect.  High levels of thaumaturgic radiation prevents a closer inspection with any scrying gear, though at night the naked eye can see the glimmer of campfires.  The spire is dark and brooding, and most inhabitants of the other spires prefer not to regard it too closely, to the extent that the regions of the discs closest to it (save for the Eastern disc on the far side of the Spire of Ark, and the Spire of Ark itself, which lacks all discs) are the “low-rent” areas of the city.

Adventurers occasionally mount expeditions to the Broken Spire, and those that return tell tales of primitive tribes, cut off for so long from the rest of the city that even the descendants of the Elves have forgotten their common heritage and speak a language unknown to modern ears.  The pervasive thaumaturgic radiation has given rise to horrible mutations, and the primitives of the Spire are barely recognizable as the descendants of the species that inhabit the rest of the city if indeed that they are, and not some other races that once lived in New Ark and have now been forgotten, or invaders from outside the Arcology altogether.  Monsters and abominations abound, again whether the mutant offspring of domesticated creatures such as the beasts of burden that pull the bulette-trains or the various helpful oozes that keep the city clean, or invasive species from elsewhere that have colonized in the absence of the city’s normal security systems, none can say.

Wondrous treasures are said to be found there, relics of an almost forgotten era when New Ark City was in full flower, and all the city’s functions were efficiently carried out by Gax, while the college of the Tower of Ark turned out marvels and miracles of modern thaumatology, the design, construction and operation of which have since been lost, or the parts having been cannibalized to patch the increasingly creaking and overburdened systems of the aging arcology and the vast spires, once teeming with more millions of inhabitants than now seems conceivable, now a shadow of their former glory.


The Broken Spire is intended to be the “Gamma World” part of the city, and a suitable place for wild-and-woolly mutant-filled adventures without leaving the arcology entirely for adventures in the Badlands.  Stuff powered by the characters Power Points will still function, but ordinary gear (such as laser pistols, communicators, blasters and the like) won’t work unless the characters spend extra money to equip themselves with (bulkier) self-powered gear.

The Horror, The Horror

That’s right readers, we actually gamed last night. Josh was kind enough to put together a 1-shot Deep-Space Exploration Horror session.

Of course, we didn’t know this starting out so we :
a) Started out the session by singing Karaoke Revolution: Country for about 1.5 hrs.
1) Wendy knows too many country songs
b) Upon receiving our 1-shot “character sheets” started filling in character skills as though we were actually playing S.P.A.N.C. instead of “Event Horizon.” (To be fair it was mostly Wendy, Paul, and Mike)

Tone issues? Us? Never. Never ever. No, no, no, no…

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