Two Pulps. Two Science Fiction Campaign Ideas

Against the Darkmaster inspired me to begin a survey of the fantasy fiction that has informed its rules, a project that quickly encompassed the most well-regarded, Tolkienian secondary-world novels published during my lifetime. Perhaps the endeavor is too ambitious, particularly when I’m also committed to keeping up my reading of the classics (with an emphasis on those handsome omnibus editions published by the Library of America) and the two magazines Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

On two (well, three) occasions now these last vestiges of traditional pulps have provided me with campaign ideas. The incident in parentheses is a situation in which a story in Analog gave me an idea for an R.E.H. Conan-themed adventure. The two non-parenthetical moments have been in keeping with the genre advertised on the magazine covers.

The first campaign would take place in Kristin Kathryn Rusch’s Diving Universe. This milieu is detailed in short stories and novels that have been published—and are continuing to be published—in Asimov’s. I can’t recall the precise story that struck the gaming aspect of my imagination—I think it might be The Runabout—but it deals with a specific feature of her work. In the story I have in mind, she details a kind of null-Space, a dimension also sometimes called the Boneyard because it contains drifting hulks of spacecraft that have vanished from remote regions, times and intelligences throughout the regular universe into this enigmatic and weird dimension. Salvagers “dive” into this space, often on a ticking clock; some ships never leave the Boneyard, or at least not into their usual timelines, and every moment spent in the Boneyard, for some reason, increases the likelihood of a complication. The Rusch story I’m thinking of details spacers breaking into a dead craft, creeping through various rooms in which are found weird and puzzling wonders. It occurred to me that, hey, this is a dungeon! And shortly after this insight, I thought: hey, this is a campaign!

I tend to respect science fiction more than I do fantasy. This might be because I believe (perhaps inaccurately) that I could write some passable fantasy but not science fiction. I’m not very good at science. Myths, on average, are more understandable to me than what is “real.” So, what I can’t do myself strikes me, when demonstrated by others, as admirable. I suppose it’s for similar reasons that, though I want to run a science fiction campaign sometime, the idea of doing so—and interesting my gamers in it—is intimidating.

Yes, I have run Star Wars, in my youth the d6 version and not too long ago one short campaign of Fantasy Flight’s take, but I maintain that Star Wars is not science fiction. It might look like science fiction. But lightsabers are just swords, blasters are pistols, Jedi are knights (or more accurately, I have heard, Shaolin monks), and starships in hyperspace are just so many automobiles on a highway. Star Wars has more in common with make-believe and thus mostly is in my comfort zone.

In my mind now are questions. What about Star Trek? Firefly? BSG? I think my answer must be that the importance of the science—and now let’s dive right into science fiction gaming—is contingent on a shared level of scientific cognizance at the table.

First, all present must have a shared knowledge of the scientific parameters of the game experience. In our simulation, is there such a thing as FTL travel? Well, it’s probably fantasy then. Is terraforming possible? How likely is it there will be alien intelligences? How different must be their biochemical processes? Is communication with such creatures even possible? All this is important because gamers might have an in-game idea that relies on—and should rely on—actual science. Unless the experience just makes use of a scientific veneer (in which case, again, it is fantasy), that’s kind of the point of the attraction in the first place. Often GMs receive advice on how to deal with players who know the game better than they do. In this case a GM might be faced with a player who knows reality better than he or she does. I can imagine a gamer using an astrophysical calculation to use a gravity well to achieve escape velocity from a star system. With my limited knowledge (and ask my players how good my math skills are!), I wouldn’t know how to referee that.*

Second, the table must establish the extent of in-game scientific capability. Nano-tech changes a game experience entirely. I’ve read stories wherein robots the size of quantum particles can make quite literally anything happen. At this point we again might as well be back in fantasy, in a Vancian universe, following Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum.

Before the advice comes forth—and I welcome it, of course—let me express that I know that these are not insurmountable problems. One more thought gives me the greatest pause: the Universe—even a single star system—is Big. I tend to run sandbox play, and I have difficulty seeing one planet in a system—even if it has just one inhabitable outpost on that planet—as a single adventure location. I feel the need to develop that thing, in which case it takes on the dimensions of a usual fantasy rpg sandbox. The Expanse television show and novels—which I understand was originally conceived of as an rpg setting—make sense to me: confine the PCs to a manageable star system (in this case, our own—even simpler!). For me, though, even this might be too much. So, to return to my inspirations…

Rusch’s Diving setup appears so workable for gaming because 1. The ship is the “village.” 2. The PCs leave the village to explore interesting “dungeons” and navigate them out of the Boneyard. 3. The incentive for adventure is salvage, probably to equip and ultimately to pay off a debt on the PCs’ starship (a popular sci-fi rpg motif). Once all this is done, maybe I’d be comfortable allowing my PCs to fly off to where no one has gone before.

Just today I read in the current Analog another genius campaign setup. Approaching the plot of “Applied Linguistics” in game terms, it’s almost as if Auston Habershaw developed a story around a Gray Ooze of D&D fame learning a language and innovating a next step in its own evolution. It’s a genius tale on its own merits, but it’s also rich in campaign ideas. The action takes place on a prison planet. The “jail” is host to a number of aliens and factions competing for resources, most of which are rations or new prisoners that crash down in pods sent there by the space authorities. Yes, at first it looks like a prison-break setup (and I tend to avoid these), but, in this case, the PCs are totally at liberty—outside of not being able to leave the planet, of course. I would encourage bizarre PC alien creation, and the campaign most likely would entail survival and faction interaction. In the end, the PCs might find a way off planet, perhaps about when I’m prepared to explore the next part of the universe.

How likely is it that I’ll actually run either of these ideas? Not very. I think it’s no accident that traditional high fantasy or Sword & Sorcery appears to be the most popular genre for roleplaying games. The core mechanic of any FRPG seeks to simulate “reality” in the way that most of us can understand it. Added to this shared perspective is magic and the supernatural. Concern for the actual physical “laws” of reality is minimal. If gamers seek to emulate or simulate the next great paradigm, they’re entering forbidding territory indeed. One of my most favorite observations about the cosmos (first encountered by me in Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots) should give us pause outside of gaming considerations: “Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” The quotation I’m using here credits Werner Heisenberg.

*Of course, with Spacemaster or the like, I need only lean on the PC’s Astrophysics Skill. See, I learned something! 😁