The Difficulty of Science Fiction RPGs

At NorWesCon last year, I was on a panel about the future of gaming. At that panel, someone asked “where are all the sci-fi games?” Some of my fellow panelists said “they haven’t been any for a bit,” to where I corrected. In the last couple or so years, we’ve had:

…and so on.

While I know about these, it seems like sci-fi games in general don’t get much traction unless it’s a licensed property, like the latest Star Wars RPG. And I don’t think it’s because people inherently like playing fantasy games more than science fiction (though I have no proof in any case).

No, I think it’s because sci-fi has a harder time getting traction due to needing to invent all custom setting and intellectual property. Fantasy and the real world (modern, historical, and near-future) all have the advantages of touchstones.

Even when we’re subverting the touchstones, we see and respond to the those elements. Take the effective enslavement of elves in Dragon age — we recognize that subversion because we know the original tropes.

These touchstones exist for one reason: they can’t be copyrighted. They’re public domain, or they’re part of the real world. You don’t have that with much of sci-fi, at least not of what feels like science fiction today rather than retro stuff or steampunk.[1] We can’t directly use or cite what are popular culture touchstones, even as subversion. We can’t write a game and include Klingons, Vulcans, Jedi, Sith, Cylons, Terminators, etc. We have to wink at these, describe what we’re using around themselves as if we’re inventing them for the first time.

It’s not that these touchstones don’t exist. It’s that we can’t use them.

And that’s why sci-fi RPGs with their own settings are a niche within a niche. People have to learn your property and parse where you’re winking at popular culture references that you’re hoping we’ll get because that’ll help us understand your game.

Of those I mentioned above, Diaspora is easy to get in to because it’s about humanity; there are no aliens in the brief setting. And you create your star map as part of character creation, so you don’t have to learn someone else’s geography.[2]

Ashen Stars, on the other hand, was pretty hard for me to get into, because it’s a rich setting and a game about solving mysteries. In order to understand mysteries, I had to have a strong understanding of the IP. Otherwise, the GM was just constantly saying “You see X…and you know that’s weird because of Y setting thing your character would know.”

And Bulldogs! doesn’t treat itself seriously; it’s humor set in space, and while the space IP element is inherent in the game, you can play Bulldogs! well without much of knowledge.

(I can’t say much about Stars Without Number; I haven’t played it yet.)

Before you mention Traveller in the comments: that game is the original, iconic sci-fi game. It is effectively an IP now. One of those “we’re first to publish” elements, where it’s the outlier–as well as the touchstone for other sci-fi games.


I’m not saying that sci-fi RPGs will always be a failure! Certainly not. For each of those I mentioned, there’s a core group that loves the fuck out of them, and for those with more setting material, they know that stuff well. But it’s difficult to get traction in a custom world that people are having to learn, and that’s worth thinking about as you create your sci-fi setting and doing text designing.

Question to you all: So, what sci-fi games have worked for you? What haven’t? Why?

– Ryan

[1] Posit: steampunk is science fiction for people who want common touchstones. (Not solely, but a passing thought.)

[2] Or whatever you’d call it for space info. My awesome “studies Mars for a living” friend didn’t know a term for that offhand, and “astrography” sounds weird and made-up.


35 Responses to The Difficulty of Science Fiction RPGs

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Seems Sci-Fi is the refuge of the world builders who don’t want to rebuild the whole damn universe, but want to make things a little strange and unique. Ashen Stars was a pretty difficult setting to get into, but there are other settings that I’ve had no problem getting into, like Eclipse Phase (but the mechanics have been a bit of a problem for me).

    I wonder if the same is true for superhero games. Mutants and Masterminds alludes to a superhero world (Freedom City) but has also been used for licensed properties. Perhaps there’s a line to be drawn with mechanics and setting that gets a little blurred with certain games (like Eclipse Phase, which is tied with the setting, or Diaspora, which feels like Traveller sensibilities ported to Fate).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      *facepalm* I can’t believe I didn’t list Eclipse Phase up there. Well, I’ll chalk that up to hasty blogging.

      I used to be a massive fan of Transhuman Space. I knew so much shit about the world. But, my most successful con game was about action cops in Rust China, very much a HK flick where you could actually do the wirework stuff because of Mars’ gravity.

      Seems Sci-Fi is the refuge of the world builders who don’t want to rebuild the whole damn universe, but want to make things a little strange and unique.

      I wouldn’t say that. Many sci-fi world builders seem like frustrated novelists, but that’s not the whole of them and that’s not limited to sci-fi.

      Diaspora, which feels like Traveller sensibilities ported to Fate

      Doesn’t feel; is. :) They’ve said as much.

      – Ryan

  2. PK says:

    Instead of geography, what about “stellar cartography” to borrow a term from Star Trek? It’s not perfect, geography is the study of the space while cartography is the charting of the space, but it gets the point across.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      “Cartography” is about making maps, so no.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, apparently “astrography” is in the OED. Huh.

      – Ryan

    • Wayne Zombie says:

      My wife is an astronomer, PhD in astronomy/astrophysics. One of her bosses’ jobs is as a planetary astronomer, his main interest is the moon. So your friend actually studies the geography of Mars? Hmmm. All my wife does is bounce a laser off the moon.

      According to Wikipedia, astrography is basically astrophotography, I don’t have ready access to the OED. According to the lookup feature on my Mac, ‘astrography’ occurs in Laumer’s Reteif and Bolo books, Weber’s Honor Harrington, and Bujold’s Vorkisigan books. I have several of the Baen Library CD’s online.

  3. Ed Murphy says:

    Paranoia works for me because its touchstones (offhand: backstabbing, incompetence, the Cold War, friggin’ lasers) are usable. Notably, though, three of those four aren’t sci-fi.

  4. Blackcoat says:

    Hmm. Does eclipse phase count? Or is that a “near future” thing?

    But again, it’s the world, their IP, that makes it really interesting.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      It’s sci-fi, but it’s also about transhumanism, which is something we’re thinking about today.

      Transhumanism involves and subverts many touchstones of our real world — that’s part of the question “what does it mean to be human?” And those are publicly accessible touchstones.

      It’s pretty much like cyperpunk in that regard, only a bit farther out.

      – Ryan

  5. Arashinomoui says:

    Unfortunately, this is basically my experience. Even if I fiddle around with a space mercenary type game in my head, I find myself going “Why don’t I just use Mass Effect for the world, it saves me the effort of having to develop all of the back end items.” Whereas for a fantasy game, I don’t have nearly the same sort of hang-ups creating a few nations, history and going to town.

    The best games I’ve had work have all been IP games, generally Star Wars.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right. When it comes to explaining a setting to people unfamiliar, especially at con games, we look toward touchstones to do that. Imagine if all of the touchstones you used in informal, direct explanations weren’t available when writing, and then you see the struggle.

      I could totally say “hey, this is a Mass Effect game” in a convention blurb. I certainly couldn’t publish the game like that, though.

      – Ryan

    • Martin says:

      Couldn’t agree more.

      “Why don’t I just use Mass Effect for the world, it saves me the effort of having to develop all of the back end items.”

      A friend of mine recently did exactly this and run a few games set in the Mass Effect universe (using slightly adapted Savage World rules, which worked pretty well). We’ve all played and loved the Mass Effect video games and it’s such a rich IP which left us with the feeling of “Hey, there are far more stories in there than just Shephards!” Worked awesome and was the most fun I ever had roleplaying in a classical (=non-Cyberpunk/Transhuman/Whatever) SF-Setting.

      Another game that worked for me was SpaceGothic (a german game, as far as I know there is no english translation) which is exactly what the name implies: Crusaders, inquisitors and heretics in space. A bit cheesy, but still a good example of re-arranging a few touchstones into something that is new enough to be interessting, but familiar enough so you get into the IP easily.

  6. Abbottj83 says:

    One of my favorite sci-fi RPGs I’ve played recently was Technoir.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally, though that’s where I’m recognizing that my topic is really about two things: near-future and transhuman science fiction and the farther out, more fantastical sci-fi. Near future/transhuman is far easily to hook into because of the real-world touchstones. Technoir is full of those because it’s not too unlike this world. And there are no space orks. ;)

      – Ryan

  7. Robert says:

    Does Cthulhu-Tech count? I haven’t played but I’ve read good things.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      When you start getting into horror settings, everything goes pear-shaped, so I would put them aside for this conversation.

      – Ryan

  8. 3Jane says:

    I actually had problems with Diaspora; specifically with visualising tech levels in the planet creation system. I think it relies on the reader having a feel for them after playing lots of Traveller, which I never did. (Different games are popular in non-English speaking communities – I don’t know if Traveller was ever published in Poland but it certainly wasn’t something I’d spend a TON of money ordering from abroad).

    You’re right about touchstones and copyrighted settings. This is also important for the GM – the more background material exists the more adventure ideas they can crib from it. I recently bought Ashen Stars not because of its setting, but because it looked like I could use it for a Mass Effect game. On the other hand, plenty of Tolkien is copyrighted as well and not directly usable. Hm.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      What’s usable in Tolkien isn’t copyrighted. Specific names and stuff, sure, but those aren’t the actual touchstones, and we’re talking about those.

      I recently bought Ashen Stars not because of its setting, but because it looked like I could use it for a Mass Effect game.

      In which case you more or less bought “General sci-fi game about investigation and discovery” rather than Ashen Stars, and it happens to have IP on it that you’re disregarding. Since that’s the case, why Ashen Stars and not a different space-with-aliens RPG? (FYI, not judging — I’m hoping you’ll unpack some thoughts.)

      – Ryan

    • 3Jane says:

      I just tried coming up with a widely known SF IP that’s not copyrighted and ended up with Verne. So yeah, steampunk could be SF for people who want common touchstones although I don’t think I’ve seen people explore that part of it.

      I bought Ashen Stars after a certain amount of research because:

      1) I couldn’t be bothered converting Burning Wheel (one of my favourite systems) or buying and converting Burning Empires. Luke Crane writes tight games, when you hack them they kick back. I’ve had enough of that when running an Ancient Rome game on BW.

      2) I often run investigative games. I played and liked Trail of Cthulhu. A Gumshoe system seemed like a good investment.

      3) Most importantly, AS has some cool rules that either reflect ME setting better than other games I looked at, or are simply good solutions to common problems:

      a) every crew member has (at least) one spaceship speciality and (at least) one ground crew speciality. USEFUL. I love that all players can be engaged no matter where they are; there’s no downtime of the ground crew waiting for the pilot to finish manoeuvres or the pilot waiting for the ground crew to stop exploring. Every player is supposed to take part in spaceship combat and that’s awesome.

      b) the PR rules (which also influence how many and what missions you’re given) and the fact that every mission is supposed to be a hard choice between making money and preserving a “nice guy” reputation.

      Firstly, I love the idea in general. A PR specialist on board is a necessity because people won’t appreciate your deeds if they don’t hear about them. This is perfect for the kinda cynical ME setting (and myself, being kinda cynical in general). In ME3 you actually gain a PR person!

      Secondly, the reputation and necessity for making choices reflects Paragon/Renegade choices in Mass Effect. Many people feel that the Paragon/Renegade distinction is an important feature of ME and seek to preserve it. (I’m baffled by what people seem to think needs to be preserved – to me, combat classes and Paragon/Renegade split are part of the computer games but not the setting – but hey, I’d be running this, not playing).

      4) And lastly, someone already did a ME species conversion to Ashen Stars system. I could do this myself, but I appreciate that someone else already did the work :)

  9. Myself and a friend hacked the system creation elements of Diaspora to Burning Empires (we dumped out the Valen and Scene mechanics). We ended up with a highly successful campaign (18 sessions in) rich in one books established IP of Empires which let everyone understand the setting boundaries of tech/society/skills etc, but with a player driven/created universe so everyone was on the same page in terms of what the Universe is all about.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      My group tried playing BE years ago, but the system mastery needed wasn’t to our liking. Still, the one part I did love about it were the scene mechanics and the atmosphere of the setting.

      – Ryan

  10. jessecoombs says:

    FreeMarket has worked for me for two reasons: it’s a well-designed game, and discovering what the IP is and how it works IS the game. There’s a little setting to front-load to the players, but most of it is entwined into the game mechanics. I like this.

    Star Wars (West End’s 2nd edition) ultimately did not work for me after years of playing and running it. The design is ok, but I had to put more effort than was worth it to have a fun time. Everyone knows the IP, which was great, but also led to preconceived notions. For example: to me, Star Wars was about the feel and brisk adventurey pace. To others it was all the stuff and stats and factoids about all the minutia. Playing the game sometimes felt like being in a Star Wars movie, but most of the time it was dull.

    • Wayne Zombie says:

      Pity that your group wanted to play something that you weren’t running. I’ve never had a problem with people wanting to just run around and shoot Stormtroopers. I’m looking forward to checking out FreeMarket, it sounds pretty awesome.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Point — and that’s something that I’ve been chewing on for years: the double-edged sword of IP games. (Especially at conventions, where you don’t know which part of the IP people love or if they have any exposure in the first place.)

      – Ryan

  11. Lugh says:

    One of the other big differences between fantasy and sci-fi is that tweaking the dials has much more impact in sci-fi. In fantasy, you can go dark or light, high magic or low magic, human-centric or racially diverse, and most of the basic assumptions of how people get around, how they communicate, and even how they dress are pretty much the same. That allows you to have a generic fantasy RPG like D&D work.

    Tweaking sci-fi dials like tech levels and hardness creates radically different settings. Is it one planet or many? How long does it take to travel? Can you teleport? Is information sharing instantaneous? Can you modify your body? These all reshape the setting in very fundamental ways. (Doubly so as one of the key aspects of sci-fi as a genre is explicitly exploring the effect of technology on society.)

    While it is easy to classify Technoir, Gamma World, Star Wars, and Eclipse Phase as all being “sci-fi”, it would be exceptionally difficult to create one game that can be easily modified to handle all of those. Without such a common, generic sci-fi game, the market share and mind share gets split between dozens of games. We think that there is no sci-fi RPG movement because there is no 800-lb gorilla for it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      You’re on to something. I wouldn’t say that it’s about how radically different dial tweaks are so much as we know what to expect from various dial tweaks in fantasy — we’ve seen so many examples of them. Those worlds are radically different, but still familiar to us, thus touchstones.

      it would be exceptionally difficult to create one game that can be easily modified to handle all of those

      Well, there’s GURPS. ;)

      But yeah, what you’re talking about are games with different themes and different baseline world assumptions. Making a game to fit all of those wouldn’t be about difficulty, but about missing the point — that wouldn’t be a game that’s about anything. That said, I think that reinforces your point.

      – Ryan

  12. David McBride says:

    The most successful sci-fi rpgs in my group have been all IP based, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Space 1999(don`t laugh we were bell bottomed badasses ;)).

    This comes about for my group for several reasons.

    1) Love of the IP material and wanting to play in those worlds.
    2) Level playing field, everyone in the game has seen the IP and therefore has a common language to speak and knows, generally the “rules” of the setting.
    3) It is really easy to introduce someone new to the rpg setting. Give them the movie/TV show etc.
    The struggle then for me is to decide what is canon for the setting and what would be fun to change to make the players ‘’the big damn heroes’’ ?
    Do you replace Luke, Han or Leah ? Or do your players adventure along side them ?
    But that is a different topic.
    Dave McBride

  13. The funny thing about Sci-fi is that when you turn all the dials to 11 it morphs back into fantasy “that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Interestingly the most widely used touchstone of gaming sci-fi is probably Star Wars or Warhammer40k, probably because they both do just that and go so far “forward” that it’s basically swords and sorcery fantasy (with fancy colour) with the odd naval battle.

    I think the difficult part of sci-fi gaming comes about when we ground it in reality more (less colour), nothing needs to be truly rationalized in most fantasy worlds but gaming in a more real sci-fi can be very difficult for many players.

    – Mark

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hmm. Interesting.

      So, there’s a stretch:

      Closer to Our World —– Middle —– Way Out There

      And it’s the poles that are the easiest to relate to. Interesting.

      – Ryan

  14. Oh no, now I’m going to map out the position of our games on the stretch to see where they fall out…

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There’s probably a more effective 2D graph, but that’s for someone other than me to figure out. :D

      – Ryan

  15. I’m thinking:

    Fantasy > Modern Fantasy > Modern Real > Near Future > Hard SF > Fantastical SF
    D&D Dresden Technoir Diaspora Starwars
    LOTR World of Darkness Cyberpunk Babylon 5 40K

  16. Greg Sanders says:

    I’m getting ready to run my first game of Battlestations this weekend. I’d played it at Gencon and had a delightful time, although it is sufficiently map and scenario oriented that it might be a little more in the boardgame space.

    The basic appeal is space navy touchstones. It really grabbed me because it has full roles for scientists and engineers and had ship operations without only allowing one player to shine at a time. I hope it holds up as well when under the care of a less experienced GM, but if it goes half as well as my Gencon game did than I’ll be stealing ideas from this system for years to come.

    I think your touchstone point is dead on. I’m currently playing in an entirely reskinned D&D 4e sci-fi game where the universe is one built up by a single GM and a multitude of players over four campaigns. It has a wiki which is really helpful for building your own universe with a variable group. I don’t think I’m necessarily looking to play in a particular universe at this point, but I do wish I’d had a chance to do so when I was a bit younger and would have been happy to ditch fantasy for any number of flavors of medium-to-hard sci fi.

    The sci-fi game I ran was a short run in a universe set up as a literal dumping ground for people from a variety of other universes. Given the comedic tone, perhaps I should try out Bulldogs if I ever wished to revive it.

  17. JDCorley says:

    I would add to the list:

    Interface Zero, a really cool cyberpunk game for Savage Worlds (and previously True20, which I will ALWAYS BE LOYAL TO DAMMIT)

    In Flames, a highly interesting “post-transhuman” science fiction game with the d6 system – the player characters USED to be post-human energy-being mega-gods, but they did….something bad they can’t quite remember, and were exiled to the science fictionized material world. They have to figure out what they did and earn their way back in. I really like this one because (like Paranoia), it has a solid core story to it.

    I’ve heard good things about Mars Colony but don’t know much about it other than it’s a political RPG with some PvP.

    Apocalypse World, of course.

    And Warhammer 40K, a setting that I can’t imagine playing in unironically. At least Paranoia seems to understand that it’s a satire.

    I think I’d classify Hot War as science fiction rather than horror, though there are elements of both. Similarly for Maschine Zeit, though Abandon All Hope I would classify as horror with some sf elements. (All these are excellent.)

    Superhero games are closer to science-fantasy properties like Star Wars – the troubles of the characters are externalized in powers and appearances.

    Welp, that’s all my encyclopedic and useless knowledge of RPGs can give you.

  18. Christoph says:

    I have to agree; when I first started to work on Free Spacer (a space opera), I was constantly asking myself how it was different from Traveller. The setting issues are still a late night concern of mine and I console myself with with demarcation I have set up between the the Meta-setting and the Player’s setting. The Gamemaster is expected to develop their own clusters (group of systems) and sectors (systems) with several mechanics also pushing input into story creation, while I have only set up the Quadrant and created major states and powerful factions. Still it is the essential aspects of the Sci-fi settings such as “Is there Ansible?” and such will always be a concern. My current stratagem is to create a quick sheet in the preface to answer those questions and include one word descriptions and archetypes thoughout the book.