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