Worlds of Design: Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi Part 1
  • Worlds of Design: Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi Part 1


    This is a broader question than just RPGs but the same arguments apply. It’s important for RPG designers, for consistency and to avoid immersion-breaking, but it’s probably not important to players.
    After making some notes to try to answer this question for myself, I googled it, and I also asked for suggestions on Twitter.

    It’s the kind of situation where most people will agree in most cases whether something is fantasy or science fiction, but there’s an awful lot of room to disagree or to bring in additional terms like “science fantasy”.

    One googled source said, "Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that are possible or may be possible based on science". That's an obvious differentiation, yet it doesn't actually work well. As Arthur C. Clarke said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." For example, most people would call Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius (The End of Time) stories fantasies, yet they are supposed to be using highly advanced scientific tools.

    “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn't exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again.” Ray Bradbury

    Perhaps the difference is that science can be explained and follows laws, and magic does not. Yet we have examples of magic systems that are well explained (on the surface at least), for example, the metals system in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn novels.

    A lot of the "obvious" differences are semantic, that is, it just depends on what you call something. Are psionics scientific or are they magic? Is a wizard a scientist or a spellcaster? Is a light saber science or magic? Science is usually associated with mass production, magic with individuals and individual use, and nobody but Jedi and a few bad guys use light sabers. Another source: "Many would argue that Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series is science fiction despite the existence of dragons while others say the Star Wars films are clearly fantasy despite the space setting."

    In the end, saying it's a difference between science and non-science, or between technology and magic, can fall afoul of semantics all too often.

    Do we have to say that science fiction uses technology that we can extrapolate from today? No super advanced stuff? But then what about faster than light travel? Current science says it's not possible: does that mean any science fiction with faster than light travel is a fantasy?

    A different way to pose science and magic is to say natural versus supernatural. Some people do not accept the supernatural as an explanation for anything, which leaves no room for gods or prophecies. But when we get to advanced technology versus magic, Clarke's dictum applies. Sufficiently-advanced aliens may look entirely supernatural, even godlike.

    We can't really talk about the presence of magic versus scientific technology because it's often impossible to tell which is which.

    Saying "Low-tech" is not enough to identify fantasy. There are fantasies where magic is used to achieve a higher level of "technology," in terms of devices to help humans flourish, than we have today. It's a matter of how the magic is used, not the fact that it's magic rather than science.

    We could look at the culture of the world-setting to try to differentiate fantasy from science fiction. In SF, almost always there are lots of individual inventions that people use in everyday life, without even thinking about it. Telephones, automobiles, toilets, electric stoves, computers, washing machines, and so on. There will be analogs of those inventions in SF stories and games, usually posed as technology. But you can create a world that you call fantasy, that uses magic to provide all of those functions but calls it magic rather than technology.

    Comics style superheroes are shown in something much like the real world (implying science fiction), but I'd call them fantasy, not SF. The Dresden Files (and other urban fantasies) are clearly fantasy, though sited in the real world.

    It looks like science vs non-science is not sufficient, though natural vs supernatural is sometimes useful. Let's try other approaches next time.

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 67 Comments
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      It has been many years, but I seem to recall Heinlein stating that to remain science fiction you extrapolate current science and are allowed to violate once scientific law. For example, a story with FTL would still be science fiction so long as the other details were grounded in reality. Star Wars, on the other hand, would fall into space fantasy since it violates numerous current scientific laws. Seems as good a definition as any.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      This was covered very nicely several years ago by Phil and Dixie: http://web.archive.org/web/201504282...?date=20070617
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Well here we are back at the family resemblance, though I think it's more clearly indicated.

      In my view, the family genres would be fantasy, sci-fi, pulp, and superhero. Maybe there are others, and there are some clear hybrid genres such as science fantasy or urban fantasy, that mix features of the types. My feeling is that the genres are more defined by the roots of their stories and their setting. In the first half of the 20th Century the genres weren't nearly so separate, so we're always dealing with a moving target. Doubtless they will merge and remix going forward, too.


      • Fantasy: Rooted in old fairy tales and medieval or ancient world stories. Often set in an imagined past (e.g., Hyborea) or redone version (e.g., Middle Earth).
      • Pulp: Typically near past settings but characters with markedly larger than life tales often exploring some kind of forgotten ancient history. Indiana Jones is a great example but so are the Tomb Raider reboots. The protagonists are usually mundane people who happen to have some extra amount of toughness, not some clearly supernatural power themselves. Indiana Jones and Lara Croft kick ass and take an incredible beating, but they're not casting many spells as a key part of their characters.
      • Superhero: Modern settings. Usually features costumed heroes with fairly discrete powers and origin stories often rooted in some kind of scientific accident (Spider-Man, the Hulk), scientific experimentation (Captain America), hidden ancient knowledge (Doctor Strange), aliens of extraordinary ability (Thor, Superman), or a mixture of them (Black Panther, Batman). The world is a surprisingly mundane one otherwise, without many logical adaptations to the kind of changes you'd see if there really was Superman.
      • Sci-fi: Set in the future or an imagined future with the proposed modifications coming from some advancement of scientific development. Example: David Weber's Honor Harrington series. Very rooted in a mid 20th Century idea of the possibilities of advanced scientific progress. The outcomes can be magnificent (lots of sci-fi from the '50s) or hellish (cyberpunk) but fundamentally the root of the extraordinary is just clever combinations of existing scientific advancement.
      • Cosmic Fantasy: Set in an imagined future but one that's so far removed from proposed modifications of scientific development that it just doesn't make much sense anymore. It often loops back towards medievalism. Example: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.
      • Science Fantasy: Has elements of sci-fi such as spaceships or space travel but has elements of fantasy too. Example: Star Wars, Flash "Aaaaahhhh! Savior of the Universe!" Gordon.


      You can have some hybrid genres such as urban fantasy, which takes the modern setting from superhero stories but draws on fairy tale elements or, of course, superheroes who are rather fantasy-oriented, like Doctor Strange or Thor (although Marvel Asgardians are really "just" aliens). The genres are porous to some degree. I've skipped a few (Planetary Romance, Japanese Fantasy), but I think these capture it pretty well.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Flash "Aaaaahhhh! Savior of the Universe!" Gordon.
      Thanks for properly announcing Flash.

      Sci-fi: unreal stuff that has explanations.
      Sci-fa: unreal stuff that has one explanation, "it's magic."

      I hope some librarians and bookstore employees found some useful sorting info here, but even my super-simple breakdown doesn't reduce the subjectivity of the, well, subject. I'm not sure that an official line can be drawn.

      Better yet, the line should be removed, and the science-fiction section (which is already a sub-section of fiction) should just be re-labeled "future fantasy." With a sub-section for Star Trek fans, "dragonless fantasy in which all aliens are humanoid, but are decidedly not elves, dwarves, or hobbits."
    1. Thomas Bowman's Avatar
      Thomas Bowman -
      Is the movie and book, Ready Player One, science fiction or fantasy? In the book, much of it was based on Dungeons & Dragons, he even had the hero's Avatar visit the Tomb of Horrors. Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy genere, but the science fiction is the virtual reality technology that implemented it. So would you say Ready Player One was science fiction, fantasy or an intersection of both?

      Another book I've read is Split Infinity by Piers Anthony, this one involves a different dimension, a curtain that transverses a world connecting a fantasy universe with one of science fiction What category does this one fall under?

      The first cover is of a character from the science fiction universe, her name is Sheen, the second is the hero meeting a Unicorn on the other side of the curtain, the magic system is one that would be hard to implement in a role playing game, but it works well enough for the novel.
    1. Mercurius's Avatar
      Mercurius -
      There are many ways to make the differentiation - I've always liked sf is what could be but isn't (yet), while fantasy is what couldn't be and never was. The problem here is that we really need to add according to our current scientific paradigm of the world, which is always changing.

      Any such definitions will always involve a spectrum, with numerous variations in-between the extremes.

      But more than any such definition, I think it has more to do with a feeling or tone. When you step into Earthsea or Middle-earth, you enter Fantasyland. When you open an Asimov or Brin book, you are in SF. A lot of this has to do with how the author frames the story and the language they use. Fantasy uses what Le Guin called "the language of the night," which evokes misty otherworlds of myth and sorcery (This is why, in my opinion, most fantasy is trash, because it isn't sufficiently "fantasy enough").

      Where things become interesting is when you have a story that looks and can be defined as one thing, yet feels like the other. Dune and Star Wars come to mind.

      SF critic and historian John Clute, who uses the term "Fantastika" to encapsulate fantasy, science fiction, and horror, once said that as we traverse further into the 21st century, the lines between the different genres will become more and more hazy, and we'll see more works that blend them and are difficult to define. I can't remember his reasoning behind this, but would think it has something to do with how accessible information is today with the internet, including cultural forms. As one example, today you can find Tibetan texts online that were hidden from all but advanced Tibetan meditators for hundreds of years and there it is, voila, in PDF form. We are more exposed to different cultures, even if in the overall superficial form of the internet and other media outlets.

      The good news is that in this post-postmodern era, we can mix and match in a variety of ways, and each author and story can be, in essence, its own unique genre. The downside is that when you mix colors poorly, everything becomes a lifeless, gray-brown. Or if you interject something that doesn't fit, you destroy immersion and get the Mona Lisa with a neon pink tattoo or Aragorn carrying an uzi.
    1. Tonguez -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      It has been many years, but I seem to recall Heinlein stating that to remain science fiction you extrapolate current science and are allowed to violate once scientific law. For example, a story with FTL would still be science fiction so long as the other details were grounded in reality. Star Wars, on the other hand, would fall into space fantasy since it violates numerous current scientific laws. Seems as good a definition as any.
      Here of course is where Star Trek rears it’s head, it is an extrapolation of future earth based science but then takes tangents into psychic powers, energy based life forms and of course Q.

      Is Q as an extra dimensional alien beyond human comprehension still sci fi Or is he a product of fantasy?
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Bowman View Post
      Is the movie and book, Ready Player One, science fiction or fantasy? In the book, much of it was based on Dungeons & Dragons, he even had the hero's Avatar visit the Tomb of Horrors. Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy genere, but the science fiction is the virtual reality technology that implemented it. So would you say Ready Player One was science fiction, fantasy or an intersection of both?
      Ready Player One would be probably be considered an example of science fiction that is primarily used to give homage to fantasy. But more to the point, science fiction and fantasy have a long peanut butter/chocolate relationship, of which I would consider "Space Fantasy" to be a subgenre of.

      Also important to keep in mind: Tomb of Horrors is part of the same setting (same adventure series even) as Expedition to Barrier Peak. How would one go about defining the genre of that adventure?

      It begs the question, which makes more of a difference in defining the genre: the framing device, or the individual details of the setting? Star Wars has lots of aliens and spaceships and laser battles, which are all fairly consistent trappings of the sci-fi genre (at least until pedants kept pointing out lasers aren't actually weapons and laser swords are by and large unrealistic, the cretins) but then there's the force, which is routinely pointed to as the reason that it's fantasy. But is the force substantially different from, say, psionics, which are often denigrated in D&D as being too "science-fiction" for their fantasy settings? Sure, psionics tend to be given scientific explanations while the jedi/sith are shown to mostly take more metaphysical approach to the force. On the other hand, though, midichlorians.

      And where does Shadowrun fall on this? Cyberpunk is the obvious answer, and I guess that could be considered a sub-genre of science fiction (what with the hacking and the cyborgs and other advanced tech), but where does that account for all the orcs, elves, dragons, and magic?

      And there's 90's fantasy, particular in the form of JRPGs, which loved throwing around "ancient" robots and super-advanced technology around all willy-nilly.

      I've not found it useful to engage in splitting hairs of the exact definitions between the two genres. Both ultimately seek to imagine something fantastical. There will always be instances of strange overlaps and genre blurring between them (Clarke's Third Law and its varied corollaries exist for a reason). But then I personally tend to enjoy both genres more when they successfully work in elements of the other.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      We can also ask whether the ethos of a work is essentially modernist (Star Trek) which can verge on the nihilistic (some strands of REH's Conan), or romantic (Star Wars) which can verge into the reactionary (LotR).
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercurius View Post
      But more than any such definition, I think it has more to do with a feeling or tone. When you step into Earthsea or Middle-earth, you enter Fantasyland. When you open an Asimov or Brin book, you are in SF. A lot of this has to do with how the author frames the story and the language they use. Fantasy uses what Le Guin called "the language of the night," which evokes misty otherworlds of myth and sorcery
      I think this is a pretty good distinction. There are a number of works that mess with the boundary, too. The late Jo Clayton's Skeen trilogy is an example. It starts out as spaceships type sci-fi but fairly quickly ends in a quasi-medieval world with shape changers and other much more fantasy elements. Or there are fantasy novels with sci-fi elements, such as the late Brian Daley's Coramonde duology. It's a fantasy story but there are extra-dimensional travelers who end up in fantasyland via what appears to be a sci-fi method, meaning it has a planetary romance aspect. Gene Wolfe's New Sun is yet another example.

      (This is why, in my opinion, most fantasy is trash, because it isn't sufficiently "fantasy enough").
      As opposed to simply having crummy plots, bad characters, and turgid prose?
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      We can also ask whether the ethos of a work is essentially modernist (Star Trek) which can verge on the nihilistic (some strands of REH's Conan), or romantic (Star Wars) which can verge into the reactionary (LotR).
      That's an important point, though I'm not sure I agree LotR is reactionary. You did say "verge into" so I get that.

      What it is in many ways is complicated.

      It's definitely got some deeply conservative and/or nostalgic "Little England" elements and "the Scouring of the Shire" does have an unnecessary dig at Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. It's deeply Christian in many important ways and has an important discussion on the nature of freedom, power, and evil. One thing JRRT is pretty clear on is that what he refers to as the "Free Peoples"---those created by Eru and in accordance with the Music of Creation---can be tempted and fall into evil. Sauron and Saruman both fall, primarily due to their excessive love of order for Sauron and rationalization for Saruman. The destruction of the Ring only comes through the restraint by the powerful, most notably Gandalf and Galadriel, and the mercy that Bilbo and Frodo showed towards Gollum. In the end Frodo fails at the Crack of Doom and succumbs to the Ring. Ultimately, the Ring is destroyed because Gollum takes it, getting what he wants most. This would not have happened had Frodo in general, treated Gollum in a humane and merciful fashion. One can dislike Tolkien's Catholic traditionalism, but his discussion of the nature of evil and of power is more subtle than critics often say and the messaging that Frodo brings really doesn't feel like, say, blood and iron ethnonationalism or any of the other elements of, say, Umberto Eco's excellent Ur-Fascism, which alas seems paywalled but is excerpted here.

      Yes I have read Epic Pooh, including the updated version. I get what Michael Moorcock is saying and I understand that much of his issue has to do with his views on British politics---Moorcock being a strident atheist and socialist and Tolkien being a devout traditionalist Catholic, and, I presume a Tory---but in many respects I think he doth protest too much in spots and also misses the point in others. Nevertheless, I do think Epic Pooh is worth reading for people who don't recognize the larger issues and overly romanticize Middle Earth.
    1. Brightmane's Avatar
      Brightmane -
      Science fiction and fantasy go hand in hand and often get lumped together. Frankenstein is considered science fiction, even though aspects of it fit fantasy and horror.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      Sci-fi: unreal stuff that has explanations.
      Sci-fa: unreal stuff that has one explanation, "it's magic."
      In a none-too-recent discussion of the topic at hand, a friend of mine described fantasy as "the religious version of Sci-Fi" for just this reason.

      For me, the difference (at least for what I consider "good" versions of either) comes down to how the non-mundane "tech" of the world impacts the heroes. Whatever the ostensible source, good fantasy tends to handwave how things work and obvious impacts on society because its more focused on fuzzy wish-y adventure-y things, while good sci-fi examines those impacts possibly through adventure.

      So, we can take the topic to be genetic engineering: a good sci-fi premise might be the squabbling between different sects on the moral uses of such a tech and the "unforeseen" consequences it has on the personal lives of the characters while a good fantasy premise might be our hero saves the world from horrible tiger-man soldiers.

      I think its also part of the reason that its hard to make a really good sci-fi (especially Trek) game. The players having an argument in-character about the morals or possibilities of genetic engineering just doesn't benefit as much from rpg-style mechanics as the adventure-y fantasy does.

      I do realize that my standard will "flip" many materials out of their commonly assigned genres, but so be it. (I mean, how important is that anyway?)
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      To me, tone is an important aspect. Science fiction, at it's core, is taking a fictional element or elements and asking "what would a world that includes this element be like?"

      Fantasy doesn't tend to use its setting to explore such "what if?" questions, instead using it more to create unique situations and fictional placements for its characters. The question it tends to ask is "what is the right thing to do in this situation?"

      These approaches, more than the plausibility of a setting's trappings, are what will make it 'feel' more like science fiction or fantasy to me.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Yes I have read Epic Pooh
      I've read Epic Pooh, but see it to a significant extent as a mostly literary attack. It's interesting, but then I also enjoy Pooh so there's only a limited extent to which I agree with Moorcock.

      The reason I say that LotR is reactionary, or verging on it, is because of the combination of the theological account of evil and providence with the account of social relations. (One could say it has almost no account of social relations. That would probably be fair, but wouldn't be evidence against it being reactionary!)

      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      the messaging that Frodo brings really doesn't feel like, say, blood and iron ethnonationalism or any of the other elements of, say, Umberto Eco's excellent Ur-Fascism
      I don't think LotR is fascist.

      Also, for completeness, I take it as given that a work can be Catholic, even very Catholic, but not at all reactionary. Graham Greene is a prominent example.

      EDIT for clarity: some people may assume that describing LotR as verging on reactionary is a criticism. It's not intended as such. I've only read a handful of fantasy authors, and the only ones I reread (and who I assume influence my approach to FRPGing) are JRRT, REH, Ursula Le Guin and Chris Claremont (his run on the X-Men). Also occasionally HPL, but I find him nearly unreadable.
    1. dwayne's Avatar
      dwayne -
      It is easy to do science fiction with the 5th edition system much like the d20 before. Take a magic item and give it a science description drop the magic( spells become programs or psionic abilities. A helmet of invisibility becomes a energy powered device that cloaks the person is a refection field that wraps light around the person. I wish wizards would release some official material for a modern and sci fi settings.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I've read Epic Pooh, but see it to a significant extent as a mostly literary attack. It's interesting, but then I also enjoy Pooh so there's only a limited extent to which I agree with Moorcock.
      I think Moorcock makes some important points but you're right, a lot of it is is "I'm the new guy in this world... get out, old man!"


      The reason I say that LotR is reactionary, or verging on it, is because of the combination of the theological account of evil and providence with the account of social relations. (One could say it has almost no account of social relations. That would probably be fair, but wouldn't be evidence against it being reactionary!)
      It's a deeply theological book. I know I puzzled for a long time on the "gift" of mortality given to humanity and then one day said to myself "well it's pretty simple, really, when humans die they go to Eru faster. Elves need to wait until the end of the world."

      But you're right, Tolkien pays almost no attention to a number of topics, especially in LotR. For as much as people hail his world building, there are parts of his world that make little or no sense or are simply undeveloped.

      Tolkien is a very complicated writer in many ways. For example, the tale of Luthien and Beren is, in terms of gender relations, downright progressive, especially for his time. Luthien isn't the passive princess to be saved and she chooses her own fate, very much against her father's wishes.


      I don't think LotR is fascist.
      Ah, it's certainly been accused of being such.


      Also, for completeness, I take it as given that a work can be Catholic, even very Catholic, but not at all reactionary. Graham Greene is a prominent example.

      EDIT for clarity: some people may assume that describing LotR as verging on reactionary is a criticism. It's not intended as such. I've only read a handful of fantasy authors, and the only ones I reread (and who I assume influence my approach to FRPGing) are JRRT, REH, Ursula Le Guin and Chris Claremont (his run on the X-Men). Also occasionally HPL, but I find him nearly unreadable.
      Got it. I've not read Graham Greene so I can't say.

      HPL is nigh-unreadable to me now. I remember when I was a teenager really enjoying it. I can read past some of the racism as being a product of the time, but his is excessive in many spots and, even if it wasn't, the writing is... bad. JRRT's writing isn't all that great, either. There are spots where it's downright rough and he unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall or slips into lecturing, for instance, but he has important and relevant things to say.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ratskinner View Post
      I think its also part of the reason that its hard to make a really good sci-fi (especially Trek) game. The players having an argument in-character about the morals or possibilities of genetic engineering just doesn't benefit as much from rpg-style mechanics as the adventure-y fantasy does.
      I think Star Trek Adventures by Modiphius does a pretty good job. I'm not really a huge Trek fan but there are several things the game does very well. First of all the PCs are assumed to be quite competent, being experienced Starfleet crew. There is minimal character advancement in terms of power. Second, the adventures I've played are structured in a much more episodic fashion and often end in an ambiguous fashion. For example, one adventure I played we were tasked to check out a neutron star on the edge of Federation space. We found an alien sleeper ship that was having power problems. It wasn't warp-capable so we ended up having to deal with the Prime Directive issues. Eventually we restarted the ship drive and left it on its way. That's a very Trek-like adventure compared to, say, D&D. The threat/momentum mechanic at the core of 2D20 reads weirdly but turns out to play very well in terms of simulating the ebb and flow of a TV drama or short story.

      Unfortunately the STA book is not written in a way that really helps lay out the rules but if you check out the free quickstart it's pretty good.
    1. Thomas Bowman's Avatar
      Thomas Bowman -
      I like to have fantasy and science fiction come together like oil and water, that is they don't blend like Starfinder. If you have magic based technology, the whole thing is fantasy. There is an adjective I like to use when describing such a setting, I call it "scientifical". Its a made up word, the way I define it is as something that looks like science fiction but really isn't. For instance you have a robot that is actually a golem with blinking lights. You can have a blaster pistol that is actually a wand of magic missiles that is activated when the trigger is pulled.
    1. ToddBS's Avatar
      ToddBS -
      I had a much longer post typed out, but decided I'd rather summarize. As I see it, the major difference is not in the trappings, but in the themes.
      Fantasy typically focuses on themes like:
      • Good vs Evil
      • Destiny vs Free Will
      • Restoring some deposed power structure or rediscovering some lost past, which will instantly make everything good again
      • Conflicts that are identifiable and opposable: Sauron, The Empire, Goblins!


      Sci-fi tends to focus more on:
      • Oppression vs Freedom
      • Determinism vs Choice (which is not the same as destiny vs free will, I swear)
      • Correcting injustices of the present to make a better future
      • Conflicts that are nebulous and existential: The state itself (not any particular regime), apocalypse, what is human?


      You have sub-genres that blend these to some degree or another, but at a high level I see these as distinguishing characteristics of the two broad genres.
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