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Worlds of Design: Is There a Default Sci-Fi Setting?

The science fiction default setting is less clear than the “Late Medieval plus some Tolkien” fantasy default, but let’s talk about it.

The science fiction default setting is less clear than the “Late Medieval plus some Tolkien” fantasy default, but let’s talk about it.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Months ago I discussed the fantasy default setting in "Baseline Assumptions of Fantasy RPGs.” A default may not exist at all in some of the sci-fi categories below, but I think it’s worth discussing.

The Automation Difference​

Keep in mind the big difference between fantasy and science fiction: automation. Stories are about people, not machines, even though automation is likely to be dominant in the future. We already see this happening today, with robotic explorers on Mars, and unmanned drones fighting terrestrial wars.

It’s also possible that science fiction novel and game authors spend more time describing their settings than fantasy authors do, maybe because there’s so much more deviation from a default than in fantasy. In general, there may be less emphasis on "monsters" and uncivilized "barbarians" than in fantasy worlds.

In no particular order I’ll discuss:
  • Automation
  • Transportation
  • Communication
  • Adventurers
  • Aliens
  • History & Change
  • Technology
  • Warfare & Military
  • Demography & Habitation
  • Longevity


Let's start with automation. In sci-fi settings, automation tends to vary immensely. We can see robots as intelligent as humans, and other settings where automation has not reached the level of human intelligence. You rarely see automation dominating the military, again because stories are about people, not machines. In Frank Herbert’s universe (Dune), the Butlerian Jihad has eliminated automation where any kind of intelligence is involved.


Faster-than-light travel is most common; often even very small spaceships, such as shuttles and fighters, can achieve it, sometimes it takes a big ship. If there is no faster-than-light travel, then the setting is usually confined to one star system, or involves “generation ships.” Sometimes the ships have built-in drives, so they can go from anywhere to anywhere; other times they must use fixed links in some kind of natural or man-made network, whether it’s wormholes or something else.


Most likely, communication is at light speed, or at travel speed, whichever is faster. Once in a while you get instantaneous speaking communication (as in Star Wars); but that gets hard to believe on the scale of an entire galaxy, if only for the potential interference.


Are there “adventurers” at all? Maybe we should say, people who go on, or get caught up in, adventures? I don’t see a common thread for how numerous such people are.


There’s no default here, but most common is a human-centric universe, possibly with no aliens, possibly with aliens ignored by or subordinated to humans. We also see humans as subordinate to aliens, in some sub-genres.

History & Change​

Time frame varies from near-future to millennia from now. Rate of change is usually very slow in the latter, so that the setting can still have some familiarity to readers and players. The pace of change in the near future is inevitably quick, as we see things change so quickly in the modern day that we’d be puzzled by slow tech change in anything like our own society.


No default here. The paranormal may be important. Much of what goes on is still familiar to contemporary people, because that helps make it easier to willingly suspend disbelief.

Warfare & Military​

This is all over the map. Conflicts are usually between worlds or groups of worlds. What’s notable is that authors are often stuck in some kind of earth-history model where ground forces are very important. Keep in mind, typical SF situations are lots of separate star systems, much like small islands. What really counts is the (space) navy, if anyone is willing to “blast planets back into the stone age.” If they are willing to do that, ground forces don’t matter/are on a suicide mission. If they’re not willing to bombard planets, then ground forces matter, but are at immense disadvantage when the enemy controls the orbital zone of the planet.

Demography & Habitation​

Terra-formed worlds or worlds naturally habitable, versus most people live in habitats to protect them from hostile environment. In the video game Elite: Dangerous, planets are just barren places to explore, space stations are where people live. Again, there’s no default.


I’ve always found it odd that Elves, with vast lifespans, are as willing to risk their long future in potentially lethal adventures as they seem to be in fantasy games. If the technology of the science fiction setting provides long life or even immortality, how does that affect adventuring?

For further reading, see Atomic Rockets. It’s a website describing various SF topics, often baring the fundamentals of what reality might demand. Such as why interstellar trade is likely to be very sparse or non-existent.

Your Turn: Have you devised a campaign setting for science fiction role-playing?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Solitary Role Playing
I usually prefer using published settings when it comes to sci-fi, which is the complete opposite of what I do for fantasy. We played: Star Frontiers, Star Wars, Eclipse Phase, Ashen Stars, Coriolis, The Expanse.

The only time I created a sci-fi setting the campaign started 'today', the PCs slowly discovered there were many alien races and went to space exploring the galaxy. I allowed re-training to learn new sci-fi skills. I was using d20 Modern and d20 Future.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I have not made my own setting but in Eve Online they basically mastered cloning so adventuring is just a financial decision as far as longevity is concerned.


Have started on my own setting for a convention-scenario I was writing (lots of work still left.

I had included jumpgates (fixed gates where ships could come though after traveling through hyperspace). Some ships could jump themselves without the need of such gates (like certain exploration-ships and military ships, but it costa huge amount of energy). To set up a new gate, you needed to travel though dangerous areas in Hyperspace, and then build the gate. I had included tachyon-based communications, and certain weapons of mass destruction (such as anti-matter bombs and singularity-creators).

Other than that I think you tend to have a couple of different sets of SF, each with their own defaults.

Near future (Cyperpunk)
You might have some cyberware, flying cars, AR/VR-technology, and in some cases AI's and droids. Longevity maybe for the ultra rich (probably on an experimental stage).

Near future (Hard SF)
AR/VR-technology, emerging AI's, generation ships, robots exploring planets.

Retro future
For most parts technology as it existed at the depicted time, with some more modern things like television-based screens for communication. Some much more advanced things might exist such as space ships and bases on the moon or other planets.

Far future (Space Opera)
Space ships (and dogfights with them), droids of various level of automation and intelligence, aliens, hand-held energy weapons. Faster Than Light travel and communication, terraformed planets, cloning might exist.

Post apocalyptic
Basically current technology, but nothing that requires computers or cell-phones (or even electricity). Radios might exist.

Might be more types, but these are the ones I can think of now.


Alternate history
Take one thing in the past, and change it, then keep everything else the same and then forward how the world world look different. This is related to the Near Future (Hard SF). Often donr to make philosophical/political points about something.
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Science fiction stories, especially short stories, tend to be about exploring how some particular change or advancement is likely to affect the human condition, so they often tend to leave other things aside from that one factor unchanged, even when it's unrealistic to do so.

Larger franchises tend to have a broader range of changes, but even then they want to remain relatable.

One thing you tend to see a lot of in terms of 'abventurers' is small groups taking on covert-ops style missions with far-reaching consequences, counterpointed with large fleet-based naval maneuvers that often hinge upon the outcomes of those smaller operations. You can see this in everything from the old Lensman series to Star Wars to Mass Effect.

Were I to try to baseline the generic sci-fi setting, I'd look at the places where Star Wars and Star Trek match up. Lasers (that can be set to stun), warp drive, intergalactic travel, diverse alien lifeforms, advanced communications tools. Lightsabers would be out, but if you classify the Force as a form of psychic power, yeah, psychic powers. It's not perfect, but I think, like Tolkien, it helps identify the base assumptions.


Another very common, almost "default" element of sci-fi is, directional (and scalable) gravity. Ships are made with an obvious "up" and "down" and their occupants more or less ignore the effects of acceleration (including negative or lateral accelerations), not unlike our seagoing vessels.

Also, time-dilatation is rarely taken into account.
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