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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.

futuristic-5930957_1280.jpg

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

Automation​

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.

Transportation​

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.

Communication​

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.

Adventurers​

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.

Aliens​

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.

Technology​

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.

Longevity​

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

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I think everyone can accept that there is a strong argument for "Traveller captured the default setting of science fiction, in it’s space travelling format" (my emphasis) but that's not the only way to look at Science Fiction.

Just a few examples that don't involve space travelling

"The Handmaid's Tale" is Science Fiction (Dystopia).
"The Man in the High Castle" is Science Fiction (Alternate Universe)
"Terminator" is Science Fiction (Time Travel/Robot Uprising)
"Pacific Rim" is Science Fiction (Alien Invasion and GIANT ROBOTS)
"The Island of Doctor Moreau" is Science Fiction (early Biopunk)
"Waterworld" is Science Fiction (Seapunk?)
"Mad Max" is Science Fiction (Post-Apocalypse)

And so on, and so on, and so on. IF you define Science Fiction as just being "Group travels around in starship" (let's call it Space Opera) then, yes, Traveller is a good choice. However, "Space Opera" is NOT the default setting for Science Fiction. True, it's a powerful and well-represented sub-genre, but it does not have the same level of influence that High Fantasy does in Fantasy RPG games design.
I’d personally question if Handmaidens Tale or Mad Max/Waterworld are Sci-Fi as there’s nothing particularly Science about them other than being a speculative future.
After all we also learn that The Shannara series is set in a post apocalyptic earth. The presence of vehicles needing gas can also be discounted as Pixar’s Cars is fantasy too.

Robot uprisings seem to fit until we remember that automatons likeTalos and Galatea and the Golem are from centuries old stories.

which leaves us with vivisection and space travel as potentially sci fi
 

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TrippyHippy

Adventurer
To which I would answer:

Gamma World - certainly as well known as Traveller and as often played. No spaceships at all
Metamorphasis Alpha - Yup, A spaceship, but, certainly not in the vein of Traveller.
Battletech - certainly as popular as Traveller, no focus on space travel.
Twilight 2000 - SF gaming. Very much NOT in the Traveller vein.
Paranoia - although, to be honest, that's very much it's own thing. - But, you did state that NOBODY tried to do 1984 in gaming.

The notion that the "default model" of SF gaming is space opera is easily disproven. There are easily a number of SF RPG's which are as popular as Traveller and have similar pedigree.
To which the simple retort is another list of fantasy games that don’t fit the D&D model:

Ars Magica
Amber
RuneQuest
King Arthur Pendragon
The Dresden Files
In Nomine
Everway
Changeling: The Dreaming
Blades in the Dark
Nobilis
Legend of the Five Rings
Deadlands
Castle Falkenstein
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Bunnies & Burrows
Toon

If you are going to argue that there isn’t a default model for science fiction roleplaying, then the same is true of fantasy roleplaying.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
The argument looks pretty weak, to be honest.

Star Trek is rather different than Traveller.
Trek: we don't see much money. we don't see small crews on small ships doing serious trade runs (but we do see small crews on medium-big ships, panamax sized). We see only zapguns in protagonist's hands; while we see a few slugthowers, they're only badguy or holodeck items.

Traveller: We see money at every turn. We see 5-15 man crews on freighters, and freighters are fairly small (panamax sized ships can carry up to about 72kTd of cargo; Traveller bulk freighters are in the total displacement of 20kTd, in the GTU up to 100kTd - differences due to system cost breakpoints and economies.) The primary weapons are slugthrowers.

Trek and Wars are closer to each other than either is to Traveller.
All of them are closer to each other than Harry Potter is to Tolkien is to D&D.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Spacecraft and aliens pretty much says you are in sci-fi territory, similar to how magic and monsters, one thinks of fantasy. Other trappings are largely chrome, those seem to be the core elements of each genre. One could reduce it by half, having only spacecraft, or some other high technology and still have it be SF, same as having magic only and it being fantasy.
 


Dire Bare

Legend
I think everyone can accept that there is a strong argument for "Traveller captured the default setting of science fiction, in it’s space travelling format" (my emphasis) but that's not the only way to look at Science Fiction.
Everyone, huh? Nope.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Not really. ABout on par with. The key trope of each differ just as much.
Well, even if that is the case (and I would say the variations in the fantasy genre are much broader), then why single out the science fiction genre as not having a default when it is the assumption with fantasy? They either both do or both don’t - from your own stance here.
 


I have played Traveller since just a couple of years after it's original release, and from then until the end of the 20th century, it was Traveller and then everything else for sci-fi games. That has changed in the past 20 years, as other games have come out and Traveller had it's lulls and edition and ownership changes. And now there are multiple versions of the game and I don't even know which version is the most popular.

As for sci-fi, anything set in the future from now, and includes technology that does not yet exist in the real world, is sci-fi. Space travel not required.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
As for sci-fi, anything set in the future from now, and includes technology that does not yet exist in the real world, is sci-fi. Space travel not required.
And by the same token, swords and wizards are not required for something deemed to be of the fantasy genre.

So why is the argument that there isn't a default setting for science fiction when there is for fantasy?
 
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John Lloyd1

Villager
Traveller, Doctor Who, Star Trek, etc are really externally focused. It is not so much about the space ship that they are on. But, rather, the different worlds they visit each week and is similar to monster of the week type tropes. This would explain why it doesn't feel like it has a strong setting.

On the issue as whether Traveller is a strong default setting, the thread has completely confused me about what that means.
 

Well, even if that is the case (and I would say the variations in the fantasy genre are much broader), then why single out the science fiction genre as not having a default when it is the assumption with fantasy? They either both do or both don’t - from your own stance here.

No, because your making a false equivalence here.

The similar distance from each other on the tropes and setting elements don't make up for the difference in visibility, nor in those being widely accepted as defaults.

Fantasy has a much lower bar for verisimilitude in many people's views. It is my experience that Fantasy fans are more accepting of multiple fandoms than sci-fi fans, and that this because they don't get verisimilitude in many subgenres.

The thing is that with sci-fi, the franchises are much less overlapping. Only Europeans have broad exposure to Perry Rhodan, only the UK to Starblazer (comics), only anime fans to the Japanese series Star Blazers (anima and manga, unrelated to the UK comic)...

Many genres' fans are fans of the genre as a whole. That's less true of Sci-Fi, since it has become a clade, a catch-all for a bunch of very different genres. Military SF is disctintly different from Trek/Orville, or from social SF like much of the early Cyberpunk short stories....

Fantasy is also a clade. But by not taking the standard, almost defining, trope of being in Terran History's future, Fantasy frees itself from many verisimilitude breaking constraints.
 

So why is the argument that there isn't a default setting for science fiction when there is for fantasy?

Virtually all sci-fi games have a specific setting to go with their rules system, while D&D is a system with many separate settings. So D&D is not the default fantasy setting, but rather a default rules system. For it to be a default setting, people would have to say that the Forgotten Realms, or one of the others, is THE default fantasy game setting. That may not answer any questions, but that is the way I see it. For all we know, with the popularity of the streaming games, more newer players may soon consider the Critical Role setting to be the default fantasy setting.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
No, because your making a false equivalence here.

The similar distance from each other on the tropes and setting elements don't make up for the difference in visibility, nor in those being widely accepted as defaults.

Fantasy has a much lower bar for verisimilitude in many people's views. It is my experience that Fantasy fans are more accepting of multiple fandoms than sci-fi fans, and that this because they don't get verisimilitude in many subgenres.

The thing is that with sci-fi, the franchises are much less overlapping. Only Europeans have broad exposure to Perry Rhodan, only the UK to Starblazer (comics), only anime fans to the Japanese series Star Blazers (anima and manga, unrelated to the UK comic)...

Many genres' fans are fans of the genre as a whole. That's less true of Sci-Fi, since it has become a clade, a catch-all for a bunch of very different genres. Military SF is disctintly different from Trek/Orville, or from social SF like much of the early Cyberpunk short stories....

Fantasy is also a clade. But by not taking the standard, almost defining, trope of being in Terran History's future, Fantasy frees itself from many verisimilitude breaking constraints.
It’s not a false equivalence, it is double standards.

You could break down every single fantasy sub-genre in exactly the way that you have chosen to do with the sub-genres with science fiction here. We have done this several times on this thread already. Here is a list of the Top 10 Fantasy movies by the American Film Institute:

So what underlying similarities do you find in these movies that is more than what you have outlined for science fiction? How does D&D cater for all of them as a default setting choice?
 
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TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Virtually all sci-fi games have a specific setting to go with their rules system, while D&D is a system with many separate settings. So D&D is not the default fantasy setting, but rather a default rules system. For it to be a default setting, people would have to say that the Forgotten Realms, or one of the others, is THE default fantasy game setting. That may not answer any questions, but that is the way I see it. For all we know, with the popularity of the streaming games, more newer players may soon consider the Critical Role setting to be the default fantasy setting.
Traveller has been a game system with many separate settings - Judge Dredd, Strontium Dogg, Hammer’s Slammers, Mindjammer, 2300AD, and a number of diverse third party settings. The default setting for Traveller is the Third Imperium as with D&D’s Forgotten Realms. They are both pretty generic, all inclusive settings for their respective genres and game systems.
 
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Hussar

Legend
I’d personally question if Handmaidens Tale or Mad Max/Waterworld are Sci-Fi as there’s nothing particularly Science about them other than being a speculative future.
After all we also learn that The Shannara series is set in a post apocalyptic earth. The presence of vehicles needing gas can also be discounted as Pixar’s Cars is fantasy too.

Robot uprisings seem to fit until we remember that automatons likeTalos and Galatea and the Golem are from centuries old stories.

which leaves us with vivisection and space travel as potentially sci fi
That's because you make the mistake of defining genre by trope. Neither fantasy nor SF is defined by the tropes, which may appear in either form, as you rightly point out. There are space ships in fantasy stories and magic in SF.

That's not what differentiates the genres.

And, frankly, Fantasy is pretty much Tolkien first, then everything else. There is no equivalent iconic work in SF. There just isn't. Yes, fantasy is more than Tolkien, but, as far as iconic goes, Tolkien is it. It's the one work that you can pretty much guarantee will be top of every single fantasy list.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
That's because you make the mistake of defining genre by trope. Neither fantasy nor SF is defined by the tropes, which may appear in either form, as you rightly point out. There are space ships in fantasy stories and magic in SF.

That's not what differentiates the genres.
Round and round we go. Tropes are precisely what defines a genre:
In the arts, a trope is simply a common convention in a particular medium. ... That's all a trope is: a commonplace, recognizable plot element, theme, or visual cue that conveys something in the arts. Every genre has distinct tropes of its own. Taken from www.yourdictionary.com.

And, frankly, Fantasy is pretty much Tolkien first, then everything else. There is no equivalent iconic work in SF. There just isn't. Yes, fantasy is more than Tolkien, but, as far as iconic goes, Tolkien is it. It's the one work that you can pretty much guarantee will be top of every single fantasy list.

Star Wars and Star Trek and Doctor Who are just as iconic as Tolkien is in the minds of the general public. In terms of an equivalent piece of literature to Lord of the Rings in science fiction, there is Dune.

And Lord of the Rings wasn’t at the top of AFI’s fantasy list. The Wizard of Oz was. Consider yourself refuted.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Sigh. You can quote dictionaries all you like. No, tropes do not define genres. Granted, there are some genres that are strongly associated with tropes, but, no, tropes do not define genre.

The American Film Institute? That's our go to for iconic Fantasy? Ok. Yeah. I'm out. This is pointless. I'm tired of arguing with people with no background or education in the subject.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Sigh. You can quote dictionaries all you like. No, tropes do not define genres. Granted, there are some genres that are strongly associated with tropes, but, no, tropes do not define genre.

The American Film Institute? That's our go to for iconic Fantasy? Ok. Yeah. I'm out. This is pointless. I'm tired of arguing with people with no background or education in the subject.
I’d say the American Film Institute is a lot more authoritative on understanding genre than you are.

So you want to reject dictionary definitions, authoritative bodies that get to define genres and frankly, any rational argument to stick rigidly to your views? Good luck with that superior background or education you claim to posses - better luck with winning an argument next time.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Sci-fi is about changing something fundamental about how we live and then examining how the human animal deals with this change. They are "what if" stories that feature some technology that alters the status quo in a distinct way. Star Trek is a great example of sci-fi, using numerous tech changes to ask what if stories, largely focusing on what it means to be human in these situations. Star Wars, on the other hand, is not a good sci-fi story, because it doesn't ask "what if" with the technology changes, but instead is a pretty straightforward story about good vs evil. And I say this as a die-hard Star Wars fan. I've seen "space opera" tossed about in this thread, but not in the way it's meant to be used. "Space opera" is a story about good vs evil, or other 'outside the ken of men' forces vying for control with the trappings of sci-fi. They don't ask "what if," they just use some technology fantasy to tell a story about these contesting forces. Space travel does not equal space opera.

As for the trope/genre discussion, sci-fi has so many conflicting tropes that it's very, very challenging to pick central or shared tropes like space travel as definitional. If any tropes are definitional, they are the "what if" focus of the tale, and also that some technology is altering the human condition that does not exist at the time the story is told.

Traveler is a great example of a sci-fi game, because it's focus is really on life in a changed universe, using technology to affect that change. However, that said, the sci-fi-ness of a given Traveler game is going to be up to the table, not really the rules or the setting. Traveler enables sci-fi, it doesn't define it.
 

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