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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

Ixal

Explorer
And for the point of an example, Paizo found it easy enough to establish the Starfinder game as a science fiction counterpoint to Pathfinder for fantasy.

Because Starfinder isn't really Science Fiction but fantasy with neon lights. But that can apply to most SciFi RPG settings. The only reason they call themselves SciFi are the textures (it looks technological) and the presence of spaceships. But other than that nothing in the setting is SciFi. The societies look and behave like from a pure fantasy setting and all the technological possibilities a SciFi setting would give you (and in many cases possibilities which already exist in real life) are not used because they would be a hindrance to adventurers or make things more complicated.

As an example in Starfinders Signal of Screams campaign book 2:
The PCs have found out that a evil corporations wants to send a mind controlling/horror signal through its mobil app. Think Kingsman. In order to find out more they need to infiltrate the HQ on the cyberpunk planet of the setting.

The HQ is in the middle of the city, but has been quietly abandoned as the corporation moved to its evil lair. When the PCs enter the building they are hit by a lethal trap on the front door. Because that is not suspicious at all and it can in no way happen that some civilian wants to enter the HQ of a corporation which is about to launch a heavily advertised app.
Then the PCs have to fight through security robots and zombified workers to have a boss fight with a bigger robot in the server room where they can get more information.
Do any alarms go off or other people notice that there is a shooting, possibly with heavy explosive weapons in the middle of the city? Does the police or other emergency services arrive at the scene? Are the workers that have been zombified missed by someone prompting an inverstigation? No.

And later in the book after the raid the PCs are attacked multiple times on the open street by snipers, guys with grenades and also receive mail bombs in the place they stay. Does anyone find it suspicious that the PCs are involved in so many incidence within just a few days? Are they brought in for questioning and put under surveillance? No. The need for adventure trumps the setting.
Just imagine how society can look like in SciFi setting. Or even a modern one. Weapon laws which are at least nominally tracked (the way the US handles it is a exception, not the rule), camera surveillance coupled with other means of identifications ranging from futuristic like DNA scanner to simple ones like social security numbers and licenses.
Then there are other things like health care and insurance which might benefit the player characters in a modern or futuristic setting which are also ignored a lot. Or even worse, all those possibilities exist and are used from time to time as background flavor, but never when they matter or affect the PCs.

Some settings are better than others. Shadowrun features most of the things mentioned but things like Star Wars of Starfinder ignore those completely in favour for a fantasy setting pretending to be SciFi.
I guess the big question is "How much science (correct or wrong) must be in something to be considered science fiction"?
 
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Hussar

Legend
Good. Now apologise.

And, for the record, that was not the point of disagreement.
Ok, now I'm really confused. Considering you had to drag out dictionary quotes of what trope means and whatnot, what were you disagreeing with me about then if it wasn't about the notion of genre being defined by trope?

I get the feeling that we were having two very different conversations and neither of us were even remotely understanding each other's points.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Ok, now I'm really confused. Considering you had to drag out dictionary quotes of what trope means and whatnot, what were you disagreeing with me about then if it wasn't about the notion of genre being defined by trope?

I get the feeling that we were having two very different conversations and neither of us were even remotely understanding each other's points.
Nope. You apologise first - then we’ll continue.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Because Starfinder isn't really Science Fiction but fantasy with neon lights. But that can apply to most SciFi RPG settings. The only reason they call themselves SciFi are the textures (it looks technological) and the presence of spaceships. But other than that nothing in the setting is SciFi. The societies look and behave like from a pure fantasy setting and all the technological possibilities a SciFi setting would give you (and in many cases possibilities which already exist in real life) are not used because they would be a hindrance to adventurers or make things more complicated.
Which is always the point of concern from science fiction fans. However, as far as the RPG general public are concerned, the tropes of science fiction gaming are clear. It is the reason why games like Starfinder can find a market external to that of Pathfinder. Whether people like it or not, in the minds of the general gaming public, Starfinder is science fiction. So is Star Wars.

Now, as a Traveller fan, I would say that I prefer my science fiction to be more grounded in reality and scientific plausibility, but as far as default science fiction gaming is concerned, the fans follow the tropes to identify the genre they seek. Those tropes are what we have outlined here several times before - space travel, high tech, aliens, robots, psionics, etc.

But the same is true of fantasy roleplaying too. Tolkien is supposedly the default for fantasy, as per the opening premise - but it isn’t. D&D doesn’t really resemble Tolkien’s works outside of some observable tropes, while the genre of fantasy as a whole includes a far wider range of media sources too. If Groundhog Day and The Wizard of Oz are considered to be fantasy movies - and they are - then it suggests that the default for fantasy in gaming also struggles to address the nebulous nature of its own genre.

It is a double standard, therefore, for gamers to consider that fantasy has a ‘default’ but science fiction does not.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Where is your evidence that Starfinder is finding an audience (or much of an audience) outside of Pathfinder players?

And, again, you are pointing to SF and Fantasy movies from a list compiled by movie makers as the archetypes of fantasy, while ignoring the vastly larger number of written works. And you are seriously downplaying the impact of Tolkien on D&D and the genre.

There is no "double standard". It's simply that SF does not have a single seminal work like The Lord of the Rings which dominates so much of the genre. It's really that simple.
 



Stacie GmrGrl

Adventurer
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 know a sci-fi rpg that can do all those that's not Gurps or Savage Worlds or Hero System. It's not Traveller either.
 

Stacie GmrGrl

Adventurer
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?
Hey, bringing logic and reason and real world facts into the argument isn't fair. We're talking about make believe in RPG's... not other fictional real world stuff. ;)

I do have a question for the group.

What do we mean by default as far as RPG's are concerned? It seems that the assumption that D&D is the default fantasy game is the default because it's the fantasy rpg that most people flock to because it's the one the majority of people flock too even though it has no real world equivalence beyond its own settings novels or comic books.

Is it which rpg designed for the genre can handle the most tropes that fall within the genre? If that's the case than TSR Alternity wins and Traveller and Stars Without Number are tied for second. All are generic sci-fi rpgs that can handle many different sub-genres.

If we also take into consideration the Cepheus Engine, which is an OSR Traveller game, then combined the Traveller system could be number one. I've seen a wild west game using the Cepheus Engine.

But if we look at default as just being the most popular rpg, than D&D wins the fantasy argument and sci-fi is still waiting.

If we think of default as which IP/game has had the greatest impact on culture and which was the greatest influence on others, then for much of the western world that's Tolkien and D&D for fantasy and for sci-fi it's... Well, even in pop culture we don't have a definitive number one but I'd put Star Wars as having the biggest impact on everything that followed it, even if Star Wars is more space samurai fantasy than sci-fi and was itself inspired from Dune and John Carter of Mars and samurai movies.

I also don't think we'll find a default sci-fi equivalent because every world culture also has its own distinctive take on sci-fi that is their own default sci-fi. Sci-fi seems to be as much a cultural identity of where it comes from than the idea of it being sci-fi in general.

So what does default mean?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Nope. You can’t spin your way out of it either. Your comments are here for all to see, you’ve been censured by a moderator and made a fool of yourself in the process. Have a better one, next time.
And guess what — you now have also been censured by a moderator. With this and your later comments, you are not coming across the way you think you are. I need you to drop it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Hey, bringing logic and reason and real world facts into the argument isn't fair. We're talking about make believe in RPG's... not other fictional real world stuff. ;)

I do have a question for the group.

What do we mean by default as far as RPG's are concerned? It seems that the assumption that D&D is the default fantasy game is the default because it's the fantasy rpg that most people flock to because it's the one the majority of people flock too even though it has no real world equivalence beyond its own settings novels or comic books.

...

So what does default mean?

IMO, the issue is even simpler ... yet more complicated.

D&D is not the default fantasy TTRPG. D&D is the default TTRPG, period. Which can complicate things.

To be explicit- for almost anyone who does not play TTRPGs, if you ask them about it, they will understand TTRPGs as being, well, D&D. That's what a TTRPG is to them.

And even within the universe of those who play TTRPGs, the majority of people who play, right now, today, are playing D&D. And if you throw in all the editions of D&D, and all the editions of Pathfinder, and all the clones of D&D, and all the games that provide a "D&D" experience using an alternate rule system, we are starting to get close to a very strong majority of TTRPGs.

And if you add in the fact that almost all players that are currently playing TTRPGs, are familiar with D&D and likely have played it ... well throw all of that into a blender, and eventually you get to the point where it is not sufficient to call D&D the default fantasy setting, but the default setting for a TTRPG.

In a weird way, Warcraft FRPG, CoC, Traveler, the new Alien, BiTD, Star Trek Adventures, whatever ... they all have in common that they are not D&D (or a D&D equivalent).

In a certain way, I think that the original question is misleading; there is no default sci-fi (Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Battletech, Paranoia, Ghostbusters are all sci-fi, yet all different TTRPGs to use an easy example, just as early Gamma World and Star Frontiers were both sci-fi, yet different), but everything ends up measured against the 800lb gorilla.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I agree that DnD is the standard for ttrpg's in general, and comparing it to other games is not always relevant. In part of the question about SF rpg's, I would say the most popular is Stars Without Number, followed by FFG Star Wars, Star Finder is still up there, but its popularity is falling. Limited bias as well as I am mostly a Traveller GM/player. So "default" if the metric is most played would probably be SWN; however, I also sort of feel that the variety of sfrpg's is a feature, and not a bug.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
however, I also sort of feel that the variety of sfrpg's is a feature, and not a bug.

Completely agree on that one.

If anything, the utter domination of D&D in the overall TTRPG-space has made it harder for any other fantasy TTRPGs to gain real traction (depending, I guess, on how you define CoC).

Science fiction is wide open; the main way I look at the various systems is whether they are based on some other IP (Star Wars, Star Trek) or whether they are not (SWN, Gamma World).
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
IMO, the issue is even simpler ... yet more complicated.

D&D is not the default fantasy TTRPG. D&D is the default TTRPG, period. Which can complicate things.
QFT.

Over the last 40 years I always had problems getting my players to try games other than D&D. When they did, they usually wanted to go back to D&D after 2-3 games. It is only recently that I have found group that refuses to play D&D.
 

Stacie GmrGrl

Adventurer
QFT.

Over the last 40 years I always had problems getting my players to try games other than D&D. When they did, they usually wanted to go back to D&D after 2-3 games. It is only recently that I have found group that refuses to play D&D.
Yep. Can say this has happened to me too. It's one of the few reasons why I despise D&D 5e so much.

In a hobby and industry of creativity, imagination, and near infinite potential of expression for one game to be played by over 50% of the entire player base and the many hundreds of other options are left in the dust shows just how little imagination is really being exercised. It also demonstrates the tribalistic nature of human neurology and psychology. The amount of D&D gamers who will only play D&D is unfortunately more common than it probably should be when we take into consideration the grander potential of human expression and creative power not being exercised, which sci-fi requires more of IMHO.

I think it's interesting that there has never been a sci-fi rpg equivalent to D&D. But maybe part of it is sci-fi is really about "What If" and puts a greater emphasis on imagination, sense of wonder and suspension of belief. We don't know, for sure, what the future holds. Heck, there is still so much of our own world we don't really know.

I didn't start with D&D as my first rpg. My first rpgs were Battletech, WEG Star Wars, Shadowrun, and Heroes Unlimited. My first pure fantasy rpg was Earthdawn. I started with sci-fi and supers rpgs.

I think how we get introduced into the hobby leaves a huge impression on us. I am thankful I didn't start with D&D.
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
I didn't start with D&D as my first rpg. My first rpgs were Battletech, WEG Star Wars, Shadowrun, and Heroes Unlimited. My first pure fantasy rpg was Earthdawn. I started with sci-fi and supers rpgs.

I think how we get introduced into the hobby leaves a huge impression on us. I am thankful I didn't start with D&D.
Agreed. Not starting with D&D has a huge impact. I'm envious! :D
 

I agree that DnD is the standard for ttrpg's in general, and comparing it to other games is not always relevant. In part of the question about SF rpg's, I would say the most popular is Stars Without Number, followed by FFG Star Wars, Star Finder is still up there, but its popularity is falling. Limited bias as well as I am mostly a Traveller GM/player. So "default" if the metric is most played would probably be SWN; however, I also sort of feel that the variety of sfrpg's is a feature, and not a bug.
This. D&D overshadows the entire hobby. If we look at the Roll 20 statistics back from 2019 and the pre-COVID days D&D 5e on its own made up approximately half of all games.
1619399822174.png


Traveller by contrast? 0.09% It's an also-ran.

And if you asked me off the top of my head to name an SF RPG setting I'd start with Shadowrun, 40k, Star Wars, and possibly Cyberpunk and Stars Without Number. I'd probably get to Gamma World before I remembered Traveller. Traveller might have been a default setting in the 70s - but these days it is very very niche, and mostly of interest to the old and historians. It's hard to be a "default setting" if the majority of people these days don't even know you exist.

And count me as someone else who started with something other than D&D - WFRP and GURPS in my case.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Traveller is a great game, but it lacks identity in the current market. Unless someone told you it's great, you aren't buying in as opposed to say, Stars without Number, or whatever. Plus the genre divisions in Sci Fi are a little more obvious that Fantasy - you have, just to pick some, Post Apoc, Cyberpunk, Space Opera, and gritty hard sci fi - none of which are likely to be adequately handled by a single rules set. My Sci FI default is SwoN, followed by Alien, and Scum and Villainy. Three very different rules sets for three very different desired sci fi gaming experiences.
 

This. D&D overshadows the entire hobby. If we look at the Roll 20 statistics back from 2019 and the pre-COVID days D&D 5e on its own made up approximately half of all games.
Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it's worth noting that particularly pre-pandemic, there was little/no reason to use Roll20 unless going for a fairly crunch-heavy game, or one where you're using a particularly large number of handouts, and Roll20's support for certain systems wasn't great (and still isn't), so whilst I'm sure D&D would be #1 by a huge margin, I'd be very skeptical about any games listed after that being even close to in the correct order. Not that you're saying they are, of course. But you mention Traveller is on 0.09%, and I doubt that is actually reflective of the percentage of gamers using it for SF games.

Also re: sci-fi RPGs, I wouldn't put Shadowrun, 40K, or Star Wars down as those are all solidly space-fantasy, particularly SR and 40K (you could potentially argue the Force as weird science not that much more bizarre than some forms of FTL and so on, but not SR's magic, which is explicitly non-scientific, nor 40K's Chaos/Warp).

As for a default sci-fi setting I don't think there is one, but I think we creep closer to one every year, as more and more sci-fi stuff appears on TV and in games and certain commonalities emerge that weren't present when it was more commonly a literary or movie genre. Specifically, I'd say a "default" sci-fi setting is gradually emerging which is basically "cyberpunk with spaceships", or perhaps you could say cyberpunk elements are gradually colonising most other SF (this extends back to the '90s to some extent - there are a couple of Deep Space 9 episodes which are pretty cyberpunk, bizarrely enough - it's much more common now though).
 

Also re: sci-fi RPGs, I wouldn't put Shadowrun, 40K, or Star Wars down as those are all solidly space-fantasy, particularly SR and 40K (you could potentially argue the Force as weird science not that much more bizarre than some forms of FTL and so on, but not SR's magic, which is explicitly non-scientific, nor 40K's Chaos/Warp).
When you've taken out Star Wars, Star Trek (how many gods are there in TOS?), and a few others I'd say you've beaten SF so far back that it's barely a meaningful genre.
 

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