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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

Bohandas

Adventurer
No, not really. We can see the Voyager probe at the edge of the solar system which basically runs on a car battery in low power mode by now. No matter how low the emissions, against the backdrop of nearly empty space it stands out. And scanning the entire solar system does not take all that much time either.

We can see the Voyager because we already know where it is, and it's designed to phone home intelligibly. If there were a random Voyager sized object in an unknown place we'd have little hope of finding it.
 

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Bohandas

Adventurer
Then we have very different understandings of certain Star Trek TOS episodes, Q and the Q Continuum, the Bajoran Wormhole Prophets, and quite a lot of other aspects of Star Trek. Trek may occasionally pay lip service to there being rational explanations - but it's normally skin deep at best.
And in addition to gods there's also magic. You can't swing a dead cat in Star Trek without hitting a psychic, or a shapeshifter, or a guy who makes gems appear by waving a magic wand. In one episode the villain put a curse on the Enterprise by burning a model of the Enterprise, and it worked, and it was explicitly described as sympathetic magic.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Reading more on that page, there's good stuff, but, they are heavily weighted towards sensors. They baseline assumption is that sensor nets will be cheap, effective, and have good efficacy when dispersed liberally. Effectively, they're argument against stealth is that they'll have too many eye watching. The few formulas mentioned are not well sourced (their links just go to where they're mentioned, and no explanation of the constants or how they are derived is provided, much less units -- dear god, the units are all over the place meaning the constants need to have some heavy units attached to balance an equation that otherwise delivers ton-meters per second into kilometers. There's no support to explain how these constants are derived (and they can be, I just can't easily follow it). I'm guessing there's an assumption of how much energy in watts (newton-meter per second or kg m^2/s^3) is "detectable" which isn't stated (but may very well be right). There's a nice guest article towards the end that discusses practical stealth, to which the rebuttal is "but this isn't really stealth." Again, the definition that you can hide while effectively shooting and under full burn rears it's head and establishes the "impossible" angle.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
We don't even know how many PLANETS are in the solar system. In addition to there almost certainly being more dwarf planets there's also some limited evidence (based on the orbits of other astronomical bodies) that there may be another big planet but we have no idea where it is.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Many times I read that stealth equals invisibility, which it does not, even here on Earth; nevertheless, perfect detection does not exist.
 

It seems to me that you are using the term "default setting" differently than I've seen it elsewhere. Usually, I've seen Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk described as the default setting for D&D with Third Imperium as the default setting for Traveller. You are invited to make up your own universe for the RPG, but they have provided this one and the adventures they have written occur there.

Do you mean something closer to "influence"? D&D is heavily influenced by Tolkien with its use of elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs and goblins. But, it is also heavily influenced by Conan, Vance (magic), Cuthulu, ancient history and myth, etc. While Traveller was influenced by Tubb, etc.

Tolkien is certainly a big name out of all the other influences combined. A lot of these others have fallen back into relative obscurity.
Tolkien's Middle Earth is probably the single most read and read about setting, and definitely one of the most watched, worldwide, settings. Even some amusing Soviet Films. I think Narnia and Winnie the Poo are pretty close, and Peter Pan not far behind. All of which are 20th C fantasies. (I highly recommend the soviet films Винни Пух and Хобит. They are very different interpretations of the source than the US adaptations, and while crudely shot, are effective none the less.)
D&D is a cadet off of Tolkien. It's closeness to Tolkien in setting tropes helps with its dominance. It ignoring the severe limitations Tolkien embedded into the various "races" is part of its appeal as well... add that it's the first, and is backed by one of the biggest toy companies in the world, and it's current domination is easily understood.

The thing many don't grok, however, is that it's a Genre engine. It's an engine tuned for one subgenre, with a variety of settings available, but all sharing most of the core D&D tropes.
I guess the big question is "How much science (correct or wrong) must be in something to be considered science fiction"?
One author mentioned an SFWA guideline from the 1950's... no more than three breaks from known physics.
GIven
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.
TOS, not counting TAS, we get Apollo, Trelane (albeit immature), the gang in Plato's Stepchildren, the Exca;bians...
TAS adds Kulkulkan.
Of those, only Apollo and Kulkulkan are confirmed to have been gods to Earthmen; Plato's stepchildren seem to have been transplanted from Greece and culturally fossilized. Trelane (and his parents) are clearly god-level power, but Trelane is not aware of lightspeed time lag, and his information is by observation from distance.
And that's not counting the 3 computers masquerading as gods.
Star Trek V is well summarized as "Kirk meets God. Kirk Wins."
TNG adds the Q. They are god-level beings. And the Dowd. Also god-level beings.
If I'd done that, I'd agree. But you're doing that not me, and attributing it to me is extremely silly at best.

Star Trek doesn't have any supernatural gods or supernatural forces I'm aware of.
It has literally over a dozen episodes across 6+ series where beings who match the abilities of the gods of the classical era. TOS has two who explicitly are previously-worshipped as gods beings of great power. (see above.)
I think there are at least 6 episodes with Q in TNG alone. One dowd. The Traveller (in two episodes).
DS-9 has the Prophets (wormhole aliens). It also has a Q episode.
Voyager has a couple Q episodes. And Kes ascending to incorporeal being.

We can see the Voyager because we already know where it is, and it's designed to phone home intelligibly. If there were a random Voyager sized object in an unknown place we'd have little hope of finding it.
The Voyagers have a net signal less than the average cellphone.

The S-IV-B put out a signal many thousands of times more powerful, but in a less clear band... and one that radio telescopes cannot pick up well. There's little doubt that if an S-IV-B happened to ignite the engines in Mauna Kea's infrared field of view at an AU, it'd be visible... as a bright point source. The question isn't if the scope would capture it; the question is if it would be noticed. Given that someone found a couple asteroids this year by examining old telescope images... it's the making sense of the raw data that is the hard part.

Many times I read that stealth equals invisibility, which it does not, even here on Earth; nevertheless, perfect detection does not exist.
QFT!
Stealth is simply making your signals (generated and returned) look like something to be ignored.
 


It has literally over a dozen episodes across 6+ series where beings who match the abilities of the gods of the classical era. TOS has two who explicitly are previously-worshipped as gods beings of great power. (see above.)
I think there are at least 6 episodes with Q in TNG alone. One dowd. The Traveller (in two episodes).
DS-9 has the Prophets (wormhole aliens). It also has a Q episode.
Voyager has a couple Q episodes. And Kes ascending to incorporeal being.
Yup, and I discussed that. The point is they don't regard them as supernatural and constantly point out that they aren't real gods, just super-beings.
 

S'mon

Legend
Yup, and I discussed that. The point is they don't regard them as supernatural and constantly point out that they aren't real gods, just super-beings.
The Trek metric seems to be 'is scientifically explainable' - so in a universe where everything is scientifically explainable, by definition the super-being is not a 'real god'.

But IRL we have religions, esp 19th & 20th century ones, with part of the belief system being that the God or gods are scientifically explainable. Some of these religions even have words like 'Science' in their name. :)
 

But IRL we have religions, esp 19th & 20th century ones, with part of the belief system being that the God or gods are scientifically explainable. Some of these religions even have words like 'Science' in their name. :)
< pushes 10' pole against this > "I'm pretty sure it's a trap guys, get the trap-testing chickens ready!"
 

S'mon

Legend
< pushes 10' pole against this > "I'm pretty sure it's a trap guys, get the trap-testing chickens ready!"

I was trying to hopefully-not-trappily make the point that "explainable" and "divine" are not always seen as exclusive. That this is a feature of the Star Trek worldview. So it's understandable that some people would say that Q has all the necessary features of a 'god' in-universe, and some people would say he/it doesn't.

I haven't watched a ton of DS9, but I got the impression that this was a theme of the show - Star Fleet sees the Wormhole Prophets as 'Super Advanced Aliens', the Bajorans see them as 'divine'. But that the Bajoran belief does not depend on them being scientifically inexplicable. A Star Fleet officer can't pull back the curtain, scientifically explain the Prophets, and expect the Bajorans to go "Oh, I guess we were wrong then!"
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
The Trek metric seems to be 'is scientifically explainable' - so in a universe where everything is scientifically explainable, by definition the super-being is not a 'real god'.

But IRL we have religions, esp 19th & 20th century ones, with part of the belief system being that the God or gods are scientifically explainable. Some of these religions even have words like 'Science' in their name. :)
It goes back way further than that. Epicurius taught that gods and the soul were both material and made of atoms.

Furthermore, religions in general believe that their gods and spirits have real concrete existence. The only definite exceptions to this that I can think of are The Church of the SubGenius, and LaVeyan Satanism

I was trying to hopefully-not-trappily make the point that "explainable" and "divine" are not always seen as exclusive. That this is a feature of the Star Trek worldview. So it's understandable that some people would say that Q has all the necessary features of a 'god' in-universe, and some people would say he/it doesn't.

I haven't watched a ton of DS9, but I got the impression that this was a theme of the show - Star Fleet sees the Wormhole Prophets as 'Super Advanced Aliens', the Bajorans see them as 'divine'. But that the Bajoran belief does not depend on them being scientifically inexplicable. A Star Fleet officer can't pull back the curtain, scientifically explain the Prophets, and expect the Bajorans to go "Oh, I guess we were wrong then!"

Exactly.

I like this, you explained it better than I did.
 

I haven't watched a ton of DS9, but I got the impression that this was a theme of the show - Star Fleet sees the Wormhole Prophets as 'Super Advanced Aliens', the Bajorans see them as 'divine'. But that the Bajoran belief does not depend on them being scientifically inexplicable. A Star Fleet officer can't pull back the curtain, scientifically explain the Prophets, and expect the Bajorans to go "Oh, I guess we were wrong then!"
Sure, but at other times Starfleet officers have at least attempted precisely that, with varying levels of success, and DS9 goes to great lengths to make the Prophets not be demonstrably divine, and to offer various explanations for their powers, which are clearly not magic.

This stands distinct from something like Shadowrun which goes to some lengths to say "This is magic and it doesn't follow scientific rules or necessarily any rules, it is supernatural". Whether something has a physical presence doesn't measure whether it's supernatural or not either, I think that's a bit of a mental cul-de-sac.
 

Ixal

Explorer
This stands distinct from something like Shadowrun which goes to some lengths to say "This is magic and it doesn't follow scientific rules or necessarily any rules, it is supernatural". Whether something has a physical presence doesn't measure whether it's supernatural or not either, I think that's a bit of a mental cul-de-sac.
Ehm, in Shadowrun magic is science. Or rather, the hermetics treat is as another law of nature like gravity and they research it as such while shamans treat it more of a divine gift from spirits. And there are also proponents of a unified magical theory to combine those two paths.
 

Ehm, in Shadowrun magic is science. Or rather, the hermetics treat is as another law of nature like gravity and they research it as such while shamans treat it more of a divine gift from spirits. And there are also proponents of a unified magical theory to combine those two paths.
They're objectively wrong, though. This has been expressed at some length in older SR magic-related books. So that's a weird thing to bring up. Hell basic laws of physics are destroyed by countless aspects of SR magic, especially some of the larger-scale aspects of the universe and history and so on.
 

Ixal

Explorer
They're objectively wrong, though. This has been expressed at some length in older SR magic-related books. So that's a weird thing to bring up. Hell basic laws of physics are destroyed by countless aspects of SR magic, especially some of the larger-scale aspects of the universe and history and so on.
You make the same mistake like many people, no matter the system, to think that magic is not part of the basic laws of physics. Magic in pretty much all RPG systems always produce the same results, thats why you have standardised spells, and thus scientific methods can be applied to it. In Shadowrun this is an accepted fact, which is why you have magic being researched according to modern methods and have patents on spells.

In other settings both creators and players often ignore the science behind magic because, for some reason, people think something can only be magical when it is not a science and they pretend that this is the case, even when magic in the game functions like a law of nature and always works the same way.
Its ok when the characters in the game don't think that it is science, the same way how smithing was once considered magic because involved chemistry people did not understand. But in the end in nearly all settings magic is no different than physics.
 
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Bohandas

Adventurer
Sure, but at other times Starfleet officers have at least attempted precisely that, with varying levels of success, and DS9 goes to great lengths to make the Prophets not be demonstrably divine, and to offer various explanations for their powers, which are clearly not magic.

This stands distinct from something like Shadowrun which goes to some lengths to say "This is magic and it doesn't follow scientific rules or necessarily any rules, it is supernatural". Whether something has a physical presence doesn't measure whether it's supernatural or not either, I think that's a bit of a mental cul-de-sac.

Even the "not necessarily any rules" part doesn't necessarily put it outside of physics. If you follow the copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which is espoused by a plurality of physicists, there are trillions of processes going on every second that are every bit as random as a Rod of Wonder; the outcomes may be weighted (again, like the Rod of Wonder) but the choice between them is ultimately random. Whether you'll find Schrodinger's Cat alive or dead when you finally open the box is completely arbitrary according to the most prominent understanding of physics.

You make the same mistake like many people, no matter the system, to think that magic is not part of the basic laws of physics. Magic in pretty much all RPG systems always produce the same results, thats why you have standardised spells, and thus scientific methods can be applied to it. In Shadowrun this is an accepted fact, which is why you have magic being researched according to modern methods and have patents on spells.

In other settings both creators and players often ignore the science behind magic because, for some reason, people think something can only be magical when it is not a science and they pretend that this is the case, even when magic in the game functions like a law of nature and always works the same way.
Its ok when the characters in the game don't think that it is science, the same way how smithing was once considered magic because involved chemistry people did not understand. But in the end in nearly all settings magic is no different than physics.

This. It's clearly knowable and predictable on some level because otherwise you'd never be able to cast a spell except by accident.

EDIT:
As a tangential aside, here is a legitimate science documentary that literally talks about turning lead into other elements:
 
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They're objectively wrong, though. This has been expressed at some length in older SR magic-related books. So that's a weird thing to bring up. Hell basic laws of physics are destroyed by countless aspects of SR magic, especially some of the larger-scale aspects of the universe and history and so on.
Basic laws of real world physics are destroyed by countless aspects of Star Trek technology.

But if we're talking about in-universe laws of physics approached from an in-universe perspective then no they aren't, by definition. The laws of physics are the laws of the universe as we understand them. And if magic is a part of the universe then science needs to account for that. In normal physics most of the time we treat the earth as flat because in local areas the curvature is so small that it effectively is. Newtonian Physics is not wrong even if Einstein corrected it and things get really weird at quantum levels.

If magic can have repeatable and reliable effects then it can be approached by the tools of science. There aren't two domains because science is a set of tools, not a set of results. And if the definition we're using is "regularly and gratuitously breaks real world physics" then Star Trek does so and the window dressing they put on things like trickster gods to pretend they are scientific (which honestly isn't much better than DC's fifth dimensional imps) is just window dressing.
 

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