Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.1)

I am on a roll creatively with my Eternal Ocean & Wreck project! Aside from a character sheet and an editing pass, I feel like Wreck is in more or less its final form.

The real challenge right now is building the world of The Eternal Ocean in order to actually get interest in the game. A science fiction version of Cairn with deep sea diving and some submarines is all well and good, but it isn't all that helpful to play unless you have a world to work with. 

In a TTRPG the Campaign and the game world are inextricably linked. In a way, the World is the Campaign, especially if you are playing with multiple groups using strict time tracking, or playing an Open Table / West Marches game. Your decisions as a GM are going to be shaped by the internal logic of the world. When fantastical things like magic and monsters, aliens or super-technology appear, it is your understanding of that world and how it works as a player that will determine how you approach it, and will also determine how the GM resolves it.

Fantasy has a distinct edge in this arena: most fantasy worlds are a mish-mash of European folklore, romanticized Early Modern cultures, and 1960s pulp tropes. Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy in most parts of the world has a default set of assumptions. Japanese fantasy Anime, an American Fantasy Action RPG video game, and a French Fantasy Graphic Novel are all going to feel, to some degree, like a variation on Greyhawk.

When you create a Fantasy world, all you need to do to explain it to someone is point to a few touchstones: "It is like generic D&D, but...", "It is like the world of Conan, but...", "It will feel like Lord of the Rings, but..." and then all that remains is to explain your specific and unique twists on that touchstone. Even your campaign primer is going to be more about explaining what is unique about your Fantasy setting, as players will assume the rest feels like a classic D&D setting regardless.

  • Science Fiction does not have that luxury for the most part. Because Science Fiction usually does not have folklore, fairy tales, myths, and a historical era to fall back on, the world requires a lot more work. 
  • While people can assume the rules of magic will feel something like the rules in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, they can't fall back on assumptions about exactly how the ultra-tech in your Science Fiction setting works. 
  • They might be able to guess what you mean by "goblin" based on European folklore, but they won't know what a Merigy is until you explain it.
  • Players can guess that their will be wizards, warriors, and dashing rogues in a fantasy at the very least, even if they aren't exactly sure how the Wizard's magic works, but figuring out what the characters in your Science Fiction world should be like and do requires a lot more work.

This is why Science Fiction role-playing games that are successful are often built on existing franchises, rather than encouraging players to home-brew their settings.

So when I set out to write The Eternal Ocean I had to think hard about what I wanted to have in my Science Fiction universe, how I can give my players the best possible picture, and what my decisions will mean to the game world.

To that end, I have been pillaging a lot of the Science Fiction games on my shelf, and hunting for great articles on World Building for Science fiction.

Cover for GURPS: Ultra Tech
©1989 Steve Jackson Games
The best systemic discussion I have seen on it comes in the form of several videos by Guy over at How to be a Great GM. You can also get a few good ideas by looking at some of the marginalia of RPG Pundit Presents #100: Star Adventurer, there are a few good ideas in Machinations of the Space Princess, and if you want a great model of an original SciFi world that has been built n some detail, you can look at both Traveler and, amusingly Alpha Blue to see some great templates. One really helpful resource I will point to is GURPS: Ultra-Tech.

What I think the biggest ideas that you need to cover for this process are probably as follows, and I am going to discuss each one as I work on making my creation available.


The mood, feeling, and overall view of the universe you are presenting is critical to planning any Science Fiction setting. Tone is about how much hope you hold for the future and for humanity, and how you wish to present the character of the human race,


Science Fiction is the playground of the philosophical mind. While TV SciFi is often just Westerns set in outer space, the best Science Fiction uses the worlds it creates to take certain problems or questions in the current day and magnify them by creating imaginary devices and worlds that make the problem more extreme or immediate.


Technology takes the place of magic in Science Fiction, It is the tool by which PCs can solve their problems and explore the world around them. Starships, robots, super-computers, replicators, nanites, cloning, mentants, spice, uploading: each piece of tech has the potential to amplify a theme, alter the tone, and radically change how play works.

In a TTRPG, unlike a written piece of Science Fiction, technology also provides the main play tools and functions that the players have at their command. Their understanding of the technology, their ability to access it, and its flexibility will define what kind of game you are playing.

Just as adding an ESP spell and Speak with Dead into Dungeons & Dragons makes running a mystery damn near impossible: giving PCs access to a supercomputer with a 6000 IQ is going to eliminate puzzles, and a Universal Translator will take away a lot of the complexity of the PCs encountering a new race of aliens for the first time.


In good literary Science Fiction, Aliens are a reflection of humankind. They take a personality trait or cultural more and turn it into their central character. In Star Trek, the Vulcan embodies the problem of the West giving science and reason primacy over sentiment to the point of creating inhuman expectations. In David Webber's Honor Harrington novels, the Basilisks become the perfect version of the people caught in the crossfire between Imperial Powers.

In a Science Fiction TTRPG setting Aliens are that and much more. Each alien race stands to introduce a theme to the campaign world... but they also create character options for players. And will eventually demand that you create far more content than a Science Fiction novel ever will to keep them believable and important in your campaign world.


How you use location in Science Fiction can make a huge difference. Some planets are characters unto themselves. Others add interesting complications to a setting, or serve as the backdrop for aliens and their cultures. Whether you use just one or two planets or many will make a big difference to how the game is played and what the focus is.


One that is overlooked when people discuss science fiction but it's a huge part of it is to examine what the role of the player characters are. This can be bundled in the theme, but I feel it ought to be treated separately. 

A setting where you play bounty hunters and mercenaries is going to require very different storytelling tools and if you are playing élite agents of a government, rogue traders, rebels against an Empire, for the new noble house ruling a planet. What the player characters set out to do with the beginning, and who they work for will make a massive difference in what parts of the Campaign World they need to say, and that's what parts you need to flash out.


Fantasy draws on folkloric and mythological material. Which in turn are symbolic discussions of the human condition. People have an easy time resonating with Fantasy.  The biggest obstacle in Fantasy is often cultural relevance. Almost anyone can get something out of a fantasy game that borrows from Slavic mythology, but, it might be more appealing to a group who grew up with Slavic culture all around them.

Science fiction doesn't have that strange fairy tail like ability to instantly strike a chord. We don't suspend a disbelief in the same way for it. Accordingly, Science Fiction Kenmore easily hit or miss its audience based on whether or not it is relevant to their present interests.

To make science fiction effective, you need to make sure that it somehow feels relevant to its Target audience.


I have spent a lot of time talking about what it takes to build a campaign with longevity on this blog. But, as a part of that, you must decide whether that is something you want.

Early editions of Dungeons & Dragons are made specifically to be played over an incredibly long duration, often with multiple characters per player in separate parties and ultimately becomes a game where the most successful player characters become movers and shakers shaping the world for lower level characters

Newer editions of Dungeons & Dragons are aimed at playing campaigns that last roughly eight sessions killing a singular story about a group of adventurers saving the world from one threat.

The design choices of your setting will make a huge difference to how long it lasts. Science fiction campaigns are delicate; they're unfamiliarity greatly increases the chance that players will Tire of the setting. Building it to be played for a short period of time, we're making very specific design choices to give it endurance are important.

I intend to cover each of these parts in the coming month discussing how to make choices for each one of these based on your desired outcomes. And I will use my eternal ocean project as an example, giving you quite a few sneak previews as I do so.

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