Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 4)

Whether you have chosen a Thesis or not for your Science Fiction Setting, by now you have a sense of your Tone. Not only will it shape the in-game elements of NPCs, technology, etc., it will also dictate the way you plan and think of your game, and how you will present it to potential players. 

One of the ways you will do this is by choosing themes for your campaign that are congruent with your tone.

Themes in a TTRPG campaign are not really that different from themes in film or literature: they are ideas that appear over and over again in different forms throughout the story. They are ideas that will likely be expressible in one to five words. Often they will be tensions you can express as "A v. B."

Pulling Out Themes: Babylon 5

Cast of Babylon 5, Season 3
As an example, let's look at the themes of a personal favorite, Babylon 5:

  • Duty v. Conscience
  • Letting others solve your problems is dangerous
  • Religion can imprison or uplifts
  • Foresight is a terrible burden
  • Alcohol solves nothing
  • Safety v. Privacy

All of these come from the central thesis of the series, which is "Can we really know Peace?"

Each of these themes appear over and over again in different forms in some combination in most episodes. There is rarely an episode that doesn't explore at least two of these.

I will try to cover these, one in detail, the others briefly in a way that doesn't assume you know the series. There will be spoilers, but the show ran over 25 years ago, so I consider that fair game. 

Duty v. Conscience

The Battle of the Line, humanity's last
stand against the Minbari
The entire series of Babylon 5 is set on the backdrop of humanity finding a new place in the universe after their near annihilation at the hands of a technologically Superior alien race called the Minbari.

In the backstory to the series, the Minbari had destroyed Earth's star fleet and surrounded the planet, then at the last moment called off their orbital bombardment, which would have exterminated the human species.

The war started when a human ship fired on a Minbari one during First Contact, as the Minbari scanners were damaging the human ship, and were mistaken for an attack. The human counterattack  killed the Minbari theocratic leader, and the Minbari saw it as a duty to avenge what they saw as an unprovoked murder. The war stopped when the Minbari's new leader had a fit of conscience, and decided to st least communicate with humankind and discovered that they shared a spiritual and psychic bond that made the genocide a tragedy beyond measure.

Throughout the series, Earth's tentative situation in the galaxy pushes them farther and farther into totalitarianism. Eventually an assassination of the united Earth government's leader allows a genuinely fascist organization to take over control of Earth. The command crew of the diplomatic space station Babylon 5 finds themselves torn between duty to their government and following their conscience by upholding the Liberal ideals of due process and individual rights. This leads Babylon 5 to secede from Earth Alliance, and eventually wage war to free Earth from their illegitimate government.

Command crew of Babylon 5 seasons 2-4

Another major tension in the story is between two other alien races, the decadent and imperialistic Centari, and the war-like Narn, who had been enslaved by the Centari for generations. Babylon 5, being neutral ground became the site if the diplomatic clash between the species, with humans stuck playing mediator.

Londo as Emperor
The Centari ambassador, Londo, watches the collapsing, decadent state of the Empire with despair. He sees it as his duty to return them to glory, and manages to make it happen by ignoring his conscience, but his machinations go out of control and end with atrocities and genocide against the Narn. In the end, he winds up Emperor of a restored Centari empire, but he is a joyless, guilt-wracked shell if a man.

By contrast the Narn ambassador, G'kar starts off obsessed only with his sense of duty to his people, including holding a genocidal hatred of the Centari. As he suffers through humiliation, torment, and slavery, his people increasingly look to him to lead a crusade against the Centari. In the end he sees that the Centari are puppets of alien manipulation and an insane emperor, and that the cycle of violence will likely only end with one race full of innocent bystanders exterminated and the other with blood on their hands so deep it will never wash away. He follows his conscience and submits to even more misery in order to end the cycle once and for all 

G'kar in chains in the Royal Centari court escorted by Londo

Most of the various conflicts in the series are manipulatrd by two ancient alien races, the Vorlon and the Shadows, who have an eons-old ideological conflict. Unable to win a shooting war with each other, they shape other races in their image to fight proxy wars in hopes that eventually one race or the other will have no place in the galaxy.

Vorlon (left) and Shadow (right)
The Vorlon ideology is extremely collective, and built on a universal kyriarchy of roles and duties; they open all important communication with the question "Who are you?" They manipulate other races by engineering their religions, and appear as angels outside of their concealing space suits.

The Shadows are extreme social darwinists who treat all interactions as transactional. They start a of their communications by asking "What do you want?" They offer power, weapons, and technology to people they see as having potential to expand their influence, but their bargains are deeply Faustian. They also seed younger species with genes to give them psychic powers that the Shadows can then use to their advantage later. Despite their tactics, they believe that they are fighting a war to free all species to act on conscience and rise to their potential, free from religion and tradition.

Both species are soaked in arrogance and hypocrisy, and it is when the younger races finally call them out and refuse to fight each other any longer that the  worst and bloodiest conflicts end.

Letting Others Solve your Problems is Dangerous

Throughout Babylon 5, the two elder alien species are forever offering to solve people's problems for them. However, it always comes with a terrible price. As long as the two civilizations pick sides, they find themselves either turning slowly into a theocracy or a brutal dictatorship.

Morden is a devil-like figure in Babylon 5, brokering secret
Deals for the Shadows that often lead to death and misery.

Beyond that, Earth falls into its dictatorship far faster when it starts enforcing laws by using psychics who are forced to live in a paramilitary organization (called Psi Core.) They make weeding out traders and alien influence easy, but only by ignoring the very sanctity of people's minds.

Religion can Imprison or Uplift

Religion is a complicated topic throughout Babylon 5. The Minbari, as a species, are shackled by there caste system and theocratic leanings. But, at the same time, when they have religious leaders with conscience in charge, there civilization is one of the most peaceful and advanced.

One of the protagonists, Commander Susan ivanova, struggles with anxiety, a sense of meaning, and the pain of being estranged from her famous and highly respected father. It's only when she returns to practicing religious Judaism and having a funeral for her father that she finds the courage to make the right decisions.

On the other hand, Londo uses his religion as an excuse to flee from responsibility. Embracing the goddess of lust and passion and the god of drunkenness as excuses for running from his duties.

We also see at least one species allow themselves to become extinct rather than accept external help for a disease that they consider a shameful taboo to discuss. And an outbreak of senseless violence on the station over a minor religious conflict.

Foresight can be a Terrible Burden

Thanks to themes of time travel, psychic powers, and supercomputers that can see into the future appearing at various points, certain characters have an idea of what is coming. The Centari all have the psychic ability to see the moment of their death in their dreams.

Trying to avoid the future they have seen - or make visions come true - both cause terrible consequences for characters. Just having a glimpse of the future often wears on the characters who have it.

In other cases, particularly savvy characters can see things like the are going based on history. The captain of Babylon 5, John Sheridan, knows full well that Earth is repeating the worst chapters of the 20th century, but his helpless to do anything about it.

Alcohol Solves Nothing

The chief of security in Babylon 5, Michael Garibaldi, struggles as a recovering alcoholic. When he's framed for a crime after undergoing multiple traumatic events, he falls off the wagon bit by bit. Watching his struggle over several of the darkest episodes of the series is absolutely heartrending.. Eventually, he loses his position, the respect and trust of the other protagonists, and his home. It's only when he's sobers up and becomes a private detective that he starts becoming an asset to the resistance again.

Michael Garibaldi's darkest moments.

He is not the only one, Londo, the century ambassador uses religion as an excuse to remain constantly drunken And surrounded by courtesans. It prevents him from doing his job effectively, which he is well aware was considered a joke of a position to begin with. It's only after he is forced to kill his own friend in a duel to create a legal shelter for the friend's family, that he realizes how far his civilization is fallen, and starts trying to make a difference. Even then his occasional retreat into alcohol and prostitutes causes him to turn a blind eye to how his actions are leading to genocide and the subversion of his own people by the Shadows. It's only when he decides to sober up and make decisions purely for himself that he starts making a positive difference for the security of the centauri Empire.

Throughout the series Commander Ivanova occasionally attempts to drink to forget problems, but finds that it never works. She almost always solves the problem the moment she resolves to not let it make her feel miserable.

Safety v. Privacy

Psi Core propaganda seen in
the background
Possibly one of the most prophetic parts of the series; in Babylon 5 psychics are at first bound by strict codes of conduct and forced by the Psi Core. As Earth falls further and further towards fascism, they begin to compromise that code in order to use psychics to test for loyalty. Characters cannot even allow their thoughts to be private. Especially when it's discovered that certain members of the Core are implanted with Manchurian candidates style personalities: they are not even permitted to be their own people.

The eventual paranoia, mistrust, and rage over not being able to keep even your own thoughts private leads to a second civil war towards the end of the series.

Another Example

Babylon 5 has a very passionate fandom, and it's a show that you either like or you hate. To do another example quickly for people who don't care for the show, that's considered Earth2.

Earth2 promo poster
Earth2 was a series about a renegade group of humans leaving a polluted, Megacorporation-controlled Earth behind in hopes of creating a new, freer life on a clean exoplanet. They have their starship sabotaged by corporate agents, and crash. Once there they discover that there are multiple species of intelligent aliens already on the planet, all of whom fear human beings. The megacorporations in had already colonized the planet with convict laborers, only to have the colony collapse in a storm of violence.

The thesis of Earth2 is the question "Are we doomed to mess up other worlds as badly as we have messed up Earth?"

From that question comes a number of themes that repeat over and over again.

  • Greed's impact on community & environment
  • Pollution v. Human needs
  • Providing a safe future for our children.
  • Human nature v. choosing to do the right thing
  • Being worthy of love
  • Second Chances
  • Honest, fair trade v. corporatism
  • The horrors of colonialism

Using Themes in Your Campaign

In a role-playing campaign, the themes of your setting are not going to be able to be worked in as directly as they can be in a television series like Babylon 5

Gaal, played by Tim Curry,
was a convict colonist in
Earth2, he was not only
treacherous, but often tricked
the protagonist characters into
betraying the group, especially
the children of the group.
You cannot dictate for example that your player characters will be treacherous in a campaign where you want Treachery to be a theme. Instead, it has to be an action of npcs. And if you want player characters to trust a single npc, the treachery often has to occur from one NPC to another.

One way to ensure a theme does appear is to embody the theme in a character or faction. If you want treachery to be a theme, having s powerful noblewoman who conspires against the court use the PCs as patsies, later sends them on a suicide mission, and then sponsors a coup, would keep Treachery front and center. Likewise, if redemption is a theme you want to explore having an NPC guide who is trying to live down a past atrocity is a good start. Possibly redeeming a villain by having them switch sides and aid the PCs might also help.

Another is to set up hooks that repeatedly use the theme. If you want treachery to be a theme, helping a patron steal a treasure out from under the noses of former allies, or get revenge on an unfaithful spouse would be excellent ideas.

Nor can you manage the sheer bulk of themes that a science fiction television show or novel series can manage. At best a campaign ought to have two or three themes that ought to emerge in a slightly different way every adventure or two.

Themes are a powerful tool for planning adventures, designing NPCs and brainstorming hooks.

How I Use Themes in Eternal Ocean

In the Eternal Ocean setting, I am starting from the question "Can Humanity really understand the implications of its own creations? Can we make something so alien we cannot understand it?"

This is a heavy thesis for a game that I am playing with little kids, and so I play it very lightly. In the books and test campaigns I am designing for Adults it is a little more integrated into the game's structure.

Because I am interested in the question of the limits of the human imagination, most of my questions evolve from the idea of a world we create and what it would be like to visit one that human beings have shaped:

  • Intelligent design v. Natural Chaos
  • Unintended Consequences
  • The relationship between genius & madness
  • Mirrors held up to the soul
  • Humans making monsters of themselves
  • The blurry line between organism & machine

When I design an environment, monster, or setting, I make one of these my central idea. Whatever the big reveal, terrible monster, or climax is, it is designed to evoke this idea 

In one recent adventure, I had my son (& co.'s) character discover a wreck of his own starship from another reality with slight differences in the timeline evident. It was full of the skeletons of crewmates he knew, but it was clear that they had come from a much darker timeline where humanity let another race go extinct... And had profited from it. Here we have a dark mirror of his own team to consider,  and one where he learns the unintended costs of humanity's greatest deed in the setting.

Then I gave him a chance to profit from the advancements of a darker timeline where Humanity had profited by doing something terrible. He declined.

Likewise, when I create monsters or other content for the Eternal Ocean one or more of those things helps me decide how I want the monster to feel.

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