Thursday, June 9, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 6)

In the last article in this series, I discussed in detail how the Themes (and Thesis, if you have one,) of your setting can help you make decisions about what technologies to include or design in your Science Fiction campaign setting.

Those same themes can help you design dilemmas, locations, alien races, villains, and revelations for your campaign. In the next few, I am going to unpack those other components.


Ultimately, every adventure in the campaign is built around a singular dilemma. What do we do about situation X?

Coming up with the X helps you decide what your adventure is going to look like. It is where that short paragraph or one-sentence premise you start every good adventure with comes in.

If I have chosen a theme such as, The Gods are False, I can come up with numerous ways of expressing that idea in dilemmas that trigger adventures.  This was one of the core premises of the film Stargate, and it's spin-off TV series Stargate: SG-1

Stargate and the theme of False Gods

Main cast, Stargate: SG=1
Stargate:SG-1 is C 1997=2007 MGM Studios
In these early Stargate media, the U.S. Military discovers an alien device that creates portals to other worlds. They discover that the deities of Ancient Egypt were alien parasites, the Goa'uld, that used human hosts to extend their lives and wielded their advanced (mostly stolen) technology to perform miracles and inspire worship. They used the network of portals to take human slaves  and spread them across hundreds of worlds as laborers.

To fight the alien threat, the protagonists must convince the humans from other worlds that their gods are False, and help them rebel. This creates a huge range of dilemmas over the original film, 213 television episodes, and made-for-TV film sequel film Ark of Truth. Some of the prime examples include:

  • How do you persuade people to fight against gods?
  • Do you have the right to destroy the deeply held beliefs of a culture? Especially when you are going to benefit?
  • What happens when your own people follow the example and start demanding worship from more primitive cultures?
  • Can you ever trust allies who worshipped your enemies?
  • Can you still believe in your own faith when you have seen how religion is used to manipulate others?
  • When beings have the power to raise the dead and heal any sickness, are there times when maybe they deserve veneration.
  • When a False God can force you to worship them with mind control, or by holding your very life hostage, how do you deal with the moral hazard of fighting their followers?

Each of these problems is easily transformed into at he first part of an adventure hook:

  • A culture of slaves to the False gods have sacrificed their youngest and most beautiful for centuries,  providing fresh hosts for the False Gods. Even when it breaks up families.  For humanitarian reasons,  the heroes must persuade the people that the sacrifice should not continue. 
  • The enslaved people of a planet mine a valuable mineral that could solve an energy crisis on Earth. You could get that resource for home, but what makes you better than the False Gods if you ask them to mine for you? Do you dare overstep your authority and offer a trade?
  • One of your own has lost his mind and turned into a Colonel Kurtz, even demanding brides, human sacrifices,  and murdering his squad mates. He also has a chance of using his knowhow to actually help the people by activating an alien device that could greatly reduce the dangerous radiation in the area. How do you take him down and still help the people here?
  • An ally's own son will soon be initiated into his False God's cult. He is desperate to prevent it, but doing do requires disobeying orders and throwing his loyalty into question,  perhaps permanently with your commanders.
  • A lost loved one suddenly comes through a portal. Can you accept the miracle, or will you risk having to say goodbye again to learn the truth?
  • Visiting a planet,  you discover another old pantheon of God's were also aliens. All signs point to them being benevolent protectors. But they still let themselves be worshipped. Do you dare seek out their help and risk fighting a war on two fronts if they turn out just as corrupt as the False Gods you have been fighting? 
  • A False Goddess who can use pheromones to make men love and worship her has taken over command.  The men on the base will die for her. How do you keep her from conquering the planet, when it means fighting your own people?

From one good theme can come more  adventures than you could possibly use in a single  campaign. 

Eternal Ocean and Intelligent Design

When I started to design The Eternal Ocean I wanted to play with the idea of evolution quite a bit. In my version of the planet Rusalka, (which may not be the version that other GMs of the game choose to play,) a Time Warp has cause the planet to undergo 80 million years of evolution in less than a decade. 

Intelligent humans have long disappeared from the surface of Rusalka, but the remains of their passing can be seen everywhere. Including in the genetic code of the life forms now found on the planet.

A quick sampling of the dilemmas that I have played with, and the adventure hooks  that I have derived from them include: 

Dilemma 1

As humankind continues to evolve, what will they look like in a few million years? Will we even know ourselves?

Hook 1

Probes near one of the deepest trenches on the planet spotted something that looked humanoid. It might even be an evolutionary descendant of human beings. if so, why have we not seen them until now? Have they been hiding from us? We haven't been quiet, so why would they avoid us?

Dilemma 2

Genetic engineering allows us to design creatures with a purpose. But, once they aren't in the lab anymore what happens when they evolve on their own again? What long-term effects might that have on the ecosphere?

Hook 2

A large and dangerous predatory creature appears to have been engineered to hunt and kill most humans. It's likely is descended from a weapon used in some forgotten war. Now, however, there's no way to override it's aggression. What might we find if we dare move through their territory? And do we dare kill them off when they are an important Apex predator?

Dilemma 3

Human beings are imperfect. We don't always understand the impact of the creations we put out into the world. What if we created life that had unintended benefits, and unintended dangers?

Hook 3

Several species discovered hatched from their eggs with biomechanical components. They are basically born cyborgs. They seem to have an intuitive ability to build power sources to feed themselves. This might be exploitable. But, it also means that they are drawn to electrical devices, making them a threat. We could also simply exterminate them by introducing a computer virus. How do we proceed with this discovery?

Dilemma 4

Once you can shape the life around you, it is very easy to play god. And perhaps fool yourself into thinking that that is what you are. If you could control the fate of a species with the push of a button, would you?

Hook 4

The final recordings of one of the great genetic engineers from the first mission have been retrieved. It suggests that they had created a means for shaping and controlling the life on Rusalka. But, the power went to their head and they used it as a way of controlling others, by threatening food supplies. The device still exists, do you wish to retrieve it, or destroy it?

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