Users Guide: The Science Fiction Genre

The following article is a continuation of the Genres in Gaming series of articles written to help players and GMs determine which games are available within the genres they want to play.  The lists of systems contained throughout or by no means exhaustive.  All game systems are listed within the sub-genre as I understand from the knowledge I have.  If they are improperly categorized, please post a comment further explaining what the sub-genre should be and why.

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Before I get started, it should be noted that many of the Science Fiction systems out there fall under multiple categories and thus will be found within multiple lists.  This is due to the nature of the Science Fiction genre in which players can create multiple types of experiences that span an entire galaxy.

Space Opera

Possibly the most prevalent of the Science Fiction genre, Space Opera is Science Fiction with lots of action and adventure. The focus of Space Opera is not on the Science and Technology itself, but rather its use for the purpose of many things like combat, environment, and social interaction. Settings could range widely with planets and entire galaxies that are created as simple fiction and sometimes lacking basic logic. The key to Space Opera is that it doesn’t have to make sense, because it just sounds (and “feels”) really cool! Kind of…

Space Opera systems can be contained within our own planet or galaxy or be placed within a new planet with its own history and society. There may be multiple alien races involved or it could be a normal human society. Regardless of the construction of the setting, there is always adventures to be had, or explorations to be made, or space combat to be fought.  For ease of categorizing, I’m including Fantasy Science Fiction settings in with Space Opera as they contain the same setting purpose just slightly different elements like Fantasy-type races and possible powers.

The following systems are representative of Space Opera and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Hard Science Fiction

Hard Science Fiction is characterized by the use of real technology being used to create a realistic future. Even thought he end result may not be correct, the key is realistic and how the technology is created. Robotics may be a good example of Hard Science Fiction, but to what extent is somewhat debatable.

Hard Science Fiction does not mean there is a lack of action or adventure, it simply means that the setting is meant to be scientifically possible (or plausible) instead of simply being speculative. The end result could possibly be an extensively researched planet or a fully engineered implementation of robotics. Whatever it is, the purpose is realism and not speculation.

The following systems are representative of Hard Science Fiction and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Social Science Fiction / Soft Science Fiction

Social, or soft, Science Fiction seems to be the more popular choice for tabletop role-playing. It focuses less on the technological side of science and focuses more on the social side of science. This could include politics, society, and academics. The settings are geared more towards the interaction between the people (or races), society, and possibly even religion.

One thing to note is that Social Science Fiction can often be a backdrop of a Space Opera setting, a side-story, or something simply is there but doesn’t always have to affect the game. On the other, some game systems focus very heavily on the social side of science in relation to one species methods of interacting with another species. This could include political differences, trade agreements, exploration rights, or even technology sharing. The basic description is the Social Science Fiction is more of the role-playing aspect and less of the combat aspect.

The following systems are representative of Social Science Fiction and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Military Science Fiction

Military Science Fiction is similar to Fantasy Hack-and-Slash. Lots of combat, lots of action, lots of guns, and lots of nasty adversaries. Military Science Fiction focuses on an on-going struggle or conflict between parties or a party that continually campaigns to eradicate others through military force. While the parties involved don’t need to be from or of the military, the reference is in the style of how the setting is designed.

Military Science Fiction is a very popular theme to find within video games and tabletop miniatures war games and some of those have been translated into a tabletop role-playing game. While it may be a difficult translation, the possibility of epic-level battles in a role-playing game can be very enticing.

The following systems are representative of Military Science Fiction and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Gothic Science Fiction

Gothic Science Fiction is the same implementation as Dark Fantasy/Gothic Fantasy. The setting is filled with horrors and/or chaos as an everyday occurrence. Although unlike a true Horror setting, the characters stand a better chance of winning and fighting back the beings. It could be a constant struggle versus undead or the looming threat of chaos in the distance, the darkness of the setting is prevalent throughout and an important piece of the system (like sanity or corruption).

Gothic Science Fiction can often be a way of augmenting an already established setting or it could be the main focus throughout. When it’s an augmentation, it’s geared more toward Science Fiction. When it’s a main focus, it could be better categorized under the Horror genre but not pure Science Fiction Horror (where the creatures are almost impossible to defeat). For purposes of settings that “walk the line”, I am including these horror-styled ones as well.

The following systems are representative of Gothic Science Fiction and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Space Travel

There is a definite difference between Space Travel and simple space combat. The Space Travel sub-genre focuses very heavily on the spacecraft being used throughout the setting. Basically, the “home base” is not a planet but rather a spacecraft where the majority of the action, adventure, socializing, and exploring take place. This is not to be confused with Science Fiction systems that contain travel throughout space in nondescript spacecraft where you simply are traveling to reach another planet.

Space Travel focuses on those spacecrafts (or space stations) and the people working/living on those spacecrafts. These systems and settings are heavily characterized with (possibly) extensive mechanics, rules, and source material in reference to different styles of spacecraft and their fully fleshed out details (like weapons, living quarters, operation deck, engines, etc…). Space Travel systems may contain aspects of Space Opera or they may simply have the option of running a Space Travel game or a Space Opera game. Both of these types of systems and settings will be included.

The following systems are representative of Space Travel and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Time Travel

Time Travel is a much less common sub-genre or theme to find within a Science Fiction system, not that there is a reason for this. Time Travel deals with exactly that, the science of traveling throughout time for whatever purpose is desired. The specifics of why this is possible may vary, but the action is generally the same. The ability to travel throughout time by means of technology has been created and the adventures follow the characters as they head into the past or out into the future to perform whatever task necessary. One thing to remember about Time Travel is that the Science Fiction is the ability to travel through time, not necessarily what is found while traveling through time.

The following systems are representative of Time Travel and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Steampunk

Steampunk could be referred to as the Victorian-Era Science Fiction powered by steam. But do not confuse it with Victorian Science Fiction as the Victorian influence is simply a “style” to the setting while the main focus is the steam-powered technology. The purpose of the Victorian-Era usage is most likely because steam-powered technology was becoming very popular during this period of time; Steampunk takes this idea to the next level. It should be noted that many Steampunk systems and settings also incorporate ideals of Fantasy. While these would most likely be called Fantasy Steampunk, I will not be distinguishing between that and just Steampunk.

Lately it seems as though Steampunk is becoming more popular with each passing year. There are more systems showing up or more settings for existing systems. While this isn’t new, it seems to be creating much more visibility than in the past.

The following systems are representative of Steampunk and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Clockwork

If Steampunk is the Victorian-Era Science Fiction, then Clockwork is the Renaissance-Era Science Fiction powered by gears.  Like its Steampunk companion, Clockwork is not often found within the world of tabletop role-playing.  Which is a bit ironic as video games have been using steam and gear-powered technology in their Fantasy settings for years.  Also like Steampunk, Clockwork may incorporate mechanics of Fantasy and could be better termed as Fantasy Clockwork.  However, for the sake of categorizing I will stick to just calling it Clockwork.

The following systems are representative of Clockwork and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).  Due to a lack of available systems and settings, I am noting a setting that uses Clockwork even though it is better defined as Alternate History.

Space Western

Space Western is not just the concept of cowboys in space, but also the idea of space being a new frontier that is being explored for the first time. As with the Western age of the United States, new territories are being discovered with new threats being met. While this may sound much like Space Travel, it involves more unknowns about the areas being discovered and explored rather than continuing research or trading throughout areas that have already been documented.  It is conceivable that a Space Travel game could easily be turned into a Space Western game, but the listed products are those centered around the concept of space-frontier discovery.

The following systems are representative of Space Western and may have numerous published supplements. Each one is noted as the game system, game setting (where applicable), and publisher displayed as: System – Setting (Publisher).

Stay tuned for the continuation of the Genres in Gaming series of articles as I delve into the Horror genre.

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2 Comments

  1. Ken Walton says:

    It’s probably worth mentioning that Starblazer Adventures also has the “Mindjammer” background (a worldbook, with a book of adventures on its way) which is pretty hard, though far future, SF.

    GURPS also has GURPS Space, which is a handbook on how to create your own SF background, plus lots of GURPS Transhuman Space books (mostly in PDF), which are pretty hard SF, and a few other “one-off” background books based on specific SF novels.

    We like to think Clockwork & Chivalry is science fiction – it’s pretty rigorously scientific, just using 17th century science! :-)

  2. Aaron T. Huss
    Aaron says:

    Thanks for that tidbit Ken. I haven’t been digging into single sourcebooks or one-of-a-kind setting books and trying to focus more on systems and fully developed settings. Otherwise I may end up overwhelming myself! I found Hard Science Fiction to be harder to find as most Science Fiction seems speculative or simply imaginative.
    Clockwork & Chivalry will be more properly defined in the Alternate History section. Although I don’t understand why we don’t see Clockwork Science Fiction more often…

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