Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

Sci-Fi Heartbreakers?

Started by ghostwolf, April 28, 2004, 11:54:06 AM

Previous topic - Next topic


I just finished reading Ron's Fantasy Heartbreakers articles (again) and noticed this time around at the end of the second article that he mentioned Sci-Fi heartbreakers.

Being a huge fan of Sci-fi, and in the throws of developing a Sci-fi Rpg, I'd really like to have a discussion of what would classify a Sci-fi heartbreaker, mainly in the hopes of avoiding one ;)


Ron Edwards


We've discussed this a little before, so I recommend that everyone check out YATU ... how to identify??? before carrying on here.


Shreyas Sampat

My answer to your question, based on my reading of the thread Ron cited, is that if you can identify "what the game is about" more precisely than "it's a scifi game", then you're okay.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if we accept the proposition that scifi is a setting, not a genre, then we can expect any "scifi" game to be as weak as any other kind of setting-driven game (I hold that these are generally less effective than games driven by things such as genre expectations, Premise, and so on), which is to say quite weak indeed.

But if you're out to write a "space epic" game or a "space opera" game, etc, and you're thinking critically about what such a game needs, then you are golden.


Thanks Ron, I missed that thread when I searched for anything regarding sci-fi and heartbreakers.  

After reading it, what I came away with (that would help me) is to focus on the Technology incorported in my setting, and how the characters interact it it... I think.



I had honestly hoped there would be more conversation on this topic.  Admittedly, the Sci-fi genre of RPGs is not the most popular, being heavily overshadowed by Fantasy, which almost dooms your average foray into the marketplace.  I would still like to discuss what makes a GOOD Sci-fi RPG, and what makes a heartbreaker.


Ron Edwards

Hi GW,

The problem with your thread topic is that, bluntly, it's a "feed me" topic. Hey everyone, discuss this for me, please. It's very clear why no one is responding; they have better things to do then to perform for someone else. The Forge is about discourse.

So what you need to do is post with an actual, specific claim or inquiry that really sparks people's interest on its own merits. What do you think about the possibility of SF Heartbreakers? Do you have some games in mind? Do you have some criteria for which which games do not qualify, and why not?

Or anything at all: historical trends in design, the impact of one or another game on the trend, and so on.

But not "Please discuss this for me."

Furthermore, there are about 100 reasons why a particular discussion might take off that have nothing to do with the topic being poor, or with any view toward the poster. So please don't post to a thread merely to say, "C'mon! Talk!"


John Kim

To throw in my two cents, Ghostwolf.  You're using the term "heartbreaker" as a synonym for "bad game" -- which makes your question amount of "How do I make my sci-fi game good?".  There isn't any answer to that, because it depends on what you are trying to do with your game.  i.e. There are many different mutually exclusive ways that a game can be good.  

For that matter, a heartbreaker isn't necessarily a bad game.  As I understand it, a fantasy heartbreaker is defined by:
    [*]Its basic, imaginative content is "fantasy" using gaming, specifically D&D, as the inspirational text.[*]It is independently published as a labor of love, essentially competing directly with D&D in the marketplace.[*]The rules are similar to the majority of pre-90s RPGs.[/list:u]
    The real lesson of these games is this: know what has come before!  IMO a short list would be: Traveller, WEG's Star Wars, RTG's Cyberpunk, FASA's Shadowrun.  If your game is essentially retreading one of these, then you should probably re-think and try something different.  

    For a game to be published, it doesn't just need to be good on its own -- it needs to distinguish itself from other games.  i.e. If your game is essentially a variant on Star Wars, then I'll just play the better-supported and better-playtested game even if it is out of print.
    - John


    I'm sorry,  I must have somehow given the wrong impression of my goal with this post.  This wasn't a 'feed me' or 'discuss this for me' thing, I wanted to carry on a discussion, activly posting.   Maybe I picked a bad title or didn't put enough into my first posting or something, who knows.  

    The reason I posted again to this thread was based on an observation of how things seem to work here.  Usually, when Ron posts to a thread with a link to another, past discussion, the thread tends to die, because (in most cases I've observed) the topic was thoroughly discussed in the thread mentioned.  

    I didn't perceive this to be the case, after reading the thread that was referenced, and still wanted to carry on a conversation with the community here on the forge, relating to Science Fiction RPGs and the heartbreaker theory.  

    Now, Specifically mentioned SCI-FI rpgs that would form the basis for a heartbreaker would obviously have to be Star Frontiers (which I've played) and Traveller (which I only know through the YATU post, and one of Mike's Rants).

    Comparing what I know about Star Frontiers and the information in the YATU post shows that Traveller had a a very large, detailed world, moreso than Star Frontiers I think.  

    The only recent Sci-fi RPG I have experience with is TSR's ill-fated Alternity RPG.  I actually enjoyed running that system, odd dice mechanics aside.  If anything, I would have to put Alternity into the heartbreaker catagory, even though it was a TSR game.  They tried to do too much with the system, by allowing it to apply to a huge range of different settings from Modern to far-future, with (again) a huge range of different technology bases.  I remember when it came out, buying it in hopes of resurrecting my first Star Frontiers campaigne :)  What came out of the experience was still some good Roleplay.   It was very hard to get players for Alternity at the time, the shop I was running in had 2 game rooms, the main room being taken up by several groups of AD&D players and the back room being taken up by my Alternity game.  In general, the response from other players in the shop was "Guh, Sci-fi".  Hence my comment about the genre being doomed almost from the start.


    Quote from: John Kim
    The real lesson of these games is this: know what has come before!  IMO a short list would be: Traveller, WEG's Star Wars, RTG's Cyberpunk, FASA's Shadowrun.  If your game is essentially retreading one of these, then you should probably re-think and try something different.  

    Ah, forgot about Star Wars.  Cyberpunk and Shadowrun seem more of a Modern Theme than Sci-fi, with a near future setting.  I have to wonder if part of Shadowrun's popularity is because of the blending of said theme with the old fantasy standby of Magic and Elves/Dwarves.


    Quote from: John KimThe real lesson of these games is this: know what has come before!  IMO a short list would be: Traveller, WEG's Star Wars, RTG's Cyberpunk, FASA's Shadowrun.  If your game is essentially retreading one of these, then you should probably re-think and try something different.  

    I don't mind if a Game Designer puts their game firmly on the table of what has come before.

    The Riddle of STeel and Burning Wheel are good examples.  There are two games that, if explained to me, could easily be misconstrued as Fantasy Heartbreakers but they tweak the whole Fantasy RPG, just so and come out the other side into brilliance.

    Telling Game Designers that if their work is too much like X, Y, and Z to shelve it could really deprive us all of someone who played those games and wasn't quite happy and designs a game to fix the things that bothered them.

    If I have to thumb through a dozen Fantasy heartbreakers to get to a Burning Wheel or a Riddle, that's fine by me.

    Science Fiction is a part of the RPG world that hasn't been really nailed yet, to my way of thinking and I'm looking forward to what a Jake or a Luke out there right now, going over some Space Opera rules with their friends is coming up with.

    Ron Edwards

    Hi GW,

    I'm glad you mentioned Alternity - I've always wanted to get some insights from people who'd played that game about their experiences. Was the dice system problematic? I actually found it intriguing to read, but wondered if it required too much handling time (add this, subtract that) in the middle of play.

    But maybe that ought to be saved for an Actual Play post (which I encourage you to do), because Alternity really can't be a heartbreaker - it's not independently published, for instance. I do agree that the scope of its setting was flawed, and that in many ways the corebooks seemed like little more than a chassis for splatbooks.

    Anyway, working from our "source concept" list that John has proposed, here are some features of SF heartbreakers as I see them:

    - extremely extensive skill system, often very fine-grained and often extremely layered through defaults and skill-families

    - one small and agile alien race, one wise and pondering-mystic alien race, one bulky and tough alien race, and one shape-shifting, not-to-be-trusted alien race

    - humans are always the "bold and plucky" race, who have expanded outward and present kind of a jolt to the more established and staid races

    If I had to pick some literature to go by, I'd say that the original Star Trek, Larry Niven's Known Space books, and David Brin's Uplift books were the top sources, but that material (for heartbreaker purposes) gets filtered through Star Frontiers and Traveller.

    I'll post some example titles once I've perused my shelves a little.

    So GW, what exactly would you like to discuss in this thread? Game features? Trends in titles and authors? Or what?




    Does a heartbreaker really have to be indie published?  One of the items you mentioned in your articles was games that the designers poored their heart and soul into languishing in the bargin bin at hobby stores.  I'd honestly like the think that just because the game is produced by a big name 3-teir distro, doesn't mean that it can't break your heart :)  

    I will consider writing up my experiences in Alternity for a post on Actual's been so long, but some of the memories are still vivid (good games always are :).

    Overall, I'm still stuck with one question.  What is it about the Sci-fi genre that turns off players in the hobby?  Time and again, I see Sci-fi games fail, as compared to Fantasy.  

    Is it the startup curve for Sci-fi games?  Generally, a Sci-fi game will have a more immersive background that requires an upfront investment by the players (STAR*DRIVE for alternity and the Fading Suns universe come to mind).

    Is it the character gen?  If I recal correctly, Star Frontiers was very easy to break into, especially if you just handed the small 'basic rule' 10 page book to the player and let them generate a character.  Very little hand holding involved, whereas many of the Modern and Far future games today require extensive research in the game system before you can get around to creating a character.

    Ron Edwards


    Well, John laid out the criteria very well for a fantasy heartbreaker, and although they don't have to be exactly the same for an SF one, they ought to be similar. And no, pure "independence" in the Forge sense isn't absolutely required, although it should definitely be a small-press, break-in product (or intended to be so) rather than yet another game by a well-established company.

    But now, your questions don't really concern heartbreakers, do they? They concern SF games in general. And boy, that got a going-over here at the Forge more than once. I'm sure someone will hunt down some threads about that.

    My first call would be that so-called science fiction games are far, far too oriented toward pastiche of existing sources instead of presenting a powerful SF concept of their own, and furthermore, instead of expressing a "play like this" that's integrated with that concept, end up borrowing the "play like this" from the D&D or basic fantasy-adventure paradigm. Shadowrun did this so well that there's no particular reason to play anything else, if you're into that.

    I suggest that Cyberpunk, especially the first edition in the black box, presents an astounding example of a non-heartbreaker SF game that did manage to step away from the more-familiar source material, in setting, attitude, and "play like this." It's too bad, in my view, that its later edition and general supplement line for 2020 was pushed back into the more familiar molds.



    First, to touch on GW's memes:

    In my experience, the following things DOOOM SF games when put head to head with fantasy.

    1) Fantasy is much more /personal/.  The levers of societal action are all people, and can be negotiated with as individuals.  In SF settings, the levers of societal actions are concepts.  SF is generally about exploration or "puzzle solving".  Which is fine, for fiction, but hard on a roleplaying session.

    One of the nifty things about TROS is that it takes that /personal/ nature of fantasy and uses it as the spine of the game engine.  

    2) Science fiction tends to focus on equipment, and that equipment is usually A) incredibly lethal and B) semi-replaceable.   In Arthurian legend, Bedwyr was sent to return Caliburn to the Lady of the Lake, and you can build fantasy campaigns about that.  In an SF setting, barring Mysterious Precurser Artifacts, if you lose your M-16, you can always get another one.  This is another touchstone on the personal nature.

    3) Accessability.  It's much much easier to get everyone "into" a pseudomedieval fantasy.  There isn't any front-loading or data dump required.  Even Glorantha, which has put people off with its wealth of background material, can be run with several campaigns "out of the box" that lets people absorb in play.  In contrast, Transhuman Space, while wonderfully researched and put together, is impossible to play as a setting, because there's SO MUCH background that's changed from the baseline expectations of the players that it's easy to make an utterly incomprehensible character.

    Orson Scott Card uses the MICE acronym to describe how writing gets done -- Millieux, Idea, Character, Exploration.  All stories have a mix of those 4 elements in them.

    Many many SF stories are about the Idea, which gets us back to the puzzle story, which can't really be turned into an RPG session.

    Now, a practicum.

    I have an SF space combat wargame coming out next month, Attack Vector: Tactical.

    It's coming out into a market that has a low ebb of titles in its niche, most of the titles in its niche are either generic system, or naval miniatures with a licensed setting's tropes spray painted on top.

    What set my game apart is the physics model -- I actually took the time to work out the physics underlying the game, first in movement model, then in weapons, then making it 3-D.  So, I can say that given a set of defined input variables, it's a good wargamy simulation.

    To give fleets a reason to be, we had to make a setting.  I looked at what goes into a setting for SF and decided on points of difference.

    1) No aliens.  Any alien that is TRULY alien in its mindset will be odds-on unplayable.  Or will so violate the social contract of the game as to make things unplayable for everyone else.   Which is why most alien races tend to fit the tropes Ron cited earlier, which are basically Halflings, Elves, Cat People, Dwarves and Shape Shifters straight out of DnD.

    So, no aliens.  

    2) No multiple world polities.  We are not dealing with The Empire versus The Federation.  We're dealing with planets acting as individual actors, and often times, more than one government on the planet.

    3) Economics models matter.  What drives most conflict in our world?  Arguably, it's economics using a facade of ideology.  Back in the 19th century and especially the 18th, it was straight up economics.   So, wars happen over trade routes, or over ideology.

    4) Environment matters.  The best way to highlight how alien a planet is is to show pictures, and have a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar.  For example, you can go from the terraformed park out into the boonies where the sagebrush is still competing with the st bernard sized photosynthesizing snails.  Or have people take a holiday in the park, but avoid the beaches because of the dissolved ammoniac salts in the water making ocean front propery smell like windex.

    5) The game is about people, not about toys.  It' s about people making decisions on short information, under pressure.   The science we did in the background is there for players to hang their disbelief suspenders from.  It is not a bludgeon to make them feel inadequate because they don't know how to do orbital mechanics.  

    Beyond that, we needed to shake things up a bit.

    In 2214, all contact with Earth was lost.  Ships going in never returned.  Long term observations showed activity in the system.

    This threw the Ten Worlds into a Dark Age.  So, right there, we've got a difference -- it's really a post-apocalypse setting.  99.9% of humanity has vanished, the economic engine is in various stages of breaking down, nobody knows what's happened to Earth, and the trick is to try and keep some aspect of technical civilization alive.

    Fast forward 50 years or so.  The melange of cultures and such has grown from that initial shock into different places with different belief systems...

    And what do players do?  They do romance stories, or crime stories, or military stories, or exploration stories in these detailed and interesting planets, while interstellar politics slowly churn on behind them.

    Life's getting too easy for the characters?  Why, gee, there's headlines about a bond market bubble...

    For mechanics, I'm starting from Riddle of Steel, moving to Gunpowder, and keeping Spiritual Attributes (though renaming them to Dramatic Hooks).   I want to streamline RoS's chart lookups.

    One advantage of firearms is that you can just about assume that a gun is a gun is a gun.  The important thing isn't how you spent 2 seconds aiming at the target, to send a 50 calibre bullet right through his cranium for a x5 damage multiple on hollow point round.

    The imporrtant thing is "Why am I aiming a gun at this person's head?  What do I hope to accomplish by this?  What are the consequences of either pulling the trigger, or not pulling the trigger?"

    I'm borrowing something from The Devil on this...but the effect of combat is pretty much known.  (Guns kill people)  The reasons for combat are what drive the story, and they drive the story because of characters, who interact with the setting.

    So think about what the characters are doing, and have that influence the setting, and then have the setting influence the characters.

    Some VERY useful "throw away" details to have for making a setting seem "different".

    1) Different day lengths.  Have characters have thrown off sleep cycles from different planetary day lengths.  How does your scene timing change, when instead of 24 hours, your planetary day is 19 hours, 12 minutes and 3 seconds?  

    2) A planetary calendar based off of the local planetary conditions.  It's amazing how much mileage you can get out of saying "22 February 2267 (Gregorian) // 2 Autumnus 268 (Local planetary)"  Or even a throwaway line like "St Patrick's Day fell in the fall that year..."

    3) A couple of atmospheric details, like the scent of the ocean being like glass cleaner, or that the atmospheric density is high enough that most bullets are subsonic.  

    Use them, then put the characters in a place where they have to interact with other charaters and other player characters, ideally under stress...and when it's appropriate, let those atmo details come up again.

    I'm trying to find a way to tokenize giving narrative control to players (a la Universalis), borrowing a march that I got from either Ralph, Mike or Ron about the cool way to run mysteries in RPGs -- give the player a list of clues, give them the answer, and let them decide the pacing and the narration of how the puzzle was put together.

    Anyway, it's late, I'm rambling.
    Attack Vector: Tactical
    Spaceship Combat Meets Real Science

    Rob Carriere

    The following is anecdotal only. YMMV.

    I've talked about this with a lot of people and I see a number of things come up again and again:

    [*]Literary preference. Some people will devour fantasy and refuse SF, or vv. Interestingly enough this seems to be more color than structure. Almost all the `I won't touch fantasy' types have watched the Star Wars movies, which are wuxia fantasy with a paint job. Conversely, quite a few `I won't touch SF' people have read the Book of the New Sun, which is SF made to look like fantasy.
    [*]Feeling disempowered by lack of information. There's a widespread feeling that when playing fantasy, you know what the options are, whereas when playing SF, you either don't know, or you have to invest significant effort into studying the setting.
    [*]Lack of charge. This one's sometimes voiced as `focus on gimicks', or `focus on puzzles', or `impersonal'. The concern is that a story or a game should not be about ``a bucket full of devices'' (--ST:TOS Dr. McCoy) but about people. The perception is that fantasy does this better than SF.
    Working from that, I think that a successful SF game would have to make sure that in fact and perception it focuses on the PCs and not their stuff, that it has a setting whose structure/physics can be understood quickly.

    Also, there's got to be a reason for me to play this game, instead of whatever fantasy game I'm currently playing. So no `elves and hobbits in space'.

    I think you could make great games set in,

    [*]The moon from Heinlein's `The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' (setting mostly present-day except you're lighter and have to worry about air supply; starting a revolution is certainly more about people than toys.),
    [*]The Martha Towns in Tepper's `Gate to Women's Country' (`Is it cool to breed agression out of the human race?'; setting is post-apocalyptic)
    [*]Moon's `Remnant Population' (First Contact between an emergent species and a 70-year old grandmother in an abandoned human colony. Have the PCs be the aliens. Setting is an abandoned village in the middle of a tropical jungle.)
    [*]...and no doubt countless others.[/list:u]
    All of these are involving on a human level and easily understood. Of course, if you make up your own instead, that'd be even cooler. I'm just trying to give some examples with the lit references, not imply that an SF game must be modeled after a book or movie.