Thursday, November 19, 2020

Some Thoughts on Science Fiction Settings

Thinking about science fiction settings in rpgs (and in film and television which I think is the biggest influence on rpg sci-fi settings) I think that two important factors are scale and frame. Scale is the size of the setting, not necessarily in absolute terms (though maybe), in narrative terms. Frame is a descriptor or genre of the typical types of stories the setting supports. The two factors are not independent or exclusive.

Here are the frames I have thought of with a media representative. There are likely more that slipped my mind:
  • Crime/Hard-boiled Mystery (Outland) - Hard people doing hard space
  • Exploration, Pulp (John Carter) - A stranger meets a strange land or lands
  • Exploration, Mystery/Horror (Alien) - we've found something anomalous and now it might kill us.
  • Exploration, Realistic  - (can't think of film here) - Alien planets are mostly inhospitable, talking to other species is hard!
  • Exotic Ports of Call (Star Trek) - every week another world, another adventure
  • Outpost (Babylon 5) - Everybody comes to Rick's
  • Pioneers (Earth 2) - A little bit of exploration, but mostly we're putting down roots
  • World-trotting (Star Wars) - Constant motion; as many exotic backdrops as possible
  • Galaxy Wrecking (Guardians of the Galaxy) - the universe is vast and wild
I am probably missing some very realistic genres or some "ten minutes into the future stuff"/mild cyberpunk stuff, but I'm thinking mainly here of science fiction settings that include space travel. Some of the categories are also broader than others, too. 

Why isn't Star Trek (for instance) Exploration, Pulp? Despite it's mission statement, the Enterprise mostly seems to go to places people have gone before. They do very little first contact. Their activities harken back to pulp stories about places that are known, but perhaps little understood. Exploration, Pulp in my formulation is really the descendant of the Lost World novel. 

Here are the Scales in order of increasing size:
  • Ship/Station
  • Planet/Megastructure
  • Orbital System (this could be either a group of moons or artificial satellites)
  • Solar System
  • Near/Few Star Systems
  • Several Star Systems
  • Many Star Systems/Galaxy
  • Galaxies+
There is sometimes the issue of "visible scale." A setting may technically have a large scale than what the characters typically interact with. In general, I think the commonly visible scale is most important for fit with frames.

The following frames seem to go best with smaller scales: Crime/Hard-boiled Mystery, Exploration Pulp, Exploration Mystery/Horror, Exploration Realistic, Outpost, and Pioneers.

These frames seem to me to go best with large scales: Exotic Ports of Call, World-trotting, and Galaxy Wrecking.


Dick McGee said...

"Exploration, Realistic" is covered well in film by "2001: A Space Odyssey" and I'd contend "Arrival" does the "aliens are hard to communicate with" concept even better.

Trey said...

Good points! I did think about both of those. My hesitancy with 2001 was: is it more Exploration, Mystery? "Arrival" being essential a "modern day" story was really of a spacefaring sort.

JB said...

Your ideal combos are based on cinematic media...I can think of several literary references that skew the other way: the Stainless Steel Rat (crime frame/many star system setting) or Dune (galaxy wrecking frame/single planet scale). Even something like Addams's Restaurant at the End of the Universe (outpost frame/galactic scale).

However, this examination of setting and frame can give good clues as to how to RUN certain RPGs. Is a Star Trek type game really going to be good with crime-based adventures? Do you want to run Traveller on a single planet?

I'm also curious if (perhaps) scale should be at all linked to TRAVEL TIME. In Star Wars, the scale is large, but ships can traverse them in relatively short order. In Firefly the scale is smaller (more or less a single system or cluster of stars) but travel time can be days or weeks between planets, with many "adventures" simply taking place on board the ship.

Trey said...

@JB - Yeah, I would agree the literary models are much broader, which is why I stuck to cinematic ones. I would disagree that Dune is a "galaxy-wrecking" frame (at least as I conceive it), but them I probably didn't provide a good frame for it! Ditto Stainless Steel Rat and "crime" which I was viewing as hard-boiled and serious. Stainless Steel Rat as I recall is more "heist."