RPPR Episode 58: The Games of Tomorrow

oh 80s cyberpunk, you will always have a place in my heart

Synopsis: Science fiction is an under appreciated genre in role playing games. Fantasy (Dungeons and Dragons) and horror (World of Darkness) dominate RPGs and most of the popular sci-fi games out there aren’t really science fiction or are horribly anachronistic. Tom and I discuss the state of science fiction and how it is different than fantasy or horror. As the literature of ideas, sci-fi should play differently than other genres. Everything from thematic content to the design of the game should be affected. We also have a letter from Tom, shout outs, an anecdote and reader letters.

Shout outs:

Music: Science Fiction by the Cobra Dukes.

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  15 comments for “RPPR Episode 58: The Games of Tomorrow

  1. June 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Hahaha I didn’t expect you to read my cyst story on-air (as it is expectedly very icky). It just felt relevant at the time.

    As for the basal topic, I think Star Wars did a lot to sort of undermine what Sci-Fi means. I don’t mean to sound demeaning in that respect, but Sci-Fi used to mean more than “laser guns and space ships.” Star Wars did a lot for the genre, but also is very much not what Sci Fi is.

    Talking about Space Westerns, involving 19th century tactics and attitudes in a futuristic setting got me thinking about the opposite side of things. What’s your opinion on Steampunk? Does it fall more into the fantastical range of things, or would you say that the occasional science stick they wave brings it somewhere nearer to Star Trek Territory?

    Also, regarding Star-Trek, I’m surprised you never mentioned anything about Heisenberg Compensators or Tachyon pulses. I thought that was the quintessence of techno-babble.

    In regards to killing players, I try to avoid having them die by pure maligned luck. In my mind, PC death should be reserved for special cases, such as the player/character doing something asinine. If they want to try something so crazy it just might work, I leave it purely to risk and reward.

    Additionally, adding the possibility of death in only periodically gives it far greater impact when it occurs. One of my friends said it best: When a character dies, their story is over. If you give a character enough time to develop into something, it becomes all the more climactic when they enter into a situation where they could very easily be killed.

    There are also other ways to lose that don’t involve simply dying. Villains often times like to take prisoners/hostages/test subjects/people to execute publicly, leading to more problem solving and prison escape sequences (which are awesome 95% of the time, 100% when they involve car chases).

    Some game systems give explicit ways to deal with loss in battle without killing a character. In Monsters and Other Childish Things, for instance, loss in combat means that the victor bites off a chunk of your monster (thus gaining its power) and whatever you were trying to solve is now not only still unsolved, but much harder to solve in the future.

  2. HenryHankovitch
    June 13, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Some observations given your categorizations of sci-fi, western and other genres…

    I think Ross is a bit too quick to say something is western and not sci-fi, or the like. These things aren’t wholly exclusive, after all. Firefly is obviously, heavily based on westerns, but it had a number of sci-fi elements that it just didn’t have enough time to develop. River’s brainwashing and precognition, the speculated origins of Reavers, and so on. Dune is an example of traditional sci-fi mingling with space opera, where Herbert is trying to develop the idea of humanity advancing its own evolution through various treatments, breeding programs and discipline regimens.

    Alien and Aliens are actually heavily based on cyberpunk. Not in the superficial mirrorshades-and-brain-plugs way, but inasmuch as they’re largely about the characters’ struggles against the all-encompassing corporate entity that dominates their lives. Alien is horror and cyberpunk; Aliens is horror, cyberpunk, and post-Vietnam war movie.

    Ross makes good points; I just think too much interesting detail is lost when you try to hammer complex movies down to a single genre like this.

  3. June 13, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    @Henry: that’s fair as I was pretty broad in my analysis but I think RPGs are usually played pretty broadly. You don’t get nuance and subtlety that often in tabletop games – at least in my experience.

  4. Fridrik
    June 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    When I was listening to your show I thought of two Cyberpunk books that needed mentioning.

    First. GUPRS Cthulhupunk. It’s the only way I can think of to powerplay Call of Cthulhu. You get a cyberpunk group and add Cthulhu. They still die horribly, but at least they die in a blaze of and gunfire and monokatanas.

    The other one is GURPS Cyberpunk. Not because it’s a better cyberpunk game then Cyberpunk 2020, (It’s only a slightly more ‘hard sci-fi’ version). But because it’s the only gaming book that has (To my knowledge) been seized by the US Secret Service. Just before the book was released the Secret Service raided S.J.Games, seized the whole stock of Cyberpunk books and most of the companies computers. How any game could get more cyberpunk then than that I can’t imagine. Just google S.J.Games, Cyberpunk and US Secret Service and the whole story should come up.

  5. Cleb
    June 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Where’s the link to Tom’s story!?!??!?

  6. joecrak
    June 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    Hey guys, just adding into the “meeting new players/games” I found my current groups through meetup.com,. and they are all full of great people that i’ve become pretty good friends with.

  7. June 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Well, you guys are in luck. I will be publishing an entirely original Sci-fi Space Opera, Free Spacer, later this year. Besides my upcoming game, you can check out Robin D. Laws’ new investigative horror Space Opera game for the Gumshoe system: http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=5291

  8. Toby
    June 17, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    “Caleb is running an Eclipse Phase campaign” <3 <3 <3 Yes! More EP content. Sweet!

  9. Dan
    June 20, 2011 at 10:00 am

    There is a Fallout table top game, Fallout PnP, but it is far from perfect. My group has been playing it for a few years now (I’ve run 2 games that lasted a 1yr +) and we have modified it enough via home rules to make it work to our liking. It uses the rules from the Fallout’s prior to 3, but since it is taken from a video game, it leaves a lot up to the gm and players to figure out. http://www.paforge.com/fallout.html

  10. Gene
    June 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Love your show – listening to actual play reports is usually as close as I get to in-person RPG gaming these days.

    As someone who picked up the original Cyberpunk 2013 black box in early 1989(one of my friends older brother, Will Moss, was a writer for R.Talsorian), I too watched the RPGs gradual transistion from gritty futurism, to comically anachronistic, and finally to where it now sits somewhere in the alternate history genre – a problem with any near-future game that become woefully inaccurate during the time the product is at the printer. R. Tal had to retcon some changes between the 2013 and the mid CP2020 editions of the game, since the 1st edition still had an extant Soviet Union.

    Though we didn’t have a central american conflict that put a bunch of cybered exmilitary people on the street we did have the Afghanistan/Iraq wars, which have greatly increased the number of ex military personnel(necessary to justify having lots of black ops teams hungry for cash), many of which do have prosthetic limbs made from increasingly advanced materials and sporting primitive neural control. Advanced body armor and armored clothing are currently available, as well as security drones, covert armored/armed vehicles designed to look like civilian SUVs, increasingly common electric cars.

    . When you really get down to it, life today would have fit right in with any cyberpunk game produced before 1995 – which I think has a lot to do with why it doesn’t have that futuristic feel anymore. The recently ended tv show “24” could have easily been packaged as a Cyberpunk campaign 20 years ago. While some of the conceits don’t hold up – with a little work you can make CP2020 *substantially* less anachronistic for your players – or harness the anachronism a la Steampunk, changing it from “this is lame and wrong” to “how cool and different” – even if the difference is really just goths discovering the color brown.

    Some differences can be attributed to Cyberpunk Earth’s having gone to hell in a handbasket by the late 1990’s, but a big, big difference is that the real world has only primitive neural interfaces, and in the ubiquity of the internet and wireless communications – as I recall the original CP2020 rulebook has a vanilla cell phone costing $1200 (or three times as much as a kevlar vest) and while the CP2020 main book definitely has wireless internet (cellular cybermodems), the writers didn’t pay that much attention to it until later.

    The Net of CP2020 is much closer to a prettier, VRized version of BBSs and the Internet circa the late 80’s & early 90’s (when most of the line was written) – primarily the playground of computer otaku, universities, corporations, and governments – while broadcast media is still the prime way information is experienced by the general public.

    To be fair, wireless networking is stil avoided by truly secure installations (running IPSEC over everything helps, but slows down the network), and the bandwidth necessary to run the crazy VR interfaces that everyone uses in CP2020 would significantly tax the bandwidth of any wifi standard on the horizon(depending on how much of the rendering is done server or client side). Besides, those data overage charges would really cut into your fees for liberating that research data or sabotaging that exec’s limo.

  11. Ritz
    June 20, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I feel like you kinda dropped the ball on this one.

    You correctly identify SF as the fiction of ideas, or speculative fiction. You correctly note that it’s not the spaceships and ray guns that make something science fiction. What I don’t understand then is why you get then hung up on whether or not something is anachronistic–as though space ships don’t matter but it’s very important that they _not_ use Bussard Ramjets.

    In the case of cyberpunk (or Gibsonian cyberpunk, which is what characterizes cyberpunk in the public imagination) the most important part of the literary movement is not the technology or the way that technology works, or even the way that the technology affects society. It’s the social and political projections: the fall of the nation-state, legitimacy beginning and ending with your employer, urban sprawl, environmental collapse, and most of all the massive class stratification between rich and poor. All of these themes are relevant today and would absolutely belong in a science fiction game even if you have external knowledge of the fact that you don’t need a Chinese Icebreaker to hack into a mainframe. The ideas here are social and political, not necessarily technological.

    As for SF RPGs, you could maybe pick up a copy of GURPS Infinite Worlds: a meta-setting that posits multiple alternate realities, only one of which is aware of any of the others. This reality, or “Homeline,” develops the technology to travel to the others, and guards the secret of interdimensional transportation extremely closely. Much of the book is dedicated to examining how this discovery affects Homeline: they can harvest tons of resources from unpopulated alternate Earths without worrying about the environmental consequences on Homeline, refugees can be safely repopulated in new dimensions, and people stop worrying about having places to dump their garbage. It also brings forth a new set of problems and ethical challenges: the alternate worlds and alternate histories open up tons of new avenues for crime, and dimension-hopping criminals frequently exploit the “natives” of technologically underdeveloped worlds. It also brings forward the question of what kind of responsibilities Homeline has to other dimensions–particularly alternate Earths about to go through upheavals from our own Earth’s history. This is a good game to play if you want to be a time traveler who travels back in time to stop the Nazis.

    There’s some stuff you might not like, though. There’s a supernatural bent at the margins of the game–magic functions on some of the worlds, and there’s a mention of a cross-dimensional conspiracy of vampires or something that’s existed since the dawn of time and is trying to do something or other. I don’t really remember. Ken Hite’s name is on the front of the book so you know it’s all good. I just wouldn’t try to actually run the setting in GURPS.

  12. Journ-O-LST-3
    June 22, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Minion moment: The Void is coming out soon, Cthonian Stars is just out. Both are (the same game-ish) about Cthulhu in space with promises of hard SF.

  13. June 30, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Damn, no one has mentioned Shock, yet? I think it’s pretty much the first thing you should look at, if you want “real” sci-fi, of the “How would this affect society?” type. Check it out: http://glyphpress.com/shock/

  14. FatBirdWillFly
    July 1, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    also CthulhuTech from wildfire games might be up to your groups tastes

  15. Wesley
    May 14, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Because no one has done this yet, her is the link to Tom’s Story: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/7032956/1/Divine-Fire

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