Recurring Themes in SF

Anyone who games with me for any length of time will eventually notice that there are recurring themes which seem to find their way into the stories. This is probably the case for most GMs, given that we are each of us human beings fascinated by certain aspects of the universe around us.

This has got me thinking, however, about how to blend these ideas into something more coherent.

Are the themes that arise within us signals for what could make our own settings unique?

Can we blend the themes that fascinate us into something fresh?

Let's take SF for an example.

What makes SF gaming interesting?

This question has different answers for different people. Whilst some like the wild and wholly Space Opera of Star Wars, others will prefer the hard and scientific stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

Personally I have always like the idea of a blend. I enjoy the harder scientific feeling of Asimov's writing but I also like the high adventure of other, less scientifically-minded, authors. As a believer in a spiritual reality, as opposed to the commonly assumed atheist worldview of much SF writing, I also want to visit the social, religious and psychological future as much as the scientific and technical one.

My SF, like my modern-era gaming, frequently nips at the edges of the following elements and themes:

1. Collapse of our World Order
Maybe it's because I view our Western way of life as fundamentally corrupt and bankrupt (these days, it seems, literally), but I prefer to tell stories of either the process of collapse or of the attempts to move humanity forward afterwards. Whether a near- or far-future tale, my games often involve some form of apocalyptic collapse of all that is currently held dear. I like to sweep away governments, nationality and capitalist power structures in favour of the challenge to survive, adapt or become extinct.

2. The Reality of the Supernatural
Ever since my own dramatic entry into the real world as a University student, I view the universe as infinitely more wonderful and as being filled with far more possibilities than are often dreamed about in most SF philosophies. My futures are often spiritual in nature, allowing for the reality of the angelic and demonic; magick is often a tool I like to include, as are the miraculous blessings of the divine. Religion, spirituality and questions about the purpose of humanity will surface in my games; moral questions, dilemmas of ethics and similar challenges will sneak into any adventure.

3. Travel is Necessary
Inevitably the heroes in my tales will travel. It might be from city to city, or across a wasteland; it may be interplanetary or interstellar; it might even be psionic or magickal in nature. The means is less important than the journey itself. Destinations are metaphors for psychological questions and purposes, and the human desire to explore seems to pour through into my settings over and over again. Maybe that's why I love the name of the best SF game I have ever played: Traveller.

4. Human Struggle Involves War
For some reason, ever since first learning to recognise World War II tanks as a young kid, I have been fascinated with the weapons and methods of war. Humanity might kid itself that it is on a pathway of progress towards a peaceful and fulfilled future, but the reality is that we cannot stop fighting each other for resources and power. The future will always feature rough men and women who, in the cause of protecting and safeguarding the masses, stand ready to do dreadful deeds of violence.

5. THEY are Watching
Conspiracy looms large in my futures. Whoever THEY are, they are watching and acting in dark places to fulfill their own agenda. Perhaps it is my deep-seated fear of authority, the understanding that all power ultimately corrupts and destroys the wielder, but the theme insinuates itself into every setting I write. This is why I loved Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings alike: power requires dark deeds done in the shadowy corners of life. 

What can we do with such themes?

It seems to me that a setting which is built upon those five themes would be an exciting one indeed. A conspiracy to control, wars which are tearing down the social order we once took for granted, the incursion of the supernatural, the push for heroes to travel in order to survive, and the inevitable pull of entropy scream of something fun.

What future can we envision that would include these themes and bring to life as a campaign? I have many thoughts awash in my mind... and yet I'd also love to hear what others might suggest.

Do you have a suggestion? If so, please post it in the comments so that I can give it consideration. In the end, perhaps, your small suggestion might prove the catalyst to a new setting that we can all enjoy.

In the meantime... well, I am going to let the mind fly free and brainstorm some ideas.

Game on!


Labels: , ,

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: Recurring Themes in SF

Monday, 29 October 2012

Recurring Themes in SF

Anyone who games with me for any length of time will eventually notice that there are recurring themes which seem to find their way into the stories. This is probably the case for most GMs, given that we are each of us human beings fascinated by certain aspects of the universe around us.

This has got me thinking, however, about how to blend these ideas into something more coherent.

Are the themes that arise within us signals for what could make our own settings unique?

Can we blend the themes that fascinate us into something fresh?

Let's take SF for an example.

What makes SF gaming interesting?

This question has different answers for different people. Whilst some like the wild and wholly Space Opera of Star Wars, others will prefer the hard and scientific stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

Personally I have always like the idea of a blend. I enjoy the harder scientific feeling of Asimov's writing but I also like the high adventure of other, less scientifically-minded, authors. As a believer in a spiritual reality, as opposed to the commonly assumed atheist worldview of much SF writing, I also want to visit the social, religious and psychological future as much as the scientific and technical one.

My SF, like my modern-era gaming, frequently nips at the edges of the following elements and themes:

1. Collapse of our World Order
Maybe it's because I view our Western way of life as fundamentally corrupt and bankrupt (these days, it seems, literally), but I prefer to tell stories of either the process of collapse or of the attempts to move humanity forward afterwards. Whether a near- or far-future tale, my games often involve some form of apocalyptic collapse of all that is currently held dear. I like to sweep away governments, nationality and capitalist power structures in favour of the challenge to survive, adapt or become extinct.

2. The Reality of the Supernatural
Ever since my own dramatic entry into the real world as a University student, I view the universe as infinitely more wonderful and as being filled with far more possibilities than are often dreamed about in most SF philosophies. My futures are often spiritual in nature, allowing for the reality of the angelic and demonic; magick is often a tool I like to include, as are the miraculous blessings of the divine. Religion, spirituality and questions about the purpose of humanity will surface in my games; moral questions, dilemmas of ethics and similar challenges will sneak into any adventure.

3. Travel is Necessary
Inevitably the heroes in my tales will travel. It might be from city to city, or across a wasteland; it may be interplanetary or interstellar; it might even be psionic or magickal in nature. The means is less important than the journey itself. Destinations are metaphors for psychological questions and purposes, and the human desire to explore seems to pour through into my settings over and over again. Maybe that's why I love the name of the best SF game I have ever played: Traveller.

4. Human Struggle Involves War
For some reason, ever since first learning to recognise World War II tanks as a young kid, I have been fascinated with the weapons and methods of war. Humanity might kid itself that it is on a pathway of progress towards a peaceful and fulfilled future, but the reality is that we cannot stop fighting each other for resources and power. The future will always feature rough men and women who, in the cause of protecting and safeguarding the masses, stand ready to do dreadful deeds of violence.

5. THEY are Watching
Conspiracy looms large in my futures. Whoever THEY are, they are watching and acting in dark places to fulfill their own agenda. Perhaps it is my deep-seated fear of authority, the understanding that all power ultimately corrupts and destroys the wielder, but the theme insinuates itself into every setting I write. This is why I loved Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings alike: power requires dark deeds done in the shadowy corners of life. 

What can we do with such themes?

It seems to me that a setting which is built upon those five themes would be an exciting one indeed. A conspiracy to control, wars which are tearing down the social order we once took for granted, the incursion of the supernatural, the push for heroes to travel in order to survive, and the inevitable pull of entropy scream of something fun.

What future can we envision that would include these themes and bring to life as a campaign? I have many thoughts awash in my mind... and yet I'd also love to hear what others might suggest.

Do you have a suggestion? If so, please post it in the comments so that I can give it consideration. In the end, perhaps, your small suggestion might prove the catalyst to a new setting that we can all enjoy.

In the meantime... well, I am going to let the mind fly free and brainstorm some ideas.

Game on!


Labels: , ,

6 Comments:

At 29 October 2012 at 23:37 , Blogger Swelter said...

Sounds like Babylon 5.

I've noticed that SF seems divided into relatively near future Stories that have a heavy stamp of corporate corruption, have relatively limited interstellar travel (although travel confined to the Sol system is often readily available) and follow them theme of Western Civilization run amok (ie, weak governments strong private or business interests that have evolved to eclipse or absorb the civil governments), and Far future stories that have abundant interstellar travel, almost uniformly Imperial power structures where a totalitarian regime has complete dominance over the corporations and bears few of the trappings of Western Civilization.

The implication seems to be that the corruption is less important than unity of purpose when it comes to making the transition from Solar Humanity to Interstellar Humanity. Even in the tremendously benign human Federation of the Star Trek Mythos Western civ (the corporations and very notably the dominance of money as a motivator) have been all but deleted. The Federation is benignly tyrannical but is a full blown Empire in all but name. These Empires either overtly totalitarian (ala Star Wars) or covertly totalitarian (ala Star Trek) all share the basic tenets of Central planning, Central Administration, Central control of all economic structures and massive military organizations, ostensibly for protection from external threats but often not clearly separated from Imperial Police Forces and are most commonly used to enforce internal policy.

Many Interstellar SF sagas take place during or, more commonly, after the collapse of a great empire and are often stories about survival against the things that the old empire kept at bay or or stories of the struggle against the old empire. The Solor SF stories are more depressing in general and often feature the futility of resistance against the overwhelming economic social structures of the near (unrestricted capitalist) future societies they depict.

I haven't mentioned the whole Post Apocalypse genre mostly because it typically involves a failed or largely failed transit from earthbound humanity to Solar or Interstellar humanity. Its largely the stories of survival or, more rarely, of the reconstruction and has a lot in common with the early Utopian writers. This is also very similar to the stories told about the collapsing interstellar Empire but without the need for high tech space ships to achieve the travel element.

 
At 30 October 2012 at 06:25 , Blogger Che Webster said...

Whilst Babylon 5 was ok, I can't say that I would enjoy running a game there.

You sound as though you disapprove of the basic two themes, and certainly of the Imperial flavour of settings. It is strange, however, that most far future settings become monolithic. Maybe it's easier for writers to create than it would be to create a balkanised interstellar community. Even Traveller, which does have multiple communities, is an Empire with other empires surrounding it.

Do you have any suggestions on how it might be possible to blend something that feels different from your observations?

 
At 30 October 2012 at 22:01 , Blogger Swelter said...

B5 just has all of the elements you mentioned in your 5 points. I mention it only as an example of a story that contains all of them.

I don't actually disapprove of either theme (actually I really enjoy both of them), just thinking out loud really. It seems like it might be interesting to tell a story about a society that was transforming from a corporate based Solar civilization into an Interstellar Empire. It seems like that would be a very messy time, and messy times are great fodder for stories.

I think Firefly did a pretty good job of incorporating a struggle (although an unsuccessful one) by telling stories of the aftermath and ended up feeling a lot like Post ACW wild west stories. Very cool effect that was. Something might be done in the lead up to conflict (very espionage-y I would think) or during the conflict (more action oriented).

I also left out mention of the "Precursor" theme that seems very common in SF. The "They" element. I read a lot of Andre Norton in my youth and was entranced by the "otherness" of the presentation of the Precursors in those stories.

 
At 31 October 2012 at 20:02 , Blogger Wolfchild said...

I think it would be almost to a settings detrement unless very finely balanced to attempt to keep all 5 tenets represented in 1 setting.
Surely to pick a few strong ones that knit well, even as much as 4 could be well balanced, but the whole 5 would begin to pull at itself.
I think that writers like to simplify things as they expand their seting toward interstellar. Trek gave token nods to other faiths and societies, just for 1 episode plotlines, but otherwise as most others kept with very few complications.
A truly interstellar setting is surely beyond the ken of 1 man to invent, and likely even if he/she could do such a thing, how would ur players ever follow such a wealth of alien knowledge and concepts?
After all, everything we percieve is in 'our eyes', not those of the alien races / cultures whom we try to portray. So everything becomes a version of human.
It's a very tricky challenge and as usual Ive somehow managed to end on a negative. Sorry.

 
At 2 November 2012 at 06:05 , Blogger Che Webster said...

Really nice feedback, dude. I am going to shamelessly steal your idea about the story of a civilisation making the transition to being an interstellar empire.

I too like Precursor themes. These mix nicely with the supernatural theme, so thanks for reminding me of that too.

Can I tempt you to team up on some creative input to a new setting?

 
At 2 November 2012 at 06:11 , Blogger Che Webster said...

I don't think that you're being negative, dude. I just think you're confusing the perspective of the GM with that of the Player.

As a player it would certainly be tough to keep your head square around all of the various themes mentioned. A single story, however, deals with a single theme. Over a campaign, if you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to game with me you would visit stories introducing each theme... but not all in one go. Ideally, we would run multiple campaign arcs, each developing one theme at a time.

Thus, we might have a Supernatural campaign arc in which the reality of the supernatural is introduced. This might leak into other stories, perhaps as glimpses of magickal power wielded by NPCs... but it would be a theme in the Supernatural campaign arc.

Alternatively, we might run the story of the War theme. Or another of the Travel theme. Or whatever.

The challenge as a GM and setting designer (I think) is to incorporate the possibility of these ideas in the setting from the beginning. Thus it's important for me to know that I want the supernatural in my SF campaign from the outset... otherwise it will feel bolted on later on.

Hope that helps to explain my thinking... and why you're not being negative.

 

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