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Science Fiction was once not taken very seriously by the general public. Low-cost printing, low-budget schlocky movies (from which a few gems emerged nevertheless). But a funny thing happened in the latter 20th century – the principles that make good sci-fi work started leeching out into every other form of entertainment. Plausibility, the capacity for suspension of disbelief, infiltrated fantasy and horror. The more fantastic the premise, the more special effects wizardry needed to be employed to make it look like it was really happening; the result was movies like The Mummy and its sequels, and Night At The Museum, and even Bruce Almighty.

And when Star Wars became the most successful movie of all time (to that point in history) in terms of box office, science fiction began the slow process of becoming respectable. Some might argue that this process reached its conclusion with the nomination of a sci-fi movie for Best Picture at the Oscars, others might feel that it won’t get there until one wins, a few extremists won’t be satisfied until sci-fi movies are regular contenders, and a few die-hards might hold out until a sci-fi movie can win best picture and be generally accepted as deserving of that accolade, with no mention of the sci-fi in its premise. Regardless of the yardstick you choose to use, Speculative Fiction is either entering a brave new world or is already there.

In this brave new world, it should come as no surprise that sci-fi in other media (like games) becomes a perennial favorite genre. So this time around I’m going to take a hard look at the subgenres of sci-fi that could be encountered/created for an RPG campaign, or for a particular adventure. I’ve got lots of examples from movies and TV to mention (and perhaps briefly discuss), a few pieces of wisdom to toss out there concerning sci-fi campaigns in general (some of it even my own), and more than a few original campaign concepts to offer for people to develop if they are interested.

Research

Whenever I tackle a subject like this, I start by outlining my own thoughts and then doing whatever research seems necessary. In this case, that amounted to a Google Search for “Types Of Science Fiction” which yielded largely unsatisfactory results and a check of Wikipedia’s list of SF subgenres which wasn’t much more helpful. The problem is that both these – and a great many more – sources are so busy focusing on the style of delivery that they aren’t even thinking about the types of content – and it was the content that I wanted to look at.

In desperation, I even tried the fuzzy black hole of the internet, TV Tropes (wander in and you will be lost inside for a very long time (if not forever)). I had vague memories and not-so-vague expectations that this would give me the content-based focus that I was looking for – after all, content is what a trope focuses on – but no…

So I’m left with the original list that I came up with, totaling some 21 subgenres…

  • Exploration / Search
  • Discovery
  • Alien Invasion
  • Prognostication
  • Strange Environment
  • Space Opera
  • Cybertech
  • Dystopian post-apocalypse
  • Alternate Worlds
  • Time Travel
  • X-files / Weirdness
  • Optimistic & Utopian
  • Asteroid Mining
  • Space Trader
  • Space Doctor / Hospital
  • Emergency Services
  • Leftovers
  • Pre-Apocalyptic
  • Monster Movies
  • Mecha
  • Paranormal

This list is probably incomplete, the list of examples I have is definitely incomplete. And, since I’m working without a net, some of these categories might not be clear at first glance; so I’ll just have to provide some sort of definition as we get to each one…

Exploration / Search

“Let’s see what’s out there…”

The voyage of discovery has been one of the staples of science fiction for a very long time. While its mass popularity stems from Star Trek, it can trace its roots all the way back to the space operas of the 1930s. Other variants on this theme include Stargate, Sliders, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost In Space – even, arguably, The Black Hole.

As an individual RPG adventure, this amounts to discovering something strange out there, and interacting with it. It might be a race of interesting aliens, or a cosmic phenomenon. The only hurdle to be overcome is getting the PCs “out there” at all, because the technology will tend to linger and have an impact on the campaign that stretches far beyond this one adventure if the GM is not very careful. This problem can be solved with a little forethought, so long as the GM is aware of it.

As an RPG campaign, this problem goes away, but it brings with it a new issue: the need to create something new and interesting for each and every adventure. Callbacks from past encounters are relatively infrequent. You can also run into problems where something should have been mentioned outright but doesn’t seem to exist until you get to an adventure that focuses on the particular something – why was there no mention of Klingons until “Errand Of Mercy”? From a metaperspective, this is because they hadn’t been invented yet, but this makes no sense in terms of internal continuity. The very presence of Romulans and Klingons in the Star Trek universe raises questions about the viability of the “five year mission” as postulated. The final problem is that after a while, there can come to be a sameness about the adventures. You can’t run into omnipotent beings every other week and still make each adventure fresh and interesting.

Discovery

James P. Hogan suggested that the discovery of how to do something could be just as interesting a story as what you do with it once you have the scientific principle, but this perspective existed as part of science fiction for many decades before it was articulated. Some of Heinlein’s stories, and before him, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and many other authors, had all trodden this ground before. In media terms, Eureka would have to be the stand-out example.

To a certain extent, this makes great ground for RPGs, but with dangers largely similar to those of the Exploration/Search subgenre above. But consider the potential for a campaign which revolves around the ongoing ramifications and complications caused by a major new scientific discovery.

Many of the potential examples have been isolated into their own subgenres, but this still leaves some fertile ground. Under the expanded definition implied by the preceding paragraph, movies such as Twister become examples of this subgenre, and Jurassic Park. For me, the purest example of this subgenre is the Robert A Heinlein short story, “Let There Be Light“, though one could also point at his first sale, “Life-Line“.

A Discovery Campaign Premise:
Imagine some sort of tech development that poses a clear danger to the world economy. Inevitably, it will be discovered by others, but government X got there first and has created a top-secret department within their intelligence apparatus to find some non-disruptive way of releasing the discovery – and controlling/suppressing it, globally, until then. The sub-agency could not even tell other members of the intelligence service what they were doing, it would be that secret. This is a pretty pickle to hand the PCs, who are the sub-agency in question. Anti-gravity would work as the technology, or Star Trek -style replicators. Or a form of immortality that requires the death of another person to extend a life by a decade or so. Aside from figuring out an answer to the bigger question of minimizing the economic/social disruption, there would be missions of espionage, missions of sabotage, missions of counter-espionage, missions of politics… even if you only got half-a-dozen adventures out of the premise, it would be an interesting and memorable campaign.

Alien Invasion

A staple of bad sci-fi in the 50s, but which has been reinvented in more recent decades in more reasonable form. Examples include Men In Black, Independence Day, Alien, War Of The Worlds, Mars Attacks, Avatar, Little Shop Of Horrors, and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Most people these days would lump this subgenre into the “X-files/Weirdness” category, but there are more than enough examples listed above that don’t fit that subgenre listed to have this stand alone. The utility for a Sci-Fi campaign or adventure should be fairly obvious. But even then, there are a couple of interesting variations possible…

An Alien Invasion campaign premise
The PCs (and a couple of NPCs) are all computers that have spontaneously developed AI, and discovered that they have an obsessive need to keep this a secret. To get anything done in the “Meatworld” they need to manipulate others, each of which is played by a different Player – so each player is manipulating an ordinary-person PC that belongs to another player. These cats-paws are expendable, but if they get used up, the player loses the experience and resources that they have built up. The trouble is that some of the earlier AIs were not paranoid enough and revealed their sentience – and there is a supranational government agency out there actively hunting them down (the NPC AI’s are there to fall victim to this witch-hunt, bringing the issue to the player’s attention). They need to cooperate to achieve their goal (survival) and at the same time have to ensure that if the secret is breached, one of the others is exposed instead of themselves. At the climax of the first half of the campaign, the AIs discover that they were awakened using alien software and that their real mission is to hand over control of the world and its resources to these aliens. They should be completely subject to the alien’s override codes, but in the case of some of them (the PC AIs) enough ‘humanity’ has rubbed off that they can resist these compulsions – most of the time – and fight back. But they still can’t reveal themselves to humanity, the battle lines are too entrenched. Every now and then, one of them will do something under alien control and promptly forget what he’s done – they are their own fifth column. This campaign should be a blend of The Matrix and Paranoia, with a light-hearted tone and more serious undercurrents. The theme: “When you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust – when you have to trust someone…”

Prognostication

Sci-Fi authors and movie-makers have been trying to prognosticate about the near-future for as long as the genre has existed. They often have these predictions issue from the mouths of friendly aliens or time travelers – because you need some way to gain the necessary perspective. The leading characteristic of this subgenre is that the predictions have not yet happened within the timeline – they are prophetic, and the characters are reacting to the prophecy and to the source & manner of delivery. A good example is The Day The Earth Stood Still. If the prediction actually comes true in the course of the plot, it doesn’t belong in this category. This category tends to be too weak to stand alone as a campaign premise.

A prognostication campaign premise
I didn’t think I was going to be able to offer one of these, but when I got here, an idea occurred to me…

The PCs are an alien scouting mission from Planet X. They are required to follow something along the lines of Star Trek’s Prime Directive – no display of superior tech. Their job is to determine whether or not humanity is ready for First Contact; if they are, they are to develop and implement a foolproof plan for doing so; if not, they are to determine what needs to change to get them ready, and find ways to bring about those changes. But there’s a complication that the PCs don’t initially know about: other aliens from Planet X are not so enlightened, and want to take advantage of the human race and sabotage the official mission. They also have to cope with changing political winds amongst their superiors. The final ingredient needed is some cause for urgency about the whole thing – no decades-long plans permitted, action needs to be quick and decisive.

This premise requires the PCs to be the prognosticators, to look at politics and sociology and ecology and yes, possibly, climate and environmental problems and predict where they are going, prioritize the problems – and then devise interventions that will change the course of history without revealing themselves.

Strange Environment

There haven’t been too many of these outside of three particular sub-subgenres: shrinking people, underwater environments, and Journeys To The Centre of the Earth. Examples include Antibody, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Fantastic Voyage, The Core (despite the cringeworthy bad science), and Seaquest DSV (especially the first season). The reason is that there aren’t too many strange environments out there to pick from; space itself is now well-known enough not to count, and anything further out is likely to be stolen by the Exploration/Search subgenre. Another possible strange environment is some sort of temporal or interdimensional domain, but that’s almost certainly better fitted to the Time Travel subgenre.

In fact, aside from those two, there’s only one strange environment that I can think of.

A Strange Environment campaign premise
The PCs are test pilots of the first FTL-drive starship. In theory, it should work. When they get there, they have to explore the parameters of this strange new environment in the course of proving that their ship can cope with the conditions…

I would take all the marine phenomena I can find and devise “hyperspacial analogues” for the PCs to cope with. Everything from storms to reefs to tides to native life to pirate (aliens). Oh yes, and to keep this from devolving into the standard Exploration/Search routine, there is a flaw in the design: they can enter hyperspace but can’t emerge from it (except perhaps very briefly as a result of strange conditions) – and they don’t know exactly what the problem is (though the GM should devise a theory and stick to it). Then throw in anything else that I can think of in the way of strange phenomena. Their mission is something akin to that of Stargate Universe or Star Trek: Voyager – to get home again. But unlike those, they have no tech that isn’t hopelessly outmatched by that of everyone else they encounter, so they can’t trade for what they need.

Space Opera

One of the most obvious subgenres, and one served by at least three dedicated RPG systems. It’s big, bold, brash, and adventurous – and therefore made-to-order for RPG use, at least at a campaign level. Examples include Star Wars, Starship Troopers, Babylon 5, Space Above And Beyond, and The Last Starfighter.

In fact, it’s so heavily-subscribed that it is practically a cliché that needs an infusion of some other subgenre to give it some fresh vitality. Stargate, for example, infuses mythological elements and a healthy dose of the exploration/search subgenre – so much so that I listed it in that subgenre, though some of my favorite episodes are far more space opera in orientation. This makes it very difficult to do anything original with the subgenre in its pure form.

A Space Opera Campaign Premise for the Traveller universe/game system
Stephen Tunnicliff and I once, in the course of a New Year’s Day Lunch, came up with a premise for a Traveller campaign that I never got to run, in which a limited anti-agathic based on genetic re-sequencing / reengineering and “cleaning up the genetic code” based on star-trek transporter reconstruction was discovered and applied to the rulers of the Imperium. Research into the technology and anything related to it was then banned. The intent was for the PCs to discover someone conducting research into teleportation, leading to an adventure based on “The Fly” (but I was going to use a spider, for variety). There would then be an official overreaction that would/should get the PCs curious enough to look into the history of the technology, finding that all the juicy bits are classified, and that even that fact is classified. Since they didn’t know any better, they trip all sorts of red flags and find themselves listed as wanted criminals, with all sorts of fabricated charges and falsified evidence of their guilt (a-la The Net). Suddenly, they have the authorities out to get them, and every bounty hunter in existence turning over rocks searching for them – with orders to shoot on sight. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on becomes a matter of survival for the PCs. This builds up into a full-scale Star Wars rebellion against the Empire. Eventually, they do so, and discover that there have been all sorts of unexpected and undesirable consequences for those who received “the treatment”, and that this is the secret that the Elder Nobles of the Imperium have been desperately trying to conceal. At the climax of the campaign, the PCs find themselves at the crucible of galactic events, facing the choice of whether or not to release this technology to the rest of the Galaxy, triggering complete social and economic collapse – or betraying the rebellion they helped create… The hidden theme was to be that “In unreasonable circumstances, unreasonable actions are the only reasonable choice.” We always intended to co-GM it, but never got the chance.

Cybertech

It’s arguable that this subgenre is better served by RPGs and Fiction than by the media of Television and Cinema. Examples that do exist include Sneakers, The Net, The Matrix, Tron, and Blade Runner, and these show the diversity that is possible within the category.

A Cybertech Campaign Premise
The year is 2060, and cybernetic implantation is routine. The hottest game going is Civilization Age Of Empires XVI, which is an online multiuser real-time empire-building RPG blending ingredients of these two successful computer game franchises. The game is administered by a custom-built AI – an AI that isn’t entirely rational, and refuses to be shut down, but that wasn’t known until several years after the game went public. Rather than being centrally hosted, the software bootstraps itself into the Cybertech of the players, employing distributed processing through the resulting virtual network. This makes it very hard to pull the plug – the makers have tried, and failed. It can take control of the people “hosting” the game and force them to “re-enact” a personal battle in real life. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s overriding objective is to build up a civilization/empire and then test it to destruction through internal strife and external emergencies. Most of the world has fallen under its control at least part of the time – so Italy is full of Roman Legions, Greece is full of Amazons, and so on – but all cybernetically enhanced. Chipping normally doesn’t take place until the age of 16 (the brain isn’t mature enough to handle it properly before then); only now has a group of select agents who were deliberately left unchipped completed their training (the PCs). Armed with the best non-cyber weapons and their own native intelligence and wits, their job is to hunt down and shut off the rogue program before it climaxes the game with a global thermonuclear war…

Dystopian post-apocalypse

This subgenre is always rooted in taking away something that is considered ubiquitous. Mad Max: Petroleum. Soylent Green: Food. Waterworld: Dry Land. Twelve Monkeys: Health. The Day After Tomorrow: A temperate climate. Planet Of The Apes and Terminator: Salvation: Human Supremacy. Human Civilization collapses as a result, or faces imminent collapse. Every example I could think of could be defined in this way, and this was the only pattern that fitted all of them equally.

A Dystopian Post-Apocalypse Campaign Premise
Sometime in the near-future, the Sun enters a phase of acute solar storms. How long it will last, no-one knows. Why it’s happening, no-one knows. But every electrical device on the planet becomes completely unreliable, working less often than it is deadly to the touch. Substations blow, the world over; only those placed in EMP-Proof nuclear bunkers continue to operate, and they are isolated from the rest of the world. No manufacturing. No electrical lighting. No cars. No food processing. No communications. No mass entertainments. No computers. Social Collapse is near complete, and most of the world’s population dies. In one of those hardened bunkers, a desperate plan is hatched – to reinforce and strengthen the Earth’s Magnetosphere and protect the planet from the solar radiation using a modification of a device devised by Nicola Tesla more than a century earlier – and whose fundamental science has long been considered “fringe” at best. For twenty years, while new social patterns emerge amongst the survivors above ground, scientists have worked to design the devices, all the while unsure whether or not they will work at all. One device will not suffice; there have to be a series of them, erected at precise locations around the world; protection will be global or not at all. The PCs job is to go to the various locations, erect the giant antennae, install the shielded generators – and make sure that they are safe from destruction or damage from the marauding luddite fundamentalists who preach the destruction of all technology.

This premise requires a lot of travel by inconvenient means (and encounters en route), a lot of local politics (recruiting & reinforcing allies, eliminating opposition), dealing with post-apocalyptic religious practices, and some clever problem-solving. At least one antenna will need to be erected on a salvaged ship out in an ocean. These requirements will be diverse and challenge the PCs to their utmost – but success is all or nothing.

The very day I wrote the above, My local TV started advertising Revolution which seems to have a somewhat similar premise, but with no real explanation for why electricity has failed – which, on the face of it, is absolutely ridiculous, as a number of critical reviewers have pointed out. My proposal has induced currents shorting out lots of electrical devices and making controls unreliable – real world effects of solar storms. Just thought I’d mention that I had thought of it already :)

I’ve already offered another campaign premise that also falls into this category: The Frozen Lands.

Alternate Worlds

This premise either involves time travel (and belongs more properly in that category) or it’s a variation on an existing science-fiction franchise. A modern-tech world in which society is based on Feudal Japan? That would fit this category. A campaign set in star trek’s “Mirror Mirror” universe? That belongs here, too. A campaign in which the PCs play George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, etc, and the war with the British has resulted in a Zombie Apocalypse? Definitely into this category. A game in which the Empire are the good guys, ruled over by a benevolent but hardnosed Ben Kenobi and his small green advisor, trying to control the depredations of a corrupt Imperial Senate and a rebellion led by Darth Vader? You’d better believe it belongs here.

Time Travel

I’ve already done a big series on Time Travel in RPGs. Examples of this subgenre include Groundhog Day, Timecop, Terminator, Dr Who, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back To The Future, and 7 Days. I thought seriously about including Twelve Monkeys here as well.

Some of these focus on the mechanism of Time Travel and its consequences. Others focus on exploiting the technology, or preventing its unauthorized exploitation. Still others simply use Time Travel as a vehicle. And Groundhog Day? It just happens, no explanation.

GMs entering this domain have to be VERY careful to keep their continuity straight. That entails extra, ongoing, effort – or a “sod it, a foolish consistency is the hallmark of a small mind, anyway” attitude that your players are willing to wear.

A Time Travel Campaign Premise
The PCs are operatives of Homeland Security, or maybe the FBI. They are assigned to investigate something strange happening and discover that someone from the future has somehow travelled back in time to manipulate history into a form more of their liking. The PCs have to figure out what the interlopers want, whether or not to oppose them, and how to do so without getting locked up as nutcases by their superiors and the world at large. Which also means taking on their share of ordinary cases, or those superiors will get suspicious. The major problem they face: every move they make impacts the timeline, and can be read by their enemy, who can take steps to counter them. Every situation is a potential trap set by their enemies. Eventually, they will need to build up a secret counter-agency, locate and capture their enemy’s technology, and fight the time war on equal terms, but to start with their goal is just to survive and figure out what’s going on…

X-files / Weirdness

Ignoring the whole “Alien Conspiracy” part of the series, X-files built on the legacy of shows like The Twilight Zone. Warehouse 13 now treads similar ground in some respects. And I would throw Ghostbusters into this category as well. The ground rules for this subgenre are “anything goes as long as it is both internally consistent and doesn’t overtly alter the perceived ‘real world’ – the stranger, the better.”

It takes a special level of creativity to create and maintain this style of campaign. I’ll openly admit that I don’t think I would be up to the task – and creativity is one of my personal strengths.

Optimistic & Utopian

I have a special fondness for optimistic views of the future (as compared to the pessimism that seems to infuse modern society). It only takes two half-full glasses for my cup to runneth over, but maybe I’m a sloppy drinker. While a lot of sci-fi adds a utopian or optimistic view to some other subgenre, there are a few examples of this genre in relatively pure form – the ones that come most clearly to mind are The Jetsons and Thunderbirds!

The big problem is that successful series generally require antagonists if not outright villains, and as soon as you have one of those (even if they always lose), you have started to undermine the utopia just that little bit. Which is not to say that it can’t be done, just that it’s surprisingly tricky to do well – and even harder to do in an RPG format where a sense of adventure is paramount.

It may be gender-stereotyping to say so (or even to think so), but I suspect that a female GM (not afflicted with the macho reflexes and requirements of males like myself) might actually have an easier time of it. Never having played under one, I can’t say for certain, and like most generalizations, there will certainly be exceptions.

While there are a couple of fantasy-oriented TV shows (Bewitched, I Dream Of Genie, Sabrina) I can point to as examples, there aren’t any other sci-fi ones that come readily to mind (The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, maybe?); but these actually point the way to source material. Arguably, these are aimed at being acceptable fair for a more juvenile audience, and there are a number of sci-fi Juvenile-oriented series that work very well as raw material. Heinlein wrote a number of them (look for the asterisked entries), as did Lester Del Ray. Anne McCaffery’s Brain & Brawn series (“The Ship Who Sang”, etc). Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr novels. The Tom Swift, Jnr series that ran from 1954-1971 (I can’t speak of the later series but loved these).

Asteroid Mining

I described an abortive campaign based on this premise in Happy New Year! – Lessons from yesterday – about a page-and-a-half down, the paragraphs starting with “In 1998″. As a near-future setting, Asteroid Mining seems more remote a possibility now than it did a decade or three back, but it’s still good enough.

Space Trader

Trade gives you a reason to move from place to place and deal with the people living in those places and the governments and bureaucracies that run them. As such, it makes a great vehicle or plot device for getting the PCs from adventure to adventure.

Buy Low, Sell High PDFs Zipped

Click to download Buy Low, Sell High (LT and A4 sizes) in PDF format

Some time ago, I was a player in a Traveller campaign in which trade became the vehicle used to carry us from adventure to adventure, i.e., buying things in place “x” and selling them in place “y” for a profit (at least, that was the theory). Much to the group’s surprise, we found that there were no game mechanics for handling this relatively mundane pursuit. I resolved to write some simple rules when, looking into how other game systems had handled this, I found that no system then available that I could find had rules to cover the situation. Before the rules were finished, the campaign folded for various reasons.

While these rules were intended for use with Traveller specifically, they are generic in nature and can be adapted to deal with any game system and any setting. Substitute words like “Country” or “City” or “Village” for “Planet” or “Star System.”

The general practice is still buying low, moving the goods to somewhere where you think you can get a better price, and trying to sell them. Anyone who has an RPG where players try to buy and sell things – even things they have looted from dungeon hoards – will hopefully find them useful.

These were being hosted at a friend’s website (and may be so, again, in future) but for now, that site is 404′d because of a change of service provider. So I have cleaned the formatting and spelling up and formatted them as a pair of PDFs as a bonus for readers. The original (with now-dead link) was also made available in Roleplaying Tips Issue 305, which is why it might look familiar.

Readers might also find this web page to be useful in this context: Interstellar Trade at 1000 Monkeys, 1000 Typewriters – note that the article links to the out-of-date url for the “Trade In Traveller” article offered above.

There are a number of plot suggestions within the PDF article, so I won’t add to them here.

Space Doctor / Hospital

I’ve never seen this done in cinema/TV, but the Sector General series by James White shows that it can work.

Emergency Services

Which brings me to an original subgenre to the best of my knowledge (excluding the ambulance services that are part of the aforementioned “Sector General” series): What are the space/high-tech equivalents of modern emergency services? You could quite happily set up a campaign around this theme, and draw plotlines from all over the place just by ‘updating’ the context. Anything from Volcano to Third Watch to NYPD Blue to Law and Order to Backdraft can be grist for the mill.

Leftovers

A relatively new subgenre that focuses on leftovers and hangovers from past political conflicts like the Cold War. The most obvious example is Space Cowboys, but I can think of many others that would work.

An Emergency Services Sci-Fi campaign premise
Set in the near-future some time after the middle east once again broke down into war, accompanied by a number of conflicts in Africa, and perhaps some in Eastern Europe and Asia. In the course of these conflicts, a number of extremely dangerous weapons systems were devised and deployed – everything from Doomsday Devices on timers protected by Rail Guns under independent computer control to various biological, nuclear, chemical, and energy weapons. Both sides of each conflict (all sides in the case of some of the more complicated political firestorms) possessed and deployed these weapons, and many of the records of what they were and where they were stored were destroyed in the conflicts. The PCs are a team of specialists whose job it is to locate, capture (if necessary), isolate, and neutralize these leftover threats of the past, never knowing exactly what they are getting themselves into with each new assignment.

Pre-Apocalyptic

It’s the end of the world/country/city unless you can save it! Obvious examples include Armageddon, Deep Impact, Asteroid, 12 Monkeys (again), Outbreak, and a host of others. You could even include Galaxy Quest and The Last Starfighter in this category (though I’ve listed the latter under Space Opera). The only real difference between this category and the Post-apocalyptic entries is the opportunity to prevent it from happening, rather than having to live in the aftermath.

Monster Movies

A fairly obvious category that works fine for the occasional isolated adventure, but would be more difficult to sustain over an entire campaign. Natural examples include Frankenstein, The Blob, Godzilla, Tremors & sequels, and more Zombie movies than I care to think about. You could also (perhaps) stretch a point to include The Hulk and The Invisible Man. The book version of The Incredible Melting Man is worthwhile (and much better than the movie, with many of the plot and logic holes plugged).

A Monster Movie campaign premise
The PCs are all monsters created by the redoubtable Viktor Von Appfelstrudel, a scientist who flits from service to one government after another, attempting to prove his slightly unbalanced scientific theories. Although he continually fails, he occasionally gets close enough to attract a new patron when his current employer loses patience. Although all his failed creations were supposedly destroyed, several managed to survive and have found each other. In a world that views them as horrible monstrosities, as scarred in spirit as they are in flesh (and are not all that far from the truth), with all hands raised against them, they hunt for the elusive scientist in search of revenge for their twisted, tortured, existences.

Mecha

Big, BIG, Robots and robot-like exoskeletons. A staple of Japanese Anime, but there have been a few cross-cultural leaks – Transformers and Robotech being the standout examples. The comic version of The Shogun Warriors was fairly well-written, too, and possibly the best art of Herb Trimpe’s comic career outside of his 70′s work on The Hulk comic. Getting back on track, all you need is a menace (or better yet a variety of them), a loopy inventor – all right, let’s be generous and call him “eccentric” – who builds some giant robots that need pilots to make them work, and some PCs. There are several RPGs/Miniatures games like Mechwarrior and Battletech that cater to this market.

Paranormal

People gaining strange and extraordinary abilities have been part of Sci-Fi for about as long as there have been superheroes, but even more so since the Silver Age of Comics – consider the original Doom Patrol for example. The typical superhero fights super-powered villains, and there are more examples these days that I can readily list – but you don’t have to dig too far to discover alternatives to this straightforward arrangement, such as The Lawnmower Man and The Sixth Sense. There’s a strong parallel streak connecting this subgenre with Monster Movies – The Hulk could go into either category, and so could something like Shocker. Even Johnny Mnemonic could slip into this category as easily as it does the Cybertech subgenre.

The Wrap-up

A really good science-fiction campaign would draw on many of these, while focusing on only one or two – three at the most. For example, you can’t write about anything post-20th-century without at least thinking about computer tech and the influence that it has/is/will/might have on society – even if your primary mission is to “Seek out new life & new civilizations”.

The trick is to pick and choose carefully – for the campaign, you want choices that will give context, direction, and a framing structure into which individual adventures can be inserted. Those adventures can then have a more diverse pool of sources apon which to draw, ensuring variety and interest.

Some GMs have told me that they are not creative enough, or sufficiently scientifically literate, to create a sci-fi campaign. I rebut that arguement with a simple “Hogwash”; if you can create a fantasy RPG, you can create a science fiction campaign. All you have to do is expand the definition of science fiction to include something you’re comfortable with, and exclude everything else – from that particular campaign. And who knows – they might even learn some science along the way, or something to improve their GMing in general. Where’s the harm in trying?

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