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On the Development and Presentation of Science Fiction Roleplays

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On the Development and Presentation of Science Fiction Roleplays

Post by Heraclius on Wed Feb 24, 2010 7:37 pm

On the Development and Presentation of Science Fiction Roleplays
Author's Note

Greetings posters and readers on RP Haven, my name is Douglas Rumbaugh in reality, or Heraclius online. Several of you are familiar with me from other places, others are not, I am posting this for the reading pleasure of both parties. My goal in posting this is not to create strict and rigid guidelines on how roleplays should be presented, that is up to the sole creative authority of the Game Masters (GMs) of the roleplay in question.

Neither is my purpose in writing this to suggest that my way is the only way to go about creating science fiction roleplays, and by extension stories, rather my goal is to both stimulate the creation and submission of such works, and to start a discussion on the actual meaning of such works.

Thank you for taking your time to read this, and I wish you luck in all your future creative endeavors.

Heraclius aka Douglas Rumbaugh


What is Science Fiction

Science Fiction… the genre has as many definitions as it does works within it! Where should the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy be drawn? And furthermore what exactly is the difference?

An exact answer to these questions, and to the true nature of science fiction, doesn't actually exist. What does exist, however, is a conglomeration of opinions on the matter. A prime example is with Science Fiction on television. The first example that comes to my mind is the debate of whether or not SGU is a science fiction program, or a drama in space.

My opinion on the matter of science fiction is that it is a genre that transcends mere storytelling. Sci-Fi, as it is often abbreviated, is a genre that endeavors to show the state of humanity (or that of any other species) when placed in a high technology situation, and also to serve as a medium for predictions about future events or advances. Explosions and space battles are a part of science fiction, but just because something possesses them doesn't mean it is true science fiction. Realism is paramount, aside from a few select skeletons in the closet which will be dealt with ealier.

A prime example of Fantasy wearing the mask of Sci-Fi is Warhammer 40k. I draw the line between Science Fiction and Fantastic based not only on the realism of technology, but also on the general mood, the types of people represented, and the storyline in general. Warhammer is presented in a very fantastic way, with psychic powers, species taken straight from Tolkien, and a very, almost overly, dark mood. Each race in Warhammer has its problems, as they should, but these problems are often blown out of proportion. I will explain the reasoning behind this later.

In short, giving an Elf with magical powers a plasma cannon does not make that Elf any less of a Fantasy character, nor any more of a Science Fiction character. It is not just the time period that makes a fiction Science Fiction.

So what then does make a fiction a "true" Science Fiction? A believable plot for one! Good vs. Evil is not often a good plot element to use in Sci-Fi for a variety of reasons. Think for a moment of wars here on Earth. Now, just think of each of the warring species as a different nation rather than as a totally separate entity. In modern conflict there really isn't any true "Good vs. Evil" conflicts, it is all a massive shade of gray. Sure, the Nazis did some horrible things in WWII, but then so did America in the 1800s. How are the two so different when placed on a good versus evil plane made completely of black and white. There would be precious little white, that’s for sure!

For these reasons, I feel that a Good versus Evil plot is best reserved for the realm of Fantasy. Now, I am not saying that grave threats, powerful empires, and horrible atrocities are not factors in Sci-Fi, but rather that it shouldn't be presented as "these are the bad guys, evil in every way, and these are the good guys, pure in every way."

Rather, both sides would naturally have blemishes, ups and downs, goods and bads. Now, as species get older and better evolved, it would be natural to assume that they lean further and further away from war. This is a valid point, and one I support wholeheartedly, the implications can sometimes lead to a situation that appears to be good versus evil, but I feel that by the time a race can completely overcome the aggression within them completely and totally, there wouldn't be much of a war to be fought anyway.

Ah, but I digress. The above section is based completely and totally off my own opinions, and are open to interpretation. To the question presented, there really is no correct answer… no law that states what is what. Your opinion may be that Sci-Fi only needs to be set in the future, well then don't let me stop you from making a Sci-Fi roleplay based on that opinion. There is no authority, no power that be to stop you after all!


The Plot

Plots are something that can make or break a roleplay, and make the difference between a washout book and a best seller. In short, a plot is the events that take place within the roleplay or story, and the direction in which they travel. Obviously, an author will have far greater control over this than a GM, but they both hold the clay that is to be molded into a masterpiece. All it needs is for them to start working it!

I won't go into anything about writing a story, there are plenty of other sources for that. The focus of this essay is on creating roleplays after all! Plot is an extremely important, and often overlooked, factor in creating a successful roleplay.

A prime example of this is my own "Solar Empires," it has no clear plot. There is a moderately extensive backstory, but the true direction which things are heading isn't dictated by any GM, but rather by the people in control of their own races.

This isn't wrong, per say, but it does cause problems. The biggest one is when a person driving the tangled plot forward suddenly leaves, and the whole thing falls apart.

If I could change one thing, looking back at my mistakes in Solar Empires, it would be to give it a more defined plot. A central goal other than the rather cryptic "galactic domination" which many, including myself, don't even pursue.

All you truly need to establish a good plot is a few paragraphs of backstory, with an open ending. The most common science fiction plots, include:

A group of people becoming stranded in a far corner of the universe, unable to return home.

A large empire (often taken for granted as an evil force) melding together the universe with only a small force to oppose it.

A large established empire facing rebellion.

A madman on a quest for domination.

These are often the plots you, as the GM, want to try and steer clear from if you wish for something unique. Sure they are well trodden and easy to work with, but they often grow tiresome. A few less used (but still not truly unique) examples would include first contact with another race or your species taking its first steps into the universe around it.

In short, be creative with your plots and always try and have one. Even a good civ RP, as I have discovered, needs a basic plot. Otherwise, it will inevitably stagnate with people not really driving for a unified goal.


Species

The species that inhabit your universe are another important factor to be discussed. I will again turn to my beloved "Solar Empires" for an example of what not to do. The species inhabiting the Milky Way galaxy include:

Transcendii
Kalosi
Albicans
Star Dwellers
The German Empire
The Union
Locusts

While the names of all but one of them wouldn't suggest it on first glance, the only two of those races that aren't human, or of human descent, are the Union and the Locusts And even the Union is made up of some very humanlike aliens, as for the Locusts…

Now to take a few races from other galaxies in "Solar Empires:"

Tlaconitl
Delmoray
Zurn
Machine Empire
Trintons

Of these races, there are a few "gems," so to speak. The Zurn, Delmoray, and Tlaconitl are all, in my opinion, highly original and very, very different from the standard humanoid alien model. Still, the only truly alien species among them is the Tlaconitl, which were designed by myself in an effort to get something truly alien into the RP.

Again, the Trintons are another humanoid race, and the Machine Empire is the stereotypical race of sentient AIs bent on domination (or so they appear at first glance anyway).

Basically, what I am saying is to experiment with the truly alien when creating your species for your roleplay. While having a few human or humanoid species is acceptable, when they make up the bulk of sentient life in your universe it becomes a bit of a fiasco in my opinion. Don't become set in the thinking that life out there will all look similar… it most likely won't, just look at the biodiversity on our own little speck of rock upon which we live!


Technology

Technology is among the most volatile subjects that can be discussed when creating a Science Fiction roleplay. Where will the limits be placed, and where does creativity live within those limits?

I am of the opinion that all technology, with few exceptions, needs to abide by science. After all, this is Science Fiction, not Fantasy. Your super-mega-cannon-of-doom may look big and powerful, but if the science behind it is flawed, it isn't going to work in real life, and it shouldn't work in the roleplay either!

Obviously, we humans have a very limited understanding of the universe, and everything we know could be incorrect. However, we know what we know, and if your weapon functions on some as of yet unknown principle there is no way to know if it could really work.

The counter argument I have often faced with regards to this stance is that it limits variety. This is not true at all! There are vast numbers of weapons that could work realistically. Lasers, Plasma based weapons, Antimatter based weapons, Particle Weapons, Mass Drivers, Cannons, Missiles, Fission Bombs, Fusion Bombs, Railguns, Chainguns, Coilguns, EMPs, standard munitions, and a whole host of other Directed Energy Weapons, to name a few.

Now another debate I have heard is that my method of realism is to limit everything to a low technological level. I would hardly say that that is the truth, while there may not be any weapons that manipulate gravity or that rip holes in the space time continuum, there are no known mechanisms to do such things. Hell we barely understand gravity as it is!

As mentioned above, both in this section and another, however, there are a few "skeletons" that I tend to leave in the back of the closet as far as technology goes. There are two or three major ones, which include:

Artificial Gravity
FTL Travel
Inertial Dampening

These are all things which we take for granted, especially the first and last ones. While both myself, and others in Solar Empires, have made attempts to explain how our FTL drives actually work, the other two have remained untouched, and the actual effects that FTL Travel could have on causality have been ignored. Inertial Dampening is something that nobody even seems to think about, but in reality a human can only take so many Gs before they die. I can say for one thing that a deep space fighter rocketing through space, or orbiting a planet at thousands of miles per hour would produce a lot more Gs than the limit of human survivability. Now imagine taking that ship and suddenly turning it… exactly why they are needed…

Those three aside, technology in my RPs generally remains as true to science as possible. For example, there is no truly useful method of FTL communication in Solar Empires. While myself and Phil have developed a communicator using quantum entanglement, it is highly inefficient and not all that useful in the long run anyway. It has phased out of use and into the background for the most part as a result. It should also be noted, that for the sake of balanced in the RP, this communicator is not used within the Milky Way for anything that would effect the plot anyway. Rather it is used to keep in touch with a team in another galaxy so it has really no effect on the RP at all.

Which brings me to another thing, balance. As technology advances, weapons get bigger and stronger, such is to be expected. However, this creates problems in the fact that, at least in Solar Empires, spaceships are valuable assets. In a report I published as my primary species, the Transcendii, I stated that the planning and construction of a single warship takes nearly a year, along with billions of denarii (one of the units of Transcendii currency).

The problem quickly becomes apparent when you notice the lack of most force shield technology, and the yields of weapons. Even a basic 40 kiloton fission weapon could easily destroy a ship, and the EMP from it could disable several others. And such weapons were, in the early days, small.

The biggest weapons in the RP for the longest time were my HACs, Heavy Antimatter Cannons, with a yield of 250 megatons. That sort of power could decimate an entire fleet, let alone a single ship.

As a result, self imposed limits were place. I find that this is a very effective method of balancing. Blame the economy and make cuts where they are needed. In my case, I mostly phased HACs out of service, replacing them with Positron Beam Weapons with much smaller damage potential. The HACs remaining in service saw the Antimatter used in their shells reduced from 5 kilograms to a single gram, reducing their yield to about 40 kilotons.

There is, however, one massive point in balancing weapons that could be made. If you notice, none of the high yield weapons, bombs, mass drivers, etc, are Directed Energy Weapons, meaning it should be easy enough to intercept them or move clear.

However, all that said, balance is an entirely different animal, one which I will leave the GMs of the respective roleplays to deal with. It is too variable a subject, and entire volumes could be filled with methods of balancing.


Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this. Please comment below on your own thoughts and opinions, and I will see you next time!

Douglas Rumbaugh
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Heraclius
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Re: On the Development and Presentation of Science Fiction Roleplays

Post by Bob on Wed Feb 24, 2010 9:06 pm

You should definitely create a Dreadnought race.

There's a reason I don't have "humans" being one of the space-faring races. Everyone would want to be human, or at least consider humans to be the protaganist. This way, everyone can consider their own race to be the protaganist.
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Re: On the Development and Presentation of Science Fiction Roleplays

Post by KOOPS95 on Thu Feb 25, 2010 11:34 am

I like how two of my three races are "original". ^^
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