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Dealing with the Science in Science-Fiction


RPG Therapist
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
The question came up today: "I have no idea how science-fiction things work - so how can I GM a science-fiction game?"

The short answer: don't worry about the science-fiction things - worry about the people as you would anyway.

People, for the most part, have no idea how reality around them works now, much less hundreds or thousands of year in the future.

Take any 10 people and ask them to explain technologically how their laptop, cellular phone, microwave, or toaster work.

You don't care how your cell phone makes the call or sends the text message ... only that it does.

And here's the funnier part for me: Most people have no idea how a horse works either.

Or a cow when it comes to getting milk.

And no one questions those things in a fantasy game, but this is the exact same question.

We live in an era where the current generations lose practical skills previous generations took for granted.

I expect that trend to continue.

Future generations with AI-driven autonomous weaponry could be baffled by the action of a chemically fired slug-thrower.

People in science-fiction games are still people with people problems.

And like people, they don't care how it works - they care more how to work it.

Worrying about "how it works" is more simulation and that only matters if simulation is your goal.

Abstract it and move on.

An example from the movie ALIENS might help:
Ripley: "Lieutenant, what do those pulse rifles fire?"
Gorman: "10mm explosive tip caseless, standard light armor-pieceing round. Why?"
Ripley: "Well look where they are. They are right under the primary heat exchangers. If they fire their weapons in there, won't they rupture the cooling system?"
Burke: "Whoa, she's right."
Gorman: "So, so what?"
Burke: "Look, this whole station is basically a giant fusion reactor. So, we're talking thermonuclear explosion and adios muchachos."

So do we know how an atmosphere processor really work? No.

We're not exploring proton-proton or CNO fusion reaction steps here.

We're learning you don't shoot holes in the reactor - in this story / setting / system.

Even funnier - its fusion - not fission.

So if you DO shoot it, it shuts down or regularly explodes - no thermonuclear anything.

The magnetic torus collapses and the plasma destroys the inside of the fusion chamber.

Maybe it explodes outward and shrapnels the colony on that side.

But, it's not fission so you're not going to blow up an area the size of Nebraska with a big mushroom cloud as seen at the end of the movie.

Now... does anyone bother with those pesky details in ALIENS?

Nope. Willing suspension of disbelief - holes in reactor bad.

And later, we get explosive venting etc to drive the point home.

So my ultimate advice here - if you go to prep some science-fiction stories - and you run into questions, keep in mind this gem:

When Joss Whedon was asked how fast his ship Serenity flew, his answer was "at the speed of plot"

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
That is a great tip, Allen! Thank you very much.