A Good Sci-Fi Campaign, The most elusive concept in gaming
By Ron “Seawolf” McClung
I look back at my 20 years of experience in role-play gaming, and I ask a question: What kept my players coming back? In those years, the role-playing games (RPGs) I have run Star Frontiers, Dark Conspiracy, Call of Cthulhu, Reich Star, Shatterzone, Star Wars d6, Alternity, Fading Suns, and now Star Wars d20 and Dragonstar. That’s not all that I familiar with, but in those years, these are the games I was a Game Master for. I enjoy sci-fi a lot more than fantasy. I also enjoy space fantasy and horror. I’d like to think I have had good games. My players always seem to come back. Most my campaigns have lasted over a year or so and I have a few very loyal players. Yes, I have had bad game sessions, but over-all, most of my game campaigns have been brought to a proper end and I am quite proud of what I have accomplished.
But what made them so good? What can I tell a GM that would make their Sci-Fi game go well? That’s a question that opens up a whole host of discussions. There are several things a GM needs to know ahead of time; along with many ways a GM can approach his game. A lot depends on the type of players he has, as well as the type of game or the genre the GM wants to take the game. Most of my advice can be applied to any role-playing game, but I primarily apply in this article to science fiction, science fantasy, or science fiction horror.
Types of Players
One of the most important aspects of having a good game is for a GM to know his players. A GM that knows how to properly “cater” to his players when appropriate will have a good game. A GM has to remember that the game is as much about the players as it is about him. The GM has to remember that what he finds interesting and fascinating isn’t always what the players find interesting. Never make the game totally about the GMs enjoyment. The GM has to be able to enjoy watching other people enjoy themselves in the game.
With respect to role-playing in general, there are several types of players. But how they apply to a sci-fi game is usually a challenge for a GM. Figuring out what type pf players a GM has is usually his first challenge. However, there is no one way to define a player, but there are characteristics within players that are apparent. Most players have all or many of these characteristics in them to some degree or another. The GM needs to identify the predominant characteristics in his players and appeal to those in his campaign.
I combine similar characteristics simply because they have similar sources. What drive players to these characteristics is the same reasons for why they game in the first place. Each one looks for something different in the game. What they get out of gaming usually defines their enjoyment.
If you drool when the new Equipment sourcebook for your RPG is released, then you might be a techno-geek or stuff-monger.
“That which does not kill us, inspires us to buy bigger guns”
One of the aspects of science fiction that make it different from fantasy is the cool technology. Tech is something you can hold, and touch. It’s not mysterious or arcane (but it can be) and it usually dependable. It’s the gun in your hand or the computer at your fingertips. It cybernetics that make you better than you are, or the ship you rely on to get you across the galaxy.
Techno-geeks love technology and how to use the rules to create more things for their character to use against the bad guys. These are the engineer types that draw the schematics and have the engineering figured out for their weapons or equipment to fine detail. They sometimes have detailed plans of their vehicle of choice be it a ship or a land craft with security systems and AI computer systems so when he’s away, the vehicle can think for itself.
Stuff-mongers are similar in that they love technology but they love lots of it. They have several versions of their weapons, all somehow carried on his back or on some servant droid following him along. They have strong similarities to the techno-geek especially where the vehicle is concerned. However, the function of the vehicle is more to store and protect his other stuff the monger has collected.
These guys like opportunities to use their stuff. If they have built up a horde of cool technology, they like to know that they can use it. Usually, in a party challenge or encounter, I have a portion of that party challenge that hinges on some use of cool technology that person might have or can make. They also love opportunities to get more stuff, either in a bazaar or an ancient alien tech cache or of course, off the dead bodies of their enemies
However, they hate loosing their stuff, and usually spend a lot of time figuring out ways to keep that from happening. They feel cheated by the GM when things simply disappear and want to see the rolls that defeat the elaborate security systems they set up to protect their stuff.
One hard aspect of a pure techno-geek or stuff-monger is that they tend to treat their characters as a means to an end. The character is more a piece of paper than a role in the universe. Fortunately, it is rare to get a pure techno-geek or stuff-monger, because they are usually mixed with a good amount of drama-king and enjoy a good story behind his character. I’ve experienced a few near-pure techno-geeks/stuff-mongers and they tend to be, in my opinion, less enjoyable in my type of games.
There is a fine line between techno-geeks and stuff-mongers, and power gamers, although they do tend to cross over. See below for my interpretation of a power gamer.
Classic Power gamer/max-min/munchkin
I think back to my early years of Star Frontiers, to when I allowed my players to build power armor out of exoskeletons and a bunch of Flak vests, or created a Jedi Knight “class” that was nothing short of a wizard that could in the end manipulate black holes. Those were the days
The Classic Power Gamer or mix-min’er or munchkin are more or less the same thing. Practically everyone goes through a stage in their gaming experience where they concentrate on this side of their gaming personality. Most gamers eventually mature away from it.
A pure version of this type of player uses the rules to make their character as powerful as possible, and is able to defeat whatever challenge the GM can throw at them (or at least they like to think so). Like techno-geeks, they are into the “cool tech” but also into the “powers” the game can give the character as well as the best and most maximized attribute configuration.
It frustrating to most GMs to have one of these types of players in a GM. This type more than any other view a character as a simple piece of paper to number crunch. I’ve always believed that a pure version of these types would be better off playing computer RPGs.
The goal in any RPG with these players is try to encourage them out of this phase, and be more of a good mix of characteristics. The GM should make him care about all aspects of the game, including strength and power, but also including character, background story, and depth in role play.
If you roll your eyes when action occurs requiring dice rolls, and write 10 page dissertations about your character, his family and his life, you might be a drama-king.The advent of the “story teller” style systems brought out a different kind of role player in a lot of people. Now these are more diverse and come from systems that care less about the mechanic and more about the story being told.
This makes for in-depth characters and people who are familiar with the universe more than most. Players of this type tend to read a lot on the universe and immerse themselves deeper into the universe than most.
The strongest drawback to these types is that they get bored in combat or heavy rule-usage situations. They tend to view the rules as something that gets in the way, no matter what system it is. This is most apparent in sci-fi because sci-fi games tend to be strongly action based and skill based.
In sci-fi, it’s easy to appease a drama-king. It also brings in elements that a lot of GMs ignore at times. The politics of Sci-fi are as real and complex and real life and sometimes even more. Use factions and intrigue to drive the drama-king to involve himself in the game. If it involves some rules usage, it’s OK. He will see it as driving the story along.
In one of my Dark Conspiracy games (Sci-fi horror), I remember a guy (former Army ranger who probably saw a little TOO much action) who argued with me about how a dark elf should die if shot in the head. Because he had real like experience in shooting a man in the head, he had the right to argue with me in-game about how a dark elf would die. It’s a dark elf duh!
Rules Lawyers and Physics Experts are similar because they tend to follow certain rules strictly and require others to be the same. May it be the rules in the book or the rules of the universe, they tend to require certain strictness to those rules.
In Sci-fi, this is more prevalent because the GM doesn’t have “magic” to fall back on. And there is only so far an “alien wonder” is going to take a GM. These types of players expect the GM to have some knowledge of the physics behind them. It is a good idea to know something about physics and the real world, but it is also a good idea to be familiar with theoretical physics and the stuff they haven’t proven yet, like dark matter or black holes. One book I have read that is handy in this is called How to Build your own Sci-fi Universe. Books like this are very handy to read to get a rudimentary understanding of physics that are important in the sci-fi realm.
As a side note to this, it also is good to have a good mental dictionary of techno-babble (too barrow a Star Trek term). It’s important also to have something that sounds like it could be real even though it can’t. For example
Player 1: “What’s wrong with our hyperdrive?”
Player 2 rolls on his engineering skill.
GM: “The Hyperdrive manifold conduit leading to the main power lead has a hair line fracture and is leaking plasma. The plasma has damaged circuitry in the guidance systems and the main astrogation computer interface with the drive computer.”
The funny thing is when your players try to pretend to know exactly what you are talking about and make up techno-babble right back at you.
The classic hack-n-slasher wants nothing but action, and hopes that action involves killing something. In sci-fi, a pure version of this is less prevalent but not unheard of. These are a version of power gamers and techno-geeks that seek the biggest gun possible to kill as many enemies as possible. Again, perhaps a player that is better off playing online computer games.
Most every player has a little hack-n-slasher in them and they are easily dealt with in Sci-fi because their tends to be a lot of action anyway. Fortunately, a pure hack-n-slasher is rare.
Advice to Players
To help the GM and the players to more come to a middle ground with their personalities and be able to game together, I have a little advice to the players (I’ll have advice for the GMs later).
Character Concept The idea of a character concept is very important in my games. When you are planning a character, create a simple character concept and pitch it to the GM so he can get an idea of what kind of character you like to play. A concept can be based on a character in a movie or a character in a book, or a combination of characters. Know your literary archetypes and expand off those.
Another good thing to have is a fully fleshed out background. I am not saying write a novel aboutr your character’s exploits before the start of your campaign, but highlight every phase in the character’s life, from childhood and adulthood. A good tool for that is something like Heroes of Tomorrow by Task Force Games.
Know the Universe The GMs appreciates those that know the universe, but not too much. He doesn’t like someone who knows it so well that a discussion in-game starts out with a player saying “That can’t happen because”
Know your role Know your party and your role in it. During character creation, communicate with the other players what you are planning and work with them to work it in. The GM should always have a say in this as well.
Know your GM A player should know what kind of game he likes to run. Never make a character that won’t fit in his style of running. Does he like epic or dark a gritty? Does your concept fit in his style?
Advice to the GM: Player Questionnaires
The best way I have found to determine what kind of players you have is to ask questions that draw out the type of stories and characters they like. Below is a list of questions I asked my players at one time.
- Describe your character archetype? Rogue Warrior? Questing Knight? Warrior Monk? Scoundrel Noble? Something else?
- How do you see your character in the universe? Examples: Questing for the truth, just getting along, out for revenge.
- Have any enemies?
- Have any allies or allegiances?
- Any of the above secret?
- What would another character’s first impression be of your character?
- What is your favorite movie?
- What is your favorite movie character?
Types of Game
Type of Adventure
Type of Campaign
i) Political or Noble