Fantasy v. Sci-Fi: My GM Preference

I’ve mentioned before on this very blog that I have loaded myself up with stuff to do.  But one thing I don’t think I’ve spoken too much about is that I am a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Game Master for my coworkers.  I figured a lot of them might find it fun, and at the very least we can broaden some horizons and introduce my coworkers to another side of myself.

Recruiting players at work was fun.  I had to try and find people who would be in it for the long run, but I also wanted to find people who had never played a tabletop role-playing game.  I wanted to make sure we had both enough boys and girls.  To my surprise I actually encountered a lot of eager candidates.  With players selected, it was time to make a world.

I drafted up a map and a couple cities and dove in hard on development.  As of now we are on holiday break, but we have played approximately fourteen sessions— all about two hours each.

This post isn’t about that game, but I just want to establish that I’ve been running two campaigns for several months now.  The contrast between doing sci-fi versus fantasy has been illuminating for me.  When I have more knowledge and experience I may do a more speculative post on the pluses and minuses for running sci-fi versus fantasy, but this one I just want to talk about what it personally represents to me.

It comes down to choices and consequences.  My style— as I see it— is that I love having a greater theme at play that will require my players to make a choice and deal with a consequence.  I love seeing how my players are going to respond in an imaginary situation.  I do not like clear cut choices.  I am not a huge fan of Good v. Evil.  I love throwing my players into a grey zone and seeing how they decide what to make of it.

What I love about sci-fi is that for me a lot more of the game is about consequences or outcomes, while fantasy seems a lot more about making choices.  And it’s all because in one setting magic exists.

Now obviously you can write either setting to encompass any theme, but in general I feel as though there is a pretty clear divide.  Fantasy is a realm where magic and alignment are massive forces in play and the players must deal with things as they rear their heads.

The peoples are hungry because their crops all wilted.  What do you all do?

We cast “Plant Growth” at a lowly level 3.  It rejuvenates the land and instantly grows much of those lost crops back!  Or we find (or create) a supply of food and extort the starving populace for all of their hard earned gold.

You can essentially orchestrate anything you want since there is powerful magic out there.  You spend more time thinking about the solution because anything is achievable, and the quest is more about whether you want to be good or evil or neither.  Whether or not you get them food is moot since magic will solve the problem, but what you choose the outcome to be is where the game becomes fun.  It’s not a choice of whether or not its possible, but where you stand in the greater scheme.

Sci-Fi is much more difficult because you must solve problems without a wand to wave.  You cannot create from nothing.  The choice that you make to solve the problem often comes with its own consequences that will also need to be dealt with.

There is plenty of food and fuel in most futuristic settings, but now the problems become how they are allocated and utilized.  Great power exists because such power is needed to keep humanity strong in the vast, inky ocean that is space— but people are behind that power.  There is no clear good and evil when there isn’t a great, neutral power like magic to draw upon.  Whether or not the outcome will work out in the end, the players will have to choose— often the lesser of two evils.

The people are hungry because the crops all wilted.  What do you do?

We can help the city recoup their losses by helping re-sow their farms.  But that will take time and we will lose out on other opportunities while we toil on this planet.  Or we could spend a lot of money and bring them food to survive the season.  But that will cost us all of our resources.  Or we can steal food from another planet and bring it all here.  This population will eat while the one we stole from will starve instead.

I’ll reiterate: you absolutely can spin either setting to be about good and evil, or choices and consequences.

Fantasy seems so much less concerned when it comes with choices because you choose the outcome before you begin.  We need to help the people, or we need to slaughter the enemy.  Both are possible, but which is better for us?  Are we good or evil?

Sci-Fi is about the hard choices.  A pirate fleet is coming to raid the frontier cities, but we can only defend one planet since space travel will take too long.  Which colony do we save and which colonies do we doom?

-DTM

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