Boldly Go Where You’ve Not Gone Before: 5 Tips for Newbie Scifi GMs


Are you a GM who’s never run a science fiction game but are thinking about it?

In a GM coaching call last Monday eve, this topic came up and we spoke on this for about an hour. I’m in the same boat: I’ve read and played scifi RPGs, but have not GM’d them before and would like to. So I was a keener, took a lot of notes, and want to share some of the tips I gleaned with you today.

1. Start With a Book

Wizard of Adventure Karen suggested this excellent first step. Think about what scifi books and shows you enjoy a lot.

Take notes or noodle for awhile on:

  • What setting elements do you like about them? (e.g., Galaxy-spanning or a single solar system?)
  • What technologies are present that you like? (e.g., FTL or not, teleporters or not, etc.)
  • What types of stories are they? (e.g., Genre, tone, themes.)

For example, maybe you love universe-wide epic soap operas with military themes. Or maybe you prefer low-key cowboy scifi contained within a single solar system.

2. It’s About People

We can easily get lost in the tech and novelty of GMing a new genre.

However, the best stories and gameplay still revolve around the characters (both player and non-player varieties).

If necessary, you can enlist your players to help with tech, science, math, and other real-world knowledge the group wants to apply to gameplay.

However, as GMs, we need to stay focused on serving up interesting gameplay as a result of player choices and character actions.

So don’t get lost in the starship and equipment chapters. Keep your eye on sound encounter fundamentals. Those don’t change just because the genre does.

3. Information is Not a Constraint

Depending on the setting you choose or design, information is probably free and ubiquitous.

As a 1970s pre-Internet kid, I never stop being amazed at how much info I have at my fingertips 24/7 today. Just incredible.

And with the latest version of Chat-GPT 4o out, you can now have real-time conversations throughout your day with that the body of humanity’s knowledge and thoughts.

So, it might catch you off-guard when characters have skills and can make checks to see if they can find the complete schematics of a capitol ship, the full breakdown of dangerous flora and fauna for a planet, or the entire list of every good and service available in the galaxy and current prices.

Therefore, assume that information is not a gameplay constraint like it can be in other genres.

A couple of fantastic workarounds that were suggested on the call are:

  • Information might be accessible but it doesn’t have to be 100% true. It might be biased, corrupted, or lying by omission, for example.
  • Information might be slow. It takes awhile to cross space even at light speed. Local mirrors and data silos might also be out of date or hacked. Comms can be intercepted or manipulated by enemies, as well.
  • Ask players to answer their own questions or to provide seeds of answers to play with now and for you to flesh out another time.

Information might be limited at certain times in certain ways, but the default in scifi often is information riches, so decide how you want to deal with that.

4. Think Bigger

The heat death of our universe will happen in 1.7×10^106 years.

That’s, um, 17,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years from now.

Further, the observable universe is currently 94 billion light years across. And it’s expanding at the speed of light: a mere 300,000 km every second.

Finally, there’s an estimated trillion trillion (trillion squared) solar systems in the universe. Hey, a trillion would be enough for an RPG campaign, right? The extra trillion trillion are a nice bonus.

The point is, we face many constraints in our current reality. Time, money, and energy. In addition, things are always at a certain scale in our day-to-day — a human scale — as well. Doors are a certain hit, handles are designed for fingers, and so on.

Therefore, after a lifetime of living with these constraints, we stop seeing the forest for the trees, as they say. It becomes difficult to consider other realities and different scales.

When GMing scifi, we’ve got to overcome these mental limitations. We need to think big. And think tiny. Take any constraint or thing and make it spectacularly massive or infinitesimally small.

For example, we might balk at creating a space station the size of the Sun. But it’s a simple matter of properly taxing your 500 billion citizens, right?

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect. The space station might have many problems, including design flaws or faction wars. But our starting stance should be to blow the scales off our thinking. And then layer on the constraints.

5. Some Helpful Resources

@ExileInParadise is our resident scifi expert. He’s got deep subject matter expertise in this area and has posted some threads at our forum you might be interested as a beginner scifi GM:

In addition, here are some YouTube channels I tune into to help immerse myself more in technology and scifi concepts:

I hope these tips and resources help. If you’re thinking of spinning up a science fiction game, feel free to also ask any questions you have on the Roleplaying Tips Discord. Exile and others there will help you out. There’s a #scifi channel you can check out, or you can post in the #gm-help-requests channel anytime.

Cheers,
Johnn
roleplayingtips.com
https://discord.gg/6MxTRAqQ76
Have more fun at every game!

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