Author Sarah Newton talks about what should really be at the heart of SF RPGs: the sense of wonder, and the conflict of great ideas. Sarah’s company, Mindjammer Press, is running a Kickstarter campaign, currently approaching x3 funding, for the next phase of the transhuman RPG.
A sense of wonder in SF roleplaying games
I think science-fiction has had a bit of a raw deal in roleplaying games. RPGs historically derive from miniatures wargaming, and that strategic and tactical conflict aspect of wargaming informed the early development of SF RPGs as much as it did fantasy ones like D&D. Combat and action became central to the game.
Now, of course combat and action have long been indispensable to the pulpier manifestations of science-fiction, but the great attraction of SF is surely its ideas—the courage and fascination to stare the future full in the face and wonder what we, as human beings, may one day become, and what amazing thoughts we may learn to think. While conflict and action in SF literature has often embraced this sense of wonder, very often SF RPGs (perhaps with the notable exception of Chaosium’s 1980s gem “Ringworld”, now long out of print but still an occasional treasure on eBay) have busied themselves with replicating more mediaeval, retro reasons for conflict in SF settings – even to the extent of producing SF versions of reactionary feudal societies as the generators of action and conflict.
I’ve always felt that was a bit of a missed opportunity. A sense of wonder, a looking forward, a fascination with ideas should sit at the heart of all good SF, whether games or more traditional fiction, whether pulpy, space opera, or so-called “hard” SF. That was one of my main motivations for writing the RPG “Mindjammer”, which is currently running a Kickstarter to massively expand its game universe and range of supplements and fiction. Mindjammer is action-packed far future science fiction, but set in a believable futuristic universe which embraces radical ideas and mines them for all the mind-blowing conflict you could want.
Cultural conflict is central in Mindjammer. I see that all around me in these early decades of the 21st century, and Mindjammer’s “New Commonality of Humankind” takes cultural conflict to the stars. It’s a vast, optimistic, and powerful interstellar civilization which has only recently discovered faster-than-light travel and is voyaging to the stars to rediscover lost earth colonies seeded millennia ago, in the half-forgotten past – only to find very often that those colonies do not welcome its insistent attentions at all. It’s a civilization where the Mindscape – the far future descendant of the internet – is a vast shared consciousness linking all Commonality citizens by neural implant, allowing them to share thoughts, beliefs, memories – and even those of people long-dead. In the Commonality, groups choose to enter into “memoplexes”, allowing shared memories to weld them into close-knit communities with shared ideologies, a propagandist’s dream, and perhaps one of the forces holding this far-flung civilization together. But to the rediscovered worlds, this is groupthink and psy-op, a terrifying homogeneity which threatens to steamroller their cultures into oblivion.
This week, during the Mindjammer Kickstarter, I heard of a game being played at an RPG convention in the Philippines, which excited me immensely. There, game master Marc Reyes had created an adventure around two alternate futures for his native Filipino culture. In the early days of the Commonality, 4000 years in our future, the embryonic “Shine Commonality” (roughly in modern-day China) offered the future Filipino culture the option of assimilating into its burgeoning Commonality culture, or leaving Old Earth to form a neo-Filipino culture among the stars. The culture chose both. The part which remained on Old Earth integrated into the Shine Commonality as the “Noi”, a cultural group of itinerant specialist technicians, who used their intense desire for community cohesion and the technical capabilities of Mindscape memoplexes to keep their cultural heritage alive for millennia, first in a global civilization and then as the Commonality took to the stars. Meanwhile, the part which left Old Earth to form its own colony journeyed out of reach of the Commonality, settling a world 740 light years distant, where they tried to recreate their neo-Filipino culture, only to find it inevitably diverge from its roots.
Fast-forward to today, the far future, almost two hundred years after the start of the Rediscovery Era, and the two parts of the ancient Filipino culture are on collision course, as the Noi specialists arrive in the newly rediscovered star system of Maharlikha. What will they find? Each considers itself the inheritor of an ancient pan-Filipino identity – and yet each will be undoubtedly very different. And so the conflict – and the possibilities for resolution – begin…
I love this stuff. To see someone taking Mindjammer and really mining it for the diverse, post-European, post-binary, post-globalisation issues and conflicts which our 21st century societies see all around them and yearn to discuss, gives me great pleasure. Sure, there are starships, and futuristic weapons; but also in Mindjammer there are rules for conflicting cultures, for manipulating their beliefs and achieving peaceful or warlike resolutions. There are rules for memetic combat; you can *be* a memetic engineer; you can play *changing the societies around you* as part of your game. The whole galaxy is out there as a vast source of wonder, and as a great laboratory for all the thought experiments which the universe of SF ideas gives us. And that’s how it should be – in roleplaying games as much as fiction.
The Commonality salutes you!
The Wilds, Manche octant, Normandy subsector, -14985 Rediscovery Era
You can join us in the Mindjammer Kickstarter and explore the universe of the far future at tinyurl.com/jammerkick (or just Google “Mindjammer Kickstarter”).
MINDJAMMER – THE ROLEPLAYING GAME uses the Fate Core RPG system. MINDJAMMER TRAVELLER, a version of the game using the Traveller RPG rules, has been unlocked as part of the Kickstarter and is in the works.