Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thoughts on Sci-Fi RPGs Part 1

Like James over at Grognardia, I have recently been meditating on science fiction, especially about the question James posed a couple weeks ago:
why do you think science fiction is a lot less broadly appealing than fantasy as a genre for roleplaying games? Is it something inherent to the subject matter or is it simply a matter of presentation? That is, has there been some flaw in previous SF RPGs that have limited their appeal, a flaw that could possibly be fixed?
For most of my life I have been a science fiction fan, not necessarily a fantasy fan. Whereas I couldn't stand reading Tolkien, I devoured Asimov. My best friend growing up came from a house-hold of trekkies. Star Wars plays very large in my development as a person. Whereas I never played out of the LBBs, I did play Traveller from those wonderful little black books. Finally, as I've mentioned before, I've been as much, if not more, of a war gamer than a role player and many of the war games I have played over the years found their inspiration in sci fi.

There is a big however here, though. As I've grown older, wiser and have come to accept my faith as central in my life, science fiction, as a whole, has become a place I no longer feel welcome. This is largely due to a prevailing assumption that Christianity somehow cannot survive or defend itself against the assault of a scientific world view. This a false premise. Science cannot and does not ask or answer the same kinds of questions that religion (especially Christianity) does. If you are asking those religious questions and trying to answer them with science, you have left science and entered into the pseudo-religion of scientism which is not science. Most current sci fi that I have tried to enjoy seem to go out of their way to go down this path. It reminds me of why I was never, or am ever going to follow in the footsteps of my childhood friend's trekkie family.

Take a look at the Prime Directive as defined in the Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses:
No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.
Please note how antithetical it is to the Great Commandment:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen. — Matthew 28:19-20
The underlying implication in the Prime Directive is that the basic assumption and world-view of Christianity is not only wrong, but destructive. Now, I realize that this is not necessarily something a lot of folks out there will have a problem with, but it does speak to the question at hand.

Fantasy works extremely well for the purposes of an RPG because it is a cultural pastiche. Regardless of how alien a setting might be, there is always something familiar that players can relate to. One of the most important realities of human history is religion. There hasn't ever been a human civilization that did not have religion as part of its make-up (though we did see the disastrous attempts of wiping religion out in the horror show that was the 20th century). Even D&D acknowledges this with the inclusion of the Cleric class (with a clear nod to Christianity in OD&D, no less.)

Star Trek rejects this reality, and is representative of a lot of science fiction today. In fact, Star Trek rejects most of human history — as can be seen over and over again by the embarrassment the shows have for the way we have behaved in the past (and even the outright rejection of its own history).

In other words, science fiction has a tendency to ignore, try to move beyond or outright reject the cultural pastiche that makes fantasy RPGs so accessible.


  1. I must just be reading different science fiction than you, Father (not that I read all that much, but I occasionally try my hand)...religion and religious questions often seen a cultural backdrop to the works I've been reading, including Bradley's Darkover books, the Dune series (at least the original works), Orson Scott Card's Ender books, post-apocalyptic fiction like The Canticles of Leibowitz...even Stirling's books have more than a sprinkling of religion (though emphasis would be on the Wiccan religion, at least in his Dies the Fire series).

    But then, I was never a fan of Asimov or most "hard" scifi. My one buddy that was actually ended up going off to seminary and becoming a Dominican...
    : )

  2. Fantasy and science-fiction really aren't as separate as you think. What are the Vulcans and the Romulans if not cultural pastiches of real civilisations? And I've never read a science-fiction story that didn't have someone or something I could relate to. Star Trek in particular is all about the human drama and discovering foreign-but-familiar cultures. But I'd agree hard sci-fi is as accessible as a scientific article.

    Personally, I'm wishy-washy sort-of-new-ageish when it comes to religious questions, but I can spot the fatal flaw in both the Directive and the Commandment: No consideration for the wishes of others. I can think of a number of occasions where the clause "unless they really, really need you to" to the Prime Directive would come in handy, and cases where the clause "unless they'd really rather you didn't" to the Great Commandment would be far more compassionate.

    As far as I've seen, in Star Trek, the whole point of the Prime Directive is to think before you break it. It's playing it safe. It's knowing people have a tendency of meddling in the affairs of others and making a mess, and reminding yourself that even if it seemed like a good idea at the time, you still have to face the consequences of your actions.

  3. JB,

    Oh, I read all those things...a long time ago. I am more referring to more recent encounters I've had. I will acknowledge that religion as a concept does get some play; however, I find that most of it isn't historically honest (which is a nice way of saying that Christianity has had a huge impact on human history and yet it very rarely plays a role in most sci fi).

  4. Maroon,

    I am not arguing that Star Trek is completely void of all cultural pastiche, I am arguing that what it has pales in comparison with the culture that it specifically rejects. I'll deal with the similarities of Sci Fi and Fantasy in a later post...

    I would kindly disagree with you about the Great Commandment, by the way. The "unless they'd really rather you didn't" is understood. God cannot make us do anything we don't want to without destroying His image and likeness (thus, He doesn't). He is ultimately free, therefore we are created with free will. We are always free to accept Him or reject Him. As you pointed out, the Prime Directive never allows anyone that choice.

  5. And yet Trek prominently features captains who ignore the Prime Directive in favor of compassionate intervention when necessary. Their sense of the good overrides adherence to the law. The Admiralty in Trek often represents the negative aspects of establishment and bureaucracy, but our "man on the scene" often goes with his or her gut and does what a Christian would consider "the right thing." Clearly the Prime Directive is also a device for establishing conflict between heroes and headquarters. That, too, is a part of the human condition Star Trek explores.

  6. The Admiralty in Trek often represents the negative aspects of establishment and bureaucracy, but our "man on the scene" often goes with his or her gut and does what a Christian would consider "the right thing."

    Certainly this does happen, but when the base line is a politically correct utopia, rather than a world based on shared human experience even this conflict feels forced. In addition, with Christianity substituted by a ship's counselor, "the right thing" isn't necessarily the right thing (from a Christian POV). This is particularly true of TNG where forced euthanasia was once deemed "the right thing."

  7. I apologize for the lateness of this comment.

    In the true Star Trek (a.k.a. "The Original Series") there were numerous positive references to Christianity and monotheism. The captain's surname is Kirk, which means "church," the nurse's surname is Chapel, Uhura mentions the Son of God in reference to what is obviously a native Christian movement in "Bread and Circuses," and there are other references as well. Roddenberry was very fond of promoting the compassionate aspects of Christianity. At the same time, he took delight in depicting aliens of "godlike" power as tyrants, especially if they expected or demanded worship. The idea of the Prime Directive was not meant to prevent any exchange of ideas, but to prevent the exploitation of primitive people by their technological superiors. Insofar as the Federation's technology is godlike in comparison to that of a primitive civilization, there would be a temptation by unscrupulous spacefarers to portray themselves as gods and a tendency for primitive people to assume such visitors were gods even if they claimed not to be. The original Prime Directive was created in the interest of supporting a form of exploration that would not have the catastrophic consequences that it had in the Age of Sail. I would call this not a rejection of history, but a strenuous attempt to avoid repeating the errors of the past.

    Most of the moral crimes committed in the name of the Prime Directive occur in the spin-offs such as TNG, and it is just one of many examples of both revisionism and political correctness that plague the spin-offs. (As far as I've always been concerned, everything after the original series is an alternate universe. The contradictions are staggering in their magnitude and numerousness.) I, too, found it disturbing, but it doesn't taint or change the meaning of the original Star Trek no matter how much later writers and producers would like to.

    As an aside, I would also point out that there are strong arguments that the Federation in the original show was a lot less utopian than is often claimed. There is ample evidence of an economy based on private wealth (with wily traders, Orion pirates, and rich dilithium miners); there are plenty of alien diseases to make up for the Earthly ones that have been eradicated; and human imperfection remains a common affliction at all levels of society.

    1. Yes, the original Star Trek under Roddenberry was vastly superior to what followed and there are a lot of things to like about it from a Christian perspective; however, the underlying assumptions of the Prime Directive are still anti-Christian and ahistorical.

      We tout the 15th-17th centuries as great eras of exploration (and exploitation) as if ancient peoples didn't or couldn't travel long distances or that ancient societies were somehow on more of a level playing field when it came to technology. Both of these assumptions are false. The ancients travelled far and wide (remember, both St. Thomas and Alexander the Great went all the way to India). There have also been great disparities in technology. Trust me, both the chariot and the stirrup had just as a significant an affect on the warfare of their time as did the gun. Thus, the interaction of radically different civilizations of different tech levels has been happening since the beginning of time.

      Thus, Prime Directive comes out of a sense of anti-Westernism that sees all cultures as equally valid. The West, in its ascent to predominance, must have cheated and done great and evil things. No doubt that bad things happened, but they always do and no civilization is guilt-free. To single out the West is historically dishonest.

      One of the reasons the West has been as successful as it has is due to the Christian foundation upon which it was built. Thus, the Prime Directive, by its ahistorical and anti-Western assumptions, is a corrosive attack upon Christianity.

      This is born out when we see what happened to Star Trek after Roddenberry. Those basic assumptions (including the nascent utopianism) were simply brought to the fore and the results were some pretty awful and offensive stuff.

    2. The Prime Directive was conceived with good intentions, but we know how that sometimes goes.

    3. ;) Unfortunately, yes we do...