Monday 4 September 2017

Hints & Tips - Running A Sci-Fi Game Setting Well: 8 Tips For New GMs

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

During a game GMs come across all kinds of situations they have to deal with on the fly, but there are certain situations in Sci-Fi games that crop up again and again that can throw the everything into disarray.

The most difficult problem is if the players aren't getting 'into' the setting. GMs might look across the table at any time and see one or two of the players (and in the most extreme cases, all of them) looking a little bored or lost. This might have something to do with the way things are progressing or because they can't get a feel for the game.

So, below I've included nine ways a sci-fi GM can enhance and colourfully portray their game's setting.

Use Pictures, Photos, Printouts

Have pictures ready to hand out for certain aspects of your game so the players can better visualise their surroundings.

There are an abundance of visuals on the Internet and in books and it's good to have a visual representation of what it is you're trying to explain.

For space shots, use photographs from the Hubble Telescope, for starships there are plenty of movie and actual space agency design sketches you can utilise. Even a rough sketch by you can serve the purpose.

Base Your NPCs On Actors

Saying that the captain of the starship looks like Pierce Brosnan or the assassin looks like Angelina Jolie can take all the work out of the need for descriptions and speeds the game along. It gives the players a good point of reference if they can match the face to the name.

Choose The Right Game System

Make sure your system is suitable for the players. There's no point in running a Star Trek type of game if the players want to kick Aliens-type backside. Chopping and changing the game you have designed so that it will suit the tastes of the players is not a big job and in the long run it will serve its purpose.

Know Your Game World

Sci-Fi settings can be vast, and constantly referring to sourcebooks during play can be tedious for the players and detach them from the game setting itself if they feel the GM is not in full control. Not knowing what a certain alien is capable of, especially at a crucial point in a game, might destroy the suspension of disbelief. Also, the players not only need a GM's narrative ability, they also need to be secure in the fact that he can supply them with a tangible world.

Know The Setting As Well As The Players, If Not Better

There's no point in running a game where the players know more about the setting than you do. Let's say you're running a Star Trek game - you've seen a few of the episodes and the movies, have got the gist of the genre and know the rulebook inside out. Unfortunately, the player(s) know the series inside out, can quote lines from specified episodes and have lots and lots of supplementary books. You can see where this is going.

Situations will constantly arise where the players will say they can do something you did not foresee and you know that if they do it might Upset the route the game is taking, or make the game too easy for them

There are only so many times where you are able to say 'I can't allow that' before the players feel as though they are being restricted within a setting they know well. Also, how do you know they're not making some of these things up? Be educated in your chosen setting.

Make Sure You're Within Your Chosen Genre's Boundaries

There are generally three different types of Sci-Fi genres. These are:

'Hard Science Fiction', where the technology and physics are based on actual real-world capabilities and possibilities, with the abilities of equipment based on actual theory.

'Space Opera', where it doesn't matter how something works - it just does, and Star Wars-type action abounds with large space battles and even larger technology.

'Science Fantasy', where the powers of psionics, outlandish technology and science-altering abilities exist.

Most of these genres don't intermix, and if they do then they usually just touch on each other. If the players are running through a 'Hard' setting, with theoretically possible vessels and ecologically viable planets, and then it suddenly switches to huge laser battles and starfighters, they may find it a little disorienting. It's best that the genres are not intertwined so that the players can identify with their surroundings and are able to concentrate on exactly what is expected of them.

Be A Good Mimic

This sounds a little strange, but having a talent for vocal diversity and being able to do sound effects with your voice can help. The 'pyoo' of laser bolts, the 'brmmmm' of rumbling starships, the 'swoosh' of hovercars, the 'bloop' of computers... Yes, it all sounds very embarrassing, having to sit at the head of the table and basically rip your throat out with silly noises, but if you become good at it and it's close to the desired effect, then it can help.

Keep Things Moving

Even if the story promotes slow investigation, speed up the pace. Throw in a bad guy, have the characters get shot at, do something that will grab the players' attention. If they're suddenly cast into a life-threatening situation then they won't have time to wonder at their position in the game.