Future Imperfect – Why Sci-Fi One-Shots are Hard, and What to Do About It

In a week’s time, I’ll be at North Star – a science fiction TTRPG convention. It fills an excellent role in the con calendar, because sci-fi is underrepresented in convention gaming – and it’s easy to see why. It’s got some issues that you just don’t get with fantasy, or even horror, gaming – and the lack of a clear industry leader to hang your expectations around (like D&D or Call of Cthulhu) is just one of them. Sci-fi one shots can be hard to get prepped – and hard to sell to players – here’s why, and what to do about it.

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What in the universe is the setting?

In fantasy, you’ve got an easily-referenced source material that everyone understands – a mixed group of ne’er do wells exploring underground areas for treasure. Even when a fantasy setting is quite different to this (e.g. Glorantha) it is easily explained by listing the differences between it and D&Desque fantasy (e.g. talking ducks, lots more cows).

Sci-fi doesn’t have this central reference point. It can be pulpy or gritty, lethal or safe – and it can literally mean anything. Communicating setting and tone is really important – if you’re running a sci-fi genre that isn’t well-known, you should be really explicit about this both in your con pitch and your prep. Go over it at the start of the session as well (briefly!) and cut it to the basic details. Players need to know if they can charge into a group of stormtroopers like in Star Wars, or if they’ll be shot to pieces, like in Traveller.

An alternative, of course, is to run in an established universe that you can expect players to relate to. If you do this, though, remember that not everyone will know all the references you do. At a con, I’d say you can rely on players knowing the broad brush strokes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, and maybe Doctor Who as key sci-fi tropes. Any more than that, you’d better be prepared to be explicit. I’ve had people try to explain Blake’s Seven to me more times than I care to remember, and I’m still none the wiser.

One approach is to use an IP you’d hope players are familiar with

Build Your Sandbox with Walls

The other challenge is the sheer scope of sci-fi play. In a one-shot, you want to decide early on in your prep what the geographical scope of play is – a single city, a single planet, a system, a cluster? This, again, needs to be really explicit – while you might want a picaresque jaunt across a few fantastic locations, consider how much depth you can provide to each of them. I’ve run effective one-shots on a single planet (although if you do this, stick some stuff in for the pilot PC to do), as well as in a single city. You might not need all the setting you have – just pick the good bits.

Plot is Still Plot

Similarly, the wide open nature of sci-fi themes can be daunting. Look back to your first step, and consider what kind of game your one-shot is, and how you can promote this. Daydreaming cool scenes and sticking them together works well – for example, for Snowblind, I knew I wanted a Wampa fight and a Tauntaun chase – so I fitted the rest of the plot around them. They also don’t need to be that complicated – exploring a “derelict” orbital structure that turns out to have a deadly alien / rogue AI in it is popular because it’s a good one-shot format – remember the adage (from I think Robin Laws) that in RPGs, cliché is a  good thing.

Adding NPCs to give background to the universe helps

In terms of structuring your adventure, point-crawls are often great ways to build sci-fi one-shots – 5 Room Non-Dungeons and Three Places are also good approaches. Remember to have engaging NPCs – and a good trick is to have the NPCs hint at the broader scope of the game. Your Star Trek one-shot might be all about the Neutral Zone and tangling with Romulans, so having a subplot NPC who’s an Orion pirate or a Klingon captain shows that there’s lots more going on in the universe.

So, three things that are hard about science fiction one-shots; if you’re reading this on the blog, I’ll just be setting off back from Sheffield after North Star – there’s a fair crack I’ll have more to say about this. What successes (or challenges) have you had with science fiction gaming? Be sure to let me know in the comments.