“What’s that?” you ask as the blip on your tracker comes to life. You look to your left through the thick jungle brush and squint as if that will allow you to see more clearly. All that’s in view are smooth bark trees, hanging vines, and some of the deadliest insects on this planet. Gesturing to the others of the expedition to wait, you pull out the cold scanner and run a track in an arc. Although faint, there is something about 200 paces off the animal trail you’ve been following for hours. By now the expedition lead has made her way back to you requesting what’s the hold up. After a minute of explaining the data you’ve found, she sighs and nods over in the direction of your detection, giving you the go-ahead to take two others and catch up as soon as you can with the rest as they continue on to Mesa Giarde. With trepidation you call out for Richard and Boz to follow behind as you step through the jungle to discover what lies just out of sight.
I’ve recently gotten heavily involved in more science fiction settings since Monte Cook’s Numenera and Green Ronin’s Titansgrave have come out. One reason is because I have a wider range of development to discover. What I mean by that is in a traditional fantasy setting, even if something the players stumble on is 1000s of years old, it still has to look primitive or else you risk bringing them out of the medieval setting immersion. Structures must be built using stone, wood, or mud because steel beams would not fit the setting or any years prior to it. Although one could make their setting a true “dark ages” by creating a world that has become primitive after all knowledge of technology was lost, similar to Numenera, but even that eliminates the true fantasy feeling because sooner or later someone is going to discover ancient tech.
Those who are educated enough in history often automatically relate to any setting we play in to our own conception of history. In other words, if we are playing a fantasy setting, we generally will feel we are in Western Europe around 1100 A. D. Our minds lock in that the Industrial revolution hasn’t occurred yet even if that has nothing to do with the setting’s future. Our imagination may be strong to come up with amazing wonders, but when it boils down to it, we have to associate everything in our mind to perceptions of reality. Even when we think of the most outrageously fantastical thing, we are drawing in things we already know and have seen to create the image.
For example, try to imagine a color that doesn’t exist in the color spectrum. You can’t. Why not? We have imagination, don’t we? It’s because until we witness or experience something that we can associate with it, it is impossible for us to truly create something that has absolutely no connection to anything we have seen already.
Returning back to the subject at hand of science fiction settings, we have a wider spectrum of ideas to create our world’s reality. The farther we are in the future, the more history we have in the past. If an expedition comes across an old castle in ruins, even though you’re in a science fiction setting, players will accept that discovery easier because we associate our own history of the Middle Ages being at some point in the past. Otherwise, we might hesitate and pull ourselves back out of the immersion we have of the setting.
One of my favorite discoveries to throw at players is an abandoned structure. I tend to feel that abandoned structures in a fantasy setting have become legendary and well known with a story behind it. Sometimes you may come across an abandoned house or the like in the middle of nowhere, but I definitely feel a difference in atmosphere between stumbling upon an abandoned building in a fantasy/medieval setting and one in a science fiction setting. I usually have to add atmosphere outside the building in a fantasy setting such as thick fog or darkness to make it eerie. An abandoned structure in a science fiction setting is ominous any time of day because generally something went terribly wrong to those who used to dwell inside. The same thing happening in a mansion in broad daylight doesn’t quite have the same sense of dread as you enter it. Again, it may associate with our perception of what to expect from a fantasy setting. Dungeons may remove that as you can enter one during the middle of the day and have a sense of dread as the light grows dark rapidly once inside.
Let me give you an example. In the movie Pitch Black, a group of crash victims on a deserted planet stumble upon a house with a broken shuttle outside. The sun is out, it’s a bright, hot day as they explore the facility. Clues are strung about the building as they slowly find new pieces to the puzzle of why this place is now empty and what happened to the previous residents. There is no ominous atmosphere like darkness or fog here. It’s the reason of the abandonment that makes it feel eerie and foreboding. It’s an extremely creepy feeling that builds up during the scene. And yet, there isn’t really anything that is scary or creepy to be scene. It’s what’s lacking that makes the skin crawl.
Structures from a setting of the future generally don’t involve dungeons although they could. Usually we expect inhabitants or former inhabitants with a level of intelligence that allowed them to create the place. When their presence is removed, then mystery follows on why that occurred. If you remove expectations from any situation, you create mystery for your players. Something else now inhabits the facility, something deadly harmed the inhabitants, a threat forced them out, or they simply grew too large for the facility and relocated. Whatever the case, you’re given plenty of room to cause intrigue and fear among the players. A sense of wonder can follow as they slowly discover the truth behind the place. This is especially true when their expectations are thrown out the window. An abandoned structure gives them a quick list in their minds of what possibly happened before they even step foot inside. Once they begin exploring, however, their jaws can drop open if you give them some twists in the discovery. Perhaps the building really is to cover the entrance for an underground military base. The building could have been constructed to hold something imprisoned that confuses the players whether it needs to be imprisoned or freed. It could be an interstellar staircase to an orbiting satellite or even a passing object that is only accessible every 134 years.
It’s really on how you perceive things. If you can remove metagame thoughts associating them with our perception of reality, we are able to accept the abnormal and unusual easier. Roman era with hover cars, for example, would make most players raise an eyebrow and think “…okay” instead of accepting that that is how this particular setting is laid out and embrace it. Remember that when you’re playing any game, your character is not you. Something may seem strange to you, the player, but your character is in a world that is as typical to him/her as you are to your world. How strange would it be to an alien who does not have to sleep to witness millions of people laying down and going into some catatonic state for several hours, becoming unresponsive?
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.