I came across an interest blog post on the difficulties of science fiction (and especially cyberpunk) settings, the case in point being that they can lead to nihilistic behavior in characters that is hard to GM for as it can derail storylines or make planning challenges for the players moot. I found some of the arguments persuasive, as I’ve seen similar problems in these settings — both as a player and a gamemaster — but I also found that much of this was due to the style of the GM and campaign, as well as the type of players that were at the table.

Starting with the subject of cyberpunk settings. This was a genre which was influenced mostly by noir-style detective/crime fiction (by William Gibson’s own admission, much of his early stuff was built on the style of Elmore LEonard and others of his ilk.) These universes are almost universally oppressive — government and corporative entities hold tight sway over the population either through police might or economic serfdom. The characters were almost always down-and-out street dwellers or criminals (even the wealthy characters.) They were often just trying to thrive ans survive — a setting that is intrinsically nihilistic. That’s the draw. However, the characters often found their fight against these powers-that-be to mold their perceptions — they gain empathy for people (Case and Molly in Neuromancer), they get their impressions of success shattered (Sarah from Hardwired), even when they are part of the system they get screwed (Deckard and Rachel in Balde Runner.)

For a gamemaster to run a campaign of this nature, you have to either embrace being the bad guys or you have to have a very specific goal for the characters as players and the GM…beyond “I wnat to be a bad ass that doesn’t take shit from anyone.” The ways to do this are evidenced in the complaints about the genre in the above cited piece. Cyberpunk (0r Serenity, which he cites later) is an environment where you are always outgunned, outfoxed, outmanned, and ultimately, your fate is not your own. It’s a world of control — so high-powered weapons aren’t as common as you would like. They’re there, they’re expensive, and the people that deal in them aren’t too trusting of strangers — instead of simply toddling over to Guns R Us, you make finding big f’ing guns an episode itself. (I’ve done this often with espionage campaigns where the host agency doesn’t arm the characters in denied countries to avoid legal entanglements…when they need guns, they’ve got to find them on their own. Think the gun buying scene from Ronin…)

The cops have better guns. And more of them. Probably non-lethal stuff, too; use of the latter means your characters don’t die in a blaze of glory — they go to jail, get their cybernetics stripped out, whatever… Use GM fiat (but on the sly!) to reign the players in, if needed. Hit them in other places — family, friends, have their accounts hacked. Get creative.

Or…you work together to define the campaign. Serenity is one of those universes that isn’t “cyberpunk” but is criminal oriented, if you follow the tropes of the movie, and the TV show Firefly. The good guys are forced to crime by an unyielding, meddlesome government and their own intransigence to opt into a corrupt system. Make good guys gone bad, have their heartstrings pulled with jobs that go south ala The Train Job or that protect the “innocent” or powerless (Heart of Gold).

I would submit that science fiction is not unusual in these problems, and would refute the idea that it lends instantly to more powerfully equipped characters, as opposed to a fantasy game setting. Point of fact, I would suggest that the latter is much more individualistic and prone to violence, save where the critter you’re fighting is immune to the effects of your weapons, or can turn them against you. (If you have aliens in your sci-fi campaign, you can achieve the same effect. How many times in Star Trek are creatures immune to phasers but not physical damage…so where’s the damned .45s?) Sword-wielding adolescents out to slaughter scores of “monsters” (genocide? racism?) so they can pilfer their stuff — sounds like the same problem to me. In fact, it’s why I don’t like fantasy settings — well, that and they’re all derivative of the Tolkein with a twist syndrome to my eye.

I would suggest that the problem is 1) players with a power gamer mentality — where the play is a chance to self-actualize through violence, anti-social behavior, and a touch of narcissism. There’s a place for that at the right table and more power to ’em…just not mine. Players interested in role playing — in taking on a character with flaws, as well as big biceps and a sword — tend to be more interested in the storyline, in the characters they interact with. You have less of the power gamer’s direct action and more subtlety.

Example: I played in a poorly GM’d Shadowrun campaign that was the typical hack-n-slash players with big ass guns. They were loud, boorish, and had the same sense of invincibility problem mentioned in the other blog. I decided to play a professional elven Irish terrorist. We were supposed to rob a bank for some reasons (it’s been 17 years since this…) and the boys wanted to do the usual big gun bash. I convinced people to do it quick, surgical, and with as little violence as possible…why? To not only do the job, but get away with it Scot-free. The change of style this brought to the game lessened the fighting, but increased the role playing, character cooperation, planning, subtly. And it was fun.

2) Campaigns that don’t have some kind of story arc — even a vague one — are prone to drift in a way that makes them difficult to plan for, and to keep the players on track or even interested. I’ve found that my best campaigns always had some sort of Omega point that the characters were aiming for. Sometimes, once reached, you could throw them another target; sometimes that was the end of the game.

For example, several long-running Star Trek campaigns grew out of what was to be a mini-campaign…but I had a clear vision of the universe where machine intelligence like Data was becoming more commonplace, and the slow decay of the Federation society through sloth brought about by generations of people not working for a living and spending all their time in adult education classes (Ever notice that, besides Starfleet and the occasional sicentist, everyone in the TNG and after universe were mostly artists?) The machines were taking over and trying to save the biological creatures by reintroducing artificial scarcity and other reasons for people to strive. Each campaign was a piece of that storyline with a different set of characters involved in some way.

Babylon 5 was even more direct: they were part of another group fighting the Shadows during the war. When the war ended, the campaign fizzled. My Serenity campaign was running well until they had effectively slipped the bonds of the Alliance and their yakuza opponents. Interest in the campaign died off after that.

I would suggest that sci-fi isn’t the problem when it comes to nihilistic behavior in a game. It’s the parameters of the game and the type of players/characters that are inhabiting it.