#19: Genre-ic Plot Seeds, Part Five: The Fantastic SF Genres
Editor’s Note: The initial Fifth Imperium column was published on the RPG.Net website in July 2009, and appeared in Freelance Traveller’s initial issue in November 2009. This column originally appeared on the RPG.Net website in June 2011, and appeared in Freelance Traveller's July 2011 issue.
In previous articles in this series, I’ve talked about using other genres to seed your Traveller adventures. I’d planned to finish up the topic this month by covering some of the far-flung science-fiction subgenres that you could incorporate into your Traveller game. However, I found more to talk about than I had space for, so I've decided to cover the more fantastic SF subgenres this month, with some more scientific options next time.
The Space Opera SubGenre
The SF subgenre most suited for Traveller is probably the space opera genre. The definition of the phrase varies, but most use it to refer to “the good ’ole” stuff: the SF of the ’40s and ’50s which tended to focus on over-the-top melodrama set almost entirely in outer space.
In Traveller the varied governments across Charted Space offer the best possibilities for Space Opera adventures. PCs could be leading negotiations between these interstellar governments or they could be having desperate adventures amidst a war. They could be dealing with a huge exodus of Vargr from the Vargr Extents into the Imperium (for reasons unknown) or tears in the fabric of time and space itself.
To a certain extent, any other genre can be made Space Opera by increasing the scale. If you have a sun about to go nova that puts a planet at risk, which could result in a science story (which I’ll talk about next month). However, if there's an Ancient Psychic Bomb that’s going to destroy an entire sector at Jump-1 speed, that’s Space Opera. So to create an adventure within the genre, take an existing plot hook and crank it up five notches.
Traveller References. The Fifth Frontier War of the original Traveller and the Civil War of MegaTraveller both offered the opportunity for Space Opera stories. FASA’s Ordeal by Eshaar was one of the adventures that took advantage of this: it gave PCs the ability to affect the Fifth Frontier War as a whole. However, it was Traveller: The New Era which really pushed Space Opera ideas into the universe through its backstory mysteries. The Vampire Highway which cut across the Imperium, the mystery of the Black Curtain around the Core sectors, and (most notably) The Empress Wave—which was moving toward the Imperium, destroying the Zhodani Consulate in its wake—all offered up large-scale and potentially melodramatic plots.
Other References. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation are often offered up as examples of classic Space Opera. David Brin’s Uplift Universe, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, and Charles Stross' Eschaton books are suggested as more modern Space Opera writings.
The Planetary Romance SubGenre
The Planetary Romance subgenre of SF is a mirror image to Space Opera. Whereas Space Opera is melodramatic SF adventure that happens in space, Planetary Romance is melodramatic SF adventure that happens on a romanticized planetary surface (and which may include romance too, for that matter).
To get your Traveller PCs involved in Planetary Romance stories, you need to set them down on a planet with a generally low-tech level, give them swords, shields, and the very occasional ray gun, and watch what happens. Giving them princesses to woo and monsters to battle would also go a long way.
How would you do so? An ancient artifact could teleport the PCs to a planet without their tech or it could take them to another universe where technology works differently. Simple law level restrictions could keep the PCs’ high-tech weapons off a planet. Cultural restrictions could also cause planetary leaders to insist that players take on tasks using only low-tech items. As with many subgenres, you’ll be able to pull off the genre (or not) based on how well you support its theming: pulpish adventure and romance.
Traveller References. Traveller skirts around Planetary Romance every time it features a primitive society: Nomads of the World-Ocean may be the most successful, as it offers a society that mixes low-tech with the occasional technological wonder, generally pushes the players to integrate into that society, and has some opportunity for romance. FASA’s Uragyad’n of the Seven Pillars offered another cultural immersion.
Other References. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom is usually considered the definitive Planetary Romance series. Leigh Brackett and many others followed. A lot of the SF books that Paizo is publishing under their Planet Stories brand are Planetary Romance.
The Science Fantasy SubGenre
At various times, the Space Opera and Planetary Romance subgenres have both been considered Science Fantasy—which is most simply a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. I mention it here to cover the whole spectrum, but you could probably classify most “Science Fantasy” stories instead using one of the other two subgenres covered in this article.
Other References. Star Wars is likely the best-known Science Fantasy out there. But it’s really Space Opera with the “fantasy” tuner turned really high.
By looking at subgenres of SF you should discover plenty of ideas for Traveller adventure hooks. This article offered some concrete ideas for how to do so by covering the more fantastic SF subgenres, including Science Fantasy itself and its two twinned children: Space Opera and Planetary Romances. Next month I’m going to finish off the topic (honestly, this time!) with a look at scientific SF subgenres, like the Science genre itself, the Cyberpunk genre, and the Transhuman genre.