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#20: Genre-ic Plot Seeds, Part Six: The Scientific 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 late June 2011, as the July installment, and in Freelance Traveller's August 2011 issue.

Last month I started talking about science-fiction plot seeds by discussing the more fantastic subgenres, from planetary romance to science fantasy. This month, I’m going to finish up my genre-ic series—which suggests generating plot seeds for Traveller through the use of alternate genres—by looking at more scientific science-fiction genres.

The Scientific Research Genre

I didn’t know the scientific research subgenre existed before I read Traveller adventures. The basic idea is that there’s a scientific phenomenon that must be investigated. Much of the activity comes from pure discovery, but of course there needs to be some danger as well … be it from the phenomenon itself or from scientists or other persons who are competing or interacting with the researchers in some way.

In the Traveller universe, players could investigate any number of things: alien cultures, stellar phenomenon, and planetary phenomenon are the most obvious. If you want to tie things more closely to the Traveller universe itself, build on some of the unique science of that setting. Have your players investigate the strange results of (what turn out to be) artifacts of the Ancients. Have them look at a planet that Jumps through a sequence of systems. Or, on the flip side, have them investigate something in Jump space.

Traveller References. One of the first and finest examples of this genre is GDW’s Safari Ship where the players are looking for an alien species, and then must try to understand it. “The Wardn Enigma” in DGP’s MegaTraveller Journal #1 is another interesting scientific adventure, though a bit dry. A few of Traveller’s classic “Dungeon Crawls” also had a fašade of scientific research that could easily be expanded if the GM or players were interested. These include Research Station Gamma (where PCs invade a scientific research station) and “Shadows” from Traveller Double Adventure 1 (which is more archaeological in nature).

Other References. Though I first realized the existence of this subgenre through Traveller publications, there are plenty of SF books that fit into the category too. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about it more than once, more notably in his Rendezvous with Rama books. David Brin also seems fond of the subgenre, as shown in books like Sundiver and Heart of the Comet (the latter written with Gregory Benford).

The Cyberpunk Genre

Sharon MacGuire recently wrote about the cyberpunk subgenre in her Tropes column. I highly recommend her more extended take on the subject. However, in short, cyberpunk is a dark and gritty subgenre that pairs computers, computer networking, and cyberware with faceless corporations and the general downfall of human imagination and dignity.

That’s always been a hard sell in the Traveller universe because of the game’s 1970s-based technology, which imagines huge computers and doesn’t really touch upon computer networks. While megacorps have always been a part of the Traveller universe, they’ve rarely been entirely malevolent.

The easiest way to introduce cyberpunk into your Traveller campaign is probably to focus on those megacorps. Let the players investigate a planet controlled entirely by a megacorp, which has created a dystopia for the common man. If you link the PCs up with revolutionaries, they can decide whether to help the revolution or turn it in.

Though computer networking was not a part of the original vision of the Traveller universe, you could certainly introduce it without problem, though you’ll probably still want to stay within the constraints of Traveller physics—which means no faster-than-light communication. Still, players could meet people that they only know through computer networks and even engage in virtual reality adventures if you so desire.

VR adventures could cover lots of topics. Training exercises for the next Frontier War? A virtual assault on a corporate stronghold? A virtual reality that the players think is a real adventure? Use them as you see fit. Springing a virtual reality adventure on players as if it were real might be particularly fun, as it would be less expected within the Traveller context.

Traveller References. Cyberware was recently well documented in Mongoose’s Traveller Supplement 8: Cybernetics. Advanced computers and computer networks have appeared less often in Traveller, though Traveller: The New Era was built on the core idea of an imperial-wide computer virus. Mind you, it didn’t go over too well, which suggests the problems with using the cyberpunk subgenre within Traveller.

Megacorps have been featured much more widely. Tarsus: World Beyond the Frontier and Traveller Adventure 9: Nomads of the World Ocean are just two classic adventures that used megacorps as major plot points. Those corps could easily be expanded upon and made more malevolent. Small-press publisher BITS put out a book called 101 Corporations a number of years ago.

Robots aren’t as important to the core of cyberpunk, but Blade Runner showed how they could be used to good effect. Robots have appeared a few times throughout Traveller’s history, from the original Book 8: Robots to Mongoose’s new Book 9: Robot. They were also a constant feature in The Travellers’ Digest.

Other References. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of cyberpunk works. Touchstones for the genre include the movie Blade Runner and the books Neuromancer by William Gibson, Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams, When Gravity Falls by George Alex Effinger, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson—to name just a few of the first-movers.

The Transhuman Genre

Transhumanism is probably the newest genre of science fiction. It focuses on science-fiction that’s about humanity ascending above the limitations of the human body. Some people artificially separate out posthumanism, which talks about the end result of this process, but I won’t.

One of the most important elements in transhuman science-fiction is the idea of The Singularity, where scientific progress starts to happen so fast that it all suddenly occurs almost simultaneously. The result is as often bad as it is good. Beyond that, transhuman SF is about humanity changing and bettering itself. This could begin with biological uplift and the elimination of aging and could later include cloning, custom bodies, and totally disembodied intelligences that are placed in robots or computers. On the flipside, AIs may be achieving true sentience.

Within the Traveller universe, it’s clear that technological advance up to at least TL 16 hasn’t resulted in a Singularity. However, a Singularity might result somewhere between TL 16 and the Ancients’ theoretical Tech Level of 25 or so. Finding the results of such a Singularity might make for an interesting adventure, as the players discover a civilization in absolute ruins, with AIs warring against uplifted humanity. Besides taking sides, players might have to keep the (dangerous) tech from escaping the planet or they might investigate connections between this civilization and the Ancients.

Many of the other elements of transhuman science-fiction could make for interesting plot hooks or NPCs. A fully sentient AI could introduce any number of problems: where did it come from? What does it want? How should it now be treated? Similarly, a civilization where people regularly clone themselves, uploading and downloading their memories from a wide variety of bodies, could be a very weird experience for PCs.

Traveller References. Again, Traveller’s 1970s-style science-fiction has largely kept transhumanism out of the Traveller universe. And again, one of the main exceptions is The New Era, whose Virus fits right into the idea of sentient AIs striving against humanity. However, some newer settings have pushed move on transhuman memes, most notably Twilight Sector.

Other References. Until recently, Caprica was proudly flying the flag as the first truly transhuman SF show. It didn’t last long. Stargate Universe also featured some transhuman elements. In the world of printed fiction, David Brin’s Kiln People offers a brilliant look at downloading memories from multiple bodies (though its ending unfortunately flops). Charles Stross’ Eschaton books and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space books have also touched upon transhuman themes.

Closer to home, GURPS Transhuman Space may have been the first RPG to explore the concepts of transhuman SF, while the indie Eclipse Phase is a newer take on the topic.

Conclusion

Throughout this series of articles, I’ve tried to suggest how focusing on a new genre can give you easy plot hooks to build upon. I think that’s as true for these subgenres of science-fiction as it was for some of the more farflung genres I’ve covered, from mystery to fantasy.

And that ends my looks at different genres. I’ve got one last topic I want to cover in this column: a look at the Spinward Marches and where within them you might want to place your own campaign. I’m going to wait until I get a copy of Mongoose Publishing’s new Spinward Encounters before I write that piece, but when I have it in hand I'll be back here—in a month or two—to finish off this column.