Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Genre Conventions and Definitions

In the Burning Empires Approval Copies thread, Jon and Joshua started a discussion about just exactly what it is that makes an SF RPG qualify as SF.

Without putting too many words in their mouths, I think I can sum up the bare bones of their arguments as follows:
  • Jon believes that Sci-Fi color is all that is required to make a game Sci-Fi.
  • Joshua is taking the stance that SF (quoting from a post of his at Story Games) "is a genre in which human conflicts take place that can only happen in the environment of the story."
The perspicacious among you (and I expect that's all of you) have noticed that I used different terms to designate each version of science fiction. More than just a difference of opinion between Jon and Joshua, it's one that divides a lot of genre fandom.

Interestingly, I think Burning Empires can straddle the divide and come down on either side depending on the priorities of the players. By default, Burning Empires is a space opera game, which would align it with Jon's Sci-Fi argument (as Guy noted, Star Wars is a fantasy, not science fiction, unless you accept the Sci-Fi argument).

On the other hand, the World Burner and Technology Burner allow Burning Empires players to focus on how particular technologies and environments might affect human conflicts, if that interests them.

Joshua's Shock:, on the other hand, is designed to provide a laser focus on that particular type of story.

So, with that as a primer, let's open this topic up for discussion. We don't need to restrict ourselves to science fiction either. Feel free to discuss what it is that is essential to establish a particular genre, and why.


monkeyking said...

Thanks, Thor!

I don't know too much about Burning Empires, aside from a few sentences said to me while I was afevered, but it sounds to me like two-fisted adventure tales (with the BW focus on character motivation). I'm really excited to see that become a real thing; I obviously love science fiction of whatever variety, so long as it's talking about something. Michael Crichton, of all people, got me thinking about some stuff with Jurassic Park and Sphere, fer Pete's fuck. I love the Martian Chronicles, though they had little to do with science and technology even in the time they were written.

But my feeling is that SF games have been fantasy stuff, heroic cycle generators, with SF stuff taped on such that you could never play an RPG of The World of Null-A, or Solaris, or Holy Fire. So we call Cyberpunk a science fiction game because there's nothing to fill that niche, and it kinda looks like cyberpunk, kinda. But I think we have an opportunity to put some stuff in that niche that really belongs there now.

The reason you can't — and seriously, you can't — play those stories with the rules that exist is that classes of stories like those I just mentioned are deeply antithetical to Fantasy stuff: combat is rare and often ugly; the inexplicable, when there is such a factor, is unique in that the world is otherwise understood rationally; the concerns are those of the society (on whatever scale the story chooses to exist) and not merely the individual.

Taking Burning Wheel and adding to it technologies, aliens, or what-have-you will refine it to use that color to tell the kinds of stories BW is best at facilitating: character drama. It sounds like fun and I look forward to playing because I know and love the color (at least in the broad sense) and love playing the kind of story that (I think) it generates.

Now, I've only played Burning Wheel once, in a demo with Luke. It was a ball. It was the ugliest, most realistic fight I've ever played out in an RPG. It was hilarious. What made it work was the individual motivations of the characters and the incompatibility of those motivations. That's great stuff! But it doesn't really address the society-wide effects of the players' actions.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Joshua said: "Now, I've only played Burning Wheel once, in a demo with Luke. It was a ball. It was the ugliest, most realistic fight I've ever played out in an RPG. It was hilarious. What made it work was the individual motivations of the characters and the incompatibility of those motivations. That's great stuff! But it doesn't really address the society-wide effects of the players' actions.

You're right, Burning Wheel doesn't do that stuff. It's all about the in your face, personal action.

But Burning Empires does. The Infection mechanics make the conflict play out at the personal/micro level and the big picture/macro level at the same time. Your actions at the personal level have important ramifications for the big picture.

Through the Infection, you set out to change your world. And you will be changed by it in turn.

Whether you use those tools to focus on speculative issues or to address current events in some way is up to the group, however.

The speculative issues are not hard coded the way I understand they are in Shock:.

Anyway, I think it would be very useful if you could define what you think science fiction is, and why.

monkeyking said...

This sounds like a wicked fun game, Thor.

OK, my shot at a definition of science fiction (with a healthy nod to the Wikipedia article, which I think is pretty good):

Science Fiction proposes a radical shift in perspective for the viewer/reader/player/..., either explicitly ("Aliens have landed and are pushing our children to leave us for the stars.") or implicitly ("This digital life is fucking weird, but if this kind of thing can exist and live, imagine what they'll have evolved into by next year!")

I accent the recipient of the fiction because all the action is happening there. If I say, "OK, so there's this star-spanning empire, and it's collapsing under its decadent weight. And then there's this ray of hope, an intellectual secret society that carefully guides the empire back to enlightenment," what you start doing is figuring out what that means: what "empire" means, what "intellectual" means, what "secret society" means, all with regard to your own socio/politico/economic life. Maybe you think, "Oh, if only the smart people were in charge of the world." or maybe you think, "That kind of power can do nothing but corrupt." You're not really thinking about the color — I haven't given you any, and Asimov is surprisingly miserly with it (though better than Herbert). But that stuff means something to you.

Now, I'm hesitant to say that John Carter of Mars isn't science fiction, too. They called it "science fantasy" when it first emerged, but even so, there was still a fair amount of (perhaps unintentional) social consideration; the whole thing is a metaphor for colonization by imperial powers and the civilization it brings. But, really, it's adventure in the Alan Quatermain vein: the metaphor isn't ever questioned, and Burroughs might have just been defaulting to the mores of the day.

So, really, to me, the distinction between fantasy and science fiction is the scale of the operation: is this a Cambellian Hero Cycle thing, a metaphor for personal growth and a tale of a hero outside of society? Or is this a tale of a society in flux, where the protagonists represent stances on the issues presented?

monkeyking said...

Oh, something that can do both? Awesome. I'd be super excited to see it. But I never have.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Thanks Joshua! Ok, Jon, you're up. Give us your definition and reason. Anyone else out there is also welcome to jump in!

In the meantime...

Joshua said: "Oh, something that can do both? Awesome. I'd be super excited to see it. But I never have."

Let's put it this way: I think you'd have to try very hard to not make a statement about politics and economics in the face of an enemy that seeks to subvert your society if you play the game as written. So at the very least, I think players will be addressing issues that concern us as people today, through a lens of speculative fiction. Many Asimov stories do just this.

Those who want to go further and make issues of technology and alien environmental conditions into core issues will have the tools to do so, but it is not a core focus of the game.

If we want to make our Usurpation Phase game about the legality and ethics of Psychology (as in Asimov's Second Foundation) as pertains to mind reading and mind control, we can do so. But we could just as easily make an Usurpation Phase game about special agents attempting to bring down a conspiracy that reaches up to the highest levels of their government, or plotting a coup.

Jon Hastings said...

Hi Thor -

Thanks for hosting!

I wrote a little bit about this on my blog, but I'll try to expand and/or clarify things a little here.

My definition of Science Fiction might be kind of tautological, but I think it is also common sensical: Science Fiction books/movies/etc. are the kind of books/movies/etc. that people generally think of as being Science Fiction.

The Wikipedia article that Joshua linked to puts it this way: " Any story, game, or film that involves extraterrestrial life, advanced space exploration, time travel, or the future is generally referred to as science fiction."

Or, as I originally commented, "Science Fiction Color = Science Fiction".

However, this is not to say that I disagree with what Joshua has written: what he's describing actually exists and is a real genre of storytelling. But, from a culture-wide perspective, what he's talking about makes up only part of what people think of when they think of Science Fiction.

For me this is kind of an Occam's Razor situation: people naturally tend to lump futuristic stories with rocketiships, robots, and galaxy-spanning empires together. Because of this, it makes sense to have a concept that includes both the Foundation series and Star Wars. We already have the phrase "Science Fiction", so, from my perspective, it makes more sense to leave it as a general, all-inclusive term, and turn to more specific terms (like Space Opera and Social Sci-Fi) when we need to differentiate among the various kinds of stories that make up the Science Fiction genre.

I have some underlying reasons for this: For one, this is what "Science Fiction" is generally understood to mean and because this is a living genre it will be defined through the interplay of audience and authors (with the critics playing a secondary role). For another, I think that the Science Fiction color - the robots, rayguns, rocketships, aliens, time machines, etc. - is an overpowering, primary draw of all these stories, despite their differences in themes/intent/purpose. It makes sense that the 14-year-old Star Wars fan turns into the 24-year-old Philip K. Dick fan - it follows naturally. It doesn't necessarily follow (and I think is probably a lot rarer) that the 14-year-old Star Wars fan is going to turn into the 24-year-old Zane Grey fan.

However, I'd point out that while I think my "inclusive" definition of Science Fiction is good for thinking of the genre in a big picture sense, I don't think it is all that useful for someone who is, say, trying to design a focused, narrativist, science fiction game (or editing a short story anthology).

Finally, on the previous post Guy wrote that he thought Star Wars was "unabashedly" fantasy. Well, I'd never argue that Star Wars isn't fantasy, but, for me, that doesn't mean it isn't Science Fiction, too. However, I would quibble with Guy's use of the word "unabashedly". It's not that I think George Lucas is hiding the fantasy roots of Star Wars, per se, but by adding in all that hi-tech, Science Fiction color (the genetics of Jedi, cloning, cybernetics, etc.) he's certainly obscuring the issue a bit.

Anyway, I'm really not trying to convince anyone of anything except that thinking of Science Fiction as a more general, inclusive term has been very useful to me.

Thanks again for hosting this Thor, and thanks Joshua for your thoughtful response!

All the best,