I started refereeing our usual Monday night game tonight, picking up where we left off at the beginning of summer.
Unlike my usual medieval fantasy fare, I'm branching out into new, unfamiliar territory: sci-fi. Thinking back on my refereeing history, I cannot remember running a campaign in an original sci-fi world, and I certainly never refereed sci-fi of the stripe I'm running now: "hard" sci-fi with a dark edge to it. Back in the day, I played Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, and Star Frontiers (sadly, I never tried Traveller), but to be honest, these are just fantasy games with sci-fi trappings. They don't cleave closely to what sci-fi is really about: exploring who we are and where we are going as a society. Those other games just replace orcs with aliens and dragons with bugblatter beasts, and call it a day.
I'm going for realism, plausibility, and social commentary with this campaign, and even though we've only played one session, I think I'm off to a good start, but man, is it difficult. I'm way out of my comfort zone here. Even though both fantasy and sci-fi worlds are fictive and require answering questions on the fly about geography, social norms, economics, technology, etc., the bar is higher when it comes to sci-fi, because if it's going to be believable, there has to be two things that you don't need in fantasy: (a) a plausible path from "now" to the time the game world is set in, and (b) enough creative looking ahead to make it sci-fi without becoming ridiculous. Magic in a fantasy setting, it turns out, provides the would-be referee with a lot of crutches, because you can literally get away with anything when magic is in the mix. To a certain extent, you can do that with sci-fi technology, but the bullshit detectors of the players is a lot harder to get around when you're trying to achieve realistic technology.
I may have bitten off more than I can chew. The fictive universe of this new campaign is not Star Wars or Star Trek. It's as realistic as I could make it while still allowing some of the sci-fi tropes I wanted to bring in, such as visiting other star systems on some kind of reasonable time scale for telling stories. There are no alien intelligences in this game world - humans are all there are. Life, it turns out, is (relatively) abundant in the universe, but the vast majority of it is bacteria, algae, and the like, with a rare planet boasting more complex forms. I felt good about taking this approach, thanks to recent discoveries in Astronomy, but it still omits a LOT of the standard sci-fi storylines. Mars needs women, but it's just in the usual way that Earth needs women, because humans live there now.
So your typical space opera is out, which begs the question: what are the details of what is in? I'm having to flesh out a game universe that is a lot more detailed than I usually create. Already, in this first session, even with all the thinking and prep work I did, I ran into a whole slew of questions that needed adjudication on the spot. How do people back up their data in the future? How do people share contact information? What do peoples' living quarters look like? How has law enforcement technology changed over the years? How much surveillance is there? How do people go to the bathroom (do we still use paper, or are there the "three seashells")? How has religion changed?
Ultimately, though, that stuff doesn't matter. My players are smart and in it for fun, so if I screw something up, they can handle me retroactively changing stuff if I really have to. What matters is setting a compelling challenge at the players' feet, and that, thankfully, is the same task as in any system or game world. Even with all the starfaring and high technology that is available in this new universe, it's a human story they'll be exploring: understanding the death of a beloved friend. Emotion is the hook. Hopefully, that will make the story worth experiencing for me and for my players.
We'll see if I can pull it off. Wish me luck.