I’m currently running my nephews through a Mandalorian-inspired Starfinder campaign. I tweaked some rules to make it more accessible for 10 year olds and took our game to the stars.
We had been playing D&D 5e and had good fun with meat and potatoes adventuring that included silly goblins, gruff bugbears, and lots and lots of magical items. But as is understandable, a group of energetic and curious young people wanted to get a little wild.
So, we shifted from fantasy to science fiction. The shift meant I’ve had time to ponder the differences and similarities of the genres. In short, you can’t just play them interchangeably, so let’s talk about that for a moment.
Roleplaying Differences Between Fantasy and Science Fiction Settings
First, fantasy roleplaying settings outsell science fiction roleplaying settings and systems by a factor of about a gazillion. Why is that? Why is fantasy so popular in roleplaying, leaving science fiction a distant number 2?
Fantasy roleplaying has a smooth progression arc.
Think about fantasy and how it progresses. You start out killing giant rats, then you slowly progress up through goblins to owl bears until you eventually find your party toe-to-toe with a red dragon.
Best, it’s a long escalation path as well, which sets things up nicely for long-form storytelling that allows a dungeon master to introduce a few low level henchmen that after months and months creates a trail that leads to the big bad.
Mechanically, the skills and abilities the character adds are spread out evenly and in a smooth arc over weeks and months. Science fiction plays a bit differently than that. When interstellar travel is possible, why not just zip over and zap the bad guy with the laser rifle you are wielding? Fantasy forces the party to level up the wizard to gain access to a teleportation spell, whereas science fiction may introduce unintended power curves with alien technology.
Fantasy explains away a lot of “um, actuallys..”
Fantasy can account for a lot of weird bullmarlarky by simply saying, “A wizard did it.”
My nephews love getting magical items, so I throw the loot at them. Never once have they received a magical sword and asked, “How does it work?” Well, it’s magic. Magic makes it work.
But roughly 100% of the technological items they’ve received in our Starfinder campaign have been met with, “How does it work?” It’s tech, after all. So the lasers can be explained, the mechanical broken down, and the systems studied.
Starfinder bills itself as science fantasy, which is excellent, as it allows for that touch of mystery that is necessary to keep imagination alive. [Read this if you want to dive more into the importance of science fantasy.]
Nothing does this better than Star Wars though. But that’s because Star Wars is also science fantasy, with Jedi being the space wizards of the party. (Incidentally, although some swear by the decision, this is one reason why the introduction of midichlorians was so baffling.)
Fantasy resonates because it is familiar.
Nerds often roll their eyes at the familiar tropes of fantasy, but familiarity is a powerful thing the allows the quick introduction of setting material. When a dwarf is mentioned, there is a basic understanding, despite the fact that dwarves are entirely fictional.
Fantasy tropes like elves are part of our common cultural lexicon, whereas introducing a Zolt from the planet Zart requires a lot of explanation. When you are asking people to use their imagination, having the familiar tropes of fantasy to hook onto is a welcome thing for lots of people.
Sure, fantasy can feel relatively static, but science fiction represents a constantly moving target in terms of design decisions.
Fantasy can be a remarkably big tent.
Fantasy, in fact, can CONTAIN other settings, something that is best illustrated in large, sprawling video game settings like Diablo that include zones with distinct historical flavor, like Egyptian or Viking, or the Western of Firefly.
Well done science fiction will actually incorporate this. Stargate, for example, blends military and science fiction, yet it achieved that by drawing on visual cues for history. The “big bad” of Stargate was Egyptian themed in order to pull in some familiarity for audiences, and many of the star gates were linked to planets that pulled visual cues from other historical cultures.
Fantasy doesn’t leave us grasping at straws
When it comes to science fiction, it can be incredibly hard for us to imagine what is even possible. If you look at illustrations from the early 1900s of what people thought would be possible in the year 2000, most of them are rooted in technology of the era. They may have been close on their prediction of handheld communication devices, but their illustrations were far clunkier than the smartphones we carry in our pockets today.
Science fiction isn’t easy to picture. We are grounded by what we currently know, and even with the wide swathes of imagination in our noggins, there is something intangible about the unknown. Fantasy, on the other hand, somehow lends us a more favorable brush with which to paint.
Magic, swordplay, goblins…we’ve seen it so many times that it’s practically second nature. But even Star Wars hardly presented much crazier technology than what we have now. Laser pistols are just better guns, spaceships aren’t terribly innovative, and even hyperspace is hand-waved with bright lights streaking past the cockpit. Laser swords are arguably the most innovative Star Wars invention, and those are just better swords! Looking at you fantasy!
All this is to say, we somehow relate to fantasy because we perceive that it’s all in the past. Despite the magical possibilities, we don’t have to explain the how behind science fiction technology. After all, we’re playing games as recreation, not trying to figure out complex astrophysics.
Science fiction and fantasy both have their benefits, and they’re both very enjoyable to dabble in. Whichever you prefer, know that they’re both different sides of a very fun coin.