Game Day: Fighting SciFi RPG Writer’s Cramp

We’re well into Episode 5 of our Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic campaign and I’ve got to say I’ve found switching gears from fantasy to science fiction harder than I expected.

It’s not that I don’t know science fiction; hell I’ve been reading it ever since I could read. But after a dozen years of playing D&D in Greyhawk, I’ve grown used to certain kinds of stories, and being able to rely on the genres familiar tropes and clichés.

In some ways, it’s a question of switching tropes and clichés; when writing fantasy (or designing a fantasy campaign) there are certain standard story ideas (the dungeon crawl, the rampaging monster, the damsel in distress, the crazed cult) you can pull out with barely a moment’s thought. Make a few tweaks, change some of the setup and whammo, you’ve got an adventure.

Now all of these can easily be used in science fiction as well, particularly in Star Wars, but this is a new game and a new setting, and I want to tell new stories as well. It’s giving them that science fiction spin that I’ve been wrestling with

The single biggest change though, is that the setting is about more than simply killing monsters and taking their stuff. Indeed, the acquisition of wealth is secondary, or even inconsequential, depending on the character. It’s about the development of the heroes through the challenges they face, not just the enemies they defeat. This isn’t to say that our previous D&D campaign didn’t have character development; we had some great story arcs, and our characters certainly evolved over time. But in Star Wars, these aspects of the game rocket to the forefront.

Then there’s the canvas. Star Wars has always been about big set pieces – ice worlds and jungle planets, giant walking war machines and ravenous rancors, cloud cities and villainous frontier towns. While not every chapter of our ongoing campaign needs to have some amazing new world for players to explore or complicated terrain for them to contend with, I want to keep things changing. I want to capture the galaxy-spanning feel that the original movies had, and creating a host of different settings is a big part of that.

It’s all enough for me to still be staring at a blinking cursor Thursday night, wondering exactly what the heck I’m going to do with the adventure on Friday. As is so often the case for me as a writer, the razor sharp clarity of a deadline is my creative savior and I’ve found most of my adventures gel over lunch, and I’m able to bang out my three-page outline in time for that night’s session.

So far, I think I’ve managed to do a pretty decent job in creating a suitable Star Wars-like setting and memorable moments to go with it. The Pirates of Zebulon Prime arc was good ol’fashioned space opera, with our heroes flying back and forth between the two worlds comprising the binary planet of Zebulon.  The Aeon Harrier’s encounter with a protostar nebula after being thrown out of hyperspace (and the skill challenge that went with it) was one of the defining moments of the early campaign. And the Harrier’s subsequent trip to the Ghostwalk Nebula in search of a shadowport where they could repair the ship wasn’t quite so memorable, but I have a feeling it will be showing up again at some point in the game (it’s always handy to have a bolt hole to run to if you need it…)

From a purely science fictional stand point, our current adventure is probably the best. Our heroes are exploring an ancient alien ruin at the very heart of the sunward desert of Ryloth (homeworld of the Twi’leks).  Ryloth is a tidally locked world, in which one side always faces the sun, and the other always faces away. In game, this translated to a sunward desert where the heat was extreme enough to melt lead, and required a specially crafted “sunwalker” (complete with energy shields and cooling lasers, thank you David Brin) in order to traverse.

So things have worked out well, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. I’ve found the best inspiration (aside from the pure pressure of a deadline) has been to immerse myself in the genre:

  • My summer reading list is filled with space opera novels as well as an anthology of space opera short fiction. Browsing my bookshelf for scifi titles also helps jog my brain (e.g. Brin’s Sundiver and the Rylothian desert).
  • Playing Race for the Galaxy, a space opera-inspired explore/colonize/exploit game that my friend Lance picked up at Origins has been great for getting into a sci-fi mind set (especially when we run it as a pre-game event).
  • Firing up Mass Effect is another great source of inspiration. BioWare’s science fiction RPG for the Xbox 360 is a grand space opera … and one I still need to finish.
  • Music can also be great for getting the mental gears turning. When I’m trying to brainstorm ideas (usually on my way to and from work) I’ll fire up one of the six Star Wars movie soundtracks, a Star Trek CD or one of the soundtracks to Spider-Man, Mass Effect or Halo.

Ultimately, finding inspiration for my Star Wars campaign has proven to be as much fun as actually writing it. I can’t say it’s solved my writer’s cramp … but it has made it a lot easier to deal with.