Today I want to talk about the three genres of adventure in space and compare them for the purposes of tabletop play. These are science fiction, which can itself be split into hard and soft forms; science fantasy, which the best known example of is Star Wars; and space opera, which regards science as a thing it used as a vague starting point before blending it with the kind of over-the-top antics you might expect from a pulp adventure novel.
Hard sci-fi is the form of science fiction that tries as hard as it can to stick to accepted laws of physics and scientific knowledge. Usually it ends up fudging a few details that we can’t know enough about to properly say anything about, but it keeps this to a minimum. In hard sci-fi, the boundaries of physics can often present a part of the challenge – a micrometeor strike has punctured something vital, and now the people aboard the ship need to deal with the fact that now they may not have enough air to get back to a safe port. It also tends to acknowledge that everywhere we go will be hostile, and in turn we’ll be stuck in close quarters with one another.
It’s a good genre choice if you want to be able to build tensions around realistic hazards, familiar threats like people getting aggressively hostile if kept in constant contact for too long or the danger of threats we can calculate the risk of and how to deal with. A hard sci-fi game about an Earth-threatening asteroid may involve the crew having to make the trip out to it to set up deflection systems around it, unlike the other space-adventure genre. For the most part, the Expanse show (and novels) are relatively good for this, aside from where they touch on the precursors (at which point it gets a little soft).
Soft sci-fi is a form of science fiction that adheres to the laws of physics as we know them, but happily indulges in wild speculation about things beyond the bounds of our knowledge. Most sci-fi games will be soft sci-fi, because we tend to expect laser rifles and faster-than-light travel as a standard in games. Where a hard sci-fi game that allows for a FTL drive would make it something blatantly important and tie any such drive into the story, likely as an experimental device, soft sci-fi gives it no more attention than most of us give to the engine of our car or the function of our computer’s CPU and RAM.
It’s an excellent genre for games about space exploration, encountering strange new races, and speculating about what strange things might be lying in wait. Games involving Precursors, warp drive, alien civilizations, and galactic exploration all fall in the soft sci-fi range. David Brin’s Uplift novels are a good example of soft sci-fi, as they explore ideas about FTL travel, the uplift of pre-sapient creatures to full sapience, and a lot of what-if about humans being regarded as weird and different compared to the rest of the galaxy.
Science fantasy is the genre of things like Numenera, Star Wars, and Starfinder, where scienctific knowledge is there, but only acknowledged where it doesn’t detract from the game. Hazards like radiation, zero gravity, and high gravity are all acknowledged, but the solutions may be completely exotic – supertechnology to negate them, magic to shield characters from them, or mysterious cosmic forces that can be tapped and manipulated to make them irrelevant. Unless it becomes plot-relevant, most hazards are assumed to be handled in the background.
Star Wars, of course, is the science fantasy property out there. No one ever floats around in space, and all sorts of hand-waving excuses are made about how things work, but it can get away with it because that’s how the genre operates. It bows to the existence of important things and defies what we know entirely to make things more interesting and fun. Numenera is similar; the world is strewn with the remains of past super-civilizations, some of whom utilized technology so advanced it might as well be magic. The familiar rules apply – except when they don’t, because it’d be more interesting.
Space opera is the farthest out you can get from science fiction and still have some vague claim to the concept. Pulp adventure, Venus as a rainforest jungle world, outlandish aliens, and space marines all get tumbled in together without a concern as to how any of it works. Spaceships just fly because they do; laser blasters, flintlocks, and technomagic chainsaw swords live side-by-side without anyone losing a limb or having a gun blow up in their hand, and no one bothers with pesky space suits unless they want to look stylish.
Space opera is where you can have the most fun with over-the-top adventures, fighting Space Elf Nazis and rescuing beautiful green-skinned alien princ(ess)es from slavering monsters that drool lava (in space). The portions of Warhammer 40K that acknowledge how utterly ridiculous the setting is are complete and total space opera; Orks is particular are a space opera bunch, doing things like flinging hollowed-out asteroids across the galaxy as assault vessels. The bigger, louder, campier, and more ludicrous, the more it fits. Even the quiet and intense moments tend to be bombastic.
So, to sum it up, you should:
Play hard sci-fi if you want to explore the boundaries of the universe as we know it; if you leave out the asyncs and gatecrashing, Eclipse Phase is a good game for this, as is the Fate-derived game Diaspora, which even goes so far as to include delta-v for spacecraft.
Play soft sci-fi if you want to explore the galaxy and speculate about the wonders that may await future humans. Again, Eclipse Phase is good for this, if you allow gatecrashing, asyncs, and things like the Factors. The Cypher System is also fairly good for this, if you use the sci-fi options.
Play science fantasy if you want laser swords, psychic powers, magicians in space, and spacefaring swashbuckling. Starfinder promises to be good for this, as are most of the Star Wars games out there. Fate Core would be pretty easy to hack for this, as well.
Play space opera if you want over the top bombastic action, pulp adentures in space, and an excuse to fight unabashedly evil two-dimensional villains as an excuse to blow off steam and have fun. While you may want to look up system hacks, as the mechanics were built with a grimdark vibe, the various Warhammer 40K RPGs produced by FFG are the space opera set.
Thanks for reading; I’ll be back tomorrow!