Character Classes for Your Sci-Fi RPG
Exploring Something Other Than Fantasy Without Leaving It Behind
Right away: your classes for a science fiction adventure are basically the same as the ones you can choose from your regular RPG during character creation. Modding your RPG to fit a sci-fi campaign (or straight away buying something oriented this way) isn’t, by any means, something new. It’s impossible to deny that tabletop games are closely associated with classical fantasy elements: your warrior, paladin, cleric… The list goes on (and varies, dependending on which adventure you start off with).
I know it may seem that both of these genres are pretty distant in terms of adaptability into games. But this article intends to show that their similarities are closer than expected. You could easily “translate” fantasy character classes into a sci-fi setting, getting even some good examples from pop culture in general to ground some rules and provide excitement to your play sessions. It’s also, always, a nice excuse to showcase your incredible miniatures, because, come on, look at them.
Sci-Fi vs. The Usual Fantasy
I’ll borrow from Phillip K. Dick to explain what constitutes good science fiction. And with that, how we can discern your new world and characters from the usual fantasy:
“(…) We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel.
(…) Now, to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment’s thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon’s wonderful MORE THAN HUMAN. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon’s novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances.
Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation—the new idea, in other words—must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus “good science fiction” is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.”
May 14, 1981. From a letter by the author, used as the preface of The Collected Short Stories of Phillip K. Dick, Vol.1.
A Sci-Fi Analysis
What Philip K. Dick said makes some sense. If you believe there exist some variances in our society (be it now or in our past) that would lead to a given world, you may classify that as sci-fi. There’ll always be some small, inexplicable things that contribute to a given technological advancement or the discovery of ancient (or outer-world) civilizations which can blur the line between science and magic. A sci-fi author won’t be able to scientifically cover 100% of their material. But be honest now: could you tell me exactly how an SSD works? How about Portland Cement? (Ok, yeah, some of you are engineers but, please. I need this one.)
You may infer from the vastness and age of the Universe that there may have existed other civilizations long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The multiverse theory is pretty much as mysterious and speculated upon now as it has been since Ancient History, and Stranger Things, His Dark Materials (that’s debatable), lots of popular superhero stories and the spectacular Everything, Everywhere All at Once rely heavily on its fuzziness. Once we get into technology, AI, virtual worlds and the like – we can go from Digimon (also debatable) to Neuromancer, the Matrix and pretty much any setting that involves cyberpunk or steampunk-esque elements (steampunk’s also debatable, but isn’t it all fun to think about, discuss and explore?).
A quick disclaimer: this article is more as a guideline for the thought process of thinking of sci-fi characters. I will miss some references and yes, even that one that you like so much. Uh-huh, that one too. I know, everyone watched that except for me. It’s just that I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I will soon. Promise.
Yeah, every class (every RPG?) is based around fighting for a good cause: it’s fun. Be it with a proactive approach of actually cracking some skulls or providing support for some optimized skull-cracking, you can more or less understand the source of a character’s power as if it’s derived from “natural” or “magical” means in a fantasy setting. Even that is subjective: would you say an orc’s preternatural strength is natural or mythical? In a way, they’re born with it, but what if magic shaped their biology (think Uruk-hai, from LotR)?
In situations like these, it helps to imagine the same vague, omnipotent capabilities of “magic” in shaping the world, its races and characters equally attributable to “science”. If a given world has an extremely developed cyber-space, you may imagine the flourishing of higher life forms in this realm. That would result in things not too different from minor deities in terms of appearance and powers. A good read in terms of that is the first two books of the Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons.
These creatures could then bestow some of their capabilities onto the playable characters (PCs) and voilá! You have a sci-fi equivalent of a blessing, and from there you get your sci-fi Warlocks, Paladins and Clerics. If the natural world gets to be affected by these inflections of what makes your sci-fi unique, you can get new facets of biology or societal relations. Feys, minotaurs, unicorns can be seen as “natural” creatures that exist due to magic. Likewise, zombies or xenobiology derived from the driving force of a universe.
If the PC tries messing with this mysterious force by their own, you can extract the different classes that delve into “magic” according to the manner this is done. That approach can be done in an academic manner (like a Wizard), a natural talent that is abundant (as in a Sorcerer) or honed over time (with a Druid or a Monk). A Wizard can be somewhat translated into a hacker (for a more cyber-esque world), biology expert or even some sort of applied scholar, given your universe has some sort of novel, powerful element that gets explored and studied akin to magic. Your artificer can be seen as an Engineer or Creator. Your Rogue, as a Scavenger, nimble, street-smart.
The sci-fi equivalent of a Sorcerer could be a superhero. Maybe radiation affected him, or he was bit by some animal and mutated into shooting things out of his hands. What would happen if a Monk could learn instantly his technical prowess through means of technology?
Think about your science-y stuff applied by some people as a sort of intuitive art in order to achieve their goals and that’ll be a good gist. A good cook doesn’t have to think about the Maillard reaction, monosodium L-glutamate and volatile organic compounds to know that vanilla + chocolate + baking = yummm.
Don’t Fret, Have Fun
As with every RPG session, your objective is to have a blast. I hope to have helped you see how there’s so much potential in the world of science fiction. Personally, for me, even more than what can be found in fantasy. The extrapolation that leads to a novel society can be applied to such little details in our current world, yet yield extremely vast results. You don’t have to know every single mechanism that drives your “scientific” world in order for it to be scientific. In fact, every media piece can be fit into sci-fi. But that leads into a sort of creative nihilism that also happens when you apply “the main character is actually in a coma/dream and this is all in their head” to them.
These genres aren’t a dichotomy either. The tenuous line between fantasy and science fiction can also be explored to produce amazing universes. Jedis in Star Wars are the most known example. However I urge you to also read The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin. Keep watching, reading and playing. The more you consume, the more you’ll be equipped to build your own characters. And while you do it, why not listen to some music for inspiration?
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