Alternity Design Blog #12: What’s your Sci-Fi Inspiration?

alternity metalThe science fiction we read and watch provides inspiration for our own stories and worlds. We here at Sasquatch HQ are clearly fans of a variety of sci-fi. After all, we grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek, and sci-fi has always been a part of our lives. This week, we wanted to each take a moment to describe 10 or so science fiction properties that inspire us as we are working on the Alternity Science Fiction RPG. 

Rich’s List

I’ve loved science fiction all my life and I can think of hundreds of good answers. But since we’re talking about the Alternity science fiction RPG, I think it’s safe to limit myself to stories or movies that specifically inspire me for tabletop gaming and that aren’t covered by another game already.With those limitations in mind, here are ten stories and/or movies that I think could easily inspire a great science fiction campaign. They make me think of characters, systems, gear, adventures, and bug-eyed monsters for our Alternity project. If you haven’t seen or read these works yet, maybe you’ll find them to be worth your time.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass (Jim Butcher)
The newest entry on this list, The Aeronaut’s Windlass is an excellent steampunk story set on an alien world. There are a number of decent steampunk novels and a few good steampunk films out there for the series steampunk fans, but the careful world-building behind The Aeronaut’s Windlass just screams to be explored via a good RPG.

Aliens (1986)
The best military science fiction—and some of the best hard SF—ever to appear on the big screen. The thoughtful and practical design of gear like pulse rifles, the dropship, and the power loader made the Sulaco and its Colonial Marines *real* and relatable. The offhand remark that the whole mission is “just another bug hunt” really makes you wonder what other stuff the marines have gone up against. The Alien universe is pretty narrow; it’s hard to see a wide-open SF campaign model here. But for looks and tech it’s hard to beat.

Voyage of the Space Beagle (A.E. van Vogt)
This might be the most influential story you’ve never heard of: It was the blueprint for Star Trek. As a teenager I ran across the story “Black Destroyer” in a collection called Road to Science Fiction. It described a monster that looked a lot like a displacer beast (for you D&D fans). Worse yet, it possessed awesome natural powers of atomic manipulation and was a starving predator just waiting to be set loose on the rest of the universe. “Black Destroyer” is just one excerpt from van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle, which described the adventures of a starship on a voyage of discovery. If you’ve got a taste for Golden Age SF, you’ll like this one.

Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein)
This novel pretty much invented the concept of “powered armor,” influencing all other military SF to follow. The first chapter, the raid on the Skinny homeworld, is simply brilliant. If you’ve only ever seen the Paul Verhoeven movie, you really need to read the book—Verhoeven detested Heinlein’s premise and showed Heinlein’s theme in the worst possible light. (But I admit that Verhoeven’s bio-engineered take on the Bugs was pretty cool.) The only reason I don’t rank Starship Troopers higher is that conventional military operations are tough to pull off in RPGs.

The X Files (1993 TV Series)
Before X Files zeroed in on government-alien conspiracy as its primary narrative, its Mystery-of-the-Week episodic format sent Mulder and Scully monster-chasing all over the world. That is a fantastic model for a roleplaying game. The original Alternity game’s Dark Matter setting captured some of that vibe, but I’d like to see a modern update with a little more monster-chasing and a little less conspiracy.

The Academy Series (Jack McDevitt)
Also known as the Priscilla Hutchins series, the Academy Series creates a fascinating galaxy in which we humans have the stars more or less to ourselves—most alien civilizations nearby are long dead. The series begins with The Engines of God (1994) and continues through six more books so far (and I think there’s another coming in 2017). I like the Academy Series because interstellar expeditions are small and lonely; a ship might only carry a crew of half a dozen scientists and pilots, and they’re a very long way from any help if they get in trouble. In other words, it’s a great model for a RPG group.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Or Fury Road—either of them could go here. I’m going with The Road Warrior because it invented the postapocalyptic genre as we know it today and spawned a thousand tropes. There have been some excellent CRPGs along this theme, but no one’s really put together the definitive tabletop RPG for this genre, at least as far as I know. Anyway, adventure flourishes in lawless areas threatened by ravening hordes, whether those hordes are orcs or warboys.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 TV Series)
I watched the 2-part pilot out of mild curiosity, not expecting much. The original TV series was pretty mediocre, after all. But by the end of the first episode I was riveted. The horrifying scope of the humans’ initial defeat—and the clever little story device of giving you a head count of how many humans are left each episode—raised the stakes of this show through the roof. At every turn, the stakes get raised again. A band of PCs responsible for saving what’s left of the human race? That would be a pretty awesome campaign.

Dune (Frank Herbert)
If there’s a better model for feudal politics, intrigue, and secret societies in science fiction, I’m not sure what it would be. The universe of Dune is a fantastically rich and intricate place, with the great houses of the Landsraad constantly jockeying for control of valuable planets. The elements of Dune that I’d incorporate into a RPG would be tech like the personal shields and swordplay, Great House vendettas and skullduggery, and characters like Gurney Halleck. Oh, and I’ll admit it: I kind of like David Lynch’s 1984 movie. But you ought to watch the director’s cut.

The Lensman Series (E.E. Doc Smith)
When I was in 5th grade, I discovered a battered old copy of Galactic Patrol in the spinner rack at my local library. Doc Smith’s Lensman saga featured plenty of giant space armadas and technological one-upmanship, but most of the stories also included great RPG-friendly themes like infiltrating enemy bases and drug-running networks, an awesome variety of aliens, and amazing mental powers to match the jaw-dropping scale of the technology. Star Wars owes a lot to the Lensman stories. In some ways the Lensman books haven’t aged well—you don’t read Doc Smith for the dialogue—but the sheer scope of the vision and the size of the universe you could explore would make a really fun RPG. The Lensman books get top billing from me not because they’re the best SF or even the most game-ready SF, but because they’re my personal favorites.

Dave’s List

I’m limiting my list to 21st century stuff, because dammit, that sounds more SF.

Leviathan Wakes (James S.A. Corey)
Yep, the book that launched the Expanse. Characters you can enthusiastically root for, and a real knack for building to a great character moment. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about the “I don’t know the reference” scene.

River of Gods (Ian McDonald)
Set in mid-21st-century India, River of Gods is a delight in that the multiple protagonists are wildly different, yet each is fascinating. When authors switch between POV characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis, I often find myself grinding through the less-interesting POVs to get to the good ones. Not so with River of Gods; they’re all good.

The Three-Body Problem (Liu Cixin, Ken Liu trans.)
Orbital mechanics, fascinating real-world history, a fictional video game, and a reminder that alien cultures are unlikely to be monolithic (apart, I suppose, from the ones that are actual monoliths). This is what SF is supposed to be.

Camouflage (Joe Haldeman)
This novel features two immortal aliens battling in the near future — but change that “two” to “number of players at your table, plus two or three,” and you’ve got a campaign. Plus this one has some trenchant but light-handed political commentary and gender-bending that isn’t a stunt.

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge)
Published in 1999, but I didn’t read it until 2000 — so there! This one and Vinge’s earlier A Fire in the Deep posit a neat (though not tidy) solution to the problem of disparate tech levels among SF cultures.

Diplomatic Immunity (Lois McMaster Bujold)
Miles Vorkosigan is the Platonic ideal of the clever protagonist. He’s so clever, in fact, that he acts like an RPG player character when we’re scheming at our best. All of Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels are great (there’s a reason she has shelves full of Hugos and Nebulas), but this one’s my favorite of her 21st-century novels.

Seeker (Jack McDevitt)
If Rich is going to name-check McDevitt’s Academy series, then I call dibs on the Alex Benedict/Chase Kolpath books. Side note: I might be in love with Chase. Side-note squared: McDevitt’s Polaris is just as good: a great SF variation on a “locked room” mystery. Seeker is more of a campaign, and Polaris is a really good adventure you could play through in a convention slot.

Boneshaker (Cherie Priest)
It’s my obligatory steampunk choice. I’m not much of a zombie guy, but I am a Seattleite, and half the fun in this book is all the connections to local history and geography.

Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
A space opera, sure, but also a puzzle-box of a narrative with timelines set two decades apart. There are enough ideas about AIs, colonialism, and identity to launch a dozen Alternity campaigns.

Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
I recently lent this book to my 14-year-old son, and I think it’ll be for him what The Monkey Wrench Gang was for me. This book doesn’t have immortal aliens, zombies, or planet-destroying starships, but I think it’s the scariest book on the list.

Steve’s List

Great sci-fi storytelling isn’t limited to just books and movies/TV. There are plenty of great stories being told in games, as well. Growing up in the 80’s, I read and played a lot of old-school sci-fi tabletop RPG games like West End’s Star Wars, TSR’s Star Frontiers, FASA’s Mechwarrior, and later Shadowrun (when I wasn’t playing D&D, at least), so those will always be part of my base level of inspiration, along with the expected Star Wars and Star Trek (NG/DS9/Voyager). But over the years, I’ve gotten plenty of inspiration from video games, too. So here’s my eclectic and incomplete list of games, books, TV, and movies:

Autoduel (Origin, 1982)
My first foray into post-apocalyptic worlds was through the Autoduel game on an Apple IIe. Autoduel was the video game version of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars, and was all about bolting guns and flamethrowers onto your car and destroying your rivals in arena battles, or being the best and fastest courier taking valuable cargo through the dangerous, gang-infested wilds of the post-nuclear northeast U.S. So maybe there wasn’t a great storyline inherent in the game, but 12-year-old me thought it was amazing, and my nostalgia for this game has become my touchstone for car-based combat. Roadwar 2000, to a lesser extent.

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan)
This noir-ish murder mystery novel is set in the distant future, one where humanity has colonized well beyond the solar system. The twist here is that instead of spaceships travelling between the stars, people visit other worlds by digitally sending their minds to other host bodies. Most people have a “stack” that stores their memories and personality, and it can be uploaded to a different body, creating a setting with virtual immortality as old people download themselves into younger hosts. Plenty of existential questions in this one – i.e. does one’s soul/consciousness move along with those memories? From an RPG perspective, this is an awesome way to “respawn” a PC – you just restore him from a backup!

Blade Runner (1982)
Shifting gears a bit to near-future sci-fi, Blade Runner became the world I imagined whenever I read Shadowrun novels or played the game. The movie perfectly captured the dark and dirty mega-cities with giant pristine corporate buildings sitting among the sprawl and slums of the rest of humanity. There’s also an amazing implied world, with mentions of space battles and off-world colonies. All by 2019!

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline), Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
Both novels align with the corporate-ruled world theme set in Blade Runner, and then add a virtual world on top of it. Those virtual worlds capture the aesthetic of their respective eras: Snow Crash, from the early 90’s, imagines more of a cyberpunk hacker world, where elite skills are are used to steal data and battle in cyberspace; in contrast RPO’s cyberspace is a vast MMO-like world that everyday people use for just about everything – school, work, recreation.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
This is a classic RPG tale. A bunch of heroes band together to punch evil in the face. There’s a great internet theory about the Guardians actually being characters roleplayed by the Avengers. Plus it’s got strange worlds, alien artifacts, space battles, and funky music!

Stargate (1994)
The movie alone is great – but with the stargate alone as an RPG device the possibilities are endless. A gate that every week can take you to a new world? Sign me up! Each week can be a standalone episode, or you can have a galaxy-spanning campaign with clues from one world unlocking new sequences and new worlds.

Wing Commander  (Video Games – not the movie)
Specifically Wing Commander III and IV. While WC I and II were good, WC III upped the stakes by incorporating live action to a degree unheard of in video games of the time, with decent performances by the likes of Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies and Malcom McDowell. The world was further expanded in the “Autoduel-in-space” Privateer series of games. A hint of intrigue and mystery sprinkled on top of awesome (for their time) space dogfight missions, all against a backdrop of interplanetary warfare.

TV Shows
Selecting just one does a disservice to all the others. So I’m just going to list a bunch! 2004’s Battlestar Galactica grabbed nostalgia and injected it with intrigue-laden politics and subterfuge. In 2002, Firefly captured a group of would-be-heroes scraping by just beyond the law. Star Trek and Stargate have provided multiple series worth of ideas and inspiration, and streaming services put most of these just a click away. Same with Fringe, Today, there’s a wealth of great sci-fi on TV, including The Expanse, Killjoys, Westworld, Man in the High Castle, and Star Wars: Rebels. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting!

Rogue One (2016)
A movie that can revel in the Star Wars universe without being burdened by the weight of the Skywalker Saga. It’s also a great heist movie, where the stakes cannot be higher. This might be the best Star Wars movie.

Science Fiction is more than just a list of 30 or so books and films, and we’re sure you have your own favorite tale that inspires you, too. We want Alternity to provide the tools for you to choose whichever story that’s in your head, regardless of where it came from. Head over to our facebook page and let us know what stories stimulate your own campaign designs!