Sci-fi and horror tabletop RPG settings sit on a sliding scale of realism versus fantasy. Each side of the scale brings its own set of benefits and drawbacks to the setting. Deciding where One Shot RPG falls will affect how the characters and monsters look and play.
The Scale of Sci-Fi Realism
When dealing with creating weapons and abilities for characters in a sci-fi and horror RPG setting, there’s always the issue of how realistic everything should feel. Game settings can be mapped to a sliding scale of realism—science versus fiction. On one end of the scale there’s complete realism, where a single stab wound can kill someone, advanced weaponry would require too much energy to function, and machines would be too hot or heavy to hold or lift. We can do amazing things now, and will probably be able to do even more 300 years into the future, but there’s still a physical limitation to our world. On the other side of the scale is science fantasy, where nanomachines instantly repair injuries, energy sources are tiny and contain limitless amounts of power, people can freely control things like electricity and fire, and the very fabric of our reality can be altered, all because technology X makes it possible. On this side of the scale technology is so advanced that the physical rules and considerations we think of today have been transcended. After all, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
One of the hardest decisions I have to make is deciding where the characters of One Shot RPG fall on the scale. Each end has its own pros and cons.
Pros for a Realistic Setting
Choosing a realistic tone for this tabletop role playing game setting will place emphasis on the horror side of things. Sticking to realistic rules and abilities for characters will make fighting against scummmed feel like fighting against a horror movie monster. Let’s say a scummed had sharp tentacles for stabbing their prey. An encounter against this monster would be extremely dangerous, as the characters risk getting impaled. Players would take a more cautious approach to engaging the scummed and are more likely to reason with the individual or attempt the cure. Realism could also introduce interesting mechanics like ammo restrictions to turn fights into battles of attrition.
Cons for a Realistic Setting
Imagine a character gets stabbed in the arm during a fight. Should be a flesh wound, right? The weapon hit an artery and the character bleeds out and dies. Reality is unrealistic. Having a setting be too realistic can lead to some really un-fun situations for the player. To reduce injury, players may feel like they need to avoid combat entirely, which can lessen the feeling that you’re playing an RPG. Players may go to great lengths to realistically prepare for an upcoming situation, when the story would be better if it had a faster pace. There may be added overhead if the game master has to track things like ammunition—that goes against the spirit of trying to save players’ time.
One Shot RPG is a character based franchise. One of the biggest drawbacks of an extremely realistic setting is that it’ll be hard to make unique characters. People in the real world are diverse and have a wide array of personalities and motivations, which means I can fulfill the narrative and diversity goals. What suffers is the gameplay and visual goals. How can characters feel like they have unique gameplay if there’s not a range of things they can mechanically do? How can characters be different visually when there are only two weapons—guns and knives—to select from?
Another drawback is that One Shot RPG is already unrealistic. There’s an invisible substance that can read thoughts and emotions which turns people into monsters. There’s a giant machine that’s the size of a dwarf planet. The solar system is infested with twisted alien horrors that defy biology. And there’s playable humanoid species that speak our language. It seems like striving for complete realism is already out of the question.
Science Fantasy Setting
Pros for a Science Fantasy Setting
A science fantasy setting is fun. Characters have extraordinary abilities that players can only dream of being able to do. The whole point of playing our short RPG adventures is to take control of a fictional character, who can do things you can’t in real life, and explore a fictional world with others. Controlling the elements, telekinesis, engineering creatures, mixing chemicals, firefights, blasters, explosions, are all within reach because technology X makes it possible. Combat can be more unique with more mechanical variety. Encounters can be streamlined because no one has to keep track of ammo or energy—the group can just play. Characters and scummed can be more differentiated from each other simply because there’s more stuff.
Cons for a Science Fantasy Setting
Science fantasy settings can feel too flashy. When extraordinary abilities are an everyday occurrence, they’re no longer special. Why would a scummed be threatening if it can do everything that the characters can? If everyone is a walking demigod, there’s no sense of danger when playing a horror one shot. Having tons of options for abilities and having lots of hit points can make combat encounters feel slow. If the setting was on the complete science fantasy side of the scale, then One Shot RPG would lose its horror feel. Worse, the setting may feel like every other RPG setting out there.
Making the Decision
So what’s the best for One Shot RPG? Should it be a realistic or science fantasy setting?
It should be somewhere in the middle.
There should be a split between what characters can do and what the monsters can do. Characters should operate on the more realistic side of the scale while the monsters can live on the science fantasy side. Setting the two apart and makes an encounter with a scummed something special and something to fear.
Character Weapons and Abilities
Character weapons and abilities should fall into two categories, direct and indirect. When designing the initial cast of characters, the party should be split between these two damage sources. Direct damage comes from things like bullets, blades, punches, kicks, slashes, bites, and other mundane weaponry. Indirect damage comes from electrical shocks, heat, chemical burns, venoms, and explosions. There is a sense of physicality when describing these damage sources. They are coming from something specific, something that has a place in the world. Swinging, slashing, shooting, throwing, mixing, exploding… instead of lasers or energy.
When I think of sci-fi weaponry, the first thing I think of is laser beams. Blasters, beam cannons, energy shields, swords of light, and the like. In order to set One Shot RPG apart from other settings, I want to do something different and more rooted in our reality. Instead of blasters, characters use railguns, guns that shoot small, high speed projectiles by magnetically charging them. A railgun has a better sense of physicality than a blaster—shooting stuff instead of energy.
There should be a physical source or explanation for a character’s abilities. If they control electricity, it’s because they have a small generator embedded into their baton—a shock stick. If they can control fire it comes from a flamethrower that’s powered by a chemical reaction, and they wear protective clothing when handling the device. If they control robots or engineered creatures, it’s through radio devices embedded into their brains, and they wouldn’t be able to mind control other beings. Characters can have extraordinary abilities, but they’re still rooted in reality.
Scummed Weapons and Abilities
Scummed don’t follow the rules that characters do. Their abilities don’t have to come from an explainable source. Scummed can warp perception, fly without it making sense, control and harm others with their mind, alter reality, and can have other superpowers. This makes the scummed feel powerful and a force to be reckoned with. Each monster is unique in what it can do, so it’s up to players to figure out the abilities of the scummed they’re fighting.
Making the decision that characters are rooted in reality means that some of the brainstormed concepts will need to be scrapped or reworked. That’s to be expected—that’s the point of a brainstorm—and why I came up with so many ideas. The next article will discuss the idea of robots, body modifications, and explore the playable alien species.