Hard science fiction



NearbyGamers General
world+mechanic = game
2007-03-20 23:18:16

Anyone else think that hard science fiction needs more representation in science fiction roleplaying? I know GURPS handles it well, but that's only because GURPS is usually meticulously researched. How's the Serenity roleplaying game as far as hard science fiction?

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inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 03:19:12

Well, I like fairly hard science in my SF RPGs. But my taste runs to general-purpose RPG rules, and I think that GURPS has support for hard SF gaming in its supplements GURPS Space, GURPS Bio-Tech, and GURPS Ultra-Tech which is about as good as you could reasonably ask for.

I'd like to see ForeSight republished, but my taste really inclines to general-purpose RPGs, so I have no particular interest in seeing more special-purpose SF games, hard or soft, unless their mechanics are substantially better than what I can do with GURPS.

As for hard SF settings, well: it always seems to turn out that anyone who writes one has a vision or an interest that is substantially different from mine, eg. David Pulver's Blue Planet. I'm never going to be able to buy a worldbook for my own vision, hard SF tag, and encourage everyone who likes hard SF to add it to their profile, so thata we can at least all find neighbours with this as a shared taste.


inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 03:21:05

We need to be able to edit our posts to these forums for when we foul up HTML coding like that.

Flat Black.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 04:46:02

Sorry, I garbled the HTML coding on a post (leaving out a quotation mark), with the result that a huge chunk of text has been hidden, and all sorts of chaos has broken out.

The hard SF setting by David Pulver that I wanted to mention is Transhuman Space.

Blue Planet is fairly hard: it does feature faster-than-light travel, but it keeps it off-stage.

These are both hard SF products, but neither of them matches my vision nor exactly suits my taste. I can't really expect anyone else to write a world book for my homebrew setting (Flat Black), so I am going to have to write it myself.

I hope I got the coding right on the HTML tags this time.


2007-03-21 07:02:00

I like my science fiction like my women - bitter and hard.


I REALLY like hard sf.

If no one wants to make a HardSF tag, I'll make one up and write up a nice description.

I've got some hard sf short stories, if anyone would like to read them.

I have 1 handwave (FTL) in my setting, and then an extrapolation of existing tech - mainly in the area of very efficient reaction engines. This lets the ships push 0.5g to 1g and get from Earth orbit to nearby artificial habitat structures in a reasonable amount of time.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-21 08:29:57

In my opinion, the best indicator of whether sci fi is hard or not is the condition of the technology. If it's constantly beat to hell, never makes it back into the maintenance cycle on time, is a nightmare in terms of repair parts (both ordering and compatibility), and can run like that without causing a catastrophic failure (e.g., a large explosion), thereby allowing people to treat it like crap without necessarily fearing for their lives, I'll say it's hard sf. Anything else is head in the clouds dreaming.

2007-03-21 13:06:34

"How's the Serenity roleplaying game as far as hard science fiction?"

Well, Joss Whedon said science makes him cry ... Can't vouch for the game, though as I've never played it, but from discussions on Waves in the Black, hard it ain't. Then again, Serenity is that odd bastard child of pure fantasy which still seems like hard SF.

Kings Heath RPG group
2007-03-21 18:47:45

Transhuman space is ok but THE daddy of all hard sci-fi RPG's HAS to be '2300AD' by GDW. It's sequel '2320AD' is out soon as produced by QLI.French, Ukranian, American and British starships fighting it out with a truly alien race. Smashing!

AVGaS member, see
2007-03-21 18:58:09

The RingWorld RPG by Choasium, based on books by Larry Niven is definitely hard SF.

Out of print, but I got my copy on Ebay. Worth getting, make sure you get the RingWorld companion which was published separately.

AVGaS member, see
2007-03-21 19:09:01

Use RW RPG links:

LN fansite:

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 21:44:06


It's good to see a lot of SF roleplayers starting to come out of the woodwork!

Could I ask those of you who are familiar with games I don't know to link their tag pages to the SF RPGs tag page, and edit the SF RPGs tag page to link to them in the appropriate section?

And if anyone feels up to listing SF RPGs that are harder that about 5 on the Mohs scale on the hard SF tag page, feel welcome. Remember, you don't need complete knowledge or to achieve an exhaustive listing. Put up the information that you know. Someone else can always add the rest.


inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 22:01:57

G'day Rednax

I'm interested that you consider Larry Niven's Known Space (the setting of the Ringworld RPG) to be hard SF. It is true that Niven is pretty rigorous about following his speculations through and sticking to their limits, but Known Space has a lot of technologies in it that have not a scrap of science to them:

  • teleport booths,
  • Puppeteer teleport disks,
  • stasis boxes,
  • the 'digging tool'/disintegrator that suppresses electrical charge,
  • slaver telepathy, Gil Hamilton's imaginary arm, and other psionics,
  • scrith, with a tensile strength comparable to the forces that hold nuclei together,
  • hyperdrive, and
  • Teela Brown's gene for luck.

This goes to establish two points. First, that 'hardness' in SF is a continuous scale, not a hard and fast category. Second, as Robert Heinlein said, that there is a lot of rigorous and fascinating speculative fiction that is not particularly 'science' fiction.


inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-21 22:06:09

G'day cpalmer

Interesting criterion! It certainly puts Star Trek where I think it belongs! But wouldn't Star Wars meet that criterion for hard SF? I consider Star Wars to be the pulpiest of space fantasy.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-22 00:32:22

I see what we're doing here. There's a disconnect. We have two different aspects of science fiction we're discussing, and either one of them can be hard or soft.

One is the idea of physics and technology levels. Soft SF uses lightsabers (Star Wars), drug-induced astrogation (Dune), and inexplicable hovering and propulsion technology (Serenity, etc...actually, most soft SF falls under this one). Soft SF uses massive open bays where nobody gets sucked into space (definitely thinking of Star Wars here). Hard SF considers space to be what space actually is (a large, cold, vacuum).

But, like I was saying, the other aspect is the idea of the way humans interact with that technology and realize it as machines. Soft SF treats actual pieces of technology (machines, software, etc.) the way a scientist would (Star Trek's definitely a big offender here). Everything behaves like the final prototype before production...meticulously constructed, smoothly functioning, etc. Hard SF treats actual pieces of technology as totally mortal machines subject to the disinterest and foolishness (and other requirements) of the end user. Programs have bugs, machines are constantly breaking, and it doesn't take a meteor to screw up your ship's just takes a week of running it without hitting all the lube points or changing the filters.

I'm biased though...since I work as part of supply and logistics operations, nothing rings less true to me than an ignorance of logistics. What kind of pre-expended parts bin does a starship need to maintain? How many complex electronic systems can one engineer be expected to understand without massive standardization of systems (and how much experience and education does be need)? Where are the facilities to construct these items? Why does it make sense to build this type of item when other, cheaper items fill the same need?

Beyond that, you get into even more practical considerations. Who would use lasers instead of bullets outside of a vacuum? Every single shot is a tracer, so why not just use bullets? Why use walkers if you can use a tank (the extra stress means days of maintenance for every hour of operation).

And I have one more major factor to throw in there...the power of commercialism to drive the appearance of the world. How little commercialism was there in Star Wars or Star Trek? I mean, at least Judge Dredd seemed to get that right.

I think what we can all agree on for truly hard SF is a world where science fiction elements are everywhere (not just concentrated in a single government program with meticulous maintenance), designed for the public at large (and based on the dumbing down of technology rather than the education of the public), and absolutely taken for granted (think of Han Solo pounding on the dash of the Millenium Falcon or Serenity's handful of maintenance/fuel related hooks).

I don't know if I've seen any worlds that meet those criteria though. It's usually a mix, like all the worlds we've discussed. The closest I've seen are a few cyberpunk and postcyberpunk worlds, but they really don't deal with space travel beyond satellites and suborbitals (probably because they're sufficiently hard that interplanetary travel simply doesn't make financial sense, and space is mostly empty and devoid of life). So I guess they kind of shoot the moon in terms of being hard, and make things so hard that they're not fun. Well, if that's the case, we might as well just make a game about the bottom of the ocean (I hear GURPS has a nice one). That probably meets all our criteria without getting into really complicated theoretical physics. Just toss a space station game in the middle of an enormous ocean, add a closet for cleaning supplies, add some transgenics to compensate for the lack of aliens, and you have our perfect hard SF game world.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-22 02:11:48

SandmanNinja wrote: I like my science fiction like my women - bitter and hard.

Heh. I don't like my SF stubborn and sarcastic, so I'll just say that "I like my science fiction like my chocolate."

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-22 02:38:15

cpalmer wrote: There's a disconnect. We have two different aspects of science fiction we're discussing, and either one of them can be hard or soft.

At least two. The article in Wikipedia from which I got the definition on the updated "hard SF" tag page considers hard SF to be distinguished by either emphasis on scientific accuracy or by emphasis on technical detail, or both. And that, I think, covers the two aspects you pointed out. An FTL drive can still be the subject of emphasis on technical detail even if its science is bogus. And these gleaming, maintenance-free miracle machines that function as perfectly as a carefully-worded Wish spell drop the ball badly on 'technical detail' even on the rare occasions when their science is okay. I'm going to try to sum this up by saying "it is the essence of fantasy that things don't have working parts".

The other aspect is the division between "hard" sciences such as physics, astronomy, and chemistry (on one hand) and "soft" sciences like biology, psychology, and economics. Students of the 'hard' disciplines have long held students of the 'soft' disciplines in contempt, and the same contempt has often been found among afficionados of hard SF. I think biology is starting to be accepted within the fold in these days of genetic engineering and the brains sciences, and it is by a recognition of biology as a science and foundation of technology that I think 'radical' hard SF is distinguished from the traditional hard SF of the time before cyberpunk.

There is, however, little sign that psychology and economics are even on the borders. It still seems to be perfectly acceptable for 'hard' SF to accept economic theories that were discredited in the 1920s or the 1970s, and to include economic and psychological nonsenses as absurd as fighter spaceships banking to turn in space dogfights. Perhaps logistics is in the same case.

You're a logistician, you have logistical bugbears. I'm an economist.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-22 10:05:10

Yeah, really. People don't hit the books enough when they make their game worlds. That's how you get these guys who start thinking, "Hmm..I like socialism...but I also like nationalism. Hey, I know!" People are creative up to a point, but after that point they totally lose all deductive powers. They need nice thick books to supply them with premises to inform their arguments.

I do like your essence of fantasy quote. But what about the Ionic Breeze? It doesn't have any moving the Ionic Breeze a fantastical device? Actually, I suppose you have to clean it with a damp sponge, so I might amend your essence of fantasy to include maintenance. It is the essence of fantasy that machines have no working parts and require no preventive maintenance.

And actually, even Star Wars has some major failings in that sense. For all the scenes in the hallways of the Death Star, did you ever see anyone swabbing the deck, carrying a plunger, or even covered in grease (or even carrying a toolkit)?

world+mechanic = game
2007-03-22 10:28:09

And actually, let me just go on record now as saying that I would absolutely LOVE to see a hard SF version of the Death Star (for all aspects of hard SF).

There would be rolling blackouts throughout the whole station. You'd have to take Navy showers for conservation of water (definitely one of the biggest unanswered logistical questions about the Death Star). You would have either a ridiculous proportion of R&R facilities (gyms, libraries, phone centers, etc.) or a thriving criminal underground (gambling, drugs, etc.). Actually, you'd probably have both, considering the sheer number of places to hide contraband. There would be a massive volume of porn and a huge homosexual underground (depending on the imperial Navy's policies).

The whole place would be wired for comm and handsets would be everywhere (as cool as it is to have random sailor 45 walk up and tell you where the rebels are, communications security usually dictates that you be personally told over the phone). The complexity of the space station assures that comm would go down constantly, and I doubt access panels would fix the problem.

And speaking of access panels, I you'd have to have an inordinately complex and centralized messing system (for how many personnel?). I mean, the Death Star must have a constant, dedicated log train doing nothing but bringing food and water (to say nothing of repair parts for its bajillion systems). And once that food is stockpiled, where did it come from? Are there parasites or vermin? If there are vermin, how much of a danger are they to the wiring, or to the men. Are there creatures that eat those vermin? Could they have snuck aboard too (this is a big one).

The only thing I found even remotely realistic was the meeting room...all the characters would have to spend hours in meetings. Actually, Grand Moff Tarkin would probably do nothing all day but sit in meetings and get briefed on Death Star operations.

I didn't see an exchange on the Death Star either. What happens when the stormtroopers run out of cigarettes and dip? How about a laundry? How do all those imperial officers keep their uniforms so clean and pressed?

Anyway, you get where I'm going with this. And that's just the technical details...the scientific details are another struggle (exhaust ports probably don't mix well with the vacuum of space, and how does gravity work...the Death Star can spin, right?).

Arcane Geek.
2007-03-22 11:00:49

I think you could deal with part of the logistics problem by assuming that the Death Star had a fair number of internal parks, which just happened to double as gardening space. Great for R&R, water recycling, etc. The downside would be that it'd be even more of a challenge to not have insects and other pests onboard.

Flying Mice Games
2007-03-22 13:35:35

You guys might be interested in Cold Space or FTL Now.


AVGaS member, see
2007-03-24 00:00:48

I'd say Hard SF is rigorous application of current science PLUS where 'new' science is invented it has well thought out rules of how it works and these are also rigorously applied.

IMHO Known Space meets these criteria. It's worth noting when LN first included psi powers (60s/70s), some renowned US labs were reporting positive results in psi experiments (since discredited).

If hard SF is limited to current science, then you'd be stuck in the solar system.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-24 00:06:05

REdnax wrote: If hard SF is limited to current science, then you'd be stuck in the solar system.

Yep. Like Transhuman Space and Jovian Chronicles, Cyberpunk 2020 and any amount of written SF that is set right here on Earth.

inveterate gamer; prolific GM; world designer
2007-03-24 00:20:18

{Oops. Sorry. One day we'll be able to edit our posts when accidents like that happen.}

That's why I say that 'hard SF' isn't an all-or-nothing genre distinction, but more of a continuum (and, as cpalmer points out, a two-dimensional continuum). SF ranges from the absolutely adamantine-hard SF in which every single thing is physically possible and clearly feasible, and which is usually set on Earth and in the near future. Even there, you run into disagreements about what is feasible, leading to, for instance, disagreements over Stephenson's The Diamond Age. And it then ranges continuously through settings with more and more enabling devices and downright chrome, without any clear dividing line, all the way to Morrcock's Dancers at the End of Time, where the magic is only nominally Clarkean.

You have a good point, too, about hard SF dating as science progresses. I still consider Robert Heinlein's Man Who Sold The Moon future history to be hard SF because of its attitude to technical detail, even though its astronomy (swampy Venus, inhabited Mars) is now all bunk.

A funny thing is that the failures to predict date old SF worse than anything else. It is the lack of electronic computers in Heinlein that challenges suspension of disbelief far worse than the NERVA atomic rockets and the fungal diseases on Mars.


world+mechanic = game
2007-03-24 01:29:44

Yeah...I think of wireless networks every time I see the tiny little cassette tape in Clockwork Orange. We just don't have the vision for a lot of the stuff that ends up getting taken for granted. You know, I'll bet if you could jump forward in time about ten years from now, there would be so much unpredictable technology that was so smoothly integrated and taken for granted, every one of your days would be like a drawn out version of that "What, you can't use the three seashells?" scene from Demolition Man.

2007-03-24 01:46:24

I use to think Larry Niven was hard sf - until I 'explored my feelings' and just began to think outside the box.

Like someone else said, it's full of aliens, ultra-uber-grav tech, teleportation tech, and the list goes on.

I really, really liked 2300, but not the aliens. My personal universe setting is similar to 2300, but no aliens.

Jerry Pournelle writes some good near future hard sf that is of a military nature. It's a bit dated as far as weapons go, but the stories are good. And no aliens.

I think it's just a matter of finding a delicate balance between reality and game-play/fun.

To me, it's using a minimum of handwavium.


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