Science of Sub-Genres

Ok, so given that it’s hard for gamers to broadly define what sci-fi is, it’s worth calling out a pair of sub-genres which have managed to escape this problem.

First off, Cyberpunk is recognizably its own thing. While it has many influences, and even a few flagships of its own, the idea has never cemented into a single vision. There are trappings which recur (the net, cyberware, corporations, suburban visions of urbanism and such) but exceptions also abound, especially where the boundary between cyberpunk and “near future sci-fi” gets fuzzy. What’s curious about Cyberpunk is that I think it’s benefitted a lot from competing yet overlapping visions. This is as true of the source material (say, Gibson vs. Sterling) as it is of the gaming material (Cyberpunk 2020 vs Shadowrun, say). Where the split between Star Wars and Star Trek leaves only a small amount of overlap, cyberpunk material swims in the same pool, but it’s a varied enough pool that it’s not disruptive when a specific example reveals the thing that makes it different (like biotech, aliens or magic). This is kind of cool, and it explains why an idea which is basically a past vision of the future remains so potent for us.

The second big genre is military sci fi. In books, this is a huge swath of stuff, and it has lots of recurring elements. There’s actually less gear porn than you’d expect, but also a lot more politics. If there’s any one thing that keeps military sci-fi from being coherent it’s that the particular ethos that the specific tactical genius of that particular series endorses is such a moving target. The weird thing, however, is that this is not something that’s made a lot of transition into gaming, which seems odd, because the trappings are definitely a good match.

I think there are two big factors at work here. First, if this is your genre, there’s a god chance that you can just play GURPS and be happy with it. There are a lot of assumptions baked into that statement, but I think there’s more than a little truth to it.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I have very rarely seen military sci-fi structured in a way that I would consider group friendly. The role of the protagonist – usually a military genius isolated and unrecognized because of [shortcoming that is a problem in the setting but which we, the reader, think should not be held against them] – is also the role of commander. Other characters might be important, but they must either be subordinate (bodyguards, soldiers and the like) or outside of the world that important things happen in (love interests and politicians, mostly). Not to say you can’t come up with a group for play in many of these settings – it’s easy to do – but doing so requires you do something different than follow the normal shape of the fiction.

I should note, I’m sure there is some military sci-fi out there that doesn’t follow this model – it’s just that I’ve seen it so often that I kind of view it as baked in. If you’ve got a counter-example, then run it through this metric. How many strong relationships to characters have to people other than the main character, and how static are those? There will always be some – people have families and the occasional romance – but they aren’t particularly robust or fiction-driving, at least beyond their establishment. This is not a criticism of these books – I loves me some Vorkosigan – but just an observation on how they’re structured.

Now, as I thought about these things, it occurs to me that there’s a third sub-genre worth noting because it’s possible that it won’t be overwhelmed by its media, and that is of course the small, diverse ship crew working to get by. This is Firefly, certainly, and it’s a large swath of Traveller, and it’s going to be a big part of Bulldogs too, an dit probably needs a pithy name. It’s is an oddball because, to be honest, if there are books about this then I have not read them (and I’ll happily take suggestions). Maybe that means it’s not really even a sub-genre, it’s just a stump. Maybe it really just is the “Firefly” genre and that’s all there is to it. I honestly can’t tell from this vantage point, but it will be curious to see if this grows into its own thing, or if it’s just a cul de sac.

10 thoughts on “Science of Sub-Genres

  1. Paul Weimer

    “The Commander problem” is a problem in games where the players are intended to cooperate. Who gets to be in charge? How does the GM and other players deal with a spotlight hog? For military SF games, this is extremely acute, but a game with a group of niche PCs, such as the Firefly model, its less of a problem.

  2. Reverance Pavane

    Cyberpunk: I’ve always found it quite amusing that the idea of cyberpsychosis was invented as an artificial limitation for Cyberpunk characters, but was such a good idea it was heavily adopted by later authors working in the genre and became a fairly standard trope in the genre.

    Military SF: The difference between a civilian and a soldier generally exceeds any other differences in genre, and that’s something most gamers don’t grok that well.

    For example, Twilight:2000 makes a quite usable military RPG, but in order to do so successfully it must first postulate a complete breakdown of command authority and logistics.

    Most authors are quite adept at borrowing the tropes of the genre, but they don’t really understand the fundamentals involved, unless they have actually served, which often makes their work (whilst highly enjoyable in some cases), rather inauthentic. At least to my mind.

    It doesn’t help in the RPG experience that a fundamental requirement of military weaponry is to kill or incapacitate the other guy, and we can presume that in the future this capability only gets better. Which since the characters are quite likely to be the other guys means that you have to shift the emphasis of the game away from actual combat for it to be generally believable. {space fantasy, like Star Wars on the other hand…]

    Third Genre: McLendon’s Syndrome (and it’s sequel, The VMR Theory) by Robert Frezza, immediately comes to mind. Although it is decidedly unserious in outlook. There have been others, but mainly short fiction featuring the scrappy independents coming up against the corporate fat cats who use their political and legal acumen to screw the small guy. Which really only gives fodder for the single story. Either that or the crew discover a fortune and leave the old world behind. For some reason, struggling to meet the mortgage payments isn’t generally all that sexy to write about.

    The again, to return to my first comment, Joss has previously commented that some of the ideas behind Firefly were actually based on a half-remembered Traveller game from his youth.

  3. Mrigashirsha

    The “Firefly genre” is (depending on emphasis) the company of freelancers or the squad of mercenaries.

    For what it’s worth, the folks I’ve seen really grooving mil-sf rpgs have been playing squads operating more or less on their own, far forward of armies.

  4. Emmett

    Robotech is a military RPG, we rarely played the more structured mil aspect of it, preferring the wandering warrior of Invid Invasion to Macross or Southern Cross.

    I think thats where I get my idea of how the military Sci-Fi is played. Give the players a very wide berth to go out and explore. I’ll usually make their commanding officer an NPC and make them as hands off as is needed for the players to take the spotlight.

    I’m shamed to plug it (I’m not big on self promotion but it’s often necessary), but The Artifact is mostly mil science fiction and I deal with the issue of how to handle commanding officers and understanding the command structure.

  5. Uncle Dark

    A few random thoughts:

    I call the Firefly model “Ports of Call” in my head. Aside from sounding like “Points of Light,” it captures the idea of “the crew makes port, has an adventure, and gets into their spaceship and flies off to the next port.”

    At an event at Endgame recently, one GM suggested that the players in milSF should play on two levels. In character, they play in the chain of command. However, important command decisions are made “off screen” by the table as a whole and given to the player of The CO to implement in character.

    To tie the two together, I’ve been reading the Black Company books, and it occurs to me that a SF version of the Company wouldn’t be that hard to do.

  6. Sarah

    I think the “Firefly”/Traveller sub-genre is best termed either the Cross-genre or Adventure SF.

    I lean towards Cross-genre. I mean, Firefly is really sci-fi + western. There’s a heck of a lot of sci-if + fantasy out there, as well – “Lord of Light”, Pern, Darkover…

  7. Kent Jenkins

    The small group struggling to get by is a reflection of the hardship of … well, the hardship of name-your-hardship. Farscape does this too. This is pushed pretty hard in Diaspora and the before-the-most-recent, public-posted playtest for Vanguard.

    In my head, these are all Westerns, which I know comes with a huge amount of baggage and sub-genres itself that I’m not qualified to talk about, but the trope of the drifters trying to make do, halfway between highwaymen and normal joes. We played Traveller more as this than the military SF.

    Thinking more about Traveller, why isn’t Space Opera mentioned as a primary SF genre? Fading Suns has a special place in my heart.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    @Kent Honestly, because “Space Opera” starts as many fights as “Science Fiction” if you try to pin it down. Also, Star Wars casts such a long shadow in that space that I find it hard to separate.

    @Paul, UD, Mrig & Emmet – You point to an interesting distinction between military play and Military sci fi fiction. It is entirely possible (and even kind of awesome) to play a unit. There might be some hierarchy (rank) but the group is the important thing. This works great for gaming, but it seems rare in the fiction, which is more often about the single brilliant commander and the people around him or her.

    @Rev I had the advantage of having his in the back of my mind when I talked about Traveller. I agree it’s important, but how it’s important is so weird that it’s hard to pin down.


    If you’re looking for a good example of books in the “Firefly” sub-genre, then I recommend Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and its sequel, Black Lung Captain. They’ve been out for a while in the UK now, and I think they came to the US recently (at least, Retribution Falls did).

  10. Goken

    Reverance Pavane mentioned Firefly type literature that was “decidedly unserious”. This makes me wonder if Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and books of that type might be lumped in with Firefly. Granted, comedy brings in some big changes, but I still see the group of misfits trying to get by there.


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