Exploring Science Fiction Genre and Storytelling through The Expanse RPG
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted share their first impressions of The Expanse RPG, a Modern AGE rules set game from Green Ronin. I didn’t know anything about The Expanse — roleplaying game or otherwise — before video planning. Afterwards further reading of the rule book and binge watching the series on Amazon Prime brought a fresh perspective on genre and fandom inspired RPGs. The Expanse RPG provides a window into several themes and elements including more than one science fiction subgenre, shipboard life stories, travel and tension. Can you guess I’ve become a fan? Nowhere near a Screaming Firehawk certainly, but then again it’s only been a few days. So let’s get into it.
The Expanse RPG illustrates strength of fandom gaming
My first big takeaway from The Expanse RPG and live action series regards fandom inspired gaming. Whether you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons set in Wildemount, Star Wars set in the eponymous galaxy or The Expanse set in a future where humanity has colonized the Solar System the vast bulk of worldbuilding already exists. Creating a game experience in a setting well known to a Game Master does so much heavy lifting not only in terms of people, places and things but also the vibe of the setting. When the players also share familiarity this increases by orders of magnitude.
The results around the gaming table tend to speak for themselves. Staunch supporters of the Dwendalian Empire recognize waltzing into Xhorhas waving the empire crest is ill advised. Rebel soldiers know their blaster can’t take down a star fighter and OPA members might keep this affiliation on the down low in strongly Earther territory. In other words there’s a lot less explaining to do about the setting and a lot more player buy in when they grasp the themes, vibes and general understanding of the world around their characters.
In the case of a game like The Expanse RPG or any other fandom inspired game there is a tricky balance between what the game system supports and what the fandom setting highlights, something to keep in mind. If you’re familiar with my perspective on this through previous writing and discussions you’ve come across, the very first thing I do whenever I look at a new game is search for the part that tells me what characters are meant to do in the game and how the system supports this. In the case of The Expanse RPG I was unable to find such a section. Checking the Modern AGE Quickstart rules didn’t reveal anything either. Specifically what I look for is something to tell me what kind of stories a game intends to help tell. For context D&D characters solve puzzles, talk with other characters, battle fantastic monsters, and discover fabulous magic items and other treasure. Pretty broad, I know, but that’s the nugget of the game and the rules presumably grow from there. In a game like Maximum Apocalypse characters survive a hostile world overrun by multiple apocalyptic scenarios and scavenge for gear. In Vaesen characters track down and study mysterious creatures, identify their weakness and drive them off to protect innocent lives.
In other words genre and game system are not mutually exclusive. A fantasy adventure of Quest RPG is different than D&D because of the game system just as a story set in world of The Expanse is different than Star Wars not only because of the setting but the rules build to create those experiences.
Broad science fiction subgenre applications
The Expanse RPG touches on several subgenres of science fiction too and you can find helpful analogs to fantasy in these. For reference I found this breakdown of science fiction subgenres from SciFi Ideas.
Soft science fiction
“Science fiction in which science and technology take a back seat to character-driven plots. In soft SF, the how is much less important than the why.”
This is a terrific approach for science fiction RPGs and on a related note for fantasy RPGs where you can replace science with magic. Soft fiction gives players many more opportunities to engage with their surroundings and for GMs to incorporate those elements without the need for either mechanical support or personal knowledge. In other words the players around the table don’t need to know anything about science and technology to make these concepts relevant to their games. The same can be said of magic. For someone without scientific knowledge these real world disciplines may as well be magic and this turns it into a storytelling tool.
The crunchier a game system the more challenging this approach grows because of concrete rules and mechanics but in general, a soft approach means for example an engineer character can propose using their technical skills to overcome an obstacle without the need to explain or justify if it would really work. Imagine playing The Expanse RPG and your party gets ambushed by pirates hiding on what everyone believed to be a derelict vessel in space. This soft approach means the engineer could propose using their skill to overload a circuit board near the enemy’s position and cause an electrical burst. (I don’t know if this is a component of the game exactly, I’m just illustrating a point.) None of the players, GM included, needs to know ship schematics, electrical engineering or how exactly this would work.
Military science fiction
“Science fiction with a distinctly military theme. Characters are usually members of a military organization, and the plot will generally revolve around a war and/or military conflict. Duty, honor, heroism and other military clichés are par for the course.”
This subgenre fits just about any setting and scenario. Conflict drives storytelling and this is conflict on a huge scale. The Expanse RPG certainly lends itself to this kind of story and there’s plenty of opportunities and motivation for characters to get involved with one or more sides. This can also be a great way to structure an RPG campaign because with player buy in the group decides they’re okay with the idea of following orders and receiving specific assignments.
A word of caution regarding military themed RPG campaigns: be mindful of character perspectives. War is a great motivator for characters and excellent driver of plots. Along the way characters may grow disillusioned by the conflict though. They may come to see their side as being in the wrong or the entire conflict itself something they grow distant from or even actively oppose. These are dramatic turns! But they might also come about unintentionally. If you’re a GM for this kind of campaign and you want to stay on target it’ll go a long way if you keep the pressure on that the enemy is clearly wrong. I’ll give you an example from my favorite science fiction story, Mass Effect. In the third game of the series the galaxy is at war against an extremely powerful enemy. There’s tension between allies but everyone recognizes there’s no sympathy for them or if they do there’s no question they made the wrong choice.
Social science fiction
“Fiction in which future societies are extrapolated, explained and often criticised, usually for the purpose of social satire. The social sciences are the over-riding theme in this type of fiction; however, science and technology will usually play a central role in the structure of the extrapolated society.”
“Biopunk is similar to cyberpunk, except that it focuses on the use of bio-technology and genetic engineering rather than computer technology. Genetic manipulation, body modification and eugenics are all common themes in biopunk literature, as are social decline and political repression.”
Conflict stemming from genetic or biological differences is a dramatic device as old as storytelling itself. In The Expanse setting, physiological differences caused by gravity’s effects on people’s bodies represents one aspect of this subgenre. Where I’m at watching the series looks like there’s a lot more biopunk themes still to come too. In the fantasy genre so often presenting large numbers of sentient species this can manifest and in fact when it comes to D&D even create some serious discussions about the game itself.
Issues related to this biopunk science fiction subgenre add deep philosophical considerations into a game. Even among a single species like humans, science or magic can breed discrimination and prejudice between the haves and the have nots. In the science fiction film Gattaca, genetic engineering gives people the ability to customize their own children at conception, including removing genetic markers predisposing people to various diseases and so forth. The thrust of the story centers on a naturally born person maintaining a secret life masquerading as a “valid” — a person born through eugenics — and explores human potential.
Travel becomes a genre all its own
The Expanse RPG shows off two other kinds of RPG experiences players can apply to all sorts of genre games too. The first of these are ship based stories, whether a party lives aboard the Rocinante and travels throughout the solar system or the seizes the Sea Ghost in Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and travels throughout the Azure Sea.
In ship based stories like these or, for another more well known example Star Trek, so much of the story revolves around the ships themselves. Throughout season one of The Expanse the crew very often encounters a problem aboard a vessel and it’s not uncommon for new problems to arise during or immediately after dealing with one. This is another area where a soft fiction approach lends a hand. I don’t know anything about spaceships or sea ships for that matter but I don’t need to either. A GM can get a lot of mileage from inserting ship troubles. In a game of Hyperlanes I ran years ago the party often dealt with vehicle issues and the game itself (a science fiction adaptation of 5E D&D rules) includes a table of quirks for just such a purpose. Humidity controls going haywire, leaking chemicals or even an unusual squeak or rumble puts players into action mode.
When you combine ship troubles with any other scenario the party involves themselves with you’ve got a recipe for tension and drama. Going back to the Star Trek example, so many episodes of any series in the franchise revolve around external circumstances compounded by ship problems. This can also be a great tool for managing split parties, especially in science fiction settings where communication between party members becomes easier through technology. Characters who remain aboard deal with ship problems while an away team handles the external situation, and the interplay between these two circumstances makes for some tense and compelling experiences.
Another related experience is the travel story. Getting from one point to another is the quest itself, and doing so aboard a vehicle expands the possibilities. In addition to decreasing travel time, traveling aboard a specialized vehicle often involves a hostile environment surrounding those aboard. This includes outer space of course but also travel above and below the sea. To a lesser extent even an overland caravan in a fantasy setting can incorporate this element to a lesser extent if the journey brings travelers through regions where straying from the road brings peril. Mountain passes, volcanic regions or even swamps and bogs pose special threats not only to the characters but the vehicles too.
For both of these scenarios part of the adventure is the journey and perhaps the only motivating factor for the campaign. What happens along the way internally and externally, and how the characters react and respond to those circumstances, becomes the story. In The Expanse RPG you might take inspiration from the show with a group of characters in a relatively mundane situation suddenly thrust into larger events. None of the characters’ personal goals or motivations contribute to the inciting incident or what happens next and over time they develop these things. You can just as easily begin with a group of people committed to a singular goal, pursuing individual goals or any combination in between. Identifying a genre and possibly subgenres like above can help guide the direction and decision making for the campaign whether its science fiction, fantasy or a story taking place in our own modern world.