Planetary romance as a genre for SF RPGs

Deep in the fastnesses of April 2013 the sages of High Wycombe mused at length about space opera and its advantages and disadvantages as a genre for RPG adventure. I wonder whether they would like to give some treatment of that sort to space opera’s less footloose and grandiloquent twin, planetary romance.

We are SF fans, and therefore as M. Bell_West says we must argue about definitions. Mine is that space opera and planetary romance are both genres of sci-fi adventure, which is to say that they are centrally about what characters do in conflict and not centrally about scientific ideas. The tech may be either skiffy or scientifically plausible: either way sci-fi adventure is not hard SF because it’s not about the science ideas. “Neutron Star” has FTL travel and absolutely impenetrable spaceship hulls, but it’s hard SF because it is about the nature of tides, with Beowulf Shaeffer’s actions merely a capsule for the scientific aha!. Similarly “The Cold Equations”. Sci-fi adventure is the opposite of that.

Space opera is the subgenre of SF adventure that features a lot of space travel and (as the eminent Dr. Cule points out) a corresponding operatic grandiosity of scope and scale. Individual planets are characteristically visited only fleetingly, and sketchily developed. Planetary romance is the subgenre that features the planets that one travels to. A planetary romance story or novel is typically set on a single exotic planet, and this is correspondingly better developed. In space opera space travel and space ships are an important part of the matter of the adventures; in planetary romance space travel is the enabling assumption that lurks in the background to justify the protagonists’ being on the exotic planet.

Examples of my favourite planetary romances¹ are Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes series, Alastor novels, Durdane series, Maske: Thaery, Emphyrio, Big Planet, Showboat World etc., Anderson’s The Man Who Counts/War of the Wingmen. Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles. They aren’t IN SPACE, they’re ON PLANETS.

What do you goodfolk think about planetary romance, or serial planetary romance (in which the PCs visit a series of worlds for episodic planetary adventure) as a genre for RPG?

It seems to me that early SF games such as Traveller, Universe, and ForeSight had a bit of a foot in each camp, supplying more-or-less playable space trade/combat games and also for generating worlds in a bit more detail than is required if the PCs are interested only in the spaceport and the gravity well.

Do you think that a single setting, a single game, can do both well? Is it possible to have an interstellar context that is set up to support an engaging SO game, where the worlds embedded in it are set up to support engaging PR games? Can one tech set be right for both? One game system? Or are their inescapable strains between the needs of the two?

Has anyone here ever run a campaign that defied the distinction between the two subgenres, featuring both space travel and its destinations? I have a feeling that Star Trek was supposed to do that, but found filming the different worlds too expensive.

Anything about sub-sub genres? Is are naval SF and military SF a pair of SO/PR twins?

¹ I’m not listing Ursula le Guin’s “Rocannon’s World”, “The Word for World is Forest”, “The Dispossessed”, “The Left Hand of Darkness”, and other Hainish Cycle material, though I admire them, because I think that perhaps they are yet another thing: social SF. They are not merely adventure stories in exotic settings, but actual SF stories about science ideas, in this case ideas from the social sciences.

I tend towards the belief that genre distinctions are, on the whole, largely arbitrary confections designed to support either a sense of superiority or a particular academic thesis.

The stories I think of when someone says “planetary romance” are the John Carter of Mars series – which, while I enjoy them, aren’t really all that distinct from other “modern man is transported to an entirely alien realm” stories – and the ones I call “Poul Anderson’s solve the planet puzzle stories”, often involving a huge distance to be covered between the spaceship wreck and the place where help can be found.

Which latter aren’t really planetary romance at all, more problem solving; and given that I read them in a bunch of overlapping anthologies, sometimes when I wasn’t entirely well, I may have got a distorted picture of his output.

Is Dune planetary romance?

It has often seemed to me that the canonical adventure shape for Traveller is “the heroes turn up somewhere in their spaceship; they can’t immediately leave, because [reasons]; they get into some sort of potentially-profitable trouble, and go away in their spaceship at the end of the story”. In fact it’s yet another of the ways the Wild West legends influenced early role-playing: a group of strangers comes into town.

Oh, hey, a time-wasting research opportunity! Stripping away background and campaign material and looking at actual adventure in the Traveller LBBs, we have

The Imperial Fringe (Introductory Adventure): a brawl on planet
The Kinunir (Adventure 1): 4 mini-adventures in space
Research Station Gamma (Adventure 2): on planet (a part-submerged research station)
Twilight’s Peak (book) (Adventure 3): mostly on planet
Leviathan (Adventure 4): the campaign’s in space, the adventures are on planets
Trillion Credit Squadron (Adventure 5): not really an adventure for this purpose
Expedition to Zhodane (Adventure 6): mostly in space
Broadsword (Adventure 7): 3/4 on planet
Prison Planet (Adventure 8): on, er, planet
Nomads of the World Ocean (Adventure 9): on planet
Safari Ship (Adventure 10): the campaign’s in space, the adventures are on planets
Murder on Arcturus Station (Adventure 11): on a space station
Secret of the Ancients (Adventure 12): mixed
Signal GK (Adventure 13): mixed

which I think leans towards planetary adventure more than spacegoing.

And, to some extent, to help harassed bookshop owners confronted with a stream of customers who have finished a popular series and want more like that.

I disagree. It seems to me that in publishing, TV, and movies genres are promotional categories, an attempt to discern what audiences like, produce more of it, and suggest “if you liked that you might like this”. I.e. it’s an attempt to serve different tastes.

In RPG genre is an element of “the PCs are X who do Y in a world where Z”, i.e. part of a system to co-ordinate expectations, obtain buy-in to the game premise, and gets players to agree about what sort of thing is going to happen in a game.

Genres are also handy tools for creators. They give you a set of models to follow when you want to write a story of a certain type. For example, after the first Superman story, people could tell a type of story modeled on it, often rather closely, not just in an origin story, powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, and a crimefighting mission, but in such nuances as a dual identity, a secret weakness, a love interest who was one-third of a triangle with the two identities, a rogue’s gallery of villains, and so on. (Of course some of those were around before Superman; see for example the Zorro stories. What Superman did was bring them all together in a prototypical pattern.)

I sometimes distinguish the planetary romances with slightly fewer swords and alien sorceresses in them, and more regular interstellar travel in spaceships, as rationalised planetary romance. That’s not meant as an invidious distinction: I love Zelazny’s _Lord of Light_¹ and Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle (et seq.), and they are far from rationalised.

Have you read many of the following? Planet of Adventure (Cities of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, The Pnume_), The Demon Princes (The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Face, The Palace of Love, The Book of Dreams), Trullion: Alastor 2262, Marune: Alastor 933, Wyst: Alastor 1716, The Gray Prince, Maske: Thaery, Emphyrio, The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men, The Asutra, To Live Forever, Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth, Throy, The Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, Big Planet, Showboat World, “The Moon Moth”, Ports of Call, Lurulu, Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Sapiens, The Dispossessed, Rocannon’s World, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, Monument?

Is Dune planetary romance?

Mostly, I think. There are bits that are more about intrigue and action in the imperial society of the interstellar matrix, but lots of it is about adventure in the exotic physical environment of a desert planet, figuring out the exotic culture of the fremen, and ruthlessly exploiting the poor bastards.

It has often seemed to me that the canonical adventure shape for Traveller is “the heroes turn up somewhere in their spaceship; they can’t immediately leave, because [reasons]; they get into some sort of potentially-profitable trouble, and go away in their spaceship at the end of the story”.

That being the case, do you have a statement to make on whether it is a good design choice to give PCs interstellar ships that only make money when they are travelling between planets (and then make a lot of it) and a voracious hole in their cash flow statement? I have known some Traveller fans² to complain about it.

Oh, hey, a time-wasting research opportunity!


¹ And Creatures of Light and Darkness, but that’s more fantastic space opera than fantastic planetary romance. This Immortal, too, and Isle of the Dead.

² Well, analysts.

Few. The Fuzzy books and two of the Le Guins. (Which may be why we’ve never gone heavily into this on the podcast – I just don’t know many of the relevant books.)

Looking through a plot summary of Trullion, there seems to be a lot of “and then suddenly, this entirely unexpected thing happens”, which as a model for role-playing is very hard work for the GM.

I think the problem is one of scale mismatch. The intention, as I see it, is that interstellar trading should be an enjoyable minigame in itself – something that was more common in early RPGs than now – that keeps you just barely ahead of the bank, but leaves you hungry, so that you have to take every dodgy deal that presents itself. But in practice many of the things that happen to ships are either hugely profitable or hugely expensive, on a scale that mere “help someone get away from her abductors” tends not to match.

(And then there are emergent special cases. A Non-Industrial Rich world, i.e. a Rich world with population 6, has -8 on purchase prices for gems and +6 on resale prices. Which won’t half save on the fuel cost.)

Most of Vance’s central characters are focussed on a single, simple motivation¹; Glinnes Hulden is unusually greedy. He wants to live in peace on his family farm, play hussade, and bed Duissane—besides preferring to keep quiet about the whereabouts of thirty million ozols in cash. Nevertheless Trullion is one of my favourites. I usually recommend either it, City of the Chasch, or Araminta Station as a point at which to start on Vance. The plot is intricate, depending on the foibles of particular characters², but it all comes together at the end.

But no, I wouldn’t run something like Trullion except as a one-on-one³. You need a clear core activity to keep a numerous group together.

¹ It is not always revenge, despite what Robin Laws implies.

² Vance was influenced by P. G. Wodehouse.

³ I’ve never had a lot of success with one-on-one, but one time I tried it I was working up to a sort of Flat Black version of Glinnes Hulden in the shape of an Imperial Marines officer from Nahal.

One small programming exercise later: actually an easier one to find is NI P worlds, which still offer a net +9 on gem costs (-11 to -2).