The Literary Origins of Science Fiction in Fantasy Settings

Thursday, September 4, 2014


"Do you know about other worlds? Don't you believe the stars are only huge jewels?"
The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber
Illustration by Caio Maciel Monteiro

With the release of Pathfinder Adventure Path #85: "The Fires of Creation", the first adventure in the Iron Gods Adventure Path, I thought it was worth taking a moment to talk about the literary origins of mixing science-fiction elements into fantasy settings.


Illustration by Ian Llanas

The origins of the Iron Gods Adventure Path itself are pretty clear. The seeds of advanced technology in Golarion go back to its inception, and descriptions of Numeria, Alkenstar, the Red Redoubt of Karamoss, and the Ruins of Kho have always included a level of technology much different than most of the rest of the Inner Sea. Golarion is a world where scraps of ancient lost technology exist in limited quantities, and it makes sense that at least one adventure path explore that aspect of the world. This follows a long tradition of mixing science fiction and fantasy elements in roleplaying games, dating back to near the beginning of the hobby.

The RPG hobby is in turn built on a long tradition of genre-blurring stories, dating back to at least the early 1700s. Earlier speculative fiction didn't mostly bother to define a difference between science fiction and fantasy. Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel Gulliver's Travels was written as a satire, but it is also arguably an early work of mixed science fiction and fantasy. Beyond the well-known fantasy races of Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, protagonist Gulliver encounters many other places including both the flying city of Laputa (a city of pure scientific thought and clear antecedent of Kho), and a land of magicians (Glubbdubdrib) where magic largely replaces technology.

Although not the same as most modern fantasy, another common category of early speculative fiction that often blends advanced technology and magic is the "lost world" genre, where a modern character discovers a fantastic land unknown to the rest of civilization. In some lost world books the discovery is the result of an exploratory expedition (such as is the case for Jules Verne's 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, an early example of the genre), while in other cases the discovery is entirely accidental (as in Edward Bulwer-Lyrtton's 1871 novel Vril, the Power of the Coming Race).

Similar is the planetary romance genre, where the foreign land is generally on other planets. One can argue that Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom (from A Princess of Mars, and a series of novels that follow) is pure science fiction, with its airships and radium pistols, but the fact that most conflict is handled through swordplay reveals its fantasy roots. The blending of science and magic is even clearer in related stories by Burroughs, the most obvious example being "The Wizard of Venus," where planetary explorer Carson Napier learns extraordinary powers from the titular Venusian wizard.

Many novels of the 1930s-1970s combined fantasy and science fiction in one setting, often inspired by the tradition of Barsoom and the planetary romances. The fiction of Michael Moorcock is one of the original influences for fantasy RPG settings, and includes multiple cases of high science elements. Most extensively, the adventures of Hawkmoon (who, as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, is connected to the better-known Elric of Melniboné,) take place in a world that appears to be a post-apocalyptic version of Europe. Magic is commonplace, but sorcerer-scientists also often have access to ancient advanced technology, including the Black Jewel, which is implanted into Hawkmoon by his enemies to monitor his movements. Ursula K. Le Guin's 1966 novel Rocannon's World has fewer directly magic elements, but does describe the travels of a scientist with advanced knowledge through an alien land of castes and swordsmen. Poul Anderson's 1961 novel Three Hearts and Three Lions presents a protagonist from the modern "real" world who ends up in a parallel world where magic and trolls are real.

Instances where science fiction elements enter an existing, established pure-fantasy setting are less common but far from unknown. Robert E. Howard's fantasy character Conan encounters an alien in the 1933 short story "The Tower of the Elephant." Fritz Leiber's quintessential rogue and barbarian team Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser run into a time traveler in his 1968 novel The Swords of Lankhmar. Time travel and planetary travel both come into play in C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner's 1937 story "Quest of the Starstone," in which fantasy swordswoman Jirel of Joiry must deal with Northwest Smith, a smuggler and scoundrel hired from a tavern on Mars in her own far-flung future. (Those interest in seeing how that particular situation is resolved can read the story in Black God's Kiss, still available from paizo.com.)

The existence of fantasy tales that added a dash of high science is no reason for groups that dislike blending the two ideas to feel they must change their minds, but it is one of the reasons other groups love having the option to through a little more sci-fi into their fantasy games.

Owen K.C. Stephens
Developer

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Tags: Caio Maciel Monteiro Ian Llanas Iron Gods Pathfinder Adventure Path Pathfinder Campaign Setting
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Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Hey, is this some time-travelling blog post from 2007 or did somebody actually write it like it used to be back before marketing took over? :P

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32

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I realize it almost goes without saying, but I was really surprised to not see a reference to Keep on the Borderlands and the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing.


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Owen is just uneditable.


I already like genre mixing when done right, but still, this is a good summary of some of what has already been done.

Just surprised they didn't mention Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (if I remember the name of the D&D SF adventure correctly).


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Owen K.C. Stephens wrote:
Time travel and planetary travel both come into play in C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner's 1937 story "Quest of the Starstone," in which fantasy swordswoman Jirel of Joiry must deal with Northwest Smith, a smuggler and scoundrel hired from a tavern on Mars in her own far-flung future. (Those interest in seeing how that particular situation is resolved can read the story in Black God's Kiss, still available from paizo.com.)

I'm surprised the blog entry doesn't mention that the same story is in Northwest of Earth, also still available at paizo.com.

Scarab Sages

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Rulebook Subscriber

Its sad that you guys have to write a blog post to justify Iron Gods to all the naysayers saying nay, but kudos for a well informing article. I really did learn something (particularly that I need to go read Gulliver's Travels), and the lineage of where the genre "Science Fiction and Fantasy" is pretty interesting.

Silver Crusade

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archmagi1 wrote:
Its sad that you guys have to write a blog post to justify Iron Gods to all the naysayers saying nay, but kudos for a well informing article.

I thought they had mostly quieted down once the first volume hit. Or maybe I've just lucked out and missed the negativity.

Either way, great article. :)

(more Verces plz!)

Paizo Employee Modules Overlord

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I actually didn't write this to change anyone's minds, and I don't expect it will. Some folks dislike genre-blur, and that's okay. There's no reason every adventure path has to appeal to every player. In fact, I'm pretty sure that would be impossible. What we can do is make every AP as interesting and high-quality as we possibly can, and trust it'll find an audience.

But I am a huge fan of a lot of the sources that early science-fantasy stories, so I wanted to take a moment to talk about some of it since Iron Gods clearly owes some of its DNA to these stories. I'm really exited to see where James Jacobs is taking this, and I want to share some of my enthusiasm for the entire concept.

And yes, by all means, go read the full Gulliver's Travels. There is so much weird, amazing stuff in that story that never makes it into any adaptation.

Lantern Lodge RPG Superstar 2014 Top 4

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More blog posts like this if possible! I absolutely love this content.


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I have realized that those who don't like the mix of fantasy and fantasy… umm fantasy and things-they-seem-to-think-ARE-NOT-fantastic-like-spaceships-and-aliens don't really care about the lineage or heritage of the concept throughout DnD's (or fiction's) life. They just plain don't like it.

So I don't think Owen was trying to change minds either. Unless RGG is releasing the Mindchanger soon...

Paizo Employee Modules Overlord

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Ross Byers wrote:
I realize it almost goes without saying, but I was really surprised to not see a reference to Keep on the Borderlands and the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing.

I was mostly trying to stick to things that predated the first release of D&D. That was my arbitrary line for things that count as part of the "origins."

Liberty's Edge

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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

And do a blog post detailing fantasy and sci-fi mixes in other media. There is well over a generation now of gamers born after Krull, Thundaar the Barbarian, and Ralph Bakshi's Wizards.

Paizo Employee Modules Overlord

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Robert Little wrote:
And do a blog post detailing fantasy and sci-fi mixes in other media. There is well over a generation now of gamers born after Krull, Thundaar the Barbarian, and Ralph Bakshi's Wizards.

Not to mention all of DC and Marvel comics. :D

Silver Crusade

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Owen K. C. Stephens wrote:
Robert Little wrote:
And do a blog post detailing fantasy and sci-fi mixes in other media. There is well over a generation now of gamers born after Krull, Thundaar the Barbarian, and Ralph Bakshi's Wizards.
Not to mention all of DC and Marvel comics. :D

And Final Fantasy and too many other videogame settings to count. :)


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And every young kid's make-believe/roleplaying with all their assorted store-bought, second hand, op-shopped, scavenged, own-built toys that didn't stick to brand/genre (Toy Story).

Silver Crusade

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Oceanshieldwolf wrote:
And every young kid's make-believe/roleplaying with all their assorted store-bought, second hand, op-shopped, scavenged, own-built toys that didn't stick to brand/genre (Toy Story).

Transformers, G.I.Joe, and Jem all existed in the same universe in the 80's and I remember ghosts, Lovecraftian horros, and wizards being present in those. :)

(there may have been a fake ghost pirate or two, but I think those are technically hard sf)


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Optimus Prime: "Does this bumper bar look good on me?"

Jem: "Sure, but maybe a darker shade of red. Great for uncovering secret bad guy recording producers."

Snake Eyes (flipping through Jem's vinyl collection): " Totes, Op P."


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Oceanshieldwolf wrote:

Optimus Prime: "Does this bumper bar look good on me?"

Jem: "Sure, but maybe a darker shade of red. Great for uncovering secret bad guy recording producers."

Snake Eyes (flipping through Jem's vinyl collection): " Totes, Op P."

Sorry, but Snake Eyes is my favorite Joe. He would only give a thumbs up. GET YOUR USELESS 80'S CARTOON FACTS STRAIGHT!

Grand Lodge

I was hoping to get a clearer view of the first image by clicking on it, but it redirects me to the front page.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32

Would love to see a post on the etymology of fantasy, fantastic, and fantastical in relation to the origins in literature of the mixture of science-fiction and fantasy genres.

Liberty's Edge RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32, 2011 Top 16

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I'd add Jack Vance's The Dying Earth to the list. While better known as the source of Vancian spellcasting, ioun stones and prismatic spray, there's a good dose of science fiction in many of the stories, and the rest at least acknowledge that it's set in the far future.

Paizo Employee Modules Overlord

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There are lots of great stories I didn't mention, in large part because these isn't room for them all in a reasonably-sized blog post, and there isn't time enough to research and categorize them all.

That said, I was really close to mentioning The Dying Earth. I may have come down on the wrong side of that one. :)

Liberty's Edge

Thanks for this post, Owen. It was a nice trip through a sub-section of the annals of great fiction.

I fall into a slightly different category of players with opinions about blended-genre games. I've enjoyed some of the fiction you've described, and I used to be eager to experience this kind of world or adventure in an RPG.

Unfortunately, I've been in at least five games in which the GM or author of the adventure has blended genres, and it's always been a dissatisfying experience. I have seen high fantasy worlds made suddenly dull and amateurish by the introduction of high tech. I have seen high tech worlds that were nothing more than glossy versions of the high fantasy world. And I have seen convoluted "cross-genre" plots which left everyone, including the GM, wondering what anyone was doing and why they were bothering to do it.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for these authors of the past who have created amazingly satisfying worlds and stories, and I've got nothing but hope for an RPG experience that does some justice to those great achievements. However, I remain jaded by my past experiences, and don't readily step into such game environments.


I love sf movies, i love mixed games like ff and deadspace. I however never will like high tech sf in d&d and pathfinder. It feels off for me personally. Also I think lasers and computers are too powerfull for even dragons and titans. In this world of guns fantasy creatures wouldnt survive a single day.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
The Evil Queen wrote:
I love sf movies, i love mixed games like ff and deadspace. I however never will like high tech sf in d&d and pathfinder. It feels off for me personally. Also I think lasers and computers are too powerfull for even dragons and titans. In this world of guns fantasy creatures wouldnt survive a single day.

When you decide not to change your mind then it's too late.

But if you want to open your heart to the radical, and haven't read the Tech Guide yet, or the Guide to Numeria, or Iron Gods please do yourself a favor and read them with an open mind.

Think of it, wizards drinking the juice that leaks out of ancient spaceships, driving them mad, and paranoid, and greedy and mad. Did I say mad twice? Probably because I really meant it.

Giant robotic scorpions wielding machineguns, being hunted down by Barbarians who can shrug off barrages of bullets because they're just that tough and what's a little lump of metal compared to the stroke of an axe?

What's the difference between a monster and an alien? To your average adventurer nothing.

What's the difference between a laser pistol and a wand of scorching ray? Not much.

I know it affects your sense of verisimilitude, but the real world is very verisimilar (is that a word? If not it should be), a lot of the time.

Liberty's Edge

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Pathfinder Companion Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

I am surprised there is no citation of Leigh Brackett. While in theory Science Fiction, most of her books were Science Fantasy, especially those in Brackett's Solar System.

Some of the works by Clark Ashton Smith mixed science and fantasy, too.

Doing a good work when mixing science and fantasy in a game is hard, but it can be very rewarding when done well.
As an example I love the Shadowrun setting. Sadly the game rules have problems but it is a interesting game nonetheless.


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DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:

What's the difference between a monster and an alien? To your average adventurer nothing.

What's the difference between a laser pistol and a wand of scorching ray? Not much.

OTOH, if there's no difference, why bother?


Lensman had mind powers and sci fi...


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For a very large number of reasons.

It makes little difference to adventurers, but makes many options available.

As a corollary: what's the difference between a high-level sorcerer foe, and a high-level wizard foe? Functionally for most of the world, and to their enemies, not much. But the differences are present and important.


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The Evil Queen wrote:
Also I think lasers and computers are too powerfull for even dragons and titans. In this world of guns fantasy creatures wouldnt survive a single day.

I would like to say that these don't follow at all.

Guns are far more powerful than humans, yet we survive with them.

The difference with dragons and titans with technology is that they'd have technology too.

They are sentient, powerful, adaptable, and clever.

The reason they haven't currently conquered all is that they don't want to or have equally powerful foes to keep them in check. This rough balance continues.

Would their selections of feats and skills and such and their tactics alter in a high-tech world? Of course. But that means nothing to their long term survival.

EDIT: I'm not saying you have to change your mind. You don't. But I did want to mention that this particular set of arguments doesn't hold without presumptions that aren't a given anywhere.


Diego Rossi wrote:


As an example I love the Shadowrun setting. Sadly the game rules have problems but it is a interesting game nonetheless.

Same with Rifts.

Silver Crusade

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thejeff wrote:
DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:

What's the difference between a monster and an alien? To your average adventurer nothing.

What's the difference between a laser pistol and a wand of scorching ray? Not much.

OTOH, if there's no difference, why bother?

Because at the same time for a player it's kind of cool when you say:

"There's a five legged creature before you, from each foot spring three claws. All five legs are arrayed around it, much like a spider, though its body is conical with eyes arrayed all around it. It rears back to reveal a blender-like mouth of teeth at the bottom of the cone."

Players: "What the hell is that?"

You know what reaction you get from players when you present them with something they've never seen before. Shock, confusion, fear. Everything their characters should feel.

You know what happens when you give a fighter a laser pistol? He can cast scorching ray as long as the batteries last: Who says fighters can't have nice things?

There's plenty of points, and many of them are it introduces the most important element to a fantasy RPG:

Surprise.


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DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:
thejeff wrote:
DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:

What's the difference between a monster and an alien? To your average adventurer nothing.

What's the difference between a laser pistol and a wand of scorching ray? Not much.

OTOH, if there's no difference, why bother?

Because at the same time for a player it's kind of cool when you say:

"There's a five legged creature before you, from each foot spring three claws. All five legs are arrayed around it, much like a spider, though its body is conical with eyes arrayed all around it. It rears back to reveal a blender-like mouth of teeth at the bottom of the cone."

Players: "What the hell is that?"

You know what reaction you get from players when you present them with something they've never seen before. Shock, confusion, fear. Everything their characters should feel.

You know what happens when you give a fighter a laser pistol? He can cast scorching ray as long as the batteries last: Who says fighters can't have nice things?

There's plenty of points, and many of them are it introduces the most important element to a fantasy RPG:

Surprise.

There's no reason that description can't be a fantasy monster as easily as anything else. Unless the player recognizes it as something (I don't, if I'm supposed to.), what difference does it make?

If anything, that's an argument for making up monsters or not letting the players read the Bestiaries, not for adding SF.

The fighter would probably be better off with a bow. He'd certainly be better off with a jetpack, but hey, there are flying magic items too.

Don't get me wrong, I don't really have any objections to mixing the two, but combining "It's so great to add SF things" and "they're just like magic, so it doesn't change anything" seems like a really weird argument to me.


Owen K. C. Stephens wrote:
And yes, by all means, go read the full Gulliver's Travels. There is so much weird, amazing stuff in that story that never makes it into any adaptation.

How about the TV movie with Ted Danson? That one captured remarkably much of the novel. It even included...

Gulliver's Travels:
...the scene where Lemuel extinguished that fire by urinating on it! And the spiteful dwarf among the Brobdingnagians. And the "belief in theory that doesn't quite make it in practice" theme of Laputa. It even comes up with a semblance of plot for the Glubbdubdrib trip!

Dark Archive

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Cheapy wrote:
Owen is just uneditable.

Maybe some one just couldn't get throw his prose.

Shadow Lodge

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*applause* Well done Owen. Well done.


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Pathfinder Companion, Maps Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber
thejeff wrote:
DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:

Because at the same time for a player it's kind of cool when you say:

"There's a five legged creature before you, from each foot spring three claws. All five legs are arrayed around it, much like a spider, though its body is conical with eyes arrayed all around it. It rears back to reveal a blender-like mouth of teeth at the bottom of the cone."

Players: "What the hell is that?"

You know what reaction you get from players when you present them with something they've never seen before. Shock, confusion, fear. Everything their characters should feel.

You know what happens when you give a fighter a laser pistol? He can cast scorching ray as long as the batteries last: Who says fighters can't have nice things?

There's plenty of points, and many of them are it introduces the most important element to a fantasy RPG:

Surprise.

There's no reason that description can't be a fantasy monster as easily as anything else. Unless the player recognizes it as something (I don't, if I'm supposed to.), what difference does it make?

If anything, that's an argument for making up monsters or not letting the players read the Bestiaries, not for adding SF.

This. The same thing happens when you use a new monster, and it works precisely once. The next time that player encounters the monster, he'll know exactly what it is, even if his PC shouldn't, and be back in the position of pretending he doesn't know trolls are vulnerable to fire and wondering how many other things the DM will expect him to try before he uses what he knows will work. The surprise doesn't come from SF in fantasy; it comes from using a new creature for the first time.

There's a reason there was only one Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, after all, just as there's a reason why Luke and Mal and Kirk are completely unimpressed by the SF trappings that are part of their everyday adventures. When you're playing 6 books of Iron Gods, there's only so many times you can do the "Zounds, what can this strange device be which flings fire?" schtick. It's a laser pistol; pick it up and shoot the robot, and let's get on with this.


Joana wrote:
thejeff wrote:
DM_aka_Dudemeister wrote:

Because at the same time for a player it's kind of cool when you say:

"There's a five legged creature before you, from each foot spring three claws. All five legs are arrayed around it, much like a spider, though its body is conical with eyes arrayed all around it. It rears back to reveal a blender-like mouth of teeth at the bottom of the cone."

Players: "What the hell is that?"

You know what reaction you get from players when you present them with something they've never seen before. Shock, confusion, fear. Everything their characters should feel.

You know what happens when you give a fighter a laser pistol? He can cast scorching ray as long as the batteries last: Who says fighters can't have nice things?

There's plenty of points, and many of them are it introduces the most important element to a fantasy RPG:

Surprise.

There's no reason that description can't be a fantasy monster as easily as anything else. Unless the player recognizes it as something (I don't, if I'm supposed to.), what difference does it make?

If anything, that's an argument for making up monsters or not letting the players read the Bestiaries, not for adding SF.

This. The same thing happens when you use a new monster, and it works precisely once. The next time that player encounters the monster, he'll know exactly what it is, even if his PC shouldn't, and be back in the position of pretending he doesn't know trolls are vulnerable to fire and wondering how many other things the DM will expect him to try before he uses what he knows will work. The surprise doesn't come from SF in fantasy; it comes from using a new creature for the first time.

There's a reason there was only one Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, after all, just as there's a reason why Luke and Mal and Kirk are completely unimpressed by the SF trappings that are part of their everyday adventures. When you're playing 6 books of Iron Gods, there's only so many times you...

It's actually in someways less effective, since the players are more likely to be familiar with the sci-fi trappings than their characters are, so even if they don't know the exact details, they have to firewall a lot of metagame information. It's hard to actually try to figure out how a laser pistol might work in character, when the player has already recognized it as a pistol of some kind.

So you have to introduce mechanics to handle it.

Once the player realizes the weird monster is a robot, they know things about it which their characters don't, which isn't necessarily true of weird new fantasy monsters. That's even ignoring actual rules mechanics knowledge.

RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32

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Let's not forget Svetz the time-traveller. Unicorns are real jerks.


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Pathfinder Companion, Lost Omens Subscriber

I remember an anime called Lensmen, was that based on something else?

I love FF games(before FF11), Chronotrigger, Phantasy Star II-IV, and many others that combined magic and tech.

Webstore Gninja Minion

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Dragon78 wrote:
I remember an anime called Lensmen, was that based on something else?

The Lensmen anime series was (loosely) based on the serial pulp tales by E.E. "Doc" Smith (read more here).


Mikaze wrote:


Transformers, G.I.Joe, and Jem all existed in the same universe in the 80's and I remember ghosts, Lovecraftian horros, and wizards being present in those. :)

There was also one unreleased bit that would have linked in My Little Pony: Shipwreck would have gotten a cameo where he comes face to face with a pegasus then does the classic 'dump the bottle and swear sobriety' gag.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

If you really want to screw with your players:

"You see an ogre in the clearing a head of you"

pause....

(players announce attacks, spells etc.)

"You think it is a Mark V"

Shadow Lodge

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Dragon78 wrote:

I remember an anime called Lensmen, was that based on something else?

I love FF games(before FF11), Chronotrigger, Phantasy Star II-IV, and many others that combined magic and tech.

For me it's about aesthetics. These sorts of things, as I've said in other threads, are where I got my introduction to the fantasy genre and to much of the concepts of storytelling to begin with, so they're the kind of world I like to play with. The late-1800s, Age-of-Steam era aesthetic is my preferred kind of setting, more than the Tolkienan mid-medieval-European fantasy. So things that evoke more of the former are more likely to draw my attention.

Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

Science Fiction for the most part is just Fantasy given modern trappings. You substitute equations for incantations, and improbable, frequently impossible technology for magic. Transporters and transmats, I'm looking at YOU!) Star Wars (and lately Trek) even gives us magic swords and mystic passes in "the force". And Trek even has it's own races of elves!, both "good" and "evil", with the evil ones being slightly physically warped from the good ones.

The trappings are different, but the structure and the game are mainly the same.


Reductively, they're both just modern stories with either "magic" or "sciencey" trappings. Mostly adventure fiction, but some mystery and other genres as well.

I don't actually agree with that or more accurately don't agree that it's a useful way to look at them. I certainly don't agree that the dividing line is whether we currently think the technology is impossible or not.

On the other hand, it's all been said before and by better (or at least funnier) than either of us.

Paizo Employee Modules Overlord

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I had the great honor to talk to author (and gamer!) Aaron Allston a few times in the later years before his death, when he and I were both quests at SoonerCon. During one of those conversations, I asked him what he saw as the difference between a science fiction story, and a fantasy story (or action story, or romance, or whatever genre) with sic-fi trappings.

He said that in true science fiction, the story was at least in some way about how the technology changed things. Not as a MacGuffin or substitute for a threat that could just as easily be a dragon or soldier, but how society, characters, or conflict is fundamentally changed by new technologies. The fiction is at least in big part *about* the science.

That's a tough bar, and lots of things don't clear it. I'm not even sure I agree with it. But it has strongly influenced how I think about sic fi ever since.


Owen K. C. Stephens wrote:

I had the great honor to talk to author (and gamer!) Aaron Allston a few times in the later years before his death, when he and I were both quests at SoonerCon. During one of those conversations, I asked him what he saw as the difference between a science fiction story, and a fantasy story (or action story, or romance, or whatever genre) with sic-fi trappings.

He said that in true science fiction, the story was at least in some way about how the technology changed things. Not as a MacGuffin or substitute for a threat that could just as easily be a dragon or soldier, but how society, characters, or conflict is fundamentally changed by new technologies. The fiction is at least in big part *about* the science.

That's a tough bar, and lots of things don't clear it. I'm not even sure I agree with it. But it has strongly influenced how I think about sic fi ever since.

So what's the bar for fantasy?

I dislike the idea that fantasy is the default and there has to be a bar for something to qualify as science fiction.

Part of the problem is that neither is really a genre, strictly speaking, so much as a setting.

You can have adventure fiction in a science fiction setting or a fantasy setting or a historical or a modern setting. You can have a mystery in any of them. Or a romance.

That said, there are subgenres within both fantasy and science fiction that don't fit in any other settings.


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Not to derail the thread, but there are plenty of stories that don't have a bar for fantasy or science fiction. Ordinary People, for instance, ain't no ray guns or magic swords in that one.

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