This is a sort-of follow-up to my earlier Vinge post.
I’m the sort of guy who wants to love Shock:, the role-playing game of social science fiction by Joshua A. C. Newman. It has a simple but potent engine for generating Big Ideas for science fiction — “situation” of a sort. It should get me excited, and the ideas that can come out of the method often do, but the (admittedly) few times I’ve played it the experience has just come out feeling pretty flat.
(This is definitely a “for me!” thing, so let’s skip the impassioned defenses. I’m 100% certain Shock: works great for many people who I’m not!)
Shock:‘s idea generator is a simple grid, one that lays out social issues vertically (you might list, say, “racism”, “socialized medicine”, and “gun control”) and “shocks” horizontally. Shocks in this case are shocks-to-the-fabric-of-society ala science fiction: time travel, alien visitation, medical immortality, that sort of thing. Shocks are usually few (unless you’re planning on running a monstrously long game).
The juice happens when you look at how these two axises intersect, and work as a group to determine what circumstances arise from that intersection. In one game I played, we had an issue “AIDS in Africa” and the shock “alien first contact”. Some crazy-beautiful ideas came out of that: our aliens were living, sentient microbial colonies, shape-shifters as far as we were concerned at our level, able to take on a humanoid form or something monstrous. Their landing happened over Africa — no big ships over the world’s major cities, here — so there was plenty of regional volatility primed to explode in the face of their arrival. We also talked about them “precipitating” through the atmosphere, travelers on a one-way vessel sent to colonize our planet, the “sac” they were traveling through space in dissolving upon entry. And questions arose as to whether or not it was an earlier colonization by their kind that gave birth to some of the planet’s worst diseases. Some pretty meaty stuff to tear into, there; big ideas.
But the characters and, consequently, story that arose from that point didn’t do much of anything for me. In Shock:, ideas get explored by creating a protagonist at those intersections, with the rest of the table doing the antagonist and supporting-cast work when that particular intersection has the focus. So your cast can rotate around a lot (though it didn’t in the session I’m talking about: we focused on the one protagonist, the one intersection). Which is probably one of my first points of disconnect: the thin connection between me as a player and any character I might play is a sign, overt or otherwise, that I shouldn’t invest much attention/affection/interest in him or her. This mirrors a lot of sci fi out there that I’m already not interested in, where the Big Ideas are so much bigger than the characters that the characters end up being incidental. When ideas trump characters, I’m yawning and setting the book down.
Likely in service to this idea that the cast of a Shock: game is big and likely to shift around as focus moves around the grid, characters in Shock: are not extensively detailed in terms of system. Coming as I do from the Fate background & perspective, that’s deeply unsatisfying — I don’t have a lot on my sheet to invest in, nor to communicate to others. So again I’m left with ideas trumping characters, and characters that feel as thin as the paper of the character sheet.
So let’s keep that in mind while reflecting on what I had to say about Vernor Vinge’s fiction. He’s definitely a Big Ideas kind of guy, but his ideas don’t trump the characters. Really, his ideas sneak in around the edges. He hits you with the interesting, investment-worthy characters in the foreground, but populates the background with those crazy-beautiful ideas that draw people to science fiction in the first place.
So this is the important lesson, and the critical place where I think Shock: missteps — characters first and foremost, ideas second. Shock: has that the other way around. Which is not to say that the game should have players creating characters before the grid that makes the situation; it just needs to make the characters more important, more three-dimensional, instead of using them simply as the tools for exploring the ideas. I don’t want to play (or read about) a tool, I want to play (or read about) a person. My problem as a reader with those sorts of stories is that they can end up feeling awfully antiseptic, and they really require the ideas to be wall to wall stellar. A good but not great idea and this treatment can fall apart fast. A good but not great idea and a characters-first approach on the other hand can still rock.
In my next post, I’ll talk about Diaspora and how I feel it can (and already does) conquer this problem — and what it can learn from Shock:.