The Architect DM: On Modern and Futuristic Settings

I’ve talked quite a lot about worldbuilding and running roleplaying games in fantasy settings, but I’ve been planning on addressing modern and futuristic RPGs for a long time as well. One of the big hurdles that I have to overcome when thinking and writing about modern/future settings is that they seem inherently more difficult to deal with than their fantasy counterparts. For a modern or even a historic RPG I believe the difficulties come from the game being based in a real world that brings with it a vast amount of expectations from the players. If you’re running a game in these settings and a player at your table knows more about history than you, it can become very intimidating to even try to plan or run the game. Science fiction and futuristic games are a little bit better, but you’re still dealing with a lot of heavy science and realistic elements that can lead to issues where they might not have arisen in your typical elves and magic infused setting.

This topic is fresh in my mind because recently I was discussing with a few people online about how most fantasy RPG settings have levels implied in their character creation and most modern/sci-fi settings do not. Certainly there are some examples to the contrary (Star Wars Saga uses levels and is based on the d20 system, for one) but it does seem like a trend in RPGs that can be analyzed and discussed. It is always good to remember that generalizing and categorizing things like this is an imperfect practice, but I think it is safe to assume certain things about particular settings and so I’m going to discuss some of those things here. While taking part in the RPG levels discussion, I realized that in most modern/sci-fi settings the emphasis is less on the character increasing in power and more on their skills and equipment improving.

The Acquisition of Personal Power

If you have a modern/sci-fi game where the majority of the characters are increasing in personal power, it often falls more into the superhero mold of game. This train of thought led me to think about the typical Dungeons & Dragons game and how it can be seen to trend towards the superhero spectrum of fantasy games, a trend that I feel has been increasing as D&D has progressed through more and more editions. You are certainly perfectly free to run non-supers games of D&D, but rather than these being the norm for fantasy games they are now a sub-category often categorized as “gritty” or “low-fantasy”.

While there are plenty of examples of modern and futuristic RPGs that include powerful psychics and mutants, I feel that the norm for these kinds of settings is still closer to the non-supers style of play and that encourages a non-level dependent system. A concept that I feel backs up this idea can be seen in roleplaying systems such as GURPS or in White Wolf’s RPGs where characters are powered based on how many points they’ve spent. In many futuristic GURPS games, players can spend their points on technology including mechs and weapons or into gaining super powers. In White Wolf’s RPGs players can spend points into stats and abilities, but they are also given the chance to spend points in backgrounds or features that include wealth and resources. Neither of these examples 100% proves the idea I’m putting forth, but having played a lot of different systems I think that the concepts above really begin to shine when playing a modern or futuristic game because they allow players to easily advance their character’s technology and possessions.

So What’s the Point?

One of the points I’m trying to make is that I feel very strongly that the more “gritty” a game is the more realistic it strives to be, and the more realistic a game strives to be the harder it is on the DM/GM in both planning and running the game. Modern and futuristic games might be harder to run simply because they haven’t been around as long as D&D has, but I think it goes beyond that. The good news is that there are a large number of shortcuts and aids that can help with making running these kinds of games easier for GMs.

One of the biggest things that can help you in running a modern/sci-fi game is using an existing setting that is easy to learn about. If you haven’t thought of Star Wars up until this point, then something is probably wrong with you! Using a setting like Star Wars or Star Trek can be a great way to make running a space game easier, but I also imagine most of us aren’t running those kinds of games just because its easier. The problem I have when I’m trying to plan an adventure for Star Wars is the same kind of problem I would have for a custom setting, how do I make up material for this that makes sense to me and my players? The best example I can think of is trying to come up with a completely new planet to have adventures on. If you go back as little as a few decades, you’ll find stories that take place “on the surface of Jupiter”. If I tried to run an adventure on the surface of Jupiter, I know that many of my players would not be able to get into it because they know that Jupiter is entirely made up of gas.

One of the aspects I am most impressed by in games like Mass Effect is the creativity and plausibility the game brings to the sci-fi world it creates. The game includes hundreds of fictional planets and every single one of them has a small blurb describing the planet’s atmosphere, surface (if it has one), and possible inhabitants. Perhaps if I were an astronomer, I would notice several problems with the science of Mass Effect‘s planets, but at the base level the world is very engrossing and represents everything I’d want to present in my own sci-fi RPGs.

Alternate History / Alternate Future

Another method that can be used to help make your world more believable is starting with a changed set of expectations about the world. The Fallout series of games is a great example of this in that you are playing a futuristic game but the history of that world is different from our own.If you’re trying to run a historic, modern, or futuristic game and are concerned about certain aspects of realism, then one of the best things you can do is let your players know from the start that you’re assuming different events in the history of the world. If you don’t know guns very well, and are put off by the focus in modern games on fire arms, then re-write history and have laser guns or some other new technology invented by the 20th century. This would allow you to make up your own equipment and avoid the gun-nut in your group from nit-picking the details of each and every weapon. However, you have to keep in mind that you may be eliminating some elements of the game that your players may really enjoy. If that’s the case, then I strongly encourage you to relinquish some of the storytelling duties as the GM to that player and allow them to be the “expert” on that particular subject. It’s not a fault with a GM but actually a big benefit if they allow one of their players to help advise them on fire arms, vehicles, or buildings when they’re planning or even while actively running an adventure.

Another great example of this concept is the Gamma World RPG, which incorporates some ideas of an established setting (since the RPG has been around for so long) but also uses the alternate history idea to great effect. Above and beyond these ideas, I believe Gamma World is one of the easiest modern/futuristic RPGs to run simply because it can be so ridiculously off-the-wall. Things that happen in Gamma World rarely make sense, and this allows the DM to improvise more and not worry about realism nearly as much as they might feel they have to in other RPGs.

Moving Forward (to a Better RPG Tomorrow)

This post serves as a brainstorming session for me on modern/sci-fi RPGs, but it also acts as an introduction to my thoughts on these games and some of the biggest hurdles I hope to address for the DMs and GMs out there that are running non-Fantasy games. The first handful of adventures I ever attempted to run were modern or futuristic games and I found myself banging my head against a wall over the same issues every time. Now that I have a lengthy campaign of D&D under my belt, I’m setting my sights on running different styles of RPGs and as a result I hope to bring some of my knowledge and experience into this series to help all of you.

With that in mind, if you’ve run a modern/futuristic game in the past, are running one now, or you’re planning on starting one please join in on a conversation in the comments on this post and let me know what you’d like to see! If you have advice to share, that’s more than welcome as well!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.


  1. I’m currently running a game of Starship Troopers (by Mongoose; essentially d20 modern). As an engineer running a sci-fi game I find that I overly limit myself as to what is ‘realistic.’ I’m finding it to be a personal challenge not to let my own sense of realism trump the fun and exploits of the players at the table.

    In terms of game design, I’m largely going with an alternate version starting a year or two before the Arachnid invasion. I had planned to follow the major events of the book/Roughnecks/1st movie, but have since found them to be too limiting.

  2. Nice discussion, though I’d have to say that at least hard sci-fi can hardly be said to be a ‘newer’ RPG genre than fantasy at this point. EPT was pretty much out at the same time as OD&D, and Traveller only post-dates OD&D by a scant couple of years. Metamorphosis Alpha was out even before Traveller IIRC and is probably the oldest game in that genre (and is basically 1e GW anyway, which was itself out in 1978 or ’79).

    I think it is just a tougher genre to work with for some of the reasons you’ve noted. Plenty of people have tried, and yet there has never really been one overwhelmingly successful title on the order of D&D. It seems like the biggest difference is that futuristic/historical type games are inevitably heavily wedded to their setting material. I can’t think of one that isn’t really. GURPS comes closest. Beyond that you have to tie heavily into setting concepts for mechanics. At best that makes for short-lived games.

  3. My take on players critiquing the realism of my game is: They do it, I tell them where to go. I don’t need to run a game where there’s laser guns just to get the gun expert off my back, because you know what, my game isn’t attempting to perfectly simulate how real guns work. (Actually I would probably get more trouble from friends of mine who would know how a laser gun would (more likely, would not) work.)
    A good example, I once ran a WH40K game in which the party’s ship crash-landed on a planet that had been isolated from the rest of the Imperium for a few millennia. One of my players was horrified when he discovered the natives spoke perfect Imperial – “after a few millennia their language would have been altered beyond recognition!” he said. This got short shrift from me.

    Bottom line: if you say you’re running a hyper-realistic game, or a detailed simulation of Victorian England, or whatever, then your players get a right to expect your game to be accurate. If not, they get the right to mock your ignorance after the game has concluded.


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