Hello, and welcome to another of my “Versus” series! This time, I will be wielding my scalpel-like intellect on an exhaustive comparison between SF and Steampunk. Although I’ll be referring to the two genres as a whole, I’ll be focusing mainly on the RPG aspects of each. This might also seem like a forgone conclusion, in that SF is far more popular than SP, which could give it an unfair advantage. But I’m not judging on numbers, just on their finer qualities.
And yes, I’m aware SP is considered a sub-genre of SF, but for the purposes of argument, I’m temporarily promoting SP to a genre of its own.
Not important to everyone, especially these days, but for me, getting the internal logic wrong can ruin everything from a commercial to a series of novels. If you’re going to spend time creating and playing a character, the world in which it lives has to be believable, or you’ll eventually lose faith in that character. In the end, it comes down to the quality of world-building, and I think most SF worlds are more believable than SP worlds. This could be because I’m more inclined to believe in alien super-technology than a clockwork MP3 player or a steam-powered mobile phone.
I’m giving this one to SF.
SF covers everything from near future settings, to dystopias, the ever-popular post-apocalyptic worlds (zombies optional), all the way to far-future post-human, alien-filled galaxies. True SP, not the stuff that sometimes passes for it, is a little more limited in its variety, in that many of them are neo-victorian settings with lots of brass and airships. I’m not judging here, (well, I am, but not in that way.) I like SP just as much as anyone who isn’t an obsessed super-crazy, top hat wearing, brass monocled uber-fan. But by its very definition, SP lacks range.
SF takes this one.
I don’t know what it is about SF, but some people take it so seriously. So many dystopias, post-apocalyptic, irradiated feudal battle grounds (zombies optional), alien invasions, enslavements and destruction on a planetary scale. All that wonderful technology and no time to enjoy it, so sad.
SP on the other hand has fun built in. It could be because the whole thing has a slightly farcical tone, in a good way, much like James Bond’s gadgets. It’s understood by all that a hand-cranked microwave oven or a television powered just by a pig on a treadmill is (probably) impossible, but it’s not something to worry about.
I think SP takes the point here.
As we all know science can sometimes be a bit deep and quite baffling, what with all the quantum physics and dark matter and anti-matter and doesn’t-matter. And all those scientists at CERN colliding cats, or whatever they’re doing, don’t help. Of course SF writers want to get the science correct in their stories and settings, and so all this goes into the source material.
With SP, the technology is just powered by steam, or clockwork, or a reciprocating widget, and no real effort is made to explain it further. Saying something ‘just works’ and moving on is a positive advantage in a fast-paced gaming session.
Another point to SP.
As story is a large part of any fictional entertainment, the depth, breadth and pace of the narrative is important. With SF, these things are pretty much built in. Stories can span time, space and alternate realities, allowing players to explore every aspect of their character. There is literally no limit to where a SF narrative can lead the players.
With SP things aren’t so open. Space and time travel can occur in SP narratives, but they are so much harder to explain. The ‘it just works’ excuse can be stretched a bit too far when talking about super high tech effects. This leaves devs with a smaller palette of themes to choose from, although this does drive imagination.
I think SF edges this one.
This is more a personal thing I suppose, depending on which of the two you are more into. There are many examples of SF characters on our screens almost every day, so there are plenty of characterisations to choose from. Having a solid image of your character in your mind while playing is a huge help in immersing yourself in the game. With the rapid advance of technology, it’s easier to accept if your character grows a new leg, changes gender overnight or is moved into a new body.
With SP there’s very little for a player to base a character on, or to help them identify with the things in the world. Unless, like me, you’re old enough to remember Victorian England, most of your character’s identity is going to come from research. This could lead to a shallower character and less of an immersive experience.
I’m giving this one to SF.
As you might have guessed, I’m old. I was born before RPGs and computers. The only technology around was television, and that only had three channels. What I’m saying is, I’ve literally seen it all. I was there when Pong came out, when D&D was released, when mobile phones first appeared and were the size of car batteries. And yes, even when the term Steampunk was invented. In other words, for longevity and replay value, for the ability to show me something I haven’t seen before, only SF makes the grade.
You probably saw that coming.
In conclusion, SF is deeper, wider, more varied and has more re-visitability than SP. While I like SP and read novels and play games based on it, it just isn’t SF. (We already agreed this, remember?) Now SP, get back to your sub-genre, good boy, have a biscuit.
If you’d like to disagree, explain why zombies are never optional, or report any issues with balance and fairness in this article, please contact me.