Science in Sci-Fi Gaming

Sunset in Space

Whether you’re playing in a star wars game, a setting like Traveller, a Dr. Who/Star Trek crossover or even a preexisting homebrew, there are lots of reasons why your “science fiction” setting might be soft on the science.  The good news is, even if your setting already has a Tachyon drive, a Tardis, or a Teleporter, it’s not too late to add real science in your game.

The sci-fi genre has amazing potential for storytelling, but a lot of times the science in sci-fi gets dropped.  It’s always possible to gloss over the science in your game with quantum mechanics and a little hand waving, but there’s no need to when there’s so much awesome real science that you can use to take your game new directions. Read past the break to learn how real science can enhance in a pre-existing campaign.

Exotic Locations

The best thing about a setting with an unrealistic form of Faster Than Light (FTL) travel is that you can see parts of the universe that it would be too costly or dangerous to visit any other way.  If you’re zipping around the universe in your spaceship, there are a few cool, science-based features you can visit.

Giant Space DiamondGiant Molten Space Diamonds

When stars like our sun die, they don’t explode into a supernova.  Instead, their atmosphere puffs off and leaves behind a white dwarf star.  This star is made up almost entirely of carbon that has been crystallized from the heat and pressure—a.k.a., a giant space diamond. Scientists have found one in the constellation Centaurus that is 2,500 miles across.  For reference, it’s slightly bigger than the moon which is 2,159 miles across.

That’s right.  That’s no moon.  It’s a space diamond.

And what band of exploring PC’s wouldn’t at least try to sell it?

You could have a mining operation on your space diamond, but it would be a fairly complicated endeavor as the diamond is likely around 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit and vibrating like a gong.  Maybe miners have to work in terrible conditions, dealing with burns, deafness, and lungs full of diamond dust.  Maybe strange sounds have been emanating from the caverns inside of the diamond mine. Or maybe the whole operation is being carried out by robots.

Alternatively, you could have factions in your setting fight over the rights to the diamond.  Or maybe while humans mine the diamond, they discover it’s inhabited by a race of freaky aliens.

You have options, is what I’m saying.

Pulsars – Radioactive Lighthouses in Spacepulsar

Sometimes a star explodes into a supernova, but it’s too small to become a black hole. Instead it becomes a neutron star. Inside of a neutron star, matter is so compressed, that the mass of the sun, for example, would fit into a space the size of Manhattan.  Because they have just finished exploding, Neutron stars are very hot, and they’re spinning really fast.

How fast?  They can spin completely around multiple times a second.  This will cause some neutron stars to shoot beams of light out of the poles of the star at regular intervals, like a lighthouse.  These stars are called pulsars.

Pulsars can emit their pulse in any wavelength of light—radio light, visible light, ultraviolet light, or even x-rays—which can make them dangerous to your party if they exit the ship or if they are not well shielded.  Because of the regular pulsing, your party might mistake a pulsar for a distress signal, or they might try to lure their enemies in range of the pulsar, hoping the radiation will damage the enemy ship.

If your party were to stumble upon a pulsar, they would likely have to pass through the shell of the former supernova in order to reach it.  Once there, they might find planets around the pulsar.  Life as we know it could not exist around a pulsar because of all the radiation, but perhaps you have some deep space horror lurking there, waiting to be discovered.

Magnetars – Giant radioactive space magnets

Magnetars are like pulsars, except that they are also giant, radioactive magnets.

I’ll back up a little.

Stars, and many planets like Earth, have something called a magnetic field.  Magnetic fields make compasses work, and they protect us from all the lethal radiation in space (In other news, space is filled with lethal radiation!  We’ll get to that in another article.).

MagnetarsMagnetic fields are measured in Teslas, and Earth’s magnetic field is weak—around 40 Micro-Teslas—which is why you can change the direction of a compass if you hold a strong magnet near it.

The magnetic fields of Magnetars, on the other hand, are measured in Giga-Teslas.  How strong are Giga-Teslas?

The magnetic fields of Magnetars are SO strong, that they will start tearing your flesh apart from over 600 miles away (1,000 km).  At more than 100,000 miles away, Magnetars could wipe the information from the magnetic strips from every credit card on earth.

Even if you’re not near a Magnetar, you can still be affected by powerful bursts of gamma rays that are released from their poles.  These gamma ray bursts can give off the same amount of energy in a 10th of a second that our sun can produce in 100,000 years.  At 10 light years away, a gamma ray burst from a Magnetar can completely destroy the ozone layer of a planet.  And at distances farther than that, the gamma ray burst could knock out satellites and equipment.

Needless to say, this is bad news for space ships. Coming too close to a Magnetar, or getting caught in a gamma ray burst, could cause all kind of errors with the ship’s computer and navigation systems, leaving your party stranded someplace inconvenient or dangerous.

How did you find out about all this stuff?  And where do I get more?

I know this is going to come as a big shock to you all, but I am not a scientist.

And this is probably a good place to point out that all of the science I’ve mentioned so far is very very simplified.  I’m leaving out all kinds of math and details and more math.  But if you’re a layperson interested in science (which I am) there are lots of great resources that can make science very accessible.

My favorite place to learn about science in space is AstronomyCast.  It’s a podcast about—wait for it—astronomy.  In each podcast, science journalist Frasier Cain interviews astronomer Dr. Pamela Gay about a different topic in space and astronomy.  Frasier and Pamela explain complex science in a very simple way with lots of examples.  They also sometimes speculate plausibly about what we might discover in the future, which makes them a great science fiction resource.  Check out their series on mysteries of the solar system and the universe for great ideas for sci-fi set pieces. If there’s a specific science concept you want to know more about, they also take audience questions in their weekly Google hangouts.

If you’d prefer learning with your eyes, they also have transcripts of the episodes and great links to more information. Some other great text based resources are Universe Today and the Bad Astronomy blog by Phil Plait.  I like these sites because they are both accessible and more accurate than regular news outlets when it comes to science. They’re great for keeping up with new discoveries and they’re all science fiction friendly.

And if you’re really charged about this whole science thing, you can use the time you would normally spend playing angry birds to help real scientists make discoveries.

Posted on by Ophelia Posted in Science Fiction

About Ophelia

Ophelia has been gaming since 2003 and writing for even longer. She has played a variety of systems but started with D&D 3.0. Her first experience as a tabletop gamer was in high school when, lacking money for dice, she and the other players had to roll by picking numbered strips of paper out of a cup. She works as a photo retoucher and hopes to one day publish a novel.

3 Responses to Science in Sci-Fi Gaming

  1. Black Vulmea

    Science fiction without at least a nod to science is fantasy.

    • Ophelia

      There’s a lot of “Science Fantasy” out there. That term has been used to describe Star Wars and other “soft sci-fi.” You can tell a lot of great stories in this genre without knowing much about science at all.

      But the reason I was really excited about this series, is that I’ve found that learning about the science can open up a bunch of new ideas about what’s possible. It’s a great jumping off point for set pieces and plot twists I wouldn’t have thought up on my own.

  2. Michael Coorlim

    In his essay in “Of Worlds Beyond,” Robert Heinlein defines the pure science fiction story:

    1. Conditions must be somehow different from the here-and-now.
    2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story.
    3. The plot must be a human problem.
    4. The human problem must be one created by, or affected by, the new condition.
    5. No established fact shall be violated, and when the story requires that a theory be contrary to present accepted theory, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible.

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