Sep 18, 2020
The question of inspiration and definition
The question has arisen more than once: what sort of game is Stillfleet? Is it “grimdark,” “hard" sci-fi in the tradition of Alien? Or is it a post-everything (dying-earth) science-fantasy game that remixes elements of D&D and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun? Uh, yes. And Yes.
But wait, it’s also loaded with Lovecraftian elements, some of which comes off as straight-up goofy, à la Jack Kirby’s New Gods… And it’s anti-capitalist—so like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or Kafka in space? (Yes, yep, and yes.) And there’s a lot of biology in the game, especially food, way more than is typical for an RPG… (Of course!)
Let me begin at the beginning. Yes, weird science-horror from Lovecraft to Victor LaValle is always in the background of my mind when I run games, as is the grim and kinetic biopunk of Octavia Butler and Paolo Bacigalupi. So is Le Guin’s science-fantasy and especially her early sci-fi (The Left Hand of Darkness, “Vaster Than Empires”), ditto that of Sam Delany. So is, of course, Alien and its many descendants. These sub-genres explore the intersections of science, race, reproduction, changing environments, and shifting definitions of “the human.” They assume states and corporations are fragile and self-serving. I love reading, teaching, and remixing them.
But, if I’m honest, Stillfleet was most immediately inspired by the visceral and poetic science fiction of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) and by M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. The former mocks classic American hard SF with breathtakingly beautiful prose: Cold War astronauts travel time only to discover—to their horror—that women are in charge; an alien spider-monster lives, loves, and dies (and eats a lot, and is eaten); a pariah aboard a spaceship becomes an only survivor and the only human to encounter a beneficent alien civilization whose physical conditions, unfortunately, prove deadly to her; people jack into humanoid replicants to pretend to be other than themselves; across time and space, the void proves deadly but richly peopled; aliens prove utterly strange but are often loved by humans, anyway; the technological and the nonhuman prove dangerous lures for would-be spacefarers…
The latter, Harrison’s collected work, is—among other things—a highly sophisticated parody of D&D, Tolkien, Wolfe, and 1980s British culture that somehow elevates parody into excellent, word-perfect storytelling. You can design dying-earth RPGs all day based on Viriconium and not run out of material for both laughs as well as profound moments of connection and contemplation.
I wanted to do that for a posthuman, biopunk, grimdark, Alien-inspired RPG setting. I wanted to blend up all of the elements of science fiction, bake a game-cake, eat this cake, and still have it. That is, I wanted a game that would be both ridiculous in the way that good, friendly RPGs are, but also serious—a poetic machine for exploring which aspects of which futures we want and which we really don’t. I wanted a game that is about the far future, de-centering humanity, but in an approachably ironic way. I wanted Tiptree’s annihilating, rich, and erotic void, but gamified in the key of Harrison.
How genre affects game design
For the record, I did not want to write Alien: The RPG (which came out years after my first draft) or Superfuture Earth: The RPG (which came out, basically, as Numenera) or Cthulhu Dark, or any other specific existing sci-fi sub-genre. In fact, I wanted to provide a framework for playing games in, and making fun of, any sci-fi sub-genre. I wanted to take Monte Cook’s brilliant insight of a portal-city in Planescape (later retooled as and—in my humble opinion—diluted into The Strange), get rid of the gods, and bring in the politics of today. I wanted to make Planescape do literary and political work for players living in a time of unprecedented technological and environmental change.
So the only constant I set at the start of the game design process—besides no dragons, no goblins, and so forth—was that my big full-on core-rulebook-having game would explicitly engage with capitalism: how it exploits resources including people, how it transforms social relations, how it appears inevitable to its hierophants. My game would force the players to work for or against a Company, capital C.
This situation could then be pulled more into the gritty, body-morphing (Sur-)realism of Tiptree, Dune, or Alien, or allowed to expand into Trekkian ultra-technological, post-scarcity politicking, or even melt into Kirby-esque zaniness. (I've also yanked it closer to Steven Universe, or dare I write it, Rick and Morty.) The game would work for any version of a sci-fi or sci-fantasy universe, but it would bend every story toward some discussion of labor—specifically, labor in uncertain and often extremely dangerous environments, amid the ruins of fallen civilizations and on the frontiers of alien ones.
The question of astronomical time-scales
That all said, yes, it is true: I always, always, always from the beginning wanted to both:
- set the game so far into the future that, in addition to dragons, there would be no actually powerful vestiges of American empire, Amazon/Facebook/Google, petro-fascism, settler-colonialism, etc., AS WELL AS
- be able to at any moment—almost always for laughs—invoke dollar slices, hip hop, Alexa, instant ramen, and other hallmarks of early twenty first-century life.
This combination of distance (a) and familiarity (b) is what powers the dry humor of Viriconium. In literature, it’s called “Martian poetry,” the defamiliarizing of everyday life. This process helps us examine what we take for granted, seeing it as historically contingent and, in geological and especially astronomical terms, quite weird.
What is a mobile phone, for example? It didn’t exist even a century ago, and it likely won’t, in any recognizable form, in a decade. A phone from ten years ago already looks faintly ridiculous to us today. And a phone from the late 1980s…?
So yes, I personally run my own game in a way that constantly references the years circa 2020. I don’t try to hide from this pool of possible referents; I use it to make the game (b) easier to grok for my players, and to simultaneously provide moments of surprising recognition within a setting that is otherwise (a) quite bizarre.
How do I justify these references to c. CE 2020 within the diegetic reality of c. CE 1,000,002,020? Sometimes I don’t; they’re just jokes or ways of punctuating the bizarre with the familiar (although always the familiar de- and then re-contextualized).
Sometimes, however, I fall upon the MacGuffinry of the Archive: according to their research, Ancient humanity achieved some sort of late, great solar civilization shortly (in geological terms) after 2020. Some new cohort of humans—the Tephnians—achieved galactic-scale greatness only a few thousand years before the game’s present. During the intervening millions of years, no one knows exactly what happened. Humanity largely vanished from Terra, and many aliens no doubt visited. (In my canonical games, Terra was ruled by the godlike cryptocerids—car-sized, ultra-genius, subterranean cockroaches—for fifty million years after the fall of the Ancients.)
That all said—you don’t ever have to reference the year 2020 in your Stillfleet games. It is very easy to simply abolish any connection to Ancient Terra Mater and set your game in a proverbial far, far away nook of timespace. Maybe, in your game, voidminers are always searching for clues as to where Terra is, and who lives there now. Or maybe you want to make your Terra much more D&D-like, or more technologically advanced. I encourage you to sculpt the world of the game according to your own inspirations.
Ultimately, my game, like all ttRPGs, consists of two elements: mechanics (core rules and specific powers/tech/“spells,” etc.) and concepts (settings, characters, classes, names, aliens, “monsters,” plothooks, etc.). You can use both, one without the other, or neither. I hope you like both, of course, but I know that many GMs and players prefer more realistic settings, ones not quite so far into the future. I look forward to exploring these settings, too.