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For the last few months I've been running a Pathfinder campaign, and recently I told my players that I needed a break and they agreed on switching games for a few months. I'm a fan of the works of Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and so on, and science fiction would be a great change of pace. So here is my opportunity! At last! Or not?

My problem is my players have never liked anything that isn't D&D or Pathfinder. We're all well into the thirties, and the majority have a taste for long campaigns (they really enjoy character development) and some big differences about what we want in a game. The one player who's also a regular GM has a greater appreciation for new games, but the rest is usually scared off by words like "indie", and "FATE".

I ran a Traveller campaign years ago using GURPS. They hated GURPS. I took off the GURPS part and added "Mongoose". They hated Mongoose. I tried Diaspora. They hate FATE. I talked about Ringworld, but I found BRP is not a good system for sci-fi. Jovian Chronicles? "It has to be as bad as Tribe 8." (Their words, not mine). Every time I suggest anything that's not Pathfinder it's the same song.

Though I find Traveller good enough, obviously now it's not an option. My latest reading has been a game based on FUDGE (far enough from FATE) inspired by movies like Alien, Predator and alike. I fear a one-session campaign and new "hate". It has to be a game that fits my group. Right?

Of course it may be that there's no such game and I have to deal with my players instead, so "There is no such game" is an answer I'll reluctantly accept.

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

If you need discussion, please visit Role-playing Games Chat. As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. – C. Ross Apr 3 '13 at 17:02
Many of the answers below are falling into "here's some names I've heard of" and not actually answering the OP's direct requirements with experience per our site sys-rec guidance - please read before you post; off topic answers may be deleted. – mxyzplk Apr 4 '13 at 13:01
This isn't a direct answer (unless people think it should be), but the guys at ENWorld just released a free sci-fi re-skin adventure for pathfinder.… – Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 4 '13 at 2:48 say you tried a Traveller Campaign using GURPS...why didn't you just use Traveller? – Zibbobz Mar 5 '15 at 17:33

14 Answers 14

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Talk to your players, and you don't need to trick your players into playing a game they don't like.

My advice is to actually sit down and talk to your players about running a sci-fi style game and for your entire group to actually sit down and pick out a game that suits everyone's needs.

"My problem is my players" is the wrong atitude to have in this situation, in my opinion. Your players are not your problem. The problem is lack of communication.

Do they even like science fiction or is it just you as the GM who is interested in that kind of game?

You said that you were playing Pathfinder, so I'm guessing they enjoy the D20 system. You might want to look at the D20 Star Wars and D20 Modern supplements. They might not have the Asimov feel, but I'm sure you can tailor it to your needs.

If your looking for something outside D20, you will have to look to others as I have yet to play anything else.

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I realize I'm late to the party here, but there are Future supplements for d20 Modern if d20 Star Wars doesn't fit the bill. – Sandalfoot Feb 19 '15 at 21:03

I would highly recommend giving Eclipse Phase a try, it's a very enjoyable system and setting in my experience. Let's go through some bullet points that might draw in you and your Pathfinder players in to get excited to play it.

  • The setting is definitely hard-sci; the "star-trek" style tech in it is pretty minimal and I couldn't really find anything in there that I didn't think could possibly happen.
  • Psionics; this is a great booster for players that like magic, but unlike PF/d20 these are a lot more balanced in with the rest of the characters.
  • Races - well, Morphs; characters are their minds, minds can move between bodies called "morphs" these give the characters a lot of interesting diversity whilst still staying hard-sci fi and sticking to the genre.
  • Hard to die - In d&d resurrection can be a pretty common thing, so players can get used to lack of mortality. but in EP you're information, that information when the morph is killed can be dropped into another body, not to say this doesn't have other costs however.
  • Not much genre to learn The area is the solar system, which is pretty easy to handle, science is the main changer and the technology can be a great "wow" factor for the players.
  • Just one book Always a plus to my mind; you'll just need one book to get you going. There's even some freebie quick start rules that give you a taster of the system
  • Pretty simple system Skills are a % value; modifiers give you a bonus or penalty. Roll. Done. Criticals happen on a double number (11, 22, 33, etc)

Taking a look at the quick start rules should give you a good idea of what the system/genre is like.

I'd also have a look at Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan; a great read and an entry book into the genre (or at least some the concepts)

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Stars Without Number may also suit:… FREE as a PDF and based on old-school d&d, which may be more familiar for PF players ;) – Rob Apr 3 '13 at 16:37
@Cazacurdas Stars Without Number is an excellent idea: it's based on D&D mechanics, so it's as familiar as a sci-fi game can get, to a PF player. – SevenSidedDie Apr 3 '13 at 17:40

Pathfinder + Mass Effect

Give a try to the unofficial Pathfinder Mass Effect conversion, created by Wesley Schneider...

Wesley Schneider the Paizo Editor-in-chief, co-creator of the Pathfinder campaign setting, and co-designer of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game released his home brew Pathfinder Mass Effect Adventure: Project Lobotomy. Everything he’s used in his adventure is neatly packaged in a small zip file containing everything you need… and its free.

RPGeek (source of the quotation, with further info and links)

In case you didn't know it, Mass Effect is a hit crpg series by Bioware (with a very, very troubled ending, but a rather well developed and interesting world... well, until you get to the end, but YMMV. :))

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When you can't find a game the players like, you ask them to find a solution. If they don't know or don't want to answer that, they obviously don't want to play Sci-Fi.

If you want to change game "for a few months" and your players are really into long lasting campaigns, you might have some compatibility issues here. Don't try to find the perfect system, just try new stuff.

My advice: In doubt, ask the players what they want. The list of RPG we could recommend is too big and we don't know your players.

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Find different players that will actually enjoy a SciFi game!

The problem is not the system, it is the players. If they are so focused on the system instead of the game world, then clearly they are not suitable players for your Sci Fi game. And you know what, that is fine. Not everyone likes the same games, and so we look for other people that share a similar passion.

I would recommend Eclipse Phase (transhuman horror) and their forums as a place to look for new players. There are plenty of (all free thanks to CC) books you can have a look at and it has a great scope for many long running games. The rules are heavily geared towards world simulation instead of story simulation. See Rob's answer for more detailed description.

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This is not an answer to a system-rec question. – mxyzplk Apr 4 '13 at 1:18

Traveller T20 or Sci-Fi20 (both from Quicklink Interactive/RPGRealms) are firmly grounded in the d20 3.0 SRD. They will not be too far out for Pathfinder players.

Their damage mechanics, however, are a bit different.

Disclosure Note: I was part of the dev for, and my name appears in, the T20 rulebook.

Both are out of print, and the T20 rulebook is at present unavailable electronically.

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+1 I was going to mention Traveller20. I played this in one campaign. It is not the best d20 adaptation ever (, but if you're willing to rules-hack you can get over that, and it's Traveller... in d20! Sounds like your perfect world. – mxyzplk Apr 4 '13 at 1:20
It's worth mentioning that SciFi20 is T20 sans the traveller references. – aramis Apr 4 '13 at 5:39

Well, the Paizo site is promoting The Myths of the Far Future today -- a third-party supplement with new classes and equipment and the like to play Pathfinder as a sci-fi game. I haven't read it so I can't say whether it's any good, but the PDF is only a buck so it might be worth a look.

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Welcome to the site. Unfortunately, our standards for sys-req require a familiarity with the material being presented. While this is likely a good answer, we don't actually know if it is or not until someone has sat down with the module in question. In any event, good catch and welcome to the site. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 4 '13 at 8:32

The best way is to get buy-in from your players. One way of doing that is giving them a selection of games that you would enjoy and asking them to decide amongst themselves which to play. This leverages a bit of human psychology where we will invest in something more if we have a hand in choosing it, especially if, in the process of choosing it, we ever argue for its merits to a peer. Giving your players a choice of sci-fi games means that the one they pick will have at least a little bit of support from at least some of your players already built-in.

Pick three or four games and present them to your players. Say you're running one of these, but which is up to them. Don't defend the games if they disparage them, just ask them to pick the one they think they'll enjoy the most. (By not allowing them to make you a target of arguments, you prevent them from digging in their heels and deciding preemptively they'll hate it.) If they hate it, well, they chose it. Which specific games you present them is up to you, but if I were doing this and trying hard to keep them all as appealing to dedicated Pathfinder players as possible, I would include at least one of these three if not all of them:

  • Stars Without Number is based on an older edition of D&D, so it's as close as you will come to the feel of Pathfinder, mechanically, as a science-fiction system can get. As a bonus, it's free, and if your players like it, it's very well supported with for-pay supplements and print books.

    As a fan of Traveller, you should find the GM's side of SWN to be pleasantly familiar too. It's built to accommodate a system-hopping game or a campaign that stays on one world, and the "tags" system for setting development means you have a constant supply of new ideas at the roll of a die. It will work for a one-shot as well as Pathfinder would – possibly better, because new characters are not quite as complicated, and it gives you tools for quickly "statting up" a world.

  • Thousand Suns is exactly aimed at re-creating the genre of Isaac Aasimov, Niven, Pournelle, and their kindred in classic science fiction. Written by a luminary of classic D&D blogging, James Maliszewski of Grognardia, it's a straightforward system that still has its roots in D&D, so it doesn't ask players coming from a d20 background to make a paradigm shift in "how RPGs work" like Fate does, and it doesn't have the explosion of complexity (compared to d20) that GURPS or BRP does. It has stats with unfamiliar names but familiar function, and a skill system that should feel familiar enough to them.

  • d20 Future is going to be very familiar to your players. It's a bit more generic in that it's aimed at creating all kinds of sci-fi, not just the sort written by the authors you mention, but it will do the job. Being a supplement to d20 Modern it does require more books, but the breadth of character options will probably be welcome to your players, since lots of "chunky" character build options (as opposed to the fine-grained ones of GURPS, et. al.) is one of the big draws of d20 for its dedicated fans. d20 Future and Modern both have SRDs online, which somewhat makes up for the extra materials you need by making them free.

I strongly suggestion one of those, but the most important part is to give them a shortlist of games you're willing to run and then make the decision theirs. They've already agreed to a change of game, and it's only for a short time, so they should at least be able to agree on one they think they won't hate.

And if they do hate it, all is not lost: you've played a bit of a game you want to play, and you've burned only one of thousands of games that you could try. Really, you could keep trying one-shots of strange new games regularly, and it would take you decades to go through even a fraction of the RPGs currently published, and there are more every year; so don't worry too much if they hate it. Enjoy it yourself, and give them some agency in the choice, and it will all turn out in the end.

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For the system: I can't recommend Alternity enough. I've played it for many years. It's absolutely phenomenal. Even though it's discontinued, it's very easy to get the books off of Amazon or somewhere. Phenomenal system, very realistic, very new and fresh. I don't have many bad things to say about it.

For the players: As a GM, it's up to you to make a game that your players will enjoy. But at the same time, you don't have to do it at your own expense, if you hate it. A game should be mutually enjoyable. If you want to run a sci-fi game, make sure your players want to play in a sci-fi game. Make sure everyone will have fun. Simple as that.

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+1 Alternity was from TSR and though not d20 per se, was well aligned with it. My gaming group just got done with a long Alternity campaign in 2011 amongst Pathfinder campaigns. – mxyzplk Apr 4 '13 at 1:20

The Stargate SG-1 RPG is a D20 System game based on the SciFi Channel television series. It has a mix of exploration, science fiction, and mythology, so it's more McCaffrey & LeGuin than Asimov & Niven, but it might make for a good compromise between your tastes and your players’.

Because the game is out of print, I would recommend talking to your players about it first to gauge their enthusiasm before tracking down a copy.

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As John Underwood has said, don't try to 'trick' your players into playing Sci Fi; talk to them and discuss what you'd like to run and what they'd like to play.

As for system recommendations, I'd put forwards Dark Heresy or Cyberpunk 2020. Dark Heresy, a Warhammer 40,000 RPG, is very gothic future so there's a good blend of swords and magic as well as guns and power armour.

Cyberpunk 2020 is one of my favourite sci fi RPGs, the system is suitably different from many other games and it has some great support modules.

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I don't think tricking your players into something is generally a good idea. Much better to get their buy in, at least to try it for a session or two and then you can adjust if it isn't popular.

Now, as far as systems go, there are a lot of good sci-fi systems out there, depending very much on what type of setting you want. I used to be a huge fan of MechWarrior (the RPG that was designed to work with the Battletech combat game.) It could be filled with politics, was reasonably "hard sci-fi" and I liked the combat system.

On the softer side, I liked the blend of a dystopian neuromancer style with magic that was provided by Shadowrun.

And I think Rifts had one of the most interesting settings of any RPG I have ever played, though the combat system is a bit clunky and the GM has to be careful with the power balance between different PC builds.

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It sounds like what you really have is a group of players who are very familiar with the rules in your current game. They know how to get stuff done without losing a lot of time consulting books for every new scenario. Playing a new game makes them feel like n00bs, and I don't blame them for resenting that.

With that in mind, I suggest Rifts. Rifts does a good job of mixing sci-fi elements like Mechs or Juicers (super-steroid enhanced warriors) into more traditional encounters with creatures such as vampires. The combat system is familiar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to provide a change of pace.

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It might be harder to get hold of now, but any of the d20 Star Wars versions could work. Alternatively, d20 Modern with d20 Future tacked on could be familiar enough ground.

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