Sunday 14 February 2021

Sci-Fi Where Art Thou?

Recently, I wondered to myself, "What's the 5E of sci-fi?" If one was going to create science fiction adventure content to supplement the most popular system, what would it be?

Class A Modular Ship by Galen Pejeau

Surely there's something d20-based floating around, but it took me a while to remember Stars Without Number. Why is that?

I grabbed the Q1 2020 Orr Report from Roll20's blog to see what their stats said. I did a quick classification of the top ~95% of campaigns (there's a pretty long tail), and here's what I got:

Here it's pretty clear—fantasy rules the roost by an astonishing margin. More than 60% of all campaigns were fantasy. There are plenty of campaigns that don't declare a system, but after that there's a solid chunk of Call of Chthulhu.

Sci fi is 1.9% of campaigns?!

Talking about this on Twitter, a number of people wondered:

  • It this just because of the 5E effect?
  • Is there a bunch of sci-fi gaming classified as horror? (e.g. ALIEN)
The answer to both questions is no. Here's 5E and all Uncategorized campaigns removed. Horror (as I said) is basically all various edition of Call of Cthulhu (with a homeopathic quantity of something called inSANe).

When I look across sci-fi, cyberpunk, and science fantasy (e.g. Numera), it's no surprise that the top systems are Star Wars (various), Starfinder, and Shadowrun. What's more surprising is those three heavyweights don't even account for 20 games out of 1000 on Roll20.

  • A number of definitely sci-fi systems like ALIEN and Coriolis, are lumped into system categories like "Year Zero". Other systems presumably have some sci-fi component, like FATE, Savage Worlds, and all of PbtA are lumped into system categories. Even so, that's only 2% of Roll20 campaigns in total, much of which is other genres besides sci-fi.
  • Roll20 campaign data may not be representative of overall gaming patterns. Anything that doesn't really benefit from maps and tokens may simply be using Zoom and Google Sheets, and not messing with VTTs at all.
If you're looking for sci-fi, Zine Quest 2021 is going now, and has several great-looking Mothership supplements!


  1. No Traveller/Cepheus in any incarnation?

    1. There might have been, way down in the long tail. As I said, though, not more than 1 in 1000 campaigns!

    2. Traveller accounts for 0.07% of games, which also includes Cepheus from what I remember.

  2. I can't really speak for anyone else, but for me personally though I love sci-fi, I just can't really bring myself to run or play it right now because it's too implausible. I just can't see a future for humanity in space. Now cyberpunk not only seems plausible, but highly probable.

  3. On Roll20 I play regularly Infinity RPG (Sci-Fi), Mutant Chronicles (Sci-Fi), Cepheus Engine (Sci-Fi), Star Trek Adventures (Sci-Fi).
    Currently, we start a Cyberpunk RED campaign.
    I wonder if any of those games were counted at all in the Roll20 statistics.

    1. I do see Star Trek adventures there, at 0.07% of all Roll20 campaigns, fewer than one in a thousand.

  4. I honestly feel vindicated seeing these statistics. I love science fiction and exclusively run it (if you count Delta Green as sci-fi, which I do) primarily because I always felt like nobody was doing it.

    I think the issue is two-fold. First, as Rich mentioned above, it can be difficult to imagine any future. The second issue I think is an accessibility one: science fiction feels more alien and unfamiliar to most people than medieval-ish fantasy. However, I think the popularity of movies like The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar and the popularity of Cyberpunk and Shadowrun suggest that setting the future closer to the present or familiar could help.

  5. Could it be that games that don't use systems well supported by Roll20 are not are not popular there but heavily played elsewhere?

    I am presenting running two Star Trek Adventures campaigns, just finished a third, was playing in one that's one a break, and used the ALIEN RPG to run a Red Dwarf themed game for several month last Spring. All of these were on Discord and only one also used Roll20.

    I am also aware of friends running Traveller and Star Wars D6, again on Discord. Roll20 may simply not be the place where SF gaming lives.

  6. I wonder if some of the stats are skewed by running sci-fi games in systems that are not "sci-fi." Like if I ran a B/X hack for sci-fi but used the standard sheet for convenience. Probably not enough to matter tho.

    1. Yes, that sort of thing is very hard to measure. My guess is that it would be a factor that does lead to under-reporting non-fantasy genres. For example, who's going to break out a copy of Boot Hill or Star Frontiers and play fantasy with it? Nobody. But there may be groups kit-bashing sci-fi on a 5e framework.

      Still, my guess is it's almost nobody in terms of overall percentages. D&D is so massive now that I could easily see that fewer GMs are bashing together custom classes than they used to. There are just so many to buy.

    2. Fewer _as a percentage_, I mean. There are probably more kit-bashers than ever, but dwarfed by legions of groups that are playing straight out of the books.

    3. Yeah for sure, i think you're right about both raw number and percentage wise.