Hard sci-fi and space horror RPGs

In some circles, the genre of hard science fiction has a narrow definition based on strict criteria. If you want to learn more about the commonly accepted conventions, check out the Wikipedia article, as well as two examples of proposed hard–soft sci-fi gradational scales: Kheper and TV Tropes.

However, in the context of roleplaying game settings and rulesets, the term “hard sci-fi” is used somewhat more loosely. While this may irritate the purists among us, there is a good practical reason for adopting this more flexible understanding: very few people are interested in playing games that involve obsessing over the minutiae of actual science all the time.

That’s why, when it comes to games, it’s best to think of the “hard” label as a convenient shorthand for “not space opera” and “not science fantasy”. Rather than being cinematic and pulpy, hard sci-fi RPGs are usually described as gritty, realistic, and grounded. Games that fall under this category typically include one or more of the following elements:

  • taking place in the near rather than the distant future;
  • no faster-than-light travel or other fanciful technology that cannot be accounted for in scientific terms;
  • confined to our Solar System (or another relatively small patch of interstellar space);
  • human-only (no alien races);
  • no magic (or its equivalent, such as psionics or the Force).

At one extreme, a small number of specialized RPG systems cater to true astrophysics and speculative technology enthusiasts. However, there is also a point in assigning some degree of “hardness” to otherwise fantastical settings that have an air of seriousness, respectability, and verisimilitude about them (even if it all comes down to aesthetics); I refer to them as “firm” space opera on the list.

For understandable reasons, the limitations inherent in hard sci-fi settings make them a natural fit for space horror scenarios (particularly of the survival horror variety). As a result, this list includes both “pure” hard sci-fi games as well as titles designed specifically for horror-style gameplay. A couple of these horror-themed games fall short of the “hardness” requirement but were still included for completeness.

It’s also worth noting that many RPG systems have default or implied settings with specific genre trappings, but they’re still highly customizable or “reskinnable.” That’s why the list includes some ostensibly space opera games that featured in my data, with the understanding that they can be “hardened” to taste by the GM.

The list