Q&A: Sci-Fi Arsonal

Any tips on creating sci fi weapons? I want a whole range of them, rifles, guns, swords, knives, bow&arrow, cannons, missiles, bombs, etc.. Using being made with up sci fi materials down to the projectiles, computer controlled, mind controlled etc?

If you’re having a hard time coming up with weapons for your sci-fi setting, my thought would be looking at equipment sourcebooks for RPGs. This will also help you pick the gear that best fits your setting. Core books can also be useful, as most RPGs will include some sample weapons and armor as part of the main rules.

As a sort of obvious example, if you’re writing a cyberpunk dystopia, a bunch of beam weapons wouldn’t make much sense. At the same time, a distant future setting wouldn’t be restricted to kinetic firearms, unless you wanted that.

So, with that in mind, a few things come to mind. You’re not likely to see swords in a science fiction setting, unless they serve some cultural role, if you’re dealing with things that can shrug off ranged attacks, or if you’re looking at fights in very tight spaces. (For example: You might see these in boarding actions on starships, especially if your ranged weapons would puncture the hull.)

The bow is a similar situation. You’re not likely to see it outside of very niche circumstances, or if there are cultural reasons. The weapon is very unwieldy, so even if you need to deliver a large payload, there’s more efficient ways to do that.

None of that means you can’t do these things. There’s a lot of sci-fi settings that incorporate various melee and bow weapons for any number of reasons. If you need a ranged weapon that is absolutely silent and has no energy signature, a bow or crossbow may be the most efficient way to achieve that. It’s also entirely possible you have energy bows of some kind that simply deliver far more killing power than the “conventional,” weapons in your world.

Moving beyond that, there’s an awkward truth to a lot of energy weapons in fiction. You have three kinds:

Kinetic weapons. These will usually differ from real world firearms in some technologically significant way, and the performance of the weapon is probably far beyond what you could achieve with gunpowder, but it’s still a gun. You pull the trigger and bullets come out. (This includes smart bullets, where the ammunition itself is electronically guided, and weapons with targeting assistance built in.) Gauss weapons are one of the more common examples of this (both coilguns and railguns. These propel the projectile by using and manipulating electromagnetic fields.

Beam weapons. This can be anything from a laser to something more advanced like Star Trek‘s Phasers and disruptors. These can be further split into short burst beams and sustained fire. The former will fire a brief burst of light, while the later can maintain a sustained beam, and may need some time on target to take effect. In some cases these will be used interchangeably. Either because the weapon has alternate firing modes or because the users are exercising trigger discipline.

Finally, we have energy projectile weapons which fire visible, discrete, energy blobs. As a functional consideration, these frequently travel at comically low speeds in visual media because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to track the projectile with your eyes. Star Trek sometimes gets inconsistent between these two, with both pulse and beam phasers and disruptors.

When you step back from that, a lot of this simply becomes different flavors of “space magic.” Star Trek takes it on the chin here, but it’s an excellent illustration. We’ve seen antiproton, polaron, tachyon, plasma, tetryon, and dozens of other beam weapon variants. While each one has it’s own contextual implication, from a narrative perspective they’re just different flavors of “ray gun.”

The, “space magic,” comment may sound critical, but it’s not. To an extent, in the context of a setting like Star Trek, the exact flavor of a weapon adds texture and credibility to the world. They’re not firing, “death rays,” they’re using, “a compressed tetryon beam.” What’s the difference? There isn’t one, just that the latter sounds more technical and scientific, while the former sounds more fantastic. There isn’t a right answer to which is a better fit for your world, it depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell.

When it comes to military hardware in a sci-fi setting, I’ve got a soft spot for Warhammer 40k‘s batshit insanity. It’s a setting that’s built off of material like Dune, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, and a lot of other classic sci-fi. The killing power the setting’s weapons is downright bonkers. We’re talking about a setting where a standard infantry weapon that can explosively liquify its target on impact is considered underpowered. You can skim through 40k’s wargear online, if you’d like to get an idea of what your options are there. Just remember that Games Workshop is very litigious about their trademarks.

Ultimately, the best way to get a feel for the kinds of technology you want to use in your setting is by starting with the genre, and looking at what’s out there. While I’m not a fan of the politics, Starship Troopers, is a good starting point. Armor by John Steakly is another solid option to follow that up with. Dune is more about the politics, but the eccentric technology of its world is critical to how it functions, and it’s worth exposing yourself to it. If you find the books intimidating, I’d recommend the miniseries from the early-2000s.

While some of this might be a little tricky to run down, my recommendation on RPG splatbooks is heavily influenced by the pencil and paper RPGs I’ve played. The Trinity Technical Manual from the game of the same name had a lot of interesting concepts. (Trinity itself was an interesting setting, though it did suffer from White Wolf’s inconsistent sensitivity.) D20 Future (not, technically a weapons list, thought that was included) was a supplement for D20 Modern. Because it’s bundled in with D&D 3.5 (legally), you can find the text for most D20 Modern (including D20 Future) in online SRDs. Unfortunately, the item focused D20 Future Tech supplement is not as easily available, and prohibitively expensive. Without knowing exactly what you’re looking for, GURPS in general is an easy recommendation, but pinning down a specific setting (and a short list of source books) could be trickier. GURPS Space has been around in various printings for over 30 years, and if you can find a cheap copy, it should probably provide you with excellent ideas. (Incidentally, there are four different editions, and the prices vary wildly.) There’s also a mix of supplemental books for GURPS Space, which is a rarity for GURPs.

It’s not about weapons, and could be a little tricky to track down, but I do have a real favorite in Star Trek: The First Line. This was sourcebook for Last Unicorn Game’s short lived Star Trek RPG in the late 90s, and focused on Starfleet Intelligence. It’s a very interesting look into espionage in a setting that only clings to this side of Clarke’s Third Law through aggressive technobabble.

-Starke

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