Unknown Phenomenon
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Basic Information

This speculative fiction trope concerns how every negative space wedgie and swirly energy thingy in a sci fi TV show is always a unique phenomena that has never been encountered before.

Yet despite the groundbreaking uniqueness of any given development, most of the physical properties of the phenomenon can be deduced by a single sweep of your trusty Everything Sensor.

Let's face it, that's just bad writing. If the characters are supposed to be experts in their field (presumably space exploration, astrophysics or astronautics), shouldn't they at least have a passing familiarity with all the different theoretical dangers that are likely to be lurking in the cosmos? And if the thing is meant to be so mysterious, how come the sensors are so good at detecting and summarizing it?



Game and Story Use

  • Over reliance on this trope results in the characters looking like fools, and the sensors outshining them. Don't let that happen.
    • Use with moderation. One unknown phenomenon is interesting, beguiling, and confounding. Two or three in a short number of sessions makes everything less impressive.
      • If the spacecraft has a computer database they PCs should be able to look up at least theories on most of the things the sensors detect.
      • If the PCs are experts, they might not have to look it up, either. Here is a blog post on one way I came up with to implement knowledge the characters have but the players lack.
  • On the other hand, this is what scientists or explorers might have set out looking for, or the possibility of one showing up could the reason they did their experiment so far away from everything else.
    • Sensors might be of limited use. Anything beyond the most basic reading produces contradictions or even more bizarre data: spectroscope readings don't match any known substance; your Everything Sensor gives different inertial and gravitational masses; that sort of thing.
    • Anything past the first sensor sweep should have the players doing science. Let them design an experiment, and then give them a result. Make a note of what you said happens, so that you can at least have the Unknown Phenomenon act consistently even if you're making up the answers at random.
    • Once the PCs have enough experimental data, you might let them start making knowledge rolls to dry-lab the phenomenon. They can make a certain number of predictions without spending the time/resources needed to run any tests. Make sure to listen to any theories your players come up with, especially if you have any experts at your table.
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