Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 18: Space Opera

Space Opera. It’s a genre that I’ve used in games before, but haven’t dabbled with outside of that handful of occassions. This is due to, my knowledge anyway, a lack of systems capable of keeping up with the myriad possibilities that Space Opera involves. The planets, alien races, combat on a personal or spacecraft level, at best, it can give you as much view as the Hubble Telescope; beautiful focus, but limited range.

I mean, sure you can point to a couple of systems that are good at certain elements, but I’ve yet to find one that handles it all effeciently. There are finite numbers of pages that can be sold for profit and effort expended in a plethora of races, is time and energy taken from ship-to-ship combat, or technological weapons and equipment. And while, yes, supplement books offer more pages dedicated to specialist fields, I’m not going to buy them unless I’m convinced of the core rules.

And, yes, you could mention that it’s the players and the story that makes the game fun, there’s a reason why there are so many variations of a theme when it comes to RPG books, and rules can add to the enjoyment of play as well as detract from it with numerous dice rolls and consultations of the book.

At any rate, I have yet to see a system that handles it well but I’m happy to be proved wrong. So let’s focus instead upon the story.

I say ‘Space Opera’ to distinguish it from Science Fiction in general, for which there are a galactic number of systems and settings–

My God… It’s full of systems and settings!

–and to focus upon the adventures of giant spaceships sailing the tides and eddies of gravity, navigating by the tilt and roll of planets and dodging the nefarious pillaging of the inevitable bands of Space Pirates that permeates the genre.

To me, the name tells you the first and most important element to capture in any Space Opera adventure. Douglas Adams said it himself; ‘Space is big.’ And nobody argues with Douglas Adams.

Zee Germans spoke of grandness in operatic terms. Opera is big, and that’s not just the ladies singing at the end. It’s a universe of potential that can snare players and GM’s with stories as irresistable as a black hole. Spanning epics of galatic empires, the wen and warp of race relations. The sheer mystery and terror of the cold deep, the black anvil of creation. The final frontier, if you will.

I’ve run these games before in Star Wars and Star Trek RPG systems, though the number of times for each game wouldn’t take all the fingers of one hand. What brings these brief albeit, enjoyable games to mind is a discussion with a GM colleague who plans to run an adventure from the Serenity RPG for his group. He may not have been ready for my lengthy objections to that notion.

I am as opposed to Serenity as a role-play game as much as I love the TV show and movie. Here’s why:

1: It’s too small! You have three major factions established from the series. The Alliance, Fringe-Dwellers and Reavers. Of those, The Reavers have lost a lot of what made them scary when Serenity wrapped up that plot arc. And while you could create other factions, alliances and nemesis, it leads me to problem…

2: There are few adventures you can run in this universe. You could try running an Alliance-based game, but you may as well run Star Trek. You can run a pirate/smuggler/trader style game but there are items in the dairy section with a longer shelf-life. What made Firefly great was that the universe was simple. Space Western. And it served as the vehicle for problem…

3: This has to be about your characters for it to work. It’s what made Firefly work. Whedon is fresh and innovative when it comes to plots and can, when required, get metaphysical enough to challenge Alan Moore (sans drugs). But the strength of the characters as individuals and the overarching concept of family is Whedon’s constant companion and greatest ally in writing. It’s what moved this series forward, bringing me to problem…

4: Each element of the universe – and it’s a sparse universe – was fleshed out just enough to give the TV characters depth. The War between the Alliance and the Browncoats gave Mal his desire to be free of a society he violently opposed and lost. Alliance conspiracies created River and Alliance society created Simon and Inara. Jane, Wash and Kaylee’s history you don’t really get in the limited exposure of 12 episodes, though I imagine the universe would have been fleshed out a bit more had the series lasted long enough to tell their stories.

But the point is that this universe exists for these characters alone and the GM and his/her group are just playing in it.

And now, the one that’s different from the rest…

5: If you’re putting your players into a situation where the objective is to get money. That’s what they are going to focus on. And they are going to resent having to continue getting money to survive and enjoy it. Moreso if you keep constructing reasons to deprive them of it so they don’t retire and buy planets.

With much brainstorming and debate, my friend and I put it to the story variety test: How many stories could be run in this setting. He went away and wrote a dozen, which I condensed to seven, as many were either small instances in a larger story, repeated story elements, or simply weren’t feasible in a roleplay game. But, I  have to admit half a dozen was much more than I expected and it made sense to me when I changed my expectations of the system:

Don’t call it a Space Opera, call it what it is; a Space Western!

And while I still wouldn’t run it, I was happy to be proven wrong, or to learn the lesson of how to frame what I want.

Separate to Serenity and the attempts to recreate that for your players, the biggest problem I’ve had with all Space Opera systems is Starship Combat.

A video game I would like to see, but don’t think I will, for what I’m sure are very good commercial reasons, is a multiplayer game where each person is responsible for manning an element of a huge starship. By which I mean, there is a player for gunnery, a pilot, a science officer, someone who looks after the defense, someone who repairs or holds the ship together when defense guy is AFK.

And someone to give the orders.

I’d like to believe that it would be an entertaining or, at the very least, interesting diversion, but the likelihood of it degenerating into a 4chan forum, is the crushing reality. I believe, though, that we’re very nearly at this stage of cooperative play, albeit be it under a different name. Think about the team dynamics and responsibilities in MMOPRG group quests – Tank, Striker, Healer, DPS guy, I dunno I don’t play the game – and maybe it’s that example that makes me believe the game should be possible.

And cringe when I think how it would look if realised.

If we’re so very close in MMORPG’s, an infantile entertainment property, how are we missing it in roleplay?

Chief concern is that each player, despite the singular role they perform, is still an individual you can see and control independent of the party. When you pull back to starship versus starship, this is lost in perspective,and becomes somewhat more problematic when your pilot goes one way while you wanted to go another. I’ve read a couple of roleplay systems that handle ship to ship combat and it degenerates into of two ways:

1: It’s Space Camp where everyone gets to roll a dice, which results in combat becoming onerous as well as problematic, given the luck of the players. Three people roll dice to make an attack each turn and odds are good that even the munchkinliest of players is going to fail a few times, rendering those that roll after him, moot. On the other hand…

2: One guy, usually the captain, is nominated to handle all the dice rolling, right up until it’s determined that his/her luck is waning. Then it’s mutiny on The Bounty until the dice are passed on to the successor. Even worse is if the luck holds, it’s still a lot of skill checks being handled by one player while the others use their useless dice to play Jenga.

So that’s the system concerns, but that isn’t really my problem in as much as the guy trying to make a profit in publishing. I’m here to look at the story ideas and, to go back a few paragraphs, the main problem of Serenity as an arena for roleplay- and why I’d opt for the Babylon 5 RPG instead- is that it’s just too small. As established, the ghost of Douglas Adams doesn’t hold with that nonsense, so we shan’t either.

Why I’d choose Babylon 5?

1: It’s big. It’s bloody huge. It’s meant to house 4 main alien civilizations and about a dozen minor ones. On top of that…

2: It has room for much more. From the secrets of The First races, to the entities that live in the Hyperspace Dimension, to the mysteries of Technomagery to civilisations long fallen under their own hubris, this setting is meant to be built on by those that come after J Michael Straczynski (though you’d still need his approval).

3: It has established material that players can refer to just by popping in a DVD. And not only do you gain insight and education for the setting, it’s also a damn good series to watch.

4: It’s fracticious. Civilisations spar and trade blows and sometimes there is an all-out war. It’s ever changing.

5: You don’t have to be human.

This last point is pretty important to convey just how big a Space Opera RPG should be. Diverse races with unique cultures, attributes and motives, all serving on the same starship communicates to the players that if nothing else, there are plenty of places they can go and explore.

Even with all of this going for it, I’m sure that Babylon 5 RPG would be more trouble that it’s worth. The level of knowledge you need to have about physics of space, to biology of aliens to sociology of varying cultures to mechanics of different vehicles and other technology. It’s a miracle that the Star Trek iterations ran for seven seasons and a triumph of creativity regardless of individual quality of the episodes.

But then, it’s important to note that most GM’s do maintain an ecyclopedic knowledge of their make-belive worlds to varying degree, even if they’re running a fantasy game or even something based in modern or other sci-fi settings. Granted the technology isn’t complex and encompassing, but you still need to be aware of what it is and isn’t possible in that time period. Vulcans and elves, dwarfs and Klingons all roll the same type of dice as your regular humans with various caveats attached. And each dungeon is essentially a new world in wonders and dangers.

So, to wrap things up:

Each adventure should be big. Scale is irrelevant in Space Opera and high stakes of a world in peril may not make much difference in the scheme of things when there’s a new one just a few light years away.

Each adventure should introduce something new. Mysteries of culture are still evident in our little world and we’re only one race. Science still discovers things that we can’t explain or changes what we thought we knew. Technology plays a pivotal but unsung role nowadays unless one pays attention, so the opportunity for a new thing per adventure should be pretty easy to fulfil.

Characters should be fleshed out to the point where players will know how to react to all this newness and scope. How it interacts with their ideas and beliefs, which may not even be human to start with.

Players should, in their heart of hearts, have an appreciation and wonder for the space between worlds. A sense of awe and romance for what could be possible. And, if you’re playing a system that makes use of a hierachy of command, players who aren’t going to mutiny at the first command.

And finally, watch Babylon 5. And if you have, it’s probably time you did it again.



  1. I think the Firefly/Serenity setting can be adapted to an RPG campaign fairly handily, myself. The challenge would be finding the right rules set for it (the official Serenity RPG didn’t do much more me, mechanically speaking).

    We should really make a time and place to sit around and natter about RPG theory.

  2. Space Operas can work, but it requires the right mix of players and GM as you noted in your prose. I participated in a space western with a different gaming group and sadly, the whole affair was lacking.

    I still beleive a certain episode of WEG Star Wars was one of your finer stints of GMing as that game had -everything-.

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