The Complete Science Fiction Role Playing Game
Edward E. Simbalist, A. Mark Ratner, Phil McGregor. Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1980
Ask an old-time role player about classic science fiction games, and Traveller will inevitably come up. But many will also mention Space Opera, a less popular but still well-known RPG put out by Fantasy Games Unlimited. The game was oddly produced as two volumes bound together into a single book. (We cannot see why two volumes were used: neither stands alone in any sense.) Space Opera was the role playing companion or expansion to the Space Marines science-fiction miniatures game. It could stand alone as an RPG, but lacked information about the Space Marines setting it was written for, which included several star-spanning cultures and a variety of races. There are some interesting points about the background sprinkled through the text, but not enough to use without creating the setting almost from scratch.
As a stand-alone game, Space Opera was designed to simulate the eponymous genre, with cheap, easy space travel, exceptional protagonists, highly advanced technologies, a clash of good and evil, varied cultures and races casually mixing with each other, and cinematic space battles strongly reminiscent of wet-navy battleship duels. Technologies and abilities were borrowed from a variety of sources, including classic Star Trek, Star Wars, the Lensman series, and Heinlein's Starship Troopers. These rules would support games in any of these settings.
Space Opera was a classic of the rules-heavy, simulationist era of role playing. It was clunky and slow moving, and thus poorly designed to run a free-wheeling, heroic game. The authors recognized at least one problem the rules had with heroic characters, because the space combat rules gave PCs combat bonuses simply to boost their chances of survival, and PCs were excluded from the rules about crew casualties when one's ship was being bombarded.
As noted above, Space Opera's background might be found in the Space Marines game. The Space Opera book mentioned the ForeRunners, a race or races that achieved high technology long before humanity. In fact, they bred humans to be their warrior race. A few snippets of the most advanced technology of Space Opera came from the ForeRunners, including the psi-magnifying PK Crystals.
The default "good guy" culture appeared to be the Terran dominated United Federation of Planets, although nothing in the rules explicitly says so. Rival alien races mentioned include the MekPurr, who compensate for a lack of numbers by relying on mechanization and robotic assistants; the Hissss'ist, which seems to be a saurian race of some sort, and undescribed rival human societies such as the Azuriach Imperium. Three alien races were lightly detailed to serve as general bug-eyed-monster foes: the Bugs, a xenophobic hivemind insectoid race copied from Heinlein's Starship Troopers; the Klackons, amphibious armored arthropods; and the Mertuns, octopoid intelligences borrowed from H. G. Wells.
What Space Opera lacked in an included setting, it made up for with tables and details for creating your own sector of space. Sector creation was a mixture of rolling on tables and simply choosing from lists or making details up. Referees (StarMasters) simply sprinkled stars across a sheet of paper and decided how far above or below the plane of the paper they were, providing a three-dimensional map.
There was plenty of scope for detailing individual worlds. While referees could randomly or arbitrarily choose many features, Space Opera detailed twenty basic standard world types, noting their position in their star's ecosphere, axial tilt and orbital eccentricity (to determine how seasons worked), rotation time, and a general description of climate and temperature over the planet, noting seasonal changes. Planet type 1, the basic terrestrial planet, was further described into seven subtypes by the predominant terrain (terran arid steppe, terran desert, terran ocean, etc.) From these basic descriptions, worlds were customized by gravity, seasons, free surface water, and special atmospheric conditions. If the world had intelligent inhabitants, referees decided what race they were, then deteremined society and government type, citizen attitudes towards the government, cultural resilience, government repression, attitudes towards private ownership of weapons, mean per capita income and tax rates, what goods were traded out, what goods were desired, excise fees and tariffs, and so forth. The world's industrial level was rolled for on a scale of one to ten, with early 21st century Earth scored as six. Should the referee desire political turmoil, the rules mentioned setting up rival political parties, elections, and so forth.
There was enough in the book for a half-way competent referee to create some extremely interesting worlds. Should referees choose to dodge the amount of work required, FGU sold Star Sector Atlas supplements, which presumably had prepared setting information for referees.
The game lacked a unified game mechanic beyond the idea that players had to roll below a target number. There were all kinds of different ways to calculate target numbers, and many different types of dice were used. A common mechanic was the CR, or characteristic roll, where players had to roll under their (situationally modified) ability characteristic on a d20.
The game was an interesting mix of class and skill based ideas. First, the player chose their profession, which served and was described as the character class. These were Armsman, Techs, Research Scientists, Medical Scientists, Engineer Scientists, or Astronauts, which were a combination of explorers and command personnel. Then, ability characteristics were generated. Characters had fourteen different characteristic scores, each on a 1 - 19 scale, with the score determined by a percentile roll on a table. (Physique, Strength, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Empathy, Intelligence, Psionics, Intuition, Bravery, Leadership, General Technical Aptitude, Mechanical Aptitude, and Electrical Aptitude (GTA, MechA, ElecA)). The classes each provided a set of bonus points which could be distributed among selected characteristics.
The player's planet of birth was generated by a series of tables. These were different tables than the world generation tables at the back of the book, but did include the planet's gravity (d20), atmosphere (d20), and predominant climate (d100). Each of these could affect the character's ability scores: gravity might affect Physique, Mass, Strength, Stamina, and Agility. Atmosphere might affect the character's ability to handle different concentrations of oxygen and contaminants in the atmosphere, while climate might affect survival in various environments or Constitution.
Players could then select their character's race (technically, species). Rather than their race modifying their base ability scores, characters had to qualify for their species by having scores in the proper ranges. Race modified many derived characteristics noted below. The races were human, humanoid (evolved from human stock but no longer able to mate with humans), transhumans (advanced humanoids bearing a striking resemblance to Star Trek's Vulcans), Pithecines (ape-men), canines, felines, ursoids, avians, and warm-blooded saurians.
Then came the derived characteristics. Height and weight was determined by the character's Physique score, using different tables for the different races. Carrying capacity was the average of Physique, Strength, and Constitution times body mass times a racial factor. Damage factor was the sum of Physique, Strength, Constitution, and mass, all divided by ten and modified by a racial modifier. Transhumans were the toughest race around, while humans, humanoids, canines, and avians had the lowest modifiers.
Beginning characters had a pool of skill points generated from their personal characteristic scores, the exact formula depending on the character's class. Most skills had pre-requisites, basic foundational technical skills such as the physical sciences or combat training. Characters were expected to learn further skills in play, which involved being taught or using learning tapes, and then making a die roll after the prescribed period of time. The formulas used to calculate the probabilty of success in learning a skill or gaining a new level were rather detailed. Since learning skills in play was time-based, Space Opera had no need of an experience point system.
Skills were categorized by class, loosely. There were scientific skills (suitable for Research Scientists, Medical Scientists, and Engineer Scientists), engineering skills, Armsman skills, Astronaut skills, and technical skills. There were also a set of General skills, which were available to all classes.
Psionic skills received a great deal of attention, and appeared to be designed to allow players to run Lensman style games, with the addition of the Force from Star Wars. PK Crystals, first discovered by the ForeRunners, were lenticular crystals that provided a considerable boost to a being's psychic powers, mainly by lowering the Stamina cost of various abilities. PK Crystals attuned to individuals, and once attuned must lie untouched for decades before becoming useful to another being.
Characters were classified as either psychically dead (with a psi score below ten), open (potentially able to use powers) or awakened (an active user). No character could start the game awakened. An open character might achieve this status as a result of a being attacked psychically or by encountering an untuned PK Crystal. Exceptionally powerful characters may be "disappeared" by unexplained forces, reappearing some weeks later with an attuned crystal and some developed powers.
There were a host of psychic powers, distributed among six categories. The categories were telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, clairvoyance, telurgy, and The Force. The Force was a special form of power, in that characters who had this skill had to enhance all of their attributes to the maximum possible, and develop all of the Force subskills to level one, then all of them to level two, and so on. Should the character manage to reach maximum level in all abilities, they immediately had to choose whether to be light or dark, and forever abide by that choice. It probably took years of play to reach this level of power.
Once skills were dealt with, characters enrolled in professions, usually military or military-related, for a number of tours, and received a salary and mustering out benefits based on how many tours of duty the character had endured. But where Traveller used the professions as a skill development system, Space Opera used it primarily to develop the character's material resources, including a salary and pension. Like Traveller, players had to roll to enlist in their chosen service, but once in, they rolled a d20 on a table to see how many two year tours of duty they'd be permitted, instead of testing after each tour.
Careers included the Starforces (elite interstellar military), the Space Marines, the Commandos, Bureau of State Security (the intelligence arm and/or secret police), Bureau of Intelligence (military intelligence), Interstellar Survey (civilian government explorers), Interstellar Police, Survey Scouts, Diplomatic Corps, Planetary Defense Forces, Planetary Police, Independent Explorers, and Mercenaries. The careers offered salaries, pensions, an opportunity to save more money for retirement, and mustering out benefits. Space Opera did have rules to reduce abilities as characters aged, but this was explicitly provided as optional to the game.
There were roughly forty pages of equipment lists, including a few standard design space vehicles, general equipment (survival and "adventuring" gear), computers, medical supplies, vision enhancement devices and communications gear, tool kits, armor, robots, aircraft, ground vehicles, and weapons. Information was provided on the tech level of the equipment (referring to the technological sophistication needed by a culture to manufacture it), the cost, and other details as needed: mass, power source, statistics involving the item's use, and breakdown numbers.
All equipment was rated for breakdown with two numbers. When the situation called for it (the first time the equipment was used under harsh conditions, for example) the referee rolled a d20, and if she rolled lower than the first breakdown number, there was at least a minor problem. A second roll was then made against the second number to see if the item suffered a more severe breakdown, and this required a third roll on another breakdown table, which indicated the level of skill a technician required to fix it, and how long it would take.
Complex equipment such as starships required routine maintenance to avoid breakdown, and each piece of equipment that required this had the amount of time, how frequently, and the cost of maintenance, as well as the consequences of failing to perform these tasks. While referees were obviously encouraged to ignore any rules they found intrusive, we were fascinated by the idea that the game took into account whether the captain had run the various routine maintenance checks, and that there would be equipment failures if not!
Equipment could involve unusual levels of detail. Space Opera provided a long list of the various programs computers might run to control the starships (Galley programs for food choices, different library databases, levels of life support based on the crew complement, science survey programs, a whole menu of combat programs for targeting and evasion), spy equipment and counter-equipment, different sensor packages for military equipment including power armor, and many different standard robot designs (surprisingly, no choices for customization there). There were generally at least two choices for any type of vehicle denoting the different capabilities at different tech levels.
Of course, there was a vast array of weaponry, from archaic weapons such as clubs and swords through modern projectile weapons up to futuristic technology, some typical (gauss rifles, tangleguns, lasers, blasters, needle guns, fusion guns) and a few surprises (Coagulators, neuronic whips, APROBDIF Projectors, which scramble robotic positronic brains, and Dally Guns, which seem to be a fully automatic gyrojet weapon). Space Opera supported three (!) different types of energy swords: ForceBlades, LaserSwords, and LightSwords.
The combat system followed a strict turn sequence like a wargame's, and was probably based on the Space Marines system. The system required many die rolls and modifiers. Combat must have been exceedingly slow, with an emphasis on detail at the expense of playability. Players rolled for initiative on 2d6, wrote down indirect fire orders for supporting units or covering fire from units on the battlefield, moved, executed covering fire, executed normal fire, resolved the effects of indirect fire support, and engaged in hand to hand combat.
Combat turns were six seconds long, and actions were rated by how many seconds they took. Firing took two seconds, so a character might move for four seconds then shoot, or move for two seconds, drop to a prone firing position for two more seconds, and fire.
Firing a weapon used a percentile die system, where players attempted to roll below the target number. The target number was based on the firer's stance (standing, prone, using a tripod or bipod with the weapon, and so on) and the range to the target. In general, a medium range shot gave a target number of slightly better than fifty percent, but this dropped quickly as the range increased. Of course, this target number was modified by nearly a page of different possibilities.
If the shot hit, the attacker rolled percentile dice again to determine what part of the body was struck, and then a d10 roll was needed to see if the attack penetrated the target's armor at that location, requiring another four pages of charts cross-indexing weapon type with armor type. Unlike virtually all of the other rolls in Space Opera so far, the penetration roll required the player to roll above the target value.
Should the shot penetrate, a d20 roll was made on yet another table to determine damage based on which part of the target's body was hit. Surprisingly, the game used a semi-descriptive system for damage: regardless of the weapon, damage was classified as very light, light, moderate, serious, or a critical wound, with the actual hit point damage rolled based on the wound type. The descriptive wounds were necessary because the healing rules required tracking each wound individually.
Areas of greater vulnerability (such as the head) had results skewed toward critical wounds, while hits to extremities were skewed toward lighter wounds. Different weapons modified the damage roll: more powerful weapons were going to roll more serious wound types. More serious wounds might require a Shock check, while critical wounds gave a chance for instant death, but only for NPCs. The rules also described various effects depending on what body part was hit: for example, a hit to one's legs meant a reduction in movement ability.
Automatic weapons are usually awkward for a detailed combat system, so Space Opera simplified things a tiny bit. To simulate the better hit probability, attackers rolled three times to hit; if any of them succeded, the target was hit. To determine the number of actual hits, the player divided the number of rounds fired by three, and rolled a d6 to see how many shots in each set of three struck home: a 1 - 3 meant only one shot in three hit, while a roll of 6 meant all three shots in each set hit. Unfortunately for all, once the actual number of hits were determined, each shot's damage was determined individually.
As noted above, a single melee attack was resolved at the end of each combat turn. This had combatants roll for initiative again, using a d20, with a different host of modifiers. An important modifier was the character's Hand to Hand Capability score, computed by a simple formula based on the weapon they were using. These formulas included the character's expertise with the weapon, and some combination of dexterity, agility, and sometimes strength. High initiative went first, so skilled characters had the advantage over their opponents.
The target number to hit was based on the skill levels of the attacker with penalties based on the skill levels of the defender. A success then moved on to the player checking for penetration, wound, and damage just as for ranged weapons, but using different penetration tables.
Damage and Healing
Damage was taken to the Damage Factor, which was about 25 for the average human character. With a moderate wound being 3 - 8 points of damage, and a serious wound about 9 - 13, we see that the average character could take about two to four serious hits before dying.
Wound recovery required some calculations and bookkeeping. The referee rolled on tables to determine how long each wound would take to heal without treatment (2d6 + 2 days for a light wound, 10d10 + 20 for a serious wound, and so on). Divide the number of points of damage for that wound by the number of days for recovery, and you'd know how much damage the character healed a day. Medical treatment sped recovery: for example, a base hospital would lead to full recovery of a light wound in sixty percent of the time required for untreated healing, or forty percent of the time for a serious wound. That is, if the wound didn't get infected, which would complicate matters.
Being a high technology setting, even a dead body could be recovered and nursed back to full health if the proper drugs or equipment were available quickly enough.
Space Opera allowed for many options for both building and customizing one's ship. In this game, captaining a vessel was a very involved process, including fueling, crewing, and ensuring that routine maintenance and repair was properly carried out. Assuming they didn't buy one of the standard designs, players started by choosing one of 24 standard hulls, rated by size. Ship dimensions, volume, number of decks, and recommended crew numbers were noted on a table. Hulls came outfitted with a standard computer, crew quarters, ship's controls, life support system, and emergency escape pods. Further capabilities needed to be purchased separately, and basic systems could be upgraded as well. Players had their choice of power plants (usually anti-matter or fusion reactors, although fission reactors could be installed as a backup power source if desired), a sublight drive, an FTL warp drive, fuel storage for the power plant, staterooms for High, Middle, and Low Passage, Coldsleep accommodations, medical facilities, recreation facilities, an auxiliary bridge, sensors, mining equipment for asteroid mining, additional computer software, ship's boats (shuttlecraft and others), and if desired, atmospheric streamlining. For space combat, players could choose forcefield generators, armor, weapons turrets, hardpoints for mounting additional ordinance, weapons (typically MegaBolt torpedos, Nova Guns, and StarBolt torpedos), and sensor foiling electronic warfare/electronic countermeasure equipment.
Ships needed crew, and each hull size listed the required numbers and types for a full complement, as well as notes on running with a skeleton crew. This would only be an issue in emergencies, for the rules point out that ships do all they can to fill their crew before lifting from port. Since salaries were listed for each position, it shows that one's character must be incredibly wealthy to crew and run a ship, let alone buy one.
The standard measure of distance in Space Opera was the Light Second (LS), or 186,000 miles. The standard sublight drive was the Trans-Gravitic Interphased Sub-Light Anomaly drive, or TISA, which allowed players to use incredibly small amounts of fuel (the standard unit of measure being ten kilograms!) Faster than Light travel was provided by the warp drive, rated by the number of light years traveled per twenty-four hours. Standard warp drives were rated from ten to fifty.
Using the standard distance measure of light seconds and a combat round of five minutes, the distances covered in Space Opera combat were immense. Combat could not occur in warp, as each ship occupied its own bubble universe, so it would be most likely at destinations rather than in deep space.
The first issue of space combat was detecting the enemy's presence. It was no problem to detect a ship emerging from warp as the distortion of space was readily observable. Given that ships had to leave warp a minimum distance from stars or planets, system defenders could easily calculate the distance from the sun that needed to be patrolled. The enormous volume of space to patrol was merely a complication: sufficiently developed systems built detector satellites to alert the fleet via subspace communicators when a hostile appeared. Attacker tactics would therefore dictate an appearance out of warp well beyond detection range, creeping in at sublight speed. Detecting ships in such situations was trickier.
Players rolled for their ships' sensors, modified by defending ships' electronic countermeasures and whether or not they were silent running with systems off to foil detection. Once opposing vessels in real space detected each other, the maneuvers began. Players plotted their ships' movement, using simplified movement rules more suited to naval miniatures than space. Players had to plot changes of direction in forty-five degree increments, each increment calling for another ten percent of their forward movement. Movement was simultaneous, and fire was assumed to be laid at the point where combatants were closest. Since range to target was a factor in the combat roll, Space Opera required that combat be plotted on a sheet of paper, or with miniatures.
The ship to ship combat rules were strongly reminiscent of surface naval combat. The turn sequence had both players writing movement orders, then initiative was determined (although since movement and combat was simultaneous, it only served to give a small bonus to hit), both sides moved their ships by orders, then both sides order fire, Nova gun fire was resolved simultaneously, StarTorpedoes were fired, moving during the movement phase of the next turn.
A tremendous amount of firepower could be dished out. Nova guns were mounted in batteries (generally two per turret), and could fire up to as many shots per round as their crew's expertise. All of the shots of the same caliber used a single attack roll, the target number determined by the target speed and range, with many modifiers. A "hit" meant that the shots straddled the target (like a surface navy salvo); another table revealed the percentage of shots in the salvo that actually struck the target. The penetration value of the weapons were determined by the caliber of the gun, modified by range and tech level of the gun. This was compared to the target's defensive value, based on her screens and armor. If the penetration value was less than the defensive value, then the full damage would be accrued to the screens. When the screen had taken all the damage it was rated for, it would fall, and subsequent shots would begin to pound the actual ship. If the attack did penetrate the screen, the screens absorbed a random percent of the hit, and the rest would be applied against the target's actual damage point total. Any shot that penetrated the shields had a chance for a critical hit: the attacker rolled 3d6 and if three of a kind came up, he rolled on the critical hit table to determine which of the target's systems had been damaged.
Damage totals were impressive. The typical, median caliber Nova gun did 275 points of damage for each shot, but the typical, median-sized shp could absorb 45,000 points of damage. Even pounding this to zero did not mean the end of the ship: at this step it was only immobilized and helpless. The attacker could continue to fire, each hit now doing double damage, until the ship reached double its damage capacity, when it was a complete hulk and might explode, or the attacker might apply tractor beams and send over boarding parties. Boarding was run using the normal personal combat rules, although PCs received bonuses to attack and defend to improve their chances of survival.
Attackers could also fire StarTorps, self-propelled, guided missiles. These were maneuvered as individual vessels on the map, with a speed of three hundred light seconds, and an attack value ranging from 175 to 775. StarTorps had a base 30% chance to hit, modified by electronic warfare factors and the evasive maneuvers of their target (based, in turn, on the target's evasive maneuver computer programs.) They could be blocked by defensive electronic counter measures, attacked with smaller caliber Nova guns in secondary batteries, countered by anti-torpedo torpedoes, or even engaged by small, maneuverable fighter craft. While StarTorps were vulnerable to enemy counters and relatively weak in the damage department, they had relatively high penetration values, giving them a better chance to breach enemy screens and possibly cause critical damage. Meanwhile, the mis-named Megabolt Torpedoes were powerful, short range Nova guns, only available to the larger ships.
The space combat rules thus supported capital ships slugging it out against each other (as in Star Trek) or swarms of small fighter craft engaging each other (Star Wars).
As Traveller did before it, Space Opera didn't attempt to create a bestiary for a myriad of worlds, but instead provided guidance for referees to create their own creatures. Animals were described by their food source (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, scavenger), method of obtaining food (carnivores might have hunting packs, ambush, or lurk; herbivores might be grazers or intermittent grazers), size, and speed. Size determined mass and combat abilities.
Economics were also given some attention. Space Opera listed living expenses, based on the type of world one might be on; the availability of cargo, the price one might get for it, how much one might expect to earn by carrying passengers, the possibility of obtaining monopolies for transportation in some regions of the sector, and so on.
In modern parlance, Space Opera was a heartbreaker. It appears to have been an attempt to tackle Traveller's niche and do a better job. Richer and more detailed than Traveller, it was a massive beast of a game, but in practice it must have been very slow and difficult to play. If the designers' goal was to create a set of rules that could describe the universe that space opera characters could play against, they succeeded. But with the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, the rules were a very poor fit for the type of game the designers appear to have wanted. From our experience in the genre, space opera worked best with broad strokes. Planets didn't need detail; they were simply backdrops to make the characters more vivid. We do feel these rules would serve very well for a futuristic military game like Starship Troopers, or an exploration game like Star Trek. It wouldn't be too hard to create a challenging merchant-trader game, or even a tense future espionage game like Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat.
Space Opera had many admirable qualities. We can't remember seeing a science fiction RPG that considered gravity beyond earth-normal and weightless, or the maintenance requirements for complex equipment, or the types of worlds merchants might investigate to seek out valuable and unusual animal pelts for trading. The equipment lists included all of the common futuristic weaponry one might want. Characters were effectively differentiated, and the game provided plenty of opportunities for machinists/technicians, scientists, soldiers, and others to all stay involved in a campaign together. We also enjoyed the wonderful interior art by illustrator Gene Day.
The game's flaws are more a feature of the time than of the game. The setting information lacked plot hooks or anythiung to grab a prospective StarMaster's attention and say "do a game around this!" Further, the minutiae of running the game—maintenance routines, equipment breakdowns, astrogation calculations, fuel consumption, monthly salaries and living expenses—added complexity and slowed the game without adding to the adventure.
As we said already, this was a quintessential game of the eighties, dedicating to simulating as much of the setting as possible, with detailed game systems for virtually any contingency, with no attention to the actual role playing of the characters. Should a modern reader desire a reference volume for describing worlds or a look at simulating the grit of maintaining a starship, Space Opera might be worth a look.
October 27, 2011.