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In Genre

Space Opera

by R J Grady
May 27,2003


IN GENRE: Space Opera

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

Space opera takes its name from the horse opera, from which it inherited its two-fisted, heroic style. The direct ancestor to the genre is the planetary romance, defined by Burroughs in his tale, A Princess of Mars, featuring the immortal John Carter. The story was more of a weird yarn than what we think of as science fiction; John Carter arrives on Mars because of an inexplicable resurrection. Nonetheless, his battles with Green Martians his romance with a Red Martian woman became the template for things to come. The next important development was the publication of E.E."Doc" Smith's Triplanetary, a piece as central to space opera as The Lord of the Rings is to high fantasy. Triplanetary offered vast galactic governments, terrifyingly powerful psychic powers, and ancient alien civilizations. The lines between good and evil could not be more sharply drawn than between humanity and the tyrannical, paranoid, nihilistic race that opposed them. And everything was big. Very big, and vast. Flash Gordon appeared in comic strips. He and Buck Rogers would become the defining icons of the genre. The film Forbidden Planet, a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest in a Freudian, science-fictional mold, brought as exploratory space opera and inspired the Star Trek television series in mode and appearance. The last important development was the film Star Wars, a fusion of the Flash Gordon serial style with planetary romance, samurai film, and Smith's "big universe."

Space opera is a sub-division of science-fiction. In fact, by default, it occupies the shallow end of the scientific spectrum. It is not uncommon for various scientific facts to be misunderstood or ignored, whether for storytelling purposes or because of the inexperience of the creative artist. Many early writers, for instance, referred to Van Allen Belts as though they were some kind of device or power source. They are in fact a radiation phenomenon observed by astrophysicists. On the other hand, Lucas insisted, against the protests of his special effects crew, that his spaceships make noise in space. He just wanted them to go VROOOM, and the fact that sound does not carry in the vacuum of space did not bother him. And why should it? Spaceships are cooler when they go VROOOM SKREEE CHUKKA CHUKKA CHUKKA! Another element of space opera is the moral universe. Space opera ranges from the melodramatic to the grim. Space opera is not about a gizmo or a scientific discovery being made; it is about people, especially extraordinary people. It's a very adventurous genre, full of daring, heroism, and tough moral choices. Space opera necessarily includes spaceships, typically big ones that can travel faster than the speed of light. Most other elements, whether rayguns, bug-eyed aliens, ancient civilizations, psychic powers, or androids, are at least theoretically optional.

Space opera are related to far-future wonder stories, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Coccon, which have the same big universe but less two-fisted adventurers and cackling emperors. It's also related to military science fiction, such as Heinlein's satirical Starship Troopers. Another important relative is the invasion story, starting with Wells's War of the Worlds and continuing past Independence Day. The main difference is that invasion stories are usually set in the near future, and the humans are seriously outgunned by advanced aliens. The universe tends to be less big, overall, and the victory usually hinges on some exploitable weakness of the invaders. Actually, when I say usually, I meant "always."

Worlds Beyond Imagining

The space opera universe is big. The bigness tends to fall into two families. The first is solar space opera. In solar space opera, FTL travel is not really an issue. Instead, heroes cruise around the solar system in rockets with big fins. Flash Gordon and the original Buck Rogers typify this type of story. The other is Galactic Space Opera. People cruise around the Milky Way and sometimes beyond. FTL travel is essential to galactic space opera; there is no "sleeper ship" space opera because that makes Galactic Empires and Galactic Wars impossible. The story of a sleeper ship that fell under attack might barely qualify, although it would be more like a planetary romance without the planet.

When I say big, I mean big. The Galactic Senate probably has thousands, maybe millions of worlds. The most densely populated planet has hundreds of billions of residents. A mysterious lost planet is a fifty thousand light years away, tucked behind a dark cloud of space dust so vast it hid an entire star system. Space ships can be as big as battleships, or even moons. Weapons of choice for despots range from genocidal plagues to plunging a planet into a star.

Generally speaking, there is a Galactic Government, often an Empire ruled by a super-cyber-intelligence or an immortal tyrant. The Empire might be good, bad, or complex, depending on the setting. Within the Empire are a series of competing interests, often taking the form of conspiracies, or even visible rivals to the throne. Outside the Empire are far-flung outposts, and various alien civilizations two darned strange to join Galactic Federation. The Empire is typically in decline, Roman-style. Colonies and client worlds range form primitive planets of adventure to seedy "bordertown" style planets to highly efficient planetary bureaucracies. Because of the nature of a government with a thousand client worlds, most participants enjoy a great deal of autonomy. That depends both on how well they "tow the line," as well as the Empire's resources to deal with insurgents. Space opera often features anachronistic forms of government, ranging from hereditary Empires to regional Kings and Theocrats, often butting up against modern democracy and various forms of cyber-democracy.

Many space opera sources feature aliens, typically "guys in rubber masks." They are human-like, often with animal-like traits or some exaggerated human characteristic. Typically, you have a few really strange ones thrown in for variety. A good example is Foster's Humanx setting, with humans, insect-people, short furry-people, lizard-people, an ancient civilization of trilateral, mathematical, and utterly unknowable aliens, and a planet of hostile tesseracts. In other space opera, all or most aliens are actually genetically modified or mutated humans, which gives much the same effect, with less offense to logic, although you don't get to have as many blue people, or people with weird antennae. In a lot of space opera, creatures are surprisingly interfertile, flying in the face of the most basic common sense that if a human can't mate with a strawberry, they're going to have even less luck with something from another planet. The strawberry, at least, is a closer relative. However, some space opera features no aliens at all. Often such settings either lean more toward "hard" Science Fiction, or at least consider themselves more "serious."

Some settings features psychic powers. In Triplanetary or Star Trek, it is basically assumed that unlocking the secrets of the mind will grant power over the forces of the universe. Psychic powers are sort of a step beyond technology in that sense. In Star Wars, we encounter out and out mysticism. In a lot of solar space opera, though, you have no psychic powers whatsoever. In some SF circles, psychic powers are frowned on as being too "soft," in the sense of being unscientific. That is not really an issue in space opera. It's simply a matter of taste. Do you want reality more mutable, or more scientific? More mystical, or more technological?

Whether a maser, laser, or ion blaster, the raygun appeared early on the scene and has endured, despite the growing demonstration that while some energy weapons have great uses, there's still little that can beat a projectile hurled at the fastest speed allowed by the current technology, for sheer damage potential. Some early space opera features projectile weapons, and recent, "updated" space opera type stories often feature magnetic weapons or antimatter. But for the most part, space opera features energy weapons that shoot visible beams and blast things to bits. If you are inclined, you can explain why rayguns appear the way they do. For instance, they might be ion blasters, shooting powerful energy beams that "ride" a trail of plasma. Or they might be invisible grasers, and the beam is just an aiming device. Or it might just go ZAP. Some settings feature "force fields," technology that creates an immaterial barrier that can stop energy and matter as though an impenetrable object. Sometimes they are personal and are used like armor; other times they are strategic weapons used by the largest warcraft and by planets. Space opera typically does not feature tactical nuclear weapons, although strategic nukes, antimatter bombs, and less probable weapons are sometimes used as plot devices. For some reason, galactic wars are rarely fought by robot-controlled suicide ships containing a dozen antimatter drives set to detonate. There are four basic modes of FTL (Faster Than Light) Travel. The first is hyper space; the ship travels to some parallel reality and goes really fast and pops out. Very massive objects can sometimes pose obstacles. The second is jumping. Basically, it's long-range teleportation. The third is warping; basically, the ship stretches space around it and dodges Einstein through a loophole. The last method is the "more gas" method. If you push on the pedal, you go faster. This last method is utterly ludicrous. The first three are merely hard to refute. Space opera often features robots. It sometimes, and sometimes does not, feature computers. The Computer Age, with its amazing improvements in efficiency, along with its pessimistic predictions about AI, caught science fiction coming and going. When Heinlein wrote about slide rules on spaceships and Asimov wrote about androids at the beginning of the twenty-first century, neither expected their work to carry the irony it does today, in a world where a modern desktop computer could have run NASA's early space program as screen saver but the household cleaning robot is still elusive.

Space opera is probably the most popular science-fiction RPG genre. Even more serious or scientifically sound settings offer at least a nod to the universe of rivets and rayguns. Space opera is itself a broad category, often combining various aspects of swashbuckling, military science fiction, exploration sci-fi, planetary romance, science fantasy, and epic adventure.

A Long and Perilous Campaign

Campaign design for space opera usually involves the Big Picture. The Player Characters are expected to overthrow, or re-establish a Galactic Empire, or rescue an important dignitary, or map unknown regions of space. Along the way, they have many amazing adventures. Space opera is very game-friendly. You have an episodic story line, an action-oriented genre, and very competent PC's. You have a mixture of drama and light-hearted adventure. In space opera, there is traditionally a main hero, who has several very competent sidekicks (like, nuclear physicist/fencer/assistant main gunner type competent). You can mimic this style, or you can divide up the glory. The two styles can be roughly described as Flash Gordon, versus Star Trek: The Next Generation. In Flash Gordon, you have a main hero, assisted by various specialists. In Star Trek, you have many important, iconic characters, each with their own unique contribution to the team. PC types include adventurers far from home, national heroes, exiled rulers, friendly aliens, androids, loyal retainers, shady mercs, technicians, gifted children, and comedy relief versions of all the previous. Typically, characters have one to three defining traits, which (the story permitting) are later nuanced. For instance, Buck Rogers is "better than everyone," "a fish out of water," and "all-American." Luke Skywalker is "brash," "self-pitying," and "strong in the Force." Rick Hunter is "conflicted" and "good at what he does." Every PC should have an area of special competence. If one character is a fighter, the other should be a fighting talker. If two characters are fighters and one is a crafty engineer, one of the fighters should be a reckless gun-slinger and the other a formidable brawler.

Space opera lends itself well to many traditional RPG tropes, such as "kill the bad guys and take their stuff," "rescue the princess," and "uncover who is behind this and bring them to justice." Many plots can be taken from other adventure genres and then adapted. For instance, Star Wars is based in large part on Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, while Battlestar Galactica carries echoes of the Biblical Exodus. It is important, though, that the elements add up to the part of the Big Picture. Flash Gordon engaged in daring rescues, political coups, and missions of diplomacy, but in the end, it was always about beating Ming.

PC's should be bold, and the GM should reward boldness. But on the other hand, characters in space opera often face long odds, and must often acquire an edge or invent some daring plan first. Generally speaking, PC's should be rewarded for thinking on their feet, as well as for foresight. They should be punished for dithering, or for fatalism. The idea is not to go in guns blazing. The idea is to go in under cover of darkness, then escape with guns blazing.

When looking for a game system, consider the following criteria. It should handle characters who are competent at many different things. It should have a combat system that is exciting and not too deadly, but allows PC's to take out Imperial goons left and right. It should allow daring actions to be attempted repeatedly without characters dying from mediocre die rolls. It should be tooled for the things that are, and are not, appropriate for the game. For instance, in some space opera, characters are amazing inventors who can jury-rig a reverse-polarized something or other for every occasion, but repairs are serious business. On the other hand, in some space opera, no one ever invents anything but a plot seed, but repairs can be done in the middle of battle by a seated pilot and are time-consuming or difficult only when the plot demands it. The examples, respectively, would be Star Trek and Star Wars.

While every game requires some level of focus, it is particularly important in space opera. Characters should have strong relationships with each other. PC's should have compatible attitudes with the kinds of adventures the GM intends to run. While the scenery in space opera is marvelous, every story should have a sense of movement. Rising and falling action are very important. The player responsibility is to be creative, fun, and bold. Players must trust the GM's intentions, and the GM in turn must not punish players for having their characters act like movie characters or comic strip protagonists.


Star Wars (WEG)
The original Star Wars game. An innovative dice pool system, very fast, and flexible, with lots of setting support. The Force powers went through several slightly different revisions. The 1st edition is the simplest game. The 2nd edition revised is the most complete. Character creation is remarkably painless. Combat requires some getting used to, but is fast once you get the hang of it. To buy in, you need the core rulebook.

Star Wars d20 (Wizards of the Coast)
This d20 tooling infects the game with certain D&D-isms, but is basically true to the Star Wars universe. Offers Republic, Rebellion, historical, and Expanded Universe setting support. Classes include Scoundrel, Jedi Guardian, and Fringer. The Force powers go through radical revision in every sourcebook and the second edition rules. The second edition rules are in improvement in nearly every way, with better class progression charts, force powers fixes, and retooled Prestige Classes. To buy in, you need the core rulebook.

Star Hero (Hero Games/DOJ)
A superb treatment of the science fiction genre. Includes many world-building options. There is a published setting offered, Terran Empire, a fairly generic space opera setting with a decaying Empire, cat people, and psychic powers. Hero System, at the 75 to 150 point range, handles space opera extremely well. Combat can be made very tactical or somewhat abstract, depending on your preferences. Lethality is adjustable. To buy in, you'll need the 5th edition Hero System rulebook. I highly recommend Star Hero. The Terran Empire setting is optional. The Ultimate Vehicle offers a plethora of spaceship design suggestions and options. Merging this book with The Ultimate Martial Artist yields Jedi.

GURPS Space (Steve Jackson Games)
Using the cinematic combat rules, GURPS plays a pretty good space opera. Particularly helpful are its extensive Tech Level notes, its versatile alien-building system, and its industry-leader psionis rules. To buy in, you'll need the GURPS Third Edition rulebook (or a free copy of GURPS Lite) and GURPS Space. Also helpful are GURPS High-Tech, Ultra-Tech, Aliens, Atomic Horror, and Cliffhangers. Published settings include Humanx, Transhuman Space (a nanopunk/pseudotopian SF setting), Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, and various others.

Prime Directive (Powered by GURPS)
Published under a licensing loophole, this is the roleplaying game of the Star Fleet Battles Universe. This is not your Next Generation Star Trek, but a radically different alternate timeline that begins with the original series and diverges before Star Trek: TNG and most of the novels. Relatively lethal by space opera standards.

Big Eyes, Small Mouth (Guardians of Order)
Besides the obvious utility for Robotech style adventures, BESM lends itself well to action-oriented SF games. Particularly helpful are its countless Attributes that can customize any number of alien races, and its highly scalable vehicle rules. To buy in, you need BESM Second Edition Revised.

Trinity (White Wolf Games)
Far-future science fantasy, exploratory space opera setting. A fusion of nanopunk, bio-tech, psionics, space opera, mecha, and thriller, with a post-digital flair. Blast abominations in space and save the human race. Uses the revised, set difficulty number version of the White Wolf dice pool system. To buy in, you'll need the core rulebook. The numerous sourcebooks add much-needed elaboration, though.

Star Trek (FASA)
Out of print game of historical interest. The deluxe set includes everything you need to play.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (Last Unicorn Games)
Sadly lacking in details on Klingons, but a playable, straightforward RPG. You technically need only the core rulebook, but how about some Klingons?

Star Trek (Decipher Games)
The lastest incarnation. Lots of background material. Slightly wonky system (CODA). To buy in, you'll need the Player's Guide and at least one Narrator's Guide.

Star Frontiers (TSR)
A very early space opera game. Nice, if undetailed milieu. Slightly odd system, that underwent slightly odd revisions. You had the option of playing a giant amoeba.


Asimov, Isaac. Foundation.
Far-future sociological sci-fi about a Galactic Empire in decline and its secretive would-be saviors.

Asimov, Isaac. David Starr, Space Ranger.
An intrastellar troubleshooter discovers a lost Martian civilization. David "Lucky" Starr appears in numerous sequals, beginning with Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. Originally published under the pseudonym Paul French.

Bujold, Lois MacMaster. Shards of Honor.
The first in the Vorkosigan Saga. A man and a woman form an unlikely alliance against a backdrop of Galactic War. Love, honor, and big spaceships.

Foster, Alan Dean. The Tar-Aiym Krang.
A young telepath and his min-drake join a search for artifacts of a lost alien civilization. One of many books in Foster's "Humanx" milieu.

Heinlein, Robert. Starship Troopers.
Political commentary and social satire spice up this military adventure story about armored warriors battling bug-like aliens for the survival of Earth.

Herbert, Frank. Dune.
Grim far-future space opera of an Empire in violent transition, an unexpected messiah, and weird technology.

Weis, Margaret. The Lost King
Dark satire turns Star Wars upside down, with the lost Guardians of the Galaxy as psychic, lasersword-wielding, genetically enhanced aristocrats indoctrinated in medieval Catholicism. Plenty of Arthurian allegory, sprinkled with Plato. First of the Star of the Guardians series.


Flash Gordon (1936)
This movie serial and its sequels brought Flash Gordon to the big screen. Low budget, high-action cliffhanging adventure.

The Last Starfighter (1984)
An Earth-bound nebbish is recruited by the Star League to battle Xur and the Kodan Armada. Wonderful performance by Robert Preston as the swindling Centauri.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Iconic space adventure pits an exploration team against the deadly, mysterious phantom of a lost alien race and the selfishness of a misanthropic scientist.

Star Wars
The classic trilogy begins in 1977 with A New Hope. Heroic Luke Skywalker, a small town boy born strong in the Force, is recruited in a struggle to overthrown a tyrannical Galactic Empire. In the second trilogy, his father a generation before becomes the fulcrum in a struggle between light and darkness, enlightenment and a dark future.

Battlestar Galactica (1978)
One spaceship, crowded with civilian refugees, holds the future of the human race. The war against the machine Cylons has been lost, but survival is still possible.

The Black Hole (1979)
An exploration vessel finds a missing ship, and makes unpleasant discoveries.

Flash Gordon (1980)
Shameless, hilarious trash, with a classic Freddy Mercury/Queen score. Pure spoofy satisfaction.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)
An American astronaut, lost and frozen in space, is revived in the 25th century and battles aliens.

Alien (1979)
Another in the post-Star Wars crop. An SOS leads to a man-to-man struggle with gruesome aliens (sculpted by H.R. Giger). Followed by several excellent sequels, particularly Aliens.

Spaceballs (1987)
Mel Brooks pokes fun at Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Hollywood marketing.

The Fifth Element (1997)
A retired military man has destiny fall in his lap, in the form of a lovely superbeing who speaks the language of Heaven. Dogfights, fun battles, far future cityscapes, and amazing visuals (to say nothing of the Diva's musical performance). Quintessential, fun, and aesthetic.

Galaxy Quest (1999)
Affectionate spoof of Star Trek, and the Star Trek phenomenon, that also manages to holds its own as a comedy-adventure.

Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984)
Feature-length version of the Japanese Macross series (later adapted and co-joined into Robotech for American distribution). Humans pilot transforming robots and battle aliens for the fate of the Earth, trying to discover the meaning of the invaders' fascination with a lost alien race.

Babylon 5 (TV)
Post-Star Trek: The Next Generation epic sci-fi featuring numerous guys in rubber masks and several advanced, mysterious races.

Star Trek (TV)
The original series blended planetary exploration with the occasional swashbuckling. Later movies and the sequel series (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager) dipped into military science-fiction. Although hundreds of writers have left their own differing marks on the Star Trek scientific and humanistic landscape, Star Trek remains essential space opera.

The Bits Box
Fighter interceptors, lightsabers, guys in rubber masks, ancient civilizations, tractor beams, mysterious crystal artifacts, antimatter, Van Allen Belts, two-fisted brawling, fencing, telepathy, mysterious planets, lost scientific outposts, the future of the human race, the dangers of tampering with nature, the stagnation of a once-proud Empire, loyal sidekicks, androids, smooth-voiced computers, teleportation, rayguns, capital ships, reversing the polarity, improbable cross-breeds, expendable ensigns, faceless goons, brilliant but eccentric scientists, crash landings, distress calls, pirates, rebels, secret police, torture chambers, "Eject the core!", hidebound alien mentalities, the triumph of humanity over technology, Guy Fridays, civilizations who once commanded the very powers of Creation but destroyed themselves through hubris, ethnic aliens, cruel overlords, captive princesses, secret entrances, much Faster Than Light travel, "I need all energy to the forward shields!", force field generators, mecha, antigravity, rogue researchers unwilling to confess their grave mistakes, ships with no seat belts, honorable warrior aliens, dangerous navigation, red-blooded military men, alien princesses, Good and Evil, furious chase scenes, running gun battles, the redemption of broken men, rebellion against a force of law that threatens to extinguish all that is good in the universe, "I'm beginning to understand their language," border outposts, mines, black holes, weird astronomical phenomenon, signal interference, "Procedures be damned!", amazing landscapes (skyscapes, oceanscapes, hyperscapes), amazing aliens, huge explosions, impregnable fortresses, "Captain, he refuses to speak to anyone but you personally," fast-talking space merchants, the art of love and seduction, future Paradises marred only by the criminal actions of malcontents, photons (protons, positrons, tachyons, bullcrapions), strange frequencies, "The sensors are picking up something unusual," bigger tailfins, aliens evolved from some animal similar to an Earth animal that is not an ape, flesh wounds, and sinister traps.

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