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Hard Science: Science Fiction Gaming

A Night at the Opera

James Maliszewski
March 30, 2001

I'll dispense with my usual self-promotion this month (don't worry, I'll return to my old ways next month) and dive right into the suggest matter at hand, namely space opera: what is it and why should you care? The term "space opera" is modeled on the earlier term "horse opera," used to describe a certain kind of melodramatic western. In these horse operas, the good guys wore white, the bad guys wore black, and there was never any angst over the mistreatment of the Indians. These westerns were simple both in terms of their morality and their plots. Yet, they proved very popular with their readers, many of whom yearned for that mythical "simpler time" when men were men, women were women, and a well used six-gun could solve any problem.

Space operas, naturally, were a kind of science fiction story that took inspiration from these horse operas by transferring the simplistic morality and linear plots into the future -- or at least outer space. Like the horse opera, the space opera became very popular. Indeed, they became so popular that most of the SF films produced during the 40's and 50's (and even the early 60's) were space operas in one form or another. You need only think of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to get a good sense of what space opera is all about.

Although simplistic, space operas weren't necessarily simple-minded. They often included genuine -- if somewhat bastardized -- scientific speculation. Many people were first introduced to the effects of space travel (weightlessness, etc.) through these films and stories, for example. In addition, they slowly began to open viewers' minds to the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos, even if it's unlikely they'll be hawk men or rubbery-looking lizards. The popularity of the space opera laid the groundwork for the general popularity of science fiction in our culture. In many ways, SF is the mythology of our age and we owe a lot of that to space opera.

This isn't to say that most people are science fiction fans; they certainly aren't. However, most people in Western nations (and many outside of them -- look at Japan!) are familiar with the basic premises of the genre. They know enough to understand the concept of laser weapons and starships and aliens that they won't immediately look blankly at you if you introduce the concepts in conversation (although your doing so while wearing the outfit of a Klingon warrior might well send them screaming in horror). After all, the most popular series of SF movies in history, the Star Wars adventures, is basically space opera. Most of the series' elements can be found in larval form in those films of yesteryear. Even Star Trek is descendant of this genre; its idealistic morality is a dead give away.

Great, you say, but what does this have to do with roleplaying games? Well, aside from a few rare exceptions (like Blue Planet and the upcoming Transhuman Space), most SF RPGs are also space operas. In fact, I'd argue that almost every successful science fiction roleplaying game is a space opera. Many of them would deny -- sometimes vigorously -- but that doesn't change the fundamental truth of their literary pedigree. Fading Suns, for example, embraces its space operatic heritage, which is one of the reasons I find the game so refreshing. Its designers recognize the origins of their game and use that recognition to the fullest. Trinity, I suspect, would prefer to downplay its space opera ancestry (or at least emphasize anime influences instead), but that doesn't throw me off the scent. I can smell space opera a parsec away and it smells very sweet indeed.

My point? Oh yeah, I guess I should have one, shouldn't I? My point is that space opera is something that should be embraced wholeheartedly. It's not something to be feared. It's certainly not something to be ashamed of. Now, we live in a sophisticated age, or at least we like to think we do. "There are no easy answers" is the mantra of so many people I know and I'm not going to quibble with them on that point. I think much damage has been done in the world through the belief that human affairs are simple and only require simple solutions to solve them. But roleplaying games aren't reality; they're escapism. RPGs are an opportunity to leave the everyday world behind and explore another place and time. Space opera is as good a way to do that as any other.

Having said that, I'd like to show you how space opera can become more than just a sub-genre of SF but a style of game play. With just a few simple suggestions, I hope I can give you a few "rules" that'll reinvigorate your tired old sci-fi campaign and turn it into something you'll long remember. Ready? Here goes.

  1. Think big. I mean, really big. Emphasize the immensity of space, the thrill of star travel, the beauty of the Imperial throne world. Whatever you do, don't skimp when it comes to special effects. In a roleplaying game, you can have a budget bigger than George Lucas; use it. Space opera literature is known for its hyperbole and there's no reason your campaign shouldn't be known for the same thing. Believe me, it's never a good idea to skimp on the details, especially in a SF RPG. Do your best to express the grandeur that science fiction has to offer. Your players will thank you for it.
  2. Make it personal. Space opera may be about the clash of galactic empires, but that's just a backdrop to the stories of the characters who inhabit that setting. Space operas are driven by personal motivations, by the give and take of characters' relationships to one another. Don't believe me? What the heck is the Star Wars series about then? Right, the growth, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. That Rebellion against the Empire stuff is just window dressing in the a very character-driven story. We may thrill to the sight of immense star destroyers (as required by Rule #1 above), but it's the struggle of Luke to redeem his father that drives the plot of the original trilogy. Your games should be similarly immersed in character.
  3. Morality matters. Space operas always have a moral agenda, even if it's as simplistic as "good always triumphs over evil." Your SF games should too. I don't mean you should ram "values" down someone's throat or that the purpose of roleplaying is to educate your players in Aristotelian ethics. Rather, SF should always be about something other than flashy gadgets and bug-eyed aliens. If that's all you're interested in, your games will be soulless and without any of the qualities that make science fiction the mythology of our age. If you include the clash of ideas, the conflict of consciences in your SF RPGs, you immediately get the stuff of good drama. Maybe traditional space opera's choices in these areas are woefully out of date, but its authors realized that you can't tell a story unless you have something to say. The same is true of good roleplaying.
  4. Around the galaxy in 90 standard time units. This rule is kind of a corollary to #1, but it deserves its own treatment. Space opera doesn't stand still. It's kinetic, even frenetic; it takes its heroes all over the place in the course of a single story. You should do the same in your adventures. You don't literally have to take them to Andromeda and back, but you should try to include a minimum of three very different locales in your scenarios. This adds spice and keeps up player interest. Make sure to differentiate each area and give them their own unique flavor. By doing so, you make the world seem wider than the confines of a starship cockpit or a planetary battlefield. You also open up the possibility for grander and more heroic exploits -- the true test of space opera.

That's it. Four simple rules to give your favorite science fiction RPG a little space operatic character. They work equally well for any game, whatever its particular subgenre of sci-fi. For that matter, they're broad enough that you could add them into a fantasy or occult game just as easily.

If anyone chooses to take my words to heart and implement them in their campaigns, let me know by posting to the forum below. I'd love to hear how things turn out for you.

Next month: Doing cyberpunk right. (Yes, you read that correctly. After all, why criticize when you can show how it's really done?)

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What do you think?

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All HARD SCIENCE columns by James Maliszewski

  • Esprit de Temps January 30, 2002
  • The Stars are Right . . . December 28, 2001
  • Three Perfect Settings May 29, 2001
  • Cyberpunk Done Right April 24, 2001
  • A Night at the Opera March 30, 2001
  • There's No Place Like Home December 4, 2000
  • Second Anniversary Extravaganza September 18, 2000
  • Philosophy for Geeks July 18, 2000
  • I'll Play Short Round! May 2, 2000
  • Requiem March 8, 2000
  • Last Column (of the Millennium) December 23, 1999
  • Aliens Among Us November 2, 1999
  • Personality Conflict September 28, 1999
  • Keep the Faith August 31, 1999
  • Worlds Enough and Time July 20, 1999
  • The Future is Small May 4, 1999
  • Star Wars: The Phantom Game March 23, 1999 (prereleased before GTS'99, though!)
  • Apocalypse Never February 16, 1999
  • Millennial Angst October 26, 1998
  • The Importance of Setting September 8, 1998
  • The State of the Genre Report July 28, 1998

    Other columns at RPGnet

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