Space Opera is certainly one the oldest and best known science fiction roleplaying games. It has a reputation, not undeserved, of being quite complex, although from the outset strong disagreement is expressed towards some opinions which claim - perhaps with only a modicum of an attempt - that it is unplayable. Nobody should be terribly surprised by the alleged complexity, after all, it was co-authored by Edward E. Simbalist, partially responsible for Chivalry & Sorcery. Furthermore, it says as much on the introduction to the game by Scott Bizar: "Space Opera is not an easy game. The individual systems are actually fairly simple and quite logical, but the sheer number of systems can be staggering".
The second edition of the game comes in a boxed set with a pretty interesting cover by Gene Day (with a variant by Robert Charrette in a later printing), illustrating inspirations from Barabarella to Star Wars among others. Inside the game comes with two 96 page books, saddle-stapled with cardstock covers. Despite some rough treatment my personal copies have stood up surprisingly well over the years, however cramming such a large number of pages into a fairly flimsy cover and binding isn't really recommended. Also the game comes with several cardstock forms for character sheets, planet sheets, ship sheets etc, which is a nice touch. If you're going to put a game in a box, put something in the box.
Throughout the two volumes is some rather good contextual artwork by Jeff Dee and Gene Day which really captures the feeling of the game. The textual style inside the two books leaves a lot to be desired, and is possibly why the game receives a reputation for complexity. It is tightly-packed sans-serif font that is more than somewhat difficult to read. As one perseveres they are confronted with a rules organisation that is quite difficult to follow, despite a writing style which appropriately moves between formality and informality whether the author is describing the game system, or providing some usually excellent advice on roleplaying and running the game. The layout also leaves a little to be desired as well; although following a standard two-column justified throughout, some pages are significantly misaligned. There is no index and the table of contents, whilst complete, is also poorly laid out.
Once one gets behind the curtain of formatting and content obfuscation, there are some pretty familiar conventions which were common for the period, and are arguably still dominant in RPG design. This is a game with character classes ("careers"), characteristics, "races", and skills. From the outset, it is recommended that players generate multiple characters to take part in different scenarios - well before Ars Magica, it must be mentioned. The careers options are soldier, technician, researcher, scientist: research, scientist: medical, scientist: engineering, and astronaut. This is a tiny indication of the need for active editors; anyone can see how much easier it would be just to call the scientist professions, 'scientist', 'physician', and 'engineer' and reduce the possibility of confusion.
Following this is characteristic generation which is again more complex than it should be. The main characteristics are Physique, Strength, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Empathy, Intelligence, Psionics, Intuition, Bravery, Leadership, General Technical Aptitude, Mechanical Technical Aptitude, and Electrical Technical Aptitude. Yes, that's right fourteen primary characteristics. These are determined with a d100 roll cross-referenced across characteristic categories generating a value from 01 to 19. The table is biased towards PCs, so the average Strength for example is 13. Furthermore, according to the different class selected, there is a pool of points that can be added to the percentage roll. As you can see, this is another example of unnecessary complexity. There is a number of easier ways that one can generate values from 01 to 19 with a positive bias. It's not wrong, per se, the results don't break any sense of verisimilitude - it's just that it's harder than it should be.
After this is the random determination of birth planet, defined by gravity, atmosphere, and climate, which make various modifications to characteristics and skills. Following this is the choice of character race - these aren't at all particularly alien, rather they are earth normal plus uplifting, evolution, etc. The options are (a) Humans and Humanoids, (b) Transhumans, (c) Pithecines, (d) Canines, (e) Felines, (f) Ursoides, (g) Avians, and (h) Saurians (warm blooded humanoid lizards). Each race is given a fair description of their preferred environment, appearance, perceptual qualities, and main personality traits. This is followed by determination of height and weight, empathic personality, carrying capacity, and damage factor. We are alerted to the benefits of the drug thanokalamine which, upon death, stops cellular decomposition. How it moves through the circulatory system without a heartbeat is not explained (a contemporary suggestion would be nanobots). Then there's more personal characteristics; shock resistance, wound recovery, stamina, fatigue, and wind, which are not the same at all. Then there's movement rates, over a variety of terrain types, intelligence tests (with some of the most sensible discussion on the subject from any RPG), intuition tests, bravery, surprise tests and - also surprising - two pages of how to pass an item from one character to another. Finally there are balance and initiative tests before moving on to character careers.
The career system follows a similar format to a certain other science fiction roleplaying game. There is a range of paramilitary civilian or military services which the character becomes attached to from the age of 18 to a number of two-year tours, minimum of two, maximum fifteen. This period of service allows for the possibility, subsequent to a small mountain of die rolls for each tour, for improving one's rank, and pay from the relevant service. At the end of the service, the character will also receive severance pay, perhaps a pension, and will have savings, and various mustering out benefits depending on service, including passage, and surplus equipment discounts.
The period in the careers also assists in the acquisition of skill, through skill points. Each pre-game PC receives skill points equal to a sum of seven personal characteristics, according to career, plus five times the number of years in the service career, plus 6d6. This compares with learning skills during the game which is required the expenditure of time in training, and a successful random roll. There are over two hundred skills, all ranked from 0 to 10, differentiated according to career (but not exclusively), with prerequisites, and usually described in a couple of sentences to a paragraph or two. There are particular resolution rules for scientific research, medical diagnoses, survival, bomb disposal etc, without an inkling of consistency. Other skills are described more as a hand-wave.
Space Opera has a psionics systems, where according to the personal characteristic score, the character will be "dead", "open", or "awakened", to psionic abilities. A psionic personal characteristic of 11 or more is required to have any degree ability, with the maximum potential ability governed by the characteristic. There are five psionic fields (telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, clairvoyance, telurgy, and the force) with a number of talents in each field, almost one hundred in total, with power levels from 0 to 10 in each field. The increase from the personal characteristic scores is quite rapid; a score of 11 allows for level 1 talent powers in 1 field, whereas a score of 19 allows for level 10 talents in all fields. Psionicists may also discover (not manufacture) PK Crystals which can greatly augment the magnitude and range of psionic talents (e.g., telepathy to light year distances). Like the skills, talents are played as individual systems to their self.
From psionics the game moves on to the extensive rules and material concerning equipment. The initial rules concern system breakdowns derived from the Breakdown Number given to each item of equipment in stress situations, and are followed by damage to specific vehicular systems from the same, as well as malfunctions for starship systems, expressed in very specific examples, with each malfunction type demanding an additional subsystem to the game. Maintenance and repair costs are also provided.
The first book concludes with layouts and specifications with a half-dozen or so spaceships, along with a system for determining the mining and profits made from "meteor mining". The second book includes a vast quantity of different items of equipment available for purchase, from general survival, medical, vision aids, communication systems, battle and space suits, robots, dozens of aircraft and vehicles, personal weapons of all technology levels, more guns, and more guns. Oh, and drugs of course. Like all science fiction games of the era, Space Opera underestimate the capability of computer and communications technology. The cheapest computer, at a mere 100 000 credits and weighing in at 500 kg, comes with a 6 gigabyte hard disk and just over a 1 gig of RAM, and of course, software costs tens of thousands of credits.
The major game system contribution at this level is personal combat. Attack rolls are made on a d100 to hit, with various modifiers of course, followed by another d100 roll to determine location, followed by another d10 roll (with modifiers) to determine whether the attack has penetrated the armour worn by the defender. This latter target number is determined by cross-referencing the weapon against the armour worn, e.g., a 3mm laser pistol against type 'E' requires a 6 or more to cause damage. Assuming this is successful, a d20 is rolled to determined the wound category, modified by the weapon, with the specific damage varying according to the location struck. Whilst various wounds do require a shock CR, which obviously does scale, there is a percentage chance at the high levels for an outright kill, which does not. As expected there are a variety of equations and modifications that run through the entire range combat system. For example, the base chance to hit with Unarmed Combat is Expertise + 2/5 (Dex + Agil + Str + Con + IQ) +2.
A science fiction game like Space Opera requires travel in space, and as a result there is a lengthy description on sub-light drives and maneuvers, the same for FTL drives (based on tachyon space). There is a generous starship design, with the inclusion of all the features that you would expect in terms of size, drives, armour, weaponry, staterooms, berths, and of course, a significant price-tag to match. There is, as expected, an entirely distinct and detailed starship combat system, which includes a delightful set of tables to cross reference such actions as the target speed in light seconds compared to the target range to generate the percentage chance to straddle the target. A summary form of the starship combat system consists of statement of intent, initiative, displacement, weapons fire, and torpedo fire.
Following this is the effects of starbases, the purchasing of used starships, bank accounts, trade and commerce, and finally the world creation procedure which includes three-dimensional starmaps, the possibility of planetary bodies, their sentient population, a paragraph or so on various social and governmental types, followed by the government support index, a corruption index, a repression index, and so forth. General planetary conditions are described along with hydrography, atmosphere. A range of sample NPC statistics are provided in according to the "racial" types described in character generation along with some "bug-eyed monster" types as well.
Overall Space Opera is a detailed paramilitary science fiction roleplaying game which provides enormous selective detail within that focus. Whilst it remains fairly "realistic" in terms of results throughout, it frustrates the player with the lack of a consistent and intuitive system throughout every stage of the process, making it one of the least enjoyable games to actually play. Whilst fairly well written, and with some fairly interetsing ideas, it is plagued by some terrible design decisions which would also reduce the desire for active participation. If given a thorough rewrite to 21st century design standards - in terms of the game system, scope, and style - there could be something quite interesting here. However, at it stands it is not recommended.
Style: 1 + .1 (layout) + .5 (art) + .5 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .3 (product) = 3.0
Substance: 1 + .4 (content) + .6 (text) + .2 (fun) + .3 (workmanship) + .2 (system) = 2.8