Sunday, May 20, 2018

Combat in Space Opera

Art by Joe Doolin

Given its association with the Space Marines miniatures rules, one might reasonably expect the Space Opera combat system to dispense with simplicity.  One's reasonable expectations would be correct.

The default duration of a combat turn is six seconds; however, depending upon circumstances, a combat turn can supposedly lasts for a minute, six minutes, or an hour.  (A Space Marines combat turn has a duration of twenty seconds.)  Here are the nine phases of the combat turn sequence:


In Phase I, both sides roll 2d6.  The side with the larger result decides whether to be Side A (the mover) or Side B (the counter-mover).  In a six second turn, “a running man covers about 30m.”  Actions other than basic movement are 'functions' which reduce the amount of time a character can spend in movement (and which would presumably reduce distance covered).  For example, a 90° - 180° turn causes one second to be lost.  “Leave/enter most vehicles (per man)” has a cost of three seconds.
Actual combat (firing, etc.) does not depend upon having time to perform the function.  Rather, movement depends upon one's having the time left to do so.  For instance, if a PC intends to fire his weapon in the turn coming up, he must allow -2 seconds from his movement time if he also plans to move.
The percentage chance for a character to successfully hit a target with direct fire is derived mainly upon the character's firing stance and the distance to the target.  Various modifiers may apply.  With regard to small arms, “Each level of expertise adds 2% to the probability of hitting a target...”  So, the difference between someone with rudimentary skill and an Olympic level marksman is 18%.  Physical characteristics do not affect the chance of success, only the chance of increasing one's expertise.

In a melee phase, “each combatant rolls 1d20 (random factor), to which various modifiers will be added.”  In case you didn't realize, 1d20 generates a random result.  Characters attack in descending initiative order.  Page 39 informs us that a character's hand-to-hand capability for “Unarmed Combat, Quarterstaff, Clubs, etc.” equals “expertise + 2/5 (Dex + Agil + Str + Con + IQ) +2.”  A character's race and whether or not he is an armsman adjusts capability.  For instance, a human armsman has 110% capability; a human who is not an armsman has 80%.  An ursoid armsman has 200% capability; a non-armsman has 150%.  Hand-to-hand capability is apparently not the same thing as hit probability.  “All melee weapons have a basic 35% hit probability.”  The attacker's expertise adds to this chance; the defender's expertise subtracts.

Humans and humanoids have sixteen hit locations.  Aiming at a particular location modifies the attack roll.  A random hit location is determined when a character succeeds with an attack that was not aimed.  Different locations offer different wound profiles.  Non-humanoids have their own hit locations.  Apparently, hit locations for “Silicates & Cold Planeters” are irrelevant.  Rather than just state this, the rules offer the following table:


In terms of armor, there are eleven categories of protective value, coded 'A' through 'K'.  'A' offers the most protection and 'K' the least.  There are three categories for any given type of armor:  one for melee damage, one for missile weapons and explosions, and one for energy weapons.  For example, chain mail is classified as H/H/I.  Every weapon has penetration values associated with the various armor categories.  Against 'J', the value of a hurled dagger has a value of 7.  This means a 7 or greater must be rolled on 1d10 in order for the target to be damaged.  We learn that, “When a living target is penetrated by a projectile, energy bolt, or melee weapon, wounds result.”

To determine the effect of a wound, 1d20 is rolled and the result is checked on a table according to hit location.  For humanoids, there are five 'levels' of wounds:  very light, light, moderate, serious, and critical.  (Non-humanoids have only light, serious, and critical wound levels.)  The wound roll may be modified by weapon type.  Brass knuckles cause a -3 modifier while a fusion machine gun applies a +5 modifier.  Anyway, a very light wound causes 1-3 points of damage.  A serious wound inflicts 9 - 13 points damage (or 8 - 13 depending on how one chooses to interpret the rules).  Aside from damage being applied to a character's Damage Factor, wounds can cause various effects:


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Characters in Space Opera (part II)

Art by George Wilson

Before continuing with the generation of the Astronaut we began in the last post, we may as well provide the character with a name.  In the grand tradition of Corvus Andromeda, I proffer Pavo Magellanic.

The 'Character Experience' section of the rules provides:
Without experience and expertise, the PC is totally unsuited to the demanding life of a Space Opera adventurer.  To acquire some experience and skill, the PC will enlist in a government or civilian service when he reaches the age of 18.
Unlike Traveller, “Initial enlistment in any of the services is automatic when a PC enters the game.”  However, an enlistment roll is still made.  Failure of the enlistment roll will inflict negative modifiers to promotion rolls during the character's career.  Among the service careers a character may engage upon are the StarForces – “the elite units of the StarFleet, Space Marines, and Special Services Commandos who guard the spacelanes from enemy attack, and who carry death and destruction to the enemy's home planets.”  Unfortunately, Pavo's Bravery score is less than the minimum required for StarFleet Astronauts.  It's just as well, they're a bunch of stuck-up elitists anyway.

Pavo must settle for the Merchant Marine, the enlistment roll for which is 10 or greater on 3d6.  Exceptional Personal Characteristics (which Pavo does not have) can modify the roll.  Regardless, Pavo succeeds.  Instead of rolling for re-enlistment, 1d20 is rolled to see how many two-year terms the character serves; the minimum number of terms is two, the maximum is fifteen.  A roll of 19 means Pavo has spent fourteen terms in the Merchant Marine and thus begins the game at the age of 46.  Per term of service, Merchant Marine Astronauts receive a promotion on a roll of ten or greater on 2d6.  Pavo manages to reach Rank Grade 3:  Chief Starshipman.

When a character is discharged from a career, 2d6 are rolled.  Pavo's discharge roll is 10, “meaning the PC resigned from the service of his last employer.”  An additional d6 is rolled.  A six “means that he's left his employer without proper notice and he has a -4 [dice modifier] when attempting to find a similar position.”  Pavo receives a severance of 23,520 credits and an annual pension of 9,408 credits.  Additionally, he has accumulated savings equal to:
(1% final year's salary) × (Intelligence) × (years of service)
which comes to 56488 credits.  Other benefits from the Merchant Marine include:  “Wristwatch; one complete Ship, Winter, and Summer Uniform; Side Arm; VibroBlade... Astronauts keep their Vacuum Suits and Astrogation Manuals.”

We learn that, “A new PC would be relatively incompetent and helpless in an advanced technological society if he did not have any specialized knowledge and skills to apply to the life of adventure he will undoubtedly lead.”  Also, “To reflect pre-service education and service training prior to a PC's entry into the game, he will be awarded a number of skill points or SP with which the player can make 'purchases' of desired skills.”  Pavo obtains skill points in three ways.  Every player character gets 6d6 skill points “which can be applied to the purchase of General Skills only.”  Astronauts also receive a number of skill points equal to the sum of “Constitution, Dexterity, Agility, 2× Intelligence, Leadership, Bravery, and GTA.”  Supposedly, “This yields a range of 7 - 133 SP.”  However, this is only true if Intelligence is not doubled.  Anyway, “Half of this number of SPs must be spent on astronautic and related skills (like flying), along with 5 SP × number of years of service before entry into the game.”  The results of the rolls and calculations follow.
     6d6 = 12 SP
     Constitution + Dexterity + Agility + Intelligence + Leadership + Bravery + GTA = 86 SP
     5 × 28 service years = 140 SP
So, 12 SP for General Skills, 183 SP for “astronautic and related skills,” and 43 SP for any skills.  Competence in a skill is measured in levels of expertise, each level costs a number of skill points.  Most skills have a “maximum expertise of level/5 to level/10.”  Space Opera does not provide any pre-generated characters, nor does it have a start-to-finish example of character creation.  Because of this, we have no guidelines as to expertise levels of a  competent beginning character.  Astronaut Skills include:  Shipboard Procedure & Operation, EVA, Advanced EVA, Orbital Pilot, Combat Orbital Pilot, Interplanetary Pilot, FTL Pilot, Astrogator, StarShip Battle, and Space Armament.  Related skills (among which we may presumably include prerequisites) include:  (Advanced) Mathematics, General Physics, Astronomy, Planetology, Nuclear Physics, Force-Field Physics, Mech Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, Power Engineering, StarDrive Engineering, Mech Tech: Starship Machinery, Electronics Tech: Starship Systems, Electronics Tech: EVA Systems, Communications Tech: ECM, Communications Tech: Communications Systems, Communications Tech: Sub-Light Systems, Computer Tech: various, Power Tech: Nuclear Generation Systems, Power Tech: Anti-Matter Generation Systems, Power Tech: StarShip Power Systems, StarDrive Tech: all specializations, Chemistry, (Advanced) Metallurgy.  Because Pavo was in the Merchant Marine, the Merchant skill also counts as related.

There are a vast number of skills, but Space Opera offers no templates or packages.  Pavo's skill points can be distributed in the following manner.

Shipboard Procedure & Operation = 5
EVA = 5
Advanced EVA/2 × 2 SP = 4
Orbital Pilot/5 × 3 SP = 15
Combat Orbital Pilot/5 × 1 SP = 5
Interplanetary Pilot/10 × 3 SP = 30
FTL Pilot/4 × 5 SP = 20
Astrogator/3 × 3 SP = 9
StarShip Battle/3 × 2 SP = 6
Space Armament/3 × 2 SP = 6
Chemistry/4 × 2 SP = 8
(Advanced) Metallurgy/3 × 2 SP = 6
(Advanced) Mathematics/5 × 2 SP = 10
General Physics/6 × 1 SP = 6
Astronomy/5 × 3 SP = 15
Nuclear Physics/2 × 3 SP = 6
Force-Field Physics/1 × 4 SP = 4
Mech Engineering/1 × 2 SP = 2
Electrical Engineering/2 × 2 SP = 4
Computer Engineering/2 × 2 SP = 4
Mech Tech: Starship Machinery/3 × 1 SP = 3
Electronics Tech: Starship Systems/5 × 1 SP = 5
Electronics Tech: EVA Systems/5 × 1 SP = 5
Communications Tech: ECM/3 × 1 SP = 3
Communications Tech: Communications Systems/3 × 1 SP = 3
Communications Tech: Sub-Light Systems/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Civilian Programming/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Military Programming/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Scientific Programming/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Mk I - III/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk IV - V/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk VI/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk VII - VIII/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk IX - X/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: MiniComputers/1 × 1 SP = 1
Power Tech: Nuclear Generation Systems/1 × 2 SP = 2
Power Tech: Anti-Matter Generation Systems/1 × 2 SP = 2
Power Tech: StarShip Power Systems/3 × 1 SP = 3
StarDrive Tech: Rocket & Reaction Engines/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: Anti-Grav Systems/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: SubLight Drive/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: JumpDrive Engines/1 × 2 SP = 2
StarDrive Tech: HyperDrive Engines (to 10 LY)/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: HyperDrive Engines (11 - 20 LY)/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: HyperDrive Engines (21+ LY)/1 × 1 SP = 1
Merchant/1 × 5 SP = 5
VibroBlade/3 × 1 SP = 3
Unarmed Combat/2 × 2 SP = 4
Laser Weapon/2 × 2 SP = 4

I'm a fan of the Hero System, so I'm not discouraged by a reasonable amount of number crunching.  Character creation in Space Opera, however, is tedious.  The Hero System (or GURPS for that matter) allows a player to design a character via allocation of points.  In Space Opera, the design aspect of character generation is hampered due to dice rolling, but considerable allocation of points is still required.  Character creation in Traveller may not permit many choices, but at least the process is entertaining as you observe fate take its course.

Edited 5/20/18 to reflect changes in skill information

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Characters in Space Opera (part I)

Art by Allen Anderson

The best way to learn about characters in a given role-playing game is to generate a character.  As such, we shall endeavor to create a Space Opera character in this and subsequent posts.

The first step is to choose a class from among the following six:  Armsman, Tech, Research Scientist, Medical Scientist, Engineer Scientist, and Astronaut.  Let's go with Astronaut.

The next step is to determine personal characteristic scores.  The fourteen 'basic' characteristics are grouped into six sets:
  • Physique / Strength / Constitution
  • Agility / Dexterity
  • Empathy / Intelligence
  • Psionics / Intuition
  • Bravery / Leadership
  • General Technical Aptitude / Mechanical Aptitude / Electronics Aptitude
Scores range from 1 to 19, but scores are determined by rolling percentile dice.  Each characteristic 'set' has a column on a chart where the percentile roll result indicates a score.  For example, a roll of 50 for Psionics or Intuition means a score of 9; the same roll for Bravery or Leadership indicates a score of 13.  Our rolls are as follows:
  • Physique (27)/ Strength (28)/ Constitution (47)
  • Agility (38)/ Dexterity (55)
  • Empathy (27)/ Intelligence (47)
  • Psionics (49)/ Intuition (50)
  • Bravery (08)/ Leadership (78)
  • GTA (02)/ MechA (88)/ ElecA  (17)
Each class offers a number of points which can be used to modify the results for certain characteristics.  Astronauts have forty points that may be allocated among Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, Intuition, Bravery, Leadership, and General Technical Aptitude.  A careful distribution of points results in the following:
  • Physique (27 = 11)/ Strength (28 = 11)/ Constitution (47 = 13)
  • Agility (41 = 12)/ Dexterity (55 = 13)
  • Empathy (27 = 9)/ Intelligence (51 = 12)
  • Psionics (49 = 9)/ Intuition (51 = 10)
  • Bravery (8 = 4)/ Leadership (81 = 16)
  • GTA (26 = 9)/ MechA (88 = 17)/ ElecA (17 = 7)
Only 35 of the 40 points were allocated.  The five remaining points cannot raise the scores of any of the allowed characteristics any higher (except for Bravery).  Since the minimum Bravery for Armsmen and Astronauts is 11 (lower scores may be raised to 11), we need not spend points on that characteristic.  The rules establish that player characters “tend to possess 'superior' personal characteristics, compared to those of typical members of their race” and “rarely will they be truly deficient in any of their personal characteristics.”  Accordingly, the percentile roll results tend to provide higher rather than lower scores.  Echoing your humble host's feelings on the matter, Space Opera proclaims, “To inflict the usual 'averaged' characteristics upon PCs and the players running them is a failure to recognize that PCs are 'heroic' in not only their drive to reach goals that lesser men cannot hope to attain, but also their capacity to actually win through to those goals.”  For some characteristics, the baseline score indicates 'normal' ability.  For example, an Intelligence score of 01 “represents the equivalent of contemporary IQ 95 - 105.”

For the most part, the definitions of the personal characteristics are intuitive.  Empathy, however, is defined as “the unconscious and largely uncontrolled broadcast of a character's personality aura and its interaction on auras of those around him.”  We learn that a character with an Empathy score of 01 - 06 is “a man without a conscience in search of a personal, living 'god' to give his troubled life security and purpose, a sword looking for a strong hand to wield it.”  Say what?

The next step is to determine that nature of the character's home planet through a series of die rolls.  A result of 11 an a d20 tells us our Astronaut is “a native of a planet with a standard 'Terran' gravity field of 0.9 G to 1.1 G.”  This result allows a 50% chance of either +1 Strength or +1 Stamina.  The percentile roll result is 33 and I elect to have +1 Strength.  A result of 13 on another d20 indicates a planet with “an atmosphere of more or less Terran quality.”  Planetary Climate is determined with a percentile roll.  A result of 70 establishes our Astronaut's homeworld as Planetary Type 2: Terran Planet without Seasonality.
Assume hydrographic features cover 50% to 75% of the planetary surface.  The climate will vary considerably over the entire surface of the planet, but fixed and unchanging belts of climate occur.  Inhabitants will tend to pick the most favorable and comfortable zones to be settled, making forays into the hinterlands.  As water tends toward the 75% of surface area range, the equatorial and tropical regions develop dense jungle belts.  As the water tends toward 50% of surface area, the equatorial and tropical regions tend toward desert.
“Once the personal characteristics and the planet of birth have been determined for a PC,” section 2.3 explains, “the player will have to decide on the interstellar race to which his character belongs.”  To belong to a particular race, a character must conform to specified characteristic minima/maxima and come from an appropriate planetary type.  The default option, naturally, is human.  We learn that “Humanoids are representative of human races who evolved from the basic racial type during the long isolation of the Interregnum between ForeRunner Civilization and the rise of the current starcultures.”  Presumably, the ForeRunners are the Space Opera equivalent of the Ancients in Traveller.  Transhumans “seem to represent individual evolutionary mutations pointing toward a new stage of [human] racial development.”  There are, however, two Transhuman races, the members of which are Vulcans with the serial numbers filed off.

Most of the playable interstellar races – aside from humans – are anthropomorphic animals:  pithecine, canine, feline, ursoid, avian, and warm-blooded saurians.  The races are presented as types – there may be several (presumably interfertile) races of a given type in the setting galaxy.  For instance, among the feline races, there are the MekPurrs and the Avatars.  “The MekPurrs are the acknowledged masters of cybernetic engineering...” while the Avatars eschew “many of the trapping[s] of technological 'civilization' as decadent...”

Our Astronaut does not meet the requirements for any non-human race other than humanoids or Avians.  Really, who wants to be a humanoid or an Avian?

Height and Weight are derived from from a character's Physique score.  A chart is consulted based on gender and race.  A male human with a Physique of 11 is 180 cm tall and weighs 80 kg.  However, the +1 Strength bonus obtained earlier causes an increase of body mass by 5 - 10%.  A roll of 1d6 results in a 2, so there is an increase of 6%.  The modified weight is therefore 84.8 kg.

The formula for determining Carrying Capacity (CC) is:
( [Physique + Strength + Constitution] / 3) × body mass × racial factor
The CC racial factor for humans is 0.05.  As such, our Astronaut's Carrying Capacity is 51 kg.

Damage factors – representing a character's ability to withstand physical injury – can be calculated thus:
( [Physique + Strength + Constitution + mass] / 10) × racial factor
The DF racial factor for humans is 2.5, indicating a value of 30 for our Astronaut.

Stamina Factor is determined through the following:
(Strength + Constitution) × racial factor
The SF racial factor for humans is 3.0; therefore, the character's Stamina Factor is 75.

In the next post, the character will engage upon a career.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Complete Science Fiction Role Playing Game

Art by Bob Charrette

In 1980, Fantasy Games Unlimited published Space Opera.  According to the first paragraph of the rules, “The very title of this game suggests the type of adventures that should await the players – rip-roaring, excitement filled journeys across the void in the great of tradition of Doc Smith's Lensman series and the many other 'space opera' stories of SF.”  So, Space Opera was intended to compete against Traveller.  Interestingly, according to Lawrence Schick in his Heroic Worlds, Space Opera was “successful largely due to similarity to TRAVELLER.”  Certainly there are similarities, but in promoting its difference from Traveller, the game claimed to be “complete.”  By “complete”, the publisher intended “a game that would not need the usually innumerable supplements...”  Everything needed to play was included in the two volumes of rules (the first being 92 pages and the second, 90 pages).  Of course, this didn't preclude FGU from publishing supplements for Space Opera.  In any event, this completeness resulted “complex and detailed” rules according to Schick.  The Introduction admits, “Space Opera is not an easy game” and that “the sheer number of systems can be staggering.”  In an attempt to avoid discouraging potential players, the Introduction also states that “the individual systems are actually fairly simple and quite logical” and further claims that, “For the average campaign [some of] these systems can be ignored at no detriment to the game as a whole.”  Thus, the more complex rules “are supposedly included for the 'hard core' role player who demands such detail and accuracy...”

The cover depicted above is the last of three versions.  (All versions can be seen here.)  This third version (by Bob Charrette) is based upon the second version (by Gene Day).  With the third version we lost cleavage and a goofy-looking alien, but at least we gained a kitty person, a lizard person, and a robot.  Both versions feature something which is NOT a Wookiee posed against the backdrop of a small moon.  Wait...that's no moon.  To be fair, the game's Introduction claims it was partially inspired by “Star Wars from George Lucas.”  There's even a field of psionics called the Force, having both a light side and a dark side.

Space Opera was designed by Ed Simbalist of Chivalry & Sorcery fame, with contributions from Phil McGregor and Mark Ratner.  The setting of Space Opera was derived from Ratner's Space Marines miniatures game.  While there is a default setting – what the game calls a 'future history' – it is meant “as a model for the type of background that can be painted for a role-playing or Empire-level campaign.”  The Space Opera term for Game Master is StarMaster.  It is the StarMaster who designs the galaxy in which the characters have adventures.  StarMasters are assured that the default 'future history' is not the only way Space Opera can be played.  In fact, “Any version of 'future history' is equally acceptable.”

With regard to rolling dice, Space Opera offers some useful advice:
The goal is to keep the action moving.  Dice rolls which serve only to take the StarMaster or the players 'off the hook' by replacing good role-play with a mechanical toss of the 'idiot dice' will tend to slow down the tempo.  For suspense, roll the dice and build up the tension by a lot of talk while doing so.  When the very fate of a player is at stake, dice rolls are again useful to give a 'fair' probability that the character will survive or be successful.  (In the latter case, an arbitrary ruling or even a perfectly correct ruling of the StarMaster which brings a character to disaster, can often breed bad feelings.)  The dice can act as an insulator and keeps things a bit impersonal.
The game also explains the responsibilities of the StarMaster.  Notably...
He must be fair, interpreting the spirit rather than just the letter of the rules.  He must avoid personal involvement himself – a sometimes difficult thing to do because his role as the neutral opposition to the characters can occasionally bring out his own competitive spirit.  But he must suppress this because, as referee, he holds all of the cards and can subconsciously 'rig' events to suit himself if he is not careful.  Such neutrality is essential, for one of the tasks of the StarMaster is to act as a neutral go-between when characters secretly or individually act behind the backs of their comrades or set themselves up in opposition to the very Authorities in power – NPCs whom the StarMaster controls.
The character record sheet included with Space Opera is arguably the blandest character sheet ever published.


It doesn't even display the title of the game.  Conspicuously absent is a disclaimer granting permission to make copies for personal use only.  Given how unlikely it would be that anyone would pay money for this thing, such a disclaimer was apparently deemed unnecessary.  A bland character sheet is not necessarily a bad character sheet, but the organization of the Space Opera character record sheet leaves much to be desired.  There are fourteen Personal Characteristics, including three Aptitudes:  General Technical, Mechanical, and Electronics.  On the character sheet, these Personal Characteristics are interspersed with 'Secondary' Characteristics without rhyme or reason.  Furthermore, Space Opera is a skill-based game.  Some skill-based games have character sheets that list all (or most) of the game's skills.  This is fine and well if there are less than a hundred skills and they are presented in some sort of order.  Space Opera has over a hundred skills and they are listed on the character record sheet.  These skills are sorted into five types, but there is no alphabetization within a type.  Really, you're better off with a sheet of notebook paper.