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.

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