Developing a Space Opera

In 1977 the first role-playing game for playing games in space came out. Like the other major table-top RPG system developed in the 70s, Traveller is still with us albeit many revisions and game companies later. A major part of how Traveller has endured so long, is its incorporation of a series of basic ideas about what makes a space opera. These components of the space opera incorporated into rules as much as setting mean that any of us can recognize and recreate the specific story we want to tell within the game. However, this tells us nothing about creating space operas in Traveller or any other system, since as I say this is all up to you.

There are certain core concepts that make a Science Fiction story a space opera. First and foremost among these is normalized and regular travel through space. This can be as realistic and understandable as the basic intra-solar travel in Leviathan Wakes to the vague and overpowered “Hyperdrive” of Star Wars. Whether or not the story takes place on a space ship is not as important to the idea of the space opera. Dune is most certainly a type of space opera, however little to no time is actually spent on the bizarre ships of the Spacing Guild. Narratively, serving as the crew of a space ship or a group who must stick together for vast distances of space provides cohesion. This is even more true in table top games than literature where conflict between characters is observed, not enacted.

Once you can travel regularly through space, it becomes assumed that there are many habitable and inhabited worlds.For the most part, space opera requires frequent Star Trek-like planetary investigation. Discovering new species, may or may not be important, but discovering new worlds with distinct cultures or characters is. The new Battlestar Galactica somewhat dispenses with this particular idea. The inhabited worlds of that story being the previously departed colonies of the crew and the occasional habitable worlds they discover, which are already occupied by Cylons. From a narrative perspective, he main purpose of the planetary investigation is to provide conflict off of the ship itself. The paranoia of Battlestar Galactica is a desired story trait, which is how it benefits from the cramped ship quarters and intra-party conflict. Unless you want your game to develop this sort of feeling, providing planets with their own external source of conflict is important.

Beyond these two basic concepts, which should be followed for any space opera creation, the details are often individualized and left to the game master and his or her players. After the Original Series, Star Trek relied heavily on occasional Holo-deck episodes to flesh out character interactions and revive some of the goofy aspects of TOS. Asimov and Herbert both essentially built galaxy spanning empires entirely composed of humans. A human only universe would never quite have worked for the story told in Mass Effect or Star Trek (I tend to think that Star Wars is the same story even if you take out all the non-humans). Depending on where you fall on the idea of Doctor Who as space opera or not, Time Travel could even be a central idea.

Beyond the idea of spaceships and other worlds, other aspects of a space opera can take on a central aspect or serve as window dressing to suit the tastes of a group. In a space opera story where the Terminator films were canonical, the end results of the human-robot war would be central to the ultimate history of mankind. Did the robots win and humanity is on the run from evil robot enemies, à la BSG? Or did humanity win and artificial intelligences are now illegal such as in the Foundation novels? In a world where robots are as ubiquitous and ignored as they are in Stars Wars, we can safely assume that sentient artificial beings never engaged in large scale revolt.

As a Game Master, it is important to consider all of these factors as you design your specific world. Think about the role you want your player characters to inhabit in the era of the story, as well as the sorts of science fiction your players are most prepared to swallow. If your players like realistic human centered stories, consider leaving out intelligent aliens entirely. On the other hand, if archaic Vulcan-Romulan political relations are everyone’s favorite part of Star Trek, you could create an entire space opera in a time before humans were on the scene, something a novel or TV show would have a hard time getting away with. Traveller has been successful because, like the space opera genre, it is open ended allowing for the specific interests of individual groups to take precedence. As long as you maintain the dual core of spaceships and planets other aspects of the space opera should be yours to choose. Though maybe leave out the time travel thing.


Cthulhu and the American Experience in Horror: Review of The Cthulhu Wars

The Cthulhu Wars: The United States’ Battles Against the Mythos is the latest book in the Dark Osprey series from Osprey Publishing. The series focuses on alternate, usually supernatural, history relating it the classic condensed and focused Osprey style. For those of us who love both these classic Osprey works and the mystical and bizarre worlds of Fortean history, these books have been a delight. The Cthulhu Wars is no exception, and for fans of the horror writings of HP Lovecraft in particular, it was a joy.

This most recent book is historian and game designer Kenneth Hite’s second contribution to the series. His first, The Nazi Occult, still feels like the most complete and serious of the books in the line. This time Mr. Hite is joined by Kennon Bauman, who appears to inject a wry sense of humor and overt Lovecraft reference, almost as a balance to Mr. Hite’s overt historical style. This contribution is evident from his introduction to the book, in which we learn of Mr. Bauman’s involvement due to the tragic death of Mr. Hite and destruction of much of his library in a mysterious fire.

The book initially opens with an overview of mythos elements and events in North America dating to before there was a United States. This was probably the most surprising part of the book for me as I was expecting something referencing the United States to begin with the United States. Also given that it starts when it does, it calls for a second work attempting to look in more detail on the Mythos’ history with Native Americans. It touches upon this and implies a potentially extensive connection, but does not go into any detail here. All in all though, I quickly accepted this overview as it laid the groundwork for later stories and consisted largely of clear references made by Lovecraft himself. Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen both make their appearances here. The discussion of the contributions of the people of Innsmouth to the American Revolution is particularly appreciated.

As the history works its way through the 19th century we learn a great deal about the impact of NREs (a term used throughout the book short for Necronomicon-Related Entities) on the Nineteenth Century. This section, citing lack of official records from the period, focuses on the breadth of the Mythos in the US rather than depth. However, in good Dark Osprey fashion, the book manages to reference Lewis and Clark, Ambrose Bierce, and Harry Houdini tying them into the idea of a war the US has been carrying on for centuries without even knowing.

As befits a book on this topic, the meat of the text occurs after the events of the US government’s raid on Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928. This story, first referenced in Lovecraft’s own Shadows over Innsmouth and again expanded upon in the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario Escape from Innsmouth, has taken on a large role in tales of the US government’s involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos. Mainly this outsized role is because it references a coordinated federal assault inside one of Lovecraft’s own writings. It makes sense, therefore, that histories where these writings are historical would put the event front and center.

Being an avid role-player, probably the second most surprising thing about the book was the realization that Delta Green would not make an appearance. In hindsight, this was probably obvious. Why use a copyrighted organization created for table-top gaming, when there is an actual conspiracy more popular and broadly known to Americans in the form of the mysterious MAJIC clearance? After all, Majestic-12, the shadow organization responsible for the Roswell cover-up, is actually referenced in FBI files. Nonetheless, as a Delta Green player and GM, I found myself frequently bemused reading of the successes and failures of MAJIC at fighting the NREs, after so long thinking of Majestic primarily as antagonists. Following in the vein of the rest of the book, Mythos connections are made to various historical UFO sightings, nuclear weapons tests, and US anti-communist interventions across the globe.

It is in this Cold War section that the similarities with other eliptonic alternate US histories is best seen. And while in this story the US government are the good guys, we still see the hallmarks of conspiracy and cover-up that are so rampant throughout American culture. In this case, this sense of conspiracy recasts our history as a dark battle against horrible entities. The obvious boogeyman of our training of Tibetan paramilitary troops is not fighting Chinese communism, but the NRE deity known as Chaugnar Faugn. The flaw in our support of contras in Nicaragua, was not the intervention in general, but the specific attempt to use an NRE to do it.

This commonly used idea of retelling historical failures or mistakes in a new light is not a weakness of the book. In fact if it tried to find a new angle on many of these events, it would not be as enjoyable as it is. The book carries you through the logic of its alternate history mainly because the tropes are ones we all recognize. This sense of the conspiracy as history makes sense to us and the Mythos explanation is just the latest twist on that story. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to think that dark forces are manipulating humanity and attacking us. That there is some dark conspiracy behind a tragedy is often easier to read than the alternative, which is that people are often the biggest causes of the suffering of other people. For this reason, as well as its wry, entertaining flavor, I suspect I will enjoy the alternate history of The Cthulhu Wars for many years to come.