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.

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GMC Motivations

No, this isn’t about General Motors Corporation. It is about Game Master (Manager? Maker?) Controlled Characters. Specifically, I’m talking about people who try to help or hinder the PCs in a significant manner. Keeping track of what the do, why they do it and how they go about it has always been the hardest part for me. And that is before the other players manage to do something completely unexpected. As examples of that, recently I’ve had players leapfrog to the location of the endgame without all the clues, or target and kill a Big Bad two acts too early.

When you look at pre-written scenarios for virtually any game system, at some point the writer tries to explain a little bit of the motivations of the major GM Characters. In scenarios that are going to take place over several days, the writers often mention where these major characters can be found on various days. Aware of the habits of players at the table, sometimes they even provide reasons why these GMCs might not be where the players look if the time for that particular encounter has not yet come. All this can be quite useful to try to keep a game on track. But what if your players are determined to go off the rails on their very own crazy train? Stopping them with repeated dei ex machina gets old and ends up being fun for no one. This is where those paragraphs of motivation may be more important than all the maps and monster stats in the book.

This is why the first thing I always look at in a new scenario is a section on why the “bad” guys are doing what they are doing. To me, the why always ends up being more important than the how and the what of it all. Similarly when I write a new character for a game, I always create a why they are going to do what they are going it do even before I decide what they are going to do. This is partially because my primary gaming group has a way of taking my plot apart before it even gets rolling. Mainly though it is because the motivations will lead me to what the goals are and then I can think about how my characters might work on achieving those goals.

For me, motivation of my GMCs leads to the action and nature of the plot. In addition to helping provide answers to the afore mentioned questions about what your GMCs might do when the players do something wholly unexpected, understanding and constructing the motivations of your GMCs can build the plot of the game itself. As a result, on the best things you can do for your characters is to ask yourself what drives them.

Since it can be useful to know the motivations of the characters who interact with our players, we need to think about how to construct those motivations. If the character is from an external source or you have spent a lot of time in their head, this is easy. Characters like this often have their motivations known through history or compilation of past action. However, much of the time as GMs our job involves creating our own GMCs from scratch. There are a couple of good ways to construct a motivation for a GMC even if you don’t have a history or do not wish to get too deep into their head (if you are the sort who relates to characters you think o about). Ways to think about it that don’t involve thinking like your newly minted antagonist (or assistant or traitor or merchant) can be found in the character creation of games that use motivation mechanically.

The examples I use for thinking about this are those found in Cold City or the second edition of Unknown Armies. These are two very different ways of thinking about motivation, but they both touch upon a way of thinking about why people do the things they do.

In Cold City, we have two lines of a character sheet that cover most of the “oh shit, I didn’t expect this” situations one can find oneself in. These are the public and hidden agendas. Yes, I am aware that agenda especially in the context of Cold City is not a synonym for motivation. In fact, the agendas don’t exactly touch on the “why” at all. However, they do provide a very concrete way of thinking about motivation. Example: I have a Stasi agent GMC. I assign this agent the Public Agenda of “track down the enemies of the growing East German state”. Then I decide that his Hidden agenda is “become head of East German security”. These two comments have created a very clear indication of the characters motivations. I don’t need to know if he is a true believer because he is a social climber first. I don’t need to know if he has doubts about the Communist project in East Berlin because that isn’t his biggest concern. Yet, these two lines of character creation have saved me a world of trouble when I need to know what this character will do in interactions with my PCs. Depending on how important this character is, those two lines and a half-dozen words on appearance and personality might be all I create of this Stasi agent.

The Unknown Armies method of determining motivation is more abstract and slightly less practical, but can create a more complete picture of the character if they need to make more complicated choices or decisions. To use this method think of your GM character’s Obsession, Fear, Rage and Noble traits. Describing this is going to take a bit more time so I’ll skip it and save it for another day in case more explanation of it is desired.

For now, I’ll leave this post to go contemplate my own motivations for thinking about this stuff then writing it down.