Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Retrospective: Space Opera

I make no bones about the fact that, when it comes to science fiction RPGs, I was and remain a Traveller man. Traveller was, after Gamma World, my first SF RPG, and the one I undoubtedly played the most. My first professional writing credits were for Traveller and the first game industry professionals I ever met in the flesh were associated with the game (at the 1991 Origins convention in Baltimore, where I had dinner with Marc Miller, Charles Gannon, and the Japanese translators of Traveller). To this day, when I think of "science fiction roleplaying games," Traveller is the gold standard by which I measure all others.

Though first, Traveller wasn't the only SF RPG out there. In 1980, Fantasy Games Unlimited released its own entry into the genre, Space Opera. Rarely has a RPG gotten a title so evocative and apropos, for, unlike Traveller, Space Opera was unambiguously -- and clearly unashamedly -- an "unserious" game. By that, I don't mean it was a jokey or silly game, only that it had no pretensions to being a "deep" game, ripping off, as it did, just about every bit of SF its writers could get their hands on. As you can see from the cover image, this is a game where Flash Gordon, Chewbacca, Ming the Merciless, Barbarella, and assorted aliens can meet in a cantina and go adventuring among the stars without the petty concerns of rhyme or reason. In concept, it's about as coherent as Dungeons & Dragons but, like D&D, it has the potential to transcend its schlocky origins and become its own weirdly appealing thing.

Alas, Space Opera never could reach such heights of gaming enjoyment because its rules were terrible, possibly unplayable. Though written during what I call the Golden Age of Gaming, Space Opera nevertheless evinces a Silver Age obsession with complexity and I dare say "realism." Character generation is a long and tedious process, involving a combination of random rolls, derived attributes, and player choice. Unlike Traveller, where even a fairly experienced character can be generated quickly, doing the same in Space Opera could easily take 30 minutes or more, especially if you're not very familiar with the system. Combat involved multiple rolls for each attack: to hit, to determine where one hits, to penetrate armor, and to determine extent of injuries. Space combat was even more complex -- as were most of the game's systems.

Now, as you should know by now, I don't see anything wrong with multiple sub-systems within a game. Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that one of the hallmarks of old school design, as opposed to nostalgia games, is that they are built upon multiple, separate sub-system that work in unison rather than a single universal mechanic. Space Opera falls down, I think, because its various sub-systems don't work in unison. Instead, they give the impression of a Frankenstein's monster, sewed together from bits and bits pieces scavenged from here and there without any regard for what the end result would be. A friend of mine, who's played more Space Opera than I ever could stomach, suggested that the game was written by a committee of people who were each given a separate section of the game to write and who didn't like each other very much. As it turns out, he's almost right. According to FGU's Scott Bizar, Space Opera was written by correspondence by several authors who'd never met one another; it shows.

Nevertheless, Space Opera had a slew of supplements between its initial release and 1985. Of these, the Space Atlases are the most interesting, for it's here that you get a sense of the glorious cheesiness of the game's official setting, which I can only describe as "kitchen sink SF." You remember those guys in high school who used to argue about whether the Enterprise could defeat an Imperial Star Destroyer? They went on to write the Space Atlases, where the United Federation of Planets -- yes, they call it that -- can fight Space Nazis, Space Soviets, and the Space Viet Cong/Mongols, not to mention the Bugs from Starship Troopers. There are Vulcans and Kzinti too, along with many other ideas torn bleeding from the bodies of science fiction books, movies, and TV shows.

To be fair, Traveller's official setting is also highly derivative, swiping heaping helpings of ideas and terms from H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle, among others. But Traveller somehow managed to hide its sources better and its rules were simple enough that you could very quickly get into enjoying the game itself so that its derivativeness faded in importance. Space Opera never managed to achieve that degree of unity, largely because its rules are such a mess. I think that's a shame, because a gleefully schlocky SF RPG is a wondrous thing to play.

25 comments:

  1. Yes.

    I loved Space Opera with a great big love but never managed to play it. Even the bits were hard to loot, because they came with so much rules baggage, it was hard to pull them apart, and even though you knew they were joyfully scholcky they were presented with a rigourous earnestness that sapped the fun right out of them. Sure, you could have a "laser sword" and PAPA powered armour, but once you'd gone through the pain of chargen twice you were afraid to use them.

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  2. I don't remember, but wasn't Space Opera the game were you could die in character creation?

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  3. Traveller was the game that can kill you during CG.
    I ran my first campaign as a GM with Space Opera. It was a mess, and although it chugged on for slightly less than a year it eventually died when we tried to introduce Psionics into it.
    We had Traveller and we all liked it and ha played the hell out of it, but we played space opera for two reasons, you could play an alien and it had energy weapons.
    For some reason, although we did house rules, it never occured to us to just make up blaster/alien stats for Traveller.
    However that was when I was still gaming with my high school friends- my willingness to completely alter a game increased dramatically after I moved on from that group. Strange times.

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  4. Space Opera will always have a special place in my heart. I discovered it at a time when i was a young teenager between gaming groups and played it solo. If I remember correctly, my team was made up of a bear with a plasma cannon and a female human medic.

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  5. I've always been intrigued by this game but had heard what a terrible system it had. The cover to me screams "Battle Beyond The Stars"! I find the schlockiness endearing. Traveller could be somewhat schlocky too, like all of the anthropomorphic animal species that made up the galaxy. One of these days I'll have to get Space Opera.

    Have you tried Starfaring? That was supposed to be the first Sci-Fi rpg.

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  6. Me too. Owned it. Was enticed by its world. Never managed to run the thing.

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  7. I had some friends who were partial to FGU games: Bushido, Space Opera, and Aftermath. I played a few games of SO with them, and it felt kind of alternative to our Traveller games. If I recall correctly, the game had a weapon called a vibra dagger, where the the blade vibrated to assist cutting; and I think there was something in character generation called Wind Factor that would determine how much a character could run before getting winded.

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  8. I know someone who GMd Space Opera and in his hands, the game was reportedly fun and evocative. This GM also ran other FGU games well: Aftermath and C&S, and his players for those systems had similar positive reports. (I myself played an Aftermath game run with this guy, and he convinced me that it was a strong set of rules that led to fun gaming.)

    I rather suspect that this GM was gifted with a strong sense of genre and the ability to read, learn, and deploy complex sets of rules either in whole, or in a subset that was still quite playable. Not all GMs are so able, for a variety of reasons.

    At any rate, I'm not sure that I would ever choose to run the game, but I would likely be comfortable playing it, if run by this fellow or someone like him.

    Like you, my own personal experiences with SF gaming are founded on Traveller.

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  9. Never saw/played this game back in the day (early 80s) but I saw a copy last weekend in a local Half Price Books. After reading this review I'm glad I didn't purchase it.

    My "unserious" SF Rpg of choice during the early 80s was Star Frontiers. Not the best rules set, but its 'gonzo-ness' sparked a lot of creativity in my gaming group for a few years. Enjoyable modules, great alien species. Our head was so buried in Star Frontiers' sand that we didn't come into contact with Traveller until MegaTraveller was released.

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  10. Yeah, Star Frontiers was my SF game of choice as well (probably because it was one of the few available in the wilds of South Dakota). Still love the setting on that. My favorite Space Opera game is, however, Star Wars-but that didn't hit until late '87.

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  11. As I recall FGU publisher Scott Bizar took Space Opera and the other FGU games very seriously - at least as serious games rather than campy. The lengthy chargen, the rules minutiae, and even the multiple varieties of rope one could purchase (I think there were five types) were decisions the writers made that were supported from the top. He saw these as features rather than bugs.

    In hindsight games like Chivalry and Sorcery, Space Opera, and Aftermath seem almost awesome in their unplayability. To their credit, though, they were absolutely labors of love and reflected a real commitment to a certain ideal of game design.

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  12. I think that is it exacty. I remember the encumbrance rules from Aftermath..sheesh. but they really made you think about what you were carrying.

    verification word - unnes - to dispose of one's old game system.

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  13. Aftermath destroyed my quest for realism in less than one session.

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  14. ditto, re aftermath. I enjoyed playing C&S, though, as a "more serious" fantasy alternative to D&D. For me that's the difference between C&S and SO: my impression was that the rules matched the mood in C&S, but that they destroyed the mood of SO... that said, I remember having fun playing lighthearted SF GURPS, so maybe the problem was tone more than complexity, or some other imponderable.

    Veriword: unpro. What reading SO made me feel.

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  15. "Aos said...
    Aftermath destroyed my quest for realism in less than one session."

    I DM'd Aftermath for our high school group. How we used that system for Mad Max and juvenile delinquency I can't imagine, but we did. The monetary system I created was based on drugs and bullets.
    Realism wasn't that campaign's strong point - I recall an argument about whether cocaine was a stimulant or a tranquilizer and how a character should react. (I was correct but not from experience. High school!)

    Somehow Aftermath didn't dissuade me from overly complex RPGs. It took running a high-level 3.5 campaign to do that.

    I still have a bit of that bug, but then I look at the map of last week's C&C session and how much we were able to explore. We get more GAMING in with less rules.

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  16. "the United Federation of Planets -- yes, they call it that -- can fight Space Nazis"

    Why bother? Just wait for the Space Nazis to invade the Space Soviets during Space Winter.

    Problem solved!

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  17. Space Opera is the only game where the *player* can die during character creation.

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  18. These are, I'm told, some genuine rules from Aftermath:

    ACCESS TO STORED ITEMS
    In order to get an item which has been stored in a container, the character must get access to the container, open it and sort the desired item out from the other items in thecontainer. The time taken in doing this can be of serious importance if this is being done in the middle of a desperate situation. The player should state that the character is beginning to get an item and inform the Gamesmaster of where it is kept. The character will then be engaged in the process for a number of Actions. The exact number should be known only to the Gamesmaster. The [sic] will announce to the player that he has found the item at the end of the Action on which it is "found".

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  19. Ah, Space Opera. Never played it - I enjoyed reading the rule books far more than actually participating. I seem to remember that by the time we'd finished creating the characters, it was time to wrap up for the day.

    Everyone wanted to game with their new characters, if only to justify the time they'd just spent creating them. When I realised just how complex the game was compared to Traveller, school holidays couldn't end quick enough.

    "You remember those guys in high school who used to argue about whether the Enterprise could defeat an Imperial Star Destroyer?"

    Sure do - one of them was a DM with whom I used to game. I don't think he ever realised just how badly he missed the point when he got into that argument with someone on a discussion board.

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  20. one curious thing i've been seeing over a while of reading your retrospectives is the use of the term "unplayable". it seems that in almost every case of a game considered "unplayable" by the consensus here, there are several people who have played the game in question and report so.

    perhaps i am just being pedantic, but wouldn't an unplayable game be one that could not be played? it seems that the term is instead being used to refer to games that might better be termed "unwieldy" or "overly complex".

    in any case, i've played Space Opera, but was dismayed at how much it quickly became an exercise in scheduling character training sessions. that might have been due to the person running it. whatever, Traveller was my first SFRPG (well, Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha were ones that i owned prior to my 1st edition Traveller box, but i played them later) and is the one i still have the most fondness for. one of these days, i'll pick up Thousand Suns and see what you've got on offer there, James.

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  21. perhaps i am just being pedantic, but wouldn't an unplayable game be one that could not be played? it seems that the term is instead being used to refer to games that might better be termed "unwieldy" or "overly complex".

    No RPG probably merits the term "unplayable" in truth, but the term has a vernacular meaning of "more trouble than its worth" that most gamers understand on some instinctual level. That's certainly how I use it and I think it's understood in that fashion by my readers.

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  22. @anarchist ACCESS TO STORED ITEMS

    That's poorly and verbosely written but it's just about how I'd adjudicate that situation.

    "Hey, I'm looking in my pack for the whatzit."

    "Ok, I'll tell you when you find it, probably next round."

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  23. the term has a vernacular meaning of "more trouble than its worth"

    yeah, fair enough. like i said, "unwieldy", and i was being overly pedantic.

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  24. Having run both Traveller and Space Opera, I would have to say I actually preferred Space Opera. Players enjoyed themselves and the system's complexity if somewhat overstated.

    Actually, the game, strangely enough, was never intended to be run with all the elements included. Spoke with a couple of the authors at GenCon and what they intended was for the GM to choose those elements which reflected their particular campaign. If you wanted "Star Wars", you could do "Star Wars" by including those sections which simulated it. If you wanted "Lensman," you chose those elements which went with that.

    Personally, I actually used the whole thing. I let my players basically design the kind of characters they wanted and somehow managed to successfully meld the whole into a fun mass.

    And I've been a big fan of a lot of FGUs stuff. Ran Space Opera, Chivalry and Sorcery, Aftermath, Flashing Blades, and Wild West. Got a couple of other titles which I'd have run if I'd only had the time.

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  25. the system's complexity if somewhat overstated.

    No doubt. I knew several people who played Space Opera for a long time, so it's certainly not unplayable or beyond the capacity for gamers to understand. I simply found it too much effort for too little return, particularly since it seemed to be, on the surface, a "Wahoo!" kind of game rather than something deadly serious. I found the disconnect between the rules and the setting assumptions too much for me and I never tried to play the game. I kind of regret that now.

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