Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Retrospective: Star Sector Atlas I

When I entered the hobby, if you played a science fiction game, you either played Traveller or Space Opera. I was a Traveller man back then, so Space Opera was one of those games I noticed on game store shelves and whose ads and articles I saw in the pages of Dragon but which I never actually played. Like most FGU games, it had the reputation of being "unplayable," or at least unnecessarily complex to the point of incoherence without heavy house ruling by the referee. It was thus light years away from the elegant, minimalist approach that Traveller had adopted in terms of content and presentation.

And, yet, even then, there was something strangely attractive about the game, particularly compared to Traveller. Space Opera was a "lumpy" game, which is to say, you could still easily recognize the undigested hunks it had chewed off its many inspirations, which simultaneously made Space Opera feel less "refined" and more "open" than Traveller. Traveller, on the other hand, had a stronger, more consistent esthetic and more "serious" tone to it that, while very evocative, sometimes felt constraining. You'd never randomly drop a Jedi or a Cylon into Traveller, but I always got the impression no one would have batted an eye if you did that in Space Opera.

Paradoxically, Traveller's ready-made star sector books, like The Spinward Marches, weren't very evocative. They consisted primarily of simple maps and alphanumeric strings of statistics without any details, leaving those up to the referee to decide. This approach is great if you're a do-it-yourself kind of referee who prefers only the most minimal hand-holding, but it doesn't do much for you if you're ever at a loss for ideas. By contrast, Space Opera's sector books, like Star Sector Atlas I: The Terran Sector, are dripping with details. Though larger in both size and length than their Traveller counterparts, they describe fewer worlds in their pages. However, these worlds are all usually given at least a half-page of information, including an overview of their histories, societies, and cultures.

Star Sector Atlas I details 66 worlds from the heart of human space, including Terra itself, as well as plotting the locations of 22 other planets and leaving their details up to the referee. Furthermore, the Terran Sector is noted as occupying a volume of space 8 million cubic light years in size, holding approximately 32,000 stars, thereby making it effectively endless in its expansion, should the referee desire to do so. Useful though that is, it is ultimately the 66 worlds described in Star Sector Atlas I that made this product so attractive. With it, a Space Opera referee could easily run a sandbox-style campaign at the center of the United Federation of Planets -- I told you the game didn't make any pretense of hiding its inspirations -- for years without exhausting this single sector.

When I wrote my retrospective post about The Spinward Marches last summer, I think I overstated how useful its minimalist approach was in play. I know I enjoyed there not being much detail in the book, because it gave me a lot of freedom. Yet, there were also moments in my old Traveller campaigns when I would have liked some more details -- or any details really -- about the world the PCs decided to visit in their merchant ship without any prior warning. I've always been good at thinking on my feet, so I made do with the bare bones GDW provided me, but I also know I'd have appreciated a product like Star Sector Atlas I: The Terran Sector. I'm beginning to think that something like it might better serve a lot of referees than did The Spinward Marches, since the details it offers are more than enough to kickstart one's imagination without being onerous or limiting.

Just goes to show that, even after all these years, I can still learn a thing or two from these old games.


  1. Unless you made your own sectors (which is something I ended up doing more and more as I played), adding details into the pre-generated ones in Traveller could be a Referee's nightmare. Having to reinvent the wheel every time the players jumped was a pain, but it kept you on your toes.

    The details of Space Opera's Star Sector Atlas is something that could have been useful in Traveller. The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society was helpful in this respect, but certainly couldn't do the entire job.

    Your post here resonates with my own Traveller experiences. Thank you!

  2. I was a Space Opera guy. True enough, the rules were complex, but, hey, it was the simulationist era, and what's the harm in having an entire page of rules to adjudicate throwing and catching something? Most people who have heard of Space Opera bring up the same two criticisms of it: it was unplayable, and it embraced a kitchen-sink aesthetic in its approach to campaign design. The first point is very nearly true, sadly, and the second point is a feature, not a flaw. It's interesting that gamers apply a different standard of internal consistency to SF campaign settings. Fantasy RPGs are nearly always kitchen-sink, but seem to escape the same criticism. Harpies and kirin in the same game world? No problem. But Kzin and Vulcans? That's just silly!

  3. Kzin and Vulcans?

    Welcome to Star Fleet Battles, which while a wargame, is as old-school as I can think of, and has even spawned a number of RPG adaptations. Currently I know of a GURPS and a D20 adaptation.

  4. But...but... Kzin and Vulcans were Star Trek canon as of 1973.