Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A look back at Space Opera, pt.1

In my early days of tabletop rpging, I always played with the same group of guys. We went to school together, we were friends from a time before we had ever heard of D&D and as far as we knew, the only company that made games was TSR. Now, that's not to say we only played Dungeons & Dragons. We had a spirited Star Frontiers campaign going for awhile and even gave Gamma World a try (although we found that one a bit silly). Anyway, my gaming horizons began to expand after my first gaming convention. It was Halcon, in Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was probably around 1983. I decided to run a Gamma World game at the convention (after extirpating all the talking chickens and other annoying aspects of the game setting). I had a group of guys sign up for my game who were already playing together. It was like I was a guest GM at their home game. They completely destroyed my game, but I learned a lot about running a tournament game and it turned out, these guys were pretty cool. They even invited me to join their group. Now, my regular group of guys were playing pretty sporadically at this time, so I decided to take them up on the offer. I was a student and a nerd, so I had all the time in the world for gaming. Heck, I probably could have participated in half a dozen different games at the same time back then. Anyway, these guys played a foreign game from an unheard-of publisher. That game was Space Opera and the publisher was Fantasy Games Unlimited. It was like a whole new world had opened up for me. Then I started reading the rules and it was like "What the F...! You guys play this?!" So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the most complicated game system I have ever played (and yes, I did play it, for months).

Part 1 - Character Generation

Chargen starts out pretty straightforward with the selection of character class. There are only six classes and this will be the last time I will ever have to use the word "only". The classes are Armsman, Tech, Research Scientist, Medical Scientist, Engineering Scientist and Astronaut. The Astronaut is sort of a jack-of-all-trades type of character which incorporates combat and technical skills sets together. The others are fairly self-explanatory. Your choice of class gives you a number of points that you can use to top up some of your rolls in the next stage, which is the generation of personal characteristics (i.e. attributes). There are 14 such characteristics. Yes, 14. They are Physique, Strength, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Empathy, Intelligence, Psionics, Intuition, Bravery, Leadership, General Technical Aptitude (GTA), Mechanical Aptitude (MechA) and Electronics Aptitude (ElecA). Each is determined by a percentile roll which is then converted to a value between 1 and 19 using a table. For some stats, bonus points provided by the character class are needed to get the highest scores.

After generating personal characteristics, homeworld characteristics are generated and these can result in further adjustments to personal characteristics. For example, high gravity worlds give bonuses to strength and agility, while simultaneously reducing physique. Planets with extreme climates tend to give constitution bonuses.

Next comes the determination of the character's race. It is a veritable parade of furries, as a variety of manimals (Canines, Felines, Ursoids, Saurians, Avians, Pithecines) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with humans and humanoids to defend the galaxy from the various evil squid-people, crab-people and bug-people. Of course, this being Space Opera, one doesn't simply choose a race, one must qualify by having suitable personal characteristics. Humans and Avians have no prerequisites, so lousy dice-rollers always have a refuge, but if you have the stats, you can play the awesome Ursoids (bear-people) or most desired of all, Transhumans (supermen that resemble Vulcans). The more difficult a race is to qualify for, the more benefits one derives from it. Thus, a player lucky enough to have rolled great personal characteristics will be rewarded with even more benefits. Although it is nearly impossible to achieve, if a player is lucky enough to qualify for a Transhuman, he will truly dominate.

Calculation of the various derived characteristics is next. These include carrying capacity (Transhumans are nearly as strong as Ursoids), damage factors (i.e. hit points, Transhumans rule), stamina factor (again, Transhumans have the advantage) and movement (Transhumans can run as fast as the cat-people and for as long as the dog-people). There are also a ton of other things like shock resistance, fatigue, wind, balance and initiative, but you get the idea.

Career experience is determined next and this is somewhat reminiscent of Traveller, although with far fewer steps. The number of tours is determined by a single roll and any service may be selected if the PC has the required personal characteristics. A roll is made for each tour to determine promotions and then severence benefits are calculated.

Finally, skills are purchased. Each character receives a certain number of skill points determined by his personal characteristics and the duration of his service as well as a small number of randomly-rolled general skill points. These may be used to purchase skills, most of which have 10 levels each and some have prerequisites. For example, taking a level in Hyper-Dimensional Physics requires equivalent levels in both Nuclear Physics and Force Field Physics as well as a minimum intelligence of 13.

Watch for my next post as I describe Space Opera combat. You will not believe it.



Jay said...

Great post! Looking forward to the next one...

That cover art is awesome!

Rognar said...


I personally think everyone should try this game at least once. Because it represents such an extreme example of simulationist rpg design, I feel it has great historical value.