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310vas - STL vs FTL in SF-RPGs

310vas - STL vs FTL in SF-RPGs



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Published by jimv
Slower-than-Light vs. Faster-than-Light travel & communication in Science Fiction Roleplaying Games. This article, originally published in Alarums & Excursions #310, addresses the issues of internal consistency, scientific plausibility, and "funness" & originality.
Slower-than-Light vs. Faster-than-Light travel & communication in Science Fiction Roleplaying Games. This article, originally published in Alarums & Excursions #310, addresses the issues of internal consistency, scientific plausibility, and "funness" & originality.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: jimv on Nov 20, 2008
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STL vs. FTL in SF-RPGs
Jim Vassilakos (jimvassila@aol.com)

As I mentioned some time ago, I\u2019ve been slowly working on an SF-RPG tentatively called \u201cRagamuffin\u201d (for

lack of a decent name like Star
Warriors or Space Scum...
actually, come to
think of it, both of
those sound pretty cool). In A&E

#298 I introduced the basic gist behind the setting, starting with an old internet discussion on soft vs. hard science- fiction and concluding with an overview of humanity\u2019s role in the setting. In A&E #307 I replied to comments and questions which had accrued during the intervening issues. In recent months, some folks on the net have volunteered to help with the development, however, there\u2019s been a little consternation regarding my decision on what is perhaps the game\u2019s most fundamental feature: STL-travel (STL being an acronym for slower- than-light). I\u2019ve backed this up w/ FTL- communication (FTL being an acronym for faster-than-light), and the purpose of this essay is basically to explain my reasoning behind these decisions.

The FTL Presumption

As most gamers know, FTL-travel is one of the hallowed staples of science fiction roleplaying. Actually, one doesn\u2019t have to be a gamer to know this. Most popular SF genres abound in various methods of FTL. In Star Trek they call it warp speed. In Star Wars it\u2019s called hyperspace. Likewise with sf- rpgs. In Traveller there is jumpspace, and in Alternity there is drivespace. Not every SF setting or SF game has FTL- travel, but the majority of them certainly do, and as for the minority, only a precious few incorporate any semblance of interstellar travel. In short, STL seems to be viewed as being wholly incompatible with interstellar travel, and so if a game is to involve more than a single star system, STL is thrown out in favor of FTL before ever being seriously considered.

Why is that? In a nutshell, I think the
two biggest reasons are Star Trek and
Star Wars, the two
most popular SF settings.
While anecdotes certainly make for

poor arguments, I\u2019ll share one with you. About a year ago, I was visiting a friend up north, and for some reason we were at a bookstore. As to be expected, the SF section was filled with shelves upon shelves of Star Trek and Star Wars novels. My friend made the comment that he didn\u2019t understand how there could be so many books published around a single setting. Were the fans really buying and reading them all? When would enough be enough? I looked the shelf over, bemused, and for some odd reason the strangest utterance fell from my lips. \u201cWhere there\u2019s money, there\u2019s more money.\u201d And he looked at me in awe and thought it the most profound thing he\u2019d heard since somebody burped earlier that morning.

In retrospect, I have to agree that there is something to it. RPG-slut that I am, I can understand firsthand the fascination people have with a particular subject matter. I myself have purchased and skimmed through more RPGs, new and used, than I care to count.

So what is my point,
you ask.

Novelists like to think of themselves as bring original &

avant-garde... artists

as it were. And in many ways they are. But at the same time, what they

write needs to be
marketable. It needs that
Star Trek or Star Wars
logo in order to sell. So

they jump on the big bandwagon and console themselves with the knowledge that at least they\u2019re getting paid for their

Game designers are just the same.

They like to tout their work as being original & avant-garde, and in many ways it often is. But at the same time, it

needs to be marketable. Otherwise it
won\u2019t sell. Obviously, FTL has

proven itself in terms of sales, so why take a chance on it\u2019s lesser cousin, STL?

With novels, the situation is bad enough. STL causes obvious plot constraints whereas FTL provides near limitless freedom. In gaming the situation is even more profound, because these constraints are placed on players themselves, dictating from the start some very fundamental limitations on their ability to \u201cseek out new worlds, new life, and new civilizations.\u201d

Likewise, the history of the marketplace has shown that FTL-based games have clearly sold and continue to do so. As for STL-based games, they don\u2019t seem to be as prevalent. Do such games even work? Are they playable? Or are they realistic to the point that people would rather kill orcs instead?

Which, of course, brings us to the gamers themselves. We gamers like to think that through roleplaying we\u2019re exploring innovative settings with fresh, new personalities, telling cooperative stories, per se, which have never been told before. But how much of this newness is really fresh and new, and how much is really just a switch in

terminology, a clever facade if
you will?
While FTL enables our intrepid
episode/adventure to the next in a

relatively brief expanse of game time, is also has the effect of rendering interstellar

travel aboard a starship very much like island hopping aboard a boat. You have your ports of call. You have your

aliens (the foreigners). You

might even get boarded by a police boat every now and then. And, of course, there are pirates to watch out for. In short, the whole science-fiction

milieux translates quite easily from real world stuff. That\u2019s good, right?!

In large part, yes, it is
players (and the
GM) with a ready

foundation upon which to build. The game setting,

as a whole, will be
more recognizable
as a result. However,
a certain degree of
mystery is lost in the
process. The setting is
no longer quite so
unique. It is merely an adaptation of
things we are already familiar with.

So it really all depends on what you want from roleplaying. If you\u2019re just looking to relax and have a good time, the instant familiarity lent by FTL to any given SF-RPG setting probably overpowers any of the negative consequences. In such a mode of convenience, where the de facto goal is to explore offshoots of analogous situations, FTL becomes a plot device, like transporters in Star Trek or \u201cThe Force\u201d in Star Wars.

The game designer essentially sets the technology at whatever level is desired and then explains the various gizmos in terms of what they do, not in terms of how they do it. Nobody can really scoff at the gizmos, because first of all, it\u2019s just a game, and secondly, none of this stuff has been invented yet. Certainly there is going to be some manner of technobabble handwaving to justify the technology, and that\u2019s both fine and often quite useful for suspension of disbelief. The only problem that creeps up is when the stated technology doesn\u2019t meet the design goals of the setting.

Design Goals in Science Fiction

This is a hard section to address, because the design goals of various SF settings tend to vary widely. In Star Trek, the two primary design goals seemed to be economic and plot flow. Roddenberry didn\u2019t have the money for a lot of special effects, including shots of starships and shuttlecraft landing on planets, so transporters were invented as a way of inexpensively expediting the

plot. The effect was cheap to
produce, and it certainly cut out a lot
of unnecessary scenes. In
short, it was sheer
Lucas, on the

hand, loved special effects to the point

pioneered the
industry to new
sophistication. As a

result, we don\u2019t see transporters in Star Wars. What we do see are cool looking light sabers and other imponderables all bent on conveying a sort of outer-space fairy tale about a young knight rescuing a princess from the clutches of an evil sorcerer. It\u2019s cool, and it worked amazingly well. Again, sheer genius.

But as we all know, RPGs are not cinema. This means that special effects present a special sort of dilemma. The GM can\u2019t very adequately convey a brightly lit starscape unless he slams a player\u2019s head on the pointy-end of a d4:

\u201cAs you break through the upper atmosphere, you begin to see stars.\u201d (WHAP!) \u201cDo you see stars yet?\u201d

\u201cUh... yeah. Ooh... I feel woozy.\u201d
\u201cGreat, here\u2019s a band-aid. What are
the rest of you doing?\u201d
\u201cAnything except looking out the

At the same time, there is no limit on what a good GM can describe or what a good player can visually imagine. So the whole issue of building the technology around a budget becomes wholly irrelevant. What we are then left with are the fundamentals. In no special order, they are:

1. Internal Consistency
2. Scientific Plausibility
3. Funness & Originality

Internal Consistency

In the discussion on soft vs. hard science-fiction which I included in my article of issue #298, the yearning for internal consistency was a recurring theme. Many people mentioned that while they might be able to swallow a

lot of bull, all the bull had to fit together logically, like some grand jigsaw puzzle, to form a complete and self- consistent picture. If there are gaping holes caused by pieces which just don\u2019t fit, then the RPG designers didn\u2019t do their job right, and the end result is that players will either have to ignore these holes (for the good of the game), or they may instead seek to exploit them (much to the consternation of the GM).

Over the years, all of this has made game designers think harder about SF- RPG design and the potential inconsistencies that are endemic to the process. I\u2019ll fire off just two of the most famous to acquaint you with the subject matter.

(1) Explosive Colonization: Space is

big, forming a natural though not impenetrable barrier to exploration and colonization. This barrier can be further enhanced


certain assumptions about the structure of the local interstellar medium (I\u2019ll talk more about this in a future essay). However, FTL tends to break this barrier, creating a situation where a single species could explode across the galaxy in a relatively brief time-scale.

For example, in Star Trek, isn\u2019t it odd that Klingons, Romulans, Humans, Vulcans, etc... all attained FTL at around the same time? What if the Klingons got it a few thousand years ahead of everyone else? The answer is that Captain Kirk would have been (at best) red-shirted, fodderous, Thrall Kirk, working for Captain Koloth and speaking Klingonese to boot.

In evolutionary terms, a few thousand years is an incredibly short expanse of time. The odds against even two neighboring races attaining FTL within such a short expanse are astronomical. So, at first glance, Star Trek fails on this first basic test of internal consistency.

In Traveller we have much the same problem with it\u2019s huge star-spanning empire. Miller apparently tried to explain the humanocentric nature of the setting by positing \u201cThe Ancients\u201d as a race which abducted hundreds or thousands of Terrans 300,000 years ago and left them scattered on numerous worlds in their wake. But why humans? What\u2019s so special about us? And what about the odds against several of these human colonies all attaining space faring technology within several

SF-RPGs by Fastest Mode of Travel & Communication

Aeon/Trinity, Alternity,
Babylon Project, Cooperation,
Fading Suns, Legionnaire,
Manhunter, Mechwarrior,
Other Suns, Space Master,
Space Opera, Star Frontiers,
Star Trek, Star Wars, Universe

Ragamuffin (still in

2300AD, Albedo, Amazing
Engine/Galactos Barrier, Blue
Planet, FTL:2448, Guildspace,
Justifiers, Raven Star, Reich
Star, Shatterzone, Traveller

Buck Rogers XXVc,
High Colonies, Jovian

thousand years of one another? And given the capabilities of FTL, why did it take so long for them to expand and explore?

Of course, all these questions arise in a setting where FTL didn\u2019t begin in this neighborhood but 300,000 years ago and the current empire hasn\u2019t existed for but a thousand of those years. What about predecessors to the Ancients? And, for that matter, what will the Imperium logically look like in 200 million years?

In a universe which is billions of years ago, we\u2019d have to conclude that FTL would result in a setting where known space has been completely overrun, many, many times, and that we are emerging into a neighborhood which is just packed with a multitude of races from across the galaxy, many of whom have been around, starfaring, for millions or even billions of years. Their history (and technology) would likely be on a level which we can\u2019t even begin to


ceiling permitting). STL helps to save us from this cacophony by proposing that space travel is difficult and time-consuming enough that we had a chance to develop before the aliens got here in force.

Fortunately, absent the technology for time travel, this isn\u2019t an exploitable inconsistency. But smart players will realize the problem exists as soon as they spot it, leading the GM to make up some off-the-cuff excuse which damages the entire suspension of disbelief. For most players, this isn\u2019t a big deal. They\u2019re not really there to suspend their disbelief. They\u2019re there to eat pizza and roll dice! But for a precious few, it\u2019s a thorn in the side of reason, something overlooked that should have been addressed.

(2) Near-C Rocks & Other Planet
Killers: In much of contemporary

science fiction, individual ship captains may be nothing more than the lowliest scum of space (Han Solo and his fellow cantena patrons might qualify under this description, and Harry Mudd and his Ferengi ilk in Star Trek are yet another example). And yet, the very act of controlling a starship affords them great power. This is driven home in Traveller, where it is not altogether impossible to utilize a large starship to accelerate a

couple hundred tons of asteroid up to relativistic speeds (or just build the maneuver drives onto the asteroid, provide it with a really big fuel tank, and point it in the right direction). It\u2019ll take some time and effort, but it can be done.

Now, in both Star Trek and Star Wars, presumably inner-system defenses could deploy quickly enough to deal with the potential threat of a near-c rock striking a heavily populated world (and thereby generating an explosion of such magnitude that the 1908 Tunguska

event would by comparison seem like Lenin rolling over in bed to break wind). However, in Traveller this couldn\u2019t happen, mainly because in Traveller there\u2019s a speed limit on communications (communication and sensors are strictly STL). This means, of course, that the planet could get hit before it even realizes that it\u2019s under attack. No time for countermeasures. Several billion people could get wiped out by one loony with a starship.

The fact that there aren\u2019t scores of

desecrated worlds in Traveller leaves the impression that starship captains have too

much moral fiber ever to conduct themselves (and their wars and political causes) in such a way. Indeed, that may be true for 99.9% of ship captains, but as the number of ships rise, the potential for loonydom increases until you are almost assured that these sorts of incidents will happen just because of the number of people who have the power to commit them.

Indeed, the history of the Traveller universe is replete with interstellar warfare (GDW was initially a wargaming company, after all). That is

why we have not one but five frontier wars not to mention countless civil wars and the various interstellar wars around Terra. So where are all the worlds which have been dutifully converted into asteroid belts by the Imperial Navy? We just don\u2019t see them, and because of this, many of those on the Traveller Mailing List have agreed that it\u2019s a glaring inconsistency (although mentioning near-c anything on the TML is usually enough to start a protracted flame war).

Having addressed these two potential inconsistencies, it is interesting to note that the first kicks in under FTL-travel while the second kicks in under STL- communication. Traveller, of course, has both, and hence suffers from both inconsistencies. So do many other SF- RPGs. It was only after recognizing this that I decided that perhaps the best solution toward avoiding both of these problems would be to take the exact opposite position from Traveller, presupposing STL-travel and FTL- communication. At first I was under the impression that no SF-RPG had ever done this, and as I checked through the literature,


were confirmed. The reason, I suppose, should be obvious. Of those few SF- RPGs which have supposed STL-travel, their designers have placed the entire game within a single star system, and so there was no need to include FTL- communication. However, I want Ragamuffin to be a game which includes both STL-travel as well as an interstellar society. The trick, of course, would be to justify the technology with real-world science, giving it some form of basis and yet at the same time

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