The Default Space Opera Setting

Over the weekend I was reading the Coriolis rulebook for the first time, and while making my way through it, I was frequently thinking “This reminds of Stars Without Number” and “This reminds me of Scum and Villainy“. (The first edition of Coriolis does in fact predate the SWN and Blades in the Dark systems.) I also noticed while reading the setting section of the book, that it really reminds me of the settings of SWN and SaV. I started working on my own space opera setting with the assumptions of both SWN and SaV in mind, so I can easily run a campaign with either system and will only have to pick one when the campaign is actually going to start. And I quickly noticed that Coriolis will also work perfectly fine with all my ideas, since it also uses pretty similar assumptions about the setting of a campaign.

In addition to all of that, I’ve been told on several occasions that my own setting sounds a lot like Traveller by people most familiar with that game. This made me realize that contrary to the common belief that sci-fi RPGs are less popular because there are no default assumptions for the game world to easily explain to players what they can expect, there actually is at least one such default setting very prominent in RPGs.

  • Humans only, or many alien species which are all nearly human with only one or two exceptions.
  • A single dominant galactic hegemonial power.
  • Governed by a ruling caste, often explicitly called nobles.
  • And also a few incredibly powerful guilds or corporations.
  • A past technological dark age.
  • Interstellar travel through hyperspace jumps (either gates or drives).
  • World War 2 style space navies.
  • A feared army of hegemonial super-soldiers (by reputation, not performance)
  • Swords.
  • Space pirates and smugglers.
  • Telepathic, telekinetic, and prescient powers.
  • Protagonists own a space ship for a crew of 3 to 8.

Not sure how many settings there are that check all these boxes, but it’s hard to deny that there is some kind of clearly recognizable pattern here.

Inwas first tninking of Star Wars as the source for this cluster of archetypes, but I think actually most of them even go back to Dune. RPGs which I think fit this mold are Traveller, Fading Suns, Coriolis, Stars Without Number, and Scum and VillainyFirefly also gets regularly mentioned as a source of inspirations for campaigns in these games, but I don’t know that one personally. The Mass Effect series also sits close to this cluster, but it also takes lots of influences from the StarCraft/FreeSpace/Halo style of videogame sci-fi. I think maybe even Destiny could fit in checking a lot of the boxes, but that one might be more of a fringe case than the others.

2 thoughts on “The Default Space Opera Setting”

  1. It’s honestly really surprising how much of that does apply to Firefly when you say you aren’t that familiar with it. Other than the lack of interstellar travel, and I don’t know if you’d count it as WW2 style space navies, that’s a pretty good summary of how Firefly works.

    I thoroughly recommend watching it, especially since it’s only one season and a short movie. I rewatched it a couple of months ago and it’s as good as I remember.

  2. Yeah, the bullet points you put down are straight up Dune.

    Tbh I have been amazed how much sci-fi is rooted in Dune (after finally reading it).

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