Keep on trying?

I am currently learning Coriolis and I came upon one thing that seemed really unfitting to the fiction of the game and frustratingly difficult to fix within the established mechanics of the system. Repairing a damaged component on a ship takes one skill roll, one unit of spare parts, and one space combat turn, which is in the range of a few minutes. If you succeed on the roll, the component is working again. Which seems okay in the middle of a fight, but after a battle is over with your ship shot to pieces just short of breaking down, getting it back to a pristine state in just an hour or two without need to get to a space dock is just wrong.

And it turns out to actually be wrong according to the rules, because I kept forgetting one very simple but really important rule of Coriolis. You only get to roll on skills once. The rules for making repairs on ships doesn’t have to state that again, because this is a fundamental thing that applies to the whole game. Yes, in theory it might be possible to repair a badly mangled ship to full working condition in two hours, but that’s only if the engineer succeeds on every single repair roll for every single repaired component. You can only try again if something has substentially changed about the situation. Which in this case would apply if you take the damaged ship into dock where you have proper repair facilities. (The game doesn’t say what happens if that roll also fails, but I like the idea of the component being beyond repair and having to be ripped out and replaced with a newly purchased one.)

I’ve read the rule that you can’t try again on skill checks right when I first started reading the book and had been thinking about it several times later while getting deeper into the mechanics of the game. But when it came to reading the ship repair rules, I had already completely forgotten about it. I started RPGs with D&D 3rd Edition where trying again as many times as you want is an explicit feature of the system. It even recommends skipping the dice rolling in situations where you have decided to keep trying as long as it takes and simply assume that you’ll roll a 20 after 20 rounds of trying. Since that’s the highest number the die can get, if a 20 isn’t enough, the task is simply impossible. The other game engine I am most familiar with is Apocalypse World and it’s many descendants. In these games, any failed attempt at something results in something bad happening. In theory, these games allow you to keep trying something for as many times as you want, but with each failed roll the situation of the characters is only going to get more chaotic until eventually the thing you were trying to accomplish is no longer relevant or possible.

The idea in Coriolis that you get one try only actually does feel really fresh and interesting to me. Though obviously this is a rule as trivial and obvious as it could possibly get. I’m sure there would have been plenty of games that done that over 40 years ago. But somehow I never actually encountered it before.

Not even a Review: Elite Dangerous

Haven’t reviewed anything for a while. This will barely qualify as a review because I don’t feel like putting a lot of work and efffort into it.

Just like the developers of Elite Dangerous.

This is a game in which you have a startship that you can upgrade with better modules to increase its stats, and you can fly to millions of stars where you can dock at space stations to pick up cargo to drop off at other space stations, collect rocks from asteroids to drop off at space stations, or get into fights with endless numbers of space pirates. Transporting cargo is no challenge, mining asteroids is slow and tedious, and ships handle very poorly in battle.

About 2 hours into the game, I was getting the impression that I’ve seen everything the game has to offer, just copy pasted and randomized over millions of star systems. Some 30 hours later, I now think that early impression was right. Yes, there are various kinds of things that you “can do”, but none of them are fun. And all you get is money to buy ships with better base stats and upgrade that provide better stat boosts. This lets you carry more cargo between stations to make more money, and I guess will make mining and combat less tedious, but then what? I’m a huge fan of Subnautica and Kenshi, two games without real plot or quests, where all you do is to go to new areas to find construction plans and materials to build new equipment. But in those games, new areas are different kinds of environments where you can find new things that create new interactions. In Elite Dangerous, every system is basically the same. In those good games, new equipment allows you to do new things. In Elite Dangerous, they only make the game less tedious.

I’m only some 30 hours into a game that some people have played for thousands, so I’ve not seen all of it. But that’s another crime of the game. It does nothing to indicate that there is anything more to reach later. Nothing that suggests the 500th hour will be different than the 5th. And it’s really bad at explaining its mechanics. You need to look up how some things work, and often people in forums say something to the effect of “yeah, the in-game text is wrong”.

Elite Dangerous is a game where I would say it’s quite an achievement if it was made by four friends in the their spare time over three years. But as an MMO? This is awful. It has average ratings slightly below 80%, but I think that is overrated. 80% generally means “good”. This game isn’t. User scores of 65% seem more appropriate. Because that includes thousands of people who actually love it. I don’t. I would give it a rating of “poor”. There’s just nothing about the game that is fun.

Oh, and also the setting is the most bland sci-fi world imaginable. I don’t think you could make a setting more generic and flavorless if you tried.

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.

Intuitators

Intuitation is a neurological alteration produced in people with a certain mental aptitude through long mental training, combined with various psychoactive drugs. The brains of trained intuitators have an increased capacity for accurate memory, and also the ability to rely on subconscious processing for the analysis of information than normal people. Intuitation grants people a hightened awareness of their surroundings and perception of possible threats, an increased intuitive grasp of complex situations and concepts, an improved ability to find connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information, and a highly increased sense of empathy. Skilled intuitators have abilities that border on precognition, but they are still limited to the information and data available to them, and their ability to see and understand connections and pattern is not infallible.

A significant problem with intuitation is that much of the processing of information is happening subconsciously and intuitators are often incapable of explaining their reasoning behind their conclusions or even understanding them themselves. Intuitation is rarely able to provide proof for any insights an intuitator might have, but it is still extremely valuable in directing investigations or to provide warnings for possible attacks or traps. Intuitators can only work with information that is available to them and can be mislead by deliberately falsified or manipulated data. Often predicted possibilities simply don’t come to pass, and sometimes even the best intuitators simply make mistakes. All intuitators have a significantly increased risk of developing paranoia, delusions, and other disorders because they regularly have thoughts entering their minds that don’t appear to be their own, or have extremely strong intuitive convinctions about things that can not be proven and they can’t explain even to themselves. Typically, gaining access to more information about a subject can help developing a conscious understanding of the previously purely subconscious connections, but in the lines of work in which intuitators are commonly employed mysteries regularly remain completely unsolved. In most organizations, intuitators are employed only in strictly advisory roles and are very limited in their authority to make important decisions. And many officials, administrators, and officers have a strong distrust of the reliability of inituitators.

Some intuitators practice their minds primarily in negotiation and interrogation and become extraordinarily capable in detecting deceptions and ommisions, as well as very carefully chosing their words and behavior to create the best positive response from people they talk to. In these situations, having all the facts exactly right is often not completely criticial to achieving success, and it is more about constantly reading the reactions of other people throughout the course of an ongoing conversation. This allows intuitators to subtly dig for specific pieces of information that they need to get a more complete picture and increase the certainty of their suspicions. While such intuitators are much less at risk of developing paranoia, they do have a strong tendency to become highly manipulative of all people around them, even if they don’t mean to, which can lead to just as dificult problems.

Space Opera

While I was talking with people about my Hyperspace Opera setting, at some point there came the inevitable comment that the name doesn’t fit because it’s not actually space opera. This always happens when you mention a genre in the context of anything you work on. It’s only a working title anyway, but out of morbid curiosity I went to look up descriptions of space opera across the internet a few days later. (And of course, it is totally space opera.)

Like all genre titles, some people use it extremely loosly, to the point of calling everythig that has space ships in it space opera. That mostly happens with journalists who put together a “30 best space operas of the last decade” list. People who actually talk about the genre itself tend to get much narrower, but being a genre don’t really reduce it down to any hard and fast rules that have any wider consensus.

In the end, space opera is something that is more defined by a feel or an aesthetic than by specific plot or setting elements. Which is of course much harder to nail down, but when looking into and comparing various descriptions of what space opera is, there are some clearly recognizable patterns.

When it comes to something feeling like space opera, there are only a few really necessary elements, whithout which a story becomes something else. In my perception, a space opera needs at least three different planets that are home to three different cultures or at least very different living conditions. If you have just Earth-Humans interacting with the aliens of one other planet, the resulting dynamics change very significantly. The story automatically becomes about this one interaction or relationship.

But the true essence of what creates the feel of space opera is the sense of a vastness of space, that is home to many things never seen or even considered possible on Earth, and which no single person can ever all explore in one lifetime. The setting in space opera has no known limits. You can always keep exploring and will always discover new strange things. Another critical element is that this sense is percieved as something positive. A space opera setting is one of endless wonders, not one of endless horrors. Space opera is full of things people want to see, not things they wish were never discovered. This is also what distinguishes it from strictly military science fiction. Those stories are about war and defeating the enemy, with no time to marvel at the wonders of the universe.

Ultimately, space opera is an expression of Romanticism (in Space!), rather than modernism. It’s an inherently fantastical genre, rather than an exploration of what could be possible, like how science fiction is commonly percieved. Space opera is about the wonder of impossible things, which really makes it more a child of fantasy than sci-fi. The technology of space flight and other marvels is an integral part of the aesthetic of space opera, but it is rarely important to the plot.

With those criteria in mind, I’ve been going through all the works .i am reasonably familiar with that one could argue as being space operas, and where I would put them.

Clearly Space Opera
  • Babylon 5
  • Dune
  • Homeworld
  • Mass Effect
  • Star Trek (60s)
  • Star Wars
Maybe Space Opera
  • Cowboy Bebop
  • Star Trek (80s and 90s)
  • StarCraft
  • The Fifth Element
Not Space Opera
  • Alien
  • Dead Space
  • Halo
  • Riddick Series
  • Stargate
  • The Expanse

Esekar Sector Map

Blue – Trade Ports
Yellow – Mining Planets
Green – Colony Worlds
Red – Fuel Stations

While it is still somewhat of a tossup between Scum and Villainy and Stars Without Number for the first Hyperspace Opera campaign, I am really liking the SWN sector map system and the worldbuilding implications that come from the limited ranges of Hyperspace drives.

The basic engines for any starship have a range of 1 hex, which takes 6 days to cover. The range and speed can be increased by upgrading the hyperdrive and installing additional fuel tanks, but aside from the costs it also takes up additional space and power that is no longer available for cargo space, weapons, and other upgrades. Since bulk cargo shipping is all about minimizing costs and speed is generally not a factor as long as the shipments arrive at a regular schedule, medium and heavy freighters are typically equipped with the cheapest hyperdrives possible. However, a range of only 1 hex rarely gets you anywhere, and a single extra fuel tank is much cheaper than an upgraded hyperdrive. As such, the standard for freighters is a range of 2 hexes, which take a transit time of 12 days.

The map shows all the possible routes for ships with a range of 2 hexes that allow them to refuel for the return trip. The systems not on the routes require at least a range of 4 hexes, which can be done with a Grade-2 hyperdrive and a single fuel tank. Such a ship is also capable of skipping any specific single systems along the freighter routes and avoid having to stop there for refueling. It also doubles the speed compared to commercial freighters, making it possible to overtake them in hyperspace and wait for them at their destination. And a Grade-3 hyperdrive that tripples the speed and range becomes a real game changer. A great thing to have the players spend all their hard earned money on and make them collect a lot of favors to get their hands on one.

A nice situation that emerged from this map is the connections between the mining planet Kamara and the two trade ports in Lupai and Ukon. Kamara is the main stronghold of the aspiring independent miners cooperative that is trying to free the miners from the control of the merchants on Lupai and Ordos. With a fuel station between Kamara and Ukon, the miners could transport their minerals to Ukon with really cheap old freighters with a range of only 1 hex, which are otherwise pretty much useless for anything else in the sector. However, that fuel station is in a location that would have very few other customers, except those who are deliberately trying to avoid having to stop at Lupai or Ukon. That completely forgettable fuel station could actually become a pretty important location for various adventures.