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.

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.

Esekar Sector

The Esekar Sector is a small region on the remote edges of Known Space, named after the brightest star within its boundaries. It is located near the frontier regions of Enkai, Netik, and Damalin dominated space. The first mining colonies in the sector were established around 200 years ago, mostly by various Netik and Enkai mining clans. At the height of the mining operations, the total population of the sector reached up to 20 million people, but since most of the easily accessible deposits of palladium and irridium have been depleted and most of the mining fleets moved on to other sectors, that number has fallen to less than half of that. Today only a single mining clan is still operating on Dresat, but there are dozens of smaller independent mines struggling to stay in operation by scraping away at deposits considered nonprofitable by the major interstellar mining companies.

Ordos

(population: 4 million Damalin and others)

The planet Ordos is the primary commercial center of the Esekar Sector and home to nearly half of its population. Unlike most of the other planets in the sector, the original colony on Ordos was not established as a mining operation but as a parmanent trade port and location for food production, banks, and high-tech manufacturing. The entire colony with its multiple settlements is a consortium of several Damalin companies from the neighboring Teoher Sector. While small private businesses exist on Ordos, all the infrastructure is run and owned by the consortium, which is also the sole landlord for all properties on the planet. Ordos was specifically chosen for its mild climate and dense vegetation, which puts it into stark contrast with the mostly barren desert planets selected by the mining clans for their rich mineral resources. The planet is the closest thing anywhere in the Esekar sector to the urban worlds of the home systems, though that illusion quickly disappears as one gets close to the outer edges of the main cities, where the the buildings first give way to massive crops fields and then to seemingly endless forests that cover nearly all of the planet.

Lupai

(population: 1.5 million Enkai)

Though the planey Lupai is home to a wide range of plants and animals, it has relatively little surface water and atmospheric water vapor, which combined with a mostly mildly warm climate makes it a near paradise for Enkai. It is home to more than half of the Enkai population in the entire Esekar Sector. In many ways Lupai is quite similar to Ordos, being a major trade hub for the sector and effectively ruled by companies. However, there is no central government on Lupai and the nine major cities are each owned by diferent Enkai companies. Despite their competition, the merchant houses are unified to some degree by their rivalry with Ordos. The significantly greater size of the Damalin cartel could easily drive any single one of the Enkai companies out of business, but by making agreements to not underprice each other for certain goods on certain planets, they have so far managed to survive, even with the disappearance of most mining clans from the sector.

Dresat

(population: 2.5 million Netik, Enkai, Tubaki, and Chosa)

Even though Ordos and Lupai are the main economic centers of the Esekar Sector, Dresat is the sole reason they are having any business at all. Dresat is a rocky and barren planet that is nearly constantly shrouded in a sickly yellow haze that can cast the surface into twilight even in the middle of the day, and would never have attracted any colonists if not for its rich deposits of palladium and iridium. The entire planet has been claimed as the property of a Netik mining clan that has been opperating massive strip mines in several different sites on the surface for well over a century. While the mining operations have been scaled down over time, there are still well over a million miners employed by the mining clan and all the remaining economy of the planet exist solely to support the mine. When the mining clan will move out of the sector, many people expect Dresat to become nearly uninhabited within a decade. But the immenent closure of the mine has been predicted for over 50 years and it somehow still generates enough profits to justify its continued exiatence instead of relocating the entire operation to a new planet in a different sector, like all the other mining clans have done years ago.

Kulpin

(population: 600,000 Enkai)

Kulpin is another major Enkai colony in the sector. The jungles here are extremely dense and dominated by gargantuan trees, which cast most of the planet’s surface into permanent shadows. Most settlements are build on tall rocky hills and cliffs that rise above the surrounding forest, where the humidity is much lower than on the forest floor and more bearable for the Enkai residents.

Ataris

(population: 400,000 Mahir)

This planet is almost entirely covered in jagged mountains, glaciers, and frozen seas, orbiting a single faint red dwarf star. Though considered inhospitable by most species, it is actually home to a sizable Mahir population. In the face of nearly constant freezing winds, all settlements are build inside vast caverns inside the mountain peaks. There is some mining going on, but many of the old abandoned mines have been turned into research and testing facilities of various Mahir companies. The outside environment and underground nature of settlements makes it practically impossible to get in and out undetected and the massive stone walls prevent any attempts of raiding them by force, which can be an important advantage over space stations when working in a violently competitive industry.

Kamara

(population: 400,000 Enkai, Netik, and Tubaki)

Kamara used to be one of the main mining worlds in the sector that has been stripped mined by an Enkai mining clan for over a century before it was abandoned. Unlike Dresat, Kamara has relatively clear air with great open blue skies, and a mild climate that allows most species to be outside all day without any protective equipment. It also does not require any seals on habitats to keep out dangerous gases or particles in the air. Though being quite dry and dominated mostly by barren deserts, Kamara actually has some native plant life, but it is completely inedible to most species and both Netik and Jurikk agree that those plants they can digest are rather unappealing. The ability to grow foreign plants out in the open with the help of industrial fertilizers has allowed Kamara to become home to the largest number of independent miners in the whole sector, most of which are the descendants of former workers of the old strip mines.

Palan

(population: 200,000 Amai)

Palan is a planet almost entirely covered by water with only a few volcanic islands scattered across the ocean’s surface. Because of this it has been of little interest to either miners or settlers in the past, but has been chosen as the site of one of the first Amai colonies outside their home system. The colony on Palan has been established only 30 years ago, but small expansions keep being added to it to this day. It is almost entirely subsidized by the homeworld and what little industry exists on Palan is mostly a proof of concept for factories on new worlds and doesn’t make any profits. The only meaningful export of Palan is a kind of wine that sells for a good price on the homeworld, but really mostly for the novelty rather than the taste. The Amai mostly keep to themselves and have little contact with the other planets of the Esekar Sector.

Tornesh

(population: 300,000 Netik, Chosa, Tubaki)

Like Kamara, Tornesh is a mining planet that has been abandoned by the mining clans ages ago. However, its environment is far less hospitable, being much hotter and barren of any native life, and big sandstorms being quite common. Netik and Chosa are the only people who aren’t overly bothered by these conditions, but for some reason several thousand Tubaki still continue to endure the harsh environment and having no ambition to head for somewhere less hostile. While the miners on Kamara have established something of a civil society with public infrastructure and a sense of order, Tornesh is pure chaos and anarchy. There is no real authority on the planet, only various gangs defending their own claims over the increasingly crumbling old settlements. It’s an open secret throughout the sector that a good portion of minerals being shipped from Tornesh are being mined by slaves.

The Believability of remote Colony Worlds

As someone who knows a bit about the demographic shift and how population sizes change both during and after industrialization, the idea of galactic empires with hundreds of billions or even trillions of humans never made any sense to me. I guess overpopulation was a serious public concern in the 1960s, but statisticans had already figuted out that the massive global population boom of the 20th century would not continue indefinitely into infinity decades earlier. Industrializing societies grow rapidly. Industrialized ones don’t. From all the data we have, if they don’t get large scale immigration, they actually begin to shrink, and quite dramatically. Eatimates are that the human population of Earth will peak at 11 billion at some point in the mid 21st century and then most likely tank dramatically over the next 100 years unless extensive government programs are set up to encourage people to have at least 2 children on average. There just isn’t going to be any people to settle hundreds or even thousands of planets without radical breeding programs. Programs that would cost a lot of money without providing any benefits, unless humanity were in some kind of cosmic war of attrition. I guess it would work for Warhammer 40k.

A very simple solution to having a species colonize numerous planets while being demographically plausible is to simply have colonies with smaller population sizes. We have started using the word billion so commonly in our modern language that it can be easy to forget that a billion is a thousand million. Even if just a single percent of a species of 10 billion individuals lives on other planets than the homeworld, that’s still 100 million people. That’s a scale like having 10 countries like Austria or the Netherlands. You could even have 20 New Zealands or 65 Hawaiis. Have a whole colony exist as a single primary settlement and you can have a city of a million people. That’s not as big as New York, Chicago, or Tokyo, but it is a seriously big city that could even have a few modest skyscrapers if it wants to feel a bit fancy.

If you have some 10 alien species with around 10 billion people each, even when 99% of them live on the 10 homeworlds, you can still have several hundred colonies with poplations in the millions. And many many more with populations in the hundreds or tens of thousands. A billion colonists can populate thousands of colony worlds if you spread them out a little.

Now a new question I’ve been pondering this week is how long the travel times between inhabited worlds could be without regular contact between them appearing implausible. I quite like the idea of moving them really quite far apart so that in situations where the players find themselves tied up in some local crisis, it can take weeks before outside forces can arrive to interfere. I think that makes local politics much more meaningful and gives the players much more time to solve dangerous situations themselves before the cavalry arrives.

The idea of transplanting small populations to really far away places and letting them fend for themselves, and people actually signing up for it because it sounds like a good life is not a new one. It actually happened several times in our fairly recent history. The main examples that always come to my mind are Honolulu in Hawaii, Perth in Western Australia, and New Zealand. A hundred years ago, the Hawaiian islands had a population of 250,000 people, 84% of which had been recent imigrants, mostly from Japan and the US mainland. At that time, Perth had a similar population, and New Zealand a population of just over 1 million. Since then, Hawaii has grown to 1.5 million, Perth to 2 million, and New Zealand to 5 million. If you look at a globe with Hawaii in the center, it almost  looks like it’s the only significant piece of dry land on the whole planet. From Perth, it’s thousands of kilometers of open ocean to the West and South, and thousands of empty desert to the North and East. It is easy to imagine them sitting on a different planet entirely.

Today, getting to these places is really quite easy. 4 hours on a plane to reach major global population centers really is nothing. But it is not that long ago that people accepted a very different reality as simply being part of life. A convoy shipping soldiers from Austrlia to Egypt in 1914 took seven weeks to cross the Indian Ocean. Reinforcements for Pearl Harbor in 1944 took 12 days to travel from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Hawaii in the 1940s was not some primitive agrarian society that was agriculturally self-sufficient to see to all its simple needs. It was a fairly modern world with refridgerators, gas stations and radio music, really not that different from ours. If they could live in modern comfort this far removed from any other civilization, then so could space colonists with all kinds of fancy fabrication technologies.

When considering travel times between planets, 10 days in hyperspace to reach the next nearby colony or 50 days to travel to the homeworld are absolutely justifiable. Of course they would be remote, but that wouldn’t make them cut off from the culture and economy of galactic society. A small colony of a few hundred thousand people a month of travel removed from their homeworld can still have all the comforts of civilization, with access to advanced medicines for even uncommon ailments, and getting imports of music, movies, and games from all across the galaxy.

10 days of hyperspace travel between systems on average feels like a good guideline for my own setting. It would be plausible for the kind of societies I am imagining. Also, building on my earlier calculations for the economy of interstellar shipping fees, having something shipped to the next planet would cost about 10€ per kg, assuming a small space freighter can be bought for 5 million € and you can take 5% profit after operating costs. You wouldn’t want to pay that much for shipping for grain or concrete, but for importing electronics or medicine that a small colony can’t produce locally, that’s actually pretty cheap.

Nothing of this is in any way a solid model (because the capabilities of space ships are completely made up), but you can poke a setting like this quite a lot before it starts showing serious holes.

Some thoughts on the economy of space cargo transportation

On today’s episode of really unneccessary iceberg worldbuilding: “What are the shipping fees in space?”

I’ve been thinking recently about how fast I want space travel between star systems to be in my space setting, and that had me pondering the costs for transporting cargo and the prices for buying and operating a space ship. I think I want to go with a setting in which travel between systems takes relatively long. More like taking a steam ship from Europe to Australia than taking a plane. But longer travel times mean greater shipping costs, and to be economical, cargo ships would need greater capacity, or alternatively very high value cargo. At some point, the travel times are either too long or the shpping costs way too high to make any sense.

In the Space Scoundrel genre, one requirement is that an experienced pilot can have the ability to raise the money for a small cargo ship, and generate enough income with cargo delivery jobs to cover both fuel and maintenance costs and pay off the debts. Many Space Scoundrels are in rather different situations that often involve various amounts of violence and crime, but to get away with that, it has to be possible to do with completely legitimate and legal means. There need to be honest bush pilots for the scoundrels to hide among them.

I think to be worth the financial risk, it should be possible to make enough income with a small cargo ship to pay off the loans or investors that made purchasing the ship possible within 10 years. If it would take much longer than that even when having decent business coming your way, I don’t think it would be worth the trouble. To make the calculation easier, let’s say 11 years, which is very close to 4,000 days. You’ll always have some days that you spend waiting for new customers, having repairs done, being stuck in customs, or just taking a break, so I think it’s really more like 3,000 work days doing actual business.

I’ve been looking up prices for old cargo planes and also found the purchase price and daily operating cost for a C-130 military medium cargo plane. Taking those things into account, I came up with the following approximations.

If you buy a cargo ship for 3,000,000c, and want to have it payed off in 3,000 days, you have to make a profit of 1,000c every day. If your ship has a cargo capacity of 2o tons (like a C-130) and you want to take a 5% profit margin, you have to demand a fee of 20,000c per day for your whole cargo hold. That makes 1,000c per ton of cargo, or 1c per kg.

Assuming that 1c is about $1 (and you can get an old plane of decent size for under $3,00,000), paying $10 per kg for a 10 day delivery doesn’t seem that prohibitive. You wouldn’t pay these fees on delivering grain, cement, or paper, but for electronics or medicine $10 in shipping fees could actually be quite cheap. Raising the cost to 20c or 30c for double or tripple the distance could still be acceptable to customers who just can’t get the goods from any more nearby source.

An average of 10 days of travel between inhabited planets would mean at least 20 days to send a message and get a reply just from the nearest neighboring system. If you have to call in help from two or three systems away, it could well take months before it arrives. As space settings go, this would make individual systems quite isolated. But it still would allow a group of PCs to visit different planets quite easily throughout a campaign. And running an independent light freighter cargo business would still look economically plausible as well.

Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn’t really. But if I now start telling players that a pilot can buy an old ship with room for four people, and make a decent income carrying two shipping containers through space for weeks at a time, I’ll be feeling a lot more comfortable about players asking questions how such a thing might be possible.