What Is Space Opera? And How Do You Make It?
From Christopher Sniezak
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #682
- What Is Space Opera? And How Do You Make It?
- Brief Word From Johnn
Hello RPT readers. My name is Chris Sniezak and with the approach of Star Wars: The Force Awakens I think I’m gonna write about space opera for a few months. After a few discussions with Johnn “RPT” Four – insert Johnn’s head on a giant blue genie in your mind and let it burn into your memory – he has agreed to let me do this and provide you a bunch of tools, tips, and tricks to run space opera games.
To start this off, I feel like we should talk about what space opera is. So let’s go to my favorite place to look up definitions to get started: TV Tropes.
What is Space Opera
“A space opera is a work set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story. It has an epic character to it: The universe is big, there are lots of sprawling civilizations and empires, and there are political conflicts and intrigues galore.
“Frequently it takes place in the Standard Sci Fi Setting. In perspective, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations.
Yes, it’s Star Wars. If you weren’t thinking Star Wars then it was probably whatever you were thinking, but Star Wars is the most ubiquitous example of the genre known as Space Opera. If you didn’t notice, Planetary Romance also has had a huge influence on Space Opera. John Carter of Mars is one of the most visible examples of planetary romance I can think of.
With that definition, and adding in some pieces from planetary romance, there are a list of tropes we can look at which bring out space opera as a genre. If we gamify then you can bring out the space opera in your games. Here’s the list:
- A Standard Sci Fi Setting
- Big Love Stories
- Epic Space Battles
- Exotic Locations
- Far Future Space Faring Civilization
- It Has An Epic Character To It
- Sprawling Civilizations
- Political Conflicts
- Oversized Heroes And Villains
- Technology Is Ubiquitous But Secondary To The Story
For the next few columns I’m going to dig into these. We’ll explore what they mean and how to gamify them so you can use them in your games. Let’s get to it.
Far Future Space Faring Civilization
Spaceships can travel to other planets and systems like a car drives from one city to another or a plane flies across the ocean. Space stations the size of cities just hang out in the hyperspace lanes the ships travel. They function like gas station stops on thruways, toll booths for a galactic imperium, floating colonies as a remnant of a planet or system of planets in cultural decline, or any number of civilized analogs you can think of. Don’t worry. I’ll provide a list later.
The point is the galaxy is a big place, and while there might be some unexplored parts, there are people all over the galaxy. To gamify your space opera game you need to answer a couple of questions.
- How do people get around?
- Why are they out there?
How Do People Get Around
First you need to pick a kind of way for travel to happen. This could be hyper drives standard on most ships, mass relays and FTL drives, jump gates that propel ships through a bending of space, or some kind of warp technology.
Once you’ve selected the kind of travel you want, you then need to decide what kind of limitations it has. For example:
- You can’t travel faster than warp eight without possibly doing damage to your warp core
- You can only travel at faster than light speeds from gates or relay points
- You can’t make the jump to hyperspace safely without getting the coordinates first
Space Opera doesn’t need a definition for how the tech works, but it’s good to know the constraints so you can use them for dramatic tension.
Let’s go Star Wars. First we have hyper drives. They don’t explain the physics of how a hyper drive works but we know it does. What we do learn is traveling through hyperspace isn’t safe to travel unless you have the nav computer pop in the calculations of the jump because of how complicated they are. As Han said:
“Traveling through hyperspace isn’t like dusting crops, boy. Without precise calculations we can fly right through a star or bounce too close to a super nova, and that would end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?
The other constraint on Star Wars is if the hyper drive is working or not.
With the first constraint you set up a timer so you can have chase scenes where you need to hold off whatever is chasing you long enough to get your calculations to make the jump. The second constraint creates a number of possibilities, such as jumping to hyperspace isn’t an option because you need to get your nav computer coordinates and you need to make repairs while holding off whatever is chasing you.
Example Of The Example
Han Solo is getting ready to make the jump to hyperspace as he’s being trailed by two imperial star destroyers. He thinks he just fixed the hyper drive but it’s still down. He’s got the nav computer coordinates set, he flips the switches, and nothing. It’s still broke. He tells Leia to take over the controls and then goes to fix the ship.
All he needs to do is get the hyper drive fixed before the star destroyers hit his engines and slow his ship, the Millennium Falcon, down enough to bring them into tractor beam range. Using the skill challenge system of the game, Han needs some number of successes before the star destroyers inflict enough damage to get through the shields and get into tractor beam range.
At some point during the contest a result comes up that complicates the situation and the GM decides they’re flying into an asteroid field. Now Han has a choice to fly into the asteroid field or avoid it, but be caught in the tractor beam for sure since there’s no way to make the jump to light speed in an asteroid belt and going around it puts them in tractor beam range. What will Han do?
Why Are They Out There?
The second part is knowing why people are out in space. People hang out in space for all manner of reasons and answering that question will help you know how any of your NPCs might react or respond to the PCs.
Lando Calrissian is the baron administrator of Cloud City, a tibanna gas mining colony. He won the position in a sabacc game (a gambling game) from the previous administrator and kept on attempting to go straight and build a life for himself here, which he did. Lando enjoys being the baron, but he’s also a loyal friend. So we can write this down on as to why he’s in this place:
- He loves his life as the baron administrator
- He is loyal to his people and his friends
Next, Vader comes demanding assistance with capturing the crew of the Millennium Falcon or he’ll put a stronger imperial presence on Cloud City, which pushes against Lando’s first reason for being out here. So Lando agrees to help under the conditions that Vader only takes Luke Skywalker as the rest of the Falcon’s crew are used as bait for the trap.
Once Luke is taken the others will be left in the care of Lando in Cloud City. Lando wants this concession because Han Solo is an old friend of his, which hits his second point. This puts Lando in a tough spot and gives you choices to make as play proceeds. What if Lando decides his baron administrator position is more important than being loyal to his friends? What if he decides the other way?
Creating uncertainty is a great way to answer those questions of why people are in space and creates a galaxy that is not only far, far, away, but a multifaceted place.
Things You Can Run Into In Space
I said I’d give you a list of things you could run into in space and here they are:
- Space pirates
- Hyperspace lane mappers, gate builders, or Mass Relay fabricators
- A ghost ship
- A ship hailing for help
- A destroyed ship
- A space station
- The remnants of a space battle
- A strange alien object
- A space battle
- The imperial or empire fleet
- An imperial or empire ship
- A nebula
- An asteroid belt
- A space monster (Hamster, Elder God, creature of horror)
- Salvagers salvaging ship
- An unexpected technological marvel (The Death Star, The Maw Installation, a lost science facility, a Halo Ring)
- An uncharted planet
- An alien race uncommon to the galaxy or territory you’re in
- A newly formed black hole
- A wormhole
Big Love Stories
Han and Leia, Mal and Anara, or Flash, Dale and Princess Aura. All the love the universe can handle while its fate is up in the air. Relationships abound in a lot of Space Opera, and it’s not something I find is brought up at the table for a variety of reasons I will get into right now.
I find one of the most common reasons this doesn’t come up at the game table or is glossed over is because of the emotional space you need to go to in a lot of places. It could be people flirting with people they normally wouldn’t, which can feel weird or go to places you don’t want the game going with sexual acts and such.
First off. Make your players understand it’s not that kind of game, and as the GM you do have the power to fade to black whenever you want. I also don’t remember seeing any inappropriate skin showing in any of the Star Wars movies (We can argue about slave Leia but I’m not going to) and the most physical act I saw was a kiss.
This means you can have the discussion before the game and put down the Star Wars romance rule which is:
Romantic overtones and conversations are acceptable and it goes no farther than kissing in the game.
Now that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten past the flirting with people you normally wouldn’t flirt with, which can push the game into uncomfortable spaces. So you can just leave this trope out of the game if you want. That’s always your choice. But putting that tool in your GM toolkit opens up other stories that can be told at the table. First, a personal anecdote and then ways you can handle romantic interactions if actor stance makes you uncomfortable.
I have played NPCs, both male and female, who’ve flirted, hit on, rejected, been romantically involved with, and even married characters in games I’ve run. The first time I did it I caught the player, Walter, I was flirting with a little off guard because he wasn’t expecting me to speak to him from that character’s first person point of view or actor stance. He rolled with it, and after the game was over we had a discussion with the whole group, which included men and women, if everyone was comfortable with the idea of romantic overtones in the game and handling them in actor stance.
I got permission from everyone and play proceeded forward. Several relationships and romantic situations evolved for several of the characters in that game and it provided another layer of depth to the shared narrative we were creating. Even with that agreement from the group I had a few other plans and ways to handle the situation if people weren’t comfortable with the idea of actor stance fictional relationship play, and I want to talk about them and what I did here.
Having A Conversation
We had our conversation after the game session, which was a bold move by me. Often it’s better to have a conversation about what is acceptable behavior at the table and what themes, tones, settings, and other various parts of a game your group is interested in before the game starts. It’ll help players understand what you want to happen and it’s as simple as asking a few questions:
Are relationships and romantic overtones ok as part of this game?
Are you good with it being in first person actor stance or would you prefer these parts of the game be third person or storyteller stance?
How far is too far in description? Do we want to keep this PG, PG13, R?
Playing It Out
If you’re daring like I am sometimes you can drop it into the middle of your game and see how the players react. If you do this, I suggest making it as PG as possible. A flirtatious insinuation, a partial admission of feelings, something to get the spark or the idea that romance is on the table and then see what your player does with it.
If they swerve away then let it go. If they turn into it then run with the idea, but keep it PG until after the session is over and then have the conversation. It can show you some things about the players at your table you might not get just from asking them before the game. Like I said, this is a risky move and should be taken with care. Keep it PG.
Using The X Card
John Strovopolis has invented a thing called the X card, which is a card placed on the table. Any time the game strays into a place where a player is uncomfortable they can just reach out and touch the card, and then the people who are having the scene need to stop what they’re doing and find another way to move play forward. No questions, no judgments, just stop. I like this quite a bit for games where people can be triggered by the play going on. But there’s also another way you can handle this. The genre card.
The Genre Card
If the group has had the conversation about what’s acceptable in the game, you can write the genre down on the face of an index card or Post It note and place it on the table. If someone feels another player is moving away from the genre or play space that everyone has agreed on, then they can touch the card and the players in the scene need to try another way to come back to genre. When this occurs, someone needs to jot down a note about it so a conversation can be had after the session to see what was off so the players can have a clearer vision of what they want as a group in the future.
You’re playing a Space Opera game and Katie’s character decides she wants to make the Space Dragon thing a pet and starts talking to it like it’s a puppy. Dave doesn’t think that really fits with what they’ve talked about in their game creation set up so he touched the card. Katie tries a different tact where she asks the magical space samurai character played by Kevin if he can calm the beast so they might be able to tame it. Dave is fine with that and also jots down the scene so they can have a discussion about why he touched the card after the game.
There are designs that will help give your in-game relationships more weight.
In some versions of Cortex+ you can add a die type to your pool if the relationship is relevant to the action you’re taking.
Fate uses aspects, which are a phrase you can invoke by spending a Fate point, which is a resource to help you accomplish your task. Those phrases could define your relationships.
Savage Worlds rewards players for playing towards making the game better. If you have a relationship that matters and play out a scene that makes the game more enjoyable, memorable, or meaningful concerning that relationship, then you gain a benny, which is a resource.
Those are the examples, but they break down into these concepts you can apply:
Concept 1: When you take an action to accomplish a task that includes the character you have a relationship with or benefits the character you have a relationship with you gain a bonus relevant to making the task easier.
For example, Jane and Katie are a hired gun and a tech on a spaceship flying the verse and doing jobs. Jane is in love with Katie. Katie is hanging off the edge of a building about to fall to her death. It’s Jane’s turn and she runs across the roof of the building and slides in to grab Katie’s hand before she falls. The GM decides Jane’s player gains a die to add to their dice pool because of the way Jane feels about Katie.
Concept 2: When you take an action that makes the game more memorable, enjoyable, or meaningful you gain a resource to be spent later. This only works in a game with a resource you can spend.
For example, Leia and Han have been infatuated with each other during the most recent story arc. Han making advances at Leia and Leia being confused about it. Now they’re captured by the enemy and Han is about to be put into carbonite stasis, which might kill him. Leia takes the plunge and admits she loves Han. This garners her player a resource point she can spend later in play. Han responds with “I know” and then he is placed in carbonite stasis. This causes Leia to be confused and wondering what Han actually meant by his words and gains Han a resource point to be spent later. Whenever later is.
More Romance Tips
Here are some additional tips for adding romance to your games:
The End Is Just The Beginning
So there’s some of the Space Opera tropes. I ran out of room but fear not. I’ll be back with more star flug advice next month and I can’t wait. So until then, may the force be with you, or live long and prosper, or whatever your cup of Space Opera is. Goodbye and I’ll catch you on the other side of Alpha Centauri.
Brief Word From Johnn
Freebie Alert: RPT#1-#680 Plain Text Format
I have an early Christmas gift for you.
If you have been looking for an offline version of all past RPT issues, the plain text archive might be for you.
All the issues from the first to #680 are available for a limited time to you as thanks for being a loyal subscriber and game master.
Each issue is in its own txt file to make it easy to open issues or add them to your preferred reader software.
(I’ll leave the link up until the end of the year.)
Win Dice & Mystery Loot
Each month I do a random Patron draw and send the winner a set of Easy Roller dice and something from my magic Chest of Mystery GM Loot.
In previous months, the dice draw was restricted to Platinum Patrons only. However, after consulting with Platinum Patrons and getting their blessing, I’ve opened the monthly prize draw to Gold Patrons too.
And I’m about to draw the next winner this week (and I’m also giving away my set of Adventure Dice by Flying Buffalo!). Now is the time to become a Patron and get the monthly Roleplaying Tips Omnibus, exclusive articles, and a chance each month to win some dice and mystery loot.)
How To GM Epic Grand Finales
Speaking of exclusive articles, I’ve just posted the latest for my awesome Patrons. It’s 41 pages and over 10,000 words!
In it you will learn:
- The different types of campaigns and campaign structures
- How to choose the campaign structure that perfectly matches the endgame you want
- What not to do at the very end of a campaign (or risk a player riot)
- How to outline your campaign for a brilliant climax
- The important phase after the climax you should GM each time
I ask thee again, Save vs. Awesome and become a Patron to support RPT. 🙂
I’m taking the next couple weeks to break from the newsletter and rest up for a 2016 that’s going to be an awesome one for helping you have more fun at every game.
Lots of GMing topics will be covered in RPT (and topic requests are always welcome).
I’m working on tips for creating and GMing puzzles, how to create awesome rumours and clues, game master organization tools, and more.
See you in 2016!
GM Tip Exchange
Tips shared by your fellow readers to help your GMing. Have a tip to share? Just hit reply. Thanks!
Creating Quick Kingdom Histories
From Chris N.
I’d like to share an easy way to come up with the history of a kingdom, nation, or even a star-spanning empire.
I look at the map of Earth for places with similar geographical features. I narrow that list down to one by choosing the nation with the most cultural similarities. For a fantasy world, I look at ancient history, while for a more modern game I read about that nation’s recent history. Finally, I write up the history of my invented nation to closely mirror the real history of the place I have chosen.
Few players have studied history enough to recognize the source nation, especially after the specific events have been altered to fit the campaign world. The derived history has enough details and quirks to lend it a sense of realism. I have also discovered that many real historical events are more surprising or mysterious than anything I would have thought to invent on my own.
I hope that is helpful. Thank you for the tips newsletter and I look forward to reading the next issue.
What’s Inscribed In The Ring?
From a quick brainstorm done in the Game Master Tips G+ group:
- A wedding anniversary date.
- Take this and choke on it.
- My other ring is a priceless artifact.
- Strange grooves that look vaguely like the markings of an ancient script but turn out to be made to fit a keyhole.
- A marking that corresponds to a place on a map. Together with 4 other rings, it shows the way to an ancient magical treasure.
- A recipe for cake.
- What looks like tiny scribblings are actually the streets of a shrunken city that’s been cursed by a wizard.
- The inscription changes, depending on what someone writes into the book that is linked to the ring.
- The lost incantation of immortality. Sadly, part of it has been made unreadable through wear and tear.
- The name of the witch who enchanted the ring to make every man fall in love with her, as soon as he reads the name.
- My other ring is a priceless artifact.
- Insert finger here.
- Love M.G.
- The end is the beginning
- Elysium’s gate
- Walk the path of Verdak
- The command word for the wand.
- The settings for a puzzle lock in a distant tower.
- A prophecy.
Ring Idea #1
The ring is unmarked. As soon as someone puts it on, a countdown appears in beautiful, handwritten letters. When the countdown is over, the ring grants an effect. The effect depends on which finger of which hand you put the ring on (it fits automatically).
Ring Idea #2
All the horrible acts the person wearing it has performed. It is a “bane” band and cannot be removed. Losing the finger will cause it to return to another digit at dawn.
Their karma is locked while wearing it and they cannot improve as a person until they perform acts of atonement in excess of their deeds. (They gain either 1/2 xp or similar penalty at DM’s discretion.)
Also animals and small children dislike them.
Once they have improved their karma, the ring erupts with precious stones and may be removed and sold. If kept, it will allow the player to endure elements and will grow from a “blessing” to a protection from evil, to a wish after being worn 10 levels.
Ring Idea #3
The markings on the ring are symbols on a map, but you need to insert a special prism inside the ring to reflect them. You need the map, the prism, and the ring to decipher the secret.
Ring Idea #4
A ring that’s part of a set. When all rings in the set are worn on one hand the wearer can scribe a special spell.
Tipsters: Paul Kießhauer, Johnn Four, Shawn H Corey, Christopher Sniezak, Mike Aldridge, Scott Swift, Rob Wilkison, Mike Elston, Romulus Stoica, Rick Stump, Alan Walkowiak, Alan Kellogg, Brad Hazzard, Pierre Savoie, Michael Briggs.
From David Ellsworth
When you are short of minis, especially for those minions who come in swarms (who has 12 kobolds anyway?) I use Starburst candies. I leave them wrapped and they form a just about perfect 1 inch square. Plus, with the wrapper on I can use a soft tip marker or pen to number the villains to help keep track of hit points.
The added bonus for the players is when they kill the monster they get to eat the candy!
A tiny Nerds candy box works pretty well for a large creature. And if you know ahead of time, an individually wrapped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup could work for really big monsters (but check for allergies first).
My friends and I have been doing this for a couple of months now and the players love the candy, and I love not having to purchase all the minis.
Powered by the Apocalypse Style Moves In 5E
From Ed Wilson
While many skills are presented in the 5E PHB, there are few concrete rules presented for using them, particularly the mental and social skills. Here, I will attempt to codify a few of those in the style of Moves from various games Powered by the Apocalypse.
When you deliberately try to tell someone a lie, roll Charisma (Deception) opposed by the target’s Wisdom (Insight).
On a success, they accept the falsehood, but you have disadvantage on further attempts to lie to them during that scene. If you succeed by 5 or more, they accept the lie completely at face value, and believe anything you subsequently tell them to support the lie.
On a failure, the target immediately demands proof to back up your lie. If you fail by 5 or more, the target won’t believe anything you say for the rest of the scene, and may become hostile.
When you use innuendo, body language, and code words to try to convey a message while disguising its true meaning, roll a Charisma (Deception) opposed by Wisdom (Insight) check of the person with the highest bonus of those who might listen in on the conversation.
On a success, the person you meant the message for understands your meaning.
On a failure, the person still understands your message, but so does someone you didn’t want to understand it. If you fail by 5 or more, the person it was intended for doesn’t understand the message, but someone you didn’t want to understand it does.
When you try to read a person, roll Wisdom (Insight) against a DC of 10. To read a person, you have to either engage them in conversation for at least a minute, or observe them interacting with someone else for at least that long.
On a success, at any time while interacting with the target in the same scene, you can ask one question from the list below. If you succeed by 5 or more, you can ask three questions instead.
- Are they telling the truth?
- What are they really feeling?
- What do they intend to do?
- What do they wish I’d do?
- How could I get them to _____?
On a failure, the NPC gets the answer to one of these questions from you, and you must answer truthfully. If you fail by 5 or more, the NPC gets the answer to three of these questions.
Special: The DM can choose to oppose this with a Charisma (Deception) roll made in secret if the target is trying to hide their true intentions. In that case, use the result to determine success or failure instead of 10.
If the player would get the answer to one or three questions against 10, but only one or none based on the Charisma (Deception) check, then the DM has permission to feed them false answers to the excess questions.
When you threaten violence to get someone to do what you want, roll Charisma (Intimidation) opposed by the target’s Wisdom (Insight).
On a success, they do what you want, but you have to make them a promise first. If you succeed by 5 or more, they do what you want right away.
On a failure, they think you’re bluffing, and if you don’t follow through with your threat, you have disadvantage to Charisma (Intimidation) rolls against them until you do.
When you invoke authority (real or imagined) to get someone to do what you want, roll Charisma (Intimidation) opposed by the target’s Wisdom (Insight).
On a success, they do what you say. If you succeed by 5 or more, you have advantage on Charisma (Intimidation) rolls to give them further orders.
On a failure, they refuse to take orders from you for the rest of the scene.
When you attempt to deduce something from evidence before you, roll Intelligence (Investigation) against a DC set by the DM.
On a success, you can ask one of the following questions. If you succeed by 5 or more, you can ask two of these questions instead.
- What happened here?
- What kind of creature are we dealing with?
- What can it do?
- What can hurt it?
- Where did it go?
- What was it going to do?
- What is being concealed here?
When you look for wider patterns that current events might be part of, roll Intelligence (Investigation) against a DC set by the DM.
On a success, you can ask the DM one of the following questions. If you succeed by 5 or more, you can ask three of these questions instead.
- Is ______ connected to current events more than they are saying?
- When and where will the next critical event occur?
- What does ______ want from this person?
- Is this connected to previous events?
- How does this connect to the bigger picture?
When you attempt to read a tense situation, roll Wisdom (Perception) against a DC of 15.
On a success, you can ask the DM one of the following questions. If you succeed by 5 or more, you can ask three of the following questions instead.
- Where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
- Which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
- Which enemy is the biggest threat?
- What should I be on the lookout for?
- What’s my enemy’s true position?
- Who is in control here?
When you perform your chosen art or put its product before an audience, roll Charisma (Performance) against a DC set by the DM.
On a success, name an NPC member of the audience and choose one effect below. If you succeed by 5 or more, you can choose up to three NPCs and choose a different effect for each instead.
- This person must meet me.
- This person must have my services.
- This person loves me.
- This person must give me a gift.
- This person admires my patron.
On a failure, your performance is still passable, but no effect is generated.
When you use leverage to get someone to do what you want, roll Charisma (Persuasion) opposed by the target’s Wisdom (Insight).
On a success, they do what you want in exchange for a promise.
On a failure, they need concrete assurances that you can do what you say you’ll do immediately. Prove it, and they’ll do what you ask in exchange for a promise.
Knowledge (Arcana, History, Nature, Religion) Moves
When you draw on your knowledge of a subject for information relevant to your current situation, roll Intelligence (Arcana, History, Nature, or Religion.
On a success, the DM reveals a relevant piece of information based on which knowledge skill you used. If you succeed by 5 or more, you gain advantage on the next roll you make while acting on this information.