Space Opera Part 2: Building The Setting Core Elements - Roleplaying Tips

Space Opera Part 2: Building The Setting Core Elements

From Christopher Sniezak

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #685

What is the standard sci-fi setting? This is debatable, but for this I’m using TV Tropes as my basis, so let’s go with their definition:

In the far future, the [faction a] fights a pitched battle against the mighty [faction b] Empire, but deep in the mysterious [region of space], among the ruins of the past, a darker threat looms.”

You can create permutations on this formula, but it’s a solid mad lib for you to fill in to have the basis for most sci-fi plots, and it works well for Space Opera. There’s some more to it, though, so let’s hit the checklist of the standard sci-fi setting material that seems to work best for space opera.

Easy Faster-Than-Light Travel

In my last article I talked a little about how people get around as part of a Far Future Spacefaring Civilization and putting limitations on those methods. Now I want to talk a little more in depth about those methods and how you can put some limitations on them to make them more gameable.

There are three kinds of FTL travel methods employed in various sci-fi settings: hyper drives, jump drives, and warp drives.

  • Hyper drives: The ship leaves local space and travels in another dimension where it can move faster. Star Wars uses this technology, as does Warhammer 40K.
  • Jump drives: The ship vanishes and reappears elsewhere. The infinite probability drive from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one such example. Any ship that can fold space or create a wormhole could also be considered a kind of jump drive ship.
  • Warp drives: The ship moves a lot faster. See Star Trek for every example you’ll ever need.

Now let’s talk about some more constraints you could use for your space opera game.

Hyper Drive Constraints

Chase scenes are out: Hyper-driven ships vanish into another dimension to travel, so you’re probably not having any kind of normal-space chase scenes. Ships utilizing this kind of travel can be tracked by putting a tracker on them so when they emerge from hyperspace the tracker knows where they are, or, if it’s possible in your game, trackers can be followed through hyperspace.

Hyperspace is dangerous: If you’re playing in a setting like Warhammer 40K, then maybe your hyperspace is dangerous or has dangerous things in it, so traveling via hyperspace, while easy, isn’t safe or without risk.


The Bastion, a merchant ship, is trying to escape from pirates. They Bastion’s captain chooses to jump into hyperspace, using a hyperspace lane that is on the “do not travel” list because the last dozen ships who’ve used it have disappeared.

The captain has decided to jump instead of giving his ship over to the pirates, and so the ship jumps. As soon as it does, the crew notices this version of hyperspace is not typical. The color of the lane is a blood red instead of the white and blue plasma-like tunnel they’re used to seeing. Then the eyes start appearing on the inside surface of the ship.

Jump Drive Constraints

  • Time is less impactful: Jump drives let ships traverse great distances in no time at all, which allows for the passage of time to be a far less impactful part of space travel.
  • Make jumping a resource: One of my favorite ways to constrain jump drive technology is to make it a resource you can’t always use. While you can jump anywhere, and it takes no time at all, you can’t do it at will.
  • Jumping paints a target: Make jumping noticeable. If your jump drive creates a wormhole or folding space to travel, then make wherever you’re going and wherever you came from easy to see before you get there. This means it’s less useful to use your jump drive for surprise. For example, opening a wormhole in the middle of a fleet of ships is less useful if they can blast you through it just as you appear.


The captain of the Bastion has just discovered his most hated enemy, the Precept of the Indomitable, is getting ready to turn the surface of Earth, the home world of most of the crew of the Bastion, into a smoldering ruin. The captain calls for a jump to Earth and the Bastion starts to fold space.

As it does, the crew sees the Indomitable firing blasts down at the surface of the planet, but another capital ship starts firing shots at the Bastion while she’s still in the folded space. The shots slam into the Bastion, inflicting quite a bit of damage to the shields. Finally the Bastion makes its way through the folded space, but its shields are almost gone.

Warp Speed Constraints

You can have chases: Since warp speed is just about going very fast, it means you can have the chase happen. The last Star Trek movie had a neat chase sequence at warp speed, and the Borg running down the USS Enterprise is a great example from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

How hard to push the engines: If a ship can normally travel at speed X, then making it go at greater than speed X should mean something. This could be a chance of breaking the ship’s warp systems, running out of energy, having less energy for other systems, overheating the ship’s systems so it takes time before they can be used again, or the overheated ship systems having a much greater chance of breaking down.


The Bastion has just warped to Earth to stop the Indomitable from destroying the shipyards, but it’s too late. The Indomitable fires its last torpedo and then jumps to warp. The Bastion jumps to warp in pursuit, but the Indomitable’s warp core isn’t as heated as the Bastion’s, and Indomitable is traveling at a higher warp than would be comfortable for the Bastion.

The captain of the Bastion ignores the chief engineer’s warning and has the ship pursue at speeds reckless for the current situation. They get close enough to fire a few times and damage the Indomitable’s shields, but then the Bastion’s warp core cracks and it’s either come out of warp or risk blowing up the Bastion from inside. The captain makes the difficult choice of dropping out of warp to fix the Bastion and lets the Indomitable go.

Mystical/Metaphysical Elements

The Force is a mystical element, and don’t let the midi-chlorian fallacy confuse you. Look it up and you’ll be doing yourself a favor. Let me get back on point. Typically there’s some energy or ability that looks a lot like magic in Space Opera. The force is one version, Biotics from the Mass Effect series is another example, and the powers the Forerunners use in Halo would qualify too. The last two are working off the premise that any technology sufficiently advanced is no different than magic.

These metaphysical/mystical elements function no differently than magic in your game, it’s just how the trappings are implemented. So decide what the magic can do and what the limiting factors are. Most games already have this set up for you. Star Wars has a system for how the Force is used. If you’re using a tool kit system like Savage Worlds or Fate, those also have base components, such as power points and a variety of magical systems in the Fate Tool Kit.

Now, let’s take this down a level and provide you some ideas for systems that provide the limitations and trappings that work in space opera.


The Slot system is a reference to the newest edition of D&D, where you have a number of slots of power you can use to produce effects. When you run out of slots, you’ve run out of power. Those slots can also be levels to denote using more powerful abilities or making weaker abilities more powerful.

The Points system is similar to the slot system but provides a little more flexibility. You have a number of points to spend on your abilities, and as long as you can keep spending points on all your higher-end abilities, you can keep using them.

Using health as the resource to power your abilities is one of my favorite systems because it’s the idea of power with a cost. You can use your powers until you put yourself in the ground if you want, since every time you use them you hurt yourself a little bit more. I find this system works most effectively with games where you can sustain lasting and more permanent injuries, since if your game has some healing effect you can just use healing plus power to keep going, making the choice to use your power an uninteresting one.

Time is always an interesting resource to use. You might have the metaphysical punch your allies don’t, but it takes you longer to warm up that punch. You might also be able to find the answer using your metaphysical skills, but it takes time, and is the time it takes worth the risk of not acting? It’s hard to make time the limitation, but it can have interesting effects on your game.


Psychic Powers are the powers of the mind, and some of the more commonly used abilities with these powers are telepathy, clairvoyance, pyrokinesis, telekinesis, postcognition, precognition, empathy, psychic link, and even teleportation at the extremes of the trapping.

Life Energy can do just about anything since it’s more of a resource you can mold into effects. It’s just about how you decide to put limitations on it, and I like using health with this particular trapping. They just fit together nicely.

Functional Magic is just that, and you can stick this with any kind of technology, metaphysical, or mystical trapping you want. You just need to attach one or more of limitations to it and then the trapping of your setting. Biotics in Mass Effect, as I mentioned before, are one way in which a technology has been turned into a metaphysical way to handle functional magic.

A Bunch Of Alien Races

Most space opera has a bunch of alien races, and some of them can just be background flavor for your game – see the cantina scene in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, for example. At other times they can have a more prominent role or abilities in your game. Chewbacca and Jabba the Hutt spring to mind as major figures in Star Wars, as does Watto since his race are immune to the mental manipulations of the force. So let’s take what I just said and break it down as pieces you can use in your game.

Aliens as flavor. This gives your game the feel of a galaxy that is huge and filled with all manner of civilizations. It helps reinforce the setting of your space opera game.

Aliens as prominent NPCs. This gives you a chance to take one of the alien races from the background and show them off a little bit more, what their society is like, what they care about, how they operate, any special abilities they might have, and to set a status quo or expectation for aliens of that type. Jabba is a gangster, which shows many of the Hutts of the Galaxy are crime lords. Watto’s race of Toydarians are immune to the mind tricks of the Jedi.

Aliens as PCs. This means your players get to bring some of the alien feel to the game and make an alien’s presence normal. It’s a way to not only bring an alien from the background to the foreground, like with the NPC alien, but put it in a prominent place to show off what makes it different from the typical humans of the setting. Chewbacca has a great amount of loyalty to Han and listens to him. The player playing him would know the Wookiee race would be honorable and yet savage at times, plus that honor would put them in a position of being bound by a life debt to those who earned it, as Han had done with Chewbacca.

An Empire as a Faction

It’s almost unbelievable how much Star Wars has either codified this genre or created it. The Imperial Empire is the best example of this in all of space opera. So with any faction, I suggest using my faction pyramid technique from previous issues of RPT#644 & RPT#652.

Space As An Ocean

Ever notice it’s called the Imperial Navy? That the term ship is used a lot in a number of spacefaring stories? Fleet is another one that gets tossed around. Torpedo, frigate, destroyer, admiral, captain – all these terms are in relation to nautical vessels and get applied to spacefaring ones. So what does this mean for your space opera game?

It’s just another way for you to help create the atmosphere for your game. Describing a destroyer next to a frigate helps give a sense of scope and size to space battles and chases. Saying the whole fleet is on your ship’s tail or two star destroyers are blockading the planet gives that space opera feel while providing a touchstone for your players and you to use. With that said, here are a series of terms and what they mean to help you bring out the space as an ocean in your game:

Adrift: A vessel not under control and is floating in space based on its last known course due to its inertia until some gravitational body acts on it.

All Hands: The whole ship’s crew, usually with some other order. “All hands, battle stations.

Battle Stations: An announcement to signal the crew to prepare for battle.

Battleship: Heavily armored and armed spaceship.

Belay: An order to halt a current activity or countermand an order prior to execution.

Berth: The safety margin of distance to be kept by a vessel from some other object.

Board: To enter the vessel.

Bridge: The command center.

Capital Ships: A navy’s most important warships, generally possessing the heaviest firepower and armor.

Captain: The person in command of a vessel.

Come about: To change direction.

Commission: To formally place a naval vessel into active service.

Commodore: A military rank used in many navies. Higher than a captain but below a rear admiral.

Corvette: Lightly armored ship that’s smaller than a frigate.

Course: The direction in which a vessel is being steered.

Crew: The members of a ship’s company who are not officers.

Cruiser: A well-shielded ship with a variety of armaments of various sizes. Always smaller than a battleship and larger than a destroyer.

Deck: A way to designate the different levels of a ship.

Decommission: To formally take a vessel out of active service.

Destroyer: A fast and maneuverable warship used to protect capital ships, as an escort for larger ships in a fleet, convoy, or in a battle group to defend against smaller and faster ships.

Dock: To attach to a space port so individuals can board or disembark from the ship.

Dreadnought: A battleship that uses an “all-big-gun” armament. Its primary battery of its largest guns are the main weapons, and the rest of its armaments are intended for close-range defense or point defense.

First lieutenant: The senior lieutenant on board. Responsible to the commanding officer for the domestic affairs of the ship’s company. Also known as Number One.

First mate: The second in command on a ship.

Flagship: The lead ship in a fleet of vessels.

Frigate: A general purpose warship smaller than a destroyer.

Head: The forwardmost or uppermost portion of the ship.

The Helm and Helmsman: The ship’s steering mechanism and the person who steers the ship.

Hulk: A ship that has become obsolete.

Hull: The outer shell of a vessel.

Making way: When a vessel is moving under its own power.

Marine: A soldier trained for service as an infantry force that specializes in space combat and is part of a navy rather than an army.

Master: A title sometimes used for the captain of a commercial vessel.

Mess or messdeck: An eating place on a ship.

Midshipman: An officer rank below lieutenant.

Mothership: A vessel which leads, serves, or carries smaller vessels, in the latter case either releasing them and proceeding independently or also recovering them after they have completed their mission.

Pirate: One who engages in an act of piracy.

Privateer: A privately owned ship authorized by a government power.

Run: A voyage. “Let’s run her out.

Second Mate: Next in command after the First Mate, and often the medical officer.

Shanghaied: Condition of a crewman involuntarily pressed into service on a ship.

Shipyard: A place where vessels are built and repaired.

Shore Leave: Free time given to officers and crew of a vessel when they are off duty and allowed to disembark to spend time off the vessel.

Sick bay: A space reserved for medical purposes.

Skipper: Another name for the captain of a ship.

Starboard: The right side of a vessel facing forward.

Turret: An enclosed, armored, rotating blaster house mounted on the ship.

Unship: To remove from a vessel.

Vessel: Any craft designed for transportation through space.

Way: Speed, progress, or momentum. To make way is to move.

If you’d like to look at a more extensive list of nautical terms check out this link.

OK, folks. Those are some of the tropes of a standard sci-fi setting and the ways you can implement them in your game. If you have any other questions about softer science fiction or space opera, I’d be happy to answer them. Until we meet again, RPT readers, play great games.

Graphic of logo used as divider

Brief Word From Johnn

Your GM Style Is Important

Your preferences and way of doing things probably have the biggest effect on your campaigns. All your players look to you for information about the game, what’s happening to their characters, and what’s happening in the world. I bet we account for more than half the words spoken in every session.

Take for example this funny pic sent in by RPT reader Brenda Crowell:

I saw this posted in a couple places online, and some people said this was real gaming preference. Others could not think of anything worse. So your “GMing personality” matters a lot.

Give a think this week on your GMing style. How would you describe it? What’s your communication style like? What kind of gameplay do you prefer? How much control versus player input do you prefer? Here’s a tricky one: how do you think your players would describe the above? I dare you to ask them. 🙂

Have you come across any good GMing surveys or quizzes? I’d love to see what other GMs have used for introspection and to figure out their style and preferences. Shoot me any links or files you might have. Thanks!


Graphic of logo used as divider

GM Tip Exchange

Tips shared by your fellow readers to help your GMing. Have a tip to share? Just hit reply. Thanks!

Infinite Loop App Makes Great Maps

From Matthew Tenneson

I have begun playing a mobile game called Infinite Loop and it is a lot of time-wasting fun. But something occurred to me. When you finish a level you can take a screenshot of the finished loop. I have begun using them to sketch dungeon maps, making smaller circles rooms and larger circles larger rooms or caverns. Using a little imagination these pictures can easily become maps.

Separate pieces can be different levels or even secret passages.

I highly recommend it.Infinite LoopInfinite Loop

How To Roll Dice In Excel

From Darren Blair

This is an idea I’ve come up with for how to use Microsoft Excel in gaming.

Excel has a function known as “Random”. If you type “=RAND()” into a box, you’ll get a 0 followed by a decimal and a string of numbers. Enter “[box containing the RAND string] * 100” into another box, and you’ll get that string expressed as a number from 0 to 100.

From there, it’s just basic math and a few follow-up formulas.

Dividing the number by 5 gives you the equivalent of a d20 roll, while dividing the number by 25 gives you the result of a d4 roll, and dividing by 10 gives you a d10. Trial and error will help you determine the formula you need to simulate a d6, d8, and d12 roll.

Use A Diary For Time Tracking

From Vitaly Malinovsky

Hi Johnn!

I’m running a self-made adventure now, and players are two detectives investigating a robbery with an occasional murder. While investigating, they communicate with lots of NPCs, and some of them say, “I’ll be able to talk to you in 2 hours” or “I’m at work now – come visit me,” etc.

So, as a DM I have to keep track of time passed so the day won’t be endless. I mark “12 o’clock” or “3 p.m.” on a paper list just to know what time of the day it is myself. But sometimes I forget what has happened at what time. I hope you’ve got the point. 🙂

So, suddenly I realise I’ve got a perfect solution for this problem: a diary. A simple diary or a weekly planner. A book with a page for each day, marked 7:00 to 23:00 or so, with a phone book in the end.

It helps in two ways. First, you can monitor the time flow (my first idea was to use some kind of mechanical old clock) – and you’ll always know what has happened, and what will happen and when.

Second (and it’s much more useful) by filling the appropriate time lines you can create a brief overview of the whole gaming session. Next time you meet with your friends, all you need to recall the events is to just take a look through your records.

I don’t know if this tip is something original, but for me it turns out to be a real invention that makes my games more comfortable!

I hope others will find it useful too.

A Greedy Magic Item

From Archangel

Hello Johnn!

On intelligent weapons:

In one of my older campaigns back in the 80’s, one of my player’s characters came across a lance. It was powerful, and intelligent. It would give warning when monsters approached. I played it off and on as an NPC, using it mostly to drive the plot, but I used it in many other ways as well.

But here was its nature: It was greedy. It always wanted a share of the treasure. At first it just wanted a gem to decorate its hilt. Then it wanted some magics cast on it. It loved being shined. If the player refused, then it would intentionally miss targets or drop out of the player’s hand. Soon it was encrusted in gems, covered with magic runes, set in a scabbard woven in gold thread, etc. The player finally got fed up with it and rammed it through a tree.

You should make a new book, with 66 intelligent weapons or some-such.

The New GM Screen

From Aesma Daeva

Technology has changed the life of us in many aspects, and that has also affected our hobby in a positive way. We now are able to give a level of immersion to our RPGs the gamers of the early ages could only dream of. Music, sound effects, ambient lights, campaign logs, notes organizers, virtual dice, phone messaging to deliver secret information to certain players.

The tip I want to share may be quite obvious to many, and I’m sure that many tables already are benefiting from this, but it’s something that I just started to use and has given me excellent results, and I’m writing about it in case some of you haven’t thought about it yet.

I’m talking about a second monitor. For many years I have GM’d with a laptop, but then I realized that monitors aren’t something that expensive or unachievable anymore; they aren’t cheap, but you can find some starting at $50 or maybe less if you buy it at a flea market. After all, if you intend to use it for your sessions, you don’t need a top-notch high definition monitor. Just make sure the monitor is compatible with your computer.

So, what I did is extend my computer screen so the main monitor has my notes and GM secret information and the second monitor is facing the players where I can drag and drop images and other media.

The Benefits

A computer with a monitor is just as versatile as it can get, so I couldn’t finish to number all the things that you can do with it, but just to give you some ideas:

  • Show a picture of the NPC currently talking.
  • Pictures of places, landscapes, items, weapons and anything you want to show for those times when you don’t want to make long descriptions.
  • Use it as a blackboard for stats and information you want your players to be currently aware of.
  • Show them the map of the dungeon they are exploring, uncovering the areas as they walk through it (or you can draw the dungeon in real time).
  • Short videos of natural phenomenons, powerful attack effects, and explosions.
  • Poker cards, flipped tarot cards, and other mini-games for your taverns.
  • Backgrounds and wallpapers. Are the PCs travelling the woods? Is it a futuristic environment? Are they inside a tavern? Now you can have any background you need at your fingertips and make the atmosphere more real.

What Else Do I Need?

One obvious question would be: How do I know what I’m projecting to my players?

Many video cards have software that creates a window with a preview (or mirror) of what your second monitor is projecting. There is also an application called Ultramon that does a pretty job with this, and there are some other similar applications with different prices.

[Comment from Johnn: does anyone know of a Mac app that does this?]

But because many of us like free stuff or cannot afford to buy that kind of software, there is a very light, freeware option for Windows running on 32x and 64x systems. It’s called MultiMonitor.

Last Words

If you are one of those who are always seeking how to keep improving your games and haven’t thought of using a second monitor, I can tell you that this is one of the best improvements you can do.

I respect those nostalgic gamers who will state that nothing could ever replace a beautifully painted cardboard. But from my experience, I can say that since the first day I started using a second monitor I haven’t found any reason to take out my screens from their shelves.

What do you think? What other uses would you give or are currently giving to a second monitor? What other gadgets or technology have you integrated to your table? I would like to know.