Genre-Bender: Space Opera Roleplaying

Posted: February 22, 2008 by pointyman2000 in Roleplaying Games
Tags: , ,

Nothing is as silly in the Philippine mindset as Rockets and Rayguns.

Coming from a third world country, our visions of the future always presented some form of dystopia, where the rich live in their palatial residential complexes and the poor waste away in the dirty unwashed alleys of the City Below.  Rather than shiny space suits and bubble helmets, we look to respirators to keep ourselves from inhaling the deadly miasma that rots the lungs from the inside…

But that’s not what we’ll focus on today.  Today, we look at the fanciful musings of Space Opera…

If there’s one thing I loved as a nerdy kid growing up, it was the whole take on Space Opera from whatever little sources I had of this strain of fiction.  Ranging from Flash Gordon to Buck Rogers to Star Wars and even John Carter, Warlord of Mars, there was something cool about merging spaceships and two-fisted adventurers with alien landscapes and space princesses.   No, the fact that space princesses were often portrayed as scantily-clad beauties had nothing to do with it.  Well… maybe a little.

Space Opera is a genre that sits in the odd place between Fantasy and Sci-Fi.  The Sci-Fi bit is rubber science in the same way that comic book science works, except perhaps even more poorly rationalized.  This was a genre of big ideas and romanticism, where you had space empires that spanned galaxies, evil overlords and rayguns.

Interestingly enough, while a lot of the early space opera really came into it’s own from the Pulp Novels, Space Opera’s tropes have become more and more acceptable in modern day entertainment.  In fact, a lot of work cited from the Wikipedia Entry surprised me, but made a lot of sense once I stopped to think about it.

Just to list a few examples:

  • Star Wars
  • Babylon 5
  • Firefly
  • Warhammer 40,000
  • Alexandro Jororowsky’s Jodoverse (among which Metabarons is well known)
  • Star Control
  • HALO
  • Starcraft

A cursory glance at the list seems to be fairly consistent in terms of elements:

  • Spacecraft: Space Opera loves space travel by it’s very nature.  Unlike most games where you’re pretty much stuck on a single continent, it’s part and parcel of the Genre to go from planet to planet, sometimes even on each “episode” and discovering strange and wondrous things that live there.  This ties in very well to themes of exploration and discovery of rpgs.  Bonus points for the occasional spaceship crash and survival scenario.
  • Galaxy-Wide Empires: Somehow there always has to be a large empire running around that humanity may or may not be aware of.  In some settings, humanity itself is the giant empire.  Some settings paint this galactic civilization in a benevolent light, but the classic evil galactic empire is a more common trope for the genre.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Technology:  To take a bit from Clarke’s Three Laws, most of the technologies used in Space Opera don’t have to make sense.  There are lightsabers (which aren’t lasers… sort of), and Rayguns and various other things that people just accept as part of the texture of the setting.  RPG gamers might demand stats, but they’ll just assume that the things just work.

So now that we’ve looked over examples and tropes of space opera, I’m certain that there’s bound to be more than a few character stereotypes that will help in making characters for this genre.

  • Noble – Galactic Empires necessitate galactic nobility.  Whether you’re a space princess, or a planetary governor, these characters possess charisma and force of will.  Oftentimes serving as a figurehead for political or military operations, Nobles also possess various social advantages that allow them to exert influence in certain circles of society, or to gain access to otherwise restricted information.
  • Rebel – Evil Galactic Empires breed rebellion as a matter of course.  While this stereotype could be rolled in with any of the others, the rebel is the man/woman that fights for what they believe is right.  They are often outnumbered by the enemy, but they never seem to back down from a fight.  Also, having lesser grade-technology never seems to stop the Rebels from getting more kills than the bad guys.
  • The Chosen One – This one is rather cliche, but like in Fantasy, a character (or a group of characters) could be a figure of legend, perhaps descending to a primitive planet like Gods (and treated as such) or even as part of a prophecy that an oppressed alien civilization believe in that will save them from their oppressors.
  • Soldier – Master Chief from HALO personifies this.  In whatever Space Opera setting, there are wars being fought, and soldiers to fight them.  Often very pragmatic heroes and a great counterpoint to the sometimes more idealistic members of a team, a Soldier that keeps his cool and pulls through no matter what makes for a great character concept.
  • Pilot – Rocket jocks tend to be the cocky types and have the skills to prove it.  Whether they’re part of a mixed crew (like Wash in Firefly) or as a member of a military squadron, Pilots aren’t afraid to show off their skills.  Most pilots are stuck in a very niche role though, so when they’re not flying, it’s advisable to pick up an alternate expertise to keep your character relevant.
  • Robot/AI/Alien– For the player that wants to be something different, there’s the option of playing a whole range of alternative character types.  The benefit of course is having access to some advantages that most “baseline” humans don’t but be prepared to be in for some interesting roleplay if you have to play out a different psychology from what most humans take for granted.  In addition some settings consider robots, AIs and aliens to be second rate citizens at best.
  • Psion – For some Sci-fi settings, psionics is a rare but powerful ability.  From Jedi Mind Tricks, to River’s talents in Firefly, Psions tend to be the focal point of many a campaign because of even technology’s inability to counteract them (for the most part.)  Psions make for great characters for those who want to play unique and beautiful snowflakes, but players have to be careful to not hog the limelight too much, or to play a character too erratic and dysfunctional as to halt the game and make it unplayable for everyone else.

Space Opera is more than just Fantasy with spaceships, and it has a lot of potential to fit pretty much anything.  From Space Westerns like Firefly to strange gothic epics like Warhammer 40k, the genre presents a challenge to GM and players alike.  The obvious risks though to running a game set in this genre is to seem too much like an existing source.  Many a game has been ruined once the players catch on that “Oh, we’re playing Start Wars in a funny hat…”  GMs have to work a little bit harder to pull it off and encourage the Players to seize the game with both hands and make it their own.

Still, the challenges make for a rewarding experience, and some of my more memorable games have been set in the Space Opera Genre.  So, the next time the players want to take down an Evil Overlord ™, have them do it in Space.  Who knows,? They might like it more than you think.

  1. Hikkikomori says:

    But what about PLANET OF THE APES? :’D

  2. Hikkikomori says:

    Pah. Clarke’s Three Laws has already been disproved by GURREN-LAGGAN!!

    (1) Firstly, there is no old / sage-ly character in the series. xD

    Well, there is one. But he is a ninja-yojimbo thing.

    (2) Second. They steamrolled over the “Possible” and even broke through the “Impossible”!!

    Its even in their theme song~ “Do the impossible~”

    (3) Thirdly, there technology wasn’t so advanced since they only utilized Darwin’s findings of the indomitableness of Human Evolution.

    The creation of a machine that can harness such an unlimited source of energy is not “Impossible”, only Improbable.



  3. rv says:

    Don’t forget the Original Battlestar Galactica.

    Starbuck was Pure Win.

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