Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thorough Thursdays: SPACE OPERA

Prior to this post, I have only tagged the term Space Opera,  ten times in the seven years this blog as been around. As little sense as that makes, it is not the subject I wish to be thorough about this particular Thorough Thursday.

The issue is that few of those entries directly relate to Space Opera, The Complete Science Fiction Role Playing Game, written and created by Ed Simbalist, A. Mark Ratner, and Phil McGregor for Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1980.

That's just wrong.

Between 1982 and 1984, one particular group of my gaming buddies, and I played a lot of this game. A lot. Believe it, or not, outside of FASA's Star Trek, this was our game of choice for Science Fiction in those years.

That's right. It wasn't Star Frontiers, and it wasn't Traveller. It was Space Opera by Fantasy Games Unlimited.

How that is possible I do not know.

For years now I have attempted to figure out how we played this game. Periodically re-reading the rulebooks (my original ones from 1982), I am amazed that we made any sense of this monster.

Space Opera is the quintessential example of trying too hard in game design.  

Nearly every facet of the game, from rolling your PCs characteristics, to ship-to-ship combat, is overly complex with no significant benefit I can see. Not only that, but you can clearly see an easier way to do everything.

For example, you roll percentile dice, and then reference a chart to determine what your attributes will be. There are fourteen attributes. The attribute stats range from 1 to 19. There are several columns, each with two, or three stats, that you need to refer to in order to figure out what your PC's attribute is. So a roll of 54 gets you a Strength of 13, but an Agility of 12.

Why not roll two 10-sided dice for a 2-20 range for all fourteen stats. I've tried to read through it again, and again, and I see no advantage to the way they have it. I could be wrong, as math is not my specialty by any means. Still, and all, I don't get it.

Overwrought, and convoluted though it may be (and it is - the organization of the rules is nothing to write home about either), I want to make it perfectly clear that we played this game. Often. It was a real favorite for a time, albeit a brief one.

How? I am not sure.

Why? I have some theories...

Space Opera was made during a very special period in gaming, and fandom history. They were at the dawn of the height in popularity, but still so small an industry that they could get away with stuff you'd be sued over today.

In no uncertain terms, Space Opera features (that is, unabashedly copies with the file numbers all but left on):

The United Federation of Planets, and Vulcans from Star Trek.
The Lens from E. E. Smith's Lensman series.
Jedi Knights, and Lightsabers from Star Wars.
The Kzinti from Larry Niven's Known Space novels.
The Bugs from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

...and much more.

My friends, and I grew up in this era, and experienced this while it was all new. We can look back on it now, and be amazed they got away with that crap, but at the time it was just pure cool. Fantasy Game Unlimited wasn't 'getting away' with anything to us. They were doing what anyone interested in those things would do. They found a way to include everything they liked, and thought was awesome into their game.

So would you! So did we!

Our Space Opera universe was an odd mix of Science Fiction inspirations, and merged universes. In addition to elements provided in the game itself, we drew tons of ideas from authors such as Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and artwork from  Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, Epic Illustrated Magazine, Heavy Metal Magazine, the Terran Trade Authority books, and the book Tomorrow and Beyond.

A sample of one of our best, and longest, Space Opera campaigns can be found here. Hopefully, that will give you some idea of the thematic approach we took to the setting (or our version of it).

I think we knew what we wanted to run, and play. We knew what kind of stories we wanted to tell, the type of characters that should be in those stories, and what we needed out of the game to make that happen.

Somehow, I imagine that we made the game do what we wanted it to do, rather than playing it as it was meant to be played, and creating something out of that. Possibly, even very likely, this was one of my first forays into story-first, rules-second thinking.

Looking back on it now, it may have been one of the key formative game experiences that contributed to my later approach to gaming.

We made this nearly unplayable game work, because the rules of the games were less important than the yarns we wished to spin.

Barking Alien


  1. True. In tle late 80s we played in two campaigns alternating weekends, one Traveller, the other Space Opera. I wasn't the GM for either, & reading through the SO rules, it seems like our GM had grafted an entirely homebrew general task resolution system onto the skill rules... At least I can't find one in there.

    But thanks to Space Opera we could use anti-agathic drugs to spend a normal human lifespan leaning to operate an abandoned Death Star. Plus, how many games let you make a psionic ninja who can punch through a collapsium plated starship hull?

    Wonderful. & more fun to read than any of the novels I tackled last year!

  2. I've found this is true of a lot of our old RPG's when I go back to them. They are complicated for no discernible benefit. I sit down to read them and re-learn them like I would read a new game today and it's just remarkable. Sure, coming from some time in historical wargames, we were willing to tolerate some complexity for accuracy but when the subject is not historical, what kind of accuracy were we looking for? Most of the FGU games, some of the Mechwarrior games, and Rolemaster all come to mind.

    We brushed up against Space Opera in the mid-80's and after a few sessions I was not interested as I had Traveller and Star Frontiers and was plenty happy with those. I did like that it used some different terminology though - "Astronaut" and "Armsman" as character types had a slightly different flavor than what I was used to. There were some other cool ideas in there too but the rules kept me away.

  3. I just stumbled upon this post, and it's nice to realize that there was some other group in the early eighties that enjoyed Space Opera as much as we did. I can remember being unimpressed with Traveller back in the day. It didn't give me the kind of science fiction buzz that I was looking for, but Space Opera did. I also couldn't seem to get past Traveller's 2-D star maps. Space Opera's maps were 3-D which made much more sense to me.

    I can also remember slogging through those rules and not even blinking an eye. It was a different time I suppose, one where "realism" and "simulation" were the orders of the day. Nevertheless, we loved it. I still do.

    I think I may have a complete collection of the books. I may have to pull them off the shelf and make a couple of characters for fun.

    I was also quite a fan of Aftermath! as well.