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.