Today I finished reading “Time for the Stars”, a classic young-adult science-fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. You might be asking yourselves now why I am reading old young-adult novels and what it has to do with roleplaying games. Please bear with me.

One of my favorite websites is Atomic Rockets by Winchell Chung. It’s a resource mainly for writers which explains basically almost every aspect of space travel. It helps you to get your science right, if that’s something you’re interested in. The article about “torchships” mentioned Heinlein’s story several times, so I decided to track down a copy and give it a read.


I have to admit that the story is not as interesting as I hoped. It’s about a twin travelling on the torchship Lewis & Clark to the stars while the other twin remains at home. They have a telepathic connection which continues to work even though the ship is light years away from home. But what sets the novel apart is the fact that Heinlein actually got a lot of the science right. The torchships are beyond what we could build today, but the technology is plausible. He also made sure he got special relativity right. This means that the time is moving differently for the space-travelling twin. When he returns he barely aged, while the one who stayed on Earth is an old man.

As a GM at heart I always think about how I could use movies, books, etc. at the game table. After finishing “Time for the Stars” I noticed that I haven’t read any SF roleplaying game featuring travel at relativistic speeds. There are usually only game settings with FTL travel or with relatively slow, non-relativistic in-system travel.

I understand that relativistic travel makes time-keeping a bit more complicated. A galaxy-spanning civilization connected by Heinlein-style torchships will also be vastly different from your regular space opera setting. News travels only at the speed of light. Imagine one world gets attacked by Evil AliensTM and requests help. It might take decades for the fleet to arrive. But this might make for some very interesting stories.

Do you – my dear readers – know of any SF RPGs featuring relativistic travel? If so, please post your recommendations in the comments below. What are your thoughts on the topic in general? Do you think such a campaign is feasible or is it just too much of a hassle? As always your comments are highly appreciated!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “Relativity!”

  1. Tau Zero and Pushing Ice both give a good feeling of deep time, frames of reference and near light speed travel. Tau Zero is the classic piece of scifiction that covers the topic.

  2. Also the early background of DragonStar Universe (Leading Edge Games) was based on Relativistic time dilation and travel – It created the StarClass essentially ( in DragonStar humanity is comprised of different quasi-castes, clades that are what they are because of early expansion to the stars) //I think the beginnings of Battletech were similar too. I’m less of a Battletech maven so I’d have to double check that.
    In one of the GRURPS supplements there was this exact set up as a campaign option – its really suited to the GURPS zeitgeist because of the book keeping you need to maintain.
    One of the 90’s era game magazines either Arcane or Games Master International had a Campaign framework for a sci fi game with relativity involved in its sub-lux travel too.

      1. I had the exact same reaction to “Dragonstar”:

        You mean the FFG setting for D&D 3e? I thought that was FTL based?

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