Category Archives: Other Systems

FTL and Setting Design

As I am currently working on my own settings for use with Traveller or the Cepheus Engine, I’ve thought about faster-than-light (FTL) travel and its influence on the setting. A setting without FTL at all is quite different from one where it’s fast and commonplace. But how fast is “fast” anyway, and how does the kind of FTL drive you’re imagining influence your setting? Let’s think about that.

Traveller as a baseline
Starships in the official Traveller universe (OTU) use the Jump Drive which allows ships to “jump” to Jump Space in which it then travels towards its destinations with speeds much higher than the speed of light. Each jump takes about one week. The earliest jump drives could only jump for one parsec (about 3.26 light years), while more advanced ones could jump for up to six parsecs in a single jump. Each jump also consumes a vast amount of hydrogen fuel.

This means that you can travel from system to system in a reasonable timeframe, but its also slow enough that it takes months to years to traverse all Charted Space. This works great for a game of Traveller, where player characters are supposed to have a new and original adventure in every system they jump to. Since there’s no FTL communication in the OTU information only travels as fast as the fastest starship. In some cases bad news and the cause of said bad news arrive at the same time.

Another interesting quirk of the Traveller jump drive is that it often takes longer to travel to the outer planets in the system than it takes to reach a nearby star system. Again, this is perfect for the kind of adventures Traveller was designed for. There could be mysteries hidden basically in every system, just because getting there is more inconvenient than travelling to another system.

Instant jump?
What happens if we change the jump time from a week to basically instantaneous? Travel becomes much, much faster. Sure, you still need to refuel between jumps, but this allows to make several jumps per day. With a proper network of refueling bases the Imperial Navy for example could reach the frontier systems in the matter of days. This also changes how fast information travels. In the OTU the slow travel of information meant that a feudal system of governance was the most practical one. But with instantaneous jumps more options open up.

Hyperspace Portals
Another FTL method popular in science fiction is travelling via hyperspace portals. These portals are usually opened by large complicated structures which are often (but not always) priceless artifacts created by some unknown precursor species. Starships enter a portal at their home system and emerge from another one at their destination. Travel through hyperspace can either be instantaneous or take some time, often proportional to the real-space distance between both portals.

At first glance Hyperspace portals and the jump drive are closely related. The main differences are that usually you can’t just travel to any destination, but each portal needs a counterpart at its target system. In many scifi universes hyperspace portals can also be closed, blockaded, moved, destroyed, or otherwise tampered with. This opens up many new story opportunities. Stellar systems not connected to the portal network are basically unreachable.

Hyperspace portals also usually help facilitate FTL communication, which makes large space empires more easily governed.

Warp Travel
Warp drives like in Star Trek and many other scifi franchise are quite popular but come with a slew of problems for the GM to solve especially if it’s particularly fast. Warp travel usually allows FTL in-system travel, which makes it highly unlikely that inhabited systems contain many unexplored places. It also allows starship to travel more freely, you just point your ship’s nose in one direction, throttle up, and off you go! With Jump drives or hyperspace portals the GM or setting creator can limit the amount of easily reachable travel destinations, but not so much with warp drives.

With Warp drives speed is also an important factor. The scope of one’s campaign is directly influenced by warp speeds. If you can travel – let’s say – at two times the speed of light, you can reach Proxima Centauri (our closest stellar neighbor) in about 2 years. If you can travel at 200 times the speed of light, this trip is done in mere days. In scifi universes like the one from the Perry Rhodan series FTL travel with million times the speed of light are commonplace and travel to distant galaxies becomes possible.

What’s right for your campaign?
That’s a touch question to answer. It depends a lot on what kind of stories you and your players want to tell. For a tale of early space exploration it’s probably best to have a slow and difficult FTL method. It doesn’t matter if you use warp drives or jump drives, the important part is that it takes quite a while to get to another system. Getting back to Earth or getting reinforcements should not be a matter of hours but rather weeks or months. If you can send a FTL probe back home and ask for replacement parts which arrive just a couple of hours later, a lot of cool plot ideas are immediately thrown out of the window.

On the other hand, if you plan to send your player characters to faraway and wondrous places all over the Milky Way, you probably need a fast and convenient way to travel. My advice is to check out various established SF universes and check what kind of stories are facilitated by the FTL methods used. But you have to remember that in many SF franchises (especially movies and books) starships travel at the speed of “plot”, which might not work well in a roleplaying game environment, especially if your player expect a certain verisimilitude or are particularly nit-picky about such details.

What am I going to use in my campaigns?
For my Near Space game I am still torn. Initially I planned to just use a Traveller-style Jump drive with a range of 1 parsec per jump. But for some reason this just doesn’t feel right. Increasing the travel time in Jump Space might do the trick though. A trip to Proxima Centauri should feel like a huge undertaking.

For my other campaign about pocket empires in a far future I’ll definitely use regular Traveller jump drives. What worked from Marc Miller in early ’70s is good for me as well.

So what are your thoughts on FTL travel and its impact on your campaign world? What is your favorite FTL method in SF roleplaying games and have you ever mixed various methods in one game? Please share your thoughts below.

Cepheus Subsector Generator

About two and a half years ago I wrote a simple Python script which generates subsectors for me in the Cepheus Engine format. Why? Because I find rolling up a full subsector by hand quite tedious.

So, what does this script do? It’s nothing too fancy. It’s text-only and you can’t save results. But for the purpose I created it for, it works like a charm. The script just rolls up a subsector and outputs the results as a table (in a Traveller Poster Maker-compatible format). You also get a list of all systems in a more human-readable format. If you like the results you can easily copy and paste the output into a text file.

You can check out the source code on repl.it. If you don’t have Python installed you can also run it in your browser by clicking onto that green “run” button. Enjoy!

In My Traveller Universe: Near Space

One of my favorite sourcebooks for Traveller and the Cepheus System is definitely Stellagama Publishing’s Near Space. It’s a small booklet containing maps and stats for the stellar systems in the vicinity of our solar system based on current astronomical data. If you plan to run a game in the “near” future focused on exploring our stellar neighborhood, you can either do the heavy hauling yourself or just rely on the great work.

These days I am thinking a lot of the Traveller universe, games I’d love to run, and the Cepheus Engine especially in its “Light” variant. One of the campaign ideas I had was one about an early human star ships on a – let’s say – five year mission to explore the Milky Way. Starting from the solar system the ship and its crew would venture out into the unknown, finding strange new worlds, investigating mysteries, facing dangers, and all that jazz.

But if you want to rely on “Traveller-esque” rules and keep the “early space exploration” premise, you quickly run into issues. Even our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is more than one parsec away from our solar system which means that Jump-1 drives can’t reach it. The authors of Near Space solved these issues by introducing a number of objects from the “Hypothetical Star Chart”, which help fill these gaps. The objects on this chart are all hypothetical brown or red dwarfs which could plausibly exist in these places without us being able to easily detect them nowadays.

If you prefer to keep things scientifically accurate, you face the problem that you need Jump-2 capability before humanity wants to read its nearest neighbor. Of course one could easily replace the standard Jump drive with another FTL method, but that’s something I’d like to avoid at the moment.

For my campaign, I’d like to keep things as simple as possible. I intend to use the CE Light rules as written, without too many tweaks and hacks. In my version of the near future, humanity is mostly united (at least when it comes to space exploration) and has reached a tech level equivalent to 9 with some level 10 prototypes thrown in. I was considering replacing the Jump drive by something inspired by the Alcubierre drive, but decided against it. Instead I’ll make use of the hypothetical stellar objects proposed by Near Space.

The focus of the campaign should be exploration. But there should also be political intrigue, and some conflicts. Such a huge undertaking like a multi-year expedition to our stellar neighborhood is probably controversial. There might be groups on Earth who are vehemently against it out of numerous reasons. Such a group could – for example – try to sabotage the mission.

The huge question still unanswered is whether I want to introduce alien species or not. First contact could be extremely exciting with the player characters trying to figure out how to overcome the communication barrier. Alternatively the lack of alien life could be intriguing also. “Where is everyone?” could easily be the central question. Perhaps something or someone wiped out all technologically advanced species and humanity just shouted a loud “hello” into the void by developing their first jump drives. The best approach is probably to have both. There are some alien species, but there are also signs of extinct alien civilizations with planets littered with ruins, derelict fleets in space, but no indications what actually happened to them. Everyone loves a good mystery. In the end the player characters might be forced to find a way to protect Earth from a terrible threat!

One aspect of the campaign I want to mostly gloss over is a future history. Most players actually are not that interested in a fictitious history lesson anyway. It’s also extremely hard to extrapolate future events without relying on cliches. I’ll probably just describe the status quo and ignore what lead to this.

At this point I should probably ask a couple of friends what kind of campaign they are more interested in. Sure, I could prepare both, but since I regularly suffer from motivation issues, it’s more likely that I work only one of these campaigns at a time.