Using Gambling as a skill

This is another post I originally wrote last year about the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which I think would be of interest for readers of this site.

I’ve recently been part of a discussion about rarely used skills in Star Wars campaigns. Gambling in particular seems like a skill that has little actual use for players and that is difficult for GMs to work into adventures in a meaningful way.

In this case, I think the burden of making the skill useful really does fall primarily to the player. You chose to invest points into the gambling skill, or to take gambler as your character archetype. Of course it is good form for the GM to be accommodating and make an effort to allow players to play to their characters’ strengths. But when you want to play a gambler, or any other character with a focus outside the typical adventure activities for the setting or genre, it falls to you to come up with an idea how it will be part of the campaign.

While I don’t have the slightest idea how to make use of basket weaving in an adventure campaign, I do see quite a number of options of how you can make gambling a meaningful part of a Star Wars campaign, and to some extend in RPGs in general.

When you think of the main purpose of gambling, making money is the obvious answer. But in a Star Wars game, money generally does not play a meaningful role, as all the equipment you really need is a blaster for every character and a small ship for the whole party, which you often get at a very early point of the campaign. It’s not a setting where characters are constantly upgrading their equipment with potato peelers +2 or you have a dozen types of increasingly protective and expensive suits of armor. Like in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, money appears as something much more abstract within the stories, really only mattering when the characters are faced with a massive debt or huge expense that will be impossible to cover unless they take on that one suspiciously well paying job or find the fabled treasure of legend. The need for large amounts of money is an adventure hook, an excuse to get the players to go to a place where the GM has something prepared for them. And in that case it’s in nobody’s interest to have some characters spend a whole session in a casino and play 50 rounds of cards. Which is why the amount of money you can make with gambling or picking pockets is usually trivially low.

My suggestion is forget about money. Don’t go gambling to get rich as a simpler (and boring) alternative to go on an adventure. What really makes gambling interesting from a story perspective are the debts that result from it. When you play a gambler, or any character with a high gambling skill, try to get into games with imperial officers and gang leaders and get them into debt. Because debt means leverage.

This is one of the cases where the GM has to be accommodating. The GM can always say that the NPC in question does not gamble, doesn’t play with the PCs, stops playing when the credits run out, or has the necessary money at hand to pay the debt. But I think when you approach the GM with a plan to try manipulating an NPC through gambling debts, most GMs will be quite happy to give you a chance in at least some situations. It doesn’t make sense for all  NPCs and in all situations, but this is just the kind of creative problem solving that I always love to see from players, and which makes running games the most fun.

When you have an NPC in debt, you can have the leverage to either get information or a favor. Have the NPCs tell you about other people you are really after or about places you want to get into, or ask them to do small things that will greatly help you overcoming some obstacles for your big plan. Getting you access keys, disabling alarms, planting bugs, distracting guards, that kind of thing.

But as it says in the name, gambling is always a gamble, and there’s always a real chance that even a master gambler fails and ends up being the one losing a lot of money. Which ultimately can lead to the player ending up in deep debt to important and influential people. Which from a narrative perspective is awesome! We get to increase the tension for the current adventure and have the players facing even more obstacles than they did before, and they all know perfectly well that it’s purely the result of their own actions. These are the best kinds of consequences and a fantastic example of failing forward.

Another way in which gambling can be useful is simply as a cover while spying on NPCs or checking out places. When you’re sitting at a table loosing great amount of credits (or winning them), nobody is suspecting you to be in the place for other insidious reasons. Gambling is a nice way to get NPCs into conversations and to make them let their guard down by either separating them from their credits or making them enjoy a winning streak. The richest and most powerful people usually tend to play in places where the stakes are very high, and being very good at gambling is a classic trait of various villainous archetypes. You might be able to get a simple customs officer or low ranking gangster into a low stakes game in some cheap cantina, but when you want to go against crime bosses and moffs, you have to be able to play with the pros. Both in skill and the money you bring to the table. So as your gambling skill increases, you don’t just improve your chances of success, but also gain access to more influential and important people.

There doesn’t seem to be any obstacles in a typical adventure that your character can overcome by making a gambling check. And while it may look like a way to make some easy money at the side, like you can do with picking pockets and cracking safes, you really should think of it more as a skill to help you get access to information and objects that are not easily available otherwise. More than anything else, gambling is a social skill. When you approach it like this, the potential situations in which it can win the day broaden considerably.

I think adding gambling as a skill to Stars Without Number would be a great addition to the rules to better reflect the style of adventures I want to create with it.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook – A book that teaches gamemastering

I wrote this, coincidentally exactly one year ago, on my other site, and was thinking today that it would be great post to have here for people looking for space opera content.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, West End Games, 1993.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games was first released in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi had been in theaters. It got a second edition in 1992, which this time also included a Gamemaster Handbook that was released in 1993. This was 14 years after the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 1st edition, and 2 years after the 2nd edition DMG. At the same time, Shadowrun had  been around for four years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for seven, and Call of Cthulhu for twelve, so it really wasn’t entering into any completely unknown territory.

While I can’t really say anything about the later games, I am quite familiar with all the Dungeon Master’s Guides other than 4th edition, as well as the GM sections for a dozen or so retroclones based on B/X and AD&D 1st ed. But when I managed to get my hands on the Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook and read it, I discovered something that seemed amazing:

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook tells you how to be a Gamemaster!

“Well, duh!” you say? “That’s obviously what a gamemaster book is for.” Well, it should be obvious, but when you look at what passes as Dungeon Master’s Guides in D&D, it really isn’t. In the many editions I had both on the internet and with the players of my D&D 5th edition campaign (most of who have much more experience with it than I do), people regularly bring up how 5th edition is really unclear on how you’re supposed to actually run the game because it seems to assume that you run narrative-driven campaigns but all it’s rules are for dungeon crawling. Particularly older GMs express that the 5th edition DMG fails to even mention such basic things like how you make a map for a dungeon and fill it with content.

But this isn’t really a new thing. Since the very beginning, D&D has always assumed that GMs already know anything there is to preparing adventures and running the game, and all the GM content in the books consists of optional mechanics, lists to roll for randomly generated content, and magic items. What are you supposed to do with those to run an enjoyable game for new players? “Well, it’s obvious. Isn’t it.” But no, it isn’t.

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook is the complete opposite. It’s 126 pages and except for the example adventure that makes up the last 21 pages, there is a grand total of two stat blocks! Both as examples for the section that guides you through the process of creating named NPCs and translating them into game terms. Which don’t even take up one page in the twelve page chapter dedicated to this topic.

  • Chapter 1: Beginning Adventures, 10 pages, gives an overview of the process of coming up with adventure ideas and turning them into playable content that has some narrative structure to it.
  • Chapter 2: The Star Wars Adventure, 11 pages, expands on the previous chapter and goes into more detail about making full use of the unique setting and capturing the tone, pacing, and dynamics of Star Wars in a game.
  • Chapter 3: Setting, 11 pages, has great advice on using places and characters from the movies or creating your own material, with a focus on explaining what kind of elements you actually need to prepare, what is irrelevant, and the reason for it.
  • Chapter 4: Gamemaster Character, 12 pages, is all about thinking of NPCs as people first, and imagining them in ways that are memorable and makes them relevant to the events of the adventures and campaigns as individuals, and how to use them during actual play. Creating stat blocks for them is only a minor subject at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 5: Encounters, 13 pages, deals with encounters primarily as social interactions and what purpose individual encounters could serve to further the development of the narrative. There are a few sections on selecting the right amounts of hostiles for encounters that could turn violent, but it manages to do so without using any tables or stats.
  • Chapter 6: Equipment and Artifacts, 11 pages, is all about gear and related stuff, but doesn’t include any stats for specific items. It’s a chapter about resources that can be made available to PCs and NPCs and how they can drive the developing narrative of adventures as they unfold.
  • Chapter 7: Props, 7 pages, is about handouts and maps and the like.
  • Chapter 8: Improvisation, 8 pages, explains in simple and easy to understandable terms the concepts of prepared improvisation, or the art of equipping yourself with the tools you’re likely going to need to quickly address completely unplanned situations on the fly.
  • Chapter 9: Campaigns, 9 pages, lays out some basic ideas of running games for a long time through multiple adventures, in many ways approaching it from a perspective of sandboxing.
  • Chapter 10: Adventure “Tales of the Smoking Blaster”, 17 pages, is a simple adventure consisting of four episodes that shows how all the principles from the rest of the book could look like in practice.

To be fair, none of the things I’ve read in this book are seemed in any way new to me. I knew all of this before, and it doesn’t go very deeply into detail. But it took me 20 years to learn these things on my own and soaking up the wisdom of several dozens old-hand D&D GMs. And here it is, black and white on paper, spelled out in simple terms that are very much accessible to people completely new to RPGs, in a 27 year old book!

Now I am not a dungeon crawling GM. I am not a tactical fantasy wargame GM either. And there are different goals and requirements for different types of campaigns. But I feel that this is hands down the best GM book I’ve ever come across. It even beats Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide and Spears of the Dawn. They are very impressive books in their own right and do a great job at explaining the practices of sandbox settings in a D&D context. But they also fail to mention most of the information that is in the Gamemaster Handbook, like how you run NPCs as people and set up encounters to be interesting and memorable, apparently assuming that these things are obvious and already known. Like all other D&D books on gamemastering.

I think for most people reading this, there won’t be much new or particularly enlightening in this book either. But I think when any of us are asked by people who are new to RPGs (or maybe not) and first want to try their hand at being GMs but have no idea where to start, I think this book is still very much worth a huge recommendation. Not just for Star Wars, but for all RPGs in general. All the things that are laid out in this book would be really useful to know even when you want to run an OD&D dungeon crawl.

This book is fantastic, because it’s the only GM book I know that really teaches you how to be a GM instead of telling you about additional mechanics not included in the main rulebook. If my favorite RPG posters all got together to put together a guidebook on how to actually run games in basic and easy to understand terms, I don’t think I’d expect anything to be in it that isn’t already in the Gamemaster Handbook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game 2nd edition from 1993.

Fleets and Starship Types

With the setting being based to a good deal on the late 19th to early 20th century in both socio-economic and military aspects, and heavily inspired by Star Wars and other space operas,nothing I am doing in regard to space ships and fleets is really that special or anything new. You’ll have seen all of this countless times before. But most space adventures and science-fiction use the various technical terms very loosely with no indication of their original meaning being understood, and space battles are generally approached with a final vision already in place before any details are worked out. While I am going for a very adventurous space opera style, where realism is not generally much of a concern, I still really like the approach of first thinking how things would look or play out realistically and then considering if that would already be a lot of fun as it is, or if making some unrealistic changes would improve the overall experience. And in situation where the realistic option is just as fun as the fantastical one, I always go for the realistic one. The better people understand the rules of a setting, the more they understand what options characters have and what they mean. Diversions from reality need to be explained, realistic elements do not. So keeping fantastical diversions to when they are needed for stories helps with keeping a setting accessible and makes it easier to understand.

Militaries, Security Forces, and Security Services

There are dozens of independent governments in known space, all of which have their own armed forces for security and defense, and every one of them have their own unique systems how these are organized. Generally speaking, armed ships and troops employed by governments fall in three broad categories.

Militaries are armed forces trained and equipped purely for combat. They are controlled by the national government of each state, usually under the defense or exterior ministry. Small independent outposts do not have the means to maintain militaries, and even some smaller sovereign planetary or system governments do not have them. In colonies, military forces are usually not under the command of the governor, unless the colony is run by a military governor in charge of both troops and civilian administration.

Security forces are most commonly seen in the form of police and customs services. These are generally under the control of the local civilian administration. They are primarily law enforcement services, though since most of them also patrol in space, they employ quite heavy equipment and field considerable firepower, which makes them more paramilitary in nature. Almost all worlds all the way down to the smallest outpost have some kind of security force, even if it’s only a handful of officers without any spacecraft.

Security services are private security companies that offer their services both to governments and private clients. While moat such services simply provide personal or object protection, there are also many large mercenary companies that offer armed escorts for spacecraft, securing the orbital space around planets, or even the hunting and destroying of pirates. Most governments are highly reluctant to employ private security services for police duties in civilian areas, but larger independent outpost in particular often use them to supplement their own security forces when they experience threats their own forces can’t handle. It is also not uncommon for larger states to employ mercenary escorts to guard space convoys or facilities when their own forces are overstretched. Many of the largest companies in known space have their own security services to guard facilities, escort transports, and protect high ranking company officials. These frequently far outsize independent mercenary companies and can rival the militaries of smaller states.

Combat Ship Types

Combat ships come in a range of different sizes and there are dozens of different shipyards throughout known space that manufacture their own designs. But doctrines, experience, and practical concerns have led to five broad categories of design that are followed by almost all fleets. The names for these types are shared in almost all space settings, but very few actually consider the functions of the ships these names originally come from, and there are several cases that don’t even get the sizes right.

Patrol Craft

These are the smallest class of combat ships. They often range from 20 to 50m in length with relative masses of 8 to 125, with crews between 10 and 2o. The main function of patrol craft is essentially that of a space police car. They are crewed by a squad of security officers whose duties consists of stopping and searching ships arriving in a system if they have reasons to want to make a check before they get close to a port. They also respond to ships having emergencies and to fight off small pirate ships. Patrol craft are rarely equipped with hyperdrives, and they normally carry only enough supplies for a day or two in case of engine malfunctions that require recovery to return to their base. Their weaponry is intended to force force cargo ships to stop or change course and to scare of pirates, and their armor is not worth mentioning, which makes them useless for actual battles.

Corvette

Corvettes are the smallest ships that are capable of engaging in real battles. Their length is usually around 100m with a relative mass if 1,000, and crewed by 20 to 40 people. Corvettes are used to bring more serious firepower to situations where patrol crafts are seriously outmatched. They are used for hunting pirates based within the system or to stop suspicious ships when security forces are expecting trouble. All but the smallest colonies employ at least two or three corvettes which are usually part of local security forces, but might also be under the command of the military in systems that are guarded by a permanent military fleet. While corvettes are equipped to patrol for several weeks before returning to their base, large numbers of them are not equipped with a hyperdrive to reduce costs and make them more affordable for small governments. Though corvettes with hyperdrives are sometimes used by private security services to escort cargo ships between multiple systems. As they are designed to land on planets, they are severely restricted in their weight, limiting the amount of armor they can be fitted with. While they are quite capable of dealing with pirates using old patrol craft or armed freighters, they are not send into serious battles outside of cases of extreme desperation.

Frigate

Frigates sit at the lower end of what most people consider to be proper warships. They typically have lengths around 200m with a relative mass of 8,000 and have crews between 60 and 120. Frigates are sometimes employed by security forces, but are usually part of a larger military. Unlike corvettes, they are designed to operate between various systems and carry supplies for several months in space. Only a few of the smaller types are capable of landing on planets and they usually require orbital facilities as their home base. While a hyperdrive is a key component for any frigate that sets it apart from an oversized corvette, a frigate’s hull and other systems can be constructed in relatively modest shipyards that usually build freighters, which has lead to countless different designs used by various minor states, many being build in very low numbers. For many smaller planetary governments, frigates are the main component of their defense force and there are many thousands of these in service throughout known space. A single frigate is generally enough to deal with any threat to frontier systems aside from organized invasion fleets by other systems.

Destroyer

The destroyer is the primary warship of most larger military fleets. Its size is usually around 300m with a relative mass of, 27,000, and its crew ranges from 100 to 200. A destroyer is designed for a single purpose, and that is to fight and destroy other warships. Everything about its design is intended to improve its capabilities in battle. Their armor and weapons usually found on a destroyer are a considerable step up from most frigates. While states controlling multiple systems often have frigates stationed in each systems under the control of the system commander, destroyers are usually based at the main fleet headquarters and deployed as needed. Constructing destroyers requires specialized facilities that are well beyond shipyards that usually build cargo ships, and there are only a handful of producers for these warships. Most states that employ destroyers buy them from allied powers rather than investing in facilities to build their own.

Cruiser

Cruisers are the undisputed masters of fleet battles. These giant behemoths are 400 to 500m in length with relative masses from 64,000 to well over 100,000. Their crews range from 400 to 1,000 people resembling small towns in space. Their massive sizes are the result of extremely powerful sublight engines combined with extremely heavy armor and the largest guns that can be put on a ship. The enormous mass makes them slow to maneuver and gain speed, but in a sustained chase they can easily catch up to and overtake almost any other ships, and the only hope to escape from one is to reach sufficient distance from the star to escape into Hyperspace before it gets into weapon range. The heavy protection and armament of a cruiser allows it to take on two destroyers at once with very little danger to itself, and there have been cases where a single cruiser prevailed against four destroyers. This allows them to both operate by themselves far away from friendly ports or as part of larger attack fleets. Cruisers are extremely expensive to build and maintain and there are only six shipyards in existence than can build them. Occasionally other states buy a single cruiser as a matter of prestige, but these are often very controversial moves that get criticized as huge wastes of government funds. They are far more powerful than anything required to guard systems or fight pirates, and as full scale battles between states are extremely rare, most cruisers see very little action where their extraordinary capabilities become relevant.

Fine tuning the Setting

This is listing of the current broad strokes parameters for the Hyperspace Opera setting. The things that it has and the things it does not. Updated irregularly to reflect new developments.

Things in the Setting

  • Hyperspace drives
  • Hyperspace routes are calculated by supercomputers
  • Artificial gravity
  • Fusion power
  • Ships need refueling
  • Fuel stations
  • Destroyed ships stay in one piece (they don’t explode)
  • Local communication networks can be accessed inside settlements
  • Space suits
  • Swords!
  • Pirates
  • Smugglers
  • Planets without atmosphere
  • Planets with different gravity
  • “Debris fields”, not asteroid belts
  • Alien species
  • Planets with multiple states
  • Interstellar trade language (not spoken by everyone)
  • Large interstellar businesses
  • Merchant oligarchs
  • Anarcho-syndicalist communes

Things not in the Setting

  • No faster than light communication
  • No Stealth in Space (TM)
  • No energy weapons
  • No energy shields or force fields
  • No teleportation
  • No electronic warfare
  • No starfighters
  • No universal translator
  • No video phones
  • No holograms (I’m petty)
  • No artificial intelligence/androids
  • No cybernetic augmentations, replacements only
  • No genetic enhancements
  • No psychic powers
  • No energy beings
  • No time travel
  • No interstellar empires
  • No hyper advanced ancient civilizations
  • No ancient destroyers
  • No space aristocrats
  • No alien hybrids
  • No Evil Species
  • No Planet Earth

Interstellar States

Most science-fiction worlds are really rather boring with how the various species are politically organized. Every species has a single state, and that is it. Or you might have quasi-federal systems in which each species constitutes one federal state. One could look deeper into how this might have originated in an American cold-war mindset, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. And also not really interesting.

Thinking about how species with multiple states could be organized in a space setting, I came up with the following five types:

In the first case, we have the simplistic unified state that collects all the planets inhabited by a species under a single government. I think it does have its place in a setting that isn’t about big empires fighting each other, but as a kind of government that most other species see as a strange oddity that defies the common logic. You find this in all of the big powers in Star Trek. Even the Federation, which is a singular state that includes all the homeworlds and colony worlds of several species.

The second example has a politically unified homeworld, with its own colonies and outposts, but several of the full size, self-sufficient colony worlds have gained their independence as their own sovereign states. In such a model, it seems quite likely that relationships between the independent colonies and the homeworld might be somewhat strained or hostile, as the homeworld clearly still has a policy of maintaining direct power over some colony world. This is the political order that we see in The Expanse.

In the third example, the homeworld is a unified state, but all the self-sufficient colony worlds are sovereign states as well. The homeworld does not have special status, other than likely having the largest population. I think this model would work quite well for loose confederations, where the homeworld is used to granting colony worlds independence once they reached a certain size. This only makes sense if the homeworld believes it will still get the full economic benefits from having funded the colonies’ construction. Something very close to this model can be seen in the human Systems Alliance in Mass Effect, which I think is actually a federal republic based on the United States, in that the parliament is located on a space station that is not part of either Earth or any colony.

The fourth example is where things start getting really fun. You have several sovereign states that each have their own colonies. I think this might be very well in our future at the end of the century, when the economics of space exploration make joint international research stations like the ISS no longer a necessity, and nations can fully fund their own separate stations. This is what I have in mind for the less advanced species, but much of my ideas for this setting are about seeing past the blind determinism of progress that defines most of 20th century sci-fi, and so I think I’ll also have some very highly advanced species that have this system anyway.

The fifth example is a variation of the fourth. In this case the homeworld still remains unified, but some of the colony worlds have become independent. I  plan to use this only for one species, because this is probably the messiest of them all.

All the examples here are only with up to four states, but you could easily have 20 or 30 states for a single species. But that would be practically impossible and of little use for anyone, so more than four or six would be overkill. I also don’t plan on writing up all the star systems of known space, only maybe 30 or so. So of the potentially 50ish sovereign states in known space, I’ll probably fully develop only half a dozen at the most.

An Introduction to Star Types

My concept for a Hyperspace travel system is based on the idea that the gravitational bending of spacetime near massive objects leads to distortions of Hyperspace that are impossible to accurately calculate even for astrometric supercomputers, and as such all routes for Hyperspace travel are calculated to start and end a sufficient distance away from stars. Ships first have to travel to the outer edges of a star system at sublight speed before the navigational computer is able to send the ship on the right course, and then have to end their jump at the outer edges of the destination system to continue the last leg at again sublight speeds.

In most situations, it’s probably really irrelevant how many hours exactly a ship takes to travel between a planet and the edge of the star’s Hyperspace blocking zone, but in cases where it does matter, I want to have some consistency. Fortunately, the gravitational effects of massive objects are really very simple to calculate. The gravity of a star depends entirely on its mass, and the strength of that gravity drops off with distance by the square root of the distance. Which in simpler terms means “if you double your distance from a star, its gravity falls to one quarter”.

I have not yet decided how much travel time I want to have, which I will be covering in detail at a later point, but those times will depend on the type of star of the system a ship is in. For future reference, I want to give a brief simplified overview over the common types of stars, so people aren’t completely lost later.

In astrometry, the masses of stars are typically given in “masses of the Sun”, with the sun obviously having a mass of 1 solar mass. Since the Sun is not a star in this setting, and more importantly because it will make future calculations easier, I am multiplying all these numbers by 10, so a star just like the Sun has a mass of 10.

Typical Stars

In science, these stars are called the Main Sequence Stars, for reasons that go into much more detail than is needed here. They are what you can think of as a normal star that doesn’t do anything weird or special, and is the state in which almost all stars spend almost their entire existence. They are big balls of plasma that are mostly quietly doing their thing, producing light and heat. The physics going inside of them are slightly different, but they are basically the same kinds of objects, just with different amounts of mass.

Red Dwarf

The smallest balls of gas that are normally considered to be stars, with masses ranging from 1 to 4. They are not only small, but also quite cold compared to other stars, which gives them a weak reddish light. But if you’re on a planet that is close enough to be above freezing, you’ll still be standing in full daylight. Red dwarfs are extremely common, making up about three quarters of all stars in the universe. They don’t have much material to burn to create heat, but because they burn that mass at such low temperatures they can live incredibly long and even the very first red dwarfs that ever formed are still not even 1% through their lifetime. While red dwarfs don’t seem to be particularly suited for life on orbiting planet, the fact that there’s just so many of them still leads to a lot of habitable planets being around red dwarfs. (Astro-Nerd note: While new red dwarfs produce massive radiation that can strip the surface of any planet bare before life can start to develop, recent research indicates this radiation is directed towards the poles, leaving planet around the equator untouched.)

Orange Dwarf

Orange Dwarfs are larger than red dwarfs, but smaller than the sun, with masses between 5 and 7. They are hotter than red dwarfs, but burn their fuel slower than the larger yellow dwarfs, which makes them the perfect halfway point between those other two classes for planets that evolve life. Planets around orange dwarfs have to deal with less extremes than around a red dwarf, but also much more time to evolve life before the star dies, compared to yellow dwarfs. About 1 in 8 stars are orange dwarfs, which makes them the second most common type of star. Combined with the fact that they are the best stars for planets with life of them, they are the most common type of stars for planets with large populations.

Yellow Dwarf

Yellow dwarfs are stars  like the Sun or slightly smaller, with masses between 8 and 10. They are hotter than orange dwarfs and don’t live as long. While they still make good stars for habitable planets, they make up only about 1 in 12 stars, and there’s only about half as many inhabited planets around these than around orange dwarfs.

Yellow-White Stars

These are clearly not giant stars, but calling them dwarfs also doesn’t quite fit. They have masses between 11 and 13, which makes them still hotter but also shorter lived. They are quite rare for planets that have evolved their own life, and they make up only about 1 in 32 of all stars.

White Giants

Large stars with masses between 14 and 20. They are somewhat rare, making up only 1 in 160 of all stars, and don’t live long enough to produce life than grows to the size of large animals, but there’s a good number of colony worlds around this type of stars.

Blue Giants

These stars  are truly massive in size, ranging in mass from 21 to 160. They are so hot that their light starts become slightly blue, but also burn up all their fuel very quickly, long before any life can start on planets around them. Only about 1 in a 1000 stars is this big, and any sci-fi setting probably only needs to have one or two of these as a curiosity, but they are not really relevant for life in space. Stars can get a lot bigger than that, but those are literally one in a million.

Dying Stars

When typical main sequence stars reach the end of their life they start to look and behave very differently. They are completely ordinary objects, but since they only exist in this form for a relatively short span of their existence, they are much less common. They appear a lot in astronomy because their size and brightness makes them very easy to see.

Red Giants

Red giants are stars that spent most of their existence as more ordinary stars with modest masses that can range anywhere from 4 to 100. At the end of their life they become extremely hot, which causes them to grow hundreds of times in size, even though their mass actually goes down as radiation and gas gets thrown out into space. While the energy they produce is at the highest as it ever gets, all that energy is spread out over such an enormous volume that the actual temperature in any point is relatively low, making the stars light more red. A very large number of planets that have their own native life will eventually see their star become a red giant, eventually turning them into deserts that keep getting hotter and hotter as the surface of the star gets closer and either the star dies or the planet gets completely incinerated and disappears inside the star. This part of a star’s life is much shorter than the previous stable part of its existence, so they are not that common at any given point in the history of the universe, but there can be various desert planets around them that used to be green for a very long time.

Red Supergiants

When a large blue giant star reaches the end of its fairly short life, it also turns into a red giant, but much larger. These have masses starting around 100 going up to 1,000 and beyond. Like blue giants, these are mostly a neat curiosity and there might be one or two in known space that have planets where people decided to set up colonies for some weird reason.

Stellar Remnant

After a star has burned out or exploded, a large portion of its mass still remains behind in a new form that is very different from what it was before, but it can still have many or even most of its planets staying in orbit.

White Dwarf

When orange dwarfs, yellow dwarfs, and yellow-white stars die as red giants, what remains at the end is a small white dwarf. Red dwarfs would also eventually end up as white dwarfs, but they live for such a long time that this has never happened yet in the entire history of the universe, and will still take a very long time. They have a mass of 5 to 7, but are much smaller than red dwarfs. White dwarfs no longer produce any more heat. They simply keep glowing with the heat that they had when they died, and in the vacuum of space they will keep glowing for a very long time. When a red giant turns into a white dwarf, it loses much of its original mass, which can lead to many of its planets flying off into space as the stars gravity can no longer hold it. Any planets that are still in orbit around a white dwarf would surely be dead, but they would still have their star up in the sky. Even though the white dwarf would seem almost as small as all the other stars, it would still produce light similar to daylight. White dwarfs are not that uncommon, and will become more common as the aeons go on, but they are considered pretty boring as explorers are concerned. Finding planets around them is difficult, as they are so faint to begin with, so not many of them are included in the Hyperspace charts showing routes between systems.

Neutron Stars

Neutron stars are similar to white dwarfs, but they have masses between 11 and 21. While a white dwarf simply burned out relatively quietly, a red giant turning into a neutron star plays out as a supernova, so any planets it might have had are in even worse shape. Because of the great mass that also is super-dense, neutron stars have extremely weird things going on inside of them. But from the outside, most of them appear simply as larger white dwarfs.

Black Holes

If a neutron star gets too big with a mass of 22 to 100, it simply turns into a black hole. This can happen either at the moment during the original supernova that created it, or when it collides later with other material that is added to its own mass, which creates a second supernova. As navigation is concerned, black holes are actually really boring. They have the same gravitational effects as blue giants, except that they don’t produce any light or radiation unless they just happen to be colliding with another star. Since it’s impossible to detect planets around black holes, almost none of them get added to navigational charts.

Other Stars

There are many other types of stars that exist, but these are really just of interest for astronomers trying to learn more about how stars work in general. All of them are extremely rare and most behave just like any other stars from the outside, so it’s not worth covering them here.

Interstellar Trade Language

ITL was developed as a simple and elegant solution to enable easier communication between space ships and inside space ports. It is a fairly straightforward language with simple grammar and single letter based writing system. What makes ITL special, and uniquely suited for interstellar communication, is that the written script can be pronounced in three greatly different ways. The three ways to pronounce ITL are designed in a way to allow all the species of known space to speak in at least one of them. In theory, mastery of ITL requires the ability to understand all three form of pronunciation, which is one of the first things taught in language classes once learners have mastered the script, but even when people can only understand one of them they are still able to communicate through writing, as all three forms use the same letters.

Fluency in ITL is a requirement for almost all jobs in space and it’s the most common second language in most education systems, even before other local languages. In many frontier colonies with colonists from different countries of a planet, it has even replaced the traditional lingua franca of their homeworld, and for many spacers its the only language they know.

While all species are able to pronounce one of the forms of ILT, there is an uncountable range of various accents even within people of the same species. Some species have a harder time than others with understanding heavy accents, but in most cases it’s simply a matter of hearing the accent spoken for a few hours to fully understand it.

Not all species have a hearing range that can detect the full voice range of some other species. People traveling to systems where this is an issue for them when talking with the local population often wear hearing aids that shift their voices into a range they can hear. All personal communicators have the same feature and capture voice as it s spoken to play it back at a different frequency simultaneously. Better models are even able to amplify voices to the hearing range of other species and not just the species for which it was made. For visitors to other planets and stations, whose voice needs amplification to be fully audible to the locals, it is considered common courtesy to do so when possible, rather than to depend on them to fish out their own comms to understand what is being said to them.

The three forms of pronunciation are designed so that all species can pronounce one of them, though many are anatomically able to pronounce more than one. Talking to other species in the form they commonly can be an endearing party trick, but is almost never expected. Only one species has ever shown the ability to speak ITL in all three forms of pronunciation, but ironically they are the most isolationist species, that also uses very little verbal communication in general.

Communication

In addition to rules for faster than light travel, another thing that needs to be covered with specific rules is how communication is supposed to actually work. There’s plenty of people who lament how mobile phones make lots of investigation and mystery plots unworkable, and how such a simple and important technology absolutely has to be included in any new science fiction works. But after thinking about the practicalities in this area, I think it’s actually very plausible to have pretty limited communication in the way typically seen in older and more pulpy space adventures, even when you consider that the societies should have no barriers to create cell phones.

While my setting has Hyperspace travel to travel faster than light between star systems, I have decided that it doesn’t have faster than light communication. Ships in hyperspace are already treated as effectively blind, so why not also treat them as deaf?

Interstellar Communication

The highly developed home systems all have very advanced and sophisticated local internets. On the homeworlds themselves, people have internet as we are used to. Outposts on other planets, moons, and asteroids in the system also have access to this net, but with severely limited bandwidth and a time delay that can be on the scale of hours. People on these outposts can download text, audio, and even video at slow speed and reduced quality, but instant communication is limited to other people within the same outpost. For communicating with anyone else, they have to write emails, or record audio or video messages. Because these system-wide networks are separated from each other, they all are effectively their own environments with their own content.

To transfer information between system networks, the data has to be transmitted to a mail barge, which stores it on hard drives, then makes Hyperspace jumps to its intended destination, where it feeds the information into the local network. This takes several days, and storage space on these barges is limited and therefor comes with non-trivial costs. Mail barges are used to deliver written or recorded messages like mail, and files that have a long lasting relevance like books and movies. They also carry interstellar news between the big galactic news networks, but the local news of one system usually have little relevance for the people of other systems. The home systems have hundreds of mail barges going back and fort between them every day, but colonies might only see a single barge from their home system per day, and in many frontier worlds barges only arrive once per week or per month.

For characters to access one of these homeworld or colony networks, they have to fly there in their ships themselves, or send out a document request with a mail barge and wait for delivery with the next barge coming back, which can take weeks.

Local Communication

The homeworlds all have planet-wide mobile communication systems. These are good enough to gain signal access pretty much everywhere of the planet except for the poles on some less advanced worlds. Colonies are usually only the size of a single city or small country, and these have their local communication networks based on signal towers throughout the colony. The range of these usually only covers a couple of kilometers. Beyond that range, people won’t be getting any signals. Most worlds have compatible networks that allow visitors from other systems to connect to it by getting a short-term account for usually a week or a month on arrival when they go through customs or register their ships for docking. (It’s not that expensive and included in the docking fee when PCs arrive on a new planet.)

Smaller colonies and outposts don’t have even that and instead rely entirely on local wireless networks. Visitors usually only get access to these if they are staying with locals or rent a place to sleep. For communication outside the colony grounds, people have to use primitive but fully serviceable radio comunicators that are powerful enough to transmit signals over several kilometers. Most people traveling on space ships carry one of these with them all the time as they allow them to communicate with each other and their ship completely independent of local infrastructure within a limited range.

Most ships have communication systems to both log into local networks and communicate through radio with controllers on planets and other ships over distances in the millions of kilometers. But unless ships are really close to each other or in orbit around a planet there will be a considerable time delay.

Communication for Players

PCs can always communicate with each other through their radio comms within ranges of several kilometers and even their ship in orbit if it is right overhead.

On homeworlds and major colonies, PCs also have access to the local network within urban and developed areas.

There is no practical communications between systems for PCs, with the exception of using the mail which will take days or weeks to get a reply.

Hyperspace Travel

When creating a new setting that departs from the normal conventions of reality, it’s always a good idea to define the new rules that are different. Of course, countless writers have always just made stuff up as they went, going with whatever seemed convenient at that point, but that’s just asking to run into contradictions and thing that just don’t make any sense later on. And these are pretty easily avoidable if you just take a bit of time to define the parameters by which the setting works at an early point of the process. In fantasy worlds, the major subjects are the magic system, the categories of supernatural beings, and the nature of other worlds where those beings come from. For settings set in space, I think the number one thing by a wide margin is the rules by which space travel works. This really was pretty much the first thing I was thinking about when I decided to work on this setting. It’s the one biggest change from normal life that really affects everything about economy, politics, and societies throughout the setting.

Something that always bothers me a lot in science fiction is that writers constantly use the latest new terms that have come out of physics to give their works an appearance of scientific backing and legitimacy, but then straight up doing things that have nothing to do with the concepts they are referencing. Personally, I feel highly certain that faster than light travel is physically impossible. Alcubierre drives are the one tiny sliver of hope that the true believers have, but that seems like a really long shot, and even if it might be theoretically possible, there are several complications that make possible applications much less convenient and practical than what you see in sci-fi. In order to not mangle any actual physics, I knew immediately that I want to go with the most purely make believe solution that doesn’t connect to reality at all: Hyperspace.

With Hyperspace, all the existing laws of physics remain completely untouched. It doesn’t violate reality by simply supposing that ships can, somehow, enter another dimension complete separate from our own, in which faster than light speeds are not just possible but easy. There is absolutely no evidence that such a dimension exists, but if there were, then all the problems with faster than light travel just magically disappear. So that’s what I am going for. In this setting, Hyperspace is a thing.

I think this is a pretty good example of Iceberg worldbuilding. Pretty much everything in this post is meant to be stuff that remains under the water. Players don’t need to understand or know any of this to play a campaign. The purpose of this whole system is to be able to answer questions if players ask about how these things work, and to avoid situations where players realize that two things that have been established through the course of the campaign make no sense and contradict each other. Players don’t need any of this to play adventures, but I need to understand this to set up adventures that will hold up to scrutiny.

The Nature of Hyperspace

Hyperspace is a separate dimension from normal space that has very different laws and properties. It takes very little energy to cover incredible distances many times faster than the speed of light, and the engines required to enter and exit hyperspace are simple enough to be very widespread and accessible. In this setting, Hyperspace jump capable space ships are as common as planes and similarly expensive to operate.

Every point in normal space has a corresponding point in Hyperspace. To move between any two places in normal space faster than the speed of light, a ship simply jumps into Hyperspace, flies to the point that corresponds to its destination, and then jumps back out of Hyperspace again. However, things get greatly complicated by the fact that Hyperspace is extremely warped and twisted. In real physics term, the geometry of normal spacetime is flat, but the geometry of Hyperspace is very much not, and there are no indication of any repeating patterns in the curvature of Hyperspace. This means that even when you know the exact position of two or more stars in normal space, you have no way to tell the positions of their corresponding points in Hyperspace. And even if you have the Hyperspace coordinates of two stars, you can’t just draw a straight line between them to know how to get from one star to the other. Even knowing how to get from star A to star B, and from star B to star C, does not really tell you anything useful about getting from star C to star A.

Hyperspace Charts

Determining the corresponding points of stars in Hyperspace and the paths to move between them is part of the field of astrometry. And while moving a ship through Hyperspace is really quite uncomplicated in practice, finding the Hyperspace routes that connect stars is extremely difficult and requires the expense of huge resources. Since the warping of Hyperspace is effectively random, every route between any two stars has to be measured and calculated separately. Accordingly, most star system in the core of known space have only two or three known routes leading to and from them, and many frontier systems are dead ends as Hyperspace travel is concerned. The only place to go from them is back to the system from which you came. In practice it is much cheaper to simply make multiple Hyperspace jumps between systems to get to the one that is your destination than trying to calculate direct routes between all the possible stars people might want to get to. Accordingly, Hyperspace charts look like subway train system maps with many stations that the routes are just passing through, and several stations where two lines cross and you can switch from one line to another.

Since calculating Hyperspace routes takes a long time and is expensive, astrometric services pick new systems to connect to the network not at random. Instead they rely on data from astronomic observations of newly discovered planets around unexplored stars. (Something scientists have learned how to do in the last 20 year, and as such you don’t see in older science-fiction.) There are many exploration companies that commission routes to be calculated to systems which they think have great potential for exploration. But often astrometric services just take a gamble calculating new routes to previously unexplored systems and hoping to make their investment back with sales of licenses for the new routes. But more often than not, these new routes turn out to lead to systems that don’t have anything anyone is interested in, and as such these routes simply expire after 10 years without getting any new updates.

A further complication is that all objects in space are always in motion. Stars move around their galaxies at very considerable speeds and even the galaxies themselves are constantly moving around in space themselves. This means that the Hyperspace coordinates for any stars are constantly changing. In theory, you could calculate a route for a Hyperspace jump between two stars at a single moment in time, but even just seconds after that calculated moment the route would leave you somewhere in empty interstellar space with no way to find your way back to a known system. Since this isn’t any useful for almost all space travel, a single Hyperspace route is actually a big catalog of data that lists the correct path for travel between two stars for any moment throughout a longer time span. For smaller routes, this time span is usually 10 years, while for the routes in the home systems it is 100 years. Nobody would go and explore a new system or set up a mine or colony if that system might become unreachable in a few weeks or month, after the route expires and nobody bothered to have an update commissioned. The government owned astrometric services of the home systems are constantly releasing new updated catalogs for the main trade routes, each time extending the expiration date back to 100 years. But in small frontier systems, things can get quite tense if the last updates are reaching their expiration and there is no news of new updates being announced. Often small colonies have to commission a new route update to connect their system to the rest of known space with their own money, which can be a huge financial burden. Colonies that can’t afford the huge costs often have to be abandoned, but there are countless stories of stubborn colonists who supposedly held out and accepted being cut of from the rest of the galaxy forever.

Starship owners have to buy expensive licenses from the astrometric services to get access to their catalogs of Hyperspace charts, which is a substantial part of the cost of space travel. Of course, there are countless unlicensed charts making their rounds on the black markets of the frontier. But since a ship that gets lost in interstellar space for all eternity can’t come back to complain, the accuracy of these black market charts is always extremely dubious. Few captains are desperate enough to gamble their lives on these.

Hyperspace Jumps

While ships in Hyperspace are effectively blind and have no way to tell where they are going, the gravity of massive objects in normal space still has effects on Hyperspace and cause it to warp even more than usual. Accordingly, the routes of Hyperspace charts really only show how to get to the general vicinity of a star. Making a ship arrive at a specific point inside a star system is for all intents and purposes impossible. While stars themselves are actually really small compared to the scale of a system, the warping of Hyperspace near them becomes stronger the closer you get, which makes it actually pretty easy to accidentally get much closer than expected or even come out inside the star itself. Usually navigators keep things safe and jump out of Hyperspace somewhere in the outer part of the star system where the risk of randomly appearing inside a planet are negligible. Similarly, jumping into hyperspace too close to a star could lead to navigational errors that lead to a ship getting lost in interstellar space.

In practice, this means that between arriving at or leaving from a planet, and jumping in or out of hyperspace, ships have to travel considerable distances at sublight speed. While the Hyperspace jumps themselves often take only a few hours, flying between planets and jump points can take from many hours to several days. Small stars with low masses have much weaker gravity and all their planets close to them, so transit times in such systems are on the low end, while large stars with great masses have very strong gravity and their habitable planets much further out, resulting in the very long transit times.

Another quirk of the warping of Hyperspace is that even with the best navigation computers, both the exact point at which a ship jumps out of Hyperspace in another system and also the precise time at which it arrives are somewhat random. Fleets leaving a system together always arrive at their destination scattered over great areas and arriving over the span of several minutes and sometimes even hours. Fleets always require several hours to regroup after a jump, followed by several hours of transit time to reach the planet they are headed for. This leaves people on the planets many hours to notice them and prepare for their arrival, which makes surprise attacks with space ships impossible.

Hyperspace jumps require fuel. Licenses for Hyperspace charts are included in the regular upkeep and maintenance costs for spaceships, but fuel for the Hyperspace engines is a resource that has to be tracked at all time. Players making journeys to other systems have to check if their fuel will last them to make the journey and return trip, or plan to make stop at fuel depots along the way. I think fuel stops can be a great way to introduce randomized encounters into the campaign. Aside from the PCs running into interesting people during these fuel stops and getting into trouble while waiting for their ship to be ready to continue their journey, you could also have various complications like the fuel station turning out to be inoperable, causing long delays, or being destroyed, causing potentially serious problems with keeping the engines running. Fuel costs also seem like a great way to put financial pressure on the players. Without fuel they get stuck and so are forced to make money, or can’t afford to be charitable to people who would really benefit from their cargo. Or they might be driven to try to steal fuel somewhere. I think there’s great potential in this that could lead to wonderful organically developing side adventures.

Hyperspace Travel for Players

Even with all the theoretical background stuff, the things that players need to understand is really simple:

Ships can only go to star systems that are on the map. And every journey has to be taken along the marked lines. Every jump requires a unit of fuel. (Or two or three units, depending on the size of their ship.) After leaving a planet, they need to survive for a couple of hours before they can make the jump. Even if pursuers decide to follow them through Hyperspace, they will arrive far enough apart on the other side to reach a planet before the pursuers catch up to them, and if they manage to make another jump before the pursuers arrive they will have lost them for good.

That’s really all the players need to know. Anything else is just for curious players that enjoy these things, but I find it important as the foundation that explains why these few player facing rules are the way they are and to make them consistent even at closer observation.