Retro-futuristic Space Opera

This is Iridium Moons.

It’s a retro-futurisic space opera that I’ve been working on on and off for about the last year for a swashbuckling adventure RPG campaign. The original idea came from some vague plans to run a big cool campaign in the classic Star Wars d6 RPG, which I have been thinking about for many years now. But as I’ve been playing around with ideas, I became increasingly aware of how much baggage gets piled up when you invite people to “a Star Wars campaign”. While I am as big a Star Wars fan as you can be without it becomes embarassing, I am really very much only a Classic Star Wars fan, and the number of works in my own headcanon of what Star Wars is truly about that came out after 1998 can be counted on one hand. Unless I could get together a group of only hardcore 90s EU fans like me, it just wouldn’t be the kind of campaign that I’d want it to be. Obviously, there’s only one logical thing to do in such a situation, and that’s to create a new space opera setting from scratch. One that emulates all the things I really love from the original movies and 90s Star Wars, discards the elements that I never was that hot about, and adds a lot of new original ideas. To become something similar, but new.

The Sources

Since I originally started looking for ideas for a space opera setting nearly a year ago, a short list of main influential sources has solidified from all the works that I’ve been browsing. Roughly in order of importance.

  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Shadows of the Empire
  • Knights of the Old Republic
  • Dune
  • Kenshi
  • The Wrath of Khan
  • Prey (2017)
  • Mass Effect 2
  • StarCraft
  • Blade Runner
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • Bioshock
  • Cowboy Bebop

Something I always find very imporant in great campaign settings is that the fiction of the world meshes well with the mechanics of the game, so that the gameplay moves that are logical and efficient for the players also make sense as actions for the characters within the events they are experiencing. A good mechanical choice for a player should also be a good narrative choice for the character. You don’t want to have situations in which the players want one thing for reasons related to the story, but do a different things because it will be much more effective in the game mechanics. If you build a campaign setting for a game, it always helps a lot to consider the structures created by the rules, and incorporate them into the material you create.

I started working on this setting while I was learning the rules of Stars Without Number. The rules for space travel in particular became quite influential for how I decided these things to work in Iridium Moons. I’ve also been looking into Scum and Villainy and Coriolis, and is it turned out, all three games are based on very similar premises and core assumptions about the game world. I am actually quite convinced that Stars Without Number and Scum and Villainy drew several major ideas directly from Coriolis. Currently, Coriolis is my favorite out of the three, but that won’t have to be a fixed decision for all time. As the setting is taking shape, all three of them should work perfectly with it if the others turn out not to be that fun to play mechanically.

The Style

The main two cornerstones for my own image of how the world of Iridium Moons looks like and feels like are the Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back and Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi. Those two places should be possible to exist somewhere in the New Frontier of Known Space almost unaltered. The whole purpose of Iridium Moons is to create a setting where these two places would fit in perfectly.

I’m also a big sucker for Art Deco. The architectural and interior design style of the early 20th century just looks amazing. It’s bold without being gaudy, monumental but also looking restrained. Very distinguishing and classy, but it also looks great when run down and filthy, similar to the decay seen in Blade Runner and Bioshock. In Mass Effect 2, the planet Illium is kind of a blend between the two. And of course, you also see it in Cloud City.

Evoking such aesthetic styles isn’t easy in non-visual mediums, but thinking about it led me to the idea to draw heavily on the late 19th and early 20th century as a source for inspirations as a general thing. Instead of World War 2 style fighter planes and aircraft carrier battles as seen in Star Wars, going with World War 1 style dreadnaughts with no air support could make an interesting change in how space warships are designed and fight battles. Instead of soldiers decked out in all kinds of modern high tech gadgets, helmets inspired by early gas masks and flying goggles could also be really cool. What if passage from one planet to another takes several weaks, like taking a steam ship from England to India or Australia? 1910 in space is a style I’ve never really seen before, but which I think could be just as cool as Star Wars’ 1950 in space appproach.

The Themes

I think when I was first thinking about creating a space opera setting, I was currently having both Dune and Cyberpunk 2077 on my mind. And the futuristic megacorporations of the cyberpunk genre are really not that different from the industrial barons of the early 1900s. Saburo Arasaka is practically completely interchangeable with J.P. Morgan. And Baron Harkonen and Duke Leto from Dune aren’t really that different either. There is a reason they were called “industrial barons”. They were the new nobility of their day. To tell the truth, the whole Rebels against the Empire thing in Star Wars was never one of the big highlights of that setting for me. The world of smugglers and bounty hunters was always much more intriguing, and both Lando and Jabba, as well as Xixor in Shadows of the Empire make it very clear that the line between the crime world and the business world doesn’t actually exist. This is an environment that I find many times more interesting than big industrialized wars between great political powers. Super-rich industrialists and businessmen with their ridiculously massive companies are an interesting alternative to noble houses and national leaders as the main movers and shakers of a setting, and a different type of villain.

The early 1900s where the prime era of the labor movement in Europe and North America, with the formation of all kinds of socialist parties and even communist militias, and an expectation that the conflict over wages and working conditions would boil over into a full out civil war. Which in Eastern Europe, it actually did. As a true red blooded social democrat until the day I die, I’ve been thinking very deeply many times about the great question of how the struggle for freedom and equality through solidarity has not just repeatedly but regularly ended up in bitter infighting and brutal oppression. The simple conflict of workers getting exploited by industrialists isn’t very interesting. Simply because it’s too obvious and clear cut. You know who the good guys and the bad guys are and who is right and who is wrong. However, the rivalry and infighting among those who are supposedly on the good side is something I’ve almost never seen explored in fiction in general, and RPGs in particular. This is somewhat played with in StarCraft with the Terran campaigns. Arcturus Mengsk starts out as a revolutionary leader fighting against a genocidal dictatorship, but then throws his own lieutenants to the hounds to make himself the new emperor.

Based on all these ideas, the main concept for Iridium Moons now revolves around the New Frontier of Known Space, a remote region far away from the homeworlds of the major species where there are no governments but only giant mining companies and merchant consortiums. Big businesses claim entire planets on the edges of explored space, strip mine them for two or three generations until the profit margin drops, and then move on to new targets. Left behind are former workers who either can’t or won’t go looking for greener pastures and instead attempt to make a living salvaging broken and discarded mining equipment or continue digging for minerals considered not profitable enough to be worth the time of huge interstellar companies. These independent miners and settlers often find themselves exploited by merchants bringing in new electronics and medicine from the homeworld, or preyed upon by pirates. There are attempts in many places to unite small settlements and pool together their resources to have a better bargaining position and stronger defenses. But those who profit from their deprivations have no interest in seeing the situation change, and even when these attempts are seeing some progress, there are always people who would rather be a lord than a comrade.

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