Last week was #SpaceOperaWeek, so I’m a bit late to the party. Still, any time is a good time for space opera!
Being a relative newcomer to both Appendix N and the pulps is a mixed bag. On the one hand, oh man – what an embarrassment of riches! Of what I’ve been able to get my hands on, so much has been awesome sauce! What’s fallen short of that empirical benchmark has at least been somewhat educational, as a fan of SFF. On the other hand, what a glut! What a dilemma of choice! Do I keep reading all these kickass Jack Vance stories, or check out this C.L. Moore everyone has been talking about? And there are all those Edgar Rice Burroughs series just waiting to be read! Sometimes it makes my head spin.
One name I keep coming across, an early titan of science fiction, is E.E. “Doc” Smith. I’ve not read much about his stories or style (aside from “action-packed!), but wise men have observed the breadth of his influence in inspiring games like Traveller and paving the way for cultural behemoths like Star Wars. I believe someone last week went to far as to call him the progenitor of the space opera.
Referent, by Ray Bradbury writing under the shared pseud Brett Sterling, appeared in the October 1948 Issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
The October 1948 issue ends on a bizarre note with another Ray Bradbury short (this time under the pseud Brett Sterling).
Referent features a boy in a sort of educational crèche colony; some sort of weird old-fashion boarding school in the distant future of 1997 is the mind-prison of young Roby Morrison until an alien visitor provides him with an opportunity to escape. But ultimately it’s really just a semantics puzzle and some commentary on the imagination of children which ossifies with age disguised as science fiction.
My exposure to Brackett had been all of one short story, but for some reason I’ve long associated her with Edgar Rice Burroughs. After reading these two novellas, I think the better comparison is to Robert E. Howard (more on that in a bit). Whoever it is, I have no doubt that Brackett deserves to stand with—or above—either. That lady could spin a damn yarn. And Eric John Stark can stand with Tarzan or Conan.
I have two copies of these two novellas collected. The first is a Ballantine edition titled Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars. The second is an Ace Double with The Secret of the Sinharat reading one direction and People of the Talisman another. Want a copy? Head over to Every Day Should Be Tuesday for a chance to win the copy of your choice.
The two novellas stand alone, but each follows the Mars adventures of Eric John Stark, an earthman raised on Mercury.
Role-playing games can be played without reference to the rules. People have character sheets. The game master has a rough idea of a situation. And things just coast along somehow with the the numbers on the character sheets being used however the mood strikes him. If combat is not engaged, little more than a tithe of the actual rules will be invoked.
Call of Cthulhu can be played that way. But it’s not actually intended to be played that way. There are things engineered into the rules that are designed to produce a type of play that is fairly well at odds with the sort of game that game masters would tend to improvise.
Here are several just from this chapter alone:
Cast your mind back to the late 1930s, a world in transition:
The world was finally emerging from a crushing depression, Europe was in turmoil following the Great War and a series of socialist and other revolutions, Hitler’s Germany was on the rise, having successfully annexed both Austria and Czechoslovakia while the great powers dithered, fascism was gaining power not only there but seemingly everywhere in opposition to the socialist wave, and technology was progressing at a break-neck pace.
Just two months after the grand opening of the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and on the edges of this tumultuous time, the very first Worldcon was held in New York – NyCon I as it was eventually called. And there was war in Fandom.
This was the big one. After ten or so scenarios of all sizes that get you up to speed on all the ships, weapons, and tactics of the game… the developers finally throw you into the biggest monster space battle in the box with the highest stakes imaginable: the fate of Earth hangs in the balance!
There are no piddly frigates or destroyers in this one. It’s mostly dreadnoughts, battleships, and battlecruisers. What do I do with this awesome amount of firepower? Why… I squander it all on some absolutely godawful tactics. It was a blowout.
But hey, I had my reasons for setting up the way I did. In the three times I’ve played fighter squadrons, they always ended up getting in each other’s way. When they ran with my warships, the warships got in their way, too. And those Talon ships have such mediocre shields on their flanks. I put my fighters on the left with visions of them rolling up the enemy line…. (It could have been glorious!)
Meanwhile, the Talon fusion canon is no joke. It can hit several of my ships at once and it never misses! Logically, I should spread out my ships so as to avoid taking damage to two or three ships at a time!
The tramp freighter plying the star lanes, struggling to make ends meet, taking on illicit cargo, avoiding the law while trying to stay one jump ahead of debt collectors…is there anything more iconic in science fiction? This is a well-tapped vein that shows up everywhere from Northwest Smith to Han Solo to Mal Reynolds. It’s the reason for the success of the video game Elite, and represents the platonic ideal of a Traveller campaign. Trying to fit the combination of exploration, trade craft, and combat inside of a pen and paper solitaire game makes for a serious challenge, but it’s one that DwarfStar games was able to overcome back in 1982 with Star Smuggler, by Dennis Sustare.
You can download and print a full copy of this game here.
In Star Smuggler, the player takes on the role of Duke Springer, a “starship era soldier of fortune” who pilots his Antelope Class trading vessel throughout the Sector searching for ways to pay down the mortgage on his ship. Through the course of play, you stumble onto possible cargos, hire additional crew, take on passengers, and generally get into the sorts of trouble that make life interesting for characters like Duke. Read More
I mentioned the Pacific Coast Trail for a reason. My vision of an excellent campaign would be to have multiple players on each side. Imagine two (or even three) German players competing for resources while trying to keep the Allies at bay or the counterparts to Patton and Montgomery competing as much against each other as the enemy. Based on my experience with large, multiplayer campaigns with computer games such as Campaign Series I submit that to organize, manage, and complete such a campaign would equal or exceed the planning required to complete a cross country hike.
I wasn’t able to find much online, after all, War in Europe first came out in the mid-70’s but while looking around I found a great blog: The Big Board. Hiking the trail won’t happen this year and I don’t see playing a monster game in my near term future but in the mean time I’ll be consoling myself with exploring this blog. Most posts are not in-depth but this site features a ton of games I didn’t know about (Cataclysm from GMT Games is something I will investigate) and has some short book reviews (one of the better reviews concerning T-34s).
Another choice for a monster WW2 game is GMT’s World in Flames series. If I can score a lot of overtime in the next few months I may think about the collector’s edition. They made a deal with Matrix and a computer version is available.
Anyway, if I start playing one of these massive games or start hiking the Pacific Coast Trail you’ll be the first to know about it here on Wargame Wednesday, even if I have to go opposite from the big game and write a playing while hiking post featuring Strike Force One.
Update: If you made it this far recommend viewing the comments, especially if you are an Ogre fan. Links to new Ogre scenarios and an interview with Steve Jackson.
I just got some interesting feedback from David R. Megarry on an old post:
I fail to see why nobody looks at the journey through the Caves of Moira when they do a comparison between Tolkien and D&D. The description is a perfect example of a dungeon crawl. It is the image I had in mind when I created the Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game. Arneson and I taught Gygax how to play in a role playing setting in November 1972.
Okay, let’s talk about this.
First off, what happened at the table of Dave Arneson and David R. Megarry is a topic worthy of its own book. I don’t think near enough light has been shed on that. And I don’t know near enough about it.
Second… the reason I make my case the way that I do is that a great many people have accused Gygax of being a liar because they can’t imagine that he was telling the truth when he claimed that The Lord of the Rings was no great influence to him. And while I’ve given no great thought to the question of what other faults the man may or may not have had, on that point he was absolutely being honest and the historical record exonerates him.
Granted, Tolkien was influential to other designers of his cohort. Just as one example, the Chainmail fantasy supplement was developed from Leonard Patt’s Battle of Pelannor Fields miniatures battles. But most people questioning Gygax’s claims about the literary inspirations of the game are not aware of how the template for the sprawling Mega-Dungeon concept came from Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys, that Jack of Shadows had a direct impact on the thief’s skills, that Roger Zelazny’s Amber stories influence the illusionist spells, the psionics is pulled from Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey, or that Poul Anderson wrote an entire book about what would turn into the Paladin class.
If I were to draw a Venn diagram of the artistic inspirations of the new video game Prey, there’d be a big blue circle marked “Bioshock” and a big red circle marked “Dead Space 2” and where they overlapped, all that purple space would be marked Prey. Now, I’m not saying Prey is ripped off from Bioshock…
…wait, yes I am. I am exactly saying that Prey is a big old ripoff of Bioshock, right down to the psychic powers, wrench-as-a-weapon, and the late-game reveal that All Is Not What You Thought It Was. It’s just like Bioshock, but even more convoluted.
#SpaceOperaWeek (SuperversiveSF) When New Is (Not) Best–The Degradation of Grand Master Anne McCaffrey — “I don’t know what is more shocking to me: That this person who supposedly reviews SF spoke so lightly of this Grand Master who changed the field and who still sells today. That a person who is so old-fashioned as to use the Victorian term bluestocking shows no regard for the past.”
#SpaceOperaWeek (Jon Del Arroz) When It’s #SpaceOperaWeek And Your Contributors Hate Space Opera — “I wrote Star Realms: Rescue Run because I love space opera more than anything. I love it in my gaming, I love it in my fiction. Space battles between worlds are interesting. The geopolitics of the colonies vs. the extreme corporate Earth of Star Realms is even more interesting… and we haven’t even gotten to the weird alien species in the story outside of small mentions. I like to build up the world from the ground up. From the human outward. But the hallmark of space opera is that it reaches that outward plane to where it bends the mind. And that’s why it’s great in a nutshell.”
#SpaceOperaWeek (Yakov Merkin) It’s #SpaceOperaWeek, but Where are the Aliens? — “I still remember watching Star Wars, and to a lesser extent, Star Trek (which despite trying not to be, was often not too far off (and the new, J. J. Abrams films are most certainly space opera), and being awed by the wide variety of aliens on the screen. Since then, in all of my favorite space opera universes, including the Mass Effect franchise, the Starcraft franchise, and of course, Star Wars, the non-human characters have always been my favorites, and the ones I wanted to spend the most time with, from Tassadar and Artanis to Tali and Garrus to Plo Koon and Ahsoka Tano, among many others. However, even in these space opera universes where aliens are plentiful and diverse (and I’ll be getting back to that hot-button word in a bit), something always bugged me. Humans. Humans are always the center of attention, the main characters, and in many stories, the most important species.”