By The Stars — Relativity (Now isn’t that special?)

I find myself thinking about setting detail for By The Stars. Specifically, space travel. The biggest decision is: More authentic relativistic slower-than-light interstellar travel vs. more sci-fi faster-than-light travel. Maybe I should puzzle out some of the pros and cons.


  • It’s rooted in reality. c is the universal speed limit, as near as we can tell, and thus what real space travelers are going to have to deal with some day. There are many sources of hard, scientific speculation about what such travel will be like.
  • It’s counter-intuitively rare in gaming, and pop-culture sci-fi in general. Mostly, they mumble about trans-whatsis-drive and get to the blasters and aliens. Novelty is a selling point, and I always like breaking semi-new ground.
  • It makes an epic time scale easy. When a single trip of a few months’ time from the travellers’ point-of-view could span hundreds of years for planet-bound folks, having millenia-old cultures and traditions is a snap. Plus, pairing it with a LeGuin-like ansible makes for really interesting slow-travel, fast-talking paradoxes.


  • It’s hard to wrap one’s head around. The science fiction novels that make good use of relativistic space flight are well-pondered on many levels. Putting it in the game demands more forethought from players, and pushing them out of their comfort zone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.
  • It isolates characters. This is a BIG one. Talk about problems of splitting the party! I’ve taken a trip that will last a month for me and 50 years for you–what does that do to our shared narrative? Relationships outside the ship are going to apply to their own situation only, because NPCs will likely be long gone by the time you come around again. The thought of record-keeping alone makes my eyes cross.
  • It sets a standard that I, honestly, don’t have an interest in meeting. Choosing the unpopular, realistic option in something as central as space travel implies that other unpopular, realistic options–such as propulsion systems, particle shielding, power sources, transhumanism–are fair game and should be considered. But I’m not a guy that finds strong appeals in the hard science speculation.


  • It’s common to most popular sci-fi. Everybody “gets” the whole “making the jump to lightspeed” thing. It mimicks our own understanding of travel in our day-to-day world. Although the physics make no sense, the aesthetics are easy.
  • In-game problems and adversity are harder to run away from. Chases become reasonable actions.
  • The hand-waving can be interesting in its own right. Fading Suns’ jumpgates have always fascinated me–to have one choke-point where everything must pass is just plain cool. Who guards them? What other duties do they perform? How would information travel without FTL radio/ansible communications?


  • It’s common enough to be … boring. It’s expected that there will be FTL travel, and that journeys between stars take a few days or weeks. It’s run-of-the-mill.
  • Space loses its wonder and granduer. It becomes little more than a metaphor for oceans. Things are too close, and place doesn’t matter.

AFter typing all that out, relativistic space travel has some very high negative points. It looks like the best solution is to put a unique spin on the fantastical FTL travel. But I’m not yet 100% certain. I’ve never claimed that setting design is my strong point. Is there anything I’ve missed?

“The truths we cling to” — By The Stars scattered thoughts

There are some thoughts swirling aimlessly in my head about BTS that I haven’t been able to articulate for months now. This is my first attempt. They may very well be understandable to no one but me, but that’s what rough drafts are for. At least they’ll be down and out of my head!
One Scene to Rule Them All
I have a very tight focus for the game I want to create this time. I want to emulate the Luke-Vader duel scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Just as WGP… sprung from the Thanksgiving dinner scene of Spider-Man, the duel will serve as BTS’s guiding light. But what makes the duel so special? Why does it still capture my imagination nearly 25 years later? Let me list a few features, and then I’ll talk about my ideas for putting them in a game.
"I am your father." — Sudden Character Redefinition
This is the thing that had everyone talking from the time they saw Empire until Jedi came out. "No, Luke. I am your father." The duels starts out with Luke, the Avenging Son, coming to face down Vader, the Sire-Slayer. Luke’s lack of a father–as well as his desperation to follow in that unknown father’s footsteps–has defined his character up until this point. To suddenly learn that those footsteps lead directly to one of the greatest cinematic villians of all time shakes Luke’s character to its core.

How to do that in an RPG? My concept is for each character to have "open" spots in their character history. Things they don’t know about their own past. Perhaps I’ll put a grand diaspora or two into the recent past of the setting info to explain it. They can grab a bonus die for alluding to this open concept, and putting some constraint upon it. But so can other players. Whenever that happens, the open spot becomes worth another point of payout when it is defined. A player cannot define his own open concept. Only someone in conflict can define your open concept, and they get part of the payout. Kat suggests that you can set it in stone yourself, but only for half the pool.
"Join me. It is the only way." — Cutting Off Options
Look at the progress of the duel. They fight. Vader attempts to outmaneuver Luke and defeat him with technology (the carbon freezing chamber), and Luke just barely manages to dodge out of the way. Then, Vader overwhelms him with the Force. Finally, he visciously out-duels Luke and (literally) disarms him, driving him out onto a precipice where no other manuever is possible. The only way out is (seemingly) through Vader and by accepting what he offers. The only other choice is stepping off into the abyss. The fact that Luke does choose death before dishonor is the first step of redefining his character in the rest of the trilogy.

How to do that in an RPG? I think that all characters will be able to act in a number of different realms: Technology, Manuever, Melee, Ranged Combat, Social, Psychic Powers, that kind of thing. That happens to be six, so we’ll use d6s. Each one is associated with a single number on the die. During a turn, each character chooses a number/method that they’re using this round. They roll the dice for that method and a success is any die which matches the number of that method. Whoever gets the most successes on their own dice wins that round, and they get a number of consequence points to dole out equal to the matches of all players that round. You use these consquence points to add penalties to your opponents’ traits. But, these are not penalties in the sense of decreasing their effectiveness, they are damage penalties that accrue if the opponent choose that option. And, they’re not just abstract point penalties, they are "cannot" statements, much like in the character creation section of Puppetland and My Life with Master. They restrict your options. But, they can also be spent to give someone options they didn’t have before….
"Father, please!" — Enhancing the Options of Others
This slides into the climax of Return of the Jedi, which is really a continuation of the Empire duel. Luke has accepted that Vader is his his father, but even though his father has fallen from the path, Luke will not. He stumbles, but rights himself, throwing his lightsaber away before the Emperor. As the Emperor begins his lethal assault, his appeals to his father allow Vader to do what he could not do previously: Strike at the Emperor.

How to do that in an RPG? Just as you can cut off options by heavily disincetivizing them, characters can spend consequence points they gain to incentivize options to others. They’ll get bonus points if they do choose the option that you set up for them. Characters will have Oaths that forbid them from doing things. And they CANNOT do those things that they’ve voluntarily given up, unless some other character has given them this option.

This is where my thoughts drift into more abstract, less concrete stuff. In life in general, I think giving people options is generally a good thing, and cutting off their options is generally a bad thing. I see it as empowerment rather than control–call me democratic rather than authoritarian. Translating that shaky, ill-defined philosophy into game mechanics is tricky, because there will be innumerable counter-examples and players looking to gain advantage without consequence.

Tangent That’s something that drives me nuts in games–advantage without consequence. One of the things I wanted WGP…’s Aspect system to do (that it doesn’t do all that well) was that you couldn’t gain the advantage of an Aspect unless you brought it into the conflict, and thus risked damaging it. It doesn’t work so well in WGP… simply because everybody brings everything into every conflict. ::shrug:: But, in BTS, I want to bring that into play more centrally. If you use something to gain advantage over me, you give me the opportunity to affect that thing and potentially gain advantage over you.

My thoughts are all ragged now. Maybe I just need to do some self-playtesting.

A brief update

This past weekend was my birthday. My sneaky, sneaky wife planned a surprise party for me on Saturday. She even tricked me into cleaning up the house and mowing the lawn in preparation for my own party! So tricksy the wifey!

For those interested, I’ll be at the Nittany Game Invasion in beautiful State College, PA this Saturday. Should be a good time.