Space Opera

Space Opera is one of the classic FGU (Fantasy Games Unlimited) RPGs, meaning, it has insanely detailed and complex rules and a reputation for nigh-unplayability. When I was 16, I was able to roll up characters in it. Can I do so now that I’m 43 and “spoiled” by games like D&D 3.5, GURPS, and FATE? We shall see…

The game itself is a boxed set with two 94-page booklets. The first one is sorta kinda the “players” book and the second is sorta kind the GMs  — sorry, the SM, Starmaster’s — book, but, this being the ealry 1980s and all, the actual content is a random sort of stream of consciousness thing — for example, the three pages of rules on throwing and catching things are located between the rules for morale in combat and the section on career possibilities for PCs. Go figure. (The throwing rules are, for the record, longer than the rules on melee combat, causing some people to quip this is the “Football Roleplaying Game”.)

OK, let’s look at character creation. First, the game recommends many characters be designed at once, first because it takes so long that it’s best to get it out of the way, and, second, because this way different storylines can be played out — you can have a group of Pirate PCs, a group of Heroic Star Patrol PCs, and so on. In the 1980s, it was somewhat more common to have rotating campaigns, or to have one player have a character be “Away” for some period of game time while the player used an alternate PC. It’s kind of interesting in that this is one of the earliest games to address issues of social contract and group cohesion; it’s something that rarely came up in games of the time.

Anyway, on to character generation. You first pick a class — Armsman (Fighter), Astronaut (Pilot), Tech, Scientist: Research, Scientist:Medical, and Scientist: Engineering. Yes, four out of six classes are, basically, scientists. The exact difference in play between a Tech and an Engineer is pretty minimal, along with the rest. There are no class powers or the like; your class determines modifiers to your attributes (first you pick your class, then you roll your stats — hope you roll well!) and some initial skill choices, and that’s really about it.

Let’s roll some attributes!


We have: Strength, Physique, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Empathy, Intelligence, Psionics, Intuition, Bravery, Leadership, GTA, MechA, and ElecA. Each ranges from 1-20. Guess how they’re rolled?

If you said “A D20” or “2D10” or anything like that…. you’re WRONG!

You roll 1d100 and then cross index to find the 1-20 value. Even more fun, there are SIX columns, each covering 2-3 attributes which are semi-logically grouped. For example, rolling a 25 will give you a score of 9 in Physique, Strength, or Con, while that same 25 is a score of 10 for Agility and a score of 8 for Empathy! Oh, the chart goes to 105 for some of the abilities, and 115 for others, but only to 100 for the rest. Why over 100 for some? Beeecause…

Each class gets a pool of points to add to the rolls for some of the attributes! So we’d better pick a class… OK, Armsman. Let’s go for a classic archetype here, the foot soldier of the future, ideally not a mercenary grunt but a professional, even elite, solder. As an Armsman, he has a pool of +40 to Physique, Strength, Constitution, Agility, Bravery, and Leadership. This +40 is not added to each roll; rather, I roll and then add some portion of it to the roll to get my final number. Here’s the initial setup:

68: Physique 14
28: Strength 11
49: Con 13
27: Agility 10
80: Dexterity 14
61: Empathy 12
93: Intelligence 17
6: Psionics 2
60: Intuition 10
74: Bravery 15
52: Leadership 13
70: GTA 13
2: MechA 2
43: ElecA 11

Seeing this, I want to up Strength… let’s see, 7 points to that will give me a 12, leaving me 33 points… Agility needs to go up, too… for a mere 1 point, I can raise it to 11, not great, but very cost-efficient, so 32 to go…my leadership can go to 14 for just 6 more points, so 26 left…it’s worth noting, by the way, that none of these attributes are currently defined anywhere, so I’m sort of guessing at what I need… let’s kick Physique up to 15, that costs me 8 points, 18 left… hell, make Strength 13, for another 15 points, 3 left..just enough to raise Bravery to 16.

So here’s the final tally:

Physique 15

Strength 13

Con 13

Agility 12

Dexterity 14

Empathy 12

Intelligence 17

Psionics 2

Intuition 10

Bravery 16

Leadership 14

GTA 13

MechA 2

ElecA 11

So, evidently, I am pretty good with technology in general and with electronics, but I am a terminal butterfingers with mechanical devices. This isn’t a bad roleplaying hook. My highest attribute is Intelligence, so, if I’d rolled BEFORE choosing a class, I would have picked a tech profession.

I have no idea what is gained, mechanically or balance wise, by this bass-ackwards system of stat rolling. It reeks of complexity for complexities sake. If the idea is to shift the ‘mean’ of various attributes, by making, say, a high Psionics rarer than a high Physique, this can be done more efficiently in many different ways: Straight 2d10 for Physique, 2d10-4 for Psionics, and give out points to raise attributes as needed. Games like Runequest were already doing this at the time, so it’s not an innovation. Picking class and THEN rolling virtually guarantees broken or mismatched characters.

So, having rolled attributes, what do you think is next? If you said “Homeworld” you win. You also cheated, because, no way in hell would any sane gamer think that. And you know, it’s late and I’m tired, so I’ll finish this off another day. Let us declare Part I done!


Everyone has to come from somewhere. Dude X (he has no name yet because picking a race hasn’t come up, and race is pretty important to names — dwarves are all named SomethingBeard, Elves have names like those given by particularly stone hippies to their unfortunate offspring, who then rebel by become chartered accountants which is why the guy who does your taxes is named Meadowleaf Peace Rainbow Love, and so on. But before we know what species we are in Space Opera, we need to know what kind of world we come from. Let’s roll the ol’ D20, shall we?

First up, gravity. A roll of 6 gives us a slightly low-gravity world of 0.5 to 0.8g, which in turn kicks my Physique up by +2 with no negative effects! Go me! My Physique is now a very high 17!

Atmosphere: A 7 means a standard pressure atmosphere, and I am informed that my oxygen tolerance range is 60mm to 400mm IPP in the lungs. I have no idea if this ever comes up in play, but it’s nice to know, I guess.

Climate: This is a d100 roll, and I rolled a 14. This is a “Terran Steppe” planet, telling me I hold waterin “high regard”. The world is “as described in 15.5 and 15.7”, which is in Book 2. I’l ignore it for now. So I’m from a slightly-thin atmosphered, slightly dry world. It doesn’t say if it’s hot or cold or whatever, so I’m going to say it’s a bit chill, with lots of broad, flat, plateus overlooking dried riverbeds. Civilization on Homeworld Of Dude consists of a few cities clustered on the small oceans, and a lot of isolated homesteads… perhaps miners looking for rare minerals in the dusty wastes, heading into town once or twice a month when the merchant ships arrive to sell their goods, buy food, and swap gossip. Not a hellworld, but a bit harsh and a bit dull, a perfect background for someone who wants to join the Space Army or whatever.

Ah, now we get to race! Surprisingly, this isn’t a random roll. I can pick from Humans, Transhumans (Vulcans), Pithecines (Ape-men), Canines, Felines, Ursoids, Avians, Warm-Blooded Saurians, and that’s “it”. Interestingly, these are racial types, not races — there are, it implies, dozens of different species of cat-men, bear-men, dog-mean, dino-men, and so on. I sort of like this — you can have star-spanning cat people empires and primitive cat people on isolated worlds. It helps break the one species/one culture thing. Oh, did I mention the Ursoid races are prone to communism? No, seriously. Get it? “There’s a bear in the woods…” Remember that? Your race doesn’t generally change your stats; rather, following the great traditions of 70s/early 80s game, your stats must qualify you for your race! I wonder if I can be canine? Strength and Con 10+, check. Bravery 13+, check. Quickness… hold on… There is no stat called Quickness! Something slipped by the editors. Maybe they mean Agility? If so, I’m screwed — too low. Ah well. I’ll be human. Given that, Dude X is herewith renamed to Doug Xavier.

OK, so, what do I look like? With a Physique of 17, I am 195 cm tall and weigh 96 kg. Ah, now, after generating them, we get to actually describing what the Characteristics actually mean. About bloody time. There’s lots of little ‘gotchas’ hidden here, though — for example, buried in the description of Bravery is a note that Astronauts have a minimum Bravery of 11 and get to freely raise theirs to 11 if it’s less than that.

Carrying Capacity: Your basic math calculation, adjusted by race — CC is Physique, Strength, and Con, averaged. So that’s  13.6 for Dude.. I mean, Doug, multiplied by his body mass, then times 0.05 for his race, so 65.28 KG. There’s a bunch of numbers for Full Load, Light Load, and so on, but I won’t bore you with them.

Now comes something much more interesting — Damage Factors, or DF. You might notice a lot of PAs (Pointless Abbreviations) in these rules. That’s the spirit of the era. DF is calculated by adding Physique, Strength, Con, and Body Mass, then dividing by 10, then multiplying by a racial factor, then averaging the ASCII value of the letters in his name and dividing by the number of times the letter ‘q’ appears on a randomly selected page in the rules. I made up part of that. I won’t tell you which, but I do end up with a DF of 33.

Oh, then follows a column of text on “TKM” bracelets, which are magic — sorry, high-tech — gizmos which will preserve your body after death for later revival. By the way, you can avoid this by shooting someone through the brain. However, the StarMaster can only have an NPC shoot you through the brain if he rolls a 10+ on 2d6. A PC can try to take down another PC, but only if he (the first PC) makes an Intelligence check to think of it!

Two full pages on healing wounds follow this. Note all of this is in the middle of character creation not in, say, combat. That would be just silly.

Stamina factor, fatigue, “wind”, movement, all adjusted by race, hair color, and astrological sign. Oh, and stats for flying belts of various tech levels. Because that’s exactly what you need to know when rolling up a character.

I know I keep harping on the organization of the rules, but, I swear, it’s like they put all the rules sections in a blender and put them together in an almost completely random order. And yet, by the standards of the age, this was a pretty well written, coherent, book.

Oh, here comes the infamous Throwing rules — two pages or so of tables, charts, and modifiers for tossing something from one PC to another.

Finally,we get to Careers — the thing that gives you skills! Maybe later, I am coming down with a nasty cough. Ech.


Boy, that was a long lasting cough! What was that, about 7 months? Well, anyway, here’s the final part (I hope) for Space Opera, and I plan to make this at least a weekly feature from now on.

So, Doug Xavier is off to join… wow, there’s a lot of choices! But, before I pick where I want to serve, I roll to see how long I serve before I have to try to re-enlist. Some people may recognize vague echoes of Traveller’s career system, only less elegant and more confusing. So, unmodifier D20 roll…. 6, I will serve 6 2-year tours of duty as an Armsman in… uh… yeah, there’s a lot of them. Let’s see. We’ve got “The Starforces”, including Starfleet, the Space Marines, Special Services Commandos. There’s BOSS (Bureau of State Security), with several of its own brances, the ISP (Interstellar Police Agency, doncha know), Planetary Police forces, civilian Explorers, Merchant Marines, and Mercenary Companies. Let’s sign up as a guard-type with the Merchant Marine, which means I join the “Guild of starship Armsmen and Gunners”. Or I try to. Despite already rolling to see how long I serve, I now roll to see if I was actually welcome. I roll as if I was going to re-enlist, but, if I fail, I still enlist, I just suffer a penalty for my chances of promotion.OK, what’s the re-enlistment roll for a Merchant Armsman? “As Marine Armsman”. OK, so that’s a +1 if assorted attributes are above assorted levels. All but my Agility is above the needed levels, so I get a +5 to my 3d6 roll of 10+. Thus, a 5 or higher on 3d6, and I’m golden. 13 rolled, +5 is 18, and I’m in! Welcome to the Merchant Marine, Armsman Doug Xavier. It will be your home for 12 years.

So, what does this mean? Well, apparently I roll for promotion once a term… and there’s a bunch of rules on re-enlistment and reserve status (before the actual rules for the services, mind you, and then there’s my pension plan — yes, my pension plan — and what kind of goodies I take with me when I leave the service, but what do I *do* during each term? What a silly question! It’s answered, or course, after the retirement rules!

And… well, it makes sense it’s there, since my choice of service has no impact on my skills, and my length of service has the effect of limiting how many of my skill points cannot be spent on skills “not appropriate to [[my]] career”. In other words, assuming I’m reading the rules right, a character who has served one term of service has as many SPs as one who has served 10 — and more freedom to spread them around.

Well, fine. Let’s see what rank I mustered out with, anyway.

Hmm. There’s a huge guild entry fee, but I’m guess that’s if you want to join in-play. I’ll skip that.

Promotion. Well, the Enlistment rules gave a +1 to your roll for each attribute over a given value. You’d think Promotion would follow the same pattern. You fool! You blind, stupid, foolish, fool! You roll 2d6, and you get a +1 for every 5 points by which the sum of certain characteristics exceeds a completely arbitrary number! For an Armsman in the Merchant Marine, that’sStrength, Constitution, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Leadership, and Bravery over 113. Mine don’t come close, coming in at 90-something. Hmm. And they’re all pretty good, too. To get a promotion bonus, you will need to have seven attributes at an average of 17 each — almost impossible. So there’s a mass of math to determine a bonus which will almost never come into play, and which will, if it does, probably only offer a +1 at most, unless you’re superhuman.

So, I have a low chance of being promoted each term — 10+ on 3d6.

Term 1: No promotion.

Term 2: No promotion.

Term 3: Promotion!

Term 4: Promotion!

Term 5: No Promotion

Term 6: Promotion!

Wow. Those were real rolls, folks — I fudge nothing here. So after 12 years of loyal service (note the lack of any ‘story building’ the way the Traveller career path works — no skills to pick as you go, no risk of death/injury, no regular re-enlistment roll), I end up a Master at Arms, with a 15000 credit annual salary. I’m not going to re-enlist.

So what’s next? I get 5% of my annual salary times my years of service as severance pay, so that’s 9,000 credits. That’s the sum of everything I have left. Oh, I also have some investment savings, which is 1% of my salary, times my intelligence, times my years of service, or 30,600 credits in the bank. It sounds like a lot — two years salary. Oh, wait, there’s also pension benefits, which are 10% of my salary times half my years of service, or another 9,000 credits. A spaceship costs 17 million credits, though.

OK, so, back to those skill points. I sum Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Leadership, and Bravery, for a total of 99 SP, of which I must spend  48+(5*12=60) 108 on Combat skills.

The frack?

Yes, the formula can easily leave you with no SP to spend on non-combat skills. Since your requirement is based on your years of service, and your SP are fixed, it’s very easy to end up required to spend more skill points than you have — and the more life experience you have, the narrower your character is. Again, a 20 year old with one term would have all of my SP, and a lot more freedom as to how to spend them. Folks, this isn’t just complicated or overly-baroque design; this is just plain broken. I don’t recall noticing how bad it was when I was 16, maybe because I read the rules wrong or didn’t care.

Well, let’s go to page 4.6 and train up some skills.I mustered out with a sidearm and a vibroblade, so let’s learn to use them first. That looks like “Direct Fire/Small Arms”, (there is, of course, no master list of skills — you must read them all individually.) Since there’s no no indication what tech level my culture was, I’m not sure what kind of sidearm I might have, but let’s pick blaster, and, hey, make it a tech 10 blaster. Specifically, a T/10 BlastPistol (note the early use of WikiCaps). Well, at least I get experience with all weapons in the group, so I am equally proficient in the T/8 Blaster MG. 2 SP per level, I want 10 levels, so 20 SP. I also want Vibroblade, which will cost me 10 SP for 10 levels (and lets me use a force blade, too). 30 down, 69 to go.

Hey, since I was in the Merchants, I can apply my SP to Merchant skills! Naturally, this is explained in the section on combat skills, not in, say, the Merchant Marine career description or anything silly like that. And note, it’s not at the beginning of the section — it, along with other special rules notes, is wedged between the skill descriptions for “Combat Engineer, Demolitions” and the skill description for “Projectile Artillery”. Really! You want me to scan the page?

Anyway, Merchant is 5 SP/level, so I’ll spend 25 points for 5 levels. 44 left.

Streethfighting&Brawling is under “general” skills, not combat skills, but I want some of that, too: 10 SP for 5 levels. 34 left. Oh, better get general combat training: 1 SP level, so, max it out at 10. I get a lot of bonuses, including “Expertise/1 per level” with a chosen group of weapons… like, say, Blaster. Why pay 20 SP just for Blaster when I get that, and a whole lot more, for 10? Ah, smeg it, I’ll pick Stunners as my default group (makes sense for a merchant, you don’t want to shoot to kill every pickpocket), so I get Stunners/10, and +1% in all attacks for each level of difference between me and my enemy, so I need to know the Combat Training level of everyone I meet in order to gain a bonus which will max out at 9% and which will usually be, assuming a decent DM, closer to 2-3%.

24 SP left. I can learn Spacecraft Armaments, so 10 levels of that for 20. Four points left, let’s learn how to handle a non-vibro knife a bit, to level 4. Done!

We’ll skip psionics.

We’ll skip the seven pages of so lovingly detailed ship system breakdown rules, which includes rules for the ships thermostat raising or lowering the temperature by 2 degrees (centigrade) per house. (1-3, raise temperature, 4-6, lower temperature.) BTW, there’s a 10% of just such a temperature control malfunction if the general malfunction is in life support, and there’s a 10% change of a Brudge malfunction being a life support malfunction, and there’s a 15% of any malfunction being a bridge malfunction. We won’t even discuss the rules for determining if there’s a malfunction in the first place. You know, there’s a part of me that loves this stuff, that loves the idea of players having to worry about random system failures as they try to get their leaky hulk through space. It’s evocative. One of the best episodes of Firefly, ever, dealt with Random Frammistat Number 12 going “blooey”. And while making it pure DM fiat is unfair, this level of detail is… unnecessary. Two charts, one for “general severity” and one for “what blew up” is really all you need. I can find this sort of endless specificity inspiring for when I can’t think of what happened other than “sparks fly from the consoles”, but when I think of all the stuff you could have used these pages for…

And that’s the end, really, of the first book. The second book has equipment, combat, and so on, but it looks like Doug Xavier is done.

Not sure what game I’ll do next. Something more recent, I think. I always grab a mountain of Forge stuff at GenCon which I never read; maybe I’ll check out one of those bundles of high weirdness.

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