Monday, October 17, 2011

a quick FTL thought

If I need to get some object or objects from here to Peoria, I have several options available: foot, bicycle, automobile, train, a plane, a helicopter or maybe a horse or even maybe a team of oxen. If the object is just a brief written message I could use a carrier pigeon as well. Obviously, some of these methods are more practical than others and even the practical ones have different advantages and disadvantages. Sending a hundred tons of grain to Peoria via locomotive is probably a lot smarter than putting it on a plane, for example. But if the grain actually needs to end up in one of the small towns just outside of Peoria, the tracks might not go that way, so trucking it might be the next best way to go. Or a combo of trucking and trains. But then if I want to send a package to Paris (not Paris, Illinois, which has a decent pizza place as I recall but lacks many other emenities of the one in France) a whole bunch of those options fall away, but in exchange we can use a sailboat, a self-powered ships or a submarine. Most sci-fi RPGs I've seen posit a single kind of FTL drive that functions as the setting's equivalent of the engines on an ocean-going ship (or in the case of stargate-type systems, FTL-as-train). It might be more interesting to develop several different drives in your sci-fi campaign, each with different advantages and disadvantages. Maybe most ships use the standard Muon Induction Field type drive, but along the hyperspace faultlines N-brane Slipdrives are more efficient for short hops. Meanwhile the Doragian Warpgates allow near-instaneous travel, but they primarily serve the economic interests of the Doragian Prosperity Coalition and non-Doragians have to pay huge fees to use them. Still if Boba Fett is holding a "WANTED: Disintegrated or Alive" poster with your face on it, maybe it's time to pay through the nose.


  1. Excellent idea. This adds some much needed texture.

  2. In one SF background I built, there were two FTL methods. A jump-drive which was big, clumsy, and fuel-hungry (and tended to leave the crew nauseous for hours after the jump) and a gate that required nothing more than the ship push itself through. The gate had the drawback that it required hardware on both sides.

    So military and exploratory craft -- and a few (ahem) "express couriers" -- would build ships with jump drives, while everyone else went with the gates.

    ISTR the Honor Harrington universe having multiple FTL drives -- or at least, effects. One was a (relatively) slow warp-drive like system, and the other an instantaneous point-to-point gate-like system.

  3. GURPS Space presented rules for several different types of FTL travel & let the GM pick which applied.

    Also, at least one of the recent turn-based computer strategy games had a different FTL travel mechanism for each of the races, which lead to some really interestingly asymmetric gameplay. There was the slower-than-light race that could build jump gates when it got to the destination system, the race that moved faster the more ships it had together, the two generic races that could go anywhere but had different STL performance, humanity which moved faster than the generic races but could only move along preexisting jump lanes...

  4. Brin's uplift series has a few different star drives depending on what race and Library they have.

  5. Pretty much every space-opera setting I've ever gamed in has had multiple drive-types (sometimes with each drive being exclusive to different starfaring races or cultures, and sometimes representing different tech levels and such), but I agree it's usually a good idea.

    I think I've always considered diverse tech fundamental to space-adventure fiction, but I was raised on Doctor Who (and I've done most of my space-gaming with GURPS, which encourages a buffet approach), so ...

  6. Anonymous1:52 AM

    I think there are a lot of features of a FTL you could play with, some already mentioned:

    1: Limited destinations. Only lets out at red dwarf stars, or through pre-existing jump gates.

    2: Special fuel. You need to spend a rare resource that could be used for other things in exchange for each jump.

    3: Cooldown / load time. It takes time to start and/or recover from a jump. This might make it dangerous to jump into an unknown zone since you are stuck there for that period (perhaps with low ship power levels) and can't zip out in a hurry.

    4: Unpredictable targeting. You get within sort of the right area but can't be sure. This means to be safe you can't jump in near any objects like a star or planet.

    5: Negative crew / ship effects. A great example is the low power levels after a jump, or crew nausea. Maybe a jump causes damage to the ship. Maybe nearby planets and ships get a huge radiation blast when the ship leaves.

    6: Speed of the jump. It could be instantaneous, or take some time (10x light speed, 100x light speed, etc.)

    7: Equipment required. This is an opportunity cost, in that for carrying a better drive you can't carry other things. Maybe the drive always has a passive energy field that disrupts shields or increases targeting by enemy automatic systems like homing missiles. Maybe the energy requirement to keep the drive online means less power available for everything else. Maybe it just means a lot of extra mass to move around in sub-light.

    8: Technology required. Certain races might have access to some, others not. If it's a game with tech trees for research you have to choose whether to research the type of FTL that is along Tree 1 or Tree 4 or whatever.

    9: Maintenance. You might need a huge crew of engineers to handle one type of FTL engine, while another can be handled by autonomous systems and one plucky chief engineer.

    10: Chance of failure. You might need a skilled pilot for some types of drive, while others just need a computer system which might go offline and render the system useless.

    11: Biological component. One FTL drive might need a creature of a certain race to interface with it to work. Maybe it has a psionic component and there are few skilled practitioners.

    Make each FTL have one special effect, and you got a bunch right there without making them much like each other.

  7. I like 1d30's idea #4--

    the really fast drive can get you half-way across the universe in seconds but never exactly were you wanna be, the slower drive takes a little longer (multiple targeted jumps?) but you'll probably make up the time not hunting around star systems at impulse power on the other end for your destination.

  8. I've played with multiple types of FTL, but I've found that the worldbuilding involved, especially when the players get their grubby hands on the setting, tends to go off the rails, because the more ways you add to get from 'a' to 'b', the more things you have to consider, especially in terms of how they interact with each other. The usual compromise I have is that ships travel at different speeds through the same hyperspace, or the B5 system where some ships can make their own jump points into hyperspace while most ships need to use established gates. The more different your systems are, the more unexpected problems will arise, and there's nothing like spending a year building a massive galactic setting with complex politics and relationships, and having players then spend 5 seconds looking at it and asking, "But wait, why doesn't the Empire Of Evilstar use the Quantum-Flux Drive to attack the Republic Of Peacegoods Warpjump shipping terminus here and destroy their economy?"

    GURPS Space, at least older editions (haven't checked 4th in detail yet) had some great essays on the different kinds of FTL travel you can have, not just the SFX but the mechanical decisions like how fast, how far, how large, etc, and the impact this has on the world. It's often best to work backward from "What kind of space setting do I want?" to "What kind of FTL travel leads to this?" If only huge star destroyer type ships can enter hyperspace, the PCs can't be tramp freighter pilots. If FTL can be any-point to any-point, it's hard to have any kind of "borders" and stellar "empires" might not be cohesively grouped, but would consist of "claimed worlds" that weren't geographically near to each other, no "border fortresses" looking for invaders, no "core worlds" secure behind their buffer zones, etc.

  9. Anonymous10:02 AM

    Yes, this could lead to war over FTL fuel, or just power in the hands of the owners of the material. With jump gates, you have a frontier around each gate, that is, each gate is a center of traffic and safety and you get less safe and explored as you venture from each jump gate. You also have another type of frontier, at the ends of the gate networks.

    I also forgot the DS9 wormhole dealie. You could have FTL through naturally-existing portals that have fixed destinations, or maybe you can travel from a hub to anywhere in a radius around it but then you have to make your own way home. Finding a second hub within range of the first would be a real coup! Maybe the tech involved is some kind of advanced ancient alien thing and nobody can make any more or affect it (The Avatar, Poul Anderson).

  10. Head, meet hammer.

    SF nerds so often forget that soft sciences is where all the interesting stuff happens. I used to be on a mailing list that turned out to be a hard SF war-game aficionado thing and they consistently failed to consider economic influences in particular.

  11. It's not an RPG, exactly, but I'm thinking of the old TSR game "Star Empires"; in that, there were a series of hyperspaces you could transit through (different "levels") for various travel times and side effects.

  12. I like this kind of thing. The only drawback I see is that it focuses attention on one of the more "magical" aspects of a setting, and that might reduce the feeling of realism. But that may not be a big deal in some games.

    This might be inspirational:

  13. Makes me think of the West End board game "Web and Starship" by Greg Costikyan. From the Encylopedia of Science Fiction:

    "The Pereen can travel between stars by means of an instantaneous "Web", but must use slower than light probes to add new planets to the network, while the Gwynhyfarr use faster than light ships, which are too small to move large amounts of material from one star to another."

    The Earth starts off between both empires with inferior forms of both technologies.

  14. @Chris... while FTL may be (OK, is) "magical" in that every version of it is some kind of handwaving, seriously thinking about the social, military, economic, etc, consequences of how it works is anything but, and is the kind of worldbuilding you need to make a believable setting. It's like thinking about how magic can be industrialized, and, if you don't want it to be, how you change the rules to stop it.

  15. To elaborate on what Jeff said, the <a href="'>GURPS Uplift</a> book details the various kinds of drives available in the Uplift setting. I don't remember all the details now, but there was one that was very fast, but very dangerous. You were essentially traveling through the realm of thought constructs, and you navigator had to risk insanity to travel that way.