If we want to make a Space Opera setting, answering this question is vital. There are plenty of answers available elsewhere on the internet (for example, on TV Tropes or Wikipedia), but we want to provide some kind of definition which we can use to help define the first broad strokes of the setting (and of course, in the future, use it to help with the smaller details).
The poem below, written by Brian Aldiss, is referenced by the TV Tropes “Guide to Writing a Space Opera”, and breaking it down seems like a good starting point. It’s worth pointing out that the TV Tropes interpretation is more centered around writing a specific story, with a beginning, middle, and end, rather than a world for an RPG. Here’s the poem:
The world must be in peril. There must be a quest, And a man or woman to meet the mighty hour. That man or woman must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must rain down the palace steps, And ships launch out into the louring dark. There must be a woman or man fairer than the skies, And a villain darker than a Black Hole. And all must come right in the end.
I’m going to go through it, line by line, applying it to the design process for a Space Opera campaign setting.
It’s worth pointing out now that most people center their concept of “Space Opera” around Star Wars, and for good reason. If you tell someone “I’m running a Space Opera game”, it’s probably where their mind will go to first. Star Wars, therefore, is almost as foundational to a player’s idea of this kind of setting as as the idea of “Space Opera” itself.
This is simple enough – there has to be danger in the setting. Without danger, action is going to be very hard to come by! This danger can’t just be “low-level danger”, e.g., “There’s a chance I’ll be mugged if I go down that alley”. It needs to be on a larger scale. After all, these dangers will be the motivating forces for our players! We want dangers like “If we let that moon-base finish construction, several planets will be blown up!”
Dangers won’t only exist on a planetary level. They should vary in magnitude (e.g., local, planetary, sector, galactic). To encourage a wide variety of adventures, the setting should also have a variety of dangers.
In short, the setting must have a wide variety of dangers with high stakes.
This is not simply the idea that characters need to have an objective! The word “quest” evokes a deeper meaning. A team of characters on a quest might travel through many exotic locations and polulations, making discoveries along the way in pursuit of an objective. A “goal”, would be “find a map”. A quest might be “First, we find the location of the broken holo-map, sequestered in the jungles of Tryyth. We’ll then head to the spaceport on the ice planet Krastur, carefully avoiding the Maw Nebula on our way. There, we’ll meet our employer, who can guide us on what to do next”. In this case, the characters go on a journey!
A Space Opera isn’t particularly awe-inspiring if every location looks the same. They should each have their own defined feel to them!
In short, the setting must have a variety of exotic locations for questing.
This is fairly simple – there must be heroes! In the case of an RPG setting, this will be our players. Their characters should be people of action – meek, talentless nobodies need not apply. The characters should fill the “classic heroic ideals”, and must be prepared to take great risks to accomplish the task at hand. This is exactly the sort of character we want the setting to encourage – one that won’t be out of place when the action starts. We don’t want a character, who, when they hear about the wonders and dangers of other planets, thinks to themselves “Sorry, but I’d rather stay at home”.
In short, the setting should encourage action-oriented characters willing to brave the dangers of adventure.
This is pretty self-explanatory – the setting is a large place, and it almost certainly has a lot of diversity in its population! There is nuance to this, however. Simply cramming in the most alien creatures possible (e.g., 4D beings with fractal bodies) isn’t what we want. These sorts of aliens might work if used very sparingly, but they should feel special when they do.
The classic cinematic Space Opera often focusses on human characters. Though this was in part due to budgetary concerns, having a human (or near-human) character at the forefront of the adventure gives the audience an easy avenue through which to relate to the story at hand. It’s likely far easier to be immersed into the setting if you’re playing a human (or human-like) creature as opposed to the 4D fractal beings mentioned above.
This makes alien creatures feel more alien. If all of the characters are some bizarre creature, encountering other exotic creatures won’t evoke the same “mystique” as it should.
Looking ahead to the game aspect of the setting, it’s far easier to run a game where the vast majority of the characters are humanoid. Some may be partly humanoid, and a few could be utterly alien, but for an easy-to-run game, most should be humanoid. This makes it easier for the GM (who can describe these aliens more easily), but also helps cultural integration, another vital part of Space Opera. If every alien is radically differnent, standardised technology is unlikely to exist, and the cultures are less likely to interact. Humans aren’t likely to live in the same sort of area as “forty-foot tall perfectly spherical aliens who die when they touch oxygen”. Play is likely to slow down signficantly when players have to keep asking “How does my alien character even do this? I don’t have arms or legs!”
I will note that this is partly a personal stylistic choice, and perhaps there are some where nothing looks humanoid other than humans. This just doesn’t suit the game world I want to run – I’d definitely at least want players to choose from “human-like species” for their characters. The flora and fauna of the setting, of course, will be alien, and certainly not humanoid!
In short, the setting must contain a variety of aliens and exotic creature, but most sapient ones designed for characters should not stray too far from the “vaguely humanoid” norm.
This is also fairly simple – the adventure must take place in space. This is Space Opera, after all! The setting should encourage moving from planet to planet, travelling via spaceships to new systems and sectors, all containing the exotic aliens, flora, and fauna described earlier.
As I mentioned under “There must be a quest”, locations should be thematically distinctive to one another. It is helpful to make each planet as distinctive as possible, which is most easily done by “single biome planets”.
That phrase is probably ringing some alarm bells for the scientists among you, who may consider the idea to be an abomination! Whilst this is true for hard sci-fi, it’s a staple of soft sci-fi (which Space Operas often are), and it really helps to give a “unique feel” to each planet. In Star Wars, for example, Tatooine, Mustafar, Hoth and Endor have very distinctive feels, even if they’re not particularly realistic!
It’s also worth pointing out that in Space Operas, planets are similar to “cities”, with a defined culture, architecture and festivities. Just looking at Earth, we can tell that this absolutely is not the case in real life. However, this again serves to give each planet its own distinctive feel, even if unrealistic! If we were to apply the “harsh, gritty realism” of hard sci-fi, each planet would start to lose much of its instinctive mystique. There’s also benefit to the players, who will find such distinctions easier to remember!
It’s also worth noting that not everything in a Space Opera happens on planets. Asteroid fields, spaceship battles, and other dangers exist in the great beyond! So these sorts of things should be included too.
In short, the setting should feature space as a major element, encouraging the travel between locations, potentially fraught with danger!
This line evokes all manner of feelings, but to me, this indicates that the most grand adventures should permeate through all levels of society, even reaching the highest levels, where corruption, conspiracy and betrayal drive the bloodshed. Sinister plots, schemes and subterfuge flows through the world with far-reaching impacts and implications – nobody is safe.
This line also captures the “fantastical” element of Space Opera – there must be big epic battles, packed with action, stunts and cinematic maneuvers. Blood doesn’t just dribble – it rains. The adventure isn’t pedestrian – it’s the sort of thing that only fantastical heroes can take on!
In short, the setting must encourage fantastical stories, with implications for (and moves made by) all levels of society!
Spaceships are vital to Space Operas – they provide a means of travel through the stars. Heroes and villains should have ships of their own, with distinctive styles (and personalities, even if not sentient). Our characters should have access to a ship, whether it’s one they own or one they’ve stolen.
The latter part of the sentence also evokes a sense of mystery to space as well – there should be places which are yet to be charted – these are places where brave heroes can go first, to face whatever new dangers lurk there!
In short, the setting should feature a diverse array of spaceships, to travel into explored and unexplored regions of space.
This sentence means something different in the context of a setting. For a setting, there should be people that heroes will want to protect from the galaxy’s dangers. After all, they need something to fight for! The heroes need to save the day, and there should be those that need saving. The adventures have to be feats that only heroes could accomplish – a character won’t feel particularly heroic if their job could have been done by the local police force, or if they’re not fighting for any particular cause (or people).
In short, the setting should have people for the heroes to save, and causes to fight for – doing this must require heroics, not mundane drudgery!
Any Space Opera is incomplete without a sinster villain. After all, if we want a setting with something to fight for, we need something to fight!
The villain is darker than a black hole. They’re just plain evil. They’re likely not “morally ambigious” – they’re in it for power, and are prepared to crush anyone who gets in their way. They might have justifications for their actions, sure, but those justifications will certainly be morally bankrupt and/or twisted. For example, a villain might justify enslaving a sector because “The lives of the poor are worth nothing compared to mine”. The last thing we want is for our heroes to have second thoughts and give up because they realised “Huh, I guess if you look at it that way, the villain’s despicable acts were perfectly justifiable after all!”. The heroes must want to face the villain with a burning desire, and to see them brought to justice! Minor villains might have better justifications, but the major ones are just plain evil.
The villains should also be powerful, and capable of posing an adequate threat. The most basic underlings may be hapless fools, but the higher you climb up the ranks, the more sinister and competent they become. It’s hard to get into galactic power if you’re an idiot (unless of course, you’re being puppeteered by the real villain!).
Villains should also have their own distinctive, memorable styles and themes as well – this makes them feel special to the players.
In short, the setting must have unambigiously evil, hate-inspiring, powerful villains (with their own styles and themes), who pose an incredible threat to the “innocents” of the setting.
In the context of a setting, which doesn’t really have an “end”, this means something different. Of course, a campaign will have an end, but this is a setting.
So, for a setting, this line indicates that there must be hope! There must be a way of putting an end to the villain’s terror, and to restore peace and justice to the galaxy once more. After all, heroes probably won’t bother fighting if any attempt is futile. With no chance of success, they’re far more likely to just think “Eh, what’s the point”. We must not encourage this! Every villain has a weakness, and the heroes must find out what it is, and exploit it.
In short, the setting must have hope, in that heroes must have a chance of putting an end to all villanous tyranny!
So, to summarise, the setting must:
- have a wide variety of dangers with high stakes.
- have a variety of exotic locations for questing.
- encourage action-oriented characters willing to brave the dangers of adventure.
- contain a variety of aliens and exotic creature, but most sapient ones designed for characters should not stray too far from the “vaguely humanoid” norm.
- feature space as a major element, encouraging the travel between locations, potentially fraught with danger!
- encourage fantastical stories, with implications for (and moves made by) all levels of society!
- the setting should feature a diverse array of spaceships, to travel into explored and unexplored regions of space.
- have people for the heroes to save, and causes to fight for – doing this must require heroics, not mundane drudgery!
- have unambigiously evil, hate-inspiring, powerful villains (with their own styles and themes), who pose an incredible threat to the “innocents” of the setting.
- have hope, in that heroes must have a chance of putting an end to all villanous tyranny!
This list essentially lists the “10 commandments” I’ll want to follow when designing this setting. It will make sure I stick to the genre, and will keep the theme focussed around the concepts I’m imagining. Much like the summary statements of “Step 2.1 – Who is this setting for?”, I’ll continue to refer back to these as I make my decisions, for both major and minor features alike.
Now we’ve established what a Space Opera is, we can start to think about what kinds of characters we want to see in our games – this will be explored in the next post.