Keeping the Baby and Beaming Out The Bathwater

So, last week I gave examples of shows I’m drawing inspiration on, examples of the genre that I like and want to use.  On my Tumblr, I was asked if shows that pushed at the edges of my definition counted (specifically, the criminally unknown Outlaw Star and the terrific Babylon 5), and answered “They probably should!”

Honestly, the phrase heroic starship crew for the subgenre I’m going for is kind of clunky, and it doesn’t fit perfectly.  Should it count Babylon 5?  Does it being centered around a space station rather than a mobile ship disqualify it?  Well, no, it shouldn’t; it has ways to bring the story to it, and for it’s crew to venture out and deal with it.  Outlaw Star doesn’t have externally imposed missions – a device I like and want to employ in this game, but that I assumed without stating and that it turns out aren’t strictly necessary as long as you have something for the crew to travel to.

And of course there’s Firefly.  But then, there’s a game out there already that already perfectly fits Firefly, to the point of it’s fans being dead certain that it grew organically from Joss Whedon’s campaign notes for three little black book edition Traveller.  Still, I would like this game to be able to handle Firefly, or for that matter the crazy stuff you come up with.

No, the main reason I use heroic starship crew instead of Treklike is because I want to make it clear that Astra Incognita is not Star Trek.  And for that matter, the Terran Confederation Space Force is not Starfleet, and it is not Straczynski’s Earthforce, and it is not the Confederation of Wing Commander.

And that means very carefully sifting through what I want for Astra Incognita and why.  What in Trek and Bab 5 and Wing Commander and others I find compelling and ripe for a good, dramatic game, and why.  And then finding out what’s not useful or even merely unnecessary from my inspirations, and removing them from my own work.

Take casual use of teleportation, for starters – the Transporter Pads from Star Trek.

Teleportation was originally put in (the original series of) Star Trek because the producers at Desilu Studios couldn’t afford to shoot additional scenes with shuttlecraft and landers.  It’s also a distinctive and interesting technology that tells you a lot about the philosophy of the United Federation of Planets.  It is the single most clear identifier that you’re dealing with the technology of Star Trek.  The explanation given for how it works is also patently ridiculous and later scripts know it; it and the TNG holodeck get the most jokes and jeers sent it’s way of any bit of future tech on Trek.

Does tactical teleportation do anything, narratively, that shuttlecraft can’t?  More importantly, does it do anything that I actually want in Astra Incognita?

Well, it makes boarding actions commonplace – you can teleport soldiers anywhere on an enemy ship with (for our Fate game) an Overcome Obstacle roll!  It also makes.(the Trek conception of) energy shields important, since they can quite conveniently block teleportation into a ship.  A fight to lower a ship’s shields so you can ‘port to the bridge, with a gun to the captain’s head and a demand for surrender, is nice and dramatic!

Assault shuttles can do it too, though.  They can’t instantly place troops on the enemy ship’s bridge, but they can add dramatic boarding actions.  The Warhammer 40K starship combat game, Battlefleet Gothic, has both boarding action via shuttles and via “Teleportarium lightning strikes.” Is this something I want for my game?  I already know I want carriers, because of how useful fighters are for peaceful scouting as well as combat and point defense (or they are in my setting, even if it’s not strictly realistic); boarding shuttles aren’t much of a stretch.  Say for the moment that I do, and that the advantage of shuttles over ‘porting is both more troops faster and not caring about shields, like Battlefleet Gothic; unlike BFG, shuttles can be shot down.

So there’s room for ‘port bays in Astra Incognita.

How about the explanation of the tech, that you’re being deconstructed and reconstructed by the transporter beam? Well…

I absolutely don’t want a society that can build anything like a human from the molecular level up, because I don’t want replicators.  Trek’s post-scarcity economy is fascinating, but it also causes massive story headaches I want to sidestep.  Among other things, Space Force crew are paid, handsomely, both because I find that a cool plot hook and to directly distance myself from Trek.  Payment is just not necessary when you can dial up all the material goods you want on a replicator.  I could explore the limits of that, or what a post-scarcity economy looks like… but for my adventure game, I don’t want to.  There’s always Eclipse Phase or Transhuman Space for that.

Consider also the ethical and philosophical implications – or, rather, don’t, because Trek has mined that vein of story.  It’s a great story for an hour of dramatic television, but it’s not usually the sort of thing that goes over well in tabletop play.  It could, but I would rather not, again for some distance from Trek and for a more pulpy adventure.

Finally, it’s also an additional miraculous technology to strain our suspension of disbelief, when Faster Than Light travel is already necessary for the game I want to run to begin with. The game is called Unknown Stars (in Latin), and is about exploring them, preferably in our lifetimes.

So, forget the replicators needed for transporters: Hopper Bays are the same miracle as the Jump Drive, rather than two distinct ones.  FTL travel is in the form of Traveller-style long range teleports, created by pinching space together with intense gravity; and you can do short hops with the right equipment as well.  This has the advantage of having nice, dramatic limits that look, in practice, like the limits of Trek transporter pads – which can be jammed, need a sensor lock to use, can be interdicted with shields (let’s say they’re another spin-off of the gravity manipulation that lead to Jump Drives), and require your crew to carry transponders for the return trip.

There will be a lot of these kinds of decisions, about what to keep, what to mix, and what to throw out.  This is just one of many I needed to make, and there’ll be a lot more examples of figuring out what’s the baby and what’s the bathwater.

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