December 8, 2015 at 9:55 pm #1127
It’s fitting that this is my first post in this forum, because it’s one about inspiration and world-building. I just wanted to break the ice and state that Horizons development is coming along pretty well. I’m really looking forward to getting into play testing. I’m very happy with my player races (which I’m calling morphologies) and the setting’s growing infrastructure for skills, abilities, weapons, ships, and civilizations. But right now, my primary development obstacle (apart from time) is thinking about how in-game space travel/exploration will feel, and how it will function.
Much of our science fiction glosses over interstellar travel almost entirely, focusing on what happens before and after a long trip. Moreover, maps of star systems seem abstract, disconnected, and realized in terms of their two-dimensional representations on a variety of strange-looking visual displays (there are some cool, holographic representative concepts, but not many). Whenever we’re shown space travel, we’re seeing a ship moving slowly in orbit, navigating asteroids, maneuvering in some kind of dance or battle with other ships, or simply as a blip on a map.
The remake of Battlestar Galactica is a good example of this. When they “spool up” their “FTL” drive, we see a ship disappear from one place, and re-appear somewhere else, the computers having made the apparent navigation calculations in order to travel from one fixed point in space-time to another. BSG isn’t alone in this; many short-stories, books, game settings, shows, and films do the same sort of thing with space travel. Space-faring vessels are depicted transitioning into some special type of faster-than-light travel, but the story rarely lets the reader/viewer in on what traveling these vast and incomprehensible distances would entail.
Star Trek is one show, however, (especially TNG) that spends a great deal of time on the inner-workings of a ship while it is traveling from one locale to the next at warp speed. It’s true that viewers never get a real sense of how “Warp Engines” actually function in three-dimensional space (we’re left to explore those possibilities in forums and wikis where numerous people argue about the scale and efficacy of a “warp” drive), but in each of the series in the Star Trek universe we see numerous conference room scenes, concerts, dinners, engineering inspections, and holodeck diversions, all while the ship is traveling from planet to starport. We get a deeper sense in these narratives of what the vastness of that travel might be like. Ships in that universe are made larger and self-sufficient simply because they need to be. Space is vast. Engines have limitations, and it takes time to get from one place to another. And in Star Trek: Voyager, the whole premise of the series centers around the vastness of getting back home from the opposite side of the galaxy and the apparent limitations that their fastest warp drive (which would still take 75 years to get them home). In Voyager, the ship is always pointed toward earth’s solar system, and in nearly every episode the ship is traveling at warp. So, Star Trek is a great inspiration in the attention that many narratives give to people stuck in a ship in transit.
But even Star Trek falls short of really allowing space travel to feel like an active part of story flow in the way that travel in a fantasy setting does. The pitfalls of each Star Trek story demonstrate an inherent contradiction that encourages audiences to gloss over interstellar travel altogether. This results in numerous loopholes to plot and story development throughout the setting. For example, even though we assume it takes a long time to travel from one location to the next in the Star Trek universe, if there really were such imposing limitations to warp drive, how could the Federation and other galactic empires have such a unified, hierarchical control over such disparate star systems? Additionally, entire systems become represented by the traveling military powers who control territories, reducing the vastness of identity into the apparent stereotypical uniform of a certain sentient species. The contradiction also forces writers increasingly to invent new technologies to get around the limitation of the mechanic of warp drive in the first place.
What this has developed into, as the Star Trek canon has continued to expand, is an increasingly problematic map and a far more disparate sense of time inside a ship. For example, In Deep Space Nine, the authors skirt this issue by expanding the civilized galaxy map through a stable wormhole, which to me seems like the only logical thing they could have done given the mechanical limitations of their conceptual “warp” drive in the first place. So when they want to travel to some strange new place–boop, through the wormhole they go. In Voyager, a new, faster warp called “trans-warp” was invented (which then became a part of canon in other series episodes), before an even faster engine called “slipstream” became the curiosity. Star Trek’s own mechanical limitations in warp drive hindered the crux of how they built new and interesting stories through “exploring strange new worlds,” and they essentially had to cheat to get around that limitation.
So, all of this makes me think a lot about how I want exploration to feel and function in a space-faring game. Exploration should feel vast, but it should also be limited to well-developed points of reference in space and time. In other words, the complexity of the exploration should come from the diversity of populations that exist in certain locales. Finding brand new locales that are easy to get to and immediately an important part of the story should be difficult and rewarding, but also complex and in line with the established setting.
I recently purchased the game Elite: Dangerous, and I’ve played a few hours now. One of the things that really impresses me about the game is how it captures the vastness of space within a star system, while still allowing the player to have the utility to travel from star system to star system via a special engine called a “Frameshift Drive.” The Frameshift Drive has limitations, in that even the most sophisticated models can only travel up to 25 Light Years in a single jump, pulling the piloted vessel from the present position into the gravity wake of a star. But with a fuel scoop, which gathers FSD fuel from stellar gases as you enter a system, you can essentially hop from star to star for hundreds of light years, each jump taking just under a minute. And, you can continue to cruise on your frameshift speed (called Supercruise) throughout a solar system to make it out to the furthest reaches in just a few minutes. I think this mechanic makes perfect sense for the game’s setting (the unified galactic communications network, several opposing empires, broad hierarchical technologies geared toward labor, etc.), but the minute details of who other people are living in various regions gets a bit obscured by the mechanic itself. Exploration in Elite: Dangerous depends on maps and information in universal cartography part of the computer interface. Space is just too vast, so when you’re traveling you’re either going too slow or too fast to notice anything that your sensors aren’t pointing out to you. Exploration is exciting in so much as it looks epic and feels vast at times, but the wonder gets a bit lost since the galaxy map is the only point of reference other than pointing at a star and powering up the Frameshift Drive.
To boil all of this down I could say that I find myself reflecting on concepts and fictions, reconciling my own setting mechanics with the desire to make space travel and exploration a fun and accessible part of the Horizons, game, but one that has a sensible mechanic that will inspire equally sensible story expansion. In the spirit of the Augur’s Lore game universe, that sensibility should stem from a pragmatic way to explain how technologies function in the reality of the setting. This is why I envision that interstellar travel would not ostensibly be possible in the fictionally conventional sense (warp drive, FTL, hyperspace, etc.). The theory of relativity would remain sound when navigating a ship through the vastness of space. A ship would not be able to travel faster than the speed of light.
In fact, I envision that a ship would not be able to accelerate beyond what I’m currently calling the AME threshold (the Accelerating Mass Exertion threshold, at which no material known to terrans could maintain its physical integrity), which I’m placing at 120,000,000 KPH (just shy of 1/8 the speed of light). But to conceptualize this, we have to keep in mind that acceleration and deceleration also takes time to be done safely. Ships of different classes and sizes are able to accelerate and decelerate at different rates, but no ship can increase or decrease speed at a rate greater than 50,000 KPH/hr. This means that even a ship with the most sophisticated engines would still take 100 days to accelerate to the AME threshold, and would require 100 days to safely decelerate from that speed.
Of course, I don’t want players to have to struggle with math each time they want to fly around in their ships, so I will definitely compile charts with basic distances and locales. From a narration standpoint, there will be a variety of fusion engine types–far more technologically efficient than the ones we know today–that could navigate to the outer edges of a star system within the course of a few years perhaps; but even at that rate, traveling from star to star would be nearly inconceivable. Standard travel at the AME threshold (accounting for acceleration and deceleration) from earth to Proxima Centauri (the next closest star at 4.22 light years away) would take about 35 years.
This is where drifting comes into play. I imagine rather than building an engine that could go “sort of fast” (e.g., Star Trek’s “impulse engine”) as well as fast enough to “jump from star to star at will” (e.g., Elite: Dangerous’s “Frameshift Drive”), it makes more sense only to allow sensible interstellar travel via a fixed wormhole gateway. Thus, in Horizons, terrans would have discovered ways to detect stable wormholes, dark matter singularities that serve as a network of gateways throughout the known universe. They call these wormholes “dimensional rifts,” or “drifts” for short. Sensor technology has developed over centuries to allow terrans to detect these singularities and calculate their stability for travel. I envision the dark matter singularities to be essentially “fractured light,” connected points of dark matter all over the universe that experience quantum entanglement. These dark matter points are not noticeable with telescopes and the naked eye, but rather require special instruments to detect their phase frequencies. The technology of this setting allows terrans to scan which dark matter singularities are stable enough to travel safely, allowing vessels to enter at one end and emerge instantly at the other end. The space in between these two connected points of the universe does exist, but it is vast and seemingly untraversable. As such, civilizations have developed near the entry points and in the surrounding inhabitable systems accessible to stable drifts.
I really like how drifting feels for story flow, and I’m excited to see how that might play out for exploration. I also like what the engine technology and limitations means for overall vastness. But I want to be sure that players will have the ability to explore through previously undiscovered drift points in the regions where they choose to travel. Dark matter is thought to be plentiful, but stable wormholes entangled between dark matter points not so much. So there will be a mechanic for people to detect stable Dimensional Rifts when traveling normally according to the star map. I’m thinking a newly-detected rift might connect to another charted system, or to a new inhabitable system, or perhaps an empty, barren space altogether. I’m also thinking that certain stellar bodies would lend themselves more toward stable singularities. Gas giants would generate enough gravitational mass to help stabilize a singularity, so perhaps travelers would be more likely to find stable Drifts near gas giants. In any event, these are my trajectories for development.
I want my campaign setting’s own history to immerse players in the development of their character’s story, but ultimately I also want players to feel like they have the ability to save up the credits they need to buy an adequate ship and then just find a dimensional rift and travel to some distant, uncharted galaxy where they find a planet similar to earth, discover new life forms, and decide whether or not they want to tell people back home of what they’ve found. I’m also toying with the idea of ancient civilization ruins or rudimentary settlements being found in distant systems, but nothing that would belong to a space-faring people like terrans.
I would appreciate any feedback you might have as I continue to develop this portion of the game!
December 11, 2015 at 7:31 pm #1132
Nicely done! I’m liking how this is shaping up and I’m really excited to see what else you have in store for us! Space is such an interesting story setting- I’ve played in one other space campaign (well, two actually, but that campaign’s character ended up dying pretty early on). What I loved most about it was the confines of the ship forcing comradery or hostility, and the utility of survival in a harsh realm and the sacrifices people must make to simply exist; and the gadgetry and ingenuity and the organizational psychology that is needed to stay emotionally stable in an unfamiliar environment, and the ways we choose to adapt to new environments emotionally and mentally in order to continue moving forward. When I think about space travel, I often think about saving resources that are extremely limited and how a group of humans (or otherwise) would attempt to do so. Since we can’t evolve quickly enough to find sustenance in astroids (even if we could, the vastness of space would make them a little difficult to find!), what better way to deal with that than to change yourself? Now, I’m not talking evolutionary changes- I mean the immediacy of “oh shit, we are 20 years away from our destination and don’t have that kind of food or oxygen.”
So what I always come back to when I think of exploring the world is stasis. The vulnerability of saying goodbye to the present and putting your trust in a device meant to completely incapacitate you for days, months, years. The actual thought of how your life path must diverge from others as you put yourself to sleep- as the lives of those you love continue to move forward. The feeling of stopping your march towards death but sacrificing consciousness to do it- it’s always been something that really scares me and therefore a great interest. Have you thought about stasis being used much in space travel scenarios in Horizons?
December 12, 2015 at 10:08 am #1133
Thanks for your comments! I also like the story arcs that are inspired by a crew of varied people with different motivations all stuck in the confines of a ship, so long as there is a destination in mind. That’s the kind of impetus, I hope, that will develop organically from the adventure hooks within the game. The main way this will happen is through adventuring in order to get into space in the first place.
In Horizons, a campaign launch will always begin in some locale–either a distant moon colony, starport, corporate megacity, or outer planetary settlement–and adventurers will have to procure the means to purchase (or steal) their own ship. Quests or missions will give characters the opportunity to board a ship or ships if they choose, in service of one of the Intergalactic Territory’s corporate interests. Adventurers will have to save credits doing odd jobs or make the right opportunities present themselves in order to become self-sufficient in a ship of their own. Only then will they be able to point a ship in a particular direction and travel out into deep space, perhaps even finding the Sol System and visiting earth, their fabled home world.
When traveling those vast distances, using the normal technologies of the Intergalactic Territories, there will be little need for stasis. Early space missions used them out of necessity, because their engines couldn’t get fast enough to warrant stable travel, and the early space explorers never knew about drift jumping from point to point in space. Now with drifting technology built into any travel class ship, as well as fusion engines that are able to accelerate to 1/8 the speed of light, traveling from point to point is definitely feasible in just a few days or weeks.
I imagine each ship would be equipped with an emergency stasis module (ESM) to be used for emergencies when ship’s life support irreparably fails. But there would be no real need to go into stasis for ship exploration travel. Ships would be built for long-term living, for sure, much in the way that Star Trek’s ships are designed, only less, well, “Trekkie” office building style, and more stylized the way the inside of a yacht might look.
I’m beginning to think that planning more drift point detection as a part of long-distance space exploration would be a good way to get around the difficulties of vast point to point travel. I think it would be feasible that there are many stable driftpoints around which terrans have expanded civilization over the past millenia, but that space is vast enough to allow many other stable drift points to exist that many people have never found, or used only once. So players navigating a ship would be able to scan for Driftpoints within a day’s radius of their ship, and potentially find a stable drift. Traveling through the drift might or might not get them closer to their destination, or it might bring them to a previously undiscovered inhabitable system. The characters can choose to sell the information about the location of their driftpoint by interfacing with the ICN. And during their scan they might detect no driftpoint, and would have to continue for another day of travel, during which time they might discover space debris, or stellar phenomena, or derelict ships, or even pirates.
Pointing the ship in a specific direction, hopping into stasis, and then waking up years later via computer is an interesting way of coping with long distances, but in the Horizons game universe I feel like it would be difficult to warrant that type of time shift in the scope of the political and economic stories that make up the setting. But it would be interesting to make the language of exploration open enough to give players that option to say, “I’m outta here; see you in 70 years.”
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