Hyperspace

"If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate." – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than "conventional" star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

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15 thoughts on “Hyperspace

  1. When I first read that you could spend extra energy to reduce the time taken to travel to the target world I assumed you were spending the energy in realspace to accelerate/decelerate faster*.. Now I’m wondering if you spend the energy to improve your hyperspace jump.

    I like the idea of safe jump routes being very valuable. A little like Stars Without Number drill routes

    *This does make me wonder if some form of gravity compensation is presumed to offset the increased acceleration.

    • Exactly my own train of thought. Like yourself, I started off thinking the extra energy was for realspace manoeuvring, but I’m coming around to the idea that you realise while in hyperspace that you’re going to be off-target, and feed more power to the hyperdrive to compensate. Incidentally, that suggests that ships in hyperspace can “see out”, at least enough to find stars – if you knew where the star was and what day it was, you could calculate planetary positions. Not sure I’d want to let them see other ships.

      • Actually, rereading the text, it is clear that the extra energy to reduce travel time is measured in day’s worth rather than jump’s-worth, pretty much making it realspace maneuver rather than hyperspace. also as jumps appear to take zero tie, you wouldn’t have time to adjust within jump. However as even a medium ship has 100 energy you’d very rarely not have the energy to reduce your travel time to one day. (This does assume there is sort sort of compensation mechanism for acceleration and/or gravity.) The only way to make travel time more of a factor would be to make energy a scarcer commodity (so NOT available at every spaceport).

      • Yes, although jump energy is measured in days’ worth as well. I’ve gamed some trips off-screen to get a feel for the system, and learned that you’ve generally got enough fuel to complete a trip the same day, unless you weren’t able to refuel at the previous system. You can also switch off non-essential systems to eke out the fuel load. I suspect, but haven’t bothered to work out, that there are decisions to make – since supply and demand prices for goods reset every month, there could be situations where it’s worth the cost of the extra fuel to be able to fit in an extra run between two planets before the dice are rolled again.

  2. One advantage to the no-map style (the way jump works basically provides a convenient justification), is that you don’t need to worry about a map. You can just travel at the speed of plot – which is largely how it works in much of the source fiction (Star Wars and Star Trek, for instance). And this is really attractive from a certain standpoint.

    From the GMs side, having to worry about the maps can put me into a form of Analysis Paralysis. I was building my own Traveller-style maps as I went. But the more I started to worry about how the star systems needed to be arranged to satisfy some of the game narrative that had developed, the more I got trapped into a fatal loop of needing to spend a lot of my precious GM planning time worrying if the stars in this sector were close enough to support the kind of political or economic associations that were developing in play as we went (Planet X is in a trade federation with Planet Z, but Planet C is a rival…).

    So there was tragically little return on investment. While I started out being relatively meticulous about documenting the campaigns starmaps (along with the planetary register/descriptions/UPP equivalents), I haven’t touched them in six months. And even then, it was to look at them, and declare them a lost cause.

    My campaign started out as essentially a blank slate sector, with the standard 16 subsectors. And I’d throw in planets as they were needed (adventure sites, player backgrounds, and so on). It was a really fun way to do it. But as the campaign’s progressed over the years (we’re in our third year and second campaign), the accumulated material has started to be a little painful to manage with the starmaps…

    Its kind if an order of operations thing. If you frontload the world generation, you get starmaps and trade routes, and a story builds around them. If you go the other way around, and build starmaps after story…you don’t really need the starmaps anymore (its fairly unusual to go back to a single planet multiple times…in my campaign, its only happened once, and because this one world has become a sort of focal point to the story).

    Its largely the same in the media, too. It usually always the “planet du jour”, whether its Star Trek, Star Wars (the movies)…they hardly ever visit the same place twice.

    • Yes, exactly! Plus, with the no-map approach, you can add planets whenever they would be fun, and quietly drop them if they don’t work out. (“Oh, Doldrum? Nobody goes there anymore.”)

      • That’s it! I only mentioned it in passing at first, but there’s something really neat about the freeform approach in how it benefits certain aspects of play at the table.

        If you have players that are more used to the old school styles of gaming (the GM builds and presents the universe, and the players are largely just tourists), letting them create whole worlds by fiat is a neat way to let them dip their toes I into the newer “shared authorship” roles common to many of these newer games (FATE, etc).

        Having much of the setting be a blank slate where both the GM and the players can fiat stuff into existence (whether its planets, organizations, or even plot devices) as they need it is the logical next step, and I’ve found that to be hugely beneficial at the table. It makes the players take a role that’s far more than just a passive tourist (even if they aren’t specifically aware of it), and it gets the players more engaged.

        I don’t think my players actually noticed it consciously, but the first 18-month campaign was strongly driven by story arcs derived from elements of their character back story that only became a thing after they wrote it down on their character sheet. A sector-spanning conspiracy building a secret war fleet, a pirate fleet absorbing smaller gangs and becoming a major threat, and so on.

        The second campaign did it too, but not quite as strongly, largely because we kept everything from the first campaign. So it’s not quite as freeform as before. The map is getting filled in, as it were.

        I’ve never really gotten the same depth of plot hooks coming from the characters running games in established settings (published ones, for instance), or in ones where I’ve already drawn the maps and filled in the blanks.

  3. This free-formy, mappy-wappy thing sounds rather liberating, coming from a Traveller point of view. I’m reminded of Julian May’s ‘Orion’s Arm’ series where the characters went from system to system, very much like driving from town to town. In that case, looking at something like a road map (or St Paul’s perambulations around Asia Minor) might be a good start for making a “stellar relationship diagram”. If ships have finite gas reserves, then there will be logical refueling stops along the way, and these might become your choke points or strategic direction setters (“we have to get to Gorth, so we jump from here to Pelagar, refuel, run up Manax, and then do the hop to Gorth”).

    • I agree, and I did seriously think about the Diaspora approach, which uses just such a relationship map. However, one of the key realisations for me was that just because the characters are looking at a map doesn’t mean the players have to have one. (You do know that the original map for the Arioniad was St Paul’s route around the Mediterranean, right?)

  4. I think the reason that this doesn’t appear much in SF (in this form) is that authors who put as little thought into the background system as those who wrote the SW SF Handbook* generally go with human metaphor (and then post rationalise it) and a system without distance doesn’t make sense for human metaphor. It does feel like Star Wars, but if intergalactic travel were that easy (admittedly exploration rather than vacation but hardly impossible) the Sith would currently be shopping at my local Waitrose.

    Anyhow, it says that astrogation is required to avoid planetary bodies and other debris “that might interfere with the jump”. Even on face value, I don’t see how intra system jumps are possible into a busy part of the system since you have no idea what is going to be lying around, so you have to either jump to outside the “traffic cloud” or else jumps take place between “jump stations” per Babylon 5 (or, starship-less) in Stargate.

    I’d go further and say that gravity should be as meaningful as matter and so you’re trying to avoid gravity wells as much as you are actual “stuff” (this could explain the weird rule they have about being able to expend extra energy to get closer to the destination – use more energy to penetrate the gravity well, or to enter it under control). Under the rules as written, and without optional additional expenditure, you expend less energy for intra system jumps but end up on average 7 days away from your destination. So you could start off 2 days away from your destination and end up 7 days away.

    Anyhow if intra system jumps are possible, they would have to be highly controlled (they might be as easy as getting into an elevator, or beaming down to a planet in Star Trek, but in ST you can’t beam between systems) and for inter-system you are jumping to the edge of the Oort Cloud and either using impulse drive to get closer or getting to the local intra system jump station.

    All of which says to me that, even though an inter system map is not meaningful, there are choke points and plenty of opportunity for frustrations, especially if the number of available intra system jumps is limited in capacity like seats on a train. An inter system map might be meaningful in such cases since a planet might prioritise its “access licenses” in terms of treaties and trade demand. As a comparison, powered flight has been available for a long time now but commercial travel is still limited by landing slot availability at major airports.

    Jumping a blockade is relatively high risk as you run the risk of jumping into debris. A viable defence is to actively leave debris lying around and to create artificial gravity wells to channel traffic. But there’s no “frontier”.

    From an SF point of view, a couple of milieus occur. One is the status quo at the start of the Hyperion saga (SPOILER ALERT), where it’s so easy to jump between systems (via gates) that rich people have different parts of their houses in different systems. Systems outside “gatespace” (my term, not Simmons’) can only be reached by FTL travel, which is speed/distance constrained and also constrained by safe human travel speeds; and when/as the gate system breaks down, the entire post scarcity civilisation becomes vulnerable to invading fleets that have been travelling through all that unmonitored space. Another one is John Barnes’ Thousand Cultures series (starting with A Million Open Doors) which also has an inter system stargates – as they get opened up (so start of, rather than end of, cycle) culture clashes break out between disparate human colonies that thus far developed in relative isolation from one another.

    Finally, I have the SF companion and (like the others) I don’t rate it too much. Savage Worlds is so good a generic system that add-ons don’t really add much in settings terms and in general I found it disappointing. It reminds me of Star Hero in that respect.

    * p. 78: “Giant crabs are found throughout the oceans of the galaxy”.

    • Ye-e-es, it does seem like this hyperdrive is more like gates or teleporters than the ISO standard warp drive.

      I’m having fun with the SFC. but I’m still not sure if it will find a place in my must-have travel kit, unlike the SWDE core rules which definitely have a slot there. As you say, the core system is so flexible and complete that the supplements don’t add as much as they do for other games.

  5. I’m a little bit confused by a couple of things. If you’re in hyperspace why do you need to avoid planets and other celestial bodies, and if you do why do you think there would be no choke points?

    If your course in hyperspace has to avoid the effects of objects in real space on hyperspace then you will have choke points and in system jumps will be more complex than jumps “in the black”. You will also need maps to plot a course across a distance that avoids any body.

    • I think the consideration around obstacles isn’t around a course/vector, but purely about not materialising in the wrong place. Now, it could be that most places within a system are the wrong place, but I think the assumption of the rules authors is that you should be able to dematerialise a ship pretty much anywhere in the galaxy and then rematerialise somewhere else, hence the difficulty in defending against unwanted visits.

      • That’s how I interpret it, though I could easily be wrong. It’s reminiscent of the West End Games version of Star Wars, or Triple Ace’s Daring Tales of the Space Lanes. In Star Wars, there were choke points of a sort; you could go anywhere, but the more heavily-travelled the route, the easier the jump – explicitly stated in that to be because higher levels of traffic meant more accurate data on where those pesky obstacles were.

    • Why avoid planets etc in hyperspace? I don’t think the rules say, but the traditional SF explanation is that realspace objects cast some sort of gravitational “shadow” in hyperspace. It could be that they precipitate the ship back into realspace, or maybe you can still collide with them.

      The “no choke points” thing is purely based on the Rules As Written; you can wink out anywhere and wink back in anywhere, so from a player/GM perspective there are no choke points. From a player character’s viewpoint, they may still exist, but there’s no mechanism for it in the rules; the characters may well have maps, but the players don’t need them.

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