I was talking with a colleague about spaceship games, and told him I was particularly interested in games where you had to do things aboard a starship. He came up with a nice list for me that I’ve added at the end of this post. All of these involve being aboard a starship in some way.
But there’s one game that no one remembers anymore, and that you haven’t heard of either, and that’s reason enough to wrap up the week talking about it.
Because, after the jump, it tells a story that gets to the very heart of Starship Week.
Azhanti High Lightning came out in 1980 in a big flatbox like many other Game Designers Workshop games. Which actually caught us by surprise, since the game it was designed for — Traveller — came in a distinctive small box just big enough to fit the rules booklets that were the size of a regular sheet of paper folded in half. On the shelf at the game store, you could tell the Traveller books by that same distinctive look: a half-sized booklet, black cover with thin white writing, bisected by a colored line. It looked futuristic in the same way as did Logan’s Run.
Traveller was GDW’s classic, ambitious attempt at science fiction role-playing. It came in a small black box with three small black booklets in it: Characters and Combat, Starships, and Worlds and Adventures. Each was only 44 pages long. But within these 132 pages lived a simple but flexible 2d6-based system for adventuring through the stars in some indeterminate future.
While we loved the universe it described, I don’t think we really ever “got” Traveller. Raised on D&D’s underground rooms connected by hallways, we weren’t quite sure what to do with the freedom involved in a game about traveling through space. The rules were also pretty open-ended, with a lot more left up to the referee than in, say D&D. It was like you had to either meticulously prepare a huge amount of material in advance, or make up a whole universe on the fly.
We couldn’t do either one. With years of expertise in the kind of intricately fashioned monster closets that young D&D players often devise, we just weren’t up to making up a universe full of rogues and aliens. We tried, but the results inevitably devolved into planet-hopping, cargo-hauling freighter runs, stripped of any real role-playing and just focused on cost, demand, fuel, jump distances, and contraband.* A few years later we learned that this kind of formalized interstellar commerce worked a lot better on the computer, and was called Elite. Then we went to college and forgot the whole thing.
But for some reason that I can’t explain to you right now I’ve been thinking about that a lot, more so since I listened to my colleagues Rob Zacny and Paul Dean talk about the missing heart of 4X space games. They observe that there really isn’t anything interesting about empty space, a fact that the long line of failed successors to Master of Orion fail to realize. But what they’re really wanting is a center.
In a fantasy world, you can almost get that just by drawing a map. A single mountain range can give rise to any number of possible stories, just based on how you place it. It could be set behind a vast wasteland that you have to cross just to reach the foot of the peaks. Or it can have a dense, ancient forest that reaches right up to its slopes. Or perhaps it abuts a highland plateau, with a single barbarian city. Or perhaps that city is set high in the mountains, populated by secretive wizards and approachable only through magic. Each one of those maps evokes something different, before anyone even starts making up goofy names for the elf race, or trying to explain why the civilization of lizards stopped naming things with vowels.
But no matter how much Larry Niven or Philip K. Dick you read, you don’t get that same feeling from a map of stars on a dark background, no matter how many jump routes you draw or wormholes you connect. Staring at the rivers, mountains, and forests on the route between a bucolic village of earnest farmers and the citadel of a genocidal warlord eventually familiarizes you with Middle Earth. Staring at the stars between Tatooine and Endor just makes you see bright spots.
Fantasy games get their center from the land. Space games get their center from the story.
I think that’s why 4X space games feel like they have a hole in the middle, because strategy games aren’t good at telling you a story except the one you create by playing. The memorable parts of the best science fiction epics are grounded in specific locations and events, like the Ringworld, or what HAL 9000 did, or just the simple fact that the spice must flow. But the larger the universe gets, the more diluted these events become. Arrakis is just one planet in a huge galaxy: you can’t tell a story about Arrakis and the whole universe at the same time. Unless you make it about Arrakis’ place in the universe.
And that’s a fundamental design decision that the Master of Orion progeny reject. Anchoring your story to a center forces you to design specific game mechanics around it, like how everything has to do with spice, and that isn’t conducive to the expansive gameplay everyone remembers about that series. It’s a constraint that 4X space games reject when they turn science fiction into a contest between disparate races of connect-the-points real estate developers. Here’ a giant blank grid: who can build the best stellar suburban subdivision? Like most subdivisions, they eventually all look the same.
I think designers believe that each planet becomes its own land and story. But it’s impossible to make a coherent whole out of all the different stories that happen on individual planets in a 4X game involving dozens of these disconnected marbles, without some sort of narrative and thematic connection.
Which in retrospect was our big mistake in Traveller. Rather than trying to write an individual setting for every single planet (which was impossible anyway) we should have taken our cue from the adventures available from GDW, which focused on a story arc. In those pre-packaged adventures, the referee was given parameters to keep players on track: you couldn’t just fly off to some unknown point on a planet and start exploring because there were always various constraints: this planet was in a closed zone patrolled by the Imperium, that one had a deadly virus outbreak, that other one was in the middle of a civil war. But you could get to the spaceport on one, or an isolated research lab on another, or meet with one of the warring factions on an orbital station in the third. Each one of these limited environments carried the story, but also gave a taste of the wider universe beyond. Sometimes the galaxy seems even bigger when you know you can’t go there. But that’s a lot easier thing to pull off in a role-playing game than in a strategy game.
The best 4X space game I ever played did exactly this. It was called Emperor of the Fading Suns, set in a decaying Imperial universe** suggestive of Warhammer, where technology was controlled and space feudalism kept different factions fighting under the eye of what was essentially a space pope. If you haven’t ever played the game, you should. What you’ll find is a game completely wrapped in its own setting, carrying its story between planets without trying to make itself feel completely open-ended.***
Emperor of the Fading Suns cheated, in a sense, because it had an extensive planetside component where you invaded planets and fought land battles with cool units. The planetary maps were pretty big, in fact. But even these individual stories would feel fragmented if they weren’t tied to the overall setting. The Fading Suns universe is — in my opinion — such a good setting that it holds these stories together despite all their geographical and mechanical separation.
So why did we even mention Azhanti High Lightning? Because it was only recently that I realized what that game was trying to do.
I remember sitting down with the game for the first time and looking through the box. It consists of a countersheet, fifteen sheets of deck plans, and two Traveller-sized booklets: one with the rules and a bunch of scenarios, the other with supplemental material, like background and history, as well as keys to the deck plans. The whole thing is supposed to be about man-to-man combat on board a gigantic starship, kind of like Space Hulk. There was already one GDW man-to-man combat game set in the Traveller universe, called Snapshot. It had deck plans for a scout/trader-type ship, so you could fight out the shipboard battles that would inevitably occur during your campaign. But a whole game about fighting aboard a massive battlecruiser? You couldn’t have a campaign about that. That was navy stuff. Player-characters didn’t control fleets. What was the point?
I think the point was that Azhanti High Lightning was trying to build me a Traveller setting. That I totally missed.
For some reason, the first scenario that sticks in my mind from back then was “The Great Wine Heist.” It’s about a precious wine vintage being transported aboard this massive cruiser for the Emperor’s consumption, and some stowaways with other plans for that particular vintage. You have to steal the wine and then escape the ship in one of the boats.
I still recall being totally put off by this as barely thirteen-year-olds. We were hoping to help rescue the SpaceReagan from the evil SpaceComs, or something equally epic, and here we were, ripping off alcohol. Needless to say, we weren’t particularly interested in wine (yet), and this “Tokaj” thing just sounded dumb. Was this a game where every word had to be unpronounceable? For while, we showed our disdain by prefacing every gaming session — no matter what the game — with the question, “Is this going to be another wine job?” We found other things to dislike about it, too, like the sound of the first word in the name. For the entire time we played Traveller, we dismissively called it “Sneezy Lightning.”
So I was surprised to find that I had a very different reaction this time when I sat down to read the scenarios this time around. There are a couple of “doomed ship” scenarios that have great settings. One of them is called “The Battle of Kagukhasaggan 2.” Once I got done pronouncing that, I read through it. It was a pretty compelling setting. Here is a version edited for space:
In the closing stages of the Solomani Rim War, an Imperial task force built around the fleet intruder Bard Endeavour was ambushed while refueling in the Kagukhasaggan system by the Solomani dreadnought Retaliation and a large number of accompanying warships, together forming Strike Force Daring. To cover the withdrawal, the Bard Endeavor (its tanks nearly dry) remained behind to delay the enemy and sell itself as dearly as possible.
The heroic stand of the Bard Endeavor enabled most of the task force to escape, but left the fleet intruder a glowing wreck in decaying orbit over Kagukhasaggan 2, one of the small inner worlds of the system. Those crew still living began evacuating the doomed vessel, although many were cut off in the interior.
Within an hour most of the survivors were off and many had been picked up by Solomani vessels in the area. Interrogation of the drive room crew survivors indicated that the jump drives were not damaged beyond repair and that enough fuel remained for a very short in-system jump.
Three strike teams were quickly assembled. One would enter through the rear doors of the boat dock deck, clear the jump drive decks, and repair the jump drives, if possible. A second team would force their way into the ship via the fighter recovery lock on deck 69 to cripple the four remaining operational fighters on board (and prevent their use against Bard Endeavour in an Imperial last-ditch attempt to prevent enemy recovery of the ship). A third party would force the air locks on deck 41 (the upper power plant deck).
The assault went according to plan initially. A handful of marines and crewmen of the Bard Endeavor, however, resisted complete clearance of the jump drive decks and prevented salvage of the ship. The bridge party did manage to extract a number of valuable operational codes from the ship’s computer, and the strike teams evacuated. Three hours later, the Imperial fleet intruder Bard Endeavour, with 43 of her defenders still aboard, suffered catastrophic re-entry into the atmosphere of Kagukhasaggan 2.
I don’t know about you, but to me that’s not just a scenario, it’s a story they thought up in their world, and wanted to tell. These guys weren’t so much making a game about a battlecruiser as populating their world with an unforgettable denizen. In a setting where the scale is so unimaginable that it becomes meaningless, Azhanti High Lightning at once overloads you with the size of a starship in this world, and at the same time personalizes it, making it concrete and palpable. It reinforces the scope of the whole game by emphasizing how large one of these ships is, and that in fact, it’s not even the biggest one out there.
But the stories around it, clearly written with a sense of consistency and context, show how important it was for Traveller designer Marc Miller and his friends to construct a meaningful universe around this “Azhanti High Lightning.” And at the same time, probably provide an outlet for their writing.
I was reading this very interesting post by Josh Sutphin of Third Helix in which he commented that “game designers are just frustrated writers.” If this is true for anyone, I think it is for role-playing game designers.
I’m going to tell you a secret that you absolutely have to not share with anyone okay? and that is that over the past few months I’ve been paging through old role-playing games, looking at the settings. From Morrow Project to FTL: 2448, I’ve been looking through old books to see just how these designers constructed their worlds. Setting is where you can consider ideas without the baggage of actually having to put stories to them. They’re the place you go when you want to create a feeling rather than a narrative. Check out the intro to Fringeworthy:
A half million years before history, a race called the Tehrmelern built a vast network of portals and pathways that spanned the galaxy and crossed dimensional lines. For tens of thousands of years the Tehrmelern traveled and traded the pathways, spreading their love of peace.
Then, almost overnight, an unforseen terror ended the Tehrmelern and their vast achievement.
In 1990 a Japanese Antarctic research expedition made an earthshattering discovery that would forever change man’s role in the universe. The alien portal system they found buried deep in the ice revealed an easy path to the stars and beyond. As the United Nations took control of the first station, a second portal was discovered in Canada and a third in the Soviet Union.
As specially equipped teams attempted to pass through the portal it was discovered that only one in one hundred thousand could make the transition on to the pathways. A desperate world-wide search was begun to find and train those people with the unknown quality. The quality that allowed them access through the gates the world press named Fringes.
They come from every walk of life and nation, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, the unscrupulous and the hopeful.
These are the FRINGEWORTHY
You know how much there is in the Fringeworthy rules about what went on through those portals and pathways? Besides the fact that everyone there got eaten by some unknown horror, pretty much nothing. That’s kind of the extreme end of the “anything is possible” spectrum, but it makes sense from a storytelling perspective. The setting is perfect for a role-playing game: it gives the players a reason to feel special, because they are playing the roles of special people. But what that becomes is totally wide open. Portals to anywhere? A mystery race?
As long as you’re not telling anyone about this and it stays just between us, I might as well admit that just recently I bought a rulebook for something called Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. It’s a roleplaying game about the parts of Star Wars that don’t necessarily involve giant battlefleets of Azhanti High Lightning-class starships, meaning it’s about everything that Han Solo did. Before he was fool enough to stick around here.
You know what I did as soon as the book showed up? I checked the table of contents and found the chapter about The Galaxy. It starts on page 324. There are sections on the Great Hyperlanes, the Deep Core, the Colonies, the Inner Rim, the Outer Rim Territories, and whatnot. I flipped straight to the last one: Wild Space and the Unknown Regions. Sounded like the first place I should go.
Turns out that is a crazy idea. A guy named Grinner tells me so, in an extended monologue on page 349:
Now, you must be crazy if you’re talking to me about Wild Space and the Unknown Regions. You know the difference, right? Wild Space refers to known but lightly explored regions within the galaxy proper, especially at the edges of the spiral arms. The Unknown Regions are just blank space. People mix them all the time, but they’re not the same.
Sections of Wild Space can be found almost anywhere in the galaxy, but most of the time, people mean those areas at the periphery of the Outer Rim and elsewhere. Every so often, someone, maybe a government or large corporation, will send an expedition into one of those zones. Once in a while it’s a group of dedicated colonists.
The Unknown Regions is a different animal entirely. There’s a reason galactic civilization has developed on one side of the galaxy for millennia. It’s called the hyperspace tangle. You see, while everyone’s looked for a usable hyperlane like the Hydian Way, it just doesn’t seem to exist on the western side of the disk. The main reason is that hyperspace seems to be tied in knots, forming a nearly impassable barrier between Known Space and the Unknown Regions. Even when someone finds a route through the tangle, it doesn’t stay stable for long.
So that convinced you, right? You’d never go to the Unknown Regions. It’s too dangerous. I mean, there’s a hyperspace tangle! Only a lunatic or a fool would go there. You should stay right here, where it’s safe. It reminded me of a game review from long ago by an extremely talented writer, who summarized this whole thing in one screenshot speech bubble. It’s one of the many reasons this piece is so brilliant: no one in games ever decides not to go to the most remote places, because that’s why we have games in the first place.
But the other thing about remote places is that you don’t know a lot about them, or at least what will happen when you get there. That, dearest readers, is all setting: it tells you about how things came to be without actually telling you how they are. Because how they are is your narrative. I recently heard a local panel discussion with some writers and game developers which was ostensibly about narrative, but was really all about setting. And I’d argue that worrying about narrative is misplaced concern, because if you have good game mechanics and a good setting, then the narrative will take care of itself.
Which is what I totally missed about Azhanti High Lighting.
Next time: We’ll conclude by telling you about someone who did his own sci-fi setting set in real life, and how it reveals the real meaning of Starship Week.
*I’m sorry that Joss Whedon’s Firefly wasn’t around in 1980 when we were at a loss for how to make adventures in the world of starships, because it does a pretty good job of describing the basic ingredients of a whole Traveller campaign.
**There is a Fading Suns RPG as well which has gone through multiple revisions. The third edition (currently in development) is wrapped up in all sorts of drama. There was also supposed to be a sequel to Emperor of the Fading Suns called Noble Armada, which ended up being one of the great strategy game vaporware titles of all time.
***You should also absolutely read the FAQ, written by a guy some people may have heard of.
Tracy Baker’s list of starship boardgames where you Do Stuff:
Space Hulk: Death Angel
Last Frontier: The Vesuvius Incident
The Omega Virus
Gunship: First Strike