Sunday, May 1, 2022

Sci-Fi Games: Magic Space Vans

The term "magic space van" (MSV) for those do-anything starships that are more plot advancement devices than actual pieces of machinery that have function and limitations fascinates me. When you think about it, a starship is a complicated piece of machinery, a lot like a passenger airliner, that needs quite a bit of support, maintenance, mechanical checks, fuel, special operation procedures, and technical expertise to operate. In movies and fiction, the magic space van needs none of that. You just get in and go, just like a car you never need to take in to the garage or refuel - it just works.

The result is this vehicle that should require a good bit of skill, money, time, and limitations to operate, but it just exists as a story tool to get characters from point A to point B in the story without trouble. And if the referee ever uses the ship to make the game more realistic, the players roll their eyes and wonder why the referee is being such a jerk by slowing down the game between combats.

When Starships Become Teleport Spells

The ultimate magic space vans are in Starfinder, and they are given to the players for free to enable space travel, which, really isn't space travel it is just getting you to the next plot point. The upgrades are free and given to you by factions, and you can't find a starship cost chart anywhere in the game. The game seems like it gave up on starship economies, running cargo or passengers, buying upgrades, managing costs, repair costs, and every other economic impact of a starship. Starships in Starfinder feel like "adventure teleporters" that get you from one scene to the next.

There is starship combat, but it feels like a minigame instead of something the characters were built to excel at - all of the classes of the game were built for ground combat in mind, with starship abilities being add-ons to each class. The d20 Star Wars bias of "please don't make me play a pilot character" is a huge influence on the design here, as the game is focused on killing things with d20s in personal combat, and starship skills are "oh this class can do that too" handwaves.

Starship Economics

It felt wrong to me, like the designers either gave up on the entire starship economics system and assumed a socialist starship model of gaining ships, upgrading them, and letting governments or factions burden those costs behind the scenes. I can get why, our first Traveller campaign lasted one adventure when our PCs found a derelict ship, sold it for 8 million credits, and the now-millionaire characters retired after their first mission.


Oh, we were really stupid kids back then and we never understood the fun of purchasing and managing starships in a broader economy. D&D trained us "the game is all about money" and since Traveller did not have levels or character improvement, we felt there was nothing left to do or achieve.

Star Frontiers changed the math and had a good upgrade, purchase, and cost game. We had a lot of magic space vans in this game and those always took away the fun of exploration and adventure. In the basic game, you were hex-crawling and exploring worlds. When Knight Hawks arrived, you were flying over the maps in your magic space van wishing times were like they once were and you were down there hex-crawling and exploring.

In a way, Knight Hawks did ruin the main game and remove the focus of pulp adventure and planet-crawling to "high-level starship adventures." We loved the base game, and we felt Knight Hawks was fun, but the focus of the game shifted noticeably and those fun planetary missions became afterthoughts.

The Mother of All MSV's

Of course, the archetypical magic space van was the original Millennium Falcon, and that ship will remain indestructible until the end of time, and even then the promise of corporate profits will keep that ship around as the legacy of the universe. Even in the sequel movies, this ship sits around for decades and just works perfectly without any apparent maintenance or care. I love the original movies and the ship, but hey, nothing lasts forever.

It is a bit foolish to put a piece of metal on an altar and worship it.

Someday it will break down and get sold for scrap. Or be destroyed in a blaze of glory doing something heroic, if lucky.

Our games were plagued by these too, these flying boxes that ruined all exploration, travel, and mystery, and the players could park them next to a threatened village of space creatures and blast away at the invading aliens with starship weapons. It got to a point where if I took the ship away my players felt insulted that I was taking away the easy answer. Then again, the design of the game and the rules made the magic space van the easy answer each and every time.

The game sucked and the universe sucked, and how we were playing it sucked.

There is no difference at that point between a magic space van and the players' teleporting castle and where they raise their pet dragons.

We're Sorry, Your MSV is Currently Offline...

Star Wars is partly to blame, it invented the cultural trope of the starship being this go-anywhere, do-anything flying house. At least in the old movies, the starships broke, were captured, got submerged in a swamp, and generally were not 100% reliable. As time went on, they felt more and more invincible. and we played a lot of games with these, and yes, even Traveller is guilty. A scout courier with a laser turret with a missile launcher is a powerful ground support weapon, it can land practically anywhere, go in and out of atmospheres without problem, and has weeks of fuel to burn jetting around in-system.

Some of the adventures for this game go out of their way to tell you "why you just can't use the starship" to solve different parts of the mission. You know your game has a problem if you are constantly trying to tell people why the magic space van does not work. The volcano has too much ash to fly near and is unstable! The local authorities do not allow spaceships above the nature preserve (take the boat on the river please, nudge-nudge, wink-wink)! Spacecraft flight in this area is too risky due to electromagnetic storms! The player's ship breaks down, oh no! As  I player even I would feel the railroad coming, roll my eyes, and begrudgingly accept the "reason this time" but know the game's starship entitlement systems are in desperate need of repair.

They are the prototypical "adventure ships" and that is probably the worst term to use from them since they take away any chance to get out there and adventure, without GM fiat and artificially saying "why they can't use the starship this time." The ship solves 90% of the adventure's "adventure" while the players just do a few social skill rolls and have enough combats to satisfy the video-game urge.

And by adventure, I mean running around, taking a jeep, climbing mountains, taking a boat, getting in a helicopter, and basically acting like the Uncharted's Nathan Drake on a world getting from point A to point B. You know, the cool stuff you used to do before you got lazy and just landed your starship everywhere.


GURPS Space has this term called DeltaV, which is basically a measurement of a reaction thruster's fuel and time. How long can you accelerate for? Well, let's say you have 100 DeltaV and you want to get to Jupiter, or Mars, or a jump point. Well, let's spend 48 of it accelerating at 1G to a speed, stop accelerating, coast for a long time, and then turn the ship around and fire the engines in reverse to slow down. When we are there, we have 100 - (48+48) = 2 DeltaV of fuel let in the tanks. A little left to do orbital maneuvers, and if our ship can land, then land. Taking off is going to use a lot of fuel too, probably way more than landing.

Most ships would not be designed to land, you would have to carry spaceplanes or drop pods (that could carry cargo or ferry fuel) to do that job. You probably have one or two, and you can't lose them (or the pilots). They may be S/VTOL, or they could land like a normal plane on a runway. Fully loaded planes would probably need that runway.

And you know, since a lot of the engines in GURPS Space spew ungodly amounts of radiation, noise, shockwaves, and massive town-sized fireballs; it is really nice of you to land away from civilized areas, forests that can burn down, people in the open that will turn to ash, and places you generally don't want to leave fatally irradiated for a few hundred years.

Even hyperspace jumps would need DeltaV since the ships can't do a hyperspace jump at a certain distance from a star, so they may have to travel a week out to make the jump, and then have fuel on the other side to stop at their destination. The hyperspace jump itself could be just an instantaneous shift, but the flight time would be a long and possibly dangerous journey.

Get a fuel tank hit in combat? You better hope it was an empty one or you ain't stopping when you finally get there, or if your ship is segmented you could jettison 2/3rds of the entire ship and hope the fuel and engine compartments can stop with the reduced mass.

Hard choices must be made. Most of the beloved ship will be space junk, and if we get a new ship and it is still out there, we could head out and salvage it - if someone else has not already. Or pay more money and hire someone with a salvage tug - if you survive - to go salvage it.

But to me, that is cool.

That is sci-fi.

Land a spaceplane on a planet, take a space truck with large tires, and explore. The ship stays in orbit and must be protected by the crew. The space plane and the landing site need protection. Remember how B/X says you always need hirelings? This is what they do. Pay for a few dozen, put them in cold sleep, buy their gear, and defrost them to do dirtside work and security on the planet while your science team checks out ancient ruins.

Maybe you even start your space adventure career as one of those cold storage hirelings, woken up, given a gun and armored vest, and dropped onto a who knows where place to guard a landing zone. And things go horribly wrong.

Hard Frontiers

In fact, I like this idea so much this may be my next Star Frontiers campaign. We aren't doing the typical 1-6G Knight Hawks ships and magic space vans. These things will look like something out of the movie Interstellar. Very few ships will be able to take off from a world, do a jump, and land on another. Giant cargo rockets will constantly take cargo into orbit on hub worlds, and spaceplanes or parachute systems will fly it down.

No reactionless drives. Fuel and thrust are a must.

The great standard races will be there, but space will be a hardcore place.

The universe will be mostly unexplored, except for the main races' four overpopulated home systems.

The home systems will be developed, with lots of activity jetting about between every planet.

A few outposts and colonies will be out there.

And some will be lost as a new threat arises.

That feels like sci-fi to me.

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