Saturday, 19 February 2011

FTL travel in games, books and on the screen

I have long pondered how to get around the conundrum of ships travelling faster than the speed of light (FTL) in my sci-fi games. I have seen various scenarios and ideas thrown about in fiction and on the silver and small screens. I have also had my own ideas that concatenate certain aspects of those ideas. I think FTL travel in science fiction can be broken down into three main categories:

Warp drive technology - where space around the ship is warped to allow it to travel faster than light, for example in the Star Trek universe
Hyperspace technology - where the ship leaves the known universe and sort of travels by short-cut through a different dimension, for example, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Traveller RPG
(Worm?) hole technology - where two points in space are linked so that travel between them is instantaneous even though the vessel is not travelling at light speed, for example in Iain M. Banks universe

There are also many other variations on a theme, but these seem to be the main plot devices to allow FTL to happen. Over the years I have been trying to find, for me, the best possible solution and came up with a combination of ideas from the above, sometimes before the authors of the books/films. I was not keen on the Star Trek warp system, nor the Jump drives in Traveller, but found some comfort in the Iain M. Banks stories as they were very similar to my own ideas. My ideas run thus...

A large space station/vessel creates a black hole and channels its 'energy' directly at the point where the travellers would need to exit, e.g. the next star along in the sky. Over a few(?) years, depending on distance, all matter and space is pulled into the black hole, thus bending the point from several light years away so that it now appears in the starting solar system. A gateway is then built to anchor this tunnel. When a ship travels through this gateway, it instantaneously arrives at its destination thus not breaking Einstein's theory (it probably breaks all sorts of other laws but I haven't considered those). All the time spent on a journey between one planetary system and another is taken up by intra-system manouevres. In my universe, all space travel takes approximately one week, no matter which system one wishes to travel to from that point on the network. It sort of works as a series of weekly 'jumps' but STL ships can have the appearance of travelling FTL.

This is very similar to what Iain M. Banks proposes in his novels, where he has a point in the starting system 'dragged' by a fleet of ships to the destination point. It is very similar to my idea but in reverse. In neither universe does any ship travel FTL but they appear to do so when they travel along the network of gateways.

However, if one wanted to pilot a ship between two stars in 'normal' space, then the size of the engines would have to be taken into consideration as the whole distance would need to be covered STL and could take several years to travel between the stars.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting points well made.
    My gaming solution was to not answer the scientific question, but to try to answer the question, “what makes for a better game?” Whether I managed that is, of course, another matter. For the kind of adventurous RPG I was playing, I concluded that freedom of movement was the most important thing. I considered that if ships, as in Traveller’s Hyperspace Jump, did not actually travel through space, they were only vulnerable to interception by pirates and others who would waylay them, during a very restricted area of space. These areas would be far easier to police than deep space. It does of course allow the type of last minute escape pulled off by the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, all exciting stuff. A race to the Star Gate, pursued by hostile forces would be equally exciting, although you would have to consider why the pursuers don’t just have someone waiting at the gate to intercept, something that may be harder to justify if the pursuers also ran the gate. If all ships have to pass through the same point in space there may be far less little scope for sneaking about and evading security forces or anyone else whom the PCs would want to avoid. I went for what I considered a more adventure-facilitating Star Trek type travel.
    It is however my experience that players naturally don’t think of questioning any situation that works in their favour, so if they are on the run and the star gate is laughably policed, they will quite happily accept this, perhaps without ever realising the absurdity of the situation. The biggest problem I found to be is when players realise they can exploit a game’s assumptions to their advantage. What happens, for example, when a ship is made to drop out of hyperspace in the middle of a planet? Having to think theoretical science in real time to counter an idea a player has been working all week on is not everyone’s forte. Solutions that restrict freedom therefore do have their advantages.