Deep in the fastnesses of April 2013 the sages of High Wycombe mused at length about space opera and its advantages and disadvantages as a genre for RPG adventure. I wonder whether they would like to give some treatment of that sort to space opera’s less footloose and grandiloquent twin, planetary romance.
We are SF fans, and therefore as M. Bell_West says we must argue about definitions. Mine is that space opera and planetary romance are both genres of sci-fi adventure, which is to say that they are centrally about what characters do in conflict and not centrally about scientific ideas. The tech may be either skiffy or scientifically plausible: either way sci-fi adventure is not hard SF because it’s not about the science ideas. “Neutron Star” has FTL travel and absolutely impenetrable spaceship hulls, but it’s hard SF because it is about the nature of tides, with Beowulf Shaeffer’s actions merely a capsule for the scientific aha!. Similarly “The Cold Equations”. Sci-fi adventure is the opposite of that.
Space opera is the subgenre of SF adventure that features a lot of space travel and (as the eminent Dr. Cule points out) a corresponding operatic grandiosity of scope and scale. Individual planets are characteristically visited only fleetingly, and sketchily developed. Planetary romance is the subgenre that features the planets that one travels to. A planetary romance story or novel is typically set on a single exotic planet, and this is correspondingly better developed. In space opera space travel and space ships are an important part of the matter of the adventures; in planetary romance space travel is the enabling assumption that lurks in the background to justify the protagonists’ being on the exotic planet.
Examples of my favourite planetary romances¹ are Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes series, Alastor novels, Durdane series, Maske: Thaery, Emphyrio, Big Planet, Showboat World etc., Anderson’s The Man Who Counts/War of the Wingmen. Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles. They aren’t IN SPACE, they’re ON PLANETS.
What do you goodfolk think about planetary romance, or serial planetary romance (in which the PCs visit a series of worlds for episodic planetary adventure) as a genre for RPG?
It seems to me that early SF games such as Traveller, Universe, and ForeSight had a bit of a foot in each camp, supplying more-or-less playable space trade/combat games and also for generating worlds in a bit more detail than is required if the PCs are interested only in the spaceport and the gravity well.
Do you think that a single setting, a single game, can do both well? Is it possible to have an interstellar context that is set up to support an engaging SO game, where the worlds embedded in it are set up to support engaging PR games? Can one tech set be right for both? One game system? Or are their inescapable strains between the needs of the two?
Has anyone here ever run a campaign that defied the distinction between the two subgenres, featuring both space travel and its destinations? I have a feeling that Star Trek was supposed to do that, but found filming the different worlds too expensive.
Anything about sub-sub genres? Is are naval SF and military SF a pair of SO/PR twins?
¹ I’m not listing Ursula le Guin’s “Rocannon’s World”, “The Word for World is Forest”, “The Dispossessed”, “The Left Hand of Darkness”, and other Hainish Cycle material, though I admire them, because I think that perhaps they are yet another thing: social SF. They are not merely adventure stories in exotic settings, but actual SF stories about science ideas, in this case ideas from the social sciences.