By The Stars — Relativity (Now isn’t that special?)


I find myself thinking about setting detail for By The Stars. Specifically, space travel. The biggest decision is: More authentic relativistic slower-than-light interstellar travel vs. more sci-fi faster-than-light travel. Maybe I should puzzle out some of the pros and cons.


  • It’s rooted in reality. c is the universal speed limit, as near as we can tell, and thus what real space travelers are going to have to deal with some day. There are many sources of hard, scientific speculation about what such travel will be like.
  • It’s counter-intuitively rare in gaming, and pop-culture sci-fi in general. Mostly, they mumble about trans-whatsis-drive and get to the blasters and aliens. Novelty is a selling point, and I always like breaking semi-new ground.
  • It makes an epic time scale easy. When a single trip of a few months’ time from the travellers’ point-of-view could span hundreds of years for planet-bound folks, having millenia-old cultures and traditions is a snap. Plus, pairing it with a LeGuin-like ansible makes for really interesting slow-travel, fast-talking paradoxes.


  • It’s hard to wrap one’s head around. The science fiction novels that make good use of relativistic space flight are well-pondered on many levels. Putting it in the game demands more forethought from players, and pushing them out of their comfort zone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.
  • It isolates characters. This is a BIG one. Talk about problems of splitting the party! I’ve taken a trip that will last a month for me and 50 years for you–what does that do to our shared narrative? Relationships outside the ship are going to apply to their own situation only, because NPCs will likely be long gone by the time you come around again. The thought of record-keeping alone makes my eyes cross.
  • It sets a standard that I, honestly, don’t have an interest in meeting. Choosing the unpopular, realistic option in something as central as space travel implies that other unpopular, realistic options–such as propulsion systems, particle shielding, power sources, transhumanism–are fair game and should be considered. But I’m not a guy that finds strong appeals in the hard science speculation.


  • It’s common to most popular sci-fi. Everybody “gets” the whole “making the jump to lightspeed” thing. It mimicks our own understanding of travel in our day-to-day world. Although the physics make no sense, the aesthetics are easy.
  • In-game problems and adversity are harder to run away from. Chases become reasonable actions.
  • The hand-waving can be interesting in its own right. Fading Suns’ jumpgates have always fascinated me–to have one choke-point where everything must pass is just plain cool. Who guards them? What other duties do they perform? How would information travel without FTL radio/ansible communications?


  • It’s common enough to be … boring. It’s expected that there will be FTL travel, and that journeys between stars take a few days or weeks. It’s run-of-the-mill.
  • Space loses its wonder and granduer. It becomes little more than a metaphor for oceans. Things are too close, and place doesn’t matter.

AFter typing all that out, relativistic space travel has some very high negative points. It looks like the best solution is to put a unique spin on the fantastical FTL travel. But I’m not yet 100% certain. I’ve never claimed that setting design is my strong point. Is there anything I’ve missed?


12 Responses to “By The Stars — Relativity (Now isn’t that special?)”

  1. I think your third Con for STL travel seals the deal, but let me throw this in: anti-agathic drugs or technology makes STL travel more platable. Sure, you aged one month while I aged fifty years, but we both still look young.
    Ultimately, space *opera* requires the unrealistic.

    • That’s a good point, Matt. But, it’s also one of the things I was alluding to with “transhumanism”–it doesn’t spark my interest. I mean, even if drugs make it so we haven’t physically aged, whatever you just did to me a month ago, I’m still enraged about, and you’ve put it behind you and forgotten about it in the intervening 50 years. The reprocussions of relativistic travel on human relationships is profound. I know you’ve likely seen every anime ever, but I’ve got to recommend the brief Voices of a Distant Star for one look at these issues.

  2. I’ve been dealing with this same issue for a space-traveller-setting (called Hardspace on my LJ) which i’ve been building up and tearing down over the past 7 or so years. Most of the revision has been a steady move toward a harder baseline. (Using this site as a prime resource.)
    Currently, i have the dial set to “Off-screen FTL” – magic ‘spacefolding’ engines are carried by every ship, to allow for interstellar trade (and thus war) and movement of diverse characters, but FTL travel is just a quick hop from star to star, then taking weeks and weeks of coasting through space on a (fusion) rocket to reach a port. So for purposes of an RPG (or a tactical combat game) almost none of the action directly involves the FTL gimmickry.
    However, i’d like to make it work with STL starships (a la C. J. Cherryh), and i think there are a couple of “pros” to STL that you missed:
    * STL is quantatatively different, not just novel. If FTL is like hopping a bus to New York, then STL is like sailing a canoe to Tahiti – once you’ve left you’re all alone. So, it necessitates questions about transhumanism, the nature of culture, the bonds of civilization, and the pioneer spirit. Our civilization just couldn’t handle STL trade – it’d take a different humanity.
    * STL trade might not follow the idiom one expects. We usually think in terms of ships, especially (at least for me) ships before the days of radio and satellite communications (although Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series is a nice exception). We like our heroes to be that scruffy, but industriuous and lovable tramp-freighter captain, who seems to show up everywhere.
    But delving into the science and (very hand-wavey) economics seems to give a different picture – the best option for STL trade seems to be a network of light-sail vessels pushed from star to star (and then caught) by massive laser array stations, soaking up free solar power. And that doesn’t look like ships – that looks like trains.
    A lot of food for thought there, but probably, if you want Space Opera, you don’t want STL!

    • Here is (the!) Greg Costikyan’s great article on those hand-wavey economics.

      • That was a great article, Stefan! The “sailing a canoe to Tahiti” metaphor seems very apt. What little I know of Polynesian colonization was that the colonists would find their islands, and develop their own culture, rarely developing any sort of trade back with the source colony. I can see STL giving rise to autonomous interstellar colonies that way.
        Within the same star system, though, I think things might end up going more like the European colonization of the Americas. Central planet governs during early stages of colonization, until colonial population reaches a certain threshold–then the new wars for independence start. Much food for thought here.

    • Also, i should recommend Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, if you haven’t read it already. A space opera (of sorts) that does some delving into the natures of FTL and STL, as well as a nice presentation of one brand of transhumanism within a human context.

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