Sunday, April 28, 2013

Getting There is Half the Fun: FTL in Sci-Fi Settings



Faster-than-light travel is a staple of most science fiction: It’s hard to get strange new worlds and strange new lifeforms without it. There are a lot of different methods that turn up in fiction to get around, and the method that is the one “that works” in a given setting has implications on how adventures play out and even what sort of adventures are possible.

In Star Trek (and a number of other sci-fi universes), for instance, warp drive is the way it’s done. While the theory doesn’t always reflect the way it appears in story, warp drive is essential a means for going superluminal but just kind of ignoring Einstein. Ships still seem to interact with things around them as if they were traveling at “normal” sort of velocities.  This makes high-speed space battles do-able, and FTL travel itself doesn’t play a part in where bases or settlements will be put. Space travel is easily (maybe a little too easily) analogized to earthly exploration and warfare.

On common method is via hyperdrives or jump drives. Essentially these provide FTL via transfer to another dimension (“hyperspace”) where the usual physical laws don’t apply. This sort of travel comes with a lot of variants, but there are two factors that make the most difference: instantaneous vs. noninstantaneous and gates vs. no gates.

In the instantaneous variety, not much time (if any) is spent in hyperspace; it’s essentially teleportation. This means no FTL battles and perhaps no FTL chases. The tense moments are the ones leading up to the “jump,” because once that’s accomplished pursuers are lost and getaways made. (There is a variant where jumps might be short, defined distances, in which case you could have a sort of stuttering chase.) Like with warp drive, most of your adventuring time is spent in normal space, so the implications for setting design are pretty similar.


Noninstantaneous travel means ships spend some time in hyperspace. This allows chases (and possibly battles) in hyperspace, but also means that stuff can go on onboard a ship while the travelers maybe out of touch with the rest of the world. Also, hyperspace can have exotic hazards and even life. It becomes another interesting place to visit, not just a means for travel.

Nongated jumps mean a ship can do it on it’s on, whereas gated ones required specific structures or locations. Here, gates become places to meet and places to fight. Interstellar travel has choke points and routes like interstate highways. This can move space travel away from being like “ships at sea” to “like longhaul trucking.” Maybe (like in Cowboy Bebop) gates have tolls, so you could be stuck in one place until you’ve got the cash to proceed.

Anyway, there are other variables to consider (like whether people are awake in FTL or have to go into some sort of suspended animation). My purpose it not to give an exhaustive coverage of them all, but to suggest that these things aren’t just color or window dressing, but have implications for how the setting plays out and its feel.

14 comments:

Francis Lee said...

It's the only way to travel....one day but I think not in our lifetime!

SAROE said...

It also has implications for ship design. Twenty or so years ago I designed a campaign (that never got played) where the 'Jump' engines were huge. But but the mass of the ship they were attached to had minimal effect on how big the engines needed to be.

This meant there were very few 'small' ships that only carried a handful of passengers. So no Millenium Falcon or Traveller Scout.

Characters were never going to own there own ships, and the passenger liners were adventure locations in their own right.

Trey said...

@SAROE - Very good point. Some version of jumpdrives or warp drives might require ferries or the like. Then there's something like Dune, where all travel is controlled by a monopoly and everybody goes on their ships.

Simon J. Hogwood said...

Also, there's another tree of varients down from "gated travel", and that's whether a ship is required or not - something like the Stargate could easily be used to travel from system-to-system, while nonFTL craft are used for intrasystem travel.

Trey said...

@Simon - Very true. That shows up in Simmons' Hyperion as well with the farcaster system. I was trying to keep it to ship-based systems here (as going to those sorts of non-ship transports eliminates the "space travel" aspect entirely.

dervishdelver said...

I was toying with this concept today, for an X-plorers campaign with a golden age feel. I wanted to restrict my game to the Milky Way and primarily our solar system. So, I went the "gates" route with the explanation that the technology was not there for FTL space engines. But, I decided advancements in propulsion could attain Mach 250 "Super High Hypersonic" speeds. This allows a trip to the moon in 1 1/2 hours, Mars in 8 days, and Jupiter in 5 years. The gates would allow shorter times over greater distances and often it would take a ship longer to arrive at a gate then to travel across the galaxy at the speed of light through the gates.

@SAROE "Character were never going to own their own ships"

I'm including Rent-to-own and leasing options to players. I see a Repo-tracer game in the making (:

umbrielx said...

Star Trek's version of warp drive doesn't technically "ignore" Einsteinian constraints. Rather it's based on their most basic loophole -- While nothing can travel faster-than-light in normal space, nothing prevents space itself from being distorted or "warped" at superluminal speeds, and potentially carrying what that space contains along for the ride. Amusingly, the real world "Alcubierre drive" concept was apparently inspired by Star Trek's terminology, and has, in turn, influenced the "rubber science" used in the fictional universe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcubierre_drive)

A good example of the "ferry concept" you reference can be found in the various Battletech games, where very large FTL ships jump instantaneously from points above or below a star system, and generally never leave those points, with "dropships" shuttling cargo and passengers to and from them.

Trey said...

@Umbrielx - I'm aware of Alcubierre's warp drive, but it really doesn't enter the Star Trek fanon picture until his paper was written, and it never fits what we see on screen at all.

There are, of course, constraints to Alcubierre's warp drive (the need for a lot of exotic matter, potential closed time-like curves, and other engineering problems).

Tim Shorts said...

This is always a discussion when sci-fi, fantasy ect... writers get together. I thought Babylon 5's hyperspace was interesting. It was presented as a mysterious place where things can go very wrong and getting lost is a very strong possibility. What is hidden in there? There is just a lot of coolness to play with.

Trey said...

Yeah. I really liked the B5 approach.

Malcadon said...

Another thing to consider, is how FTL communication can have a major impact on the scope of the setting. I have seen large galactic-size settings dwarfed they the presence of a massive and readily available FTL communications network, and the lack of any device like this feel like an endless expanse of small isolated worlds! This may not directly impact the actually FTL trip, but it would impact how information and notoriety spreads.

Trey said...

@Malcadon - Good point. Communication certainly effects the feel of the world. Are frontiers isolated, like in centuries past, or does a Galaxy Wide Web connect everyone? Or something in between?

Anthony Emmel said...

Both Dune and Battletech use the instantaneous jump/teleport. In Battletech, it allows for space battles in normal space. :)

Tom said...

Cool topic.

Another interesting idea would be multiple FTL options. Different races developing different solutions and how that would play into a universe setting. One species could have instantaneous FTL, but only for very small (or ridiculously large) ships.

Another uses fixed gates whose size determines what size ships they can field. This could lead to large in-system battleships and small corvettes for inter-stellar action.

How would they guard their technology and what advantages would each side have? And how could the PC's upset the balance?