Thursday, October 28, 2010

Designing Plausible Spacecraft for Role-Playing Games Part V

(I read over this post when I felt better and noticed some glaring mistakes and incomplete thoughts.  From me, this is really saying something.  Here is the Beta version:)

     Sorry about being so late with the blog today...I pulled an all-nighter with my sick kids.  I did use part of the time to get the first draft of the Valkyrie's life system finished up.  This is the first spacecraft I've designed that has no gravity from thrust or planet fall, and it was educational.  It was also fun- not being constrained by normal surface area means that the walls can be the floor and the there is no reason not to have consoles mounted "upside-down" relative to other stations and fun things like that.  I also, as per my personal policy, made a few all-new map elements for the interior and even re-did some of the old ones to make them cleaner and more detailed.  Let's check it out:

     It's kind of tiny, I know, but larger versions of the individual "decks" will be posted on Flikr later, for your enjoyment.  I also did some reworking of the overall interior, to make room for the life system and to see if maybe I could get away with only one fusion reactor.  Originally, I didn't want one at all, but fission power is just too dirty to have a atomic rocket in the nose, and the shielding would take up too much space.  But going with fusion lets me add some political stuff to the rocket's back story, so it ain't all bad.  BTW, the little hamburgers flanking the reactor are electric turbines.

     When working on the interior of this little beauty, I had to use a bit of discipline.  Like all of you, I'm used to gaming in ships like you see in Traveller and Star Wars; ships with a lot of space in them.  Its fair enough; the ships we see in on the tube or the silver screen. That space is needed for production reasons movies and television, and is useful for exciting combat scenarios in gaming.  Unfortunately, it is also completely bogus.  The plethora of "storage rooms", "crew lounges", and other interior areas that exist just to fill out the empty spaces on a map may seem like a good idea...but in hard SF, they fun afoul of RocketDad's Rule number seven:

7. There Are No 10'x10' Rooms in Space.

     Observe the case of the International Space Station.  The ISS is the single most expensive construction project in human history.  This includes things like the Manhattan Project, the Great Wall of China, and the estimated cost of the Great Pyramids at Giza.  The total cost of the ISS is greater than the Gross Domestic Product of some industrialized nations.
     I mention all this so that you will understand my point about extra space in space:  The habitable volume of the ISS is roughly that of two 18 wheeler trailers.  There simply is no spare room in spacecraft.  All realistic spacecraft are designed for minimum weight and volume.  Accept this and go on.
     The important thing, I think, is not to see this as a limitation, but rather as an interesting challenge.  As you  can see in the above deck plans, I have managed to create an interesting environment without extraneous spaces in it.  There are still blind corners, still places to hide, and, when you factor in the lack of gravity, plenty of room.  Even better, that room can be used in new ways;  I imagine a freebrawl fight between the mid deck and the bottom one, with the characters using the handles for leverage and darting up and down through the large open space in between the "decks".  Eat your heart out, Neo! 
     I'm sure you noticed that the there is a large amount of cargo in the tube connecting the airlock with the rest of the habitat, but this is not an oversight.  I have observed this to be the case on the ISS, in the Zvezda module, where up to half the corridor space is filled with supplies and the astronauts float above them.  This is simple practicality and the reality of trying to cram enough supplies for a crew of six for a month.  I like adding little real-world details like that, it gives the location flavor (and treasure!).  The exercise equipment attached to the walls is another new detail that you would see in any spacecraft that sees a lot of use in freefall.  I fudged a little in the Heinlein plans and only showed where the equipment would be when unstowed, so in this one I decided to show the the stuff out and ready to work.   Of, course, in the actual battle map version, that stuff will be out of the way; no one's gonna bring treadmill to space fight.
   Anyway, I think little things like that are important enough to give there own rule:

8. Keep the Design Grounded in Reality.

     Science fiction is, by its very nature, fantastic.  It takes a good bit of willing suspension of disbelief to put over the stuff  that is actually true about space travel.   The stuff we hope to do later on, like interplanetary travel in weeks instead of months and terraforming Mars, is simply beyond the pale.  This is one of the reasons that flat-out untrue things like sound in space, handwavium gravity generation and the other familiar tropes of frontiersmen and romance are easier to put over than the reality of that most strange of environments, deep space.  It also doesn't help that most TV and Movie budgets are too small to make a realistic-zero-gee-floating-all-the-time-and-stuff film or series.  This makes the problem worse by simply reinforcing the common misconceptions of space. 
   But just because a realistic setting is outre doesn't mean that the the tech has to be fake.  I get around this necessity by adding things to my twenty-third century spacecraft that exist in the twenty-first and would most likely be replaced with something strange.  It's a compromise; by keeping certain elements low-tech and real, the high-tech and imaginary is easier to believe.  It may be just as unrealistic, in a way, but if I had to choose (and I did)  I'd rather use elements from the the real world to ground my rockets in reality.

(enjoy the newer version, folks.  My final post on the subject will be out later on today.)

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