This post originally appeared on the now-defunct Arcane Game Lore blog. I did another post on this here on Expanding Frontier that gave more details.
In most sci-fi games, we typically take interstellar faster than light travel for granted with no individual consequences. What if that wasn’t true?
This is actually something I’ve thought about off and on for the past few years. It even makes a subtle appearance in my book, Discovery. I was reading an article, The Unexpected Neighbor: Portals to Celestial Morphology 1/4, on Campaign Mastery and the discussion about disruption triggered me to think about my Void Travel Sickness mechanic once again. I thought I’d write it up.
Defining Void Travel
First we need to start off with what Void travel actually is. Basically it is a way of quickly traversing vast interstellar distances nearly instantaneously by traveling through another dimension (the Void). The ship plots/calculates a “Void jump” and then somehow engages the physics of the universe to move from real space to the Void, travel a bit in the Void where distance is greatly compressed relative to real space, and then shift back to real space at the destination. Since distances in the Void are so compressed (or is it time?), a short trip in the Void corresponds to a long trip in the real universe.
The is the type of interstellar travel used in Star Frontiers (at least in the Knight Hawks ship expansion), basically stating that when traveling at 1% the speed of light (the mechanism to invoke the physics), one second travel in the Void, moves you 1 light year in the real universe.
In terms of the parameters Mike defines in his article, these Void jumps can be considered mono-directional, temporary, immense, stable (relative to the ship), safe, and vague (relative to the endpoint location) portals. I want to play with that safe part.
What happens to the participants during that brief time spend in the void is up to the GM or the designer of the game system. In my book, I described it thus:
Everything on-board the ship went crazy. Colors seemed to invert. Any displays that had previously showed empty space outside the ship just seemed to just vanish. Sounds were distorted. The sense of touch just disappeared. It felt as if they were being pulled into their seats and weightless at the same time and everyone felt a strong case of dizziness, as if you had been spinning incredibly fast and then just stopped, and had to walk a straight line but couldn’t.
“What’s going on?” Allison asked, looking around a little wildly. Her voice sounded muffled, as if speaking under water.
“I don’t know,” Alex replied his voice also distorted. “You’re the expert on …” And then the effect was gone. “the jump process,” he finished. The strange effect was gone but it was replaced by alarms and sirens going off throughout the ship.
“That was weird,” he added almost to himself. While the strange effect was gone, Alex still felt a bit nauseous but it was passing quickly. Looking at Allison, the slight greenish cast to her complexion indicated that she felt it as well.
but it really could be anything you want.
Void Travel Sickness
What if the effects of Void travel weren’t just brief and temporary disorientation and nausea but could be something more serious? How do you decide if you’re susceptible? Is it a binary option, i.e. you either get sick every time or not at all? Does it get progressively worse? Can you prevent it? This are all things to think about. I’m not going to answer all of those questions in this particular article as some of them depend on the game system itself and I’m just going to cover general principles. The ones I miss I’ll revisit at a later date when I implement a final version of the system in my Designing Out Loud series.
For my version of this, everyone is potentially susceptible and no one is completely immune. However, even if you are susceptible, it doesn’t mean you experience the effects every time and just because you aren’t susceptible, it doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally be caught by it. You might go for several jumps without any ill effects, and then be floored by the next one. And I want it to be a progressive condition, meaning that as time goes on and you make more jumps, you become more susceptible, no matter where you start on the susceptibility spectrum. So let’s start looking at details
Not everyone succumbs to void sickness as easily as others. Some people just seem to be immune to it while others get hit every time they make a jump. Each character should have a susceptibility score that represents the probability that they will succumb to void sickness on any give jump. Because I want this to be fairly fine grained and want the increase in susceptibility to be very gradual, this roll should be percentile (d100) based and the susceptibility score should range from 1-100.
The easiest way to initially determine susceptibility would be to make some sort of constitution or stamina check the very first time you make an interstellar jump. For characters in a sci-fi campaign, where you can assume they have made jumps in the past before adventuring, you could make the check as part of character generation. Passing or failing this first check indicates whether you tend to be immune or susceptible to getting void sickness and you can then determine your starting susceptibility score.
You start by determining your base score. In a d100 system, like the one I’m designing or Star Frontiers, your base score is simply your constitution characteristic, in this case Stamina. If you’re using this in a d20 or 3d6 characteristic system, you’d want to multiply that characteristic by five first. to put it on the same scale. If your game of choice uses some other scale for ability scores, multiply by the appropriate factor to get the value on a scale of 1-100. (i.e. a 2d6 game would multiply by 8).
To this base chance you simply add your “first jump modifier”. If you passed that first check, give the character a +20 to their susceptibility score. They are fairly immune. If you failed, give the character a -20. They tend to suffer from void sickness more often. This becomes your character’s susceptibility score for the game.
I also want the chance to succumb to increase the more jumps you make but not very quickly. (This is why starship captains are all young an dashing and admirals are all old, stay home, and only travel grudgingly ).
The mechanic for this is straightforward. If you fail a susceptibility check, your score drops by one. If you pass, nothing happens. This is why I wanted the check to be percentile based, so that the change is small on any single failure. If it was d20 based (or something similar), a single point change is a big effect.
This mechanic has a couple of impacts. First, those with high scores (i.e. immune) will often pass their checks and have little change in their score. Those that are susceptible, however, will deteriorate much quicker as they fail more often. Also, as time goes on, the rate of deterioration increases as they fail more often, regardless of where they started. This was intentional as I wanted the overall effect to be that there will come a point that you decide that you’re done with interstellar travel or willing to accept that every jump will be a miserable experience. However, I didn’t want that to come too quickly.
If fact, for player characters, instead of rolling, I’d probably declare that they are all void sickness “immune” and just start their susceptibility score at STA+20. To goal is to have it be an occasional but real concern to add some suspense and drama but not really debilitating (at least to start).
On Any Given Jump
To see if you suffer the effects of void sickness, simply roll d100 against your susceptibility score with a 100 always being a failure regardless of the susceptibility score. Success means a brief moment of disorientation/nausea/whatever the minor effects (if any) are. Failure means more debilitating effects. This is going to be system dependent. However, there is the question of scale.
One option is to just make it a binary solution. Success = no effect, failure = some fixed effect. In this case the magnitude of the effect is independent of the degree of failure. Everyone who fails suffers the same effects.
A second option is to have the effects be dependent on further die rolls. Maybe the effect has a variable time frame (i.e. -10% on all skill checks for 1d10 hours) or varying severity (i.e. -1d6*5% to all skills for an hour) or both (-3d10% from all skill/ability checks for 1d6 hours). Or it could be anything that the system designers/GMs want to implement.
The final option would be to have the effects dependent on the degree of failure with the difference between the roll and the susceptibility score determining the magnitude of the effect. Thus you could fail by just a little on only suffer minor effects or fail spectacularly and be down for a while.
The first and second option are good if you want those with high susceptibilities to potentially suffer serious effects when they do happen to fail while the third one plays into the idea that those with strong resistances don’t suffer too badly while those that suffer chronically suffer extremely. It just depends on the flavor you want.
Prevention and Treatment
I’m not going to cover this topic in this particular post as it really depends on the game setting and what the GM desires (if adding this to an existing system). Maybe there are medicines or techniques that can boost your immunity. There are most likely medicines that can be used to counteract the negative effects. What they are will depend on the game.
A Work in Progress
This is obviously a first pass at the design. As I test it out and look at it more closely there will probably be other refinements and details I’ll make. What do you think? Have you ever implemented a void (portal passage) sickness in your game? What worked and what didn’t? What would you add or change to what I described? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.