Writing is challenging, game design is challenging, and creating a space opera game can be DAMN challenging...especially when one gets to the whole "adventure creation" section of the thing...nothing is lamer than an RPG that doesn't provide you with the tools to run a game, instead assuming that "one knows how to craft an adventure." Ugh. However I can see why so many games punt this part...it's damn hard to do well for a sim-heavy game.
And that's what Space Opera is. I mean, sure...you can do the indie-version, story-based game (say, Dogs in the Vinyard with Jedi in place of the Dogs), but that's not the audience MY game is geared toward. And based on my experience with players who dig on SciFi games, that's not generally the thing that attracts them to the category of "speculative fiction in space."
Do I need to mention that space opera isn't much for facilitating the gamist creative agenda either? D&D (in its earliest incarnations) is a near perfect example of design that facilitates a gamist design, so much so that I begin to question whether or not it can actually work at all (let alone, "work well") for other agendas. More on that if/when I ever get around to posting an analysis of events from our last few D&D sessions at the Baranof.
Why do people want to play SciFi games? For me (and most everyone I've met who enjoy these types of RPG), it's all about "the right to dream," baby..."simulationism," to use the out-of-favor term. Most of us are never going to be astronauts...and those of us that are will probably never visit any planets besides Our Little Earth. Not for a damn, long time anyway (unless there's some extraterrestrial intervention...like the plot of an 80's SciFi film).
And even if/when we DO reach another planet, what do we have to look forward to? Mining for mineral resources in space suits? Uncovering "life" in the form of fossilized bacteria? Folks, the idea of an advanced, interstellar community (whether solely human or mixed with sentient beings) is as far fetched and fantastic as the premise of Shadowrun. I'm not saying it's not possible...I'm saying it's damn unlikely.
Playing a sci-fi RPG...whether it's Star Frontiers or Star Wars or Traveller or whatever...is the closest any of us are going to get to traveling between the stars, having "grand adventures in space." People who enjoy these games are drawn to them (for the most part, I believe) because of wanting to explore that idea...they want to pretend to BE those travelers between the worlds. It doesn't matter so much if they are some badass Jedi or knife-wielding Furyan. They want to explore strange new vistas and visit alien landscapes and interact with exotic cultures.
It's still "fantasy" role-playing...playing the role of an imaginary character in an imaginary situation in an imaginary world. But for "space" games, it's the exploration of a particular "genre" (spaceships and aliens and high technology and distant stars) that's important. The MOST important part.
Not having grand battles and fighting monsters and winning treasure.
Not exploring the foibles and flaws and moral quandaries of our human condition.
Those things CAN occur in a SciFi RPG...but they can occur in most ANY type of RPG (my last Boot Hill session featured the players killing "monsters" (banditos) and gaining "treasure" (bounty-reward money). The important part for a space opera game is the EXPLORATION of the "fantasy space universe." Those other considerations are secondary.
And so the question arises, "how does one create adventures for a SciFi RPG?" How does one motivate players to do anything? Do you just design a system as best you can and assume that players will "just know" how to create an "adventure" that will engage them? Should the designers simply punt the issue?
The thing about adventure creation is that it really does go hand-in-hand with any reward mechanics present in the game. If a reward system IS present, than the adventure design must take that reward into consideration (I think...I'm not ready to put forward a new Axiom on the issue).
Which is why, for me, those three games I mentioned earlier fall a little short of the mark.
Being based on a D&D chassis, they presume a gamist agenda (or perhaps it would be fairer to say they put forward a system that facilitates a gamist agenda). Which is probably why Terminal Space works the best (for me) of the three and why Stars Without Number, despite its high production values and obvious time and loving attention to detail feels like it falls short of playability (at least, long term playability).
[oh, and by the way...I heartily DISAGREE with the Barking Alien about class/level systems not being appropriate for a SciFi game...at least of the space opera genre, I think it fits right well]
For me, the best space opera games ever published are Star Frontiers and Classic Traveller (and all apologies to WEG Star Wars, who were wonderful in describing exactly what space opera is). The former has a specific, small scale setting, the latter an almost totally open one. In seeing why they work for me I should point out a couple things:
a) I really, REALLY dislike the Star Frontiers system.
b) I find Classic Traveller to be too incomplete for my purposes (it's playable "out-of-the-box" but it's a little sparse that way...and I have fairly specific needs when it comes to playing a SciFi genre RPG, hence the need for my own system).
But despite my personal dislike for the games, I acknowledge them to be great. Why? Because they allow for that exploration of the imaginary space opera setting without the reward system getting in the way.
Because there's really not much of a reward system. The reward of play is experiencing and exploring the game setting.
Yes, players in Star Frontiers gain some minute amount of "experience points," but real improvement of character effectiveness is glacially slow (one of the things I dislike about the game...I find beginning characters too limited and the rate of improvement to tedious). CT has almost no "advancement" or increase in character ability once play begins...players start with veteran characters (assuming they survive the chargen process), and it does NOT behoove you to start your adventuring days at a young age.
Keeping the emphasis off advancement puts the emphasis on exploration.
Meanwhile, looking at the new "old school" SciFi RPGs we see that most of the effort went in to creating rules for play without creating a how and why of play.
However, I'll have to come back to this subject...I'm out of time at the moment.