by Sandy Antunes
Starbases are a unique mix of ship and home, technology and politics. They span from from zero-gravity asteroid belt mining outposts to multi-racial "Babylon-5" O'Neil-style stations. Adventures in and around such bases cover the entire range of the science fiction genre.
Starbases and space stations face unique resource and technology issues, not just in construction but for allowing day to day life. Much of what we take for granted -- air, gravity, water, weather, living space -- are sharply controlled on a starbase. When someone is literally selling you the air you need to live, politics and economics become just as important as nifty tech or cool guns. And if said cool guns are the only way to get the air you need, well, starbase, we have a crisis.
For the gamemaster, creating a space station depends on your choice of rules. Since a station is just "a vehicle that doesn't move", use GURPS Vehicles 2nd Edition, with a dose of the Vehicles outtakes (from Pyramid #21) for rules like habitation modules and spin gravity. Or, call it "a spaceship that doesn't move" and use GURPS Space, with minimal thrusters (for station keeping).
Tech Level can range from modern-day earth (TL 7) through typical science fiction television usage (TL 9/10+) up to the Ringworld or Dyson sphere levels (TL14). Often the bases will be at the cutting edge of technology, since it's handy to have a Base before you launch your spanking new starship fleet. And hey, bases don't move -- they only need walls, power, air, and perhaps some gravity.
- TL 6: Atomic: Skylab-level short-term stations
- TL 7: Nuclear: MIR- and Freedom-sized non-self-sufficient stations
- TL 8: Spacefaring: Stations become self-sufficient and serve as starship ports
- TL 9: Starfaring: City-sized stations are ubiquitous and often independent entities
- TL 10: Antimatter: Stations can exist even in the absence of habitable worlds
- TL 13: Worldbuilding: The distinction between ship, starbase, and homeworld blurs
- TL 14: Dysonian: Bases so advanced, the locals may not realize they are constructs
Within the game, space stations are more than just vehicles -- they are perhaps the most expensive and politically crucial elements of technological societies. Issues such as ownership, defensive potential, and multi-species involvement make for complex military, political and economic situations. The reasons for building such bases involve 3 aspects, in differing amounts. Where the motives lie on this pyramid define the role for a station.
Each of our three motives will affect how the base is designed. Clearly an all-military base is going to load up on firepower, armor, and sensors. Political bases will likely maximize living space as well as keeping tabs on affairs with good sensors. Economic bases will want lots of living space and easy ship access. Bases will multiple purposes are more likely to be funded by nations or worlds, but will have to then juggle these various factors.
Quick readers might note that 'Science' is not a motive here. Just as science is only part of science fiction, real-world science is likewise not a stand-alone goal, but something that requires a partner for support and funding. Thus a "Science Starbase" really has to have a supporting group. It can be funded by the Military, it can be designed for corporate research (Economic), or it can be there for pure research on behalf of a nation or world (Political). In all cases, the 'science' is part and parcel of the motive behind it. Consider 'science' just a wing in the base, just as 'goods' and 'trade' and 'meetings' and 'people living there' have their own sections.
Stepping back to the big picture, military bases tend to have the highest available technology, to best fulfill their defensive role. A purely military base may be spartan, providing simple barracks and serving as an advanced weapons platform. Or, it may be more behind the lines, providing recreation and relaxation facilities along with a modicum of defensive capability. As with real estate, their level of armament is a function of location, location, location.
A station set up as a peacekeeping effort, however, starts to encroach on political terrain as well. Indeed, a successful peacekeeper will participate in the local political scene more often than in battles. As most diplomats and negotiators prefer more comfortable housing than a barracks, such stations might lose some of their efficiency and trim in favor of comfortable quarters and decent guest facilities.
Or, the military station may be a form of bragging, showcasing advanced technology in a subtley threatening manner to impress other worlds. This can lead to overconfidence and an increase in appearance at the cost of military readiness. As time passes and conflicts become more removed, a military outpost can soon become an empire's figurehead, rather than a beachhead.
Purely political bases may simply provide consulate and ambassadorial stations or maintain a diplomatic presence. In such a case, the station's condition would be a direct measure of their importance in their government hierarchy. This spans the extremes from "jewel of the empire" to backwater outposts where only the out-of-favor are sent.
As politics rarely brings in money itself, though, even a base defined as purely diplomatic will end up engaging in at least some trade. The economic advantages of using an already-established port are many, low start-up cost being foremost.
Indeed, some starbases are purely economic in function, serving as trade ports and meeting houses. Poised in orbit around a planet, a base provides a very cost-effective way to transfer goods from inter-system ship to ground-hopper, and provides an effective Customs declaration for the planet as well. Indeed, the business of the port could be entirely its utility in refueling, resupplying, and rebuilding ships, with no other goods necessary to sustain a viable income. But, it is more likely that there is trade as well, since an orbiting or free-floating base can provide ample warehouse space (ample, at least, compared with the fuel-eating spaceships).
Regardless of its economic utility, a base devoted to commerce will be characterized by surprisingly low technology, relative to a military unit. It is rarely cost-effective to spend huge quantities of your profit on your storefront and warehouse. If the base is devoted to the luxury trade, it might seem quite opulent -- but only in the surface details. Underneath, brute economy will rule.
Taking economy to an extreme, a nearly unmanned base can have great economic potential with little cost -- as a broadcasting station. This provides excellent (and unblockable) global coverage for the planet below, and requires very little space or comfort, especially if the only inhabitants are all staff.
Rounding out the triangle, an economic port may often find itself relying on military support, to keep open trade lanes and protect their interests. In such cases, the military is usually a separate entity, and indeed can frequently be at odds with the merchants over differing courses of action. The military presence must be robust enough to survive combat, but not get in the way often enough to cut into the profit margin. By the same token, an economic port is likely to provide quarters and facilities (at inflated rates) to its government's representatives. This provides both profit and some semblance of government sanction, and works to both parties benefit.
In reality, most bases have all three components to some degree, and that is what gives them their character. Each faction involved will generally consider itself the most crucial element of the station's community, and the inter-station politics will be a factor not easily ignored by visiting characters. A base with strong rivalries can provide endless adventure hooks without involving a single outside agency.
Characters working off a base will find things different from the usual cities in that access is more controlled and resources are more valuable. It's a lot easier to track which ships are arriving and leaving, than to monitor an earth-bound border. At the same time, tight controls on import/export means smuggling may be that much more lucrative.
Need to wheel a deal? Bases are just as filled with intrigue as any planet-bound setting. And just like a small town, everyone knows everyone, so secrets may be hard to keep.
Just passing through? Be prepared to deal with possibly corrupt customs, endless shakedowns for your meager credits, and blatant inquiries into your true motives. Nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide, right?
Have a convert mission? If it's for the forces of order, you can hope the administration at least turns a blind eye, and maybe even provides a little help. But the locals might shut down if things on the base aren't as under control as the tourist brochures say.
Doing some private detective work? You might find the locals helpful -- or they might be part of the problem. Much like a wild west town, each base reacts differently to different visitors.
Overthrowing the establishment? A balkanized base, with zones belonging to different factions, is tremendously unstable. Whomever controls those resources necessary to survival will be dominant. And a 'scorched earth' policy by the losers can kill everyone. Either good diplomatic skills or 100% perfection in special ops can resolve such situations.
Starbases can be destinations, home, or simply a stop in transit. They're just like any other place, except for the ease of establishing totalitarian control and chance of catastrophic death of all aboard.
Our own Atomic and Nuclear era (TL 6/7) is marked by Skylab (36 by 7 meters in size), MIR (13 meters) and Space Station Freedom (108 meters). These structures are simultaneously primitive (rivaling a mobile home in terms of comfort and accommodations) and amazingly sophisticated, given that they allow life in the most hostile region nature provides. They are by no means self-sufficient, and require frequent and expensive resupplies of all basic commodities other than energy (which they receive via solar panels).
They are at their heart Political entities, and concerns like profitability and results take second place to the overall goal of asserting national pride. Fortunately, the pure science research is, in itself, genuinely useful and trickles down into earthbound society over time. Although not ostensibly military platforms, military funding and military science is engaged in on these platforms. Still, due to their small size and limited availability, these space stations are really more 'space platforms' than 'starbases'.
Those same restrictions mean such stations are more suited towards games where the characters are either part of the elite crew or involved in espionage. With typical staffing at a dozen or less, any adventure will be a short mission -- go in, do it, get out. Military or paramilitary operations, black ops research, or technology-driven investigation are naturals. Or perhaps these early steps towards space are also the only way for the daring heroes to stop the extra-planetary threat that has just manifested...
At the border of the Nuclear and Spacefaring ages (TL 7/8) is Space Station Five (from 2001: A Space Odyssey, at 223 meters diameter). It clearly had Economic uses (given that there were regular civilian flights up to it), and may have had off-screen Political and Military purposes. Of the classic 'rotating ring to provide artificial gravity', it is a nice extrapolation of what we could, in theory, produce now. It also provides the best standard for what an entry-level starbase might be like. With staff, crew, and tourists, it can serve as a jumping off point as well as containing possible dens of political rebellion, secret research, or global terrorism. While perhaps too small to stage a campaign, such are ideal exotic locales for a jaded globe-spanning band of adventurers.
The fully-fledged self-sufficient Babylon-5 starbase (at 8454 meters, TL9) is a perfect example of "a world unto itself". Babylon-5 uses the "rotation as artificial gravity" model and a decent amount of real-world science, making it ideally suited for hard science fiction. Staffed with military crew under a diplomatic mission with the goal of being a trade nexus, it's smack dab in the middle of the 'triangle of interests' and thus a great place for trouble.
Those tending towards space opera can switch to Deep Space 9 (from Star Trek, at 772 meters, TL11). Complete with artificial gravity, photon torpedoes, shields, and other pseudo-science, the focus with DS9 is part military and all political. They must deal with a native planet population, several space wars, and a fair amount of internal corruption. Again, a plot-rich environment.
Past this, we get into Death Stars (800 km), Ringworlds (3 million earths), and beyond. Building moons and paving orbits is good for ultra high tech, and marks the end of the distinct terms 'starbase', 'ship', and 'planet'.
Starbases are a fascinating microcosm for the TL8 through TL 11 universe, a golden age where a starbase is a rich yet unique setting, balancing limited resources while remaining a bit tougher than any ship, a bit smaller than any nation. They have challenge and intrigue inside. And if you make a mistake, you can just leave -- to the hard vacuum outside.
Article publication date: July 25, 2003
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