The “Missing Sidebar” Problem: Equipment and Vacuum

I’m not sure where to file this complaint, but I want to share it: It seems like sci-fi RPGs have gotten a little too conservative in the kinds of rules they feel are needed as the area has matured. If you pick up a new RPG rulebook for a new system, I find that it tends to have the same kinds of rules as all of the other sci-fi RPGs rulebooks. Don’t get me wrong, there may be a lot of creativity within the rules, but all the books have the same kinds of rules: character creation, starship construction, etc. I guess there is a genre of “sci-fi RPG rulebook” and it is pretty rigid these days. I feel like in earlier times things were a bit more open.

I mention this because it seems to me that there are a bunch of things that come up regularly in sci-fi RPG gaming that aren’t addressed by the rules in any system I’ve seen. O’Reilly has a published a series of self-help books called “The Missing Manual” series. Ripping off that title, I feel like there should be some kind of “missing rule” series or the “missing sidebar” series for sci-fi roleplaying games. Things that you feel must have been explained somewhere but are not in any rule book. I spend my time searching my PDFs and flipping through the index of my paper books thinking, “this has GOT to be in here somewhere… someone must have covered this…” but I think it isn’t. Or they didn’t. Or I can’t find it.

I’ll inaugurate a new tag and call this the “missing sidebar” problem. I’ll give one example of a topic I feel this way about, but I welcome others. I’ve got a few more I’m saving up for future posts. Here’s my first:

Explosive Decompression and Equipment

In sci-fi RPGs (and in video games) the atmosphere in airtight compartments of a spaceship is regularly reduced to hard vacuum. This is done to repel boarders, to fight fires (I am in love with the game FTL), or as the result of a hull leak or other accident. While a spaceship in the future may or may not have airtight compartments within it (see GURPS SS), the metaphor to compare this to is watertight bulkheads on an ocean-going ship. Sure, the watertight bulkhead prevents a leak from spreading, but filling a ship’s compartment with seawater is going to do the things that are present in that compartment no good at all.

GURPS does a vivid job of dealing with what decompression does to the human body. But what about the ship itself and the stuff that is inside?

G:SS p. 44 “Most spacecraft systems are designed to survive decompression, but plants in open spaces and delicate furnishings or supplies in habitats (e.g., bottles of wine in bar establishments, etc.) will be lost if exposed.” That’s great, but I feel like I could use some more guidance. As we saw in the book The Martian, there’s a lot that could be done with an interesting “space survival” kind of adventure. Your scout ship depressurizes. You get the problem under control. But then: What broke? What still works? This is what I mean by the missing sidebar.

I’m going to take a crack at this. I am totally unqualified, so this should be fun.

Higher Tech, Less Safe!?

Some of this really depends on the culture and details of your setting. Equipment can be made safe for vacuum. Sealed containers are more likely to survive a vacuum if their walls are a particular shape. Glass can be checked for impurities that cause shattering.

However, in a future society like the TL 11 Deeps of Lyrae setting where space travel is routine and technology is extremely advanced, it might not be likely that vacuum-proofed objects are normal aboard a spacecraft. Things inside a spacecraft, unless they are in an airlock, are not likely to be vacuum-safe because people bring things on and off ships all the time and depressurization emergencies are very rare. NASA rigorously tests everything that goes on board a spacecraft, but if a spacecraft is operated more like a family RV? In other words, space-faring is so safe that a depressurization emergency is more dangerous to equipment.

I guess one exception might be an entire civilization that lives in space (in an asteroid belt, Battlestar Galactica, etc.) where the risk of decompression is constantly considered? But I’m not sure of the logic of that. In a future where space travel is safe and routine I feel the situation is more akin to an airliner: even the crew–who by definition fly on airplanes routinely–do not choose the contents of their luggage based on what will survive uncontrolled decompression at a high altitude. They just hope it never happens to them. They might think: I’ll be lucky to survive if that happens, so why would I care about my baggage.

Vacuum Support Trade-Offs

Vacuum-Proofing some kinds of objects is simple and cost-effective and would likely be used on any spacecraft application, even if explosive decompression is rare and space travel is routine and safe. An example: If everything hasn’t gone solid state by that point, a computer’s hard disk drives depend on air to work, and if the air is removed the drive will destroy itself when operated. However, it is simple and cheap to vacuum-seal hard disk drives, and as technology advances most drives are now sealed anyway to prevent dust from getting inside. So you’d expect some things to be already 100% protected. (After TL8 it is also simple to use solid state storage instead.)

Other kinds of vacuum-proofing are prohibitively expensive and unlikely to be present in equipment that is not expressly designed to operate in a vacuum. For instance, the hydraulics that raise and lower a spacecraft’s landing gear are always designed to operate in a vacuum. Duh. Likewise, any equipment inside an airlock. However, major equipment such as weapons, drives, power plants, engines, pumps, wiring, and mainframe computers might be unlikely to be totally vacuum proof as it could require a major redesign of the system (typically to manage heat).

Again as a comparison, consider an ocean-going warship. The engines may be surrounded by a watertight bulkhead for safety, but if the engine compartment fills with seawater the engines will not run. The designers are 100% aware that the ship is surrounded by water, but providing the hull is the way they have addressed the problem, not by designing both a hull and an engine inside it that runs while submerged in seawater.

The Case of The Sulfuric Acid Submarines

It’s hard to believe, but early submarines depended on big banks of sulfuric acid batteries. If seawater reached the battery room, electrolysis would produce chlorine gas, a chemical weapon, and everyone on board would die. It’s hard to believe that we filled an ocean-going submersible with devices that kill everyone if they get wet, but that’s how we did it. It might be more exciting if future spaceships worked kind of the same way. Maybe you will accuse me of just being a sadistic GM, but I think this is plausible. Yes, many vacuum precautions that are reasonable and cheap have been taken, but a bunch of other stuff is going to go wrong–maybe horribly wrong.

I scrambled around the Internet looking for information on what happens to a long list of things in vacuum and I’ll post what I found. More soon.

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