Orphans of the Sky – Adopting Ideas

Orphans of the Sky

Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Signet Books
Published: 1965
Page Count: 128
Purchase on Amazon: Price Varies


Cruising through the blackness of space to Centaurus, a mutiny among the crew erupts on the colonization spaceship Vanguard. The conflict leaves no one left alive with the knowledge to continue the mission. Countless generations follow and the original mission of the Vanguard falls into legend and religious doctrine. Hugh Hoyland an upcoming scientist, with an abnormally large head, begins to question the boundaries of his world. Above him, in the upper decks of this massive ship the pull of gravity is much less. This is an area that is mostly unexplored due to its lack of gravity and its inhabitants, the Muties. Muties are horribly deformed humans who are infected with the sins of the past mutineers and live in exile. The men of the lower decks and Muties are at constant war with each other. Both holding their own territory tightly. Hugh bridges the gap between man and the Muties. Together they discover the truth about the ship, its mission, and how to operate it. But will he be able to convince his countrymen of these new truths? Can they adapt to Hugh’s new reality?

Orphans of the Sky began as a two-part novelette in the pulp magazine “Astounding Science Fiction”, “Universe” May 1941 and “Common Sense” October 1941. It was later combined and published as a book in 1963. The story is of a colonization ship whose crew and memory of their mission are lost to time. The inhabitants are ignorant of their surroundings or the original mission of the ship. One man with the help of a two-headed mutant rediscover the ship’s secrets and try to bring about an end to their endless journey through space.

This story, as well as other ones similar to this, where the building blocks for James Ward as he created the roleplaying game Metamorphosis Alpha. There were a lot of great inspirations taken from this book. Though I’d like to look at some of the items not used and see how they could be morphed into your own game.

The Vanguard is a gigantic cylindrical ship. The “Warden”, Metamorphosis Alpha’s default vessel is oblong-shaped with stacking decks of the same size. If we are to use the ship in Orphans of the Sky we need to reconfigure the decks as inverse planet surfaces. Instead of an object falling below the horizon they rise. How much of a visible curve Hugh and his fellow shipmates see is not mentioned in the story. It depends on the diameter of the cylinder and the distance of an unobstructed view to achieving an infinite radius or a plane with an unperceivable slope. Mapping out a level is an easy task. The map would be rectangular with the two long sides of the map conjoined in an endless loop, allowing the inhabitants to circumnavigate their world in a north/south style direction. The shorter ends stop at bulked walls.

The cylinder rotates which provides the force of gravity. As one travels up the decks to the center of the cylinder, gravity’s pull becomes less. The effects of weightlessness can be emplored in your game to add a level of complexity. In “White Dwarf Magazine” issue one June/July 1977 author Ian Livingstone does the heavy lifting for us. Along with a review of Metamorphosis Alpha, the author includes three inspirational novels to pull elements from to use in your game. The novels were Orphans of the Sky, Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss, and Captive Universe by Harry Harrison. For Orphans of the Sky we are treated to a gravitational effects chart to simulate the various effects gravity would have on movement and combat based on one’s original gravity. The chart adds or subtracts one’s ability to hit depending on how familiar they are to the current state of gravity. Locating issue one of “White Dwarf Magazine” is difficult and costly. Through a simple Google search, I was able to find a digital reproduction of the issue, but its legality is questionable so no link is provided.

The Vanguard’s power source is called the “Converter”. The converter alters matter into energy which is then used to power the ship’s systems. Hugh and his fellow scientist fed biological matter, corpses to be precise, into the converter. The converter breaks down any item placed inside into atoms, which it then uses as energy. If a converter was used in your game the material needed to fuel the converter could remain organic or broaden to accept any material. The converter could remain as a function of the ship or morph into a religious right which one enters when they reach the age of uselessness or sooner as punishment. As long as the converter is feed, the world will stay alight.

There is more inspirational material in Orphans of the Sky to use in your game. You can buy a new copy of the book as it still is in print or be like me and troll your local paperback trader and get a well-worn musty smelling copy for a few pennies. Either way, it will make a great addition to your inspirational reading shelf alongside your roleplaying games.

~Stephen Pennisi

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