'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Interstellar Communications in the ALIEN RPG by Free League

The question of FTL communications was asked on Alien RPG forum I participate in, and I thought it would make a fun article. I intend to extrapolate how fast communications might take place in the ALIEN universe using data presented in the RPG book and the movies. It is not meant to be an exact measurement of transmission speed, but rather a short fun exercise to give a plausible foundation for your ALIEN RPG game.

FTL Communications?

Communications on the Frontier, Page 162
Interstellar space is vast. Transmissions are not instantaneous, sometimes taking weeks or months to reach the recipient. Fortunately Weyland-Yutani has built a sophisticated communications satellite grid surrounding most inhabited sectors of space. Known as the Network, all signals are routed through it, sometimes bouncing off of thousands of comm arrays before reaching their destination.

Core Components: Communications Array, Page 170
Spaceships are fitted with a range of antennae and relays, some for interstellar FTL communications and others for intrasystem communication.

Now that we have definitively established that Faster than Light Communication is a thing in the Alien universe we need a few baselines to figure out some numbers.

The Calculations.

We are going to need a few things to determine the speed of FTL communications.
  1. The first thing we are going to need is how long a message takes to travel from one point in space to the other. In the deleted opening to ALIENS depicting the final days of Hadley's Hope on LV-426 we are shown the colony manager being told that a mom and pop survey team has found something at a place the company has told them to investigate. The survey team wants to make sure they have a claim before exploring and reporting. In this scene we get the following line from the Colony Manager, "christ, some honch in a cushy office on earth says go look at a grid reference, we look, they don't say why and I don't ask. I don't ask because it takes two weeks to get an answer out here and the answer is always, don't ask".

    So now we have a time frame for communications from Earth to LV-426, at least on average. I am also going to make the assumption that the 2 weeks is a round trip, that is time for the message to leave LV-426, reach Earth and to get a response, making the time it takes for a message to travel from LV-426 to Earth to be about 1 week.

  2. The second is a distance. Now we just need to determine how far LV-426 is from Earth. Fortunately, the Alien RPG by Free League includes a map. Assuming no significant deviation from the galactic disk in the Z direction we can use a simple ratio based on how many inches a parsec is and how many inches Sol is from Zeta 2 Reticuli.

So that puts the Zeta 2 Reticuli system 11.33 parsecs from Sol. Now we have both a timespan and a distance. With some simple math, we can determine how far a transmission travels in a day. If a message travels ~11.33 parsecs in 7 days we can determine that it travels about 1.162 parsecs in a day.

11.33 parsecs / 7 days = 1.61 parsecs/day

The game defines the FTL rating of a ship to be how many days a ship takes to travel 1 parsec. A ship with an FTL rating of 2, like a Conestoga frigate, would take about 22 days to transit to LV-426 from Earth. If we reverse our calculation we can determine how many days/parsec a transmission takes.

7 days / 11.33 parsecs = 0.62 days/parsec

So given all of the above information, we can assume communications have an FTL rating somewhere around 0.62. But that's making a bunch of assumptions and it isn't a great number. If we give communications an FTL rating of 0.5 it would take something like 5.7 days to get a transmission from LV-426 to Earth, giving us a roundtrip time of 11.4 days. This leaves about 3 days on Earth for the bureaucrats to decide what to do and respond.

Of course, communication should travel at the speed the game needs it to travel at. I think that is going to generally be longer than intended, leaving the players and their characters isolated for longer. If your players need a believable reason, simply knock out a few of the nodes in the Network and have the message have to route across a few more parsecs of space.

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