Kapcon registration has gone live, so I will do another post on progress with the Colossus of Atlantis meagagme soon. In the meantime, here are my musings on running a SF campaign next year, based on an email I sent out to my current play group.
Feedback I have on what my players want in an SF game:
the current campaign’s episodic/story arc structure seems to work well
party should have access to a ship, not be stuck on a station or planet
a mix of aliens is okay
posthuman/transhuman elements are worth a look.
I was recommended to watch Dark Matter (party wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, the ship has a cargo of weapons and some locked doors) and the Expanse (for a greater dose of realism in space). My recommended reading to my players was Altered Carbon (FTL is only possible via uploaded minds, central protagonist is an Envoy, a type of troubleshooter trained to use whatever tools are available to solve problems). Other media recommendations are most welcome. The title of the post is from a line in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My current go to place for insight on spaceships and SF tropes is the Atomic Rockets website.
Past feedback was that some of my players would prefer not to use a D100 system in the next campaign (so that rules out Eclipse Phase, River of Heaven, Revolution D100 or M-Space). One issue identified was never actually feeling like your characters were competent, or not being able to judge your relative competency against opponents, which was really brought home by watching how an 80% Endurance skill meant next to nothing if the blow taking you down was a critical hit (you had to both roll a critical yourself, and have it exceed your foe’s roll, so that 80% baseline skill might only end up with a 3% chance of success). I have also found a few elements of the RQ6/Mythras system to be fiddly (adjusting skill chance by dividing/multiplying skill level, a lot of die rolls lead to boring outcomes, and choosing combat effects after the skill roll is made is an immersion crushing waste of time). I do have some ideas to retool D100, but that would take some work.
I have backed, but not yet received a few SF kickstarters, which might arrive early next year:
Bulldogs! (Fate based courier missions/salvage teams)
Mindjammer (Traveller based agents for the Culture-like Commonality in a universe where thousands of years of STL colonisation happened, and FTL is only a few centuries old)
Coriolis (Firefly meets Arabian nights, with mysticism in the dark voids of space)
SF ports of Blades in the Dark (Apocalypse World derived system that is probably the most mind bending system I have read in the last year or two)
I have a few other SF games lying around, mostly in PDF format:
Firefly (Cortex+ dice pool system)
Edge of Empire (Star Wars dice pool system)
Stars Without Number (old D&D in space)
Strontium Dog (Traveller, focus on mutations and bounty hunting)
Nova Praxis (Fate)
Cepheus (OSR Traveller clone)
Fading Suns (D20 decadent nobles in a declining empire)
Rocket Age (retro 30s pulp)
Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds, near future with Cthulhu)
Numenera (Cypher D20 system)
Night Witches (okay its a WWII game powered by the Apoclaypse, but on reading it I thought its completely adaptable to a SF game where everyone is a fighter pilot on the losing side of the Great Patriotic Space War)
The problem with nearly every SF game that tries to handle transhumanism, is that there is lots of paperwork when shifting bodies, and its pointless to spend character generation resources on physical attributes, when you can buy better in-game. As such I don’t think any first generation lineage game engine can cut it. Eclipse Phase is weirdly over complicated for what it tries to do. Zak Sabbath had a simpler OSR take on this issue.
I lean towards something more descriptive, like Cortex+ or Fate, but that means buying into the abstractness of plot point meta currency systems, and being in tune with not trying to track every last plasma round and credit chip. The alternative is to drop the mind uploading/body hopping aspects of transhumanism. If I did that, then I might build the combat engine around fighting to the point where the PCs combat armour is knocked out, rather than fighting to the point where carbonised brains splatter the bulkheads. At which point why not go full Mecha?
None of the Apocalypse World hacks for SF look like a finished product to me.
So far I am not sold on any particular game engine – more suggestions are welcome. Systems I have not looked at much include:
Ashen Stars (Gumshoe variant, good for investigations)
Fragged Empire (creatures created by humans after humanity’s fall)
Polaris (a French game, looks blue)
Corvus Belli Infinity (a 2d20 roll under Target Number game , so I have some familiarity with that from Conan, and its going to be used for the John Carter of Mars game as well).
I am not fond of the level of detail and 3d6 systems used in GURPS/HERO systems. After playing Dragon Age and D20, I am not fond of hit point bloat systems, so while I could retool Fantasy Age into “Space Age”, that would take some work. I don’t see any ports of 13th Age into an SF setting yet either.
Do you have a system recommendation, or preference for one of the above game systems?
The Cold Stars Setting
I am thinking of mixing the following:
Earth colonised by aliens, like the British Raj, there has been some uplift, but much of the alien ways remain incomprehensible
At least one group of aliens has mucked around with humans and enabled psionic powers (its a way to establish character exceptionalism), and the concept of a psionic gestalt could provide another reason for why the PCs are in a party together
Several powerful alien races, and an ongoing cold war, and humans can be clients to various alien patrons, so there is background tension, espionage, boundaries that are forbidden to cross, Casablanca zones, and no one wants a war to break out with dinosaur killer level kinetic weapons
FTL: entry into FTL space is easy, the hard part is getting out again – you need to home in on a beacon signal or specific type of variable star signature, before the heat build up inside your ship kills you.
The characters are specialists in dealing with colony worlds where the beacons go dark, so they have a good ship and a job that gets them into trouble. They also have a license that keeps all of their high tech equipment functional, but if they go dark themselves, then it all stops working four weeks later when it realises it has not received the latest security update.
Humanity’s final fate (these days its likely to be some kind of singularity ascendance, in the old days it was white togas and flared shoulders for everybody).
The key insight here, is that most visions of the future recycle the past. Not every SF work follows this pattern. In Andre Norton’s “Star Guard“, humans are only allowed off Earth to act as mercenaries for other aliens, and this occurs in quite a few other series, such as Jerry Purnelle’s “Janissaries” books. In The Course of Empire, by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, humans are sepoy soldiers for aliens who have conquered Earth. Which is getting closer to what I want for a setting I think.
The Raj Pattern
The Raj Pattern for Sci-fi could be summarised as:
Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
The real alien government turns up and implements direct rule, while still trying to help the poor primitive apes to ascend the ladder of civilisation
The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
In terms of how it relates to PCs, its the value/loyalty choice in step seven. At any other point of the cycle prior to that, the smart money is on the aliens.
I am thinking that a lifepath character generation system makes some sense, if it gets player engagement with the setting. Traveller used to have as a feature death in character generation. In a Transhuman setting, you could have a conflict that causes players to roll 1d10 to see how many times their character was KIA and restored from backup.
I found a few blog posts on espionage in SF. Sadly the series does not seem to have been concluded. Its key points:
spy stories are about tension, in particular, they are about middle class apprehensions, the current threats to personal comfort
part of the tension comes from familiarity with the world – and SF worlds will inherently be unfamiliar (even if they do adopt the Consensus Cosmogony)
there are two strategies for coping with this:
stress glamorous, exotic locales, so in SF, ham up the alien and the weird
focus on quotidian elements, so in SF, keep it human and current tech
using technological Macguffins leads you into Technothriller territory (which tend to be more black/white morality than the grey quotidian novels which draw on the threat of betrayal to ramp up tension)
in speculative fiction, “while the underlying themes may get representation in the narrative’s plot, it is harder to overlay those themes onto our real world because their relationship to our world is more oblique”
I did a search for Cold War rpgs a while back, and found a few – most of which had an occult focus with the Cthulhu Mythos or similar. I suspect its harder to do the betrayal theme in a long running campaign with the 4-6 players you usually have in a tabletop campaign. If a Firefly game can be summarised as “get a job, stay flying”, then an espionage focused Cold Stars game could be described as “find a secret, stay alive”.
Being old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall come down, just in time for my end of year Political Science exam on the Cold War, I can remember the fear of nuclear war. Its abated today, and shifted to the rogue state. So in an rpg reflecting modern fears, its not so much the alien invasion, its the one shot dinosaur killer strike from a splinter faction or rogue captain with a ship and an FTL drive (which is the key problem with reactionless drives, every merchant captain controls a world killer).
A thought a had a while back, to represent this tension, is to just ask the players if the world ends in fire at the end of every game session., if any of the players says ‘yes”, then the campaign is over. Time to move on to a post-apocalyptic game?
Technology in the Future
Currently on Earth, technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. It is increasingly difficult, even for experts, to remain on top of this change. This makes SF games date quickly. It also means that any single person trying to figure out how people will behave and what physical items will look like in the future has some problems. I have a few present-day topics that I want to explore:
the shared economy
One reason to have aliens in the setting is to create an “upper class” that human characters can never truly be part of. I have a couple of different ideas for implementing this mechanically in the game. One is to have the players roll dice to see which one of them has a privileged background. That character starts with property and cash. All the other characters start in debt. Another is to invert the benefit table from Traveller, with each term of service prior to start of play leading your character ever deeper into debt.
The future of warfare is likely to involve human-machine teams, where the sharp end of conflict is conducted at machine speeds. Human decisions remain important for starting and ending conflicts, and for resolving complex situations not anticipated by software. In space warfare, I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be climbing into turrets to shoot at piloted fighter craft in line-of-sight ranges. Machines will do that job better than we can. The important human decision is around hiding, running away, starting the fight, or trying to surrender before the ship explodes. In other fields, I think close quarters urban fighting is likely to remain a human skill set, but everyone will be using drones to make their perception checks, and calling in precise-strikes from networked assets.
One idea I had for implementing automation in combat is to make the PCs make a survival check in each round of combat. The PC with the worst roll takes one point of damage per combat round, e.g. in round three they take three points of damage. If you can’t win quickly and break the enemy’s lock on your location, you need to run before the rest of the drone swarm turns up. At any rate, I think SF games need to move beyond replicating World War II or Vietnam in space.
I had this idea of disposable spaceships. Order it, a 3-D printer makes it, its engines are good for a few jumps, then you recycle it when you dock because that is cheaper than paying the docking fees for three days. Amusing, but I suspect players prefer a more permanent home. It would be a universe where you only own what you choose to carry. Escalated to a mass scale, it gets you lots of small starter colonies that no longer have functioning spaceships, and are always interested in imports of up to date printing templates and OEM printer gunk.
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to EFF.org to try and stop this from happening). While there will always be work for humans, the amount of work that will propel people into the property owning class will diminish. Everyone else will end up using major items on a time share basis, with no true ownership.
What the characters spend their time on is pretty important, as different games will vary the emphasis on:
trading, aka spreadsheets in space
movement between points in space, is it routine or risky
fine tuning gear, aka more spreadsheets in space
relationships between characters, love and hate in a tin can
character archetypes – broad roles and competencies
character skills – specific competencies, less niche protection
old school character attributes (strength, charisma etc)
character values – passions, drives, triggers.
I asked my players what they preferred to do in games. For the most part my campaigns have been old school (there have been dungeons, monsters and loot) with the addition of lots of social action with NPCs and grey morality – hopefully giving the players meaningful choices about who their friends and enemies are, and whether they are heroes or “the baddies”. I am still thinking a lot about what the core character activities in a Cold War in Space game should be.
EP is a lovely setting but we ended up ignoring most of the rules at the table after not many sessions at all – in a game with competent and well-connected transhumanist PCs then most of your game’s going to be information collecting and deciding what to do, and less actually figuring out whether you manage it.
Making bodyswapping fiddly mechanically discouraged players doing it which kind of sucked in a game about bodyswapping.
I was pretty satisfied with Mongoose Traveller while playing it – a few nice things:
* its lifepath chargen has a nice effect where you roll random events for each term and tie those events into other PCs, producing PCs who have met each other in the past and share a history and have a reason to work together. Hamish’s Sprawl has a nice spin on this where you each detail a previous mission you went on and another player who was involved, but that player decides which *side* they were on…
* acquiring ship share during chargen (like you might have 5% of a ship) setting your group up with a massive debt for the rest of the ship, which is very motivating.
* flat skills and hardly any mechanical advancement means you mostly start at the peak of your abilities, and your progress is entirely in gear / contacts / chipping away at obligations, which is very refreshing compared to skill improvement.
Following on from your combat discussion, I think that one of the problems SF games have with combat rules in general is that in a RPG you kind of expect combat rules to be tuned to be tactically interesting for players to engage with – but that starts to feel really wrong with guns in play. D&D characters winning every swordfight feels plausible but SF characters getting into a lot of gunfights feel like they should end up with a lot of random deaders. It feels like gunfights should be the high-variance option, where
One point I saw raised on Traveller experience, was that knowledge/secrets were a form of progression. I should check my downalods and see if I have a draft of Mindjammer Traveller yet.
More lethal combats can be incorporated, if you have backup bodies.
…and the answer is that the Thoughtcast edition of Mindjammer Traveller should be about ready any day now. I did get a look at the PC generation process, and it had longevity rolls that aged people 50 years when successful, and four years on a failure. Sounds promising.
If you’re fine with PbtA, there’s a specific Space Opera version, “Uncharted Worlds”. Though its deliberately un-crunchy around combat, using single-roll resolution per threat (so e.g. your bad-ass assassin can take down the group of escorting guards – as happens in all the genre material).
Disclosure: I publish stuff for this.
I saw your name on a supplement for it. After reading some reviews, my conclusion was that I didn’t think UW would scratch my particular gaming itch. My players are more traditional in tastes, and the love and hate in a tin can that UW looks like is its major focus is not their kettle of space pirates.