Roleplaying Ruminations

The Nights Black Agents campaign that I have been running in the Coriolis setting is getting close to its finale. There are just two vampire djinn left to confront, and the party knows where both of them are, so there are perhaps just 3-4 sessions left, barring a TPK in a boss fight. So I am thinking a lot about the next campaign we could play. The stumbling block I keep running into in developing this campaign is partly setting, but mostly system.

While I have purchased and perused more RPG game systems in the last decade than in the previous three decades of gaming, I find that I largely come back to a small number of familiar game engines when I start to turn soft ideas into hard mechanics and future game content. The most frequent game choices are D&D (both 5E and OSR inspired), Basic Roleplaying (Runequest, Calll of Cthulhu), and Traveller (or Stars Without Number), with their respective d20, d100, and 2d6 based mechanics. Because I have internalised these rule sets, I find it easy to think of tweaks to make a game closer to my ideal, where games like Cortex or Genesys would be a lot more work. I seem to flip flop every few days as to which of these I like more. So my hard drive has accumulated several dozen campaign outlines in a partially developed state. Which I don’t mind doing, as it keeps the brain busy in the evenings I am not reading or playing video games.

My players liked the investigative abilities in the GUMSHOE system, they did not like the general ability point spends, so my long awaited copy of Swords of the Serpentine is not going to get immediate use when it lands here.

A new factor that I have run into, is that my players are happy with remote gaming. This is partly driven by the cost of petrol, as well as trepidation about in-person gatherings in a pandemic, which is fair enough. This is a factor which suggests that in terms of system, I should choose a familiar system, so that no one burns energy learning a new game, or a simple system, which takes as little time as possible to resolve scenes. My own proclivity for house rules slightly diminishes the utility of the dedicated online play fora that could speed up some admin and information display stuff. For the most part we make do with Zoom. It also means that a more mission focused setting, as opposed to varieties of sandbox or explorer-crawl play, might be better for play. For one reason or another, our online sessions are usually closer to three hours duration, rather than the four hours in-person pre-pandemic.

So I wrote a few bullet points down in my notebook today to try and do some structured analysis to help with the whole “what next” decision. First, I am arbitrarily going to split the roleplaying campaigns I GM into two broad modes of play:

  1. Picaresque adventures. While random fun stuff happens on the way, in general the player characters are enjoying positive feedback loops and growth in agency within the setting, and power within the game system. D&D is the ur-exemplar for this mode of play.
  2. Horrific experiences. While the grimdark will be relieved by moments of tension breaking humour, in general the player characters are suffering negative feedback loops and diminishing resources. Call of Cthulhu is the ur-exemplar here.

Second, are the two bits of world design that the setting hangs off:

  1. Genre. Partly this is flavour and fluff, but it is a short hand way to communicate to players what the campaign is all about. Just saying “Space Western with Jazz Samurai” or “Firefly meets Arabian Nights” tells you a lot in a few words.
  2. High-concept. I link this to the end goal for the campaign. Its also encompasses the system elements that follow, unless you want a cognitive dissonance game, where the setting says “you should do X” but the mechanics say “you actually do Y”.

Third, is the game system stuff, which again I am going to just divide into two mechanical chunks:

  1. Procedures. These are the nested loops of play in the game, whether its combat, exploration, or inventing new flavours of ice cream.
  2. Characters. These are the vehicles for player agency in the game, with hooks to interact with all the procedures, and links to the setting concept.

For mode of play, given the state of world events, my players have expressed a preference for less grimdark experiences, eg Dark Sun got the hardest hard no for a campaign pitch that I have ever had from a player. So I need to make sure there are hopeful or noblebright elements in the setting, plus some picaresque elemnts.

Genre is something I think we are all flexible on in our group, although modern or recent history settings can have problems, eg anything about the frontiers of the “wild west” that ignores genocide or slavery. We are largely in this for some escapist elfgame fun with old friends.

High concept is going to be fine, as long as I can express it in a good elevator pitch that covers the big three questions (what is it about, how is it about that, and what the heck do the players do with that?). Four ideas that tend to keep recurring for me:

  1. Mass Effect. The party is a special forces team, investigating an ancient mystery, with faction politics chugging away in the background as a potential danger. I could do this in a fantasy setting as easily as a sci-fi setting. Symbaroum could be a good fit here.
  2. Dragon Age Inquisition. The party is a unique snowflake team, investigating a recent mystery (eg death of a VIP), with faction politics as a constant hazard. The Vehmic Court of the Holy Roman Empire is a recurring idea here, with the PCs as members of the secret force for justice against rogue magic users.
  3. Vienna 1946. An ancient city, occupied by the victorious powers of a great war, who are now rivals. The party has a background linked to the defeated power, and try to survive in the city, without getting too entangled in great power politics. Could also be a dieselpunk Shadowrun 1920s.
  4. Casablanca 1942. An ancient city, a neutral outpost of spies and smugglers, where the party have fled as exiles while a great conflict burns in distant lands. The party must engage in local politics in order to survive. Could riff off products like Ptolus or Blight.

The first two concepts can happily borrow from two great video game franchises. I am fairly deft at setting up hub and spoke regions for players to explore, a mini-sandbox within the wider mission framework. The latter two ideas are variants on the Pavis and Big Rubble supplements for Runequest, where a town base is situated immediately adjacent to both a dungeon and a wilderness area. I think the urban fantasy elements are recurring because part of me wants the campaign to settle on one area and focus on it in detail, with less abandoning of a region once all the adventure juice has been sucked dry.

Before getting into some system specific ideas, I did some reflecting on my core traits as a GM. In no particular order:

  • Faustian. I love tempting players with devils bargains. Some of my players like rejecting them. Which is fine. There is always someone willing to take a bite of the apple. I might also be partial to a bit of villainous monologuing.
  • Front-loading. I always do a lot of campaign prep before session zero. Partly because I like a touch of homebrew and houserules, so I need to tell the players that in advance of character generation (because system mastery traps are bad), and partly because I like exploring the logical implications of setting conceits (eg how fast does a flying city need to travel in order to not to run out of food). I could do better for individual session prep, which I rarely spend more than an hour on.
  • Improv. I am good at making stuff up on the spot. I could be a lot better at taking notes about the stuff I make up. This has been reinforced by the longer breaks between game sessions that have been a feature of pandemic life.
  • 2+2 = 4. I love it when the penny drops for one of the players, and in a sudden spark of imagination they connect all the dots that have been present and realise who the real greater scope villain of the setting is.
How many pistols does one hero need? Image from

System, I was going to write more, but I had a conversation with the players, and they chose d100, with the proviso that it not use the action economy or combat effects from Mythras, and that there be a higher rate of experience and character growth than in the Runequest 6 “Tarantium” campaign. More on that in the next post. They also gave me some solid preferences for building the setting:

  • Yes to renaissance. We are still talking about exactly what that means for a non-historical fantasy game.
  • No to steampunk, or Flash Gordon. Which rules out Spelljammer and a bunch of other ideas I was playing with.
  • Yes to ambiguous factions and mission focused play rather than a big sandbox. A while back my players said I shouldn’t try designing all the factions myself, so I hope they are still on board for helping out with that.
  • No to having an explicit big bad.

The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

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.

Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing


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.
A Future History
The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy has future history as a colonisation-empire-collapse pattern, although it assumes that human beings will be doing the colonising. TvTropes also has a standard future history, similar to the above and a standard Sci-Fi setting. The “Consensus Cosmogony” (to use Donald A. Wollheim’s phrase) is as follows:
  1. Exploration and colonisation of the Solar System
  2. World War III
  3. Interstellar exploration and colonisation
  4. First contact with aliens
  5. The cycle of empires
  6. The final empire
  7. 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:
  1. Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
  2. First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
  3. Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
  4. Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
  5. Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
  6. 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
  7. The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
  8. Independence?
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”.
Cold Wars
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:
  • social inequality
  • automation
  • 3-D printing
  • the shared economy
Social Inequality
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.
3-D Printing
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.
Shared Economy
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to 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.