Monday, April 17, 2017

RPGs in Space, RPGs and space

What is the allure of gaming in space? For me, it boils down to two things:

1) You can go anywhere. Plans go awry? Just jump to another system and keep going.

2) You have the tech to do anything. Primitives think you're a god, and your wits are what keeps you above technological equals or superior beings.

This is also the allure of good spacefaring fiction. Look at Larry Niven's Known World stories, or Asimov's best tales. Although there are many veins of scifi, endless space is a rich and rewarding one.

Space is not the final frontier, unless you're gaming in the early days of space travel and are limited to one system. Space with a capital S is the endless frontier, the lack of frontier. This is the promise of spacefaring RPGs, yet they all too often hobble the freedom that space gaming should support.

Let's look at the first adventure module for the venerable Star Frontiers. The text starts,

"Welcome to the universe of the STAR FRONTIERS game! You are now a star-rover, one of the lucky few who spend their lives traversing the black void of deep space" (1).

This promise is quickly taken away by a railroad pirate attack with a staged result:

"Instead of landing in a choice site in a fully equipped shuttle, they are crash-landing in the middle of a hostile desert. They are light years from their home planets, with no hope of rescue in the foreseeable future." (7)

 Yes, the game promises, you can go anywhere and do anything. Then the GM is instructed to say but don't do either.

This is a load of bollocks. But Star Frontiers isn't alone.

The first adventure included with Traveler, Mission on Mithril, starts thus:

"Scout Service Starship CentralAxis, on detached duty, stutters out of jump space from Olympia three days late. That sort of delay spells almost deadly disaster to the jump drives of the tiny scout; without repairs, the ship will never jump again." (Mithril, 2)

This despite the text:

"Traveller is an entire universe to be explored" (Core Rules, 7)

Yet again the promise of Space is empty when access to space is denied.

I understand why this was so common. Science based gaming in an endless universe is daunting for the GM, so why not limit it to one locale? This kneejerk reaction is only natural given the dungeon crawling origin of the hobby.

Here's how to avoid this misstep:

1) Always allow access to space. The only times PCs shouldn't have access is when their decisions lead to this. They want to dangerously tinker with engines or start a fight that could take out their jump capability? So be it. But don't foist those constraints on them to further YOUR story. Space tales are about their story in your universe.

2) Always allow access to tech, if PC finances support it. This requires the GM to have a decent grasp of tech and its use and limitations. But remember that the GM has endless resources to throw at PCs (if they ask for it), and that turnabout is fairplay. If PCs use a device in an asymmetrical or novel way to get an advantage from technology, be sure that others in the same universe have as well, and the next NPC can draw from the same bag of tricks. Take note of any unique idea players have and add it to your arsenal.

3) Always remember there are consequences for PC actions. Yes, PCs can jump away from any shitstorm their adventures cause, far from local authorities. Yet science fiction gives us the proper response to this - the bounty hunter. From Star Wars to Cowboy Bebop, bounty hunters are called in when law enforcement fails, and can use any means or measures to bring in fugitives. Enough high-tech hunters on their trail and PCs might prefer surrendering to authorities.

So don't be cowed by the size of space. Read good fiction, get inspired, read the rules, take note of player ingenuity, and follow the PCs wherever they take you. The open minded GM will discover new things about his or her universe that will surprise them and make their job as rewarding as that of the players.


Acres, Marc et al. (1982). SF-0: Crash On Volturnus. 
 Lake Geneva: TSR.

Miller, Marc et al. (1983). "Mission On Mithril." Traveler CT Book Three: Adventures. Bloomington: Game Designer's Workshop.

Miller, Marc et al. (1983). "Mission On Mithril." Traveler CT Book Three: Adventures. Bloomington: Game Designer's Workshop.Core Rules

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