Friday, October 22, 2010

Designing Plausible Spacecraft for Role-Playing Games Part I

  Since I mentioned in my site description that this blog would offer tutorials and advice about spacecraft design, I suppose I better get on with it...and this is a good time, because I'm working on our November release right now and it will make a good example.

  First off, let's be all scientific and define our terms.  While I'm at it, I'll start salting the mine with tasty links and stuff:

  This is where the "Hard" in "Hard Science Fiction" comes from.  People with doctorates in aerospace and nuclear engineering design plausible spacecraft for a living, and I don't.  I do have a scientific background, but its in medicine and biology, not nuts and bolts. 
  But that's okay, because I have the Internet!
  The first and last place a budding rocket designer should go to on the Web is Atomic Rockets.  If this site doesn't have what you need, its linked to a site that does.  If you haven't checked it out already, you really should.  My current work is both inspired and informed by the enormous amount of data collected by Winchell Chung Jr.  But don't take my word for it; make this site your friend.
  If you want to get your fanciful notions about space in the future rudely wiped away (and replaced by something harder, edgier and scarier) then the Rocketpunk Manifesto is a good place to go.  This blog has discussions on midfuture tech and social issues, the plausibility of space colonization, and some of the most definitive discussions of plausible space combat on the Internet.  He uses Atomic Rockets as a reference too, but the blog deals more specifics and has a lot of great back and forth in the comment sections (they're practically a forum).  Worth the mouse click, I assure you.

  This is where I can offer something more than site recommendations.  I have been a gamer for over twenty years now, and I have played everything from Star Wars (D6 and D20) and Traveller to Star Frontiers and Buck Rodgers.  And, naturally, I have designed spaceships for all of them.  Here are a few of the RPG specific pointers I can offer for spacecraft design:

1. What's its function? No, no, not its "real-world" function, its function in a game.  This is as important as defining the mission is to an engineer, as the in-game function will dictate weapons armor, speed, size...uh, everything, really.
  As I see it, spacecraft have three functions in a game: First is the most obvious: Transportation.  The only reason for a spacecraft's existence is to get something from point A to point B.  What and who are important; there is a big difference in the Rebel Blockade Runner transporting a princess and some stolen plans and the Star Destroyer transporting a grumpy cyborg Sith Lord and some really big guns.  As far as greedy players go, they want to travel in something like the Millennium Falcon but are usually lucky if they can afford something like Serenity.  Either way, a ship has to go.
 Second, a spacecraft is also a Location.  Games like D&D are so successful because they have dungeons - specific and separate location to have encounters in.  Players know they need their game faces on as soon as they enter a dungeon; in SF games, Players should feel the same way when entering a rocket.  You never know what you will find inside another ship, and that tension can be both exciting and entirely justified.  In a hard sf campaign, you have as many hazards just being in space as you would find in any trap-filled tomb.  Radiation, decompression, lack of gravity, all of these factors can be used to make challenging encounters out what would on a planet be a milk run.
  Last (and the Player's favorite) is spacecraft as Treasure.  In games that price rockets realistically (say, 8 figures)  this is one of the only ways a PC group will get one that doesn't involve a loan from a twelve-foot- long talking piece of poo.  With that lovely image in mind, some of a game's villains need to be traveling in a ship that a GM wouldn't mind their Players getting their hands on.  No one wants a group of PCs cutting a swath through their campaign in a Kilometer-Long-Planet-Buster-From-Hell.  Or even in a medium-sized pirate ship.  That's why I define for GMs what level of PC would own a specific type of craft and then give them ways to keep the undeserving from breaking the game by stealing it.

2. An RPG Spacecraft Must Look Cool.  If you wanna sell a ship - either to your players or on the open market, it must look cool.  From all sides.  While the design ethic for hard sf should always be "form follows function" That is no excuse for making a dumpy looking rocket.  Take the Discovery I from 2001 (one of the most scientifically accurate movie rockets, even if the science is dated): It is a perfect example of a plausible spacecraft that looks cool.  Is at once both majestic and ominous looking.  In 2010, when the Leonov sends over a crew to open the ghost ship, it looks creepy as hell.  That's good design.

3. The Interior is as Important as the Exterior: Again, the Discovery I  is a good example.  In reality, the two-man crew and rogue AI sat in a 40-foot wide ball the entire trip.  The arraignment of that interior, however, was labyrinthine and had several distinctt areas that made it seem much bigger than it was.  Though not as scientifically accurate, Serenity also is a good example of a cool interior.  There were public areas, private one, and each chamber had its own color scheme that lent it a distinct personality.
  While you're not designing a ship for movies or TV like the examples above, there are some important, "non-functional" design tips for making an exciting vessel interior for RPGs:
* Separate Rooms: You can't have ambushes without having areas that are visually cut off from each other.  This is one of the reasons that fictional spaceships have lots of hallways, when plausible design would dictate few or none.  Alternately, the separate decks and curved corridors of a classic vertical rocket (See the Heinlein in the sidebar) can have the same effect.
* Cool Stuff:  This sounds obvious but its for more than eye candy; the more imagery a GM can use in a description, the more colored maps they have at their disposal, the easier it is to keep Players engaged and on task.  So add lockers, robots strolling the halls, multi-layered holographic displays, glove boxes with mechanical waldos - let your imagination roam.
* Treasure! Its a game location, right?  You gotta give the Players a reason to keep going deeper into the abyss, and that mad Cheddar is the old reliable standby.  This is not usually money in sf; supplies are just as valuable if you think about it, and often more exciting as well.  Real-world pirates, for example, would raid a booty ship's medicine chest and food stores before they'd start unloading treasure.  They also valued new weapons and powder magazines highly.  Any space worthy craft is gonna be loaded with the stuff the PCs spacecraft needs to stay up and running, be it fuel air, spare parts...practically anything can be treasure.
  Also, rockets (especially tail-landers) can be set up to provide PCs with "safe zones" to rest and resupply in.  Using the Heinlein  again as an example, There are EVA rooms in the nose and the middle of the fuselage.  Besides the logical functionality of the design, this puts a set of rooms in the middle of the ship that have spacesuits, air, power supplies and gas-tight doors.  A party of PCs can, if they are hurting, duck into one, seal the door and stock up.  They can even leave the ship.  In addition, the Keel segment on each deck there are emergency food, medical and damage control supplies.  Not only is this good sense for the rocket's "real-world" mission, but it makes for much treasure, much re-stock for PCs and also a way for hostiles to stay hostile for as long as possible.

That does it for today's discussion.  We'll start putting some of these principles into practice Monday.


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