Friday, May 27, 2016

5 Ways you can Add Factions to your Starship Campaign

     And now for something completely different, an article that is actually on Science Fiction Gaming!

     One of my dreams is to be able to run a mega-dungeon based on a gigantic starship, such as the classic mile-long dreadnought .  The allure is obvious - Starships are inherently awesome, and mega-dungeons IN SPAAACE! are even more so.  What's not to love, right?

     In practice, running an adventure that takes place inside a starship for more than a session or to can get monotonous in a hurry.  There are many reasons for this.  The compartments can be too similar to provide exciting exploration, for one thing.  A look at the standing set for the original starship Enterprise is a perfect example - the entire ship could shown by building a single stateroom, corridor, and briefing room. Another problem with Starship-as-Dungeon is the enemy-to-ally ratio.  Basically, either you're an invading force on the ship, in which case everyone is against you, or you're part of the ship's crew, in which case everyone is on your side.  Many of the classic scenarios for big-ship dungeon crawls involve boarding actions, with results ranging from the heroically unrealistic to the suicidally plausible.  And neither add that secret ingredient to the dungeon that spices up multi-session play:  Factions.

     From the Caves of Chaos in one of the earliest B/X modules to the most recent mega-delves of the OSR, big dungeons have multiple factions for the players to interact with.  These faction are often uneasy allies at best, and openly at war often enough for enterprising parties to pit against one another.  the concept of factions breathes life into a dungeon by introducing multiple agendas, points of view, and - most importantly - multiple varieties of reactions to strangers.

An example:  Say you're playing a fantasy game and are ass-deep in some dungeon and run into a pair of Orcs.  If you're playing in a dynamic setting with multiple factions you don't know what the Orcs will do. Sure, they'll probably attack, but it's possible you can bargain with them, bribe them, trade with them make a deal to gang up on the Drow in the next level - much, much more than just hit-with-sword and repeat.  When you run into a pair of Stormtroopers on Deck forty-seven, they will probably react the same way as the troopers on deck twelve.

For obvious reasons...

    With all this in mind, I have assembled a list of five suggestions to add extra factions to an otherwise monotonous starship crawl:

How much extra duty for beating the XO at craps?
1. "Criminal" Elements: This could be as benign as a floating craps game played by lowly ratings, to the production of engine room hooch, to the guy on deck nine that can get anything you need, even after months in space.  This faction is not anti-establishment per se, but  they are motivated by a strong desire to not get caught, and this can be use to a party's advantage.  The criminal element are also useful for getting one's hands on illicit items - anything form pin-up holos to the contents of the captain's safe, depending on how corrupt the system is.  Likewise, the criminal element may be restricted to that one rating that get busted down to able spacer for smuggling contraband every time they get a promotion , to the ships supply officer, to the CO.

Clockwise from top: plain-crazy actor, diplomat/assassin,
military-hating scientist family member, military-hating scientist
space hippy, and rescued con-man.
2. Passengers: Star Trek has used this faction to great effect since the first season of the Original series.  Actors, foreign dignitaries, scientist that despise the military, and space hippies all give GMs an opportunity to introduce conflict on their otherwise well running starships. Such visitors outside of the chain of command allow for interactions not normally permitted in military or quasi-military organizations, namely fraternization.  If your party is more into violence than sex, the introduction of any unknown group allows for the injection of spies, saboteurs, assassins and the just plain crazy.  Family members of the crew - especially PCs, make for interesting visitors.  Finally, rescued spacers have any of a number of different backgrounds, from honest folks to con men.  The nice thing about bringing groups of new people aboard your ship is that the PCs never know what they're going to get.  The disadvantage is that the PCs will automatically assume - quite reasonably - that the new people are where the plot/adventure is. 

Pictured:  The Death Star's
Political Officer
3. The Political Officer:  The Political Officer is a real-world crew position used in the naval forces of totalitarian forces to insure that the military is firmly under civilian control.  They make sure that the captain toes the party line, the officers are shining examples of party orthodoxy, and the crew isn't poisoned by such toxic memes as "sense of adventure" and "fun".  Obviously, the Political Officer is almost universally hated by all aboard.  Many depictions of Polits show the frustration of Naval personnel with advanced tactical training having to justify their actions to a bureaucrat with little or no military training.  This is not always the case, however.
    The advantage of there being a Political Officer on a ship you're infiltrating is that pretty much everyone hate them, from the Captain on down. Their fear of the Political Officer is probably strong enough to counteract that hate.  A well connected Political Officer can have you arrested court-marshaled, imprisoned, executed, and could even go after your family.  The biggest obstacle for a party when faced with a Political Officer is that they are pretty much exactly the people the Polit is trying to ferret out.  They are as a general rule as suspicious as they are arrogant, and when you have one like the guy on the left, they may be able to read the treason in your mind.

4.Mutineers: This is arguably the easiest way to introduce different factions into a starship-based campaign, because it...introduces factions into a starship.  It kinda really is that simple - a faction of the crew, often led by a senior officer but not always, is engaged in a conspiracy to take over the ship.  They may wish to kill or maroon the loyalists, they may be switching side in a civil war, taking sides in a coup, or turning pirate or privateer.       Campaigns have already been built out of the idea of having mutineers aboard ship, but the sheer variety of ways you can use this idea in new ways warrants inclusion on this list.  For example, what if a part of the crew were possessed by alien parasites? A religious conversion of a senior officer to a sect that is against the established political system could lead to a mutiny.  The instability of the commanding officer, who is a high-ranking noble, could require drastic measure to contain.  I could go on, but I'm sure all of you could too.  A mutiny could lead the ship dead in space, unable to call for help - and then the game become one of survival as the warring factions fight over the engineers need to repair the ship, even going so far was to kill them and sabotage the repairs in order to prevent the vessel from falling into the wrong hands.
     One final thought about mutinies.  In setting where many if not most of the crew are conscripts, expect a third faction of spacers who will sit out the mutiny, waiting to see who prevails.  While they may not enjoy life in the Navy, the punishment for mutiny - death - is enough of a deterrent to prevent many from joining the mutineers.  Getting the support of this "swing vote" could be the key to a mutiny's success or failure.

Pictured right:  Admiral Rittenh -uh, Marcus
5. Coup: Our final way of adding new and interesting factions into a starship-based campaign is to stage a coup.  Similar to the mutiny, a coup is when the ship's commander, or someone possibly higher up, decides to overthrow the entire government or possibly strike out on their own to form a new star nation with a sizable portion of the Fleet.  Realistically, a military junta taking over a civilian government is the number one danger facing most nations with a strong military in the world today.  Unlike mutinies, which are often bottom-up affairs, many of which are spontaneous, a coup attempt is usually the result of long term conspiracy and is instigated be senior and command officers.  These officers have an advantage on their assigned ships - being in charge, their orders are often unquestioned and their rank affords a level of privacy that crew do not enjoy.
    An excellent example of the coup used in a science fiction setting is the Star Trek novel Dreadnaut! In this novel, Starfleet Admiral Rittenhouse is in charge of the construction of the titular ship class, which he and a small fleet of co-conspirators intend to use to start a war with the Klingon Empire and take control of the Federation "for the duration of the emergency". If this sounds familiar, it was shameless ripped off to for half of the Frankenstein plot of Star Trek: Into Darkness. The movie borrowed so heavily form the novel, that the crew of the USS Vengence even have their own uniforms instead of Starfleet ones, just like in the book.
     Don't get me started.

     While it is certainly possible to run a mega-dungeon in an O'Neil Cylinder or a large passenger ship (I'll cover both in a future post).  Not all of us want that.  For myself, I wanna run a campaign in an actual, military starship, the bigger the better.  I have plans on how to map one, and I intend to map smaller capital ships as well.  It's been an axiom of strategic thinking since the dawn of dawning that knowing your terrain is key to victory.  That's one of the reasons why I want to see starships become more than plot devices or abstract locations.  I want to see them become more real. See them come alive.

      Anyway, RocketFans, I hope you enjoys this list, and I look foward to writing more game-based articles in the future.  Enjoy!



  1. Nice article, especially enjoyed the Political Officer. :)


  2. Good call on Dreadnought! I did feel the plot was just a bit similar. This is all good stuff. I'm glad a friend pointed out your blog to me!


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