Saturday, June 4, 2016

5 Classic Types of Starship-Based Campaigns

     I meant to get to this post earlier in the week, RocketFans, but life happened.  All over the closet next to the master bath.  More I will not say...
    Anyway, last time we discussed gaming on spaceships, we listed five ways to add factions to a starship-based campaign.  Belatedly, I realized that we haven't actually discussed the ways to actually run a starship-based campaign.  Or what that even means.  So, to begin this article, I will provide my own personal, open-to-debate, by no means official set of guidelines on what is and is not a starship-based campaign.
   First of all, IT SHOULD BE SET ALMOST ENTIRELY ON SPACECRAFT.  This sounds obvious, but in fact it is easy to mistake a setting that uses spaceships extensively as one for a spaceship-based campaign.  For example, and it took me years to figure this out, Star Wars as seen in the movies, is not a setting for spaceship-based campaigns.  Yes, there are spaceships, and yes, they are among the most iconic in science fiction and yes, there are cool space fighters and mile-long dreadnoughts and space stations that are not moons.
Top: Space.
Bottom: Not space.
       But how much time do the heroes spend on a ship, verses the amount time on a planet?
     Think about it - among all seven of the movies, most of the time spent was on planets.  Spaceships were plot devices, not environments to explore.  While one could argue that the fights on the Death Stars and Cloud City were spacecraft-centric, I disagree.  The scenes on Starkiller Base in Episode VII demonstrate that the Death Star scenes could have been easily done on a planet with no loss of flavor.  Cloud city and Couruscant are also interchangeable, as far as flavor goes.  That's part of the point - it shouldn't just feel like a spacecraft, it should function like one in ways unique to spacecraft.
This is shown well on the TV series Babylon 5.  What makes the eponymous station a spacecraft and not just a frontier town in space is the preoccupation with life support, the attention to things like gravity.  Another excellent example, The Expanse, takes this up to eleven by showing the Coriolis forces involved in spin habitats.  
Top: Kansas
Bottom: Not Kansas
      Second of all, IT SHOULD BE A CAMPAIGN, NOT JUST AN ADVENTURE. Even if you argue that the Death Star counts as a spaceship- based adventure, it's still not a campaign.  An adventure, depending on the amount of time you spend at the table, will take at most two or three sessions.  A single Star Wars movie is an adventure.  And we all know that only the second act of the original movie was spent on the Death Star.  If you were playing Imperial troops that were stationed on the Death Star and helped build it (or just did sanitation), then you would have a spacecraft-based campaign.  But not a Star Wars movie.
     Thirdly, I MEAN A BALANCED CAMPAIGN, NOT JUST CONSTANT SPACE COMBAT.  There is a difference between a role-playing game campaign and a wargame campaign.  You could easily play in nothing but starships if your game of choice is Starfleet Battles or Attack Vector: Tactical.   Role-playing games, as the name implies, involve incidences of role-playing.  Also, exploration, player cooperation, problem solving, and the like.  You can easily, for example, run a mystery adventure in an RPG campaign based on a starship - look at the first season of TOS Star Trek.  You could not do the same with a handful of ship miniatures and stat cards.
     To more easily and thoroughly demonstrate what is or is not a starship-based campaign, Let us assemble our list of five classic types of starship-based campaigns.

1. Planet of the Week: This is one of the earliest examples of the spaceship-based campaign. We see it in television, at it's best, in Star Trek and it's spin-off series. The Players are part of the crew of a spaceship that travels to new and exciting places every adventure, where they will explore, solve problems or mysteries, or just shoot aliens and take their stuff. Any Star Trek licensed RPG is perfect for this, for obvious reasons, as are OSR hacks such as Starships & Spacemen and Five-Year Mission for White Star. But we see this style of game in other places as well - notably, Classic Traveller's adventure, Leviathan.
To be honest, this type of campaign kinda skirts the edge of what I'd call starship-based. Technically, if we're looking for the Dungeon - that metaphorical play environment where dice and hit points happen at the heart of any game based off D&D - then the "Dungeon" is space itself, because that's where the XP is. The spaceship is more like the town a D&D party goes to at the end of the adventure to rest, heal and get new equipment. This does not mean you can't have adventures on your own ship, but they tend to be roleplay-driven and hardly involve combat. After all, you can't have your cruiser invaded by bad guys every week.

2. The Rag-Tag Fleet: In this scenario, the players are part of a large fleet of spacecraft of many different types, travelling from point A to B, on a trip that will take most if not all of the campaign. That's really all you have to have for this kind of campaign, but there is so much you can do with this framework.
The phrase "rag-tag fleet" comes from the Ur-example of this type of campaign, Battlestar Galactica. The set up of this show, either version, is nearly perfect for the purposes of making a campaign setting. You have hundreds of different ships. You can't go anywhere but one of thise ships, and the ships are full of pretty much any kind of person you could imagine. In BSG they showed the fithy rich hoarding supplies while refugees starved below decks, prostitutes trapped on ships with puritans, crime syndicates taking over flotillas in the fleet and engaging human trafficing, enemy spies, terrorists, political rivals, military rivals - there really isn't much that they didn't cover on BSG. But the "fugitive fleet" isn't the only way to use this framework. Merchant convoys, colonial wagon trains to the stars, or collections of asteroid outpost a billion miles from anywhere are all valid. The basic thing to remember is that the Dungeon is the fleet itself - and it's a Megadungeon. I mean this in the strictest of terms; It has virtually endless new areas to explore, it is intended to be the sole gaming environment for a campaign, the number of players and their level is not restricted, and areas that have been cleared of threats will fill right back up. Best part? I get to map dozens of different spaceships.

3. Casablanca IN SPAAAACE!: The inversion of Planet-of-the-Week, this scenario has the players living on or crewing a large space station, and the adventure coming to them. Examples include the obvious, such as Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There are also not-so-obvious settings that use this trope. From Star Trek's original series, there was Deep Space Station K-7, where a variety of shady characters came and went bearing Tribbles. Vangard Station, from the Trek novel series of the same name is an even better example. If you wanted to set such a campaign in a galaxy far, far, away, you could have a Cloud City type of space station.
Not, however, the Death Star. Despite the moon-sized volume available to set the mother of all Megadungeons, DS-1 and 2 are monotonous, homogeneous, and and as exotic as an Ikea catalog. To be a Casablanca in space, you need to have a preferably neutral location, politically, where sworn enemies can mingle under the banner of truce, spies can spy, smugglers can smuggle, and the station personnel are more concerned with maintaining life-support and the sudden appearance of holes in the hull than they are with micro-regulating every aspect of a stationer's life. Even so, those that like their science like they like their cider may add such things as air taxes, and the spacing of squatters. Whatever details of the setting are decided upon, the amount of exotic variety and laxity in law enforcement are more important than the physical size of the Station.  That being said, the Space Station is your Dungeon, so making it a Megadungeon will keep it from becoming stale.

4. Star-Wrecks & Scavengers: One of the advantages of this type of campaign is that you need not set it in space to have the action available set on a spaceship.    This scenario - exemplified by the planet Jakku in The Force Awakens - has a large starship or fleet of same laied up on the surface of a planet or floating in space and non-functional.  The wreaks are crawling with scavengers, illegal salvage operations, homeless squatters, and feral animals.  And that's just the new people.
     The idea of dungeon crawling a mile-long dreadnought is an old one as far as RPGs go.  It was first featured, as far as I know, in the OD&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.   But admit it, the scenes in Episode VII make for the coolest images of this style of campaign.
     The Dungeon in this type of campaign is, obviously, the wrecked starships.  This gives one the ability to explore a Star Destroyer or Battlestar without all those rude stormtroopers or nasty colonials getting in the way of your fun.  It also offers challenges in the way of uneven/hazardous terrain, locked doors, puzzles and malfunctioning equipment, and lots and LOTS of treasure.  But perhaps the biggest draw of using a scavenger type starship-based campaign is that it is easiest type of SF game for traditional fantasy gamers to transition into.  Other than the window dressing and some of the obstacles unique to the environment.  It can be used as just another type of dungeon with elves and orcs,or one with SF characters, or both. It works in any combination, that's the point, so have fun storming the castle starship!

5. Medieval O'Neil: Our final type of classic starship-based campaign is a classic of science fiction, science speculation, and possibly science fact.  The players are the descendants of the original crew on a generation ship bound for parts unknown. The populous of the gigantic starship have, through disaster or calamity lost the knowledge of how to use their technology, repair their starship, or that they are even on a starship.
     This type of story has not only been told everywhere from Heinlein's Orphans in the Sky To the original series of Star Trek, it's the premise of entire games - not just campaigns.  TSR's Metamorphosis Alpha is based on a Medieval O'Neil, as is the brilliantly twisted Axis Mundi.
     In addition to its popularity in fiction, generation ships pose a legitimate concern for the planners of interstellar missions and explorations.  Moral conundrums include everything from dooming  your descendants to being born, growing old and dying on a starship, to the tragic consequences of the 3-generation rule. 
     Keep in mind, those are just the obvious type generation-ship-gone-wrong scenarios.  There are other ways portray a starship full of people that forgot where they were going.  Just look at the society of pampered lotus-eaters in the Pixar classic WALL-E.  Between you an me, I think I'd like to play a robot more than one of the doughboys-and-girls among the crew...
     Anyway, the colony ship is the Dungeon in this type of scenario, obviously.  How "dungeony" it is depends on how low-tech you want your players to be.  The idea of a pre-industrial regression among the crew's descendants has its appeal, but not if the ship's rogue AI is has access to sentry turrets or can turn harvester mecha into meat grinders.  A GM must also decide if fantasy elements will be present, such as psionics, out and out magic, or space-eleves.  

     The above five examples of starship-based campaigns are listed here as reletively "pure" scenarios, with little overlap.  The truth is, however, that there can be a lot of overlap between these classic campaigns.  Star Trek has used every item on this list in at least one episode or another, BSG has it's share of planet-of-the-week explorations, and Babylon 5 had lots of other spacecraft coming and going for players to crew.   You could even conceivably make a campaign featuring all five.  In fact, next time on on this blog, I'll be doing just that - introducing a campaign idea that has elements of all of the above types of starship-based campaigns.  See you then!

P.S.: Out latest offering, Species Spotlight: Myrmidoni is just about wrapped up.  It should be available for sale Monday, barring any unforeseen problems.


  1. I thinking there is also room for the "Rogue Ship in a Hostile Universe" setting. In TV shows alone there is Land of the Giants, Lost in Space, Blake's 7, Firefly, and others that I am less familiar with. All of these have a bit of Planet of the Week in them, but the balance of power is decidedly against the heroes.

  2. That is true; Firefly and Lost in Space were both runners up for this list. Indeed, you could run the Leviathan adventure in a -03 Firefly if you wanted to. Ultimately, I though that the balance of adventure was a little too much off-ship to qualify. They are all totally space-based campaigns, but not spaceSHIP-based campaign. Still that just my opinion, and your mileage may vary.

  3. One trope that you might consider is that the ship is the dungeon... literally. The ship is controlled by a malevolent AI, invaded by something and turned against the crew. Something like Event Horizon or even Alien to an extent. The ship is the setting, with stuff to aquire, areas to defend, etc. But there's no way out, except to win.

    1. That is the main premise of Axis Mundi, which I mentioned in the "Medieval O'Neil" category. That being said, Event Horizon scenarios - where the ship is beset by supernatural forces - is definitely a terrifying and fun campaign idea. The Dark Heart of Space scenario in the D20 Future book or Hulks and Horrors would be perfect for those kinds of campaigns.

  4. The Lighthouse for Alternity RPG.
    Most likely inspired by Babylon 5/Deep Space 9 at the time. But with the great twist that it had a stardrive. Less an exploration cruiser, more a traveling city with a trade/diplomatic mission.


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