Wednesday, March 9, 2022

More on Anti-Canon: Ways to Imply a Setting

    The other day on Twitter the question was asked: "When world building, what do you start with?"  My answer was probably obvious to anyone who has read my blog.

    I start with a spaceship. I am a spaceship nerd. 

Pictured: My Spirit animal


   Then I start thinking about how it would work, the technology it'd need and what that implies for population and education and what else that technology would be used for beside spaceships and how many people must live in space for spaceships to be this common or rare and how long it'd take to develop that technology -

    Spaceships may operate in a vacuum but they aren't designed, built or maintained in one. Even if they were, every aspect of their being is dependent on a cascade of technological assumptions.  Last week we discussed how this makes designing rules for more than one franchise difficult. This week, we'll take advantage of this to imply setting in an anti-canonical game.

    One idea I'm using to imply my idea of a setting but not making it canon is stolen borrowed once again from Electric Bastionland. A large section of that game involves Failed Careers - what your character was doing before losing it all, getting in debt and becoming a treasure hunter.


What does "Squidbagger" say about a setting?

    I am not including d100 failed careers but I am using a similar concept in Character Pasts.  In our Project NEPTUNE rules set a Character Past will be include a Character card (3x5) a resource card (2.5x3.5 trading card) and condition card (also trading card).  Let's look at one of the cards and see how it helps imply a setting:


Front and back, with room for notches.

      If you'll open the image above and read the card, you'll find quite a bit of implied setting:

  • There's the name itself: This is a setting that includes Earth and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is still a known IP.
  • The setting is Hard SF. FTL = Time travel is the understanding of current physics.  Actually using that as a potential plot point says that implications normally ignored in science fiction will be explored - or at least played with.
  • The setting is going to deal with mental issues. And they are still somewhat stigmatized. False memories, hallucinations, or actual memories?  You get prescription meds either way. 
  • This setting can get dark. Remembering killing someone? Remembering dying? Shrimp are extinct?

     Some of the other Pasts I'm working on include:

  • THE RELATOR: Psychiatrists for Artificial Intelligences.
  • THE CHRONOI: People from Saturn - complete with wind chimes. 
  • SANTA'S HELPER: means the setting has Santa Claus Machines
  • THE WALKER: The Rainbow Road of Mars is marked with the multi-colored spacesuits of those that died walking it.  It's become something of a religion.


   So there are a lot of setting elements here, but only if they interest you.  This is all on a single index card.  Use it if you want and if not, put it back into the stack and forget about it.  And even if you choose to use a Past card, it's not a wall-of-text info-dump because there's a finite amount of space on the card, and that's all I get to sell you on the concept.

    Using spaceships to imply a setting is a bit different.  Space travel and combat is the sin qua non of Project NEPTUNE and the kind of spacecraft available will have an impact that cannot be ignored.  Fortunately, our use of Causal Influence Diagrams let us take the technology of a spaceship can be mixed-and matched to a certain extent. And again, you the tech you don't want to use can go in the stack and be safely ignored.

    I'm not sure if of the reason I feel compelled to use a rule or item that's in a game's rules or setting is because I can see it on the page when I open the book, but the edge-notched card will keep them safely out of sight and out of mind either way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Project NEPTUNE: Making the Procedures Universal

    More than any other genre I'm aware of, Science Fiction is defined by it's technology.  For example, the difference between Clash of the Titans and Lord of the Rings is to my mind less than the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars.  And both of those have almost nothing in common with The Expanse.

    This is relevant to game design because I could run a game set in Middle Earth or Mythic Greece using D&D with no real problems.  I could not run Star Wars using Star Trek RPG rules or vice versa. Warp Drive, Transporters, Lightsabers, The Force - I would spend enough time in conversions from one system to the other that I may as well just get both games.

    While there are more universal SF RPGs out there (and GURPS, of course) this usually puts the problem on the GM.  Systems such as STAR HERO for example make it possible to build virtually anything you can imagine - at the expense of having to build everything you imagine.  This kind of time sink can be more intensive than actually learning multiple game systems and encourage GMs to purchase multiple games.

    I intend to address both problems.

Yes, I know what it means.

    The inspiration for this part of Project NEPTUNE comes from the same place I get most of my inspiration: Winchell Chung's Project Rho.  While most famous among SF aficionados for Atomic Rockets,  Chung's Project Rho has other treasures for those who seek them.  Two of those treasures are going to be the key to making space travel and combat interesting, full of player agency, easy for GMs to prep and run, and useful across multiple franchises.


    Project Rho has a whole section on cool game mechanics that bares careful study. Among them is a single article by Neel Krishnaswami that can, as of 2022, only be found on Project Rho.  I'll give a high pass of what's important for us here, but the full article is excellent and I lament there was no follow up.

    Seriously, go read it.

    The example in the article addresses Star Trek in particular but the core idea applies to any technology. By breaking down a SF tech like warp drive or what have you into individual systems or components, you can build a causal influence diagram that gives the player details that actually matter.  This can be presented as a handout (or card) to the players and used by character to repair tech, work with tech and generally make the tech more real at the table.

    Since I'm working on the idea of Crew as Damage Control, I'm naturally drawn to this notion.

The rules for this -

    What makes this work across multiple franchises is that the procedure of using the Causal Influence Diagram is universal while the tech itself is modular.  For example, If I were playing a Star Trek style game, I'd want a CID of a warp drive.  It would have bubbles like Matter/Antimatter containment, Warp Core, Plasma Conduits and Warp Coils.  My Engineer character would use that to troubleshoot damage and tell the captain that She cannae take much more o' this.

- are the same as the rules for this.
    If I'm playing a smuggler in a Star Wars style game, I'd want my CID to have Hypermatter Coaxium Magic bottles, a Fusion Reactor, Hyperdrive Motivator and Field Guides.  I may not know what any of that stuff means but they're on the diagram and I can use them because the procedure of using the diagram is the same no matter what SF tech I'm modelling.

    So when folks on Twitter ask me if the work I'm doing on space travel and combat can apply to their favorite game, I can say with confidence that yes, yes it will. 

    Using the Analog Database makes this work even better.   Any ship system, from any franchise can not only be diagrammed, but the cards stored in the same stacks and simply filtered by search term.  Packaged and sold individually, a deckof cards inspired by a given franshise could contain the tech, character backgrounds, and unique rules required to fully use the setting without needing an entirely new game.


    I found another article on Project Rho that brings home to me the potential of this idea.  Ron Edward's The Sorcerer's Soul was also praised for it's use of relationship maps.   I got a copy of the book and perused that section - it didn't take me long to realize that Relationship Maps and Causal Influence Diagrams can be considered the same thing.

    So if CIDs can be used for physical objects and networks, and also for social relationships and people, could it also be used for ideas or intellectual pursuits?  Justin Alexander has pretty much proven it can - and provided excellent advice on how to use them as well.

    For me this means that not only can the conflict rules in SACRIFICES be used for physical, mental and social conflicts, CIDs can be used for physical, mental and social networks as well

    The system would be unified across all three attributes - which means it's unified across the entire game.  Across any game I want to make.

Still know what it means.
    More to come next week.


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

SACRIFICES: The Rules System I'm Developing


It can be said that most if not all classic TTPGs are based around resource management.

    The OSR has codified this in the myriad of rules that govern how to die in explore a dungeon. Time, spells, food, arrows - light -  are all limited and requires careful tracking.  Even at individual tables that don't follow Encumbrance rules or and lack magic there are finite resources baked into any game that has combat - hit points.  These may have different names and may drain attributes instead but attributes themselves are a limited resource if your think about it. No matter how your particular game is configured, part of what makes games games is limited resources because that's part of what defines risk.  

"You think you dissect me with this blunt little tool?"

    For the most part games have dealt with physical resources.  Some have attempted to quantify abstracts and mental states with such measures as "willpower" and "sanity" which have are problematic in and of themselves.

    Ive seen a few attempts at expanding what 'Inventory' means, such as in Knave, and Mausritter where spells are on/in individual runestones or grimoires.  These are still a physical items, however.

    What if everything was in Inventory? Not just your stuff, but your friends, your memories - everything?


    In keeping with my commitment to put everything on index cards in an analog database, I've started writing up this rules system with a summary that can fit on a 5x8 inch card:

  • You have three SAVES, MIND, BODY, and SPIRIT.  

  • When you face a choice and have something to lose, you make a SAVING

    THROW.  If you roll under your Save, you succeed.  If you don’t, you face

    the Consequences.

  • You have a number of SLOTS equal to your Save values. The Slots make 

    up an INVENTORY. Each Save has its own Inventory.

  • Inventories hold RESOURCES.  Resources help solve problems, or are 

    good in a Conflict.

  • Empty slots represent INSIGHTS (MIND), ACTIONS (BODY), and FAVORS 


  • Each Save also has a PROTECTION:  MORALE (MIN), DODGE (BOD), and 

    REPutation (SPI).

  • CONFLICTS happen when someone or something opposes you.  

    • A Conflict starts with a BOD Save to avoid Surprise. All opposing 

      parties (not individuals) roll and the lowest roll wins.  If there is a

       tie, no one is surprised and the party with the highest PHY Save 

      goes first.

    • THERE ARE NO TO-HIT ROLLS. Declare your action and roll for the


    • CONSEQUENCES are measured in points.  They subtract from your 

      character’s Protections, then Resources, then Saves in that order. 

  • For each point you lose from a Save, you take a CONDITION.  You must 

    sacrifice one of your Resources for every Condition you take.  Conditions 

    have specific ways they need to be resolved.  Once the condition is 

    resolved, you get the Save point - and the Resource Slot- back.   

  • If ANY of your Saves drop to zero, you’re finished. Whether  BROKEN 

    (MIND) CRIPPLED (BODY), or OSTRACIZED (SPIRIT), you’re adventuring 

    days are over.

    So, yeah.  That's pretty much it.


    Again, this is a basic summary of the entire rules system and is barer than bones.  But I feel like just what I have here implies some of the depth I'm going for. For example:

  • The rules imply equality to physical, psychological, and social conflicts.  They all use the same rules for resolving conflict, and the consequences of any type of conflict can end your adventure.
  • You don't need math to track your inventory - your slots are your slots.  Thanks to using cards, you can physically hold your items, skills, and social contacts - and the rules for using them -  in your hands at the table.
  • Empty slots are still useful and help refine the character.  Fill your body inventory and you're strong, but leave open slots for Actions and you're fast.  Insights would mean your wise, and Favors can be seen as valuing others less for their friendship and more for what they can do for you.
  • Every point of Consequences that causes a stat to drop takes a slot of inventory away, and fills it with a Condition.  If you don't have any empty slots, you'll have to choose one of your Resources to give up until you can resolve the Condition. 

    The system is called SACRIFICES for a reason.

    The resource cards really add to the play experience for me.  Like many Odd hacks, my Conflict system pares back the procedure just to the interesting decisions: Do I fight?  Do I keep fighting?  But the cards-

    There have been studies that show people spend less when paying in cash.  The physical act of handing over money makes people much more mindful of their spending.  By requiring players to actually hand over their Resources when they take a Condition, actually having to choose which of their finite resources to sacrifice, Inventory become a real thing, and the consequences of the players' choice become tangible.

    And that is another part of what makes games games. Meaningful choices that players care about.

 * * *

    We're going to be breaking down and expanding on the ideas in the rules summary in coming weeks, but before that we'll introduce the third pillar of Project NEPTUNE - the one that will allow my work on space travel and combat to be used with multiple systems and franchises.

    Stay tuned.




Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Designing A TTRPG: Format


Improving page layout was a low bar.

   So in mid-1999 my friends and I were talking about making a TTPRG of our own.  I don't know how common that was back then; I knew exactly two people with internet at the time and had never heard of PDFs.  This was to be a printed book and sold in brick and mortar stores.

    I don't know if any of us thought it would actually happen.  But it was fun to imagine.

    The book was going to be beauty, too.  Not a mere hardback tome with glossy pages and color art; this was going to be a book that was actually useful.  Heavy-gauge spiral bound so the pages lay flat.  Hard plastic covers with the game's name embossed. Chapter tabs built in.  A comprehensive index.  A pocket in the front for commonly used tables and one in the back for a dozen blank character sheets.

    We were sweet summer children.  Compared to the play-focused designs of today, our book was hopelessly outclassed.

    That said, we were trying to get away from a trend that was already in full swing in the late nineties and would continue for the next fifteen years. Game books and Adventures weren't made to actually be used in those days - they were made to be read. And they were oftentimes a great read.


  The original post for last week's blog had an entire paragraph on the splat books from the D&D 3.x years.  I still have mine.  Heck, I still read them - they are great inspiration for the imagination. The Stronghold Builder's Guidebook, the Races books - the DMG II has a section on life in a medieval setting that I practically memorized.


    These books weren't inspiring me to, ya know, game.

    If I ever get around to writing fantasy stories, you can bet the D&D 3.x books will be used as reference. But I didn't buy them because I wanted to write.  And they didn't inspire my games very much either.

    Even if they did inspire me to game, most of the books were hard to use at the table.  They required shuffling between stacks of hardbacks, endless page flipping, and even with a DM screen it was hard to get a decent play flow going because magic.


Okay, so the spell casters are in the front of the middle book, the spells are in the back of the middle book, the magic items are in the book on the left, the monsters that cast spells are in the book on the right...

    4th Edition, for all of it's faults, was much easier to use at the table.  But I hadn't seen anything in terms of table utility until I started looking and Indie RPGs.  Mothership. Into the Odd. Maze Rats.


    The Control Panel layout was a revelation.      

    In retrospect, it's such a simple idea: Every double-page spread is devoted to a single subject, and everything about that subject is on the double-page spread.  No flipping to another section, no checking for material in another book. 


    But Ben from Questing Beast made rather fanciful speculation on his blog about layouts that I cannot get out of my head:

"It got me wondering whether you could make an entire RPG in the form of cardstock handouts, somewhere between A4 and A5 sized."

    Could that work?

    Turns out the answer is yes.  Yes it can.

    Not only can that work, cardstock handouts have advantages other formats lack:

  • You don't have to share a book. Heck, there's no book to share!  Information that an individual player needs for their character is available in a single-page format that can used while other players have access to the rest of the cards.
  • Handouts are a solved problem: Adventure maps, as just one example, are no longer bound in the same book that the adventure's less player-facing assets are.  A map can simply be removed from the card stack and placed on the table.  Or an NPC portrait.  There's already an entire game with card-based assets available that has rave reviews. 
  • All assets are modular. References or tables from multiple books become multiple cards - much easier to handle.  The caption from the image above wouldn't exist with cards. Like Ben said, "Player wants to play a wizard? Hand him the card with the magic rules and the card with the spell list."

    These are just a few examples.

    I wondered why there weren't more games using this format until I started to try it out.  Having every rule, map, item and table on individual cards sounds good in theory, but how do you organize everything?  Color codes? Pages of Collectible Card sheets in a ring binder, like Pokemon or Magic Cards?  Utility can exist only if Accessibility is preserved. As annoying as the tables of contents or indices for some RPGs can be, at least the pages didn't change order.

    Fortunately, there is a rather, pardon the pun, old-school technique we can look into.


As I've mentioned once or twice, I'm kinda old.  Not old enough to have used punched-card computers, but I was in collage before card catalogs were phased out.  In high school, when I had to write a term paper, I wasn't forbidden to use Wikipedia as a citation, but I was required to collect and document x number of works cited on 3x5 index cards.

    I mention this because back when people used index cards all the time they still needed a way to organize and search the data thereon.

   Enter the Edge-Notch Card Index.

   I don't recall these from my youth Back In The Day but various systems were still in use in the 1980s and are probably used privately if not commercially today.  

    The principle is fairly simple:  By punching holes in the edge of the cards, you can pick them all up on a rod or wire.  If you notch some of those holes on specific cards, then a rod or wire inserted in a stack of cards will not pick the notched cards up.  They will fall out.  You can double-punch the cards or devise codes for organizing the cards to enable searching by multiple terms or searching more terms than holes or any number of possible variations including using more than one rod in combination with the above methods.

    Here's a video found on Hackaday that demonstrates the system's utility.

    The advantages for organizing a completely card-based TTRPG are many.  Just think of possibilities:

  • The cards are just as searchable out-of-order. As long as they're all right-side up and facing the same way (a problem solved by beveling one corner) the cards are searchable no matter where they are in the stack.  This means that no matter how much you use, reuse or pass the cards around during play, you can just put them all back in the box at the end of the evening and they will be as easy to search and access next time you use them.
  • You can have as many copies of a specific card as you want/need: I'm sure everyone that's played a game has at least once wished you had another copy of the chargen rules. Or the weapons table, or the range chart, et cetera ad nauseum. Now you can, without buying a whole other book.  And you can put the copies in the main stack, anywhere you want, and they'll still be as searchable and accessible as the original.
  • You can add new information and errata without sacrificing accessibility: This alone is worth the cost of admission. With the exception of GURPS No TTRPG I've played included an index in every book or supplement.  Edge Notched cards not only eliminate the separate index, they eliminate the need for a separate index.  You can make a new adventure, a new rule set, additional classes, equipment - what ever you want, and as long as you add the right combination of holes and notches, you can stack them all together in one box. Errata does not require page references and quotations.  Just issue a new card and it can go in the stack to replace the old.
  • The stacks are fractal.  As long as you have a stack with more than one card, you can search that stack using the the system of organization you selected. You can take a huge stack, split it into multiple packets and search those separately.

     Or you can combine stacks or shuffle stacks or anything - that's the genius of the edge-notched cards. As long as you line up the beveled corners, the cards cannot be randomized. You will always be able to find the card you're looking for.

    There's so much potential In these.  A double layer of holes could allow for storing completely different games in the same stack.  If A5 doesn't provide enough space for what you need on a card, you could mirror the bevels, holes and notches top-and-bottom and fold the card in half to make it fit in a stack.  You could make multiple games or multiple categories of cards by varying the size of the cards - instead of DMG, PH and MM, you could have 5x8, 3x5 and 2.5x3.5. 

    Or anything. 

    I'd like to extend a special thank you to Mr. Winchell D. Chung Jr., aka Nyrath the Nearly-Wise.  I first discovered Edge Notched cards on his website Atomic Rockets, along with Nomograms and other goodies.  As I've said before, This website and the Blue Max Studios back catalog would not exist without Mr. Chung and Atomic Rockets.




Wednesday, February 9, 2022

How you Play is What you WIn II: Overruling Over-Rule-ing

    My wife Debra is my favorite gamer.  Obvious and unapologetic bias aside, she makes the best characters.  Once she grasped the rules for multi-classing in D&D 3rd edition (much faster than I did) she never created the same kind of character twice.  She had one, a Bard/Rogue/Fighter/One-of-the-exotic-Prestige-Classes that looked like a half-elf David Bowie and I remember them fondly. 

Half-elf is almost redundant.

    But they were all fun.  Debra played Changelings, Shaman, Classes and Races from obscure 3rd parties books and a few home-brew Races and Classes as well.

    I've mentioned before that one of the reasons I didn't enjoy playing 4th edition D&D was the difficulty in making multi-class or home-brew content.  I felt like we couldn't make the game our own.  With 3rd edition the issues were different:

  • It was hell to prep for. Every monster and NPC used the Player Character format and that format was neither simple nor short.  The stat blocks in the Monster Manual were difficult to use at the table on the fly.
  • Experience.  The XP rules - actually, I don't think I ever used the XP rules.  I just let everyone level up after each session.
  • NPC Spellcasters.  Remember NPCs used PCs format?  So I'd need the MM and DMG and the Player's Handbook unless I wanted to write out every spell discription. 


  These were the obvious issues.  The more insidious issues, the ones I had to have pointed out to me, are the issues implicit in the design.  Skill lists for example.

    Without spending the remainder of this post breaking down the rules for getting skills, increasing skills and using skills, let us focus instead on the affects of having a skill list at all:  

  • A skill list implies that there is a finite number of possible actions.  If as a player you've ever looked at your sheet to see what you can do, you know what I mean. If the system has more skills that favor a certain kind of play (like combat) or forces Players to spend a limited number of points on specific skills to make the character viable, then that is what the game is about. How you Play is What you Win.
  • A skill list implies that you must roll for any action in which there is a skill.  Ever play a modern/near-future campaign and fail a Drive check going to your apartment?
  • A skill list implies your character concepts are limited. This is really bad in systems that have Class-based character builds, with limited lists of skills one can gain without penalty, but it's also present in any system with skill lists.  One of the reasons I'm making Project NEPTUNE is because it's impossible to make a character that's viable in both regular and space combat.  The available skill points are spread too thinly.

    This last point is a particular peeve because it opens up the Munchkin-Min/Max-Can-Of-Worms that is Character Build Optimization.  I personally am not interested in gaming the rules for advantage when rolling dice.  I do not want to make a game that rewards or, if possible, allows that sort of meta-gaming.

    I'm Diabetic - I already can't eat without doing complex math.

Skill Chapters are 26 and 30 pages respectively.


    Years ago now, I read a post from Tales to Astound that has stuck with me ever since.  The TL;DR version is that during a con-game, the author wrote the character generation rules out on-the-fly and included a game gem so lustrous it's stuck with me ever since:

"Give yourself a profession and write that on the top of the card. 
Your character can do all the things that that profession can do. 
Then add three more skills, the things you are really good at, which might tie to your profession or be something else."  

    That. Right. There.  Your character can do all the things that profession can do. 

    That simple sentence implies so much more freedom than the most comprehensive chapter on skills is able to.  Let's unpack it a bit:

  • The less you define a skill list, the more potential a Character has. Say your profession is Butcher.  This immediately conjures up images of someone who is strong and good with knives.  I'd easily believe they are intimidating as well.  But there's so much more - Butchers are business people! They would know about taxes, sales, bookkeeping, and (depending on your setting) how to Drive.
  • You don't have to roll for every action. It's baked in - your Character can do these things.  There's no risk of failure unless there's a special circumstance.
  • An undefined skill list allows for creative interpretation. You can make a case a Butcher would know how to stitch someone up. They work with knives all the time, may not have money for the village barber or may lack health insurance - A case can be made that the particular Butcher you are playing can stitch up a wound.  And if a fellow PC is bleeding out you'd make that case.  Likewise, you could make the case a Butcher that works with the public daily would know how to flirt.  The GM may not agree with either case but the implication of the system is you have permission to try a creative interpretation of your Character.
    Encouraging a character's potential and player's creativity is what I want to win when I play, so you can expect as Project NEPTUNE and other ideas are developed, Skill Lists and their minutia will not be a large part of them.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Crew as Damage Conrol II: Acronyms & Anarchy

    Last week we started to address the problem with space travel and combat in RPGs by addressing the "tactical mini-game" sequence most TTPRGs seem to use.   The reasons for the mini-game approach as I see it are as follows: 

  • First you have the hobby’s wargame origins, which can be exacerbated by RPGs with board game tie-ins. 
  • SF games that are licensed from or inspired by movies and television. These games attempt to model the epic eye-candy of space battles on the macro-scale. 
  • A simulationist approach to the game that requires specialized rules to resolve a spacecraft in a vacuum (or any vehicle) as a different system from characters in a dungeon (or whatever).
    I have a hard time avoiding those last two as I am very much inspired by SF media and am a spaceship nerd that wants to show off.  I resist these urges by keeping in mind that RPGs are Different. 


A Unicorn, if you will.

RPGs are a special animal in ways that are hard to define. After years of playing (and decades of not playing),  I can't say that I'm any closer to determining what set of traits make specific games or campaigns fun in general,but I remember the legendary ones I've run or played in.  The ones that I still think about. They had two things in common:

  • The plot was a situation - either by design or as the supposed plot disintegrated. 
  • Players' were allowed to plan, discuss and engage with the world and one another.
  • Player's took initiative.

    That's what I want in Project NEPTUNE.  My friends, family and fellow players gathered around discussing the situation and what they can do about it. I have seen genius there, and engagement. I wanna encourage that.

    In my proposal that all characters are Damage Control on a starship creates that situation. The anticipation of an upcoming combat or hazard provides opportunities for planning and engagement, even if the characters don’t have space-faring skills. Player Characters have an entire spacecraft's worth of resources to utilize in their planning.  

    Now we have to get organized.


    In my Damage control model, I'm using a few arbitrary assumptions:

  • Consideration for a game group's average size of 2-4 players
  • Finally finally dealing with my unresolved love-hate relationship with the Frigate design in Starships & Spacemen 2nd Edition which assigns a crew of ten to a starship.
  • No built-in Hierarchy that puts one PC or NPC in charge. 
     The first two are the easy ones.
    The first starship officially designed for Project NEPTUNE is the Ultra Light Cruiser.  It has a crew of twelve and is the smallest (reusable) starship fitted with a warp drive.  

    The crew is divided into three Damage control parties, each with three crew assigned.  These DC parties operate out of three Flight Control Rooms (FCRs) dispersed around the spacecraft. These are called FCRs instead of DC central(s) because they also house the computers that fly and fight the ship in the same armored compartment. I chose three at first as an arbitrary reference back to Northshield's Triumvirate but kept it when I realized that with three FCRs, no single shot from an enemy could take out all three.

    Now, this only accounts for nine crew.  The other three are two are pilots for the ship's auxiliary craft and a Medic.  There are jump seats in the FCRs for these three, bringing their normal capacity to four crew.

   This arraignment was chosen to maximize choices.  Do the PCs all occupy a single FCR, or should they spread out?  Part of the procedures I'm developing will make where you are on the ship as its attacked important. All PC eggs in one basket may not be a good idea.
   So, that's the first two down, now for the hard part.  How do you run a starship unless someone's in charge?

    Turns out we have a template for this in the way pirate crews in the Caribbean operated during the 'golden age' of piracy.

    Before we move forward, lets set fire to some strawman arguments and get them out of the way:

  • I am fully aware that actually pirates were ruthless and amoral at best and sadistic psychopaths at worst.  They were declared hostis humani generis for a reason. That said, I figure that any system of governance that can keep The Enemies of All Mankind organized and effective will work even better for regular people.
  • Forget what you've seen in Pirates of the CaribbeanA Pirate Captain served at the sufferance of their crew and could be replaced at any time by a vote of no-confidence - no mutiny required.  The only time a Pirate Captain had absolute authority was during an actual battle. This is clearly laid out in the Ship's Articles.
    The 'Pirate' Model in Practice

What follows is a flight of fancy to give an idea of what I'm thinking of; a setting that supports the play style of TTRPGs, is functionally plausible, and keeps the focus of the Player Characters. 
    A group of starting PCs are on Mars.  They don't have a ship but may want one someday.  There's lots to do on Mars but our PCs want to get into space - there are other star systems out there and in the aftermath of the Alien Invasion and the Devastation of Earth we want our PCs to go out there and Aventure.
    There is no Academy or Government program for training spacers because there is no government per se - The Martian Consensus doesn't work that way.  That's fine though, because anyone who can live on Mars can live in space.  That's rapidly becoming Humanity's niche/stereotype in the galactic community - the people who live in space as opposed to a habitable planet.
    Anyway, there are ships in port and looking for crew and our PCs are at least marginally qualified.  The ships needing spacers will post their Articles for perusal online. These Articles may look similar but the devil is in the details.  The PCs choose which ships they want to consider based on these details.  

    Getting on a ship will involve some sort of interview and the signing of the Articles. This is a time when Friends can help, Favors can be called in, and all sorts of social interactions ensue. If a given ship is between cruises, the Articles may be up for amendment by the ship's company and any new crew, with all the back-and-forth, negotiations and intrigue that can entail.
    Once the PCs sign the Articles and are accepted as part of the ship's company, they would go through a process of learning similar to what NUBs on submarines go through earning their Dolphins.  The PCs will need to learn how the systems work and get qualified on each and every system before being fully accepted into the ship's company.  This doesn't have to be role-played or necessarily even rolled - in can be represented by learning the game's procedures for space travel, combat and damage control.
    As member's of the ship's company, the PCs have all the rights and responsibilities thereof. They can vote on all 'matters of the moment', get shares of profits, be consulted on what improvements to the ship they want, and what sort of jobs and missions the ship undertakes.  

    Perhaps most importantly to this topic of this post, the PCs will have the following rights as well:
  • They may call for a vote of no-confidence in the Captain's leadership at anytime the ship is not in direct or immanent danger.
  • They have a Mission Abort option, where the PCs my at anytime elect to call for a bug-out in battle to save the ship.  They may have to answer to the ship's company for using this option, but that will be after the fact.
  • They may stand for election to Caption or Quartermaster at any time the incumbents lose a vote of no-confidence. 
    I see these three rights as what will preserve player agency during space travel and combat.  
    The above Pirate Model relies heavily on social interactions at all levels by  adding NPC crew and removing the command hierarchy present in most if not all other models of space travel. Now persuasion, negotiation, and other social interactions are options for getting the ship to do what the PCs want. Railroading becomes a less viable option when the Captain can be voted out and a PC party forms a third of the crew.
    For a model that uses so many social interactions, we'll need a robust set of rules or procedures to accommodate them.  We'll discuss options for that in our next How you Play is What you Win post. 
    After that, we'll get down to some concrete game design.  Stay tuned.