Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Project NEPTUNE Part II: Crew as Damage Control

Made with Daz 3d, Bryce and GIMP
As we said last week, space combat in RPGs is generally a pain.
This is one of the reasons I started designing my own SF RPG as soon as I discovered my favorite rules system was now OGL.

     Part of that effort, the Black Desert Project, led to my series of blog posts about Crew as Mission Control. The premise being that given the way computers have advanced, the crew of a realistic spacecraft will not be occupied by actually flying or fighting the ship - they will be there to monitor, manage, and direct the various Computer networks. It became the most popular series of posts in this blog's history and has stood as my humble contribution to Hard Science FictionTM.

    I stand by that series. I am convinced that it's the best way to include people on spacecraft in Hard Science Fiction. I would love to see the Mission Control model used in novels, television and movies.

     I'm equally convinced that as far as Role-Playing Games are concerned, the Mission Control Model does not work.

    As much as I like the idea of Crew as Mission Control, it still does not address the necessity of a Tactical Mini-game to resolve space travel and combat at the table.  The players are still locked into using a different set of rules and different skills and are still robbed of agency by putting them all in a tin can with few chances to make meaningful decisions.    

    What I’ve come to desire is a space travel and combat system that keeps the focus 100% on the Player Character scale. PCs - their goals, skills and opportunities, and most importantly agency - should always be the focus of a role-playing game. This is what inspired my take on the idea of “Starship as Dungeon”.

    Starship as Dungeon”, however, runs into problems with the types of scenarios it can support. The classic “Bug Hunt” trope exemplified in the movie Aliens is perfect for Starship as Dungeon, but what about other tropes? How can Starship as Dungeon be used in a free-trader campaign? Or what if you want to actually have space combat between Fleets- how do you keep the rules for that type of scenario from taking the focus away from the Player Characters?

    Like the title says, Crew as Damage Control.

  This is far from a new idea, as we see examples dating back at least to the 70s in stories such as Northshield’s Triumvirate. In this concept, the computers on a spacecraft do all the actual flying and fighting, since they can do so faster and more accurately that people can. Organic crews exist to maintain and repair the various systems of a spacecraft. We also see it used the classic The Mote in God's Eye.


This wasn't a game.
 In studying first-person accounts of naval battles, particularly memoirs from the Pacific theater of WWII, we see some great examples of the "player focused" perspective. The sailors, soldiers and marines who recall those iconic battles do not do so the way we're shown in films or other fiction - which is the point of view most licensed RPGs try to capture. As much as I like to watch SF media, the cinematic spectacle is not best seen from the table top.

    The people who actually fought and survived major naval actions in the bowels of their ships recall their own personal viewpoints which are focused on their immediate situation. Often, this can be just trying to keep their ship afloat. They usually didn’t know what is going on with the battle, whether they are winning or losing, or how much damage the ship had sustained. 

    In other words, the ships these people are on became a hostile environment of rupturing steam pipes, flooding compartments, shrapnel, and darkness. A Dungeon.

    This point of view, the completely personal perspective, is one that can be used in a Player Character-focused RPG.

    At first blush, this may sound like a railroad waiting to happen. Without command level decisions to make, can the Players truly be masters of their own destiny? To this as ask a question in return: Can players whose characters are optimized for non-space travel skills be said to have any more control over the ship that they are on? 

    This is a big complaint about space travel and combat systems I have heard at my tables; that there’s nothing for most characters to do. In the Crew as Damage Control concept, everyone has something to do, even if Character’s actions revolve around survival while the ship they’re on falls apart around them. Survival in a hostile environment may be stressful, but it's still PC-focused, which is the goal.

       With Crew as Damage Control, the aftermath of a space battle is where Characters really get to shine. Their ship is now a dungeon in fact, full of hazards like decompression, ruptured tanks, radiation leaks, boarding hostiles, and more. Navigating this kind of environment is challenging enough; repairing the damage is even more so. One thing I’d love to see is a party of PCs scavenging the wrecks of other spacecraft or nearby asteroids for supplies to repair their ship. 

    That's Character focused play.

    Admittedly, this perspective is still focused on combat, which is only one small facet of space travel. Other character-focused scenarios are possible. Space is full of hazards that must be overcome, from debris strikes to solar flares to mechanical failures. There can also be passengers, mysteries, and more in a space-faring location. As long as the action is focused on the Players and their Characters, the focus is where it should be.

    More to come on this topic.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Project NEPTUNE: or Another Stab at Integrating Space Travel and Combat into TTRPGs that Does Not Suck

Who else would hitch dolphins to a chariot?*

This will definitely be a whole series of posts.

    In the link to the right Ken Burnside articulates a problem I've struggled with since I first tried to run the West End Games classic Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game in 1992; to whit: "How can I put the spaceships I love into a game in a way that actually adds fun to the game?"

    This is far from the first time I've tried tackling this task.   Indeed, I have a Goodle Drive full of unfinished and sometimes untitled documents detailing snippets of ideas, lengthy mission statements, and pages and pages of world building and lore.

    I hope I can actually use some of it.


Just so we're all on the same page, the problems I refer to is as follows:

  • The play style of space travel and combat in most TTRPGs is antithetical to the core play style of most TTPRGs.
  • The space combat is resolved on a unique type of battle map that uses a different scale, different time intervals, and different rules.  It is a mini-game functionally separate from the main game.
  • In space combat, the player that flies the spaceship is the only one with actual agency.  
  • Skills required to survive space combat are not applicable in character combat, and therefore may take away from the character's focus.
  • While the Pilot is the only character with agency, space combat rules often require more than one character to successfully fly and fight a ship.  This automatically puts one character in a command dynamic over the rest (bad) or an NPC is used as the commander over the PCs on a ship (worse)

    In some games, these are non-issues.  If you are playing, for example, as pilots in a starfighter squadron most of this goes away, because the spacecraft become simply another piece of equipment; an SF version of steed, lance and armor.  But not everyone wants to play a squadron of fighter pilots.

    There are also lot of other issues with space travel and combat in TTRPGs that are outside the scope of this series.  Like how many attempt to shove a streamlined war game into an RPG, or how many attempt to recreate a cinematic experience from a movie or television franchise.  These are considerations for another time, and perhaps other people.  


    If I have any chance of making a go at this project, I have to keep my scope focused down to the essentials of the game experience I want to enable:

  •  Player Agency: If something is going into the game at all, it must be there in the support of player agency.  That means we can't enforce a command dynamic and we can't turn the players into supporting die rolls for the pilot.
  • A Meaningful Experience: The decisions Characters make aboard ship must be meaningful to the Players.  The situations aboard ship must matter to the Gaming group and provide an experience rich enough to justify the time taken away from other aspects of the game. The actions players take must have observable consequences to validate their agency.
  • Integration: I am not interested in making a mini-game to add onto a character-based TTRPG.  I am interested in making spaceship-based travel, exploration and combat as integral to the game as dungeon-based travel exploration and combat is to the OSR.

    Whether or not I can succeed in that goal remains to be seen.  I've been thinking, reading, working on the ideas for almost ten years now.

    Ten years.  

    Wish me luck!

   *The image above was commisioned by Mr.Burnside from artist Claire Peacey ( whose work and work ethic is highly recommended.


Wednesday, January 12, 2022



    I've been spending less time thinking about the Murdering Empire project or writing a blog post than I have actually writing the game.

    In fact, I have a completed version available of the one-page, Version 0.1 rules for Murdering Empire completed.

    It is very bare bones, as a one-page game must be, but it also shows my experimentation with a different kind of writing style and approach to RPG Design. 

    I'm posting the rules on my Patreon - as a public release, for any and all to see. I intend what every basic, one-page rules I come up with for the final release to be free and available in multiple formats.  I want everyone to have a copy of the rules within easy reach when they play.

    I've also been working on the Zine component of the game.  The first Issue is a short introduction and then a collection of 15 random tables to inspire and help give some idea of the lack of canon I want to have in the setting.  I'm trying to make the tables less something you roll on and more a seriesthought provoking prompts for both GMs and Players.  The virtue of this setting is everyone can be inspired by different or even contradictory entries and bring those ideas to the table.

The Zine will be a for-purchase release and available to my Patrons, like all my work, for the monthly subscription price of one dollar American.

    That said, I can resist sharing a few of the entries.

    The tables are arraigned as a series of fifteen questions.  Some are relatively  straightforward, like 


3.  Monsters!  Once lush worlds have been stripped bare. All the wealth of the stars was pumped out to feed the decadence of a parasitic Core.   


14. I hate to admit it, but the Empire had its uses.  The Ship and Star used to mean the safe conduct of the Pax Imperio.  A Trader could make money in those days.

    To the more introspective, like


10. In space, with the coronas of the warp field around me as I head to a planet I’ve never seen before, I can tell you it’s worth it to me. 


20. You can’t solve the problems of technology with more technology.  We used to think that without the natural world we would not survive. Now that we can survive anywhere in space using technology, how do we live? 

    And some of them are frankly a bit dark.


9. Maybe one in ten survive past childhood here. If you can do that, you still have a 50/50 chance of dying from cancer.  Our gift from the old Empire.  


15. My first child would have been born next month.  

    I admit that last one kind of haunts me.

    Let me know what you think about this direction for random tables and the one-page rules. You can comment here on the blog, on Patreon, or Twitter at @blemaxstudios.

TL;DR: Download One-page RPG rules free HERE. Join the Patreon for $1 and get full Zine when finished - and twenty other titles! 


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Murdering Empire in a Single Page?

Yeah, that guy.
    Despite having had the long weekend, I haven't spent any of that time work on this blog. I have spent some of it thinking about an actual product. It's all in a very early stage right now, but I've become enamored with an idea inspired by binge-watching Questing Beast's Zine reviews and the one-page RPGs like the 24XX family of games.

    The idea is simple:  If your rules can fit on a single page front-and-back, then you could use them as the cover of a zine.  You could make a zine about anything you like, and include a bespoke variant of those one-page rules as the cover.  If those bespoke rules are closely enough related, and the zine contents are a semi-unified setting (like Thousand Islands, for example) then you don't actually need anything else.  You can use as many of the zines or a few as you have/want. 


Where are the Aliens, Paizo?  Huh?

   I personally own 500-odd-page core rulebooks for some games that cover everything under the sun (or not) but they're hard to use because I may only need a fraction of the material,  and the things weigh like, ten pounds. If instead there was a zine that includes the basics of the setting (suitably anti-canonical) with basic rules as the cover, you could now play the game quickly and easily because you don't really need anything else.

    But say you wanted more.  Say, like me, you want to have spaceships a part of the game.  So you get the zine that has spaceships - and the rules on that zine's cover include starship rules while the zine has a fun adventure or something.  If the starship zine is all you have, it has enough rules to play a starship-focused game bt if you have other zines, then it adds to the available rules.  You can use as many or as few of the zines and their bespoke rules as you like.

    I'm hoping to have some more development with this idea as I blend in more of my ideas and preferences about what I like in games.  For those who are familiar with my previous body of work on DriveThruRPG or through Patreon, me working on short spats and zines should come as no surprise.