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.


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