Random thoughts on spaceships in a science-fantasy RPG

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been musing over ideas for a science-fantasy game.  Not sure if it would be based on an existing system, like PFBB or Swords & Wizardry, or if I would just homebrew my own Franken-system.

Originally the idea was heavily inspired by Star Wars, but as I’ve mulled things over it’s taken on a darker sheen.  So, it’s morphing into more of a Dark-Ages-in-space type setting.

Naturally, any space oriented game has to have some kind of interplanetary travel, usually in the form of starships.  But there’s always the problem of getting a starship in the hands of the PCs.  Should low-level PCs just be handed a spaceship?  Should they have to pay a mortgage on it (ala Traveller)?  Should they be presented with opportunities to steal starships?

And just what is the starship to the party?  Is it just a means towards an end, a way to cruise around the galaxy, hopping from adventure to adventure?  What if it were an adventure location as well as being a means of transportation?

And how long does it take to planet hop?  Hours or days, like in Star Trek or Star Wars?  Months, like a 19th Century sailing ship?  Years and decades, like travelling through warp space in WH40K?

There have been a number of attempts to do the “mega-dungeon in space” thing, most famously Metamorphosis Alpha.  However, what I’m envisioning is a little smaller in scale.  Or, at least, it can be a mega-dungeon that is gradually explored as the party travels between worlds and other adventures.

So, on to the details:

1) Starships are big.  Really big.  A ‘small’ ship is about the size of a skyscraper.  However, they are also (generally) highly automated, so they can be run by relatively small crews.  Really, the only part of the ship you need in order to fly it is the bridge and maybe some living quarters.   This leaves a lot of room for exploration.  Who knows what (or who) is still in these ancient vessels?  Each sub-section of the ship could be a separate ‘dungeon’ to be explored and cleared.  And maybe some shopkeepers set up business on the ship, deciding to stay once the PCs take over so they can do business on other worlds (and do business with the PCs as they explore and clear the ship).

2) Not only are they big, they’re also really old.  No one’s built a new starship in centuries.  And even by the time of the ‘old civ’ collapse, most of the ships still running were centuries old (though built to last).  Most of them were repurposed several times over their lives.  A ship may have started out as a luxury liner, then it was repurposed into a troop transport for an intergalactic war, then after the war repurposed into a cargo ship, then pirates captured it and fitted it with weapons, etc.  Plenty of opportunties for vast portions of the ship to have been sealed and forgotten.  Lost treasure, secret doors and compartments, entire communities of stowaways hidden somewhere on the ship (keep in mind, it’s science-fantasy).

Now, the entire ship doesn’t have to be a warren of metal corridors, pipes and machines.  The ship could have a bio-dome, used to grow fresh food while in transit (and now an overgrown jungle, of course).  The waste treatment plant might now be a fungal forest.  That massive tunnel running through the middle of the ship seems like an easy way to get around, but what if it’s a spinal mount mass accelerator cannon?  And over the centuries, it’s almost certain that various stowaways have altered the ship, either ripping out bulkheads or perhaps new structures sprout haphazardly from the ship’s hull.  Maybe it has an abandoned shopping mall in it.  Or an opera house.  Or a swimming pool the size of a small lake (the ship’s reservior).

In other words, the ship can have completely insane deckplans filled with all kinds of weird locations.  They wouldn’t have to make sense, like you’d expect a ship in Star Trek to make sense.

3) Starships are pretty much just lying around, free for the taking.  In this setting, as the ‘old civ’ gradually ground to a halt, eventually vital systems broke down and couldn’t be repaired.  Or trained crew couldn’t be found.  So the ships were docked or landed somewhere, maybe with the intention of someday coming back to retrieve them.  But in the chaos of the new dark age, it just never quite happened.  A lot of these ships are now used as buildings planet-side, or as extensions for space stations.  So, if the PCs can get the right parts (available as treasure in the loot table, perhaps), they could repair the ship and take off with it.  Of course, getting to the component that has to be replaced/repaired could be an adventure in itself (“Just great.  Main engineering is infested with space zombies!!!”)

4) Space travel requires a roll on a random table.  Sometimes the trip might take only a few days.  Next time the same trip might take years (or centuries).  Why?  Well, one of the ship’s components probably failed.  “Gotta fix the primary power couplers.  Gear up, we’re going on an adventure!”  Once the problem is fixed the ship’s speed increases dramatically.

But even if a trip still takes several days or weeks, the GM has the option of either handwaving the passage of time, or the party can use the time to further explore their ship.

5) And another thought, maybe the PCs never really control the entire ship.  Maybe they have to negotiate with the Space Goblinoids that control Main Life Support.  Perhaps they have an uneasy truce with the Cthulu cultists hunkered down near the primary drive core.

There’s a lot of potential here for good, clean, gonzo fun.

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2 Responses to “Random thoughts on spaceships in a science-fantasy RPG”

  1. Brendan Says:

    Hey, that’s pretty cool. It gave me a few ideas, so let me riff on a few of these themes. First, what if the space ships are discovered by a lower tech race (presumably the PCs would come from this race) as more or less abandoned in space? This could be something like Rendezvous with Rama where the ships appear in earth space, or it could be set in a more fantastic base world. There are all kinds weird technology on the ship (“treasure”) serving to draw adventurers to explore the alien ships, and there could be a standard town/base camp followed by dungeon delve cycle. The PCs never need to be able to really control one of these ships, but you never know, maybe they can clear a smaller one out and figure out how to make it go.

    • edowar Says:

      Those are good ideas for a site-based spaceship ‘dungeon’, but I wanted to get away from that a bit. Where I’m going is that the spaceship is both a means of transportation and a dungeon at the same time. So the PCs would need to control enough of the ship to at least make it go (say the bridge or main engineering), though they don’t necessarily control all the vital parts of the ship. However, that’s just the way I’m envisioning it. 🙂

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