roleplaying games

In Spaaaaaaace

So my campaign is underway, and my other backburner project is on hold until the system I want to base it on is actually released. Rather than plan any of this, I stumbled into a completely new project: writing a space sandbox for GURPS.

Space games, specifically GURPS Space games, hold a wonderfully ignominious place in my heart. I had a proto-RPG world I made up with a childhood friend when we were between the ages of maybe 7 and 10, with aliens and giant starships and everything else you’d need for an eight-year old’s version of “Star Trek, but EVERYTHING’S COOLER”. When I got to college, I started writing down everything I remembered of these pretend games. It boiled down to this: there were three human factions and two alien races, and the story of the game involved a group of mercenaries splintering off and forming their own fourth faction. When condensed from the details, it was a solid campaign, and I did my best to extrapolate. Then, I turned to my gaming group and said “hey guys, I’ve run one campaign in GURPS by the seat of my pants that ended up going pretty well, so I want to try this other genre. Here’s a whole load of flexibility in creating your characters so you can help me flesh out the world!” Anyone who’s played GURPS before already knows this was a disaster. The ludicrous power-game aliens and robots my players created broke the game so decisively that the campaign folded after 3 or 4 sessions.

So I haven’t run a space game since. I have run a lot of Cyberpunk, and am broadly speaking a big fan of science fiction. The fact that I’d want to run another space opera is not surprising to me, though the fact that I keep on going back to GURPS is a slight surprise. Given my previous experience one would think I’d go with something a bit more constrained…that said, when looking at other space opera games, namely Traveller and Stars Without Number, neither of them give me what I’m looking for. With my previous space opera disaster, I’m pretty sure I know what I need to do to keep my campaign a little more on the rails.

The other main reason I’m going for GURPS is that it’s the anti-Star Wars in a lot of ways. After playing in three different Star Wars campaigns, I’m pretty done with that kind of pulp space adventure. However, GURPS can do games with a hard sci-fi flair very well, which would help me drag everything way down to Earth in comparison to what the Star Wars games were like. Fact is, I have a desire to run a number of genres in GURPS, even though I know I need to ease my players back into it. I’m putting the brakes on a wholesale return to GURPS GMing at least for now, as I’m running a D&D game that’s off to a very good start, and I still really want to run The Veil. After that, though, my setting experiments in GURPS are likely to accelerate.

Here’s my basic idea: centuries ago, eight generation ships departed Earth for a far-off cluster hundreds of light-years away. Based on Earth-bound telescopes, this cluster had hundreds of stars with planets, and should offer many possible landing sites for the future denizens of the generation ships. While underway, scientists on one of the ships discovered how to control quantum excitation, which would draw sympathetic particles towards each other at speeds faster than the speed of light. Somewhere around halfway through the journey, the designs for a quantum excitation drive leaked from one of the Command laboratories. These designs ended up in the hands of a separatist group, who covertly converted a number of the orbital craft in storage to FTL. On a day these rebels now celebrate as “Separation Day”, about 5000 people exited the ships in stolen craft and engaged the QE drives, zooming ahead of the colony ships. Separation Day caused a furor among the remaining colonists, many of whom did not know that the existence of this technology was being hidden from them.

Different ships had different reactions to the sudden knowledge of QE tech. The game will start on the El Dorado (the ships are all named for fictional cities). The way the El Dorado handled the grumbling about QE was to release the drive designs to those in charge of the materials processing units, with a promise that the drives would be made available to anyone who wanted them as soon as the ship arrived. It was an imperfect compromise, with the remaining separatists unhappy about waiting 30-50 years, and the manufactories unhappy about having to figure out how to build and distribute the craft without losses. By the time El Dorado started its deceleration burn to enter its new home system, the solution which they happened upon involved financing.

After the El Dorado settled into a stable orbit, it shifted into seed station mode, and the commanders aboard began going through the process of shifting from a military-style command polity to a democracy. Along with that, they and the manufactory staff began establishing and releasing a currency and economic scaffold. Part of this, in order to get people colonizing and spreading throughout the cluster, was making loans for spacecraft. This was part of the plan before, but the existence of QE drives complicated things. As the new Orbital Bank discovered, it’s impossible to repossess a spacecraft light-years away. Well, almost impossible.

The PCs will be the first generation of interstellar repo-men, unable to afford a spacecraft unless locked into a contract with the Orbital Bank. Their mission will be to explore nearby systems, place Quantum Communicator beacons, and find, disable, and repossess spacecraft belonging to loan defaulters. Of course, the PCs’ familiarity with the kill-switches and tracking sensors the repo-men use also put them in the best position to themselves run from their loan. And complicating things, the systems are already interspersed with humans calling themselves the Remnant, the surviving offspring of those separatists who fled the ships some 50-60 years ago.

The feel of the game will be on the side of hard sci-fi. Though the QE drives are clearly made up, the design of the cluster and some of the colonization tech will hew slightly closer to the laws of physics. PCs will encounter hazardous planetary environments, power constraints, and the need to establish supply lines. Their stint as interstellar repo-men will be well supplied, but striking out on their own will take planning and supplies. And finally, I’ve come up with some basic ship design ideas that deal with the reality of zero-g as well as atmospheric flight.

What I’ve been doing with this so far is writing out the cluster. From the looks of it, there’s going to be a lot of uninhabitable systems out there, but so long as the planetoids orbiting them have valuable resources, it’s still worthwhile. It also means that jumping to an unexplored system comes with risk, in terms of scarce fuel and food. Once I have an idea of how many systems in each sector (sectors are based on an x,y,z coordinate plane, so there are eight of them) contain inhabitable (or marginally inhabitable) planets, I can then think about what’s in those systems. Another thing to think about is the notion of natural resources, and how to build out a system for mining and trading in this world.

It’s clearly not done, but through the exercises I have done for this new setting, I’m seeing a lot of potential. Even if it turns out I’m still suffering from space fatigue when everything comes around, I’m still learning a lot about GURPS worldbuilding and how it meshes with everything I’ve learned since last running GURPS. This will end up being one of a trio of new ideas I’m going to write out in the future: this, a near-future/Cyberpunk/post-apoc idea, and a fantasy idea centering around lost magic. None are on the actual GMing docket in the near term, but I’m looking forward to getting back into this toolkit and really fleshing out some future games.


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