Space is a realm of literally infinite dimensions, with limitless potential for variety in encounters. Elements from any genre can be incorporated into a space-based campaign with only a little work. Characters traveling the galaxy in their own starship can be explorers, scholars, warriors, criminals, law enforcers, or any other of a hundred different roles that have been portrayed in film, fiction, and adventure gaming for decades.
This chapter offers a toolkit for Game Masters to create adventures revolving around the possession of and operation of a starship, the ultimate piece of equipment for characters in an interstellar campaign. Themes, plots, and encounters, , including alien encounters, natural phenomenon, navigational hazards, criminal enterprises, and others, are examined. Players are also encouraged to look through the chapter, to get background and goal ideas for their characters and to get ideas about the kinds of adventures they’d like to experience.
Basic Story Aspects
The first and most important step in creating an encounter for a space campaign is to determine the theme. Generally speaking, an encounter’s theme should be compatible with the overall theme of the campaign. Exceptions should be relatively rare in order to preserve both the cumulative atmosphere that must be gradually developed in any campaign, as well as the more immediate plans for the impending encounter. Repeatedly changing the mood and ambiance of a campaign can diminish the enjoyment for everyone involved. With that in mind, here are three common themes and how they interact with one another.
Exploration: Exploration is perhaps the quintessential theme of the space genre. A lone starship, traveling into deep space, encountering places, creatures, and phenomenon no other being has yet discovered is the perfect representation of a space campaign. There is literally no limit to the types of encounters such a campaign can contain, given its inherently varied nature. It’s simple to introduce encounters of other themes into such a campaign, as conflict is a universal truth that can be encountered in the uncharted wilds of space just as easily as in the galaxy’s politic-ridden heart. Conflict should be used cautiously, however, as such encounters can damage the sense of wonder and discovery that are the linchpins of an exploration campaign. Independence as a theme goes hand in hand with exploration, for few explorers are not self-reliant, freedom-loving wanderers at heart.
Conflict: A theme of conflict can take any number of forms ranging from the dark and sinister experiences of blood-thirsty pirates to that of a just, noble cause being carried out by loyal, valiant warriors. Starships make excellent resources for such encounters, as they can be tailored to suit the needs of fighters perfectly, employing defense, offense, and mobility in whatever capacity is required. Exploration-themed adventures can be at odds with a conflict-based campaign, although they can serve to instill a sense of wonder in an otherwise bleak campaign, allowing jaded warriors to reconsider their chosen lifestyle or reminding noble soldiers of the reason for their righteous campaign. Independence: The theme of independence is an integral part of many common spacer archetypes. Smugglers, privateers, free traders, and even law enforcement personnel traverse the galaxy in search of true independence. The starship is the ideal vessel for such character, permitting them to go anywhere for any reason. Encounters with exploration themes work well in an independence campaign, allowing characters to enjoy the fruits of their self-reliance. Conflict as a theme should be used less frequently, unless as a struggle for the characters to maintain their independence. Occasional forays into an interplanetary war during the course of an adventure can demonstrate to the characters exactly why they have chosen the lifestyle they embrace.
With a theme selected, the Game Master now determines the plot of the adventure. In the 1920s, an author named Georges Polti published a book entitled The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, in which he theorized that every story could be grouped into one of a number of possible plots. Not all of these plots are of use in a space encounter, obviously, but there are several that can be broadly incorporated into an appropriate encounter. Each plot in this list of examples includes the broad category followed by a list of the major participants or factors and then an explanation of the plot.
Supplication (factors: persecutor, suppliant, a power in authority): A supplication is a request for aid made by someone suffering persecution. Genre favorites along this line include the request to an old general to come out of retirement to aid a persecuted group under the heel of some petty tyrant, the hiring of freelance starship crews by the citizens of some backwater planet to protect them from a pirate fleet, or the request of a dying stranger to deliver a package of some sort to a distant world or individual.
Daring Enterprise (factors: bold leader, goal, adversary): A daring enterprise can describe almost any act or mission undertaken by a starship crew. Rescuing a prisoner from a distant asteroid prison encampment, delivering a cargo through an impenetrable blockade, or hunting a lost artifact through the drifting ruins of a destroyed planet all fall into this category. In any such enterprise, the crew’s skill and bravado take center stage, but the starship provides the tools with which to complete the task.
Erroneous Judgment (factors: mistaken one, victim of mistake, author of mistake, guilty person): Any character can be accused of acts he hasn’t committed, and it’s a simple matter to incorporate an existing nemesis of some sort as the author of this mistake. Perhaps the crew’s vessel has been identified as containing illegal cargo, or perhaps it has been targeted by law enforcement as having been used in the commission of a crime. In either case, the ship becomes the focus for an unpleasant conflict that can be resolved in a wide number of ways depending on the inclinations of the crew and their hopes for the campaign’s future.
Loss of Loved Ones (factors: person slain, witness, executioner): This plot is easy to incorporate into a starship-based campaign: use the destruction of the crew’s ship to spiral them into a completely unexpected encounter with existing enemies, new enemies, or a third party responsible for the destruction (perhaps completely by mistake).
As with so many elements of a successful space campaign, careful planning and a bit of creative thinking can work wonders in creating the proper atmosphere and enhancing the gaming experience for everyone.
Music: Music is the most accessible and possibly the most effective means of establishing a proper atmosphere. There are a number of motion picture soundtracks available that are practically icons of the genre, and they can evince particularly specific images and emotions. Some preparation prior to the encounter can let the Game Master queue up certain pieces of music for certain scenes.
Movies: Watching a portion of a movie or series that involves similar events to an encounter can inspire players, but can also bring about accusations of unoriginality if overused. Generally, this technique works best by using only portions of a movie that contain no dialogue or recognizable characters, but focus instead on background, setting, or just a little bit of “eye candy.”
Maps: For situations occurring within a starship’s interior, a map can be invaluable in speeding up any combat encounters and answering players’ questions about where rooms are located. For intense, suspenseful combat scenes wherein the characters are searching for an unknown foe, Game Masters may consider covering portions of the map that the characters don’t know about, adding an element of mystery to the affair.
Likewise, a map can simplify matters for ship-to-ship combat. A simple two-dimensional map can offer a basic idea of where each vessel is in relation to others. Using stands of variable heights can improve the experience by simulating the three-dimensional nature of space.
Food: Although not as effective as other genres, it still may be possible to set the mood for a space encounter with food. Various freeze-dried foods are commercially available, and they are an excellent representation of the type of rations some crews might have to make do on for weeks or even months at a time between planetary visits.
Types of Encounters
Once the Game Master, with input from the players, selects the theme and plot, it’s time to flesh it out into an adventure. This section examines several broad types of encounters that an adventure could contain. In each case, options for using that particular type of encounter are discussed, and short encounter ideas are provided in each section. These ideas are intended as simple capsules to spark the imagination and provide material for developing stellar adventures.