Space Opera Command Performance

So, talked to the Monday night group yesterday evening and a consensus quickly formed for a space opera travelogue sort of game for my next campaign – and since one of the players is particularly keen on the Traveller system it looks like we’ll be going with that.

I said in the discussion on my previous post that Traveller tends a bit more towards hard SF than space opera typically does, but that said I don’t think this is too much of a problem. Giving the SRD for the Mongoose version a quick going-over, it looks like they’ve done a reasonable job of offering alternatives to the baseline technical assumptions (they offer up different varieties of FTL travel, for instance, whereas previous editions had ye olde Jump drive hardwired in, and this time around it seems computers aren’t assumed to be massive room-sized affairs with teeny tiny hard drives). On top of that, the player who really loves Traveller seems keen on playing an engineer so a bit more emphasis on the technical details can’t hurt.

In terms of campaign premise I think I’ll have the PCs be bridge crew on a large starship as opposed to the entire crew of a small starship – partly because I kind of fancy ripping off Star Trek as much as humanly possible, partly because this means they’re effectively toting around a massive supply of replacement PCs in the event of fatalities, partly because giving them a big powerful ship with escape pods makes me happier about sending them into starship combat than if they were in a dinky ship with no escape pods. (I am mildly tempted to have the players roll up two PCs – a bridge crew officer with multiple tours of duty under their belt, and a weedy redshirt for security/suicide missions/comical random killing purposes.) I’d have to tackle the whole “why don’t they send a big mob of security crew to overwhelm the baddies?” question, but Trek has been doing that for decades so the problem clearly isn’t insurmountable.

Mongoose have actually put out multiple space opera-themed settings for Traveller (alongside the classic Third Imperium setting, which despite the whole empire-in-space premise is built along more hard SF lines), but I’m not sure I’ll want to run with any of the official sourcebooks. The Babylon 5 sourcebook they put out for it apparently isn’t brilliant and occasionally makes bizarre rule calls (Minbari have penalties to their social stats? Centauri get an intelligence bonus? Narn can’t be diplomats? Did these guys even watch the same show as me?), whilst Reign of Discordia a) uses the term “Discordia”, which has grown to be a red flag to me as far as geek culture artefacts go, and b) doesn’t feel very pointful – I mean, if I’m not dealing with an iconic space opera universe which is going to have some resonance with the players I may as well be homebrewing as far as I’m concerned. There’s actually a Prime Directive supplement coming out soon – the Prime Directive universe being an odd quasi-official offshoot of the Star Trek universe that seems to consist of the original series plus new background material cooked up for the Star Fleet Battles wargame – but that’s not out yet, and despite the added wrinkles that come in via the new background bits I’m not sure I want to run with something as familiar as the Trek setting.

So, current plan is to homebrew a setting and see how that goes. The nice thing about Traveller is that it gives you a lot of nice systems to procedurally generate sectors of space and star systems and generally goes out of its way to make prep fun in its own right so I’ll be going in with a bit more in the way of preparation than the Unknown Armies game. I’m currently pondering whether to go fully original with the setting or set it in the Babylon 5 universe with the players as the crew of one of those exploration ships which show up in one episode tasked with exploring a frontier region of the galaxy. Possibly in an alternate timeline where, after the end of the series and the fall of the Psi Corps which they built up to for the whole of the show and then dealt with in a spin-off novel afterwards, Sheridan is indicted for his horrible war crimes (namely, the use of innocent coma victims as suicide bombers) and the Interstellar Alliance falls apart (since it’s so closely bound up with Sheridan’s personal political agenda that with him discredited, the whole idea is mildly discredited), because then there’d be a universe which gets back to the slightly meatier, more tense and less creepily Messianic politics of the early series without the Shadows or the Vorlons cramping anyone’s style.

8 thoughts on “Space Opera Command Performance

  1. In case you’re interested, the Traveller podcast I listen to is Close the Airlock.

    The double-PC idea seems pretty interesting, and it’d allow for a bit more diversity without so much of the “why does the Captain crawl into dark oily vent tubes?” issue you tend to get.

    1. To be fair, Starfleet officers do seem to be generalists in the sense that just about everyone can halfway wield a phaser and fiddle with circuitry and do first aid and crawl through vent tubes. (Traveller’s system seems fairly open this approach in that whilst you don’t necessarily get many skills in character gen, your skills represent bonuses to particular areas of expertise, so if you want to houserule that anyone can try anything they aren’t skilled for and the penalty is they don’t get the bonus a skilled person would you can.)

      The main utility of the redshirts is as a buffer in combat, which can be quite fatal in Traveller: provided that the NPCs target the redshirts first then the main PCs ought to be OK. I’m half tempted to print off a bunch of redshirt character sheets on business cards – basic stat block plus a small space to note down any skills or benefits earned on the first tour of duty shouldn’t take up more than one side of the card. That’ll nicely emphasise the disposability of them. 😉

      1. Well, it makes perfect sense for them to be able to do it – you want your officers trained in at least the basics of everything. But what I meant was, it’s difficult to justify them actually doing it most of the time, because you’re on a big ship full of people whose primary jobs are to do that stuff, so as to leave you concentrating on running things. So the £50/hour engineering officer doesn’t generally crawl into vents to change a filter when the £5/hour apprentice can do that and leave the officer free to check reports and allocate maintenance jobs. Or attend staff-management meetings and discuss what kind of coffee machine they should get for the mess.

        I love the idea of redshirt business cards. Veering away from actual Traveller for a minute, you could rig up some Necromundesque experience charts to roll up a couple of random benefits when they first come into play, or when they achieve something particularly notable, whichever suits your purpose.

        In general business-card NPCs seem like a very handy idea actually – nicely storable and compact for table use.

      2. Oh, right! To be honest I don’t intend to devote any uptime whatsoever to routine maintenance, that can all be delegated to NPCs. I was thinking more of crawling around events during a shipboard crisis requiring the bridge crew to spring into action (which I think is mandatory as per Space Corps Directive 43272/7).

      3. Okay, I explained that badly. What I mean is, people in charge tend to give orders rather than doing stuff themselves. So the interesting challenge for this setup is to justify the PCs doing interesting PC-like things, which either calls for specific types of crisis where it makes sense, or just going with the genre tropes. The first one could potentially start to seem forced, and the second gives a Trekky tone to the game. Or I suppose, setting up the PCs as specialists rather than commanders so it makes sense for them to be doing rather than saying, but then they’re getting bossed around, which they might not like.

        But it’s easy to accept that in times of crisis highly-experienced officers would take over tricky stuff. Much easier than accepting they’d be holding the line in combat, because if they’re doing that, who’s running the ship? So I think your idea handles the challenge quite well. Maybe with a dose of egalitarianism and a bit of systematic machismo, so the officers don’t want to sit around at desks while there’s action to be had or let their subordinates take all the risk.

      4. The systematic machismo and the culture of leading from the front is what makes this thing not even remotely a challenge, which is why I’m mildly surprised we’re having this discussion. Trek, B5, Space: 1999, whatever particular source material you’re looking at, they all work with the implicit assumption that the command staff are going to muck in for the crisis-of-the-week – or, as translated to RPGs, the stuff we bother actually playing through at the game table rather than handwaving.

        The writers come up with new ways each week to tackle the issue but really each time it boils down to one thing: Starfleet, or Earthforce, or the moon colony, or whoever the PCs are working for has always had an explicit policy and an implicit culture of station/starship-level command staff leading from the front. Maybe the pen-pushers a few ranks up the ladder don’t do that sort of thing, but the captain and his or her bridge crew certainly do, not least because (especially in Starfleet, where I believe this is actually a canon thing they drill into you at the Academy) you’re responsible for the lives of the people under your command so when there’s risk and danger afoot the officers don’t send along their underlings, they collar a few redshirts and go tackle it themselves.

        Aside from the security teams, whose job it is specifically to get in the way of trouble, rank and file crew members aren’t going to be personally mucking in with risky situations, not least because the smooth and efficient running of the ship requires that they stay at their posts and keep at their jobs unless their commanding officers order them to. It’s only once you’re promoted to the point where your role is mostly supervisory that you can actually act as a roving troubleshooter because at that stage it’s compatible with your responsibilities.

        Likewise, when you’re assembling an away team you want experienced, competent personnel, preferably with sufficient seniority and experience as officers to make their own calls about what to do if a crisis happens and they don’t have time to consult with the ship. You don’t pick Rimmer and Lister because they’re not competent to do anything beyond repairing the chicken soup vending machines.

  2. Good point about the roving troubleshooters – I hadn’t really thought about that before.

    Other than that, let me rephrase what I said before: I think having two PCs is a nifty way of making sure whatever interesting’s happening is always a PC matter, without running into any major plausibility issues. Or if you prefer, “I agree with Arthur” 🙂 Sorry, I think I may have come across as disagreeing when I wasn’t.

    That being said, I’m pretty sceptical that Rimmer could fix a vending machine.

    1. Ah, now I finally get your point: yes, having 2 PCs means that I can always throw the first stirrings of trouble in the path of the redshirts rather than having the main PCs be coincidentally always standing in just the right place at the right time to see shit kicking off. Or in other words, “I agree with Shim”. 😉

      Re: Rimmer fixing vending machines – I doubt he can, but he can be trusted to watch Lister doing it whilst deluding himself that he’s a supervisor.

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