Some things I figured out about running Space Opera campaigns

One thing I discovered since I started working on the idea of creating a Star Wars inspired campaign in an original setting is that Scoundrels with a Spaceship has actually become a genre in itself. Traveller, Stars Without Number, Scum and Villainy, Coriolis, and  Rogue Trader are all RPGs based on that idea, and it has of course always been one of the three campaign styles for half a dozen Star Wars games. Firefly is widely considered a prime example of the genre outside of RPGs, as is Cowboy Bebop, and you can count TheExpanse as well. I think in RPGs, the Space Scoundrel might very well be the second most common archetype for PCs, after the heroic fantasy adventurer.

And it makes sense. It’s a great concept for player characters in a space setting. Characters who are their own boss, who don’t have to take orders from anyone, are not expected to risk or sacrifice themselves for others, are permitted to solve problems by shooting but also to do business with awful people, and who can go wherever they please in their own fast ship. It’s as much freedom as players can have in a game. Which is great.

But being expected to be largely self-interested is also a problem. The players are free to do anything they want, but the archetype also tells them to always ask “What’s in it for me?”

It’s a fun scene when selfish Han Solo decides he’s had enough with all this nonsense and is just going to sit the rest of it out and wait for Obi-Wan so they can leave, and Luke has to really put all the work to get him to help save Princess Leia. But it’s fun about once. And only because we can watch it unfold without having to do the work. In the end, Luke only gets him to cooperate and have more adventure by promising him that there will be a huge reward. And once he gets his cart load of money, he’s immediately annoncing that he’s done and is out of whatever else Luke and Leia are uo to next. As GM or a player, you really don’t want to have to go through this whole song and dance with other players who think it’s spot on for their characters every two weeks. This stuff is getting really tired after 2 minutes.

As I have come to see it, having adventures that have the events of the campaign largely scripted out pretty much defeats the purpose of RPGs. Nobody gets into RPGs for the first time because other players tell about cool stories they are getting told. It’s all about the promise to be able to create stories and play characters who can go everywhere and do anything they want, and the GM can immediately describe how the world and other characters in it respond to that. What’s the point of customizing your character’s abilities and doing all the dice rolling when the overall sequence of events and ultimate outcome are already determined?

But how do you have grand adventures full of excitement and thrilling danger when the default assumption for the PCs is that they are only looking out for themselves and have no desire for justice? As cool as the concept of the space scoundrel is for characters, it’s not actually a greating starting position for grand adventures. This has been on my mind for quite a while, but thinking about it more deeply over the last few weeks has led me to a couple of conclusions on what might be done to mitigate these issues.

The campaign needs a clear premise: When you want to run or play a campaign about a bunch of space truckers, you probably don’t want to actually do a campaign about space trucking. Some people might actually looking for that, but generally when you get into this type of games, it’s the promise of action packed adventures that draws everyone in. It’s the times when the space truckers get interupted in their space trucking when all the cool and exciting stuff happens. Flying around in your ship and being free to take on any job you want sounds very interesting, but I think you need to be more specific and narrow down more clearly on what will actually happen in this campaign. It can be the GM who creates a more specific outline, or the players who decide on a specific theme they want their adventures to revolve around.

The characters and activities should match the premise of the campaign: This sounds super obvious when you phrase it like this, but it really isn’t. When the premise of the campaign is space truckers and the players make characters to be good at space trucking, but the adventures turn out to be primarily exploring an alien jungle planet, or fighting off an alien invasion, there will be a misalignment of expectations. Instead, the premise of the campaign should have been about space truckers who find themselves on a  alien jungle planet which they are going to explore. The characters the players make may be almost identical, but it will likely make a real difference in how the players will go around looking for adventure. Instead of looking for ways to get their ship back into space and deliver their cargo, they’ll be more likely to embrace diving into the jungles and their mysteries.

To get players to be proactive, they need to be invested in the world: If the primary motivation for players and characters is to get rich by cashing in job payments, or to pay off angry dangerous people who are after them, then there is little to motivate them to go towards the danger. Which is where all the really cool and fun stuff is going to happen. To get players to not just grab their money and leave as soon as possible after dealing with the issue of the current adventure, they need to care about what’s going to happen to NPCs, groups, and places that are still being in danger. To protect themselves is typically very easy for PCs, especially when they have a space ship. Just leave. But when the players also care about the fate of people who can’t just leave, they have a reason to stay and continue confronting the threat. Early adventures in a new campaign should attempt to get the players invested in the conflicts of the setting.

Don’t start the campaign with nobodies who have no connections: For some reason, the generally assumed common start for characters in a new campaign is that they are completely new nobodies who have not done anything significant yet, since they start out with the minimal character stats and have no experience points. They also have no connections to anyone, since the players have not yet meet any other characters in the game world. This works well enough in an oldschool dungeon crawling campaign where every aspiring adventurer from the street can just stroll over to one of the old ruins at the edge of town and start scavenging for ancient treasures while fighting off roaming monsters. But this really provides nothing useful for campaigns with a more narrative focus and when there is no destiny for the characters waiting to be fulfilled. Instead of waiting for the players to find some justification for their roaming, self-interested characters to get themselves involved in other people’s business, have the players make characters who are already involved. Han Solo was already an established smuggler with considerable reputation, who had dangerous people coming for his head when the story starts. Even Luke is not a nobody who randomly decides to rescue a leader of the Rebellion he know to be in trouble. Before he goes to try saving her, he learns that Obi-Wan is an old pal of his father and has his home and family destroyed by the Empire’s terror. When the adventure actually starts, he is already very involved.

Money is still really attractive: In many fantasy games, all the beat equipment is magical and can generally not be bought with money. And all the best weapon and armor that money can buy can typically be afforded after the first adventure. From that point on, promising the players that they will be paid great rewards generally does very little to make them any more motivated to do something than they already are. They probably would do it anyway even if there was no reward. But that’s typically not at all the case in Space Opera. Really heavy power armor or big ass guns might be very rare and highly restricted, but there’s probably still thousands of them that have been produced in a giant factory, rather than being the unique life’s work of some wizard. And when it comes to spaceship upgrades, there is pretty much no limit. There is always going to be more better and cooler stuff to buy and the players will never sit on money for which they can’t find a good way to spend it.

Using Gambling as a skill

This is another post I originally wrote last year about the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which I think would be of interest for readers of this site.

I’ve recently been part of a discussion about rarely used skills in Star Wars campaigns. Gambling in particular seems like a skill that has little actual use for players and that is difficult for GMs to work into adventures in a meaningful way.

In this case, I think the burden of making the skill useful really does fall primarily to the player. You chose to invest points into the gambling skill, or to take gambler as your character archetype. Of course it is good form for the GM to be accommodating and make an effort to allow players to play to their characters’ strengths. But when you want to play a gambler, or any other character with a focus outside the typical adventure activities for the setting or genre, it falls to you to come up with an idea how it will be part of the campaign.

While I don’t have the slightest idea how to make use of basket weaving in an adventure campaign, I do see quite a number of options of how you can make gambling a meaningful part of a Star Wars campaign, and to some extend in RPGs in general.

When you think of the main purpose of gambling, making money is the obvious answer. But in a Star Wars game, money generally does not play a meaningful role, as all the equipment you really need is a blaster for every character and a small ship for the whole party, which you often get at a very early point of the campaign. It’s not a setting where characters are constantly upgrading their equipment with potato peelers +2 or you have a dozen types of increasingly protective and expensive suits of armor. Like in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, money appears as something much more abstract within the stories, really only mattering when the characters are faced with a massive debt or huge expense that will be impossible to cover unless they take on that one suspiciously well paying job or find the fabled treasure of legend. The need for large amounts of money is an adventure hook, an excuse to get the players to go to a place where the GM has something prepared for them. And in that case it’s in nobody’s interest to have some characters spend a whole session in a casino and play 50 rounds of cards. Which is why the amount of money you can make with gambling or picking pockets is usually trivially low.

My suggestion is forget about money. Don’t go gambling to get rich as a simpler (and boring) alternative to go on an adventure. What really makes gambling interesting from a story perspective are the debts that result from it. When you play a gambler, or any character with a high gambling skill, try to get into games with imperial officers and gang leaders and get them into debt. Because debt means leverage.

This is one of the cases where the GM has to be accommodating. The GM can always say that the NPC in question does not gamble, doesn’t play with the PCs, stops playing when the credits run out, or has the necessary money at hand to pay the debt. But I think when you approach the GM with a plan to try manipulating an NPC through gambling debts, most GMs will be quite happy to give you a chance in at least some situations. It doesn’t make sense for all  NPCs and in all situations, but this is just the kind of creative problem solving that I always love to see from players, and which makes running games the most fun.

When you have an NPC in debt, you can have the leverage to either get information or a favor. Have the NPCs tell you about other people you are really after or about places you want to get into, or ask them to do small things that will greatly help you overcoming some obstacles for your big plan. Getting you access keys, disabling alarms, planting bugs, distracting guards, that kind of thing.

But as it says in the name, gambling is always a gamble, and there’s always a real chance that even a master gambler fails and ends up being the one losing a lot of money. Which ultimately can lead to the player ending up in deep debt to important and influential people. Which from a narrative perspective is awesome! We get to increase the tension for the current adventure and have the players facing even more obstacles than they did before, and they all know perfectly well that it’s purely the result of their own actions. These are the best kinds of consequences and a fantastic example of failing forward.

Another way in which gambling can be useful is simply as a cover while spying on NPCs or checking out places. When you’re sitting at a table loosing great amount of credits (or winning them), nobody is suspecting you to be in the place for other insidious reasons. Gambling is a nice way to get NPCs into conversations and to make them let their guard down by either separating them from their credits or making them enjoy a winning streak. The richest and most powerful people usually tend to play in places where the stakes are very high, and being very good at gambling is a classic trait of various villainous archetypes. You might be able to get a simple customs officer or low ranking gangster into a low stakes game in some cheap cantina, but when you want to go against crime bosses and moffs, you have to be able to play with the pros. Both in skill and the money you bring to the table. So as your gambling skill increases, you don’t just improve your chances of success, but also gain access to more influential and important people.

There doesn’t seem to be any obstacles in a typical adventure that your character can overcome by making a gambling check. And while it may look like a way to make some easy money at the side, like you can do with picking pockets and cracking safes, you really should think of it more as a skill to help you get access to information and objects that are not easily available otherwise. More than anything else, gambling is a social skill. When you approach it like this, the potential situations in which it can win the day broaden considerably.

I think adding gambling as a skill to Stars Without Number would be a great addition to the rules to better reflect the style of adventures I want to create with it.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook – A book that teaches gamemastering

I wrote this, coincidentally exactly one year ago, on my other site, and was thinking today that it would be great post to have here for people looking for space opera content.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, West End Games, 1993.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games was first released in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi had been in theaters. It got a second edition in 1992, which this time also included a Gamemaster Handbook that was released in 1993. This was 14 years after the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 1st edition, and 2 years after the 2nd edition DMG. At the same time, Shadowrun had  been around for four years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for seven, and Call of Cthulhu for twelve, so it really wasn’t entering into any completely unknown territory.

While I can’t really say anything about the later games, I am quite familiar with all the Dungeon Master’s Guides other than 4th edition, as well as the GM sections for a dozen or so retroclones based on B/X and AD&D 1st ed. But when I managed to get my hands on the Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook and read it, I discovered something that seemed amazing:

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook tells you how to be a Gamemaster!

“Well, duh!” you say? “That’s obviously what a gamemaster book is for.” Well, it should be obvious, but when you look at what passes as Dungeon Master’s Guides in D&D, it really isn’t. In the many editions I had both on the internet and with the players of my D&D 5th edition campaign (most of who have much more experience with it than I do), people regularly bring up how 5th edition is really unclear on how you’re supposed to actually run the game because it seems to assume that you run narrative-driven campaigns but all it’s rules are for dungeon crawling. Particularly older GMs express that the 5th edition DMG fails to even mention such basic things like how you make a map for a dungeon and fill it with content.

But this isn’t really a new thing. Since the very beginning, D&D has always assumed that GMs already know anything there is to preparing adventures and running the game, and all the GM content in the books consists of optional mechanics, lists to roll for randomly generated content, and magic items. What are you supposed to do with those to run an enjoyable game for new players? “Well, it’s obvious. Isn’t it.” But no, it isn’t.

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook is the complete opposite. It’s 126 pages and except for the example adventure that makes up the last 21 pages, there is a grand total of two stat blocks! Both as examples for the section that guides you through the process of creating named NPCs and translating them into game terms. Which don’t even take up one page in the twelve page chapter dedicated to this topic.

  • Chapter 1: Beginning Adventures, 10 pages, gives an overview of the process of coming up with adventure ideas and turning them into playable content that has some narrative structure to it.
  • Chapter 2: The Star Wars Adventure, 11 pages, expands on the previous chapter and goes into more detail about making full use of the unique setting and capturing the tone, pacing, and dynamics of Star Wars in a game.
  • Chapter 3: Setting, 11 pages, has great advice on using places and characters from the movies or creating your own material, with a focus on explaining what kind of elements you actually need to prepare, what is irrelevant, and the reason for it.
  • Chapter 4: Gamemaster Character, 12 pages, is all about thinking of NPCs as people first, and imagining them in ways that are memorable and makes them relevant to the events of the adventures and campaigns as individuals, and how to use them during actual play. Creating stat blocks for them is only a minor subject at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 5: Encounters, 13 pages, deals with encounters primarily as social interactions and what purpose individual encounters could serve to further the development of the narrative. There are a few sections on selecting the right amounts of hostiles for encounters that could turn violent, but it manages to do so without using any tables or stats.
  • Chapter 6: Equipment and Artifacts, 11 pages, is all about gear and related stuff, but doesn’t include any stats for specific items. It’s a chapter about resources that can be made available to PCs and NPCs and how they can drive the developing narrative of adventures as they unfold.
  • Chapter 7: Props, 7 pages, is about handouts and maps and the like.
  • Chapter 8: Improvisation, 8 pages, explains in simple and easy to understandable terms the concepts of prepared improvisation, or the art of equipping yourself with the tools you’re likely going to need to quickly address completely unplanned situations on the fly.
  • Chapter 9: Campaigns, 9 pages, lays out some basic ideas of running games for a long time through multiple adventures, in many ways approaching it from a perspective of sandboxing.
  • Chapter 10: Adventure “Tales of the Smoking Blaster”, 17 pages, is a simple adventure consisting of four episodes that shows how all the principles from the rest of the book could look like in practice.

To be fair, none of the things I’ve read in this book are seemed in any way new to me. I knew all of this before, and it doesn’t go very deeply into detail. But it took me 20 years to learn these things on my own and soaking up the wisdom of several dozens old-hand D&D GMs. And here it is, black and white on paper, spelled out in simple terms that are very much accessible to people completely new to RPGs, in a 27 year old book!

Now I am not a dungeon crawling GM. I am not a tactical fantasy wargame GM either. And there are different goals and requirements for different types of campaigns. But I feel that this is hands down the best GM book I’ve ever come across. It even beats Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide and Spears of the Dawn. They are very impressive books in their own right and do a great job at explaining the practices of sandbox settings in a D&D context. But they also fail to mention most of the information that is in the Gamemaster Handbook, like how you run NPCs as people and set up encounters to be interesting and memorable, apparently assuming that these things are obvious and already known. Like all other D&D books on gamemastering.

I think for most people reading this, there won’t be much new or particularly enlightening in this book either. But I think when any of us are asked by people who are new to RPGs (or maybe not) and first want to try their hand at being GMs but have no idea where to start, I think this book is still very much worth a huge recommendation. Not just for Star Wars, but for all RPGs in general. All the things that are laid out in this book would be really useful to know even when you want to run an OD&D dungeon crawl.

This book is fantastic, because it’s the only GM book I know that really teaches you how to be a GM instead of telling you about additional mechanics not included in the main rulebook. If my favorite RPG posters all got together to put together a guidebook on how to actually run games in basic and easy to understand terms, I don’t think I’d expect anything to be in it that isn’t already in the Gamemaster Handbook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game 2nd edition from 1993.