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Brainstorming a “Kitchen Sink“ Sci-Fi campaign

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
...without going full-on RIFTS.

I was struck by the campaign design bug while participating in the Star Wars “Mind share” thread. I don’t want to play in or run any of the major Sci-Fi settings out there, but participating in something that echoes them could be fun.

So, for instance, while I might not want to mess around with the Clone Wars, Jedi Vs Sith, and so forth, I totally want some form of lightsaber or monofilament swords in the game. Stargates might exist, but not necessarily any of the aliens posing as gods. Other lost megastructures and tech from prior stelkar empires might pop up as well, be they from Bab5, Defiance or Larry Niven’s Known Universe.

Yes, there would be some form of sentient machines, possibly even malevolent. But a biotechnologicslly proficient race like Steven Donaldson’s Amnion might get the nod instead of the Borg of Star Trek.

What kind of elements do you think would be good to yoink from Sci-Fi movies, TV shows, comics or stories & novels?
 

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MarkB

Legend
You could do well to throw some Mass Effect into the mix. It's a very solidly-built space opera setting. I particularly like:
  • The cultural and biological make-up of a lot of the alien species. They each have their own distinctive traits that make them very much non-human while still being relatable - the Salarians and Krogan are very well done, and there are some non-humanoid species in there like the Elcor and Hanar.
  • It's one of the few settings to feature a hive-mind bug species that is, at least potentially, a sympathetic ally rather than an implacable foe.
  • The way they take a single technological concept - an extremely rare element which can alter mass in the local area when electrically charged - and extrapolate an entire setting's technological advancements from it, everything from FTL travel to de facto telekinetic powers.
It also has another take on those malevolent sentient machines you were looking for, though you'd pretty much need to go all-in on the Reapers for them to work at all.
 

Eltab

Hero
Original Battlestar Galactica Cylons were mostly machine with some organic parts (leaders seemed to have more organic). A similar robot race, which is powerful but not an overwhelming threat, would make a good "edge of the map" civilization. Maybe - like Star Trek's V'ger machine planet - they are chiefly seeking information.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
You could do well to throw some Mass Effect into the mix. It's a very solidly-built space opera setting. I particularly like:
  • The cultural and biological make-up of a lot of the alien species. They each have their own distinctive traits that make them very much non-human while still being relatable - the Salarians and Krogan are very well done, and there are some non-humanoid species in there like the Elcor and Hanar.
  • It's one of the few settings to feature a hive-mind bug species that is, at least potentially, a sympathetic ally rather than an implacable foe.
  • The way they take a single technological concept - an extremely rare element which can alter mass in the local area when electrically charged - and extrapolate an entire setting's technological advancements from it, everything from FTL travel to de facto telekinetic powers.
It also has another take on those malevolent sentient machines you were looking for, though you'd pretty much need to go all-in on the Reapers for them to work at all.
I’m completely Mass Effect ignorant. Care to elaborate?
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Original Battlestar Galactica Cylons were mostly machine with some organic parts (leaders seemed to have more organic). A similar robot race, which is powerful but not an overwhelming threat, would make a good "edge of the map" civilization. Maybe - like Star Trek's V'ger machine planet - they are chiefly seeking information.
While nobody would confuse me with a big fan of OBSG, I vastly preferred their Cylons to the ones in NBSG.
 

MarkB

Legend
I’m completely Mass Effect ignorant. Care to elaborate?
There's a lot of lore there, so a Mass Effect wiki might serve you better, but to elaborate on the specific topics I mentioned:

Mass Effect gets its title from the effect generated by a rare element known as Element Zero (colloquially, Eezo), only generated during extremely high-energetic events such as supernovas. When exposed to different electrical charges, Element Zero can be manipulated to generate fields within which mass and local gravity are altered. It's used to generate gravity on starships, increase the mass of projectiles in weapons (so a handgun can fire tiny projectiles that still hit with the force of a regular-sized bullet), and to enable FTL travel by reducing an entire starship to negative values of mass.

Occasionally, as a result of deliberate or accidental exposure during pregnancy, children are born with traces of Element Zero in their brains. Those who don't suffer horrible birth defects can go on to develop the ability to manipulate mass fields through mental effort. The amount of Eezo in their brains only allows for tiny manipulations, like pushing a penny across a table, but several races have developed Biotic Amplifiers which link to the wearer's brain and provide additional power and Eezo for them to manipulate, allowing them to generate mass fields large enough to manipulate much larger objects. It's pretty much equivalent to the telekinetic aspects of the Force in Star Wars.

The hive-mind race I mentioned is the Rachni. They did the whole "swarming invasion" thing a few thousand years ago, in what was known as the Rachni Wars. However, during the first game the protagonist can encounter a Rachni Queen and discover that the invasion was a misunderstanding - elements of the Rachni had become cut off from their original hive mind, and had reverted to a feral nature, acting on instinct. The actual hive mind is more sympathetic, and would not have intentionally hurt anyone without provocation.

The Salarians are a short-lived species, with an average lifespan of less than forty years. They have an analytical mindset, and their short lifespan has led to them thinking and acting very quickly. It can be hard to keep up with a Salarian in conversation, as they tend to swiftly move from observation to conclusion before flitting on to some new avenue of thought. Culturally, they tend towards research and espionage, preferring to think their way out of a situation rather than applying direct force.

The Krogans are native to an incredibly hostile and inhospitable world, Tuchanka. Their biological adaptation to that environment was to breed in droves, hatching large litters of offspring, most of whom would not reach adulthood. During the Rachni Wars the Salarians uplifted the Krogans technologically, turning them into shock troops to use against the Rachni. However, once the war was over, the Salarians realised they had a problem: The Krogans, no longer confined to their homeworld with its incredibly harsh environment, would quickly outbreed every other major species and become a plague to dwarf that of the Rachni. So, they secretly engineered a plague and administered it to the Krogans - the genophage, specifically designed not to completely sterilise them, but to reduce their successful birth rate down to match the survival rate their species used to have prior to becoming a technological society. Krogans are, naturally, rather pissed off with the galaxy in general and Salarians in particular, but they so far haven't gone to war with them.

Elcor are large quadrupeds similar to gorillas in size and stance. Their natural form of communication includes a combination of speech and other more subtle indicators such as pheromones that don't translate well when speaking to other species, so that they can't realy express emotion through vocal inflection. They've overcome this by prefacing each sentence with a statement of the emotion it's meant to convey, e.g. "Reproachfully: Please refrain from pointing that firearm at me."

The Hanar are an aquatic species that look like a combination between squid and jellyfish. Graceful and agile in water, they're a lot less capable outside it, relying upon mass-effect fields to let them 'float' upright. They're religious zealots, worshiping a precursor race called the Protheans, who they refer to as the Enkindlers.

The Reapers are the big-bads of the setting - massive biomechanical intelligences, each one having the size and capabilities of a massive spaceship, who generally reside in the 'dark space' between the galaxies. They are extremely ancient in origin, and have locked the galaxy into a cycle of destruction and rebirth in order to serve their own needs. Roughly once every 50,000 years, they invade the galaxy and consume all sentient life in order to reproduce - an entire planet's population may be broken down and used to form the genetic 'core' around which a new Reaper will be grown. They systematically exterminate all life forms in the galaxy that have grown to sufficient sentience to create any kind of technological society, and then, wiping the slate clean, they leave behind the mass relays and other technological assets that will allow new species to arise to form insterstellar civilisations, and retreat to intergalactic space, there to wait out the evolution of new sentient species in the galaxy, until once again those species develop to the point of being ripe for a new reaping.

The Protheans were the dominant species in the galaxy at the time of the last Reaping, and they managed to leave caches of information behind in order to clue-in the galaxy's current occupants as to the fate that awaits them. The Mass Effect trilogy revolves around the discovery of that information just barely in time to actually do something with it, and the subsequent attempts to prepare for and fight the invasion.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
These are all popular but imo overdone: mecha and kaiju, Lovecraftian horrors, HR Giger-style aliens, proud warrior races (Klingons 2.0), space elves (Vulcans).

I'd go for:
The Daleks from Doctor Who.
The Navigator's Guild from Dune.
Judge Death and the ABC Warriors from 2000AD.
The Green Lantern Corps and their sinister enemies from Alan Moore's Tygers.
A jungle planet with dinosaurs and a desert world with a dying civilisation from the Planetary Romance genre.
The monster from John Carpenter's The Thing.
Everything from Disney's The Black Hole.
 

Mallus

Hero
Devices like the Heechee ships from Pohl's Gateway novels or the Ring Gates from the Expanse seem like good things to borrow for an RPG campaign. PCs using barely- or not-understood alien technology to hurl themselves into the great unknown. Gateway + The Amazing Race. Or Gateway + The Great Food Truck Race. Or Gateway + Road Rules. Options abound!

I've been toying with starting a science fiction campaign that combines that with a satire of reality TV and/or social media, where the players are contestants/influencers/explorers with either an ancient alien ship or access to some stargates/alternate-universe portals.

Hmmm... using sci-fi portals as an analogy for the Youtube/Twtich/streaming-media rat race works pretty well. "Since the discovery of The Platform, millions of regular people sought fame and fortune in the Great Beyond... Not all of them made in back. None came back unchanged. More importantly, none owned the rights to their own content..."
 

Nobby-W

Far more clumsy and random than a blaster
I guess one could say It depends on what you want to do with such a game. Some random thoughts for tropes -

Sandboxes
If you want a sandbox game, a galaxy-spanning empire with complete freedom of movement is going to be a logistical nightmare to run. Traveller solves this problem by giving starships a relatively short range, which lets you set up a workable sandbox in just one or two subsectors. A few dozen worlds is enough to get you started.

Galaxy spanning empires
If you want to do a massive Star Wars style empire then you have the problem of generating content for it. There are various toolkits that you can use to roll stuff up on the fly. If you take this approach, you will get the sort of things that just randomly rolling stuff up will produce - it will lack cohesion. Ergo, you might be better off with a more plot-driven, railroady style of play in order to make this work. That means that this trope is in tension with the sandbox to some extent.

Poul Anderson had an interesting trope in his Polesotechnic league stories. The polity had some 4 million inhabited worlds, far more than one being could understand in a lifetime, let alone meaningfully govern. Ergo, you may have many smaller quasi-independent regions or polities.

Star Gates
If this is the only means of interstellar travel then you can moderate travel by requiring the use of star gates. This might facilitate galactic-scale sandboxes as your party doesn't have complete freedom of movement - effectively you get a point crawl. For a plot-driven game the freedom of movement question is less of an issue; if you want something more sandboxy then you might consider a star gate network. Back fill in whatever ancient culture you feel like to have built the network, or maybe it's a patchwork of local efforts. Blowing up people's star gates is considered poor form. See The Algebraist.

Magic, The Force, Psionics
Psi powers or similar tropes won't cause significant balance issues if they are equivalent in power to something that can be replicated through other means. For example, if a psionic attack is as powerful as a weapon, then an equivalent effect can be achieved by having a character armed with a weapon. If the effect is more like a high level D&D wizard, then you might have balance issues. You can have whatever social attitudes to it that you want, from the psionics suppressions of Traveller at one end, to the Jedi from Star Wars at the other extreme.

Post-Scarcity
Something like The Culture could be done with a narrative-focused system, I suspect, although I've never tried it. It makes interesting reading; whether it's a terribly good trope for a RPG is another question. I think it's so heavyweight that you would really end up building a game around it, rather than incorporating it into a general purpose sci-fi setting.

Mecha
Giant robots are another heavyweight trope. Generally, mecha fans want to play games revolving around the life and times of mecha pilots and their adventures, rather than playing an ex pilot having a midlife crisis in space. You can have them in the background or not, but I think that bolting mecha onto the side of some other setting isn't going to achieve much. It won't be enough for the mecha fanboys and nobody else will care.

Transhumanism
This is another fairly heavyweight trope. It's quite a domiant feature of Eclipse Phase, and was a major theme in Schlock Mercenary - the latter part of which put a lot of effort into exploring the implications of a society coming to grips with the technology. It's one of those things that's rife for mcguffinite abuse, so worth thinking carefully about the implications of it on your setting. Does your universe really need this?

Ancient mystical orders
Jedi, Bene Geserit, Time Lords, even The Foundation. Could one play a reverend mother or Jedi knight in your game without it becoming the centre of the game and reducing the rest of the party to hangers on? Are they just NPC factions in the background?

Gun Porn
What does your gun porn look like - Blasters and high tech, tacti-cool projectile weapons, warhammer (same but with more rivets). How gearheaded do you want to be?

Big ships or small ships?
I'm a small ships guy really - the Millenium Falcon, Serenity or Rocinante are far more interesting ships for a party than a mile-long dreadnought. Your party can run a small ship without having a gaggle of NPCs in tow, and you can do deck plans and suchlike for it much more easily. Mile-long star destroyers make good cinema but aren't all that useful in a RPG. Try to think of an actual use for one that couldn't be achieved by any warship too big for your party to pick a fight with.

Artficial intelligence
There have been a few different approaches to it, ranging from the ubiquitous A.I. characters in Schlock Mercenary or Star Wars through a more uneasy relationship through to outright bans on AI like Dune. What role do you want it to play in your setting?

Aliens
You can take the rubber suit approach like Star Wars and have a galaxy teeming with largely interchangeable sophonts. After some shakedown, I took an approach of requiring an alien species to have some playable mcguffin and be practical to run as a PC. Without those it's confined to NPC use only and doesn't really pull its weight.
  • If you take the warrior race trope, is this perhaps a warrior society. How well are they adapting to an industrialised, affluent, middle class society? Is their traditional short sword still worn as a fashion accessory? What do they do when a friendly, but ignorant human makes a terrible faux pas?
  • Space orks, vargr or other chaotic, factional races. What's their role in society, how badly screwed up is their homeworld that they prefer to travel offworld for years and work as a mercenary?
  • Tentacle creatures - alien aliens. What's alien about their personality?
. . . and so forth.
 

Dioltach

Adventurer
Having a huge, traumatising war in the recent past (like in Firefly, or to steal from fantasy, Eberron) opens up a lot of possibilities without forcing you into a dominant theme. You can have pockets of ongoing hostilities, rogue warlords, planetary devastation, abandoned battleships, profiteering corporations, forgotten warchests, uninhabitable hotspots, caches of prohibited weaponry, martial orders left without purpose, opportunities for trade (and smuggling), displaced populations, secret not-entirely-shut-down weapons programmes, propaganda-fuelled prejudices, and pretty much anything else you care to think of.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Some things are starting to coalesce.

1) I’m going to have at least one mechanical species. They will look a LOT like the spheres from the Phantasm movies. Behavior TBD.

2) There will be an organization of freelance “paladins” with lost tech (like monofilament swords), not innate powers.

3) Psi will be a thing, but mostly low-moderate strength. Truly powerful psi will be rare.

4) there will be some kind of lawless “badlands”

5) Gates will be the main mode of rapid long distance travel (which will contribute to #4 above)
 
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Eltab

Hero
The "paladins" swear an oath similar to the IRL Hippocratic Oath: obsolete gods fill in for "the greater good" and "all persons". One of their legacy inspiring documents is "Keep the Flame" from Traveller's Regency Sourcebook. Pull from IRL George Washington's Rules of Civility for day-to-day rules of conduct, and the IRL Benedictine Code for their (at least in theory) organization.

A "fallen paladin" - which should be rare but known to happen - can be confronted personally, via his proclaimed moral code, and/or with organizational discipline.

Unfallen paladins are favored troubleshooters for overstretched law officers in / near the Badlands Sector. They do not function the same in well-ordered society.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Takes Notes

A lot of good info in here.

We did kitchen sink sci-fi in the past by having multiple universes, and a fallen multi-universe empire. I think though basically doing a lot of planets such as from the Gaen Reach or Dumarest, can work as well.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
How familar with the game Stellaris are you? It's sandbox but there's ancient ruins, wormholes, star gates etc. There's 3 ascension paths.

1. Bio adaption.
2. Psionic
3. Synthetic

It pays tribute to a lot of sci fi from Trek, Dune, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Stargate etc.

The old D6 engine from Star Wars went open source years ago. You could overhaul that rather than build from the ground up.

Mass Effect has 3 basic classes.

Biotics.
Think psionics.

Soldier
Combat wombat

Tech Specialist
Basically an expert.

The other classes are essentially multiclass versions of the above 3.

Mass Effect Wiki
 
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Zardnaar

Legend
I used this briefly for some small games. Layouts not great.
DriveThruRPG.com

I didn't put to much though into it but they landed on a planet best described as tank world and basically played World of Tanks the RPG.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Some things are starting to coalesce.

1) I’m going to have at least one mechanical species. They will look a LOT like the spheres from the Phantasm movies. Behavior TBD.

2) There will be an organization of freelance “paladins” with lost tech (like monofilament swords), not innate powers.

3) Psi will be a thing, but mostly low-moderate strength. Truly powerful psi will be rare.

4) there will be some kind of lawless “badlands”

5) Gates will be the main mode of rapid long distance travel (which will contribute to #4 above)
Maybe the gates are starting to break.

D6 septimus kind of does this but the campaign is in a Dyson sphere.
 

MarkB

Legend
If you want a bit of fantasy/horror in your setting, the old Tom Baker era Doctor Who episode State of Decay had a unique take on vampires. The Great Vampires who were the progenitors of the curse of vampirism that was inflicted on the peoples of many worlds were not themselves humanoid, but were massive bat-like creatures with biological spaceflight capabilities who invaded our universe millions of years ago. They had immense regenerative capabilities making them all but invulnerable unless their heart was completely destroyed, shrugging off the energy weapons that most species used in space combat at the time.

The Time Lords battled them in what was known as the Eternal War, only defeating them once Rassilon developed the specialised vessels known as Bowships which could fire massive physical projectiles capable of destroying a Great Vampire's heart in a single direct hit.

So basically you have massive vampiric beasts spreading their curse on a planetary scale in order to harvest the blood of entire populations, and you still need to kill them with a stake to the heart, but in this case the stake needs to be about the size of a skyscraper.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I would almost certainly add some form of religion to the mix. Maybe with a nod to Warhammer 40K or the apocalyptic cults in the Alien franchise. It's a pretty predictable human response to aliens and certain kinds of tech, and it opens up a huge range of hooks and story arcs, plus it can add some useful frisson to a party.
 

Nobby-W

Far more clumsy and random than a blaster
I would almost certainly add some form of religion to the mix. Maybe with a nod to Warhammer 40K or the apocalyptic cults in the Alien franchise. It's a pretty predictable human response to aliens and certain kinds of tech, and it opens up a huge range of hooks and story arcs, plus it can add some useful frisson to a party.
I have a soft spot for A Canticle for Leibowitz (read if if you haven't - it's aged quite well) and have often put old-school Terran religions into 'verses - space Catholicism, space Islam, space Buddhism etc. Actually hanging out in a Catholic country (Italy, Malta, Ireland) puts it in your face with Catholic imagery all over the show. Islam is like that as well - In Jakarta at sunset the bats come out and the mosques all start up and you know you're not in Tunbridge Wells anymore. There's also a lot of Islamic imagery in the popular culture of Indonesia, although they're way more liberal about it than Middle Eastern countries.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
How familar with the game Stellaris are you? It's sandbox but there's ancient ruins, wormholes, star gates etc. There's 3 ascension paths.

1. Bio adaption.
2. Psionic
3. Synthetic

It pays tribute to a lot of sci fi from Trek, Dune, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Stargate etc.

The old D6 engine from Star Wars went open source years ago. You could overhaul that rather than build from the ground up.

Mass Effect has 3 basic classes.

Biotics.
Think psionics.

Soldier
Combat wombat

Tech Specialist
Basically an expert.

The other classes are essentially multiclass versions of the above 3.

Mass Effect Wiki
I don’t know Stellaris...or, for the record, any other major sci-fi CRPG of the past 20 years.
 

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