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Creating a retro-futuristic, swashbuckling Space Opera

Yora

Legend
I decided to take a break from my big, long running fantasy setting but then got caught by a sudden excitement to create a space opera campaign in an original setting, heavily inspired by classics like A Princess of Mars,
Dune, and The Empire Strikes Back, and drawing heavily on 1920s aesthetics. I am currently eying Stars Without Number as a system, but I also have to read Scum and Villainy again before making a decision. Both seem like strong candidates for having a relatively rules light campaign with fast flowing action tomfoolery.

Thing is, I never did any sci-fi campaigns other than Star Wars, and even with that setting my experience is mostly with anything but gamemastering. So I am turning to your collective accumulated wisdom, which has been hugely helpful in the past. I am looking both for advice on how to structure campaigns and run adventures, as well as any useful pointers on making a setting work well as playable game setting instead of just an idle thought experiment.

Since this is always the first question which these things, here's what I've decided so far:

The setting is part of some galaxy that is inhabited by a dozen or so species, none of which are Earth-Humans, but several others make good picks for players who want to run a "regular person". The overall aesthetic is very much art deco decadence with Late Western feel on the frontier worlds.
Since I hate to mangle any real science and promote lies about physics for the sake of dressing the world up with fake legitemacy, faster than light uses the most made up fantasy vesion that is Hyperspace. No existing laws of nature are broken, there is just somehow another dimension ships can enter where the laws are different and you can travel to a point corresponding to the other side of the galaxy in hours. The technology is also fairly cheap and uncomplicated, so it's available to freelance space truckers. However, navigation in Hyperspace is super complicated and requires using pre-plotted routes, of which only a handful are added to the catalog each year. (This makes players having a spaceship extremely easy for me as GM.) After a jump, a ship arrives somewhere close-ish to the star it aimed at and then has to fly to it's destination planet at sublight speed for several hours. There is also artificial gravity on ships, which is made of pure handwaveium, since such a thing would be impossible with physics.

I really like the fake-retro-futurism style, but instead of lasers, this setting uses rail guns. Which are just like regular guns in all ways that matter, but more futuristic. (It also means ships must get pretty close to hope hitting anything.) Since knives are really dangerous in a gun fight at close range, and fights on ships are at extremely close range, and also because most places that forbid weapons have passive railgun power cell detectors, lots of people have big blades and know how to use them.

Since mature industrialised societies have so far always stopped growing in size and are often decreasing in population, the populations of the dozen or so species are not terribly huge. Maybe a 100 billion in total, spread out over more than a hundred planets with permanent established populations. Other than the homeworlds, most planets have only a single country with a few million people, with the rest of the land being effectively uninhabited. And of course there are countless minor worlds with small colonies of just a few thousand or even only hundred people.

Because all stars are made of the same stuff and and elements are distributed pretty evenly across the galaxy, there are no planets that are really special in their resources. If you want to mine something and there's already someone on that planet, it's much easier to just go to any of the thousands of identical planets rather than fight for a claim. The setting does not really have territorial disputes as such, and accordingly there are no wars of conquest. Space fleets are more police forces or coast guards than militaries, who primarily deal with criminals and uprisings and don't fight each other.

Since I just removed the two primary sources of conflict in space opera because of realism (in a setting aimed at a more fantastical style), I came up with the following idea: Resources and space are effectively unlimited, and interstellar transportation is quite easy and affordable. People who don't like how things are run where they live can just grab their things and start a new colony somewhere else. But few want to live as dirt farmers growing food with muscle power alone and want all the conveniences and comforts that they are used to. Which means these things have to be imported, and to pay for them you need something to trade. So most colonies end up supporting themselves with small scale mining or some other simple products they can produce locally with limited means. But as established, no planet has special resources that can't be bought in countless other places. To make it worth the while of big industrial companies to fly out to some frontier colony for a few hundred tons of ore, the prices they pay for the resources are dirt cheap. Don't like it? Try to find a different buyer. All the other companies won't pay you any better. (Because they are all one big cartel that fixes prices.) The same companies are also often the only supplier for any imports the colonies need, which makes the colonists extremely exploitable. And since they left the reach of their homeworld governments, there's no laws to protect them. The companies have no interest to see the colonies fail, but will only pay them as much for their resources as they need to continue to survive with their opperations. They also pull such stunts as only selling machine parts with a short service life (the good stuff is only sold in the homeworlds) or seed grain that can grow on dificult alien soils but will grow into sterile plants. Just to force the colonist to keep paying through the nose forever.

The colonists know that they are trapped, but many also know how they could get out. A small colony of 10,000 people wouldn't be able to build and run a factory for their own computer chips, but if they pool their resources with several of their neighbors, they can form a Cooperative to run a joint communal factory that is economically viable. Or they could buy a shared ore freighter to sell their resources for better prices on the homeworlds. Too bad there is no authority that keeps the big corporations from sabotaging such efforts with every dirty trick in the book. This is the primary central tension I am envisoning for the campaign.

While the corporations are effectively cyberpunk Megacorps, I think they will fit the themes and aesthetics I am going for better as early 20th century industrialists. Lots of space operas have space nobility. I want to go with merchant ariatocracy. Their corporations are not publically traded or government owned, but the personal property of small private families. They don't have noble titles, but are lords in every sense that matters. (I have to look up the office titles for private corporations.) I think medieval Italian merchant and banking families would also be a great source to draw from. The governments of the homeworld are such big and important customers that they can make demands and set terms for doing business in their systems, so the companies play fairly nice with them. But on the frontier where they are dealing with lots of individual small players, they can be as exploitative as they want.

This accidentally ended up as a really obvious capitalism critique, which is something I actually think needs no fixing. But a great piece of advice someone mentioned to me today was to make it not just innocent colonists against evil industrial barons. That's a pretty banal and one-dimensional conflict with little depth that is difficult to make into interesting stories. As a leftists who has no shred of love for any communist governments and in permanent pain at the idiocy of people who believe to strive for the same noble goals (I'm sure there has to be a term for us), I see much more interesting stories happening between the colonists factions and the corruption of some groups and leaders. A workers republic governed by the people as equals should not have an autocratic tyrant, but somehow they keep popping up all the time. And the workers of the world have always had a hard time to unite even within a single city. I think in addition to corporate saboteurs and intimidation squads, the campaign could have great antagonists in the form of would be dictators who want to turn their Anarcho-Syndicalist Commune into their personal fiefs, or local community leaders who are getti g personal bribes or beneficial contracts for their colonies for stalling cooperations with neighboring colonies. Given that the concept is based heavily in 1920s aesthetics, including 1920s social issues fits very well and not shoehorned in, and it's also contemporary and relevant.
And of course space pirates. You can also use some more space pirates.

The big question in the room is the role of Player Characters in such a campaign. I am tending towards a default setup as a freelance small freighter crew that is trying to make a living, but quickly sees all the messed up stuff that is going on every day and then is free to decide how they could get involved. There's so much corruption everywhere that one could easily use the situation to make a nice personal profit if one is so inclined. Or one could step on the toes of the companies by making delvery runs with goods from the homeworlds for affordable prices that the colonies are not supposed to gain access to. And as tbe companies are concerned, who would ever notice a small freighter disappearing out in the frontier. And who would care if they did.

I feel this is a very solid concept, but the galaxy is still completely free of any specific details. I'm open to any kinds of comments, be it about the concept outlined above, suggestions for stuff I should look into, or general pieces of advice for such a kind of campaign.
 

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aco175

Legend
I don't get the part of not having humans, but having some race that is similar in role? Whey not just have humans? Players understand them and feel comfortable with them. I think it its the most played race in D&D for this reason.

There could be some robots as well. Maybe not Star Wars, but big brother AI like Hal or such.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
I don't get the part of not having humans, but having some race that is similar in role? Whey not just have humans? Players understand them and feel comfortable with them. I think it its the most played race in D&D for this reason.
This.
@Yora , you know your fellow players better than any of us, but I have personally experienced “0 humans” settings are among the hardest to get players for. Even if someone doesn’t expect to play a human, most players seem to want the option.

Rail Guns are cool, but because of the magnets you need, I like to reserve them for heavy weapons- mostly vehicle mounted or carried and used by at least a 2-man team (barring creatures with GREAT strength) as opposed to personal sidearms. But there’s a host of other Sci-Fi versions of RW weapon designs that could be used for close-quarters combat. Gyrojets were always a favorite of mine. Needle guns. Sonic blasters. Vertigo-inducing lasers. Nerve disruptors. Glue Guns. High-density gels that work like beanbag rounds.
 
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I don't get the part of not having humans, but having some race that is similar in role? Whey not just have humans? Players understand them and feel comfortable with them. I think it its the most played race in D&D for this reason.
As a player and GM, not having humans is a way of divorcing players from the "just a translated me" mode of play.
It only works some of the time.

There are a number of settings where humans do not exist or exist only in the past. Albedo, Mouseguard, Dark Crystal, The Time Machine.
Others were there are very few humans: Narnia, Barsoom, The Last Starfighter
And others still where humans are mostly no longer what we consider human: The Time Machine, Thundarr, Planet of the Apes, and a number of post-holocaust stories assuming massive mutation.

Beneficial mutation settings are often quite interesting, being essentially street level superheroes/supervillains, but without the "let's make a positive difference"/"let's get stupid rich" and with every T/D/H having some power... such as Alpha Complex of Paranoia, or the Gamma Terra of Gamma World.

So, the "No direct human reference" mode has several options. If the rules used have actual humans, but those are not in the setting, the need for a human reference to understand the stats is much mitigated.
Having multiple understandable near-humans allows for close reference, but also allows justification of other abilities normals don't, and possible also limitations baseline humans don't, or even more relevantly, ones humans have but don't want to admit to.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I am currently eying Stars Without Number as a system, but I also have to read Scum and Villainy again before making a decision. Both seem like strong candidates for having a relatively rules light campaign with fast flowing action tomfoolery.
What’s your creative agenda? Stars Without Number and Scum and Villainy are at different ends of the spectrum. One is OSR-adjacent while the other is a Story Now game.

I am looking both for advice on how to structure campaigns and run adventures, as well as any useful pointers on making a setting work well as playable game setting instead of just an idle thought experiment.
I haven’t played or run Stars Without Number, but I assume it is similar to Worlds Without Number. There’s a faction game, and there are tons of tables you can use for adventure and sector creation. The projects subsystem should also port right on over if you want your PCs to be able to effect large scale changes.

If you’re going to run Scum and Villainy, the faction game is really important. The PCs are going to get into trouble (it’s designed into the game), and that will have consequences. The Scum and Villainy book has all the tools you need to make that work. Be mindful of your principles and best practices, and when in doubt, explosions.
 

Yora

Legend
What’s your creative agenda? Stars Without Number and Scum and Villainy are at different ends of the spectrum. One is OSR-adjacent while the other is a Story Now game.
OSR games aren't automatically OSR games. ;)
They share a common way to make die rolls, which is drastically different from PtbA games. But aside from that, many games that are traditionally included under the OSR label are really designed and presented as story games. To which I would definitely count SWN. That game isn't a dungeon crawler of attrition and resource depletion. (Which is why parts of B/X are notably absent from Worlds Without Number.)
Knowing Blades in the Dark, which seems to be almost unchanged in Scum and Villainy, they are all designed for pretty similar experiences.

Though from what I have seen from partial reading and repeated browsing, SWN is quite light on anything about actually running games. The Sector creation system and System tags are nice tools to come up with very broad strokes ideas for places that can be visited, but what to do with it is left to GMs abilities.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
OSR games aren't automatically OSR games. ;)
They share a common way to make die rolls, which is drastically different from PtbA games. But aside from that, many games that are traditionally included under the OSR label are really designed and presented as story games. To which I would definitely count SWN. That game isn't a dungeon crawler of attrition and resource depletion.
SWN has the traditional GM-player relationship where the GM is responsible for putting together adventures. In contrast, the GM in Scum and Villainy shouldn’t be doing that kind of prep (or much prep at all). That’s not to say one can’t run SWN like a Story Now game, but it doesn’t come with the principles or mechanics out of the box.

(Which is why parts of B/X are notably absent from Worlds Without Number.)
I can agree with that. WWN appears focused on adventure-driven sandbox play, and SWN seems to be the same way.

Knowing Blades in the Dark, which seems to be almost unchanged in Scum and Villainy, they are all designed for pretty similar experiences.
I think the only major mechanical change from BitD is the inclusion of gambits.

Though from what I have seen from partial reading and repeated browsing, SWN is quite light on anything about actually running games. The Sector creation system and System tags are nice tools to come up with very broad strokes ideas for places that can be visited, but what to do with it is left to GMs abilities.
The recommended flow is to ask the players what they want to do for next session and then use the adventure creation tools to prep for it (starting from the goal and working back from it). It’s pretty similar to WWN (minus the need to prep dungeon maps and stuff like that).
 


Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I don't get the part of not having humans, but having some race that is similar in role? Whey not just have humans? Players understand them and feel comfortable with them. I think it its the most played race in D&D for this reason.

There could be some robots as well. Maybe not Star Wars, but big brother AI like Hal or such.

I actually dont mind a no human set up in a setting like this, sure they're still going to be "sapient, upright bipedal tetrapods, standing 1.5 -1.8m tall" but why not make them red coloured, egg layers from Barsoom? or Green skinned Orions?

As to the OP, SWN is great
I you're willing to consider Fate Accelerated I'm liking Aether Sea atm
 

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