In session 3 of my ORWA campaign, the players successfully retrieved an ancient artifact. It was a flat green square, with little cylinders and boxes on one side; what you and I would recognize as a circuit board. They decided they weren’t getting paid enough for all the trouble they went through, and wanted to negotiate for more.
Figuring out who was even paying them turned into a little adventure all its own. By the end of session 4, the players had figuratively sold their souls to the devil, and sealed the pact by killing an innocent man. In exchange, they were inducted into “The Internet,” a secret society of techno-wizards, united in their efforts to someday escape from their doomed little habitat on Mars by building a space ship.
Ever since then, a dramatic change in the game’s genre has been looming on the horizon. Because, of course, my players want that space ship for themselves. If and when they do get it, ORWA will stop being about a group of post-apocolyptic primitives trying to make a life for themselves on a dying world. They’ll be able to go anywhere they want, and ORWA will become a wide open space epic.
It’s a change I’m excited for. Much as I love ORWA, the idea of having a campaign so completely shift from one style to another is enticing.
As of this writing, it’s been over 50 sessions since the possibility of the spaceship was first introduced. And that shift in gameplay doesn’t seem so far off anymore. I’d be surprised if we weren’t exploring the galaxy in another 20 or 30 sessions. And, once we get there, I’m going to need some rules for running a D&D game in space.
Unfortunately, none of the space games I’ve read will work for me. The majority seem to have drastically different design goals from classic D&D. The few games which do attempt “D&D in space” range in quality from “not what I’m looking for,” to “fucking awful.” There are useful tidbits here and there, but to get what I want, I’m going to need to stitch things together myself.
This shouldn’t be terribly difficult. Most elements of Science Fiction can be modeled by processes I’m already using. Aliens are just monsters, and planets are just hexes. The one big sticking point is space travel. Nothing in my D&D experience has really prepared me for dealing with that.
Of course, I’ve played in games where sailing or air ships have featured prominently. But they’ve always been treated either as a means of conveyance (moving the characters between adventure locations), or as a setting (actions take place on the vehicle, rather than with the vehicle). A space ship can (and will) serve in both these capacities, but I don’t want that to be the limit of its function in the game. The space ship should be a collective playing piece.
On land, each player has a character to serve as their piece, and through that piece, they interact with the game’s world. In space, those characters get stuck together in the ship. Wherever the ship goes, they all go, and if the ship explodes, they all die. That’s interesting to me.
That’s also why ships are usually relegated to being either a conveyance, or a setting. If the players only have a single collective playing piece between them, then most of the group doesn’t have any interesting decisions to make moment-to-moment. That needs to be fixed if this is going to work.
Given all that, I believe a higher level of complexity than I usually prefer is justified here. Ships need to explicitly facilitate every person on a space ship being able to make interesting decisions in every situation. It should feel like a true team effort, rather than just having a few decision makers, and a bunch of passengers.
Ships have 5 core numbers, which describe their basic capabilities.
First, there’s the number of hit dice the ship has. Ships of poor quality may have only 1 hit die, with better ships having commensurately more. A ship’s hit dice can be raised if the ship is overhauled by a skilled mechanic, which takes 1 month.
To determine the cost of increasing a ship’s hit dice, compare it’s current hit dice to the fighter’s experience table. All values are multiplied by 10. So, to get a ship from 1hd to 2hd will cost 20,000 money. To get it from 2hd to 3hd will cost 40,000 money. Values are not cumulative.
For each hit die a ship has, roll a d8, and add the results together, then add 10. This determines the vessel’s ship hull points (shp). In combat, successful hits against the ship cause shp to go down. At a repair dock, players may pay to restore their ship’s hull points
. Each restored hull point costs 250 money.
In order to deal one hull point worth of damage, an attack must deal at least 10 hit points of damage. Most of the weaponry that will be encountered in space probably deals shp damage directly. However, if a ship is attacked using a smaller weapon (like a sword), then divide the damage by 10, drop any remainder, and subtract the result from the ship’s hull points.
Third is Maneuverability. Each ship has a base maneuverability according on its size. Large ships start at 0, mid sized ships start at 3, while tiny ships start at 6. When a ship is attacked, the attacker must make an attack roll to hit, as in normal combat. The maneuverability serves as a ship’s armor rating.
If there is a pilot in the cockpit when an attack is made, the maneuverability of the ship will be modified by the pilot’s skill. Cockpits, of course, are a necessary module in order for the ship to function.
The fourth number is Space. Space is an abstraction of the internal size of a ship. Each module, explained below, will take up some amount of space. Any unused space is considered to be cargo holds, until it is used.
Finally, there’s Power. Power is provided by the ship’s engine, which (along with the cockpit), is one of two modules that are necessary for a ship to function. Without it, a ship’s power is 0.
At its core, combat functions the same way it does on the ground. Players operating weapons modules roll a d20 to attack, adding any modifiers they may have, and trying to overcome their target’s defense–in this case, represented by maneuverability.
On a successful hit, they deal damage to their target’s shp according to the type of weapon they are using.
If an attack rolls damage in the upper half of its range (so, for example, 4-6 on a d6), then one of the target ship’s systems is also affected. The referee should prepare a table of all a ship’s systems, and roll on it whenever this occurs. The system that is hit will take a penalty of -1 for every 3 points of damage dealt. These penalties apply to the system’s maximum power.
So, if a system can take up to 5 power, then with a -1 penalty it will only be able to reach power 4. Players may spend an action attempting to repair a damaged system, removing one -1 penalty for each round they spend in repair.
Each round, the ship can move at any speed up to its full movement rate, determined by how much power they’re feeding back into the engine module. Movement in space is measured in abstract units called AU. (Astronomical Unit). There is no specific distance tied to this measurement.
Modules are everything that makes a ship interesting. Without them, it’s just a big, empty, zero-gravity hull, where everybody needs to wear space suits to survive. Like a rowboat without any oars, in the middle of the ocean.
Each module is like a cross between a mini-character class, and a piece of equipment. Which module a character is standing at determines what actions that character can take. But, like equipment, characters can switch between them freely. Also, like any piece of gear, there’s always a better version out there. So instead of rewarding your players with a +1 sword, you may want to give them a +1 life support system.
There are two categories of modules: Passive Systems, and Action Stations.
Every type of module will have Capabilities, which are benefits they add to any ship they are installed on. Most of the time, these will be delineated by power consumption. The more power you pump into a module, the more it can do for you. Though, there are some passive systems which don’t require power at all.
In addition to its capabilities, action stations will have Manned Options. These are only available if there is a character currently attending to that station, and will require them to spend an action.
The lists of manned options are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, they are meant to give both player and referee an idea of the capabilities of that system. And, like any piece of equipment, systems can be used in creative ways.
The purpose of a sword is to stab enemies. But only a bad referee would refuse to allow a player to use their sword to lift a rug, or pry open box, or conduct electricity, etc. Anything that seems reasonable for a sword to do, we allow the sword to do. The same is true of spaceship systems.
Here are a few illustrative sample modules:
Engines (Action Station)(Variable Space)
The engine of a ship has two functions. First, it produces power which is used all over the ship to power its various systems. Second, it consumes power to move the ship through space. A basic engine will produce 1 power for every unit of space it takes up. Most take up 10 space, but larger or smaller engines are common.
- 1 Power = 1 AU of movement.
- 2 Power = 2 AU of movement.
- 3 Power = 3 AU of movement.
- 4 Power = 4 AU of movement.
- 5 Power = Faster than light travel.
- Allocate Power (1 Combat Round): If no one is attending the engine, it takes a full adventuring turn to change the way power is allocated around the ship. If someone stays at the engine, and tends to it, they can do the same thing in a single combat round.
- Coordinate Maneuver (1 Combat Round): By communicating with the pilot, and manipulating the engines to assist in their actions, the engine operator can add 1 to the pilot’s skill for that round. (Even if this would push it above the normal maximum)
- Flare Engines (1 Combat Round): Intentionally unbalance the fuel mixture, causing a brilliant flash of energy to erupt in space. This will temporarily disrupt the sensors of any ship that is too close, and will confuse any target locks currently on the player’s ship.
- Overdrive: Enable the ship to move up to double the speed allowed by its current level of power. Each round this persists, there is a 1-in-6 chance the engines will fail, taking a penalty equal to the amount of power they were using at the time of failure. So, if the engines were consuming 4 power, then a failure causes the engines to take a -4 penalty, which will need to be repaired.
- Overproduce: Enable the ship to produce double the power allowed by the amount of space it currently takes up. Each round this state persists, there is a 1-in-6 chance that the engines will fail. Their output will drop to 1d6 – 1 power. Each successful repair check will restore one point of lost power.
As the players adventure, they may discover, or have the opportunity to purchase, better engines.
- Level 2 Engine: The first four power levels all produce +1 AU of movement.
- Level 3 Engine: Creates 2 power for each unit of space it takes up, rather than only 1.
Cockpit (Action Station)(2 Space)
Someone must be stationed in the cockpit in order for the ship to move at all. Anyone can handle the basic functions. Getting from points A to B, taking off, landing, docking, these are all things that anyone qualified to work on a space ship at all will know how to do. They are trivial.
However, there is a piloting skill, which characters may train in, or put skill points into. Unlike most other skills, this is not a die roll where the chance of success improves. It is a static number, starting at 1. It can be raised as high as 6.
While a character is piloting a ship, their pilot skill is added to the ship’s maneuverability rating.
- 1 Power = Basic Function. Allows the ship to be controlled. Without this, the ship can only stand still, or move in a straight line.
- 2 Power = Enables the autopilot, which is capable of performing any simple flight function. Has an effective pilot skill of 0.
- 3 Power = Autopilot has a skill of 1.
- 4 Power = Autopilot has a skill of 2.
- 5 Power = Autopilot has a skill of 3.
- 6 Power = Autopilot has a skill of 4.
- Evasive Maneuvers (Combat Round): Prevents any enemy weapons from gaining a target lock during this turn.
- Subtle Flying (Combat Round): The pilot may make a stealth check using their own stealth skill, to fly their ship with subtlety. This functions similarly to how stealth normally functions. However, bear in mind that there’s pretty much nowhere to hide in space, so most movements will end in an “Observed Location.”
- Formation Flying (Combat Round): Position your ship close to another object, while moving.
- Navigate Obstacles (Combat Round): Move through an environment full of potential hazards without taking damage.
- Cockpit Requiring 4 Space: Has room for a copilot. Both pilot’s skills can be added together. Cannot add more than 8 total to the ship’s maneuverability.
- Level 2 Cockpit: The autopilot has +1 skill at each level.
Life Support (Action Station)(2 Space)
Standard on most ships.
- 1 Power = Either artificial gravity, OR, a livable atmosphere.
- 2 Power = Both artificial gravity AND a livable atmosphere.
- 3 Power = Enable Blast Shielding on doors.
- 4 Power = Enable Foam-Based Fire Suppression System
- Selective Application (1 Combat Round): Can single out rooms to have, or not to have, any particular aspect of Life Support.
- Remote Door Operation (1 Combat Round): Open or close any door in the ship, including external ones.
- Reorient Gravity (1 Combat Round): Determine a new direction for gravity to pull in. May be done selectively.
- Adjust Atmosphere Mix (1 Combat Round): Usually, the atmosphere is a healthy mix of oxygen and nitrogen. This can be manually adjusted to be more or less pure oxygen, or even to include other compounds which the player may have access to.
- Level 2 Life Support: The listed options for each level of power move down one.
Living Quarters (Passive System)(Variable Space)
A comfortable living space, where the crew can rest and relax. For each unit of space devoted to living quarters, a ship can support 2 people.
Having living quarters allows the ship to function as a Haven, for the purposes of rest and recovery. Does not allow for other haven turn actions, such as carousing, or training.
Living quarters do not function unless Life Support can be maintained at 2 power for the full period of rest.
Obviously this is just a few of the possible modules. I’ve got a whole list of ideas, which I plan to share in a later post. Hopefully, though, this has given you an idea of how modules should work. It’s not terribly difficult to write up new ones, making the ship system infinitely extensible.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that the complexity of this system already terrifies me a bit. There’s a good idea here, but I worry I maybe took it too far. I’m not sure what I’d want to remove, but it’s difficult to imagine how this system would work at the table. I’m sure, once I have some play experience, I’ll have plenty of ideas on how to simplify.
For now, the ship is going to need its own character sheet. Something prepared by the referee, with all of the ship’s modules listed. and a space to notate each module’s current power and damage. Each player would need a copy of the sheet to help them describe where they go and what they do.
NPC ships, like NPCs themselves, would need a dramatically simplified statblock. Something a referee could throw together in a moment anytime their players are going to be accosted by mooks.
If these ships really are too big to handle at the table, I could see removing the whole concept of power from the equation. That would dramatically simplify things, but it would be sad to lose. Forcing the players to choose between having gravity, and having an extra punch to their lasers is a really interesting dilemma, and a classic aspect of any SciFi adventure.
I could also see dropping the explicit “Manned Options” from the action stations. They exist in their current form because I want to make clear to the players that they can get creative with systems they might not normally think of, such as life support. But the classic danger of this, exemplified by 3rd edition, is that players will think they’re locked in to only the explicit options, which is the very opposite of my intent.
Potentially, you could break the various modules up into component parts. So “Life Support” would go away, and become Atmosphere, Gravity, Door Control, and Fire Suppression. Power, instead of being a gradient of increasing effect, could be a simple on/off. A module either has power, and is functioning, or it doesn’t, and it isn’t.
What we lose there is a clear guide for how to do something like “divert all auxiliary power to the shields!” Though, I suppose that could be handled via adjudication at the table.
…fuck. I think I just came up with a better idea for a ship system while writing the closing paragraphs. I honestly might end up going that way.