Monday, 7 November 2016

Hints & Tips - Fourteen Elements of Starship Design for Sci-Fi Gamers

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Designing a starship that suits you, your gamers and your games.

Interstellar sci-fi games often revolve around one thing: starships. Many players of these types of games become quite passionate about starship design and starship capabilities and this can create various game related problems. Also, while most sci-fi roleplaying games have their own systems for starship design and implementation, the following tips might help further flesh out your game's starships and give them some added character.

1. Harness Player Passion

Players of the game, both GMs and attendees alike, love to tinker, modify, and list the abilities of their starships. The great space-battle type games cry out for such designs and players will want to ensure that if they get into any trouble they have the vessel to do the job. This can lead to all kinds of designs, even down to the smallest items, systems, and capabilities that the designer can squeeze in to cater for every eventuality. This is all fair and good--nothing brings a more genuine smile than when the starship successfully does something it was designed to do.

To make your job of campaign preparation easier, try to harness the enthusiasm and passion the players have for starship design and let them tackle as much of this game aspect as possible. This will include players at a higher level of game involvement and will greatly increase their campaign satisfaction.

2. Ensure The Starship Design Serves The Game

Player driven, detailed ship design can make things a little problematic for the GM. If the ship has a system or gadget for every eventuality, then the game is going to be a little predictable and adventure challenges too easily solved. The GM should ensure that he/she isn't giving into Player Pressure or the Cool Factor and that the design of the ship suits the game.

'Player Pressure' is when the players either continually badger the GM to allow them just 'one more addition' to the ship, or they gang up on the GM with tables of rules, costs, and dice rolls to get their own way. Don't fall for it! If you cave in and allow the modifications, then the players will think they can always get away with it and maybe with other rulings as well. If they want a great ship part make them work for it. A high price, lack of availability, or even a series of adventures earning the right to have the part will make them think twice before pressuring you again.
'Cool Factor' is the GM falling into the trap where they themselves think that the fast, sleek, manoeuvrable ship is a good idea and allows the modifications, but then regrets their decision later on. When the players get into trouble they easily get out of it, not once but many times, until the encounters become repetitive and predictable. It's easy to get caught up in the Cool Factor trap, but if you refrain from going overboard in your design then you'll appreciate the vessel later on in the game. It can make for a good game when the players get protective about their ship, even if it is a dilapidated old freighter, and it gives the vessel more character.

3. Vessel Purpose

What the vessel is designed for will decide many other factors of the design process. A simple hired transport will not be large and will have a limited crew and cargo capacity. A destroyer could be huge, with space for war machines and troops, serving a crew of hundreds. A survey vessel might be large and have a crew of varying scientific skills and abilities. Deciding what a vessel was originally built to do gives a sense of purpose and ability.

4. Size

Vessel size will determine the crew complement and capability and will influence many ship systems. A small freighter might have half a dozen crew with several different responsibilities divided between them. A great liner-type ship will have a crew of dozens, even hundreds, with whole teams of people dedicated to a single ship's operation, such as the engineering crew or attendees.

Size will also help determine where the ship can and cannot go. A smaller vessel could dock with a space station and land on a planet while a larger vessel might have to park next to a station or planet and ferry crew across in shuttles. A small ship will be able to manoeuvre through an asteroid belt whereas a larger ship might be a sitting duck.

Size can also be an indicator of strength. A small ship might take two hits and be destroyed whereas a larger vessel might need to be hit a hundred times before the damage is regarded as severe.

5. Control Systems

The command area of the vessel is the nerve centre of the whole construction. As in the TV/Movie series Star Trek, the bridge is the single most important part of the starship, so you'll have to design what's required in the cockpit/on the bridge.

If it's a small trading vessel, it might just be a pilot and co-pilot taking care of business. A huge exploratory ship might have a dozen or more workstations scattered about the bridge with several personnel on duty taking care of tactical, navigation, or sensors. Consider also, how much control does the bridge have over the rest of the vessel? Decide what systems tie directly into the bridge/cockpit and what systems will have to be travelled to directly to operate or influence.

6. Power Systems

The heart of the vessel is its power core. The core's job is to supply energy throughout the vessel so it's important to determine:

a) What is the vessel's power source?
b) How dangerous is it?

Perhaps it's a new form of clean fusion that presents very little danger, or maybe it's concentrated fusion that emits high levels of radiation that need to be heavily shielded to protect the crew.

The energy core, and the auxiliary systems in case things go wrong with the main power, should be designed with two things in mind:

a) What would happen to the ship if the core shut down?
b) What would happen if it leaked or got damaged?

Power is a requirement on starships, but the dangers of harnessing that power should be considered.

7. Life Support

Crew requirements need to be taken into consideration. Mainly, these requirements are the simple things in life, that of air to breath and an acceptable temperature to survive in. Gravity is also a necessity on long voyages to avoid muscle and bone degradation but may not be possible in your game's setting. Either way, the life support system will need to be considered to keep the crew alive.

Depending on the setting and on what species of crew you have on board, the life support ability may vary from one section of the ship to another. It's all fair and good taking on alien passengers, but if your atmosphere is lethal to them it's not going to be a very long stay.

8. Sensors/Communications

It's all very well going off on deep space adventures, but it makes things difficult when you don't know what's around you or not being able to let other people know what's going on.

Sensors come in varying packages. Either they have a long range and give you full details of what's around you, or they have a limited range and simply pre-warn you of any approaching objects.

The sensor ability will depend on the vessel's purpose. A warship will have multiple sensors that will identify threats and targets, with tactical details of the targets being presented to the viewer. Research vessels may have a broad spectrum of sensors that may be able to track and probe life forms, minerals and atmospheres. A smaller vessel may have a simple proximity-warning sensor that bleeps when something comes too close.

Communications may vary also, depending on the technology level you're gaming in. The signals sent by a starship may take weeks to get to their intended target, meaning the vessel really is alone in space. Alternately, the signal might get to the target instantaneously, using subspace/light speed technology to relay the message.

Communications will help determine risk. If the players get into a dangerous situation and a distress call will take two weeks to reach a friendly location, is it worth it?

9. Sublight/Supralight Drive System

Starship speed is an important game factor, especially during those exciting chase sequences, or cavalry type 'to the rescue' scenes. Speed takes two forms:

a) Sublight speed, which determines how fast a vessel can cover distances between planets within a solar system.
b) Supralight speed, which, if the vessel is capable of such a thing, determines how fast a vessel can travel between solar systems.

Sublight can take the form of thousands, even millions, of kilometres per hour depending on the capability of the ship. Smaller ships may get to certain places faster but have a limited fuel supply whereas larger vessels may have a longer range and a huge supply of energy to burn up.

Supralight is the speed that enables the vessel to get between stars. This can be any speed the GM wants, with a drive that enables the vessel to get to a star in weeks, or a drive that might enable the journey to be completed in days or even hours. There are also drives that could enable a vessel to instantly appear within a solar system, taking no time at all. It depends on the GM and what he/she thinks will work for their game. Long voyages can be adventures in themselves.

10. Crew Support

The crew can breathe and walk about your ship, but what do they eat? Where do they sleep? Is there anything for the crew to do to relax? Long journeys can be tiring, especially cooped up in a vessel, so the crew will want to be able to relax between shifts, especially if it's a large crew on a large ship.

A small ship may have a few music/video programs or games to keep the players entertained (like the holochess board on the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars movie), or entire decks may be put aside for rest and relaxation on larger vessels (as in the holodecks in the Star Trek TV/movie series).

Food is a concern, especially if more than one species is working on the ship. Does the vessel have a galley or do the crew quarters each have their own kitchen/dispenser? What do they eat? Concentrated food, tablets, or full meals from a stocked kitchen? When resupplying at a station you can top up fuel or get repairs, but food is also a necessity. Also decide how and where the crew has downtime for sleep and personal chores. They may all share dormitories, have their own quarters, or share with one or two other people. They may even be jammed in like sardines, like on a submarine.

 11. Extra Vehicular Support

Getting on and off the vessel is important in both duty and emergency. Duty involves the normal boarding/disembarking from a starship in various ways. Perhaps the crew is shuttled in on smaller vessels that are permanently stationed in a hanger in the starship on large vessels.

Shuttles and landing craft may be used to get to and from planets and stations, but perhaps the crew is 'beamed' to their destination by matter transporters instead.

What about an emergency? Does the vessel have enough lifepods or lifeboats to get everyone off? How long would it take? Smaller vessels may have one or two lifepods to cover the crew, whereas bigger vessels may utilise lifeboats so large that they are small starships in themselves. Decide on entry and exit points on your starship and what they are used for.

12. Offensive/Defensive Systems

So, the ship is flying about the cosmos when - gasp! - Pirates/Enemy Ships/unsociable aliens suddenly attack it. So, what is the starship you have designed capable of in a fight, and how well protected is it under fire?

Offensive weaponry can come in many forms, as in missiles and lasers, but what does your ship have to offer? Again, this goes back to the purpose of the vessel. Warships may be bristling with gun emplacements and torpedo tubes, a research ship may have a few weapons for defensive purposes, and a smaller trading vessel or a fighter may have one or two weapons suited to the kind of enemy it may encounter.

What can a ship do to protect itself? Does it have armour plating? Energy shields to block shots? Perhaps it can launch countermeasures to confuse targeting computers and missile guidance systems? It sometimes pays to think beyond what damage a ship can do and consider what damage a ship can take.

13. Ship History

To give the vessel some character, consider what other adventures and missions the vessel has been involved with before it appeared in your game. If the ship is brand new then this is not a consideration and the game itself will determine the ship's story.

Older vessels, either second-hand ones or ships the PCs have been stationed to, may have a long history however. Has there been many previous owners? What adventures has the original crew had in the ship?

The age and any modifications done to the ship since its launch date might be worth looking at as well. An old, dilapidated warship may be no match for a modern battleship, like matching a World War One frigate against a modern day aircraft carrier or destroyer. But the age of the ship, and what it's been involved in, makes for great character. If you give it the same kind of character history as you do for NPCs and PCs the ship takes on a life of its own.

14. Visual Design

Visual design can certainly vary, but take one thing into consideration - aerodynamics is not a problem! The vacuum of space means no friction, meaning any ship of any shape, no matter how outlandish, can travel the stars. Visuals can be determined by yourself (if you have artistic tendencies) or pictures can be utilised out of most science fiction books and even space science websites, such as

Again, that's GM discretion. If you want to take a jumbo jet, knock off the wings, and slap a great big cannon on top of it, then there's a spaceship straight away.