spaceships in space

A TTRPG session in progress. Sticky notes in the middle of the table represent a starship and its various modules, with dice placed on top of them to represent available resources and power assignments.

These past few months, I've been working on a TTRPG that I'm now calling "Veil Runners", and I've been having a blast.

Playtesting instead of fantasizing

A trap I've gotten caught in literally every time I've tried to design a TTRPG since I left college, is to spend a lot of time writing and designing, and planning to one day get some people to playtest it... when it's ready... any day now... just got to finish this one thing... and write a little adventure...
But this time around, my hand was "forced". I've started going to a local fortnightly TTRPG meetup in town, and they asked if I was interested in GMing. So I said yes, and bashed out a rough and dirty rules-light apocalyptic vehicular combat thing, and went from zero to one-shot in a couple weeks.

Actually playing the game does a load of great things:

  • Obviously, I get to see how the system actually performs, and where it's not great
  • I also get to see where it's good, and can lean into the qualities
  • And sitting around a table, watching people have a blast playing my game does wonders for my motivation!

Where it's not great

The dice system is brutally hard, and I'm still trying to finagle with it.
But more importantly, I found that the experience I was trying to build is something I'm not particularly good at. I wanted grimy, angry misfits, scavenging their way through the wastelands, and I just don't know how to pull it off.
I don't have the right touchstones, it's all very monotonous in my mind, and I don't know how to get buy-in from the players.

Spaceships in space are a vibe that I'm way more familiar with, and so I tried a hack of the system, putting the players aboard a starship, diving into the veil, a region of space shattered by a galaxy-spanning anomaly, with ghost planets, godlike AIs, spacetime distortions, and entire civilizations stranded aboard their generation ships.

Where it's good!

The first couple playtests, I had the players first create their characters, and then create the vehicle together. The players really enjoyed designing their vehicle. In "Rust Skunks", the apocalyptic version, one crew fitted a battering ram shaped like a bird's head to the front of their rig, another asked me how many extra engines they were allowed to equip because they wanted to go fast.

I quickly swapped things around, in Veil Runners, the players first design their starship, deciding on a role, retracing its history, and building up the specialized systems it's been fitted with to survive in the veil.
And only then do we move on to creating the characters. This leads to really good inter-character relationships. The players need to figure out why their character has chosen, or at least found themself bound to, this particular starship.

Sitting and playing

The fortnightly meetups have been amazing. So far I've played with complete strangers, strangers and my boyfriend, and my sister and her family. We've woven weird little sci-fi/twilight zone stories and had a blast!
The first Veil Runners crew stumbled upon a derelict space station. An interstellar relay meant to guide ships and transmit messages across the cosmos, possessed by an AI that is able to control minds and duplicate itself into computation systems, including the player character's frail human brains.
The second crew tracked down a generation ship with millions of suspended souls on board, kept in stasis. Despite running its reactor cores at full power, it had barely enough energy to keep the passengers alive in stasis, and a single distressed shipmind desperately begging for assistance. The ship was caught within the projection of a nearby moon, a massive parasite, feeding off of the radiation produced by the ship.

Boosters on!

Where Veil Runners shines right now is in one-shot or episodic games. It's designed to tell single self-contained stories, put a lot of pressure on the players, but also give them plenty of room to come up with cool solutions (e.g: build Faraday cages to protect themselves from the telepathic AI!)
It's fairly rules light, the GM doesn't roll dice, and it leans heavily into "partial success" mechanics to keep the story moving forwards.
Right now it requires a GM who is able to think on their feet, and also happens to be me. Mostly because there's no written content for it. I want to build a nice collection of tables and ideas that GMs can dip into to build situations for their players. I think there's room for a diversity of vibes and themes, even though I've been heavily leaning into space ghosts and mysteries so far.

Currently, the game is played only with sticky notes, pens, and six-sided dice. I'd like to keep it that way.
I like six-sided dice for their simplicity and coarseness, and I feel like there's something more tactile and immediate that larger dice to have.
Sticky notes for the ship and character sheets are also super fun. Inexperienced players are reassured to see something simple and chunky, where a character sheet with a bunch of numbers might be a little daunting for some. Also, at the end of the session, stacking all the notes together into a neat square "for next time" feels great!

I have a page on my website for Veil Runners (wip), and also for Rust Skunks (also wip, but there's more info). They'll be updated as I work on them and flesh them out.

Posted: July 2nd, 2023

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