Airplanes, Mecha, Space Ships–Oh My!

In my post about Elite Dangerous a reader names Gordon pointed out that there will be a roleplaying game based on the computer game. At first this sounds like an awesome idea, but on second thought I noticed a few problems with RPGs like this. In the computer game you’re the Commander of your own space ship and that’s exactly what most people would love to play in the RPG. But does this work in a roleplaying game?

If everyone pilots his own space ship what keeps them from splitting up and exploring the universe on their own? And what about the one guy who doesn’t want to pilot a space ship? While this might not be entirely impossible, it’s extremely hard to give everyone equal time in the spotlight – especially if someone is piloting an awesome space ship and the other plays a feeble space janitor.

In the case of larger space ships the problem can be alleviated. Every player character should be able to have a function on the ship. And in a way the space ship is more akin to the players’ base or home. But in the case of vessels piloted by one person only, things can get messy.

This problem regularly crops up in games based on board games or videogames that revolve around airplanes, mecha, space ships, et cetera. You either force everyone to be a pilot, or you make the pilot profession unavailable to everyone. A third alternative is to ask every player to have several characters – a pilot one and one support character (like a technician). We tried this approach in a Mechwarrior 2nd Edition game. It worked quite well, even though it messed with my immersion. It just feels weird to me, running more than one character if I am not the GM. Your mileage may vary of course.

I am very intrigued by games like Dream Pod 9’s Terra Nova and Jovian Chronicles, but I am not sure if I’ll ever run those. In the past I’ve even thought about using the setting of the now defunct MMO Earth & Beyond (in which each player piloted a small space craft) using for a RPG, but quickly threw these ideas out of the window, because I couldn’t find a solution for the “everyone-has-their-own-space-vessel” problem.

So even though I love games in which players can pilot powerful mecha or fast jet fighters, I rarely run these because of the reasons mentioned above. And I think the upcoming Elite: Dangerous RPG might have similar problems. Or perhaps it’s not the games’ problem but mine.

What do you think about this issue? Have you run games involving airplanes, mecha, and space fighters? What did you do if someone wanted to play a non-pilot character? Please share your experiences below.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “Airplanes, Mecha, Space Ships–Oh My!”

  1. In my space opera games, I’ve made Player Characters work their way up to becoming the crew and/or owners of a starship. Each P.C. takes on an essential role — pilot/helm/astrogator, communications/diplomat, engineer/mechanic, captain/mission leader, medic/xenobiologist, etc. If there’s more than one pilot and the group ship is large enough, fighters can be launched to assist during combat.

    In my most recent campaign, the adventurers worked their way up to being promoted by a space navy. The team commanded a task force of about a half-dozen ships. Depending on the mission or session, they could keep their current roles on the flagship of the small fleet, or they could take control of smaller ships and corresponding crews (in D&D terms, I suppose they reached “name level” or Lvl. 10).

    Designing vessels, support staffs, and missions was fun, but the role-players eventually agreed that it was tough to manage so much over a longer period, so they reverted back to two ships with the ability to call on the others for support as needed. Still, it is possible….

    1. I also forgot to mention that once the gamer decided to crew two ships, they made up secondary characters so that they’d be able to participate in any scene or session, regardless of which ship we focused on.

  2. The ones that have worked for us are mostly Mecha games. of the ones I’ve played with the group.
    _Battletech_ – more of a minis approach in this one we did a Mechwarrior game for three months which was really wrapped around the boardgame with down time and side events played in rpg mode. It was a blast.
    We tried a similar thing with _Jovian chronicles_ but ship battles in that with players playing commanders using Lightning Strike was deadly.
    _Aegis Project_ is possibly one of the best for integrated play (Mech and other types) really fun stuff and close enough to trad-rpg that its easy to pick up. .
    _Remnants_ is a truly excellent trad-rpg as is _Warbirds_ (I prefer the WWII setting a’la Achtung Cthulhu style) we have had short sessions of each and these campaigns are technically both still running.
    _Mecha_ by Chris Perin is solid too. You could very easily use them as “Ship” rules, I’ve used them as Tanshuman “sleeve” rules with out really a hack.
    _Mechton Zeta_ is good with Starblade Battalion setting making it even better. Although it didn’t last long I think we had maybe four sessions I really wish the GM would pick it up again.
    The rules for Warstriders in Exalted work in a fun way and I found it easy to run.

    Ship rules I’ve used are _Traveller_ which honestly are meh YMMV.

    The rules in _Ashen Stars_ for ships are really playable and we had fun during Dead Rock Seven with the rules. So much so we had more space battles than strictly necessary.

    We are about to start a Firefly game and the ship rules are very flavorful again and you could easily have the players running their own ship each particularly if you adopted the cortex plus “pathway” rules there you make the milieu by connecting the players to the relationships with People,places and objects in the setting which you make up with rules – you could actually do this simply using these rules the game is not Trad-rpg really because it would be all about the way you “feel” about things and the melodrama pursuing your goals creates. Sounds fun to me.

  3. Let me turn your question upside down for a second…

    You have this exact same problem with fantasy games, and you probably just don’t know it.

    Is everyone in your party a war-horse riding knight? maybe a few mounted-archer and/or mongol types?

    or are some of them riding in the cart/wagon, while a non-knight drives the cart/wagon?

    Or, do you not really care, because the plot rarely involves horse-mounted and cart-mounted fights? So, when they come up, you sort of wing it a little, and just don’t let that happen very often? The rest of the time, the plot happens away from these moments of travel … even though they still happen just like space ship travel happens in a space opera. Just because it happens, doesn’t mean it has to be part of the plot time.

    The answer to how you handle this with fantasy games is, IMO, exactly the same as how you handle it with space ship games.

    Everyone on their own horse is exactly the same as everyone in their own space ship… yet, no one complains that everyone in a fantasy game probably has some amount of horsemanship and/or cart-driving skill. So, why would they complain about everyone having at least a basic level of spacecraft piloting skill, in a space opera game? (show me a character in Star Wars that they ever depict as unable to pilot a ship … or Star Trek, for that matter; some characters REALLY shine as pilots, but _everyone_ is a passable pilot … even Leia pilots the Falcon at least once, and she’s not depicted as being a pilot AT ALL; R2 does a little maneuvering of the X-Wing when Luke isn’t in it, but that might only be taxiing … C-3P0 is probably the only character depicted as completely unable to pilot anything)

    Conversely, everyone riding in one wagon, with no one really paying attention to the details of that … is pretty much the same as everyone being a crew-member/passenger on a big space ship.

    And, you can mix-and-match. Maybe PCs pair up as pilot+gunner, and the party is a flotilla of 1-3 person craft. A flotilla of patrol craft (big enough for their own bunks, galleys, and cargo, but not big enough to house the entire party at once). Maybe they can do rudimentary docking or shuttling between the craft.

    Maybe it’s like Battle Of The Planets, where there’s a medium ship that has the FTL drive, lots of smaller 1-3 person craft that are light and heavy fighters (and/or a research/cargo shuttle), and they smaller craft dock to the medium craft for FTL jumps, sleeping quarters, etc. … they split up for battles, and they regroup for long distance travel and day-to-day life. Some PC’s stay on the medium craft to man several gun turrets, or to operate special equipment (sensors, tractor beams, etc.), while the others are on the smaller fighters (acting as pilots and gunners). You can also think of this model as being “flotilla of small fighting boats + 1 moderate sized tender ship.”

    (in the Star Fleet Battles “Star Fleet Universe”, you would do the “1 flotilla of patrol craft” by spreading the PCs across a PF flotilla, of mixed PF types … maybe a leader, a scout, a fi-con, a few battle models, etc. … and then the “1 flotilla + tender” might be a partial PF flotilla + a Frigate or Police Corvette with PF-Tender modifications)

    (and, you can make a similar comparison between pirate sailing ship games to “all PC’s are in one cart/wagon” and “all PC’s are in one big spaceship”, except the transition from gunnery to boarding is balanced a little differently with sailing ships vs space ships)

    But, really, you’ve already solved this exact same problem in Fantasy games, and Pirate games … you just have to ask how you handle it in those games, and then see if you can apply that same solution.

    1. Yes john you have nailed it right there with the fantasy comparison. Honestly our Warbirds campaign is just like that. Some of the players are into being pilots, others are all about being grease monkeys, one is really a trader/fixer/black-marketeer. There are distinct going places scenes, other times there are battles, some happen in the sky and are exciting for that, others are normal ground combats neither scene strictly involves everyone.

      I forget if it’s Aegis project or Mecha however there is a a game mechanic which simply allows you to “fall” into a scene you where not in. We use it one in every game. It’s one of those things where it’s like …. Why didn’t we allways do it this way… The retconing you do on the story to get players “situated” is great for everyone at the table.

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