sci-fi homebrew kick-off!

There is something inherently cool about kicking off a brand new roleplaying campaign. You sit down at the table, not sure what to expect, but you are excited to get to know your new characters. You start to play, and quickly your characters take shape in ways you never would have expected. The game goes places that even the game master could have never foreseen, and before you know it, those characters have taken on a life of their own.

We kicked off our homebrewed science fiction campaign this week in an all-day gaming session. This game marks our first foray into creating and running our own game setting, a project that began almost two months ago over a cup of coffee and a conversation about how much fun it would be to play a true Space Opera-style science fiction game. We talked about something that was one part Mass Effect, one part The Shiva Option and two parts Firefly, with maybe a dash of Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars thrown in. We wanted jump gates, alien races and miles-long capital ships whose construction would have stripped entire planets bare of natural resources. We wanted a back story full of politics, tension and outright war, but framed in a time of relative peace and expansion. This expansion would be lead by massive survey ships, constructed by the allied races and funded by megacorporations as they probed the fringes of known space for worlds rich with valuable resources or prime for colonization.

From there, the hard work began. We poured hours and hours over the last few months building out the back story and the history, the races and the technology. Stat blocks, special abilities and house rules. We built characters, ship schematics, encounters and new enemies, and it all came to fruition this week.

What went right?

The game system – Our first question was what system we were going to use to run our game. We quickly settled on d20 Modern (with the d20 Future supplement) as it is built to be a generic rules set, and basically offers “snap-in” rule sets depending on what kind of game you want to run. Want starship battles? They’re in there. Want Mecha? Check. Cybernetics? Mutations? Psionics? Yeah, it’s all there. The use of “progress levels” to group and control the availability of various technologies is also very handy. With a system this flexible, I was a little worried that I would be able to build appropriate encounters – this was GMing without a net! In the end, I followed the advice from the book closely, and things turned out pretty spot on, so kudos to the designers.


The party opens a door in the rear of the ship--to discover a giant vat of salsa!

The premise – We wanted to make sure the campaign had a core premise that allowed for a wide range of adventures to take place (this is one of the main reasons we wanted to play a space opera in the first place). We ended up setting our characters as the crew of a venture ship – small, privately run crews with their own small ships who attach themselves to one of the survey ships and take on work for both the Alliance and the ship’s patron corporation. This setup made for a smooth and interesting start to the game, and it set the campaign up to be highly episodic, which is something we really were driving for.

The characters – We spent months on fleshing out the characters and the “group template” that explained how they all found themselves together. With the “venture crew” concept, each character has a specific job to do in the team, and some specialists would be expected. We would need a pilot, an engineer, a electronics & computer wiz, a doctor/scientist, a pair of hard hitting hired guns and of course a captain.

Skill challenges – Playing in a far future campaign feels much less limited than playing a fantasy campaign in terms of the things your characters can do. In fact, there is no end to the opportunity to use non-combat skills. For example, you are on a derelict ship… First, have your engineer re-route power to get the operations center back up and running, and then call up the blueprints and hack into the security system to see what is going on. Skill challenges played a huge and very fulfilling part of the game, and it gave each character a moment in the spotlight where they became invaluable to the crew (including the doctor’s emergency surgery she performed to save the gut-shot captains life!)


Our 2-dimensional heroes do battle with a flying gun drone.

Cardboard minis – In general, there is a lack of good sci-fi miniatures on the market. Plus, I really wasn’t into the idea of dropping a bunch of cash on figures for a campaign that would primarily played online with only the occasional face-to-face session. The answer – cardboard miniatures! I build a quick template in Microsoft Publisher, and then populated the little cutouts with pictures I harvested from various sites around the internet. They end up looking great, and you even have the opportunity to have a figure that looks “exactly” like how you picture your character (if you can find the right piece of art!) If you aren’t into making your own, a company called Precis Intermedia makes a line of customizable cutout miniatures they call “Disposable Heroes” and they seem nice enough and super affordable. They even sell the little plastic stands like the ones you see in my pictures (although I harvested mine out of my original Battletech box set.)

What went wrong?

Metagame Creep – While d20 Modern shares the same core mechanics as 3.5 D&D, it is very different in the way you build and progress your characters. The base classes are built around the six core abilities, and you end up needing at least four or five levels those in before you can branch out into the more specialized “advanced” class. Cross-classing also seems much more prevalent, as the core classes are much less “role defining” than what we have been trained to expect from D&D. These differences lead to some early meta-gaming as we were trying to develop characters that could excel at their given role (say, the ship’s science officer) but were still capable combatants. It wasn’t a huge problem, but eventually you just have to accept that everyone has a job they are best at: The mercs do most of the front line fighting, while the “skilled” characters need to be a little more opportunistic in the way they engage.

The captain ended up being the most difficult character to bring to the table, as he should represent a truly extraordinary person – he needs to be tough, capable in a fight, smart enough to take care of business side, all while having the magnetic charisma we have all come to expect of a captain. When we picture this kind of captain, we pictured someone who was half Malcolm Reynolds and half Han Solo – I had to remind Ferguson that he wasn’t playing the same captain that you see in the movies, has was playing that guy at the start of his career. That seemed to be the critical idea that got things back on the right track, but in the end, it hardly mattered – freakishly, the majority of the captain’s attack rolls were natural 20s. I think he pulled off almost 7 or 8 critical hits during the course of the game, making him seem like an uber-badass even given lackluster combat skills. Just another example of how the dice can influence character development.

Marker on the vinyl – Last but not least… Make sure that the marker you are using on your vinyl battlemap is really a wet erase marker. Because dry erase markers can look exactly the same, but dry erase markers don’t come off. I’m just saying.


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