When setting out to write an RPG, it is useful to consider all the influences which you have had along the way. Starguild was a long time in the making, and these are some of the key things which affected design decisions about what I was doing.
The influence of Star Wars
Watching Star Wars in the cinema in 1977 was the most amazing cinematic experience that I’d had to that point in my life. I loved the beat-up, used and lived in universe that was portrayed. I loved the starting point that placed it in a distant past, far far away. I loved the exciting space fights, the mysterious jedi knights, the light sabres and blasters. Like everyone else, I had never seen anything like it, and the wonder stayed with me.
So naturally when I was first designing Starguild, one of the primary influences was Star Wars. I wanted to have exciting space battles. I wanted to have people blasting away at each other with futuristic weapons. I wanted to have a mysterious order of knights from the old days who used some kind of hand held energy sword.
There were a few things I didn’t want to import from Star Wars. I didn’t want to have the smorgasbord of alien life forms, and I didn’t want to have the giant spaceships which were the size of small countries. My upper limit for spaceship size is roughly the same as the size of modern naval aircraft carriers or similar capital ships.
While I enjoyed the somewhat hard sci-fi of Traveller and later 2300AD, I was happy with leaning more towards the Space Opera genre with my game. Futuristic pseudo-science is still an important grounding for the game, and much of it isn’t far-future technology. You won’t find any self aware robots, let alone the Star Trek magical transporter devices, matter creators or holodecks.
Most of all though, I wanted the rules to support playing the kind of adventures which I would see in Star Wars. Rip-roaring adventures. Plucky individuals taking on fearsome opponents at long odds and winning through regardless.
The influence of Babylon 5
Ah, what a TV series Babylon 5 was! I was late coming to it, but a friend named Guy told me it was worth a look (and briefed me on the plot of the Deathstalker episode) so I gave it a go and was hooked. It was the first time that I’d seen a science fiction story on TV which was going somewhere.
Star Trek and every other science fiction series basically pressed the reset button at the end of every episode, so there was almost no character development. I understand that maybe at that time the TV execs thought that it would alienate viewers if they came in part way through a series and couldn’t easily understand it. I don’t know. Babylon 5 might not have been the first TV series to do this in a big way – as a novel over 4-5 seasons rather than as a collection of short stories – but it was the first one that I ever became aware of.
So what is the influence which Babylon 5 brought to the Starguild RPG? It informed the political regimes. I realised that my originally planned background of a single empire with planetary governors wouldn’t give me nearly as rich a tapestry in terms of sorting out adventures and adventure scenarios.
I like the idea of several powerful regimes with distinctive ethos, and distinctive starship styles. The main regimes are the Holy Republic, the Martell Union, the Gateway Alliance and the Keron Federation. There is also the League of Stars – a loose collection of otherwise unaligned worlds.
The Four Regimes
The Holy Republic is shaped by their religion. Politically they tend to be aggressive, pious and secretive. Their buildings are blocky, as are their ships, with hyperdrive units mounted on external pods.
The Martell Union has a reputation for being militaristic, confrontational and quick to take offense. Their buildings tend to be cylindrical and so do their ships, with hyperdrive units mounted as rings.
The Gateway Alliance have a reputation for being pragmatic and resourceful. They use domes for their buildings and have vertically flattened starships.
The Keron Federation is the oldest of the regimes, rich with history and ceremony. To the other regimes they are seen as decadant, snobbish, foppish and machiavellian. Their build with shining spires, and their starships are notable for spine mounted generators.
So now traders in the outer reaches of Alliance space might feel a shiver down their spine when they realise that they are being tracked by a Republic vessel. Or an increase in the number of Union Angelships might indicate an increase in diplomatic tension. Four powerful competing regimes gives plenty of opportunity for intrigue, corruption and mystery. Putting the Noir into the Starguild RPG.
The influence of Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu was probably the first RPG which revolved around horror, and specifically the unthinkable horrors of the lovecraft mythos. Stories which had aliens with inimical or unguessable motives. Whose way of thinking or whose very existence was damaging to humans. Worse, it was often in an uncaring, just happened to be passing kind of way. They didn’t set out to destroy us, they just didn’t care. Perhaps they didn’t even notice. That is the kind of aliens I wanted to see in Starguild.
A short digression on aliens
For me, the worst kind of aliens were those portrayed on Star Trek most of the time. A minor bit of makeup on the bridge of the nose and otherwise indistinguishable from humans. Cheap to do for tv, obviously. But an approach that I always found deeply unsatisfactory. Star Wars wasn’t much better – they had a wider range of makeup, and they went even more wild when cgi became available for that kind of thing. But still basically men in suits.
The next step was Babylon 5 in my opinion. They had several major and minor species which were distinctly different in appearance. Even the ones which looked superficially similar (such as the Centauri) had very different internals which were often plot points – the location of major arteries or Centauri reproductive apparatus particularly spring to mind. They also had races whose form was harder to classify and whose motives and actions were often incomprehensible such as the Vorlons and, especially in earlier parts of the show, the Shadows.
But what if aliens were all less comprehensible?
Ironically one of the best attempts to portray really alien aliens was way back in the dawn of RPGs; Empire of the petal throne was published in the mid 1970’s and most of the playable races were pretty weird in outlook as well as appearance, particularly the Ahoggya. Furthermore the foes of men – the Ssu, Hlyss and Shunned Ones were utterly inimical. Their thought processes were so alien that there could be no dialog or rapprochement.
This brings me back to Cthulhu and the lovecraft mythos. The concept of vast uncaring powers, of races whose very existence is difficult to comprehend, that is the alien substrate which lies off screen in the Starguild cluster. No playable alien races, but the possibility of alien threats.
The Horror save is an integral part of the game to support adventures which encounter alien life and alien terrors. The game includes a brief history which point to records of an enemy and of watchers, but those are not yet defined for your game. You can take that where you will, I have had great mileage in using some Cthulhu aliens and published adventures as the seeds for adventures in my own campaigns. The further into the outworlds you go, the more unearthly things could get.
So in Starguild, when you think alien, don’t think pointy ears or funny limbs. Think of unknown, incomprehensible horrors which might just mistake you for scenery.
If you are lucky.
The influence of Spycraft
One of the great things about the OGL open gaming license was that it allowed many games companies to produce a raft of games which were broadly compatible and yet introduced new systems and subsystems which contained some really interesting ideas. Spycraft came out in about 2006, and I’ve already described the influence it had on how character backgrounds work in Starguild. There are two other elements it hugely influenced.
They identified that scenes of chase, torture, seduction and the like are typically key dramatic moments in the genre, but tend to have been badly served in the past.
What they did was introduce a series of complex little mini-games to cover those dramatic conflicts. It looked like it might be fun, but I didn’t want to have an additional, completely novel game mechanic to handle it.
My solution was to extend the damage save mechanic to incorporate “dramatic saves” and use an extended version of my skill task mechanic. Some environments or situations are inherently more risky, and so participants can choose whether they want to succeed by winning the task themselves, or gambling that their opponent will not be able to face the risk and be forced to give up.
There are two main categories of dramatic conflict – chases and drama. Chases are subdivided into foot chase, vehicle chase and starship chases. Dramatic conflicts include manhunts, infiltration, net running, interrogation and large scale battles.
These are all situations were it is necessary to keep your wits about you, and so Intellect saves are used to avoid problems.
Spycraft had a great section on organisations, quantifying them and giving them real personality. Taking advantage of the OGL, I’ve been able to use substantial parts of this.
Organisations have a rating which reflects their size and power. The rating can be composed of a variety of points in history, goals, image, sites and equipment.
Each History rating point gives them one descriptive element of their corporate history (such as Betrayal, Rivals or Respected). Members of the organisation are so familiar with these that they get a +2 bonus on using specific activities – Intuition, Drama saves and Style respectively.
Each Goals rating point gives a clear goal for the organisation, and members of the organisation get a bonus conviction point if they are on a mission which is aligned with one of those goals (such as Anarchy, Exploration, Greed or Secrecy).
The Image rating reflects the amount of PR which goes into either publicising things or hiding them. Normally there is a ‘recorded’ level of information about an organisations goals, methods, leaders, members and sites. Each image rating points allows one of those areas to be made more or less prominent or secretive. Two points could make an area renowned or mysterious.
The Sites rating indicates the number of planets upon which they have special sites, and also the specific type of sites which give improved access to some kind of equipment. An organisation with sites 3 might have Armour, Harbour and Airstrip on three different worlds, giving better access to armour, watercraft and gyrocopters/dirigibles in three systems.
The Resources rating indicates the type of resources and maximum value of items which can be requisitioned by members of the organisation. An organisation might have Medical equipment, Espionage equipment and personal weapons of up to Cr50,000 value available.