Build Your Own Starship

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #446

Build Your Own Starship

From Brent P. Newhall

Many sci-fi settings involve the liberal and exciting use and abuse of starships; you board ’em, you fight with ’em, and you fight in ’em. You’ll probably be creating new starships, either as player character vehicles or as environments.

So, how to make a starship that rivals the Millennium Falcon? Read on.


What will your ship be used for in the game world? Hauling cargo? Ferrying passengers? If it’s for combat, is it more of an aircraft carrier with lots of space for vehicles, or a destroyer mostly devoted to guns?

Start with the ship’s primary function, and figure out how it’ll be used. For a carrier-style ship, obviously it needs to store and launch sleek Starfighters. This means the fighters must be kept near some kind of exit. For a cargo ship, the cargo containers should be easy for the cigar- chewing crews to reach.

Also think about crew size. This is partly a function of the technology level of your setting. In Star Wars, droids and computers don’t do much, but in other settings there might be greater automation. Will the ship need human (or alien) gunners, for example? A ship with a large crew will need quarters for them, plus a galley, toilet facilities, probably a rec room, etc.

Is your ship capable of atmospheric entry? If not, it can have a very weird shape, since it needn’t be aerodynamic. As long as the ship’s bulk is properly aligned to its thrusters, you’ve got a valid design. You can’t have just one thruster on the bottom of the ship’s design with the bulk at the top; it would spin.

Also remember that a space-only ship won’t necessarily have a specific “up” or “down.” You can even spin part of the ship to create artificial gravity, if your setting doesn’t have gravity generators. Remember the ship from 2001?

Let’s have a practical example: we’ll design a cargo ship. The cargo containers need to be easy to access, so we’ll imagine two rows of hexagonal cargo containers, one on each side of the ship. A long corridor connects the two rows.

The engines and thrusters sit in the back of the ship, while a roughly pyramid-shaped cockpit is at the front. The containers can be accessed from space, or from doors inside the central corridor. Various air supply systems, fuel lines, computers, etc. run along the top and bottom of the central corridor.

For long flights, the crew – maximum of two – will need a place to sleep, eat, etc., so let’s also place a small square room with fold-down beds and such between the cockpit and the central corridor.

Gameplay Use

Unfortunately, nobody will actually be jumping through hyperspace in the ship you design. You’re designing a ship for a role-playing game, so how will it be used within that game?

Will there be hand-to-hand combat inside the ship? If so, keep that in mind during ship design. Spatial design is tricky; starships tend to be fairly cramped, but if you want half a dozen characters all fighting in the same room, it needs to be relatively large.

Let’s say the players in our game are Star Patrol officers relegated to an out-of-the-way planet, and this ship rockets through the system suspiciously. According to protocol, the players must inspect this ship for contraband.

The pilot is smuggling lethal, banned weapons and attack drones. When the players board the ship, he runs into a container, grabs a weapon, and opens fire. After a few moments, he activates a couple of attack drones. Thus begins a wild corridor shoot-out.

This implies a few design decisions. How are the container doors locked and unlocked? He’ll need some way of doing so quickly, so we’ll say he has an ID badge that he can swipe at the door. This offers a hacking opportunity to a PC with appropriate skills.

The ship better not be vulnerable to internal small weapons fire! So we’ll add to the ship’s design a note that it’s heavily shielded inside.

The smuggler also needs to be able to activate the drones. Can he walk up to one and switch it on? Does he need a remote activation switch? Let’s say it’s the latter, which he keeps with him, and there’s a spare in the cockpit if a PC thinks to look for it.

Cool Factor

You must think about cool throughout your design process. Does the ship’s design excite the players?

I think it comes down to two factors: familiarity and implied story.

One reason that the Millennium Falcon looked so cool was its circular shape. It looked like a flying saucer! But with a cockpit and guns and a radar dish! In other words, it looked familiar. A Klingon Bird of Prey looks like a pterodactyl. The incredibly awesome Swordfish II (Spike’s ship) in Cowboy Bebop looks like a drag racer.

The original Enterprise didn’t look cool at the time, because of its completely unfamiliar shape and layout. Newer NCC-1701 designs do look cool, because we’re now familiar with the design. They all echo that comfortable original design, which we’ve all grown up with.

Let’s go back to the Millennium Falcon. More than its familiarity, the incredible amount of detail on that ship, from the burn marks to the pockets to the mish-mash of design elements, implied adventurous background. It told you of vicious battles and nail-biting escapes.

Same with the original Enterprise design, actually. Why would anyone design a starship that looks like a child’s drawing of a molecule? That question drove geeks and engineers to write articles and buy official technical manuals for decades.

Let’s return to our cargo ship design. We’ve got two rows of containers, linked by a passage, with a forward cockpit and crew room. That looks like a jet pack to me, so I’d tweak the design elements to enhance that look. I’d change the container rows to be cylinders, ending with cones, and the cockpit would be minimized so that it looks more like the control/fuel lines on a jet pack.

And we’ve got ourselves a cool starship! Follow these principles – function, gameplay use, and cool factor – when designing your starships, and you’ll have a ship that players will talk about for months.

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A Brief Word from Johnn

10 Reasons Why RPGs Are a Positive Force for Everyone

Check out this great article by Martin over at Gnome Stew that advocates for roleplaying games. It’s intended to serve as an introduction for parents, significant others, and friends who don’t know much about Dungeons & Dragons or other roleplaying games, and might be a bit wary of a hobby that can — at first — sound a little odd.

Short URL: 10 Reasons Why Roleplaying Games Are a Positive Force for Kids and Adults Alike

Basement Lighting a Drag

We game in my unfinished basement, which my players have affectionately dubbed The Dungeon. I have one electrical outlet, two ceiling light sockets, and crappy lighting for my games. I’m looking for ideas on how to rid ourselves of the washed-out yellow glow from the incandescent, make the area a bit brighter, and perhaps adds a touch of ambience.

I’m not looking for red and blue bulb ideas, or to install a disco ball or strobe. 🙂 Candles and other low light sources are also not desired.

Do you have any ideas on how I could improve the lighting for my game?

Have a game-filled week!

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For Your Game: Magic Item Backstories

The magic item contest is over, and we received a lot of great responses. Here is the first batch.

Branding is Everything

From Roger Barr

Ever had one of these days? Your band of courageous adventurers have entered the dangerous depths of a dungeon, battled and slain great and small creatures within, and then needed some quick healing to get you on your way to hauling that large treasure horde back to town for a celebration.

Pop the seals off of the top of a couple of unmarked healing potions, toss them back and wait for the magic to begin. That grimace your fighter is making is not from the pain, but the gods-awful taste of the concoction! Some of those unbranded potions leave an aftertaste that sticks around for hours or days, and ruins any hopes of enjoying celebration feasting.

The problem is that most people who can make potions have no clue what they will taste like and honestly don’t plan on needing to use them, so they don’t care. Some might say if a man has a sucking chest wound, he may not really care what the healing potion tastes like, but Master Ferric disagrees. Why add to the sufferings of someone who is already in such pain?

Ferric’s Healing Potions taste and work the best, so ignore the rest!

Any spellcaster who has mastered the art of infusing magical spells into a liquid alchemical medium knows the list of what is required is not one that allows for a lot of room.

What they don’t know is that Ferric the Master Brewer has achieved such a mastery of this art he can offer a number of different flavors on his healing potions.

He also offers to augment the flavor on any other non- healing potions that people bring to him, a particularly popular service with people who rely on potions often.

Why buy from someone who has just barely achieved the skill to brew his or her first potions? Go to the master, and taste the quality difference!

Also, Ferric will buy back the stoppers, offering repeat customers a discount on the next purchase!

GM Notes: Campaign Uses

Players can be requested to seek odd components while out adventuring, or can be hired on as workers and guards in chartered expeditions for Ferric’s team of reagent gatherers. They might be asked to try to encourage the brewer to take his business elsewhere by the local folk who could be losing business with him in town.

The biggest thing to keep in mind with all of this is the fun you can have with minor variations in such a simple item. Potions, like any other magical item, can be basic and mundane, or individualized and branded. Ferric’s have a logo on the cork stopper that is branded into it and enchanted to be impossible to alter.

The offer to flavor other potions might actually be a clever trick to get a sample of someone else’s work to test what recipes they are using. Some brewers may not appreciate such intrusions.

Ioun Stones

From Will Hopkins

Most adventurers are unaware of the origin of Ioun stones. Many believe that they are simply magically-infused stones.

In fact, they are soul-fragments of Ioun, an ancient eladrin sorcerer. Ioun grew quite powerful over her lifetime, powerful enough to attempt a soul meld with a deity. She attempted to fuse her soul with that of Corellon Larethian and thus achieve immortality.

Unfortunately for Ioun, she was unable to sustain the link for the amount of time needed to complete the soul meld. When the link closed, her soul was shattered and the corporeal fragments are known as Ioun stones.

They grant some of their power to users, and the remnant of the soul meld is exhibited when they hover around a user’s head.

Grimwood Longbow

From Gillian Wiseman

The Elves of Grimwood had long been known as the finest archers of all Miraboria. Since before the fall of the Second Empire, their archery skills had come to life in legends. Most famed were their beautiful and powerful black willow bows, masterfully crafted composite bows of magical power.

But the Elves of Grimwood faded away centuries ago, and their bows are now rarely found. And when they are discovered, their magical powers are sadly lacking. Not only do they fail to strike with perfect accuracy, they do not shoot any truer than an ordinary longbow, despite the aura of magic that any wizard can detect upon them.

It is not apparent, nor can any divination less powerful than Legend Lore reveal that the magical powers of a Grimwood Longbow are only available to a pure elf. When in the hands of an elf, the bow becomes a +1 weapon. When taken back to the Grimwood itself, the true nature of the bow is revealed; under the eaves of the Grimwood, any of these bows becomes a +2 keen bow.

DM’s note: this power is assumed to work while above ground, in any place where the Grimwood encircles the bow’s wielder on at least 3 sides. Standing under a tree at the edge of the forest counts, and so does stepping out into a clearing in the woods, but stepping into the open beyond the trees immediately drops the bow to only +1 condition. When in the hands of a non-elf in the forest, the bows are +1 keen, not +2.

The Gem

From Roger Nicholls

Stories abound about “The Gem.” Supposedly the size of a man’s fist, rumours say the gem is green in colour, although when held up to the light a myriad spiral of colours can be seen swirling around inside it. The truth about the gem is indeed a dark entry in history.

The gem is a prison for an ancient Djinn. The Djinn can still influence the outside world, but only when the gem is owned by someone who truly obsesses over its worth and value. That person effectively becomes cursed by the item, and as such slowly starts to suffer.

Others who see the gem only see the positive luck the gem seems to bestow upon its owner, and not the negative effects that happen in the background.

As an example, the positive might be that the owner starts to gain incredible wealth, but the negative could be that all of his family start to die from mysterious illnesses. He spends his wealth to find a cure, only for the illness to spread into a local town. What happens if the players find the ring in a treasure trove? How can the Djinn be released? What happens if the gem is destroyed? Can it be destroyed?

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? Perhaps related to something you read in this issue? Or a tip on how to game master better, be more organized, plan better, improve roleplaying, run fun combats, or be a better storyteller?

E-mail your tips to [email protected] – thanks for sharing!

The Perfect Gaming Environment

From Psykie

I have been reading the back issues again, and a problem seems to arise a lot: that of the perfect environment to play in.

My group has set up a few things, and has changed it from other styles. Firstly, we do not use a laptop at all. Originally I had one in front of myself, but I found some players became distracted by it, and one in particular constantly wanted to use it to check a forum he visited. So I have everything on paper, which also makes it easier to look at multiple files at once.

Secondly, I block out any outside light. Then I use candles to get a softer light in the room. This also generates a bit of heat, but that can be solved by having a quiet air- conditioner, or fan in the corner.

I cover any non-important surfaces with black cloth, and, if needed, put up curtains in the room to block off non-important places. I play in my bedroom, so I put up a black curtain between my table and my bed. This also disables people from lying on the bed during play, which is incredibly annoying.

Lastly, I sit on one of the longer sides, rather than at the head of the table. This enables me to be closer to the action, and allows me to alter the battlemat better.

It also means I am theoretically next to every player, so passing secret notes is easier, as well as talking directly to one. It also makes it easier to divide up turns. I can point specifically to each player and get input, instead of them being bunched together at one end, and me at the other.

The only problem I have found is players sometimes can see my notes. So, I have a smaller shelf under the table at my side that I can put minis on, and notes and such.

The end result makes what I like to call the “WFRP Cage” due to the curtain, and the fact I play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

No XP Without Session Notes

From Tag

I don’t award experience points to the individual players until they have turned in a first person account of that particular adventure. Anything you leave out, no points.

It makes a fascinating record from different perspectives.

During sessions, you can take a 10-15-minute note break while they catch up, freeing you to set up the next encounter and have all your materials handy.

I’ve been doing it for years. I generally play with the teenagers in my complex. Because I introduced them to this style, they don’t know any other way. Not to mention I’m working on their grammar, spelling and creative writing. Sneaky that.

Handling Big Battles

From Loz Newman

I worked out a way to handle Big Battles for PC groups that has helped me in the past.

Look at the PCs’ capacities and how they, as a small group, can influence the battle.

This implies you know how the battle would go if the PCs weren’t there; a bit of analysis will therefore be necessary.

You want the players to enjoy this scenario, so they have to be able to change the course of the battle for the better. This implies one of several areas of excellence that can inspire their allies and/or terrify their enemies:

  • Swordsmanship – “We have an Uber-Champion on our side. He’s unbeatable, so we’re unbeatable!”
  • Logistics – “He’s bought us stuff that’s so much better than theirs we’ve got a crushing advantage!”
  • Leadership social skills to boost morale – “Wow, we’re really gonna whup them good! Who’d a thought it?” – Also useful for rallying fleeing troops.
  • Tactical Skills – Manoeuvering and such. Spotting the critical tipping-point of a battle and rushing to influence it in their favor.
  • Battle-magic – Has to be used at a critical point.
  • And so forth.

The goal here is to analyse the most likely ways PCs can influence a battle and then deliberately tweak the plan to set up a situation requiring just such an intervention.

Narrate the set-up.

Armies don’t just spring forth from the forehead of a god; they have to arrive, evaluate the battle-site, set themselves up, etc. A classic emotional scene is the sundown looking-across-the-valley-at-the-enemy.

Now the time for players to get that, “Uh-oh we’re in trouble,” sinking feeling just so any victory will be all the sweeter. Remember, soldiers often see all of the approaching opposing army, but only their own neighbors, which gives a strong feeling of being heavily outnumbered.

Ideally, end a scenario just before the battle so you have an entire scenario available for the battle and can pre-roll most of the encounters. Also, this gives the players some between-session time to come up with good ideas.

Battles are a tactical-level culmination of a strategy/logistical situation, and the general will have a short list of objectives to attain and dispose his army accordingly.

The initial clash.

Each army will act according to a plan its leaders believe will maximize their chances of victory. This classically involves either careful probes and attempted flanking maneuvers, feints to draw an enemy out of position or mask further maneuvers, or a straight-up charge-and-brawl.

This should be where the tension begins to build and some of the players’ fears begin to come true.

I narrate this section, and handle actual combat in the most succinct way possible. Three dice rolls of a units’ average weapon skill against the other units’ average defense/armor. Ditto for the defending unit against their attackers, and for special champions.

This has to happen fast, or the DM bogs down. Happily, fog of war generally means players don’t get to find out what’s happening all over the battlefield, so a few pre-rolled dice rolls will suffice. Jot down the percentage surviving of the unit, and their morale state, and move on.

Often, the DM knows how this will play out and can pre-roll the entire first few stages, saving precious in-game time for handling the players’ weird ideas and their effects.

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Each general is trying to screw the other’s battle plan up, improvising responses to novelties as they are brought to his attention, and struggling to achieve his objectives. Communication delays, fog of war, and just plain human error are par for the course.

Plus, some units will be wiped out, exposing holes in formations and damaging morale. This phase is generally fluid, and players get to be heroes by plugging holes, rallying troops, clashing with opposing champions and generally intervening at the points where the DM has planned for them to shine.

This is where the fog of war is at its thickest, and battle updates are at their most limited, most outdated, or just plain wrong. Surprises happen here, and not always good ones. DMs should pile on surprises, but not too fast; give the players time to handle some things. Or not, if you intend them to flee.

Exploiting the opportunities.

Units don’t just advance in straight lines perpendicular to one another. They clash at angles, rebound, swirl around, rally and retreat in globs and spatters.

Good players don’t panic; they look at a situation and try to wring advantage from it. The DM has hopefully set up chances for them to influence the battle, and this is where it happens.

Each player should have at least one chance to shine. Sometimes the players come up with the weirdest ideas, and good DMs can adapt on the fly and integrate this into their narrative.

The retreat.

One side will lose, and one or more sides will retreat and try to recover and/or trap their opponents.

If it’s the players’ side that has lost, they get to try and recover and rally troops to the best of their ability, and suddenly the strategic/logistic situation becomes important again.

If it’s the enemy side, the players get to pursue them or (if too reduced) let them flee. Those accumulated morale modifiers are going to be important all of a sudden. Either way, it’s a different type of scenario, and thus ends the big battle.

Note: at every stage there are political/social implications that influence the generals’ choices, and sometimes the players just won’t understand why they’ve been told to do or not do certain things. That’s life. Players could find out why, but that’d take them time they may not have. Decisions, decisions; war is all about decisions.