Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Here's my homebrew Space Opera idea starters...

Sometimes when I'm racking my brain, trying to come up with adventure ideas, it helps to think about the basic elements of space opera--or at least, the elements that I believe are the biggest dramatic story turn-ons. So if I get stuck, I remind myself to start small and build upon bare bones. Here are the minimal elements that I try to work with.

Players. Yeah, we do just fine with three or even two, but four is a magic number because real group dynamics come into play. No longer is it the dynamic duo or trio, it's a fully realized team. It's much easier to diversify skills with at least four participants (besides the GM).

Even if fewer players actually show up, I try to write each game with four different classes and skill sets in mind. Let the players figure out who does what, but give them some purpose by challenging them on four fronts.

I go by the acronym A.R.M., which stands for alien, robot, monster. That could mean there's one of each or three of the same--or some combination thereof. Doesn't matter if they're friend or foe, but weirder is always better.
These creatures don't need to be instrumental to the plot, they can be encountered incidentally or as foreshadowing for a later adventure. But space opera is nothing if not exotic, so this is where I can turn up the dial on "fantastic beasts."

Hopefully every game has at least one thing they've not encountered before or at least has a unique spin on an old trope.

At least two destinations are required--could be planets, space stations, etc. But space travel needs a Point A and Point B to be interesting. Doesn't matter what those two places are, but preferably they require travel in a spacecraft of some sort. I always have at least one scene/encounter in space. ALWAYS.

I tend to ping pong my players between highly contrasted worlds (high tech vs. primitive, utopian vs. lawless, paradise vs. unbreathable hellscape, etc.). 

A Big Bad Wolf! There's gotta' be at least one scheming maniac, super-powered warlord, evil space wizard, etc. This usually helps to not only give a climactic battle, but to flesh out some of the plot with motives and minions (henchmen/bounty hunters, etc.) that might be encountered by the PCs, as well as other story-centric elements that creatures in the A.R.M. category aren't always intended to exploit.

Honorable Mention:

At least one thing that's totally out of my control. For one game I gave the PCs a mutagen stim, with a random table of possible mutations. They were encouraged only to hold on to it until the last half of the game. It surpassed all expectations as they really went for it with roleplay and it became the best part of that game.

What about you?
Again, these are just the starting positions, but they generally get me off to the races brainstorming. What are your must-haves for your games?


  1. These are great recommendations. I'll keep them in mind for space opera, but also, the same principles can be applied to other genres, such as sword and sorcery.

    My favorite current TV shows are almost all team-based. NCIS, Castle, Person of Interest, Scorpion, and Hawaii-5-0. Many from the past were as well: Leverage, Firefly, A-Team which you already photo referenced, Mission: Impossible, etc.

    I usually run games at cons, so I pre-generate all the characters with an eye for how they fit into a team. For me, 4-5 players is my personal GMing sweet spot, too.

    Coming from a classic Traveller point of view, I never dealt with the RMs of ARM as set pieces, only aliens. But as in dungeon design, the monster trope you choose (all goblinoids, a dragon and minions, a kingdom of undead dwarves, what have you) has a big effect.

    For whatever genre you play, two destinations is always a good idea.

    Big baddies rock. My idea is to use them as overarching long-term plot lines, kind of like the meta-plots of shows like Buffy, where a villian appears throughout a season to be vanquished in the season finale.

    For the last couple years at my con games, I've created customized random tables for the occasion. In my last con game running Tekumel, I had everyone roll on a random equipment/inheritance table, which included things like personal slaves, millenia-old artifacts of the ancients, fiefdoms, and inexplicable objects such as 'a silvery disk of very thin material 4 inches in diameter'. I knew what most of them were, but even the players familiar with Tekumel might not recognize all of them.

    1. Very cool Brett! I love the idea of the inheritance table!

    2. Oooh, I like the inheritance idea too. I'm also reading the Pendragon rules for the first time, which could tie in with Space Opera quite nicely.

  2. My rule for most Space Opera/Space Adventure Sci-Fi games when it comes to ARMs is something I got, then extrapolated, from the GMing section of West End Games' Star Wars D6.

    To paraphrase, "Why use a Human when you could use an interesting alien or droid?"

    This is a good thing to keep in mind, IF you're running Star Wars or a similar Space Fantasy/Space Opera setting.

    If your setting leans more toward Hard SF/Space Opera, like Traveller, I would alter that to, "Why use an alien or robot when a Human would do just fine. Now, if you have a good REASON to use an alien or robot, DEFINITELY use an alien or a robot."

    I like my aliens to seem alien, even if it's a species the PCs would be familiar with. When used, you want that alien to be distinct and memorable. Don't use an alien just to use an alien.

    With robots, use of them says something about the place the PCs are in. Are these beat-up, second hand machines jury-rigged for the harsh climate and rough terrain? Are they state of the art, chromed and shiny robots that indicate the locals are upper class, and wealthy? Robots can be so common you hardly notice them, or stand out so much the PCs will be saying, "A robot?! What's this thing doing all the way out here?"

    1. Yes, I agree, slapping an alien or robot in there for the sake of it, doesn't do much to elevate the story/experience. I try to make them as relevant to the situation as possible because I want those elements to be enjoyed for their inherent flair. Excellent points B.A.!