Introduction to Iridium Moons

Iridium Moons is a retro-futuristic Space Opera setting that first started as an idea somewhere in 2021 after the release of Cyberpunk 2077 and around the time the Dune movie come out. I liked the idea of doing some kind of futuristic neo-noir campaign instead of the fantasy stuff I typically work on but quickly decided that I wanted to create a new setting of my own for that. I’ve been a massive fan of Star Wars since I first saw the movies as a kid, but long felt that the series went off into a rather different stylistic and thematic direction in the 2000s that just doesn’t capture what I still love about the 80s and 90s material. I had long been thinking about how I think Star Wars should have been developed further, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get working on a Space Opera setting of my own that takes the best pieces from all my favorite grimy 80s space adventures and stylistically similar work. I’ve been looking into all kinds of different space fantasy and sci-fi series to collect cool ideas that could work well together to create distinctive and evocative style, and ultimately settled on these works as my main style references.

    • A Princess of Mars (John Carter), 1912
    • Dune, 1965
    • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
    • Outland, 1981
    • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982
    • Blade Runner, 1982
    • Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, 1983
    • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, 1984
    • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, 1991
    • Albion, 1995
    • Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, 1996
    • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003
    • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2006
    • Coriolis,2016
    • Prey, 2017

I’m a big fan of 1920s Art Deco design, which comes through really strongly in Blade Runner and parts of Mass Effect 2, and with cyberpunk still on my mind, my thoughts drifted to fabulously wealthy and powerful industrial barons who build whole towns for their workers where they also had a monopoly on all services, banana republics whose entire governments were in the pockets of foreign companies, the oil boom, industrial shipyards, labor riots, organized crime, and so on. Which all seems like a really cool setup for a very retro-futuristic Space Opera.

During the early concept phase, I’ve been reading the RPG systems Stars Without Number, Scum and Villainy, and Coriolis. Ultimately my choice landed on Coriolis as the game I want to use for the campaign I am planning, but all three games use different systems to basically represent the same archetypes of a now generic Space Opera setting. The way they approach space travels, star ships, wepons, and mental powers had a big influence on establishing the basic assumptions and parameters of Iridium Moons.

While I see Space Opera as a genre that is inherently fantastical and is really much more fantasy in space than anything that could be called science-fiction, my life-long interest in astronomy and space exploration still makes me think all the time how space fiction gets even simple things completely wrong with no need to do so. My own approach is that I will default to things working and behaving similar to how they do in the real world and did historically, except when the conventions of the genre require completely made up technologies such as hyperspace drives and artificial gravity.

Galactic Society and Demographics

Societies capable of developing and maintining ships for interstellar travel are always highly industrialized and technology advanced, and as such see a stop to population growth or even a decline in population numbers long before they are able to establish colonies in other star systems. With gravity, atmospheric composition and pressure, and solar radiation never being perfect matches to a species’ homeworld, permanently living on a new planet is typically somewhat uncomfortable and causing various health issues for people not adapted to them from childhood. There are always a few people who move to other worlds out of excitement and curiosity, but 99% of all people still live on the original homeworlds of their species.

But with a combined population of some 70 billion across ten species, even just 1% adds up to over 700 million people living on colony worlds and outposts. There are dozens of planets with populations in the tens of millions with several major cities that have become fully independent states in their own right and hundreds of smaller settlements, outposts, and mining sites established by the larger interstellar powers and companies and inhabited by thousands of people. Travel between homeworlds and major colony worlds often takes week or even a few months, and communication between them is only limited and just as slow. While books, movies, and games typically reach even remote systems eventually and create a shared galactic culture, news and messages take such a long time to reach other worlds that most people take little notice of the day to day events in other systems. This also leads to wars between the homeworlds being nearly unthinkable and violent conflicts being very localized affairs.

Space Mining and Industry

All the stars and planets in the universe are made up from the same elements and formed by the same physical processes that create all the different minerals and other molecules found in nature. There is nothing on the billions of planets in the galaxy that can’t already  e found in tbe systems of the homeworlds. Whatever food, energy sources, or common technologies a world needs can be found just inside their own system just as well as anywhere else in the universe. However, the way that new planets first form around young stars leads to most of the rarer heavy elements sinking down into the cores, while the upper surfaces of rocky planets are made up of the vastly more common light elements. The only way that many of the heavier elements can be found on the surfae of a planet to be mined is when asteroids that are left over from the formation of the planets crashes into one after the surface has already cooled and become fully solid. This happens often enough that nearly every element can be found in some quantities on almost every planet, but for many critical industrially metals, these amounts are still only a small fraction of the total demand of the homeworlds. The rarity of these metals makes them extremwly valuable, and this in turn makes it worthwhile to journey far across space to planets where pure luck and coincidence led to large amounts ending up in places where they easy to access.

Nearly the entire interstellar economy outside of the homeworld systems exists only for the mining and transportation of rare industrial metals like iridium, palladium, and others. All the people working and living in space are either miners or cargo crews, or providing the supplies and services needed to keep the mining industry running. And even though the interstellar mining industry employs half a billion people on several hundred planets, nearly everything is owned and controlled by a few dozen families of powerful and imeasurably wealthy companies. Less than a hundred people own half of all the wealth that exists outide the home systems.

Nearly all the major interstellar companies are privately owned by the families that founded them, often many centuries ago. With no real government authority existing outside of a few of the largest colony worlds, these industrialist families form an aristocratic elite that controls most mining colonies like feudal lords. In many cases, all the services and businesses on a planet are all owned and controlled by the same family, who rent out housing for their workers and sell all the food and other supplies that can be bought anywhere on the planet. Workers are often lured to leave the homeworlds and take on work in space that pays incredible wages, but all the prices in all of the mining worlds are so high that they live poorer than before and can’t afford to price for a journey back home. Officially almost all the home systems have banned the trade with metals that come from mines that employ outright slave labor, but with cargo containers full of metal that have traveled hundreds of lightyears it is impossible to tell on which planet they were actually dug up and refined.

Hyperspace Travel and Interstellar Communication

The laws of physics dictate that no object or signal can travel through space faster than light. Which means that it will take years or decades to just send a message to even nearby star systems. Fortunately, a hyperspace drive allows a ship to jump through hyperspace where the speed of light is many times fasted than in normal space. A hyperspace jump can cross several lighyears in a day, but it is only possible to enter hyperspace a considerable distance away from the gravitational effects of large masses like planets and especially stars. Typically a ship will have to travel with its regular engines at less than the speed of light for several days to get enough diatance from a star to start its jump, and then several more days to fly from the edge of the new system to the destination planet. Quite often, these journeys at sublight speed take considerably longer than the actual jump through hyperspace between two systems.

With hyperspace being a separate dimension, a ship is completely blind to anything in normal space during a jump. To reach its destination and not end a jump in empty interstellar space, a ship needs to know its exact position and the position of the star that is its destination. Since all stars are constantly moving around their galaxy, their positions are always changing. Even tiny errors in the direction or distance of a jump can lead to a ship appearing months or years away from the star it meant to reach. Only a few deep space exploration ships are equipped to measure the positions, trajectoties, and velocities of nearby stars precise enought to calculate a hyperspace jump. Any other ship must rely on hyperspace charts released by planetary observatories that need to be constantly updated. Since these charts are very expensive to make, they usually cover only stars that would actually see some ship traffic. As a result, ships are restricted to travel along a network of routes between charted planets and can not simply jump to any star that it can see. The precise arrival point after coming out of hyperspace is highly umpredictable and it often takes days for fleets to regroup after a jump and reach the planet they are headed for. This makes surprise attacks from hyperspace against planets and ships impossible.

With ships in hyperspace being completely blind, they can not send or receive any signals. To send a message from one system to another, it needs to be recorded and stored on a ship that makes the jump to the destination system where it can then send the message to a planet or ship with regular communication at lightspeed. Which can still take another several hours to reach the target.

Space Battles and Combat

Missiles are the most efficient weapons to destroy starships, but they are also very easy to spot and track and all warships and even many cargo ships are armed with extremely fast firing railguns that can destroy missles at short range very effectively before they have time to evade the fire. As a result, encounters between warships are primarily fought with very large railguns whose solid projectiles are impossible to shoot down, but which can be quite easily evaded over long distances. A typical battle consists of ships shooting holes into each other from tens of kilometers away until they are damaged enough to destroy them with explosive missiles. Small fighter crafts are useless in such a style of warfare as they can’t carry railguns large enough to do serious damage from far away and are just as easy to shoot down as missiles at close range. While pirates sometimes use small ships with light weapons to force unarmed freighters to surrender their cargo, actual war ships are hundreds of meters in length with thousands of people crewing them.

Railguns are also used widely as weapons by soldiers and security guards, but firearms are also quite common in many poorer places as they are much cheaper to produce and can kill an unarmored person at short range just as well. Handling guns in tight spaces on ships has a lot of problems and it’s pretty much impossible to aim them when being weightless and not having a firm stance on the floor to hold them steady. As a result, people who are expected to fight on starships and space station almost always carry large knives or small swords with them. These also have the advantage of being much easier to conceal in places where weapons are not allowed and security scans for guns. Combat with blades is much more common in space than people on the homeworlds usually think.

Mental Powers

Intuitation is a skill that can be developed over many years through complex mental exercises and the use of various psychoactive drugs. It trains the brain to make greatly increased use of the subconciousness to process information and find the connections between clues and pieces of evidence, as well as perceiving subtle details and reading other people’s emotions to predict their future behavior. The problem with intuitation is that much of the process happens unconsciously and as such even the intuitators don’t usually know or can explain the reasons that led them to their conclusions. While many expert intuitators are highly reliable and have few things get past them without their notice, their inability to share the logic of their conclusions makes acting on their advice always somewhat of a gamble. They make for excelent investigators and interrogators that can spot potential threats earlier than anyone else, but without the ability to proove what they have discovered or to check their reasoning for any flaws, they are rarely employed in positions where they are allowed to make important decisions.

To many people, intuitation is a simple and straighforward technique to process and analyze information at a higher level than ordinary rational thinking. But to many people not familiar with the exact proccesses of how intuitators are trained, their exceptional sense of perception and preduction appears supernatural and disturbing. Many intuitators themselve believe that they are able to catch glimpses of aspects of reality too vast and complex in scope for ordinary minds to even conceive of. Numerous religions have been founded by intuitators claiming to have recieced great revelations about the true nature of reality and large numbers of them are engaged in various traditions of mysticism. But there are of course many people who believe that these are simply delusions caused by the heavy use of psychoactive drugs during their training.

Repeated Skill Rolls in Coriolis

As someone coming primarily from various d20 and PtbA games, one basic rule of Coriolis keeps coming up surprising me as I am continuing to familiarize myself with the system, which is that by default you can only try a skill roll once. The idea os very simple, but it takes a while to really settle in with all the implications that follow from it.

For something like trying to lie to an NPC or sneak past a guard undetected, it’s obvious that the game is up and it’s impossible to try to continue. That has noting to do with game mechanics. That you can’t keep making new rolls to break a lock or get access to a computer is also something that is very easy to understand and remember. But it goes further than that. If something on your ship gets damaged during a battle and you fail your repair roll, you don’t just take longer. You are unable to fix it at all. If you try to treat your injured friend who is bleeding out and fail the first aid roll, then that is it. The big exception to the rule is that you can try something again with another roll if the situation has meaningfully changed. If you take the ship to a station or spaceport where you can really take things apart without floating in space and have access to better tools, you can take another shot at fixing that gun. If you take your mortally bleeding friend back to your ship where you have a fully stocked medical lab instead of just a first aid kit, you have another chance to make a roll to treat the injury before he dies. I really like that, as it creates much more interesting new situation than just taking more time until the dice agree to be cooperative.

But there is another important exception and that is that if a situation isn’t changed by a failed skill roll, other characters can make an attempt as well. That’s something I never really liked in any RPG. Some guy who had an extended first aid course being able to perform a complicated surgery that a veteran expert surgeon found impossible just doesn’t feel right, even if the odds for that are not very high. It just doesn’t make narrative sense that a character with minimal skill would even try, and when you play a campaign long enough it’s going to happen a couple of times eventually.

But I have an idea to avoid this situation without changing how the mechanics work too much. This rule would be that “if a character attempts a skill roll that a more skilled character already failed at, he must get help from that other character”. What happens narratively is that the engineer failed to get a gun firing again by himself and then calls a deckhand over to come and assist him. On the next turn (if jn combat) the deckhand now also attempts a skill roll to repair the gun but gets a +1 assistance bonus from the engineer. Mechanically, the engineer is helping the deckhand at his first try, but narratively it’s the deckhand helping the engineer at a second try. This second attempt is at a lower chance than the first roll had been, but it is still another chance at success.

The important difference to the standard rules of Coriolis is that the engineer must spend a second turn working on the damaged gun and can’t use that second turn doing other things to help with the battle. I think I would even allow the engineer to make the first attempt already with a +1 bonus for help from the deckhand, and then let the deckhand make an attempt with a +1 bonus for help from the engineer. Since this requires both characters to spend two turns each on working on the gun, I think that’s a fair tradeoff.

Alien Suns

Something that has kept coming up to be bothering me over the last few months is how rarely space stories pay any attention to sunlight. Space is typically portrayed as dark and cold, and for the vast empty interstellar space that makes up most of the universe, this is actually true. But the space within a solar system is anything but. The name should give it away. The vicinity of a star is absolutely blasted with light and harmful radiation, with the small shadows of planets and moons being the only places where you can possibly escape from it. The only good exception to this that I am aware of is Rogue One, and despite its countless failings as a Star Wars movie, I really love the incredible lighting in the final space battle scenes.

When you’re in orbit around the Earth, the sunlight would be like on the clearest day with the bluest sky, in the middle of summer at noon, except without a good 100km of atmosphere to diffuse and block some of the most intense radiation. In space movies and games where ships jump directly from planets to planets, all space scenes should look as bright as this.

Another thing is that typically you see the daylight on alien planets to look just like on Earth. This is of course convenient when you are shooting on film outside, but these days movies get digital color adjustments anyway, and there is no excuse for videogames that can just make up any kind of lighting they want. Even though various types of stars don’t look that much different from the distance of a planet that isn’t completely incinerated or frozen, there’s still a lot more you can do than just having a generic Earth Sun in the sky. Again, it’s Star Wars that stands out, but I don’t recall seeing a cool sky like Tatooine anywhere else in fiction. Even when there’s all kinds of crazy giant moons in the sky, we don’t typically see the sun at all, since you don’t want to have it in the frame when shooting film. But there’s so much more cool stuff that you can do with your suns.

In non-visual mediums, bringing the look of the lighting of the environment to life is of course much more difficult. But as someone who is into all this space and stars stuff, I think it’s still something that is worth incorporating in the description of planets and space scenes. Even if it’s just as minor details no more prominent than occasionally mentioning smells and sounds of alien environments.

Randomizing Suns

In Iridium Moons, routes to stars are only charted and published if a star has any planets that anyone might want to visit. So when coming up with a random kind of star that characters might fly to, what we’re really interested in is not the average frequency of different types of stars, but what types of stars are likely to be the sun of a planet that is being visited. Getting really good numbers about how common various kinds of stars are is quite difficult, and we really have not much to go on to determine what even makes planets around them worth visiting. So the following table I created is only partly based on actual astronomical data and to a good extend just edjucated guessing.

Type Frequency Binary
Red Dwarf 50% 25%
Orange Dwarf 30% 35%
Yellow Star 10% 45%
Red Giant 4% 40%
Yellow-White Star 3% 55%
White Dwarf 2% 40%
White Star 1% 65%

Larger stars like blue giants or supergiants are much less common, as are neutron stars and black holes, and they are so rare that I didn’t include them on this table. These stars can show up as a deliberate design choice for a special planet, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to include them if there’s only going to be a couple dozen star systems in total. Systems with more than two stars also exist, but they are also very rare.

Star Types

Stars come in a wide range of types, but ultimately they are all giant balls of hydrogen and helium whose gravity is strong enough to create the pressure to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium atoms and release huge amounts of energy that make all the gases glow bright hot. There are also several types of objects that are left behind after all the fusion processes have ended, which are better described as stellar remnants but typically treated as kinds of stars as well. There are also brown dwarfs, which are large balls of hydrogen gas that can become hot enough to glow in visible light, but they don’t really light up in the way stars do.

The main traits of stars and the different classifications that come from them are pretty straightforward. The more massive a type of star is, the larger its size, the faster its fusion, the hotter its temperature, the greater its brightness, the more dangerous its radiation, and the shorter its total lifetime. Even though larger stars have more fuel, they fuse it much faster and burn through it much sooner. Since larger stars are shorter lived and the conditions for their formation are more rare, the larger a type of star is, the more rare it is in the universe.

Red Dwarfs are the smallest and by far the most common type of stars. While they don’t have a lot of fuel to start out with, they burn through it very slowly and are extremely long lived. Even the first red dwarfs that formed right after the big bang have still not used up even 1% of their hydrogen. Since their temperature it literally only “red hot”, they produce mostly red light with only increasingly small amounts of yellow, green, and blue light. However, with the way that human eyes work, all these colors blur together into white light that is slightly leaning towards the yellow-red, making them more a pale orange than actual red to sight.

Orange Dwarfs are the next size of stars, being somewhat smaller and less bright than the sun. They mostly produce orange light, but again this results in only a slight orange tint probably no more dramatic than normal sunlight on Earth early in the morning or the late afternoon. Orange dwarfs make up an eighth of all stars and live about several times as long as the Sun, and they are also exceptionally stable in the amount of light and radiation they emit during their lifetime. This provides a lot of time for life to evolve into complex multicelular creatures and then stay around for several billions of years. They are quite possibly the most common type of sun for planets that have native life.

Yellow Stars are the same kind of stars as the Sun. They are much less rare than red and orange dwarfs, but still relatively common among the many billions of stars in a galaxy. Their radiation is energetic enough to probably make it difficult for life to evolve on the surface of planets without strong magnetic fields and dense atmospheres, but that’s less an issue for life existing entirely underwater.

Yellow-White Stars are slightly larger and hotter than the Sun. This makes their total lifetime shorter and their radiation more dangerous, which makes it somewhat less likely for them to have planets suitable for life, but it can still happen on rare occasions.

White Stars are even bigger and hotter, releasing a lot of harmful radiation and having a lifetime only a tenth of that of the sun. They also make up less than a percent stars in a galaxy, so finding any complex life that evolved around a white stars seems very unlikely.

Blue Giants are the most massive of all stars. They are extremely rare and live for just a few million years, and produce the brightness of many thousands of Suns. Because they are incredibly hot, the plasma expands to absolutely gigantic sizes. There are no real reasons to visit them other than for study.

Red Giants are the final phase of orange, yellow, and yellow-white stars. At the end of their lives, the energy released by fusion in their core increases dramatically, causing the hydrogen around the core to become extremely hot and expand massively to many thousands of times the star’s original size. Planets close to the star end up falling into it, and any planets that previously had mild temperatures will be completely roasted as the sun covers the entire sky. Hoever, previously frozen stars further out may thaw and become quite suitable for settlements and colonies for several millions of years, though the evolution of new life in such a short time frame seems very unlikely. Ultimately the expanding hydrogen will have moved so far away from the core that its gravity can no longer hold on to it and the hydrogen simply floats away into interstellar space, leaving the burned out core behind with no more fuel to continue fusion.

White Dwarfs are the left over core after the end of a red giant. Red dwarfs will also turn into white dwarfs eventually, but since they are so incredibly long lived this has never happened yet in the universe. The white dwarf is only the size of a rocky planet but also extremely dense and may still have as much mass as the Sun. It is also still glowing white hot and the vacuum of space is an extremely efficient insulator, continuing to glow far beyond the deaths of the last stars in the very distant future. White dwarfs can still have some of their planets, and while they would appear no larger than any other stars in the sky, they would still be very bright and cover the planets in dim daylight. Since the kinds of stars that end up as white dwarfs are quite common, white dwarfs can be expected to be quite numerous as well, even though they are very dificult to detect.

Red Supergiants and Hypergiants are the final phase of white stars and blue giants. They are similar to red giants but of course much larger than even those.

Neutron Stats are similar to white dwarfs but are produced in the supernovas of red supergiants. When a core is able to grow to a size much larger than a white dwarf, it’s own gravity is enough to crush atoms into a single giant ball of neutrons and the incredible shockwave of this event blow the rest of the star apart. The resulting neutron star is much more dense than a white dwarf and only the size of a modestly large asteroid. If a neutron star gets too large, its gravity can even crush the neutrons into pure energy and it turns into a Black Hole.


Intuitation is a neurological alteration produced in people with a certain mental aptitude through long mental training, combined with various psychoactive drugs. The brains of trained intuitators have an increased capacity for accurate memory, and also the ability to rely on subconscious processing for the analysis of information than normal people. Intuitation grants people a heightened awareness of their surroundings and perception of possible threats, an increased intuitive grasp of complex situations and concepts, an improved ability to find connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information, and a highly increased sense of empathy. Skilled intuitators have abilities that border on precognition, but they are still limited to the information and data available to them, and their ability to see and understand connections and pattern is not infallible.

A significant problem with intuitation is that much of the processing of information is happening subconsciously and intuitators are often incapable of explaining their reasoning behind their conclusions or even understanding them themselves. Intuitation is rarely able to provide proof for any insights an intuitator might have, but it is still extremely valuable in directing investigations or to provide warnings for possible attacks or traps. Intuitators can only work with information that is available to them and can be mislead by deliberately falsified or manipulated data. Often predicted possibilities simply don’t come to pass, and sometimes even the best intuitators simply make mistakes. All intuitators have a significantly increased risk of developing paranoia, delusions, and other disorders because they regularly have thoughts entering their minds that don’t appear to be their own, or have extremely strong intuitive convinctions about things that can not be proven and they can’t explain even to themselves. Typically, gaining access to more information about a subject can help developing a conscious understanding of the previously purely subconscious connections, but in the lines of work in which intuitators are commonly employed mysteries regularly remain completely unsolved. In most organizations, intuitators are employed only in strictly advisory roles and are very limited in their authority to make important decisions. And many officials, administrators, and officers have a strong distrust of the reliability of inituitators.

Some intuitators practice their minds primarily in negotiation and interrogation and become extraordinarily capable in detecting deceptions and ommisions, as well as very carefully choosing their words and behavior to create the best positive response from people they talk to. In these situations, having all the facts exactly right is often not completely criticial to achieving success, and it is more about constantly reading the reactions of other people throughout the course of an ongoing conversation. This allows intuitators to subtly dig for specific pieces of information that they need to get a more complete picture and increase the certainty of their suspicions. While such intuitators are much less at risk of developing paranoia, they do have a strong tendency to become highly manipulative of all people around them, even if they don’t mean to, which can lead to just as dificult problems.

Using Gambling as a skill

This is another post I originally wrote last year about the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which I think would be of interest for readers of this site.

I’ve recently been part of a discussion about rarely used skills in Star Wars campaigns. Gambling in particular seems like a skill that has little actual use for players and that is difficult for GMs to work into adventures in a meaningful way.

In this case, I think the burden of making the skill useful really does fall primarily to the player. You chose to invest points into the gambling skill, or to take gambler as your character archetype. Of course it is good form for the GM to be accommodating and make an effort to allow players to play to their characters’ strengths. But when you want to play a gambler, or any other character with a focus outside the typical adventure activities for the setting or genre, it falls to you to come up with an idea how it will be part of the campaign.

While I don’t have the slightest idea how to make use of basket weaving in an adventure campaign, I do see quite a number of options of how you can make gambling a meaningful part of a Star Wars campaign, and to some extend in RPGs in general.

When you think of the main purpose of gambling, making money is the obvious answer. But in a Star Wars game, money generally does not play a meaningful role, as all the equipment you really need is a blaster for every character and a small ship for the whole party, which you often get at a very early point of the campaign. It’s not a setting where characters are constantly upgrading their equipment with potato peelers +2 or you have a dozen types of increasingly protective and expensive suits of armor. Like in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, money appears as something much more abstract within the stories, really only mattering when the characters are faced with a massive debt or huge expense that will be impossible to cover unless they take on that one suspiciously well paying job or find the fabled treasure of legend. The need for large amounts of money is an adventure hook, an excuse to get the players to go to a place where the GM has something prepared for them. And in that case it’s in nobody’s interest to have some characters spend a whole session in a casino and play 50 rounds of cards. Which is why the amount of money you can make with gambling or picking pockets is usually trivially low.

My suggestion is forget about money. Don’t go gambling to get rich as a simpler (and boring) alternative to go on an adventure. What really makes gambling interesting from a story perspective are the debts that result from it. When you play a gambler, or any character with a high gambling skill, try to get into games with imperial officers and gang leaders and get them into debt. Because debt means leverage.

This is one of the cases where the GM has to be accommodating. The GM can always say that the NPC in question does not gamble, doesn’t play with the PCs, stops playing when the credits run out, or has the necessary money at hand to pay the debt. But I think when you approach the GM with a plan to try manipulating an NPC through gambling debts, most GMs will be quite happy to give you a chance in at least some situations. It doesn’t make sense for all  NPCs and in all situations, but this is just the kind of creative problem solving that I always love to see from players, and which makes running games the most fun.

When you have an NPC in debt, you can have the leverage to either get information or a favor. Have the NPCs tell you about other people you are really after or about places you want to get into, or ask them to do small things that will greatly help you overcoming some obstacles for your big plan. Getting you access keys, disabling alarms, planting bugs, distracting guards, that kind of thing.

But as it says in the name, gambling is always a gamble, and there’s always a real chance that even a master gambler fails and ends up being the one losing a lot of money. Which ultimately can lead to the player ending up in deep debt to important and influential people. Which from a narrative perspective is awesome! We get to increase the tension for the current adventure and have the players facing even more obstacles than they did before, and they all know perfectly well that it’s purely the result of their own actions. These are the best kinds of consequences and a fantastic example of failing forward.

Another way in which gambling can be useful is simply as a cover while spying on NPCs or checking out places. When you’re sitting at a table loosing great amount of credits (or winning them), nobody is suspecting you to be in the place for other insidious reasons. Gambling is a nice way to get NPCs into conversations and to make them let their guard down by either separating them from their credits or making them enjoy a winning streak. The richest and most powerful people usually tend to play in places where the stakes are very high, and being very good at gambling is a classic trait of various villainous archetypes. You might be able to get a simple customs officer or low ranking gangster into a low stakes game in some cheap cantina, but when you want to go against crime bosses and moffs, you have to be able to play with the pros. Both in skill and the money you bring to the table. So as your gambling skill increases, you don’t just improve your chances of success, but also gain access to more influential and important people.

There doesn’t seem to be any obstacles in a typical adventure that your character can overcome by making a gambling check. And while it may look like a way to make some easy money at the side, like you can do with picking pockets and cracking safes, you really should think of it more as a skill to help you get access to information and objects that are not easily available otherwise. More than anything else, gambling is a social skill. When you approach it like this, the potential situations in which it can win the day broaden considerably.

I think adding gambling as a skill to Stars Without Number would be a great addition to the rules to better reflect the style of adventures I want to create with it.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook – A book that teaches gamemastering

I wrote this, coincidentally exactly one year ago, on my other site, and was thinking today that it would be great post to have here for people looking for space opera content.

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, West End Games, 1993.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games was first released in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi had been in theaters. It got a second edition in 1992, which this time also included a Gamemaster Handbook that was released in 1993. This was 14 years after the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 1st edition, and 2 years after the 2nd edition DMG. At the same time, Shadowrun had  been around for four years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for seven, and Call of Cthulhu for twelve, so it really wasn’t entering into any completely unknown territory.

While I can’t really say anything about the later games, I am quite familiar with all the Dungeon Master’s Guides other than 4th edition, as well as the GM sections for a dozen or so retroclones based on B/X and AD&D 1st ed. But when I managed to get my hands on the Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook and read it, I discovered something that seemed amazing:

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook tells you how to be a Gamemaster!

“Well, duh!” you say? “That’s obviously what a gamemaster book is for.” Well, it should be obvious, but when you look at what passes as Dungeon Master’s Guides in D&D, it really isn’t. In the many editions I had both on the internet and with the players of my D&D 5th edition campaign (most of who have much more experience with it than I do), people regularly bring up how 5th edition is really unclear on how you’re supposed to actually run the game because it seems to assume that you run narrative-driven campaigns but all it’s rules are for dungeon crawling. Particularly older GMs express that the 5th edition DMG fails to even mention such basic things like how you make a map for a dungeon and fill it with content.

But this isn’t really a new thing. Since the very beginning, D&D has always assumed that GMs already know anything there is to preparing adventures and running the game, and all the GM content in the books consists of optional mechanics, lists to roll for randomly generated content, and magic items. What are you supposed to do with those to run an enjoyable game for new players? “Well, it’s obvious. Isn’t it.” But no, it isn’t.

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook is the complete opposite. It’s 126 pages and except for the example adventure that makes up the last 21 pages, there is a grand total of two stat blocks! Both as examples for the section that guides you through the process of creating named NPCs and translating them into game terms. Which don’t even take up one page in the twelve page chapter dedicated to this topic.

  • Chapter 1: Beginning Adventures, 10 pages, gives an overview of the process of coming up with adventure ideas and turning them into playable content that has some narrative structure to it.
  • Chapter 2: The Star Wars Adventure, 11 pages, expands on the previous chapter and goes into more detail about making full use of the unique setting and capturing the tone, pacing, and dynamics of Star Wars in a game.
  • Chapter 3: Setting, 11 pages, has great advice on using places and characters from the movies or creating your own material, with a focus on explaining what kind of elements you actually need to prepare, what is irrelevant, and the reason for it.
  • Chapter 4: Gamemaster Character, 12 pages, is all about thinking of NPCs as people first, and imagining them in ways that are memorable and makes them relevant to the events of the adventures and campaigns as individuals, and how to use them during actual play. Creating stat blocks for them is only a minor subject at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 5: Encounters, 13 pages, deals with encounters primarily as social interactions and what purpose individual encounters could serve to further the development of the narrative. There are a few sections on selecting the right amounts of hostiles for encounters that could turn violent, but it manages to do so without using any tables or stats.
  • Chapter 6: Equipment and Artifacts, 11 pages, is all about gear and related stuff, but doesn’t include any stats for specific items. It’s a chapter about resources that can be made available to PCs and NPCs and how they can drive the developing narrative of adventures as they unfold.
  • Chapter 7: Props, 7 pages, is about handouts and maps and the like.
  • Chapter 8: Improvisation, 8 pages, explains in simple and easy to understandable terms the concepts of prepared improvisation, or the art of equipping yourself with the tools you’re likely going to need to quickly address completely unplanned situations on the fly.
  • Chapter 9: Campaigns, 9 pages, lays out some basic ideas of running games for a long time through multiple adventures, in many ways approaching it from a perspective of sandboxing.
  • Chapter 10: Adventure “Tales of the Smoking Blaster”, 17 pages, is a simple adventure consisting of four episodes that shows how all the principles from the rest of the book could look like in practice.

To be fair, none of the things I’ve read in this book are seemed in any way new to me. I knew all of this before, and it doesn’t go very deeply into detail. But it took me 20 years to learn these things on my own and soaking up the wisdom of several dozens old-hand D&D GMs. And here it is, black and white on paper, spelled out in simple terms that are very much accessible to people completely new to RPGs, in a 27 year old book!

Now I am not a dungeon crawling GM. I am not a tactical fantasy wargame GM either. And there are different goals and requirements for different types of campaigns. But I feel that this is hands down the best GM book I’ve ever come across. It even beats Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide and Spears of the Dawn. They are very impressive books in their own right and do a great job at explaining the practices of sandbox settings in a D&D context. But they also fail to mention most of the information that is in the Gamemaster Handbook, like how you run NPCs as people and set up encounters to be interesting and memorable, apparently assuming that these things are obvious and already known. Like all other D&D books on gamemastering.

I think for most people reading this, there won’t be much new or particularly enlightening in this book either. But I think when any of us are asked by people who are new to RPGs (or maybe not) and first want to try their hand at being GMs but have no idea where to start, I think this book is still very much worth a huge recommendation. Not just for Star Wars, but for all RPGs in general. All the things that are laid out in this book would be really useful to know even when you want to run an OD&D dungeon crawl.

This book is fantastic, because it’s the only GM book I know that really teaches you how to be a GM instead of telling you about additional mechanics not included in the main rulebook. If my favorite RPG posters all got together to put together a guidebook on how to actually run games in basic and easy to understand terms, I don’t think I’d expect anything to be in it that isn’t already in the Gamemaster Handbook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game 2nd edition from 1993.