Musings About Citycrawling

So, your players show up to the big city. They plan on spending a lot of time here — doing jobs, unraveling mysteries, acquiring gear, the works. Along the way, they’ll build up a network of friends and enemies, explore many different neighborhoods, and eventually come to know the city the way you might know the actual city you live in. If all goes well, it’ll be just as much a character in your game as the PCs themselves.

But how do you design a place as big as, say, New York City? That’s a huge commitment in prep work, all frontloaded. You could get stuck doing prep forever and never actually sit down and play.

You could do worse than starting the same way you’d start a hexcrawl or a megadungeon: one step at a time.

I’m not a huge fan of megadungeons, personally. Nothing against them, they’re just not my cup of tea. I prefer the vibe of crisscrossing a whole country visiting different environments and locales. For some reason it just feels more grounded to me. The exception is Luke Gearing’s Gradient Descent, which I’m itching to run at some point. Maybe it’s because the Deep feels like an actual place that could exist in the world, and not a contrivance that would only exist in the context of a D&D game.

There’s a lot of good advice out there for designing both dungeons and hexcrawls. I think we can combine the structures of both to build an interesting, dynamic city.

What do I mean by this?

Say that each neighborhood is like a wilderness hex. It’s a small space, only a few blocks across at most. Give it a handful of NPCs, a paragraph description, a little d6 encounter table, and maybe a secret or two. What’s unique about it? You don’t have to go overboard, just one good idea is enough to make it stand out.

After that, build the second neighborhood, adjacent to the first. It’s got its own landmark, its own group of NPCs, its own set of encounters. Then build another, and another, and another. Mark how they relate to each other spatially, but don’t get hung up on mapping every street. Like the hex in wilderness travel, the neighborhood is your basic building block. You don’t need to get any more granular than that.

Once you have a few neighborhoods, you’ve got a borough or ward. Like the dungeon level, the borough is a collection of neighborhoods with a common set of themes, aesthetics, and challenges. This is where you start building factions. And I think factions are really important — like a dungeon or hexcrawl, you want players to be able to make informed decisions about where to go and how to get there. And with fewer natural” barriers like rivers or walls, the social landscape of the city needs to do more work in creating interesting choices in exploration.

Sure, you could take the train across town — but the corporation running the train has a bounty on your head. You could walk there, but the direct route runs through a district locked down by cops after a terrorist attack. Next door there’s a confrontation between strikebreakers and union workers. The sewers below are infested with members of a mysterious and violent cult. You get the idea?

The great thing about this is that the whole thing tessellates. You could spend a dozen sessions exploring just one borough, with local conflicts contained to a handful of neighborhoods. Then, events take the players to the borough next door, and the stakes get higher. The players start running into bigger factions with loftier ambitions. Like dungeon levels, city boroughs can be self-contained locales, but they can also connect with other boroughs as the situation demands.

I don’t think any of this is really new. All I’m doing here is applying the friction of wilderness or dungeon exploration to the city. Constrain the players’ navigation options, impose costs and risks to various modes of travel, and give yourself permission to start small and build as you go.

Further Reading

December 2, 2023 GM Advice

Settings with Strata: Building a Fantasy Campaign Setting

I don’t have a fantasy world.

You know, a world — a setting that’s persistent across multiple adventures and campaigns. The kind of place with a unique tone and feel, different from what you get from stock D&D Euro-fantasyland.

I don’t need to have a world, I know. There are goblins in that cave, and you’re the local tough guys” works fine. I’ve run that before.

But man, I’d really love to have a world with its own history and culture. A place that feels alive. But that’s such a daunting task! Where do I start? How do I get the most bang for my buck, in terms of creating gameable content in as little time as possible?

One of my favorite RPG blogs is Gundobad Games, written by an ancient/medieval historian. One of my favorite posts of Gundobad’s is Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings. The advice is pretty simple — come up with a broad overview of your setting’s history before plopping all the adventure locations onto your map — but its value is immediately obvious. It imbues every landmark with in-setting historical context, and serves as a jumping-off point for the game master to flesh places out as the player characters visit them. It’s really solid advice.

So I’m doing a little worldbuilding exercise — follow the steps to making a campaign setting in Settings with Strata, in hopes of creating a little sandbox filled to the brim with factional conflict for players to get enmeshed in.

The steps are as follows:

  • In just a few sentences, articulate a basic main concept for your setting.
  • Get or sketch a regional map that fits with that concept.
  • Next, write a very brief summary of your setting’s history; in particular, write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras/periods leading up to the present.
  • Now, for each of those 3-4 periods, and moving in order from the past to the present (this is important), mark on your map approximately 3-5 locations that were most significant for the history of that period. You can even push it about 7 locations if you want, but don’t think of this as a comprehensive map of all features from that period; just identify the main places of most interest. They can be new sites just built in this era, or there may be continuity of some important sites across periods - but they should make coherent sense in the developing story of your setting. As you do all this, take brief notes narrating the history as you add locations to the map.

Step One: Come up with an Overall Concept

The borderland province of a resplendent yet disunited empire is under threat. Tribes of barbarians” from beyond the frontier have recently united into a confederation led by a charismatic military leader. This leader brings to bear not only a wholesale reorganization of the barbarian” social order, but a new religion and a zeal to spread the faith further afield.

Step Two: Get a Regional Map

Honestly, this was the hardest part. I’m still not totally satisfied with the way I’ve designed the map, but it’ll do for now. I’m using Hex Kit with Zeshio’s pixel hex tilesets. I recommend both, they’re great!

I imagine this to be a region of mostly grassland — a transition between desert and steppe to the north, and humid forestland to the south. To the west is a large freshwater lake, and to the east is an imposing mountain range.

Savanna in the LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary, Kenya
(Wikipedia) Savanna in the LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary, Kenya

Step Three: Very Brief Outline of the Setting’s History in 3-4 Periods

Period 1: The imperial army expands into this region from the south, upending an indigenous monarchy. The imperial conquerors appoint a noble family to rule as dukes from a central fortress-city. As trade flourishes, the region grows in population and wealth, while the remnants of the old monarchy are kept divided and pacified.

Period 2: The empire enters a period of decline and fragmentation, during which a succession crisis tips into civil war. When the dukes of this region back a losing claimant, they’re deposed and replaced by a house more loyal to the new regime. Meanwhile beyond the frontier, a charismatic barbarian” chieftain unites the horse-tribes into a powerful confederation.

Period 3: The new regime’s shaky peace lasts for only a short time before civil war breaks out again. Peasant rebellion and indigenous revolt threaten imperial authority, while rival dynasties assert competing claims to the ducal throne. From the north, the steppe confederation prepares for a campaign of conquest.

Period 4/Present Day: Decades of civil war have led to faltering trade, widespread famine, and vicious sectarian conflict. The indigenous population is in revolt to restore the pre-imperial monarchy, while a new power in the north threatens to devour the whole region.

Step Four: Add 3-7 Locations to the Map for Each Historical Period

Period 1

The glory days of the empire are nearing their end. Her Illustrious Majesty, the last great empress of her dynasty, has one thousand husbands and her wealth is legend. Under her watch, the empire has expanded north to Kiyaye, where tropical grasslands press against steppe and desert.

A. An ancient city on the southern river serves as capital of a thriving regional state (let’s call this culture the Kipya). The imperial invasion is swift and brutal, slaughtering the overmatched defenders and razing their city to ashes. Further south along the river, a new city is built in imperial style. There, a noble house is appointed to rule Duchy Kiyaye, overseeing a profitable trade in textiles, dyes, horses, salt, and gold.

B. In exchange for submission to imperial authority and service in its armies, the remaining Kipya clans in the north and east are allowed to retain their ancestral lands. These princelings wage intermittent warfare with each other, even as they pledge fealty to the imperial duchess.

B(i). A man named Iyin, soldier in the imperial army and heir to a Kipya clan, returns home after a rival princeling murders his father. Vowing revenge, he demands that the duchess intervene to hand over the princeling. When she refuses, he goes to war. In a rapid campaign, Iyin defeats his rival in battle, executes him, and subsumes his territory.

B(ii). With Iyin’s power rising, other clans band together to cut him down to size — with tacit support from the imperial dynasty. Facing impossible odds, Iyin and his supporters flee north into the steppe. The imperial administration allows this crossing, happy to be rid of a potential threat.

C. A military canton outside the capital is home to an insular society of warriors bound in service to the ducal lineage. They possess a reputation for terrifying martial prowess and sharp-witted poetry.

D. The imperial duchesses maintain a fortified caravanserai at the main bridge across the northern river. Here, imperial officers collect dues on trade flowing south.

E. In the south and west, imperial towns are established over old Kipya settlements, and a road is built connecting the capital with the northern caravanserai.

F. The duchess, seeing herself as a supporter of sorcerous institutions, provides land and funding to found a monastic community in southwestern Kiyaye. The monastics here belong to an innovative sect, adopting ideas from various different traditions.

Period 2

Her Majesty lies dead, replaced by a run of corrupt and neglectful successors. Imperial splendor buckles under the strain of ceaseless conflict and courtly intrigue. When a clique of palace viziers depose the sitting child-empress, those tensions erupt into civil war. The Kiyaye duchesses throw their weight behind one of the leading claimants, but her assassination exposes them to vicious retribution.

A. A powerful general leads a campaign into Kiyaye to conquer the province for his wife, a claimant to the imperial throne. He meets the duchess’ forces — led by her eldest husband — outside the southernmost town. After a furious battle, the conquering general emerges victorious, slaying the duchess’ husband and opening the road to the provincial capital.

B. After a lengthy siege, the general’s army seizes the city and executes the sitting duchess. In her place, he appoints a new house to govern Duchy Kiyaye, and insists on leaving a garrison in the old warrior society’s canton.

C. The new regime brings with it a different, more conservative sect of sorcery that rejects what it sees as foreign heterodoxy from the existing monastics. The new dynasty sponsors the construction of a separate monastery, closer to the capital, which adheres to this traditionalist interpretation. A road is built to facilitate travel to this monastery.

D. The remaining members of the old dynasty flee northwest, building a fortress not far from the monastery they sponsored. The two factions become allies, forming a semi-independent power base in opposition to the new regime. Towns to the north tend to align with the old dynasty, while towns to the south ally with the new.

E. The warrior society is spared from annihilation, but faces exile into the northern steppes. There they meet Iyin and his followers, join forces, and adapt quickly to being a nation on horseback. With Iyin at their head, they absorb tribe after tribe into a growing empire. Uniting them is a mix of local customs with several foreign traditions, rapidly maturing into a potent religious force. The confederation sends a war party to set up camp on the lakeshore, scouting out imperial defenses.

F. With imperial rule degrading in the region, Kipya princelings in the east declare their independence. They build three fortified strongholds in their villages in the hill country and launch raids and attacks to the west.

Period 3

A. The new empress’ ascension to the throne leads to only a few short years of peace before her death plunges the empire back into civil war. Decades of imperial mismanagement, internal conflict, and foreign incursion take their toll on Kiyaye and the broader empire. Agricultural yields decline, famine takes hold, and epidemics spread. In the midst of this chaos, a new power arrives from the north.

B. The reigning duchess wages a violent campaign to pacify the eastern Kipya princelings. Her forces seize one of their strongholds, tearing it down as they advance.

C. The battered-but-resistant eastern Kipya fall under the sway of a singular prince, who declares the restoration of the pre-imperial monarchy. He establishes his capital in the eastern highlands, and begins reorganizing the various petty warbands into a centralized army. The steppe confederation grows quickly, driving its enemies further and further afield. One tribe presses against the imperial border, offering themselves as vassals to the sitting duchess. When they’re refused, they ford the river in desperation and sack the fortified caravanserai. With few options, the sitting duchess relents and allows the tribe to resettle across the river.

D. In response to onerous taxes levied at a moment of particular want, peasants across central Kiyaye take up arms against the local nobility. This force snowballs into a massive army, seizing a fortified town in west-central Kiyaye. Ducal forces, spread thin fighting in the east and north, are unable to effectively counter this new threat. The peasant rebels’ leader has a sort of robin hood” reputation, famed for showing compassion to the poor and only hurting government officials.

E. Iyin leads his forces against the Kipya towns along the northern river, bringing them under his confederation’s rule. He then issues a document listing his grievances with imperial rule — including the murder of his father, the support of the Kipya coalition against him, and the exile of his clan into the steppe. He prepares his armies to cross the river and fall upon the disunited province of Kiyaye.


Kiyaye is a region at war. The Kipya tenuously stand together in their struggle against imperial domination, but who knows how long their unity will last? The ducal administration is split between two families with competing claims, while a peasant revolt rocks the countryside. All the while, the threat to the north grows increasingly prevalent. Ruins of old fortresses and pillaged towns dot the landscape, and warbands of various factions prowl the countryside.


So I think it’s fair to say that I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the basic plot structure of Fallout: New Vegas. There’s a conquering tribal” society led by a charismatic military reformer butting up against a more established but deeply flawed civilized” political order. The locals here are caught in the middle, and it’s the players’ job to make decisions that’ll decide the fate of the whole region.

But I’ve made some changes, too. For one, this is a firmly pre-modern fantasy setting, so firearms and electricity and such are out the window, while magic is in. Instead of a bunch of fascists cosplaying as Roman legionnaires, I have a steppe confederation that adheres to a strange new faith. Instead of a corrupt, overextended liberal democracy, I have an unstable feudal monarchy beset by civil war.

There are plenty of places for player characters to explore, from the imperial city to the two monasteries to the eastern Kipya strongholds. Say the players want to go check out that ruined caravanserai up north? Great: it was founded as an imperial trading post, but was since sacked by a nomadic nation fleeing Iyin and his confederation. Those nomads will probably still be around, and the PCs will have to contend with them. But the old ducal lineage is also strong in this area, and Iyin surely has raiding parties scouring for loot. This hex map has a sort of potential energy that I really like in RPG settings — factional conflict that could pull the PCs in all sorts of different directions, with hard choices and opportunities for fame and fortune.

The next step, now that I have the rough outline of this region’s history, is to start putting names to the various people and factions I’ve described above, and coming up with more details about them. What do the two sorcerers’ monasteries disagree on, exactly? What’s this new religion from the north? What are the contours of this empire-wide civil war?

September 24, 2023 Fantasy Worldbuilding

Spaceships Continued — Credit, Morale, and the Crew

Part 1 here!

Corporate cargo freighters, External Service vessels, passenger spaceliners, and military gunships all hew closely to the Mission Control Model. Most crew are paid working-class wages typical for their unskilled” labor. Department heads are paid somewhat better, while Command officers are salaried and given generous benefit packages. The chain of authority is clear, discipline is tight, and responsibilities are divided rationally and efficiently across departments.

You are not those people, and you don’t fly on that kind of ship.

Mars from Phobos by Thomas Peters
(DeviantArt) Artwork by Thomas Peters

You might be a contractor for hire, always looking for short-term work and a ride to the next port. You might be part of a nomadic ethnocultural group that’s been circuiting the Solar System for generations. You might be a pirate, smuggler, or other outlaw. You might be trying to get rich quick in the asteroid-mining business. Or you’re just a down-on-your-luck drifter. What’s important is that you don’t work for anyone. There’s nobody paying your wages. All you’ve got is yourself, your crew, and a ship.


Every crew has Credit, a combination of your cash on hand and money loaned from various (usually predatory) lenders. The higher your Credit, the more able you are to pay routine expenses and cover your debts. The lower your Credit, the closer you are to insolvency.

You can use Credit in a variety of ways.

  • Repair: It costs 1C to repair a damaged or patched System, and 2C to repair a destroyed System.
  • Replace: It costs 2C to correct one flaw with the ship.
  • Refuel: Roll 1d6 every time the ship performs an interplanetary transfer. On a 6, spend 1C at port to replenish the ship’s supply of helium-3 reactor fuel.
  • Reactor maintenance: It costs 1C to reduce the ship’s Stress to 0.
  • Armor: It costs 1C for every point of Armor up to 5, and 2C thereafter.
  • Medical treatment: It costs 1C to restore 2d6 to all three Crew Stats, up to their maximum (roll separately). Signing bonuses: It costs 1C to hire new crew, raising all three Crew Stats’ maximums by 1d6 (roll separately, maximum of 20).
  • Hazard pay: Pay 1C to take on a particularly dangerous job.
  • Ammunition: It costs 1C for every unit of missile ammunition.
  • Cost of living: A week of normal expenses” for the crew — food, oxygen, payroll, etc. — costs 1C.
  • Other: Any large, out-of-the-ordinary” expense, such as a bribe, costs at least 1C.

Credit Checks

A Credit check determines if the crew can handle the pressure of their financial obligations at a moment of particular need. A Credit check can be called for in several situations:

  • Whenever the crew makes a big purchase.
  • Whenever the crew takes downtime at port.
  • When the crew goes a while without work.
  • When the crew upsets their creditors.
  • Whenever it otherwise seems appropriate.

To make a Credit check, roll 1d20 equal to or under the crew’s current Credit. If the check is successful, nothing happens or the crew gets what it wants. If the check is failed, look up the result below.

Credit cannot be increased above 20. If Credit is decreased below 0, there is an immediate repossession and Credit is reset to 0.

# Result
10 REFUND. A billing error is corrected, giving you an unexpected windfall. Add 1C.
19 ANXIETY. Reduce Morale by 1.
18 PAY ADVANCE. New hires demand more money upfront before joining the crew. The next time you hire crewmembers, signing bonuses will cost 2C.
17 ACCOUNT FREEZE. You cannot spend Credit until the next time Credit is raised.
16 HEADHUNTER. A larger organization attempts to poach your crewmembers with an offer you can’t match. Reduce one Crew Stat’s maximum by 1d6.
15 INTEREST. Reduce Credit by 1 as your debts spiral out of control.
14 OUT OF WARRANTY. Roll 1d8 for a System. That System is damaged and must be repaired.
13 BEHEST. Your creditors demand you do a job for them, at standard pay.
12 WEAR AND TEAR. The crew falls behind on critical reactor upkeep. Increase the ship’s Stress by 1.
11 RESTRUCTURING. Add 1d6 Credit as debt obligations are reduced. In exchange, all major movements and spending decisions must be approved by your creditors until your Credit hits 15.
10 OVERDRAFT. You’re forced to draw a short-term loan as your account balance goes negative. A week of normal expenses for the crew costs 2C until the next time Credit is raised.
9 PANIC. Reduce Morale by 1d6.
8 LAPSED MAINTENANCE. Gain the Faulty System flaw. Roll 1d8 for a System. That System cannot be patched — if it’s damaged, it’s destroyed and must be repaired at port.
7 PAYROLL ISSUE. Crew paychecks bounce. Spend 2C immediately, or make a Morale check.
6 LOAN SHARK. A particularly unscrupulous creditor sends 2d6 enforcers to threaten, harass, beat, or kidnap you and your crewmembers.
5 DISTRAINT. Your creditors attempt to seize a weapon, drone, module, or piece of cargo from the ship.
4 LOCKOUT. Your ship is barred from a particular port until your Credit hits 15.
3 EXTORTION. Your creditors demand you do a job for them, without pay.
2 INSOLVENCY. Crewmembers quit as payroll can’t be made. Reduce Morale and all three Crew Stats’ maximums by 1d6 (roll separately).
1 REPOSSESSION. An armed squad of mercenaries comes to claim your ship, by deadly force if necessary.
The M.I.T.T. deep space mammoth 42 Atlas by Marnix Rekkers
(Artstation) Artwork by Marnix Rekkers


Every crew also has Morale, a measure of your crewmembers’ cohesion, confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline. The higher your Morale, the more trust the rank-and-file have in your leadership, and the better they’re able to work together. The lower your Morale, the closer you are to mutiny.

Gain 1d6 morale when…

  • The ship wins a battle.
  • The crew receives a significant financial windfall.
  • The crew passes a Credit check.
  • The crew completes an objective.
  • The crew spends downtime at port.
  • It seems otherwise appropriate.

Lose 1d6 morale when…

  • A battle is finished and…
    • A Crew Stat was damaged.
    • A System was damaged or destroyed.
    • The ship overheated.
  • The crew fails a Credit check.
  • The crew fails an objective.
  • The crew goes a while without downtime.
  • It seems otherwise appropriate.

Morale Checks

A Morale check determines how well the crew stays together in difficult situations, and tracks the evolution and churn of crew politics. A Morale check can be called for in several situations:

  • When the ship loses a battle.
  • If the crew goes a while without being paid.
  • Whenever the crew is put into life-threatening danger.
  • Whenever the crew must choose between themselves and the leadership.
  • Whenever it otherwise seems appropriate.

To make a Morale check, roll 1d20 equal to or under the crew’s current Morale.

Morale cannot be increased above 20. If Morale is decreased below 0, there is an immediate mutiny and Morale is reset to 0.

# Result
10 RECRUITMENT. A Loyalist has recruited new crewmembers, attracted by positive things they’ve heard about the ship. Add 2 to one Crew Stat’s maximum.
19 HARMONY. One of the departments is working like a well-oiled machine. Increase Morale by 1.
18 RECONCILIATION. One of the Loyalists works to defuse tension. Roll a d6. On a 1, remove the Nemesis tag from a crewmember.
17 FEUD. Tensions within the crew have come to a head. Either stay neutral and subtract 2 from one Crew Stat’s maximum, or take a side and add the Nemesis tag to a crewmember.
16 LOYALIST. Add the Loyalist tag to a crewmember.
15 PAYROLL. Back pay obligations accumulate. Spend 1C on payroll or remove the Loyalist tag from a crewmember.
14 REQUEST. A Loyalist asks for something problematic or difficult, which if denied will cause them to lose their Loyalist tag.
13 THEFT. Spend 1C and reduce a Crew Stat by 1 as a rogue crewmember steals money to abandon the ship.
12 LOYALIST. Add the Loyalist tag to a crewmember.
11 DISCONTENT. One of the departments is totally dysfunctional. Subtract 2 from one Crew Stat’s maximum.
10 STEADY. The crew is steady, for now.
9 INTIMIDATION. One of the Nemeses tries to intimidate a Loyalist into silence. Roll a d6. On a 6, remove the Loyalist tag from a crewmember.
8 NEMESIS. Add the Nemesis tag to a crewmember.
7 BRAWL. A Loyalist and Nemesis get into a fight. If you don’t intervene, roll a d6. On a 1, the Nemesis is killed. On a 6, the Loyalist is killed.
6 STOPPAGE. Led by a Nemesis, one of the departments refuses to work until its demands are met. Reduce one Crew Stat to zero temporarily until the situation is resolved.
5 DEFECTION. A Nemesis and their followers threaten to abandon the crew if their demands aren’t met. If they leave, reduce one Crew Stat’s maximum by 1d6 and remove a Nemesis from the ship.
4 NEMESIS. Add the Nemesis tag to a crewmember.
3 MURDER. A Nemesis and their supporters gang up on a Loyalist. If you don’t intervene, roll a d6. On a 5 or 6, the Loyalist is killed.
2 EXILE. The Nemeses pressure a Loyalist and their supporters into leaving the crew. Reduce one Crew Stat’s maximum by 1d6 and remove a Loyalist from the ship.
1 MUTINY. If any of the crew has the Nemesis tag, there is an immediate mutiny. All Nemeses and their supporters attempt to take control of the ship and purge the Loyalists.

Design Notes

I know that mortgage payment roleplaying” has been a cliché in the sci-fi RPG scene going back to Traveller, but it’s a cliché for a reason. If the PCs are constantly in need of money (for repairs, debt repayments, crew wages, upgrades, etc.), then they’ll be really motivated to seek out opportunities for lucrative adventuring. Plus, if they fail to pay back their debts, running away from their creditors becomes an adventure all on its own.

Importantly, I’m not in the business of giving the players accounting work. Everything here has to be in service of the adventure, it can’t just be its own annoying minigame. My goal here is to have a generative way of creating both problems and opportunities for the PCs, which they have to address through play.

I made the Morale system for a similar reason. The reality is, as a game master, I’m never going to detail a 50-person crew with all their personalities and quirks and concerns and little human interest stories. I wouldn’t enjoy making that list and it would rarely prove its full usefulness in play. But I also really care about how these crew members relate to the PCs, the adventure, and each other. So I want a system that captures the crew’s overall mood, creates a stable of important NPCs, and then generates intrigue and drama between them.

Other notes:

  • Like with my spaceship combat rules, I’m presenting a bunch of untested material. The tables especially feel very first-draft to me, and I’m not totally satisfied with them as they currently stand.
  • I’m not sold on how I’ve specified when you should reduce Morale versus make a Morale check, but the logic is basically the same as with Credit: you lose Credit due to the ordinary spending of money, and you make a Credit check when your obligations pile up to a critical point. Credit checks and Morale checks test whether or not tensions come to a head.
  • The encounters in the Morale table are short and vague. I hope that this empowers the GM to add flavor and really make each situation unique — but I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.
  • Copying from The Pirate Crew, I think it’s best to give Loyalists and Nemeses a single personality trait, at least to start out with. This particular bit from that article is brilliant, so I’m going to copy it here wholesale:
    • When you need to know how the crew as a whole acts just combine all of the personality traits of the named NPCs. If there is 1 Nemesis with bloodthirsty” and two Loyalists with cunning” and greedy” then your pirate crew as a whole is bloodthirsty, cunning, and greedy. Act accordingly.”
  • I’m still not 100% satisfied with Crew Stat” as a term. I love the idea of rolling against the crew’s coherence to do stuff, but I’d prefer something a little bit less abstract.

September 3, 2023 Mission Control Model Rules Rockhoppers Sci-Fi Space

Letter of Resignation from the Central Committee of the Governorate of Luna

TO: Cyril Brook, President of the Executive Council of the External Service
FROM: Artemon Sankaran, President of the Central Committee of the Governorate of Luna
DATE: 17 December 2308
SUBJECT: Letter of Resignation


Please accept this letter as notice of resignation from my post as representative and president of the Central Committee of the Governorate of Luna.

I have spent six years on the Committee, serving as its president for the past two. Even now I still consider it the honor of my life. Throughout my 21-year career in the External Service, I have been nothing but dedicated to the Restitution Project and to our mission of efficient and just administration of the interplanetary settlements. I do not think it an overstatement to say that my record of faithful service is beyond reproach. Never have I imagined that my career would end here, but the events of December 6-8 have left me with no choice.

I want to impress upon you the scale of the disaster which has just occurred. The latest reports suggest that at least 10,147 people died in the span of three days, the vast majority after the depressurization of part of Apollo Station on Dec. 8. For comparison, 6,761 people died in the Okamura Station Fire and 3,919 people died in the bombing of the Aristide Durand. The use of military force so close to Earth is unprecedented, and the damage from which might never be repaired.

Before, during, and after this catastrophe, however, the Committee and I have had our authority utterly disregarded. We were not notified in advance when the Executive Council issued new speech and assembly laws for Luna, nor were we kept informed of events when violence broke out. We learned that the External Marines were coming to restore order after they had already arrived.

In fact, I still don’t know who gave the order to depressurize a densely-populated residential neighborhood in Apollo Station. I understand that the External Tribunal has issued an arrest warrant for Flight Commander Ashanti Vuong-Teague. From my connections with members of the Tribunal, I also understand that this warrant is legally and factually baseless. If Commander Vuong-Teague did not issue the order, who did? Certainly not the lawful governing body of Luna, since we only learned what happened after the fact.

I am furious that the External Service has chosen to circumvent my authority in order to slaughter people for whom I am ultimately responsible. The law is very clear as to our respective duties, and so I can only reason that we were purposely kept ill-informed and thus incapable of carrying out our responsibilities. If the Central Committee is not allowed to govern, then I see no reason to remain at my post, especially not to be party to a massacre. I resign my positions in the Committee effective immediately.

TO: Artemon Sankaran
FROM: Cyril Brook, President of the Executive Council of the External Service
DATE: 23 December 2308
SUBJECT: Re: Letter of Resignation from the Central Committee

Mr. Sankaran,

Your letter of resignation has been received. Please do not refer to me by my first name.

August 18, 2023 Rockhoppers Sci-Fi Fiction Worldbuilding

The External Service
Office of Media Relations

For Immediate Release December 8, 2308

Media Briefing by Senior External Service Officials on the Violence on Luna

Via Conference Call

12:55 A.M. GMT

SEC. KHOURY: Thank you, everyone, for joining us at this late hour. We have some senior officials in the External Service on the line to discuss the operation today regarding events on Luna.

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: Thank you all for joining us tonight. The Executive Council and the President have worked closely with Chancellor-General Kidane to complete the Ten-Year Program. The President understands that now more than ever, the project of climate restitution requires the full commitment of Luna’s industrial capacity. The events of the past three days do not change that.

On September 16, the President received an assessment from the EBI [External Bureau of Intelligence] outlining the threat of a terrorist clique on Luna known as the Iron Star Movement. The assessment estimated that the ISM had as many as 3,000 active members in cells across Luna, and determined that the ISM was most active on Apollo and Yi So-yeon Stations.

The assessment identified the ISMs motives and ideology as follows: it is a Lunar separatist organization that actively opposes the Restitution Project. Its aims are to stoke anti-Earth violence and attack critical points of Restitutionary infrastructure such as the Ahlberg Shipyards and the Lunar Central Committee’s offices in Apollo. It opposes climate restoration and hopes to end Luna’s participation in that effort.

Additionally, the ISM has been conducting an underground public relations campaign to increase the salience of Lunar independence in the general population. These illicit meetings have been spearheaded by militant organizers and journalists recruited with the express goal of radicalizing members of the public. The EBI identified 83 of these meetings between January and August, spread out across all major Lunar cities. These meetings were correlated with incidents of stochastic violence against people from Earth.

Partnering with the Lunar Central Committee, the Executive Council devised a policy response to these seditious meetings, which included harsher penalties for organizing an unlawful assembly, spreading anti-Restitutionary propaganda, and inciting anti-Earther violence. This policy package was rolled out on December 6, coinciding with the beginning of widespread violence in Apollo Station.

Now, I’ll turn it over to my colleague to go through the details of what happened the past 24 hours. Thank you.

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: As you heard, the Executive Council dispatched three External Marines vessels to restore order on Luna. These ships were the Giuseppe Garibaldi, the John Brown, and the Andrés Bonifacio. The Garibaldi was sent to Apollo, the Brown was sent to Yi So-yeon, and the Bonifacio was kept in reserve in case reinforcement was needed. Fighting lasted for approximately twelve hours, and the External Marines accomplished their objective.

At 12:03 tonight, we received word that the last holdouts of insurrection on Apollo Station turned themselves in to the forces of the Garibaldi. Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of our External Marines, peace once again reins on Luna.

Additionally, the marines managed to capture Amrita Michel, Sora Vardanyan, Kamalani McKowen, and Ji-Hu Reyes-Montero — four identified ringleaders of the Iron Star Movement. These four are sworn enemies of the Restitution Project and a danger to all humanity. They are people who call for the murder of anyone born on Earth, anywhere in the Solar System. They are leaders of a violent extremist movement with affiliates across Luna, and they have taken up arms against the happiness and prosperity of all humankind.

We have achieved a remarkable victory tonight — a victory over the forces of extremism, division, and terror. We showed the Solar System that we will not be cowed by threats to the mission we have dedicated our entire species to. Let me be clear: the cornerstone of the Iron Stars’ ideology is to let Earth starve for their gain. They do not represent the majority opinion on Luna or anywhere in the Solar System, and their defeat is proof that all of humanity remains united toward one purpose.

I know you understand that I can’t and won’t get into many details of this mission, but I’ll share what I can. The challenges of fighting in such an environment are numerous. The extremist combatants made their stand in heavily-populated civilian neighborhoods, maximizing the probability of collateral damage. Many of the extremists were dressed as civilians, further making it difficult to distinguish between a combatant and a non-combatant. Our marines faced barricades in the narrow streets, harassment from buildings and narrow shops, and the use of non-combatants as human shields.

The crews of the Garibaldi, the Brown and the Bonifacio are specially trained for conducting operations in narrow and crowded space stations. They accepted the inherent risks, and understood the importance of the operation to the security of the Restitution Project. Their expertise and courage were essential to the operation’s success.

That’s all I have at this time. I’ll turn it back to my colleague over here.

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: Let me emphasize that great care was taken to ensure operational success, minimize the possibility of non-combatant casualties, and to adhere to international law in carrying out the mission. Every step of the way, we cooperated with the Central Committee of the Governorate of Luna to ensure that there was seamless collaboration across the Restitution Project to bring these terrorists to justice.

Without a doubt, the Restitution Project will continue to face terrorist threats. The Restitution Project will continue to fight those threats. Climate restitution is a marathon, not a sprint, and that includes fighting those who aim to tear apart the entire project.

SEC. KHOURY: [inaudible] with that, we’re ready to take some questions.

Q: How long do you estimate has the Iron Star Movement existed on Luna?

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: The EBI estimates that the ISM has been actively recruiting members for at least three years, but the organization itself may have existed for some time before that.

Q: I’m getting word back from Luna that a part of Apollo Station has depressurized. What is the extent of the depressurized area and are there civilian casualties?

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: We can’t go into those details at this time.

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: Those are two questions, not one.

Q: The four ringleaders you identified for the Iron Stars, were they actively involved in defending themselves? Can you give us a chronology of the operation?

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: Again, that’s two questions, but yes, the four identified ringleaders did resist the External Marines.

Q: Was the depressurization at Apollo an accident or was it a deliberate action by the Iron Stars or the External Marines?

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: Again, we cannot go into any details at this time. Next question.

REPORTER: Nothing? I’m getting footage of [inaudible] at Molniya Square— [Interruption]

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: That’s enough, next question!

SEC: KHOURY: We have time for one more question. One question before we turn in for the night.

Q: To what degree are the Iron Stars actually responsible for the violence, and to what degree was it spontaneous?

SENIOR EXTERNAL SERVICE OFFICIAL: We have reason to believe that the ISM was intimately connected with planning and carrying out the uprising.

SEC: KHOURY: Alright, thanks again everyone. We’ll have more to say tomorrow.

END 1:11 A.M. GMT

August 10, 2023 Rockhoppers Sci-Fi Fiction Worldbuilding

Running a Political” Game - Campaign Retrospective

Is your RPG adventure political?”

As in, are there different factions and stakeholders, with different interests, at odds with each other? Do the players have to make tough choices about who to trust, who to align with, and who to stab in the back?

If not… Do you want it to be?

REPAIR STATION 73 by Pascal Blanché
(Artstation) Artwork by Pascal Blanché

From February to July, I ran a short campaign set on a remote space station gripped by a labor strike. The PCs were newcomers, caught up in events when their crewmate was murdered in the middle of the night. Through eight sessions spanning five in-game days, the PCs contended with company bosses, union workers, corrupt rent-a-cops, mafia enforcers, militia fighters, hardened terrorists, and people just trying to get by. They got into three firefights, and their actions put the whole station on a course toward all-out-war.

Along the way, I’ve learned quite a bit on how to run this sort of game. I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what comes to mind — with input from my players, because they were kind enough to humor me and fill out a post-campaign feedback form.

Outgun the player characters

The biggest key to establishing tension in a political intrigue game is to take away the PCs’ ability to solve all their problems with violence. That doesn’t mean they have to be left defenseless, but they should quickly run into people who can bring way more firepower to the table than they can.

Most RPG characters are built to get into — and win — fights, so system does matter here (I’ve been using Violence by Luke Gearing). This kind of game probably won’t work very well with, say, 4e or 5e D&D. The PCs need to know that they can easily be killed in a standup fight.

And most NPCs won’t fight fair.

Played right, this high lethality should encourage the PCs to choose their battles wisely, to take care when confronting powerful interests, and to stack the deck in their favor using the extent of their wits and cunning. NPCs, of course, will do the same.

Early in the campaign, two PCs dug up clues pointing to a union-controlled warehouse across town. To get access, they were told to do the union a favor and ransack the space traffic controller’s office. It was supposed to be a bloodless job, but they failed to bluff their way past the night patrol, and things went south from there. Thanks to cover and a heavy dose of luck, they managed to down three cops, giving them enough time to call for help and flee to the maintenance tunnels. They both took injuries, but thanks to quick medical attention from the union doctors, they lived to see another day.

This was a moment that stuck with all of us through the rest of the campaign. It raised the stakes dramatically — the station was put under martial law, with no ships allowed in or out. Furthermore, a detachment of marines was dispatched to the station to restore control. The PCs would have to complete their investigation and find a way to escape Nylund Station before the marines arrived.

It was also my players’ first brush with death, their introduction to this system’s extremely high lethality. Here’s one player’s description of events:

Honestly I’ve done a few DnD campaigns, I’ve had my character killed more than once, but the absolute shitshow that was the terrorist attack on the STC tower was one of the wildest things I’ve seen in DnD. Rarely does post-combat make you feel tense, but because I was actively dying in the tunnels I was like on the edge of my seat praying I’d make it out. I get attached to my characters!!!

Conflicts, not enemies

This all sounds quite punishing, but with danger comes opportunity. Don’t create too many dedicated antagonists — instead, weave a web of tension between different factions, and drop the PCs into the middle. They’ll have to step carefully in order to avoid blowing up the powder keg, but so will everyone else. Give the players room to exploit these conflicts in their favor, negotiating with different factions as it suits them. Depending on the situation, an adversary today can become a partner tomorrow, and former friends can easily turn on each other. Let the players take risks and drip-feed them the consequences.

The players in my game had a complicated relationship with the Outer Planets Liberation Army, the left-wing militia active on Nylund Station. It was OPLA fighters who helped them escape from the space traffic controller’s office, and they relied on the militia’s help to navigate the station and get around the barricades put up by union and police. But the union and OPLA, while aligned against the authorities, were not terribly friendly themselves. The OPLA wanted a free hand to do as they liked, whereas the union wanted the OPLA to answer to them. And as the PCs uncovered more and more clues, they came to realize that the murderer was a member of the OPLA.

They needed to learn more, but they struggled to land on anything they could offer to the major factions in return. The plan they landed on was simple: go to the union boss and offer to independently frame the OPLA for the space traffic controller’s attack. Hopefully, this would marginalize and contain the OPLA, at least a little bit, while keeping the union’s hands clean and keeping the door open for a continued union-OPLA relationship — one where a weakened OPLA was subservient to the union.

At this point, the campaign had become more than a murder mystery. The players were now debating how to avoid the marines, how to exploit the major factions to their advantage, and how to escape Nylund Station. Here’s one of my players on the union boss and the way the campaign developed:

Mehmet also seemed like a very interesting figure, being just ideological enough to defy the solar government but just pragmatic enough to lead a substantive opposition. Finally unraveling the circumstances of Mendoza’s murder, and how it was practically a minor point by the end of the campaign despite it being our initial cause for action, was great.

Know the world

This sort of game necessarily involves a lot of prep. As the game master, you’re responsible for playing the world, seeing how different characters and factions respond to the PCs’ actions. To do this correctly, you’ve got to understand the situation in your game very well.

This is hard. I kept a lot of notes, including lists of major characters, a map of the station, session notes, and a timeline of events. Still, I often found myself having to slow down and flip back through my notes mid-session. Here’s what one player had to say about it:

There were some times where the story would grind to a halt as [GM] tried to find out certain details he couldn’t remember.

I’ve never GM’d, I don’t know what his prep looked like or what kinda notes he had, but maybe there’s a way to streamline notes? Maybe not, again, this is something that [GM] would have to review (though if he sent me his notes I could give some advice!) Not memorizing every detail of your campaign is human, so we obv don’t expect perfection here and this didn’t like sour the campaign or anything.

Let the players outsmart you

One of the reasons I love GMing is because I enjoy seeing my players come up with their own solutions to their problems. Wild ideas, brilliant schemes, doomed plots — it’s the bread and butter of my gaming. If my players come up with a well-reasoned plan, I usually bend toward saying yes. And then I love showing them the consequences.

Toward the end of the campaign, the PCs found themselves in an OPLA safe house. They feigned that they were OPLA sent from leadership to get some answers about the space traffic controller’s office incident. The agents there were skeptical, but eventually relented and gave their alibi (they were at work at their day jobs). The PCs, in a gambit to force their hand too early, impressed upon them the necessity of swift defensive action ahead of the marines’ arrival. One thing led to another, and the militia fighters agreed to disperse the safe haven’s firearms to the station’s OPLA cells, and to carry out some unspecified operation” — the bombing of Nylund Station General Hospital.

With the clock ticking, the PCs pressed for more information and a way out of the safe house. They learned some final details about the murder — the killer was an OPLA agent whose gambling debts led her to turn coat and become a police informant. When her comrades found out, they kidnapped her and told her to make a high-profile assassination in three days, or else. She aimed for a senior police captain staying at a hotel by passenger arrivals, but broke into the wrong room, killing an innocent person — the PCs’ crewmate. The murder was a complete accident.

It took a firefight to escape the safe house, firmly severing the PCs from the OPLA. One player was injured so badly he had to go to the hospital… the very hospital in danger of being bombed. When they got there, they called their contact at the Bureau of Intelligence, and she had police sweep the hospital for OPLA agents. The bomb plot was foiled, but now the players were defenseless at the hands of the police.

The intelligence officer offered to let the PCs leave Nylund Station… but only if they gave up the location of the union boss and other important union members. It was heavily implied that things would get complicated if the PCs refused. They mulled the offer over, decided that they didn’t have much of a choice, and agreed to turn coat.

The players’ scheme — get some information about the murder out of an OPLA safe house — set off a chain of events that led them to betray the union and the militia to secure a ticket off the station. Not very heroic, but it got them what they wanted.

Say yes to their plans, then drip-feed them the consequences.

…But don’t be afraid to say no sometimes

My tendency to be permissive with the PCs’ schemes led to some great moments, but multiple players mentioned that they felt like the non-player characters were pretty gullible.

Many of the characters were too trusting at times. In the end we brought down the union mostly because they trusted us with a domestic terroristic attack, a couple goobers they’d never met with unclear loyalties.

For the most part the characterization was solid, but I do feel there were times that some reasonable doubts/concerns a character may have had. Particularly surrounding the union and the deals they made with us. It didn’t break my immersion and it wasn’t unbelievable, hell real life people make rash decisions, but there were a couple occasions where I felt like we succeeded more to move the plot along than cause we succeeded.

And… yeah, that’s probably true. That they even got into the OPLA safe house was a product of some extreme gullibility from the NPCs. And the union did trust the PCs with a high-profile operation right from the get-go. Worth thinking about for next time.

In conclusion

The finale of the campaign was the outbreak of all-out war between the police and the combined forces of the union and OPLA. As the PCs attempted to make their way to their ship, a detachment of OPLA agents ambushed them in a warehouse, looking for revenge.

It was a jumbled, chaotic affair, with bullets whizzing around with abandon. By the end of it, one player character and multiple named NPCs were dead. The other militia members had either surrendered or fled. The remaining two PCs had little time to grieve before hauling ass toward passenger arrivals.

This final firefight, as dramatic as it was, did expose some issues my players had with the ruleset we were using. Here’s one player’s opinion:

Characters rolling to die after combat is a little weird. It’s not done in most other DnD systems and generally I think you could tell if someone is at least dead by gunshot.

Only reason I bring this up is I felt it was a little anti-climactic that Brat didn’t die in the fight, but rather in a kinda mundane dice roll after the action had settled. It sorta took away from the action I think; if it had happened in real time we’d be like NOOO, but cause it was so delayed it just kinda happened.

The lack of any kind of system for modeling things that aren’t violence also caused some hangups. Here’s another player’s thoughts:

I think it would be nice if we had a system for our competencies too, as it could have been interesting to have mechanical use for our careers and backstories. This didn’t come up much in a campaign of mostly politics, but it could in future if we have to solve other kinds of problems, and it might bring more focus to our characters’ personalities and interests.

But! I think Violence proved an ideal system for an adventure of high intrigue. With no character stats to speak of, the only thing my players and I could fall back on was our knowledge of the characters and the situation on Nylund Station.

With no charisma stat or social skills, every interaction with an NPC was defined by uncertainty. My players could never tell if their threats and bluffs were landing, or if an NPC had something to hide. They had to make decisions based off their best guesses about an NPCs personality or a faction’s goals.

Combat, on the other hand, was quick, tense, and bloody. My players knew that the consequneces of misstepping could be fatal, and that if they picked up the dice, they were taking a huge risk. They were incentivized to avoid a fight when possible, and to stack the deck in their favor if not.

Another thing I liked about Violence was that the drama was firmly set on getting hit rather than taking damage. Characters didn’t have hit points — even one bullet could kill, forcing my players to duck for cover, find places to hide, and use the environment to their advantage.

What’s next?

I’d like to continue this story, following the player characters as they explore a Solar System inching closer to revolution. The tone is probably going to change quite a bit, becoming an open-world sandbox with more of a system behind it. I want to refine and flesh out my spaceship combat rules to make them suitable for a real campaign. As much as I enjoyed using Violence for this arc of the campaign, I probably won’t use it for a campaign that isn’t primarily about intrigue. Maybe Mothership?


The Three Clue Rule is essential. There really is no better advice for designing a mystery.

I think it’s good to have some player-facing notes. For my players, I kept a timeline of events, a list of unsolved mysteries, and a list of important characters.

I made sure to write down a summary of events after every session, so I wouldn’t forget anything as I prepped the next session.

I found that while there was a lot of work up-front before the campaign started, it wasn’t a huge amount of work to prep sessions once the campaign already started. I had already done the work to create factions and NPCs and establish their motivations — after that, it was easier to come up with their next move.

July 24, 2023 Sci-Fi Rockhoppers Space Campaign Retrospective GM Advice