While I turn to Eclipse Phase for a gorgeously in-depth and detailed game world in a sci-fi and transhuman/posthuman setting, the Cypher System has a lot going for it in this department as well. More than just the ability to easily emulate things like Star Wars, it lets us dabble in the soft end of the sci-fi genre, stealing into space opera and science fantasy with ease. Keeping things to hard sci-fi is tricky, but possible as long as everyone’s on board with the effort.
It’s the softer end that we’re dipping into today; the idea I’ve been toying with is a sci-fi setting that pays more attention to the science side than space opera tends to do. Set far enough into the future that ‘humanity’ is a general term covering all sapient lifeforms in the galaxy, it’s an era where interstellar empires exist and the frontier is just as often discovering the ruins of past eras of galactic civilization as it is truly unexplored territory.
Into this come the players, using the Science Fiction genre rules from the core book with a few modifications. First and foremost, player get to choose, as a group, what ship their group gets from a set of six categories – Colonization, Diplomacy, Exploration, Industry, Military, and Trade.
The type of ship sets the tone of the game; a colonization ship will spend a fair chunk of the game in transit, dealing with arrival and settling the system the ship has arrived at. Hostile wildlife unafraid of their new neighbors, strange weather, the ruins of past civilizations the Exploration completely missed, the inevitable fights between groups of settlers, and so on keep this game focused on a single system.
Diplomacy ships have a tone of high intrigue, espionage, and probably find themselves in a new system every story arc, either as a first-in team for establishing contact and relations with a new system or empire, or as a crew sent in to keep other empires from getting the best of their home nation while trying to clean up the messes left behind by the previous crews and secure an advantage for their people.
Exploration ships are lean, streamlined vessels that starhop, exploring the dark spaces between known spaces in search of new systems for future colonies, new empires to establish contact with, and new prizes for the industrial sector and the military to claim. Exploration ships drop into new systems every few sessions, with the GM either pre-generating them or allowing the players to roll on a few charts to generate them. Of all the services, Exploration is the most likely to encounter Weird Stuff, whether in the form of ancient devices from the Priors, strange glitches in spacetime and/or hyperspace, or bizarre configurations of stars, planets, and biospheres.
Industry ships are often the next in after Exploration ships, for systems not worth the trouble of colonizing (yet, at least). They’re the ones who establish mines and factories, build new ships, fully explore and utilize Prior ruins and technology, and fight off hostile military attacks, piracy, and the occasional ancient horror locked away by the Priors until Thog from Auditing let it loose again. Industry can easily be played as light-hearted and comical or deep and serious, depending on the group.
Military ships lend themselves to military games. Whether the players each have their own starfighter and the relevant skills to fly it or they’re assign positions on a larger ship, they’re part of the velvet-covered durasteel fist of the empire, and they’ll clash with hostile military forces, pirates, and disgruntled members of their own empire in an effort to ensure that the empire survives and thrives amid the darkness and chaos of the galaxy. Where Industry occasionally fends off hostile forces, Military is always in the thick of it; players can expect to engage in ship-to-ship combat, with boarding actions and space marine landings on planets in need of conquest and pacification.
Lastly, Trade ships are large, bulky vessels more often than not, often with an escort of smaller ships to ensure that the prizes won by the Industrial sector aren’t lost to those who want a cheap rewards. While it might seem dull at first, the poor souls stuck transporting Prior relics work in Trade, as well as those who operate the sleek courier craft that carry priceless treasures from outpost worlds to the seats of industry and authority. A Trade campaign is more likely to benefit from comedy than most others, with the trouble of dealing with incompetents in charge of stations and outposts mingled with the dark tone of corruption in the elite looking to score a potentially hazardous ancient relic for their personal collection and traitors looking to misdirect a Trade vessel into enemy hands for a kickback, the crew noted as tragically ‘lost in hyperspace’ in the official registers.
Independents can exist, of course, but they’ll fall into the same categories, in general, just with the serial number of service filed off and the rewards more often coming in fuel and supplies than promotions and pay.
We’ll be coming back to this setting soon; stayed tuned for more posts about Cypher Space!