So today I’m going to provide a little bit of useful information for people looking to run a Starfinder campaign, who want something a little more complex than “wizards and artificial gravity took care of all the problems” in locations.
First off, let’s talk planets a little. While there are a lot of thing you can get away with in a multiverse with intervensionist deities and the kind of ‘loose’ physics encouraged by space opera and science fantasy, there are some things y’all may want to consider with regards to a planet’s atmosphere and habitability.
First, planets that are closer to a star are going to be hotter. It’s a simple truth of radiant sources. Therefore, if you want to have an icy world close in to the sun, you’re going to need a good reason for it. Likewise if you want a warm jungle-rich world far out from it. There are plenty of ways to do it, but think it through so the pedantic nerds in your group don’t get too huffy. (And c’mon, be honest, this hobby is full of pedantic nerds.)
Second, the brighter a star is, the less time the planets will have had to have any native life naturally develop. A blue supergiant with a jungle world is absolutely going to be unnatural and the result of someone deliberately seeding the planet with life. A red dwarf with a close-in jungle world in orbit may well just have had life brewing on it for the last six and a half billion years.
Third and last as far as planets go, please give a little thought to why the planet has a breathable atmosphere. Desert worlds like Tatooine are fun and all, but that place should’ve been a dustball like Mars. A little vulcanism and a bit of greenery goes a long way. If you want a good example of how to do this, I absolutely recommend the Aethera setting, where their inhabitable worlds have a good explanation for how you can survive on them.
And from there, let’s talk a little about space stations. Most of us are familiar with the ISS, and we’ve seen pictures of torus habitats (the ones with the great big rings around a central point, like in 2001) and cylinders (the Kasatha worldship is a good one to look at there). There’s more variety out there, and they all serve different purposes in their design.
The ISS is a good example of what would be called a beehive habitat – a collection of individual modules bolted together as a relatively compact and low-cost method of building a space station. It’s good for research stations, places you don’t plan to have gravity in, and it works great if you want a ramshackle junkheap of a station cobbled together over the years from salvage.
Torus habitats are familiar from a lot of sci-fi art, and they have two advantages once you build them big enough; build one with two rings rotating in opposite directions, and they’re nice and stable with centripetal gravity holding you and everything else to the outer wall of the rings. They’re relatively low-cost, as far as space stations go, and the central hub makes docking easy because it’s zero-gravity. As long as you build them in pairs, it can be extended more or less indefinitely, stacking the rings to add more space as needed. It’s a good starter station for an up-and-coming starfaring corporation.
Cylinders – O’Neill Cylinders – are amazing, because they provide a huge amount of space to work with; you literally build a massive cylinder and rotate it around the central axis to provide gravity. These things need to be built huge, to avoid rotational stress tearing them apart, and that means you can build entire artificial landscapes inside. In one direction, the world inside is perfectly flat; in the other, it gently curves upward in a ring. Some models have large transparent panes so that people can go look out at the universe outside, but many more just have a cylindrical landscape. These are what you build when you want an entire sustainable population inside your station; like with the torus habitats you’re best off if you build a pair of them rotating in opposite directions.
Special mention here goes to the Reagan Cylinder, something that I first saw in Eclipse Phase, which is essentially an O’Neill cylinder that you make by hollowing out and sealing an asteroid, using the waste from the process as ballast to even out the spin. While this is a remarkably cheap and efficient process, it leaves the habitat at the mercy of and natural flaws in the base material, less what the sealing process patches up. You’d honestly be better off using the asteroid material as armor on a proper O’Neill cylinder, which would provide improved insulation and much better shielding against radiation at minimal cost.
Another fairly high-tech option is the Cole bubble – put a deposition film in a bubble around a nickel-iron asteroid, pump it full of a gaseous medium to help deposition happen, and essentially cook the asteroid so it boils off and bakes into an evenly-laid shell on the inside of the bubble. It’s a neat trick if you can afford it, and if you have artificial gravity generators it’s the most effective way to get the maximum amount of living space; you could even build a series of shells with supports containing lifts to really maximize your available space. I imagine more than a few of these exist in Starfinder.
Lastly, we have the warren habitat, which is literally where you mine cavities and tunnels out of a rocky asteroid, seal them to keep the air in, and turn it into a living space. You’re most likely to see this where prospectors are sent in as a group by some larger organization, starting with a docking station and living space at one end and gradually turning the entire asteroid into a rat’s nest of twisting passages that followed every last trace of useful ore. Almost certainly kept in zero gravity and with air scrubbers stuffed in the absolute weirdest places.
An additional special mention to aerostats – these are essentially giant bubbles of breathable atmosphere that bobble along in the atmospheres of planets like Venus and the calmer gas giants. One side is weighted and tapered to keep it pointing down, smaller gasbags on struts stabilize the whole thing, and people live inside the main gasbag. It’s a very neat method, and it’s been considered as a way to establish a human presence above the sulfuric acid clouds of Venus.
So do give these some thought when building your campaigns for Starfinder, Aethera, and other sci-fi/space opera games. Variety is as much the spice of gaming as it is life.