SF Storytelling with TTRPGs

I’ve loved science fiction (SF) since I was a kid. I’ve used my blog to share my own SF writing, show how science informs my SF, reviewing SF, and sharing other authors’ SF stories. This post covers another facet of how I participate in SF storytelling.

Over the last three years, I’ve become engrossed with table-top role-playing games (TTRPGs). This comes from my lifelong obsession with games. Not only video games or board games, but inventing stories while playing with the pack of kids in the apartment complex where I grew up. Running a TTRPG session is a more rigorous version of those old day of playing pretend.

How I Discovered OSR

First off, I have a bit of the oddball entrance to the hobby. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I never took the plunge because I love science fiction. I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine committing to a GMing in a genre that doesn’t thrill me.

Nevertheless, the notion of a long-term tabletop game kept kicking around in my head. At that point, board games occupied a good portion of my time with friends. I wanted to find a TTRPG that could bridge the gap from a co-op board game experience.

My ticket to TTRPG town took me straight to OSR games. OSR, or Old School Renaissance, means something different to anyone and everyone. My lazy interpretation in this much discussed topic is that OSR is toolbox-heavy “hack” ethos that which results in a simple-to-run game that prioritizes storytelling over game mechanics.

When I discovered a “GMless” system based on SF series I love, I tried to take it to the table…

Shock: Human Contact

By Joshua A. C. Newman

Shock: Human Contact is a setting-specific sequel to Joshua A. C. Newman’s Shock: Social Science Fiction. In Human Contact, players play out two different groups of people in a First Contact scenario. First, the session(s) revolve around the Academics aboard the 5-year mission to the planet. Next, the session(s) center on the Native humanoid life on the planet before the Academics make contact. Finally, the two groups collide in the attempts of the Academics’ First Contact with the Natives.

This scenario appealed to me so much because it’s a riff on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, and obviously (though I hadn’t seen a single episode at the time) Star Trek.

I missed the Kickstarter by nearly six years. The only way I was able to purchase this PDF was through Joshua A. C. Newman’s Patreon. That should have been my first hint I was deep in indie veteran TTRPG territory, but I was totally clueless about what I was getting my friends into.

Shock: Human Contact has the group choose overarching themes: Issues and Shocks. Each player creates two characters, a Protagonist and an Antagonist. Everyone can contribute to the storytelling and worldbuilding at any time by writing out Minutiae. The first of which link how the SFnal Shock affects the social Issues.

High abstraction fuels the foundation of this game. Stepping back from this abstraction and into the grounded RP of your *Tagonists (as the game calls their PCs) was tough. Shock: Human Contact follows up Protagonist turns by asking the Player to write out their scene in a special turn pulling in a Solo Journaling aspect to the game.

Our group of four completed the first part of the game: the Academics’ voyage. We had fun, but the experience was so thoroughly strange for a group of people used to board games that we never finished. I’ll dig out the notes sometime to write up a detailed after-action-report sort of review of the game.

Stars Without Number: Revised

Kevin Crawford released the first edition of Stars Without Number (SWN) in 2010, and SWN: Revised in January 2018. SWN is a great system to tell a wide range of SF stories from high space opera to cyberpunk underworld. Characters come in three classes—Warrior, Expert and Psychic—with your typical six attributes. Class and Background give your PCs certain Skills and you can pick a couple more (only Psychic-skills are class-limited). Then you choose a special ability called Foci, and Psychics sort out their powers.

I discovered this B/X meets Traveller space sandbox in early 2019 while researching an easy-to-run TTRPG. At the time, I had no idea that B/X referred to the original Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons game. Nor did I know the OSR community celebrated B/X for its succinct “rulings over rules” style. Then, with Traveller, its insane publication history overwhelmed me, frankly.

The SWN system is simple, and clearly explained. The skills use 2d6 with scaling success. Combat, which is deadly at low levels, uses d20 vs. AC to hit, then applies weapon damage. Once I found it, read and was shocked to easily understand the rules, I knew I found my game. What’s more, Crawford openly encourages people using his book to alter whatever they want. This is where I learned the toolbox ethos: take what you need to play the game you want to play.

The first campaign I ran had the same utopian drive as Shock: Human Contact. I pulled more from Iain Banks’ Contact: Special Circumstances to fit the gameplay. I only had one player, so as the Deluxe book recommended, we played using the Heroic PCs rules.

The second campaign pulled more from cyberpunk. The party increased to three, and the PCs worked for the seedy underground. When they obtained a spaceship, the game took a turn from heists and gang warfare into trading and exploration.

Both games took place in a homebrew setting a million years in the future. I reskinned psychic powers as “esoteric sciences”. Mechanically, I changed absolutely nothing. Story-wise for Esoterics, there’s less stigma and fear in civilized circles. This way, I felt free to make decisions—and let my players do the same—without contradicting the book’s included setting.

Check out the free version on DriveThruRPG. If you like it, the offset print SWN:R Deluxe is on sale now while supplies last.

SWN is so far the game I have both played most and run the most, but there’s one game that is catching up quick…

Mothership RPG

By Tuesday Knight Games

Mothership RPG 0e was published in 2018 and won an Ennie for Best Game in 2019. Their recent 1mcr Kickstarter for 1e made headlines at Forbes.com. Sean McCoy hit a perfect note with this game. Mothership is Space Horror. Think Alien, Akira, Dead Space. This game does not build PCs to survive forever. The Mothership (MoSh) motto is Survive, Solve, Save. Achieving one of these is an accomplishment. Think about it. How often does the whole cast survive a horror movie?

You play as a Teamster, Scientist, Marine or Android. Using a d100 roll-under mechanic, your character attempts to survive a horror movie scenario in space. Skills use the four stats: Strength, Speed, Intellect, and Combat. As the situation gets worse, you roll one of the three saves are Sanity, Fear, and Body. Failing a stat, save or skill check makes you gain Stress. When shit really hits the fan, you make a Panic check. Effects on the Panic table can be immediate or long duration, and generally put PCs at great risk.

I’ve been playing this game since October 2021, and it has quickly become my favorite system. The immediacy and squishy psychological bent appeals to the character focus I strive for. As a Warden (MoSh’s term for GM), I can focus on crafting a messed up situation and allowing the PCs to uncover the mystery. The loose background of the omnipotent dystopian Company allows the Warden high level of setting customization without needing to worry about what’s “canon” or not.

One of the greatest aspects of MoSh is its community. The third-party publishing community is thriving. Discovering and supporting the adventures created by these talented independent game designers has been a great pleasure these past months. And finding an online game is as easy as setting up a #lfg (looking for game) on their active, official Discord (be sure to read the #rules-and-orientation channel).

The 0e Player’s Survival Guide (PSG) is available on DriveThruRPG. If you’re interested in playing the new and improved rules, you can still back the first edition on Backerkit, and get the WIP 1e PSG. Both books are less than 50 pages. It’s by far the easiest game system to run between the three I’ve presented in this article.

To-play List

At first, I was going to write out all the details and my plans for these other SF TTRPGs, but that will come for another time. Here’s what else is in my line of sight:

  • Traveller
  • Scum and Villainy
  • Ironsworn: Starforged
  • ARC: Doom Tabletop RPG
  • Once More Into the Void

Until next time,


Published by ChrisAiriau

I'm a science and SF content creator, specializing in writing technical scientific concepts in clear and engaging language. Alongside many writing and editing side-projects, I taught English in French universities for eight years. At university, I worked mainly for engineering Master’s programs and science undergraduates – from economics to physics, biology to psychology. My goal is to tailor SF and science content to a diverse range of audiences, and my background provides all the necessary tools to succeed.

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