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Chapter 4: Running Starship Campaigns / Designing Starship Encounters

Hazards and Terrain in Space

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 138
Starship encounters are sometimes presented as if they take place in an empty void, with only a blank hex grid to note the ships’ positions. Of course, this makes sense in many situations—starship encounters usually take place in space, not in-atmosphere, and vast portions of space are fairly empty, lacking any real terrain features.

However, that doesn’t have to be the case. The advantage of traveling through an infinite universe lies in the fact that while a very large portion it might be generally empty, hazards can show up anywhere, at any time. Adding a hazard of some sort— whether it’s an asteroid field to navigate, a field of hull-eating bacteria to avoid, or a black hole that threatens to pull the PCs’ starship into a void—can add flavor to an encounter and give the PCs something to think about besides the enemy ships.

Adding such a hazard can also add tension to your starship encounters, since it might be difficult to detect these hazards in the vastness of space. Likewise, from a combat perspective, adding a terrain-like feature that changes from round to round, such as a solar flare that periodically pulses with radiation, can provide a more dynamic feel and introduce an additional tactical element. (More details about specific challenges to add to a starship battlefield can be found in Space Hazards, beginning on page 134.)

If incorporated holistically into a starship encounter, such features can make for more dynamic and interesting experiences at the table. Below are some specific ways hazards and terrain-like features can enhance your starship combats.

Environmental Storytelling

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 138
Besides adding a twist to a starship encounter’s mechanical elements, hazards present an opportunity to reveal something about the corner of space where the PCs are fighting. When incorporating a hazard, you as GM should keep in mind why the hazard is there in the game’s world. Adding a hazard that at first glance seems out of place is a great opportunity to inject extra context, depth, and verisimilitude into the game. For a careful GM, aligning your game’s narrative continuity with the hazards that the PCs encounter in starship combat can also open up more opportunities for your players to explore. A great hazard might even inspire the PCs to take the game in a delightfully unanticipated new direction, if you so wish!

For example, perhaps an asteroid recently hit a small moon, destroying it to create an unexpected asteroid belt or debris field the PCs aren’t expecting. Or perhaps a colony ship whose inhabitants were conducting powerful time-bending research imploded, warping the fabric of existence around it. It would certainly catch the PCs off guard to unexpectedly fly into the resulting temporal rift! Figuring out exactly why these hazards came into being can also provide a fun side trek for the players, if you as the GM wish to provide even more hints of adventure seeds here.

Working small setting details into hazards not only provides an explanation for their presence but also makes them more memorable—and it might spur the PCs to investigate further. However, even if the PCs don’t learn the full story of a hazard’s origins, adding a few hints about its backstory can influence the feel of an encounter. If the PCs come across the example temporal rift above, they might occasionally catch glimpses of a ghostly-looking ship that doesn’t show up on their sensors; even if it has no mechanical impact, this can provide a thematic bit of spookiness to the encounter.

Benefiting from Hazards

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 138
Although PCs generally approach a hazard as an obstacle to overcome or avoid, clever players can sometimes use a hazard to their advantage. Unless there’s a compelling reason why enemy ships wouldn’t be affected by a particular hazard— such as a Corpse Fleet ship crewed by undead going through radiation—an area’s hazard affects the opposition just as much as it does the PCs. By using their starship’s sensors to perform a special scan action, the PCs may even be able to learn things about environmental hazards or terrain-like features that are unknown to the enemy.

Perhaps the PCs are about to fight several other ships, and there’s an asteroid field between them. With a special scan action and a successful Computers check, the PCs might identify abandoned ground defenses built into the surfaces of several asteroids. With additional actions and some clever computing, the science officer could potentially hack into these defenses and turn the weaponry against the enemy starships—all while the rest of the crew buy time while fending off the overwhelming foes! No matter the threat, consider ways that the PCs could interact with (or even counteract) hazards they unexpectedly encounter, and encourage creative problem solving.

PCs aren’t the only ones that can use such creative thinking, however—their enemies might do the same. If a hazard has a potential advantage that the PCs are able to learn about through scans or other actions, you should provide hints that this is possible, whether through narrative description or by granting opportunities for skill checks. If the PCs realize their options but choose not to act on any of them, an interesting twist might involve their enemies beating them to the punch and harnessing the power of a hazard against them!