Archives of Nethys

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Chapter 4: Running Starship Campaigns / Starship Campaign Arcs

Lost In The Vast

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 149
In this campaign, the PCs are far away from the Pact Worlds, and critically, they can’t just hop to the nearest Drift beacon. Some confluence of events has thrown the crew deep into the unknown, and their challenge is getting back. Perhaps an anomaly in the Drift took them off course and destroyed their Drift engines in the process, or maybe sabotage is at work, preventing them from making a speedy return. Exactly how the PCs’ ship is launched into space is left up to the GM, but there are two basic variations: in one, the PCs are far from home but they know the path to get back. The journey may take a very long time, and go through inhospitable environments, but it’s predictable. In the other version of this campaign, faster-than-light travel is essentially random; every time the PCs flip the switch on their Drift engine, their destination is completely unpredictable. Every session has a one-in-a-million shot of returning the PCs home.

Notably, this campaign doesn’t require a central antagonist and could easily focus on the PCs’ survival and exploration; indeed, if the PCs are constantly on the move, they’ll leave behind any enemies that are not physically on the ship with them. The episodic nature of the campaign lends itself to short-term challenges that build up to an overarching struggle to survive. Maintaining the ship and crew, scavenging for resources, and contacting indigenous species both friend and foe allow for a host of novel encounters that the party might face on their odyssey. Of course, you can still introduce an antagonist if that adds to your story, but the central conflict of the campaign is between the PCs and their environment.

Accidents Happen

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 149
Begin the campaign on a familiar world or space station. The Pact Worlds provide a stark contrast for the isolation that the party will experience later on, and this also allows characters to become familiar with each other and important NPCs before their primary focus turns to survival. At the same time, use odd happenings around the ship to foreshadow future events. Tools might go missing, the PCs might experience déjà vu or black out for periods of time, or they may hear voices in strange languages echoing from far away. When the event that maroons the PCs in distant space finally does occur, these details will fuel speculation and aid their investigations into what happened.

After the PCs get lost, a host of immediate dangers need to be addressed. Dramatic skill checks will be needed to keep the ship’s atmosphere from venting, maintain life support, treat serious injuries, and evade immediate threats. By this point, the PCs are working with limited, dwindling supplies and will be eager to explore nearby areas for resources.

At lower levels, NPCs aboard the ship can be both a blessing and a burden to the party. Their skills could be the only thing keeping the crew from oblivion, but these same NPCs could have goals that conflict with those of the PCs. These NPCs may be the only company the PCs have for some time, so they’re an excellent source for interpersonal plotlines. Alternatively, there could be no additional crew; a PC-only crew develops closer ties as they rely on each other and deal with relative isolation. These campaigns focus more on adventure and exploration than interpersonal dramas.

As the PCs conclude this chapter, they dodge immediate dangers and stabilize the ship, restoring basic life support and navigation systems. They are now able to pick a general direction and begin limping toward home or a habitable location. And even if they don’t fully understand what threw them off course, they have enough information to begin an investigation.

Just Another Day in the Vast

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 150
Mid-level PCs have the experience necessary to face the bizarre and unknown elements beyond the ship. Anything the crew encounters in these remote places should be completely unfamiliar, so let your creativity run rampant. Nothing is too strange for the depths of space!

When initial supplies run low, the PCs scout planets, asteroids, and salvageable wrecks to harvest and process suitable materials—but these strange otherworldly devices and substances may have side effects on the ship and crew. These missions offer unique, unusual environments and mini-plots as the PCs negotiate harsh terrain, bizarre flora and fauna, and unknown and mysterious civilizations.

This could be the first contact the denizens of these isolated places have had with citizens of the Pact Worlds— although it’s also intriguing if inhabitants of the Pact Worlds have made contact in the distant past. These societies may be fascinating allies, or they may want to imprison and subjugate the crew. Whether these cultures are a small collective or a vast technological empire, they present a host of intriguing story opportunities for you and your players to explore.

Stories at this level also begin to illuminate the factors that caused the PCs to become lost, enabling the heroes to develop a plan that deals with their situation—though they may not have the power to enact that plan just yet. The PCs acquire this information directly through their travels and interactions with other creatures, as well as through long-term investigation that confirms their growing suspicions. Ultimately, the PCs figure out how to save themselves: discovering how to cross a vast distance far faster than they first thought or repairing their Drift engine so that it no longer sends them to random destinations.

Time Runs Short

Source Starship Operations Manual pg. 150
By the time the campaign is entering its final chapters, you can leverage the high-level PCs’ newfound abilities to reveal the information they’ll need to get home. These high-level abilities also enable the party to tie up loose ends and capitalize on clues spread throughout the campaign to discover the means to their return—but the heroes must act quickly. Perhaps there is a rapidly closing portal that they need to reach to get home, or an artifact of great power that a previous contact also wants to acquire.

This campaign offers a chance to do something unusual: finish out the story with a series of high-stakes skill checks instead of a brawl. Take note of each PC’s abilities and include everyone by layering party challenges on top of each other. Not only does this give every character a time to shine, but it builds tension, with every failed check impacting the others. A race against time tests the pilot, while an envoy rallies the NPCs and alien contacts the party has made along the way. Perhaps a cast of old enemies return at the last moment; with the ship careening to its destination, there’s no time for a lengthy fight, but someone has to hop on the guns to buy time. The party is sufficiently powerful that you can introduce time, space, and divinity as story elements without worrying if the PCs are up to the challenge. By layering multiple challenges into the same encounter, the final moments of the campaign become a truly epic conclusion, not focused on winning a fight but just escaping the story alive.