My “Alternate Star Wars” campaign concluded a while ago, and I learned a lot from it – I’d like to share some of those lessons in case you find them useful for your own games. First, a bit of context.
The campaign was largely inspired by The Old Republic MMO, but I was 50/50 on deciding between running the game in the Star Wars universe, or making a completely custom setting for it. I didn’t really want to run Star Wars, I wanted to run something loosely inspired by it, a rule of cool space fantasy game with space knights, space wizards, commandos, gunslingers, smugglers and bounty hunters. In the end, I decided to use Star Wars after all because of loads of “content” already available which I wouldn’t need to come up with on my own. But I modified the setting heavily, uprooting some foundational ideas (such as how the Force worked), completely eliminating some elements and introducing many of my own. Some of it worked, some didn’t.
By the way – Psi-Wars was a great resource in running this campaign. It has a somewhat different style than I wanted for this game and I didn’t use anything from it as is, but its building blocks and friendly discord community were very helpful in making this game work.
Choosing a Setting
If you’re deciding between using an existing setting you intend to heavily modify, and making your own from scratch, I would recommend you do the latter. While an existing setting may have a lot of “content” you can use directly, heavily modifying it can cause big problems with expectations from players who are otherwise well acquainted with it. I’ve had a player quit the campaign because of it.
Another thing to consider with existing settings is the level of familiarity among your players. It’s often hard to engage players who are mostly unfamiliar with them, especially if there are others who are hardcore fans that geek out about various details, or if there are concepts important to you as the GM but that your players don’t “get”. The whole group has to buy into a setting, otherwise I suggest running something different. For example, I’ve never run a GURPS WH40K game primarily because a couple of my players, while not actively opposed or disinterested, really don’t have any familiarity or strong draw to it, while a couple others know a whole lot. Creating your own setting helps by putting everyone on equal footing, but it does mean more work for the GM.
When I was preparing the campaign, I came up with a dozen different types of activities I could see running in the game. Exploring ancient tombs and looting them for artifacts, engaging in clandestine backstabbery between political factions, investigating mysteries of the Force, running bounty hunting and military operations, creating an underworld empire and so on. I presented all of those to the players and after a lot of discussion we settled on looting ancient tombs as the starting point.
Half a dozen sessions in, I realized I didn’t want to run anything similar to Dungeon Fantasy, which looting tombs turned out to be. So I pivoted the campaign into something more Action-y, with heists and paramilitary operations which I enjoyed much more. Lessons learned:
- Collaborative campaign prep is great, but can vary a lot depending on the group. Since on average my players were not very acquainted with the setting, I think I would have been better served by deciding what the campaign was going to be about on my own and just pitching it to the players on more simple yes/no/maybe with slight changes basis. You have to know your group to make collaborative prep work, and a critical mass of players needs to buy in.
- I strongly suggest you only offer to run the kinds of games for which you feel a very, very strong inspiration and not just “yeah, that could be cool, I could run that”. Otherwise, you could end up running something you’re not actually interested in.
- Try to have really specific ideas appropriate to your position on the sandbox <-> theme park axis. If you run adventures with storylines, come up with specific stories with clear beginnings, midpoints and conclusions before starting the campaign. If you run sandboxes, prepare enough specific elements which will enable the kind of game you want to run. I went with only rough ideas which I intended to flesh out during the campaign, and the game suffered for it because in the end those ideas didn’t really develop into anything interesting.
How Forceful Are You?
Ask 10 people what’s the heart of Star Wars, and you’ll get 11 different answers. Games in the setting can be ran in a variety of different styles, with very different focuses. But the most important decision you need to make is how you want to represent Force users. Do you want the game to be all about them, walking like gods among men? Do you want to have soldiers mowing them down with hails of blaster bolts? Something in between? Not feature them in the game at all? How you run your game, which optional rules you use, what kind of equipment you make available, literally everything depends on this decision because it’s a big genre changer. Whatever you decide, you need to consciously select options appropriate to facilitate your chosen path.
Space Fantasy Blues
I chose to run a game where highly competent “mundanes” like soldiers, bounty hunters, gunslingers, etc. can go toe to toe with lightsaber-wielding Force users in close quarters combat (engagements in my games generally happen within 20 yards), but also where those same lightsaber users wouldn’t get mowed down before getting into melee range. That was some strong The Old Republic influence. It was doubly difficult not only because that’s the hardest choice to implement regarding Force users vs mundanes, but also because having melee combatants and gunmen equally viable in a space fantasy game is the hardest element of such games. GURPS does not support it out of the box and a lot of campaign design effort is needed for it to work.
A primary element of facilitating this was reducing the effectiveness of firearms to basically TL7-8 levels. Blasters had a recoil of 2-3 and accuracy of 6-8, rates of fire were capped to 3 except for heavy weapons. Targeting computers were the equivalent of magic items. Even when rapid fire was brought to bear, Conditional Injury made it less lethal than otherwise. This put gunfighters and melee men on about equal footing in regards to offensive capability, but initially there was still the issue of lightsaber users significantly outstripping gunfighters in defense. If you can only dodge your attacker’s lightsaber attacks, them being able to parry your shots with Precognitive Parry is very lopsided. I was apprehensive of using the usual countermeasure of Pistol-Fist parries due to the lightsabers’ destructive parry, but in the end I conceded to “if Judo parries are not actually slapping the weapon aside but body positioning mumble mumble something something instead, then Pistol-Fist is the same”. This improved the situation noticeably. Thanks to everyone on Mailanka’s discord for hammering this into my head!
Curate Your Tech
Whenever running a TL9+ campaign, I recommend you carefully curate equipment available from Ultra-Tech. This is especially important for space fantasy and other kinds of games where technological gadgetry is more a stylistic detail than tools giving significant edge over those without them. My games are not about gadgets, and having tons of various equipment giving large bonuses to skill rolls causes an arms race I find tedious. So I combed through UT and explicitly noted all available gear, and capped skill bonuses from gear to a maximum of +2. This saved me a lot of effort thinking about stuff like “okay, a highly secure facility should have these dozen kinds of sensors so that it can detect infiltrators equipped with the usual array of gadgets”.
I also think I didn’t go far enough. Looting ancient, dark tombs infested by vicious monsters loses a lot of its appeal if everybody has hyperspectral contact lenses. Having cool poisonous gas attacks is not cool if everyone has sealed armor – though I solved this by using a souped up variant of Erosive from Power-Ups 18 where failing a HT roll makes your armor lose the seal until repaired.
Ultimately, I’m increasingly becoming a fan of the idea that space fantasy and related games should be regarded as TL6-8 with just a sci-fi coat of paint and some very curated elements from higher tech levels. After all, these genres are inspired by fiction created during TL6-7 so more advanced concepts can put quite a few wrenches in them. When the realism of advanced technology being drastically superior to a more primitive one is not relevant for a game, this could even be taken so far by having weapon stats of blasters no better than TL7-8 guns, including having no armor divisor or maybe just armor divisor (2), and reducing armor DR to match. A problem with Ultra-Tech where several of (2), (3), (5) and (10) often occur in the same game is it puts a large cognitive load on players when DR needs to be divided, having no divisor or at most (2) in the game would make this easier. It also has the benefit of enabling some tropes like alien savages armed with axes being a danger for the protagonists instead of their attacks harmlessly bouncing off of armor.
Make Special Actually Special
From the start of the campaign I wanted to have some special abilities like short-duration personal force fields which were intended to give an edge to non-Force users and shore up gunmen’s defensive capabilities. I just picked something based on Psi-Wars and added a mundane skill requirement (Soldier or similar). The result? Everybody had them because it required almost no investment and I didn’t control availability. This ended up being very unfun and tedious – if everyone has it, it’s not special, and it just served to needlessly drag fights out.
Later on I repeated the mistake when I introduced “special weapons” like blaster attachments that let you shoot a cone of plasma or perform a bombardment-style area effect attack at range. Even with limitations like having 1 use per combat and requiring a couple points of investment to buy off some technique penalties, everyone who used eligible weapons had them, because why not?
The goal was for such abilities to be distinct, cool stuff specific characters can do, similar to how spellcasters have distinct spells. It looks like this either requires niche protection similar to Dungeon Fantasy, or making such special abilities require a more significant point investment like for example through imbuements. I think I’ll try the latter in my next such campaign.
Use The Right Tools
I kept all of my campaign notes in a single google docs text file. All of them. Campaign logs, monster stat blocks, adventure, scene and encounter writeups, everything during the whole lifetime of the campaign which lasted about a year. It was clunky – google docs was just slightly unresponsive enough with such a large file so that navigating it felt sluggish, and finding stuff I needed took too much time if it wasn’t together with all other materials relevant for that point in time. I still haven’t decided what I will use for my next campaign, but in the worst case I will split it up into separate files, one file per no more than a dozen sessions (one story arc, etc). I’ve tried various tools like Scrivener or wikis before (I prefer Dokuwiki), but it just felt cumbersome.
Concluding a Campaign
The game ran for a bit longer than a year. A couple months before the end I realized I don’t have any specific stories to tell any more and that fun would eventually peter out, so I decided to conclude the campaign by wrapping up the current story arc properly. I rarely do this, most of my campaigns end abruptly when either I or my players lose interest. Having a proper conclusion felt much better. So either plan campaigns with clearly defined endings and pathways to those endings, or be on the lookout for when either you or your players start losing interest. Okay, do the latter even when you do the former, it can happen to anyone. And when you notice interest starting tanking, put a satisfying wrap-up into motion.