Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: A Ship You Can Love

(Originally published on

I love a good ship. My favorite stories, movies, and games involve a ship, most often beloved, at times despised. We can all think of the easy examples: Han Solo’s Millenium Falcon, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Surprise, or Humanity’s Battlestar Galactica. Sure there are lots of other beloved kinds of ships if we stray into X-wings and Vipers, but today I’m focusing on ships that promote community and can support more than one character at a time. The kind of ships a GM would be blessed to have their players grab hold of and fall in love with.

So what makes a ship a labor of love and not just a glorified Greyhound bus? Here are a few thoughts I present for your consideration…

Give it Character: While I had some hand in creating Serenity RPG, I will admit that I had no hand in the ship section but I still love how it turned out. Not only are the created using the same concept of strong and weak basic attributes, the same assets and complications concept that gives a player character such, well, character is also used for ships! The rules system supports different flavors for the ship like: “Gas Guzzler”, “Dull Sense”, “Everybody has One”, and “Ugly as Sin”. Of course, if your flavor is missing, it just takes a few minutes to determine the game consequences of your new Trait and away you go!

Know Her Inside and Out: It’s hard to love something that you don’t know anything about. It’s in the details where characters can feel like they know the ship well and know what she can do. Start with the basics of layout and capabilities (for speed of travel, defense, etc.) That’s good enough for when they first step on the boat, but if they’ve been on it awhile, they should be able to answer these questions without asking you. I’ll use the Firefly-class ship from Serenity RPG as my example.

  • What can the pilot control from the bridge? (ports, cargo door, communications, lighting, inner doors, life support, etc.)
  • What can the engineer control from the engine room? (same list)
  • The ship has an intercom system. Where are the intercoms located (one in every room?)? Can someone shut down the intercoms? Can you call from one room to another (doubtful) or is every transmission in effect a broadcast to all intercom speakers?
  • What’s on the outside of the ship? Are there cameras to watch for badguys/thieves? Are there floodlights to make a murky situation clearer? If yes to either, where are they and where are the ship’s blind spots? And again, where are these controlled from? Who can see the camera feeds?
  • Computerized or Old school controls? Much of Serenity appears to have an old-school mechanism behind them, much like a WWII submarine than a Star Trek cruiser. Inner doors don’t close without someone hauling on them. They can lock the door but its a mechanical solution (dropbar) not a “hackable” electronic lock. The cargo doors are opened by a hanging control box or by large buttons on the wall, which makes me suspect that the bridge doesn’t have remote control of them.

    Make Her Pretty… Ugly: Remember when your parents let you paint your room for the first time (or at least help pick the color)? That might have been your first taste of really owning a space. People move out of apartments and buy houses to have the privilege of sweating their butts off in maintenance because they want to decide what color to paint things, metaphorically. How a ship looks isn’t just a matter of a paint job, but a coat or two can do wonders. It all depends on what you want people thinking when they see you. Do they want you appearing as a slovenly whaler or a right man of war? Do you want to excite no comment or gather everyone’s attention?

    What’s in a Name?: Names are tough, I’ll tell you that right now. They are like nicknames. If they don’t capture the moment and everyone’s imagination, the best you can hope for is adequate. Mostly I try to avoid names that will divert players from the game at hand with obvious puns and humorous tangents (there is plenty of humor at my table, I don’t need another source breaking the mood all the time). This same problem affects player character names, but that’s another story. You can always start out giving the ship an existing name which they can either adopt or replace. You can leave it completely in the players’ hands what the new name should be. If they aren’t up to the challenge, facilitating a brainstorming session might be the best solution. Whatever name is picked, it will gather weight and personality from the adventures that follow.

    Where’s she been?: Just as character becomes more interesting when you discover their history, ships can become more interesting too. Its rare that a group of characters will get a ship straight out of the naval yard with nothing to her name but an invoice. Was the ship captured from the enemy’s fleet? Did it have owners before you? What was she used for then? Is she one of thousands of that model flying or is she unique?

    Know her Spirit: I had a chance to attend the touring Star Wars exhibition here in Columbus, Ohio this summer. (A must see for any Star Wars fan…) One of the many behind-the-scenes comments I heard there was that George Lucas imagined the Falcon as a sort of hot rod. Solo was the kind of guy who was always tinkering with it here and there, trying out new parts, new ideas. All in the name of going fast. Even the fairly pompous name of the Millenium Falcon fits neatly into the high octane, high ego racing set of southern california where Lucas grew up (building and racing his own fast cars…). Amateur hot rod racing gave the Falcon and Solo much of their personality. In Firefly, Serenity is much more of a classic tramp freighter. She’s nothing special for speed but she hangs together when it counts. She’s not clean or flashy, but then the strangers who come on board her for passage ‘elsewhere’ rarely are either. Find the spirit behind the ship: racer, experimental, family-friendly, grimy freighter, rich yacht, rag-tag combat fighter, exploratory/scientific vessel… and you’ll find a lot of her personality.

    I hope you’ve gotten some ideas on how to include a ship in your current or next campaign. To read more on this, visit my Design Diary pages.

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