2024/06/21

Sci-Fi: Squishy Space

I decided to write a space opera system. Initially, I just wanted to write a really good space opera mission generator, but the project got out of hand. If you want something to exist, and it doesn't exist, you have to make it. 

Squishy Space is a game about a group of unlikely characters stumbling, shooting, and bluffing their way through a chaotic rayguns-and-spandex galaxy. It is a fast-paced and not particularly serious game, where life is cheap and exciting, fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, and nobody knows what will happen next. 

Squishy Space also contains lewd elements. It’s not necessarily about the lewd elements, but it does incorporate them. Perhaps it’s merely smutty. In any case, it is not a conventional all-ages game of violence, mayhem, and robbery. The lewd elements are optional, but they are present throughout the text.

The elevator pitch is "the galaxy's least functional polycule steals Space Bezos' yacht." If the standard OSR setting can be called "vernacular fantasy" this is "venereal sci-fi". Think The Fifth Element or Futurama or the references in this blog post. Less grim used-future space rebels, patches-and-spikes cyberpunk, or smoothly automated utopia, and more techno/retrorave. Less truck stop, more nightclub.

It's a 45 page RPG. It's completely free. It even has art (well, technically, to match the budget of "free").

PDF Link

While the text is, honestly, considerably less explicit than the average supermarket magazine, there is also a bowdlerized version (link) that removes anything even vaguely suggestive. Pick whichever version your local laws or personal inclinations support. There's a lot of systemless content that might be useful for a wide variety of sci-fi games. It's a dense utility-focused 45 pages.

Starstruck by Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta

But Why?

As I said, if a thing doesn't exist, and you want it to exist, then you have to make it. I wasn't able to find a game that did what I wanted, so I had to make it. 
 
There are plenty of normal games out there. There should be room for a weird one.

Choosing A System

Traveller is great, but the games it produces tend to be Traveller-flavoured, much like D&D 5E-derived games tend to be D&D 5E-flavoured. Star Wars D6 is fun but I've always found it a little unwieldy, like a car that refuses to find third gear. Thousand Suns is just too darn sensible (and deliberately, stridently imperial). Mothership and other space horror games would require a lot of adaptation. They set the wrong tone. GURPS: Tales of the Solar Patrol is like a lot of GURPS books; fun to read, less fun to implement.

Fate Core would be a good option. I've run sci-fi Fate games before, both Star Wars and hard sci-fi. While it worked for those games, I feel like the GM in a Fate game is rarely surprised by the story. Yes, players can make unexpected choices, but the system itself is so heavily weighted towards success that the dice rarely decide anything. Fate's freeform character creation also didn't seem like a perfect fit for this setting. It works best when the players are either building the setting from scratch or basing their characters on a well-understood genre, and when the GM is willing to tempt players (instead of letting players tempt themselves).

Apocalypse World / PbtA seems like the modern conventional choice for this sort of game. While I like Apocalypse World, I find it handles interparty drama and grit much better than party vs. world shenanigans. It's a wonderful system for apocalyptic, grim, traumatic, character-driven, angst-riddled, and/or heartbreaking games (like Dungeon Bitches or Thirsty Sword Lesbians). It's not a good fit for the lighthearted high-speed nonsense of Squishy Space. I also wanted a system that is broadly symmetrical, where PCs, NPCs, and the world  mostly follow the same rules.

In the end, I decided to write my own system, based on Greg Stolze' One Roll Engine. ORE is an older system (yes, 2002 was a long time ago), and it seems to have fallen out of popularity, but (like many things designed by Greg Stolze) it works remarkably well. ORE has moderate mechanical crunch and a resolution system that tends to result in amusing simultaneous chaos. It's simple once you get the hang of it, but it does have a learning curve. That curve is not helped by my desire to create condensed rules. If you get stuck, read another ORE game for guidance.

Starstruck by Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta

Tools & Tables

Kevin Crawford's Stars Without Number is a good toolkit, but I wanted to write a compact set of sci-fi generators with high at-table utility. Squishy Space packs a lot of content into 42 pages. Even if you don't like the system or implied setting, these generators may be useful.


Most of the sci-fi encounter generators I discovered also felt weak or repetitive, so I tried to create a pretty good table without any duplicate results. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult.


As well as a compact all-purpose sci-fi plot and job generator.

 
 
And some setting enhancement tables. The fake app names were a ton of fun to write. "App-as-backstory" is a great worldbuilding tool.
 

Eccentric Design Choices

Aside from writing a NSFW-adjacent game and using an obscure system with a moderate learning curve, Squishy Space uses a baked-in set of sci-fi units.


Ordinarily, fake in-setting units are the sort of thing I try to avoid in RPGs (both written and purchased). They've infuriated just about every playtester and reader. But for some reason, I think they work for this project.

Some units were rounded or adjusted to make the metric / imperial conversion easier, or to make the conversion between sci-fi units easier. "Easier" does not mean "sensible" in this case.  

The GM really needs to commit to these measurements. They're present throughout the text (because including two or three sets of units felt cumbersome). It might take a while to remember that a "marbec" is an hour and a "malton unit" is a day, but once you've committed, their use at the table creates a fun atmosphere. Players can and will use whatever units they want, including "about ~yea big" and "over there (gestures vaguely into an imaginary room)", but if the GM sticks to the fake units as much as possible, it helps with the game's ambience.

We actually got so we couldn't talk to anybody but each other, because we'd be sitting there with a calculator going, "How many dog years are in a standard galactic cycle?" or "How many ribecs are in a rigon?" And we really were there with a calculator figuring it out. And we lived in that world so deeply that it was almost hard to have conversations with other people.
- Elaine Lee, Starstruck Origins with Elaine Lee (Part 1), 14:14.

Inspiration & References

This is not a complete list. Additional references are listed on pg. 2 of Squishy Space.
Starstruck by Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta

Starstruck & A Starstruck Odyssey

For many years, I could confidently say that I wasn't into modern high-production-value RPG shows. But I started watching other Dropout TV shows, and found them generally excellent, so I figured I'd give the much-discussed Dimension 20 seasons a shot. It's rare to find non-enshittified content these days, but Dropout is (currently!) a breath of fresh air.

The Dimension 20 seasons I watched were much better than I expected, given ambient internet discourse. This is a sign to not trust ambient internet discourse. I knew that, and yet... 

Sure, they're flashy and adjusted for the peculiar requirements of the format, and there's a great deal of hooting and hollering over a 5% chance on a d20, but there's a lot to like. It's a great exercise in craft.


Yes, it's not exactly how real-world RPG sessions tend to go, but nobody talks like they do in Shakespeare's plays either. It's a show. It's a cast of professional actors and comedians, and a huge behind-the-scenes crew, inside the Hollywood reality distortion bubble. The fact that Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan planned their stunts doesn't make them less impressive. Don't worry about it too much.

The Dimension 20 season: A Starstruck Odyssey uses a custom and unpublished hack of Star Wars 5E, itself a hack of D&D 5E. The RPG show format seems to expect a level of mechanical expertise and slow nuanced combat to compliment social interactions (though the Dimension 20 crew seems to be moving towards more flexible non-5E systems like Kids on Bikes for a recent season).

I enjoyed the show and the comics it's based on (moderately NSFW) so much that I integrated several elements into Squishy Space. Starstruck is an cult classic and well worth a read (and a purchase, and probably several rereads given the plot density.) I even tracked down a copy of the original stage play to check a few references. Squishy Space should let anyone who wants to play a Starstruck-like game without reverse-engineering a system. It's all unofficial of course, but so is that Star Wars 5E hack. What's Sam Reich going to do; send the Pinkertons after me?   

Some of the daring energy of Starstruck has faded over the decades as the world attempted to catch up. What once was cutting edge or an inversion of sci-fi cliches might seem unremarkable until you remember when Starstruck was published.

I don't see them as being opposed. They're just two very different flavours. This universe is so deeply fun and wild and full of adventure, and also, if you get caught in a moment of idealism, you're going to catch a pipe to the back of the head.

- Brennan Lee Mulligan, Starstruck Origins with Elaine Lee (Part 1), 20:58

Lovelyss by Alexisflower
 

Lovelyss & Lovesyck by AlexisFlower

All links in this section are NSFW. Lovesyck is free to read online here, and both Lovelyss and Lovesyck can be purchased here (and should be!). For references in this post, on the spicy pepper scale, Lovelyss and Lovesyck are 🌶🌶🌶 out of 🌶🌶🌶. If you order a 3-pepper dish and are surprised it's spicy, you only have yourself to blame.  

The writing, art, humour, worldbuilding of AlexisFlower's works are off the charts. Hit after hit. Superb character designs, brilliant lines, wonderfully crafted dialogue, excellent use of colour. They're a genuine joy to read; a body of work that makes you glad that the internet exists and can be used for non-evil purposes. It's got something for everyone.

Lovesyck by Alexisflower
Lovesyck by Alexisflower

Buck Godot by Phil Foglio

Link rot has devoured several of the original hosting sites, but it can be read online via various shady downloads or web archives, or purchased here. The episodic comics are fun, but the Gallimaufry Saga is where the setting really shines.

Some parts of Buck Godot have aged well. Some haven't. Some weren't great to begin with. Still, Buck Godot was a major influence on Squishy Space.

Buck Godot by Phil Foglio

Buck Godot by Phil Foglio

 Final Notes

Frank Kelly Freas


This will probably be the only post about Squishy Space on this blog, unless there's an unprecedented amount of interest. It was a fun project, and I hope people find it useful. If you spot any mistakes or errors, leave a comment. And if you enjoyed the book, tell people about it!

7 comments:

  1. For chili ratings, how are you rating frequency versus detail? Having just reread The Hydrogen Sonata (part of the Culture series) I think at least some books in the Culture are 2-chilis? Did you have some kind of method for assigning chili ratings, or was it just by instinct?

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    Replies
    1. It's not a particularly scientific scale. There's no rubric or guidelines. There are definitely 2-chili parts of the Culture series, and I probably should bump it up 1 level, but (to stretch the metaphor) my vague memories suggest they were more like hot lumps in the dish than pervasive a spicy sauce. It could also be recency bias; it's been a while since I read the books.

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  2. I always loved sci fi, but never found a good pulpy oneshot to GM.

    Lamentationsnofnthe Space Princess was the most pulpy book inhave but even it fails.

    If anyone could write an introductory oneshot adventure it would be amazing

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  3. Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not quite the right genre or system mindset for this sort of thing.

      Delete
  4. Yay, free game! And random tables, too. This feels like a real treat after having spent the last... I'm going to say three, maybe four months? reading through every post on your blog (which, thank you so much, there's a lot of fantastic stuff on here which I have made or plan to make use of!)

    ReplyDelete