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I have an idea of running a space-travelling game. I was thinking something like Shadowrun, only on an interstellar scale. What are some good systems I should look into using?

I'm looking to do something similar to the Firefly TV show or Serenity Movie (same universe), or maybe something like Star Wars only without Jedi/The Force.

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 10 '13 at 22:53

15 Answers 15

up vote 41 down vote accepted

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The Mongoose Publications flavor of Traveller is able to handle quite a bit of that. The core rules cover ships (to about 28,000 cubic meters in size... not really that big!), have a simplistic system for cargo availability (it's no good as a simulation, but it plays well and serves dramaturgically), has a psionics system that works well, has character and world generation systems, some cybernetics, and several drive options. Further, several supplements add more; Strontium Dog adds a magic system closer to that of SR in tone, The Psionics supplement adds a lot more to psionics as well as some more transhumanist elements, Merchant Prince and Scoundrel add some playable options for larger scale economic focused games. High Guard allows bigger ships.

Classic Traveller or Traveller: The New Era can both be used to do that type of game, using psionics as magic if desired. TNE can also be combined with Dark Conspiracy 1E/2E, a horror game using a variant of the same psionics rules but adding more magical options to it. CT, TNE, an DC are available from Far Future Enterprises on cd-roms.

WEG's d6 Space is generic, but since it's essentially what would have been D6 Star Wars Rules 3rd Ed, but stripped of overt Star Wars references, it clearly is capable of space opera. It lacks the trade system mechanics of d6 SW (from a Galaxy Guide), but can easily be used with that system if you can find the book (WEG is essentially out of business). d6S core is a free download.

WEG's Septimus is also d6 system, and is a space opera setting. Septimus is available free in PDF as well.

FGU's Space Opera is still available; it's rules-heavy, setting light, and predates the cyber craze, but it does have a wicked psionics system.

You might want to look into Starblazer Adventures or Diaspora, both using the Fate engine. Diaspora is more hard sci-fi, and while Starblazer is very much pulp-comic Sci-Fi. Both cover ships, traveling, and a variety of other issues, and both get excellent reviews. And the books for both are big, beautiful tomes.

Another possibility is to use any of the Unisystem games with the "unisystem Sci Fi Setting" in Eden Studios Presents Vol 1. The setting is explicitly a space western setting, and while focused on use with Cinematic Unisystem games, it could be very easily adapted to any of the Full Unisystem games.

Recently released is the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and the Edge of the Empire Beginner Game. Using custom dice, the game feels like a port of Firefly into the Star Wars universe in many ways. Characters are rogues, criminals, and desperate folk of the fringes, with a ship, and a motivation to keep it flying. Obligation rules make for interesting group dynamics, and sometimes even parties working at cross purposes. The custom dice may present a difficulty for some players and GM's. The beginner box includes a single set; separate dice sets are available for around US$15. Custom die-rollers are needed to generate the symbols used, and one was released for both iOS and Android (albeit $5).

On the secondhand only score...

Margaret Weis's Serenity RPG was the licensed game. The dice mechanic is less popular, there is no trade mechanic, no system generation, and no world generation, and ships are treated more as characters than as objects. It went out of print in 2010, and the PDFs pulled when the license ended in 2011. A new version, under a Firefly license, is being released in 2014, but a preview is being released at GenCon 2013 (18 August).

Alternity can do it well, too, but lots of people dislike its dice mechanic.

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The first link, to the Traveller RPG, is broken. – Ernir Aug 12 '13 at 8:56

Traveller is the grand-daddy of them all (1977), and still going rather strong. With its inspirations ranging from E.C. Tubb to Isaac Asimov to Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle (amongst a lot of others) this is hardcore classic space opera. I’m not that familiar with the Mongoose version, but I think this would appeal to many in the “old style” movement while still being a good game for a lot of different space opera type games.

I do not believe Traveller works well with newer varieties of space opera. I, for one, would not try to do MacLeod’s Engine of Light books with these rules.

Traveller works nicely when looking for a Firefly game. One of the things that stood out for me with Firefly is the fact that a lot of the characters had previous career paths and lives where they had picked up skills that now helped them be adventurous traders. That basically sums up Traveller.

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I just ran a Firefly campaign in in Savage Worlds. The systems are both die-type = proficiency games, so conversions from official sources to Savage Worlds were pretty easy, even on the fly. There are several unofficial conversion out there, too:

…were both instrumental in my game. The second even had some quick rules for trade and passengers - I ran a campaign where "Get a job, keep flying" was the major challenge.

I know I enjoyed running Firefly in Savage Worlds more than I did with the official system, and I think my players liked playing it better, too.

It should be noted that this was my first game in Savage Worlds, so it's not like I just liked it better because I was more familiar with the system.

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I can't think of a better space opera game than Starblazer Adventures from Cubicle 7 Entertainment. It's based on the FATE engine and a series of space opera comics. The rules detail all the kinds of things you'd ever want to do in a space opera game but have the freewheeling and fun nature of predecessor games like Spirit of the Century.

Also, check out Lady Blackbird, a free and simple (and did I mention FREE) role-playing game designed to do a sort of Firefly kind of game.

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I'm looking to do something similar to the Firefly TV show or Serenity Movie (same universe), or maybe something like Star Wars only without Jedi/The Force.

What you have described is the Bulldogs! RPG. Its "elevator pitch" is typically phrased as "The Han Solo roleplaying game." It's based on FATE; Fred Hicks recent said of the game: "I really look at Bulldogs as the primary third party Fate that hit all of our original notes, only better."


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Have you played this? Give us some details of how the game goes. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 10 '13 at 22:53

Well, if Firefly is your benchmark, there is an officially-licensed "Serenity" RPG you could try; I've heard some good things, but I don't know any specifics.

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It's a simple enough game, Cortex system, uses step dice (a polyhedral with more sides is rolled to represent greater ability). In any event, if someone is running an actual Serenity game, not just Serenity-style, this book is a useful resource. – Sheikh Jahbooty Sep 1 '10 at 19:44
It also is decried as lacking a lot. No trade rules, leaving trade entirely to GM fiat. No decent upkeep rules, again, leaving it to GM fiat. Ship design as character gen, not engineering simulation. Additionally, Cortex, due to the step die system, needs a careful GM who knows when to not put things to die-rolls. – aramis Sep 3 '10 at 16:58
I played a short Firefly-style campaign using the Serenity's adequate, but barely. The setting and background information are good (not great) - you're better off using these with a better rules system. – YogoZuno Dec 21 '10 at 22:15

I've used the Serenity game (cortex system) and its not bad. The idea of ships just being a character is a proper pain in the arse at times, especially if you are trying to create a ship from scratch. However it is really well supported with several really good fan sites full of reday made ships and stuff.

I'd also suggest the savage worlds system as it is pretty much open to any theme and mood you want to tell your stories around. If you are up for inventing all your own races and cultures and all the background it would be a good system to try.

The same can be said for the traveller system. We still use the original (little black books) system and it was the game I cut my teeth on. Again there are websites and suppliements around now to help you build your setting but the system always was pretty good for starting blocks. There are basic concepts for planets and beasties and new alien races that you just work with to fill the setting. The career advancement path system is easy to tweak and can be a good (if slightly restricive) system to start new players with.

Traveller is a very bare bones system at its core so it is neither space opera or hard Sci-fi because those concepts can only exist when the setting is detailed and traveller doesn't do that. There are suppliments with a handful of races, space ships, expanded ideas on careers and the game had a basic setting with the 'Imperium' but such are more window dressing. You want hard Sci fi then you don't have shedlaods of exotics and way out tech. You weant space opera, you add all the space opera goodness. you want old style buck Rodgers and flash gorden sci-fi, traveler can still handle that.

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Only one edition of Traveller doesn't come with setting materials... and that one is Classic Traveller. Since 1987, all Traveller editions have had setting materials in the core book. Mongoose minimizes that, but still has some 3I setting materials, and includes a subsector ready to run. – aramis Sep 11 '10 at 23:57
Sorry I thought it was clear i was talking about classic still in the final paragraph. Setting material is there sure, and even classic traveller had some actually. – Spikey Oct 8 '10 at 23:32
Classic isn't what people will find in their FLGS, tho'. – aramis Mar 18 '11 at 3:11
As an FYI, MWP is doing a new Firefly RPG. It's not going to be exactly compatible with the Serenity RPG. – aramis Jun 8 '13 at 9:03

Man, you just can't go wrong with D6 Space. It's built on the engine that made a lot of killer Star Wars RPG action happen for me and tons of others; it's free; it's open to just about anything you want to throw at it, setting-wise.

I'd also like to give a shout-out to StarSIEGE: Event Horizon, the best SFRPG that people don't seem to be playing. It uses Troll Lord Games' SIEGE Engine, comes with an effect-based system for building just about any SF doo-dad you want (tech, vehicles, powers, aliens, etc), and you can create a character in, no joke, like two minutes.

Doc Rotwang! says check 'em out.

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The d6 system was ok for it's time, but I find it a little too simplistic for my tastes these days. – YogoZuno Dec 21 '10 at 22:16
And the PDF of d6 Space is free and OGL now... And it's mechanically very close to d6 Star Wars 2nd Ed Revised & Expanded... if R&E is 2.5, D6S is 3.0. – aramis Mar 18 '11 at 3:10

Margaret Weis Productions has licensed Firefly (as opposed to Serenity) for their next game. It will use an iteration of Cortex+, which is much better in my experience than standard Cortex which was used for Serenity. The game is available for pre-order from MWP's site, or from Drive-Thru RPG.

The Pre-Order version will be available circa Gen-Con 2013, with the full game available in winter 2013.

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It's focus is very specific, but Burning Empires from the folks that brought you Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard is undeniably Space Opera. Play the heroic but doomed human-kind in their fractured galacto-feudal states as they struggle against the insidiously spreading influence of the Valen. Or, assume the Valen side, as you strive to spread and find more hosts for your unimaginably large host of symbiotes. The game is based on the setting from Chris Moeller's "Iron Empires" graphic novels, and it presents a play-structure that's tight, constrained, but pretty laser-like in its approach.

In the same sort of mode to some extent (galacto-feudal dark age), is Fading Suns. Originally published by Holistic Designs, the game seems currently to be managed by RedBrick Limited (licensed to publish), the same folks curating (one version of) Earthdawn and Blue Planet.

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Burning Empires is Space Opera, and excellent, but not Fireflyesque in the least. – aramis Sep 3 '10 at 17:00
Neither Burning Empires or Fading Suns are in the least like Firefly. However, (a) I'm not entirely sure that qualification was on the question when I answered (if it was, apologies, I didn't notice that), and (b) I'm not entirely sure that Firefly is anything like Space Opera, really. In what respect does Firefly follow the conventions of Space Opera? – Viktor Haag Sep 3 '10 at 17:22
Firefly has typical space opera "sci-fi as excuse for action" and "travel at the speed of plot," as well as an excess of habitable worlds within easy reach of each other. Given the system as described, and the travel times, it may be STL, but it's got some wicked fast drives, probably 5PSL or more. Space travel is fairly cheap, and the characters are larger than life. It makes up for no FTL with a convoluted and improbable system with 30+ habitable bodies. – aramis Jun 8 '13 at 9:09

This will sound a bit extreme perhaps, but I've been running a mini-campaign resembling the one you described briefly in the question using the mechanics (and a few of the Elder Gods ;)) of Call of Cthulhu. There's practically no setting-dependent stuff to deal with, it's pretty light rules-wise and is extremely well-customizable - all of which seems to "come in handy" when you want to run your own world without spending long hours developing detailed and well-balanced game mechanics for creatures, items and whatnot. (You want "gadget X"? Right, you get it, it adds X% to your Y skill.)

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I agree that using Chaosium Basic Role-Playing is a swell idea. It may not seem to lend itself well to space opera shenanigans...but maybe that's because it's so generic. Since it all comes down to percentage chances, why couldn't it be good for Lensmanesque derring-do, right...? – Dr Rotwang Oct 11 '10 at 16:54
There IS a BRP derivative Space Opera game: Worlds Beyond. Last I saw, it was being sold by Chaosium... (I've a copy around here somewhere... And one of the non-humans is, very obviously, a riff on Traveller's Aslan... the Samurai Cat-man motif of the original version of Aslan presented in JTAS. – aramis Jan 25 '12 at 2:04

The setting may not be exactly right for your thing, but take a look at Eclipse Phase. They've got planetary settlements, space habitats, floating worlds, and various types of robots and vehicles (including spacecraft).

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We switched from Mongoose Traveller to Diaspora for our game. I didn't want to use Starblazer Adventures because the rulebook was just too big. We wanted to move away from Traveller because we felt that the rules supplied us with a lot of details we didn't really care for. We didn't want to do actual trading, we didn't want to keep track of initiative, number of actions, actual distances, skill rolls to for jumping and all that. So we kept the subsector map and background we had established but now we're using Diaspora as the underlying mechanics.

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Savage Worlds is always good, especially for pulp-themed space opera.

Also, for a system to do Star Wars without the Force or Jedi... had you considered Star Wars? Either the revised edition (effectively the Star Wars of D&D 3.5) or the recently-finished Saga rules work just fine if you knock out the Force, and it doesn't take any rules adjustment - simply don't use the Force Adept and Jedi character classes, the Force Sensitive feat, and all the Force skills (which have Force Sensitive as a prerequisite anyway). The system works fine as a generic space-opera system without them.

For a less obvious suggestion, try Mechwarrior (the Battletech RPG). If you ignore the giant-stompy-robots that are the default starting point and look at the character creation and space rules instead, it's actually capable of pretty good explore-the-periphery-of-civilization games.

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I'd have to recommend Alternity. It was a TSR/WotC precursor to D20, you can see many ideas they were trying out.

I'm particularly fond of the unified dice mechanic that is used for all actions.

The biggest problem is it's out of print and you'll have to go 2nd hand.

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You can find the Players Handbook on Amazon. – C. Ross Oct 6 '10 at 14:47

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