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I'm looking for a setting that's well suited for adventures similar to what we see with Han Solo in Star Wars, or Mal's gang in Firefly. It should be the kind of galaxy where it makes sense for a captain to own a small ship and travel around getting into trouble. I don't really care about the system, as my group uses Fate Core, which is pretty setting-agnostic.

So far I've looked at:

  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly

They're not bad, but I'd rather not retread a TV show or movie with my group. I've also been looking at Traveler, and I'm not sure what to think.

Things I'm looking for in a setting:

  • Starship-centric. By that I mean, not spending the majority of the time outside of a starship. Space travel, starship chases and battles, negotiations between ships, upgrading/acquiring new ships, etc.
  • Faster-than-light travel is a must.
  • Lends itself to smuggling, privateering, or small-scale espionage. My group doesn't want to focus on large military ships, but rather the kinds of things that a small crew might accomplish with a few important people working behind the scenes for them.
  • Interesting space-related locales such as asteroid settlements, space stations, or groundside spaceports. Many settings concentrate primarily on planets, and while it's fun to spend some time there, I already do that 95% of the time in real life.
  • Detailed sourcebook. At least a hundred pages of non-rule content. I can make up details for ships and locations, but it's nice not to have to do all the work myself.

Things I'm not looking for:

  • Anything designed primarily for wargaming
  • Grimdark, horror-oriented, or super gritty settings. We're not really into that
  • Transhumanism or hard-science. Mild cybernetics are fine, but we don't want to focus on that.
  • Mecha and the like are ok, provided they are not the focus on the setting. We all enjoy anime but aren't looking to pilot giant robots. Things like loaders from Aliens aren't a bad idea, though.
  • "Space magic", or any kind of magic. Or superheroes, force powers, etc.
  • Settings that are centered around aliens. Some aliens are fine, but I'm interested in strictly-human drama.
  • Anything designed primarily for a single plot line. We're hoping to play a rather light sandbox campaign.

I know that this is a rather subjective question, but I'm sure someone on here has played this sort of thing. If anyone's read the Conqueror's trilogy by Timothy Zahn, or the Miles Vorkosigan saga by Bujold, that's exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for (well, minus the aliens).

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3 Answers 3

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I strongly recommend the Third Imperium, the default setting of the well-known game Traveller. More specifically, I recommend Mongoose's Spinward Marches source book, which details it.

Traveller was made for the kind of flying-round-getting-into-trouble campaign you describe, and the Spinward Marches were made for Traveller. The Spinward Marches book published by Mongoose is almost pure world setting, and contains almost no rules content, so it's the perfect reference if you want to play in the Traveller universe using a non-Traveller system.

As for your dot points:

  • Traveller is hella starship-centric. It contains a large number of subsystems dedicated to desiging, maintaining, repairing, finding parts for, paying off mortgages on, trading with, modifying, exploring derelict, combat between, and otherwise interacting with, starships. Dealing with starships is half the game, and there's a lot of support for it in the system. That said, you're using Fate, so you won't be using Traveller's rules, but you will at least be able to mine the game for ideas.
  • Faster-than-light travel is part of Traveller, and an inherent part of the Third Imperium setting. Specifically, the setting has two common kinds of drive: M-drives, used for manoeuvring in systems, and J-drives, used to 'jump' the vast interstellar distances in weeks instead of decades. Note that there's no form of communication faster than FTL travel, so the most efficient way to send messages is to put them on a ship that's going in the right direction. This detail is rather important to the setting, and is useful for players trying to outrun the law.
  • Privateering, looting, and small-scale espionage are all supported. While the Third Impirium does have large warships, the ships most commonly encountered and used by independent starship operators (read: player characters) are relatively small, and require crews in the single digits. Because different worlds have different amounts of high-tech industry, those with access to even small ships are in demand by lower-tech worlds, making mercenary contracts and privateering viable sources of employment. Non-sponsored piracy is also a thing, and there's even a particular pocket warship (the Corsair) that's popular among pirates. As for looting, under Imperial salvage law the first person to report a derelict has the right to salvage its parts and cargo.
  • Interesting space-related locales appear all over the place. There are "earth-like" worlds in the Spinward Marches, but they're a minority; The vast majority of colonised worlds lack breathable atmospheres, have below- or above-earth standard gravity, and are subject to temperatures well outside of the range that humans can comfortably stand without equipment; Practically every place you could visit has some detail to remind you that you're not in Kansas any more. Orbital spaceports are common on rich high-tech worlds, and planetside spaceports are found on pretty much world that's inhabited - and there are indeed space stations and asteroid colonies; They're the worlds with a "0" in the "size" digit of their UWP.
  • The Spinward Marches book is the detailed source book you are looking for. In addition to containing maps of the Spinward Marches sector and describing many of the worlds found there, it also describes a surprisingly large amount of the wider Third Imperium setting, including its organisation, laws, customs, politics, government, the major megacorporations that exist within it, the nature of starfaring culture, and so on. If you grab the Mongoose Traveller main book as well, you'll find it contains deck plans and descriptions of a number of common starships and technologies found throughout the setting, as well as rules for procedurally generating ridiculously large amounts of flavourful content.

And your second list of dot points:

  • Traveller, and the Third Imperium setting, are not designed primarily to support wargaming. On the contrary, they're primarily designed to support independent starship operators flying around and getting into trouble: At the time described by the source book, most major powers are at peace, and the only wars going on are small-scale local affairs. The result is a universe where players can easily fly around and find trouble without getting caught up in anything too big to fly around or away from. I've heard there are a few supplements that support large-scale naval battles in the Traveller system, but I've never actually read them; They're simply not necessary for most campaigns.
  • The Third Imperium setting is not grimdark. It's not noblebright, either. It is neither of those things. It's kind of like the real world, in that respect. It's not horror-oriented, either; You could add horror, if you really wanted, but I've never seen the appeal. I'm not sure what you mean by "super gritty," since that's a term I usually see applied to rules systems and not to settings. Would it help if I told you the setting has lasers, but not laser swords?
  • Transhumanism is not present, with the exception of some minor cybernetics. Allegedly, there is one obscure Traveller supplement that does describe it, but nothing else does, and there are no major transhuman elements in the Third Imperium setting. You also don't have to worry about dealing with hard science too much; You'll need to put on a suit before jumping out the airlock and keep your drives repaired, but you needn't worry about getting bogged down calculating orbital trajectories, manoeuvring in zero gee, balancing atmospheric chemistry, and getting skirts to stay "down" in microgravity.
  • Giant robots ain't a thing, as the Third Imperium tends not to build them. They're a bit silly and impractical, after all. Powered armour known as "battle dress" does exist, but is strictly human-scale, and is restricted to the elite troops of particularly well-funded millitaries.
  • Space magic... Does psionics count? Telekinesis, telepathy, and a couple of other psychic disciplines do exist in the Third Imperium universe. They're extremely rare, though; They're illegal in the Third Imperium, and even in the neighbouring Zhodoni Consulate, where psionics are an important part of the culture, psionic individuals make up only a small minority of the population. You could easily run a whole campaign without a single psionic character if you wanted, or even just strip psionics out of the setting entirely with no major effect.
  • Aliens are rare in most places; Most people you meet in the Third Imperium are human.
  • Traveller and the Third Imperium were made for sandbox play. Seriously. It's... I don't even know how to express how appropriate for sandbox play they are. I can't even imagine how you'd make a system and setting more strongly suited to sandbox campaigns than this one.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Looks like I'm going to have to give that Spinward Marches book a read. Thanks for the rec! \$\endgroup\$
    – Justin W
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 5:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JustinW The nice thing about using the Third Imperium as your setting is that it's been around since the very first edition of Traveller and has been continuously added to for decades, so there's a lot of detailed information available if you want it. Mongoose's Spinward Marches book is particularly great because it collects a huge amount of that material all in one convenient place. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 5:22
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There's a couple that might fit the bill.

You mentioned the Vorkosigan saga specifically, there is actually a GURPS Vorkosigan sourcebook. You can even get it new from Amazon for $32. GURPS has a lot of space supplements that can be used from hard SF to space opera to transhumanism. Those tend towards the "cobble the bits you like together, the setting's the real galaxy man." GURPS Terradyne is more near-future but I really like it, it's just in our solar system. (Like Eclipse Phase with less transhumanism).

The biggest line that might fit, however, would be the venerable Traveller. Traveller has aliens but the setting is very humanocentric and removing some or all of them isn't that disruptive. There is a variant human race that uses psionics, the Zhodani, but that can be at a bare minimum removed as a PC option and really have the psi sanded off without too much trouble. There's many versions of Traveller, even old ones have come back into print, there was GURPS Traveller and Traveller d20 (bad) and most recently Mongoose Traveller. They have a lot of support for smuggling/privateering/exploration gameplay and the Third Imperium is a well developed setting.

Most space opera settings (from Star Wars to Star Frontiers) have a bunch of aliens but frankly they're all played like humans anyway so stripping the aliens has little effective difference to gameplay. Star Frontiers was my first game (it's all available free on the web) and while there are alien races, for purposes of most adventures they might as well be humans with slightly different cultures.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Came in specifically to mention GURPS Vorkosigan, so +1! \$\endgroup\$
    – Airk
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 15:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Isn't there some guideline that says answers to recommendation questions should contain one recommendation each, so that the voting system can sort each recommendation independently? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 0:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not that I know of. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 2:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've heard of the GURPS Vorkosigan book, but never looked at it. Read all the novels, good times. Could be fun! \$\endgroup\$
    – Justin W
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 7:49
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Both games I'm going to recommend hit many of your points except the detailed source book - however, they make it easy to either make your own setting or adapt one without tons of mechanical trouble.

Stars Without Number

SWN is explicitly about sandbox play. In fact, the biggest prep you do is at the beginning of play where you random generate several star systems on a hex grid. Although they recommend a TON of systems, you can probably do a smaller map and make more as the players travel around.

The planet generation system is quick, and focuses more on what is going on with the societies or interesting places of trouble, rather than things like "What's the methane content of the atmosphere?" When you start putting together how the differen star systems are connected to each other, it becomes easy to start thinking about situations/politics driving them all.

The game mechanics are a sci-fi twist on classic D&D style rules. You do get a decent skill system, a few classes. One of the classes is a psychic class which you can excise from the game with no problem whatsoever.

Diaspora

Diaspora is also set up for sandbox play, however it's built around a smaller cluster of star systems as the expectation. It also leans more towards hard sci-fi, while using a light set of mechanics (FATE system).

Diaspora also has a planet generation system, however it is less detailed and you have to fill in a lot more on your own. The FATE mechanics make it very easy to adapt any setting or put things in as you see fit. The default setting has a handful of systems connected by specific wormhole points - but isolated from the rest of the galaxy - but again, this is easy to handwave away into whatever you want.

Diaspora supports a much wider range of tech differences, which may or may not be something you're interested in. The hard sci-fi part is also relatively easy to change out if you want, given FATE's plug-in-anything sort of nature.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've tried playing with a slightly simplified version of Diaspora's space combat rules... my players found it confusing. I'd be interested in trying that sometime with players who were more adept at the sort of thing, though, as it looked really interesting! \$\endgroup\$
    – Justin W
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 4:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've been reading through SWN's sourcebook. It looks really cool, and I'll definitely keep it in my toolbox, however it doesn't have much in the way of location details, instead being procedurally generated. Not bad for coming up with ideas, but it doesn't provide much in the way of flavor text. \$\endgroup\$
    – Justin W
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 4:59

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