The liberating effect of a background full of rubbish

Some of you have known me for a while. You know that I have gone to great pains to generate plausible solar systems (thanks to some sterling work by @Agemegos) for my SF games, to learn enough orbital mechanics to calculate realistic delta-V budgets and mission profiles, to format a true 3D star catalogue into the jumpline network for my universe.

I still like this approach.

But I’ve just run a session of Firefly/Genesys, i.e. the Firefly setting and the Genesys rules engine, and it was remarkably liberating. We’re going from here to there? It’ll take about ten days. Want an encounter en route? Sure, no problem, “there’s a drifting ship in your path, do you want to stop to investigate?” We should have multiple habitable planets and moons a few days’ travel apart? Sure, sure, why not? See TVTropes, “Space Is An Ocean”.

(I’ve done this setting/rules combination before with Whartson Hall, but then I was running a pre-written adventure; this time I put it together from scratch.)

It probably helps that I’m not a great fan of Firefly the series: I love the ideas it promises, but I’m largely unimpressed with the execution, which puts me in a position where I want to do something better. But as a substrate for space traders trying to stay out from under the foot of the Empire… yeah, I’ve played Traveller, let’s do this thing.


I feel like a complete outlier when I profess my love for using the Genesys system, but of all the systems I’ve used (as both player and DM), I have enjoyed this system more than any other. I think a lot of this is due to the focus on story and less on the minutiae. Genesys makes it very easy to throw things together on the fly in an organic way that doesn’t feel out of place, and the players also get a great sense of ownership over the adventure.

Oh the physics insanity of the Firefly universe. Certainly makes storytelling easier.

Especially if you can just ‘lose’ a planet.


Rewatching Buffy and you can certainly see the absurd amounts of handwavium employed in all Joss Whedon stuff.

For Firefly: small ships can spend enourmous amounts of time in space and have the power on some small engines to take off from a chuffing planet.

Buffy: Who doesn’t question the frankly ridiculous amount of student deaths at Sunnydale High?

[Rant over]

Anyway, yeah RPG blah blether

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I’m still feeling my way into “OK, they got a triumph and two failures and one advantage, what might that mean” but it seems to hold together in a way that (for me) a lot of story-based systems don’t.

Those side engines very clearly have turbines in 'em. OK, I can work with that: call it a fusion-heated air ram, with the turbine there to get the airflow moving at low speeds so that you can hover. Once you leave atmosphere, you have to dump reaction mass into the engine instead, which is much less efficient so you switch over to the other drive, however that works. (I’ve seen some suggestions that it’s meant to be a super-tech external pulsed plasma unit, which, um.)

That the turbine blades are still exposed to the full force of the hypersonic airflow while flying in atmosphere, well, they look pretty OK?

That’s the great thing - it’s so obviously not physics as we know it that I feel freed from any constraints of plausibility as long as it makes sense in terms of the setting as presented.

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When I am playing a character I find that a setting made of painted flats and dressed with rubbish — Fading Suns, for example — is not liberating but but disempowering. If it isn’t consistent a setting isn’t manipulable, and I find my suspension of disbelief constantly tortured by thought if the form “if this were an X I could Y to effect Z”.


Yeah, that’s how I usually feel in dodgy RPG settings. That’s part of why I’m so surprised at how this came together for me. I wonder whether this might be because it is mostly consistent but very thin – spaceships do consistently work like this to go from planet to planet, and are cheap enough that a bunch of PCs can afford one, but if you start poking at how the ships work or why the tramp steamer hasn’t been replaced by container shipping or how the astrodynamics work you know your finger will go through the cardboard. The tramp steamer is still there because it’s necessary in order to tell a story about a crew of nogoodniks on a tramp steamer. (To be fair, just as in Traveller, but with less financial weirdness.) Space is there to take a while to get through, and to find things in. Alliance law enforcement is there so that I can tell a story about abuse of power and how one might fight it. (Though in turn later on I could flip that and have an honest Alliance cop struggling to remain both of those things in the face of temptations.)

I’m not giving up on my usual intricate settings or indeed on GURPS, but this a fascinating change of pace.

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I’m not quite that hardcore about it—I’ve run a Buffy campaign that went well, for example—but that’s very much the center of gravity of my GMing style. Having a good world simulation helps me a lot in coming up with narrative.

And really, I feel that if I’m deciding what’s going to happen to a PC by thinking about whether I want them to undergo a complication, or a climax, or a comedy, or a tragedy, is a cheat. If the fictional world doesn’t have coherent laws, or if I’m not deciding those things based on those laws, then the players have no ability to figure out the consequences of PC actions, and thus no agency; all the agency lies in my decisions about the PC’s narrative arc. Where’s the pleasure in that? What made Buffy tolerable, ultimately, was that it gave PCs drama points and thus gave the players the ability to share in shaping the narrative. But even that only worked for me because all of us had a solid grasp of how a Buffyverse story would go; the way the players spent drama points wasn’t arbitrary.


When I offered my players a Firefly campaign, the high concept was that there was the equivalent of a luxury liner travelling between worlds, carrying passengers with money to burn and/or government expense accounts. I thought of each player having two characters: a crew member and one of the entrepreneurs who ran little shops that catered to the passengers. It could have been a setting for cosies, or spy thrillers, or romances, or comedies of manners, or even capers.

It seems to me that the modern “story based” or “narrative” games I have read or played do not in fact make Story a thing you play with, they replace storytelling with a bunch of abstractions and tokens that are manipulated according to rules, i.e. they replace storytelling with games mechanics. The course of the fictive events ends up being determined not by the characters’ motives and environment, the interplay of events arising out of character and characters responding to incident, but by the accumulation of points and the positions of counters on a directed graph. Instead of a tension rising to climax that I can appreciate as a vicarious experience, I get a Tension Score if that, which rises mechanically until a die roll is under it.

I think that of all the models of roleplaying on which rules that I have read have been based, that in which the GM is in a contest with the players for control of the narrative is the least apt.


The specific class of mental evolution that I usually find challenging as a player is the one in which I have to step out of character into something like a scriptwriter stance: something bad has happened while my character was picking that lock, so what’s an appropriately dramatic way for it to go wrong? And yet that’s the kind of thing Genesys offers (there’s a rough guide to what “2 threat” might mean, but inventiveness from players and GM is encouraged), and for whatever reason it works for me. (I’ve now played in one adventure and GMed twice.)