Every once in a while someone will ask what the science fiction equivalent of D&D is. Traveller, Star Wars, Stars Without Number and Shadowrun seem to be the most common answers but then someone will pipe up and say there can’t be a scifi D&D because scifi is too broad.
Scifi is broad AF, but so is fantasy, and D&D doesn’t cover “all fantasy” either. Other than some surface similarities, I don’t even think it covers Tolkien.
You Must Gather Your Crew Before Venturing Forth
Space D&D isn’t about the system you use. It’s all about the setting, and a more specific setting than you might realize – but it’ll feel familiar nonetheless. It’s a setting you’ve seen across multiple TV shows, movies, and even quite a few space sandbox videogames.
It all starts with the crew, at least one of whom will have a cool jacket. In fact, Scum & Villainy includes “fine coat” in its Scoundrel playbook. Any amount of aliens are allowed, although there’s always one token human. There’s usually only one alien whose job it is to be a weird alien. The remaining aliens are typically just folks.
This crew will gallivant across space in their spaceship, which is always a supporting character in its own right. Large or small, the ship will always have just enough stations for everyone to get their own spotlight time. Usually why the crew has this particular ship provides some plot hooks.
But What Do You Do?
Here’s where space videogames skew closer to space D&D than most tv and films. From Elite and Freelancer through Elite Dangerous, the X3 games, Rebel Galaxy, and EVE Online, players are dumped into vast sectors of space with the aim of exploiting the economy. “Make money so you can keep flying” is the first and only commandment. It’s “XP for gold” with a warp drive.
It’s the background for a lot of these related shows as well. We see it handled perhaps most faithfully in Firefly, with many episodes revolving around the trouble Serenity’s crew gets into on these odd jobs. The Guardians of the Galaxy start off the second film with such a job. Star Wars doesn’t – not until Solo, but the expanded universe stuff and the WEG game line introduced a ton of ways to hunt bounties and smuggle cargo, informing those aforementioned space videogames.
Everything Else is Details
Space people doing space shit on a spaceship in space. Working out whether your ships have hyperdrives or use stargates is like deciding whether you’re going to include dragonborn in your D&D campaign (my answer is always fuck yes). It’s worldbuilding, but when you plan a space game, the closer you adhere to that core premise that your players will undoubtedly be familiar with, the less confusion there’ll be.
Seriously, What System Though
If you’re a fan of Forged in the Dark games, Scum & Villainy does this kind of game really well. A Nocturne will also sate your hunger if you’re looking for a little meaner, EVE Online-style space crew game.
Traveller did it first, and somewhere in its various editions you might find one you like. And if you want Traveller but like 1) GM lonely fun or 2) D&D style mechanics, go with Stars Without Number.
If you like Fate, Bulldogs! is exactly this. Or use Lasers & Feelings or Savage Worlds or-