Two Problems With Traveller Spacecraft (It’s Spaceship Week! and: Spaceships Roadmap)

It’s spaceships week on the blog as I’d like to share some of my designs for the Deeps of Lyrae campaign.

Personally as a GM I like to think of spaceships as the sci-fi equivalent of the dungeon in the dungeon fantasy genre of RPGs. This is a GURPS Traveller campaign. This leads to two problems with spaceship-as-dungeon: First, Traveller spaceships just aren’t big enough to have that dungeon-crawl experience. Second, Traveller spaceships are filled with fuel tanks and have floorplans that are generally uninteresting.

So I have these two design goals related to how I’d like the game’s narrative to unfold. Of course, I could simply use the ships already published for GURPS Spaceships. However, I’d like to experiment with fixes to these two “problems” (as I see them) with ships from the Traveller universe. The GURPS Spaceships designs are not fixated on fuel tanks, but there aren’t really enough designs available for the things I want to do with ships.

Note: GURPS has multiple spaceship design systems and the GM gets to pick which one will be used. Although this is a GURPS Traveller campaign, I’ve decided I am using the GURPS Spaceships rules for spaceship construction instead of the most recent GURPS Traveller rules — basically because I like them better although I might talk more about the differences in a future post.

Here are what I think of as my spaceship needs for this campaign, at least in the beginning-to-middle. As I complete these ships I will edit this post to add links to the designs:

Spaceship Needs

  • The PCs ship. This will be a very important design for the campaign. I’d like them to stick with the same ship for the whole campaign. It’s worth putting a lot of thought into this. I’m thinking of an ex-military ship converted to a freighter with some exceptional capabilities left over from the military days. This is the player’s ship: the Sun Dog. About the name: a “sun dog” is the colloquial name for an astronomical/meteorological phenomenon called a parhelion.
  • Frieghter(s) that can be targets of space pirates — ideally bigger ones with some interesting features that can lead to plot points. This is the standard Eos-class Interstellar Freighter and a smaller tramp frieighter: the Soapberry-Bug Class Space Transport.
  • A giant cruise liner / passenger ship — also a target (the plot motivation for this will become clear later). This is the Contessa liner.
  • A safari ship or sightseeing ship to go with the above. This is the Astro-Safari Excursion Shuttle.
  • Lifeboats for the above when things get rough. The Econo-Liberator Group Evacuation Lifeboat. I also want to specify what gets carried in the lifeboat.
  • A few extra ships for color or to pass by — couriers, salvage ships, yachts, mining ships, etc. These may not need to be fully fleshed out.
  • A small navy patrol craft (important for the plot, but I can probably use existing published designs for this). Edit: I decided to use the Tiger Frigate, a SM+9 craft published on p. 18 of GURPS Spaceships 3.
  • A giant navy flagship of some kind that carries fighters (can probably use existing designs for this). Edit: I’m thinking of a Ghalalk-class armored cruiser from Traveller: Fighting Ships. I’m never going to fight this ship, so what I need are really the deckplans. If I convert that ship size to GURPS terms, it looks like it should be equivalent to a SM+12 or SM+13 ship, but the stuff in the published GURPS Spaceships books is (as I often find) too small. Eric B. Smith’s GURPS Spaceships design spreadsheet has something in it called the Strider-class Battlecruiser (SM+12, TL11^). It looks roughly equivalent to the Ghalalk (e.g., 535 crew vs. 650). I assume this is one of his designs (?). It works for me except that the engines are underpowered.
  • A navy fighter for the above. I think I’d like to put an advanced space fighter into the PCs hands at some point, so it might be worth thinking about the capabilities of the fighter rather than using a published design.

Now, how to design them?

“To the left, you see the sheer metal wall of a fuel tank containing hydrogen. To the right, also a fuel tank. Above you, there is a fuel tank. And below you. In fact, it’s all fuel tank.”

It’s All Fuel Tank

It’s a core dynamic of a Traveller game that FTL travel occurs via jump drive but that you have to spend ~7 days in a kind of jump space netherworld. The limited FTL is a defining feature of the setting because it is meant to simulate distances in the age of sail. Refueling and finding fuel are often important components of a Traveller adventure. The jump rating of a ship is also crucial as it tells you what routes are open to you.

That’s OK with me but one of the things that has always irritated me about Traveller is the insistence on gigantic fuel tanks. I suppose I could put it to “realism” — whatever that means in the context of a far-future interstellar empire. But the gameplay side-effect of a fuel-tank obsessed spaceship system is that the deck plans are often quite uninteresting. Fuel tanks could be abstracted away as “not shown” on deck plans but they are not.

I collect deck plans just as a dungeon master collects dungeon maps, and the Traveller ones often have a big black area for fuel tanks and then a chair. OK I’m exaggerating a little but some of you know what I mean.

So I’m going to go ahead and use the GURPS Spaceships generic FTL drive rules and just say by fiat that they work in the Traveller Universe. This will allow for a rating like Jump-1, Jump-2 etc without fuel tanks. You could specify that fuel tanks are part of the FTL component, but whether you do or not, they will end up taking much less space on the ship under the GURPS Spaceship rules.

A side-effect of this is that my ship designs are compatible with other uses of GURPS Spaceships rules at TL 11^. So that’s good.

If The Ship Is The Dungeon, It Has To Be Big Enough

I’m also going to design some bigger ships. I love the stories about the Traveller ships but the scale leaves me wanting. When I look at the evolution of shipping it seems to me that it is realistic to have a tiny crew in charge of a mostly-automated massive freight ship. Not necessarily a Red Dwarf scenario, but still much bigger than the classic Traveller ships like the Empress Marava.

Remaining Problems

There are a few remaining problems I’m not addressing now. The biggest: A future problem to be addressed is survivability. The GURPS Spaceships rules as written are incredibly lethal if missiles are included in ship designs (and I have included them). However, I’m going to go ahead and use these spaceship design rules as-written.

I figure that I can address the survivability problem later on by changing the combat rules slightly, rather than changing the spaceship design rules now to make my ships incompatible with everyone else’s ships.

The Spaceships Design Spreadsheet: Use It

Finally, I started making these ships “by hand” using the GURPS Spaceships rules and record sheet. But then I switched to Eric B. Smith’s amazing, fantastic, and totally awesome Microsoft Excel Spaceships Design Spreadsheet. It is truly a triumph. You might have to fiddle a little bit before you understand how to use it, but it is a huge time-saver. Strongly recommend.

When you see PDF output of spaceship stats, these are from Eric’s spreadsheet. Next: On to the ships!

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