I take a creative prompt from Cypher System’s The Stars are Fire and build it up into a playable material. Part One.
The Stars are Fire, a Cypher System Sci-fi toolbox comes with a skeleton setting called Revel and a starting adventure called Salvage Over Saturn. After the adventure conclusion, the nearest harbor for the player characters is a Sabrina space station in orbit around Saturn. Here is what we get from the book:
One point of warmth and a reminder of the human scale is Sabrina Station, converted from twelve defunct freighter spacecraft webbed together to form a double hexagonal ring and spun up to simulate internal gravity. Though not nearly so perfect as an O’Neill colony (or so amazingly large), each section is retrofitted well enough to support life and commerce.
Sabrina Station is a massive, always-crammed market for rock-hoppers, salvagers, pirates (in disguise), con artists, artists and musicians, the occasional research scientist looking for supplies, the very rare peacekeeper duo operating as a pair for personal protection, and anyone and everyone else who operates in Saturnian space.
This location is not fleshed out, and Bruce Cordell gives us hard homework here. To prepare this, I want to answer several interesting questions:
- What is with the name? It is a bit strange, so I want to support it with a little backstory mystery.
- Who are the founders who used their freighters to create this orbital?
- Why they did that, and how they connect to the rest of the factions?
- What are the locations, and how are they unique from other stations?
- Who are the narrative drivers on Sabrina, and what are their motivations and allegiances?
- How all the above inform potential events on the station?
Pardon a short digression here as I explain my prep strategy. I like to imagine my prep as laying down the information mesh over a location. Lots of invisible narrative threads and situations that players might trigger while visiting the place. I don’t need too many details nor any plots, just enough info so the group can play and improv during a session. Imagine a typical fantasy village for a moment. It is easy to improvise usual locations like blacksmith, tavern, shops, and so on, but actually rooting the place into the lore, factions, events, and characters needs a little forethought.
The perfect example of this strategy is season four of The Expanse tv show. The Rocinante crew arrives on planet Illus amid tensions between the surviving shuttle passengers and the Belter settlers that escalate into an armed standoff; it is interrupted when a swarm of alien bugs attacks the settlement.
Imagine the Roci crew as a player party. As soon as they set foot on that planet, they trigger narrative threads and put events in motion that build the tension between three factions and a looming alien threat. The whole Illum part of the season has only a couple of locations, but the narrative mesh on top of those locations drives the suspension through the roof.
As a GM you wouldn’t want to give in to a tendency to pre-plot any of this. Set up the situation, and let the players trigger complications and events as they bumble around doing player things, and see what happens. This is why we play RPGs and watch TV shows. An important distinction.
Sabrina the station AI
The first idea that comes to mind is that Sabrina is the name of the station AI. This sounds intriguing enough, and I can provide hooks around the concept so that the players might engage with it.
The rumor table that I came up with is a perfect example of slow/creative thinking that is hard for me to improvise on the spot during the session. The six entries below should be enough to start and pique player interest. Currently, with my limited setting knowledge, I don’t have a full grasp of Revel factions. As I discover Revel, I might revise the rumor table and weave it even deeper into the setting’s lore, organizations, and characters.
|d6 Rumors About Sabrina Origin
|Sabrina was the only daughter of one of the founders; she died in a mysterious accident, and her consciousness was digitalized. Some say she died on the same day that Earth went quiet, just collapsed where she stood. It was only later realized that her mind somehow ended up inside the station mainframe. AI Sabrina didn’t have memories of her past self but retained her spirit and personality.
|Sabrina was one of the original twelve ships AI. Over time she assimilated the other eleven AI into one consciousness. Her sometimes erratic behavior might be explained by this. Maybe there are still pieces of other AI minds inside her, struggling for control.
|Sabrina originated from the 13th ship, a ghost ship. The center one which the station was built around, now long gone, cannibalized during construction. When the 13th vessel was discovered in Saturn’s orbit, she was alone with the crew missing. She claimed no memories of what happened. Some say her name is an acronym: S. A. B. R. I. N. A. Sentient and Autonomous are almost a certainty, but no one knows what the rest of the letters mean. Maybe, if one is to track all the pieces of her original ship now built into the station at various places…
|Sabrina was a famous pirate and a freedom fighter who sacrificed her life to save the station, still in construction, not to fall into Saturn’s gravity well. She is regarded as a patron saint of pirates, rock-hoppers, salvagers, and other free spirits. There is a small church built in her honor that celebrates her sacrifice. Some swear she speaks to them through the AI’s voice.
|When the Earth went quiet, the orbital came alive. The station announced her name is Sabrina, then quietly went on maintaining various systems and station operations. After the initial panic was gone, station dwellers continued their lives as usual, over time coming to trust the AI. No one was able to pinpoint her core, as if she was the station itself.
|Some suspect she is an instance of Anaximander, who planted himself to spy and extend his control even further into the Solar System.
The above table is not immediately actionable, and I don’t have any adventure or scenario behind these rumors, as it’s not needed at this point. I will seed all or most of this info at opportune moments to the players as flavor, and only if they get hooked into this mystery, I will explore it further and flesh it out more. For now, it is a side thing, a weird, unique setting sugar for this location.
A takeaway feature of this table is the anti-canon approach. I want to weave in Sabrina as much as possible without canonizing the truth in the process. She might be all of these things, or none, one or several, or something different even. This approach provides me a usable narrative node for later weaving, which will turn rumors into a foreshadowing of sorts; players will feel the connected narrative whatever ends up being the truth. It will appear as everything was set in the world even before they started playing. This illusion builds verisimilitude allowing me the flexibility to weave narrative threads without worrying about the continuity of the narrative fabric.
For Example: Sometime in the future, I might need an additional node for the Quiet Earth mystery, central to the setting. I will remember that I seeded rumor number 5 to the players, so I plant my secrets to the Sabrina node for players to uncover. Bonus points as I already have this location and character fleshed out, so no additional prep work is needed. Players will feel this was foreshadowed as they confirm the rumor 5 now to be the setting canon.
Carousing Mishaps at the Space Station
For the next article, I need to figure out the twelve ships that form the Sabrina station and who the founders are. It is crucial to position the station within the larger faction game. I will start by reading and thinking about other factions then try to come up with few engaging ideas.
Spend 1d6* X 100 Lumens to gain 1 XP (* means it is an exploding die, so roll again whenever a 6 comes up). During those several days, a complication arises which players need to solve. This is essentially a GM Intrusion but a bit more ridiculous.
|1d50 Carousing Mishaps at the Space Station
|Got so drunk you believed the story that the o2 bacteria tank fluid is alcoholic. Save against drowning and poison.
|You woke up naked in a vent shaft somewhere deep in the station bellows.
|Press-ganged to an ice-hauler, leaving tomorrow.
|Station’s augmented combat chimpanzee takes a serious shine to one of the PCs and wants to make them their pet.
|You were deputized. Station security forces are all evacuated. There is a riot outside.
|Turns out you won the local blernsball competition. You didn’t even know you could play!
|You brought a virus to the station that spread while you went partying. Sabrina is now in lockdown. Security is looking for a patient zero.
|You promised a free passenger seat to the most annoying person in the system. It will be a long and intimate one month journey.
|The gang you joined while drunk is very loyal (eases tasks involving them) but the facial tattoo might be a problem everywhere else.
|Sobering up, outside, in your spacesuit, you have vague recollections about betting you could outrace a sentient spaceship you were debating with - you had a cunning drunken plan. Now that you’ve sobered up, you’ve forgotten it and need to come up with something new as you float over to the starting circle.
|After partying all cycle a Self-Replicating Von Neumann Dance Music Earworm has infected 1d4 of your crew, if they manage to hum it correctly there’s a chance it’ll pass on to you too. You have 1d6 hours to destroy/contain it before it spreads.
|You wake up with your hands loosely tied behind your back drifting in a derelict escape pod. There is a note taped to the wall that reads: “This is what you get.” The life support gauge on the console reads 5 hours. You can see the station drifting further into the distance.
|Your hand is now green.
|In your hand is a blood-stained lottery ticket for free cybernetic implants - you don’t SEE an implant on you…
|You invented a new cocktail! You used an Alien extract no one ever thought to add to an Ionian Iced Tea before; half the bar love it. … The other half maybe a little… …dead…
|You vigorously made out with a Squidoid. You have a suction cup hickey’s all over your face and neck, and a little extra pep in your step.
|You wake up in a tub of ice, and you feel pain in your side. You look down and see a closed wound over a new lump. And you thought the reverse organ donation trick was an urban myth.
|The Station resident Robotic Vermin Infestation awarded you a “Hive Mind Diploma, class 2.2” after only an hour of ‘study’ (at the bar). It includes an upgrade token; if you dispose of the orbital’s Pest Control Subroutine on level 5, they’ll promote it to a 2.1
|You wake up to a new multi-colored QR code tattoo on your arm. When you scan it to learn what it says, your device has a catastrophic failure.
|You gave away something precious of one of your crewmates and have had your hair ‘plated’ (think Stegosaurus, it was a style going around a while back). You also now seem to be getting a secret head nod from all the station Gang members & Star-priests in the corridors.
|Last night, you won a Kvernoan poetry contest. Your prize: FEALTY TO NEBULORD.
|A drunken swap - they really liked something of yours (lose one item) and, apparently, you really liked their … Arm [gain one sentient arm (unattached)]
|You wake up with your neck aching from something under your pillow. Surprise! New proton diffuser.
|You won the “station leader for a day” contest run by the local benevolent fund.
|Somehow your crew conned the Orbital to give you the privilege of the key-card to the station for a cycle - you now realize you’ve managed to lose it.
|You wake up with a lockbox and key with the name, Joyen Tor, written on it. Inside is One. Million. Credits.
|You’d swear it was a dream, but when you’re shaken awake there’s a friggin’ Holographic fully co-ord Treasure Map data sphere in your paw; but then you recall the rest: yep, playing on all channel-frequency on repeat, is you showing off the same in excruciating detail for all to see, shouting “See who gets there first!” - how long were you asleep?
|Somehow you applied for a license and got approved as a station clown. Your next performance is scheduled for tomorrow.
|You are sitting in a small room of smoke playing cards with the station manager, chief of security, surgeon general, chief engineer, dock chief, and one more very important person you have no idea who it is. You are winning, it’s the last hand, and you are about to skin them all, and probably make enemies for life.
|In a series of unfortunate events, you find yourself as a leader of an Uprise against the (1d6) 1. Local teenage theatre troupe / 2. Jelly ordinance committee / 3. Heavy ordinance committee / 4. Cargo loaders guild / 5. Station AI overlords / 6. Augmented combat chimpanzee syndicate
|You befriended the local narcotech syndicate, granting you ears across all levels of the station.
|During a very loud, very drunken argument you accepted the (obviously politically inept) Lnkien’s invocation of his culture’s Ancient Right of the Duel. Be there with your second by next wake-cycle.
|You accidentally got locked into the station’s arboretum over a closed-out of hours cycle. Gain a (1d8) 1. fear / 2. love / 3. knowledge / 4. fascination / 5. Interest - of/in exotic alien flora / 6. Climbing skill / 7. swinging on vines skill / 8. Twisted ankle
|That new Vertigorange drink has given you the worst hangover! For the next 2d3 hours, you experience terrible Hypnogogic Jerks at randomly-determined intervals.
|The Zero-G live gig was amazing (regain all mental health associated stats back to highest levels / be able to recall (1d2 times) the vibe in the future for ease on a task)
|WTF?!!!! The crew left without you. Spaceship gone. Hangar empty. All your stuff was onboard. Orbital’s Travel Manifest documents read ‘Destination Classified’ Only credits left are the ones in your data disc. You’ve been punked. They are all laughing so hard at the look on your face.
|Replaced by a pod person. Identical in every way, except completely emotionally balanced. Oh, and the horrifying screaming.
|You come round, shaken by a crewmate “Who’s the Lizardman with the bandana?” you groggily fumble float to your ship’s rec space; an unknown sentient fungal growth and their friend play holographic quantum fauna-chess here. There’s the smell of burning & you clock a decommed battle-scarred drone cooking a fry-up with its pilot burner for the crew. Then you realize the Ship is already in flight. “Erm… “ Yep, you agreed to transport the world-famous (but you’ve never heard of them) Folk Band apparently for the joy of their company & free tickets, to their next gig on another planet.
|You’ve ended up in the Station’s Med-bay waiting room to get your (1d6) 1. arm / 2. leg / 3. head / 4. gaping wound / 5. Psychic Aura / 6. Orbital Social Status -seen to. You’ve heard the treatment is free, but you’re starting to doubt that. Maybe it’s paid for in time waiting.
|Somebody punched a hole in your vac suit and covered it with a porous hello ratty patch. Hilarious! And you only found out you’re leaking once you got into vac!
|You accidentally swallowed purifier symbiote … now the drugs don’t work anymore.
|You scored a seventeen-complication rare-earth watch. Too bad it only tells lunar time.
|Some asshole scanned your brain and downloaded you into a synth. Wait. Maybe you were a synth all along and didn’t know it?
|You have acquired a pet cat. You feel deeply committed to caring for it, lavishing it with your attention, and visiting the nearby dark star observatory.
|After selling your sole to the devil, you had to get a prosthetic foot.
|It was supposed to be an upgrade. Well. Turns out the gas propulsion system was a bit of a joke. Very funny. Haha. So classy.
|You scored a lead on a buried cache of Lobo beans from the time of the third settlement of the Moon!
|You were inducted into a corporate cargo cult. In your pocket is a list of ten buzzwords you have to memorize by tomorrow. They’re … really … cheesy.
|You wake up with 10k credits on your tab puck. You remember nothing. It … it might be fine?
|You find an IOU in your pocket. You’ve traded your arm and a leg for 10k credits … but the name on the deal is wrong! Some asshole got paid for your arm and your leg!