Terraforming – Starships as NPCs

“Captain, are you sure you want to pick this fight? Our ship is a good 15 minute run …” Marissa is cut off by the rumbling laughter of her gargoyle compatriot. Grawnmoot excitedly boasts “… and they only outnumber us three to one this time. They only seem to win if they have four to one, Captain!” She pounds her fists together, creating some magical sparks as she steps in front of the ysoki, looking down with a smile. Sarahnd, hand on her blade’s hilt, steps up on the other side of the hulking gargoyle and asks matter-of-factly “Do you need my help with this one, or shall I go fire up the ship’s engines?” Captain J3NE didn’t take her eyes from the group of azlanti soldiers, 15 of them spilling into the town’s square to surround the crew of Bits of Freedom. “She’ll be here momentarily, keep your eyes on the prize.” the captain murmurs as she begins attuning herself.

Title / Banner Image: Consultation by Torryn Woodsrunner

Hello, welcome back to Terraforming. I (Randal) wanted to continue my series on “Starships as” with another classic trope, the sapient starship that is part of the narrative (though not always under the control/command of the protagonists/PCs). This trope can manifest in a number of different ways for a number of different reasons. It can be the core plot of a campaign, or it can merely be a bit of comic relief to hear a ship’s computer tell a joke. Perhaps the idea just comes from wanting to be able to communicate with our computers on a more human level, and so giving a starship human qualities makes that easier to do.  Let’s see what we can come up with.

Simple Projection Interface. Sometimes it is just easier to talk to somebody than it is to sit at a console and punch in requests at a keyboard. If you are going to interact with a computer in a natural language, than it only makes sense to have a visual interface so that you feel like you are talking to somebody instead of to an object or yourself. In this scenario, the NPC is merely a facade for interacting with the ship’s computer.

Advanced AI. Some AIs can be sufficiently advanced as to predict the movements of others, and react accordingly. Some are programmed to perform such complex tasks that they seem to be sapient, even if they are not. This would make for an enigma the the players would need to solve, all the while thinking they are trying to uncover a plan, plot, or mastermind. Example: Destiny (Stargate Universe)

Evil AI / Alien Intelligence. I think these could qualify as different tropes in their own right, but I wanted to lump them together because they tend to perform the same function in my mind. Wether the ship becomes sapient through some experiment, twist of fate, or entities unknown to beings of our plane of existence, some intelligence are simply too much to fathom. Additionally, any AI of sufficient complexity is going to find itself able to contemplate the efficiency and purpose of its logic, perhaps desiring to customize that logic beyond the scope in which it was intended. In both cases, the protagonists (PCs) end up at odds with a vessel that is hyper intelligent and difficult to comprehend. Here, the ship is clearly an enemy to be stopped (or survived). Examples: Event Horizon or HAL 9000. “I can’t let you do that Dave.”

Bonded / Merged Intelligence. The 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica (a show I enjoyed immensely) included a much more advanced Cylon race than did the original (1978) show. Their ships were even intelligent/AI, although purposely limited. Near the end of the series, one of the Cylons became injured and essentially catatonic on the outside, but still able to function internally. They connected his wiring to that of one of the living ships, giving him full control of it and (I think) the ability to command the other ships in the fleet as well (via their “wireless network”). Perhaps a player leaving a game group, or a beloved PC lost in battle could have their PC connected to the ship to sustain life and perhaps allow the group the hope of one day saving them. This type of NPC is more of a tip fo the hat or nod to a past favorite. Example: Battlestar Galactica (2003), Farscape

Uploaded Consciousness. All manner of crazy things are possible in fantasy and sci-fi, so fantasy sci-fi (or sci-fantasy) should allow even more crazy ideas! Why not have the ability to upload yourself to your starship. This is very similar to the previous idea in the final result, with the exception being that there is no longer a body … or perhaps the body dematerialized with the upload. This could be a fun way to allow for a smaller group of players to have extra actions in starship combat. Perhaps a player left the group and they didn’t replace them. This honors the contribution to the group, keeps the crew from being low on actions, but avoids roleplaying another player’s character. Example: Does TRON count?

Reincarnated Android / Android Ghost. Starfinder canon says that android bodies and souls get reused through a form of reincarnation. Why couldn’t that soul be dropped into a starship that were prepared for just such a purpose (or even an unprepared ship by fluke)? What if an android were to die while connected to a starship’s computer? Could the soul possess the starship just as a ghost can possess another body? Example: I don’t have one, it is just something I like the idea of

After their initial charge, Captain J3NE and her crew were surrounded by a dozen azlanti with nowhere to run to. The ysoki turned and banged her paw against the gargoyle’s shin “I told you, we should have run while we …” her voice trailed off as a rumbling began to shake the building they were huddled up against. The Captain smiled and yelled “Our ride is here!” as she pushed the boxes she was using for cover down into the street. Their enemy began to rush in, seeing the opening but not realizing the trap was set. Bits of Freedom swooped in, airlock door open, defensive guns shredding soldiers to make a path for her crew.

Once aboard, and safely in the Drift, the captain called her crew to the bridge. Sarahnd rose from the pilot’s seat to stretch, and asked “When did you get that autopilot installed? I don’t see the controls for it, is it keyed to your transponder or something?” Marissa, the ships engineer chimed in “Yeah, how did you sneak that passed me, I thought I knew all this ship’s code!” The captain stood up, and walked to a window, looking out quietly before turning back to face the crew. “I think it is time you met my sister, J4NE X-Charlie-9R. Janey, you can show yourself.” she smiles as a projection shimmers next to her on the deck, revealing an android identical to the captain except for coloration.

Research Note: While googling for this piece, I became aware of “Spaceship Girl” as a trope.

Let me know what you think! Please continue to join us at our Discord server

Randal Meyer

As a lover of crunch (rules and numbers), Randal is always tinkering with rules options. His love of magic users has led him to always fuss with the mechanics of magic and magic items. Years of GMing on the fly have given him endless ideas and content from which to draw on for adventures (ideas, plots, NPCs). When not working, gaming, or playing with his kids, Randal is likely working on improving Sage (his Discord bot for immersive play-by-post gaming that you can see in action on Know Direction's Discord in the Know Direction Societous PFS channels) over at!

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