Gaming-Driven Review: The Expanse, Season 1

This is a review of the first season of “The Expanse”, with a focus on how it can inspire games and gaming. As a bonus, there’s apparently an RPG from Green Ronin, but it’s not relevant to this post.

Socially, the factions are Earth (run by the U.N., and nominally controlling certain stations in the Belt), Mars (presented as a high-tech and militaristic society dedicated to terraforming), and the Outer Planets Alliance, or the OPA, roughly equivalent to the IRA or Hezbollah and representing the Belters (occupants of the asteroid belt). Tensions are high between the groups, with the Belters accusing Earth and Mars of exploiting them for the Belt’s natural resources, and Earth and Mars in a Cold War-style stalemate.

The show follows three viewpoints: Jim Holden and his crew from the ice trawler Canterbury, Joe Miller, a hard-bitten cop on the lawless asteroid Ceres, and Chrisjen Avasarala, a ruthless senior member of the U.N. The first season follows two major plotlines: an attack on the Canterbury by unknown forces, and the followup from that, and the disappearance of Julie Mao, runaway daughter of an influential Earth government member. The first season ends with the revelation of how these two plot lines are connected, and the fallout from it.

For players

Even within a single team (such as Holden’s group), tensions exist. Amos, the brute of the group, follows Naomi’s orders but is uncontrollable by anyone else, and definitely has his own moral code. Jim and Naomi have deep conflicts over a secret they share. Each of them has some secret background which they don’t reveal to others at first. They definitely come close to attacking each other several times, but their overriding circumstances always bring them back together.

As a player, if you think party tension is bound to happen, describe an escape hatch that will rein your character in. This can be the safety of the group as a whole, orders from another PC, or some emotional cooldown button that can be pressed. At any time, any player who’s uncomfortable with the level of tension has the right to invoke the escape hatch.

Most of the viewpoint characters have a definite trajectory, but all of them orbit around one of the two prongs of the story. As characters learn more and interact, they (sometimes) realize they ought to be sharing information. Other times, what they learn forces them into conflict.

I talked about an idea called “frontstory” here. It says:

Frontstory isn’t a destined destination, it’s a trajectory. Good frontstory says “here’s what my PC is after”. It doesn’t say “here is where my PC will end up”. But frontstory says something about the world, because whatever a PC wants is part of that world, what they’ll be opposed by is part of the world, and so forth. A PC who wants revenge on an NPC, or wants to romance (or seduce) an NPC, or who wants to steal, win, or otherwise obtain something has just given you a string of encounters and challenges.

So with that in mind…

When creating a PC, look at the common threads of the game world, and find a unique angle for your character to take on one of those threads.

For GMs

Situations continually get worse for everyone. In particular, early episodes featuring Holden’s group escalate the perception of danger and hopelessness without ever fully giving into it. A radio message that’s their only hope of salvation is received by someone they would prefer not receive it. The airlock doesn’t work at a critical moment.

When interpreting die rolls that say the PC failed, don’t interpret the failure as incompetence. Instead, either introduce a complication to enhance the sense of hopelessness (and provoke the next cunning improvisation from the PCs) or escalate the situation in a logical fashion.

The crew keep finding ways out of their situation, even when they feel like they ought to be at each other’s throats, and everyone has strengths that come into play.

Don’t force PCs into stupid or meaningless decisions. Let players make the hard moral choices for their characters, but make sure those choices illuminate the characters’ natures, rather than just screwing them over or punishing them for existing. Don’t call for a roll whose failure you don’t have a plan for.

1 Like


Tech: To keep your SF universe safe for gaming, you must ruthlessly prune the flowering bush of technology. If you assume unrelenting progress, either the tech is so good that PCs have nothing to do, or there’s so much that they’re lost trying to pick the right tools.

“The Expanse” nails down a few key things.

  • Weapons. How do they work? There’s a standard pistol and rifle configuration, they shoot some kinda high-tech bullets that are very audible and make sparks. The noir detective gets a revolver version because of course he does, but the rest of you lot make do with these.
  • Comms. You all have a handheld computer, about the size and shape of your current smart phone’s screen protector. It’s transparent, understands spoken commands, interfaces effortlessly with screens nearby, and generally takes care of all computer and comms needs.
  • Spaceships. Controlled by iPod type tablets on swivel arms, and you get a larger curved OLED type screen. You have gravity if your engines are on, otherwise everyone has magboots, click them together like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz to turn on or off.

Other franchises like “Star Wars” make similar tech assumptions: everyone has blasters, they all work the same way, doors always always always slam shut and jam if you blast the controls, every ship has artificial gravity, and so on.

Color: When introducing a new place, figure out which faction controls it, or otherwise what sort of mood it ought to project, and use one of a few standard color palettes you’ve devised beforehand.

  • The oppressively claustrophobic space stations get a dark, cyberpunk-esque neon-on-grime look.
  • Mars, the red planet, has bases and ships with a red-and-gray type deal.
  • Earth is the colors of nature, blues and greens and whites.

World-building part 2

The show doesn’t go much into detail on how some of its tech works, but it’s consistent in the ways it works. Ships have reactors, torpedoes, rocket engines, and other elements, but we don’t worry about how they’re fueled, how fast they can go, or similar hard statistics. But stealth ships are effective in space battle, you have gravity when the drive is on, and so forth.

So what’s so important about adding detail and building on it?

  • Detail is key to suspension of disbelief. Your players might know “blasters” from other shows, but you can sell them on blasters in your 'verse by talking about what they look like, their limitations, and so on.
  • If the PCs are cunning rogues who exploit their situation, the players have to understand the 'verse and the tech to do that. If your ship is clamped in place, maybe the hacker can override the clamp controls - or if the ship is beefy enough, maybe the pilot can just burn their way out.
  • The GM can use previously established details to build tension or add danger. If the MacGuffin reacts in a certain way to radiation, and the bad guys want that to happen, and your PCs are in the thick of it, maybe a bad roll means they get blasted with radiation too - and now there’s a countdown clock of “get medical help or die horribly”.

How about some specific details?

Lifestyle: humans in space are still humans. They eat, drink, clean themselves, sleep, play games, have sex, think about having sex, gamble, raise children, show off. Where and how do they do these things? The show features bars, brothels, pachinko parlors, sports betting…

Personalization: when you’re locked in a tin can with a bunch of strangers, you develop your own habits and eccentricities. Drinking coffee, pet robot gerbils, ceramic cats, whatever.

As GM, you can add examples of “non-essential” detail to add to any scene. And sometimes, one of those apparently meaningless details will contain something significant…

Family: when you’re locked in a tin can for life, strangers don’t stay strangers for long. What sort of non-traditional family or clan structures might arise? Political allegiances, shared interests, and residence in a particular area can all give rise to a community. One of the characters in the show has eight parents (due to DNA mixing and a complicated legal situation), though this is not deeply explored.

Think about who a PC or NPC might count as friends or family. As GM, surprise the players with an unexpected social connection. As a player, think about who you might care about that isn’t related to you, and why.

1 Like