Impulse Drive is a science-fiction PbtA RPG that is licensed under the Creative Commons and offers ship playbooks for four different styles of campaigns: “These Ship playbooks not only describe what technology your Ship may use, but also the kinds of adventures your Crew will get up to, what motivates them, and the kinds of trouble that will follow your Crew around the galaxy.” The ships—
- The Smuggler – “Smugglers excel at moving contraband between systems, but must struggle to stay one step ahead of their Debt and try to keep their ship running…. Touchstones: Serenity from Firefly, The Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.”
- The Vanguard – “Your crew is a squad of elite (or expendable) operatives a patron Organization has financed. You have all the best toys, but … you have a Duty to your Organization and their interests, and where they send you, you are obliged to go. Touchstones: Mass Effect, Star Trek.”
- The Predator – “Dangerous individuals for hire whose reputation precedes them…. You have a Nemesis who wants to destroy you and will stop at nothing in the pursuit of that goal. Touchstones: Dark Matter.”
- The Marauder – “Are you good-hearted scalawags fighting an oppressive regime? Or are you murderous cutthroats taking what you can and giving nothing back? Touchstones: Black Sails, Captain Harlock.”
The ship playbooks have custom moves that lean into the types of stories that can be told with such ships. For instance, each has a Ship Payment move but the options vary (Smuggler: “You keep the wolves at bay, reduce Debt by 1 and reset the Debt Fuse”; Predator: “You put distance between your Ship and your Nemesis, reduce Feud by 1”) and each has a different type of FTL drive.
I did an absurd amount of research to pick a system (documented here) before settling on Impulse Drive.
Prior to starting Impulse Drive proper, we ran two sessions of Microscope to create the history of the galaxy we were about to play in. As a result, I gave myself two extra GM moves (called “Space Master calls” in this system):
- Tie in an event to past world-building
- Ask them what they’ve heard (e.g., “What rumors have you heard about how spaceships are secured in stations such as this one?”)
Then I adapted Stonetop’s session introductions for our session 0. And one player and I reskinned one playbook to be a hacker.
But despite all that kitbashing, early sessions were then 95% RAW (Rules As Written).
Our crew chose a Smuggler ship. We ran a 28-session campaign, over the course of 12 months, not counting the two Microscope sessions.
Our touchstone was initially Firefly but the campaign became more like The Expanse as it went on, in terms of involvement with the politics of the outer solar system. We were more hard science than The Expanse; the aliens (called Newcomers) were never seen on screen nor ever affected the story.
For session hooks, I used Firefly for inspiration and Coriolis: The Third Horizon for setting details. Our last job used a Mothership adventure. So sessions were a mix of deliveries, odd jobs, break-ins, and scavenging, initially to pay off the ship. Into the Black to stay in the black.
I tweaked the End of Session move as I am wont to do, then later sessions I hacked the system more and more. You can see our Custom Moves here, in the Google Doc we used as a rules reference (containing only those playbooks we used).
Overall, I loved the campaign, but the players are ready for something different. Only two of the four regular players really enjoyed Impulse Drive as a system. One didn’t find it crunchy enough (he loves Pathfinder and would have preferred we play Starfinder), and one would have preferred HP and coin to the harm/stress and abstract-wealth systems (a highlight for me, as I blogged about here).
I liked the ship playbooks and upgrade options. The players collaboratively deciding how they wanted to pimp their ride was fun to see. Some of the players love spending time between sessions on spending their loot and leveling up. So much so that I tweaked the starting session move to let them talk about this. TBH, they were talking about it anyway! I just made it official. But the starting move, Previously On, was such an excellent way to ease into the session that I’m going to use a starting move from now one.
I liked combat, but it was hard to be tough on PCs. With some stats at +3, combined with Advantage, it made the PCs so successful it could become boring. We only had a few major battles, but I enjoyed the Firefight move. Spaceship combat used the same basic moves and was easy to run but sometimes hard to picture and describe (when you’re trying to run a physics-real space combat, you realize how much TV and the movies take liberties).
One thing that was disappointing: there’s little active community to support the game, and few customizations. I tried to jumpstart an Impulse Drive syllabus (analogous to the Dungeon World syllabus), but it didn’t get any traction. I’d have paid a monthly subscription (RPG as a service) to the publisher to have more content for the system, as it would have made it faster to do session prep. (I did appreciate the rich library of material on DMs Guild when I was doing session planning for 5e.)
- “Burn a Fuse” is a much more metal way of saying “Tick a Clock”!
- I completely missed the fact that there were “Extra Moves for All Archetypes” that could be used for any playbook. Near the end of our campaign, which seemed long for the system, players were running out of interesting advances and this would have been useful. “The Moves and Gear in this section can be taken as additional Advances once a player has taken 4 Special Moves from their own Archetype.”
- It’s hard to prep science-fiction settings. You can’t just use a hex map; the possibilities are wide open. Much of the action in the last half of the campaign took place in and among a gas giant’s 54 moons. I had some quantum buildings, rooms and NPCs prepped that I could plop down on whatever moon they were most interested in. But I never prepped, nor even named, all 54 moons.
All in all, I enjoyed Impulse Drive and would run it again.