The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn.
A group of lovably flawed misfits manning a space-going tramp freighter slowly fall apart after the death of their captain. Tragedy ensues, in the classical sense. Think Serenity meets Titanic.
Low. Half the characters are female, and they all get significant agency at some point in the story. Even better, their choices and flaws don’t revolve around their gender. Women get to inhabit a variety of roles, from the ice-cold romantic willing to die for her dream to the unhappy hedonist who can’t imagine anything worth dying for. One subplot includes an unintended pregnancy, but I found it to be gracefully and believably handled.
High. The scenario can be lifted wholesale for a science fiction game, but it could be applied to any setting where you can trap your players in a space with limited resources, in which things can go increasingly and badly wrong. For example, you could use it for a town under siege in your fantasy or historical game. Individual story elements, like the characterization techniques, are also useful for games in nearly any genre.
What to Steal
Characterization. As you’re reading the book, watch for how Flynn makes the characters’ bad decisions inevitable yet mostly forgivable, or at least understandable. Each character is built from four key elements: a tragedy, a flaw, a virtue, and a dream. These elements are tightly linked. The character’s flaw is the flip side of their virtue, while their dream provides context for their actions and humanizes their bad choices that lead to tragedy. For example, Eugenie Satterthwaite is determined and romantic, but also ruthless and narrow. She had previously been the ship’s captain, but was dismissed for a brutal murder that took place under her command, and for which she has always felt responsible. She dreams of restoring the lost age of sail as a form of redemption for her sin. Her willingness to do anything in service of this dream pushes the ship toward tragedy. As both a player and a GM, this technique has been an enormously productive way for me to design characters who are interesting and playable from the second they hit the table.
Unintended consequences. With very few exceptions, none of the decisions that lead to the wreck are intended to cause harm. That doesn’t mean there isn’t great harm caused! If you steal this approach for your own games, you’ll end up in some very interesting situations. As a player, I’ll periodically note down an apparently minor decision my character made, from who to invite to a party to where she buys her armor. I deliberately choose apparently innocuous decisions. Then, when I see an opportunity, I invite the GM to use my prior decision to initiate a dramatic scene, or I’ll offer it as an explanation for NPC behavior. As a GM, this technique provides an endless source of plot – what situation can I imagine, in which this minor choice was actually a devastating change to the world? Plus, my players love it when they find out that they had a hand in things they never knew they were affecting.
Agency. Tragedy is tough to run, even when it’s mechanically supported. Players may get frustrated if they feel like the situation must always end in failure. Even with the right group, it’s going to be very important for players to understand the scope of their agency. Can the ship (or ship-equivalent, if you’re running in another genre) be saved? Is the focus on who will be saved from the wreck, and who will have caused it? Or is the question whether your character will achieve growth or redemption before the ship tears itself apart? I think a Wreck-inspired game could work in any of these ways, but it’ll be very important to get everyone on the same page.
Divergent goals. Yes, the setup provides party sticky because all the characters are on a freaking spaceship and can’t leave it. However, the PCs have sufficiently divergent goals that it would be very tough to run as a tabletop game. Even if you like adversarial play, I foresee a lot of logistical problems as players all try to do things secretly at the same time. I’d try to put all the players on the same side of the core conflict (sails versus engines versus just getting the damn ship into port on time) and have the other positions taken by NPCs, or put them all on the command staff, or otherwise give them a common experience.
How I’d Do It
While I’m usually a tabletop girl, the Wreck of the River of Stars LARP practically writes itself. Each character has enough richness to be a protagonist for that player, and has both large-scale (fate of the ship) and personal goals. For example, Satterthwaite wants the ship to come into port under mag-sail, she wants to protect another character, and she wants redemption for her sin. The overlapping web of relationships and factions means everyone will talk to most of the other players. Satterthwaite secretly leads a group of “pro-sail” crew, and she also has relationships with the ship’s other officers. Plus, divergent goals are really good for a LARP!
The biggest challenge in adapting the book would be the timeline of crises. The disaster in the book takes place over several months, but compressing it to a single evening wouldn’t be problematic. However, many of the relevant crises are caused by characters, not by external events. I’d like to preserve that element of character-generated crisis, but give it a bit of structure for the sake of the LARP-runner’s sanity. My initial instinct is to give each character one or more sealed envelopes, with an action that’s deeply important to their character written on the front. (For example: run out the sails!) When they choose to take this critical action, they open the envelope to find out the other consequences of their action, which may be positive or negative or both, depending on the situation.
… you know, I would totally run this LARP. It already sounds like fun!
The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss. A quiet, lovely gem of a book about Quakers on a generation ship heading toward the stars. It doesn’t capture the slow tragedy of the River of Stars, but it isn’t intended to. Instead, it illustrates a very different way to handle the closed-community-in-space story, showing how people can come together in the face of difficulty instead of falling apart. There are many strong roles for women, including female narrators. You may find the first section of the book unreadably slow; I suggest you persevere.
The Terror, Dan Simmons. A horror-flavored retelling of Franklin’s doomed 1848 expedition to uncover the Northwest Passage. Read it for the sense of claustrophobia and the inevitable spiral towards disaster. The expedition is all male, which doesn’t bother me specifically because of the limited scope of the book; there were no women on board, and Simmons is clearly committed to making his story consistent with history. On the other hand, watch out for the Magical Inuit Lady. I personally think Simmons steers (just barely) clear of the obvious pitfalls, but your mileage may vary.
Polar Star, Martin Cruz Smith. Second in the Arkady Renko mystery series. The disgraced investigator is working on a fish processing ship; when one of his colleagues turns up dead, Renko must find the killer before the killer finds him. The book captures Soviet Russia’s paradoxical attitude toward women, including several plot points around how the young, attractive, female murder victim is perceived by the crew. Still, this is Renko’s story, and even his awesome female sidekick isn’t given much depth or screen time.