Author’s Note: AD ASTRA is a role-playing game designed to replicate old-fashioned space opera. Have you read the John Carter of Mars or Carson Napier of Venus stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Have you watched the old Republic serials (or read the old comic strips) of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers? Have you read the Planet Stories of Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton or E. E. “Doc” Smith? Have you watched Star Wars or the Guardians of the Galaxy movies? Have you played games such as Traveller, Star*Drive or Star Frontiers?
I’m not talking about scientific rigor here. We’ve got handwavy attempts to make artificial gravity and faster-than-light travel between the stars, and the fact that everybody looks a little bit like a man in (good) rubber mask or face-paint if they’re not just human. We’ve got protagonists who fight with swords on spaceships. If this is the kind of setting and game that you think you’d like, this is for you.
AD ASTRA is meant to be swashbuckling, larger than life, borderline super-heroic action. Realism isn’t really meant to be more of an issue than it is in your average Captain America or Batman story.
Rather than tell anyone at this point what a role-playing game is, or any of that jazz, I’m going to assume that this game is meant for a market that is already familiar with the notion. The system I’m using is a variant of m20; a very rules-lite, stripped down variant of the d20 game, but one that relies heavily on GM interpretation, because there ain’t much in the way of formal rules. It’s meant to be a game that relies on a few simple basics, the details of which are heavily dependent on rulings in game. That said, the game is also meant to be fairly balanced and consistent, so that players know what to expect from it. It does, however, specifically reject the implicit notion in d20 that the game had to be built to withstand abuse by bad GMs. If you want to have a good game, try to find a good GM and a good group and handle it like adults at the social contract level; the system doesn’t address this at all.
The particular iteration of m20 were initially designed by me (and by designed, I mostly mean kit-bashed from existing elements designed by someone else) to be used in a custom Star Wars setting of my own design, set 1,000 years after the end of Return of the Jedi. For various reasons, rather than continue with this particular exercise (which was mostly played out anyway) I decided to convert the whole thing into a custom setting, file the Star Wars serial numbers off, and graft some other classic space opera stuff into it as well. Keep in mind, though, that since the system was originally designed to run Star Wars specifically, well, obviously that tells you a few things about what kind of aesthetic it’s meant to have. The setting was meant to be more varied; my “Jedi” order was broken into multiple competing orders, and rather than Empire vs. Viet Cong-esque freedom fighters, I had a balkanized galaxy. Many of these elements will translate into the revised system and setting. I’ve toned down the “Jedi” as well, and made them a slightly more generic psionic warrior type that has a completely different kind of origin. But that’s really neither here nor there—importantly, I’ve gone deliberately in the direction of minimizing their importance, or at least making sure that they’re not any more important than any other type of character. If a typical scoundrel or soldier has absolutely no chance of ever taking on a “Jedi” in a fair fight, then something is seriously out of whack with your system, and you’re catering to the “look at me, aren’t I the most special snowflake ever?” escapism fantasy of your potential audience. To be blunt, I’m not writing this for that audience. I’m writing it for the audience that is made up of psychologically and socially healthy people that happen to like space opera.
It’s also not meant to be specifically original. It’s meant to be a generic homage to various well-known and well-loved tropes. As Vox Day once said about Star Wars, “It occurs to me that there is probably a market for books, and even films, that 'continue' the story of SJW-infested properties in a traditionalist manner. What should the Star Wars prequels have looked like? How should the post-Jedi story actually [have] proceeded? I shall have to think on this further... about Star Lords battling for power in a galaxy far, far away.” In many ways, that’s exactly the point, but hey, if you’re going to do that, why not add in all kinds of other stuff while you’re at it? It’s not exactly like Star Wars wasn’t just pilfering pretty much everything that they could; there are episodes of the Clone Wars that are literally carbon copies of Godzilla movies, samurai and western movies, noir movies, etc. And, y’know what? It actually works well for it. That breadth of influence hasn’t made the setting any less workable; it’s actually made it moreso.
A few other notes: I’m using a system to map a part of a subsector of the galaxy that is borrowed almost entirely from the Traveller game, except where I’ve dropped detail. This is a 2-D representation of a part of the galaxy using classic hex-maps (I'll add that attachment later); specifically a relatively tiny spur in the region where the Sagittarius Arm and Orion Spur grow close together, which makes crossing from one arm to the other possible (otherwise crossing the vast gulf between arms would be beyond the capabilities of any ship). Rather than taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this takes place a long time from now in our own Milky Way… but the galaxy is still a vast place, and most of it is comfortably out of reach forever. The bulk drives that enable travel to distances that cannot be reached by conventional travel are still limited, and traveling more than a few light-years at a time is still unfeasible and theoretically impossible, even. The Kalingrane subsector, which I’m detailing, is within the red circle on the map below (enlarged so you can actually see it; the red circle is way too big to be a mere subsector) and the green amorphous blob that you can see surrounding a portion of the Sagittarious Arm and the Orion Spur is the entirety of semi-known space. The galaxy is a big place, folks!