Cosmic Highway is a game of space truckers trying to keep their ship in the air, inspired by Firefly, The Expanse, and the Mothership RPG. It’s available as part of the entire 2400 collection on Itch.io, and on its own and in a bundle on DriveThruRPG.
In the original devlog for Cosmic Highway v1.0, posted about a year ago, I wrote:
Working in this tight format — just two sides of a letter-sized page, with a quarter of my space taken up by a cover — forces me to practice great restraint. It’s easy to just keep adding things to games until they get very bloated, but I wanted to do (or at least start) 2400 as a series of self-contained games that you could pick up and play quickly, without reading a bunch of rules. This meant cutting out a ton of gear upgrades and cybernetics from Inner System Blues in order to fit in a bunch of spaceship options in Cosmic Highway. Of course, the whole idea behind this is that you can easily use the stuff from either game with the other; stuff like gear options is more descriptive than mechanical by design.
I ended up sticking to this approach for each new game in the series: reuse only the bits I need from previous games, and fill in the space left over with as much new stuff as I can fit, specific to that game. 2400 was still pay-what-you-want when Cosmic Highway was released, but I was already thinking I should put a price tag on it, and I didn’t want anybody feeling like they paid for the same game twice.
I have since learned that, now that this collection has close to 20 games, picking and choosing elements to combine from different modules is not as easy as it once was. I’ll write more advice on that in the future. But I hope it’s obvious that if you want your game to prominently feature a space ship, you want to pull some stuff out of Cosmic Highway.
In retrospect, I think I should’ve devoted even the entire second page to your ship. It would’ve meant trimming some of the character options, like a shorter list for skills, items, names, and/or patches (a concept shamelessly stolen from Mothership, and a brilliant way to communicate character and setting in a small space … but maybe something I could’ve skipped for space considerations). Then the “Ship” page would’ve just been “ship name,” “crew attire,” and “ship problems,” taken from the back page. (It’s your ship! You know what might go wrong on it. It’s fine for that to be player-facing.) That would communicate more to players about what this game is about, and would leave enough room on the back page for some more GM prompts to flesh out the setting.
I have half a mind to revise it right now as I write this, but maybe I’ll just wait until I collect everything into a book-length format. For now, let’s just talk about space ships.
Besides 2400, I haven’t actually played very many RPGs that featured actual space travel. And most of the time, we largely skipped over space travel, or treated it like a downtime montage. (It takes you 2 weeks to get to this planet. How do you spend the time?)
Sometimes, though, you actually have to do risky stuff in a spaceship, and all I knew going into Cosmic Highway was that I wanted to make sure everybody got to be involved. I’ve played games where we all just sits around waiting while the pilot and gunner do stuff, and it is dead boring. I didn’t devote a ton of space to this, but I did want to give some examples of things you could do, so I added this rule:
During an emergency, choose an action to perform or help with (e.g., command, piloting, sensors, weapons, engineering, boarding, etc.).
My hope was that this is more examples than the number of players at your table. I leave it to you to decide what each of these actions means, but here’s an example of what it might look like if pirates were trying to attach a docking connector to board your ship. The GM asks everyone what they intend to do, and says they’ll roll afterward and see how the situation has changed…
- The pilot declares they intend to execute evasive maneuvers to shake off the pirates, or flee if somebody else manages to shake them off first. The GM says this risks damage to the ship, as they’re close enough for an accidental collision.
- The gunner says they’ll shoot the pirates’ docking connector. The GM says the kick from shooting at such a funny angle risks hindering the pilot’s roll. The gunner and pilot agree this is worth it — the pilot’s roll isn’t as critical if the pirates have no way to dock easily. (They hope.)
- The engineer wonders aloud whether they should prep the engines for a sudden jump, but decides against it — if the pirates dock, that’d be useless. Instead, they get on the sensors to help the gunner’s roll, looking for a clear shot.
- The captain issues commands for specific evasive maneuvers to help the pilot, worried about the gunner’s roll messing up the pilot’s roll.
- The doctor weighs whether to prep the med bay, expecting injuries, which would probably help their first roll to treat a crewmate. But again, the pirates seem the more immediate concern. They grab a firearm and set up near where the pirates would most likely board, which will help their first roll if they need to shoot.
- Somebody tells the drifter stowaway to get a firearm and help the doctor get ready for boarders — but the drifter decides this is a good time to reveal (or pretend) that they’re a widely feared ex-pirate. They get on the comm and rolls to persuade the pirates to back off, at risk of making the pirates more interested. A setback might mean the pirates back off for now, but you can definitely expect to see them again…
Building your ship
Much as with Inner System Blues, I didn’t know how many 2400 games I’d ever get to, so I tried to fit as much as I could into the list of ship upgrades and systems. The result is the kind of densely-packed paragraphs of text that I try to avoid in design, but I think it hits all the key items inspired by my favorite space trucking books and TV shows.
Also like in Inner System Blues, I mostly just listed the names of things and let you interpret what they are, or assumed they’d be obvious. There’s one notable exception that I’ve now been asked enough about — I think twice, maybe three times — that I think I should explain it, especially given that it takes up three lines. It’s an upgrade to the comms system:
tachyon burst (eliminates in-system lag, but when used in the same room, signal plays a split-second before you speak)
Tachyons are particles that move faster than the speed of light. In theory, a message transmitted via tachyon could cross a solar system instantaneously. But have you ever had a cell phone call with somebody in the same room, just to goof around? You hear their voice from the phone a split second after you hear their voice from their mouth. I figured that if you were to talk to someone up close with tachyon burst, it’s the other way around — their words come out of the “phone” first, before they speak, because the tachyons are time traveling.
In other words, I devoted three lines of precious text real estate on a gag because I thought it would be funny, kind of creepy, and very much in keeping with the idea of “lo-fi sci-fi.” Even the time-traveling comm system is a bit janky at times.
Other ship rules
The list of “ship problems” is my way of making sure ship maintenance is a continual source of both “side quests” and a continual sink for those hard-earned credits. Nothing on that list is meant to prevent play, but to give sandbox-style prompts for more stuff to do. I suspect that this may not be 100% clear from the way it’s phrased right now.
If you have a fuel leak, for instance, the GM shouldn’t just tell the players they’re stranded dead in space, but should advise them to high-tail it to the nearest fuel station and either spend credits, take on debt, or take on a job right then and there. In a sandboxy game of space travel, that’s not an interruption from the game — that is the game.
Cosmic Highway does not have detailed rules for space travel or trade. I’ve never played Traveller or video games like Escape Velocity, so it honestly just didn’t occur to me I could or should put in rules like that. People have asked for rules for that stuff, though, so I probably need to broaden my horizons. Maybe someday…
I must confess that I find it tougher to string together multi-session arcs from Cosmic Highway alone than from Inner System Blues. Partly that’s just because outer space is so big. And partly it’s because the available space in this format is so small.
The tables on the back page are formatted similarly to the ones on the back of Inner System Blues, but there’s no list of people; I have to pull up another game or resource if I want to complete the phrase, “a PERSON wants you to do a job at a location, but there’s a twist.” That’s annoying.
Even if I had devoted more space to people, though, no list of “outer space locations” that fits in this format will ever feel big enough to me. This may be enough for a one-shot or a short arc, but I strongly recommend picking up Stars Without Number if you plan on running something longer, and/or Any Planet is Earth (on Itch and Drivethru) for something more lightweight. The tables in those should keep you going for a good, long time.
All of that said, I always love hearing about sprawling sandbox campaigns built on Cosmic Highway. It’s really gratifying to know that people are actually finding this thing useful.
Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).