Backburner Month 14: The Emissaries of Guenashk

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A space opera tabletop game.

The setting was loosely-specified: galaxy-spanning civilizations, faster-than-light travel, somewhere between science fiction and science fantasy. One stipulated constant, though, was the existence of the tentatively-named Emissaries of Guenashk: a sort of philosophical order of politically powerful warrior-monks whose job was to go out into the galaxy and be useful to the people. Crucially (and unlike the fictional pseudo-religious order that forms part of their obvious inspiration) they don't actually have any jursdiction to make sweeping judgments or pursue criminals of their own volition, but rather must be specifically asked to intercede in affairs and given explicit limits to how they can do so: if not asked, they must otherwise limit themselves to talking. Emissaries are often well-trained and have a wealth of knowledge and expertise, so in practice they often are asked to help in various situations, but their role can differ wildly, and overstepping their bounds is considered a major violation and grounds for expulsion from the order.

The players are therefore a group of Emissaries, with all that entails. That's why the events of a session are usually a situation where Emissaries are asked to intercede. Importantly, the design of both characters and situations means that non-violent techniques and situations are given just as much narrative weight and mechanical import as violent ones: a given player might stick entirely to the negotiating table, doing as much as they can to avoid pulling out the weapons, and a frank heart-to-heart with a character might be as powerful as a violent conflict with weapons drawn.

My original draft was more or less a science fiction rework of Dogs in the Vineyard, using a similar system of raises and sees to handle conflict resolution. Unlike Dogs, it had rather more guided character creation: each character was built of two halves (using a system inspired by Danger Patrol) where one half represented the character's origin and the other half represented their role: each half contributed skills and objects and relationships that could be drawn on later. That means that instead of simply choosing a class or playbook, you would always play a combination of two things, both equally important to you: you could be a Scientist who hails from a Lunar Base or an Ambassador from a Core World, but you could also swap those things and be a Scientist from a Core World or an Ambassador from a Lunar Base.

I've gradually moved away from the Dogs heritage over time, but there are some features of it I want to make sure I retain for this sort of game. In particular, the way that the Dogs conflict resolution encourages you to stick to less extreme conflicts until absolutely necessary, mechanically encouraging that reaching for the guns is usually the last resort, is integral to the kind of game I wanted to build. I was also working on mechanics that handled both organizations and ships in a more nuanced way, treating them as entities that can bring dice to bear in conflicts but also can take fallout themselves if things go poorly, and I had been moving towards a little bit more guidance than you usually get with a Dogs fight (which can be wonderfully flexible, but also daunting if you don't have ideas) but I'm going to have to do a careful reconsideration of the rules once I return to this project.

Why write it? I don't actually know if there's a game that I think is a perfect fit for the kind of space opera I was going for! In particular, I want to capture the kind of slower political scifi that you might find in 90's-era Star Trek or Babylon 5. I want players to be able to do elaborate political maneuvers as readily as sneaking or fighting. While there are definite Jedi similarities to the titular Guenashki order, the differences are just as important: they don't get powers or special supernatural guidance or even any specific authority, which means trying to rush in with heroic violence will often put them at odds with their very order. (Perhaps the role of the Guenashki becomes clearer if you think of their strict rules of engagement as closer to a kind of Prime Directive than anything in the Jedi code.)

Some of the various existing space opera games on my radar are Ironsworn Starforged, Scum and Villainy, and of course Lasers & Feelings. While I like all of these, none of them are quite suitable for the kind of political scifi I wanted: Ironsworn and Scum & Villainy, despite the more Star Wars set dressing, tend to lean towards Firefly or Cowboy Bebop in terms of what you actually do, and Lasers & Feelings is rather minimalist and ends up (at least in my experience) being a little bit slapstick. You could play a political maneuvering game in Lasers & Feelings, but none of the rules guide you to do so.

(There are also scifi games like Starfinder or the officially-licensed Star Wars RPGs, but I'm also omitting them here because they're so overtly combat-focused. Trying to play a political game using Starfinder is like trying to run a rom-com game in Monopoly: I suppose you could, but the rules wouldn't have your back at all.)

So Guenashk was my attempt at trying to build a game where you could play as TNG-era Picard. I didn't want it to prevent people from reaching towards aggressive negotiations, but my primary goal was that people should be able to create a character who never once uses a gun and that's fine. I still think that's a valuable sort of game.

Why the name? This was actually a name I used for an early draft of notes about Tales, but I decided it was a better fit for this project. The word Guenashk—which I originally wrote as /ɣʷeˈnašk/ in my notes—is nonsense.

#backburner #tabletop