Designing the Convention Authority

I thought you might enjoy exploring some of the design thinking for The Convention Authority: home to player characters in Return to the Stars.

Before the loss of the Mars Beacon, which ended galaxy spanning travel for over a century, The Convention Authority was an association of societies that celebrated and preserved speculative popular culture of the 20th and 21st centuries: fantasy, science fiction, and gaming. It was a popular tourist destination, and boasted some of the galaxy’s most skilled terraforming engineers. During the Great Silence, the systems of the Convention remain connected, due in to a large and varied fleet of replica early interstellar craft.

the campus of the Convention’s Scouts Academy

You play as one of a new generation of geeks from the Convention — a maker, genetically enhanced cosplayer, scientist, or pop culture enthusiast setting out to reconnect the lost worlds of humanity.

Why this setting? What does it do for you?

First, it gives you a rationale for bringing in fun elements you like from all sort of different types of pop culture, and mashing them up together. The initial playtest group brought in things they loved from Tolkien, RPGs, My Little Pony, and the Girl Genius comics. The mashup was possible because they came from a civilization that valued these stories, and had “sufficiently advanced” 27th century cosplay technology.

Of course, you don’t have to take advantage of this—if you want to play scientist or hot-shot pilot who doesn’t celebrate “ancient entertainment”, that’s fine too.

Second, as a thriving post-scarcity civilization, it reinforces optimism about the future: a core theme of the game. It gives players a secure base from which they can go “out there” and have adventures reconnecting the lost worlds of humanity. Later they can return and can reflect on what they’ve experienced in a place of safety and abundance. So your game can include both danger on the frontier and also pastoral ST:TNG style cozy futurism.

And, of course, such a society is perfect for exploring and interrogating different elements of pop culture. I’ve had fun tweeting micro fiction news headlines about the Convention.

 [Dateline: Convention Authority]

  • Shipments of fragrant cedar arrive across the systems of the Convention Authority as gamers and geeks prepare their saunas for the R³ Festival, when they reflect critically on the media they love, and prepare for renewal and transformation in the coming year. 
  • Controversial decision bans baying of genetically engineered werewolves at soccer matches.
  • New report from the Scouts Academy documents the existence of over two dozen rediscovered colony worlds that worship “a bomb, or a computer, or a missile or something like that.”

Cosplay is important in the Convention, so I new the uniforms of its Scouts Academy would need to be stylish. A fashion illustration created some initial concepts,

scout uniform concept art


Which became reference art for later illustrations:

a historian leading a seminar on the Climate Wars at the Scouts Academy
Pia, science officer and geologist—proudly wearing the uniform.

The Convention is all about pop culture, but I wanted to integrate that into art game indirectly. So rather than create a pastiche of a particular amine, a character might have “anime hair” as in this illustration from Amy King:

Ligaya: a champion cosplayer who is a skilled tailor, genetic engineer, and acrobat.

Or wear a tee shirt that featured a unique fictional robot.

One of the youngest interstellar explorers Amobi is both a math whiz and already a skilled yogi and tai chi master.

Or be a cheerleader, who just happens to also be genetically enhanced to cosplay as a vampire.

We’ve got “spirits” yes we do!


What elements of pop culture might you explore in the game?

Hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes! Thanks for your support as the kickstarter comes to a successful conclusion!

P.S. The inspiration for the vampire illustration came from photo I took at a con of a friend who is a skilled cosplayer. When she saw it, she was like “LOL, I posed with my hands on my hips like a cheerleader!”

As a bit of extra fun, when Yog Joshi drew the environmental illustration at the start of this article, he included a vampire cheerleading squad among tiny figures on the campus. A bonus Halloween themed “Where’s Waldo” style mini game for you!

Project Update: Return to the Stars!

progress update

With the game draft completed, and copy editing in progress, a game designer’s fancy turn to layout.  Here you can see a 6×9″ format, which seem to work well in print and on a tablet, and is even reasonably readable on a plus sized smart phone.

We’ll be at Totalcon next weekend, playing Return to the Stars on Friday and Saturday. Saturday evening is completely booked, but there are still slots on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon!


Character example: Belladonna Rose Esther Dahlia Ferncider

Belladonna Rose Esther Dahlia Ferncider (her friends call her Donna) grew up in a “traditionalist” agricultural commune. Well, traditionalist except that everyone had been genetically engineered to look like gnomes, halflings and dwarves of fantasy fiction. She is 3 feet tall with chibi-eyes, dagger ears, and hair like a fuzzy black lamb. She hated her rural life,and feels the space exploration will feed her wanderlust and take her far far away from the farm.

She’s a space pilot who breaks all the rules, fond of trick maneuvers in combat. Because of her appearance she sometimes has a hard time being taken seriously. She compensates by wearing nearly constantly wearing a flight jacket with emblazoned with patches from all the missions and expeditions she’s been on. She’s living the adventures she’s always wanted, so she typically has a broad smile and is happy and well liked, by humans and AIs alike.


  • High concept: pilot who breaks all the rules
  • Trouble: “Who needs backup?”
  • Aspect: need for speed
  • Aspect: button masher
  • Aspect: “What can I say, the AI likes me?”


  • +4 Piloting
  • +3 Acrobatics, Scan
  • +2 Blast, Intrusion, Making
  • +1 Cosplay, Might, Empathy, Networking


  • Trick Maneuver: when you succeed in evading damage using piloting, you opponent takes one stress, or two if you succeed with style.
  • Pecking, Ordered: In an unfamiliar social setting, you can immediately understand the power structures involved.
  • DPS: you can choose to at +2 to your melee attacks at the cost of you opponents inflicting +2 damage if they succeed in hitting you.


Character example: Gamal Bolívar Elnecash

Gamil Bolivar, starship engineer, is often seen carrying with a big wrench that he uses both to fix things and also to protect the weak.

He’s rather athletic, both enjoying the great outdoors and as the captain of a zero gravity water polo team.

He’s a shameless flirt, and seems to have a girl in every spaceport.


  • High concept: Starship Engineer with
    a Big Wrench
  • Trouble: “I protect the weak.”
  • Aspect: “Wait, I have another idea…”
  • Aspect: zero-gravity water polo champion
  • Aspect: a girl in every starport


  • +4 Making
  • +3 Survival, Combat Arts
  • +2 Blast, Acrobatics, Scan
  • +1 Cosplay, Might, Intrusion, Science (Physics)


  • The Great Outdoors once per session, you may reduce a moderate consequence to a minor one, by luxuriating in the great outdoors.
  • Not OSHA Compliant +2 to attacks you make in fights that take place in engineering related settings: workshops, factories, etc. Create an aspect to note the dangerous element of the setting giving you this edge.
  • Training montage once per session you can prepare for you next combat, gaining +1 to all melee skill checks in that scene


Character example: Leslie Lachance

Leslie Lachance is a shape shifting gender fluid first contact specialist (current pronoun: he)  A historian of old earth and famous cosplay champion, he uses both these skill sets to help the team interact with the new societies they discover. Charismatic, he is, perhaps a bit too popular and ambitious.


  • High Concept: shape shifting first contact specialist
  • Trouble: too popular for my own good
  • historian specializing in pre-stellar Earth
  • ambitious and hardworking
  • famous cosplay champion


  • +4 Cosplay
  • +3 Networking, Scholarship
  • +2 Empathy, Acrobatics, Combat Arts
  • +1 Intrusion, Scan, Making, Blast


  • Mission Control +1 to all attempts to create advantages for other players when you aren’t present but can communicate.
  • Suspension of Disbelief Once per session, you can take +2 to any roll where a character you are cosplaying would have an advantage.
  • Research Montage you can use your Scholarship skill to quickly accomplish tasks that would normally require extensive investigation or research, even when a library or archive is not available.  You must explain how you came to research this topic in the past

Leslie Wanders

Character example: Tanya Parks, PhD

Tanya Parks is straight shooting science officer and a polymath, who the team can rely on in investigations in many different fields from astrophysics to forensic pathology. She’s also skilled with heavy plasma weapons: her motto: “Science advances one funeral at a time.”  It is true that she can be easily distracted by shiny objects and scientific anomalies.


  • High Concept: straight shooting science officer
  • Trouble: Oh, shiney!
  • Science Advances One Funeral at a Time
  • Mistakes Lead to Success
  • My Destiny is in the Stars!


  • +4 Science
  • +3 Blast, Acrobatics
  • +2 Cosplay, Networking, Empathy
  • +1 Making, Scan, Survival, Piloting


  • Polymath: your science skills applies to all realm of science
  • That’s Funny: once per session you can succeed at any Scan roll, create an aspect to describe the scientific anomaly that drew your attention
  • Plasma Weapons are Messy: After you successfully shoot a target, they gain the aspect “on fire”


Hopepunk: Optimistic SF Gaming

Return to Stars optomistic indie rpg

In dark times games can fill us with joy and hope.

Return to the Stars is a narrative tabletop role playing game designed to make it easy to tell stories of exploration and adventure in an optimistic space opera setting. It is a game where you can paint a better future in bold primary colors.

There is a surplus of dystopian science fiction games and media.  Putting aside fiction, simply watching the new provides stories of  political conspiracies, mega-corporations, and fascist mobs.

We need to face hard truths  but we also need stores that show how humanity can be better in the future.  That enlightenment values, reason, cosmopolitanism, diversity, and humanism are a path forward.   As NPR pop culture critic Linda Holmes said of the movie Arrival: “There is great faith in these stories that the more we know, the more we grasp, and the more we turn around and communicate to others, the better off we are — and the better we are, too.”

The genre is Return to the Stars is hopepunk. It is a game where you can paint a better future in bold primary colors.

To quote Sun Ra:

“In some far off place
Many light years in space
I’ll wait for you.

Where human feet have never trod,
Where human eyes have never seen.
I’ll build a world of abstract dreams
And wait for you.”


The Dank Lords of Gulch

Prior to the great silence, Gulch was a paradise planet created to cater to every whim of an ironically named “collective” of merchants who were based there. When the Great Silence came, they certainly proved incapable of collective action, and their pleasure planet was reduced to a desolate wasteland in struggles for dominance and control.  Petty warlords led nasty, brutal and short lives preying on each other.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t quite managed to kill each other off before galactic travel was restored. Starships of the original merchants were fitted out for raiding, and a scourge of pirates set out to prey on an unprepared galaxy.

Galtian Trooper

The Science Skill

Return to Stars science

Science is the skill you use to find things out using detailed observations and experiments.  When you choose science as a skill, you should also choose a field of specialization such as biology or astrophysics.  You receive a bonus to your skill in you specialization and a penalty outside of it.  Science also implies a knowledge of scientific literature.

You can use science to do things like uncovering the cause of a disease, understanding when a supernova is likely to explode, or analyzing a crime scene for clues.

Sample Science Stunts

  • Technobabble you can use your scientific knowledge as a social attack (rolling against Will) to persuade or deceive others when they can’t evaluate your bogus explanation
  • That’s Funny once per session you can use science to succeed at failed attempt at notice.  Create an aspect that describes the scientific anomaly that drew your attention.