8 tabletop RPGs to play after finishing The Expanse
Suit up, inyalowdas!
After six years, 62 episodes and two different networks, The Expanse came to a close earlier this month. The television show adapted from the novel series of the same name became a favourite of science fiction fans who extolled its well-realised world, strong character development and bent towards hard - if often speculative - science.
It’s also fairly common knowledge that the two authors behind the pseudonymous James S. A. Corey - Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham - originally planned for their version of a near-future solar system to be the setting of a roleplaying game before it became an award-winning collection of books. Green Ronin brought that dream to fruition when the publisher successfully Kickstarted The Expanse RPG in July 2018, using its Modern AGE system to replicate the danger and down time of life aboard a spaceship.
Those who have watched the crew of the Rocinante, alongside compatriots Drummer, Draper and Avasarala, finish their adventure will probably be left with a lot of emotions and ideas that could be channeled into a tabletop campaign. The official Expanse RPG has been positively reviewed and warmly received by fans, but it’s the obvious answer. In the spirit of broadening horizons, here are eight more tabletop RPGs to scratch that spacefaring itch for those brave enough to travel through the rings.
1. Scum & Villainy
Become the wretched hive.
The beating heart of The Expanse is the small but tightly-knitted crew of the Rocinante, striving to do some good in a system that too often sees them as a political and military tool. They have been called mercenaries, pirates and - sometimes - heroes, something the group playing Scum & Villainy will share in common. Published by Evil Hat and designed by Stras Acimovic and John LeBoeuf-Little, this Forged in the Dark game is all about pulling down hard jobs in the name of survival.
Scum & Villainy takes advantage of Blades in the Dark’s action focus while also giving players a shared ship to create, live in and expand as they progress through a story set on the edges of society. The book contains plenty of pre-defined factions but can easily be scaled down to a single solar system and filled with OPA, Martian and Earther groups pulling on the tangled web of interplanetary connections.
Buy Scum & Villainy on Evil Hat’s webstore.
Stars Without Number
Big Empty; tiny details.
Those tables that enjoy the level of detail The Expanse gives its planets but want to break free from the known climates of the Sol System should give Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number a spin. The OSR-inspired rulebook contains everything a prospective crew needs to pilot a ship into dense combat, discover alien flora and fauna on new planets or wrestle with factions in high-stakes politics.
The free version will provide plenty to chew on, while purchasing the full RPG details mechs, transhumanism and space magic - well beyond the source material’s remit, but perhaps you want to see Amos develop some psionic abilities in the back half of his life. Just how much is possible to detail can make Stars Without Numbers a daunting task to begin, but the possibility space is about as vast as the big empty for those brave enough to seek it out.
Buy Stars Without Number on DriveThruRPG.
Fun in the sun’s orbit.
Free League has a couple of series focused in space at this point, and while the Alien RPG leans a bit too haunted-house horror for this list, Coriolis is a much better fit. The core setting focuses on a cluster of star systems and the conflict broiling between two dominant factions. The traditional colonists of the First Come movement and the imperialist Zenithians cleave just close enough to the fraught cold war between Earth and Mars in The Expanse to deliver some tasty narrative parallels.
Like other Free League games, Coriolis uses the in-house Year Zero engine, which supports skill-based challenges and fiction forward decision making where players only need to roll a collection of six-sided dice. If watching the Rocinante adeptly walk the tense tightrope between factions excited you, the world of Coriolis might be worth checking out.
Buy Coriolis on Free League’s website.
Traveller 2nd Edition (Mongoose)
Traveller is an old name in the tabletop RPG space, having existed in some form since Game Designers' Workshop published what’s now referred to as Traveller Classic in 1977. The collection of little black books has found a new audience in recent years who are all too pleased with the granularity of detail and breadth of play options. Though I haven’t had the chance to experience it on the table, the communities on Reddit and Discord have collected plenty of resources to ease the burden of jumping in.
Accounts describe a band of scoundrels smuggling drugs to galactic nobles, a hardscrabble team of xenobiologists attempting to protect the first signs of alien life in the sector and everything in between. The framing might be vague, but that’s a powerful tool for the imaginative table.
Buy Traveller 2nd Edition on Mongoose’s website.
Spooks in space.
The showrunners of The Expanse established early on their ability to translate the physical limitations of space as a source of tension and drama. The show’s most nail-biting scenes often hinge on a busted CO2 filter or the fact that wounds don’t heal well in zero-gravity. And while The Expanse uses horror as one of many storytelling tools, Tuesday Knight Games’ Mothership leans in all the way, to satisfying effect.
Players suit up as the crew of a ship handling the dirtiest gruntwork on the rough edges of known space, which just so happens to host any number of nameless horrors. Overcoming the obstacles Mothership throws out might sound easy, except for the mounting Panic and Stress always threatening to overwhelm player characters. If you wished the protomolecule hulks did more stalking and murdering, this game will deliver in spades.
Buy Mothership on Tuesday Knight Game’s website.
A tribe of one.
Shawn Tomkin’s followup to perhaps the most popular solo RPG system, Ironsworn, throws its setting far into the future and lightyears away from the Sol system. Starforged is deliberately designed to support one or two players without a facilitator so that adventuring doesn’t have to wait for several schedules to perfectly align. Using a sophisticated system of oracles - tables for randomly deciding events, features, details and more, a single pilot can burn hard into the dark and discover plenty of other worlds.
The Expanse certainly dissuades being on one’s own, but Starforged takes place in a system where humanity’s forebears have spread out and factionalised a new home. There will always be an asteroid-bound station or terrestrial port to rest one’s boots, but the welcoming committee can’t be guaranteed as friendly.
Pre-order Ironsworn: Starforged on the game’s website.
Speaking of being alone, solo journaling RPG The Wretched revels in the experience and centers itself on the individual will to survive. Think of Naomi Nagata’s desperate bargain in season five or the ill-fated flight of Epstein’s modified drive. Living in space means accepting the possibility of dying absolutely alone, and The Wretched is one of the best playable constructions of that scenario.
Designed by Loot the Room’s Chris Bissette, the game uses a Jenga tower to represent the cascading failure of spaceship systems and a deck of cards to prompt a narrative of confronting disaster, understanding its cause and then struggling to survive the aftermath. Something haunts the edges of the player character’s wrecked ship, and they must triage their doomed vessel until rescue arrives.
Buy The Wretched on Itch.io.
Space Between Stars
Family is what you make of it.
Much like The Expanse, I want to end this list on a hopeful note. The show is constantly centered on themes of family and how it affects its members - the Rocinante is the clearest example, but we also see Drummer’s crew of polycule pirates endure cruel hardships as war engulfs them. Collaborative RPG Space Between Stars ruminates on these bonds, putting players into the pressurised suits of one vessel’s crew whose connections transcend mere coworkers.
Throughout sessions structured to feel like episodic television, players will deepen their understanding of characters through interactions with shipmates. Job titles are a fine start, but what does it mean to be the James Holden for someone else’s Amos Burton? Captain, friend, ex-lover, moral keystone and more complicate a journey through fantastical star systems but cleaves so close to the emotional foundation that will keep The Expanse enduring well past its finale.
Buy Space Between Stars on Itch.io.