Starship Commandos is very explicitly inspired by the movie Aliens and the novel Starship Troopers. Recently, an individual had a bit of a disconnect between the perceived nature of those intellectual properties and the game. Basically, the interlocutor saw mortal threat as an important part of both inspirations, whereas in the default mode of Starship Commandos, there is no threat of PC death.
My response is rather lengthy, but as a TLDR, I guess I would just say that the PCs are Ripley and Rico in those pieces of inspiration, and the survival of those characters is never – in my opinion – in question. I would further opine that observation has led me to conclude that players do not invest in characters when they expect those characters to die, that the way players build characters in such situations changes. I explicate a lot more for clarity below, but it’s a bit of a slog.
This isn’t to try to claim that my way is the correct view, just that this is how I interpret the media properties and link that to my game design.
In regards to theme, it is my opinion that while Alien was absolutely survival horror in a science fiction setting, Aliens was not. To me, the question is not will Ripley survive but how. Elements of horror are woven into the story, and that helps to escalate the stakes. The lack of supplies provides the same, while also setting in motion the ticking clock aspect of the plot. The xenomorphs are horrifying and their use of humans in their life process is horrifying, and in this sense the movie is a monster/horror movie. But all of the Alien movies have attempted to approach the subject matter from a different angle and provide a different story – although Alien Resurrection came very close to mimicking some of the themes of Aliens – and rather than survival horror, Aliens seems much more an action movie with horror trappings.
For me, survival plays even less of a role in Starship Troopers. It has aspects of a coming of age story but I read it as an investigation of a militaristic society. I believe the story uses the alien threat as a backdrop to discuss civic engagement, public service, and the military as a focus for both. Again, this is Johnny Rico’s story, and I don’t believe there is much fear as one reads the novel that he might not survive.
So, for me, survival and threat was not a chief theme in either of the identified inspirations. Both included military responses to alien menaces, and that’s what I took for Starship Commandos.
Still, what about the threat of death as a means to build tension? I believe that when adapting intellectual properties to RPGs, one is generally dividing up the role of a single heroic protagonist (in this case Ripley or Rico) into the PCs. The novel/movie focused on just James Bond or Jason Bourne, but in the game, the PCs embody different aspects and competencies of the character. In the novels/movies, the protagonist generally has plot immunity, and in my RPGs, that extends to the PCs. One expects Ripley to survive because it is her movie (something that was not clear in Alien, which allowed it to play much straighter as survival horror), and this extends to the PCs. The PCs are all Johnny Ricos rather than one Johnny Rico and some supporting players.
The threat to the PCs in Starship Commandos is much the same as it is to Ripley and to Rico – there are narrative elements that can be considered a threat, but death is not an obvious outcome.
And this leads me to the death of PCs and the investment of players. To my knowledge, there are no real studies on how players react to RPGs, so we all base our assessments on our own experiences and the experiences of those whom we know. As such, I have no data, only anecdotes. What the anecdotes have led me to believe is that in RPGs with high PC mortality, players build mechanical PCs – PCs built for tasks within the mechanics of the game. They may initially infuse their PCs with personality and backstories, but the effort to do so declines with the repetition of creation. It is my belief that one does not invest in the fifth character of a campaign in the same way as one does a character that been part of five different adventures – or five different stories. One does not identify as strongly with and so one is likewise not as invested in the PC’s story.
I have not noted nor witnessed tension at the game table lessened due to the removal of death as a threat to PCs. I received strong evidence of this during the playtest of Starship Commandos, in which the players knew that their PCs had plot immunity but were nevertheless freaked out and extremely tense when they finally did encounter the xenomorphs. Just as with watching Aliens or reading Starship Troopers, it was the build to the scene rather than its mechanics or specifics that fed the tension. I have seen the same when I have run Nefertiti Overdrive, which very explicitly has no mechanic for PCs to receive damage (there is a method to degrade their ability to succeed but not to “harm” them – and this was specifically part of the design philosophy).
So, very long-winded, but I hope it gives some insights into some of the design decisions made in Starship Commandos and how that might run contrary to expectations.
You can find Starship Commandos here.