In sci-fi games, it's pretty easy to forget that the player's ship is their literal home. I'm always a fan of it being their "home base", but that can often be overshadowed by it's utility as a people mover. To make it feel more lived in and homely, I'm experimenting with the bottle episode. Essentially, trying to set an entire session aboard the ship.
With that said, here's 12 starship in a bottle episode ideas, each being enough to fill a single session.
1. Power Outage
While traveling through deep space, your ship's power generator halts. Nothing serious, but it will take time for the tera-watt capacitors to recharge. This will take about 36 hours. During that time, you need to conserve as much power as you can. Let the players brainstorm how they will do this (heating just a single compartment, turning the lights off, etc.) Each good idea can lessen the time to wait by an hour. Fill the remaining time with mundane descriptions while encouraging "fireside" chat. The players will have to improvise a cold meal, and reach into their emergency supplies for glow-sticks to light the way. This should ultimately feel like comfy snow day with just a hint of the unrelenting void of space.
2. Lovely Hitchhiker
Romantic relationships drive drama (Something I'll probably write more about in a later post), but a good guideline is to have the PCs at one point describe their ideal partner. Take notes, and in a future session introduce a character that exactly fits one of their descriptions as a hitchhiker. Here's the twist: have that new NPC be romantically interested in a different PC than the one they'd be perfect for. Congratulations, you now have a love triangle! Have the hitchiker be genuinely nice, helpful with ship chores, and intent on leaving a tip when they get to their destination. Scenes can include a group meal, chores, finding bunk for them. Give the other players a good background task or minigame to do as a B-Plot.
3. Nightmare Hitchhiker
Introduce a hitchhiker who starts of friendly but slowly gets more and more annoying and aggressive. Drop them into scenes in a slice of life episode. Ask each player what they typically do during their downtime, then insert that character into each and every one of the player's downtime activities. They should be annoying and socially awkward, essentially ruining their downtime. Later, they'll become vocally frustrated and begin getting angry and scary. During the climax, have them stalk the hallways and begin attempting murder. As for who this NPC is, they could be human going through a psychotic break, but as this is sci-fi, making them an android or even an alien would work even better.
4. Funtime Alien Invasion. AKA Tribbles
As the crew leaves an alien world, something joins them. Cute at first, these little alien critters are fun and responsive to the party. Let them come up with a fun name for the cute little guys. As the day goes on, they begin to multiply. By the end, they'll be swarmed by them and have to come up with a clever solution to deal with them. These creatures should have consistent rules. For example: every hour they multiply. If there are more than 10 in a room they get antsy. Too many and they get violent. This can be a real legitimate threat to the PCs. If you want to avoid player death during "downtime", the creatures can latch onto and put characters to sleep instead of killing them. How the problem gets solved is ultimately up to the players. Launching them out of the airlocks is always a great idea. Luring them into an escape pod with peanut butter candy could work too. Last resort is of course to abandon ship.
These episodes always end with one of the little guys still lurking around, just out of sight.
5. A Leak in the Piping.
Before the session, draw a map that can overlay the ship's existing layout. Imagine a simple maze-like dungeon. This is the ship's "crawl space", and is where all the technical wiring, piping, and etc live. Maybe the crew has a map of it forgotten and buried deep in the ship's glove box. Maybe they don't. Have your ship's engineer discover an oxygen leak somewhere aboard the ship. It's not leaking out, but leaking in, and could cause an explosion if not dealt with. Tell them that a fix will require going into the ship's crawlspace. The fix will require shutting off valves, taping up leaks, and flicking two switches at the same time. The referee should mark places on the map and number them in the order they need to be fixed.
Basically, this episode should be an asymmetrical mapping mini-game. One player (the engineer) knows what to do and theoretically where to do it, and the other players need to do the actual crawling around and fixing. This can happen one of two ways. Either the engineer has the map, and has to guide the others without them seeing it, or the others are looking for specific things, and the engineer has to draw the map out as it's described. Complications might mean players getting lost, turned around, the map not matching the actual layout, etc. Failure means an emergency landing and paying to have things fixed. Success should grant a reward too, perhaps increasing the players mechanic skills, or increasing the ship's defenses.
6. Poker Night
Before leaving a spaceport, introduce the characters to the planet's local alcoholic beverage of choice and have them buy or otherwise acquire a case of it. On the journey to the next system, have one evening be poker night. Bring out the exotic alcohol and play a couple of hands. You don't need to drink, but the players should legitimately play poker IRL. After the first couple of hands, introduce the following minigame:
Before each hand is played, have the players close their eyes. The referee should then walk around the table and tap a player other than the dealer on the shoulder. The chosen player is then tasked with telling a story about their character based on the hand they were given. A low value hand should be an inconsequential story. A high value hand should be some intimate detail. For example: a two and a five of different suits should prompt a boring anecdote about buying shoes, but pocket aces should prompt for the character's dark secret backstory. The referee should then grade the player's story on a 3-star scale based on how well it fit the cards they were given.
Attach a mechanical reward to the game (for example: the person who gets the most points gets a permanent bonus to diplomacy). Make sure all the players know the rules. If all goes well, then pretty soon the players will be roleplaying drunk storytellers trying to bluff both at poker and at story telling. The poker game should played with in-game cash. To spice the game up, on certain occasions, the referee should not tag anyone, tag two players, or tag everyone. Of course, they should also peek those players cards.
7. TV Special
The session before, include a scene where the PCs are watching television when a deep space weather alert comes on. Solar Novae Ion storms forecast in sector 7! Explain to the PCs that while the ship's shields will be enough to protect them from the storm, they won't be able to receive any transmissions. If their characters want to binge-watch any TV shows during the storm, they'll have to pre-load them onto the ship's central database. Have them either describe the show their character is currently interested in, or let them pick from a list you've prepared ahead of time. Bonus points for punny names.
When the players do eventually head through the storm, give them a brief description of the show they watch. As they travel, they slowly fall asleep and wake up inside the fiction of the TV shows. These can then be "micro-adventures". Have them wake up again at some point, explain it was all just a dream then watch a different show to the same effect.
Near the end of the session, have them wake up to klaxons as the ship's shields have come down. They'll then have to scramble to get the ship back up and running, and in doing so, will realize that the dreams were being caused by the storm itself.
8. Talent Show
The ship gets dry docked for repairs, or is in quarantine, or something. It's incredibly boring but eventually, someone has the idea for a talent show. While in game, this is a talent show, out of game, it's a creative writing contest. Have each character pick a specific location on the ship to practice for the talent show. Out of game, each player should go off separately. They then have a certain amount of time (say, 45 minutes) to write their "script". Explain that at the time of their performance, they'll have to hand over their script to you, who will then read it out word for word. Basically, they are writing narrations of their character for you to read, so they should write in the third person. There will be no skill checks, and the characters will be as good as the players write them to be. After the writing time, if the characters need anything for their performance, for example, a Yorick's skull for the captain's rendition of the famous Hamlet monologue, then they should have a chance to describe how they get such items aboard the ship.
Lastly, have the player's decide on a suitable in game reward for the winner. During the talent show, have each players silently rate the performances out of 10. If you have NPC crewmates, have them do performances as well (prepping them with the exact same time limit and restrictions beforehand). At the end, announce a winner! Roleplay them getting their reward.
9. Spring Cleaning
Between intense missions, explain (or have the captain explain) that the ship has slowly gotten dirtier and dirtier and that the last mission was so hectic that if things don't improve, you'll start receiving mechanical penalties.
Before the session, the referee should prepare a deck of blank cards. Then they should take in each player's character sheet. Transcribe each item from the character sheets onto a card. Do the same with the character's stats: putting four or five onto a card until all of a player's stats are on cards. For the item cards, if duplicate items exist (for example, two characters may each have "knife" written on their sheet), ask the item's owner in private to describe what it looks like and add those details to the card (so "knife" might then be "bowie knife with a snake engraving"). For the stat cards, have the stats associated with some personal item of the character had not yet listed (so the engineer character's low STR and high INT might be listed along side their extra-long crowbar). By the end, you should have all the details of each character sheet converted to unique, identifiable item cards. Get creative: a character's money gets included with their wallet, even their character portrait can be copied as part of a "family photo".
Then, include a bunch of totally useless junk cards. Junk food wrappers, screws, lost socks, whatever. Use this chance to do some world building about what the crew has on their ship. You should also include little reward cards: spare change, a forgotten health kit, lost earrings from a former ship prisoner. Lastly, there should be some none obvious extra junk. A pair of glasses, a ratty old teady-bear, an important looking sealed envelope, a pair of purple underwear. Whatever you want, but more will make for a longer and more interesting session.
Now it's time to play. Do not give the players their old character sheets back! Instead giving them fresh new ones. Then, have each character take an area of the ship. Shuffle your item deck and split it evenly amongst the players. It's now their job to make sure everything gets back to where it belongs and that the new sheets get filled out properly. Players will have to talk to each other, make inferences about other character's personal items, sort out the useless junk, and collect any little goodies they can. There are no rules on how the achieve this goal. They can spread out the cards nicely in front of them, go through one by one, Pile it all in the center and agree to read them one by one, all methods are valid.
The crew just visited an alien planet, and one to two players have contracted an alien disease that makes them want to infect other players. One player picked up a crystal or some other doohickey that lets them tell if a player is infect. The rest are just themselves. You are now playing werewolf, and all the standard werewolf rules apply. The goal is to put the originally infected players into quarantine until you land and they can be cured. Failing to do so might mean everyone is infected and a rescue party needs to be sent, or worse.
11. New parts
This one is best set immediately after the ship has been modified extensively. This can be after it's been repaired, after new systems have been installed, or after a battle where everything is still damaged.
The referee should make a list of problems, ranging from mundane to ridiculous ("the lights in the starboard bathroom don't come on", "food always comes out of the rehydrator sopping wet."). Around 5 or 10 multiplied by the number of player characters. Include at least a handful of really really bad things, like a malfunctioning air-lock or burning smell coming from the hyperdrive manifold (things that are obviously extremely bad). The goal of this session is to fix as many of these problems as possible. Doing so follows a simple loop, starting with the ship's mechanic leaving the room. Next, the referee should read aloud a 2-3 problems to the remaining party. Then, the mechanic should come back into the room, and the other players must do their best to explain the problems. Lastly, the referee should leave the room with the mechanic again, and have the mechanic recall the problems. Once the mechanic says a problem, it gets crossed off the list.
Repeat this process, but each round say more and more problems from the list to the party. Let the players use any strategy they want to try and outsmart the game. If they do, change the rules on them. New restrictions can be introduced, for example a time limit for speaking with the mechanic, limiting what words can be used to describe the problem, not letting the mechanic speak back to the players, or speaking the problems word-reversed.
Play this game until you've read each problem at least three times. You can opt to read some minor problems only once or twice, and can always read major problems multiple times if they don't seem to be getting fixed. Not everything needs to be fixed! In fact, it will be fun if things aren't. In the following sessions, bring up the unfixed problems in the narrative somehow, and let the engineer fix any that they missed. And of course, if they mixed any of those really really bad problems, they're going to crop up again and probably get someone killed.
12. Meet Ms Computer
A chance encounter with an advanced computer technician awards you a K-RON module. The technician explains it's effect in standard techno-babel, so you aren't really sure what it does. Installing this module in your ship's computer has an interesting effect. After a couple of days, the computer systems begin to change. Eventually you get locked out while the system is stuck in a restart loop. When it reboots the next morning, you are awoken to a fresh voice. A synthetic, feminine voice permeates the ship. It's the computer!
Use this episode to introduce the concept of a ship wide AI character. Interfacing with the ship now means talking to the computer. It doesn't have a name yet so the players will have to come up with one. This concept may be hit or miss. If they are receptive to the idea, have the computer be friendly and helpful. Otherwise have it but heads with the crew, especially the captain. If they wish to uninstall it, tell them that they can't without buying a whole new computer system, but they can bypass it. If they choose to do this, have the computer slowly brood in silence, waiting until the right moment to go fight back. In any case, try to give the new computer character a strong and unique personality, and take the opportunity to raise ethical questions about AI.