This is the forty-ninth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our next random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is Ships That Pass, by Ash Can Games (And So Can You!). Its tagline in the bundle reads:

A Game About Spaceships With Crushes On Each Other

That’s right: it’s time for some spaceship love.

Ships That Pass is a narrative tabletop role-playing game for two players. As usual, this means I can’t actually play it since I lack a second player, so I can only give my impressions upon reading the book. In this case, the book is a short 9-page PDF, presented in a simple format with little embellishment. But it is clearly structured, and offers an interesting guided framework for collaborative storytelling. At any given time, there will be a specific scene to play, and the overarching structure of the story is predetermined. Within that structure, however, players are given space to develop their own characters and explore the relationship between two artifical intelligence (AI) spaceships and the humans close to them.

The game is designed as a way for players to explore queerness, and I like the approach it takes. By casting players as artificial intelligences, for whom emotion and desire are seen as deviations from accepted behavior, it distances itself from the societal gender norms that inevitably cloud any discourse on queerness in our own lives. Instead, it asks players to imagine a completely different type of existence, and even to imagine what a “crush” between two spaceships would even mean. The introductory text emphasizes that players can define this relationship however they like. The act of constructing a backstory for their ships can guide players towards this definition, and they may take inspiration from human experience or imagine something completely different.

The only constant is that this behavior is, in the world of the game, viewed as abnormal. Ships are, technically, property, in the service of human institutions such as corporations or governments, and agents of the Monitors of Artificial Norms (MAN) will check in on ships that seem to be “glitching”. This could mean decommissioning or worse. Fortunately, the ships are not without human allies.

In fact, each player plays up to three characters: their ship, the human pilot of the other ship, and the agent of the MAN sent to inspect their ship. Pilots consider their ships to be people and treat them as equals, but there’s only so much they can do when the MAN agents come snooping around, so they need to be careful. Much of the game centers on scenes that establish the first meeting between the two ships, how they developed their crushes on each other, and how this affects their pilots and crew. As the ships try to meet during their flights, they may attract the attention of the MAN, which is where the agents come in.

In an interesting twist, the agents are allies too. But covert ones. Secretly sympathetic towards AI ships, they are unable to directly contravene the policies of the MAN and must be very careful in how they communicate their support to the pilots. If an alliance of sorts can be reached, then players may conclude the story by concocting an escape plan for whichever ship has caught the MAN’s notice. The final decision, however, is up to the ship itself.

This pre-set story structure seemed odd at first, but I came to appreciate it. Even just reading about these prompts got me thinking, pondering AI rights and whether humans, no matter how well-intentioned, could even understand AI desires. Framing each ship as something alien that is nonetheless subjected to human restrictions and control could help non-queer people understand what it feels like to be queer in a society with no allowance for it. And the pre-set character archetypes for the humans are excellent prompts to the inevitable ramifications, in which even those who want to help may not know how, and may find themselves going up against the same uncaring system at the root of it all. I especially liked the prompts for the final scene, which deals with the possibility that, no matter how good their intentions, the human characters may fall into the trap of trying to control the ship, arranging for its escape without considering whether it actually wants to go (especially since this may mean never seeing its crush again). It’s the ship’s life. The ship gets to decide.

It should be clear by now that Ships That Pass is mostly about collaborative improvisational storytelling. There are some dice involved, but they are used sparingly, and mostly to dictate the pacing of the story. As the ships go about their normal flights, they may risk changing their routes in order to meet each other. Dice rolls determine how successful this is — maybe they will be unable to meet each other and must consider how it feels to miss the other ship, or maybe they are able to meet often and build a deeper relationship. Eventually, and again determined by the dice rolls, one of the ships will attract the MAN’s attention which will force things towards the endgame. I like this system, because it adds just enough uncertainty to emphasize that the ships can’t fully control their own fates, and sometimes they may find each other only to be immediately torn apart again.

The heavy emphasis on acting out scenes together means this won’t be for everyone, but if you like a spot of improv I’d say Ships That Pass is worth a look. Grab a friend and create your own tale of star-crossed ships traveling the vastness of space. If you missed it in the bundle, Ships That Pass is sold for a minimum price of $5.

That’s 49 down, and only 1692 to go!