NASA releases first official scientifically focused tabletop roleplaying adventure

NASA - The Lost Universe

The module’s creator wanted to build a role-playing adventure that blended traditional gaming elements with the kinds of science and education that NASA projects are well-known for having.

NASA is known for a great many things, including landing a man on the moon, designing robots to explore Mars, supporting citizen scientists, building a highspeed internet in space and being a world leader in all forms of space exploration and scientific advancement. And now they can add yet another interesting achievement to that long list of accolades — creating the first Dungeons and Dragons-type adventure officially published by a federal government agency.

Of all the federal agencies, NASA probably has the most comprehensive outreach efforts. They have their own television network, sponsor numerous public events and even support a robust video game development program — all with the goal of educating and informing the public about science and space. But even with all that, publishing a Dungeons and Dragons type of role-playing game module might seem a little bit surprising to many people, although perhaps not to the many table-top role playing game — or TTRPG — fans who work at NASA. 

“Of course, I have a huge personal interest in TTRPG games, but so do a lot of people at NASA,” said Christina Mitchell, senior production specialist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center . “I was playing with some of them when I first had the wild idea to come up with a role-playing adventure that could become a new type of outreach for NASA.”

Mitchell wanted to create a role-playing adventure module that blended traditional gaming elements with the kinds of science and education that NASA projects are well-known for having. “Most of all, I wanted it to be fun, but in an educational way,” Mitchell said.

She pitched her idea to various groups at NASA and eventually earned the support and backing of the Hubble Space Telescope team. As such, the Hubble Space Telescope features prominently in the adventure and even gets stolen by a young green dragon near the start of the story, something that players will need to deal with as they adventure through the module. More importantly, the Hubble team helped by contributing and supporting a lot of the science in the game, with much of that taking the form of unique puzzles that players will need to solve as they pursue their quest objectives.

It took a lot of design work, and even more playtesting to make sure things would run smoothly for most players, but eventually, The Lost Universe started to take shape as NASA’s first role-playing adventure. And even though there is a lot of science in the game, there are also plenty of traditional role-playing opportunities and even some of the challenging combats that  such players expect from a Dungeons and Dragons type of adventure.

“It was a tremendous amount of fun pulling everything together and blending the science with the game elements,” Mitchell said. “But it was also tricky getting the balance right. At one point I was DMing (dungeon mastering — a term for running the game for the players) during a playtest session as the adventure was coming together, and I wiped out an entire group of experienced role-players, a [total party kill], on the final combat with the green dragon. So, we had to go back and readjust the difficulty so that things would still be challenging, but also fair.”

The plot of The Lost Universe is that players begin the adventure as regular, normal people living in our modern world here on Earth. However, they quickly get their minds and consciousness pulled into another world where they find themselves in a city called Aldastron on the rogue planet Exlaris. And since the players are jumping into other bodies, that is how they can quickly “become” traditional fantasy heroes like rangers, barbarians, sorceresses, fighters, rogues, clerics and the like. That process also allows The Lost Universe to work with almost any game system, since the players are able to become any class that fits into a specific game’s world.

It turns out that the people of Aldastron are very much into science, and were employing magic so that they could secretly use the Hubble Telescope to explore space and advance their own scientific endeavors. That didn’t sit very well with the main villain of the adventure, a young green dragon who not only physically steals the telescope, but removes it from Earth’s timeline all together so that nobody on our planet remembers that it was ever there. This also means that many scientific advances that were supported by the telescope, like the International Space Station, no longer exist either. It’s quite a complex series of problems that the players will need to fix using swords, sorcery, science and brain power.

Science is woven throughout the adventure. For example, in one early puzzle the players discover that a hologram display is based on the principals of red-shifting and blue-shifting. Red-shifting occurs when objects in the universe are moving away from us, which causes the visible light emitted to shift slightly into the red spectrum from our vantage point — which is true of most celestial bodies, since the universe is expanding. However, anything that is moving towards us has their light’s wavelengths compressed, which causes a blue shift. Players in The Lost Universe need to find the right balance in that puzzle to properly display the hologram — while hopefully also learning about this important principle of science.

Later on in the game, the puzzles get more difficult and deal with things like gravitational lensing, but the science is perfectly blended with the module and becomes part of the fun instead of a hinderance to it.

“I have played quite a few role-playing games over the years, and was fortunate enough to be asked to playtest The Lost World as both a player and a DM,” said NASA Cutting Edge Tech Public Affairs Officer Karl Hille. “The game is so much fun to play. I’m really thrilled to see other people get to go on this adventure.” 

In fact, NASA would love to hear about other player’s adventures now that the module has officially been published, and invites people to share their experiences with the #NASATTRPG hashtag on social media.

The Lost Universe adventure and the companion map are free to download and play from the module’s NASA homepage. Although the module is designed to work with almost any RPG system, it’s generally recommended that a good size party would consist of between four and seven players. Each character should be about seventh level, although considering they will have to fight a green dragon at the end of the module that is known to kill entire parties, being as high as tenth level might not be a bad idea. 

On the same homepage as the game module, players can also learn about some of the amazing things that the Hubble Space Telescope does — assuming a brave party of hearty adventures can rescue it from the clutches of evil so that it can be returned to Earth’s timeline to continue its critical mission.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys