I picked up Gateway, a short sci-fi novel by Frederik Pohl, at the local library. I'm almost finished with it, and I've been thinking of how well it would work as the framework of a sci-fi RPG campaign.
The 100% accurate but completely gives the wrong impression of the book synopsis is: An AI psychiatrist treats a patient's PTSD.
Doesn't sound like a fun campaign, does it? I'd rather not play some sort of PTSD story-game. Instead, I'd take the story framework for how the guy got his PTSD and use that.
So some time in the future, Earth is a wreck. Overpopulation and rampant capitalism have destroyed the environment. The ultra-rich live in domed cities and have "full medical" which includes all sorts of treatments, organ replacements, etc. The VAST majority of humans subsist. Our hero grows up in the Nebraska food mines. They mine the shale oil and use it as food to grow bio-film which is then processed into food. But luck strikes and he wins the lottery.
Some time ago (in the story), colonists on Venus found an alien spacecraft. The guy who finds it manages to fly it, and it takes him to an asteroid orbiting the sun perpendicular to the plane of the celestial equator, which has been hollowed out with tunnels half a million years ago by aliens called the Heechee. This asteroid also has a thousand or so of their ships docked there.
It's possible to get the Heechee craft to fly, and they go FTL. But it's impossible to know where you're going. It flies on auto-pilot, there and back. Prospectors roll the dice, select a random destination, and head out to the stars. If they get lucky, they find a Heechee ruin and can bring back artifacts. No one knows what they are or what they do, but the Corporation will pay thousands or even millions of dollars for discoveries. Our hero wins the lottery, becomes a prospector, things he witnesses warp his already warped brain (the hellish life in the food mines already sent him to a year of psychotherapy as a teen). And now, as a rich successful former prospector, he lives a luxurious life of wine, women, and psychotherapy in the dome of NYC.
Great concept for a campaign. Stars Without Number would be a great system for this. I've never played Traveller, but it might work well, too, from what I've read about it. Something heavy and crunchy like StarFinder or Palladium could work too, of course, but if the campaign went all out with destinations that could have been safe half a million years ago but now are inside a red giant star or whatever, PC replacements might often be necessary.
I'd also want to increase the chances of finding artifacts, but reduce the reward amounts for finding them. As a story, the rarity of the Heechee artifacts is needed for dramatic tension. The protagonist spends a lot of time on Gateway (the asteroid launching area) fretting over whether he should actually go out on a mission or not. For a game, having players make PCs, go on a mission or two and find nothing, then get a dangerous planet or hazardous system and they just die would not be very fun.
It's mainly the idea of setting out on an alien craft to a random unknown destination that I like. I can imagine a d% table of system types, and then let the players roll the dice to see where they end up. Once they get there, they'd need to examine the system, find any celestial bodies with ruins, then search them for artifacts. Or if there are planets with life, or systems with unusual stars (pulsars, black holes, former supernovas, etc.) they could go for "science bonus" money instead of or in addition to artifact bounties.
Could be fun! But I'm still working on Caverns & Cowboys, so this idea will have to sit on the back burner for a while.