Starships and the Drift in #Starfinder

Drift travel in the Starfinder RPG involves planar travel through the technological transposition of the starship between normal space and the ever-shifting plane of the Drift. It’s characteristics and the function of the literally divine-inspired Drift engine technology remain only partially understood.

Recently in reading another work of fiction, the excellent Harbinger Trilogy by Diane Duane – set in the Star*Drive setting for the 1990s Alternity tabletop RPG – I was inspired to devise some additions of my own to how the Drift can be further incorporated in my campaign’s story-telling.

Note: here be potential spoilers for my campaign, so my players please stop reading now!

Drift travel is unique among faster than light technologies from other settings in that travel time is based on the categorisation of the destination (Abasalom Station, Near Space or the Vast) and the rating of the ship’s Drift engine – the exact travel time being a randomised dice roll result in days. It is particularly noteworthy that the categorisation of the origin point is irrelevant to this calculation. So it takes longer, on average, to travel to any location in the Vast but it matters not whether you start elsewhere in the Vast or at Absalom Station.

The presence and density of “Drift beacons” is the single factor that determines these categorises – not astrogeographical relative distances. So of two “neighbouring” star systems, one could be in Near Space due to having more beacons, and the other could be in “the Vast” due to the relative paucity of the same. This is what sparked my ideas for this blog post. Tracking starships in the Drift would seem to be rather difficult if impossible given the ever-shifting nature of the plane.

In the Near Space book (p115) there is a bugging weapon that allows one ship to tag another ship with a tracking device that works even through a cloak but “stops functioning once the bugged vessel enters the Drift.” So, I would say technology isn’t offering many options here. Starfinder is, however, a fundamentally Science Fantasy setting – magic can provide what technology does not.

Drift Wake Resonance Detector, Starship System, PCU 3, BPU 3
This experimental expansion bay chamber has been developed by the Aztlanti Aeon Exploitation Office to allow larger imperial vessels to track enemy or traitorous starships before they can flee justice. A trained Astroseer sits in a crystalline throne at the chamber’s centre, the seat of which is connected by a web of crystal filament cables to various display screens and hybrid magical/technological computer systems. The ships sensor array is also fitted with distincive crystalline spikes.

The chamber only works in the Drift and offers no bonus to tracking ships in normal space. When in the Drift, if a target ship has recently entered the Drift within the ships sensor range, the Astroseer can make a Mysticism check to track the Drift Wake of the target vessel (see Table 1 below). If successful, then the destination coordinates of that ship can be relayed via the computer to the ship’s pilot or navigator. The accuracy of this magical divination is only equal to that of a normal ship’s navigational computer in that it is limited to pinpointing the nearest destination Drift beacon – no more detailed information can be discovered.

Total the base DC and sensor modifier:
Time elapsed since target ship entered DriftBase DC
Less than 10 minutes10
11-59 minutes15
1 – 2 hours20
2 – 3 hours30
4 – 5 hours40
5+ hoursno wake detectable
Sensor rangeDC modifier
Table 1: Drift Wake Resonance check DCs

There are limitations to this experimental technology. Firstly, the Drift Wake resonance that the chamber detects will fade relatively quickly after the quarry enters the Drift – the DC of the Mysticism check in Table 1 above reflects this effect. Secondly, the range of the ship’s sensors also impact the difficulty of detection since the chamber taps into these to allow the seer to reach out into the Drift to look for this Wake effect.

If a Wake is detected, the ship can then travel under normal Drift travel time rules to the same destination system as the target ship. If the roll is failed then no information about the destination is gleaned and a second roll is not permitted for that particular target vessel. As such it is possible the Azlanti vessel could arrive before the target ship if they are faster (and their pilot rolls much better), or likewise that they arrive much later and have to hunt through the system for the target vessel.

The Drift Wake Resonance Detector is highly classified arcano-technology. Were a vessel equipped with this to be captured by player characters, they would place a very large target on themselves and they would be hunted mercilessly by the Imperial Fleet. Knowledge of this technology outside the Empire is strictly limited as yet. Some Corpse Fleet admirals are aware of it since they were able to use necromancy to interrogate the crew of one such experimental vessel that failed to self-destruct before capture. The Veskarium’s military intelligence service have also heard reports of Azlanti vessels somehow tracking their warships through the Drift.

Tracking Bug Reanimator Circuit
Level 10, price n/a, bulk -, capacity 3, one tracking device

This techno-necromantic circuit uses technomancy to reanimate a tracking device that has been rendered inoperable. It is built into a ship-scale tracking device and, usually, programmed to trigger when said device can reasonably be reactivated. If the device was forced offline by the entry of the tracked ship into the Drift (the most obvious case), then this circuit will wait until the ship returns to normal space before its magic reanimates the tracker. If the device was disabled by another external force (e.g. a mechanic’s engineering roll), then the circuit can be programmed to activate immediately or delay reanimation by a specified time interval. Up to five different conditions like this can be stored in the circuit’s very limited program memory.

The reanimation effect requires a charge of the circuit’s rather small arcanocrystal battery, and the device can only carry three such charges at a time. The device can leech power very slowly from the hull the tracker is attached to: up to one charge can be restored for each full day since the last reanimation. If the circuit is triggered within a given 24 hour period then the recharging process is interrupted and must begin again. This trickle power drain is necro-technomantic in origin and very difficult to detect – an Engineering check DC 35+ is required to notice it from within the tracked ship. The circuit can be programmed with conditions on whether to recharge itself, or not, but any such conditions count towards the same five conditions in memory as per the reanimation triggers.

Once a tracking device has been reanimated at least once it will be detectable as magic of the necromancy school for as long as it is functioning. At the GMs discretion, spells and abilities that interact with necromany or undead may also affect the tracking device after reanimation.

This device is classified Corpse Fleet technology and it is only available to Corpse Fleet vessels. The installation of this circuit on a ship tracker weapon requires the expertise of a Necromancy-specialised Technomancer: currently such a combination of training is only to be found within the Corpse Fleet’s ranks. It has its origins in Gap-era Eoxian fleet research, and the detailed knowledge of the device’s construction and operation was lost to the Eoxian fleet during the Corpse Fleet rebellion, though some record of its existance may remain.

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