A fair question.
Well, for starters, heroic starship crew sci-fi is about:
- Who are the crew (that is, an ensemble cast of characters),
- Of a particular starship.
Yes, yes, that’s a very silly answer, but it’s also illustrative – think of all the science fiction out there that fails one of these three.
Star Wars, for example, is not about the crew of a particular starship – the action flits between ships and even planets in mid-stride, and concerns a much grander, and more mythic, conflict. In fact, most of what I think of that falls into this subgenre tends to be more grounded – partially so we can revisit the ship and the crew and have some idea of how it works, or how it’s supposed to work.
Likewise, The Expanse – while a fantastic show that’s well worth your attention – is not about a particular ship or a particular crew, and flits around several different protagonists that have nothing to do with each other, at least not at first. It’s not about the crew of the mining ship, or of the Donnager; it’s about events unfolding across the Solar System, and divides attention between different parts of the solar system. That kind of split attention isn’t something I want for Astra Incognita – I want the focus that a single ship and the handful of heroes on her crew provides!
So, those are counter-examples. What about examples?
The single biggest and most popular example of the genre, at least these days, is Star Trek. It didn’t define the genre – it was predated by The Voyage of the Space Beagle, among others – but for most people in the United States (and beyond!), it codified the tropes of this particular subgenre. When I say “heroic starship crew,” you’re probably going to think of Kirk or Picard and their heroic crews, and most of Trek’s televised successors (Andromeda, Farscape, later spinoffs of Stargate SG-1) were fairly blatant about that source of inspiration.
Astra Incognito is going to look a lot like Star Trek for a multitude of reasons, starting but not ending with Trek being a major cultural touchstone.
Most of the other examples I’m heavily influenced by are much more openly militaristic than Trek (which, despite it’s protestations to the contrary, is pretty militaristic itself) – the Wing Commander series, probably the second biggest influence on Astra Incognito, was about strike fighter pilots in space fighting a war – and the Confed/Kilrathi conflict was heavily based on the Pacific front of World War Two, at that! Battlestar Galactica, either version, was likewise mostly about the fighter pilots and senior officers of a single carrier in a war against robotic enemies against which there could be no quarter. Mobile Suit Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, and Martian Successor Nadesico, three anime inspirations, are a large part of the reason why my 16-year old self ran this in Mekton Zeta, a system heavily geared toward tricked out custom giant robot warfare.
Why so many warships with heroic starship crews? Quite simply, because war is dramatic. War is inherently a conflict, and therefore easy to make compelling.
In fact, I think it’s too easy – I liked (TNG) Trek’s devotion to, if not pacifism, then diplomacy and intrigue as the go-to plot rather than war. Even TOS’s war stories are frequently about avoiding a war or the consequences of battle breaking out, which is both interesting and something most tabletop games I’ve run into are pretty bad at (for reasons I’ll go into later). While I don’t have to make Astra Incognita a Treklike game – I could make it more purely Wing Commander or Battlestar Galactica and have a jolly old time telling stories about fighter aces – I think it would be a better game if war wasn’t the default, but could be either the result of a mistake or a complication to another plotline, as well!