Solitaire Storytelling: Bucket of Bolts

Busted, rusted, set adrift, cloaked in cloth and grime.

This old ship lies still—a relic
from a different time.

Lift the dust sheets, one by one, pry the broken latch.

Up the ladder, flaking paint,
up towards the hatch.

Crank it open, hit the switch, dim lights flicker on.
Yellowed bulkheads, fraying wires—
captains, dead and gone.

In the cockpit, fire it up—engine’s thrumming roar.
Creaking, lurching up towards
shining stars once more.

The Ship

DSS-10 Starfarer

My designers were hired on a government contract, paid to design ships for use by Union officials. They were, to a sentient, perfectionist and proud of their work. They refused to turn me over until I was sleek, luxurious, and pristine.  

Act I: The High Era

Mariana Jast – A Galactic Senator

My first Captain purchased me straight from the shipyard, my birthplace, on her homeworld of Desia. It was a world made for ships, and for making ships, a dozen starports and half as many shipyards on the surface alone and ringed by stations with yet more of each. Senator-Captain Jast brought an engineer’s sensibilities to her work, believing that all parts of the system had to work together to make the whole function, and that in turn every part of the system from the smallest bolt to the reactor core had to be cared for.

Many dignitaries graced my decks during Senator Jast’s Captaincy, but by far the most esteemed was the the High King of Ohm, who was petitioning the Union for help in a war against a neighboring system. The royal luggage was… extensive. Fresian strike teams trying to stop the alliance and Ohmite dissidents trying to end the war entirely both tried taking shots at us on the way to the capital, and we had to pass through Tarsan Nebula in order to shake them.

Senator-Captain Jast gave me a name, Triumphant Discourse, after she was able to convince the High King to negotiate a peaceful end to the war. The Union grew even larger, afterwards, becoming the single largest polity in the galaxy.

Eventually Senator-Captain Jast’s term of service was up, however, and it was decided I would be sold. I had my new Captain in no time at all.

Kale Soral – A Long Distance Hauler

Captain Soral was bullish, forthright, and protective – the latter pertaining both to his cargo and his crew, who he treated like family. In some cases the familial relationship was literal – the engineer played hard to get for quite some time, but eventually he accepted the Captain’s marriage proposal, and they did eventually adopt. The others were, to a sentient, misfits and outcasts whom the Captain brought into the fold and provided with a home.

Which was me, of course.

Of all the cargoes we hauled together, the most valuable by far were two terraforming engines for the colony on Dahvil. Captain Soral often spoke of how vital they were, of how many lives and futures would be given a chance because of them.

We passed through many spaceports of all shapes, sizes, and standings, but the ones that began to feel the most like home were the waypoints. Stations that were simply places for ships to meet other ships and for potential crewmembers, passengers, and cargos to find their berth. Every one was the start of another interesting course to plot, literally and figuratively.

Not every course was safe, obviously. One time we were boarded by raiders, the crew waking to my warning klaxons too late to escape cleanly, in an attempt to steal a cargo of precious metals we were moving. Captain Soral rallied the crew and they were able to repel the boarders, although it has to to be said that after the resulting internal repairs I was more utilitarian than luxurious.

Captain Soral and his husband decided to retire to a plot of land on Dahvil once their children had moved on to ships of their own, and I was put on the edge of the property as a memento of their lives together.

I was there for about a month before I was stolen away.

Act II: Age of Strife

Blaine Averre – A Rebel Leader

Uncompromising in what they fought for and in what needed to be done to succeed, defiant in the face of Union authority, and beloved by their crew and the common people – that was Captain Averre. Averre’s crew were misfits and outcasts, but unlike Captain Soral’s patchwork family Averre’s crew were a ragtag militia mostly bound together by their Captain’s charisma and their hatred of the Union. The polity had continued to grow since Senator-Captain Jast’s day, and those on the fringes no longer welcomed its embrace. As Averre put it, they were hardly given a choice.

One of the most desperate missions Captain Averre took me on was also one of the earliest – evacuating a rebel base on Antares Beta. Union Marines were moving on the base on the ground, Union Navy cruisers were attempting to establish a blockade, and more than half of the base’s occupants were non-combatants. Halfway through the evacuation, the Union Dreadnaught Peacemaker tried to initiate an orbital bombardment, with hundreds of said non-combatants still in the target zone.

We had to soar past the fire from the cruisers to pull a turn that nearly blacked out most of the crew despite my compensators’ best efforts, but it lined us up perfectly with the Peacemaker‘s engines. I was lightly armed at the time, unarmored, Averre’s standard on my hull barely dry, but they got me close enough that it didn’t matter. The Peacemaker was no more, and while my hull was no longer pristine – the thruster wash from the dreadnaught was fierce – it was certainly infamous.

It was after that close call that Captain Averre oversaw a complete hull and system rebuild to make me more combat worthy. It took months. My hull was armored and was bristling with weapons by the end of it, more menacing than sleek,

The Union’s expansion crawled to a stop, although I never found out what happened to Captain Averre. They landed and left with the crew on a mission, and they just… never came back. A month passed before the camo nets they had draped over my hull were pulled off.

Talak Orden – A Bounty Hunter

Captain Orden had followed a tip to find me, in the market for a new ship after whatever had happened to his previous one. I remember him as fearsome and effective, putting Averre’s weapons to good use, a bounty hunter bound by creed. Explosives and solid shot weapons were his signature arsenal in a profession that typically preferred beam weapons and shock bolts, but despite the grisly nature of his tools he stuck to simple rules: no collateral damage of any kind was tolerated, and no target was ever made to suffer beyond what it took to neutralize them.

By far the most fearsome bounty ever shackled in my hold was the Warlord Locke, who’d sprung up in the Western Reaches and begun ravaging systems Union or otherwise. Everyone agreed that Locke had to go, and Captain Orden managed to steal him right out of his own palace, but the worst of the whole affair was how long it lasted. Captain Orden was able to leverage the different systems’ desire to take credit for ending Locke into a small bidding war.

That fame probably caused more trouble in the end, however. Captain Orden and his crew were ambushed by other bounty hunters in the docking bay where I was being kept some time later, jealous rivals who sought to eliminate the competition. Some of the crew were able to board and launch to safety, but Captain Orden was not among them. He never even got to use the stealth system he’d installed – for my own part, after two Captains vanished under less than auspicious circumstances, I gained something of an unlucky reputation.

Perhaps that is why, after the surviving crew ditched me, it was decades before I had a new Captain. Plating rusted, alabaster bulkheads faded to a flaxen yellow, lights began to flicker and burn out. By the time my solitude was ended, my age was obvious, but not because of the physical changes – the Union had fractured, and Desia had been destroyed in the process. No ship that looked like me had been made since.

Act III: The Descent

Morgan Owen – A Tour Operator

My first impression of Captain Owen was that she was cheerful, tasteless, and obnoxiously loud, and I was hardly dissuaded from that impression over the course of her Captaincy. Her clientele largely consisted of the well-to-do from what had once been fringe worlds that had since risen to prominence after the Union fractured, and the sites visited were either Union wreckage or colonial landmarks, all meddled with in some way to make the presentation more dramatic.

I myself was part of the tour, a ‘genuine Union courier’ and a ‘rebel headquarters vessel’ all in one item. I received a new paint job and gaudy redecorating. My internal configuration also became quite adaptable, as Captain Owen would alter my appearance to match the sensibilities of her clients. Captain Averre was often featured in the advertisements, although the stories of what had happened to them had become obtusely convoluted and self-contradictory over the years.

It wasn’t all bad, however. Once, while trying to locate the last stand of a Union fleet that had been lost to the void, we stumbled upon a new stellar phenomena, a trinary star system where the stars all orbited around a single planet exactly in the middle of all of them. Captain Owen named it a ‘Spotlight System’ because every meter of the planet was covered in light at all times, and had an image of the system painted on my hull as her new company insignia.

Captain Owen got a taste for real exploring after that, and after several more trips reminded her that I was not built or retrofitted for deep space exploration she sold me to a scrapyard. More decades passed, and in time I missed Captain Owen’s loud nature – she helped me be remembered. My name was forgotten, lost to time and databases destroyed or scrambled by the Union’s fracturing. Only a certain family on Dahvil remembered it.

The Desian Rangers – A Pirate Gang

I’m not entirely sure if they salvaged or stole me, but the Desian Rangers were a motley crew united only by their insatiable avarice, so the latter seems likely. They’d risen out out of the wreckage of my birthplace, and made a swathe of former Union space and independent systems their hunting grounds. My new Captain styled himself a Commodore Caldera  and often talked about setting himself up as a ruler of the sector.

By his reckoning the juiciest prey I ever brought to heel for them was a merchant vessel out of Riah.  Like I had so long ago they attempted to flee through the Tarsan Nebula, but my weapons crippled their engines and our raiders boarded. The cargo of weapons, spare parts, and reactor cells was enough to begin seriously thinking about that sector rule plan.

They started calling me Desia’s Vengeance. Some may have taken it as aspirational, a call to make up for what had happened to our mutual homeworld during the Union’s fall, but I always found it telling that Captain Caldera chose Vengeance instead of Justice.

There was no Union or similar polity to stop us, but the people of the sector eventually took matters into their own hands. A rag tag fleet of armored merchant vessels and local patrol craft tracked us down, and despite our best efforts I was shot down in a spectacular crash on Hono’s Stand. Captain Caldera and the crew all perished, and I lost my second engine.

A century passed. A strange new culture of aliens emerged from beyond the galactic frontier, with a union of their own that spanned the stars of their home sectors. It was a reminder that individual systems didn’t have to scramble for resources or fight off marauders like Caldera all the time, and gradually a Stellar Republic began to coalesce around groups like those that had struck down Caldera.

For myself, my systems were an inoperable mess, and none came to fix me. Instead my hull was rigged up to be a bar, carrying the same name as myself. The landlord of Desia’s Vengeance was something of an anti-establishment figure and shunned the Stellar Republic, but believed that the best vengeance for a place like Desia was to live the way you wanted to the best of your ability, not lashing out at innocent merchants. The clients were rowdy mercenaries, black market dealers, free traders, frontier explorers, and the odd marshal who knew how to get a tip from the others without getting killed. In a way, I became like one of the waystations I’d visited with Captain Soral.

For a final port of call, that’s not so bad…

Desia’s Vengeance – DSS-10 Starfarer (And Bar)

Adaptable, Menacing, and Infamous

Bucket of Bolts by Jack Harrison/Mousehole Press is a solo RPG zine (from ZineQuest 3) of iconic spaceships and infamous captains that tells the story of a single spaceship from when it comes off the assembly line through the many different beings who captain it, detailing what it goes through and how it changes itself and the universe around it.

It’s Millennium Falcon the Novel the Game, to drudge up an old example.

The game begins by designing a ship – who made it, what their design principles were, and what their political affiliations were, as well as what its Traits are.  Traits are characteristics that describe a ship, and you start with three of them. They can be systems, modifications, reputations, personality core quirks, anything that you’d overhear about it in the cantina – nimble, hulking, hunted, outdated, finicky, rude, and so on and so forth. You then sketch out what your ship looks like (marvel at my artistic ability! Marvel!) and then choose your first Captain.

You’ll name and describe your Captain and two questions to answer, such as Senator Jast’s entry asking you to describe her homeworld and her beliefs, and then to detail the most esteemed dignitary to grace your decks. You then choose an event from the Captain’s Tables – Love & Triumph options consist of positive ones, and Scum & Villainy are negative or at least dangerous ones. Either way you’ll end up Changing Something – a Trait, some physical aspect of the ship, a detail of the setting, or a response to a Ship Question.

Speaking of Ship Questions, after you pick your Captain event you can optionally choose to answer a question about your ship, such as what you were named and why, what kind of unique maneuver your Captains attempt and what it gets named, and how you express yourself differently with a new intelligence being added to your systems.

Eventually, your time with you first Captain ends – describe how, from legit to lethal to larcenous – and Time passes. You choose how much time passes between Captains, and Rest for the amount of real-world time that option dictates, closing your eyes: a Day might be twenty seconds, Centuries take six minutes. Certain lengths of time will ask you to choose one or more options from another set of Tables related to time. Shifts & Currents cover changes to the universe, and Dust & Rusts options affect the ship itself. Again, you’ll find yourself Changing Something. Then you choose a new Captain and repeat the process.

Gameplay is broken into three Acts. You will choose two Captains in Act I, then two Captains in Act II. In Act III, you will choose new Captains until you have Rested a total of ten minutes, or until you feel your story has ended, whichever comes first – I only Rested for nine.

You may choose to continue your ship’s story by including it in a different game or story, leaving many of the details as a mystery for players to unravel. This could be how Captain Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe find the Serenity in a scrapyard, or I could use the Desia’s Vengeance Bar as a location for characters to visit in Traveller. You may also see your ship wrecked or abandoned in some backwater junkheap forever. Either way, take a final moment to sit silently in the dark, considering how your ship is remembered – if at all – before leaving your Bucket of Bolts – and the game – behind.

You don’t need any dice to play Bucket of Bolts, or anything aside from a way to write and sketch, really. The lists of Captains to choose from in each era are all groups of four, the amount of time that passes in each era has six options, and there are also six options for each of the Captain and Time tables, though. Having a d4 and a d6 on hand might be handy if you’re not sure which option you want to pick.

The digital version is actually split up into two different types of file (not counting single sheet and printer friendly versions): the Rules and the Content. In terms of printing it out, that worked decently well for me with each on either side of my laptop, but it seems an odd choice and it still led to a lot of bouncing back and forth and a bit of confusion on my part. I’d simply recommend that you do print out the PDFs, and read both from beginning to end before play so you don’t miss anything. We’re talking five and six pages, so it’s not exactly arduous.

Bucket of Bolts does a great job at giving the eponymous ship an interesting history and a ton of character. Upon reading it the game might seem to be a little thin on options, but in the reality of playing it the mechanic of moving through different time periods, plus the cap in the third Act via time or your own interest means the game is more of a ‘just right’ amount of content. It’s a great storytelling game, but its claim as a worldbuilding and shipbuilding tool for games like Edge of the Empire, Traveller, and Scum & Villainy is also very accurate. The Rest mechanic not only helps push the emotional experience the game wants to hit, but also gives the player a chance to step back from the writing grind – you might find yourself choosing the longer Rest options on purpose, and not just because they offer more Shifts & Currents/Dust & Rusts options.

Bucket is a hack of Harrison’s earlier game Artefact, which follows a magical item down through the ages instead of a ship; once is a game, twice is a system, so there’s now a particularly crisp and well-organized looking SRD so people can make “Lost & Found” games of their own. As of this writing there’s also an ongoing game jam to do just that.

You can find the digital version of Bucket of Bolts on for $10, but as of this writing there are literally thousands of free community copies available if you need the help; people who pay $20 for their copy donate yet another community copy into the pool. Physical copies and additional material are coming down the pike, and there will also be a soundtrack you can listen to while you Rest. You can freely use Artefact’s for now, although I think you could get away with your vaguely sci-fi instrumentals of choice as well.

She may not look like much (except she does, the art and layout are quite nice), but she’s got it where it counts, kid.

The opening stanzas are written by Jack Harrison, and feature on the last/credits page of the Bucket of Bolts Rules file.

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