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Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 expedition: Inside the elaborate role-play with a cast of hundreds

One commander is planning an epic story to complement the community’s epic journey

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Spidermind Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

As of today, the Distant Worlds 2 expedition in Elite: Dangerous has over 9,400 participants, making it the single largest player-led fleet in the spacefaring game’s history. The vast majority of those players will spend their time jumping from star to star and making discoveries. But, embedded within the fleet is also an elaborate set of role-playing adventures, including simulated combat, linked together by a traditional tabletop RPG.

The narrative stringing it all together is the work of a single avid game master named Alison “Commander Wishblend” Goodman.

By day, Goodman is a security guard in the United Kingdom. That gives her plenty of time to dream up narrative adventures, some of which she has already turned into several self-published novels. But she’s also an avid player of tabletop RPGs. Her experience in the hobby goes all the way back to the classic Traveller system, first published in 1986.

The first printed copy of the core sourcebook for the Traveller system, Traveller: Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future. This first edition is signed and numbered by author Marc Miller, who loaned it to Gen Con for display at the 50th, 20
The first printed copy of the core sourcebook for the Traveller system, Traveller: Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future, on display at Gen Con for display at the 50th annual convention in Indianapolis in 2017.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

The system that she’ll be using for the Distant Worlds 2 RPG is the officially licensed Elite: Dangerous Role Playing Game (EDRPG), published by Spidermind Games. Originally launched as a Kickstarter project, the product itself is still dogged by an obscure copyright dispute. Nevertheless, copies of the core rulebook have been on sale throughout 2018 and are currently in the hands of eager fans.

When Wishblend arrives in the Distant Worlds 2 Discord channel some time next week, she’ll be greeted by at least a dozen new personas, all player-characters generated for EDRPG. They’ll each have an in-game ship as part of the fleet, but will also role-play their character using tools such as Roll20. Goodman tells Polygon that she has eight or nine adventures planned out already, and will schedule them for groups of four to five players throughout the 18-week journey to the edge of the Milky Way.

An example of a pre-generated character sheet that Goodman uses for one-shot and pickup games of the officially licensed Elite: Dangerous Role Playing Game.
An example of a pre-generated character sheet that Goodman uses for one-shot and pickup games of the officially licensed Elite: Dangerous Role Playing Game.
Alison Goodman/Spidermind Games

The narrative itself will be drawn in part from the existing lore of the Elite universe, a fractious period of human history currently set in the year 3305. It will also riff on elements of the a series of novels by author Drew Wagar, whose work inspired the 3,000-plus player battle inside Elite in 2017.

In combination with the more intimate role-playing sessions, Goodman says she has planned several elaborate puzzles that the entire Distant Worlds 2 fleet will be able to participate in solving. The exploits of her player characters, as well as the resolution to her puzzles, will all be published in the official Distant Worlds 2 newsletters that organizers will send out on a regular basis.

But that’s not all. There are currently three other role-playing groups embedded within the fleet, and their experiences will impact Goodman’s players and the storyline they experience.

A fan-made mission patch for Distant Worlds 2 in Elite: Dangerous.
The official Distant Worlds 2 logo takes the form of a NASA-style mission patch.
Commander Qohen Leth

First off, there’s a group of nearly 400 players who have signed up to participate as fighter escorts, or Fleet Defense Force (FDF) as Goodman calls them. At certain points during the expedition she and other organizers intend to run controlled skirmishes. Players in the FDF will be able to use Elite’s multiplayer capabilities to take control of small, ship-launched fighters carried inside larger ships in the fleet. Once at the controls, they’ll be divided up into allied and enemy squadrons, and allowed to duke it out in staged battles.

Thanks to the multiplayer architecture of Elite, if a ship-launched fighter is blown up, its pilot will simply revert to their own, personal ship within the fleet. So players will still have the opportunity to participate in the full, 200,000-light year journey to the edge of the galaxy and back while also having a fun combat experience along the way.

Goodman says her EDRPG players may participate in these battles in some way, but precisely how is still being held as a closely guarded secret.

A wing of player-controlled ships destroys a target. Frontier Developments

Additionally, there is also a group of “space truckers” embedded within the fleet. Flying larger, ungainly ships filled with valuable resources, they’ll make a juicy target for pirates. They’ll be relying on the FDF for protection on an ongoing basis throughout the journey to get their cargo to expedition’s first major waypoint, where they intend to help supply a remote starbase being built in deep space.

Finally, there’s the MediCorps. This group of roughly 100 players will be on call, 24 hours a day, if anyone in the fleet encounters an escape capsule. They’ll rush to the scene, load the capsule onto their ship, and work to help these NPCs make it out alive to their final destination.

All in all, it’s a lot of heavy lifting for Goodman and the other organizers of the Distant Worlds 2 expedition. It will be made even more complicated by her efforts to allow fans to follow along with the adventure, even if they’re not actually in the Distant Worlds 2 fleet or even playing Elite at all.

“There will be people streaming it,” Goodman said. “Myself, I’ll be recording the EDRPG [sessions] as it happens. Whether I stream it to Twitch live or record it and upload it, I’m not sure.”

“But I’m also planning on writing the story that the actual community decides on,” she continued. “The bandits [versus] FDF encounters, I’m not going to say how many there is. It’s an odd number. But let’s say that the bandits win the first encounter, there’s a story written alongside the encounters. It’s what I call a story of two tales, where literally it’s a tale documenting certain events and whichever side wins, their side of the story is told.”

Distant Worlds 2 leaves from the Pallaeni system on Jan. 13. We’ll have more information on where to watch the event here on Polygon.