Expanse Fandom: Beyond the Material Plane

John Bultena

Attending SiliCon in 2022, I was privy to meeting numerous fans of The Expanse, seeing as several actors from the show along with authors and producers were present. In meeting these fans, I noticed they had a variety of outfits and makeup. These various cosplays featured items such as patches and data pads that were custom made. I complimented their efforts, while peering at the intricate nature of their costuming. I then shared with them my own project, Abraxas’ Precipice,16 a game based on The Expanse is played live on the streaming platform Twitch.17 Some had heard of the game, but all were intrigued by this creative endeavour of mine, much like I was with their costumes.

Franchising entertainment changed with the release of Star Wars in 1977, specifically with how merchandising works. Post-Star Wars, nearly every film and television show had vast amounts of purchasable tie-ins: action figures, lunch boxes, clothing, board games, soap, notebooks, etc. A few years later, this trend flourished with the advent of cartoons based on toy lines, effectively half-hour commercials, exemplified by Masters of the Universe, GI Joe, Transformers and many other cartoons of the 1980s. This trend continues. Walking into a Barnes & Nobles, being bombarded by Harry Potter and Game of Thrones items that simply have the logo on them, without even a character representation or scene depicted, it is common to see mass-licensed items. These items certainly do not contribute to the narratives of those stories and merely serve as mementos of those stories’ existence.

Going to comic book conventions these days, one is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of merchandise for things that are not  comic books in their primary medium. Often these conventions, which were focused on sharing artwork by artists from all over, have shifted to a local form of concentrated consumerism for mass produced goods for various franchises. This consumeristic trend of fandom is epitomised by Funko Inc.’s Pop! Vinyl line. Stylized, affordable statues, within standardised box sizes, to satisfy whatever pop culture interest one has, are readily available at your local Walmart.

The Expanse, both the television series and books, stands in stark contrast to this vast sea of merchandise. Fans of The Expanse are fairly hard-pressed to find merchandise for the franchise. There have been Eaglemoss’s high quality models of the Rocinante and Razorback; the three KidRobot vinyl figures of Naomi, Holden, and Avasarala;18 a small scale Rocinante included with a Loot Crate;19 a board game put out by WizKids;20 and two comic series put out by Boom! Studios, with another being released in 2023.21 Oddly, the most elaborate line of official merchandise came through The Expanse T-Shirt Club Subscription on Amazon, with several dozen shirts offered over the years. The forthcoming video game focusing on Camina Drummer by Telltale Games is probably the biggest franchised media for The Expanse outside of the show or books.22 Nacelle is putting out The Expanse action figures, but the extent of the line or time frame is unclear.23 For a show that was picked up by Amazon and well produced, this is a spartan amount of material goods for a contemporary franchise.

When SyFy did not renew The Expanse, it resulted in a passionate online campaign to save The Expanse, a grassroots fan campaign that garnered a lot of attention and culminated in the series being picked up by Amazon. This was not a fluke, as the fanbase was already adept at making things happen. Searching around online, one will findFacebook groups and Discord servers dedicated to The Expanse. This is not anything new, as online forums for various fandoms have existed alongside the internet for decades, but with The Expanse there is a very DIY-oriented maker culture that is readily apparent.

This DIY and/or maker fandom is intriguing, namely because when it occurs, it is not just a celebration of the franchise in question, but also a celebration of the fans’ own labour. Some of the work shared goes well beyond hobbyist capacities. Take Karl Winkler’s extensive cosplay. He has full suits of Martian military armour, power armour, custom EVA helmets based on the show designs, all self-made.24 While Karl’s work is exceptional, it is not unique. Whenever fans of The Expanse show up to conventions, many are in flight suits decorated with a variety of custom made patches, make-up, boots, etc. I am no different, as I went in my own flight suit and magboots to LA Comic Con in 2022.25 But none of these pieces were store-bought, official Expanse merchandise; rather, it comes from deconstruction of what is shown on the show and depicted in the books, and then planned out for fan-made construction. I purchased a flight suit, obtained patches from makers around the internet, and sewed them on. The boots were galoshes that were rigged to place red bicycle lights on the rear, to simulate the “on” function of magboots from the show. The parts were sought, discovered, modified, and assembled into a manner that bear resemblance to their on screen counterparts via the practice of kitbashing. None of these items came from licensing of The Expanse.

Besides the t-shirt of the month club, the single line that has the most SKUs would be the The Expanse Roleplaying Game by Green Ronin Publishing. There are four hardbound books (with two more on the way in 2023, as of this writing), a Game Master’s Kit, three sets of dice, and several PDF-only publications. The RPG is in an interesting position because it was signed off on by the authors of the series, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, making it as canonical as the books. Seeing as the authors kept major elements of the history of the future vague in the books and show, many portions are filled in by the RPG, for example how the UN rose to power due to extensive climate disasters and the following economic slump.26 And unlike Star Wars or Star Trek, ship technical readouts for The Expanse are only available in The Ships of the Expanse source book for the RPG, a book that maps out all 102 levels of the Donnager and dozens of other ships.  The campaign book, Abzu’s Bounty, details efforts Jules-Pierre Mao was engaged in prior to the discovery of the protomolecule, as well as those of his competitors. The RPG not only develops the meaning of The Expanse just from the form’s demands to offer a thorough enough paracosm to play in, but also through the actions of fans, namely through the hobby element of tabletop roleplaying games.

For those not familiar, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPG), exemplified by Dungeons & Dragons, involve a group of individuals coming together (in real or virtual spaces) to tell a story. In this dynamic, the players each have a character, called player characters, within a setting that is articulated by another player, often called the Game Master. Through dialogue and a set of rules that often utilise dice to simulate chances of success/failure, the story unfolds, generally with the player characters as the protagonists. The Expanse Roleplaying Game is no different.

What is fascinating is that the existence of The Expanse as a TTRPG is not a coincidence. Franck has discussed how The Expanse began as an idea for a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, but that direction was interrupted ,as mentioned in an interview with Polygon.27 Pivoting, Franck developed it as a setting for the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game by Wizards of the Coast. Eventually, Franck was running this game and through playing it met Daniel Abraham. Many of the story’s elements are classic RPG tropes: groups with varying backgrounds and exceptional skills forced to work together, repeatedly the only survivors of overwhelming odds, infrequent players weaving in and out of presence with the main party (Miller), various quest givers/patrons to work for (Fred Johnson), distinct factions that are distrusting of each other, and the list goes on. The very structure of The Expanse’s plot, characters, and factions made it hyper-conducive towards adaptation to roleplaying games.

From their inception, RPGs have fallen within the umbrella of hobby gaming, which are games where one crafts and develops the elements of the games. This can be things like painting miniature game pieces, but more often than not it involves development of new rules into more formalised manners, known as home brewed rules. Specifically with RPGs, this involves creating new adventures, settings, characters, and whatever may populate or be played within these paracosms.

All this brings me to my own project as a fan of The Expanse: Abraxas’ Precipice. Anyone that knows me knows I dig The Expanse. I am well versed in the canonical lore, including the differences between the show and books. I have continued to utilise the novels in the university courses I instruct. But the most focused element of my fandom is the production and playing of The Expanse Roleplaying Game in the form of my actual play, Abraxas’ Precipice. What is striking about this, compared to other fandoms I enjoy, is the lack of material items regarding The Expanse that I own. For Dungeons & Dragons, I have numerous books, miniatures, collectibles, a marquee from an original arcade cabinet from the 90s game by Capcom, and many more licensed materials with the official logo stamped on it. This has also been the case for other fandoms I have been active in, including a huge collection of Transformers at one point. But for The Expanse, a fandom I spent over six hours a week producing and promoting a show to play the role-playing game for, I barely have two shelves of material. Mostly books, but also a model of the Rocinante, a signed photo of Jacob Mundell (Erich from season 5), a set of The Expanse Roleplaying Game dice signed by some cast members, and a few other small things.

When I delve into Expanse fan pages and groups, the people I see that have physical objects usually are artworks, posters, or signed images. But anyone with a shelf full of items, they are mostly props that they built themselves. Some are 3D-printed, while others have identified the real basis for helmets from the show and rebuilt them. And much like those folks that build props or costumes as an expression of fandom, I have also built something – 160+ hours of gameplay exploring the kinds of stories both my players and I want to tell in The Expanse.

In May 2021, I began Abraxas’ Precipice, my actual play of The Expanse Roleplaying Game. An actual play is where folks play a game, typically roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons together, while sharing that experience via video or podcast. At the time, The Expanse Roleplaying Game had been out for over two years, but I had never really had an opportunity to play it. Certainly I was a fan of the franchise, and with the final season six on the horizon, I wanted to really delve into it, but not alone. So I gathered some folks I knew that were fans and even asked around for folks that would be interested. I went and watched eight other actual plays of The Expanse Roleplaying Game. I took notes on their overlays (what their screen/layouts broadcasts look like), to see what worked and what did not, to know what would be conducive towards my own game. I dug around online for materials, backgrounds, graphics, images, etc. I contacted my friend that has a dungeon synth project, Vaelastraz, to come up with an opening, a space-appropriate theme. I went through the adventures by Green Ronin Publishing, found ones I liked and then modified them to my liking to be used for our game. I promoted, built social media presences, and shared my upcoming project with various Expanse communities. I did all that in about eight weeks prior to us playing our first episode live on Wednesday, May 19th 2021 at 6pm PST on twitch.tv/onlyplaywizards.

To be clear, there is no money in producing and running an actual play. The question, then, is why do it? A few reasons. First, I enjoy roleplaying games, and have for over 33 years. Another was the enjoyment of putting something together, assembling it; this is the hobby factor. But tying back to The Expanse and what it offers that is two fold. The paracosm of The Expanse is heavily rooted in actual science, acting as an extrapolation of history, not just technological but also social. This rooted nature means that for my game, I could not just “magic” things away but would have to explain them. This forces me to constantly learn about new achievements in science but also in social theories, and always being aware of where we are going as humanity is just fascinating to me. But that I could get from other hard sci-fi RPGs. What really had me enthralled with The Expanse as an RPG is all the untold stories of the series. Questions rang in my head, things like, “How do you handle a refugee crisis in space? How does the public manage, knowing there are large blue people that do not need space suits in vacuum that can rip heads off of Martian Marines? or what is the process for someone to be radicalised to a cause like Marco Inaros’s?” It was stories like this I wanted to explore, the stories of the regular folks working in space as the history of the future unfolds. How do they manage? I often describe my show as ‘schlubs in space’ – that is, just the common folks just trying to get by.

Prior to writing this, I sat down with three of the four current cast members of Abraxas’ Precipice, Donna Prior, Scott Mitchell, and Maria Moore, to reflect and consider what we are creating with this project and what The Expanse franchise means to us. Josh Simons moderated this round table discussion in December of 2022 and it can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/Y0b2NLAneNs (it is also introduced in the following chapter).

Re-watching it months later, I can see the meaning we developed here. We are not just looking at The Expanse and saying, “Wow, cool spaceships, lets play with those,” but rather seeing how its depictions of humanity ring true for us. We then take those themes and sink our teeth into them by utilising roleplaying to emphasise and articulate. Beyond that, we are also sharing these elements, inviting others along for the journey. In the conversation we discuss how we have utilised the game to understand real world issues and tragedies. The example that is often brought up is the refugee crisis caused by the MCR and UN conflict over Ganymede. While the show and books do have plots about it, they quickly move onto the heroes’ story of chasing down the culprits of these conspiracies. But in our game we ask, ‘What about the refugees? Wouldn't some be radicalised?’ Taking those questions that are not satisfactorily answered by the books or show, I was able to utilise them for our games’ plot and paracosm. This in turn allowed the players to think more about those same issues we face in the real world, refugee crises and political radicalization. We are not separate from the games we play and the fantasies we indulge in. Something is brought back from those liminal spaces and in doing so we find a richness.

This is the issue at hand with consumeristic based fandoms: the experience is packaged, complete. The object exists and it can certainly be played with, but because it is ready at hand there is a gap in the exploratory engagement. And should one not be able to afford it, then one simply does not play in that domain. One of the genius elements of The Expanse franchise has been its resistance to this. That it offers a paracosm, but not one that is complete or filled out, where the gaps can be engaged and a level of revelatory freedom grasped. The tabletop roleplaying game exemplifies this by handing over the reigns to the fans of a paracosm that is rooted but incomplete. The lack of merchandise and licensed goods has created a pressure of expectation other franchises have established. That pressure manifests in a DIY attitude towards The Expanse fandom, making the act of creation one of reverence for the source material.

16. Abraxas’ Precipice, “Abraxas’ Precipice,” Linktree, https://linktr.ee/abraxasprecipic.
17. OnlyPlayWizards, “OnlyPlayWizards,” Twitch, https://twitch.tv/onlyplaywizards.
18. KidRobot, “KidRobot x The Expanse 7-inch figures available now,” KidRobot, 2018, https://www.kidrobot.com/blogs/kidrobot-blog/kidrobot-x-the-expanse-7-inch-figures-available-online-now.
19. Amazon, “Loot Crate The Expanse Rocinante Spaceship Replica - Exclusive Not in Stores,” 2023, Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Exclusive-Expanse-Rocinante-Replica-Stores/dp/B079Z2JMMX.
20. WizKids, “The Expanse Board Game,” WizKids,2017, https://wizkids.com/the-expanse.
21. Boom! Studios, “The Expanse,” Boom! Studios, 2023, https://www.boom-studios.com/archives/category/series/the-expanse.
22. Telltale, “The Expanse: A Telltale Series,” Telltale, 2023, https://telltale.com/the-expanse.
23. The Nacelle Company, “The Expanse Collectibles Coming from Nacelle,” The Nacelle Company, 2023, https://www.nacellecompany.com/press/the-expanse-collectibles-coming-from-nacelle.
24. Karlsexpanse, “karlsexpanse,” Tumblr, 2023, https://www.tumblr.com/karlsexpanse/666153866116694016.
25. Abraxas’ Precipice, The Expanse RPG Actual Play (@AbraxasPrecipic), “Think @OnlyPlayWizards is ready for his shift on Tycho Station?”, Twitter post, 2021, https://twitter.com/AbraxasPrecipic/status/1451705054533013507.
26. Steve Kenson et al. The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Seattle, WA: Green Ronin, 2021), 143.
27. Charlie Hall, “The Expanse, once a homebrew tabletop RPG, is going legit,” Polygon, 2018, https://www.polygon.com/2018/8/7/17660410/the-expanse-tabletop-rpg-kickstarter-green-ronin.