Dogs in the Vineyard

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power." – Abraham Lincoln

Last weekend, two out of town gamers (Sal and Robert) were visiting my daughter Giulia and her husband Tenchi. Would I run a game for them? Of course I would. Sal really wanted to play Dogs in the Vineyard; would I mind running that? No, of course not, I’ve had it for years and just never got around to using it as a guest game – why not now?

So this post is part review and part session write-up. I read the rulebook again, started out using the Box Elder Canyon Branch adventure in that, and modified it on the fly as we played.

THE STORY

Brother Cadmus has decided that his role as Territorial Agent and census-taker warrants a living wage, and is spending his whole time lobbying for that rather than running his farm (Pride). His wife, Sister Felicity, has to feed their three children somehow, so has started making moonshine in the barn and selling it (Injustice).

Brother Ephraim, a farm hand, runs out of money to buy whiskey, so breaks into the church at night to steal the silver Tree of Life from the altar. While he is in there, his lantern’s light attracts the attention of Brother Benjamin, and when Benjamin enters to investigate, the lantern is knocked over, burning the church to the ground and severely disfiguring Benjamin while Ephraim escapes out of the rear window (more Injustice).

Benjamin decides that this is the doing of the Mountain People woman Eve Many Horses, on the grounds that some Mountain People pray to spirits and therefore she must be a witch (still more Injustice). He starts praying for her death (Heresy), and decides that the Steward, Brother Artax, is unfit for duty because of his tainted blood (either more Injustice or additional Heresy). Meanwhile, Ephraim, wracked by guilt, has introduced Benjamin to moonshine to dull the pain (definiftely more Injustice and Heresy) and is spending far too much time with him; he hasn’t joined in the prayers yet, but some night soon that’s bound to happen over a shared mason jar of moonshine.

It’s at this point that four newly-minted Dogs ride into town. After a couple of days asking questions, a stake-out of Brother Cadmus’ farm, and a couple of fist-fights both ended by Sal’s Dog brandishing an enormous revolver, they work out that moonshine is involved, where it came from, and who’s buying it; a short but brutal field interrogation on one of the outlying farms buys the Dogs the story of what happened in the church, at the cost of one of Brother Ephraim’s fingers.

The Dogs explain forcefully to Brother Cadmus that he needs to straighten up and fly right, make him demolish the still, and give his wife some money and herbal recipes to tide them over until the farm is back in production. They give Brother Benjamin a herbal pain-relief placebo in the hope this will help him give up moonshine.

The Dogs drag Ephraim into town, explain to the congregation what really happened, and entreat them half-heartedly not to kill him. Brother Benjamin opines that "It was thet Mountain People Witch what made him do it," but they ride off satisfied with a job well done.

Meanwhile, in the darkness of his cellar, Brother Benjamin continues to pray for Eve’s early and unpleasant demise. And the Dogs have established the doctrinal precedent that sometimes it’s okay to drink moonshine for medicinal purposes… In an ongoing campaign, those two issues would come back to bite them at some point, probably the next time their circuit brings them back to Box Elder Canyon.

QUOTE OF THE SESSION

“We’re comforting the children by telling them their mother has been possessed by a demon.”

They meant it wasn’t really her fault, and she was okay again now, but you can imagine how the kids took it…

WHAT WENT WELL

We were totally immersed in the game – we started playing around 11 AM, and at 2.30 PM realised we’d missed lunch, so whipped up some guacamole and ate it at the gaming table. We finished around 4 PM, and by the end players were making the Sign of the Tree at each other (and NPCs) over the table at dramatically appropriate points.

In hindsight, character creation was the most enjoyable part of the session. Sal explained this best I think, saying "It’s not often you get to play through the pivotal moment of your character’s life." It’d be interesting to see how the group character creation in Mongoose Traveller worked with this team, I think it would go well.

Sal’s exorcism of a demon in training went right down to the wire, but he succeeded in the end; let’s just say he got a new Trait out of that, “Whatever it takes 1d6”, and leave it at that. Tenchi’s character has a complicated history, and for his training challenge bluffed his way out of being recognised by an old criminal acquaintance thanks to an unusual Belonging – "Mammoth beard 2d8". We decided that since it could be shaved off, it was a Belonging not a Trait.

Giulia’s herbalist character took as an aspiration "I hope I don’t get addicted to any of the herbs we use," and only made it thanks to the intervention of Robert’s PC, the use of her Dog’s Coat ("I focus on the coat, it reminds me of my family, and I know I can’t let them down like this,") and her horse – which ate the supply of offending herbs. The fallout is that her horse now has the trait "Addicted to herbs 1d6".

The Dogs’ Coats were a real hit. All the players were happy describing their coats, and how the coats changed as the game went on, and like me they love the idea that you can apply permanent damage to your coat to avoid more serious long-term fallout. Sal’s Dog has a coat where he makes marks representing each demon he has faced down, and how much fun could a GM have with that? Giulia’s coat is a herbal, embroidered with all the various healing herbs – the idea is that she can point at them and say "I need this to save your father’s life," and so on. She is defacing the pictures of the addictive herbs, but still trying them all – after all, someone has to find out, right? Robert’s Dog’s coat is torn and bloodstained where he was gored by an ox while saving the life of a ploughboy previously gored by the same ox. Tenchi’s Dog? Well, nobody’s going to notice the coat while it’s obscured by a 2d8 beard.

As a GM, I was delighted by the discussions around the table about what would be a just punishment for each of the sinners. I gave them a range of repentance – or lack thereof – from “Oh Lord, what have I done?” (Cadmus) to “Where were the Dogs when I needed them? Where was the King of Life when I needed him?” (Benjamin) to “Please don’t cut off my hand! I’ll be good!” (Ephraim) to “The King has placed me in Stewardship over these children, and they will not go hungry while I am their Steward!” (Felicity). It was fascinating to watch their reactions, especially with Ephraim, where they decided that a one-handed farmhand would be a burden on a small community, but they had to cut something off or the congregation would kill him for burning down the church. Cadmus and Felicity showed genuine repentance and got mercy in return, Ephraim showed fake repentance and was maimed, Benjamin showed no repentance at all, but they decided his hideous burns had been gained doing the King’s work and were in and of themselves punishment enough.

WHAT COULD’VE GONE BETTER

Conflict resolution got in the way for me as the GM, and I’m pretty sure I was doing it wrong, so I fell more and more into straight narrative play as the game progressed. A few more sessions would fix that problem, I think. I did briefly consider using the super-cool setting with Savage Worlds as the game engine, but I think the poker-style conflict resolution is so central to the feel of the game that it wouldn’t work

I hadn’t prepared any NPC statblocks in advance, so I was making them up as I went along, and I think conflict was too easy as a result. It didn’t seem to hurt the game, though.

From the constant talk around the table about exorcising demons, and the fact that one of the characters invested heavily in demonology skills and demon-suppression equipment, I should have realised that the group wanted the game to be about demonic possession. That would have been easy to add into the game by using Demonic Influence dice, which I completely forgot about.

The players started off investigating the church fire, then spent most of the session chasing moonshiners, before remembering they had decided the important thing was to find and punish the church-burner. They never did figure out what Brother Benjamin was up to.

LESSONS LEARNED

You need more d4, d8 and d10 for Dogs than we normally have around – as three of the five at the table were Shadowrun players, there was no shortage of d6. This is because when you roll a die, it needs to stay on the table until that conflict is over, whereas in a typical game you would use the score right away and reroll the die.

Dogs is more about solving puzzles and interacting with NPCs than it is about killing things and taking their stuff. With the group of players we had, that worked very well.

Dogs has a very different vibe to most games we play, because of who the characters are. The players like having total authority over NPCs and total freedom of action, because the NPCs acknowledge they are Big Damn Heroes. As a GM, I like being able to cut to the chase – the NPCs tumble over themselves to involve the Dogs in their problems, so no valuable session time is used up identifying the problem or persuading the NPCs to help. This works very well and would be easy to use in any other game.

The way towns are set up works well to create an adventure, and would work well in any game for scenarios of mystery or intrigue.

THE VERDICT

The players?

  • Tenchi: That was more fun than I expected.
  • Sal: It was everything I hoped for, and more. I have to play this again.

The GM?

  • Dogs in the Vineyard is really a supernatural Western detective show, and a lot of fun to play – that was one of the best sessions we’ve had in years.
  • There are many lessons to learn from this game, but it’s unlikely to topple my favourites from their pedestals.
  • As always, who’s playing matters more than what we play. For this group, Dogs in the Vineyard works really well.

The Last Parsec Primer

The eagerly-awaited (at least by me) Kickstarter for The Last Parsec is now off and running – in fact it fully funded within an hour of opening, so we may confidently expect some of the stretch goals to be met.

The Last Parsec is a loosely-defined sandbox setting, initially with three main setting books, each with a plot point campaign focussed on a single star system somewhere in the sandbox – where exactly doesn’t matter, since hyperspace travel times do not depend on the length of the journey.

The setting assumes you have the Savage Worlds Deluxe core rules and the Science Fiction Companion, although so far I’d say the SFC is optional unless you want to build your own races or hardware.

One of the teaser items is a free-to-download setting primer, a 12-page PDF, so I grabbed that and started comparing it to the SFC…

  • In TLP, the hyperdrive travel times listed in SFC are only valid if the destination has a functioning astrogation beacon for which the navigator has the access codes, which might be freely available, for sale, or closely-guarded secrets. Without access to a beacon at your destination, the trip is longer and more dangerous. (I could see some planets posting commodity prices on the beacon as well as navigational co-ordinates, possibly for an additional fee.)
  • Communication is both possible and near-instantaneous between beacons. Without being relayed through beacons it is slower, but still many times faster than light.
  • Insystem travel is normally done "under conventional power", not by hyperdrive.
  • The Known Worlds do not have a central government, or a common currency. There is however a trade language, Lingua Universal ("uni").
  • The main races are all from the SFC, although Aquarians and Avions didn’t make the grade. Presumably they are still out there somewhere.
  • The interstellar empires from the SFC are both present. Only one is given a size, the rakashan Tazanian Empire, said to be a large one controlling thousands of worlds. (The SFC states that the United Confederation has dozens or hundreds of member worlds, so it looks like the Tazanians are the 800 lb gorilla of the Known Worlds.)

For convenience, the PCs are assumed to work for JumpCorp, a megacorporation reminiscent of the Galactic Taskforce in Star Frontiers – it’s big, it does a bit of everything, and it pays PCs handsomely to do risky jobs for it.

REALITY CHECK

The setting is based in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, in an unspecified time period. The explored volume, the Known Worlds, is said to span the width of the arm (which I quickly found out was about 3,500 light-years) and to contain billions of star systems with thousands of inhabited worlds.

The Atlas of the Universe tells me that that there are somewhere around 80 million stars within 2,000 light-years of Earth, which is a good first approximation to the setting’s volume, making them around 15 light-years apart if evenly spaced through that volume. Of those, current thinking is that 23% are spectral class F, G or K, and one-third of FGK stars will have Earth-like planets in the habitable zone; let’s call that six million such systems in the Known Worlds, averaging 35 light-years apart.

That says to me that most inhabited planets are Earth-like, because needing life-support systems is more expensive than being able to live without them, and as you can tell from a distance which stars are most likely to have naturally habitable worlds, you probably don’t bother with checking the others out – if you want an airless rock, there are plenty of those in your own star system already.

WHAT’S TO LIKE

The thing that appeals most to me about TLP is that you can drop any world or setting into the overall sandbox with little or no effort, so long as you can make it work with FTL radio and a distance-no-object hyperdrive.

More on the individual setting books in late October or early November, when I’ve had a chance to check them out.

Review: Nova Praxis

In a Nutshell: Transhumanist science fiction setting for Savage Worlds, converted from its original game system, FATE. 311 page PDF by Void Star Studios.

To use the setting, you need Savage Worlds Deluxe, the usual pencils, paper and dice. The SW Science Fiction Companion is optional but recommended; you won’t need it, though, unless your game makes heavy use of vehicles, starships or mecha. I Kickstarted this because it looked cool, and indeed it is cool.

CONTENTS

About half the book is used to detail the setting, which is post-scarcity, transhumanist, and hard SF. The basic premise is that humanity creates an AI (called Mimir), which creates all sorts of cool toys nobody really understands, then expires. Earth is rendered uninhabitable by nanomachines run amok, and the few survivors flee to the other worlds of the solar system and a handful of exoplanets.

Nation-states have been replaced by corporate entities which now call themselves Houses and have banded together into a Coalition. Coalition citizens have all their basic needs provided for, but live under constant control and surveillance by the Houses. Those who prefer freedom and privacy, the so-called Apostates, live on the fringes of society, often by illegal means.

The main conflicts in the setting are the open one between the Coalition and the Apostates, the covert war for supremacy between the six great Houses, and the ideological one between transhumanists and those preaching human purity. For convenience, the advice to the GM assumes that the PCs are deniable operatives fighting the covert war (*cough* Shadowrunners *cough*), but other campaign types are certainly possible.

The hard SF aspect of the setting is that with a couple of exceptions (interstellar jumps, artificial gravity) there’s nothing here that isn’t an extrapolation of existing technology. It’s also reflected in the setting rules: Blood and Guts, Critical Failures, and Gritty Damage.

The post-scarcity aspect is reflected in two new characteristics; Rep and Assets. Rep measures how valuable the Coalition thinks you are, while Assets determine what stuff you’ve got stashed; essentially you use Rep to get hold of legal goods, and Assets to barter on the black market. (High-Space is also a post-scarcity setting which assumes free gear assigned by Rep, but simplifies matters by saying your Rep is effectively your Rank – Seasoned, Heroic, or whatever.) Nova Praxis bases Rep and Assets on your initial skills and edges, and increments them as you advance in Rank. Rep and Asset ratings translate into die types you roll to buy things or ask for favours. NPCs can bump your Rep if you’ve impressed them, or damage it if you haven’t; these bumps or hits are in units of 5% of a Rep point, but how many units are applied depends on the NPC’s Rep. This is a clever mechanic, replacing the financial rewards one would find in other settings.

The transhumanist aspect is covered by how characters are created, recreated, and advanced.

Character creation is more difficult if you aren’t familiar with the background, since several key choices rely on an understanding of the setting. The first of these is what kind of character you will play, your "state"; pure, sleeved or SIM (Substrate-Independent Mind). Pure characters retain a human mind and body, sleeved characters exist in a single organic or synthetic body (the "sleeve"), and SIMs are digital entities existing only in virtual reality, interacting with the real world only through Coalition-sponsored sensors and machinery. PCs can move from pure to sleeved or SIM during play, becoming effectively immortal as their consciousness can then be restored from backup, but once they leave the pure state, they can never go back. Sleeved PCs can resleeve themselves in a new body; when they do so, certain Edges and Hindrances are lost, and must be replaced with others in consultation with the GM. A sleeve also has its own attributes, so you need to keep track of both your sleeved PC’s "natural" attributes, and the attributes of the sleeve he or she currently inhabits.

There are no aliens or demihumans in the setting, although you can emulate some of them with sleeves. To offset the advantages of being sleeved or a SIM, pure PCs have access to the Path of Purity, which gives them advantages due to their sheer willpower.

The only Arcane Background in the setting is Savant, representing a sleeved or SIM PC who has hacked the code of his own uploaded mind and so gained power over the technology around him. These abilities are represented as unique "programs" rather than trappings on existing Powers, which is how I would have been tempted to do it. Some of these let you edit other people’s minds, which is no doubt part of the reason Savants are generally distrusted.

The second setting-specific choice is your allegiance, which is to one of the great Houses, or Apostate. (If you choose one of the Houses, you may take an Edge which grants you bonuses on skills the House is renowned for and easier access to goods it specialises in.)

This setting makes significant changes to the core skills, edges and hindrances of Savage Worlds, and adds a number of new ones, too many to detail here. Your state affects which of them you can select.

There is a new secondary statistic, Cohesion, and two additional wound tracks, Fragmentation and Glitches. Cohesion is the PC’s sense of self, and is used as a modifier on rolls to resist Fragmentation, which are triggered when he changes state or resleeves; fragment enough and get a free psychosis, manifesting itself as a new Hindrance. Glitches are what happens to a Savant when his programs fail, collect enough and go offline while your mind reboots. You don’t really need any of those if you’re playing a plain vanilla human, though.

All of this makes character creation more complex than usual; fortunately, there are five iconic, pre-generated PCs to pick up and play; Alexei the Savant, Anders the pure Apostate, Jane the mercenary, Malpheus the SIM, and Reagan the tactical genius.

There’s a ton of gear, which as usual I will gloss over; personal weapons are railguns, coilguns or particle accelerators for the most part, armour consists of basic chassis types to which you can apply features of your choice (much in the same way that the SFC builds vehicles), there’s a range of miscellaneous gear and a section on sleeves and augmenting your original body or sleeve with cyberware. Note that a sleeve can be a clone of your original body, if you so wish. There are a bunch of sample sleeves and drones. Vehicles use the SFC rules, but non-standard mods; fuel is unimportant as they are powered by antimatter reactors. There are some stock designs, and notes on using SFC vehicles.

There are a number of stand-alone plot hooks scattered throughout the book, but the GM’s chapter offers four campaign arcs, as well as a number of factions, secret societies and entities whose existence or activities are not public knowledge, and example NPCs.

Finally, a new character sheet – this is necessary because of the changes Nova Praxis makes to the core rules.

FORMAT

There’s a lot of nice full-colour art, though it’s mostly restricted to chapter frontispieces.

For some reason the entire PDF is form-fillable, and on my PC and tablet at least it is much more sluggish than other PDFs of equivalent size and I have to suppress side windows every time I open it. Not impressed, sorry; this is my biggest gripe about the product.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Does the PDF need to be form-fillable? Does it need to be 78 MB in size?

CONCLUSIONS

This is actually a pretty nifty setting. It makes more changes to the core Savage Worlds rules than I’m entirely comfortable with, but they meld with the setting seamlessly, and SW without modifications wouldn’t work as well here – the pulpy style of the vanilla core rules is better suited to space opera than transhumanism.

Comparing it to the competition…

  • I prefer the setting and mechanics of Nova Praxis to High-Space, although it would still be cool to have starships as PCs.
  • Interface Zero has a richer, more detailed setting, but no starships or exoplanets, and I like my starships.
  • Eclipse Phase is creepier and much more complicated, too complex for me to run I fear.

For my next science-fiction campaign, I have a choice between classic space opera in the vein of Star Wars, or taking Shadowrun a century further into the future and turning the volume up to 11, both of which are attractive in their own way. The former would suit The Last Parsec, the latter Nova Praxis; so it looks like one of those is coming to a gaming table near me shortly – which it will be depends on how The Last Parsec turns out. We’ll know that in a few weeks, stay tuned for a review.

Watershed

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”  – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

2014 has been a watershed year for me, and my blog is changing as a result.

First, there have been a number of fatal and near-fatal incidents amongst kith and kin. The Grim Reaper isn’t exactly knocking on my door, but he’s definitely in the neighbourhood, and we’ll be tidying up after him for a few years yet. Time feels more scarce and precious than ever now.

Second, with the youngest of my children now at university, my life is moving into its third act, and with the group now scattered to the four winds, it feels like a good time to make a change.

Third, looking back on my posts over the last six years, there are not many with lasting value. And that’s okay; gaming is a performance art, an ephemeral and transient thing. So I’ll work through the blog over the next few weeks, editing and culling.

Where is all this heading? The first and second points encourage a drive to fewer, simpler games, and thence to the third point, culling the blog to reflect that sharpened focus. However grim and hectic things have been, I’ve still made time for Savage Worlds, so that obviously stays, along with its most inspirational setting Beasts & Barbarians; as for the rest of ‘em, I really don’t know at this point.

“I’ve bought meself a moped; I’ve made meself some sandwiches. Let’s see what’s out there, shall we?”  – Alexei Sayle’s Stuff

Review: Interface Zero 2.0

“If you’re looking for more detailed rules for cyberspace, check out Interface Zero 2.0 by Gun Metal Games.” – Savage Worlds Science Fiction Companion

In a Nutshell: THE cyberpunk and near-future setting for Savage Worlds. ‘Nuff said. Published by Gun Metal Games.

CONTENTS

This is a 320 page PDF, so these are the highlights rather than a blow-by-blow account of each chapter.

Character creation follows the usual Savage Worlds approach, although the designers recommend using skill specialisations and giving PCs an extra 5 skill points to help that along. There are 16 archetypes for those like me who just want to jump in and play. As SF settings go, Interface Zero leans towards hard SF, so you’ll find no orcs here; but available races include hybrids, characters whose DNA has been spliced with that of various animals, and you can use those to match Shadowrun races or the Intelligent Gerbil races common in space opera. You can also play an android, bioroid, cyborg, simulacrum, vanilla human or genetically-engineered human, although the setting stops short of full-on digital PCs existing only as substrate-independent software. Psionics is permitted as an Arcane Background.

There’s the usual crop of new edges and hindrances. I tend to gloss over these as part of a conscious decision to stay as close to the core rules as possible (which simplifies the learning curve for the whole group, including me), but they cover everything I’d need to adapt any genre story I’m familiar with except Johnny Mnemonic’s amnesia; I suppose you could do that with Clueless, actually.

There’s a huge gear chapter, which includes flavour text on the various manufacturers. As you’d expect, this is heavy on weapons (ranging from knives through chainswords to particle beam rifles); cyberware (and there is a new derived stat, Strain, which limits how much you can install); and drones. There are also a small range of robots, various drugs, and both standard mecha and rules for building custom ones. More unusual is the section on entertainment products and fast food joints.

The chapters on The World and The Solar System are 160 pages of intricate, interlocking setting information that I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised even after several readings, dripping with plot hooks. I’m not even going to try to summarise them, other than to say they are very, very good.

The game master section has random adventure and gang generators, city trappings (tags which affect how the PCs’ skills etc operate in that area), and advice on how to run the game, notably what type of missions a group would be offered and how much they would get paid, both depending on the party’s rank; a group of Novices might be offered Cr 500 apiece to do some leg-breaking, while a group of Legendary characters might be offered Cr 125,000 each to assassinate a corporate CEO.

It’s worth noting that the Pinnacle’s own Science Fiction Companion refers to this as the go-to product for detailed cyberspace rules.

FORMAT

This is a layered PDF, meaning you can switch off the background layer to make it more printer-friendly. There’s a lot of full-colour artwork – I’m tempted to call it "lavishly illustrated".

Flavour text is often written as if it were an online debate between characters in the setting, which works well, especially as a means to get across multiple views of the same topic, any of which could be the truth in your campaign.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There are a few places where terms are used before they’re defined. This isn’t a huge problem, keep reading and in a few pages all is revealed. It’d be nice to have some sort of sidebar or appendix with a glossary, though.

CONCLUSIONS

When I started reading Interface Zero, I thought "This is the Savage Worlds version of Shadowrun," and indeed it can be if that’s what you want; but it’s much more than that. Beyond its own lavish backstory and setting, this is a toolkit you can use for almost any near-future science fiction game – the one thing it doesn’t cover is starships. You could use it for Neuromancer, Judge Dredd, Mad Max, Shadowrun, Outland, Blade Runner, Deus Ex, System Shock, Dark Angel, and others; I’ve seriously considered adding starships and using it as the core of a space opera game in a similar vein to 2300AD.

This is a solid product, well-crafted and inspiring, the best science fiction setting for Savage Worlds I have seen yet, and it’s now the yardstick against which I will measure all the others. The main thing that stops me running it is that we also play Shadowrun occasionally, and I don’t want to tread on that GM’s toes.

#RPGaDay

“Make every song you sing your favourite tune.” – The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

I’m late to the party on this one, but just for fun, this is what I would have posted day by day if I’d been paying attention to the challenge…

1st – First RPG Played: Original D&D. We’re talking the 1974 edition of the white box here, although I didn’t actually start playing until 1976.

2nd – First RPG Gamemastered: Original D&D.

3rd – First RPG Purchased: Original D&D.

4th – Most recent RPG purchase: Interface Zero 2.0 cyberpunk setting for Savage Worlds.

5th – Most Old School RPG owned: Original D&D. Although I have lost the box and quick reference sheets now. C’mon, WotC, re-release the PDF already. You know you want to.

6th – Favourite RPG Never get to play: Fortunately, over the last 3-4 years I’ve been able to play pretty much whatever I like; the only limitation has been what we can fit into our schedules.

7th – Most “intellectual” RPG owned: A tie for this one: Vampire the Masquerade, Dogs in the Vineyard and The One Ring, all of which take me a long way out of my action-adventure comfort zone, deep into narrativist territory. For some reason, I associate “intellectual” with “narrativist” (and Ingmar Berman films; I feel sure Vampire is the RPG Bergman would’ve played).

8th – Favourite character: Volshen, the Favoured of the Slug. A barking mad, slug-worshipping, thief-hating wizard with a slug familiar. His NPC sidekick was, of course, a thief, who lived in terror of his secret being discovered. Many years of bizarre fun were sadly terminated when I failed to realise the artefact under construction in the dwarven city was a primitive atomic bomb. Oops.

9th – Favourite Die / Dice Set: I have a set of percentile dice from 1976, NavWar I think, which I’ve used as d20s for nearly 40 years now. My wife bought me a pair of small, silver d6 as a gift some years ago, which have great sentimental value, but are too valuable to be "working dice".

10th – Favourite tie-in Novel / Game Fiction: The Man of Gold by M.A.R. Barker, set in his game world of Tekumel. Very close behind that, Oath of Swords by David Weber – not explicitly game fiction, but by the end of it you’d be able to identify the class and approximate level of all the main characters under D&D, and take a good guess at what the spellcasters had memorised.

11th – Weirdest RPG owned: Amber. I don’t really get diceless RPGs, I’m afraid. I have nothing against them, they are just a language I don’t speak.

12th – Old RPG you still play / read: Original D&D. Most years, the old D&D crew from University days gets together for a marathon weekend session. These days, a few of our kids join in too. It’s the highlight of the gaming year for me.

13th – Most Memorable Character Death: My fighter facing off against an ancient red dragon while the rest of the party ran away. And then hiding behind a rock once they were out of sight… it didn’t help.

14th – Best Convention Purchase: Original D&D. I got the white box and all the supplements then available at a con in London in 1976 for £20, which was serious money in those days.

15th – Favourite Convention Game: Playing the NPC mad scientist in one of the scenarios at AmberCon, a long time ago. The PCs had decided I was a harmless old man, being unjustly persecuted, until they realised what I was building in the basement could destroy the universe if my calculations were off by a smidgen. It was FOR SCIENCE, you philistines!

16th – Game you wish you owned: SpaceQuest. I used to own this, but it went walkabout a few years ago. I keep meaning to replace it and Savage the setting.

17th – Funniest Game you’ve played: Paranoia. There are only two games that have made me laugh out loud just from reading them; this is one. The other was the Dying Earth RPG, in case you’re interested.

18th – Favourite Game System: This has evolved over the years… In sequence, OD&D (1976), Classic Traveller (1977-1985), 2300AD (1986-2006), True20 (2007-2008), and most recently Savage Worlds (2009 to date). Dates in parentheses are those during which I would’ve said it was my favourite game system. Now that I look at that, the one that held sway the longest was 2300AD, which is not what I would’ve said if I hadn’t checked my records.

19th – Favourite Published Adventure: Death of a Tyrant (GRAmel) for Savage Worlds. We had an absolute blast playing that.

20th – Will still play in 20 years time: Yes, but I’m not sure what; it will depend on who I’m still playing with, since that matters more to me than what we play. The older I get, the more my gaming interests drift from science fiction towards fantasy, I’m not entirely sure why, so most likely some kind of fantasy setting using D&D (9th edition no doubt) or Savage Worlds. Let’s see when I get there.

21st – Favourite Licensed RPG: Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, 2nd Edition; or if you want something licenced from outside gaming, the West End Games version of Star Wars.

22nd – Best Secondhand RPG Purchase: SpaceQuest. A little-known gem whose concepts can still be seen in Space Opera and Stars Without Number, if you know where to look.

23rd – Coolest looking RPG product / book: AD&D Second Edition. The internal artwork in this was just superb.

24th – Most Complicated RPG Owned: Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, 3rd Edition. I would never GM this, because it’s too complicated and has too many fiddly little bits; I only play it because that’s what the main gaming group I play in now prefers.

25th – Favourite RPG no one else wants to play: Again, I’m lucky here; the group I’ve been GMing for will try anything, it’s just a question of what we can fit in, as we only play every few weeks.

26th – Coolest character sheet: The sheets for the pregenerated characters in the Pathfinder Beginner Box. Normally, I create my own, and practicality generally trumps coolness.

27th – Game You’d like to see a new / improved edition of: I’d like to see a Savage Worlds science fiction setting done properly, one that inspires me as much as the Beasts & Barbarians fantasy setting. I hope that either Nova Praxis or The Last Parsec will do that; but there really ought to be a licenced setting for the Dumarest Saga, ideally for Savage Worlds or Traveller.

28th – Scariest Game you’ve played: Games don’t scare me personally, but my group stopped playing All Things Zombie because it was giving one of the players nightmares.

29th – Most memorable encounter: There are so many of these, but if I had to pick just one: Persuading a group of ogres in Moria that they should give us all their gold to save themselves from heavy metal poisoning.

30th – Rarest RPG Owned: The original 1977 edition of Classic Traveller, at least since my copies of SpaceQuest and Ringworld went walkabout.

31st – Favourite RPG of all time: Original D&D. The most fun and the best memories came from playing this in the 1970s; I’ve been trying to recreate that ambience ever since, but I suspect the feeling was more about being young and playing with those particular people than it was about the game itself, so I doubt that even going full-on Old School would help.

By The Numbers

Before I drill too much into individual worlds, let’s make a few assumptions and see what we can deduce from the map and the SWN world generation rules. Quite a bit, as it turns out…

NEW WORLDS AND NEW CIVILISATIONS

Now that I’ve reinstated the double stars, there are 59 systems on the map; 2 Homeworlds, 8 Primary (naturally habitable), 39 Secondary and 10 Tertiary. For this first pass I assign Homeworlds a population of billions, Primary millions, Secondary hundreds of thousands and Tertiary no population at all.

Statistically in SWN, one would expect 59 systems to include 3.28 with populations of billions, 11.47 with millions, 26.22 with hundreds of thousands, 11.47 with tens of thousands, 1.64 with alien civilisations, and 4.92 with either outposts or failed colonies. So we’re a bit light on high population worlds and a bit heavy on uninhabited ones, but not unbelievably so. About a third of the Secondary systems should have populations in the tens of thousands, but as you’ll see it makes very little difference at the sector level.

Meanwhile, I already know that I want to use rakashans and saurians as well as humans in this campaign, and statistically that is already slightly too many alien races for this many worlds, so that’s all I need.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

I derived the cultures for the systems by looking up the world names in Google and selecting the closest culture in SWN for the world concerned – you’ll see the details of that reasoning later as I look at each area of the map in turn, but for now we get the following:

  • Arabic culture: 8 worlds, 1,002,500,000 inhabitants (49.84% of the total).
  • Chinese culture: 3 worlds, 300,000 inhabitants (0.01%).
  • English culture: 15 worlds, 700,000 inhabitants (0.03%). Six of these worlds are N1-N6 in the Dark Nebula, and another two are tertiary systems outside the Nebula; perhaps those should not be counted.
  • Indian culture: 5 worlds, 1,400,000 inhabitants (0.07%).
  • Japanese culture: 2 worlds, 1,000,000,000 inhabitants (49.71%). One of these is a tertiary system with no inhabitants.
  • Nigerian culture: 7 worlds, 1,500,000 inhabitants (0.07%). Again, one is a tertiary system.
  • Russian culture: 11 worlds, 3,600,000 inhabitants (0.18%). Two of these are tertiary systems.
  • Spanish culture: 8 worlds, 1,600,000 inhabitants (0.08%). One of these is tertiary.

The only inhabited world with a definitely Japanese name is Kuzu, and we already know that is inhabited by aslan – errm, sorry, rakashans. So it’s tempting to do what I did with my last 2300AD campaign and have the aslan – sorry, rakashans – be a life-form genetically engineered from human and feline DNA by Japanese scientists. That would explain them having a vaguely Japanese culture and let me use the Japanese name tables, because no other worlds will need them.

You can see from the table that over 99% of the sector’s population is concentrated in the regional hegemons.

LANGUAGES

It’s actually quite hard to find out how many speakers a language has in a given country, so I assumed an even split between them by culture. This gives me the following, in descending order of speaker base:

  • Arabic: 1,002,500,000 speakers.
  • Japanese (or whatever the rakashans actually speak): 1,000,000,000 speakers.
  • English: 3,600,000 speakers, of whom 81% speak it as a second language.
  • Russian: 3,600,000 speakers, as many as English but more concentrated.
  • Spanish: 1,600,000 speakers.
  • Hindi: 1,400,000 speakers, most of them on Gazzain so this may be an overstatement as that’s where I’m going to park the saurians.
  • Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba: 233,333 speakers each.
  • Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese: 150,000 speakers each.

SWN states that all PCs speak English, certainly all the players do, and there is a long tradition of English as the language of air traffic control which it seems reasonable to extend to space travel as well. So the idea occurs to me that a disproportionate fraction of ship crews are English-speaking people, with enclaves at most starports; this gives the players a reason to work together, as they are members of an ethnic minority, much like gypsies or Sephardic Jews.

GIMME THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION

It’s always a bit risky including actual religions in games – one reason most of them don’t do it – as you may offend potential players; but made-up ones have never felt right to me in science-fiction games, especially if I’m using real-world cultures.

So I assumed religions in the sector are split roughly along cultural lines, again with an even mix in cultures that have multiple religions, as finding the actual numbers of worshippers is more work than I want to do. This gives me the following:

  • Islam: 1,003,310,000 worshippers.
  • Buddhism: 500,410,000 worshippers, of which 500,000 are rakashans on Kuzu. Maybe they picked it up from Japanese genetic engineers, maybe I apply a trapping to make it less obviously human.
  • Shinto: 500,000,000 worshippers, all on Kuzu. Same comments.
  • Christianity: 6,560,000 worshippers.
  • Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism: 350,000 worshippers each.
  • Traditional Nigerian religions (assorted): 150,000 worshippers.
  • Confucianism, Taoism: 60,000 worshippers each.

REFLECTIONS

It’s amazing how much the campaign unpacks itself just from the map and the names, no?