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?

Space Travel, Trade and Encounters

In the same way that the default D&D campaign was about plundering an underground complex, the default Traveller campaign was about a small starship trading from world to world and getting into trouble while it did so; and that seems like as good a spine as any to hang a Savage Worlds SF game on.

The Science Fiction Companion is easily understandable when it comes to ship construction and combat, less so for travel, trade and encounters. Let’s look at each of those in turn before we start rolling dice, shall we?

TRAVEL

On first checking the rules for travel and upkeep in the Science Fiction Companion, it seemed it was always cheaper in the long run to burn extra fuel to arrive on the day of the hyperjump, because the cost of the crew’s wages is more than the cost of fuel. Experimentation showed this was wrong, for two reasons; first, you pay your crew once per month, but you have to replace fuel more often than that if you burn extra. Second, the cost of the extra fuel has to be less than the profit you expect to make on your cargo, or you will go broke within a few months. You’re likely to do that anyway, as you’ll see in the next section, although it takes longer if you don’t pay your crew.

It also seemed that the Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make the hyperjump was dramatically uninteresting, because all failure does is delay the jump by a few minutes, and unless you’re being pursued by rakashan pirates or about to be eaten by a giant mutant star goat, it’s not worth rolling. Again, that’s not quite right; it matters how much you eventually succeed by, as raises on the astrogation roll reduce transit time and hence operating costs.

You need a good pilot to survive and prevail in combat, but you need a good astrogator to make a profit. Since presumably you want the astrogator to be better than the ship’s AI, he or she will likely have Scholar and the prerequisite d8 skill.

TRADE

The intriguing thing about Savage Worlds trading (SFC p. 28) is that it has nothing to do with the characters or the planet they’re on. This makes it extremely portable; it’s a subset of rules with no connection to anything else at all.

After trying a few dozen trading voyages off-camera, I came to the conclusion that this also means that you go broke fast unless you have a number of possible destinations and know what the prices are going to be at at each one; if you don’t, on average luck over a long period you break even on the trading rolls, but it costs you money to move the ship around, so you make a loss overall.

Therefore, co-operation between trader ships is advantageous; they will share prices in some way. A government might operate subsidised ships of its own, or might pay for pricing information which it then shares on a Commodity Board at the starport, to encourage trade and thus boost its economy. A merchant’s guild might jealously guard the information, only sharing it between members. A large trading corporation might have the resources to do this itself, so the co-operation might be entirely internal to the organisation.

Whatever form the organisation takes, one of its primary functions is to collect price data from nearby worlds on a monthly basis (the prices change each month) and share them. This is limited to worlds within one jump of home, though, as by the time the typical ship has gone two jumps, collected local prices and returned, loaded up the best cargo and jumped back, the prices have changed, so there’s no point.

The organisation therefore has at least one ship per neighbouring world that basically does nothing but carry mail and news between the homeworld and its neighbours, and an extra one or two undergoing maintenance or repairs. These ships are as small as possible, since this minimises their operating costs on all fronts. Since there are ships (probably armed) scuttling around neighbouring systems on a regular basis, those systems count as "patrolled" for purposes of random encounters – see below for more on that.

Each ship trots out to an adjacent world at the beginning of the month, carrying something it hopes it can sell at a markup, then comes back. They share information, and then all make the most profitable run they can for the rest of the month; if there’s enough money to be made, the ships may burn extra fuel to reduce transit time, so that they can make more runs before the prices change.

Now, while it’s logical for these little ships to trade and thus offset their operating costs, they can’t be expected to make a profit, for the reasons stated above. So, like Traveller’s subsidised merchants, each ship has an Operating Cost Position – essentially, an amount the organisation will tolerate it losing. I reason this would cover fuel for daily operations and two hyperjumps per month (one out, one back), provisions, and crew salaries, but not additional hyperjumps or burning extra fuel to reduce transit time. Crews which lose less than their OCP are considered good; crews that consistently lose more than their OCP are replaced.

RANDOM ENCOUNTERS

The SFC doesn’t cover these at all, although Savage Worlds itself calls for drawing a card if travelling through an area that isn’t patrolled. If one were using random encounters, the logical point at which to check is on arrival in a new system.

By the above reasoning, any world acting as a trade hub effectively patrols all its neighbouring worlds (those within one hyperspace jump), so there are no space encounters there.

Beyond that, hostile encounters are possible; my thinking is that in most cases the setting will tell you what PCs should encounter; raiders, over-zealous patrol ships, pirates and so on, according to where the GM has placed those; my instinct is that consistency in this will be more useful in the long run than creating complex tables. ("Let’s not go to Tortuga, we always get hit by pirates there.")

REFLECTIONS

I can see I’m not going to want to track this in detail in the face to face game; while the characters spend a lot of time obsessing about trade goods and markets, the players neither need to nor should.

However, whether you call them scouts, couriers or trade pioneers, you could easily construct a campaign around one of the small price-checking starships, with the PCs as the crew. Start at the base world, visit one of its neighbours and have an adventure, come back and tell your patron what the prices are like there. If you make a profit, so much the better.

Faction Turn 1: January 3200

In turn one, all factions build Surveyors, as they are the only unit which can (a) move without costing their faction more money, (b) move two hexes on the starmap, and (c) require a low attribute to buy – the other alternatives don’t have all those advantages. Smugglers, for example, are cheaper to buy and have a similar range and attribute requirement, but you have to pay FacCreds to move them.

The Hierate builds its surveyors at Panas, the Confederation at Gazzain, and Mizah on Mizah (as it has no other choice).

Hierate: Income 7, spend 4, balance 3. Goal: Expand Influence on Valka; that’s the nearest primary system with good land to grab.

Confederation: Income 7, spend 4, balance 3. Goal: Expand Influence on Hasara; the Hierate is coming for Solomani land, and this is the most distant system where Confed can guarantee to set up a Base of Influence before the Hierate can, thus hopefully blocking their movement. Confed will then work its way back along the Hasara Chain building up influence on all worlds, with a view to their eventual absorption.

Mizah: Income 4, spend 4, balance 0. Goal: Expand Influence on Hasara; Mizah sees the Hasara Chain and Triangular Route as its pre-eminent sphere of influence, and correctly divining Confed’s plan, intends to get there first.

How does this manifest itself for the PCs? Well, they’re on Mizah, so it will be at least February before they can learn of the Confed surveyors, and March before they know about the Hierate ones. However, this is playing on the holovid in the corner of the bar where they hang out between scenarios:

“Preceptor Adept Aisha Tabari of the Great Archive announced today at a news conference in Sinqit that President Jibril Shadi has agreed to the proposed massive expansion of the Mizah Survey Service, allowing the Archive to carry its advice and services to worlds along the Hasara Chain and Triangular Route. The MSS is now acquiring a number of ships for this purpose and hiring crews at Sinqit Starport.”

Movers and Shakers

"Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"
"Same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!"
- Pinky and the Brain

Before I kick off the Dark Nebula campaign in earnest, I need a view of the local factions.

It’s tempting to make up all kinds of custom factions, but at this stage I want to move quickly into actual play without worrying about whether the factions are sensibly designed or not, so I pick three template factions from SWN p. 127; the Aslanic Hierate (Regional Hegemon), the Solomani Confederation (Regional Hegemon) and the planetary government of Mizah (Backwater Planet). The Regional Hegemons each begin the game with the Planetary Government tag for all the worlds in their pocket empire.

I want the Dark Nebula system type for a world to be reflected in its government faction, and the simplest way to do this is to say that homeworlds are Regional Hegemons, primary systems are Backwater Planets, and secondary systems are Colony Worlds. Tertiary systems have no worlds, therefore no populations and hence no factions. For the most part, the planetary government factions will just sit there, waiting to provide opposition to the three active factions.

WHY MEN FIGHT

I now need to know the factions’ motivations, since that will both determine their goals and actions in game terms, and make them seem more real to the players.

Aslanic Hierate: Landgrab

In line with Classic Traveller canon, aslan are obsessed with owning land. If there is unoccupied land, preferably on a primary world, they will occupy it. If the only decent land they can get at is already occupied, they will fight for it. Aslan expansion therefore consists of creating Bases of Influence anywhere they can, starting with the primary worlds. The cheapest way to do this is to build Surveyors and send them to each world in turn to Expand Influence there. Once that’s done, they will happily spend their FacCreds upgrading the Bases, representing the expansion of aslan clanholds on the world.

Solomani Confederation: Reunify

As the spiritual heir to the Celestial Empire in my earlier campaigns, the Confederation seeks to restore the lost glories of the Terran Mandate, reuniting humanity under a single banner – this time, theirs. Their long-term aim is therefore Planetary Seizure of every system on the map. It’s faster and cheaper in most cases to do this by building Surveyors, using them to create Bases of Influence, and then building other assets for conquest at those Bases – otherwise they would have to spend faction turns and FacCreds just moving military units into place. Seizing control of systems is neatly Difficulty 3 for a homeworld or primary system, 2 for a secondary, and 1 for a tertiary.

Government of Mizah: Spread the Word

Mizah is comfortable with the status quo, thank you very much; it has a nice home, a comfortable income, and an honourable and altruistic purpose. To pursue its objective of sharing knowledge with its neighbours, it will also plant Bases of Influence offworld, and again the cheapest way over three or more turns is a unit of Surveyors. In philosophy, Mizah is closer to the Confederation, but its methods are closer to those of the Hierate. Its ambitions are also limited to a specific group of worlds, whereas the other two factions both want to dominate the entire map.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

It’s expensive both in FacCreds and actions to move assets around, so they need to be placed sensibly to begin with.

Mizah

  • Everything starts on Mizah. There’s no other option.

The Hegemons

  • Space Marines: Panas (Hierate) and Gazzain (Confed). They have to start inside the faction’s home turf, but they’re strike units, they’re no good at home.
  • Planetary Defences: On the homeworlds, Kuzu and Maadin. These need to be defended, and there are too many potential routes to the homeworlds to block with the available units.
  • Blockade Fleet: Gazzain and Bors. These are a bit of a white elephant really, they need to be refitted into something that can move two hexes.
  • Extended Theatre: These need to begin on the faction’s borders, and quickly move up to a transport nexus nearby but on the outside. The Hierate would be best served if theirs were at Dno, the Confederation needs theirs to be at Bulan until they have pacified that area; so the Extended Theatre units start at Panas and Kamat.
  • Pretech Manufactory: Maadin and Kuzu. These are probably a big part of why the Hegemons are Hegemons.
  • Shipping Combine: Wherever the Extended Theatre went, the Shipping Combine needs to be on the other main route out of faction territory. That puts the Hierate one at Bors, and the Confed one at Gazzain.
  • Tripwire Cells: These may as well stay at home to defend against stealthed infiltration units.
  • Cyberninjas: Panas and Gazzain. I’m not quite sure what to do with these, but those locations give the most options.

We can see from this that the biggest naval base in the region is at Gazzain, and the second-biggest at Panas.

REFLECTIONS

I’ve tried running macro-level wargames or boardgames to provide setting background before, and the game has always collapsed under the weight of record-keeping required. However, I think SWN factions will be different, as they can only do one thing each per turn, so record-keeping is fairly basic – at most three assets per turn move, usually less.

If the factions were merely level grinding, they’d all go for the nearest system and set up a Base of Influence for a quick experience point; but these moves seem more aligned to their known mindsets.

Finally, notice that I don’t need to know anything about the worlds to pick factions and set them at each other’s throats.

Mizah

After rereading the rules for my various science fiction RPGs, and experimenting a little off camera, I came to the conclusion that for the kind of game I want to run, SWN world generation, faction rules, and setting background will give me the most fun for the least effort. There is almost no mechanical interaction between those and the PC-level rules, so Savage Worlds PCs and SWN worlds and factions can co-exist peacefully without requiring any complex rules interfaces.

The PCs’ home world is going to be Mizah, and I have a very clear idea of what I want to do with it; so I move directly to assigning stats without worrying about dice rolls.

WHY MIZAH?

  • It’s naturally habitable.
  • It has routes to six other systems, making it the best-connected primary system on the map and making offworld travel simple when the PCs start to do that. This is also why it’s a trade hub.
  • It isn’t aligned to either the Hierate or the Confederation, but would be a valuable ally to either. Enter intrigue and espionage, stage left, but with the PCs having a free hand as to which faction they support. This is the “offworld faction trying to seize control complication for the trade hub” tag in action.
  • It’s only a few weeks’ travel away from either the insectoid Hive of space bugs (off-map past Simba) or the mysteries of the Dark Nebula itself.

MIZAH

Atmosphere: Breathable mix. Temperature: Temperate. Biosphere: Human-miscible, dominated by giant beetle analogues (the players told me this, during Back in Black). Population: Millions. Tech Level: 4. Tags: Preceptor Archive, Trade Hub. Culture: Arabic (“Mizah” means “joke” in Turkish, and the closest culture to Turkish in baseline SWN is Arabic).

Mizah’s government is a representative democracy; the current president is Jibril Shadi. (As recommended by SWN, the base world gets a representative democracy because how it works will be instinctively familiar to the likely players. President Shadi’s name is courtesy of a couple of dice rolls on the Arabic names table in SWN.)

When the Scream came, Mizah managed somehow to hold things together, thanks to the joint efforts of the Great Archive outpost and the planetary government. During the Silence, the Mizah Survey Service worked closely with the Archive to keep the flame of civilisation burning, however weakly, along the Hasara Chain and the Triangular Route, acting as a cultural bridge and provider of news and technical (especially medical) advice. Local populations therefore look on it fondly for the most part, although of course there are those who infer sinister conspiracies.

  • Hasara Chain: Hasara, Tangga, Salia, Kov, Mizah.
  • Triangular Route: Mizah, Simba, Omaro, Umuru.

These worlds will all have Tech Level 4, as a result of the Great Archive’s “missionary” work along those routes.

Places to Visit

  • Sinqit starport, whose wide, open plazas bustle with activity.
  • Charshi Market, a raucous bazaar on the edge of the starport whose coffee-houses are frequented by ship’s crews on shore leave and adventurers on the make.
  • The Great Archive lecture hall in the centre of Sinqit City and its quasi-religious ceremonies.

REFLECTIONS

The campaign is likely to develop over three phases. In the first phase, the PCs will be limited to Mizah, since they have no ship and no shipboard skills. In phase two, they will escape into local space, which effectively means the Hasara Chain (Hasara-Tangga-Salia-Kov-Mizah) and the Triangular Route (Simba-Omaro/Umuru-Mizah); the Hive of space bugs can turn them back at Simba, the Solomani military can stop them going past Gazzain, there’s nothing to do in the Nebula so far as they know and Daanarni can have a flare or something if they try to go that way. In phase three, all bets are off and they can go anywhere on the map.

So, I needed to know what Mizah is like right away, and should soon have some idea about eight other worlds; the other fifty-odd star systems may never come into play from the PCs’ perspective, although Maadin and Kuzu cast long shadows and are easy enough to generate, as the fact of being a Regional Hegemon dictates most of a world’s statistics.

You’ll note I’ve swerved from the CT Long Night as the historical background to the SWN Scream and Silence. Dramatically, these are much the same – worlds re-emerging into space 600 years after a great human empire collapsed – and experience teaches me the players will neither notice nor care, so I may as well go with the path of least effort, which means the SWN world and faction rules claimed the background followed them home and asked if they could keep it.

Flack, Z+199: The Only Easy Day

"The only easy day was yesterday." – US Navy SEALs.

With my other half out of the country and my boy studying hard for exams next month, I had a little extra time this weekend just gone; and how better to use it than killing zombies?

7th July, 2013. The boys are back in town, looking for supplies but expecting to find zeds. Flack is bringing along Hardcase, Wannabe and Pugh; Wannabe needs to start earning his keep, and the other two are reliable enough. That leaves the other Pugh and Dibble guarding the land rover off-map.

SETUP

This is a Take Back scenario in daylight, in an urban area (ER 5). Take Back is risky as I have to clear the board to win, but I figure if the group is staying in town for a month, an early priority would be to secure a base of operations. As it’s a new area, I check for available supplies using the rules on p. 57; this area has 16 Body Armour, 59 Food, 29 Fuel, 53 Luxury Items, 18 Medical Supplies, and 41 Weapons.

The team move 8" onto the board and I place zombies and PEFs (dice on their own in the middle of sections, see picture below). In an urban area, there are 1d6+1 zeds per human, so 4d6+4 against the group today; we roll well, and there are only 14 of them, 4 at 4 o’clock, 2 at 6 o’clock, 2 at 8 o’clock, 2 at 10 o’clock, 4 at 12 o’clock.

You’ll see I’m using my shiny new City Deck and Risks & Rewards Deck for this game, and pawns from the Zombies!!! boardgame. Flack is Red, the Rep 4 Pugh is blue, Hardcase is green and Wannabe is yellow.

FZ199-01

TURN 1

Activation: Flack 4, Zeds 2.

Firstly, Flack can see the PEF in section 4, so I resolve it. I roll 5, 3 and given the ER of the area is 5, we’ve found something and I go to the contact tables to find out what. It turns out to be three more zeds.

Flack & Co. fast move into the Bar None. (They don’t need the extra movement, but it does make them harder to hit if anyone shoots, so I do it habitually now.) Well, what else are you gonna do in the Zombie Apocalypse?  You certainly need a drink by this stage.

I don’t bother drawing a card from the Risks & Rewards deck because initial placement put two zeds inside. We take the Charge into Melee test; Flack passes 2d6, Pugh 2d6, Hardcase 2d6, and Wannabe 0d6. Wannabe panics and opens fire with his machine pistol, missing with all three shots (not hard if you’re a fast-moving Rep 2) and generating two more zeds.

"If you fire that thing again," Pugh says, "I’m going to make you eat it."

"Can I kill him, boss?" Hardcase wants to know.

But there’s no time for that. The rest of them are attacking the zeds in melee, giving them +1 success, and the zeds are at -1d6 because of the excellent rolls from the team. Flack kills his outright, and the other fights Hardcase to a standstill until Pugh takes it Out Of the Fight which is the same as dead for a zed.

While this is going on, the two PEFs both pass 2d6 and move up two zones. The zeds move one zone, which brings three of them into contact, barging into the Bar None behind our Heroes. Oops, I should have seen that coming. More melee, and the team is at -2d6 on the Charge Into Melee test because they’re hit from behind. As we’re rolling 2d6 + 1d6 (Survivors) – 2d6 (hit from behind), all open fire. I really do have to take that MP off Wannabe, it’s physically impossible for him to hit with his Rep, all he can do is draw more zeds. The rest of them fare a little better; Flack kills one, Pugh knocks one down, and Hardcase embarrasses himself by missing everything. Four more zeds rock up, drawn by the gunfire.

The rest of the zeds march to the sound of the guns, creating a target-rich environment.

FZ199-02

TURN 2

Activation: Flack 5, zeds 4. This means only the zeds who can see humans will move; that’s basically the ones in front of the Bar None.

On the basis that there are more zeds in front of the bar than behind it, Flack leads the crew out the back door, fast-moving, and behind the Cornerstone Coffee House. This will leave them facing five zeds, but the alternatives are (a) facing 17 zeds, or (b) barricading themselves inside the Bar None and watching hopelessly as every zed on the table moves up and batters at the doors. No thanks.

More melee? Well, if you insist… Everyone except Wannabe passes 2d6, so opens fire, but Wannabe only gets one shot. Of course he misses, although I still roll in the vain hope that he runs out of ammo, but luckily no more zeds appear. That’s a small mercy, as the remaining 16 zeds now know where we are. Flack knocks two down, Pugh kills two, Hardcase kills one. Good enough. All that gunfire draws six more zeds; we have to stop doing that, but unfortunately you don’t always get a choice.

FZ199-03

TURN 3

Activation: Flack 3, zeds 2. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. The crew zip into the side entrace for Downtown Parking at a fast-move, Wannabe trailing as he passes 0d6. What’s inside? I draw a card from the R&R deck and discover it’s a brace of Casters. I’m not using those – they’re from High Rise to Hell, which I don’t have yet – and not knowing how many there are in the deck, I decide to treat them as no encounter and drive on. We’re not stopping to loot with that many zeds on our tail, so that ends the team’s activation.

The zeds move to wherever they think we might be, and the PEFs close up as far as they can without breaking cover.

At this point I check the time and discover I’m just under an hour in, halfway through the target time for the encounter. Even allowing for my being rusty, it looks like the full 16 cards is going to be too many for a typical game for me. Let’s see how things go.

FZ199-04

TURN 4

Activation: Flack 2, zeds 1. The team fast-move across the street (fortunately the zed in the road is facing the other way) and into Gilligan’s Tavern, where they find – three vampires?!? More High Rise to Hell stuff, and this time I decide to redraw and get four zeds.

Naturally, Wannabe panics and fires, drawing two more zeds. Flack kicks one zombie OOF, Hardcase kills another, the third knocks down Pugh who rolls boxcars on his Recover From Knock Down test and is Obviously Dead. Oh no! Continuing the roll of extreme luck, Wannabe kills the final zed.

The team takes a Man Down test as they react to the loss of Pugh. Flack, as a star, can choose his result and passes 2d6. The rest get the benefit of Flack’s leader die; Hardcase rolls 2, 3, 3 and passes 2d6; he carries on. Wannabe rolls 5, 4, 3 and Runs Away, so he is removed from the table.

FZ199-05

TURN 5

Activation: Flack 3, zeds 4. Only the zed in Gilligan’s activates, as none of the others can see a human. It’s already in melee, and Flack kills again, clubbing it viciously with his rifle until Hardcase pulls him off.

"He’s gone, Captain. He’s gone."

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Flack composes himself. Scanning the area, he can see, or knows of, over 20 zombies, and there’s only him and Hardcase left. Time to go.

"Right," Flack says, with the merest hint of a catch in his voice. "Follow me," and the pair of them fast-move off the board.

AFTERMATH

Wannabe rolls 3, 3 vs Rep 2 for After The Battle recovery; he never makes it back to camp. The team never find out what happened to him, but given his flaky Rep it’s not likely to be anything good.

Hardcase and Flack roll to see if they lose Rep as a result of failure, but neither does. They have both lost men before, and no doubt will lose them again.

The rest of the crew reflect on whether to stay with Flack once he breaks the news about Wannabe and Pugh; not his best day in command ever. Flack himself is rolling 5d6 for Rep, an additional 1d6 as he is a Born Leader, but -1d6 as he lost a man this trip. He scores 4 successes (rolls of 1-3).

Dibble is not rolling to leave the group any more. Hardcase rolls 5d6, -2d6 because he has been with Flack for over 6 months now, for a total of 3d6; he rolls no successes and is no longer rolling to leave the group. Pugh rolls similarly and gets 2 successes; again Flack has at least twice as many successes, so Pugh becomes a permanent member.

REFLECTIONS

That was a big, ugly failure. I used 26 zombies and 4 humans, and the game lasted about 90 minutes. The tactical lesson is not to shoot at zeds if you can possibly avoid it, but you can’t always, especially if you have a low Rep team member.

The two card decks work very well; the risks and rewards deck in particular saves a lot of time, and now I want to use it for Savage Worlds as well (it was the vampires and casters wot dun it, officer).

Based on the movement ratings, the recommended board layout is equivalent to a board around 40" x 48", and based on my progress in this game would take me 3-4 hours to clear, which is more than I have available in a typical session; I shall switch to one card per built-up board section, which is a good match for what I get when using terrain, and see how that goes – I can always add more cards later. (As an aside, I personally think a ground scale of one inch to six feet is about right for ATZ, in which case to scale my local coffee shop is about 4” by 6”, my usual office is around 8” by 10” and a typical house is probably 4” by 4”, so the city deck is about right, actually; a couple of buildings per board section in a built-up area.)

Considering they are little plastic men and lists of numbers on an index card, I was surprisingly touched when they pulled together more tightly than ever after losing Pugh.

It’s all about the story.

STATUS AT Z+200

  • Capt. Flack: Rep 5*, Pep 4, Sav 3, Born Leader, Initiative. Body armour, assault rifle, binoculars.
  • Pugh: Rep 5, Pep 2, Sav 3. Body armour, assault rifle, pistol.
  • Dibble: Rep 4, Pep 2, Sav 3. Body armour, assault rifle, pistol.
  • Hardcase: Rep 5, Pep 3, Sav 4. Body armour, assault rifle, SMG, goggles, backpack.
  • Group: Land Rover, 3 Food, 0 Fuel.
  • Area: 16 Body Armour, 59 Food, 29 Fuel, 53 Luxury Items, 18 Medical Supplies, 41 Weapons.

Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

We interrupt our scheduling programming to answer a question from Umberto Pignatelli (ciao, Umberto!), who wanted to know whether so much detailed world building is necessary to run Traveller.

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer, at least my longer answer, goes like this…

Traveller is a child of its time, namely the late 1970s and early 1980s, back when the Old School was the New School. Original D&D had been available for about three years, if you knew where to look for it, which in 1977 meant Games Workshop in Hammersmith (yes, that Games Workshop, but pre-Warhammer) or a couple of other places in equally seedy sidestreets.

In those days, the GM was expected to fill in the gaps in the rules and create his setting from scratch, himself. That was a natural result of where RPGs came from; initially they were written by, and for, tabletop wargamers, who were used to doing that and had all kinds of tricks for it, mostly spread by word of mouth as I recall. RPGs then were all sandboxes; the GM had to generate material for everywhere the players might go and everything they might do, because until the players sat down nobody – not even them – was sure what they would do next. This meant that games had to have random tables for things like encounters, which you’ll notice have largely disappeared from the current generation of RPGs.

After a year or two, games companies realised that one of the big obstacles to starting a game – and therefore, indirectly, to selling their products – was the amount of time, effort and imagination the GM had to put into generating the setting before anyone could play; at that stage, the only generally-available RPG with a setting was Empire of the Petal Throne. And thus setting books (and eventually adventure paths, which are a different answer to the same problem) were born; in the case of Traveller, the first published adventure – the Kinunir, in 1979 – had several pages of setting material in it, a pregenerated subsector with a map and some vague hints about the Imperium. Soon after, Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches, was released, and then things kind of snowballed.

The Rules As Written assume that you will generate at least one subsector for the players to adventure in, maybe 30-40 worlds. When you’re familiar with the rules, that takes about an afternoon to do, maybe longer if you want to draw a nice map, and then as much time thinking about backstory and plots as you need. (As an aside, a number of GMs went crazy and generated hundreds or thousands of star systems, but those campaigns tended to be stillborn, crushed under the weight of their own statistics.)

One of the beauties of this approach is that you can run a campaign with no GM, especially if you have a Free Trader starship, because that gives you a spine to build the rest of the game around – trading. A group of us did that for a while with a crew of scouts; the mission was to explore a subsector, and we diced up each world as we arrived, then either took it in turn to answer questions as they arose, or used reaction tests to answer them, almost a primitive version of Mythic.

But there are other ways, ways that don’t need so much prep time; it depends on the kind of game you want to run. Here are some I’ve tried:

  • You can make stuff up. Traveller’s world generation rules are actually intended for the situation where you’ve run out of ideas, and you need another planet. Until you run out of ideas, you just allocate stats to match your vision of the world, and give it a concise write-up in the form of a Universal World Profile.
  • You can use one of the published settings.
  • You can use a setting from books, movies or TV. A lot of people did this, and in fact one of the stated aims of Traveller was to allow people to explore aspects of their favourite setting that hadn’t been covered in the source material.
  • You can limit the players to one world, if necessary by having their starship break down – now they’re stuck until they have enough money to fix it. (I have fond memories of a game like this that my brother-in-law ran, set in the universe of Andre Norton’s The Beast Master, which had a definite Wild West vibe.)
  • You can make all the worlds the same, so you only need one set of stats. This works well for a universe like C J Cherryh’s Alliance/Union novels, where most star systems have only a space station as a colony as there are few habitable worlds. (This is the gaming equivalent of early seasons of Stargate: SG-1; all planets look like the same stretch of Canadian forest.)
  • You can allocate worlds as you go. In my last Dark Nebula game, I stayed a couple of worlds ahead of the exploring PCs – wherever they went, I pulled the next world off the stack and that’s where they were. Then that got written into the GM’s notes as if it had always been there, and I generated a new one to replace it in the stack. I also had a “default” secondary system in case I ever ran out – that’s what every system looked like until somebody went there.

There’s another angle to this, though; Traveller tends to attract the kind of player or GM who enjoys generating worlds, or characters, or starships.

For the average Traveller GM, generating worlds isn’t a chore, it’s more like a solo mini-game within the main game.

Once More Into The Nebula

This year’s sci-fi campaign is gaining momentum now, after a certain amount of dithering over what rules and setting to use. Some of my previous groups have had firm ideas on what should be used, but the current players are very laid back about that, so I can use whatever I want.

THE RULES

Much as I love Classic Traveller, it has holes. Character generation is too random, there’s no levelling up to speak of, and the range and armour DMs for combat are too clunky. I could house-rule my way out of that, or we could learn a new game (say, Mongoose Traveller or Stars Without Number), but you know what, we’re already familiar with a game that will do the job, and that’s Savage Worlds. So there’s the core rules set.

There are things SW does not do well, mostly around setting generation; but that’s fine, because I have a setting in mind already.

THE SETTING

The Official Traveller Universe is too big and too detailed not to use, but by the same token I want to tweak the setting too; that and my affection for the Dark Nebula map have taken me away from the well-trodden paths, towards that region of space.

I’ve used the Nebula as a setting before, in the playtest campaign for my work on GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and 3, and I expect to have a couple of the same players. To avoid awkward questions and allow me to apply lessons learned in the intervening 15 years, I turn the clock back from 1105 or so Imperial to 3400 AD and the very start of the Aslan Border Wars. That’s during the Long Night, 650 years after the fall of the Rule of Man, so there’s a major difference – this game will have the feel of re-emerging into space after centuries of rebuilding, much like Stars Without Number or Traveller: The New Era, either or both of which may be mined for resources.

It also means the Solomani Confederation doesn’t necessarily have to be the Stalinist Nazi hybrid of the Official Traveller Universe; that’s 2,000 years in the future from the PCs’ viewpoint.

THE STARMAP

I promise I will eventually stop redrawing the map of the Nebula; but not today. I hope this will be the final version, although I admit it never has been before…

This version has the rescaling and rotation I normally apply, but I worked out how to do double star systems in Hexographer so added those back in. Doing that revealed that I could have a more authentic jump route network by moving a couple of worlds as well; since one of the conceits of the tweaked setting is that one can only move along jump routes, this has no effect.

dn06h

Worlds are colour-coded; red dots are homeworlds, blue ones are primary systems, orange are secondary, grey are tertiary. (Using dots for everything makes it easier to do the map key in MS Word for player handouts.)

Jump routes are in green; solid lines for charted ones, dotted lines for uncharted. Hyperspace jumps are only possible along charted routes; my rationalisation for this is that the map is a 2D representation of 3D space, so worlds that appear next to each other may be too far apart vertically to allow a jump; there is an explanation for the uncharted routes, which I’ll come back to later when I do some world writeups.

That means I can suppress the hex grid for clarity, since the players will never use the hexes. Then, the map looks like this:

dn06

The map uses the original 1980 terms for the interstellar states, Solomani Confederation and Aslanic Hierate; this is so that any Traveller-savvy players who join the campaign will immediately realise this is an alternate Traveller universe, not the official one.

THE CONFLICT

The period of tension and intrigue leading up to the First Aslan Border War is a great time for roleplaying adventures, the straight-up combat after war breaks out not so much, at least not for the players I have in mind. This is a good thing, because otherwise I would feel compelled to work out the war in detail – which naval squadron is in which system on what date, how long the Battle of Valka lasts and who is involved, that kind of thing – and the campaign would collapse under the weight of my notes.

So instead of using the Pacific War of 1941-45 as a real-world analogue, the campaign is going to be more like the 1930s, which will suit the pulpy feel of Savage Worlds very well.

THE PCS AND THE BASE WORLD

The PCs will be those from Back in Black; converting them to SW is a cinch because they are actually SW archetypes converted to CT.

None of them have a ship, or ship-related skills, so for the moment all I need to worry about is their base world; this is going to be Mizah, and I’ll look at that in the next post.

Review: Zed or Alive

Not doing so well on the sticking to my wish list front, am I? But you can’t expect me to resist this one… you’ll see…

In a Nutshell: The Zombie Apocalypse for Savage Worlds’ Showdown miniatures rules, by Rust Devil Games. Intended for head-to-head skirmish wargaming, but also viable for co-op, solo, and RPG games. 102 page PDF. You need the Showdown rules as well as this book to play, but since those are free to download from Pinnacle Entertainment, I’ll let ‘em off just this once.

CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Welcome to Zed or Alive (5 pages)

This introductory chapter tells you what you’re letting yourself in for: A campaign-style skirmish wargame with zombies. A grimdark settlement (Stadium City, so called because it’s built in an abandoned sports complex) barely holding out against the zombie hordes.

It also explains the setting rules. Bailing effectively introduces a morale check, a Spirit test taken by the group’s leader when a member drops or is eaten by zeds, representing his (or her) decision to sauve qui peut. There are expanded rules for climbing and breaking down doors – take heart, only a couple of paragraphs. The Pain rule means that when figures are hurt, they must pass a Spirit check or scream in pain (drawing zombies). And so on. The key point is that the world of ZOA is dangerous. Wild Cards don’t get bennies. There’s a variant incapacitation rule called Bleeding Out which I haven’t really grasped; maybe it will become clear in play. Nobody has Arcane Backgrounds.

Chapter 2: Denizens of the Dead World (14 pages)

These come in four flavours: Survivors, Tribals, Military and Shamblers. You begin with $400 – effectively, points – with which to buy figures and equipment; your group must be 2-4 figures to start with, and can grow to 8 over time. You need to track food, water, ammo, experience points and a few other things. Depending on which flavour of group you choose, you select members from a series of pregenerated characters, each with their own stats, skills, edges, hindrances and points cost.

Something that feels a bit clunky here is that the group’s Fame is calculated using a different table of values from the one you use to buy them. Still, that only matters once, when you set them up.

Something I like is that each group has a camp. More of that later.

Survivors are what it says on the tin; regular people who’re just having a bad day. They may elect to start with a random edge and a random hindrance, but the word "elect" implies to me that they need not. There are four survivor templates; Everyman (jack of all trades), Veteran (has police or military experience), Worker (good at building and fixing stuff), Kid (lucky), and Caregiver (medic type).

Tribals are your traditional cannibal gangers living in the ruins and eating Survivors. They may be Warchiefs (leaders), Shaman (fixer/healers – the Tribals have lost most of their technical knowledge), Headhunters (the basic Tribal), or Quislings (insane pets who can sometimes pass for Shamblers).

The Military are the field representatives of surviving government officials, who now live in underground bunkers, searching desperately for The Cure. They are utterly ruthless, and see the other groups as at best a way to distract zombies, and at worst as lab animals. Military figures include Grunts (the basic), Medics, Operators (elite special forces veterans), and Snipers. They differ from the other groups in having specific missions to accomplish, and regular resupply by airdrops; Survivors and Tribals are generally scavenging when you meet them.

Unlike the other three group types, Shamblers are NPCs operated by the rules rather than a player. Like most zombies in fiction, they are attracted to noise; one of the game aids is a decibel meter, and the more noise you make, the further away zombies can detect you. If that distance reaches the maximum (12"), then more noise not only attracts the zeds that were already present, but generates more of them. I rather like that, I’ll have to try it out. It is also possible to play as the Virus Strain, but I’ll talk about that under the Campaigns chapter.

This is actually quite cleverly thought out, as there is a logical reason for each faction to fight all of the others.

Chapter 3: Confrontations (10 pages)

These are the scenarios used for individual games. Ambush, Finders Keepers, Rumble, and The Drop are head-to-head; The Horde, Highway of the Damned, Outbreak, The Hunt, and Thinning the Herd are co-op (and can be played solo or head to head as well).

  • Ambush: One group is returning from a successful scavenging mission, when a second group attacks.
  • The Drop: A Military group is being resupplied by air, but another group found the supplies first.
  • Finders, Keepers: Two groups fight for possession of rich loot.
  • Rumble: Two hostile groups encounter each other in the ruins, and decide to teach each other a lesson.
  • Outbreak: Just when the groups thought it was safe to relax, the infection takes hold inside their supposed haven – both need to get out before the zeds eat them, preferably taking some civilian NPCs with them. (Tribals are allowed to eat them later.)
  • Highway of the Damned: Looting traffic jams for fun and profit.
  • The Horde: Two groups are just about to fight over some loot when a zombie horde surrounds them; they must work together to survive.
  • The Hunt: An especially large and vicious aberrant zombie is causing trouble. Sort it out.
  • Thinning the Herd: There are just too many zombies near Stadium City. Discourage them for a bounty payment.

Weather rules are found here, too.

I like that under the random generation table for confrontations, even though your groups may be enemies, the luck of the dice may force them to co-operate to survive.

If I understand correctly, because Shamblers always move last, and they’re the only foes you would meet in a solo game, you could play solo without drawing for initiative – unless you wanted a chance of getting a joker, of course.

Chapter 4: Campaigns (47 pages)

The campaign rules let you string together a series of confrontations into a longer story, by adding rules for what happens between scenarios; treating wounded, managing supplies, and so forth. The game assumes a week passes between confrontations.

The premise for wound treatment is that most people still alive a few years after The Crash are resistant to the zombie virus in some way. Consequently, it seems that they are easily taken out of the fight, but not easily killed, by wounds. However, they do accumulate damage which reduces their stats – busted kneecaps, crushed hands and so on. As usual in SW, you can use experience to buy the losses back, so it’s not as grimdark as it sounds.

Speaking of experience, it seems it would accrue at a higher rate than usual, but is based on actions during the game not on attendance at sessions as in normal SWD (not a criticism, a stylistic choice). Advancement is much as normal, though there are a number of new edges (I liked Comic Relief, which gives friends morale modifiers due to the character’s jokes) and some tweaks to existing edges and hindrances.

Between confrontations, group members may be assigned to duties such as repairing equipment, caring for wounded, scavenging for food, scouting for a new camp, buying and selling goods at the bazaar, gambling, or recruiting to replace losses. Characters with the Gadgeteer edge may also craft items from loot, for example making a great axe from a baseball bat and some circular saw blades.

This is the chapter where your group’s camp is detailed (makes sense, as you wouldn’t need it in a one-off encounter). Where you’ve holed up is decided by the draw of a card, which gives a capsule description of the location (pawn shop, mansion, or whatever) and the benefits the camp gives you, which may be trait bonuses, additional duties that can be performed there, and so forth.

Here, too, are the rules for the repair and maintenance of vehicles, and the care and feeding of animals, notably dogs (extra combatants) or horses (transport).

The penultimate part is my favourite: Virus Strains. As well as the main factions, a third player in any scenario can represent the virus itself – controlling not just ordinary Shamblers, but more advanced versions of zombies. The Virus earns experience for causing damage and killing people, which advance it to more evolved stages. As it evolves, the Virus can field more dangerous abominations (the sort of things you find in Left4Dead) and also buff the basic Shambler zombie to make it more dangerous. You can have multiple Virus players, each representing a different strain.

Finally, we have rules for importing characters from SWD roleplaying, or exporting them to it. Since Showdown is essentially SWD with the non-combat elements stripped out, this is straightforward.

Appendices (19 pages)

The Armoury, a list of weapons, armour and personal equipment; first time I’ve seen a skateboard in an equipment list. Vehicles, from bicycles to hummvees to motor homes. Freak Events. Loot Tables. Game Aids, including a decibel meter, quick reference sheet, squad sheets, and several pages of markers and burst templates.

FORMAT

Full colour throughout; two-column black on grey text, lots of pictures, some cartoonised, some out-and-out cartoons, some not.

Tables and boxouts are done in a faux handwriting font and laid out to look like post-it notes or squared notebook paper stuck on the page; the rulebook as a whole is designed to look like a manilla folder full of a survivor’s notes.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Layered PDF please, so I can print it without remortgaging my house to afford the ink.

Not so much a suggestion for improvement as a plea for enlightenment: Am I the only person left in the world who doesn’t name their miniatures? If so, what do the rest of you do when a figure dies, eh? Answer me that!

THE INEVITABLE COMPARISON WITH ALL THINGS ZOMBIE

Both are table-top zombie skirmish games suitable for head-to-head, co-op or solo play. Both are good.

ATZ ZOA
Focus Solo or co-op, head to head optional Head to head, solo or co-op optional
Turn Sequence Fluid, driven by reaction tests Draw for initiative
Undead Opponents Zombies Zombies, advanced zombies, aberrant mutations
Factions Survivors, gangers Survivors, tribals, military, virus strain
Campaign Start Day zero Some years after
AI for NPCs Advanced, with emergent behaviour Simple
Record-Keeping and Upkeep Very simple Complex, granular
Crafting Items No Yes

CONCLUSIONS

I thought I’d like this, which is why I backed the Kickstarter, and as it turns out, I do. I put in enough cash to gain access to the supplements in PDF format as they appear, so you may see those reviewed here later.

If I were still in a tabletop gaming group, I would try to get this going as a campaign, because I think it would be a blast to have a dozen or so players with various factions, and also a good gateway to roleplaying. Apart from a number of zombies, you only need a handful of figures apiece, which appeals to me; divvy the zeds up among the players and as a club you could have a decent horde in no time.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I expect to use this at some point, probably dusting off Don and Bex from the ATZ/SWD crossover game to do so.

Back in Black

Unexpectedly, I found myself running Classic Traveller again last weekend.

It happened like this; everyone who turned up for the family lunch was a gamer and a Firefly fan, we discussed the theory that Firefly is based on Joss Whedon’s game of Traveller, and then it seemed like a good idea to try out the game. I’m confident in playing CT off the cuff; I’ve been running it on and off for nearly 40 years now, and I can do it in my sleep.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I have, at some point.

I didn’t want to deflate their enthusiasm by taking them through the complex mini-game which is character generation, so I did a quick on-the-fly conversion of the archetypes in Savage Worlds (it’s just as easy going that way as they other, takes me less than a minute for each one) and let them pick the ones they wanted. So it was that we wound up with a party composed of a Marine and three Others:

  • Captain Joe "Cap’n Crunch" Williams, ex-Marine, hot-headed veteran of a war with “the space bugs”, who is AWOL and wanted for desertion.
  • Fromar the scientist.
  • Ms Posey Avril, retired pirate, whose pension represents the income from the gastropub franchise and doughnut shop she started to launder her ill-gotten gains, and who has taken her lucky gun “Elmira” out adventuring in search of more money (as she needs extensive dental work).
  • Lisa Andrews, healer with secret psionic powers.

I know. Roll with me on this.

THE HEIST

The party found themselves mustered out on Regina in search of work, and I dropped entry 15 from 76 Patrons on them; break into a corporate executive’s mansion, swap his prized US $1 purple postage stamp for a fake, and return the original to the patron (who was called Mr Johnson as a nod to everyone’s experience with Shadowrun). I also dragged out GDW’s Merc: 2000, which I keep around for the generic location plans, and used the Mansion and the Remote Estate for the target’s mansion.

After lengthy debate, the party hires sturdy mounts (which they decided were giant riding beetles, so now there are giant beetles on Regina) to case the joint, persuading their random police encounters (park rangers on grav belts) that they were tourists. Armed with knowledge of the general layout, they spend about 90 minutes brainstorming and discarding plans, until they settle on sealing themselves in crates and having themselves delivered by courier to the mansion while the boss was away on business.

We’re now about two hours in, and the only dice rolls necessary so far have been the check against law level for police harassment, and police reaction rolls to the PCs’ story. While they were discussing their approach, I discarded the rest of the situation and dreamed up a couple of plot twists.

Cautiously cutting their way out of the crates, they realise they are in a garage, under camera surveillance, with a  couple of air/rafts to hand. With a cunning plan and a couple of lucky Computer rolls, they gain access to the network via a cable under a workbench and set the cameras to loop yesterday’s surveillance. They realise the shortcomings of this, but it’s the best they can do. While the scientist dismounts the GPS and tracking devices from one of the air/rafts to give them a getaway vehicle, the others poke their heads out of the skylight and observe the unexpected return of the target and a couple of other suits.

(I know, but they do not, that the business trip was a diversion to cover a meeting with other corporate types about insider trading.)

Fromar ransacks the garage, A-Team style, and comes out with a long list of items including glue and a nailgun. Captain Williams then leads the motley crew stealthily across the garden to the stables, where a pair of riding dinosaurs (actually poni, the six-legged brontosauri in the Scout Service logo) are minding their own business in stalls. The party now shoots them with the nailgun, causing them to stampede out of the stables past the mansion.

With the occupants thus distracted, Our Heroes move up to the mansion and gain entrance through the rear door, finding themselves in the kitchen with the catering staff, who are preparing cocktails and canapes for the meeting upstairs. Swiftly discarding their plans of violence, they pass themselves off as frightened delivery men, looking for somewhere to hide from the dinosaur stampede. Manufacturing an excuse, they check the mansion plans they found online earlier and rule out the entire ground floor, deciding that the stamp must be either in the master bedroom or the office, then scuttle upstairs towards those rooms.

At the top of the stairs they find the three suits, but given that there are stampeding dinosaurs outside and one of the bodyguards has panicked and opened fire on them, it seems logical that the suits are looking out at the carnage from the balcony. Thus it is that the party manage to sneak up behind them, intending to knock them unconscious (by this point they have forgotten they are supposed to get in and out without being noticed). Using Hands at Close range (+2) against non-combatant NPCs (+3) in no armour (+1) means they can’t miss, and they start to understand how deadly CT combat is. However, none of them do enough damage to put down their targets.

It’s at this point they notice the large, newly-arrived, black air/raft outside, with the cargo doors sliding back, and the men in black ski masks inside with auto rifles pointing at the group on the balcony. Williams, Avril and Andrews grab the suits and drag them away from the window towards the stairs, while Fromar dodges away into the office, where he sees the stamp in a nitrogen-filled display case.

(Beyond thinking someone wants the suits dead, I have no idea what’s going on here. One of the joys of sandbox play for the GM is you can do stuff like this and leave the players to come up with a reason for it.)

This leaves everyone except Fromar in the beaten zone for the auto rifles, and Posey, Andrews and one of the suits are hit and knocked out while all six are tumbling down the stairs. Thinking quickly, Williams browbeats the two suits still standing into helping him drag the wounded into one of the servants’ quarters.

Fromar smashes the case, reasoning that any investigation will blame the firefight, and swaps the stamps before picking up one of the suits’ tablet PCs and escaping through the office window. While in the garage earlier, he had thoughtfully set up the air/raft’s autopilot for remote operation, and now summons it to the windows by the servants’ quarters. Everyone piles in, while outside the ski masks are abseiling down from their air/raft and finishing off the staff and bodyguards.

The autopilot starts heading back to the starport, but the black air/raft turns in pursuit. Fortunately, one of the suits can fly, and seizes the controls, swooping into nearby woods where they might evade pursuit. Unfortunately, he gets shot in the back of the head and dies. Fromar takes control and pulls back on the joystick to avoid crashing into the trees; he can’t fly, but anyone knows that will pull the nose up. Everyone falls out of the air/raft except Williams and one of the suits, who manage to grab onto something, and Fromar, who knew this was coming. Their pursuers take advantage of this to start walking auto rifle fire down from the nose of the air/raft into the passenger seats. Fromar wrestles wildly with the controls, but has no idea what he is doing and winds up flipping the air/raft broadside on and spinning it along the long axis. Everyone jumps clear as the two air/rafts collide and explode.

(This saves me from revealing the third plot twist, which is that one of the hired killers at the mansion is an old war buddy of Williams’. I’ll save that for later.)

A few minutes later, as the wounded recover consciousness, the party explains that they are members of a super-secret counter-terrorist unit, acting on a tipoff to protect the suits. Leaving the suits where the park rangers can find them, they vanish into the night and repair to the starport to lick their wounds.

Mal Reynolds would’ve been proud of them.

REFLECTIONS

Classic Traveller, even the 1977 edition, still does the job. It’s noticeable that the players came up with detailed backstories and personalities with no Edges, Hindrances, Ads/Disads or whatever you want to call them. You really don’t need rules for that stuff, you know.

Play is very liberating once people get used to the idea that it’s all about player skill, the character statistics are largely incidental, and going off-piste is not only permitted but actually expected and encouraged; everyone focussed on the story and their cunning plans.

The party psionic, forgot she had psi powers and didn’t use them. I don’t know why this happens in my CT games, but it almost always does, whoever plays the psion; it’s one reason I’m relaxed about allowing them in the game.

None of us felt the need to pull out any figures, whereas with Savage Worlds or Shadowrun we always do that instinctively.

I’d intended this to be a one-off, but the players loved the speed of play and freedom of action, got really attached to their characters, and they want to carry on with them. In addition, all of them want to try Original D&D as well now, with a wilderness adventure. I’ll probably use Labyrinth Lord; OD&D as written is just too disorganised. So I guess 2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Retro Gaming.

One of the group, who runs a Shadowrun game with about a dozen players and has been complaining about how long it takes them to do anything, took the battered 1977 rulebooks away to read, saying he would try converting his campaign to CT to speed it up.

All of this just reinforces my long-held belief that the rules don’t matter. We had just as much fun in the 1970s, and last weekend, with the simplest of rules and scenarios, as we do with any current RPG.