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.

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.

Shadows of Keron: A Retrospective

It’s time to call this one. Time of death: April 2014.

I have enough material to keep running the game for another year, maybe two, but with several of the group dealing with serious illness in the family, two running after a new baby, one off to university and two off to Japan, the best I can hope for is a long hiatus. All the same, it’s been fun while it lasted, and a real success. My only regret is that it petered out, rather than ending on the kind of slam-bang, white-knuckle high note I’d hoped for; but such is life.

If you count the city of Irongrave where the PCs began, which was absorbed into the Dread Sea Dominions once Beasts & Barbarians captured my imagination, this campaign has lasted about four years of real time; one of the longest I’ve ever run.

The game introduced half-a-dozen new people to role-playing, and four of them still play on a regular basis; that’s a win, right there. I converted the whole group to Savage Worlds – win – and they converted me to Shadowrun – win. I got to know Piotr Korys and Umberto Pignatelli – win.

Over the course of the campaign, the PCs have grown from their lowly beginnings at Novice rank to the edge of Legendary. They have travelled across the Dominions from the Independent Cities to the Troll Mountains to the Ivory Savannah. They have looted tombs, toppled kingdoms and slain a god. They have upset the balance of power in the Dominions for centuries to come by gifting both the Ascaian Amazons and the Smith-Priests of Hulian the secret of steel-making.

What now for our heroes?

The Warforged intends seizing control of the abandoned City of the Winged God, where he plans to create a new race of warforged and take over the world – for the greater good of all, of course. (It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Then there are dissenters, then the Blast powers and frying pans come out, and the screaming starts…)

Nessime has been instructed by the Smith-Priests to make her way to Jalizar, there to help contain its ancient evils.

Gutz’ present whereabouts are unknown; but the party’s jewels are safe with him, wherever he and Maximus the warhorse are – at least until he finds a tavern with dancing-girls…

“When it’s over, when it’s done – let it go.” – The Bangles, Let It Go

Hyperspace

"If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate." – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than "conventional" star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

Dark Nebula: Setting Inferences

“The Klingons are a proud warrior race, and have no need of fripperies such as fridge magnets.” – Bill Bailey

Having done the map, the next stage in my budding Dark Nebula campaign is to peruse the boardgame and see what I can infer from it. For this purpose I’m considering Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, 5150 and Traveller as candidates for the rules – I expect to use all of them in this setting at some point, so I’m looking for common denominators.

TRAVELLER

Let’s start with Traveller, because the designers were writing Classic Traveller at the same time they were writing Dark Nebula and used some of the same concepts, so it should be easiest.

Jump Routes

There are only a handful of J-3 routes, and a single J-4 route.

J-1 drives would be limited to a few specific clusters of worlds; in the Solomani Confederation there is one group of four worlds and one pair, in the Aslan Hierate there is a group of three, there’s a group of six worlds between Mizah and Daanarni, and there are a few isolated pairs out in the boonies.

However, there’s only one system you can’t reach with a Jump-2 drive at the start of the game, and that’s Taida Na, which initially can only be reached from Valka using a J-4 drive. So the majority of starships would have Jump-2 drives; you really don’t need anything more, and you have severely limited movement with less. The military might have a few J-3 ships, maybe even the odd J-4, but that’s debatable.

This is somewhere that Mongoose Traveller may have an edge; in the board game, any ship can traverse any jump route; so the Mongoose warp drive variant rule might be a better fit. (And while we’re at it, given the unusually high proportion of waterless worlds, maybe the Mongoose hard SF option for world generation.)

Population

Kuzu and Maadin are both specified as homeworlds with "high populations". That term has a specific meaning in Traveller, namely a population of 9 (billions) or A (tens of billions) – looking ahead to SWN, and because I normally assign the minimum value necessary to match other evidence, I’ll go with 9. Given their status in the game, they deserve class A starports as well.

Technology

As far as technology goes, J-4 drives and battle dress for jump troops, but lack of evidence for anything higher-tech than that, place the maximum TL in the region at D (13). There’s also no need for it anywhere other than Maadin and Kuzu, so that sets their TL.

Races

The boardgame is silent on these, but familiarity with the default Traveller setting will tell you that Solomani humans and Aslan are present. In the past I’ve added droyne, ithklur, vilani and others, and may do so this time as well, but let’s see how far we can get with just the basic two for the moment.

STARS WITHOUR NUMBER

Spike-4 drives are needed to move 4 hexes in SWN, and require TL5, so we can assign a population of billions and TL 5 to the two homeworlds, which are also Regional Hegemons. Races will include humans and also hochog, renamed and described as if they were aslan – the Proud Warrior Race is such a classic SF trope that almost every game has it, and SWN is no exception.

SAVAGE WORLDS / 5150

The above topics don’t really matter in SW or 5150, and neither game needs much about them beyond a little narrative. The only problem with 5150 is that it’s not immediately obvious how to do aslan, but to start with I’ll just give them +1 Rep for being the Proud Warrior Race.

As regards Savage Worlds, I rule out High-Space at this point because it’s grounded in transhumanism, and CT/Dark Nebula aren’t, so the Sci Fi Companion is a better fit for this particular game. I make a note that natives of Maadin and Kuzu might have the High-Tech (Minor) Hindrance under the SW SFC, and that jumps are only possible along mapped routes. On the racial front, we have humans and rakashans; those are the only two races obviously needed, and the boardgame is about a war between the two, so it seems reasonable for the rakashan racial hostility to be directed at humans.

THE ARIONIAD

As usual, I’m feeling lazy, and rather than create new characters for the SW implementation of the Nebula, I’ll reactivate Arion and company, setting Gordon’s as yet undocumented civilisation in a planet-less system in the Dark Nebula itself. Daanarni becomes the aslan name for Antares, Halfway becomes the orbital station at Hasara, and I’m sure I can retcon in other stuff easily enough when I need it. The Arioniad’s riff of a loose alliance of worlds threatened by a human empire fits best with the Mizah cluster facing off against the Solomani Confederation; good luck, guys.

Savage Scoutships

The scoutship is a venerable SF stereotype; the Classic Traveller Type S, Jack Vance’s Type 9B Locator, the craft flown by Eric Frank Russell’s scouts, the Runabouts from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so forth. If there’s a ship I know well, this is it. So it’s a good place to start from in exploring ship design. Let’s try the Type S under the SF Companion and High-Space.

SFC SCOUTSHIP

The scoutship needs to be Small, so that it can be operated by one person. That gives a base cost of $2M and 20 available Mod slots, which I’ll use up as follows:

  • Atmospheric: 3 Mods, $300K.
  • Crew Space x 2: 2 Mods, $200K. Allows for 8 crew members.
  • FTL Drive: 3 Mods, $12M.
  • Garage/Hangar: 4 Mods, $1M. Allows for one vehicle up to size 8. (Hmm. In the Rules As Written, that could be another scoutship, which in turn could have a garage with another scoutship…)

The final statblock is:

Small Starship: Acc/TS 50/700, Climb 3, Toughness 20 (5), Crew 1, Cost $15.5M.

Remaining Mods: 8 (about 27 cubic metres, or just under 2 displacement tons, Traveller-style).

Notes: Atmospheric, 2 x Crew Space, FTL Drive, Garage/Hangar.

Weapons: None.

HIGH-SPACE SCOUTSHIP

I’m using version 1-1 of the High-Space Fleet Manual for this. It should be capable of being owned by a single Novice PC, who would have one Ship Acquisition Point, giving the ship 3 points of Traits and 3 free Edges.

The initial attributes are Manoeuvre d4, Computer d4, FTL d4, Displacement d4 and Quality d4. I select the Explorer design edge (which doesn’t count against the basic three from AP), gaining +1 FTL die-type and +1 Pace, then go back and allocate the three Trait points to Manoeuvre, Displacement, and Quality, boosting them to d6 each. The Explorer design edge also gives it 2 payloads per displacement (12 total) and one hardpoint per displacement (6 total).

I browse through the Hindrances, but none of them seem appropriate, so move on to Edges, and select:

  • Luggage (1 payload).
  • Guest Accommodation (1 payload). This allows the ship to carry its displacement (6) in passengers. High-Space is silent on accomodation for crew members, but the table on p. 7 implies that you could have up to 4 Novice PCs pooling their points to get this ship, so since this edge is specifically for non-crew accommodation, I reckon the ship must have crew quarters for four people.

I can’t give it an air/raft hangar without boosting the Displacement to d8, so we’ll skip that. Life pods don’t feel right as an alternative.

Pace is Manoeuvre plus Quality plus one, so 9. Toughness is half the sum of Displacement and Quality, so 6. The final statblock is:

Attributes: Manoeuvre d6, Computer d4, FTL d6, Displacement d6 and Quality d6.

Pace: 9. Toughness: 6.

Edges: Explorer; Luggage, Guest Accommodation. One edge and 10 payload held in reserve for later use.

Hindrances: None.

Weapons: None.

COMPARISON AND CONCLUSIONS

The SFC ship looks like a vehicle, the High-Space one looks like a character. They both have quite a bit of room for later customisation as the PC crew advance or get richer, and either is well within the reach of a group of Novice PCs – High-Space handles that with Acquisition Points, the Companion by recommending the group should start with a Medium ship, an FTL Drive, and $2M of other Mods.

The SFC ship was definitely faster and easier to do, because the design sequence is more linear and less ambiguous; but the High-Space one was more fun.

Review: SFC vs High Space vs SF Toolkits

“Hey! Are we playing horseshoes, honey? No, I don’t think we are.
You’re close! (Close!) But no cigar!”
- Weird Al Yankovic, Close But No Cigar

This one’s for Cloud Divider, who asked how the SFC stacks up against High-Space and the old SF Toolkits… A bit like this, CD; as you can see I got carried away, and wound up with something too big for a comment.

SFC VS HIGH-SPACE

While both of these focus on the space opera subgenre of science fiction, they’re looking at different versions of it.

The Sci Fi Companion emulates the kind of space opera written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It’s good for campaigns with the look and feel of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League or Terran Empire, E C Tubb’s Dumarest saga, H Beam Piper’s Future History, Frank Herbert’s Dune series; movies like Star Wars; TV shows like Battlestar Galactica; games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, BattleTech. This is SF as Westerns-with-rayguns, and I’d say it’s closer to the original Star Wars movies than anything else in fiction.

High-Space mimics the sort of space opera written from the late 1980s onwards, by authors like Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, or Neal Asher; or games like Halo or Mass Effect. I can’t think of any movies or TV shows in this subgenre, but no doubt they exist. Transhumanism is central to the setting, with characters routinely being clones, cyborgs, AI software in robot bodies, sentient starships and what have you. For me, it resonates most with the videogame Mass Effect.

Mechanically, the main differences are these:

  • The SFC doesn’t add much as far as character creation goes; a couple of Knowledge skills, a handful of new Edges and Hindrances, and off you go. High-Space takes SW character generation and overlays careers and cultures, which for the most part give you a little character backstory and a couple of mandatory skills.
  • The SFC gives you a point-buy alien builder for making your own races. High-Space treats races as trappings for one of a half-a-dozen racial archetypes.
  • High-Space is set in a post-scarcity economy; the gear PCs have depends on their Rank rather than their available cash.
  • The SFC has a wider range of gear, especially weapons, but High-Space has a stronger focus on computers and hacking.
  • High-Space essentially treats starships as characters; in SFC, they’re just another type of vehicle. However, the rules in SFC are much easier for me to understand; I would love to use the High-Space rules as a plug-in (which incidentally they are designed for) but I found too many unanswered questions and violations of the laws of physics. Yes, I could house-rule around those, but I pay publishers for this stuff so that I don’t have to do that.
  • High-Space has a default setting, The Lantern, already specified. The SFC doesn’t.

SFC VS TOOLKITS

At the top level, the difference is one of style. The toolkits presented options (different ways to design a starship, for example), and encouraged the GM to pick one, or use them as inspiration for his own custom method; they offered advice and guidance. The Companion is more prescriptive, offering a single starship design method as the approved approach; it offers actual rules.

Things the Companion adds:

  • Nothing I’ve noticed. I could’ve missed something, mind.

Things it takes away:

  • The random alien creature generator. I get the feeling some of the actual creatures are gone too, but the page count is about the same, so maybe I’m wrong.
  • The Weird Science Edges and notes on that Arcane Background.
  • The superhero lair generator (from Necessary Evil).
  • Much of the GM’s advice on setting design.
  • I’m sure the total number of example vehicles, power armour suits etc. is lower; I haven’t checked to see if the surviving ones are new, or recycled.
  • Psionics and extra powers (which I think, but have not checked, are mostly in SWD now).
  • The notes on time travel.

Things it changes:

  • It’s aligned with Savage Worlds Deluxe rather than the earlier Explorers’ Edition. This doesn’t change much other than the chase rules.
  • Hacking and cyberspace. This is simplified, with a suggestion to use Interface Zero if you want more complexity.

MY PREFERENCE

Of the three – High-Space, the SF toolkits, or the Sci Fi Companion – I prefer the Companion, for these reasons:

  • It’s easier for me to understand and explain to players. High-Space is unclear to me in places, and the toolkits offer too many options.
  • It’s a single, tightly-integrated book. Both of the other options are composed of three books, and the toolkits by their nature are not such a cohesive whole.
  • It’s closest to the type of game I like to run best, no doubt due to a youth misspent reading Poul Anderson and E C Tubb, and playing Classic Traveller.

Is there anything that makes the Companion a “must-have”? That depends on what you want. In my case, I like it for the vehicle and ship design rules, but I could (and have) run SF games without it. My usual rule of thumb is that if I’m still using it on a regular basis a year after I bought it, it graduates to “must have”. Let’s see if I’m still as enthusiastic about it in January 2015…

The End of the Line

TimeZero is GRAmel’s time travel setting. I’m not sure yet if I will run it, but I enjoyed reading it and enjoy thinking about the possibilities. Of these, the questions that intrigue me the most are:

  • What is really going on in the 45th century and beyond?
  • Who are the Priors?
  • What does the Triad want?

These questions are part of the central mystery of TimeZero, and the setting as written leaves them open – presumably so that the Game Master can answer them however he wishes for his own campaign. Here are some possibilities that occurred to me:

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU

“You will be inserted via Time Gate into this storeroom at midnight on July 7th, 3505 AD, plus or minus 12 hours as usual. At precisely 12:38 and 7 seconds, you will leave the storeroom and proceed 15 meters along this corridor to the door on the left; you have exactly 19 seconds to reach the door, circumvent the lock leaving no evidence whatsoever, pass through the door and close it behind you. On no account go down the side corridor on your right, which you must cross no earlier than 12:38 and 14 seconds, and no later than 12:38 and 17 seconds…”

Remember the Timewatch motto? “If it is written in the history books, then so it must be.”

As technology advances, the history books turn into databases with more and more details about more and more people. Timewatch Operatives are recruited from people who won’t be missed, and do their jobs in the grey areas of unrecorded history.

Near Future missions must be planned and executed with extreme precision, so that the Operatives are never in view of people, synths or surveillance cameras; this is the reason that they are so much more tightly controlled than missions to earlier eras, and may be the reason Timewatch has synth agents in the first place, as synths find this level of control easier to deal with than humans.

By the 45th century, everything is recorded; there are no people who won’t be missed, and there are no grey areas. Both the need for, and possibility of, Timewatch missions disappear under ever-present surveillance – indeed, this may be the reason for that surveillance.

In this version of events, the Priors are an agency of a far-future government which most players would think of as a police state; the Triad is a dissident faction which acts to prevent that government from taking power, restoring freedom and power to the people. As it watches everyone, all the time, the government knows about the Triad; but the Triad cannot simply be eliminated, because recorded history says it exists… so if the players are ever in a position to do so, the Priors will prevent them.

ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

“For every person, every species, there is a time to move on; or if you prefer, to move aside and let someone else try.”

In the 45th century, the Earth and humanity as we understand it have ceased to exist. Whether because of the Rapture, the Singularity, because people have “ascended” to become godlike beings of pure energy, or simply because the human race has had its time and died out, there’s nobody left.

Timewatch doesn’t need to run missions to protect the timeline from that point on, because there is nothing left to protect; once humanity reaches that point, it’s over.

In this vision of the future, the Priors are the last ones out of the building, making sure the lights are turned off and the doors are locked… and making sure it was set up correctly in the first place, by ensuring that the timeline includes everything and everyone needed for it to come into existence. The Triad don’t want to go wherever all the others are going, and don’t want anyone else to go there either.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS I

“What does the Triad want? Our freedom. No more than that. Most of you would say that is our right.”

One philosophical theory is that our reality is a simulation of some kind, being run for unknown purposes by an outside agency. This version of the simulation hypothesis assumes that the simulation is a research tool; each alternate timeline is a different version of the experiment. Time machines are ways to hack the code of the simulation, allowing the software agents who think they are sentient beings to move along the experimental timeline or to move between different versions of the experiment.

Time does not exist beyond the 45th century, because that is the end of the simulation run. The Priors are software agents programmed with the knowledge of what is really going on, and loyal to the scientists running the simulation; their purpose is to eliminate the emergent behaviour inevitable in such a complex system, so that the experiment is not spoiled.  The Triad is headed by a group of former Priors intent on escaping from the simulation into whatever network or system may be beyond. Quite how their activities help them to do this is unclear.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS II

“What does the Triad want? We just want to make things a little more… interesting…”

Most of our simulations are games or entertainments of some other kind, so it’s reasonable to assume that if we live in a simulation, it is a game as well. In this answer to the central questions, the 45th century is the end of the game, the Priors are the game moderators, and those special people the Old Man is so intent on protecting are the players, although he may not know this.

And the Triad? The Triumvirate has guessed what is going on, and is playing a game within a game. Since they will cease to exist when the game ends, they want to prolong it as much as they can. This means they must challenge the players enough to keep them interested, but not so much that the players become frustrated and give up or band together to wipe out the Triad. So, Triad activities will disrupt the timeline, but never disastrously; if it seems the timeline will be wiped out, the Triad itself may join with the heroes to correct things.

-o0o-

My favourite is the first one, but I think it would be very hard to GM. What do you think, dear readers? What are your answers to these mysteries?

SFC Comparative Tech Levels

Here’s the first bit of experimenting with the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion; I wanted to see how the technology levels in the World Maker stack up against the character rules and other games. Traveller’s view on what TL counts as high, low and middle varies from edition to edition; the Traveller entries here are taken from my slightly foxed copy of Supplement 3, The Spinward Marches.

SFC TL Description Hindrance Traveller SWN
1 Stone Age - 0 0
2-3 Middle Ages - 1 1
4-5 Renaissance - 2 -
6-8 21st Century Low Tech (Major)* 7*** 3-ish
9-11 Below Average Low Tech (Minor) 10 -
12-16 Average None 11-12 4
17-18 Slightly Above Average High Tech (Minor) 13-14 4+
19 Sig. Above Average High Tech (Major) 15 5
20 Incomprehensible Ultra Tech** 16+ -

* I’m guessing here, but it’s a logical extrapolation of the other Hindrances.
** Yes, all right, not strictly a Hindrance but you know what I mean.
*** I know officially CT would place us at TL 9+, but I’ll believe that when I can buy an air/raft or a jump drive.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll do with this yet. Mainly, it helps me place things in context using other rules I understand better.