Review: Stellar Heroes

Good Lord, Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes is out already… as promised, a review as soon as I got my hands on it.

In a Nutshell: Stars Without Number supplement for running adventures with one PC and a GM. 7 page PDF, free to download from RPGNow or the Sine Nomine website.

CONTENTS

This Mandate Archive is split into three parts.

First, there is a one-page explanation of what the supplement is for (running Stars Without Number adventures for one or two PCs), and how that differs from normal play (since the group is smaller, consensus is reached much more quickly, so stories are faster-moving).

The second part modifies SWN’s rules for a single PC, who has fewer hit points and a narrower range of skills than a full party. The changes are largely common to Solo Heroes and Scarlet Heroes from the same publisher, both of which cover the same ground for fantasy. To summarise:

  • The PC always wins initiative.
  • Damage and healing dice are read differently, making PCs tougher and NPCs much more fragile, but without changing the scenario or characters.
  • The Fray Die lets the PC roll damage each turn against any NPC in range, even if he is doing something else that round.
  • Defying Death essentially allows the PC to trade hit points for success in a check they would not otherwise make.
  • Lone heroes gain skill points at twice the normal rate when levelling up.

This part closes with a half-page detailed example of how the rules changes work in play.

The third part is a short adventure for a single 1st level hero, pitting him or her against a group of terrorists threatening to crash an orbital station into a surface city. It’s a 10-location dungeon crawl in space, with statblocks for relevant NPCs. Can you say Die Hard? I knew you could…

FORMAT

Black on gold front cover, full colour back cover advertising Scarlet Heroes, and in between, five pages of black on white two-column text in the usual crisp, effective layout.

CONCLUSION

This supplement does what it sets out to do, and does it well; specifically, it applies a handful of rules tweaks to SWN which allows a single PC to survive, and successfully complete, an adventure written for a full-sized group, without rewriting the adventure or the character sheets.

However, what I’m really looking for is a science fiction version of Scarlet Heroes – rules for GM-less SF with a built in setting. I’m hopeful that just as Solo Heroes led to Scarlet Heroes, so Stellar Heroes will lead to something bigger.

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.

Parking Orbit

“You might think that the first step in starting a new game is finding a group of people to play with. That is important, but that’s your next step. Your first step is to get yourself excited. Do that and you’ll likely get all your friends excited as well.” – Savage Worlds

The Free Traders campaign looks like it will not be used after all, which is a bit sad, but means I feel pretty smug for not having put that much effort into it.

There are several reasons for this outcome.

Attrition

I’m looking at the future of the group, and numbers are perilously low. The current gaming group started with 10 members, and surged to 12; but of these, 9 have dropped out over the last 18 months, as some move away and others shift their priorities elsewhere. Of the three remaining, I think there’s a fair chance that 1-3 of them will drop out over the coming year, which will leave me with anywhere from two players to none. Some recruiting is called for in 2014, I think.

Other GMs take note; your current players are transient. Consider recruiting.

Duration

Supposing for the moment that the group only hangs together for another 12 months, with the current rate of two sessions per month, half of which are used for Tenchi’s Shadowrun game, there are only another 10-12 sessions left for the group. It seems more sensible to extend Shadows of Keron than start up a new campaign.

Motivation

Although I’ve preferred science fiction to fantasy for as long as I can remember, I just can’t motivate myself to run an SF game at the moment. I have no problem coming up with scenario ideas, but they are all for fantasy – I blame Beasts & Barbarians, which has refreshed my jaded gaming palette.

Partly this is because the kind of 1950s-1970s SF that Classic Traveller emulated so well no longer seems credible to me, and the transhumanist nanotech SF that currently seems credible doesn’t interest me as a campaign setting. Partly it’s because my focus as a GM has shifted away from gadgets towards characters, which are largely setting-independent. Partly it’s because fantasy settings have less of a learning curve for players.

(One useful side effect of staying focussed on fantasy would be that a much wider range of pre-painted figures is available. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the time to paint figures, and my deteriorating eyesight means they don’t look that good any more when I do.)

Donation

So, Free Traders inserts itself into a parking orbit around Halfway Station. If you can make use of it, do so with my blessing.

Review: Suns of Gold

In a Nutshell: Interstellar trading expansion for Stars Without Number. 85 page PDF. Unusual in its support for the end game, when the PCs have risen to be merchant princes – movers and shakers in the sector as a whole.

CONTENTS

The Jewels of Foreign Suns (4 pages): This gives the history of independent trade, from Earth’s initial colonies through the Terran Mandate, the Silence after the Mandate collapsed, and into the present day. The tone this sets is one of every man’s hand being against the free trader – or far trader, as they are called in SWN, leading them to develop the kind of ruthless cunning one typically observes in PCs. I particularly liked the backstory of the Exchange Consulate, presented here for the first time I recall, and within that, the hints of their militant arm, the context assassins, who essentially trick targets into getting themselves executed. That’s very stylish.

Slaves to the Credit (8 pages): So much for history, now we’re into current affairs. This outlines how one becomes a far trader, the kind of person who does it, and his three main sources of opposition: Restless natives who feel threatened by the trader’s wares, planetary governments tempted to nationalise his ship and cargo, and other traders. Apart from the rare worlds with Trade Hub tags, pretty much every planet you land on will try to steal your profits, your goods, and your ship in one way or another. The chapter also outlines a typical trade run, stressing the caution and defensive measures taken by merchant captains, and the importance of a friendly factor on a regular destination world – someone knowledgeable in local customs, trustworthy (usually because the trader has some kind of hold over him). There’s a discussion of local currency and what backs it, and a page of GM’s tips on how to set up and run a merchant campaign. The book returns to that last point in more detail later.

An Honest Day’s Trade (18 pages): Here are the mechanics for trade in the SWN universe. Every world has a trade table (a list of ten cargo types worth the trader’s while), a trouble table (things that might go wrong), and a Friction rating (how hard they are to do business with; this covers port fees, union troubles, grasping petty officials and so forth). Each trading crew has an expertise rating, based on skills and Intelligence or Charisma – several PCs can work together to create this rating, or it can all come from one person.

The trader begins by rolling twice on the trade table to see what’s available to buy. He can reroll if he doesn’t like what he sees, but each time he does so, the Friction rating goes up. To find the purchase price, you roll 3d6 on a sales chart to get a price modifier, then multiply that by the base price of the cargo. You do the same to sell it at the destination, which depending on the world type may have modifiers to the dice roll. The trader’s expertise always modifies the dice roll in his favour, and the local Friction always modifies it to his disadvantage. A sidebar shows the rules in action, the better to explain them. Underlying the rules is an assumption that the odds are stacked against the PCs, and they will need to undertake adventures to smooth their path to wealth – in essence, the trading rules provide a setting and a motivation for the scenario in your next session.

This is the basic system, intended for the typical far trader crew of a handful of PCs. It is supported by tables of common goods and rules for creating new cargo types, explanations of the tags associated with cargo types, guidelines on creating trade and trouble tables, and eight basic world types with trade modifiers and tables already worked out to get you started.

After that, the chapter moves on to the corporate headquarters, factors and holdings the serious trader will want to establish at his regular ports of call. I think of these as an expansion of the faction rules in SWN, focussed more on the commercial aspects of the game than the military and political focus in the core rules. The main advantage of these from a trader’s perspective is that they reduce the world’s Friction and thus make it easier to turn a profit.

The section closes with a one-page summary of key rules. This is a welcome recent addition to Sine Nomine products.

Treasures in the Sky (14 pages): This chapter extends the world creation process in the SWN core rules by adding a number of new world tags to tailor your sector for trade runs. In addition to the trade and trouble tables already mentioned, and the friends, enemies, places and things your planet already has from core rules generation, you now add an Authority (an NPC representing the local power structure), an Antagonist (someone the PCs have to deal with before he derails their trading), and a Regulation (a commercial law that will cause problems for the PCs). Things, Places and Complications are also in play; you can recycle those from the core rules or use the ones from the new tags. All the new tags are explained in the same level of detail as those in vanilla SWN, and there are a dozen example worlds.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse (14 pages): This chapter explains how to create trading adventures. Remember SWN is a sandbox game, and far traders are likely to have wealth and power beyond the typical PC party; the intention here is that whatever the PCs throw at the GM, he can have an adventure ready to run with 5-10 minutes preparation. This is accomplished by the use of Adventure Templates, which are more detailed versions of the adventure seeds found in the core rulebook. Where the seeds in the core rules would say something like "An Enemy seeks to rob a Friend of some precious Thing that he has desired for some time", an adventure template looks more like this:

"The Authority has an Actor who is their spouse, child, lover, debtor, or other person of importance to them. This Actor has been kidnapped by local criminals, taken by an Antagonist, seized by the secret police, taken hostage by rebels, lost in the wilderness, or otherwise taken from them. The local authorities have either failed to retrieve them, cannot be trusted with the work, or are actually responsible for the kidnapping. The Authority wants the Actor back. The captors may not realize the Actor’s importance, may have the Actor slated for execution soon, may be transporting the Actor somewhere and are vulnerable during transit, or may be temporarily occupied by dealing with a local Complication. Hostiles are likely guarding the Actor, or may be present in the wilderness, or may actually be employed by the Actor in their attempt to fake their kidnapping and escape the Authority."

There are something like 30 such templates, backed up by random tables for creating further detail (like who the Actor is).

Next are the GM’s guidelines for running a trade campaign, in two basic modes: Space truckers or merchant princes.

Space truckers are the classic trope of a handful of PCs in a tramp freighter. For this, you need to flesh out a basic SWN sector in a little more detail, paying special attention to the PCs’ initial trade route. The PCs are generated, given a ship, and off they go. At the lower levels of PC power, the advice is like that given in Polychrome; don’t expect them to know everything, and always leave them a way to progress, usually an NPC who will help in exchange for something they have, or know how to get.

The merchant princes campaign focuses on what Classic Traveller called "daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power". Here, the adventures revolve around interstellar trade empires and the sector’s factions. While it’s possible to start at this level, it could also be a natural evolution of the space truckers game. From the perspective of the typical CT adventuring group, these higher-level far traders are Patrons; from a basic SWN viewpoint, they are a PC Faction. These guys have the need to topple local planetary governments, and the money to hire bands of adventurers to do it, although more likely they will themselves resolve one sub-goal per session of play until they have completed all the steps the GM thinks they need to take before their ultimate prize is within their grasp.

Lords of the New Suns (8 pages): One particular grand ambition for a merchant prince is to found his own colony on a distant world, becoming absolute monarch of his own captive market. The GM creates several worlds suitable for colonisation, then seeds the campaign with rumours and other information about them; eventually the would-be colonisers pick one, and only then is it fleshed out in detail. Tables are provided for generating failed colonies – places someone else tried to colonise before, and why that failed – can the PCs do better? The colony is assigned Population, Supplies, Morale and Tech Level depending on what the PCs use to set it up. Once in existence, the PCs can trade with its captive market, deal with occasional colony troubles, collect taxes and so on. I struggled to get my head around these rules initially, but there is a solid example and a one-page rules summary that made things clear for me. If you think your campaign might wind up going this way, it will pay dividends to think about the colony worlds from the beginning.

Tools of the Traders (6 pages): Here’s a range of personal and starship equipment of particular interest to the trader, ranging from drugs to bend NPCs to your will to complete prefab colonies. Of particular interest as a McGuffin is the route oracle, a dangerous tool which a psychic can use to find a lost world. Naturally, they are usually found in heavily-guarded and long-abandoned Mandate facilities.

GM Resources (8 pages): I look forward to this section in every Sine Nomine product; here are random tables for planetary crises, NPCs, business contacts and rival businesses; stock NPC opponents and alien beasts on a quick-reference sheet (nice); stock building plans for factories, walled estates, offices and shantytowns; and a "character sheet" for a world showing its trade profile and related data.

FORMAT

Two-column black text on white, very printer-friendly, with greyscale illustrations every few pages. Colour cover. Simple, effective, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I got nothin’. Moving on…

REFLECTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Intrepid Merchant has been a staple of adventure stories for centuries, and of SF gaming since its beginnings. Consequently, many SF RPGs have rules for running the odd cargo from world to world as a free trader.

Suns of Gold is different in two key areas; first, when you’re a merchant in Stars Without Number, you’re not paranoid – everybody really is out to get you. Second, this supplement takes you through the free trader phase into being a merchant prince, and maybe beyond that, to being the ruler of entire planets. The sky’s the limit, to coin a phrase.

As ever, I’m impressed with just how much meat Kevin Crawford can pack into a few short pages.

In the late 1970s, my Classic Traveller group became fabulously wealthy after about three real-time years of play, and wanted to found their own colony world far from the "interference" of the Terran Empire, where they could set up a profitable mercenary company. I didn’t have much of a clue how to handle that, and that phase of the game did not go well; I wish I’d had this book then.

However, I don’t think it will work for my current group as a campaign, so I see this one being mined for ideas rather than being used as intended. It would work well as background for the Free Traders campaign, but I think I’d need to handle the actual trading offstage via NPCs, and just have the PCs have the adventures. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Bulldogs‘ book and have the PCs be the crew of a trading vessel, with an NPC captain choosing destinations and setting them tasks. Yes, I think that might work very well. I might even merge it with a solo campaign, having the “NPC captain” as my character, who acts in the gaps between sessions…

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

Free Traders Setup Part 9: Trim the fat

 

You’ve now seen the thought and prep work that went into creating the setting; in all, probably about 20 hours’ effort, which is more than usual for me. I can get away with such limited preparation firstly because I’m using existing games and real-world history to do the heavy lifting for me, and secondly because I’m not writing a saleable product, and therefore don’t need to explain things that will be intuitively obvious to my players or myself.

Here’s what the players will get as their handout, which is also pretty much everything I will take with me to sessions except for the character sheets, dice, and a few pages pages of quick reference. Behind the scenes, I’m using the Stars Without Number world tags and adventure seeds to prepare adventures, but the players don’t need to know that.

-o0o-

THE PITCH

From Firefly to Futurama, free traders are a science fiction archetype; a bunch of scoundrels on the make, in a ship just big enough to carry them and the McGuffin from patron to doublecross.

You’re Sinbad the Sailor, Marco Polo, Han and Chewie. You’re the crew of the Solar Queen or the Pride of Chanur. You take on anything that isn’t safe enough, legal enough, or profitable enough to interest the big shipping lines. Someday, you’ll make that one big score that lets you retire in style; but for now you need a fast tongue, a fast gun hand, and a fast ship.

RULES: SAVAGE WORLDS

  • Available Arcane Backgrounds: Psionics.
  • Available Races: Android, Human (the default), Rakashan, Saurian. Androids may swap Asimov Circuits for another Major Hindrance with GM permission. Rakashans and Saurians hate each other, and are both by turns mercenaries and bandits.
  • Languages: Are boring. This is pulp SF, everyone speaks English.
  • Cyberware: It’s all about the trappings. You levelled up and improved your Strength? Sounds like muscle implants to me, chummer…

THE FARSIDE ROUTE

This is your standard run; carrying robots and weapons from Uppsala to trade with Kiev for foodstuffs and rare metals, or Lygos for luxury goods (artworks, databases, fabric, jewelry, spices and wine).

Uppsala
(Varan Federation)
Theocracy, Unbraked AI
|
Ladoga
Sealed Menace, Trade Hub
|
Novgorod
(Colony of Kiev)
Colonised Population, Preceptor Archive

|
The Seven Portals
Alien Ruins, Warlords (Rakashan pirates)
|
Kiev
(Imperial Ally – for the Moment)
Oceanic World, Pilgrimage Site
|
Cherson
(Celestial Empire)
Exchange Consulate, Trade Hub
|
Lygos
(Celestial Empire)
Regional Hegemon, Trade Hub

These are just the most important stops on a single major trade route. Expect more worlds to appear temporarily during adventures; they’re always there, you just don’t often have a reason to step outside the starport bar when you visit.

The stretch between Novgorod and Kiev runs between star systems too far apart for normal hyperdrives; fortunately, some long-vanished alien race seems to have had the same problem, and left hyperspace portals bridging the gaps. Ships must fly a predictable course to use these portals, which makes them a favourite hunting ground for pirates. The usual method is to go as fast as you dare, in the hope the pirates can’t match vectors before you jump.

-o0o-

And there I’ll park it for the moment. Normally I would run a solo adventurer through the setting for a while to bed it down and flush out unexpected issues; but I’m very busy at work this year, and haven’t really got the time to do that.

Free Traders Setup Part 8: Kiev

Aha, the last stop on the Farside Route heaves into view! Kiev’s early history is unclear, but if was an outpost of the Khazar empire (and possibly Magyars) a couple of centuries before the game’s time frame.

I’ve already established the Magyar-equivalents as Savage Worlds Saurians, so I’ll go with the Magyar theory, and lace Kiev with Saurian architecture, whatever that looks like. I’ll worry about that later, I can use the random architecture tables in Stars Without Number.

About a century before play begins, Kiev was taken over by the Rus and became the centre of their fledgling state. In (2)968, the Pechenegs (Rakashans) laid siege to the city.

Kiev is full of lakes, rivers, and whatnot, so I select Oceanic World as one tag. If I were feeling especially radical, I could dig out Traveller Adventure 9: Nomads of the World Ocean. Hmm. Come to think of it, I could scrap the Farside Route and just lump the planets from old Classic Traveller adventures together to make a subsector…

Stay on target, Luke.

Yes, Obi-Wan. Kiev has a number of sacred sites which draw pilgrims, and assorted cultural locations, so either Pilgrimage Site or Preceptor Archive would work for the other tag. I’ve already used Preceptor Archive so I’ll go with Pilgrimage Site, possibly the Saurian ruins.

Tags: Oceanic World, Pilgrimage Site.

Free Traders Setup Part 7: Ladoga

Another multi-ethnic prosperous trading settlement! I suppose it should have occurred to me that all the top-level stops on the Farside Route would be trading hubs of some sort. If I’d thought of this before, I’d have just said all of them are Trading Hubs and dug out two other tags for them. Never mind.

The dominant group is the Rus, who we’ll meet again in Kiev and elsewhere. What else has it got? Well, in the early 11th century, not a lot, apart from huge barrows with dead kings inside them, including the legendary Rurik – mind you, he’s been dead for about 250 years at this point. Sometime within the last 20 years, Erik Hakonarson set fire to it during a raid, which most NPCs the players encounter will remember.

Meanwhile, what about that second tag? Tomb World would reflect the barrows, but it’s hard to reconcile with Trading Hub. The tag ought to reflect what else I know about the place, which means fitting in with the barrows. Well, these are roleplayers, they will expect something evil in the tombs, why disappoint them? Sealed Menace it is.

Tags: Sealed Menace, Trading Hub.

Free Traders Setup Part 6: Novgorod

Novgorod was at this time the second city of the Kievan Rus, which I hadn’t thought of when I separated the two by umpteen parsecs of alien stargates. Never mind, there’s a story there somewhere. The tradition was for the eldest son of the ruler of Kiev to be sent to Novgorod to control that, as a sort of practice run I suppose. At the time of our stories that would be Yaroslav the Wise, whose father Vladimir the Great is ruling Kiev.

Reading ahead, as it were, I can see that Novgorod is a power on the rise, it will be one of the largest powers in the region in a century or two.

Right now, it has a fortress, and is already influential in politics, economics and culture, so I’ll give it the Preceptor Archive tag to reflect its cultural heritage. It’s remotely controlled from Kiev, so although I have no reason to suppose Novgorod resisted that, for entertainment value I give it the Colonised Population tag as well, with a mental note that Yaroslav is actually an OK guy, but the resistance are against him on principle. I keep reminding myself that this is a roleplaying setting, not a history lesson.

Tags: Colonised Population, Preceptor Archive.

-o0o-

We have a couple of major NPCs too; Yaroslav and Vladimir, and although the latter properly belongs with the Kiev writeup, let’s do him now as well.

Yaroslav Vladimirovich: Thin-faced, and lame from a poorly-healed leg wound, Yaroslav was sent to rule Novogord in 3010. He does not get on well with his father. As the campaign begins, his father is about to die, and he himself is about to become embroiled in a complex and bloody war against his brothers (several of whom he will murder) for the throne of Kiev.

(Yes, seriously – he used to be an adventurer like you, until he took an arrow in the knee.)

Vladimir Sviatoslavich: The youngest son of the previous Prince of Kiev by his housekeeper, Vladimir has numerous children by several wives (he was a polygamist in his youth), the most recent of whom was Emperor Basil II’s sister Anna, now deceased. He seized control of Kiev from his brother in (2)972 and consolidated the fledgling empire by (2)980.

I can see that the politics of the Farside Route will be dominated through the campaign by the battles for control of Kiev. However, they don’t start until a year or so into the campaign, so I can park them for now and research them in a later preparation slot, possibly even after the first few sessions.

Damn, now I want to run this as a historical-fantasy mashup instead of sci-fi. Stay on target, Luke!

Free Traders Setup Part 5: The Seven Portals

Since historically these were just portages on the river Dnieper where rude strangers tried to take things from passing merchants, I feel I have a free hand. This part of the map is the fun bit, with half-understood alien technology and space pirates. Each of the giant portals will be different, but they will all have the enigmatic one-of-a-kind gimmicks that were such fun when the Traveller Ancients left them for the PCs to find.

Between Novgorod and Kiev, the Farside Route runs between star systems too far apart for normal hyperdrives; fortunately, some long-vanished alien race seems to have had the same problem, and left hyperspace portals bridging the gaps. Ships must fly a predictable course to use these portals, which makes them a favourite hunting ground for pirates; the normal method is to go as fast as you dare in the hope the pirates can’t match vectors in time.

Tags: Alien Ruins (the portals), Warlords (Rakashan pirates).

The Rakashans are standing in for the historical Pechenegs, of whom Wikipedia has this to say: "Although an important factor in the region at the time, like most nomadic tribes their concept of statecraft failed to go beyond random attacks on neighbours and spells as mercenaries for other powers." In the game’s time frame, for the last 200 years they have been raiding Kiev and its territories at random, culminating with blockading Kiev in (2)968, although they have also occasionally served as mercenaries in support of Kievan forces.

For these fellows I think I’ll drag in the Mandate Archive: Scavenger Fleets free web supplement for Stars Without Number. Select any or all of the fleets in that, and imagine them crewed by samurai cat-people instead of humans. There y’go, that’s your Rakashan pirates right there. Rakashans need a racial enemy, and since I expect the players to generate a mixed human-rakashan-robot crew, I can’t use humans or robots for that enemy; enter the Saurians, stage left. Beyond knowing that they and the Rakashans hate each other, I know nothing more about them at this point. If the Rakashans are Pechenegs, then probably the Saurians ought to be the Magyars, who for our purposes are much the same sort of chaps – raiding, pillaging and serving as mercenaries, although by 3000 or so (1000 AD historically) they were settling down a bit in present-day Hungary.

Free Traders Setup Part 4: Uppsala

Skipping about the map as inspiration takes me, I come to Uppsala next.

The location – one hesitates to call it a city, even today the total population is less than 150,000 – has always been important as a religious centre; it’s also a port and later became an academic centre. I also note from Uppsala’s location that it’s a bit chilly, in case I decide to do full Stars Without Number stats for it.

At the time we’re interested in, it’s most famous for the large gold-adorned temple where statues of three gods sit on a triple throne; Thor, flanked by Odin and Freyr. According to Adam of Bremen, there was a priest who offered sacrifices – to Thor for relief from plague or famine, to Odin for victory in war, and to Freyr to celebrate marriages. These could include sacrifices of humans and animals, whose blood placated the gods. Non-believers were allowed to buy themselves out of the ceremonies. Opinion is divided on how much of all this Adam of Bremen made up.

However, it’ll do for gaming purposes, and I select these tags:

Tags: Theocracy, Unbraked AI.

This builds on input from VirgoBrown at the Savage Worlds forum, who suggested the gods could be supercomputers. In this case, the three primary Norse gods are a single mad AI with a split personality, which thinks it is all three gods, and has enough Weird Science tricks to make local people believe it. That suggests to me that the local tech level is a bit below par. ZeroMostel on the forum suggested Loki should be a viral AI that hops from ship to ship, and that’s too good not to use. Loki and Thor did not play well together, as I recall, but Loki was Odin’s blood brother so Thor couldn’t just smash his face in with Mjollnir.

Hmm. I can’t very well put "Unbraked AI" on the player handout, can I? I’ll just have to remember it. In the real world, Scandinavia had converted to Christianity by this point, and maybe Uppsala’s neighbours have a more normal religion too.

-o0o-

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to shorten "Varangian", which is what people at the Byzantium end of the trade route called all the Norse, to "Varan", likewise Varangian Guard is truncated to Varan Guard (and I’m toying with the idea of making their axes symbolic of a general fascism in the Celestial Empire). Since I want a political power to counterbalance the Empire, I extend this into the Varan Federation.

Vikings governed themselves by a loose hierarchy of councils called Things, which each community being self-governing; although they did have Jarls and Kings, these were almost a parallel structure to the Thing, and it’s not clear to me whether either hierarchy had any control over the other. We would probably consider this a kind of democracy today, so Federation seems a good name for it; and in SF, the traditional counterweight to an Empire is a Federation.