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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Review: Star Trader

No, not the boardgame that came with Ares magazine, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth; an expansion for Mongoose Traveller, which expands the trading rules into a solo game. 28 page PDF by Zozer Games, written by Paul Elliot, £2.80 from RPGNow at time of writing.


Of the 28 pages, you have five pages devoted to cover, contents list, publisher info and the Open Gaming Licence,  leaving 23 pages of meat.

Introduction (2 pages): This discusses solo gaming, why you might want to do it, and the need for an ongoing goal to act as the spine of the game, which for this product is trading.

The Starship (5 pages): This begins by recapitulating ship costs, then offers four options for tracking them; full fat application of all costs and revenues, assume that the background items like life support and passenger staterooms always have average values, ignore the background items, or rent space on someone else’s ship. This allows the player to vary the focus on speculative trading from just one more item among many to the only thing he’s tracking. It’s up to the player to decide what ship he’s operating, why, how much he still owes on it, and so forth.

We next examine the crew. The book assumes that you generate NPCs, or pick some from a supplement; but the new item is the NPC Relationship Table, which has 36 entries. You roll once for each crewman, and each has a relationship, good or bad, with one of the others (including the player’s avatar), for example A is secretly related to B, but only one of them knows that. There are dark secrets, romantic relationships, rivalries and so on. This bit’s a keeper; highly entertaining and easily portable to other games, Traveller or not.

There’s a fast play space combat system, reminiscent of the Ship’s Boat combat rules from the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller; throw to escape, and if you fail, throw to avoid being hit, if you are hit you can be crippled or destroyed.

The section ends with an example ship trading sheet filled in for a type R subsidised merchant and its crew.

Keeping Track (4 pages): To record the campaign, this section recommends a diary. This acts both as a declaration of intent (no do-overs once you’ve written something down) and as a way to pick up where you left off after a hiatus.

There is a fast mission resolution system, necessary as occasionally randomly-encountered patrons will ask you to do something for them – you assign the mission a danger rating, assign the character’s plan as shaky, solid or foolproof, and roll some dice; this determines whether you succeed or not. You can opt to play these out using the main Traveller rulebook, and I probably would, but again the player can focus exclusively on the speculative trading if he wishes.

The rest of the section is a month in the life of our example type R, showing encounters, trading, and fights between the crew caused by their relationships – and incidentally, how to keep the game log.

The Route (2 pages): This is about choosing your setting. You need to create, or pick, a fairly civilised subsector with a range of trade codes, and (if your subsector is not already detailed) expand on each world by writing an explanation for the world profile, bases, trade codes etc.

Trading Checklist (7 pages): This lists the sequence of events in a “turn”, namely search for cargo, buy it, have an encounter on the world (d66 table provided), pay warehouse fees, meet a contact, starport event (d66 table provided), search for a ship (only if you don’t have your own), finalise details, space or ship encounter on the way offworld, jumpspace event (d66 table provided), arrive in new system and sell cargo, then start over.

The meat here basically consists of the d66 tables mentioned above.

Ship Encounters (3 pages): Expanded encounter tables, along the lines of those in the core rulebook but bigger, and (nice touch) each entry has a list of half a dozen possible names for the vessel. There’s also a further random table showing what the ship wants to talk about when you hail it, which can lead to an exchange of data, a sub-mission as the ship needs help, or an attempt to arrest one of your crew.


Colour cover, wrapped around single-column black text on white, laid out to resemble the old A5 Classic Traveller booklets. Simple, effective, gets the job done. No internal illustrations.


There’s a filled-in example ship trading sheet, but no blank one for me to copy. Not a huge problem.

Update 5th September: The product has been revised, and now has a blank trading sheet and a new cover. Huzzah!


Traveller is perhaps uniquely suited for solo play, and the intrepid merchant plying the trade routes is the character type best suited to it. The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society had an article on that in the early 1980s, and to my mind this product is an extension of that piece, which essentially consisted of a checklist of what the ship did each day during a typical fortnight.

Star Trader is a nice piece of work, the sort of thing that would have made a good Special Supplement back in the day; and although it’s clearly aimed at Mongoose Traveller, I think any incarnation of that noble game could make use of it, except possibly the GURPS and Hero versions. I was sorely tempted to kick a game off right away, and while I haven’t done that, I could see it happening in a month or two when real life is hopefully a bit less hectic.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I keep getting the urge to play some solo Traveller again, and this would fit the bill nicely next time I do.

The Universal Empire Profile

One thought that has been meandering around my head for a couple of decades now is using the Traveller Universal World Profile to describe interstellar states.

By definition, such a state would have starport class A. The size, atmosphere and hydrographics codes don’t really work, although given that most Traveller states focus on controlling the communications routes between worlds rather than the worlds themselves, you could set them to 000. It’s the last half of the UWP that intrigues me the most.


On average, a group of 36 worlds will have one Population 10 world, two Population 9, three Population 8 and so on, which will give it a total population of 12,345,654,321. That’s using the standard Traveller rule of 2d6-2 for Population; the Mongoose space opera and hard science options are interesting, but too much work to figure out, as Population then depends on a lot of other factors.

The Imperium is said to have 11,000 worlds; that’s enough for any local fluctuations to cancel each other out, giving it a total population of 3,772,283,264,750.

Or in UWP terms, Population 12. The other major states in the Traveller universe are smaller, but not by a factor of ten, so we can use that as a rough guide to the population of any star nation.

(As an aside, the average population across that group of 36 worlds would be 342,934,842. Notice that the couple of really big population worlds skew the average a lot; the most common population is 100,000, on one world in six.)


This is 2d6-7 + Population. With Population 12, your interstellar empire has a Government type ranging from 7 (if you rolled a 2) to 17 (if you rolled a 12), with the most likely outcome being 12. In the canonical Traveller universe, we have:

  • Government Type 7 (balkanised): Aslan Hierate, Vargr Extents.
  • Government Type C (charismatic oligarchy): The Third Imperium, the Zhodani Consulate. You could make a case for the Imperium being Government Type B, but the Emperor’s personal influence on the Marches is minimal – for example, the entire Fourth Frontier War happened before he had time to respond – so I think actual power lies with the nobility and the Navy.
  • Government Type D (religious dictatorship): The Two Thousand Worlds, the Solomani Confederation. I put these at D because their loyalty is more to abstract ideals than to a group of sophonts.

With only six data points, that spread could happen by chance; but maybe there is an extra dice roll modifier I haven’t taken into account.


2d6-7 + Government. Range: 2 to 17, most likely is 12. However, anything over 9 is much the same. This is the rating that makes least sense, since it suggests any interstellar empire aims for rigid totalitarian control of its citizens. I rationalise this by analogy with the Imperial Rules of War; if you disturb the Imperium, it comes down on you like a ton of bricks, but as long as you don’t wake the sleeping giant by messing with its sovereignty or economy, it’ll leave you alone – not because it wants to, but because even a stellar empire doesn’t have enough money and troops to keep an eye on everyone, all the time.

The difficulty for the freebooting adventurer is that the rules are not codified; the Imperium makes them up as it goes along, so you’re never quite sure what will draw its attention. However, as the high tax revenue, high tech level, high troop levy worlds are those with Population 9 and 10, any star empire would focus its legal muscle on those – and we find that they have generally high law levels.


There are too many variables for an analysis as simplistic as this, but somewhere in your 11,000 worlds is a Population 10 world with Size 0 and a Class A starport (probably just the one), and that has a Tech Level of 1d6+13. So the best tech level in your empire is probably in the range 14-19, and in Traveller’s Charted Space we find that the racial capital worlds typically have TL 14-15.


You can represent an interstellar empire by a UWP code something like A000CCC-E, if you’re prepared to stretch the rules a bit. If, like myself, you are wont to run random adventures without necessarily generating a bunch of worlds, you can use that as shorthand for the empire as a whole.

This exercise also reminds me how powerful and flexible the Traveller world generation and coding rules are. They have not changed significantly since 1977, unlike pretty much every other aspect of Traveller. Marc Miller definitely got it right there.

End Game

In the absence of any players, I find myself re-reading my oldest Traveller rulebooks – the 1977 Little Black Books. To my current eye, Book 1 – Characters and Combat – is the most dated of the three original LBBs.

But, the thing about character generation in the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller is this: It’s the end game.

Fresh out of character generation, the typical PC is in his late 30s or early 40s. He’s the same age as Conan was when he seized the throne of Aquilonia. He’s done the spacefaring equivalent of all that dungeon-crawling crap, served his time in the trenches, and now he is ready to concoct "daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power", as Book 3 put it.

Comparing the weapons skills statistically to the other game we all played at the time, Original D&D, we see against an unarmoured target at optimum range, the hit probability for expertise level 1-2 (which covers most characters) is roughly equivalent to a D&D fighter of 4th to 6th level. Expertise level 3 is about the same as a 7th to 9th level fighter, level 4 to 10th-12th level, and level 5 to 13th-15th level.

9th level for an OD&D fighter (Traveller expertise level 3) is when he builds his castle and starts playing the Game of Thrones. In this regard, CT is more like contemporary FATE-based games like Spirit of the Century and Diaspora, in which the PC begins the game as good as he will ever be as far as skills go, and improves in other ways – power, wealth, influence.


Conan is about 5th level ("he had already taken wounds which would have killed any four normal men"), so in CT terms would have Sword-1. Given his Strength of 12 (at least), he’d get another +1. Against an unarmoured opponent at optimum range, he hits on a 2; that’s every single time. He’d hit a stock NPC with Sword-1 and Mesh ("the mailed chief of Akif") on a 6, 72% of the time; untrained NPCs (-5 to hit and +3 to be hit) are as grass before his blade, he can carry on hitting them every time, indefinitely, even when fatigued.

A character with Dexterity 8 and a telescopic sight already has +3 to hit at very long range (over 500 metres). He only needs to roll an 8 to hit an unarmoured target, so expertise level 3 or better guarantees a hit every time – there are no automatic failures in CT. If the target is in Cloth armour, that drops to hitting on a 4+, or a mere 92% of the time. Note that with 3D damage and the first shot rule, if he hits the average NPC, they are incapacitated, no ifs, ands or buts. There’s your world class sniper, right there, and interestingly he corresponds to the 7th level D&D fighter I’d use as a template for Olympic-level archers in that game.


So, in the 1977 flavour of Classic Traveller, expertise-1 is Conan. Expertise-3 is more like Jason Bourne or the Batman.

I wish I’d understood that at the time, and been able to convey it to my players through exciting descriptions. Oh well.

What CT ‘77 Got Right

Holidays, babies and exam revision have removed my regular group from play for a few weeks, so today you get another rant instead of the usual Monday evening game report.

I’ve already mentioned that I prefer the subsector generation rules in the 1977 edition of Classic Traveller to anything written since. The same is true for several other areas:


These grew increasingly complex as the rules developed over time; that’s especially true of ship encounters. I have never felt the need to move on from the originals.


The concept of generating critters by ecological niche was brilliant. The rules created beasts which worked the same mechanically whatever they looked like, with appearance and habits assigned by the referee. If he (or she) didn’t feel like doing that, the game lost much of its atmosphere but you could still play.

I still remember the PCs hunting 30-ton pouncers in AFVs. Man, that was nuts.


You have the basic stock designs, and a very simple system for building variants. Initially I spent a lot of time designing ships and house-ruling new ship systems, which was fun, but eventually I came around to the viewpoint one of my players put forward: The ship is only there to transport the PCs to the next scenario. Starship design grew increasingly complex for the next few editions of the rules, and for me at least, it stopped being fun.

As the number of stock designs increased, the ship encounter tables grew more complex too. See comments above.


There aren’t any. Nor do you need them.

At first I felt they were necessary to explain who was handing out thirty million Credit starships to retired scouts of good character, but consider this: A population 8 world with an average per capita GDP of Cr 50,000 (about the same as the contemporary USA), which spends 2% of its GDP on its armed forces (unusually low in the modern world), has a total defence budget of about a hundred billion Credits per annum. If half of that went on starships, and was spent so that an even amount of money (somewhere around 9 billion) was spent on each of the six types of standard starships, that one planet would could buy roughly 250 scout ships per year, and assuming upkeep is 10% of purchase price, the total scout fleet could be over 2,500 Type S for that one planet alone. If you say that one person per annum qualifies for the constructive possession of a ship, and that person just happens to be in the party, it seems plausible. Perhaps originally the President’s daughter wanted a ship, he signed it into law to get her one, and the bureaucracy never got around to repealing that law…

What about all those scout and naval bases? Well, if the planet has the technology and population to operate them – say TL 10+ and Population 7+ for the sake of argument – then they belong to local forces; otherwise, they belong to the nearest planet with those capabilities which already has bases (if it doesn’t have a base itself, it probably doesn’t project power abroad either). It’s easy to envision some sort of subsector-wide agreement for scout services allowing them to refuel at each other’s bases; that actually amplifies the argument for some scouts being spies, as you now need to spy on each other’s scout bases as well.


There were only the vaguest of guidelines for this, but there were also enough random tables that it could be done, hanging a campaign off the spine of interstellar commerce – keep dicing up characters until you get one with a ship, use the others as crew and other NPCs, then take your ship and crew around the subsector trading and dodging pirates.


Of course, it wasn’t perfect; but then, the expectation in the 1970s was that you would use the rules as a starting point, and tinker with them.

There was no point-buy option for character creation. Players, including me, often had a specific character concept which the dice disagreed with. If I want my dreams crushed by random events outside my control, I don’t need to play a game for that, thank you, the real world is more than adequate. To be fair, in 1977 no other RPG really had that option, and you could always house-rule it in.

Combat was clunky; actually, it was OK except for the separate range and armour die modifiers. That was in line with the way D&D theoretically worked at the time, although I never played with a group that used the armour modifiers; but RPGs now have moved towards using range as a modifier on "to hit" rolls and armour absorbing damage. That is much better in my opinion, but again, no RPG in 1977 really did that. Traveller didn’t really catch on until Mongoose Traveller came out in 2008, although obviously the GURPS and Hero versions had that option.

Ship combat should have used range bands like personal combat. Starter Traveller adopted this idea after a few years. That bugs me less now, as space combat doesn’t appear very often in my games.


I really wish I had worked all this stuff out in the ‘70s, you know; my games would have been very different, and cooler. Still, we all had fun, so close enough.

Subsector 1977

No game this weekend, and of all the things I could have done, for some reason I got the urge to generate a Traveller subsector. For me, solo gaming in the 1970s was generating setting information; dungeons, subsectors, NPCs, starships, encounters. Here is a completely random subsector using the original 1977 edition of Classic Traveller, rendered in Hexographer; the point of this exercise is to show how subsector maps have changed over the decades.



Under the 1977 rules, a subsector would look more like a Stars Without Number sector; a bunch of black dots connected by lines. However, even then I was writing information on the map; so I’ve done that, and used later conventions for bases, gas giants etc. How is CT ‘77 different from more modern implementations of Traveller?

Jump Routes

These were created using dice rolls and a table showing the odds of a route depending on the starport types at each end, and the distance between them. It was a royal pain dicing for all the possibilities, which is probably why this rule disappeared almost immediately; but I like the outcome better than the contemporary approach, not least because it lends itself to solo sandbox play; you can generate a viable map using just the starport classes, and fill in the rest of the Universal World Profile as you explore the subsector.

Players could travel to worlds not on these commercial routes, but couldn’t buy passage; they had to use their own ship, or charter one. However, you could make a long Jump over a series of shorter ones; so for example, a Jump-3 ship could move directly from 0101 to 0401 without stopping at the intervening worlds in 0201 or 0302. That makes less sense than the rest of the rules on jump routes, but was intended to make subsector maps more legible.

I always used the jump routes to identify interstellar empires, although that is not in the rules; I reasoned that any group of worlds connected by commercial traffic would be part of the same political unit – completely unrealistic, but it worked for me, and I’ve used it in this map too. In fact, the 1977 rules made no assumptions about multi-world states, other than a brief explanation under noble titles that “The title emperor/empress is used by the ruler of an empire of several worlds.” Empires were small in those days, and presumably determined by the chance presence of government type 6 (“a colony or conquered area”), although I immediately made the leap to a galactic empire of thousands of star systems; judging by the changes in later versions, so did everyone else.

World Statistics

There are some combinations of world statistics that were legal in 1977, but not possible to generate randomly in later rules sets. Notice the world in hex 0302, for example, which has Population 0 (then meaning 0-9 inhabitants) but a feudal technocracy for its government, and quite a high law level; later editions would assume that Population 0 meant government, law, and tech levels of 0.


There are fewer types of bases; naval (five-pointed star), scout (triangle), and Travellers’ Aid Society (not shown on the map, because it is implied by the starport type). Quite enough for me.

Trade Classifications

There are only six trade classifications; agricultural, non-agricultural, industrial, non-industrial, rich and poor. Later editions have added many more, which I find unnecessary. In particular, the various versions of “T-Prime” or “Garden” worlds essentially duplicate the Rich classification.

Travel Zones

These didn’t appear until the early issues of the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, and weren’t in the rules originally.


What’s most striking about this exercise is how little Traveller’s world generation rules have changed since 1977. I could use this map to run a game under any incarnation of Traveller, from Classic to Mongoose, without doing anything else to it. I suppose I might need to do a little conversion for GURPS Traveller, but that’s about it.

Maybe I’m just a gaming dinosaur, but the first generation of RPGs nailed quite a few things that we’ve drifted away from over the years with more elegant and complex rules. In fact, I wish the Far Future CT CD had the 1977 rulebook on it as well, as there are some bits I find superior to all later attempts.

Watch for future posts on other Stuff Classic Traveller Got Right.