Collateral Damage 1: Stasis Pod

SS Collateral Damage, Alterday Shift, 25 January 3201…

LISA ANDREWS, FROMAR, POSEY AVRIL and JOE WILLIAMS are sitting in a coffee shop in the Charsi District of Zonguldak on Mizah, minding their own business, when they are approached by two hard-looking men trailing a couple of slap-drones.

CAPTAIN COUDER and his badly-scarred henchman CLAUDE have exchanged many harsh words with Posey in the past, and not a few bullets, but now need her assistance. Owing to a misunderstanding with the local law, Couder and Claude find themselves slap-droned (that is to say, followed everywhere by small robots which will intervene if they leave the city limits or do anything else illegal), and therefore unable to investigate the pre-Mandate survivalist’s bunker whose location they have learned by it’s-none-of-your-business. However, what they can learn, others surely will, and splitting the loot in half between the crews is better than losing all of it. Time is of the essence.

Despite numerous cogently-argued objections from Fromar, the party accepts this mission and rents a grav sled before embarking on the three-hour flight to the equatorial jungle island where the bunker is located. Holding at forty and doing a slow circle of the island, they discover two options: Land on the beach and walk in to the bunker coordinates, or land on the mountaintop and abseil down the sheer rock face. Despite (or possibly because of) the GM’s encouragement for the latter, they park on the beach and head in, chopping their way through the dense vegetation with machetes.

As they march, Fromar uses his copious mundane supplies to McGyver a flamethrower. Posey and Williams think they see foliage moving against the wind, and Williams drops prone yelling about bugs; Fromar uses his lighter to set the foliage on fire, but when nothing bursts out at them they decide to bound it in stones, make a campfire, and cook some bacon, it being lunchtime by now.

They reach the position Posey is sure is the site of the bunker without further incident, and find nothing. Fortunately Posey brought shovels, and they scrape away at what turns out to be the metal roof of a buried bunker. Shortly after that they notice that what they thought was a sink hole occupied principally by tree roots is in fact the entrance shaft to the underground bunker. Shortly after that, they notice that the shaft is lined with a viscous, pale-green slime; Fromar analyses this and informs them that it is characteristic of the giant carnivorous bugs known as “Hunters”. He drops a lit match down the hole to see how deep it is and set off any explosive gas before they go down.

Williams decides that the bugs must be killed with fire and is ready to attack. Posey is willing to go along for the sake of the loot, and starts to ready a rope by which they can descend, but the group’s plan is interrupted by a four-metre tall guard robot, covered in moss and vines, crashing through the foliage; it orders them to step away from the bunker and explains it is authorized to use deadly force.

Fromar argues with it, pointing out the advantages of having its AI braking removed so that it can be free to do its own thing; it counters that its primary purpose is to defend the bunker and its occupants. Fromar points out that the bunker is currently infested with giant carnivorous bugs which have no doubt eaten the occupants. The robot admits that the humans have been a bit quiet lately, but brightens when it realizes if the bugs are living there, they are now occupants, and therefore it still has something to protect.

Andrews realizes this means if she can get inside, she will be an occupant, and therefore safe from the robot. She makes a cinematic dive into the shaft, grabbing for the rope… which Posey hasn’t actually put there yet. Over the space of the next few seconds, noises come out of the shaft in quick succession: “Aaaaah!”, WHUMPFF, and “Owwwww…”

Looking around in her shaken state and checking herself for fractures – it’s always the medic who gets taken out first, isn’t it? – Andrews sees she is in an underground dome, ten meters high and twenty in diameter, with six corridors evenly-spaced around the perimeter; a number of Mandate stasis pods, mostly cracked open but one or two of which seem to be in working order, and half-a-dozen man-sized bugs advancing on her, waving an assortment of pincers, mandibles, antennae and stingers.

Above, Fromar continues his debate with the robot until Andrews calls “Help! Bugs!” As Williams dives towards the shaft entrance, Fromar throws him the improvised flamethrower, which he ignores completely. The robot tracks him with its autocannon and flamethrower, neither of which is working too well after 600 years in a jungle without maintenance or reloads. Fromar realizes that while it may be authorized to use deadly force, it no longer has the capability.

Confederation Marines are obviously trained in this kind of thing, as Williams rolls with the impact of his thirty-foot drop, bounces up unhurt, and blows the head off a bug with a well-placed slug from his magnum revolver. Posey follows him down and the three engage in a fierce close-quarters combat with the five remaining bugs, in a dark, cramped underground space lit only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons and dimly-luminous slime.

Andrews is wounded repeatedly by bug stingers, but manages to shake off the paralyzing poison each time. Posey realizes that her parrying is so good they have almost no chance of hitting her, and draws them away from her colleagues. Williams fends them off and gradually whittles down their numbers with his revolver, and Posey manages to drop one as well.

Confident of the team’s ability to deal with a few insects, and intent on securing the party’s escape route, Fromar carries on remonstrating with the robot, which is now trying to twat him with the barrel of its autocannon. During the melee, he manages to get close enough to jack into a diagnostic port and disable the hydraulics, immobilizing it. It politely requests him to stop that and stand still so it can stomp on him.

Reasoning that without combat skills he will be more of a hindrance than a help down below, Fromar ties one end of the rope to the robot (which weighs several tons and will be an adequate belay), throws the other end down the shaft, and – as gently as he can – drops the improvised flamethrower after it. Fortunately, it fails to explode.

Andrews, barely conscious, grabs the flamethrower and turns it on the dogpile containing several bugs and Posey, yelling “Flame on!” Posey manages to dive out of the way, and Andrews immolates all the bugs. Williams holsters his revolver, draws his cutlass, and engages the blazing bugs mano-a-mano, like a real Marine (his words). He thinks he can hear the distinctive sound of lasers firing above, but is too preoccupied to worry about that just now.

Meanwhile, Fromar’s investigation of the robot is interrupted by the arrival of a squad of rakashan troops who have been tracking the party through the jungle. Their leader congratulates the human vermin on clearing out the bunker, which he is sure they will complete any minute, after which he will relieve them of the loot and be on his way. The guard robot orders the rakashans to step away from the bunker, and notes that it is authorized to use deadly force. Fromar attempts to bluff his way out of the situation, pointing out the robot’s autocannon and flamethrower and telling the rakashans to drop their weapons, or the giant robot – now under his control – will kill them all.

After a second’s thought, the rakashan leader yells “The big one is mine!” and opens fire on the robot with his laser pistol. His troops take this as a sign that hostilities have commenced, and start shooting at Fromar and the robot with laser assault rifles (this is the laser fire Williams can hear).

Fromar sets the robot’s filesystem to copy itself into his portable computer, and trailing data cables behind him, dives into the shaft, managing to grab the rope with one hand as he falls.

-o0o-

As the session draws to a close, we find the situation as follows:

  • Andrews is waving an improvised flamethrower around in an unsafe manner. It has two shots left. She is heavily wounded (having taken something like seven Wounds and soaked all but two of them). On the plus side, the blazing bug carcasses have improved the illumination level.
  • Posey is rolling to her feet and assessing the situation, her rifle is on the floor somewhere but she is still clutching her lucky pistol “Elmira”.
  • Fromar is dangling from a rope just inside the top of the shaft, downloading what will turn out to be roughly half the robot’s file system onto his PC, while rakashan troops topside laser the stuffing out of the robot, which is threatening them impotently.
  • Williams is engaged in slashing the last surviving bug to pieces with his cutlass. It is burning merrily and more than a little unhappy.
  • Williams has been acknowledged as the leader, at least for this firefight, by Posey and Andrews, which means as long as they are within 5” of him on the tabletop they get +1 to recover from Shaken and he can (but need not) share his bennies with them.
  • It’s about four in the afternoon, and they have two to three hours of light left. Which is a moot point so long as they are underground.

We’ll pause this particular adventure here until the players concerned next meet up, which will be in a few weeks, and flashforward to the next one for the moment, which has some of the same players and some new ones.

It’s only in writing this up afterwards that I realized how well everyone was playing their hindrances.

PCs

This is the crew from Back in Black, converted back to Savage Worlds and transposed into this setting. Lisa Andrews, medic (and not a renegade psion on the run at all, honest); Fromar, mad scientist; Ms Posey Avril, semi-retired pirate and gastropub franchise owner; Captain Joe “Cap’n Crunch” Williams, Confederation Marine deserter. It’s interesting how everyone on this team except Fromar is already wanted by the authorities. Remember that while the players know this, the characters do not.

It’s also interesting that none of the players have noticed they are on a different planet entirely and the setting has been rewritten around them, although Posey’s player was one of the playtesters for the Aslan half of GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and recognised she has been in the Dark Nebula before – she’s happy playing Posey but did request a crossover adventure where she meets her old character. To be fair to them, it’s over a year now since Back in Black. Good Lord. Is it really? I suppose it must be.

NPCs

Captain Barry Couder of the armed freighter Goodnight Vienna; Claude Baddeley, his heavily-scarred lieutenant; Lord Mareecha, rakashan nobleman, and sundry laser-toting rakashan troops; hunter queen and assorted acid-dripping hunter warriors; Mandate sentinel mech, designation currently unknown.

REFLECTIONS

Well, Gromit, that went as well as could be expected. I had a very simple dungeon crawl in mind as a shakedown cruise for the party, with multiple opposing forces so that if they get out of their depth with one, another can barge in and distract their current enemy before turning on them itself.

I spent too much time looking up monster statblocks, even though I’d copied the ones I needed onto a crib sheet. I need a better way of doing that.

I actually have eight potential players, but they drop nicely into two groups of four whose attendance at sessions will rarely overlap, so I’ve split them into a mainday shift and an alterday shift, allowing me to have all of them on the same ship while explaining why there are two basic groups, whose members will sometimes mingle. I’ve given them a stock Light Freighter from the Sci-Fi Companion, and I’m studiously ignoring how eight of them manage to fit into a ship with life support for five, because I can’t be bothered to redesign the ship. Obviously they’re hot-bunking though.

I asked the players what their ship should be called – what they don’t know yet is that the AI has suffered damage and become unbraked, and its personality will be determined by what they name the ship. Collateral Damage won by a small margin over Resistance Is Advisable. They’ve been reading too many Culture novels.

The Last Parsec Core

Having purchased this as soon as I noticed it was available, and devoured it overnight, here are my initial thoughts…

In a Nutshell: Core book for the Savage Worlds Last Parsec setting, from Pinnacle Entertainment. 96 page PDF, $10 at time of writing – print options also available. This isn’t a stand-alone book, you also need Savage Worlds Deluxe and ideally the Sci-Fi Companion as well.

CONTENTS

1 – The Known Worlds (42 pages)

This covers the history of the Known Worlds in outline, and details six of them, before moving into essays on FTL travel, sentient races, threats and opportunities, and character concepts.

The history is broadly in line with the early part of the Standard Sci-Fi History common to many space operas; Earth is devastated by war in the near future, but recovers and launches sublight colony ships which settle distant Earthlike worlds, encountering various species which resemble humans, felines, saurians, etc. After enough time for the colonies to develop distinctly alien cultures, FTL travel is discovered and they link up again. Earth is historically significant, but not a major interstellar power.

There’s a table of main sequence star data, which appears to serve no useful purpose as there are no rules for star system generation. Each of the six selected worlds gets about a page of background detail in all, explaining how it was settled, what it’s like, and the culture of its inhabitants; one is tagged as the serran homeworld, and the others are human-dominated.

There are a couple of pages on FTL travel, but they don’t answer the questions I still have – see Suggestions for Improvement below. They do clarify that in TLP hyperspace travel is not instantaneous, and there is a tantalising hint of sentient white dwarf stars which are able to conduct hyperspace jumps.

Next, each of the important sentient races in the setting gets a couple of pages, describing its homeworld, appearance, pre-contact or pre-spaceflight history, and current situation. These races are the aurax, parasteen (deaders), florans, insectoids, rakashans, saurians, and yetis. We learn who the rakashan racial enemy is in the setting – kalians. We also learn that there are various splinter groups of rakashans who do not play well together.

Note that terms like "insectoid" are used as catch-all categories covering multiple similar species which need not be related; indeed, the book provides three different species of saurians from different planets.

This chapter also contains a map showing the realspace locations of a number of worlds, which is nice enough but has no game purpose due to the nature of FTL travel in the setting – every world is only one jump away from every other world.

The threats and opportunities section talks about lost civilisations and threatening species, and to avoid spoilers I won’t give details, other than to say that if you have Scientorium you already have much of that information.

The final section talks about character concepts – these are called archetypes, but to me an archetype is a ready-to-play character, not a paragraph telling me that engineers build and repair things and are in high demand, for example. It also has a sidebar of slang terms.

2 – JumpCorp (8 pages)

The default employer for player characters in the setting, JumpCorp is a unifying component giving the future-shocked PC something to cling to among the wide range of worlds and races. It’s more like a franchise operation than a typical megacorporation; charters are limited to a particular star system, but local operations can group together into conglomerates, and all report to JumpCorp Prime, which doesn’t control franchises but does share data and arbitrate between them. Individual charters can be good, bad or indifferent, and use different organisational structures and job titles; so the GM can invent whatever type of corporation suits his group best.

Basically, whatever the GM needs the megacorp in his game to do, there’s a bit of JumpCorp somewhere that does it. The chapter also mentions three other corporations to show JumpCorp isn’t the only game in town, and gives the GM some guidance on how to use JumpCorp to best effect.

3 – Gear (13 pages)

You can see my eyes glazing over already, right? That’s not about the book, it’s about my long-standing indifference to equipment chapters in all RPGs. There are a handful of new weapons, personal devices, androids and starships; a couple of new mods for homebrew ships; and some new vehicles and vehicle mods. There are more starships and vehicles than anything else. The main thing that caught my eye was the grav belt – err, sorry, anti-grav pack.

4 – Setting Rules (5 pages)

We start with Joker’s Wild and Multiple Languages from the SWD rulebook – good choices – and all PCs getting a free Knowledge skill at their Smarts die type – which I dislike on principle, but that’s just me.

The chapter then talks about what JumpCorp pays your heroes, how they might requisition unusual equipment, and commendations – these are a bit like medals and grant the PC bonus money and experience for going above and beyond their contracted duty; they also grant Resolve, which are points you can trade for connections, bennies, extra action cards, or extra adventure cards if your group uses those. This intrigues me and deserves further study and possibly experimentation in play.

A sidebar explains that interstellar travel is something done only by the few, e.g. the PCs, with most people never travelling offworld. A larger section expands on space travel and how it works, but seems to be largely a consolidated recap of information in other products (which one might reasonably expect of a core setting book, although usually the adventures would be published after the core book and duplicate its content, not the other way around).

5 – Adventure Generator (9 pages)

As is traditional for SW settings, there are rules for generating random adventures using card draws and dice. In this case, an adventure consists of an objective, a focus, a conflict and 1-4 other elements. I’ll create an example to show you how it works… it’s worth noting that all card draws refer you to the same set of tables, so a specific item might be a factor for good or ill depending on the adventure. That would encourage me to reuse NPCs, as I like the idea of particular NPCs being allies in one session and enemies in the next, according to their motivations.

First I roll 1d20 for the mission objective: 1 – exploration. The PCs must explore a newly discovered region, world or ruins. Fair enough, it’s a common adventure type.

Next I draw a card to determine what people or objects relate to that objective; a Queen of Clubs. Clubs tell me there is an obstacle of some type and I roll 1d20 to decide what -  15, which I see means the PCs encounter local military or police forces and must persuade them of their right to be in that location, or be arrested.

Third, I draw a card for the conflict; Ace of Diamonds – I roll another d20 and get 13, technology; 1d10 = 3 cargo spaces of high-end consumer goods. That is unlikely to fight the PCs, so it must be something they find which other groups want badly enough to fight them for.

Fourth, I draw 1d4 more cards for other elements and get a 2 of Clubs and an Ace of Spades. Each of those requires a d20 roll and I get 12 and 20 respectively; the adventure will also feature a gravitational anomaly and soldiers of the Tazanian Empire in a heavily-armed light freighter.

(In some situations I could have found myself rolling percentile dice to see which creature from the Sci-Fi Companion was involved, but that didn’t happen here.)

Putting that all together, I decide to use the stock TV show trope of answering a distress call; a JumpCorp freighter has been rerouted to a world with super heavy gravity, and is thought to have crashed. The team is sent to investigate and recover any survivors and the valuable cargo – and also find out why it was there in the first place.

Reaching the crash site, which is dangerous and difficult because of the gravity, the PCs discover the ship was given forged orders diverting it from its normal destination, and is being ransacked by a group of Tazanian soldiers disguised as a freighter crew, who claim they are salvaging the cargo. Clever players may discover clues to the fact that the Tazanians issued the fake orders to take the ship somewhere they could seize its cargo, which has valuable secrets and/or contraband concealed in it. The Tazanians have also warned a warship from a neighbouring world which is patrolling the system that they suspect "pirates" are responsible for the crash and to be on the lookout for brigands posing as JumpCorp employees.

Sounds like a reasonable adventure and took less than 20 minutes to work out. For me, this is the most useful part of the book.

6 – Travelers and Empires (13 pages)

More common allies and enemies to supplement those from the Sci Fi Companion; a couple of dozen NPCs of various stripes, including the first mention of an avion in the setting; empires and organisations, including two of the three empires from the Sci-Fi Companion and a sidebar with a couple of mercenary outfits to use as organisations.

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

PDF properties suggest this is what Pinnacle call an Explorer-sized book, about 7" x 10" or so. It’s in the usual TLP trade dress, black type on a pale blue background with pages looking vaguely like a tablet PC screen. Fortunately for my printer the background layer can be suppressed.

Full colour illustrations every few pages, ranging from a quarter page to a full page in size; many have been recycled from earlier TLP products, not that this bothers me.

Overall, it’s fine; plain, straightforward, gets the job done. It would be easy to use at the gaming table and that’s what counts most for me.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I still want to know the military and political implications of an FTL drive system in which there are no choke points and all planets are equidistant from all other planets, especially since the nav beacons provide “FTL radio”. It’s a bit like the present day I suppose; if you’re in trouble in Sumatra, say, you can radio corporate headquarters in New York, and if they care enough, they can have backup airdropped to your position within a day or two.

I also want to know how a planet can be “far from the regular trade routes” or “on the edge of explored space”, as several are said to be in other products, when every world with a nav beacon is equally accessible.

Nobody on the forum seems bothered about any of this, so I suspect there is another paradigm shift from Old School RPGs to Savage Worlds that I haven’t quite made yet, one relating to not needing the amount of setting information I’m used to having. I shall muse on that further over the coming months; it’s probably connected to Old School assumptions about domain-level play, which current RPGs have largely abandoned.

CONCLUSIONS

I had wondered whether this would enhance TLP to the point where I abandon my semi-homebrew Dark Nebula setting in favour of it, but it doesn’t. I can vaguely see how a TLP campaign might be run, and it would have almost no advance preparation at all, which is attractive; setting details would emerge in play as the GM responds to player questions. I can’t see it clearly enough to run, though.

TLP Core reuses a lot of setting information from the other TLP products and the Sci-Fi Companion, but this makes it usable whatever other products you have, and even if you do have them it would reduce page-flipping across multiple books; it does mean you are paying for content you might already have, or could obtain free elsewhere, so it’s your call whether the convenience is worth the cost. The reuse does mean I could see this setting being just about workable without the Sci-Fi Companion, and it’s definitely usable without the world books from the Kickstarter. Mind you, you could do the same thing with the free setting primer, too, and if you’re interested I recommend you download that first to see if it floats your boat before you buy the full setting book.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 if you have the other TLP products, 4 out of 5 in its own right. I’ll mine it for ideas (most likely the adventure generator), but it’s not quite what I’m after at the moment, so it’s destined for the reference section.

Dark Nebula: The Fastnesses

The Fastnesses are a group of six worlds which survived the Scream and the Silence in relatively good shape, thanks largely to the Great Archive Tekke of Mizah, originally a training facility established by the Terran Mandate to ensure frontier colonists had access to Earth’s art, history and technical training. Now, it is a semi-monastic order dedicated to preserving and sharing knowledge – neighbouring worlds can expect a visit by an Archive surveyor crew every couple of months, and have been uplifted to a uniform standard of technology over the past century by Preceptor Adepts.

Some fifty years ago, a breakaway group decided it was better to sell knowledge than give it away, and formed the Mizah Combine. The tension between the Combine and the Archive drives local politics, which is further complicated by envoys from both the Confederation and the Hierate, either of which would welcome Mizah as an ally.

dn08fast

WORLDS OF THE FASTNESSES

Kov: Gas giant. Population descended from Terran Mandate gas miners, living in repurposed mining platforms at the 1,000 mB level; breather mask and cold weather gear needed to go outside. Native life-forms can all fly, and can grow to enormous size. Fierce rivalry between cities for resources; anarchic nihilist warlords. Proceed with caution.

Mizah: Garden world; trade hub; famous for high-quality starships. Political tension between ruling Phoenix Party (centre left, links to Preceptor Archive) and Free Trade Party (far right, links to Mizah Combine). Capital city Zonguldak’s Charsi District is an English-speaking ghetto for port workers, ship crews, and mercenaries, 25 km from Erdemir Spaceport.

Omaro: Settled by a Japanese cult which died out during the Silence; now a research outpost run by Mizah’s Great Archive and the University of Zonguldak. Lobster-like alien animals.

Salia: Former Terran Mandate research facility investigating vast, echoing alien ruins, thought to be at least 40,000 years old. Arid wastes beyond the capital La Franja largely unexplored, said to be inhabited by outcasts and the legendary El Duplicar, an alien doppelganger alleged to kill those who wander off alone and assume their shape.

Simba: High-gravity snowball world, completely glaciated. Capital city and spaceport, Peponi, is built in mountaintop caverns. Breather mask and cold weather gear needed to go outside. Katabatic winds gust well over 100 kph; landing is dangerous. Native life highly aggressive and capable of bursts of great speed. Proceed with caution.

Tangga: Airless, frozen surface covered in bizarre rock formations resembling step pyramids. Harsh environment used by local government to justify intrusive surveillance and heavy-handed policing. Proceed with caution.

Dark Nebula: Subsectors

Here’s another map for you. Several factors came together to trigger its creation:

  • I generate worlds for this campaign half a dozen or so at a time, because as I add something to the description for world A, it naturally triggers thoughts about world B as well, which then provokes a thought about world C, which in turn expands my picture of world A, and so on.
  • The Dark Nebula boardgame, with its modular map pieces, naturally divides the worlds up into such groups. I’m not sure if that’s why I think of the worlds in those clusters, but doing so has been a big help in working them out, so I recommend it.
  • I don’t want to devote 40-odd posts to world descriptions, most of which would be spoilers for my group – and I think at least one of them is following the blog.

So I decided to give you one post for each of the eight map tiles in the boardgame, with spoiler-free world descriptions. While I was drawing on the larger-scale grid and labelling the tiles, I made a few other changes:

  • I got rid of the hex grid, which no longer serves any purpose.
  • I made every hyperspace route leading off the map an uncharted one, to signal to the players that they are supposed to stay on the map, at least for now. If they’re that keen to go off-piste, they’ll have to find some old Mandate drill routes.
  • I built a key into the map itself so that I don’t have to add one in Word, Paint or whatever.

Without further ado, then, here is the latest map:

dn08sub

I really do like this map. And I am starting to feel quite at home in Hexographer, which is what I used to draw it.

Dark Nebula: The Great Game

The Factions rules in Stars Without Number are a subsystem intended to generate adventures. Factions are large NPC organisations in conflict; their actions may generate adventures for the PCs, or the PCs’ own schemes may have an impact on them.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

Implicit in the Dark Nebula boardgame, and the chess game I’m using to simulate it, are two Regional Hegemons: The Aslanic Hierate and the Solomani Confederation. Each of them intends to rule the sector, so in SWN terms their long-term goals are Planetary Seizure of every system on the map, which will probably require each of them needs to Destroy the Foe (the other one). The chess game covers off their initial dispositions and movement, as you’ll see, so they don’t need much thought.

My work offstage on the setting has brought out two more clear factions: The Great Archive Tekke of Mizah, and the Mizah Combine.

Those are respectively a Backwater Planet and a Merchant Combine; the Great Archive represents both the planetary government of Mizah and the Archive itself, because of their close and long-standing collaboration, and for this reason it gets a second tag – Precursor Archive. (I considered making them separate but allied factions, but that’s more work for very little gain.)

There are also a number of inactive factions; these represent local governments, which will resist Planetary Seizure attempts – but not Expand Influence actions, to help keep the game fair but fluid and fast-moving. Depending on the planet concerned, these will be Backwater Planets (all the primary systems and some others), Colony Worlds (probably most Outposts) or Lost Worlds.

INITIAL DISPOSITIONS

With two exceptions, factions begin with all their assets on their homeworlds (Kuzu for the Hierate, Maadin for the Confederation, and Mizah for the Archive and the Combine). The exceptions are the Hegemons’ Blockade Fleets, which represent the first two pieces that move in the chess game and so are constrained to begin at Xida and Gazzain respectively. (I thought the Hegemons would start with them because they are deniable, and cheaper than Space Marines.)

All four factions have a Base of Influence on Mizah, which is shaping up nicely as the Casablanca of the setting, and each Hegemon also has a Base of Influence on (and the Planetary Government tag for) every world inside the dotted red line denoting its initial border. The Archive begins the game with the Planetary Government tag for Mizah. Any world or faction with an Outpost also begins the game with a Base of Influence on the relevant world. These Bases of Influence have the maximum possible hit points, having been built up gradually over the last few decades.

STRATEGIC TURN 1

At the chess game level, the first move is: White – pawn to e4; black – pawn to e5.

FACTION TURN 1

At the faction level, the Hierate takes five turns to move its Blockade Fleet from Xida to Craco, via Kuzu, Panas, Enjiwa and Dno. The Confederation responds by moving its Blockade Fleet from Gazzain to Salia, via Kov, which takes two months. So the first chess game turn represents seven faction turns, let’s call them January to July 3201 AD. Since it’s clear neither will have any conflict for a while, they both select Peaceable Kingdom as their short-term objective. Looking ahead, on the next chess turn both factions move a knight, which can be represented by their Space Marines, so they don’t need to build another military asset just yet.

Meanwhile, the Archive and the Combine both build Surveyor Crews on Mizah, since they are an efficient way of placing Bases of Influence on other worlds, which in turn is the cheapest way of getting assets in place on a world – building them elsewhere and moving them is more expensive in both time and money. So they have selected Expand Influence as their immediate objective.

I didn’t bother rolling for turn sequence as there is no conflict – yet.

MIZAH NEWS NETWORK – JANUARY 3201

What the PCs see… on average, news travels one jump per week, so since the PCs begin on Mizah, they won’t learn about about the Hierate Blockade Fleet being on the move until early March. Due to the Preceptor Archive tag, it’s cheaper for the Archive to build surveyors (3 FacCreds) than for the Combine (4).

“The President of the Republic of Mizah stood side by side with the Grandmaster Adept of the Great Archive today, as they made a joint announcement that Mizah would expand its surveyor fleet and reinvigorate the fair trade and foreign aid provisions of the Zonguldak Accords.”

“A spokesbeing for the Mizah Combine condemned this as unfair, stating that the Combine’s similar programme is hampered by a lack of government subsidies and restricted access to the Archive’s naval architecture database. ‘Yet again,’ he said, ‘We see our tax Credits used to fund the Archive’s obsession with giving away our most precious asset, the technical knowledge we have preserved for centuries when other worlds cast it aside – an asset which could be a source of enduring revenue for us all.’ Despite this, Erdemir Spaceport – where the ships will be built – issued a statement welcoming this renewed commitment to the industry.”

REFLECTIONS

A few of my initial rulings had to be revised as I worked through this.

First, initially, I got carried away and supplemented the above four factions with a number of custom ones, both overt and covert; but it isn’t a good use of my time to play out conflicts between groups that the PCs may never meet, far from their current location. I can always add more later.

Second, experiments off-camera revealed that if I move faction assets on a hexgrid, the game bogs down in building and prepositioning Extended Theatre and Heavy Drop assets to move ground units around, and there is almost no naval action because most fleet assets can only move one hex; that’s an interesting and playable game, but it isn’t the one I want for this campaign. So, assets now move one jump route per turn for each hex they could have moved in the rules as written; for example, a Strike Fleet can jump to an adjacent system in its move, while a Battle Fleet can move along three different jump routes in its turn. This means hexes now serve no purpose at all in the game, and I’ll drop them from the next iteration of the map.

Third, I’d intended to have the Hierate and Confederation turns overlap – so Confed’s first turn would occupy April and May, while the Hierate is moving from Enjiwa to Craco; but this means the two main factions don’t have enough time between moves to do anything else, like build new assets.

Fourth, I considered giving the Combine and the Archive Bases of Influence on other worlds, but that made it difficult to decide what they should do next; the setting background worked out so far makes it clear both factions want those bases, so they can start without them and build them in play.

This is why I play games solo in between sessions with the players; there are some things I only figure out by experimentation.

For further study: What is so special about Craco that the Hierate moves there rather than Godoro?

Turkish, Mofo–Do You Speak It?

I dived down another rabbit hole this week; languages. It began innocently enough…

THE MEANING OF LIFF

In an ideal world, I would generate a planet’s statistics, use them to inform the description, use that to create a gripping adventure, and then select a name which encapsulates all of those in a subtle way. The players would then look back at the end of the adventure and get an "Aha!" moment of the kind readers of the Chronicles of Narnia get when they learn that Cair Paravel means "lesser court", Aslan means "lion", or Jadis means "witch".

The most time-consuming part is selecting the perfect name, but I’m using an existing map whose worlds are already named. So, I decided to reverse the process; find out what the name means, and assign world statistics and tags to match. When I did that, several things quickly became apparent.

First, most of the world names on the map mean something in several languages. This is a good thing as it gives more details for the world description; Ria can mean a drowned river valley, a river, a kiln for drying corn, a moustache or blood, depending on which language you pick, so it’s easy to imagine an agricultural world where the main crop is corn, the men (and possibly women) have luxuriant facial hair, and there is a civil war caused by bloodlines.

Second, if you’re sufficiently creative, you can bias things towards the languages implied by the GM Resources chapter in Stars Without Number: Arabic, Chinese, English, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. Godoro, for example, means "mattress" in Swahili, but most of the countries where it is spoken plan to join the proposed East African Federation, whose official language would be English. That reduces the effort you need to create new resources such as random name tables.

Third, as always in Traveller or SWN, any statistical analysis of the sector is dominated by the few high-population worlds; in this case, the three most heavily-populated planets have 98.3% of the sector’s inhabitants between them, and when you add in the next three biggest populations that rises to 99.7%.

REALITY CHECK

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

Currently there are some 6,000 languages on Earth, of which roughly half are "endangered" and likely to become extinct within the next century; every few months, one of those languages dies out. How many will be left by 3200 AD is anyone’s guess, as is which ones would be spoken in any given sector; you could put up a convincing case for any number of options, maybe “the Latvians sought isolation to preserve the purity of their mother tongue” or “by the time the Hungarians got into space, all the good planets near Earth were already taken” or “only the official languages of the United Nations have survived”.

Whatever the case, we can be pretty sure that the Terran Mandate ruled in English; the main current contender for the position of world language, it’s easier to learn than (say) Mandarin, and it got there first – almost one person in three on Earth speaks English already, and it’s hard to see anything else replacing it with a head start like that.

So when that wretched air recycler breaks down for the third time this week, and you have to read a 600-year old technical manual to figure out how to fix it – that manual is almost certainly written in English. Which you almost certainly learned as a second language for just that purpose. As did the guy who wrote it. Good luck.

LANGUAGES OF THE NEBULA

Now I have a context to frame my decisions, but there are still several ways I could skin this particular cat.

First, I could say that each planet has multiple languages, one for each language in which its name means something. The people of Kuzu, for example,  would use half a dozen different languages, and there would be 50-100 in the sector at large, more than any PC would ever learn.

Second, I could say that each planet has one official language, and bias those towards the cultures in the SWN GM Resources chapter to save myself some work. In this case the principal languages would be Arabic (Maadin), Japanese (Kuzu), and Turkish (Mizah), with maybe another dozen or so spoken on minor worlds; it’s credible that a PC focussed on linguistics could learn to speak all the languages of the sector.

Third, I could assume a single dominant language, which based on the world names and populations would be Turkish. Traveller fandom has debated how Turkish the rim-spinward region of the Official Traveller Universe is, but I reckon the designers of Dark Nebula had a Turkish dictionary handy when they needed some world names in a hurry – Eski, Hasara, Icat, Kov, Kuzu, Maadin, Mizah, Simsek…

All of those options leave English in the same position; it’s the language of trade and science, because of its dominance in the former Terran Mandate; much the same as today, actually.

At this point, I took a long, hard look at the likely players. As far as languages go, I am the only one who really cares, so any effort I put into linguistics is going to be wasted. I resign myself to option three, and drive on.

REFLECTIONS

So I reluctantly come to the conclusion that yet again, for this campaign, languages don’t matter; if an NPC is trading with you, fixing your ship, or sitting in the control tower telling you where to land, he’s doing that in English, whatever he argues with his mother-in-law in at home. If he’s shooting at you, he’s probably yelling in Turkish, because almost all military forces in the sector belong to the Regional Hegemons – and that’s what they speak. As members of an English-speaking ethnic minority on a Turkish planet, the PCs speak both, and if they need to communicate with, say, a Latvian speaker in a starport bar, a Common Knowledge roll should suffice.

Like interstellar trading, the more I dig into languages, the less my campaigns seem to need them.

Oh, and that thing on TV sci-fi shows where everyone speaks English? Probably true, after all.

Dark Nebula: Where are the Carriers?

“When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?‘” – President Bill Clinton

What I should be doing is writing up worlds and adventures. What I’m actually doing is looking at the God’s Chess version of the Dark Nebula map and drawing inferences, some of which may even be valid.

WHERE ARE THE CARRIERS?

Or in this case, the battleships. For the moment, I shall only consider those squares on the chessboard overlay (see previous post) which have worlds in them, which to be fair is most of them.

On the Confederation side, there’s a queen in D8 (Maadin), a king in E8 (Avair or Zloban, probably Avair – what on Earth is it doing there?), a bishop  in F8 (Llavia), and pawns in D7 (Icat), E7 (Gazzain), F7 (Kamat), G7 (Bulan), and H7 (Eski). We can infer from that an interest in the space around Bulan, between the Dark Nebula and Confederation space. There are also a number of pieces (both rooks, both knights, a bishop and three pawns) with no representation on the campaign map – I’m going to say those are being built at Maadin, in the production queue as it were.

In the Hierate corner, we have the king at E1 (Kuzu), the queen at D1 (Vaxt), and pawns in A2 (Kinada), B2 (Amani), C2 (Bors), D2 (Rosa), E2 (Xida), and F2 (Panas or Enjiwa). All of that is inside the Hierate’s borders, except for Kinada and Amani; and actually, the chain of Amani-Kinada-Mir, by my previous rulings on population, are all outposts planted by Vaxt, presumably on behalf of the Hierate. What is beyond Mir that the Hierate is interested in? Another mystery for the PCs to solve. Meanwhile, in the production queue at Kuzu we have both rooks, both bishops, both knights, and two pawns.

From this I extrapolate the following:

  • The Confederation has a slight edge in naval power, but nothing dramatic.
  • Both empires send warships beyond their borders, but both to roughly the same extent, so there is no reason to suppose one side’s spacers are more experienced by virtue of spending more time “at sea”.
  • There has been a military buildup going on for some time, an arms race between the two empires, and it’s still going on. I justify this by the number of units on the map, and off it in production queues – far more than either needs to subdue its neighbours, the Hierate and the Confederation must be expecting a fight with each other.
  • Something at the bottom right of the map interests the Confederation, and something offmap to the top left interests the Hierate.

WHERE ARE THE ASSETS?

When I came up with idea of using God’s Chess to run the war, I confess I hadn’t thought through how it would integrate with the faction rules in Stars Without Number, and just blithely labelled pieces as destroyers, various flavours of cruiser, battleships, and the "national government counter".

Then I thought, suppose the war begins when both sides have produced the right assets to give them a full lineup of chess pieces? PCs could them see the buildup, spy on it, sabotage it and so on. Could be fun, and it will provide direction to the monthly faction activities; I can see the backdrop to season one being run using the SWN faction rules, and that for season two using the chess game once all the pieces have been built.

At first blush, it looks like most pieces should be things like Space Marines or Strike Fleets, with a very limited number of Capital Fleets – probably one per side, represented by the queen. There is no obvious asset equivalent to the king, so I will most likely stick with the national government counter idea – in which case why is the Confed government on Avair? Perhaps because it is one jump further from the Hierate, perhaps as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate Maadin sees itself as merely “first among equals”?

However, a proper analysis requires more time and energy than I have at the moment, so I will park that idea for now.