This is the Night

Posted: 3 January 2018 in Reflections

“I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” – Jack Kerouac

I’ve painted myself into a corner here. The blog’s clean simplicity has evolved over time as my focus has changed; I don’t like the way it’s currently organised, but frankly it’s too much effort to rework it again. Time to move on, and create a new blog, better suited to my current interests and activities.

I’ll leave this blog here for posterity, as the reviews in particular seem moderately popular, and if I move it anywhere else that will introduce link rot in a number of other sites.

The new blog is here. I hope you’ll join me there. If not, so long, and thanks for all the fish!

Lessons from 2017

Posted: 16 December 2017 in Reflections

“I never heard of a puppeteer refusing to face a problem. He may merely be deciding how fast to run, but he’ll never pretend the problem isn’t there.” – Larry Niven, At the Core

Life changes. Not always in the directions I would like, but wishing things were different does not make them so, and I must adapt to what is, rather than what I would prefer.

I’m Getting Older

I’m 60 now. Let’s optimistically assume I have another 20 years of gaming left; I have enough material for at least twice that already, so I don’t need anything new, and anything new I want to run has to knock something else out of the queue, simple as that.

My eyesight is deteriorating with age as one might expect. Printing things at 70% at putting them in a handy A5 display book has given way to printing them at full size and using an A4 one.

Neither of those have a material impact on actual play, just a psychological one on me. Growing old largely sucks; but when I hear my grandson singing Christmas carols to himself as he plays in the next room, I have to admit, it’s not all bad.


Both story arc campaigns (namely Collateral Damage and Hearts of Stone) have collapsed; it’s just too difficult to schedule a consistent group of players on a regular basis. Every carefully-plotted story arc campaign I’ve run since the 1990s has failed in a similar fashion, so I’m done with those now.

It feels like my campaigns last forever, but the blog lets me check that, and actually they average about 30 sessions each over 1-2 years. I may fantasise about running a long-term, immersive campaign like (say) MAR Barker, but it doesn’t seem to be in my nature.

Group membership is transient, as ever; Collateral Damage has dropped from eight players to two, Shadows of Keron from nine to two, Hearts of Stone is down from 11 to 3 regular players and 4 intermittent, Pawns of Destiny from 6 to 0 as the players move on to Edge of the Empire. I’m currently too busy with work to play solitaire games.

On the plus side, the surviving members of Hearts of Stone have persuaded me to run a Mongoose Traveller game with a naval theme next year. However, between work, exams, and overseas travel, the gang won’t be back together again until at least early February now.


Two hours isn’t enough for a proper session, however you slice it. I have to find a way to extend it to something more like four hours; start earlier and finish later, I think.

Videogames are better at processing complex combat rules and characters with intricate skill trees. A live GM is better at weaving unexpected PC activity into the narrative, and can still hope to provide a more interesting story overall. There’s no point trying to beat the machines on their home turf, so it’s back to the Old School approach; emphasising player cunning over character statistics, and using dice as a last resort.

Some of my players like simple rules that don’t get in the way, and they’ll be fine with that approach. Others like complex ones, where optimising characters for tactical advantages in combat is part of the fun. The Pawns of Destiny players are firmly in the latter camp, so that campaign is unlikely to return.

Roll20 is focusing my setup too much on battlemats, meaning game sessions are now mostly combat and that’s getting repetitive and boring. That’s a problem with me rather than the software, I think, but it’s still a problem I need to fix, so we’ll try something like Skype next year.


Quite a lot of food for thought this year, and I shall spend the next couple of weeks marinading in single malt and scheming.

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas and a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Review: High-Space 2nd Edition

Posted: 13 December 2017 in Reviews

In a Nutshell: Transhuman SF setting for Savage Worlds by StoryWeaver, $20 at time of writing, 246 page PDF.


I’ll consider this not only on its own, but by comparison to the first edition, which I reviewed here.

PanDominion (80 pages): Almost immediately we see changes between the first and second editions. The first edition was set in The Lantern, a frontier island nebula dominated by the search for technological treasures left behind by long-vanished alien races. Here, we see the PanDominion proper, getting 80 pages instead of two. This is a post-scarcity society on a galactic scale, and the PCs are the throwbacks, bored with the easy lives led by the masses. The PanDo can’t allow these misfits to disrupt the peaceful harmony of their society, but on its edges, there are enemies to fight, dangerous new worlds to explore – and the misfits are the ones mentally suited to deal with the dirty work. Picture the Special Circumstances agents in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels and you won’t go far wrong. As a concept for the setting, this has a lot of promise.

This chapter begins with a section called Know Your PanDo, several pages of short paragraphs, each on a specific topic, with a page reference for a fuller treatment. That is a nice touch. It’s followed by some news bulletins written from an in-game viewpoint, summary data on the common species of the PanDo, the external threats that hold it together, timelines, means of interstellar travel (like Mass Effect – FTL drives on ships, with wormgates for long-distance travel and colonised star systems huddling around the wormgates), important sectors of space and capsule summaries of what’s in them, key planets, the PanDo government and how it works, the local version of the internet (called ‘the Sphere’), the Culture-style AIs known as ‘Minds’, with discussions both of the general situation and individual Minds the PCs are likely to encounter, the United Resources Corporation and other megacorps, law enforcement, the Contracts Guild, the Merc List, and the Council of Churches.

How a post-scarcity economy works in the game deserves a few notes. Basically, as your character advances in Rank, he or she is perceived as more valuable by the AIs that run the PanDo, and is therefore trusted with more complex and expensive gear. However, second edition High-Space moves away from the full-on post-scarcity trope and adds CBTs, a pseudo-currency used by the AIs to allocate resources. I think this was explained better in the first edition, but I admit I haven’t reread it to confirm that.

This section is also sprinkled with the obligatory short pieces of fiction.

Agencies (8 pages): These are civilian PanDo organisations PCs might find themselves working for – Insight, which assesses new species as potential PanDo members; the Integration Agency, which brings such species aboard; and Intervention, which does whatever is necessary to protect the PanDominion. The PCs are most likely to work for Intervention, which is pretty much the game version of Special Circumstances.

Militant Arms (12 pages): These are PanDo’s military ‘agencies’ – Armada, the navy, which explores, deters enemies,provides humanitarian aid, and enforces internal security; Field, the ground forces, which do what they have always done; PsiOps, psionic spies and ninjas. Armada is very close to Star Fleet in most of the Star Trek series.

This chapter also includes PanDo’s guiding principle for interspecies contact, the Doctrine of Least Resistance. This is useful to the GM by defining what PanDo will do – or order the PCs to do – in various circumstances.

Xenofile (42 pages): Unlike the first edition, which gave you five basic templates and left you to get on with it, second edition High-Space gives you details on eight PanDo member races (including humans), overviews of six more member species and eight allied ones, and three non-playable races; the enigmatic starfish, the hostile strozi, and the equally hostile nuclarine.

Character Creation (14 pages): This begins by listing all the standard skills and how they are modified for use in the setting, and some new ones; Psychiatry (the mental equivalent of physical Healing), Security (Smarts-based and replaces Lockpicking), Spacewise (a space-based version of Survival). I’m not sure of the value of listing all the existing skills, so maybe I should read that bit again.

There are seven new Hindrances, including Synthetic (you’re actually an android); Doubting Thomas and Poverty are not allowed. Sidelined is interesting; you count as one Rank lower than you actually are for purposes of acquiring and keeping gear.

New Edges relate to using technology. My favourites are the Glanding Edges, representing implants which allow the user to trigger hormones and pheromones at will, but there are also Hacking Edges for dealing with computers, Edges for Synthetics which make them stronger, more flexible and so on, and general Edges which usually involve an implant of some kind. A simple system, yet flexible.

The backgrounds and their mandated skills have vanished, making character design much closer to standard Savage Worlds.

Gear and Gadgets (20 pages): As this is a post-scarcity society, access to equipment is limited by weight (you still have to carry it) and Rank (the AIs running the place have to think you’re worthy to carry it). Regular readers will know I am not enamoured of Gear chapters, so I’ll mention the drones, the Positronic Warbeast and the armour-penetrating motorised teeth for the Shako species, and move on. The range of gear is much expanded from the first edition, especially in regard to devices from non-human species, and helps convey the feel of the setting.

Fleet Manual (32 pages): By this stage of the book, the reader has seen a number of tantalising sidebars defining particular classes of ship, and this is where the stats in those start to make sense. It’s also the bit that tempted me to buy the book, as I am intrigued by the idea of PC starships, and this is the only official product I know of that includes them.

Ships in High-Space are designed much like characters. Each has a free Design Edge, denoting its original purpose and affecting its other stats. It then has five attributes – Manoeuvre (how agile the ship is), Computer (how good the autopilot and other systems are), Drive (normal-space movement), Displacement (size and payload), and Quality (how well-built it is) – and two derived stats, Pace and Toughness, calculated from their attributes, edges and hindrances. Edges are basically payload items, while hindrances are about the ship’s age and behaviour. I always wanted  more hindrances in High-Space to give a wider variety of individualised ships, and here they are; but my favourite is still Poor Signage, which means it’s hard to find anything you need. Edges are things which would be fittings in most game systems; cryosleep pods, armouries, cargo holds, that kind of thing. Some of them require connections with particular organisations or species to acquire.

The XS+ vehicle rules have been replaced with a more elegant solution: Such vehicles are built like starships, but have the Aero Hindrance, meaning they are atmospheric flyers only, no FTL capability. A definite improvement.

Another change I do approve of is that starships no longer have an FTL die randomising their movement; they all move FTL at the same speed. One change I’m unsure about is that ship attributes and edges are bought and hindrances reduce the ship’s overall cost; in first edition, they worked more like character edges and hindrances (which was more elegant, especially as you could level up your ship as the party advanced), now they work more like gear (you just buy them). I think I prefer the first edition approach for this.

I found the lack of example designs in first edition made it hard to understand the starship construction rules, but now there is one worked example and a number of sample designs.

The Tactical Sphere (17 pages): The thing that stopped me using High-Space first edition was the space combat, with its (admittedly optional) tabletop maps and randomised movement; that’s unfortunate as High-Space is supposed to be all about what it calls “spacefighting”. Second edition ranges are still huge even by SF RPG standards; sensor range is far bigger than a star system, weapons range is about the same size as one, and adjacent is what it says on the tin. FTL movement allows you to change zone, while normal-space movement is for docking. There are still tabletop maps, though they are now abstract and based on zones like the ones in FATE rather than being actual battlemats. Abstract movement is reserved for encounters in deep space, although I couldn’t quite see how that worked. Several things about this chapter jar for me, such as the idea of lasers moving faster than light, fixed sublight speeds for ships, and so on. I see the point of them, in that they allow more tactical complexity by bringing various manoeuvres and ship edges into play. But I’m not going to play this version of space combat either, and since that is one of the key features of the game, this is where I checked out.

Into the Void (11 pages): The deep space between star systems, why you shouldn’t go there (it’s boring), and why you might have to anyway (there might not be a nearby wormgate); notes on astronomical features found in deep space; solar systems and what you can find in them (which seem to refer to a different set of cinematic ranges than the Tactical Sphere, but maybe I missed something); supplies you need; zero-g personal combat.

Keep It Wild (2 pages): A mixture of designers’ notes, adverts for the next release, and further explanation of what PCs do and who hires them. I like the idea NPCs insult the PCs by calling them ‘pandas’.


One book rather than the previous three; still has nice artwork; black text on white, usually two column but sometimes one; unusually, body text is sans serif.


It would be nice to have the ability to suppress colour page backgrounds. I can’t believe I still have to point that out in 2017.

As a science fiction game, it should either be scientifically plausible or explain why science doesn’t apply in this setting. As things stand, I am jarred out of my willing suspension of disbelief every time a ship moves.

Savage Worlds has perfectly viable dogfighting rules; personally I would have used those and adjusted the shipbuilding rules to suit them.


Picture the Lantern, the setting for the first edition, as a mining town in Alaska; the second edition takes you to the PanDominion equivalent of L.A. In fact, this is a completely new setting; character creation, starship creation and combat, aliens, background – all different.

This is a more polished product than the first edition in many ways, but it appeals to me less. Oh, and leave any scientific education you have at the door, it will only upset you once you’re inside.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. It works, it does what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do isn’t what I want – not really the game’s fault, I suppose, more a case of I bought the wrong thing.

Previously, on Collateral Damage…

The crew had gone through the first few episodes of Heart of the Fury, leaving them with a friend in high places and a mysterious video clip. At length their trade runs brought them to the place where the clip was recorded, and investigating it took them well off piste, resulting in them unleashing an Artificial Intelligence wired into the largest superdreadnaught ever built (it says so, right here in the brochure). Unfortunately, when when all you have is a superdreadnought, everything looks like a target, and in the ensuing havoc and carnage, the Collateral Damage slipped away, in case unkind people – people who didn’t understand the full story – blamed them for it.

Having picked up a cargo of weapons – not the ones they were sent for, but let’s not get picky – and diverted a few select items for their own use, they moved on to Toyis, a trade hub controlled by intelligent winged housecats called the Precious, who live in arcologies abandoned by their long-dead masters. Here they encountered the ruthless trade factor Mittens Pleasant Landing, and made a deal with him: They would loot the levels below the 30th floor, where the Precious fear to tread, and swap that for some valuable but unspecified items in Mittens’ warehouse. Shortly thereafter, the crew learned why the Precious (justifiably) fear to tread in those levels, and the multi-tentacled horrors that scare the Precious discovered just how much pain an Urseminite with a plasma gun can bring.

As the credits roll, the crew have found a centuries-old tourist map with directions to various places of interest in the arcology, and are planning their next move. But wait; is that a slimy tentacle oozing into shot? Do you know, I rather think it is…


The crew of the Collateral Damage has dropped over time from eight players to two, and that combined with the fast-playing nature of Savage Worlds and our Old School approach to things means the extremely experienced ‘away team’ chews through plot at a frightful rate. It’s clear no-one is really that enthused about following the story arc, so a return to the previous (and easier to prepare) picaresque approach is in order.

We also agreed to replace the six wild card PCs whose players no longer attend with the couple of NPCs it would actually take to fly the ship; they have an engineer and a gunner, and as to all intents and purposes they’re tooling around in a Traveller free trader, they need a pilot and a medic. Perhaps I’ll roll up a couple of Mongoose Traveller characters and convert them.

For the next session, rather than map out an entire arcology, I shall adopt the Beasts & Barbarians card and token approach when we next meet, creating a space dungeon on the fly. Come to think of it, perhaps the Two Hour Wargames city and risk-and-reward decks would be easier.

In other news, we did have time for a D&D session as well; the plan was to try out D&D 5th Edition, but we agreed that while a fine game, it offers no real advantage over White Box OD&D for our purposes, so we danced with who brung us.

I am pleased to report that the dragon turtle threatening our adopted home city of Shadipuur is no more, having been tricked into capsizing a cargo ship full of lamp oil and first distillate brandy, then bombed by invisible flying magic users dropping fireballs on it while being shot at by as many ballistae as we could find. Damn, those things are tough. One aspect of the situation still requires attention – namely, the improbably large amount of gold the dwarves were promised for their help. Which we don’t actually have.

Only Soreth and the Fox turned up to this session; that sort of thing happens sometimes in a drop-in game.

At the end of episode 29, when all players were teleported home, Soreth found herself in her cave, north of Drakkenhall, while the Fox woke up in his old bedroom at Castle Stormwatcher, just outside Glitterhaegen. In the intervening period, Soreth’s magic sword Spiterazor advanced the theory that [a] it was created to slay dark elves; [b] it its experience, you find dark elves fighting dwarves; [c] there are lots of dwarves in Anvil; and therefore [d] they should go to Anvil, kill dark elves, and take their stuff. Since neither of them has the brains God gave a rabbit, off they go.

Meanwhile, the Fox’s henchwoman, Ladra, had learned that a dwarven goldsmith in Anvil was making a golden statue of a fox spirit, went to investigate, and was imprisoned for trying to steal it – so the Fox makes his way north to get her out of jail.

On meeting up at Anvil, the group learns that the local dwarven clans pride themselves on the quality of their beer. Making good beer requires a plentiful source of pure water, and by sifting through ancient records, one dwarf brewmaster has learned of the existence and approximate location of a spring of surpassing purity. The musty tomes tell him that the spring has been corrupted, and must be cleansed using a barrel of an unspecified but powerful potion.

Clearly, the brewmaster thinks, this must be a reference to Brimison’s 8X Winter Ale. The party are hired to convey a barrel of this most puissant beer to the spring, dispose of any unwanted tenants, and empty the barrel into the spring.

We gloss over the trek to the caves wherein lies the spring, with Soreth carrying a barrel of 8X Winter Ale. Inside, they find an unwholesome mixture of goblins, orcs, ogres and dire wolves, but between Soreth’s breath weapon and the Fox’s flashing swords, these don’t last long even though Soreth is distracted by fossicking through their quarters for loot, and only two cowardly goblins escape with their lives.

Locating the spring, they meet a water elemental who had taken up residence in the spring for its purity, only to find herself trapped there for generations while the orcs dumped – well, best not to think about it really – into the pool. When they dump the Winter Ale into said pool, its power purifies the spring and creates the first beer elemental in history – like a water elemental, but permanently tipsy.

Luckily for them, the beer elemental is a friendly drunk, and professes undying love for the Fox. This is unlikely to have a permanent effect as she will forget him at midnight. The Fox lets her down gently, and he and Soreth return to Anvil to collect their reward.

GM Notes

Hearts of Stone has now morphed into a series of picaresque one-sheet adventures with the overall story arc set to one side for the foreseeable future.

I had planned to use Gold & Glory to generate a dungeon for this session, but work and domestic affairs meant no time to do that, so I grabbed one of the old Crooked Staff freebie dungeon complexes, a bunch of monsters from the SW core book which are stated to cooperate, and a mission plot from Warhammer Quest. Took about an hour to set up, and most of that was spent choosing a map.

“The dinner-table is often the terrain of critical conversations, for it is there one has the better of one’s interlocutor. There is no escape without scandal, there is no turning aside without self-betrayal. To invite a person to dinner is to place them under observation. Every dining-room is a temporary prison where politeness chains the guests to the laden board.” – Maurice Renard, The Hands Of Orlac

1412 Ria D768534-7 Ag Ni GG

The ship’s boat from the Dromedary deposits Arion at Ria starport and he walks out into the muggy heat with the clothes on his back (Great Archive Surveyor coveralls, indifferently laundered aboard ship) and a spacesuit. Neither the ship’s boat nor the laser turrets are standard fittings on a subsidised liner fresh out of the yards, so Arion surmises that the Dromedary is intended to trade with backwater planets in hostile space. Ria seems to tick both boxes.

Looking at Solo p.53, I need to make a world encounter roll (p. 58), which will lead me to other rolls as appropriate. I roll 3, 2 and learn that the local community is either not what it seems, or very welcoming.

The starport is about as basic as you can get and still be an actual functioning starport, a decrepit set of landing pads and a few buildings. Arion needs to find passage back to Mizah, or at least Hasara where an Archive ship will eventually turn up, and suspects he’ll need money for that – lots of it. Before making any decisions, he needs more information, and the best place to get that is at the starport office, a mouldy-looking edifice with a couple of soldiers (armed with what look like simple chemical slugthrowers) and a man in a suit loitering outside. All three have luxuriant moustaches, which Arion will shortly learn are the local fashion. The suited man waves at Arion to attract his attention, then walks briskly up to him, with the soldiers ambling along behind, as if their presence were more for show than because of any real threat.

“Senor Metaxas? I heard from traffic control that you were arriving. I am Luis González, pleased to meet you.” González is speaking accented English, the lingua franca of spacers across the sector.

“Likewise, I’m sure. Yes, I’m Metaxas. How can I help you?”

“We don’t often see anyone from outside this system, especially not a Surveyor from the Great Archive. King Adriano Talamantes invites you to dine with him tonight, and bring him news of the outside galaxy.”

Arion thinks for a moment, covering his indecision by lowering his heavy spacesuit to the ground. He’s not likely to get a better offer than this, and while he is wary of local despots, the soldiers can likely shoot him if he runs, or overpower him if he doesn’t. Might as well go without the handcuffs, then, and eat a fine dinner instead of prison slops. Since Arion knows Archive ships don’t normally go as far as Ria, and individual free traders haven’t got the range for this run, the King must be getting all his external information from the Combine, and the implication of the invitation is that he doesn’t entirely trust them; Arion may be able to turn that to his advantage.

“I would be delighted to accept your kind offer, Senor González,” he says. “When am I expected, and what is the best way to the palace?”

“Don’t worry,” smiles González, “We will take you there right away.”


A few hours later, Arion finds himself clean-shaven (except for the beginnings of a local-style moustache – may as well fit in), showered, dressed in borrowed finery rather than a tatty surveyor’s coverall, and at table with Luis González, King Adriano Talamantes, Queen Delfina, and Princess Isabella, the ten-year old heir to the throne. Waiters bustle in and out with various courses, and discreet guards in dress uniforms stand behind the King to either side of him.

By the time they get to what passes for coffee locally, the ice has been broken and the five of them have moved past the polite small talk, including Arion’s descriptions of life across the handful of worlds in the Fastnesses and the family’s explanations of local history, geography and crops.

“I must tell you, Senor Metaxas,” the King begins, gesturing with his coffee cup, “that Captain Anderson tells me we should fear the Archive, that it is dominated by people with a liberal socialist agenda, hostile to our way of life here.” Arion frowns, considering his next words carefully; the prison cell is still a possibility.

“There is rivalry between the Combine and the Archive,” he says, “And a wise ruler wouldn’t take anything either of us says at face value. Captain Anderson has given you the Combine view of things; allow me to present the Archive’s. You know, of course, that before the Interregnum, a great human empire controlled this region of space, with its capital on mother Earth. Before that empire fell, it established centres of learning on major worlds, to ensure colonists had access to a basic knowledge of technology, culture and history. One of these was the forerunner of the Great Archive on Mizah; after the empire fell, it worked with the planetary government to save as many people as it could, and rebuild.”

“Captain Anderson tells me that the Archive has taken over the government of Mizah from within. Like some kind of parasitic wasp, he says. Whatever a wasp is.”

“It’s true that the Archive and the government have worked closely together for centuries. What Anderson may not have told you is that the Combine was once a faction within the Archive. We are essentially a quasi-religious academic organisation, focused on humanitarian aid and research, sharing our knowledge freely with other worlds. Some time ago, a group of the Archive’s Adepts started saying that we should sell our tools and knowledge rather than giving them away, and that since what other worlds most wanted to buy was weapons, we should sell those. That led to a schism between the academic and commercial interests in the Archive, with the commercial elements leaving to form the Combine.”

“I see. Captain Anderson argues that what people are freely given, they do not value, and that the Archive imposes its will on other worlds over generations, by insinuating its ideas into the minds of the young.”

“The Archive’s eventual goal is to uplift every system in this region to the old empire’s level of technology, thus eliminating hunger, disease and oppression. We hope this will lead to harmony, to a voluntary association of free worlds.”

“With crystal spires and togas for all, no doubt. The rebels in the swamps say I oppress them. Captain Anderson says that emissaries of the Archive are spreading sedition and firearms among them.”

“Then why invite me here? Why not just arrest me?”

“Because all I know about the Archive, about the whole galaxy since the empire fell, is what Captain Anderson has told me. Asking him if it is true gains me nothing. But you…” The King waggles a finger and smiles. “You do not know what he has told me. So where both of you agree, I can take that as the truth. Where you disagree, one of you is lying. So I hope you will accept my invitation to stay for a while, and understand that the guard outside your room is there for your protection.”

Arion considers his options, and comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t really have any.

“How could I refuse such a kind offer? I can think of no better place to stay during my time here.”

GM Notes

This week I’ll talk a bit about how the worlds of the Nebula are being created.

I start with the number of jump routes it has, and use those for a first cut of the starport (one route is class E, two routes D, and so on) and population level – inhospitable secondary systems have a population level of the number of routes plus one, habitable primary systems add another two to that. I override that in two cases; tertiary systems always have a world profile of E000000-0, and the two homeworlds (Kuzu and Maadin) have starport type A and population 9. So Ria begins with starport D and population 5.

Then I use Google translate and other sources to find out what the name means, and in which language. Ria is interesting as it means a number of different things; a drowned river valley in English, “river” in a number of Romance languages, a corn-drying kiln in Swedish, a moustache in Vietnamese, or “blood” in Woi (spoken in Indonesia).

I muse on that for a while and imagine the kind of world that would be an appropriate name for. The goal here is that if the players in a group game ever figure it out, they’ll say “Ohhh… Of course, it would be called that, would’t it?” I chose this approach because I’m not very good at doing it the other way round, figuring out a relevant name for a world based on the stats, and tend to drift into analysis paralysis. It also has the benefit that it tells me which culture or cultures originally settled the place, giving me a ready source of names, traditional menus and customs, and so on.

In the case of Ria, the image that comes to mind is a rural, agricultural planet, primarily focussed on growing corn along a river valley, with one major town just upstream of a tropical river delta, split politically between a Spanish-speaking ruling class and a mixed bag of farm labourers from other cultures, and a group of flatboat-mounted guerillas hiding in the delta’s marshes and seeking to overthrow the rulers. Possibly the first thing a visitor notices are the impressive mustachios sported by all adult males. Then I assigned the rest of the profile to fit that picture. Note that the boardgame implies all primary and secondary worlds have antiship defences (laser and missile turrets), and by extension either a Tech Level of 7+ or some sort of arrangement with another planet which armed them. Bases I assign by looking at the map and placing them where I think it makes sense and fits with the profile; there’s no reason for Ria to have any bases, so it doesn’t.

As we explore the subsectors further, you’ll see the region was largely colonised by Turkey, Indonesia and the proposed East African Union.

Arion, 014-3401: Dromedary

Posted: 11 November 2017 in Dark Nebula
Tags: , ,

“How canst thou say, I am not polluted, I have not gone after Baalim? see thy way in the valley, know what thou hast done; thou art a swift dromedary traversing her ways.” – King James Bible, Jeremiah 2:23

Aboard the Dromedary.

I roll for in-game reactions (Solo pp. 19-20) and an onboard event (Solo, p. 56): There’s only one active PC yet – Arion – who rolls a 6 and therefore fails to avoid a bad reaction; a further roll of 4 shows that a choice is made and he doesn’t like it. The onboard event is 43 – a power failure.

The Captain’s day cabin is spacious, by shipboard standards, and Captain Anderson sits at a small desk, interviewing Arion, who is dressed in an ill-fitting pair of Combine overalls and perched awkwardly on a folding chair. The scene is dimly lit by emergency lights, and the air conditioning is off.

“Our sensors confirm there’s wreckage from an Archive Surveyor, and the origin of your trajectory matches where it would have been when you left. So your story checks out. But tell me, why would pirates blow your ship up? First, they’re breaking no laws by being here; second, there’s no-one to enforce them if they were; third, a ship with an Archive transponder has nothing worth stealing – no offence – and fourth, the Archive is too powerful to upset for no reason.”

“None taken. I saw too much. I saw who they were meeting out here. Hierate scouts.”

“You sure?”

“Hraye III class with a fuel slab, squawking a clan recognition code. Unmistakable.”

“Pfft. Half the pirates out here are from the Hierate.”

“True, but they don’t squawk clan codes. And honour dictates that anyone using those codes be a member of the right clan, and vice versa. The code tells you who it was. No room for error.”


“Hmm indeed. So Captain, thank you for picking me up, but I need to impose on you further – I need to report back to Mizah right away.”

“Surveyor, the law is clear. I grant you’re a distressed spacefarer, and the Archive is good for your transport costs. But I can’t turn 600 tons of ship around and break my Bond to get you home three weeks sooner. Do you have any idea how much that would cost?”

“Don’t you see how important this is? The Hierate and Confed have been rattling sabres at each other for years, this could be the start of outright war – and if the Hierate barrels through here fangs out and hair on fire, they’re going to hit Mizah first.”

“But they might not.”

“But…” Before Arion can argue any more, Anderson interrupts, the steel any trader captain must have at his core being displayed for the first time.

“But me no buts, Surveyor. The law says I drop you at the next port of call and submit an invoice the next time I’m at an Archive facility. I have no obligation to deadhead you halfway across the sector first, and no obligation to reroute my ship for your convenience. Unless you have written authority from the Great Archive to pay the penalty clauses for breaking my Bond, which I know you do not because we searched you for contraband and weapons when we brought you aboard.”

The lights flicker back on and the air conditioning starts up again. “Finally!” Anderson mutters, then continues in a louder voice.

“Now that power has been restored, we can jump. And we will. You can either keep out of the way, or help with running the ship, but any more complaints about the route and you’ll find yourself in cryosleep in a low berth. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, Captain.” Arion leaves the office. He is seething inside, but if he’s put into cryosleep, who knows where – or when – he’ll wake up?


This story thread came about as I thought it was time we found out how Arion met Anderson, how the pirates were involved, and why Arion started working for him. I have no idea what happened, but the dice will tell us soon enough.

For this campaign, I’m determined that each post should have part of the story in it, so I’ll keep the commentary on rules and setting design in the GM Notes section, rather than in separate posts as I’ve done in the past. This time, as Arion is in jumpspace, let’s look at FTL travel, and the implications for the rules and the campaign. I expect that will make more sense if we have the map in front of us, so here it is.

The Dark Nebula boardgame makes several assumptions about hyperspace jumps. First, you can only move along the routes on the map (at least until you uncover the secrets of the Nebula itself). Second, you can’t leave a tertiary system unless there is a tanker present to refuel you with hydrogen harvested from the star. Third, in a two-year turn you can go anywhere on the map, stopping only for enemy units, tertiary systems without a tanker, or uncharted jump routes; since there are about 80 routes on the map and each side has three movement phases per turn, the theoretical minimum jump time is roughly three days, and is probably more than that. Finally, you can’t bypass any star system on your route (otherwise the tactic of blocking fleets with a sacrificial scoutship wouldn’t work).

Savage Worlds itself is silent on the topic, but the Sci Fi Companion says that a ship can jump to any system regardless of distance, potentially in zero time if it’s prepared to expend enough fuel, and The Last Parsec adds the idea that the jump is faster and less risky if the system has a hyperspace beacon. To match Dark Nebula I could say that astrogation beacons communicate with each other faster-than-light (explaining how each player in the boardgame has perfect knowledge of the enemy’s movements), that beacons only allow travel along specific routes; and that tertiary systems have no beacons. In that case, tanker units would be a kind of self-propelled beacon.

Traveller limits ship movement by the amount of fuel carried and the rating of the jump drive installed, rather than by specific jump routes; refuelling at a planet is still needed, but you can bypass systems as long as you have the fuel and drive rating to do it. Aligning Traveller with the Dark Nebula is straightforward; I usually rationalise the jump routes by saying that the map is a 2-D representation of 3-D space, and systems that appear to be next to each other may be too far apart vertically to allow a jump. Saying that the boardgame’s ships have jump-3 gives a close enough match for strategic mobility – Bors, Daanarni and Taida Na remain impassable without some means of refuelling, and while you shouldn’t be able to access Ria, Osa or Karpos I can live with that – I want Arion to visit Ria and Karpos. As the map is drawn, J-1 pretty much limits you to Mizah and its neighbours, J-2 is good for exploring either subsector but won’t get you from one to the other, J-3 lets you travel between subsectors, and J-4 lets you leave the map. That progression has a certain elegance to it, don’t you think?

(If running multiple campaigns a generation or more apart on the timeline, I could argue that the drives in the various games are the same kind of hyperspace motor at different technology levels; first the DN drive, then the Traveller one, and finally the SW version. But ain’t nobody got time for dat.)

TL, DR: Traveller jump drive wins. There’s a good campaign to be played using the official Savage Worlds hyperdrive, but it’s not this one. Maybe next time.

Review: Sector Asgard Kappa

Posted: 8 November 2017 in Reviews

Missed another session last Saturday, but as I was wondering what to regale you with today, what should drop into my inbox but an announcement that this Kickstarter is done and I can download the final product. Woot! Let’s have a look, shall we?

In a Nutshell: SF setting and plot point campaign for Savage Worlds and its Sci Fi Companion. 170 page PDF by Applied Vectors Ltd. About $20 at time of writing, with another $10 getting you a larger plan of the default party ship.


The Introduction, New Edges, New Hindrances, and Native Races (6 pages) aren’t listed as a separate chapter, but it is convenient for me to treat them as such. The premise: This sector of space was cut off from the rest of the galaxy for centuries due to a dark matter storm, developed independently, and is now being reopened for travel and trade as the storm has passed. This section introduces the concept of “Ventures”, small groups of explorers, adventurers, and deniable troubleshooters, originally a rakashan thing but now open to all. We also learn of the Tenarii, a long-vanished alien race which created technological wonders (including the Wormway, a network of jumpgates, and a variety of ringworlds) and then disappeared. There are two new hindrances and two new edges, and a comment that each world has at least one playable native race.

Worlds of Sector Asgard Kappa (105 pages): Here’s the meat of the book; 30-odd star systems, all with at least one inhabited world, some with two or three. Oddly, given the nature of SW hyperdrive (all worlds are one jump away from all other worlds) this section begins with a sector map on an 8 x 10 hexgrid; even more oddly, the names on the sector map are those of the stars rather than the worlds themselves.

Each world has a Sci Fi Companion statblock, a page or so of background info, a few local NPCs, a full-page combined system and world surface map in colour, a playable native race or two (usually variants on one of the races in the SFC, presumably diverging from the main species during the period of isolation), a sidebar detailing some local oddity, and a short adventure, about the size of a SW One Sheet, often with statblocks for new creatures or enemies. Systems with multiple worlds get more pagecount and more maps. The structure of the world descriptions, and the maps, are both good.

Crowfoot’s Venture (10 pages): This section includes full stats and deck plans for the party’s ship, a refurbished warship which is a bit bigger and more heavily armed than the usual group of ne’er-do-wells would be tooling around in; as well as stats and descriptions for the crew of nine, any or all of which could be seasoned player characters. I approve of the authors listing the advances by which each one reached Seasoned.

The deckplans themselves are available for another $10 as 18″ x 12″ sheets, which look like they would still be usable on the tabletop if magnified. They’re the same images, just bigger and higher resolution.

A Million Starflies (28 pages): No spoilers! This is a plot point campaign in 15 episodes, each of which will take 1-2 sessions to play. This pits the PCs against a dastardly foe bent on large-scale domination and his minions – picture a Bond villain and you have the general idea. Given that you have effectively several dozen Savage Tales sprinkled through the book, you have about 50 sessions’ worth of play here, which depending how often your group meets would be a year or more of play.


Judging by the properties in the PDF, this is a 7″ x 10″ book. Two column black text on white, colour border for each page, colour illustrations. Does the job.

Production values don’t seem quite as polished as my usual fare, but I am a content guy more than a format guy, and it’s perfectly usable, so no complaints.


The hexgrid sector map is neither necessary nor useful for SW play if you’re using the standard hyperdrive rules. It could be useful if you want to convert the setting to Traveller or Stars Without Number.

For the same reason, I would have presented the worlds in alphabetical order of name myself, rather than in their sequence on the hexgrid.

The floorplans and deckplans have a square grid, but the grid would be more useful at one square to two yards (one tabletop inch); it appears to at roughly 12 squares to the tabletop inch.


I haven’t really got the hang of the world generator in the SW Scif Fi Companion, and I was hoping that this would be an example of how to use it in anger. However, the more I read this book, the more convinced I am that the authors created a Stars Without Number sector using this tool and converted it to Savage Worlds, sprinkling the result with some Traveller concepts such as the Ancients (Tenarii) and red zones (red trade codes). I do that sort of thing all the time myself so no complaints about that.

However, it does reinforce my opinion that the SW Sci Fi Companion world generator isn’t very useful. and doesn’t show me how to use it to good effect – that’s not the authors’ fault, mind, they wrote what they said they’d write.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. I don’t regret backing this, and I can surely cannibalise it for parts; but the quest for the definitive SW space opera setting goes on.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

1514 Daanarni E000000-0 Ni.

Daanarni is blindingly bright; a blue-white supergiant. You can read by it in the next star system but one, that’s how bright it is. So look away into the blackness, and after your eyes or your screen filters have adjusted, you may be able to make out a small, bright dot. Zoom in on that, and keep zooming, and eventually you’ll see a human figure in a deep space pressure suit, solar panels cranked out of the backpack like wings. It was the light glancing off those that caught your eye. It doesn’t look like he’s going to run out of power any time soon, whatever else he’s short of.

One of the panels reels in, just a little, and after a while extends back out again. You realise he’s using the radiation pressure and the solar wind to tack across the system, quite possibly just to keep his mind off wondering how long he’s got left before the air and water recyclers break down or he starves to death. Or whether he could open the faceplate just a crack, just long enough to scratch that God-damned ITCH on his nose.

You’re just starting to get bored with watching his glacial progress when the familiar disk-and-slab shape of a subsidised liner winks into existence, not too far away from him and on an intercept course, or nearly so. Its turrets swivel to align lasers on him, the ship’s computer having registered him as a potential threat; after a few seconds it picks up the suit’s transponder and moves the ship itself elegantly aside instead. You scan through the appropriate radio frequencies, and shortly pick up traffic between suit and ship.

“…I say again, this is Surveyor Arion Metaxas of the GAS Bozcaada out of Mizah. Well, technically I suppose it’s not so much a ship, more an expanding ball of gas fluorescing in the far ultraviolet, but… Sorry, I’ve been out here quite a while. Permission to come aboard? I’ll be good, I promise, and the Archive would be ever so grateful, I’m sure. I certainly will. Oh, and there were some pirates in the system a while ago, you might want to keep an eye out for those.”

“Hang tight, Surveyor, this is the Combine liner Dromedary, Captain Anderson commanding. Give us a few minutes and we’ll reel you in.”

At length, a hatch opens in the Dromedary and a pair of suited figures appears. They tether themselves to the ship, then jet across to intercept Arion on manoeuvring thrusters while he reels in the solar panels. Catching him easily, they escort him back to the ship, and all three disappear inside.

To be continued…


Fade up theme music (Joe Satriani: The Traveler). Roll credits…


Starring Andy Slack as Arion Metaxas

Also starring…

  • Karen Gillan as Coriander
  • Vin Diesel as Dmitri
  • John Lithgow as Perry Anderson

Produced and directed by Andy Slack

Written by a bunch of dice and large quantities of single malt.

Music by Joe Satriani.

Based on the boardgame by GDW, Solo by Zozer Games, and Savage Worlds by Pinnacle Entertainment.

With additional material from Classic Traveller by GDW and Stars Without Number by Sine Nomine Publications.

Review: Fantastic Frontier Quickstart

Posted: 1 November 2017 in Reviews
Tags: ,

No game last Saturday night, so no writeup today; so instead, I had a quick rummage through the review pile and drew this forth.

In a Nutshell: OSR sandbox. 40 page PDF by Beaten Path Publishing, Pay What You Want on RPGNow.


This is a short product so breaking it into chapters seems inappropriate.

The premise of the game is drawn from the famous West Marches campaign; your PCs live in a town or village on the edge of civilisation; behind them is a peaceful, adventure-free retirement, and before them lies a wilderness studded with dungeons and other places of mystery. It’s assumed that there is a largish group of players, but only a few can play in each session, so the PCs are drawn from a pool. They hexcrawl out of town, stopping if and when they see something to investigate, kill or loot. There is no setting but what the group makes. So far, so West Marches.

The rules of the game are essentially a stripped-down version of D&D; 9 classes, 10 races, 4 attributes, and so on. Your PC also has a Culture (basically a background, what he or she did before adventuring), traits such as Loner or Kind, and a Profession, such as Priest or Farmer. The Class and Profession determine what skills you begin with, the other elements boost your levels in attributes or skills; to succeed at a task, roll 1d20 and add your skill level. You collect experience points from training, exploration or combat, get enough together and go up a level, go up a level and get hit points, go up enough levels and unlock other advances. Equipment items are the usual mediaeval suspects.

Unusually for such a basic game, as well as hit points you have stamina points and stress. The stress mechanic is interesting; you gain stress for – well, stressful things happening to you – and once this reaches a certain level, you can’t do anything else until you have rested. If you let your stress max out like that too often, you stop adventuring and retire.

So far, nothing too unusual. Where this starts to get interesting is in the base town. This begins with three buildings; the tavern, which restores stress; the guildhall, which issues quests; and the butcher, who sells rations and torches. There are another six buildings you can pay to set up, things like a marketplace which sells equipment, a library that tells you where to find stuff, an alchemist who provides potions. But wait, there’s more… you can use your loot to buy upgrades for these features, for example if you upgrade the temple enough it can resurrect dead PCs. The only thing they tie back to is the rules on stress, so if you use the town rules you need to use stress, and vice versa. In effect, this makes the town another character in its own right, which buffs the PCs between raids, and which levels up when they share their loot with it.

The GM section is fairly basic; start by marking the base town on a hexmap, then put something interesting in each hex around it, and build out the frontier a little at a time as the players explore. The players build the wider world for you by how they describe their characters’ backgrounds. You don’t describe anything you don’t have to, which reduces work for the GM and gives the players room to be flexible.

Almost half the book is made up of various forms; a dungeon form, specialised character sheets for each class, a GM party sheet.


Four-column black text on white with black and white art. Four column is a bit unusual, but this file is in landscape rather than portrait, the better to display on a screen I expect.


More buildings for the town please!

A hex mapping sheet along the lines of the dungeon sheet.


So this is an intriguing little melange. It has a D&D base, with influences from The One Ring, the West Marches, MMORPGs, 13th Age, Darkest Dungeon, RTS videogames and probably more I don’t have the background to notice.

I can’t see myself running a D&D campaign any time soon, but I am tempted to break this down for parts. The premise, stress and town-building rules are intriguing, and I’m tempted to wrap them around Gold & Glory. I could do that easily by moving the Hearts of Stone off-map into a new frontier. Maybe have a building for each icon, which ones the players build influences how the icons interact with them. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, deserves more thought.

Overall Rating: This is effectively an open beta, so it doesn’t seem fair to rate it yet. Good effort so far, though.