Dark Nebula

Posted: 8 February 2013 in Reflections

To recap: Several things have combined to reignite my interest in a space opera campaign as the next game after Beasts & Barbarians. First, I feel I’ve painted myself into a corner with the Arioniad, so I need to leave it lying fallow for a while. Second, I want to do something in a science-fiction vein after a few years running mostly fantasy. And third, I’ve built up a lot of SF gaming resources that I want to use, such as Stars Without Number and High-Space.

A while ago I posted about Emergent Settings, which I think of as Option 1 for the forthcoming space opera campaign. This is Option 2; use a map and background information from an old boardgame.

The Setting

I’m never really happy with any campaign maps I create myself, so I had a rummage through the Boardgames Graveyard under the bed and pulled out Dark Nebula by GDW, from 1980. I ran a GURPS Traveller game set there for about four years, in fact it was the playtest setting for GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and 3, or at least the parts of them I wrote, and I have happy memories of that; so there’s the map and the overall metaplot – the buildup to war between the Aslan Hierate and the Solomani Confederation. I’ll have to figure out some way of running the war solo, probably involving the Savage Worlds mass battle rules, but that’s not an immediate need.

I originally intended to draw the map in Hexographer, but then I thought: Somebody must have done this before, and had a look on the Board Game Geek forum, where I found that Norsehound had already done some very nice-looking and printer-friendly maps. I hope he won’t mind if I post just one to show you how good they are:

Dark Nebula Redux Map

Thanks for sharing your most excellent maps, Norsehound!


One of the features of the Dark Nebula maps is the distance between worlds, which ranges from 1 to 8 hexes (with a hex being one-half parsec according to the rules). I think the easiest way to use this is to say that the number of hexes to the destination is the target number for an FTL roll (if I use High-Space ship designs) or a Piloting roll (if I don’t). If I do use the High-Space fleet manual for ship designs, I might make the FTL roll co-operative, with PCs able to make Piloting or maybe even Repair rolls to help the ship.


The Dark Nebula gameboard is divided into 8 sections, each with a handful of star systems, which are classed as Primary (with a naturally habitable world), Secondary (with worlds, but not naturally habitable ones), and Tertiary (no planets). Two of the Primary worlds, Maadin and Kuzu, are said to be Homeworlds, with unusually high populations, and each the capital of a small pocket empire. There are various ways I could convert those into statistics for the game of my choice; for the GURPS Traveller game, I assumed Homeworlds and Primary worlds were Earthlike, Secondary ones Marslike, and Tertiary ones much like an asteroid belt, and then fleshed them out in detail as and when PCs visited them.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll stick to Earthlike, Marslike, and Belt, and apply Stars Without Number world tags (my favourite part of that game) as a way of making planets unique and memorable. Which tags to pick? I could select them randomly, but instead I’ll look up the names of the worlds on the map in Wikipedia and choose SWN cultures and tags that match. For example, the two Homeworlds are clearly Regional Hegemons, so they both get that tag.

Maadin means "mine" in Arabic and Turkish, so the second tag for Maadin is Heavy Mining. Kuzu was a town in Japan, now absorbed into the larger conurbation of Sano; the notable features of the Tochigi Prefecture (itself not a bad name for a star nation) in which it’s located are shrines and industrial complexes, so I could go with either Heavy Industry or Pilgrimage Site, and select the latter as it sounds like more fun.

I might, or might not, flesh out the rest of the stats later; to create adventures and set the scene, two tags are more than enough.


By the Classic Traveller canon, the two main races in this volume of space are humans (the Solomani Confederation) and Aslan (the Aslan Hierate). Humans use the human racial template (obviously), and Aslan are Traveller’s version of the ubiquitous samurai catmen, a long-standing science fiction trope – CJ Cherryh has the mri and the hani, Larry Niven has the kzinti, and so on; in fact, the hani are the closest thing I know of in literature to the Aslan. The easiest thing to do is use the rakashan racial template for Aslan, and make their racial enemy humans.

The Metaplot

The background story arc in this setting is the coming war between the Solomani Quadrant (humans) and the Aslan Hierate (rakashans). I toyed with the idea of playing a solo version of the game, or setting up Stars Without Number factions and letting them duke it out; but none of that is really necessary. A general background of tension is all I really need, with military contact and conflict added as the storylines of individual adventures dictate.


So, a bit more work than Option 1, but not overwhelmingly so. For my next review in a couple of days time, I’ll look at Option 3: Daring Tales of the Space Lanes.

  1. […] to set up a space opera campaign for next year. So far I have considered Emergent Settings and Dark Nebula as Options 1 and 2 respectively; here is Option 3, using published […]

  2. You mentioned in a previous post that you were inventing some World Tags of your own. Care to share them?

    • andyslack says:

      They are still at the concept stage, sadly! When or if they get past that, I’d be happy to share.

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