Free Traders Setup Part 1: The Farside Route

Posted: 29 March 2013 in Settings
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So, Vikings in space it is, then. I want this campaign to be more about Free Traders than pirates, although with my group I expect the lines will get quite blurred, so I’ll use the trade routes into present-day Russia as a basis, rather than the raids into France and Britain. I’ll call the campaign “Free Traders” as it will resonate with gamers and SF fans. I started with the Pitch to the players, but I’ll hone that further before sharing it.

One thing that occurred to me as I tried to fit the Viking world onto a hex map – the little devils went everywhere, you know, which makes that really hard – is that while starmaps in space RPGs usually put every world on the map up front, real-world maps only show the most important features at a given scale; as you zoom in on a region, you get more and more detail. So, it’s entirely viable to say that only the most important half-dozen features show on the campaign map.

Later, other worlds may appear, perhaps on smaller-scale maps; they have always been there, it’s just that until now the PCs haven’t bothered to explore further than the starport bar. Later still, they may disappear from the campaign; they are still there, but have stopped being important. This lets me drop worlds and adventures from other products into the game as necessary, and yank them back out again once I’m done with them. I could do the entire game like that – I’ve done it before – but I want some element of stability in the campaign for players to latch onto.

Meanwhile, I’ll start with the Dnieper trade route, more often called the Trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks. That isn’t snappy enough, so I look up the etymology of Dnieper and discover that it originally meant something like “the river on the far side”. The Farside Route sounds better.

So, looking at that route on Wikipedia I see there are a few stand-out features. I think the Diaspora-style diagram maps will work better for this game than Stars Without Number or Traveller hexmaps, so let’s start with this:

The Seven Portals

I figure I can get away with a few well-known real world names, but not Constantinople, so I’ve used the Viking name for it – Miklagard. The various portages on the route between Novgorod and Kiev are represented by hyperspace portals left behind by some vanished alien race. These giant rings are a hunting ground for feline pirates of unknown origin (that’s yer Pechenegs, right there). In-game, I need some reasons why starships have to use those portals (probably the distances are too big for normal stardrives) and why they’re good ambush sites (maybe you have to approach them just so, and at very low speeds).

Uppsala was historically an important religious location, so that’s where I put the Norse gods, by making the official religion Asatru. I’ll repurpose the Celestial Empire for the Byzantines, and scribble a note on my map that Cherson and Miklagard are both in the Empire. Byzantine Cataphractoi become mecha pilots, and the decadent nobility of Miklagard are an ideal place for a cooking school that needs exotic ingredients. I’ll use actual 10th century personages and events for key NPCs and current affairs, probably adding anachronistic favourites from earlier eras like Belisarius and the Empress Theodora.

So, after the first couple of hours or so of setting development, let’s see how we’re doing against the players’ wishlist of 15 items.

  • Already in the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules: Rayguns, psionics, laser swords, robot PCs, C4 and flamethrowers. I know the Romans and Byzantines had laws against magic, or at least regulating it, so that argues for a licensed or forbidden status for psionics.
  • Now in the setting: Spaceships, space pirate Amazon ninja catgirls, mecha, Norse gods, ancient Greeks, cooking school, stargates.
  • Still to go: Cyberware, edible explosives, lolcats as a religion. I can see Daring Tales of the Sprawl as a sourcebook for cyberware, pending the arrival of the Science Fiction Companion. The Sprawl itself is probably one of the slum districts on Miklagard.

Not too bad. I think the lolcats will be the most challenging. Meanwhile, I think the next step is some research on those historical cities, which will be used as a basis for the worlds of the Farside Route.

  1. wargamingresources says:

    Hi Andy – Really interesting article, thanks!

    My take on why Fantasy maps only have key features and SciFi ones tend to be comprehensive is that technology makes the difference. If we consider just how many planets have already been discovered before we even find a way of getting from our system to the next, then imagine how much further along that capability will be by the time we have developed interstellar travel. Maybe its a SciFi trope but usually the first ships through a newly discovered wormhole/stellar gate are the military and their scouts.

    Now if we think of the key historic trade routes such as the one you’ve written about, then the amount of information will be much more limited, both for lack of technology and for secrecy supporting profit. So your trader knows that if he travels in a particular direction (by sun or stars) for a period of time, eventually he’ll get to the next waypoint, and the next instruction to follow. The information he needs between waypoints would be food, water, shelter, what’s dangerous in the area etc… So the map may just show what’s important whereas these days, and into the future, we are obsessed with accuracy. Ask anyone whose GPS is 100m out compared to the road 😉

    Cheers, Iain

    Best Wishes,

    Iain Davidson

    • andyslack says:

      Thanks; fair points.

      I guess I was thinking more about character knowledge vs player knowledge. The characters probably know every stop on the route, but the players need more of a summary.

      Also, I find myself leaving the detail to the satnav. When I drive to, say, Telford I think of it in terms of taking the M40 to a certain point then going around Birmingham; the villages en route only become important to me if I need to refuel…

  2. Nathaniel says:

    lolcats religion idea: enigmatic idols, icons and amulets of cats with short phrases on them as mysterious as hieroglyphics used to be. Possibly a few adepts can create new icons and phrases, but only after massive study of the language or strikes of divine feline visions. Spacefarers often have them for luck. (obvious influence from ancient Egypt and also Scott Lynch’s “Red Seas Under Red Skies”).

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