Dark Nebula Returns from the Grave

Posted: 17 June 2015 in Settings
Tags: , , ,

“In the far future, the [human group] fights a pitched battle against the mighty [alien name] Empire, but deep in the mysterious [region of space], among the ruins of the past, a darker threat looms.” – TV Tropes, Standard Sci-Fi Setting

Love that quote. I’ve used it before, will no doubt use it again, and make no apology for it. The Dark Nebula is back; it happened like this…


The core players of the old Shadows of Keron group approached me recently about doing some roleplaying over the summer, and of course I said yes – I’m very pleased that they want to carry on playing, despite everything else that’s going on.

We quickly settled on space opera as the genre and Savage Worlds as the rulebook (although Classic Traveller came a close second); and there was a specific request for Stars Without Number as the setting. When we discussed who the PCs are and what they do, there was wild enthusiasm for the misfit crew of an over-insured, leaky freighter on suicide missions, which regular readers will recognise as the premise of Bulldogs! (There was, in fact, actual jumping in the air and shouts of “Yes! Suicide missions!” from the ladies. Truly, the female of the species is more deadly than the male.)

So much for me swearing off mashups and purging them from the blog. Still, it’ll work, it’ll be fun, and as always, I care more about who I play with than what we play.


Using SWN as the setting will save me a lot of time, but I still need to think about the overall campaign framework. This needs to be strange enough that it feels like sci fi rather than the present day with FTL drives, but familiar enough to be accessible to infrequent players with a lot else on their minds, and one does this with the careful use of tropes.

Guided by the Zhodani Base and the Standard Sci Fi Setting, I select the following as the palette for this flight:

  • Two rival states, both intent on controlling the campaign’s region of space (note that they don’t necessarily need a permanent presence in it). In line with tradition, one of these will be a human-dominated Federation, and the other will be an alien Empire ruled by a Proud Warrior Race.
  • A sealed menace imprisoned in an isolated area by the Ancients/Forerunners/Precursors. Stereotypically, humanity and the Proud Warrior Race are at war, but join forces to suppress the menace (usually killer robots) once it is unleashed.
  • Lots of backwater planets dripping with adventure hooks, where PCs can frolic unencumbered by the rule of law.
  • Somewhere that feels like home. This is often an idyllic planet, not part of either rival state but coveted by both, where the Hero’s Journey begins; however, in the TV shows I’m trying to emulate, it’s more often the characters’ starship. That way you don’t have to detail anyone’s homeworld, and the constant travel keeps the game fresh by allowing you to use different NPCs every session; less work, more flexibility.

The players are divided between those who prefer sandbox play and those who prefer a scripted story arc, so I need an arc in a sandbox – and if the players abandon it and gambol off into the wilds on their own recognisance, so much the better. The most obvious arc looks like this; at  (say) 20 episodes per season, the PCs will be just over the border into Legendary Rank at the end of season three.

  • Pilot: Introduces the PCs, their ship, and key elements of the background. Normally, I wouldn’t flesh out the rest of the setting until we’d played this and I was sure the group were interested in continuing with the campaign. (In a published game this is the obligatory introductory scenario.)
  • Season One – Backwater Planet Adventures. The PCs roam through campaign space and get to know key people and places; adventures develop their characters and foreshadow events in later seasons. The season finale features the outbreak of war between the Federation and the Empire.
  • Season Two – War with the Empire. Humanity and the Proud Warrior Race go to war; adventures shift from picaresque roguishness to a military story arc, and the PCs become the Federation’s go-to black ops team. The climax of the season deals with the Sealed Menace escaping and being discovered by the players.
  • Season Three – Into the [Mysterious Region of Space]. The PCs form a coalition of the Proud Warrior Race and humanity to defeat the Sealed Menace. Roll credits. Prepare new setting, because once you’ve thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, everything else is an anticlimax.

You’ll notice that so far, the campaign could use almost any SF RPG or setting; it’s pretty much the default space opera plot from Gray Lensman to Mass Effect.

However, that is about to change, because one of the key elements of any SF setting is how FTL drive works, and there is a chasm between the camps, driven by one question: Is there a starmap?


Having a starmap has pros and cons, and different games have different stances on the question. The Savage Worlds Sci-Fi Companion advocates being able to hyperjump from anywhere to anywhere, which is how things work in the TV shows Andromeda (with a ship) and Stargate SG-1 (without a ship). The Last Parsec has a network of nav beacons like Babylon 5 or Star Wars; you’re either on the net and easily accessible, or off it and isolated. Ashen Stars, like Mass Effect, has regions in which travel is fast and easy, connected by trunk routes and separated by regions which are slower and more difficult to traverse. Old School SF RPGs like Traveller and SWN have more traditional maps, in which space is de facto an ocean, with trade routes and defensible choke points.

The question is, which is better for your specific campaign?

  • No map at all is very little effort for the GM, and places almost no constraints on the campaign, but poses questions about trade and warfare for which I have neither ready answers nor historical analogues. If your group is following a story arc, this is the best option, because it doesn’t matter what’s on either side of the railroad, they’re never going to go there; so there’s no point putting any work into it. The GM’s effort in this kind of game is focussed on writing adventures.
  • A full-on starmap is the opposite; quite a bit of effort to set up and detail, and places many constraints on who can go where. Trade and military operations follow familiar thought patterns. If your group prefers a sandbox, this is better, because their decisions on which route to take matter. In this kind of game, the GM’s effort is spent mostly on the setting, because the players decide what the plotline is.
  • A regions-plus-trunk-routes map or a network of nav beacons lets the GM turn easy travel on or off like a light, according to the needs of the scenario, and is midway between the two extremes. Maybe next time.

As you may have guessed from the title, I’m going with the map from the old Dark Nebula boardgame, partly because I can recycle previously-culled posts and hit the ground running, and partly because it’s an excellent fit for the Standard Sci-Fi Setting. I will adjust things for lessons learned, but I won’t purge the Nebula again – at worst it will languish in the Tryouts category.

So, next up, the map… This is a well-worn path for me, so post frequency will increase for a while as I blitz the setting to get to a playable game.

  1. Brass Jester says:

    Drawing star maps drives me into a screaming frenzy, because I’m NEVER happy with what I end up with (either rolled randomly, placed fully or some placed / some rolled). Having said that, I’m not comfortable with maples go-anywhere systems either.

    (as an aside, in “The Best of Both Worlds”, Starfleet made their stand against the Borg at Wolf 359. Why didn’t the Borg just nip straight past and carry on to Earth? In fact, why did they even go that way at all if the warp drive allows plotting a course anywhere?)

    My compromise I’m using in “Thrilling Tales of the Space Lanes” is to have 10 sectors, each sector travelled is a modifier to the Astrogation roll and time taken. To go from one sector to another means you have to pass through all of the intervening sectors. This allows that to get from sector 4 to sector 8 you have to go through the war zone in sector 6. Within a sector it is mapless, with around 10 systems, but I can add local things (Darkdawn is deep in the Pemzann Nebula and the only safe route is via Sardis V). I can easily add more systems if required.

    • Anzon says:

      Nice thought. I was quite taken with the 2300AD set-up, where because the distance you could jump wasn’t (that) far, you typically went thru a couple of red dwarf systems on the way to anywhere. Had a bit of a CJ Cherryh feel to it, left scope for pirates/strange alien beacons/whatever in the intervening systems, but also slowed things down (unless you fiddle with the travel times… and bang goes a week of spare time trying to see the holes in that…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s