The Dark Nebula campaign should have a war going on in the background during season two, but the obvious solution – play a game of DN, either solo or with a player, and take notes – has a number of problems.
- It takes a long time. I will run out of patience, and my beloved will want the table back before I’m finished.
- I want both sides to take tactically sound decisions. I am not confident I can do that, and I have no suitable opponent to hand.
- The game will bog down in record keeping.
- It might not generate an ending for the campaign I’m happy with.
- I want to be able to foreshadow future events.
Using the faction rules from Stars Without Number has similar issues.
Enter Zak’s idea of God’s Chess, from Vornheim, stage left; you overlay a chess board on the campaign map, play a game with another one of the group, and it forms a backdrop to the game. I don’t have the players or the patience to make it work as written, but fortunately, there are thousands of chess games between grand masters available online, with full details and extensive analysis. So…
First, I overlay a square grid on the Dark Nebula map, label the squares in accordance with standard chess notation, and suppress the hex grid for clarity. I align things to put Kuzu and Maadin into E1 and D8 respectively; the Aslan get white (E1) because they move first in DN. It looks like this:
Notice that some squares have no worlds, some have many; some of the empty ones are off-map in DN, but surely there are worlds and military units there, just not ones of interest to the campaign; the Aslan units in G1-H3 and the Solomani ones in G7-G8 can be thought of as being in the production queue, which DN has but chess does not. Where a system lies on the line around a square, I nudge it into the nearest empty one.
Next, I pick a game which looks interesting and has a full write-up; the particular game I’ve chosen, Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa vs Wilhelm Hanstein, Berlin 1840, lasts 33 turns. The Dark Nebula boardgame has six movement phases in a two-year game turn, so the best match is one move every four game months, or a war lasting roughly 11 years for the characters; but the campaign is better served by variable turn durations, so that I can start the chess match and the roleplaying side of things in parallel, and adjust turn duration to suit what the PCs are up to on the fly – a turn in the chess game might be six months while I’m waiting for the right time to start the war with the first exchange of pieces, or a couple of weeks when I want to convey frenetic military action.
The focus for DN is on naval units, so I decide that each piece represents a squadron of warships and support units; pawns are destroyers, knights are light cruisers, bishops are cruisers, rooks are heavy cruisers, queens are battleships, and the king is what Godsfire used to call the National Government counter – the unit representing the side’s high command, leaders and so on. If that is destroyed, faction morale crumbles and they sue for peace.
Ground troops are left behind wherever naval units are placed. This probably represents them offloading from troop transports or merchantmen escorted by the warships, since in the real world it’s unusual for small warships to carry troops on a permanent basis.
THE IDEA IN ACTION
Let’s suppose it’s now turn five of the chess game, whatever month that is in the RPG campaign, and white has just captured a black knight at c6, the first chess casualty. Meanwhile, the PCs have just rocked up at Hasara (d5) in their Free Merchant, and want to know what’s going on. I look at the game so far: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Bd6 5. Bc6 dc6. I mentally discard anything that isn’t in, or adjacent to, square d5 as not being relevant to the party.
“Well,” says the GM, “Hasara is still neutral, but as you know the Confederation has had a destroyer squadron on a ‘goodwill visit’ to Salia for some time now, and it doesn’t look like it’s leaving any time soon. What’s more worrying is the news just in from Simba; Confed had a light cruiser squadron there, and the Hierate cruisers that invaded Ria a few months ago went barrelling through Hasara, Tangga and Mizah and attacked it. While that was going on, some Confed destroyers from the base at Icat arrived and counterattacked. The upshot is that the Hierate and the Confederation are now at war, and Simba is full of wreckage and Confed destroyers. People on Hasara are scared, because any attack on the Confederation or the Hierate has to go through them, so the logical next move for both sides is to invade here and secure their transit route. There are rumours about stealthed scoutships from both sides inserting special forces troops, and anyone who can is packing to leave, but nobody wants to risk saboteurs so it’s hard to find passage offworld. What do you want to do?”
I think that works rather well, don’t you? All the depth of a sandbox, almost none of the work.