Dark Nebula: God’s Chess

Posted: 26 June 2015 in Settings
Tags: , , ,

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.


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.

  1. raikenclw says:

    “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.”

    It could also represent forces already in-system which did not require transport at all. These could be native forces recruited to a particular side’s cause through bribes, promised favorable status under the new regime or even coercive threats. Particularly in the case of Aslan troops, it could also mean oppressed minorities (either recent immigrants or long-time residents) spontaneously rebelling against the former authority.

  2. Eric Ullman says:

    Andy, your idea to use an already-played-out match for God’s Chess is brilliant! I have a couple of questions:

    1. When selecting the von Heydebrand und der Lasa vs. Hanstein match, did you take into account how it ended, or are you just rolling the dice, so to speak? I can see myself getting caught up in hours of chess match research to pick the “best” one, and I’d want to avoid that for myself because, for me, it’s *part of the problem* (as you wrote about in your culled post, *Part of the Solution*, earlier this year—which, yes, I archived because it spoke directly to me).

    2. You wrote in *Dark Nebula: Pilot and Season Outlines*: “Hopefully, the PCs will look back from the end of season three and see what impact their decisions had. I think that would be cool, and very satisfying.” How will the player’s actions influence the outcome of the war, given the God’s Chess game ending is already known?

    On another note: I’ve been meaning to ask you about the Great Halfway Station Blog Cleansing, but I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts as to whether that would be pouring salt on a wound not yet healed. I’d be happy to send my questions through email—or not at all, if that’s what you prefer. Let me know.

    • andyslack says:

      Thanks Eric – glad you liked it! To answer your questions:

      1. I spent a few hours myself looking for a chess match that met three criteria. First, one that would end in a win for black if allowed to play to its conclusion; second, one which started relatively slowly, to give the players a sense of impending doom and time to react; and third, one with action around the D5-E6 area, which is where I expect the heroes to spend most of their time early on. That was because I already had a story arc in mind at that stage, if I did this again I would pick a random chess game first and build the arc around it.

      2. The PCs probably won’t change the outcome of the war as a whole, I was thinking more of their influence on what Mizah is like by the end of it. Also, by the end game, they will have encountered the Sealed Menace, and realised that whether the Hierate or the Confederation wins is less important than whether either of them still exists – the main factions’ refusal to see sense here throws the responsibility for saving mankind onto the PCs, where it belongs. Finally, the endgame is roughly three years away in real time, so I can worry about it later – assuming the group is still playing at that point.

      The Blog Cleansing was partly an over-reaction to losing some loved ones last year, which made me question the value of everything I do; partly an over-reaction to some comments off-blog; and partly a drive to focus the blog more tightly on specific areas and cut away things that were not “part of the solution”, specifically mashups. The Dark Nebula just wouldn’t die, though, and my son Nick argued successfully for its continued survival – he intends to run his own game in it and wants his old man to do the heavy lifting. 🙂

      I find myself missing some of the characters, so they may be re-imagined when I’m in the mood for solo play again. Later, I plan to go back through the other culled posts and see which of them merit rework with the hindsight that comes from greater experience.

  3. Eric Ullman says:

    RE #1: Sir, you are a god among gamers, making “God’s Chess” appropriate in more than name alone. 🙂 That you would define so many criteria to zero in on an appropriate masters’ match is incredible! And yet I also appreciate your hindsight point of view. That’s what I enjoy so much about reading your posts…you don’t just share the What and How, but also the Why, the Why Not, and the What the F Was I Thinking.

    RE #2: Right. Your point about the Sealed Menace makes perfect sense. In comparison, it puts the war into an almost trivial classification on the importance spectrum.

    RE The Great Halfway Station Blog Cleansing: I definitely felt your mood (and your pain) reading your posts from that time, and I still lament the loss of so many posts that I was fond of as reference material and/or inspiration. What you were struggling with, I struggle with. But it was also a gift, because I learned that I had been a taker—I had been consuming your writing selfishly, interacting but occasionally. Maybe if I had let you know how much your posts resonated with me, there’d have been more reason to leave them be.

    So now I get to be a participant and strive to give as much as I can, so I’m not only a silent consumer of your brilliance.

    My mom passed away in January—at least 20 years too early by my reckoning—and I miss her terribly. I am sorry for the loss of *your* loved ones, and I hope that the pain of their deaths continues to fade to where you are left with only fond memories and feelings of love and friendship.

    • andyslack says:

      Thanks Eric, and my condolences on your own loss.

    • andyslack says:

      It turns out you can post retroactively to an historical date. So I reinstated “Part of the Solution” on April 8th, which is when it was originally posted. Enjoy!

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