As a boy, my imagination was fired by Wily Odysseus, king of Ithaca; I imagined him as a leader of a mighty army. Now that I have seen Ithaca and realise that it is less than 50 square miles in area with a population of about 3,000, and looked at Homer’s Catalogue of Ships rather than the watered-down version found in children’s books, I picture him as leading a dozen ships, each with about 50 rowers aboard; roughly a battalion, which in modern terms would make Odysseus a Lieutenant Colonel.
How is this relevant to Stars Without Number? In preparation for the retcon of the Dark Nebula campaign’s initial faction turns, I’ve been reading the densely-packed Factions chapter with the intention of getting things right this time (I’ve already tried several times before, both on- and off-stage). As a result I’ve discovered some fairly hefty limitations on what factions can and can’t do under the rules.
First, there is quite a severe limit on how many units a faction can have; no more of any type than its rating in that area. As an example, a Regional Hegemon is the most powerful faction in the basic rules, with an income of 6 FacCreds per turn, and ratings of Force 8, Cunning 5 and Wealth 7; it could have no more than 20 assets at a time, possibly bumping that up to 26 for short periods by spending its entire income on maintaining such extra units. Fortunately, Bases of Influence don’t count against that limit.
Second, moving units around is difficult and expensive. The only way to project naval power outside a cluster of worlds linked by spike-1 drills is to build a capital fleet; none of the logistical assets in the rules can carry Starship assets. The only way to transport Military units more than one hex is by using an Extended Theatre or Blockade Runner asset and paying FacCreds to do it; and since you only have a handful of units you have to think very carefully about how many non-combat Force assets you want. There are, however, a number of ways of moving Special Forces assets up to six hexes in a turn.
Third, while a FacCred for players is about Cr 100,000, a FacCred for a faction – which is more about logistical capability and political will than it is about hard cash – is more like several million. The smallest thing one could reasonably call a capital fleet would have half a dozen vessels including at least one battleship or carrier, and would weigh in at well over a hundred million credits; so its 40 FacCreds are roughly Cr 3,000,000 apiece. Using an exchange rate of one FacCred equals Cr 100,000 means a capital fleet would consist of a fighter squadron with nothing to carry it.
Pocket empires like Regional Hegemons will tend to form in clusters of worlds connected by spike-1 routes. One which does so will be able to control them more cheaply, and have more firepower available, than one which does not. One which builds a Capital Fleet or an Extended Theatre asset is signalling an intention to expand outside its home cluster.
Regional Hegemons which wish to expand can do so most effectively by sending Special Forces units to nearby worlds, creating a Base of Influence there, and then building new units at that Base of Influence; the cheapest way to do this is by building Surveyors, as they can move two hexes free of charge. Buying a BoI on a planet is therefore a potentially hostile act, as even the smallest one could spew out something nasty next turn and ruin your whole day; fortunately you don’t need permission from the local government to build one.
Conflict between Regional Hegemons is unlikely to be a mighty clash between giant battle fleets; it’s more probable that Special Forces troops and spies are inserted covertly to arm and train local malcontents, who then fight a proxy war on the Hegemon’s behalf.
If an interstellar hot war does break out, it moves slowly across gaps between clusters of worlds, because of the need to preposition Extended Theatre assets which then move other Military Units across those gaps.
This is all rather clever, actually, as it means the PCs matter at the faction level, however powerful the faction is. Even the biggest faction has only a handful of relatively small units, meaning that although the PCs can’t wipe out a planet of billions, they do stand a chance of thwarting its aims and possibly crippling its ability to project power. If they have a ship, as mine do, even a Regional Hegemon has need of such as they to transport its assets.