Not for Trafficking

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
– James Elroy Fletcher, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

What I’m finding is that interstellar trading, simple though it is in the Science Fiction Companion, is very boring for me. You may enjoy it, and if you do, more power to you; it’s just not what my games are about these days.

I spent some time crafting a faster, easier system, and some time researching how contemporary tramp freighters actually operate – mostly on charters arranged by brokers, it turns out; speculative trading of the kind SF RPGs emulate has practically disappeared since (and possibly because of) the invention of radio.

None of that made it any more fun, sadly. So I’ve circled back around to the Daring Tales of the Space Lanes approach; the characters spend a lot of time trading, but that all happens off-camera and generates just enough money to offset the ship’s operating expenses; the players don’t get involved in it.

Since this has been the outcome whatever setting and rules I’ve used since the late 1980s, I’m going to knock trading on the head now; you won’t see it here again.

That does leave me with the question of how much money PCs should reasonably have available, so for the time being I shall adapt the Savings rules from Beasts & Barbarians, summarised and modified as follows:

  • At the end of each adventure, PCs get paid or fence their loot, replenish supplies, and replace lost items.
  • They retain $500 per Rank (more than in B&B because the SF PC tends to have more, and more expensive, gear) for emergencies. This is adjusted by the Rich and Filthy Rich Edges, and the Poverty Hindrance, as usual.
  • They then spend everything else they made on the adventure before the next one starts – on the traditional “ale and whores”, starship repairs, training, collection of pet fish, or whatever.

I’m also bored by the hyperspace astrogation rolls and variable trip time. Henceforth jumps succeed and take a week each, and we’re not interested in how much of that week is in hyperspace and how much in realspace. So there.

So much for trafficking. On with the lust for knowing what should not be known!

Not Your Daddy’s Zombies

“If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skin into their clothes … and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” – Firefly

I use zombies a lot, mostly because their simple and predictable tactics make them good opponents for solo games; it’s both easy and credible for them to be moved in accordance with rules, rather than trying to imagine the best tactics for both sides, turn by turn.

But let me draw your attention to a few things about the standard Savage Worlds zombie from the core rulebook…

  • Smarts d4. Notice, not d4(A); this ugly biter as smart as some beginning PCs or the standard Soldier ally. He remembers how ladders and doorknobs work. He’s going to go around the open manhole, and he is not going to stagger off one rooftop because he can see you on the next.
  • Intimidation d6. Not only is the SW zed scary, he is scary with malice aforethought, trying to Shake you so his buddies can drag you down.
  • Shooting d6. In most games you take down zombies with a ranged weapon before they get close enough to bite. This little devil shoots back.
  • Pace. There is nothing anywhere in the rules that says zombies can’t run. This alone makes them much more dangerous; not so much Dawn of the Dead, more 28 Days Later.

So, combat with Savage Worlds zombies is more hazardous than in other zombie games. It likely begins with you coming under fire from armed zeds lying in ambush. While you’re pinned, the fearless assault team of zombies closes up; one intimidates you to Shake you while the rest pile in with wild attacks and maximum gang-up bonuses.

You’re being shot at, you’re Shaken, and four zombies are engaging you in hand-to-claw combat, each rolling at +6 to hit. They are fearless, +2 Toughness, and you basically have to use a called shot to the head to take them out.

Good luck. I’ll be in my bunk.

Space Travel, Trade and Encounters

In the same way that the default D&D campaign was about plundering an underground complex, the default Traveller campaign was about a small starship trading from world to world and getting into trouble while it did so; and that seems like as good a spine as any to hang a Savage Worlds SF game on.

The Science Fiction Companion is easily understandable when it comes to ship construction and combat, less so for travel, trade and encounters. Let’s look at each of those in turn before we start rolling dice, shall we?

TRAVEL

On first checking the rules for travel and upkeep in the Science Fiction Companion, it seemed it was always cheaper in the long run to burn extra fuel to arrive on the day of the hyperjump, because the cost of the crew’s wages is more than the cost of fuel. Experimentation showed this was wrong, for two reasons; first, you pay your crew once per month, but you have to replace fuel more often than that if you burn extra. Second, the cost of the extra fuel has to be less than the profit you expect to make on your cargo, or you will go broke within a few months. You’re likely to do that anyway, as you’ll see in the next section, although it takes longer if you don’t pay your crew.

It also seemed that the Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make the hyperjump was dramatically uninteresting, because all failure does is delay the jump by a few minutes, and unless you’re being pursued by rakashan pirates or about to be eaten by a giant mutant star goat, it’s not worth rolling. Again, that’s not quite right; it matters how much you eventually succeed by, as raises on the astrogation roll reduce transit time and hence operating costs.

You need a good pilot to survive and prevail in combat, but you need a good astrogator to make a profit. Since presumably you want the astrogator to be better than the ship’s AI, he or she will likely have Scholar and the prerequisite d8 skill.

TRADE

The intriguing thing about Savage Worlds trading (SFC p. 28) is that it has nothing to do with the characters or the planet they’re on. This makes it extremely portable; it’s a subset of rules with no connection to anything else at all.

After trying a few dozen trading voyages off-camera, I came to the conclusion that this also means that you go broke fast unless you have a number of possible destinations and know what the prices are going to be at at each one; if you don’t, on average luck over a long period you break even on the trading rolls, but it costs you money to move the ship around, so you make a loss overall.

Therefore, co-operation between trader ships is advantageous; they will share prices in some way. A government might operate subsidised ships of its own, or might pay for pricing information which it then shares on a Commodity Board at the starport, to encourage trade and thus boost its economy. A merchant’s guild might jealously guard the information, only sharing it between members. A large trading corporation might have the resources to do this itself, so the co-operation might be entirely internal to the organisation.

Whatever form the organisation takes, one of its primary functions is to collect price data from nearby worlds on a monthly basis (the prices change each month) and share them. This is limited to worlds within one jump of home, though, as by the time the typical ship has gone two jumps, collected local prices and returned, loaded up the best cargo and jumped back, the prices have changed, so there’s no point.

The organisation therefore has at least one ship per neighbouring world that basically does nothing but carry mail and news between the homeworld and its neighbours, and an extra one or two undergoing maintenance or repairs. These ships are as small as possible, since this minimises their operating costs on all fronts. Since there are ships (probably armed) scuttling around neighbouring systems on a regular basis, those systems count as "patrolled" for purposes of random encounters – see below for more on that.

Each ship trots out to an adjacent world at the beginning of the month, carrying something it hopes it can sell at a markup, then comes back. They share information, and then all make the most profitable run they can for the rest of the month; if there’s enough money to be made, the ships may burn extra fuel to reduce transit time, so that they can make more runs before the prices change.

Now, while it’s logical for these little ships to trade and thus offset their operating costs, they can’t be expected to make a profit, for the reasons stated above. So, like Traveller’s subsidised merchants, each ship has an Operating Cost Position – essentially, an amount the organisation will tolerate it losing. I reason this would cover fuel for daily operations and two hyperjumps per month (one out, one back), provisions, and crew salaries, but not additional hyperjumps or burning extra fuel to reduce transit time. Crews which lose less than their OCP are considered good; crews that consistently lose more than their OCP are replaced.

RANDOM ENCOUNTERS

The SFC doesn’t cover these at all, although Savage Worlds itself calls for drawing a card if travelling through an area that isn’t patrolled. If one were using random encounters, the logical point at which to check is on arrival in a new system.

By the above reasoning, any world acting as a trade hub effectively patrols all its neighbouring worlds (those within one hyperspace jump), so there are no space encounters there.

Beyond that, hostile encounters are possible; my thinking is that in most cases the setting will tell you what PCs should encounter; raiders, over-zealous patrol ships, pirates and so on, according to where the GM has placed those; my instinct is that consistency in this will be more useful in the long run than creating complex tables. ("Let’s not go to Tortuga, we always get hit by pirates there.")

REFLECTIONS

I can see I’m not going to want to track this in detail in the face to face game; while the characters spend a lot of time obsessing about trade goods and markets, the players neither need to nor should.

However, whether you call them scouts, couriers or trade pioneers, you could easily construct a campaign around one of the small price-checking starships, with the PCs as the crew. Start at the base world, visit one of its neighbours and have an adventure, come back and tell your patron what the prices are like there. If you make a profit, so much the better.

Hyperspace

“If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate.” – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than “conventional” star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

SWD vs Test Drive v6

I’m drifting back to using the Test Drive version 6 as my portable quick reference for Savage Worlds, and that led me to compare it to the current core rules, Savage Worlds Deluxe. (The Wild Hunt uses the same rules as the Test Drive, but I prefer version 6 as it has a slightly larger font and rules for character advancement.)

Obviously, SWD has more stuff in it, but the Test Drive is also based on the previous edition of the rules (Explorers’ Edition); so what things are there in the Test Drive that are different in the core rules?

It turns out, not many. Here are the ones I know about:

  • SWD drops the Guts skill.
  • Shaken characters can only move at half Pace in the Test Drive, but since they are permitted free actions in SWD, they can move their full Pace.
  • If Shaken while On Hold, in SWD you lose the On Hold status.
  • Incapacitation works differently, and needs a lot more column inches to explain, so I won’t go into it here.
  • Raises on an area effect attack (like Blast) cause an extra d6 of damage in SWD, the same as for any other attack.
  • You can fire three 3d6 bolts in the Test Drive, but only one in SWD. (Actually, this was so central to the Warforged’s style of play that I let him keep doing it when we switched to SWD, and the game didn’t suffer a bit. Especially after he reached Seasoned rank and upgraded to Blast.)

So there you have it. There are more changes than I expected, but none of them are game-changing, you should pardon the pun. Still, it would be nice to see a Test Drive version 7 at some point – preferably one that uses layers to make printing the colour page background optional.

The only thing I’d want to add to the Test Drive is how many powers beginning characters have, but I can understand why it doesn’t go there, as if it did it would need to explain the differences between Arcane Backgrounds, and that would take too much space. If it came up, I’d use three, which is what Magic and Psionics get, and settle up later when I had the core rules to hand.

Do you know about any differences I’ve missed?

Savage Worlds Goodies

Inspiration is on hold at the moment, so here are a few Savage Worlds goodies that have caught my eye over the past few months:

  • The abstract movement system, compiled by JavaScrybe, replaces standard tabletop movement with “areas”, in much the same way as Bulldogs or WFRP3. He has a short rules document and some example battlefields.
  • I’ve often said you can do anything with Savage Worlds, and one of the things that people do surprisingly often is My Little Pony. SavageGamerGirl has a fast and furious version of that at the Order of the Dice of Doom, while Giftkrieg23 has a much more detailed version here.
  • Zadmar’s Savage Worlds Stuff has combat and battle simulators for checking the relative power of PCs and monsters; monster converters that turn a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder statblock into a Savage Worlds opponent; and tons of other stuff. Go check it out.
  • This topic on the SW forum has a list of free adventures, mostly One Sheets or similar.

Hopefully the creative juices will be flowing again by next Friday!

Out of the Box

One of the things Savage Worlds is especially good for is fast, easy conversion of other games and settings. You can do this with most games if you work at it, but SW seems deliberately designed for it, and conversion feels easier to me with SW than any other game I’ve played.

Here are some of the things you can do with Savage Worlds Deluxe right out of the box, no setting books or rules supplements needed.

CONAN

This is more an exercise in cutting things out than adding them in. Reduce available races to humans and available Arcane Backgrounds to Magic, and you’re pretty much there.

Winged apes? Gorillas with the Fly monstrous ability. Acid-spitting giant slug? Giant worm with Bolt power bolted on (har har). Assorted demonic statues? Ogre with Construct monstrous ability, or the Bodyguard from the Summon Ally Power.

LORD OF THE RINGS

Let’s see, we have dwarves, elves, halflings, and humans for PCs; trolls, orcs, giant spiders, dragons, horses, liches and mass battle rules for the opposition. Setting rule of no more than one wizard per party, and LOTR magic feels more like AB: Miracles to me than AB: Magic, but YMMV.

POLICE PROCEDURAL OR OTHER MODERN GENRES

Drop Powers, Weird Edges and almost all the Bestiary. Grab the plot line from the last Bruce Willis or Jason Statham movie you saw. You’re done.

For survival horror, season with occasional items from the Bestiary – vampires, werewolves, zombies.

For Mission: Impossible or James Bond, garnish instead with one or two items imbued with Powers courtesy of Weird Science.

SHADOWRUN

You’ve got firearms, magic, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs in the rules. Cyberware is a trapping on your Edges – you levelled up and got more Strength? Sounds like muscle implants to me, chummer. Drones use the stats for suitable animals, with the Construct monstrous ability and a new description. Hacking is a dramatic task based on a Knowledge skill (and possibly a renamed Scholar Edge to boost it).

STARGATE SG-1

SGC is basically present-day Earth, so that’s easy. Jafar get Slow Regeneration but have a dependency on their Goa’uld larva (treat as the Dehydration -1 racial ability, but with different trapping; only happens if the larva is removed). System Lords have AB: Weird Science and gizmos like the Ribbon Device, which in the show is used with various powers – Healing, Mind Reading (trapping: hurts a lot), Deflection (force field) and Telekinesis. They seem to put New Powers into the same device rather than creating a new one each time.

STAR WARS

All the races, all the time? Check. Laser swords and pistols? Check. AB: Psionics, mostly used for Boost/Lower Trait? Check. Anything that should have wheels gets either legs or repulsorlifts as a trapping? Check. OK, we’re good to go.

-o0o-

I could do so much with this game, given the time and the players. The main problem I have with it is choosing what to do next…