Third in the list of SF RPGs for Dark Nebula is Stars Without Number, which I’ve done after the Traveller version largely so I can draw on that for population levels.
ATMOSPHERE, TEMPERATURE, BIOSPHERE
As usual for the actual world characteristics, these are hard to extract from the map in detail, but we can place some constraints.
- Primary systems must have an atmosphere which is a breatheable mix; a temperature which is cold, temperate, warm, or possibly variable; and probably have a human-miscible biosphere, although others are possible.
- Secondary systems may have some of the features of a primary system, but not all – otherwise they would be primary.
- Tertiary systems have no planets, so there’s nothing to work out.
You may recall my rules for Traveller population levels:
- Capital systems have population level 9.
- Primary systems other than capitals have a population level equal to their number of charted hyperspace routes plus three; for example, Mizah has five routes and thus population level 8.
- Secondary systems have a population level equal to their number of charted hyperspace routes plus one; Hasara, with two routes, has population level 3.
- Tertiary systems have population level 0, as does any system inside the Dark Nebula – at least, as far as anyone knows.
Those translate now into SWN population as follows:
|Traveller Population||SWN Population|
|4||Tens of Thousands|
|5||Hundreds of Thousands|
Notice that as a result of the above, there are no failed colonies – statistically, there should be several, so I’ll shove those on the secondary systems in the Dark Nebula itself. Alien civilizations are placed by GM fiat, at Kuzu and Gazzain. There may be one on Bulan as well, I haven’t decided yet.
Capital systems get Tech Level 5. Everywhere else gets Tech Level 4 for the moment, because given what I’ve already established, it seems to me that this region is further along in its recovery from the Interregnum than the typical SWN sector.
These are mostly going to be assigned by GM fiat as solo play fleshes out the sector, but there are some obvious ones…
- Kuzu and Maadin both get Regional Hegemon (they’re the local superpowers) and Major Spaceyard (somewhere is building all of those dreadnoughts, and it’s most likely the capital worlds).
- Mizah gets Trade Hub because of its multitude of trade routes, and also so that it is friendly to spacefaring PCs.
- Anywhere with a Failed Colony population gets the Abandoned Colony tag; anywhere with Outpost population gets the Outpost World tag.
- Simba gets Hostile Space because of the insectoid raiders.
These remain largely unchanged from my earlier attempts:
- Kuzu and Maadin both have a Regional Hegemon faction, which has the Planetary Government tag for each world in its fledgling empire.
- Primary worlds other than Kuzu and Maadin have a Backwater Planet faction as their local government.
- Secondary worlds have a Colony World faction as their local government.
- Mizah has a Mercantile Combine running the counters assigned to it by the neutral counter draw – a Transport and some mercenary Jump Troops.
- Any world occupied by the Confederation or the Hierate as the strategic game progresses will develop a Rebel Freedom Fighters faction.
- I think I might base the Psionics Institute on the Eugenics Cult template. We’ll see about that later.
As you can see, the main problem I will face is getting carried away into developing an enormously detailed setting. Oh well, as long as I have no group to play with, where’s the harm in that?
“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.” – G.K. Chesterton
It’s like this: When I’m tired, or irritable, I run off in all directions, learning new games and creating or converting new settings; but when I’m calm and rested, I keep coming back to a handful of them.
That handful is All Things Zombie, Traveller, Dark Nebula, Dungeons & Dragons, and Savage Worlds (in which I include Beasts & Barbarians).
So, for 2015, I’ve decided to embrace those and focus on them, building a greater understanding of how they work and the kind of detailed settings and backstories I admire so much when other game masters provide them.
Consider this post a line drawn under what has gone before, and a reboot for such games as survive. (I thought about deleting the old stuff or starting a new blog, but I usually regret doing that later.)
Moving forward, since I think of my campaigns as action-adventure TV shows, I will focus on each of them for 26 weeks in turn, that being how long a season of a show used to last before the writers’ strike and the adoption of mid-season breaks.
We’ll start with the Dark Nebula. Buckle up, sports fans. It’s going to be a fun ride.
Before I drill too much into individual worlds, let’s make a few assumptions and see what we can deduce from the map and the SWN world generation rules. Quite a bit, as it turns out…
NEW WORLDS AND NEW CIVILISATIONS
Now that I’ve reinstated the double stars, there are 59 systems on the map; 2 Homeworlds, 8 Primary (naturally habitable), 39 Secondary and 10 Tertiary. For this first pass I assign Homeworlds a population of billions, Primary millions, Secondary hundreds of thousands and Tertiary no population at all.
Statistically in SWN, one would expect 59 systems to include 3.28 with populations of billions, 11.47 with millions, 26.22 with hundreds of thousands, 11.47 with tens of thousands, 1.64 with alien civilisations, and 4.92 with either outposts or failed colonies. So we’re a bit light on high population worlds and a bit heavy on uninhabited ones, but not unbelievably so. About a third of the Secondary systems should have populations in the tens of thousands, but as you’ll see it makes very little difference at the sector level.
Meanwhile, I already know that I want to use rakashans and saurians as well as humans in this campaign, and statistically that is already slightly too many alien races for this many worlds, so that’s all I need.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I derived the cultures for the systems by looking up the world names in Google and selecting the closest culture in SWN for the world concerned – you’ll see the details of that reasoning later as I look at each area of the map in turn, but for now we get the following:
- Arabic culture: 8 worlds, 1,002,500,000 inhabitants (49.84% of the total).
- Chinese culture: 3 worlds, 300,000 inhabitants (0.01%).
- English culture: 15 worlds, 700,000 inhabitants (0.03%). Six of these worlds are N1-N6 in the Dark Nebula, and another two are tertiary systems outside the Nebula; perhaps those should not be counted.
- Indian culture: 5 worlds, 1,400,000 inhabitants (0.07%).
- Japanese culture: 2 worlds, 1,000,000,000 inhabitants (49.71%). One of these is a tertiary system with no inhabitants.
- Nigerian culture: 7 worlds, 1,500,000 inhabitants (0.07%). Again, one is a tertiary system.
- Russian culture: 11 worlds, 3,600,000 inhabitants (0.18%). Two of these are tertiary systems.
- Spanish culture: 8 worlds, 1,600,000 inhabitants (0.08%). One of these is tertiary.
The only inhabited world with a definitely Japanese name is Kuzu, and we already know that is inhabited by aslan – errm, sorry, rakashans. So it’s tempting to do what I did with my last 2300AD campaign and have the aslan – sorry, rakashans – be a life-form genetically engineered from human and feline DNA by Japanese scientists. That would explain them having a vaguely Japanese culture and let me use the Japanese name tables, because no other worlds will need them.
You can see from the table that over 99% of the sector’s population is concentrated in the regional hegemons.
It’s actually quite hard to find out how many speakers a language has in a given country, so I assumed an even split between them by culture. This gives me the following, in descending order of speaker base:
- Arabic: 1,002,500,000 speakers.
- Japanese (or whatever the rakashans actually speak): 1,000,000,000 speakers.
- English: 3,600,000 speakers, of whom 81% speak it as a second language.
- Russian: 3,600,000 speakers, as many as English but more concentrated.
- Spanish: 1,600,000 speakers.
- Hindi: 1,400,000 speakers, most of them on Gazzain so this may be an overstatement as that’s where I’m going to park the saurians.
- Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba: 233,333 speakers each.
- Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese: 150,000 speakers each.
SWN states that all PCs speak English, certainly all the players do, and there is a long tradition of English as the language of air traffic control which it seems reasonable to extend to space travel as well. So the idea occurs to me that a disproportionate fraction of ship crews are English-speaking people, with enclaves at most starports; this gives the players a reason to work together, as they are members of an ethnic minority, much like gypsies or Sephardic Jews.
GIMME THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION
It’s always a bit risky including actual religions in games – one reason most of them don’t do it – as you may offend potential players; but made-up ones have never felt right to me in science-fiction games, especially if I’m using real-world cultures.
So I assumed religions in the sector are split roughly along cultural lines, again with an even mix in cultures that have multiple religions, as finding the actual numbers of worshippers is more work than I want to do. This gives me the following:
- Islam: 1,003,310,000 worshippers.
- Buddhism: 500,410,000 worshippers, of which 500,000 are rakashans on Kuzu. Maybe they picked it up from Japanese genetic engineers, maybe I apply a trapping to make it less obviously human.
- Shinto: 500,000,000 worshippers, all on Kuzu. Same comments.
- Christianity: 6,560,000 worshippers.
- Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism: 350,000 worshippers each.
- Traditional Nigerian religions (assorted): 150,000 worshippers.
- Confucianism, Taoism: 60,000 worshippers each.
It’s amazing how much the campaign unpacks itself just from the map and the names, no?
In turn one, all factions build Surveyors, as they are the only unit which can (a) move without costing their faction more money, (b) move two hexes on the starmap, and (c) require a low attribute to buy – the other alternatives don’t have all those advantages. Smugglers, for example, are cheaper to buy and have a similar range and attribute requirement, but you have to pay FacCreds to move them.
The Hierate builds its surveyors at Panas, the Confederation at Gazzain, and Mizah on Mizah (as it has no other choice).
Hierate: Income 7, spend 4, balance 3. Goal: Expand Influence on Valka; that’s the nearest primary system with good land to grab.
Confederation: Income 7, spend 4, balance 3. Goal: Expand Influence on Hasara; the Hierate is coming for Solomani land, and this is the most distant system where Confed can guarantee to set up a Base of Influence before the Hierate can, thus hopefully blocking their movement. Confed will then work its way back along the Hasara Chain building up influence on all worlds, with a view to their eventual absorption.
Mizah: Income 4, spend 4, balance 0. Goal: Expand Influence on Hasara; Mizah sees the Hasara Chain and Triangular Route as its pre-eminent sphere of influence, and correctly divining Confed’s plan, intends to get there first.
How does this manifest itself for the PCs? Well, they’re on Mizah, so it will be at least February before they can learn of the Confed surveyors, and March before they know about the Hierate ones. However, this is playing on the holovid in the corner of the bar where they hang out between scenarios:
“Preceptor Adept Aisha Tabari of the Great Archive announced today at a news conference in Sinqit that President Jibril Shadi has agreed to the proposed massive expansion of the Mizah Survey Service, allowing the Archive to carry its advice and services to worlds along the Hasara Chain and Triangular Route. The MSS is now acquiring a number of ships for this purpose and hiring crews at Sinqit Starport.”
“Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”
“Same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!”
– Pinky and the Brain
Before I kick off the Dark Nebula campaign in earnest, I need a view of the local factions.
It’s tempting to make up all kinds of custom factions, but at this stage I want to move quickly into actual play without worrying about whether the factions are sensibly designed or not, so I pick three template factions from SWN p. 127; the Aslanic Hierate (Regional Hegemon), the Solomani Confederation (Regional Hegemon) and the planetary government of Mizah (Backwater Planet). The Regional Hegemons each begin the game with the Planetary Government tag for all the worlds in their pocket empire.
I want the Dark Nebula system type for a world to be reflected in its government faction, and the simplest way to do this is to say that homeworlds are Regional Hegemons, primary systems are Backwater Planets, and secondary systems are Colony Worlds. Tertiary systems have no worlds, therefore no populations and hence no factions. For the most part, the planetary government factions will just sit there, waiting to provide opposition to the three active factions.
WHY MEN FIGHT
I now need to know the factions’ motivations, since that will both determine their goals and actions in game terms, and make them seem more real to the players.
Aslanic Hierate: Landgrab
In line with Classic Traveller canon, aslan are obsessed with owning land. If there is unoccupied land, preferably on a primary world, they will occupy it. If the only decent land they can get at is already occupied, they will fight for it. Aslan expansion therefore consists of creating Bases of Influence anywhere they can, starting with the primary worlds. The cheapest way to do this is to build Surveyors and send them to each world in turn to Expand Influence there. Once that’s done, they will happily spend their FacCreds upgrading the Bases, representing the expansion of aslan clanholds on the world.
Solomani Confederation: Reunify
As the spiritual heir to the Celestial Empire in my earlier campaigns, the Confederation seeks to restore the lost glories of the Terran Mandate, reuniting humanity under a single banner – this time, theirs. Their long-term aim is therefore Planetary Seizure of every system on the map. It’s faster and cheaper in most cases to do this by building Surveyors, using them to create Bases of Influence, and then building other assets for conquest at those Bases – otherwise they would have to spend faction turns and FacCreds just moving military units into place. Seizing control of systems is neatly Difficulty 3 for a homeworld or primary system, 2 for a secondary, and 1 for a tertiary.
Government of Mizah: Spread the Word
Mizah is comfortable with the status quo, thank you very much; it has a nice home, a comfortable income, and an honourable and altruistic purpose. To pursue its objective of sharing knowledge with its neighbours, it will also plant Bases of Influence offworld, and again the cheapest way over three or more turns is a unit of Surveyors. In philosophy, Mizah is closer to the Confederation, but its methods are closer to those of the Hierate. Its ambitions are also limited to a specific group of worlds, whereas the other two factions both want to dominate the entire map.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
It’s expensive both in FacCreds and actions to move assets around, so they need to be placed sensibly to begin with.
- Everything starts on Mizah. There’s no other option.
- Space Marines: Panas (Hierate) and Gazzain (Confed). They have to start inside the faction’s home turf, but they’re strike units, they’re no good at home.
- Planetary Defences: On the homeworlds, Kuzu and Maadin. These need to be defended, and there are too many potential routes to the homeworlds to block with the available units.
- Blockade Fleet: Gazzain and Bors. These are a bit of a white elephant really, they need to be refitted into something that can move two hexes.
- Extended Theatre: These need to begin on the faction’s borders, and quickly move up to a transport nexus nearby but on the outside. The Hierate would be best served if theirs were at Dno, the Confederation needs theirs to be at Bulan until they have pacified that area; so the Extended Theatre units start at Panas and Kamat.
- Pretech Manufactory: Maadin and Kuzu. These are probably a big part of why the Hegemons are Hegemons.
- Shipping Combine: Wherever the Extended Theatre went, the Shipping Combine needs to be on the other main route out of faction territory. That puts the Hierate one at Bors, and the Confed one at Gazzain.
- Tripwire Cells: These may as well stay at home to defend against stealthed infiltration units.
- Cyberninjas: Panas and Gazzain. I’m not quite sure what to do with these, but those locations give the most options.
We can see from this that the biggest naval base in the region is at Gazzain, and the second-biggest at Panas.
I’ve tried running macro-level wargames or boardgames to provide setting background before, and the game has always collapsed under the weight of record-keeping required. However, I think SWN factions will be different, as they can only do one thing each per turn, so record-keeping is fairly basic – at most three assets per turn move, usually less.
If the factions were merely level grinding, they’d all go for the nearest system and set up a Base of Influence for a quick experience point; but these moves seem more aligned to their known mindsets.
Finally, notice that I don’t need to know anything about the worlds to pick factions and set them at each other’s throats.
After rereading the rules for my various science fiction RPGs, and experimenting a little off camera, I came to the conclusion that for the kind of game I want to run, SWN world generation, faction rules, and setting background will give me the most fun for the least effort. There is almost no mechanical interaction between those and the PC-level rules, so Savage Worlds PCs and SWN worlds and factions can co-exist peacefully without requiring any complex rules interfaces.
The PCs’ home world is going to be Mizah, and I have a very clear idea of what I want to do with it; so I move directly to assigning stats without worrying about dice rolls.
- It’s naturally habitable.
- It has routes to six other systems, making it the best-connected primary system on the map and making offworld travel simple when the PCs start to do that. This is also why it’s a trade hub.
- It isn’t aligned to either the Hierate or the Confederation, but would be a valuable ally to either. Enter intrigue and espionage, stage left, but with the PCs having a free hand as to which faction they support. This is the “offworld faction trying to seize control complication for the trade hub” tag in action.
- It’s only a few weeks’ travel away from either the insectoid Hive of space bugs (off-map past Simba) or the mysteries of the Dark Nebula itself.
Atmosphere: Breathable mix. Temperature: Temperate. Biosphere: Human-miscible, dominated by giant beetle analogues (the players told me this, during Back in Black). Population: Millions. Tech Level: 4. Tags: Preceptor Archive, Trade Hub. Culture: Arabic (“Mizah” means “joke” in Turkish, and the closest culture to Turkish in baseline SWN is Arabic).
Mizah’s government is a representative democracy; the current president is Jibril Shadi. (As recommended by SWN, the base world gets a representative democracy because how it works will be instinctively familiar to the likely players. President Shadi’s name is courtesy of a couple of dice rolls on the Arabic names table in SWN.)
When the Scream came, Mizah managed somehow to hold things together, thanks to the joint efforts of the Great Archive outpost and the planetary government. During the Silence, the Mizah Survey Service worked closely with the Archive to keep the flame of civilisation burning, however weakly, along the Hasara Chain and the Triangular Route, acting as a cultural bridge and provider of news and technical (especially medical) advice. Local populations therefore look on it fondly for the most part, although of course there are those who infer sinister conspiracies.
- Hasara Chain: Hasara, Tangga, Salia, Kov, Mizah.
- Triangular Route: Mizah, Simba, Omaro, Umuru.
These worlds will all have Tech Level 4, as a result of the Great Archive’s “missionary” work along those routes.
Places to Visit
- Sinqit starport, whose wide, open plazas bustle with activity.
- Charshi Market, a raucous bazaar on the edge of the starport whose coffee-houses are frequented by ship’s crews on shore leave and adventurers on the make.
- The Great Archive lecture hall in the centre of Sinqit City and its quasi-religious ceremonies.
The campaign is likely to develop over three phases. In the first phase, the PCs will be limited to Mizah, since they have no ship and no shipboard skills. In phase two, they will escape into local space, which effectively means the Hasara Chain (Hasara-Tangga-Salia-Kov-Mizah) and the Triangular Route (Simba-Omaro/Umuru-Mizah); the Hive of space bugs can turn them back at Simba, the Solomani military can stop them going past Gazzain, there’s nothing to do in the Nebula so far as they know and Daanarni can have a flare or something if they try to go that way. In phase three, all bets are off and they can go anywhere on the map.
So, I needed to know what Mizah is like right away, and should soon have some idea about eight other worlds; the other fifty-odd star systems may never come into play from the PCs’ perspective, although Maadin and Kuzu cast long shadows and are easy enough to generate, as the fact of being a Regional Hegemon dictates most of a world’s statistics.
You’ll note I’ve swerved from the CT Long Night as the historical background to the SWN Scream and Silence. Dramatically, these are much the same – worlds re-emerging into space 600 years after a great human empire collapsed – and experience teaches me the players will neither notice nor care, so I may as well go with the path of least effort, which means the SWN world and faction rules claimed the background followed them home and asked if they could keep it.
Good Lord, Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes is out already… as promised, a review as soon as I got my hands on it.
In a Nutshell: Stars Without Number supplement for running adventures with one PC and a GM. 7 page PDF, free to download from RPGNow or the Sine Nomine website.
This Mandate Archive is split into three parts.
First, there is a one-page explanation of what the supplement is for (running Stars Without Number adventures for one or two PCs), and how that differs from normal play (since the group is smaller, consensus is reached much more quickly, so stories are faster-moving).
The second part modifies SWN’s rules for a single PC, who has fewer hit points and a narrower range of skills than a full party. The changes are largely common to Solo Heroes and Scarlet Heroes from the same publisher, both of which cover the same ground for fantasy. To summarise:
- The PC always wins initiative.
- Damage and healing dice are read differently, making PCs tougher and NPCs much more fragile, but without changing the scenario or characters.
- The Fray Die lets the PC roll damage each turn against any NPC in range, even if he is doing something else that round.
- Defying Death essentially allows the PC to trade hit points for success in a check they would not otherwise make.
- Lone heroes gain skill points at twice the normal rate when levelling up.
This part closes with a half-page detailed example of how the rules changes work in play.
The third part is a short adventure for a single 1st level hero, pitting him or her against a group of terrorists threatening to crash an orbital station into a surface city. It’s a 10-location dungeon crawl in space, with statblocks for relevant NPCs. Can you say Die Hard? I knew you could…
Black on gold front cover, full colour back cover advertising Scarlet Heroes, and in between, five pages of black on white two-column text in the usual crisp, effective layout.
This supplement does what it sets out to do, and does it well; specifically, it applies a handful of rules tweaks to SWN which allows a single PC to survive, and successfully complete, an adventure written for a full-sized group, without rewriting the adventure or the character sheets.
However, what I’m really looking for is a science fiction version of Scarlet Heroes – rules for GM-less SF with a built in setting. I’m hopeful that just as Solo Heroes led to Scarlet Heroes, so Stellar Heroes will lead to something bigger.
“The Klingons are a proud warrior race, and have no need of fripperies such as fridge magnets.” – Bill Bailey
Having done the map, the next stage in my budding Dark Nebula campaign is to peruse the boardgame and see what I can infer from it. For this purpose I’m considering Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, 5150 and Traveller as candidates for the rules – I expect to use all of them in this setting at some point, so I’m looking for common denominators.
Let’s start with Traveller, because the designers were writing Classic Traveller at the same time they were writing Dark Nebula and used some of the same concepts, so it should be easiest.
There are only a handful of J-3 routes, and a single J-4 route.
J-1 drives would be limited to a few specific clusters of worlds; in the Solomani Confederation there is one group of four worlds and one pair, in the Aslan Hierate there is a group of three, there’s a group of six worlds between Mizah and Daanarni, and there are a few isolated pairs out in the boonies.
However, there’s only one system you can’t reach with a Jump-2 drive at the start of the game, and that’s Taida Na, which initially can only be reached from Valka using a J-4 drive. So the majority of starships would have Jump-2 drives; you really don’t need anything more, and you have severely limited movement with less. The military might have a few J-3 ships, maybe even the odd J-4, but that’s debatable.
This is somewhere that Mongoose Traveller may have an edge; in the board game, any ship can traverse any jump route; so the Mongoose warp drive variant rule might be a better fit. (And while we’re at it, given the unusually high proportion of waterless worlds, maybe the Mongoose hard SF option for world generation.)
Kuzu and Maadin are both specified as homeworlds with “high populations”. That term has a specific meaning in Traveller, namely a population of 9 (billions) or A (tens of billions) – looking ahead to SWN, and because I normally assign the minimum value necessary to match other evidence, I’ll go with 9. Given their status in the game, they deserve class A starports as well.
As far as technology goes, J-4 drives and battle dress for jump troops, but lack of evidence for anything higher-tech than that, place the maximum TL in the region at D (13). There’s also no need for it anywhere other than Maadin and Kuzu, so that sets their TL.
The boardgame is silent on these, but familiarity with the default Traveller setting will tell you that Solomani humans and Aslan are present. In the past I’ve added droyne, ithklur, vilani and others, and may do so this time as well, but let’s see how far we can get with just the basic two for the moment.
STARS WITHOUR NUMBER
Spike-4 drives are needed to move 4 hexes in SWN, and require TL5, so we can assign a population of billions and TL 5 to the two homeworlds, which are also Regional Hegemons. Races will include humans and also hochog, renamed and described as if they were aslan – the Proud Warrior Race is such a classic SF trope that almost every game has it, and SWN is no exception.
SAVAGE WORLDS / 5150
The above topics don’t really matter in SW or 5150, and neither game needs much about them beyond a little narrative. The only problem with 5150 is that it’s not immediately obvious how to do aslan, but to start with I’ll just give them +1 Rep for being the Proud Warrior Race.
As regards Savage Worlds, I rule out High-Space at this point because it’s grounded in transhumanism, and CT/Dark Nebula aren’t, so the Sci Fi Companion is a better fit for this particular game. I make a note that natives of Maadin and Kuzu might have the High-Tech (Minor) Hindrance under the SW SFC, and that jumps are only possible along mapped routes. On the racial front, we have humans and rakashans; those are the only two races obviously needed, and the boardgame is about a war between the two, so it seems reasonable for the rakashan racial hostility to be directed at humans.
As usual, I’m feeling lazy, and rather than create new characters for the SW implementation of the Nebula, I’ll reactivate Arion and company, setting Gordon’s as yet undocumented civilisation in a planet-less system in the Dark Nebula itself. Daanarni becomes the aslan name for Antares, Halfway becomes the orbital station at Hasara, and I’m sure I can retcon in other stuff easily enough when I need it. The Arioniad’s riff of a loose alliance of worlds threatened by a human empire fits best with the Mizah cluster facing off against the Solomani Confederation; good luck, guys.
“You might think that the first step in starting a new game is finding a group of people to play with. That is important, but that’s your next step. Your first step is to get yourself excited. Do that and you’ll likely get all your friends excited as well.” – Savage Worlds
The Free Traders campaign looks like it will not be used after all, which is a bit sad, but means I feel pretty smug for not having put that much effort into it.
There are several reasons for this outcome.
I’m looking at the future of the group, and numbers are perilously low. The current gaming group started with 10 members, and surged to 12; but of these, 9 have dropped out over the last 18 months, as some move away and others shift their priorities elsewhere. Of the three remaining, I think there’s a fair chance that 1-3 of them will drop out over the coming year, which will leave me with anywhere from two players to none. Some recruiting is called for in 2014, I think.
Other GMs take note; your current players are transient. Consider recruiting.
Supposing for the moment that the group only hangs together for another 12 months, with the current rate of two sessions per month, half of which are used for Tenchi’s Shadowrun game, there are only another 10-12 sessions left for the group. It seems more sensible to extend Shadows of Keron than start up a new campaign.
Although I’ve preferred science fiction to fantasy for as long as I can remember, I just can’t motivate myself to run an SF game at the moment. I have no problem coming up with scenario ideas, but they are all for fantasy – I blame Beasts & Barbarians, which has refreshed my jaded gaming palette.
Partly this is because the kind of 1950s-1970s SF that Classic Traveller emulated so well no longer seems credible to me, and the transhumanist nanotech SF that currently seems credible doesn’t interest me as a campaign setting. Partly it’s because my focus as a GM has shifted away from gadgets towards characters, which are largely setting-independent. Partly it’s because fantasy settings have less of a learning curve for players.
(One useful side effect of staying focussed on fantasy would be that a much wider range of pre-painted figures is available. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the time to paint figures, and my deteriorating eyesight means they don’t look that good any more when I do.)
So, Free Traders inserts itself into a parking orbit around Halfway Station. If you can make use of it, do so with my blessing.
In a Nutshell: Interstellar trading expansion for Stars Without Number. 85 page PDF. Unusual in its support for the end game, when the PCs have risen to be merchant princes – movers and shakers in the sector as a whole.
The Jewels of Foreign Suns (4 pages): This gives the history of independent trade, from Earth’s initial colonies through the Terran Mandate, the Silence after the Mandate collapsed, and into the present day. The tone this sets is one of every man’s hand being against the free trader – or far trader, as they are called in SWN, leading them to develop the kind of ruthless cunning one typically observes in PCs. I particularly liked the backstory of the Exchange Consulate, presented here for the first time I recall, and within that, the hints of their militant arm, the context assassins, who essentially trick targets into getting themselves executed. That’s very stylish.
Slaves to the Credit (8 pages): So much for history, now we’re into current affairs. This outlines how one becomes a far trader, the kind of person who does it, and his three main sources of opposition: Restless natives who feel threatened by the trader’s wares, planetary governments tempted to nationalise his ship and cargo, and other traders. Apart from the rare worlds with Trade Hub tags, pretty much every planet you land on will try to steal your profits, your goods, and your ship in one way or another. The chapter also outlines a typical trade run, stressing the caution and defensive measures taken by merchant captains, and the importance of a friendly factor on a regular destination world – someone knowledgeable in local customs, trustworthy (usually because the trader has some kind of hold over him). There’s a discussion of local currency and what backs it, and a page of GM’s tips on how to set up and run a merchant campaign. The book returns to that last point in more detail later.
An Honest Day’s Trade (18 pages): Here are the mechanics for trade in the SWN universe. Every world has a trade table (a list of ten cargo types worth the trader’s while), a trouble table (things that might go wrong), and a Friction rating (how hard they are to do business with; this covers port fees, union troubles, grasping petty officials and so forth). Each trading crew has an expertise rating, based on skills and Intelligence or Charisma – several PCs can work together to create this rating, or it can all come from one person.
The trader begins by rolling twice on the trade table to see what’s available to buy. He can reroll if he doesn’t like what he sees, but each time he does so, the Friction rating goes up. To find the purchase price, you roll 3d6 on a sales chart to get a price modifier, then multiply that by the base price of the cargo. You do the same to sell it at the destination, which depending on the world type may have modifiers to the dice roll. The trader’s expertise always modifies the dice roll in his favour, and the local Friction always modifies it to his disadvantage. A sidebar shows the rules in action, the better to explain them. Underlying the rules is an assumption that the odds are stacked against the PCs, and they will need to undertake adventures to smooth their path to wealth – in essence, the trading rules provide a setting and a motivation for the scenario in your next session.
This is the basic system, intended for the typical far trader crew of a handful of PCs. It is supported by tables of common goods and rules for creating new cargo types, explanations of the tags associated with cargo types, guidelines on creating trade and trouble tables, and eight basic world types with trade modifiers and tables already worked out to get you started.
After that, the chapter moves on to the corporate headquarters, factors and holdings the serious trader will want to establish at his regular ports of call. I think of these as an expansion of the faction rules in SWN, focussed more on the commercial aspects of the game than the military and political focus in the core rules. The main advantage of these from a trader’s perspective is that they reduce the world’s Friction and thus make it easier to turn a profit.
The section closes with a one-page summary of key rules. This is a welcome recent addition to Sine Nomine products.
Treasures in the Sky (14 pages): This chapter extends the world creation process in the SWN core rules by adding a number of new world tags to tailor your sector for trade runs. In addition to the trade and trouble tables already mentioned, and the friends, enemies, places and things your planet already has from core rules generation, you now add an Authority (an NPC representing the local power structure), an Antagonist (someone the PCs have to deal with before he derails their trading), and a Regulation (a commercial law that will cause problems for the PCs). Things, Places and Complications are also in play; you can recycle those from the core rules or use the ones from the new tags. All the new tags are explained in the same level of detail as those in vanilla SWN, and there are a dozen example worlds.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse (14 pages): This chapter explains how to create trading adventures. Remember SWN is a sandbox game, and far traders are likely to have wealth and power beyond the typical PC party; the intention here is that whatever the PCs throw at the GM, he can have an adventure ready to run with 5-10 minutes preparation. This is accomplished by the use of Adventure Templates, which are more detailed versions of the adventure seeds found in the core rulebook. Where the seeds in the core rules would say something like "An Enemy seeks to rob a Friend of some precious Thing that he has desired for some time", an adventure template looks more like this:
"The Authority has an Actor who is their spouse, child, lover, debtor, or other person of importance to them. This Actor has been kidnapped by local criminals, taken by an Antagonist, seized by the secret police, taken hostage by rebels, lost in the wilderness, or otherwise taken from them. The local authorities have either failed to retrieve them, cannot be trusted with the work, or are actually responsible for the kidnapping. The Authority wants the Actor back. The captors may not realize the Actor’s importance, may have the Actor slated for execution soon, may be transporting the Actor somewhere and are vulnerable during transit, or may be temporarily occupied by dealing with a local Complication. Hostiles are likely guarding the Actor, or may be present in the wilderness, or may actually be employed by the Actor in their attempt to fake their kidnapping and escape the Authority."
There are something like 30 such templates, backed up by random tables for creating further detail (like who the Actor is).
Next are the GM’s guidelines for running a trade campaign, in two basic modes: Space truckers or merchant princes.
Space truckers are the classic trope of a handful of PCs in a tramp freighter. For this, you need to flesh out a basic SWN sector in a little more detail, paying special attention to the PCs’ initial trade route. The PCs are generated, given a ship, and off they go. At the lower levels of PC power, the advice is like that given in Polychrome; don’t expect them to know everything, and always leave them a way to progress, usually an NPC who will help in exchange for something they have, or know how to get.
The merchant princes campaign focuses on what Classic Traveller called "daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power". Here, the adventures revolve around interstellar trade empires and the sector’s factions. While it’s possible to start at this level, it could also be a natural evolution of the space truckers game. From the perspective of the typical CT adventuring group, these higher-level far traders are Patrons; from a basic SWN viewpoint, they are a PC Faction. These guys have the need to topple local planetary governments, and the money to hire bands of adventurers to do it, although more likely they will themselves resolve one sub-goal per session of play until they have completed all the steps the GM thinks they need to take before their ultimate prize is within their grasp.
Lords of the New Suns (8 pages): One particular grand ambition for a merchant prince is to found his own colony on a distant world, becoming absolute monarch of his own captive market. The GM creates several worlds suitable for colonisation, then seeds the campaign with rumours and other information about them; eventually the would-be colonisers pick one, and only then is it fleshed out in detail. Tables are provided for generating failed colonies – places someone else tried to colonise before, and why that failed – can the PCs do better? The colony is assigned Population, Supplies, Morale and Tech Level depending on what the PCs use to set it up. Once in existence, the PCs can trade with its captive market, deal with occasional colony troubles, collect taxes and so on. I struggled to get my head around these rules initially, but there is a solid example and a one-page rules summary that made things clear for me. If you think your campaign might wind up going this way, it will pay dividends to think about the colony worlds from the beginning.
Tools of the Traders (6 pages): Here’s a range of personal and starship equipment of particular interest to the trader, ranging from drugs to bend NPCs to your will to complete prefab colonies. Of particular interest as a McGuffin is the route oracle, a dangerous tool which a psychic can use to find a lost world. Naturally, they are usually found in heavily-guarded and long-abandoned Mandate facilities.
GM Resources (8 pages): I look forward to this section in every Sine Nomine product; here are random tables for planetary crises, NPCs, business contacts and rival businesses; stock NPC opponents and alien beasts on a quick-reference sheet (nice); stock building plans for factories, walled estates, offices and shantytowns; and a "character sheet" for a world showing its trade profile and related data.
Two-column black text on white, very printer-friendly, with greyscale illustrations every few pages. Colour cover. Simple, effective, gets the job done.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
I got nothin’. Moving on…
REFLECTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
The Intrepid Merchant has been a staple of adventure stories for centuries, and of SF gaming since its beginnings. Consequently, many SF RPGs have rules for running the odd cargo from world to world as a free trader.
Suns of Gold is different in two key areas; first, when you’re a merchant in Stars Without Number, you’re not paranoid – everybody really is out to get you. Second, this supplement takes you through the free trader phase into being a merchant prince, and maybe beyond that, to being the ruler of entire planets. The sky’s the limit, to coin a phrase.
As ever, I’m impressed with just how much meat Kevin Crawford can pack into a few short pages.
In the late 1970s, my Classic Traveller group became fabulously wealthy after about three real-time years of play, and wanted to found their own colony world far from the "interference" of the Terran Empire, where they could set up a profitable mercenary company. I didn’t have much of a clue how to handle that, and that phase of the game did not go well; I wish I’d had this book then.
However, I don’t think it will work for my current group as a campaign, so I see this one being mined for ideas rather than being used as intended. It would work well as background for the Free Traders campaign, but I think I’d need to handle the actual trading offstage via NPCs, and just have the PCs have the adventures. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Bulldogs‘ book and have the PCs be the crew of a trading vessel, with an NPC captain choosing destinations and setting them tasks. Yes, I think that might work very well. I might even merge it with a solo campaign, having the “NPC captain” as my character, who acts in the gaps between sessions…
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5