Archive for the ‘Free Traders’ Category

Parking Orbit

Posted: 26 July 2013 in Free Traders

“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.


You’ve now seen the thought and prep work that went into creating the setting; in all, probably about 20 hours’ effort, which is more than usual for me. I can get away with such limited preparation firstly because I’m using existing games and real-world history to do the heavy lifting for me, and secondly because I’m not writing a saleable product, and therefore don’t need to explain things that will be intuitively obvious to my players or myself.

Here’s what the players will get as their handout, which is also pretty much everything I will take with me to sessions except for the character sheets, dice, and a few pages pages of quick reference. Behind the scenes, I’m using the Stars Without Number world tags and adventure seeds to prepare adventures, but the players don’t need to know that.



From Firefly to Futurama, free traders are a science fiction archetype; a bunch of scoundrels on the make, in a ship just big enough to carry them and the McGuffin from patron to doublecross.

You’re Sinbad the Sailor, Marco Polo, Han and Chewie. You’re the crew of the Solar Queen or the Pride of Chanur. You take on anything that isn’t safe enough, legal enough, or profitable enough to interest the big shipping lines. Someday, you’ll make that one big score that lets you retire in style; but for now you need a fast tongue, a fast gun hand, and a fast ship.


  • Available Arcane Backgrounds: Psionics.
  • Available Races: Android, Human (the default), Rakashan, Saurian. Androids may swap Asimov Circuits for another Major Hindrance with GM permission. Rakashans and Saurians hate each other, and are both by turns mercenaries and bandits.
  • Languages: Are boring. This is pulp SF, everyone speaks English.
  • Cyberware: It’s all about the trappings. You levelled up and improved your Strength? Sounds like muscle implants to me, chummer…


This is your standard run; carrying robots and weapons from Uppsala to trade with Kiev for foodstuffs and rare metals, or Lygos for luxury goods (artworks, databases, fabric, jewelry, spices and wine).

(Varan Federation)
Theocracy, Unbraked AI
Sealed Menace, Trade Hub
(Colony of Kiev)
Colonised Population, Preceptor Archive

The Seven Portals
Alien Ruins, Warlords (Rakashan pirates)
(Imperial Ally – for the Moment)
Oceanic World, Pilgrimage Site
(Celestial Empire)
Exchange Consulate, Trade Hub
(Celestial Empire)
Regional Hegemon, Trade Hub

These are just the most important stops on a single major trade route. Expect more worlds to appear temporarily during adventures; they’re always there, you just don’t often have a reason to step outside the starport bar when you visit.

The stretch between Novgorod and Kiev runs between star systems too far apart for normal hyperdrives; fortunately, some long-vanished alien race seems to have had the same problem, and left hyperspace portals bridging the gaps. Ships must fly a predictable course to use these portals, which makes them a favourite hunting ground for pirates. The usual method is to go as fast as you dare, in the hope the pirates can’t match vectors before you jump.


And there I’ll park it for the moment. Normally I would run a solo adventurer through the setting for a while to bed it down and flush out unexpected issues; but I’m very busy at work this year, and haven’t really got the time to do that.

Aha, the last stop on the Farside Route heaves into view! Kiev’s early history is unclear, but if was an outpost of the Khazar empire (and possibly Magyars) a couple of centuries before the game’s time frame.

I’ve already established the Magyar-equivalents as Savage Worlds Saurians, so I’ll go with the Magyar theory, and lace Kiev with Saurian architecture, whatever that looks like. I’ll worry about that later, I can use the random architecture tables in Stars Without Number.

About a century before play begins, Kiev was taken over by the Rus and became the centre of their fledgling state. In (2)968, the Pechenegs (Rakashans) laid siege to the city.

Kiev is full of lakes, rivers, and whatnot, so I select Oceanic World as one tag. If I were feeling especially radical, I could dig out Traveller Adventure 9: Nomads of the World Ocean. Hmm. Come to think of it, I could scrap the Farside Route and just lump the planets from old Classic Traveller adventures together to make a subsector…

Stay on target, Luke.

Yes, Obi-Wan. Kiev has a number of sacred sites which draw pilgrims, and assorted cultural locations, so either Pilgrimage Site or Preceptor Archive would work for the other tag. I’ve already used Preceptor Archive so I’ll go with Pilgrimage Site, possibly the Saurian ruins.

Tags: Oceanic World, Pilgrimage Site.

Another multi-ethnic prosperous trading settlement! I suppose it should have occurred to me that all the top-level stops on the Farside Route would be trading hubs of some sort. If I’d thought of this before, I’d have just said all of them are Trading Hubs and dug out two other tags for them. Never mind.

The dominant group is the Rus, who we’ll meet again in Kiev and elsewhere. What else has it got? Well, in the early 11th century, not a lot, apart from huge barrows with dead kings inside them, including the legendary Rurik – mind you, he’s been dead for about 250 years at this point. Sometime within the last 20 years, Erik Hakonarson set fire to it during a raid, which most NPCs the players encounter will remember.

Meanwhile, what about that second tag? Tomb World would reflect the barrows, but it’s hard to reconcile with Trading Hub. The tag ought to reflect what else I know about the place, which means fitting in with the barrows. Well, these are roleplayers, they will expect something evil in the tombs, why disappoint them? Sealed Menace it is.

Tags: Sealed Menace, Trading Hub.

Novgorod was at this time the second city of the Kievan Rus, which I hadn’t thought of when I separated the two by umpteen parsecs of alien stargates. Never mind, there’s a story there somewhere. The tradition was for the eldest son of the ruler of Kiev to be sent to Novgorod to control that, as a sort of practice run I suppose. At the time of our stories that would be Yaroslav the Wise, whose father Vladimir the Great is ruling Kiev.

Reading ahead, as it were, I can see that Novgorod is a power on the rise, it will be one of the largest powers in the region in a century or two.

Right now, it has a fortress, and is already influential in politics, economics and culture, so I’ll give it the Preceptor Archive tag to reflect its cultural heritage. It’s remotely controlled from Kiev, so although I have no reason to suppose Novgorod resisted that, for entertainment value I give it the Colonised Population tag as well, with a mental note that Yaroslav is actually an OK guy, but the resistance are against him on principle. I keep reminding myself that this is a roleplaying setting, not a history lesson.

Tags: Colonised Population, Preceptor Archive.


We have a couple of major NPCs too; Yaroslav and Vladimir, and although the latter properly belongs with the Kiev writeup, let’s do him now as well.

Yaroslav Vladimirovich: Thin-faced, and lame from a poorly-healed leg wound, Yaroslav was sent to rule Novogord in 3010. He does not get on well with his father. As the campaign begins, his father is about to die, and he himself is about to become embroiled in a complex and bloody war against his brothers (several of whom he will murder) for the throne of Kiev.

(Yes, seriously – he used to be an adventurer like you, until he took an arrow in the knee.)

Vladimir Sviatoslavich: The youngest son of the previous Prince of Kiev by his housekeeper, Vladimir has numerous children by several wives (he was a polygamist in his youth), the most recent of whom was Emperor Basil II’s sister Anna, now deceased. He seized control of Kiev from his brother in (2)972 and consolidated the fledgling empire by (2)980.

I can see that the politics of the Farside Route will be dominated through the campaign by the battles for control of Kiev. However, they don’t start until a year or so into the campaign, so I can park them for now and research them in a later preparation slot, possibly even after the first few sessions.

Damn, now I want to run this as a historical-fantasy mashup instead of sci-fi. Stay on target, Luke!

Since historically these were just portages on the river Dnieper where rude strangers tried to take things from passing merchants, I feel I have a free hand. This part of the map is the fun bit, with half-understood alien technology and space pirates. Each of the giant portals will be different, but they will all have the enigmatic one-of-a-kind gimmicks that were such fun when the Traveller Ancients left them for the PCs to find.

Between Novgorod and Kiev, the Farside Route runs between star systems too far apart for normal hyperdrives; fortunately, some long-vanished alien race seems to have had the same problem, and left hyperspace portals bridging the gaps. Ships must fly a predictable course to use these portals, which makes them a favourite hunting ground for pirates; the normal method is to go as fast as you dare in the hope the pirates can’t match vectors in time.

Tags: Alien Ruins (the portals), Warlords (Rakashan pirates).

The Rakashans are standing in for the historical Pechenegs, of whom Wikipedia has this to say: "Although an important factor in the region at the time, like most nomadic tribes their concept of statecraft failed to go beyond random attacks on neighbours and spells as mercenaries for other powers." In the game’s time frame, for the last 200 years they have been raiding Kiev and its territories at random, culminating with blockading Kiev in (2)968, although they have also occasionally served as mercenaries in support of Kievan forces.

For these fellows I think I’ll drag in the Mandate Archive: Scavenger Fleets free web supplement for Stars Without Number. Select any or all of the fleets in that, and imagine them crewed by samurai cat-people instead of humans. There y’go, that’s your Rakashan pirates right there. Rakashans need a racial enemy, and since I expect the players to generate a mixed human-rakashan-robot crew, I can’t use humans or robots for that enemy; enter the Saurians, stage left. Beyond knowing that they and the Rakashans hate each other, I know nothing more about them at this point. If the Rakashans are Pechenegs, then probably the Saurians ought to be the Magyars, who for our purposes are much the same sort of chaps – raiding, pillaging and serving as mercenaries, although by 3000 or so (1000 AD historically) they were settling down a bit in present-day Hungary.

Skipping about the map as inspiration takes me, I come to Uppsala next.

The location – one hesitates to call it a city, even today the total population is less than 150,000 – has always been important as a religious centre; it’s also a port and later became an academic centre. I also note from Uppsala’s location that it’s a bit chilly, in case I decide to do full Stars Without Number stats for it.

At the time we’re interested in, it’s most famous for the large gold-adorned temple where statues of three gods sit on a triple throne; Thor, flanked by Odin and Freyr. According to Adam of Bremen, there was a priest who offered sacrifices – to Thor for relief from plague or famine, to Odin for victory in war, and to Freyr to celebrate marriages. These could include sacrifices of humans and animals, whose blood placated the gods. Non-believers were allowed to buy themselves out of the ceremonies. Opinion is divided on how much of all this Adam of Bremen made up.

However, it’ll do for gaming purposes, and I select these tags:

Tags: Theocracy, Unbraked AI.

This builds on input from VirgoBrown at the Savage Worlds forum, who suggested the gods could be supercomputers. In this case, the three primary Norse gods are a single mad AI with a split personality, which thinks it is all three gods, and has enough Weird Science tricks to make local people believe it. That suggests to me that the local tech level is a bit below par. ZeroMostel on the forum suggested Loki should be a viral AI that hops from ship to ship, and that’s too good not to use. Loki and Thor did not play well together, as I recall, but Loki was Odin’s blood brother so Thor couldn’t just smash his face in with Mjollnir.

Hmm. I can’t very well put "Unbraked AI" on the player handout, can I? I’ll just have to remember it. In the real world, Scandinavia had converted to Christianity by this point, and maybe Uppsala’s neighbours have a more normal religion too.


Meanwhile, I’ve decided to shorten "Varangian", which is what people at the Byzantium end of the trade route called all the Norse, to "Varan", likewise Varangian Guard is truncated to Varan Guard (and I’m toying with the idea of making their axes symbolic of a general fascism in the Celestial Empire). Since I want a political power to counterbalance the Empire, I extend this into the Varan Federation.

Vikings governed themselves by a loose hierarchy of councils called Things, which each community being self-governing; although they did have Jarls and Kings, these were almost a parallel structure to the Thing, and it’s not clear to me whether either hierarchy had any control over the other. We would probably consider this a kind of democracy today, so Federation seems a good name for it; and in SF, the traditional counterweight to an Empire is a Federation.