World Capabilities by Population

In Stars Without Number (and other games), one thing that intrigues me is the minimum population level needed for particular capabilities to be present on a world. Does a world with a quarter of a million people have its own intelligence apparat? Can it build its own gravsleds?

I decided to look at real-world nations of the contemporary world as a guide to the possible, and spent several weeks’ worth of lunch hours surfing and winnowing data to collate something a GM could use. I’ve split the SWN bracket of Millions along Classic Traveller lines, to make the output more broadly usable.

What else would you like to see? Let me know please, and if I can find it, I’ll add it.


These haven’t got anything as such. There are a surprising number of these on contemporary Earth, but for game purposes I think you’re best served by rolling for what its population was, and using that as a guide to what’s in the ruins.


  • Almost always a dependency of a larger state (Vatican City excepted).
  • Some states as small as a single family or person, but these are rarely recognised officially.


  • Independent states appear at this level. My inference from the Rules As Written is that in the Stars Without Number universe, this is the smallest sustainable population.
  • Armies appear (Seychelles, Tonga).


  • Espionage agencies appear (Barbados Financial Intelligence Unit).
  • Navies appear (Bahamas, Brunei). At this level they are brown-water navies, focussed on local defence.
  • Military special forces appear (Brunei Special Forces Regiment and Special Combat Squadron).



  • Vehicle manufacturing appears – AFVs, aircraft, cars (e.g. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lebanon respectively) – although typically designs are bought in from outside.
  • Merchant marine shipping appears (Slovenia)
  • Mechanised and armoured units appear in the army (Estonia, Laos)
  • Air forces appear (Lebanon)

Tens of Millions

  • Top tier economic or military powers are at this level and up (G20 members, top ten military nations).
  • Blue-water navies appear, able to project power sustainably at a distance and maintain bases outside their state’s territory  – Regional Hegemon tag becomes credible.
  • Significant shipbuilding capabilities emerge – Major Spaceyard tag becomes credible.

Hundreds of Millions

  • Manned space programmes appear on TL 3 worlds.



This is present-day Earth as a whole, so if you can find it in the real world, a planet with this population could have it.

Tens of Billions

We have no data for this yet, I’m afraid. I expect it would be like billions, only more so.


As for Failed Colonies, I think you’re best served by determining a population and working from there; at the time humanity discovered agriculture, the total human population seems to have been about 15 million, so a viable alien civilisation is probably in the millions and up.


The more I look into this, the more surprised I am by two things: First, how small a population is when a given capability first appears, and second, how large nations can get without having specific capabilities – I haven’t recorded the second, because the first seems more useful.

The take-away is that any system with a population in the hundreds of thousands and up could conceivably have any capability you might be interested in, given the political will; but that major powers need populations that are at least in the tens of millions.

And Now, the News

We got the bubble-headed bleached blonde comes on at five
She can tell you ‘bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry.
– Don Henley, Dirty Laundry

Sometimes, I think I take this stuff too seriously.

In a setting like the Dark Nebula where news travels at the speed of a starship, news items from nearby systems arrive earlier than those from distant ones, so if you expect players to use this intelligence to inform their actions in the sandbox, it is important to know what they learn when. It’s bad enough when you only have one party, but in the Nebula I will have several, and some of the news items are triggered by things other parties are doing.

So I built a spreadsheet and entered the news items to date into it, and with a bit of not-terribly-clever calculation I can now extract the following three views…


Only the GM will ever see this; it’s what really happened.


Column A shows where the event happens, column B shows when, columns C to J show when the news of that event reaches the primary systems, and column K is the actual news item for reading to players.

I considered tracking news arrival dates for every system on the map, and allowing different arrival dates depending on the spike rating of the ship carrying the news, but decided the extra complexity wasn’t worth it. So I’ve limited myself to the primary systems, and assumed that news moves along the charted routes on the map at one week per system.

I also considered a slightly more elegant approach with a lookup table of travel times so that I could select a system and have the dates automatically calculated from that, but decided on a quick-and-dirty prototype to see how much use this actually is before I do anything clever with it.


By filtering on column A, you can see what happens on a particular world in sequence. Not sure how useful this is, but it’s easy to do. Here we see what happens on Enjiwa, month by month.



By filtering on one of the primary worlds and then re-sorting the items in the order that the news arrives, you get what is playing on the holo set in the corner of the bar while your PCs are drinking the profits of their latest mission. Here we see what a party on Valka between late February and early April would learn; notice the difference between when things happen (column B) and when Valka knows about them (column I).


This is likely the most useful view during a session. The jury is still out on how useful that actually is.

Concerning Factions

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.

Now We All Have Turkish Names

Given that over 98% of the NPCs in the Dark Nebula campaign are going to be culturally Turkish, I’m going to need GM Resources of the kind that Stars Without Number lavishes on the GM using Arabic, Chinese, English, Indian, Japanese, Nigerian, Russian or Spanish cultures. So I spent a lazy Sunday morning pulling those together from the internet; the Turkish government have obligingly provided lists of their most popular given names and surnames online, and I’ve pulled a list of the 11th through 60th most populated cities for use as placenames, reasoning that the top ten would be too obvious and well-known.


Turkish names consist of a given name followed by a surname, either or both of which are also often meaningful words in Turkish. Given names are usually gender-specific, but may be unisex. Married women may use both their maiden surname and that of their husband.



Traditional Turkish cuisine is rich, savoury and colourful, relying on vegetables with small portions of lamb or mutton, usually roasted or grilled.  Fruit, fruit juices and yoghurt are common, as is honey, which appears in many desserts. Drinks are usually tea or water, with coffee less common than one might expect; although alcohol is theoretically forbidden on religious grounds, a minority drink beer, wine, or rakı, a diluted grape brandy flavoured with aniseed, with meals.


In cities, European or English styles prevail. A few women wear Arabic clothing, but more common are essentially European garments covered by a light topcoat and headscarf. In rural areas, men continue to wear European-style shirts and trousers, but women favour long-sleeved tops over bloomers or trousers.

Culture, Government and Law

As the PCs charge about my little sandbox, I need to tell them about the local official language, government, and laws (oh all right then, weapons restrictions). As usual in such situations, I use the contemporary real world as a template. Is that accurate? Who knows. Does it give answers which are intuitively familiar to the players? Probably. Is it fast and easy? Oh yes.

For the most part, it’s clear which present-day nation I should use as an example for each of the cultures in the Stars Without Number rulebook; for English I selected the UK based on the cuisine described, and for Arabic I chose Egypt as it has the biggest population among Arabic-speaking countries and influences many of the others.

Then I added Turkish to the mix because many of the worlds in my Dark Nebula campaign turned out to be Turkish. You’ll see a Turkish cultural writeup along SWN lines shortly.


Government: The notes in parenthesis after the government description are the SWN Core Edition government type (the word) and the Classic Traveller government type (the number or letter).

Weapons Restrictions: Legal weapons usually require a licence which depends on passing background checks and possibly other tests, and takes weeks or longer to get. Unlawful possession of weapons is generally punished by years to decades in prison, possibly with a fine as well; Egypt might let you off with a month in jail, China might execute you. (“Rifles” in this context means hunting or sporting weapons, not semi-auto battle rifles. Nice try.) The number in parenthesis after the weapons restrictions is the Classic Traveller law level.


Template: Arab Republic of Egypt. Official Language: Arabic. Government: Republic (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: Handguns permitted (7, sort of).


Template: People’s Republic of China. Official Language: Mandarin. Government: Communist state (Oligarchy or Theocracy? C or D?). Weapons Restrictions: No firearms permitted (7).


Template: United Kingdom. Official Language: English. Government: Constitutional monarchy (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: Rifles and shotguns permitted (5).


Template: Republic of India. Official Languages: English, Hindi. Government: Federal republic (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: Rifles, shotguns, handguns and semi-auto assault weapons permitted (3).


Template: State of Japan. Official Language: Japanese. Government: Parliamentary with constitutional monarchy (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: All firearms and swords prohibited (8).


Template: Federal Republic of Nigeria. Official Language: English. Government: Federal republic (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: Rifles and shotguns permitted (5).


Template: Russian Federation. Official Language: Russian. Government: Federation(Oligarchy? 7?). Weapons Restrictions: Rifles and shotguns permitted (5).


Template: Kingdom of Spain. Official Language: Spanish. Government: Parliamentary monarchy (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: Rifles and shotguns permitted (5).


Template: Republic of Turkey. Official Language: Turkish. Government: Republican parliamentary democracy (Republic, 4). Weapons Restrictions: Rifles, shotguns and handguns permitted (4).


All PCs speak English for a reason. It’s an official language for three of the eight basic cultures in SWN, in the case of Nigeria and India because they have literally hundreds of languages and dialects each, and you need some sort of official language.

Not only is the representative democracy the default and most intuitive option for a planetary government, it’s also the commonest type among SWN cultures; except for the PRC and the Russian Federation, all of them have some form of it.

If you have no special plans for a world’s weapons restrictions, you won’t go far wrong by assuming that all firearms are prohibited except for shotguns and hunting rifles, which require a licence, and attract unwelcome attention from local law enforcement in urban areas.