Dark Nebula: God’s Chess

The Dark Nebula campaign should have a war going on in the background during season two, but the obvious solution – play a game of DN, either solo or with a player, and take notes – has a number of problems.

  • It takes a long time. I will run out of patience, and my beloved will want the table back before I’m finished.
  • I want both sides to take tactically sound decisions. I am not confident I can do that, and I have no suitable opponent to hand.
  • The game will bog down in record keeping.
  • It might not generate an ending for the campaign I’m happy with.
  • I want to be able to foreshadow future events.

Using the faction rules from Stars Without Number has similar issues.

Enter Zak’s idea of God’s Chess, from Vornheim, stage left; you overlay a chess board on the campaign map, play a game with another one of the group, and it forms a backdrop to the game. I don’t have the players or the patience to make it work as written, but fortunately, there are thousands of chess games between grand masters available online, with full details and extensive analysis. So…


First, I overlay a square grid on the Dark Nebula map, label the squares in accordance with standard chess notation, and suppress the hex grid for clarity. I align things to put Kuzu and Maadin into E1 and D8 respectively; the Aslan get white (E1) because they move first in DN. It looks like this:


Notice that some squares have no worlds, some have many; some of the empty ones are off-map in DN, but surely there are worlds and military units there, just not ones of interest to the campaign; the Aslan units in G1-H3 and the Solomani ones in G7-G8 can be thought of as being in the production queue, which DN has but chess does not. Where a system lies on the line around a square, I nudge it into the nearest empty one.

Next, I pick a game which looks interesting and has a full write-up; the particular game I’ve chosen, Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa vs Wilhelm Hanstein, Berlin 1840, lasts 33 turns. The Dark Nebula boardgame has six movement phases in a two-year game turn, so the best match is one move every four game months, or a war lasting roughly 11 years for the characters; but the campaign is better served by variable turn durations, so that I can start the chess match and the roleplaying side of things in parallel, and adjust turn duration to suit what the PCs are up to on the fly – a turn in the chess game might be six months while I’m waiting for the right time to start the war with the first exchange of pieces, or a couple of weeks when I want to convey frenetic military action.


The focus for DN is on naval units, so I decide that each piece represents a squadron of warships and support units; pawns are destroyers, knights are light cruisers, bishops are cruisers, rooks are heavy cruisers, queens are battleships, and the king is what Godsfire used to call the National Government counter – the unit representing the side’s high command, leaders and so on. If that is destroyed, faction morale crumbles and they sue for peace.

Ground troops are left behind wherever naval units are placed. This probably represents them offloading from troop transports or merchantmen escorted by the warships, since in the real world it’s unusual for small warships to carry troops on a permanent basis.


Let’s suppose it’s now turn five of the chess game, whatever month that is in the RPG campaign, and white has just captured a black knight at c6, the first chess casualty. Meanwhile, the PCs have just rocked up at Hasara (d5) in their Free Merchant, and want to know what’s going on. I look at the game so far: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Bd6 5. Bc6 dc6. I mentally discard anything that isn’t in, or adjacent to, square d5 as not being relevant to the party.

“Well,” says the GM, “Hasara is still neutral, but as you know the Confederation has had a destroyer squadron on a ‘goodwill visit’ to Salia for some time now, and it doesn’t look like it’s leaving any time soon. What’s more worrying is the news just in from Simba; Confed had a light cruiser squadron there, and the Hierate cruisers that invaded Ria a few months ago went barrelling through Hasara, Tangga and Mizah and attacked it. While that was going on, some Confed destroyers from the base at Icat arrived and counterattacked. The upshot is that the Hierate and the Confederation are now at war, and Simba is full of wreckage and Confed destroyers. People on Hasara are scared, because any attack on the Confederation or the Hierate has to go through them, so the logical next move for both sides is to invade here and secure their transit route. There are rumours about stealthed scoutships from both sides inserting special forces troops, and anyone who can is packing to leave, but nobody wants to risk saboteurs so it’s hard to find passage offworld. What do you want to do?”

I think that works rather well, don’t you? All the depth of a sandbox, almost none of the work.

Dark Nebula: World Statistics

I’ve tried previously to create worlds in this setting with statistics compatible across multiple game systems – Traveller, Stars Without Number, Savage Worlds and 2300AD – and that rapidly became too much work for me. So, I’ll pick one and stick to it, namely Stars Without Number; because of all the games I know with world generation rules, that’s the one which gets you from dice rolls to playable adventures in the shortest time with the least effort.

The Dark Nebula map has 9 primary systems including the two capitals, 34 secondary and 9 tertiary. For purposes of fleshing them out, I’ll discard the tertiary systems, as they have no planets; that leaves me with 41 planets to work out.

The primary systems have naturally habitable worlds, which in Stars Without Number means they rolled 5-9 on 2d6 for atmosphere (breathable mix), 4-10 for temperature (cold, temperate or warm) and 6-8 for biosphere (miscible); the chance of getting all three right is about 25%, which is actually about right for the Nebula if we ignore the tertiary systems.  (The optional rule to create a sector with mostly uninhabitable worlds, i.e. rerolling atmospheres or temperatures of 5-9, drops that chance to about 11%; neither option fits if we include tertiary systems, which gives us 17% habitable planets.)

Primary worlds must all have breathable atmospheres and miscible biospheres; that only leaves temperature as a variable, and statistically out of 9 of them I should expect there to be two cold, five temperate, and two warm; it seems sensible to me that the capital worlds (Kuzu and Maadin) and the campaign base world (Mizah) should be the most habitable, so they get temperate – you’ll see how the rest shape up in later posts.

On previous outings in the Nebula, I have tried numerous different ways of deriving the stats for secondary worlds from the map, but it never really worked; so this time they will be random, except that I will reroll as necessary to ensure that they are not naturally habitable, since the map has enough such worlds already .

My initial guess as to populations, now about 4-5 years old, still holds up statistically; out of 41 systems, we should have roughly two with billions of inhabitants (definitely Maadin and probably Kuzu), eight with millions (there are seven primary worlds if you don’t count capitals), and one alien civilisation (which might be Kuzu or Gazzain, depending which of my origin stories for the rakashans I decide to go with – but I don’t need to decide that just yet). That leaves the secondary worlds; there should be roughly one failed colony, two outposts, eight with tens of thousands of inhabitants, and 18 with hundreds of thousands. My usual approach here is to allocate populations based on the number of jump routes a system has; specifically, I look back to Classic Traveller and assign Capital worlds population level 9 (billions) to justify their status as Regional Hegemons, Tertiary worlds population zero, and Primary or Secondary worlds a population level of the number of charted jump routes plus one, with a +2 modifier for Primary systems. Thus, Hasara (a Secondary system with two routes) has population 3, and Mizah (a Primary system with five routes) has population level 8. I then convert that to SWN populations; levels 1-3 are either Outposts or Failed Colonies, 4 is tens of thousands, 5 is hundreds of thousands, 6-8 are millions, and 9 is billions. A bit statistically skewed, but it gives me a range and distribution of populations that I like. The implication of the SWN rules is that no population below 10,000 is self-sustaining, so each outpost is a base belonging to the nearest primary system.

Tech levels are easy to allocate at the top end, less so lower down; the two capitals get TL 5, a couple of the primary ones get 4+ and the rest 4 (because in the boardgame any of them might have starships); and I’ll dice for the rest, rerolling any results of 4+ or 5. I think anything down to TL 3 (20th century technology) should be able to perform frontier maintenance on a starship, but the starports on less-advanced planets have been set up for a reason, either by the local government or the nearest primary or capital world – that has implications for the political situation.

Planetary governments will each be a faction; the capitals are Regional Hegemons, outposts are Colony Worlds, and other primary and secondary planets have a Backwater Planet faction as their government. Most of these will never come into play, and are there just in case the PCs bump heads with them or ask awkward questions; every time one of Hegemons invades a planet, a Rebel Freedom Fighter faction will spring up there, and there will be a couple of other active interstellar factions, but more on those later as I develop their home worlds.

This leaves most of a world’s individuality coming from its tags; I have often considered dropping everything else and just using those, and I think that would work just fine.

Dark Nebula: Pilot and Season Outlines

To recap, since I have some players who like a story arc and some who like a sandbox, I’m building an arc in a sandbox. I’m also imagining this campaign as a space opera TV show, so mentally I have split it into a pilot episode and three seasons.

In line with the TV show theme, each adventure (or episode) will have:

  • A plotline which will be resolved during the session. This enables any player to take part in a story whether or not they attended the previous session. (Initially I can generate those randomly, using the adventure seed table and other GM resources in Stars Without Number, but as the series continuity becomes more established adventure ideas will emerge from the activities of the PCs and the Factions.)
  • A season arc which runs the length of the season and embroiders on its key conflict. Some individual sessions are entirely devoted to season arc elements; the authors of Savage Worlds call those “plot points”. Those players who like that sort of thing can put the clues together and work out whodunnit and why.
  • An overall campaign arc. This doesn’t need much development yet, but occasional episodes should foreshadow the coming war with the Hierate and the greater conflict to come with the Sealed Menace.

Since this is an RPG rather than an actual TV show, we can let the experience rules take care of character development, and let the players get attached to NPCs as the mood takes them, rather than trying to force it. Since I want to be able to write up sessions without infringing copyright or posting spoilers, all adventures will be specifically created for this campaign.


The pilot episode introduces the players to the setting and some key NPCs, and allows the PCs to settle into their roles in the team. I find it useful to imagine which actors or actresses would play the NPCs in a movie of the adventure, and those are shown in parentheses below, after the NPCs’ names.

Enter Torun Balkan (played by a young Alan Rickman), merchant prince in need of catspaws, who has acquired a Mandate stasis pod and needs the codes to open it. He has reason to believe that the codes are held by the Archive of Mizah, in a section of the Archive controlled by Adept Aytuna Durak (Rachel Weisz). He is also looking for a crew for one of his ships, and thinks that this would be a good test of their abilities (which he would prefer to be high) and their morals (which he would prefer to be flexible). What’s in the pod? That is not the PCs’ concern, Torun will inform them. What is their concern is that he will pay them 500 credits each to acquire the codes for him, and the less he knows about how they do that, the happier he will be.

The PCs also need to be introduced to the other major factions in play, represented by Sertac Bayram (Peter Firth), assistant cultural attache at the Embassy of Maadin and not any kind of spy at all, oh dear me no; and Lord Mareecha (which actor plays him doesn’t matter, he’s in a lion suit), a rakashan noble of the Aslanic Hierate.

That’s all I need for now, other than a list of names for any NPCs who might be encountered unexpectedly. I can get those here.

Should the group succeed, Torun will pay them, enlist them in his entourage and use them for suicide missions in a heavily-insured tramp freighter, to be considered in a later post. If they succeed in these missions he will be paid handsomely, and if they fail, he can console himself with the insurance money; during periods when he has nothing specific for them to do, Torun expects them to trade on their own initiative and make lots of money for him. Most of the time, I expect those players who prefer sandboxes to drive the PCs’ actions, but if the players’ inspiration fails, in steps Torun Balkan with another suicide mission for them, so I always need at least one of those in my back pocket.


I could be into season one as early as two sessions from now, so I need at least a rough idea of how it will go. What, then, is the key conflict to resolve in season one? I think it’s the question of who controls Mizah by the end of the season.

  • The Preceptor Archive and the Phoenix Party are the incumbents. They are liberal humanitarians, with a vision of the peace and prosperity that could be, but this is unlikely to survive the wars with the Hierate in season two and with the dark menace in season three. If they win, Mizah will remain independent, at least for the time being, and continue its journey towards becoming the utopian planet of crystal spires and togas.
  • The Combine and the Free Trade Party want unfettered access to military technology securely stored in the Archive, to sell it offworld – arms for the sake of the profit. If the Archive has hidden maltech secrets as well, they’ll want to sell those too, regardless of the consequences; it’s tempting to make that the case, with the maltech somehow related to the hidden menace. If they win, Mizah will begin a slide towards cyberpunk dystopia.
  • The Hierate wants to gain control of Mizah and use it as a forward base in the inevitable war with the Confederation. Its transport fleet and mercenary troops would also be handy. The Hierate holds the Archive in contempt as they are weaklings, and the Combine as it is without honour; but they may be of some temporary use. If they win, Mizah will be conquered and enslaved by the Hierate at some later point.
  • The Confederation wants to deny the Hierate control of Mizah, and boost its fleets and armies with Mizah’s ships and troops; it would prefer to do this by making Mizah a Confed member state. If they win, Mizah will become a client state, inexorably trading more and more of its independence for security.

Hopefully, the PCs will look back from the end of season three and see what impact their decisions had. I think that would be cool, and very satisfying.


Season two will deal with the PCs’ induction into a deniable covert ops unit known as Deep Black (a name shamelessly stolen from SWN), their missions, and their gradual realisation that the Sealed Menace exists and must be dealt with. This is at least two years’ gaming away, so I don’t need any more detail yet.


Season three is about dealing with the Sealed Menace, and is at least three years away in real time, so it’s not a good use of time or effort to flesh it out yet.


I know the group will start on Mizah, and after that it could decide to stay put or go to any one of five neighbouring worlds, so my next activities should be to detail those five worlds (with an adventure for each, plus a spare one for Mizah, plus one for Torun to hand them if they can’t think of anything), and the PCs’ ship.

Whether those are the inspirations that strike me next remains to be seen.

Dark Nebula: Mizah

Atmosphere: Breathable. Temperature: Temperate. Biosphere: Miscible. Population: 347 million. Tech Level: 4+ (starships). Tags: Preceptor Archive, Trade Hub.

As a naturally habitable world with good connections to neighbouring systems, Mizah was colonised early on and quickly developed into a bustling trade hub. Its strategic location also made it the obvious place for the Preceptors to build the sector’s principal Archive. In the aftermath of the Scream, the planetary government and the Archive worked together to save Mizah’s population, successfully for the most part, creating a bond between the two which endures to this day. As Mizah returned to space a century ago, the Archive saw it as its duty to share its knowledge freely with survivors elsewhere; but roughly 50 years ago, a breakaway faction decided it would be more appropriate to sell technology and training rather than give it away. The initial intention was to plough the money back into the Archive, but the initiative quickly evolved into a mercantile combine focussed on its own profits and interests. This tension underpins contemporary politics on Mizah; the centre-left Phoenix Party has been in power for over a century, is closely aligned with the Archive, and is a staunch proponent of foreign aid; the right-wing Free Trade Party is funded by commercial interests and is effectively a front for a star-spanning mercantile Combine based at Mizah. With the Archive’s scoutships freely dispensing medical aid and other peaceful technologies, the Combine tends to sell military hardware and provide mercenaries to advise on its use, or in more extreme cases, use it on behalf of local rulers.

The political situation is further complicated by the presence of emissaries from both the Solomani Confederation and the Aslanic Hierate; Mizah is  the wealthiest and most advanced planet in the sector outside of those two pocket empires, and while its shipyards produce vessels in small numbers, their quality is outstanding. Mizah would be a valuable ally for either of the major interstellar factions.

Mizah’s population is principally descended from Turkish colonists of the Terran Mandate, and this is reflected in local language and religion, which are respectively Turkish and Islam. Dress follows the English fashion for men, but is more varied for women, ranging from English to Arabic styles, with many compromising on a combination of a light overcoat and a headscarf.

The spacefarer is most likely to visit Erdemir Spaceport or the nearby capital city of Zonguldak, and in particular its Charsi District, where ship crews and adventurers congregate from across the sector; in this district, the most commonly-heard language is English, which was formerly the language of rule, trade, and traffic control throughout the Terran Mandate, and whose speakers form a sort of semi-itinerant subculture like historical Gypsies or Sephardic Jews across the sector.


The Dark Nebula campaign will begin on Mizah, and later it will remain the PCs’ base and homeworld, so it needs to be the first world worked out, and the most fully detailed. In boardgame terms, I assign it two independent troop counters, available for hire as mercenaries by either the Hierate or the Confederation; a transport and some jump troops – those are the ones I think I’ll have the most fun with. For the broader history of the setting, I’ll use the unmodified background chronology from Stars Without Number, purely to minimise the number of source files I need to lug around on my tablet.

The campaign base world needs to be at once familiar, so the PCs can jump straight into the action, and strange, so the players understand that they’re not in Kansas any more. Making the home world essentially Earthlike addresses the familiarity, and I ease them into the strangeness by using a largely human population, but with a culture that is not the contemporary Western one they’ve grown up in. Time enough for the truly bizarre when they have settled in to their characters.

As the base world, it’s too important to have random statistics, so I assign them; most are mandated by Mizah’s status as a naturally habitable primary system. The Preceptor Archive and its offworld activities arose from my nostalgia for Classic Traveller’s scout service, and the Trade Hub ensures a cosmopolitan culture which tolerates unusual PCs, say aliens. The idea of English speakers as a semi-nomadic underclass arises from the facts that all PCs in SWN speak English, but there are almost no obviously English-derived world names on the map; in play, it serves to bind the PCs together as they are part of an ethnic minority.

The government is a representative democracy; as ever, this isn’t about whether that is the best or most likely type of government, it’s about what will be instinctively familiar to the players – we can introduce stranger governments later on, but to begin with we want to go straight into the action without having to explain how the government works first.

A representative democracy requires at least two parties, and I’ve tied those in to the tags – that was a new idea for me, but it has worked well, so I plan to use it again. Right from the start the PCs will be introduced to four factions: A Backwater Planet faction acting as the planetary government, a Mercantile Combine, and the two Regional Hegemons. The Backwater Planet faction is aligned with the Phoenix Party and the Preceptor Archive, while the Mercantile Combine effectively is the Free Trade Party. The Confederation and the Hierate, both Regional Hegemons, each try to influence both the Phoenix and Free Trade parties to support them; they would prefer Mizah to be controlled by the FTP, which would simply sell them what they want – transport ships, mercenaries, and rights to naval bases.

Erdemir and Zonguldak are actual Turkish cities, and Charsi means “market”. If I were writing this for publication, I’d expand SWN’s GM resources to include Turkish names, clothing and cuisine, but for the moment that’s not necessary; I’ll simply draw on my memories of Turkey and the online name generator here.

Dark Nebula: The Palette

Before I get too engrossed in the setting, there is something even more important, and that is the palette – what races, edges, and rules are in play?


Here, I’m sticking as closely as possible to the core rules of Savage Worlds, to keep the learning curve as short and shallow as possible. Over the last year or so I’ve used SW Deluxe rulebooks as presents on suitable occasions, and the core rules of Stars Without Number are free to download, so all the players have access to the rules, and those so minded can easily gain access to the relevant background information, found on pages 5 and 71-77 of SWN.

For character generation, players need to know the following:

  • Available Races: Human (the default), androids, rakashans, saurians. The rakashan racial enemy is humans; partly this explains the coming war, and partly the only two playable races essential to the campaign are humanity and the Proud Warrior Race, which I have designated as the rakashans for this game.
  • Available Arcane Backgrounds: Psionics.
  • Setting Rules: Multiple Languages. This is a setting where languages are important, but not so important that I want to tie up skill points for them; and this approach is also in line with how Stars Without Number handles languages.


Primarily, I need to know where the join is between Dark Nebula, SW and SWN. The key to a successful mashup is to pick which game system characters use, and then avoid anything from the other games which affects characters.

For example, both SW and SWN have rules for starship combat, and that definitely involves characters. I have three options; avoid ship combat entirely, use SW and the Sci-Fi Companion, or use SWN. I can use the first one for a while, but eventually there will be a chase or a dogfight, so I can’t put the choice off forever; if I choose SWN, I have to integrate SW skills into SWN, and if I choose SW/SFC, I have to address what levels of hyperdrive exist – SFC ships either have hyperdrive or they don’t, while SWN ones have one of six different grades with different capabilities for both travel and combat.

A review of the various games I’m using for this particular gallimaufry leads me to these conclusions:

  • DN’s contribution is limited to the map and a few snippets of background information.
  • SW is used for characters and gear, the SW SFC for vehicles and more gear – the additional character rules are ignored to minimise the learning curve for the players. I will also ignore the SFC World Maker as the SWN world generation rules are better suited to this particular campaign.
  • Starships will use the SFC, which is already integrated into SW. Ships can only move along the routes indicated on the map, but any ship can move any number of hexes. Knowing this is not essential immediately, but will save me time later when the players ask about their ship’s capabilities, probably in the middle of a chase or dogfight.
  • SWN provides rules-agnostic background, and the World Generation and Factions rules, which don’t interact with characters mechanically, serving only to flesh out background. These are also the parts of SWN which are most useful to the GM, taking you from dice rolls to a playable adventures more quickly and easily than any other sandbox system I know. Now, strictly the Factions rules interact with how hyperdrive works, because some faction units have any implied spike drive rating; but the players don’t need to know that as it all happens where they can’t see it.

I also note the following points:

  • I find interstellar trade boring, so we will not use the trading rules from either game. Trade is why the characters are travelling, and no doubt they spend hours doing it, but as in Daring Tales of the Space Lanes, that all happens off-camera and generates exactly enough money to offset their costs; they get financial and other rewards by adventuring, not from a few lucky dice rolls on a trading table.
  • I also find Knowledge (Astrogation) rolls and variable trip time an unnecessary complication, so all hyperspace jumps succeed and take one week. This means the Knowledge (Astrogation) skill is not necessary, which is just as well as it isn’t in the core rulebook. However, I’ll adopt the rule used by several other games that a hyperspace jump can’t be made close to a planet, so that we can have Chases.

Notice that by this stage, pretty much all ship stats are irrelevant; so long as I’m willing to make up Toughness and weapon damage when I need it for combat, I don’t actually need the SFC in play. That means that I only need SW and my setting notes during play, and SWN between sessions to generate background and adventures.

That settled, and the key points disseminated to the players, I return to detailing the setting, starting with their base world and the pilot episode – those are, after all, what they will see first.

Dark Nebula: The Starmap

There are two things I spend far too much time agonising over in SF campaigns; the starmap, and the world names. I’m shooting those particular hostages by grabbing the starmap from GDW’s old boardgame Dark Nebula, because as Andrew Finch said in D&D 4th Edition, the DM’s job is to entertain, not to be original – and all the games companies involved have an enlightened attitude to seeing their games referenced in blogs (thanks, guys!). So without further ado…


As usual, I laid the map out so the hex  numbers on the map tiles were aligned, then collapsed it to one parsec per hex and rotated it so the Solomani Confederation is at the top right (which suits Classic Traveller canon better). I also removed the junior partners in double star systems, because experience roleplaying on this map both with and without them has shown me they are an unnecessary distraction.

Notice that it’s the size of two standard Traveller subsectors, or Stars Without Number sectors, placed side by side. Notice also that it has a number of routes leading off-map, which will come in handy if I need to expand the campaign, link it with another game, or run a one-off game with a disposable star system.


Solid green lines represent known jump routes, dotted ones represent unexplored jump routes – in my take on the setting, they are routes predicted by hyperspace theory which for some unknown reason do not exist. The map is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space, so star systems which appear adjacent may be too far apart vertically for a jump route to exist.

Star systems are represented by coloured dots; red ones are capital systems, blue ones are primary, orange are secondary, and grey are tertiary. Read on to learn what that means; note that capital systems are essentially primary ones with greater political importance.


Here’s a summary of the Nebula’s system types, and what we know of them from the boardgame:

Primary systems, including the two capitals, have naturally habitable worlds. These are inhabited, and have good quality spaceports which can provide fuel and starship maintenance. They always have good planetary defences, and may also have some sort of starfaring military capability – troops, military spacecraft, or transports. They provide the owning player with 4 Resource Units per turn.

Secondary systems are inhabited, but their worlds are not naturally habitable. They have average quality spaceports, which can provide fuel and can maintain spacecraft but not FTL drives. They have average planetary defences, but cannot project power into other star systems. They are worth one RU per turn to their owner.

Tertiary systems have no planets, no inhabitants, no starports, and are worthless to their owner except as defensive choke points.


This is a well-trodden path for me, so I’ll pick the pace up further and post daily next week. I promise there will be new ideas as well as recycled ones!

Dark Nebula Returns from the Grave

“In the far future, the [human group] fights a pitched battle against the mighty [alien name] Empire, but deep in the mysterious [region of space], among the ruins of the past, a darker threat looms.” – TV Tropes, Standard Sci-Fi Setting

Love that quote. I’ve used it before, will no doubt use it again, and make no apology for it. The Dark Nebula is back; it happened like this…


The core players of the old Shadows of Keron group approached me recently about doing some roleplaying over the summer, and of course I said yes – I’m very pleased that they want to carry on playing, despite everything else that’s going on.

We quickly settled on space opera as the genre and Savage Worlds as the rulebook (although Classic Traveller came a close second); and there was a specific request for Stars Without Number as the setting. When we discussed who the PCs are and what they do, there was wild enthusiasm for the misfit crew of an over-insured, leaky freighter on suicide missions, which regular readers will recognise as the premise of Bulldogs! (There was, in fact, actual jumping in the air and shouts of “Yes! Suicide missions!” from the ladies. Truly, the female of the species is more deadly than the male.)

So much for me swearing off mashups and purging them from the blog. Still, it’ll work, it’ll be fun, and as always, I care more about who I play with than what we play.


Using SWN as the setting will save me a lot of time, but I still need to think about the overall campaign framework. This needs to be strange enough that it feels like sci fi rather than the present day with FTL drives, but familiar enough to be accessible to infrequent players with a lot else on their minds, and one does this with the careful use of tropes.

Guided by the Zhodani Base and the Standard Sci Fi Setting, I select the following as the palette for this flight:

  • Two rival states, both intent on controlling the campaign’s region of space (note that they don’t necessarily need a permanent presence in it). In line with tradition, one of these will be a human-dominated Federation, and the other will be an alien Empire ruled by a Proud Warrior Race.
  • A sealed menace imprisoned in an isolated area by the Ancients/Forerunners/Precursors. Stereotypically, humanity and the Proud Warrior Race are at war, but join forces to suppress the menace (usually killer robots) once it is unleashed.
  • Lots of backwater planets dripping with adventure hooks, where PCs can frolic unencumbered by the rule of law.
  • Somewhere that feels like home. This is often an idyllic planet, not part of either rival state but coveted by both, where the Hero’s Journey begins; however, in the TV shows I’m trying to emulate, it’s more often the characters’ starship. That way you don’t have to detail anyone’s homeworld, and the constant travel keeps the game fresh by allowing you to use different NPCs every session; less work, more flexibility.

The players are divided between those who prefer sandbox play and those who prefer a scripted story arc, so I need an arc in a sandbox – and if the players abandon it and gambol off into the wilds on their own recognisance, so much the better. The most obvious arc looks like this; at  (say) 20 episodes per season, the PCs will be just over the border into Legendary Rank at the end of season three.

  • Pilot: Introduces the PCs, their ship, and key elements of the background. Normally, I wouldn’t flesh out the rest of the setting until we’d played this and I was sure the group were interested in continuing with the campaign. (In a published game this is the obligatory introductory scenario.)
  • Season One – Backwater Planet Adventures. The PCs roam through campaign space and get to know key people and places; adventures develop their characters and foreshadow events in later seasons. The season finale features the outbreak of war between the Federation and the Empire.
  • Season Two – War with the Empire. Humanity and the Proud Warrior Race go to war; adventures shift from picaresque roguishness to a military story arc, and the PCs become the Federation’s go-to black ops team. The climax of the season deals with the Sealed Menace escaping and being discovered by the players.
  • Season Three – Into the [Mysterious Region of Space]. The PCs form a coalition of the Proud Warrior Race and humanity to defeat the Sealed Menace. Roll credits. Prepare new setting, because once you’ve thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, everything else is an anticlimax.

You’ll notice that so far, the campaign could use almost any SF RPG or setting; it’s pretty much the default space opera plot from Gray Lensman to Mass Effect.

However, that is about to change, because one of the key elements of any SF setting is how FTL drive works, and there is a chasm between the camps, driven by one question: Is there a starmap?


Having a starmap has pros and cons, and different games have different stances on the question. The Savage Worlds Sci-Fi Companion advocates being able to hyperjump from anywhere to anywhere, which is how things work in the TV shows Andromeda (with a ship) and Stargate SG-1 (without a ship). The Last Parsec has a network of nav beacons like Babylon 5 or Star Wars; you’re either on the net and easily accessible, or off it and isolated. Ashen Stars, like Mass Effect, has regions in which travel is fast and easy, connected by trunk routes and separated by regions which are slower and more difficult to traverse. Old School SF RPGs like Traveller and SWN have more traditional maps, in which space is de facto an ocean, with trade routes and defensible choke points.

The question is, which is better for your specific campaign?

  • No map at all is very little effort for the GM, and places almost no constraints on the campaign, but poses questions about trade and warfare for which I have neither ready answers nor historical analogues. If your group is following a story arc, this is the best option, because it doesn’t matter what’s on either side of the railroad, they’re never going to go there; so there’s no point putting any work into it. The GM’s effort in this kind of game is focussed on writing adventures.
  • A full-on starmap is the opposite; quite a bit of effort to set up and detail, and places many constraints on who can go where. Trade and military operations follow familiar thought patterns. If your group prefers a sandbox, this is better, because their decisions on which route to take matter. In this kind of game, the GM’s effort is spent mostly on the setting, because the players decide what the plotline is.
  • A regions-plus-trunk-routes map or a network of nav beacons lets the GM turn easy travel on or off like a light, according to the needs of the scenario, and is midway between the two extremes. Maybe next time.

As you may have guessed from the title, I’m going with the map from the old Dark Nebula boardgame, partly because I can recycle previously-culled posts and hit the ground running, and partly because it’s an excellent fit for the Standard Sci-Fi Setting. I will adjust things for lessons learned, but I won’t purge the Nebula again – at worst it will languish in the Tryouts category.

So, next up, the map… This is a well-worn path for me, so post frequency will increase for a while as I blitz the setting to get to a playable game.