Dark Nebula: Savage Worlds Edition

Over the next few weeks I’m going to flesh out the worlds of the Dark Nebula in high-level game terms for several game systems.

Yes, I know I don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t because it distracts me from the storyline; but this, too, is an enjoyable solo gaming activity, in its own way.

Let’s start with Savage Worlds and the Science Fiction Companion’s World Maker. As usual, I’ll extract whatever I can from the map. Also as usual, Savage Worlds plays fast and loose with everything, so it’s the easiest one to do.

GRAVITY, DOMINANT TERRAIN, ATMOSPHERE

These are the hardest parts to derive from the map. We already know that tertiary systems have no planets, so we can ignore those – there’s nothing to describe.

Primary systems are naturally habitable, so they can’t have zero gravity, super-heavy gravity, an artificial habitat or atmospheres rated as "none" or "hazardous". Secondary systems are not naturally habitable, so they must have at least one of those things.

Without detailed explanations of (for example) what super-heavy gravity actually is, I can’t really justify those rulings except by saying I’ve been immersed in SF in all its forms for over 40 years, and those feel right to me; but your mileage may vary.

POPULATION DENSITY

Population density is completely and deliberately decoupled from population level, so there is no conflict with other rules. This is an example of the bottom-up, party-level focus of Savage Worlds; the PCs don’t know, and don’t care, how many people are on the planet as a whole, but can take a guess at how many there are in blaster range, or what the chances are of somebody responding to their distress flare.

I did spend quite a lot of time working population density levels out in detail from UN statistics, historical records and planetary surface area, but let me save you the effort; cities and orbital stations are Extremely Dense at any technology level, and anywhere else is whatever you feel like.

DOMINANT GOVERNMENT, DOMINANT LAW, CUSTOMS

I can extract all of these from real-world knowledge, using the language the world is named in to look up a contemporary culture. For example, Mizah having a Turkish culture, I can effortlessly declare the government a Republic, the law level Strict, and the custom "significant clothing for females", since in real life many, but by no means all, choose to wear the tesettür, a headscarf and light topcoat.

TECHNOLOGY LEVEL

Here, I assign Primary worlds Average (the baseline), Capital worlds Above Average (because they build bigger, nastier warships), Secondary worlds Below Average (because Secondary), and Tertiary worlds (or Secondary ones in the Nebula) don’t have technology.

For Bulan, I have to do one of three things: Assign it Ultra Tech (because the neutral counter draw gave it grav tanks), downgrade its armoured brigade to hovertanks, or say that in this campaign grav technology is Average, not Ultra Tech; but I don’t have to decide that yet.

SPACEPORT

Since the Sci-Fi Companion specifies how many ships a port can handle, I can compare that to "aircraft movements" at contemporary airports so that I know how to describe them to players; I assume that the maximum traffic volume per day (half the aircraft movements) is the same as the number of ships handled. Since no other system I am looking at does that, there is no clash between rules sets.

System Spaceport Ships Example
Tertiary None None No airport.
Secondary Basic Tens Stornoway
Primary Small Hundreds Stansted
Capital Large Thousands Heathrow

Update 8th February: Table corrected as per comments from Jim C – thanks Jim!

Nothing on the map deserves an Extensive spaceport, which would be like Chicago O’Hare on acid, with a large side of fries and unlimited coffee refills.

Job done, and so easy to remember I don’t need to mark it on the map. I might even steal terminal maps from the airport websites.

Next up: Traveller…

Deserving of a Wider Audience

We’re looking for a planet with atmosphere
Where the air is fresh and the water clear
With lots of sun like you have here
Three or four hundred days a year
We’re humans from earth
We’re humans from earth
You have nothing at all to fear
I think we’re gonna like it here.
- T Bone Burnett, Humans From Earth

In a comment on my recent post about world types, Anzon said: “Maybe Evil Dr Ganymede’s Frozen type of  world is what you want. Some neat stuff there if you don’t mind the distraction.

Well, I will admit to having been distracted for a few days over Christmas and New Year looking into worldbuilding in more detail than was strictly necessary. I’ll come back to 2300AD and why I chose it for the Dark Nebula’s world types (but not for other things) in due course.

The Lair of Evil Dr Ganymede

The Evil Dr Ganymede took the 2300AD world generation system to pieces and rebuilt it over a series of articles:

  • Part 1: In which the Evil Doctor investigates the Rules As Written and finds them wanting.
  • Part 2: In which he corrects those discrepancies, producing a more realistic system.
  • Part 3: The final version, with examples and comparative pie charts.

Very classy stuff. He also rewrote the star map based on more recent data, as 2300AD was based on the best data the designers could get at – Gliese 3 – but over the last 30-odd years we’ve found out quite a bit more. Sadly, while 2300AD world generation stands up pretty well even today, it turns out the stars are largely in the wrong places. Oh, well, never mind.

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog

The Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo maintains this catalogue; there are now over 2,000 known extrasolar planets, but actually the way they are split up is close to 2300AD’s world types. Worlds are classified by size (Asteroidan, Mercurian, Subterran, Terran, Superterran, Neptunian, Jovian) and temperature (Hot, Warm, Cold – basically closer to the star than the life zone, in the life zone, or further away). So a Garden world would be a Warm Terran, a Failed Core would probably be a Cold Mercurian, and so forth.

They even have Class M planets, which I honestly thought were limited to Star Trek. Maybe the astronomers coming up with the scheme were Trekkies; that happens sometimes.

Old School

Despite the advances in understanding over the last half century, I maintain that the best one-volume introduction to the topic is still Habitable Planets for Man by Dr Stephen H Dole; but there are a ton of alternatives. Google, and ye shall find.

Shepherd, Episode 4: Simba

Greg now jumps from Mizah to Simba, carrying Egemen Kaptan, his mysterious messages, and 5 units of timber. After 1d6 = 1 minute, he rolls a critical failure on his Astrogation check, spends a benny to reroll, and gets a success with two raises, reducing flight time to one day with a lucky roll. I draw a three of clubs for the encounter, so there isn’t one.

Simba’s surface starport is called Peponi, which they tell me means "paradise", so I can only assume they were being sarcastic. Simba is technically habitable, but paradise it is not. We came in through showers of carbon dioxide snow and 50 metre per second katabatic crosswinds off the North Plateau, driven by one point three gees of surface gravity. Atmospheric pressure is likewise one point three standard, but the low oxygen content leaves you with headaches and assorted other minor symptoms until you acclimatise, which takes about a week. You need a full-face mask, an oxygen supply and serious foul-weather gear to go outside.

I had no real interest in landing; secondary systems have planets that are too big, too small, too hot or too cold to be habitable, which means even if you do land, you’re still basically inside a space station, you’ve just used more delta-V to dock. Egemen insisted, though, because Tunaydin had gone down to the surface in a dropship to examine what she had logged with traffic control as "a site of scientific interest".

Greg unloads his five units of Timber for $12,000, and in anticipation of a return trip to Mizah, buys five units of Fuel for $7,500. He decides not to top up the fuel tank just yet, as he still has 24 days left. Then, we descend to the surface, which given what Simba is like, I shall treat as a Dramatic Task (SWDEE pp.96-97) using Piloting. A dramatic task is a sequence of trait rolls (at -2) in each of five consecutive combat rounds; the character needs to get five successes, and each club drawn for initiative introduces a complication. It seems reasonable that the ship’s AI can assist using the Cooperative Rolls rule on p. 71, so we’ll do that; as it’s effectively an NPC under Greg’s control, it acts on his initiative card. Greg has Piloting d10, +2 (for the Ace Edge) -2 (for the dramatic task), and a wild die. The AI has Piloting d10.

Turn 1: King of Hearts. The AI rolls 1d10-2=5, a success; this adds +1 to Greg’s die roll. He rolls 1d10+2-2+1=5 (the wild die is 1d6+2-2+1=4), and garners one success of the five he needs. So far, so good.

Turn 2: Jack of Clubs. Oops, a complication. This gives another -2 modifer to the roll – no doubt a sudden gust of crosswind. The AI rolls 1d10-4=5, giving Greg another +1. Greg rolls a modified 3 on his trait die and a modified 1 on his wild die; since failure means the worst possible outcome for the task, crashing into a glacier miles from anywhere, Greg spends a benny to reroll and this time gets a 7 on the Piloting die and a 9 on the wild die; he chooses the roll from the wild die and adds two more to his tally (one for the success, one for the raise) and now has three of the five points he needs.

Turn 3: 10 of Hearts. The AI rolls a modified 9, giving Greg +2; he rolls 8 on the Piloting die and 7 on the wild die after modifiers, cranking him up to a total of five points and ending the task early.

Despite the planet’s best efforts, including hailstones the size of my head and crosswinds gusting to nearly a hundred metres per second at one point, I managed to get us down in one piece. The spaceport is built into the side of one of the few mountains poking up out of the ice sheets; I was glad when the bay doors to our berth reluctantly opened, and even more glad once they had closed behind us and I could release my death grip on the joystick.

It’s now appropriate to determine just what Egemen’s girlfriend is the renowned authority on, and I don’t need dice rolls for that – the thing that is special about Simba is its proximity to the insectoid raiders, so if she’s come here, that’s the logical thing for her to be expert in. Consequently, what she is investigating must be something to do with them, so I decide that during the last insectoid raid, one of their ships crashed, and she is examining the wreckage.

Has she brought the wreckage inside the starport (Likely)? 78% = No.

The spaceport staff told us Tunaydin had gone out to investigate a crashed insectoid raider, so while Egemen haggled with them over the rental on a crawler, I powered the Joker down to minimum. It looked like we were going outside…

Neither Egemen nor Greg has Driving, so Egemen will also hire a driver. A little Googling gives me a viable name, Abeid, and I roll 1d20=11 for his personality; Crude.

EXPERIENCE

While I never bothered with experience for Arion, Greg can have some; let’s be honest, he needs a better Astrogation skill than he has, and I’m also keen to boost his Piloting to improve his chances of surviving space combat. But how experience much is fair?

In a normal game session, I’d get through about three scenes ("encounters" in D&D parlance) and award characters two experience each. Let’s call that one experience every other scene in Greg’s case, since I expect the scenes to be shorter, which conveniently means he gets one advance every 10 scenes.

LIST UPDATES

Characters

  • Greg Shepherd
  • Princess Sofia of Ria (deceased)
  • People’s Republic of Ria
  • Insectoid raiders
  • Solomani Confederation
  • Aslanic Hierate
  • Egemen Kaptan, Happy Corporate Exec
  • Tunaydin Uygun, Egemen’s girlfriend, Creative (and patriotic) Scientist
  • Abeid, Crude crawler driver.

Chaos Factor: Greg is less in control of the situation now, so I increment the chaos factor to 6.

Plot Threads

  • Avoid capture by the PRR
  • Solve the mystery of Sofia’s pocket slate – actually for Greg there is a first step, understand that there is a mystery to solve; so he won’t actively try to close this thread yet, an NPC has to mention it to him first.
  • Take Egemen back to Mizah.
  • New: Visit Tunaydin’s wreck site and learn what she is doing there.

Status at scene end: Fuel 24, Food 23, $114,150, cargo 5 Fuel.

Our driver, Abeid, was foul-mouthed in several languages, kicking and cursing the crawler as he checked the track tension, the heaters, and a dozen other things before we could venture out into the cold. It had taken us twenty minutes to dress in the multi-layered and brightly-coloured cold weather suits from the Joker’s stores. Abeid looked at them, couldn’t decide whether to laugh out loud at their inadequacy or curse us for stupid offworlders, and settled for a derisive snort. We clambered aboard all the same.

"Halahala mti na macho!" he shouted as the garage doors cranked painfully open against the wind. I had a spider from the repair swarm on my shoulder as a commlink relay to the Joker, and after a fraction of a second it thoughtfully translated. "He is warning you about impending danger," said the AI.

I suspect none of us realised then just how much danger we would be in.

Dark Nebula: World Types

I was going to leave world descriptions alone for a while, but some of the worlds wouldn’t listen; they had a clear opinion on what they wanted to be, so eventually I gave in.

However, since I’m managing very nicely with what’s shown on the map, and I don’t want to spend a huge amount of time generating planets, I want to use one- or two-word descriptive tags that I can add to the star map; and after reviewing my collection of SF RPGs, I decided on using the world types from 2300AD, of which there are 11.

World Type Examples
Chunk Ceres
Desert Mars
Failed Core Titan
Gas Giant Jupiter; Bespin in Star Wars.
Garden Earth; almost all fictional planets.
Glacier Snowball Earth, 650 million years ago; Hoth in Star Wars.
Hot House Venus
Iceball Pluto
Post-Garden Moist Greenhouse Earth, 1.1 billion years from now.
Pre-Garden Earth 2.3 billion years ago; LV-426 in Aliens.
Rockball Mercury

Even 30 years after its debut, 2300AD has one of the most complex and realistic world generation systems of any game. Which is fine, but I’m going to skip all that and assign whatever world types I fancy; I can always go back and retrofit the detail underneath them.

Simba, incidentally, wants to be a Glacier, but since that would make it naturally habitable, I’ll have to turn a couple of the dials up to eleven…

Review: Last Parsec Deck Plans and Figure Flats

More goodies from The Last Parsec… in this week’s post, the ship deck plans and figure flats.

I’ll digress from my usual review structure, because for this kind of product content and format are really the same thing, and also figure flats are not things I use much, so it doesn’t seem fair to give them a rating.

There are four deck plans and two sets of flats available; the deck plans are for a dropship, a modular freighter, a pair of pirate ships, and a research vessel. The figure flats are basically the good guys ("Explorers") and the bad guys ("Terrors").

FIGURE FLATS

Let’s look at the figures first. The Explorers pack contains nearly 70 figures suitable for use as PCs or their sidekicks, comprising four constructs, three deaders, three florans, seven male and three female humans, eight insectoids, three kalians, three rakashans, three saurians, four aurax, four yetis, and a serran (which could also work as another female human); many of these use the iconic art from other products in the line, for example the serran is the same artwork as in the SFC itself, and some of them are named, which suggests they are from existing or planned products – I haven’t checked. Additionally there are seven JumpCorp Marines, seven JumpCorp  security troopers, a squad of eight saltarians and their commander, and two armed exploration vehicles. With the exception of the JumpCorp and saltarian troops, who have multiple instances of the same pose, all of the figures are different.

In the Terrors pack, you get six security bots, a shady-looking dude called Kerastus, three librarians, two stringers, nine kragmen and two kragman shamans, eleven each of canyon, desert, forest, mountain and high sethis, three shock mantas, three drakes, two maulers, nine ravagers, nine spitters, one apex (as in apex predator), six arc beetles, one omariss death worm, five mysterious entities and one giant mysterious entity. All except the mysterious entities are from one of the TLP setting books. These being NPC mooks and local fauna rather than heroes, you get only one or two poses per type of being.

Some of the figures are 2D counters, but most are trifold standees; you fold each figure into a three-cornered prism and stand it on end. I always have trouble gluing those together, so I’d probably trim them to front-and-back and put them in some sort of stand. Personally I’d use the silhouette for the back and a colour image for the front, as in some of the games I play, it matters which way figures are facing.

DECK PLANS

The deck plans are provided as poster-sized full-colour images, overlaid with a square grid at the standard Savage Worlds one inch equals six feet (although you could print them at different scales to suit your figures, obviously). Each one would use 12 pages of A4 or Letter size paper to print out.

The dropship is a short-haul vessel, not suitable for long journeys. The internal areas suitable for combat or whatever consist of (fore to aft): A four-person cockpit; a passenger area with seats for 36; a utility section containing an office, a meeting room (or possibly sick bay, it has a bunk bed), a bathroom, and a weird red disk that might be a hatch, or a teleporter, or anything else you fancy; and a large cargo bay full of crates , with a small vehicle for loading and unloading them. It’s not entirely clear how those get in and out, as there are no suitable doors; I presume there’s a ceiling hatch.

The freighter has three deckplans, side by side, which I shall call the bridge, the crew quarters, and the cargo module. Looking at the cover picture and how the stairs are laid out, I’d say the bridge is on top of the crew quarters, and there’s a cargo module behind each one – possibly many cargo modules, much like freight cars in a railway train. The bridge deck has a seven-person control room, a large mess area, an airlock and a stairway leading down; the crew quarters has stairs up to the bridge, one stateroom with a double bed and a workstation, two four-person bunk rooms, a sick bay, a bathroom, and a lounge with a couch, a pool table, and an exercise bike. The cargo module is a boxy affair, full of crates and barrels, with what look like palm-keyed security doors fore and aft. I didn’t like this one at first, but it’s growing on me, because it’s actually many different freighters in one – print out multiple copies and make the ship as big as you like. That would’ve been easier if the decks had been on separate pages, though.

The pirate ship map has two small ships on it, one of which has two decks. The whitish vessel on the left of the poster seems to be some sort of high-performance, short-range craft, possibly a fighter; there are three crew stations and two jump seats. The more sombre craft on the right of the poster has a four-person bridge, bunk room, bathroom and small cargo area on the upper deck, while the lower deck has more cargo space and a sort of ship’s basement with a workbench and a meeting/dining table; the two decks are connected by ladders port and starboard.

The research ship map is another modular one, with two pods and a main ship – it’s not yet clear to me how they connect together, unless maybe the stairs in the pods lead up to the apparent floor hatch in the main section? If so, the ship can probably only have one pod at a time. The pods are a plain cargo pod with a few crates in it, and a spartan passenger pod with a kitchenette, bathroom, workstation and four cramped bedrooms. The ship proper has an expensive-looking bridge with six workstations, two of which are noticeably larger and better-equipped than the others – science stations, perhaps. Aft of that is something that might (or might not) be a sleeping area, with 2-4 things that might (or might not) be beds, depending on how you interpret their shapes. Behind that are four workstation areas, again two have large, expensive-looking displays. The main section of this map is the one I found hardest to interpret, generally what’s what is very clear on all the maps.

REFLECTIONS

The freighter and pirate maps together give you a solid set of multi-purpose, reusable deck plans. The dropship is OK, but less obviously useful in my games – I can only recall needing a dropship deck plan once in nearly 40 years of gamemastering SF RPGs. The research ship has potential, but it’s not immediately obvious how the pieces fit together.

On the figure flats front, these do the job and cover off all the iconic SFC races, with enough variety to differentiate between the PCs and major NPCs, plus a range of mooks and beasts of various sizes for them to face off against.

And on a personal note, I’m pleased I Kickstarted TLP at a high enough level to get all the PDFs. Win.

Shepherd, Episode 3: Egemen Kaptan

Mizah, 037-3015

As I was riding the monorail into town, I felt that I ought to feel guilty, rather than actually feeling guilty. I was having too much fun for that. Weeks of recycled air, imitation sunlight and microwaved frozen meals melted away in the face of sea breezes, real sunlight and fresh food. I expected to be at least a kilogramme heavier by the time I got back. Although I had already pretty much exhausted the possibilities of baklava.

It was 25 klicks from Erdemir Starport to Mizah’s principal city, Zonguldak, through a forest park that teemed with giant beetle-analogues. I knew that spacers, mercenaries, and other travellers congregated in the city’s Charsi District, so I thought I’d fit in best there.

I’m using the Mythic Game Master Emulator here to, well, emulate a GM, since I don’t have one. As this is the first scene of the adventure proper, we need a little setup…

Status at scene start: Fuel 25, Food 25, Cash 92,660, cargo none.

THE LISTS

Although the rules recommend doing the setup first, then the lists, I’ll start with the lists, as they may inform the setup. (Longer term, I intend to use the lists as encounter tables for group play; let’s see how that works for Greg first, though.)

List 1: Characters

The ones already established are:

  • Greg Shepherd
  • Princess Sofia of Ria (deceased)
  • People’s Republic of Ria
  • Insectoid raiders
  • Solomani Confederation
  • Aslanic Hierate

List 2: Chaos Factor

As this is the start of the adventure, the Chaos Factor is 5.

List 2: Plot Threads

  • Avoid capture by the PRR
  • Solve the mystery of Sofia’s pocket slate (Greg doesn’t know it yet, but I have decided that there is important data on that slate, data that people will kill to obtain, and which those people now think Greg has…)

Names

Not strictly a list, but something I will need is names for Turkish-speaking NPCs. As usual, someone else has done the heavy lifting and put it on the internet here. So I’ll grab ten male and ten female names, that should get me through the first session.

  • Males: Ercument Saglik; Ertug Metin; Baser Gul; Tantug Coban; Berker Ozal; Tolunay Gollu; Aytop Sacan; Eren Gokay; Egemen Kaptan; Davut Sabri.
  • Females: Akses Yagci; Erke Seker; Erbil Erdal; Aba Boz; Selin Alabora; Tunaydin Uygun; Pek Koksal; Beren Arikan; Aytug Karadeniz; Ihsan Zeybek.

That makes me think about languages. I’ll go with the Multiple Languages setting rule, giving Greg half his Smarts die type plus one as languages he speaks; Greg has Smarts d6, his name suggests an English-speaking heritage but he was working on a world where the language of rule was Spanish and now he’s on a predominantly Turkish-speaking world, so he speaks English (native), Spanish and Turkish, and has one language currently unallocated – I’ll assign that when it becomes dramatically appropriate. Job done.

THE SETUP

Greg is taking a day off on Mizah, intending to relax a little and then return to trading around the Fastnesses. With nothing specific in mind, I roll a random scene setup; this is treated as a random event, with three d100 rolls. Event Focus: 32 – Introduce a new NPC. Event Meaning: Action 70 – Extravagance. Subject 21 – Messages.

I need more information before I can proceed, so in line with Mythic, I ask a question: Is this person from Mizah? I decide this is "Very Likely" and roll percentile dice, cross-referencing the Chaos Factor (5) and that probability against the dice roll of 63, which falls into the "yes" bracket.

Conveniently, I have 20 names suitable for locals, so I roll 1d20 on that list and get a 9; Egemen Kaptan. For some reason the name itself reminds me of someone I used to know, so I make him a thin, dark fellow with a droopy moustache and curly black hair in his mid-thirties.

Why would a complete stranger want to talk to Greg? Looking at the character sheet, what stands out the most are (a) he has a ship and (b) he’s an ace pilot. So, I’ll ask about a charter first.

  • Does Egemen want to charter Greg’s ship (Likely)? 37% – yes. That’s going to be expensive, so it fulfills the "extravagance" angle.
  • Is that to deliver those messages to a nearby world (Likely)? 4% – extreme yes.

Why hire Greg? Presumably there are other, less expensive options, such as booking passage on a liner. So, the job is either illegal or dangerous.

  • Is this job legal (50/50)? 41% – yes. Then it must be dangerous. The most dangerous system locally is Simba, which stands between Mizah and the insectoid raiders offmap.
  • Does he want to come along (Likely)? 13% – extreme yes.

At this point I need to know how much it will cost to charter the Joker. Going to the next planet and back will take on average two weeks and two jumps, so that’s 26 days of fuel at $600/day and 14 days of food per person – two people so $20/day – plus $5,000 for Greg’s wages for half a month; total, $20,880.

After a morning gawking at the tourist sites, I settled in to a cafe in the Charsi District and used my slate to post my availability for work on the local message boards. I took a small cup of dark, sweet coffee and settled back to watch the world go by; anything that wasn’t ship bulkheads looked good at this point.

A couple of hours, and several coffees and pastries later, a worried-looking guy with curly black hair and a droopy moustache came up to the table. Not in uniform, expensively dressed, and therefore possibly a client. I sat up and straightened my jacket.

"Afferdersiniz," he said. "Bay Shepherd siz misiniz?"

Since he hadn’t approached me in English, I assumed he didn’t speak it, so shifted into Turkish myself and admitted to being Mr Shepherd. Small talk is a big deal on Mizah, so I ordered more coffee, motioned him into a chair, and learned that his name was Egemen Kaptan, that he wasn’t married but did have a girlfriend, and his opinions on the coffee and the weather before we got down to business.

Egemen looks like he’ll be around for a while so he needs a bit more detail; I roll 1d20 for a personality on p. 93 of SWDEE and get 4, Happy. I also assign him the Corporate Exec template from SFC p. 67 in case I need some stats for him in a hurry.

  • Wait a minute, is his girlfriend on Simba (Likely)? 24% – yes. That explains him being so keen to get there in person.
  • Is she also a Corporate Exec (50/50)? 87% – no.
  • A scientist then (Likely)? 11% – extreme yes. Not just any scientist, but the leading authority on something, it doesn’t matter what at this stage. I give her the Scientist template from SFC p. 69 for expediency, plus 1d20 = 16 for a personality on SWDEE p. 93, Creative, and roll 1d10 on my list of female Turkish names to get Tunaydin Uygun.
  • Is she from Mizah (Likely)? 12% – extreme yes. I interpret that as her being a staunch Mizahn nationalist, not directly relevant now but maybe later. It can be her Quirk.

Egemen explained that he had some important messages to deliver to Simba, in person, and that what with insectoids raiding the place and the Confederation military raiding them right back, an ordinary ticket on an ordinary ship was out of the question, so he was looking to charter a ship.

We haggled over the price for a while, but I could see his heart wasn’t in it, so I gave him a small discount and offered to do the job for twenty thousand. I planned on carrying a load of timber in the hold anyway, I’d noticed it had a good markup on the commodity board.

LIST UPDATES

Characters

  • Greg Shepherd
  • Princess Sofia of Ria (deceased)
  • People’s Republic of Ria
  • Insectoid raiders
  • Solomani Confederation
  • Aslanic Hierate
  • Egemen Kaptan, Happy Corporate Exec
  • Tunaydin Uygun, Egemen’s girlfriend, Creative (and patriotic) Scientist

Chaos Factor: Still 5.

Plot Threads

  • Avoid capture by the PRR
  • Solve the mystery of Sofia’s pocket slate – actually for Greg there is a first step, understand that there is a mystery to solve; so he won’t actively try to close this thread yet, an NPC has to mention it to him first.
  • Take Egemen from Mizah to Simba and back.

Status at scene end: Fuel 25, Food 25, Cash 109,650, cargo 5 Timber.

Dark Nebula Adventures

I’d argue that the purpose of a setting is to generate adventure ideas and embed them in a persistent matrix; and for the Dark Nebula, it’s possible to jump right past all the setup and get straight to the adventures. Here’s what I came up with from rereading the rules and memories of past DN games…  The strategic game, based on a chess match, will tell me when and where many of these are triggered.

In the boardgame, both the Confederation and the Hierate have perfect visibility of all production, movement, and combat factors; they can predict who will move next, and sometimes roughly how far, but not where. Given that news and intelligence always travels by ship (a Classic Traveller assumption, also true for Stars Without Number but not necessarily true for Savage Worlds), both sides must have extensive networks of spies and ships rummaging about all over the map, at a level of granularity invisible to the boardgame player, and each side knows that the other is doing this. Espionage and intrigue abound.

Either side persuades neutrals to join them by rocking up insystem with lots of missile factors. However, it’s not going to be as blatant as a curt communicator call saying "Gold, or steel?"; diplomacy abounds, followed in due course by either (a) a transfer of large quantities of money to hire mercenaries or (b) a hail of missile-borne death.

Starships can be immobilised by bad die rolls during frontier maintenance, or exhaust their magazines by using the High Intensity Missile Fire option. Enter the PCs, stage left, in a tramp freighter stuffed with vital spare parts or missile reloads.

Ground combat units don’t suffer from either of those problems, but the quantity of rations, ammunition and other supplies that a reinforced division consumes each day is staggering, more so if it is in combat. Again, that all happens at a level of granularity the boardgame player is not involved in, other than being able to trace an unobstructed route back to a friendly world. More tramp freighters full of goodies, since the Transport counters are not used for this purpose.

Newly-produced units appear magically at any friendly world, with no need for transports. Ships can get there under their own power, but ground units need not be raised from the local population; they could be built up over a two-year strategic turn by small PC-crewed ships ferrying in a squad here, a platoon there.

Blockade running and smuggling occur when a boardgame counter enters a previously unoccupied system and tries to seize control. There are refugees willing to pay handsomely for a ticket offworld; valuables and art treasures left unguarded; vital supplies to be delivered to resistance or humanitarian organisations; guerilla forces to be organised, trained and led into battle; VIPs to be extracted, protected or assassinated. This could also happen when a main faction strike cruiser squadron shows up on a "goodwill visit" to point out that your troops would be really useful to the Cause, and it would be a shame if a dinosaur-killer were suddenly to appear on a collision course with your world…

The space and ground battles leave a lot of valuable military supplies and intelligence just lying around for the bold and canny to recover.

Those with the right ships, and the guts, to brave the Dark Nebula itself may find something which grants access to improved weapons or jump drives, or valuable resources. There are several possible explanations for this, but I favour the idea of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know guarding secrets of Ultra-Tech. An insane AI, perhaps, or Elder Gods.

Finally, a couple of enigmas drawing on Classic Traveller, subsidiary plotlines to the war which drives the main story arc:

The Psionics Institute. There are psionic PCs, who must have been trained at a secret Institute. That must be in human space, because aslan don’t roll that way, and on a high-population world, thus probably one of the primary systems outside the Hierate. That is almost certainly the Confederation capital of Maadin. Does the Institute secretly control the government? Is it striving to foment war, avoid it, win it, or deliberately lose it? Are some Confed spies telepathic, and whose side are they really on?

There are roughly five times as many planet-free star systems as there should be on the map, and about half as many habitable worlds as one would expect from CT world generation. In terms of numbers, something or somebody turned half the region’s Primary systems into Tertiary ones. Could that be the abovementioned insane AI and/or Elder Gods? Most likely.

And all that’s before I even get started on the insectoid raiders the players have already told me humanity is fighting… Obvious adventures? I’ll say.

Review: The Enigma Equation

Kickstarting The Last Parsec is truly a gift that keeps on giving; I’m still getting PDF downloads intermittently. Next up: The Enigma Equation, 32 page adventure for that setting. You’ll need Savage Worlds Deluxe, and the Sci-Fi Companion, to make full use of it.

CONTENTS

The meat of this booklet is in three sections; Prime, The Enigma Equation, and Travelers & Xenos.

Prime (12 pages): This is essentially a repeat of the free setting primer, which I reviewed here. It’s Firefly meets Star Wars, except there is no central government to rebel against. The main rules clarification is for hyperspace jumps, which in this setting rely on navigation beacons, much as in Babylon 5.

The Enigma Equation (16 pages): This adventure in two acts begins when the team members are sent by JumpCorp to the planet Tomb, home of a JumpCorp research station, but since it was attacked by a group of strange insectoids the head researcher is missing… How are the mysterious Umbra Artefact and the even more mysterious Enigma Equation involved?

Travelers & Xenos (4 pages): Half-a-dozen foes, some reusable (especially the Djinn) and others not so much.

FORMAT

The usual Last Parsec trade dress; full colour throughout, option to turn off the page background in the PDF, pages formatted to look like a tablet PC readout, colour illustrations on most pages.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’m ambiguous about repeating the primer in an adventure. Still, it didn’t cost me any extra, and even at full price the whole product is about six bucks. This is the sort of thing one usually sees bundled with a GM’s screen, and I vaguely remember reading somewhere that was the original intent.

CONCLUSIONS

I am still struggling to abandon my passion for worldbuilding, but with each Last Parsec adventure I come to understand a little better how that might work. I would be able to recycle the worlds and adventure hooks from any previous campaign just by throwing away the maps.

This little scenario is linked to Scientorium via one of its more enigmatic NPCs, and might make a good lead-in to the larger book. It also hints tantalisingly at a forthcoming TLP setting book which will explore things left unexplained at the end of this particular mission; Pinnacle could keep this up for years before the inevitable accretion of detail solidifies the setting into something hard to write for.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. A fun little adventure, but it goes into the stack of Last Parsec goodies for potential later use. Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh because of the recycled Primer stuff.

Shepherd, Episode 2: Cargoes

“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”
– John Masefield, Cargoes

Almost no in-character voice this week, just an experiment in trading.

Daanarni to Hasara: 007-3015 to 009-3015

It takes Greg a lot of tries and over two hours to plot the course to Hasara, but in the end he succeeds with a raise and arrives (2d6-2 = 3-2 = 1) one day out of Hasara. At that stage there’s no point speeding up, so he docks with Hasara Orbital having consumed a total of 13 fuel – two lots of 6 for the jumps, and half, rounded up to one, for travelling insystem – and one unit of food.

I next draw for an encounter: Spade 4 – since this is not a face card, there is no encounter.

With only 12 fuel left, Greg needs to sell some cargo; a bad astrogation roll could leave him too far from the next planet to land before he runs out of fuel. Fortunately, the SFC trading rules (p. 28) don’t require me to know anything about the world.

I roll 1d20 = 15 for supply and demand; excellent, fuel (not to be confused with starship fuel) is worth $3,000 per unit here. Greg sells two units for $6,000 and uses that to buy 10 days worth of starship fuel ($100 x Size 6 per day), so he now has 22 days fuel and 24 days food.

Now I dice for the prices of all commodities at both Hasara and Tangga, to see what’s best to trade; that turns out to be Fuel, which Greg can buy here at $3,000 per unit and sell on Tangga for $10,000 per unit. It’s best not to buy anything else, and carry the remaining three units of fuel to Tangga.

One day elapses while all this happens.

I sneaked into Hasara Orbital, did some quick trading, and sneaked out again, trying to beat the expanding spherical shell of Wanted posters. I did make time to land briefly on Hasara itself and bury Sofia as best I could, which meant a cairn, in a cave, in the Hasaran Badlands. I made sure I had the co-ordinates, out of habit more than anything; that turned out to be a smart move, as you’ll see later.

Status at 009-3015: Fuel 21, food 23, cash $0, Cargo: 3 Fuel.

(Off-camera, I create a quick spreadsheet to generate supply and demand for me, to save time later.)

Hasara to Tangga: 010-3015 to 011-3015

It seems reasonable to me that the ship’s AI can plot courses; it succeeds on 6+, giving it a 50% chance, while Greg has to ace to get anywhere. After 5 minutes of calculations it rolls 10 (ace) + 6 = 16, a success and two raises, knocking 4 days off the travel time; 3-4 = -1 but I’ll call it 0, as I don’t want to deal with the consequences of ships travelling backwards in time while hyperjumping.

I draw a 6 of hearts; no encounter. Straight into the trading, then, and Greg sells three units of fuel for $30,000. Looking at the starport commodity board, he sees that Technology is worth $1,800 here, but $9,000 on Salia, and decides on a short detour there. He spends $9,000 on five units of Technology, $6,600 on filling up the ship, and jumps to Salia.

Status at 011-3015: Fuel 25, food 14, cash $14,400, Cargo: 5 Tech.

Tangga to Salia: 012-3015 to 017-3015

The AI is unable to repeat its previous stunning performance, and after half an hour of abortive calculations the Joker winks out of existence in Tangga orbit and shudders into being four days out of Salia. No point rushing, so Greg drifts in. I draw a 5 of clubs, so there is no encounter.

At Salia, Greg unloads his Tech for $45,000 and determines that the best run from here is taking food from Salia (where it costs $1,000 per unit) to Kov (where it is worth $3,000 per unit). He buys five units ($5,000), tops up the fuel tank ($6,000) and pantry ($170) and jumps.

Status at 011-3015: Fuel 25, food 25, cash $28,130, Cargo: 5 Food.

Salia to Kov: 018-3015 to 028-3015

The troublesome AI astrogation routine again takes several tries to calculate a jump, and deposits the Joker 9 days out of Kov. A 5 of diamonds means no encounter.

Greg sells the Food for $15,000, tops up again ($9,000 fuel, $100 food), and discovers that his best trade now is carrying fuel back to Tangga. He buys 5 units for $7,500, and jumps, intending to burn extra fuel to ensure he arrives before month end.

Status at 028-3015: Fuel 25, food 25, cash $26,530, Cargo: 5 Fuel.

Kov to Tangga: 029-3015 to 030-3015

The AI drops Greg 7 days from Tangga, and he burns 14 fuel to arrive there the day after, meaning he arrives with only 5 left; this is because it’s going to be easier to keep track of things if I change prices every 30 days instead of at the end of calendar months. No encounter owing to drawing a 9 of diamonds.

Greg sells his cargo for $50,000, buys 20 fuel ($10,800) and 2 food ($20) and has $65,710 on hand. Then the prices change, and I “reroll” all the ones in the Fastnesses using my spreadsheet. The best trade available is buying Fuel at $2,000 on Tangga and selling it for $6,000 on Mizah, so Greg loads up with five units of Fuel and jumps.

Status at 030-3015: Fuel 25, food 25, cash $55,710, Cargo: 5 Fuel.

Tangga to Mizah: 031-3015 to 036-3015

Greg arrives 4 days out of Mizah; local space is patrolled so there is no draw for an encounter. He lands at Erdemir Starport and sells off his cargo for $30,000, tops up with food ($50) and fuel ($3,000) and has $82,660 in hand. He decides he deserves a day off, and heads into the nearest city for some real food – and, although he doesn’t know it yet, an adventure.

Status at 036-3015: Fuel 25, food 25, cash $82,660, Cargo: None.

REFLECTIONS

Having a choice of half-a-dozen worlds with known commodity prices seems to work well. Greg is making a reasonable profit on these runs; he could even afford to pay himself wages. However, repairs at a starport cost 10% of ship price per Wound, or roughly one and a half million Credits a pop, so let’s not go crazy just yet.

Worldbuilding – NOT!

"Worldbuilding can be a giant time sink and, worse, a distraction that can make you feel productive while also keeping you from lashing your body to the mast of your novel, comic, or film — which, again, is more likely your purpose." – Chuck Wendig

Over the Christmas break, I renewed my earlier intention to stat up the Dark Nebula for use in three RPGs: Savage Worlds (using the Science Fiction Companion), Traveller (1977 edition – Old School, baby!), and Stars Without Number. I expected the interaction between those three and the original boardgame to drive out some interesting adventure ideas. It was both fun and educational while it lasted, and made me think that 2300AD might actually be a better match to the Nebula than any of them… or maybe Mongoose Traveller using the hard SF option… but that way, madness lies.

Then I came back to work, and all free time immediately evaporated, consumed by the actual work itself and commuting to and from it. This prompted a re-evaluation; what do I actually need to tell stories in the Dark Nebula? What do I know already?

Now, to be fair, Chuck Wendig also says that worldbuilding is more important for an RPG than for, say, a novel, because an RPG setting is used for many different stories, and the worldbuilder cannot predict what those stories will be in advance; but the chances of this setting being used for anything other than my amusement (and hopefully yours too, dear reader) over the next 2-3 years is quite low. I may talk about opportunity costs in a later post, but for now: Minimum necessary effort shall be my watchwords.

WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

What is it about the Dark Nebula that I find so attractive? If you take a look at the Zhodani Base post on what makes a subsector popular, you’ll see that the Nebula touches all the bases. Two rival interstellar states quite close? Check, the Hierate and the Confederation. Some backwater independent worlds? Check, about 40 of ‘em, they’re all over the place. A place that feels like home? Check, Mizah. Obvious adventures? Check, and more on that in a later post.

RTFM

So, what can we tell about the worlds from the boardgame? I collated all references from the game into a table:

System Primary Secondary Tertiary
Planets? Yes Yes No
Habitable? Yes No No
Inhabited? Yes Yes No
Military? Maybe No No
Income 4 1 0
Maintenance – Starship Civilised Frontier Frontier
Maintenance – Monitor Civilised Civilised Frontier
Fuel? Yes Yes No
Defences? Good Average None

You’ll note I haven’t listed Capital systems separately; I remembered them as being high-population worlds, but it ain’t necessarily so; that statement is actually in Imperium, which uses very similar rules. So, they are simply Primary systems with greater political and strategic importance (one way to win the game is to occupy the enemy’s capital).

THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW

Based on the above, it’s easy to state enough about the physical attributes of each system to get the story rolling, and fill in the rest later as necessary.

Primary systems have an Earthlike world. I can differentiate between them by drawing on the contemporary culture appropriate to their name – Mizah, for example, is a Turkish word, so I can immediately assign it a parliamentary republic as a government, a Mediterranean climate in the area around the starport, and Islam as its dominant religion, just from my own general knowledge; and the players have already told me the dominant life-form is giant beetles.

Secondary systems have no naturally habitable worlds. Whether they are too hot, too cold, too big or too small, whether the settlement is on the surface or in orbit, it’s going to feel like a space station. Culture, language, religion can be assigned based on the system name as for Primary systems; Omaro, for example, means "lobster" in Esperanto, and there is a Shinto-derived Japanese religious sect called Oomoto which venerates the inventor of Esperanto; from that I can immediately jump to a Japanese culture, but speaking Esperanto, and making offerings to the spirit of Dr L L Zamenhof. With giant lobsters outside the viewports. That ought to shake the players up.

Tertiary systems have no worlds, so they’re easy; there’s nothing to document.

Consequently, I can assign all the Primary and Secondary worlds on the map a standard-issue stock space station from p. 50 of the Science Fiction Companion, and limit PCs to those initially. (This immediately prompts the question, why are they all the same? I park that for the moment, but there is some setting background to be drawn out when I answer that question. Mile forts? Truck stops? Bit of both? They’re actually different when you get to know them?)

That’s enough to get me rolling; the beauty of it is I can retrofit whatever worlds I like underneath the space stations afterwards. I expect I will want to do that shortly, as the temptation is to ask “What’s the planet like?”

Meanwhile, on with the motley!

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