The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Archive for January, 2018

Pawns of Destiny Episode 13: Something Fishy

In the place which is not a place, where Hordan and Hulian play for the future of the Dominions, Hulian has a special piece on the board; a composite piece, depicting a gladiator, a monk, a thief, a lotusmaster, a sage and a barbarian on an overly large base. He has just moved it to the space on the board representing Jalizar when dark-skinned, heavily-pregnant Etu moves carefully over to them.

“I will join your game,” she says, sitting down with some relief. “I have a stake here, too.”

“You have no pieces,” Hordan points out, from her chair made of writhing demons.

Etu picks up Hulian’s composite piece, and looks at Hulian as if seeking permission. He nods slightly, and she snaps off two of the figures: The thief and the alchemist.

“These are mine now,” she declares.

Lured by Zosimus’ curiosity and Dorjee’s orders to find exotic lotus, the Pawns decide on an expedition into the sewers, and prepare with their usual thoroughness, making friends with the Temple of Etu (which is upset that something is killing the crocodiles in the sewers) and the Sewer Cleaners’ Guild (who are happy to let a fellow Cairnlander buy them drinks) and pumping them for information before tailoring their adventuring loadout to the mission and staking out the Offal Well in the Shambles, known to be the biggest entrance to the Emellan Sewers, the uppermost level.

Approaching the Well at dusk, they find a mysterious cloaked figure crouched by it, engaging in a whispered conversation with someone – or something – inside. Zosimus and Ash follow him when he leaves, but he gives them the slip when he turns invisible, strong circumstantial evidence of sorcery. Meanwhile Max and Dorjee have lowered a lantern into the Well and scared off the rats. The party regroups and enters the Well, finding a corpse wedged under a grate and a section of passageway that makes an eerie howling noise. Enough for one night, they feel, and emerge.

Next day, by a number of diverse stratagems including chatting up serving girls, bribing washerwomen, and asking Ash’s contacts in the Thieves’ Guild, they build a strong but circumstantial case against Vetranis the Apothecary, and test their theory by showing him a copy of the strange script the Cleaners’ Guild pointed out to them earlier. Since he is under Guild protection – he fixes them up when they’re injured, no questions asked, and in exchange his house doesn’t spontaneously combust – they leave this piece of the puzzle alone for the moment, and head back down into the sewers.

Here, they find evidence of someone tampering with the walls to make the noise worse, and deduce this is to scare people away. They press on and encounter a group of cultists about to sacrifice a young woman to some dark god or other, and decide to rescue her by killing all the cultists. One of these proves to be Vetranis, who casts fear in the shape of an apparition of a huge, ghastly, fish with tentacles. It doesn’t save him, although Max has a phobia about big fish (don’t ask) and flees screaming into the darkness, only to recover, charge back, and hack the cultists down to restore his honour.

They free the girl, despite protestations from Zosimus that she must be the real villain, and take her home, leaving Vetranis’ naked corpse for the scavengers. She introduces herself as Jazarah, explains that recent events suggest she needs a bodyguard, and enquires if they might be interested in escorting her on special occasions, since six heavily-armed mercs moving into her apartment would draw unwanted attention. They agree to this deal, despite Dorjee and U’wahz both recognising her snake tattoos as the sign of a sorceress.

It is several days later when Jutarkos Six Fingers summons Ash to the Thieves’ Guild headquarters, and explains that a Guild asset – Vetranis – has disappeared, and is probably dead. Ash’s mission is to find those responsible and kill them, sending a clear message to anyone else who wants to kidnap or kill people under Guild protection…

GM NOTES

This session went very well, and all I had going into it was a few random encounters in the sewers and a couple of NPCs statted out. The rest of it was built on the fly in reaction to the players’ questions and approaches. That is a good mix and I’ll do it again.

I have waited three sessions now to use the punchline “Yes, there’s something fishy going on under Jalizar,” and it did not disappoint.

I was also delighted at having lured them into a situation where their next mission is to find themselves and kill themselves to send a clear message to themselves about messing with the Thieves’ Guild.

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Arion, Episode 4: None Dare Call It Treason

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
– Sir John Harington, Epigrams

Ria, 028-3401.

It’s been a week of meetings with Gonzalez and dinner with the royal family, and as Arion walks through the gardens to dinner, discreetly followed by an armed guard, he reflects that while he is in a cage, the bars are gilded rather than iron. However, he is still caged, and the value of the news he carries is decaying like a radioactive isotope.

This week’s world encounter (Solo p. 58) is 3, 2 again; the local community is either not what it seems, or very welcoming.

Arion needs a Plan (Solo, p. 23). Let’s try the low-impact approach first; tell the truth, be persuasive, try to make friends, look for possible escape routes in case they are necessary. I rate that as a shaky plan, because a lot can go wrong, and it’s dangerous; if it does go wrong, prison and torture or death likely await.

2d6 vs Plan difficulty of 10+: Arion has no significant skills in doing this and no particular assets, but nor is he especially unsuited, so the target number remains 10. Arion rolls a 5 – failure. He now needs to roll for consequences against the same number, and gets a 9; a bad consequence, and a final 2d6 roll on the Bad Consequence table (p. 24) tells us what it was; 6, minor wound. So he failed and was injured… Hmm, how about this…

When everyone is settled at table and the first course has been served, King Adrian speaks.

“Princess Isabella says that talking with you is helping her English a great deal. Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome,” says Arion. “Isabella is a very able pupil, and I’m happy to help – it’s part of my job as a Surveyor to teach English. Almost all trade, science and traffic control is done in English, and of course all the records left by the Rule of Man are in English too, so it’s something anyone interested in those things should learn.”

Gonzalez puts a finger to one ear, clearly listening to something.

“Pardon me, Your Majesty,” he says. “I must answer this.”

The King waves acceptance at him, and says “Never apologise for doing your job, Senor Gonzalez.”

Gonzalez nods and steps out of the room.

Proud of her English, Isabella – sitting next to Arion – begins explaining the table setting to him. “I don’t know if this is the same where you come from, Arion, but here, how you leave the – cutlery? – yes, cutlery, it is a message for the servants. Put them like this and it means I am finish,”

“We say ‘finished’, Princess,” Arion corrects.

“Ah, yes, I am finished… like this it means it is nice but I am not hungry, like this it means I don’t like it, please don’t make it again…”

Gonzalez comes back into the room and something about his expression puts Arion on his guard. He walks briskly up to the King, and says: “Your Majesty, I must show you something urgently,” as he reaches under his jacket.

Before the King can reply, Gonzalez pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the head, shouting “Hasta la victoria siempre!”

The Queen opens her mouth in surprise, spattered with blood and brains, and Gonzalez shoots her too. Arion is already moving now, and grabs Isabella by the arm to drag her away. The guards haven’t made a move against Gonzalez, so he reasons they must be in on it too. Gonzalez lines up his next shot and Arion throws a plate full of soup at him left-handed; the plate misses but the soup itself catches him in the face, spoiling his aim so that Arion is grazed along the ribs instead of taking a solid hit.

“Run!” Arion shouts, while the guards unsling their assault rifles and Gonzalez calls out in Spanish – Arion takes “Get them!” as read, and hopes the orders also include “Remember, we need them alive!”

Isabella and Arion charge out of the dining hall and run flat out for safety, wherever that might be. Behind them, they can hear alarms, and Gonzalez still shouting in Spanish – probably “The Surveyor has killed the King!”

“Don’t worry about distance,” Arion pants, “Make lots of turns. That’s how you lose people.” Isabella complies, and the pair race off through the labyrinthine palace until they feel safe enough to pause for a moment. Arion checks his wound, and decides he has bigger problems right now. Isabella is crying quietly, but determined. She wipes tears from her eyes and draws herself upright.

“Damn, girl,” Arion says admiringly. “You are definitely Queen material.” Her eyes dart from side to side, assessing options.

“My… my parents told me this day might come. They told me what to do if it did.” She measures him up, clearly assessing how much she can trust him.

“Come with me if you want to live,” she says. “I have a friend who can get us offworld.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Arion replies, trying not to drip blood on the corridor floor for the guards to follow. Isabella looks at him, and pauses for a beat before she realises this title now applies to her. She nods, as regally as she can manage in the circumstances. Then they move off into the deepening gloom.

Review: Stars Without Number Revised Edition

I’m not going to do a long, complex review of this, mostly because in the time it would take you to read it you could download the free version of the rules from here and be reading that.

TL:DR

Outstanding SF RPG inspired by B/X D&D and Classic Traveller. If you have any interest in SF RPGs at all, download the free version and flick through it; you could play for years with nothing else. You can decide whether to upgrade to the deluxe version later.

What’s Good?

You already know the rules; combat is like B/X D&D with ascending armour class, skills and tasks are like Classic Traveller. This means you can recycle pretty much any Old School adventure and use it with SWN.

Sector and world generation get you from dice rolls to playable adventures faster than any other SF game I know.

The faction rules let you create an emerging background in a few minutes at the end of each session, but despite the fleets, armies and megacorporations, the PCs always matter.

The GM resources, as in everything Kevin Crawford writes, are superb and worth the price of admission by themselves.

Do I Need the New Edition?

No, not least because the author has taken pains to make it backwards compatible with previous work.

However, the new edition has tons more options, tighter game mechanics, and some content incorporated from the previous edition’s supplements. It also has a conversion guide from first to second edition.

For the most part the changes are minor improvements or extra pieces of gear; big changes are more combat options in both personal and ship combat, more options for character creation (although skills have been pruned and renamed), adding locations of interest besides the main world to star systems, adding rules for modding and building your own equipment; extended generators for NPCs; new generators for adventure hooks, patrons, urban and wilderness encounters; revised experience system and more guidance on rewards, expanded rules for playable alien races, a range of suggested house rules; the cultural notes in the old GM Resources chapter are gone, but the name generators remain, and now there are Greek and Latin ones too.

Oh, and the artwork. More, bigger, more colourful artwork.

Do I Need the Deluxe Edition?

No. As I said earlier, you could play the game for years just with the free version.

However, the Deluxe Edition has some chapters the free edition doesn’t have; transhuman campaigns, space magic, heroic characters, (playable) true artificial intelligences, societies, mechs; if you need any of those in your game, that’s the edition for you.

Arion, Episode 3: An Invitation to Dinner

“The dinner-table is often the terrain of critical conversations, for it is there one has the better of one’s interlocutor. There is no escape without scandal, there is no turning aside without self-betrayal. To invite a person to dinner is to place them under observation. Every dining-room is a temporary prison where politeness chains the guests to the laden board.” – Maurice Renard, The Hands Of Orlac

Ria, 021-3401.

The ship’s boat from the Dromedary deposits Arion at Ria starport and he walks out into the muggy heat with the clothes on his back (Great Archive Surveyor coveralls, indifferently laundered aboard ship) and a spacesuit. Neither the ship’s boat nor the laser turrets are standard fittings on a subsidised liner fresh out of the yards, so Arion surmises that the Dromedary is intended to trade with backwater planets in hostile space. Ria seems to tick both boxes.

Looking at Solo p.53, I need to make a world encounter roll (p. 58), which will lead me to other rolls as appropriate. I roll 3, 2 and learn that the local community is either not what it seems, or very welcoming.

The starport is about as basic as you can get and still be an actual functioning starport, a decrepit set of landing pads and a few buildings. Arion needs to find passage back to Mizah, or at least Hasara where an Archive ship will eventually turn up, and suspects he’ll need money for that – lots of it. Before making any decisions, he needs more information, and the best place to get that is at the starport office, a mouldy-looking edifice with a couple of soldiers (armed with what look like simple chemical slugthrowers) and a man in a suit loitering outside. All three have luxuriant moustaches, which Arion will shortly learn are the local fashion. The suited man waves at Arion to attract his attention, then walks briskly up to him, with the soldiers ambling along behind, as if their presence were more for show than because of any real threat.

“Senor Metaxas? I heard from traffic control that you were arriving. I am Luis González, pleased to meet you.” González is speaking accented English, the lingua franca of spacers across the sector.

“Likewise, I’m sure. Yes, I’m Metaxas. How can I help you?”

“We don’t often see anyone from outside this system, especially not a Surveyor from the Great Archive. King Adriano Talamantes invites you to dine with him tonight, and bring him news of the outside galaxy.”

Arion thinks for a moment, covering his indecision by lowering his heavy spacesuit to the ground. He’s not likely to get a better offer than this, and while he is wary of local despots, the soldiers can likely shoot him if he runs, or overpower him if he doesn’t. Might as well go without the handcuffs, then, and eat a fine dinner instead of prison slops. Since Arion knows Archive ships don’t normally go as far as Ria, and individual free traders haven’t got the range for this run, the King must be getting all his external information from the Combine, and the implication of the invitation is that he doesn’t entirely trust them; Arion may be able to turn that to his advantage.

“I would be delighted to accept your kind offer, Senor González,” he says. “When am I expected, and what is the best way to the palace?”

“Don’t worry,” smiles González, “We will take you there right away.”

-o0o-

A few hours later, Arion finds himself clean-shaven (except for the beginnings of a local-style moustache – may as well fit in), showered, dressed in borrowed finery rather than a tatty surveyor’s coverall, and at table with Luis González, King Adriano Talamantes, Queen Delfina, and Princess Isabella, the ten-year old heir to the throne. Waiters bustle in and out with various courses, and discreet guards in dress uniforms stand behind the King to either side of him.

By the time they get to what passes for coffee locally, the ice has been broken and the five of them have moved past the polite small talk, including Arion’s descriptions of life across the handful of worlds in the Fastnesses and the family’s explanations of local history, geography and crops.

“I must tell you, Senor Metaxas,” the King begins, gesturing with his coffee cup, “that Captain Anderson tells me we should fear the Archive, that it is dominated by people with a liberal socialist agenda, hostile to our way of life here.” Arion frowns, considering his next words carefully; the prison cell is still a possibility.

“There is rivalry between the Combine and the Archive,” he says, “And a wise ruler wouldn’t take anything either of us says at face value. Captain Anderson has given you the Combine view of things; allow me to present the Archive’s. You know, of course, that before the Interregnum, a great human empire controlled this region of space, with its capital on mother Earth. Before that empire fell, it established centres of learning on major worlds, to ensure colonists had access to a basic knowledge of technology, culture and history. One of these was the forerunner of the Great Archive on Mizah; after the empire fell, it worked with the planetary government to save as many people as it could, and rebuild.”

“Captain Anderson tells me that the Archive has taken over the government of Mizah from within. Like some kind of parasitic wasp, he says. Whatever a wasp is.”

“It’s true that the Archive and the government have worked closely together for centuries. What Anderson may not have told you is that the Combine was once a faction within the Archive. We are essentially a quasi-religious academic organisation, focused on humanitarian aid and research, sharing our knowledge freely with other worlds. Some time ago, a group of the Archive’s Adepts started saying that we should sell our tools and knowledge rather than giving them away, and that since what other worlds most wanted to buy was weapons, we should sell those. That led to a schism between the academic and commercial interests in the Archive, with the commercial elements leaving to form the Combine.”

“I see. Captain Anderson argues that what people are freely given, they do not value, and that the Archive imposes its will on other worlds over generations, by insinuating its ideas into the minds of the young.”

“The Archive’s eventual goal is to uplift every system in this region to the Rule of Man’s level of technology, thus eliminating hunger, disease and oppression. We hope this will lead to harmony, to a voluntary association of free worlds.”

“With crystal spires and togas for all, no doubt. The rebels in the swamps say I oppress them. Captain Anderson says that emissaries of the Archive are spreading sedition and firearms among them.”

“Then why invite me here? Why not just arrest me?”

“Because all I know about the Archive, about the whole galaxy since the Rule of Man fell, is what Captain Anderson has told me. Asking him if it is true gains me nothing. But you…” The King waggles a finger and smiles. “You do not know what he has told me. So where both of you agree, I can take that as the truth. Where you disagree, one of you is lying. So I hope you will accept my invitation to stay for a while, and understand that the guard outside your room is there for your protection.”

Arion considers his options, and comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t really have any.

“How could I refuse such a kind offer? I can think of no better place to stay during my time here.”

GM’s Notes

This week I’ll talk a bit about how the map and worlds of the Nebula were created.

I’ve been using the same technique with the map since 1998; shrink it to one parsec per hex, rotate it 180 degrees so Maadin and Kuzu are in places that match canon better, and drop the less interesting world in double systems.

For worlds, I start with the number of charted jump routes. That gives me the starport type – one route for E, two for D and so on; the two exceptions are Maadin, which as a faction capital should have an A class starport, and tertiary systems, which have no planets and therefore no starport. Ria, with two routes, has a class D starport. I assign bases by hand to match the overall strategic situation; this means Ria has no bases.

Population level is the number of charted routes, plus one per secondary world, plus three per primary world. So Ria has a population of 6; 2 for the routes, 3 for the primary world (Ria) and one for the secondary world (Alis) which doesn’t show up on the map, but still affects the statblock.

Then I use Google translate and other sources to find out what the name means, and in which language. Ria is interesting as it means a number of different things; a drowned river valley in English, “river” in a number of Romance languages, a corn-drying kiln in Swedish, a moustache in Vietnamese, or “blood” in Woi (spoken in Indonesia). I muse on that for a while and imagine the kind of world that would be an appropriate name for. This also tells me which culture or cultures originally settled the place, giving me a ready source of names, traditional foods and customs, and so on.

In the case of Ria, the image that comes to mind is a rural, agricultural planet, primarily focused on growing corn along a river valley, with one major town just upstream of a tropical river delta, split politically between a Spanish-speaking ruling class and a mixed bag of farm labourers from other cultures, and a group of flatboat-mounted guerillas hiding in the delta’s marshes and seeking to overthrow the rulers. Possibly the first thing a visitor notices are the impressive mustachios sported by all adult males. (I like the Mongoose Traveller faction and cultural rules, but sometimes you just don’t need ’em.)

The rest of the world profile is either assigned (if it’s obvious from what I have so far) or diced randomly, except that primary worlds must have atmosphere 5, 6 or 8, and secondary ones may not.

I give each world the lowest tech level possible, to fit the concept of a region returning to space after centuries of the Long Night, except for Maadin and Kuzu which get a 12 so they can build jump-3 ships. The boardgame says all worlds have antiship defences; if these can be built locally (say, TL 7+), they are, otherwise someone from outside must have installed them – who, exactly, is a potential scenario for later.

Although I’ve been using this sector on and off since the late 1990s, the shift to Mongoose Traveller made some changes. Chiefly, TL modifiers have changed, and some environments have minimum TLs; the overall effect is to push up the average TL slightly. Temperature now affects atmosphere and thus indirectly TL. The rules for government factions, cultural divergence and trade don’t affect the profile directly, but they are pretty good.

Overall, diehard advocate of the 1977 Little Black Books that I am, I must admit that in some areas, later editions have improved the game.

Aslan Border Wars 2: Turn 1, Aslan Phase A

The Aslan player deploys first, and after the Solomani have also deployed, the aslan move first. In effect then, the solomani miss their first turn, which is the first half of turn 1.

So we are at the start of the aslanic player turn, and the first phase is “A: Maintenance and Production”. We begin by computing the aslanic income; 10 Resource Units (budget), plus 4 per connected primary system (2 x 4 = 8) and one per connected secondary system (4 x 1 = 4). The aslan have 22 RU to spend, and as it’s not obvious what they’re up to yet, I roll randomly again to see what they have bought, on a table of my own design; maybe this will change my view that they intend to cow neutral worlds into submission by threatening them with strike cruisers.

According to my dice, the aslan purchase one each of DD, CL, CS and armoured troops. Looks like they are still going missile-heavy. Their immediate target, then, is most likely Godoro.

These units are placed on the production track and will enter play at the start of aslanic turn 2. News of the military buildup will reach Maadin no sooner than 18 weeks after it begins at Kuzu.

I don’t know what date this happens; it should be at the start of 3402, as the boardgame uses two-year turns, and I want to stretch things a little to allow the first battle to occur just inside 3401, the canonical start date for the wars in the Traveller universe.

Pawns of Destiny Episode 12: The Cult of the Dog

After a lengthy interrogation and an even lengthier debate about what to do with their captive werewolf, or Phaedrus the carpet seller as he is known in human form, the Pawns decided by a narrow margin to kill him and dispose of the body with the other carcasses that any gladiatorial arena produces in bulk. The Monk powered up and obliged before he could transform and defend himself effectively.

After much further debate about what to do next, they agreed to replenish their potion stocks, rest up, and head back into Greytowers in search of the werewolf’s lair. This went splendidly until they stumbled upon a ruined building occupied by a nest of eight giant spiders, led by the formidable Ol’ Three Legs.

A long and complex melee ensued, with the giant spiders dividing into a webbing team on top of a ruined building, methodically immobilising anything that looked like a threat, and a melee team biting anything they could get at. By the time they had disposed of the bulk of the pack, and Ol’ Three Legs had retired in good order, the Monk was incapacitated and Dorjee was running low on potions. Max, their tracker, led them to the lair – a ruined tower – regardless, and Ash climbed nimbly up the side of it and sneaked inside, where he could hear conversation on the first floor. Satisfied they had found their prey, they retreated to heal and replenish their stores.

While doing that, they hit on two ideas: Warning Tamaria that someone inside House Talum had set her up to be kidnapped and killed (Phaedrus told them this, and they suspect the culprit is the majordomo), and talking the Amazons into coming along on their next raid into Greytowers to avenge their sister.

The raid was planned and executed with panache and precision; Ash, Max and Zosimus climbed the tower and cleared it from the top down, bursting into a room where the surviving cultists were arguing over who was in charge now the werewolf had disappeared. Max leapt onto their table, which collapsed under his weight, and made a mighty sweep attack, killing five of them. The remainder fled downstairs and out of the door, where they found five tooled-up Amazons waiting for them. Best we draw a veil over their fate.

The party is not sure they have dealt with all the cultists, but feel certain they have killed anyone who matters. Feeling no particular urgency about aligning themselves with a faction, they agreed their next move is to venture into the Sewers in search of rare and valuable lotus, in the course of which they hope to find out why Cairnlanders feel so at home down there.

GM’s Notes

I couldn’t see myself getting a full five-hour session out of the party’s plans so I re-introduced them to giant spiders. Giant spiders in Savage Worlds are well naughty and even after they had scared away half the pack with a fear potion, a combination of webbing the fighters and biting anything in reach proved highly effective. Had the Monk not had the wisdom to retain a benny for his incapacitation roll, he would have died from spider bites, and he is a combat monster the other fighters view with great respect. If the spiders had been playing with a full team, I think they might have won, even against six Heroic PCs.

Ol’ Three Legs was so named because the miniature we used has been in play since the 1970s and has lost five legs to being dropped at various times over the decades. In honour of her long and distinguished service to the group, she was made a Wild Card.

Wild Card giant spiders go beyond well naughty into out-and-out evil, and I commend them to the House.

U’wahz the Sage has decided that there is a dark side to the Great Library and is providing detailed notes on its structure and purposes, but has yet to use his superpower to make this true. Despite repeated entreaties from the rest of the party, neither did he use it to cement into the setting their idea that all Jademen are heavily into bondage. Not sure where that came from but it may be related to Dorjee learning Entangle at the beginning of the session.

So far I’m finding Jalizar and homebrew adventures much more relaxing and easier to run than adventures from any other source. I don’t think this is about the adventures, it’s more because I have decided to let things flow at their own pace, rather than trying to finish each session at a particular point in the story. Now that I should have done years ago.

Arion, Episode 2: Dromedary

“How canst thou say, I am not polluted, I have not gone after Baalim? see thy way in the valley, know what thou hast done; thou art a swift dromedary traversing her ways.” – King James Bible, Jeremiah 2:23

Aboard the Dromedary, 014-3401.

I roll for in-game reactions (Solo pp. 19-20) and an onboard event (Solo, p. 56): There’s only one active PC yet – Arion – who rolls a 6 and therefore fails to avoid a bad reaction; a further roll of 4 shows that a choice is made and he doesn’t like it. The onboard event is 43 – a power failure.

The Captain’s day cabin is spacious, by shipboard standards, and Captain Anderson sits at a small desk, interviewing Arion, who is dressed in an ill-fitting pair of Combine overalls and perched awkwardly on a folding chair. The scene is dimly lit by emergency lights, and the air conditioning is off.

“Our sensors confirm there’s wreckage from an Archive Surveyor, and the origin of your trajectory matches where it would have been when you left. So your story checks out. But tell me, why would pirates blow your ship up? First, they’re breaking no laws by being here; second, there’s no-one to enforce them if they were; third, a ship with an Archive transponder has nothing worth stealing – no offence – and fourth, the Archive is too powerful to upset for no reason.”

“None taken. I saw too much. I saw who they were meeting out here. Hierate scouts.”

“You sure?”

Hraye III class with a fuel slab, squawking a clan recognition code. Unmistakable.”

“Pfft. Half the pirates out here are from the Hierate.”

“True, but they don’t squawk clan codes. And honour dictates that anyone using those codes be a member of the right clan, and vice versa. The code tells you who it was. No room for error.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm indeed. So Captain, thank you for picking me up, but I need to impose on you further – I need to report back to Mizah right away.”

“Surveyor, the law is clear. I grant you’re a distressed spacefarer, and the Archive is good for your transport costs. But I can’t turn 600 tons of ship around and break my Bond to get you home three weeks sooner. Do you have any idea how much that would cost?”

“Don’t you see how important this is? The Hierate and Confed have been rattling sabres at each other for years, this could be the start of outright war – and if the Hierate barrels through here fangs out and hair on fire, they’re going to hit Mizah first.”

“But they might not.”

“But…” Before Arion can argue any more, Anderson interrupts, the steel any trader captain must have at his core being displayed for the first time.

“But me no buts, Surveyor. The law says I drop you at the next port of call and submit an invoice the next time I’m at an Archive facility. I have no obligation to deadhead you halfway across the sector first, and no obligation to reroute my ship for your convenience. Unless you have written authority from the Great Archive to pay the penalty clauses for breaking my Bond, which I know you do not because we searched you for contraband and weapons when we brought you aboard.”

The lights flicker back on and the air conditioning starts up again. “Finally!” Anderson mutters, then continues in a louder voice.

“Now that power has been restored, we can jump. And we will. You can either keep out of the way, or help with running the ship, but any more complaints about the route and you’ll find yourself in cryosleep in a low berth. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, Captain.” Arion leaves the office. He is seething inside, but if he’s put into cryosleep, who knows where – or when – he’ll wake up?

GM Notes: Ships

For this campaign, I’m determined that each post should have part of the story in it, so I’ll keep the commentary on rules and setting design in the GM Notes section, rather than in separate posts as I’ve done in the past. This time, as Arion is in jumpspace, let’s look at ships and FTL travel, and the implications for the rules and the campaign.

The Dark Nebula boardgame which I’m using as the inspiration for the setting assumes:

  • You can only move along charted jump routes, at least until you uncover the secrets of the Nebula.
  • You can’t leave a tertiary system unless there is a tanker present.
  • In a two-year turn you can go anywhere on the map, stopping only for tertiary systems and enemy units. There are about 80 routes on the map, and several movement phases per turn, so the old Traveller standby of one week per jump is reasonable.
  • You can’t bypass any star system on your route (otherwise the tactic of blocking fleets with a sacrificial scoutship wouldn’t work).

Traveller is thus a better match to the game than the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion for FTL travel; SW hyperdrives can take you anywhere on the map, and in zero time if you’re prepared to spend enough fuel. There’s a good campaign to be played using the SW hyperdrive, but it’s not this one, because I find it difficult to run a game such as this if there are no choke points and no trade routes.

Aligning Traveller with Dark Nebula is simple; I rationalise the jump routes by saying that the map is a 2-D representation of 3-D space, and systems that appear to be next to each other may be too far apart vertically to allow a jump. Jump-3 gives a close enough match for strategic mobility in the boardgame – Bors, Daanarni and Taida Na remain impassable without some means of refuelling, and while you shouldn’t be able to access Ria, Osa or Karpos I can live with that – I want Arion to visit Ria and Karpos. (Note that a maximum of jump-3 implies a maximum tech level of 12 in the Nebula, which suits me just fine.)

As the map is drawn, J-1 pretty much limits you to Mizah and its neighbours, J-2 is good for exploring either subsector but won’t get you from one to the other, J-3 lets you travel between subsectors, and J-4 lets you leave the map. That progression has a certain elegance to it, don’t you think?

How big are the ships? Well, capital ship squadrons in Dark Nebula can each carry a reinforced infantry division; as Traveller mostly follows contemporary US military organisation, that tells us that 3-10 ships can carry 10 to 15 thousand troops. Classic Traveller Book 5 shows that warships have at most 6% of their tonnage dedicated to ship’s troops, so a capital ship squadron carrying 15,000 troops totals 500,000 tons, and individual ships are somewhere between 50,000 tons (if there are 10 of them) and 170,000 (if there are three). Let’s call that hundreds of thousands of tons per ship.

To be stand in the line in Book 5 combat, or Adventure 6 naval campaigns, cruisers need a spinal mount, which means they are in the tens of thousands of tons. This gives us another elegant progression; capital ships are hundreds of thousands of tons, cruisers tens of thousands, destroyers thousands, and small ships operated by PCs, hundreds. As a bonus, weapon factors in Book 5 and Dark Nebula are broadly equivalent.

I don’t expect to design any ships for the Nebula campaigns, but this gives me a rough idea of the size, armament, and movement capabilities of all the boardgame counters the party might meet, which is good enough for roleplaying purposes.

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