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Aslan Border Wars Retrospective

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

The Dark Nebula boardgame is going back in its box, and the box is going back on the shelf. The Aslan Border Wars posts are consigned to the blog’s Vault category, where lurk the things I don’t expect to use again, but can’t quite bring myself to delete.

I don’t expect to repeat this exercise again – although I’ve thought that before, and been wrong. So what have I learned from it? Well, see the post about Crossing the Irrawaddy for the more philosophical version, but here are the lessons.

Overarching metaplots are neither necessary nor desirable, especially in solitaire play.

Hidden planets whose statistics, or existence, are concealed from the players are not very useful; all they do is force the GM to keep extra records. Better to show all the locations and statistics, and put the secrets in the adventures – or in solitaire play, allow them to emerge from the random encounters and events.

Using an old boardgame as a setting does give you a cool map, but you should throw away everything else; trying to follow the boardgame faithfully imposes too many constraints.

I can reuse a setting, but not a campaign story arc. Too much depends on things being fresh for me as the GM as well as the players. I know there are GMs out there who can and do rerun the same campaign for different groups; I’m not one of them.

Meanwhile, Dark Nebula – well done, thou good and faithful servant. Sleep well.


Aslan Border Wars 7: Summary of Late 3401 AD

This playthrough has now gone far enough for me to allocate dates to the activities, so here is a summary and recap of events up to the end of 3401 AD in the Dark Nebula…

The Eve of the War: 188-3401

The Eve of the War: 188-3401

The Initial Advance: 189-3401 to 294-3401

Aslan Initial Advance: 189-3401 to 294-3401

Events by week ending date:

  • 189-3401: Council of 29 on Kuzu announces military buildup, commissioning CL, CS, DD and an armoured brigade.
  • 196-3401: Aslan forces at Panas jump to Enjiwa.
  • 203-3401: Aslan forces refuel at Enjiwa.
  • 210-3401: Aslan force split; CL and DD jump to Valka; main force of 4 TR, DD, CS, AO jumps to Dno.
  • 217-3401: Aslan CL and DD at Valka begin negotiations. Main force refuels at Dno.
  • 224-3401: Aslan main force jumps to Godoro.
  • 231-3401: Aslan main force begins negotiations at Godoro. Solomani spy ship jumps from Godoro to Daanarni, carrying news of aslan forces’ arrival.
  • 238-3401: Solomani spy ship refuels at Daanarni using classified methods.
  • 245-3401: Solomani spy ship jumps to Hasara.
  • 252-3401: Solomani spy ship refuels at Hasara.
  • 259-3401: Solomani spy ship jumps to Tangga.
  • 266-3401: Solomani spy ship refuels at Tangga.
  • 273-3401: Solomani spy ship jumps to Kov.
  • 280-3401: Solomani spy ship refuels at Kov.
  • 287-3401: Solomani spy ship jumps to Gazzain.
  • 294-3401: Solomani spy ship is debriefed at Gazzain. Solomani fleet at Gazzain implements contingency orders and prepares to jump.

Solomani Initial Response: 295-3401 to 336-3401

Solomani Initial Response: 295-3401 to 336-3401

Events by week ending date:

  • 301-3401: Solomani DD and EX jump from Gazzain to Kov.
  • 308-3401: Solomani DD and EX refuel at Kov.
  • 315-3401: Solomani DD and EX jump to Tangga.
  • 322-3401: Solomani DD and EX refuel at Tangga.
  • 329-3401: Solomani DD jumps to Hasara.
  • 336-3401: Solomani DD refuels at Hasara.

War breaks Out: 337-3401 to 364-3401

War Breaks Out: 337-3401 to 364-3401

Events by week ending date:

  • 343-3401: Negotiations at Valka begin to break down after 19 weeks of tense talks. Aslan units remain in place.
  • 350-3401: Valkan orbital defence grid begins harassing aslan fleet with jamming and fire control locks.
  • 357-3401: Aslan DD and CL begin ineffective orbital bombardment of Valkan military bases. Valkan planetary defences open fire on aslan vessels, with no significant effects.
  • 364-3401: Lacking enough troops to invade Valka, aslan fleet retires to the outer system where Valkan beam and missile fire cannot engage it effectively. Valka prematurely claims victory.

GM Notes

Working through this in detail throws up some errors I made in timing earlier, but when you get right down to it, who cares? I am assuming each phase and subphase takes at least one week, even if nothing happens in it, and a gentlemanly approach to interstellar movement, with each jump taking one week to do and one week to recover from, and both sides waiting for news to arrive before acting or reacting; and even so the first aslan player turn has taken about six months instead of the year it would take according to the boardgame. I can see that some sacrifices have to be made to align the boardgame and the RPG campaigns, and the latter take priority; it suits me for this first turn to move quickly, so that the RPG groups have some breathing space before war breaks out, but the fighting still begins in the right year according to canon. I may review the pace in future game years.

This brings home to me that although the board game moves at a rapid pace for the players representing the guiding will of interstellar states, for individual characters it grinds on slowly, with long periods when nothing of strategic import seems to happen – these gaps are where theĀ  RPG adventures will occur.

Meanwhile, as the Old Musky and Arioniad campaigns are both moving forwards in real time, more or less, the board game doesn’t need to advance any further until Christmas, which will free up this weekly slot for other things. Another game review, then? Don’t mind if I do…

Aslan Border Wars 6: 1-AH-FG

Turn 1, aslan player turn, aslan second movement and combat phases.

War Breaks Out: 337-3401 to 364-3401

Week 25, and the aslan fleets consider their next move. If they were going to hit the Fastnesses or the Solomani Confederation, they should have done it before now, as Confed has put ships in Hasara and Tangga which means the Hierate would have to spend this turn fighting them before reaching any worthwhile systems. However, Mizah and Gazzain are both tough nuts to crack, and invading them would mean heavy losses.

The only other primary system in reach is Ria, but that is only valuable if the aslan can hold Daanarni to establish a supply route back to the Hierate. Moving any ship except a scout to secondary systems risks losing them to unlucky maintenance rolls.

So I think the Hierate’s best option is one last try at persuading Godoro and Valka to join them, which they do in week 26, and if that doesn’t work, bomb them back into the stone age next turn and land troops.

Godoro: 1d6+1 = 4. Negotiations continue. I think these guys are going to get flattened next turn.

Valka: 1d6+0 = 1. Oops. The Valkans have started shooting. Now, the aslan cannot voluntarily initiate combat while negotiating, but they can respond if attacked, which they have just been.

There is no space combat subphase, because only the aslan have ships present. Likewise, there will be no surface combat subphase because only the Valkans have troops present – a tactical error on my part, the aslan should have had a couple of transports with troop units insystem in case things went south. I had remembered ships taking part in surface combat, and had planned to land the destroyer to do that, but a close rereading of the rules shows that ships on the ground are helpless, and only engage in combat if there are no troops left to defend them. So if anyone had a ship on the ground already, it could take part in the defence, but only by acting as a bullet sponge.

However, there can be an interface combat subphase, in which the aslan task force attempts to blow the defenders to smithereens and the defenders reply in kind. The aslan have one destroyer (DD, 2-2-2) and one light cruiser (CL, 5-2-4) giving them a total of 4 missile factors for bombardment. Aaaand this is the point where I notice you need at least 7 missile factors to stand a chance of doing anything useful. Oops again.

A primary system rolls 1d6 for each incoming ship, and destroys it on a 1 or 2. Fortunately for the aslan, Valka’s planetary defences roll 3, 3 – both ships escape unscathed.

Adventure Possibilities

I mentioned spy ships last time, and they will remain an option throughout the war. I am mentally picturing the Type T patrol corvette as a sci-fi equivalent of fast attack craft (PT-109, anyone?) so the scenarios of inserting or recovering agents and spec ops teams, reconnaissance, intercepting courier vessels and whatnot are good for them, while merchants will continue trading but for dramatic purposes will be suspected, correctly, of carrying spies.

At this point Confed might also issue letters of marque and reprisal to Mizah Combine or pirate vessels (which we have established in play are present in the Fastnesses and Dark Nebula clusters).

Did a PC team on Valka deliberately force negotiations to break down? Are they involved in spiriting away the Valkan government, or other VIPS, to a safe haven – and where is safe now, anyway? Did they just happen to be there when the shooting started, and have to get away unscathed?

Meanwhile, Mizah has a PDF unit (in Traveller this would probably be a deep meson gun site) and Confed doesn’t. PCs working for Confed could be tasked with finding out about the PDF, and possibly sabotaging it at a critical moment in any future negotiations.

GM Notes

So, future historians will date the start of the Aslan Border Wars from this point. To align with Traveller canon, the shooting must start within 3401 AD; as far as I know, canon is silent on exactly when that happens, so I shall rule it happens in the final week of 3401. Rolling back 26 weeks tells me that the aslan left Panas in the first week of July.

For the next post in this thread, expect detailed dates for what has happened so far. After that, I’ll pause to let the PCs catch up, in case any of them are reading! It will be 3-4 months into 3402 before news of war breaking out reaches them.

Meanwhile, the aslan have not exactly covered themselves in glory so far. Confed has more troop units than the Hierate, assuming we limit ourselves to the counter mix, so they really need to be able to hire mercenaries. Now, however, honor demands vengeance!

Anyone following the game is welcome to comment, or suggest strategies for either side!

Aslan Border Wars 5: 1-AH-DE

Aslanic turn 1, Solomani reaction movement and combat phases.

Solomani Initial Response: 295-3401 to 336-3401

Dark Nebula is a game in which the active player’s turn is interrupted by the inactive one; in this case, although it is the aslanic player turn, the solomani are allowed a reaction movement phase and a reaction combat phase before the aslan move again; this is like a normal turn, except that the inactive player can only move one counter stack, and then only for three jumps, although not everything has to go to the same destination. Combat is handled normally.

In this case, I’ve already decided the Solomani reaction stack is at Gazzain, although I could change my mind now, and the farthest any of it can get is Hasara; so during its reaction movement phase, Confed moves its destroyer from Gazzain to Hasara, and its exploratory cruiser from Gazzain to Tangga, to give it some defence in depth – any invading force has to stop and deal with units in each system, which gives Confed at least one turn’s breathing room to rearm.

I could move the transports as well, but Mizah is too tough a nut to crack – better to build a couple of strike cruisers and negotiate from strength – and invading secondary systems risks losing units too early in the game; even if successful, it strands units in low-value systems.

This is the first point at which Arion and the Old Musky crew would notice things happening, so now I should press on until fighting breaks out, then work backwards from that, allocating dates to what has happened so far. Ignoring the setup, I arbitrarily allocate one week to the aslanic maintenance and production phase; the aslan first movement phase takes about six weeks, and the first combat phase is probably a week of negotiations, during which a Solomani spy ship in the Godoro system starts its 10 week trip back to Gazzain to report that the Aslan are coming out. The Solomani reaction movement phase is also about six weeks, and I’ll call the unused reaction combat phase one week as well; so whenever we started, we’ve spent about 24 weeks thus far, and the start can’t have been any later than late July 3401 for the war to begin on schedule.

I’m assuming that Confed has contingency plans and the base on Gazzain has authority to execute them if necessary, otherwise it would take another 1-2 months for news to reach Maadin and orders to come back – this is the big advantage of not having FTL radio in SF RPGs, the commander on the spot can’t pick up the phone and ask HQ what to do, he has to decide for himself.

In hindsight, Confed should have deployed three scouts into the reaction stack, one to hold Gazzain, one to hold Tangga, and a third one to go with the destroyer and exploration ship to Mizah and negotiate. I console myself with the thought that real history is full of suboptimal strategic choices.

Adventure Possibilities

From this point on, I’m going to note possible scenarios or other Player Character involvement in the war.

In the boardgame, both sides have perfect knowledge of each other’s movements and units. Since no information travels faster than a ship, at the RPG level that means there are Confed and Hierate spy ships everywhere, which in turn means all of the planetless tertiary systems have stealthed ships waiting to refuel the spy ships; or perhaps, as in 2300AD, there are planetoid chunks of rock and ice debris for this, with automated refuelling bases on them. One could start a naval campaign with the PCs as the crew of a spy ship, their first mission triggering when one side or the other appears in the system they’re watching, and they must escape with the news.

Or, the PCs could be agents inserted onto that world, abandoned when their supporting ship jumps out, with contingency orders to organise a resistance movement.

Later, agents undercover as the crew of a far trader circling the Moralon cluster (Godoro, Valka and nearby systems) could gather intel and hand it off to a patrol corvette hidden in the Godoro system.

There’s a lot to do in the Dark Nebula.

GM Notes

I’ve realised that I’m going to need the position snapshots as some sort of computer images, if only because copying the previous turn’s positions will take longer and likely introduce errors as well. My first thought was Hex Map Pro, which I used successfully in the past for that, but it disappeared from the iTunes app store while I wasn’t using it. I hate it when that happens. So I’m using Hexographer for the moment. At some point I will need to show which counters are in space and which are on the ground; I’ll probably put surface units in italics or something.

Aslan Border Wars: 1-AH-C

Here we enter the first aslan combat phase, which is the point at which I can first roll to see whether Godoro and Valka join the aslan or resist.

This is pretty straightforward; I roll one die for each world, adding +1 per 10 missile factors in the system; on a 1, fighting breaks out, and on a 6, the neutral forces ally with the aslan.

Godoro: 1d6+1 = 5; negotiations continue into the next aslan combat phase.

Valka: 1d6+0 = 4, and again negotiations continue.

If either had allied with the aslan, their forces could have been hired as mercenaries, but the Hierate would have to leave a unit in system to retain control. The aslan can’t negotiate and attack in the same phase, so this will roll forward into their next combat phase.

No map for you this time, as it would look exactly the same as the last one.

Aslan Border Wars 3: 1-AH-B

Or if you prefer, Aslanic Hierate turn 1, phase B; first aslan movement phase.

I spent a lot of time thinking – well, dithering – about this move, and then I thought, what does it matter, I’m not playing to win, I’m playing to generate an interesting backdrop.

So, the big aslan stack at Panas splits; one SC and one CL move to Valka, arriving in week 4, and the rest of it moves to Godoro, arriving in week 6 – that’s four TR carrying one Armoured and three Regular troops, one DD, one CS and the tanker. It’s important to have at least 10 missile factors in the system as the locals will then not open fire (they can’t roll low enough to be hostile) and have at least a 1/3 chance of joining the aslan cause. Valka is a bit of a gamble to be honest, but you never know, you might get lucky.

Alternatives considered and discarded were running screaming at Gazzain (big battle, too likely to lose lots of ships) and split forces across Valka, Godoro, Ria and Mizah (invites defeat in detail, in particular whatever goes to Mizah is going to get pounded by the Confed reaction stack at Gazzain).

Here’s a map showing where things stand at the end of the phase; click to enlarge. It isn’t pretty, but then it doesn’t need to be, it’s only really for the GM. Apart from the forces at Godoro and Valka, everything is where it was before. I still don’t know what date this phase is, sometime in late 3401, I will work backwards once the shooting starts and assign a proper date.

Aslanic Hierate turn 1, phase B; first aslan movement phase.

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.

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