Stars Without Number: The Varlin Expanse

Varina Phi Marked

Map made very quickly in Hexographer.

One of the games on my back burner is a Stars Without Number game.  This is a map of my sector, semi-randomly generated by yours truly.  I’ve run exactly one session in this sector thus far, a heroic game on a night where only one player was able to make our normal Kaigan time.  I might tell that story another time, but for now I just will describe the main Polities (outlined in various colors on the map).

Silvas Corporate Space

Our first game tool place in this part of the sector, on the planet Silvas (02, 07).  Silvas has a fairly ineffectual planetary government that has been tied up and controlled by coporate interests for as far back as anyone can remember, resulting in a fairly Laissez-faire economy, mostly controlled by several large mega-corporations and a number of smaller sub-contractors and subsidiaries.

The planet Silvas was the first of the immediately local systems to recover from the science, and has since taken a dominant role in the trade of the nearby sectors, with Silvas corps having a large control over their neighbors modern economies, if not actually dejure control over their planetary governments.

Without oversight over their plans and R&D, it is rumored that some (if not all) Silvas corps are involved in not only pretech research, but maltech as well.  Still, various work can be found for enterprising individual even in the age of megacorps, many have use for the occasional contractor that is willing to take a job outside their normal operations, as well as “Deniable assets” for questionable ops.

The Orbis Empire

Claiming to be the rightful successors of the Terran Mandate, any principles of democracy the Mandate might have once held seem to have been abandoned long ago, instead ruled by a complicated hierarchy of nobility with the “Steward of the Mandate”, emperor in all but name, acting as the head.

Starting from their capital on Terra Minor (02,01), the empire began attempting to bring more worlds under its control from the moment it re-discovered spike drives, catching some planets before they had managed to re-develop sufficient tech to be able to fight back.  As more planets reached the current state of pretech, and orbital defenses and defensive stations were brought back online, the advance of the Empire has slowed.

Imperial space is highly regulated and monitored, and has the most warships of any Polity in the sector, but an aspiring adventurer can still make a fair living in Imperial credits if they know how to cut through the red tape and deliver goods at reasonable prices to the hungry citizens of the empire.  A skilled gun can make their way as a mercenary, or even an officer in the military if a stable career is their inclination.  For the less scrupulous type, the various nobles in the Empire always seem to be scheming something to get the better of their rivals, and often will pay an unconnected party handsomely for their part in their schemes.

The Free Planet Alliance

As Spike Drives returned to use in the Expanse, word of the Empire spread to nearby systems, with many fearing that they would be next.  The Free Planet alliance was formed out of that fear by several worlds right in the empire’s shadow.  The alliance is a loose confederation of Planets, united for their mutual protection and benefit, with a firm stance against further Imperial expansion.

Unfortunately, that stance is about all else they have in common, and tensions in the Alliance run rather high, many systems (perhaps rightly) fearing that as soon as the threat of the empire goes away, their “allies” of today will be tomorrow’s attempted conquerors.  Thus, while there is a strong incentive to build up military force in the planets of the Alliance, very few of the members want to risk USING it, for fear that their neighbors will capitalize on that weakness.  This hesitation to risk their own troops and the clamoring for advantage over their rivals is widely considered to be the primary reason one of their former member planets (04,01) is now under Empire control.

As most of the shipbuilding resources in the Alliance go toward building their warships, outside traders have an easy time finding work building up the slack.  That is, if they can avoid being accused of spies for another system.  Coincidentally, outside intelligence specialists also tend to find decent contract work in the FPA, both in spying on the Empire, and… other targets.

The Theocracy of the Guiding Light

Many believe the Guiding Light was a minor cult before the scream, however, in the time since it has become the single most prominent religion in the Expanse (although practicing it is officially banned in the Empire).  The Guiding Light believe that the universe itself has a divine will, and that MESS is a blessing from that divine will, given to humanity to guide them out of the darkness and into  new age of enlightenment. The meditative practices taught by the Guiding Light were also instrumental in the sector redeveloping basic psychic training methods, and, while some have attempted to remove the mysticism from them, all psychic disciplines in the sector have their roots in Guiding Light techniques.  To the faithful, the Theocracy promises reincarnation, which shall bless you with psychic powers if you act righteously in this life, leading up to a psychic lead paradise in harmony with the universe as beings of pure energy.

Much to the disdain of other polities, however, is that the Guiding Light also preaches psychic supremacy, and that the only valid government is a psychic lead government that is rooted in following the Divine will of the universe, and that such governments should all be united as one under the faith.  That is, any government that is not subservient to the Guiding Light is blasphemy against the universe, and further, violent revolution is not only justified, but demanded in the face of such blasphemy.  The Theocracy claims to be that government and consists of planets that have been successfully converted thus far.

Still, the Theocracy has fairly lenient trade policies so long as you are not shipping anything heretical, and even for non-psychics work can be fairly plentiful.  Theocracy Missionaries and aid packages also often pay more than standard fare for travel to other parts of the sector (although sometimes those aid packages are for what they government of the destination planet would call a “religious terrorist group”)

The Varlin Way

The Varlin way consists of the two known stars that connect the two halves of the sector together, without them, travel between the two parts would be impossible without pretech spike drives.  The two planets within Phrais (04, 04) and Mythis (04, 06), have both managed to stay fairly independent by leveraging their positions as trading hubs to convince the larger entities nearby that it would be in everyone’s best interest if they remain free trade planets.

Still, both the Empire and the FPA see the advantage in blocking their enemy from obtaining Silvas goods and eying Phrais, and both the Corps of Silvas and missionaries of the Theocracy have been attempting to establish stronger roots on Mythis.  If any of these planets fall into the hands of one faction or another, it will give the holder significant control over the trade that passes through the sector.

Current PaDC score: 25/31


SWN Luxury Hulls

I have a Stars Without Number sector I use as a backup for my Friday Night game when folks can’t make it.  While I might detail it in another post, in the starting part of the sector, I have a of wealthy patrons and enemies for the PCs, many of which might be able to afford star ships of their own.  Now, when I looked into creating luxury ships for these sorts, I found that, while the existing Luxury Cabin upgrade works pretty well as an upgrade to a non-luxury ship, it doesn’t really work with what I would think of when I want to know the stats of somebody’s private yacht.

These Hulls could probably stand a bit of tweaking for balance, but they should suit what I need them for just fine.

In all sectors, the rich and powerful like to travel in style, and some are even able to pay exorbitant amounts to do so.  While the upper class often will simply pay the rates for luxury cabin on a standard free merchant, the true elite will often desire at-will access to transport designed with their needs in mind.  These special hulls cost significantly more than typical civilian transport of equivalent class but take the cutting edge of TL4 tech to give the important passengers the highest standard of luxury.

Luxury Hulls typically will beat out civilian Hulls in terms of speed and survivability, but lose out to them when it comes for free space for additional fittings and hard points for weapons.  In addition, they are designed for comfort, not war, and typically lose out of military grade hulls in almost every category (sometimes even price). As such, these hulls typically only see use in peaceful systems/sectors, or are restricted to those wealthy enough to not only afford them, but a proper military grade escort as well.  When it comes to said comfort though, these ships are second to none, and superior in their comforts to ships which added Luxury Cabins as an aftermarket addition.

Hull Type Cost Speed Armor HP Crew AC Power Mass Hard Class
VIP Shuttle 2m 4 3 18 1 / 7 14 2 3 1 Fighter
Cruising Yacht 5m 3 6 30 1/12 14 7 10 1 Frigate
Royal Yacht 20m 1 10 50 15/60 11 10 15 1 Cruiser
Cruise Liner 50m -1 10 50 200 / 1200 30 30 2 Capital

VIP Shuttle: VIP shuttles are small ships, designed to ferry a small group of people from one planet or system to another and do so quickly.  These ships are often custom built for their exact purpose, those that have to make spike drills will often take the best spike drive available and build the entire shuttle around it, while those that are designed for in system flight will instead often opt to only take a system drive and spend the remaining space on defenses or luxuries.  Still others instead rely on the shuttle merely to contain their valuable occupant in comfort, and have a larger, fighting ship with a ship tender mount to deter pirates and make the spike drills. 3 of the cabins are luxury cabins, while the remaining 4 are for crew and personal assistants of the VIP in question. Owner pilots sometimes instead have 5 luxury cabins installed, ideal for trips to the moon with the family.

Cruising Yacht: Sometimes also called a Party Yacht, the Cruising Yacht is the most common of the Luxury ships in private individual ownership.  Cruising Yachts are mostly a status symbol, and rarely venture too far out from their planets of origin lest they stray too far away from the nearest protective military base.  Still, they do come equipped with Spike Drives standard, and can also fill the same niche as the VIP shuttle when a slightly larger group needs to be taken from one place to another.  The 12 cabins listed are all Luxury, although the life support actually allows up to 16 if some people are willing to double up.

Royal Yacht: Also called a Corporate Yacht in some sectors, Royal Yachts are very rarely seen in private ownership, although they are sometimes found in possession of a semi-retired Far Traders whom having already ‘made it’ are willing to trade the cargo space of a Heavy Freighter for the comforts this model provides.  Royal yachts exist to ferry not only VIPs, but their entire entourage (be it a corporate team or a noble’s court) along with the, which sometimes STILL mandates several extended life support upgrades for particularly large groups. In less peaceful systems, however, even heads of state will prefer a ship of war as their means of transport.  A quarter of all cabins are luxury, with the remainder being standard for crew, servants, and lesser attachés.

Cruise Liner: Practically a slow ship with a spike drive, the Cruise Liner runs at price of a Battleship, and there are very few entities in most sectors that can both afford to build one and also would prefer a Cruise Liner to a battleship.  Even when the Cruise Liner is run for its intended purpose, in practice the margins are often too tight to make it work, even if you can get away with charging more for the novelty. Still, in some highly regulated parts of space, it is useful as the only civilian capital class hull on the market.  The Maximum Crew listed assumes a 50/50 split of crew/standard cabins and Luxury Cabins, although most Cruise Liners are modular enough that this (and any cabins added as extended life support) can be modified at a 2 standard:1 Luxury ratio at no additional cost when done as part of the ship’s maintenance.  Further, some have attempted to use the Hull as the basis for a barge, the crew is reduced to 150/450 (all standard Cabins), and the Free mass increases to 75. There is no change to the price of the hull when buying this new, but converting from one configuration to the other aftermarket costs 10 million credits.

Current PaDC score: 13/31

Stars Without Number: Cultural Proficiency

So, I am a man of many contradictions.  One of which, is that, when comparing the classic Stars Without Number skill list to the Revised edition, I generally prefer the slimmed down Revised edition as less of a pain in the butt to keep track of and generally more playable.  On the other hand, a thing I really love in Stars Without Number is the trade rules present in the classic Supplement Suns of Gold, and one of the things I love about those trade rules is that it requires a highly specialized skill for dealing with EACH planet’s specific culture.  In the revised edition, all of those cultural skills have been folded into the spheres of a few skills, with no real specializations for particular planets or particular cultures.  So if I want to use the Suns of Gold trade system in revised, I have a few options:

  1. Use the Revised Skill list completely as is.  This removes focus on investing in knowledge of specific planets because it is all folded up into the know/connect skills.  Outside of situational modifiers, PC’s ability to trade will be about the same on every planet, which is missing part of what I liked about the Trade rules in the first place.
  2. Use the classic skill list in revised/run the game in classic.  Workable, but again I overall like the concise skill list better, except in this one situation.
  3. Re-add just cultural skills.  Doesn’t really seem right to me when the Shoot skill will still cover anything from a pistol to a Battleships main gun, makes being the guy who knows stuff require more investment than anything else.
  4. Invent my own system.  Which obviously is what I am doing since I am making this blog post at all.

So, my goal is to keep this thing simple, and require minimal bookkeeping, and, if I can make it so it doesn’t require any extra investment than making a trader normally would but still captures the idea of you know more about certain worlds than others, all the better.  So, without further ado, I present you with, Cultural Proficiency!

Cultural Proficiency

Most of the time, when one requires specific knowledge, a simple Know roll is sufficient, likewise, when dealing with a person from another planet, a talk roll, a connect roll or similar is all that is needed.  Sometimes though, the knowledge or social procedures necessary to smoothly expedite a given interaction is deeply rooted in cultural assumptions that might not be apparent to a nonnative that has not carefully studied the culture in question.  The PC’s Cultural Proficiency is designed to replace the relevant cultural skill in determining the expertise score for the Trade rules in Suns of Gold, but may also be called for by the GM in situations where deep understanding of the many unspoken assumptions of a specific culture the PCs are dealing with are required to navigate the current situation.  In general though, these situations should be rare, and Cultural Proficiency is not intended to be a full replacement for Know, Connect, or any other skill, even in regards to dealing with a specific culture or in regards to general cultural knowledge.  Making a few friends at the tavern by buying a few rounds is still a connect roll, even if you are in a foreign culture. Doing the same without revealing you are an outsider based on how you hold up your fingers might require a cultural proficiency roll.

Culture Groups

The GM should determine what groups of people share the same culture, and thus, with what groups of people a given cultural proficiency applies to.  In general, cultural proficiency is for a culture as a whole, ignoring specific subcultures that may exist.  Someone who was in the military or fans of a specific type of music may vary noticeably of the norm, but such specific details are beyond the scope of these rules.

Typically, each world should be (for the purposes of determining proficiency) a single, unique, mono-culture.  This does not mean you should make each planet a planet of hats, but rather, the communication and transportation technology tech level 4 and up provides means the natives will generally have settled on a set of norms and expectations that everyone is willing to deal with in the time since the silence.   Exceptions can exist at the GMs discretion, worlds with multiple warring parties or worlds with low tech level and multiple separated groups of people might have a unique culture for every group due to lack of communication technology.  On the other hand, two worlds in the same system with strong cultural ties might share a cultural proficiency, while a regional or cultural hedgemon might be able to impose its culture on the neighboring systems.

Proficiency Levels

Cultural Proficiency comes in three levels, None, Familiar, and Versed.  Familiar and Versed both mention a “relevant skill”, typically, this is the higher of a character’s Connect or Know skills, but a GM may rule that a certain situation requires a specific skill and only that skill to be modified by the character’s cultural proficiency.

  • None: A character that is not Familiar or Proficient with a given culture is considered to have no proficiency, their modifier is always a flat -1 regardless of skill bonuses.
  • Familiar: If a character is Familiar, but not Versed, with a given culture, their cultural Proficiency modifier is half the relevant skill, rounded down.
  • Versed: If a character is Versed in a given culture, they may use their relevant skill at its full value as their Cultural Proficiency, with an additional +1 if it is their native culture.

Gaining Proficiency

All characters are Versed in their native Culture, if your character is a product of multiple cultures, choose the one that had the biggest or most profound impact on your character as your native culture.  In addition, each character can be Versed in a number of additional cultures equal to the sum of their Intelligence modifier, Connect, and Know skills, even if the sum is negative, a character does not lose proficiency with their native culture.  If the character permanently improves their Intelligence modifier, Connect, and/or Know skill, they may become versed in additional Culture(s) up to their new sum.

Starting Characters are typically not considered Familiar with any cultures, although the GM may award Familiarity with the starting world or a single culture relevant to a player’s backstory.  Familiarity is earned through play, with characters either spending Several Months immersed in the culture (IE not holed up on their ship in orbit), or conducting several adventures dealing with people primarily from the cultural group.  Counting days or even weeks of such immersion is more bookkeeping than is really necessary, and GMs should just rule as feels right given the complexity of the culture and how (dis)similar it is to the cultures the PCs are used to.

And that’s it.  GM determines a list of cultural groups, PCs get their native one, plus a few others for having the relevant skills, and then keep a list.  The only bookkeeping involved is maintaining that list and maybe on the GM to track how long they’ve spent immersed in a given culture, and, honestly the players will ask for it, and the GM can just go with their gut instead of exactly tracking it.

I think there’s a lot more you could go into detail on and get fiddly with modifiers, but, honestly I think this hack is complete enough as is.  Between the Gulf and Kaigan, I got a lot on my plate in therms of running games right now, but I’ll definitely give this a shot next time I run a Stars Without Number game that focuses on trade.

Current PaDC score: 8/31

Battlestars Without Number

I recently backed the revised edition of Stars Without Number on Kickstarter, which runs until the 30th of this month.*  As a backer, I got access to the free beta rules, which, came with the message “You are welcome to share this link or this beta PDF freely with others, or post it up where it’s appropriate and polite.”.  I’m going to go ahead and assume I can arbitrate what is “appropriate and polite” on my own blog, but I will remove that link if requested to do so.  I also make no guarantees how long that link will be good after the campaign ends.

*I feel a bit weird linking to an active Kickstarter, so I’ll make a few things clear before I move on.  I am not affiliated with this Kickstarter in any way beyond being a backer (and I will tell you if I ever am).  I can not promise that the project creator will deliver all, some, or any of the promised rewards.  I have personally backed plenty of projects on Kickstarter and while I have been mostly happy with the results, I have also had projects deliver rewards that were below the quality promised or implied, projects that have had to cancel and issue a refund/partial refund, and projects that have run off with my money never to be heard from again.  Anything you donate to any crowdfunding campaign should be an amount you can afford to never see any return out of.  This warning is not directed at any project or project creator in particular, but rather something you should keep in mind before you back ANY project.

Anyway, I’ve been reading the beta pdf, and like any good RPG book, it is making me think about the types of games I would like to run in it.  The things that really caught my eye for a game was some of the ship upgrades, and part of the history section where they talked about some of psitech.  I read the various upgrades that allowed a ship to be self-sufficient (although good luck fitting them all on one ship), and I immediately pictured a Star Trek sort of situation.  In particular, I was thinking of Voyager, a long and dangerous journey with no guarantees of ever making it to their destination.  When reading about some of the ancient lost technology, I found the idea of psychic powered jump gates pretty cool as well.

Those two concepts mixed together in my brain, along with the ever classic far future sci-fi trope of searching for lost earth.  And eventually I settled on this concept, an old rim world still has a jumpgate.  It was damaged during the Scream and all the psychics who knew how to work it died, but it is mostly intact.  What little Pre-silence records survive indicate that this gate very well could have been a direct line to earth!  Their psychics think they could actually get this old gate working again, but they need people on the other side to do so.

The PCs are dispatched to find the other end of this gate (and, ideally, Earth), only given an approximate meta-space heading, carrying with them a team of psychics in cold-sleep who can open the gate from the other side.  They also have a secondary objective of gathering as much data as they can on the worlds they encounter along the way (scientific, biological, technological, astrological, etc).

The PCs will be the leaders of this expedition, sent out by agents of their own local system government.  They’d take on the roles of the Captain, Bridge crew and department heads of the ship (or the Admiral and several captains if they have multipule ships). Tracking down the exact coordinates of the other end, dealing with potentially hostile locals, and determining the proper course, will be up to them. Almost no expense was spared on this mission.  As such, the PCs can start with whatever ship they want (or even a handful of ships), that they think they will need for this mission, with the following conditions:

  • Tech Level 4, no or limited Pretech components, an exception is the drive rating
  • A Drive rating of at least 4.
  • Limit to 1 Capital class ship
  • They need a set of Cold Sleep Pods/Exodus Bays to contain at least 100 psychics they are supposed to deliver.  If they lose these, their mission is a failure and they are only getting home (if they do at all) the long way.  Extra slots in those systems can be used for replacement crew.  Extra systems could carry more psychics.
  • They need enough Colony Cores to take care of the entire crew, plus everyone in cold sleep (people probably WILL die along the way, but they aren’t allowed to assume that).
  • While they don’t have to pay for the ship, they DO have to keep it fueled, maintain it, and keep the crew fed and breathing.  They don’t have to pay the crew per se, but they do have to manage morale, and shore leave with some stipends would certainly help with that.

Depending on the ship(s) the players come up with, they may need to work or barter for any supplies, resources or facilities.  Even a self-sustaining ship/fleet will still need to make contact with the locals to get local star maps and Rutters, and damage in battle or just a bad spike drill can put such a fleet in just as bad (or worse) need as if they never had those upgrades at all.  Depending on the players, and how seriously they take their secondary objective, it might end up being a race to complete the mission with as little delays as possible, or a more exploratory game involving finding interesting stuff scattered throughout unknown space.

Either way, it would require the types of players who actually enjoy figuring out the logistics of the situation, as well an agreement of how the PC/PC hierarchy structure works if one of them is in command, but it seems like it would be a lot of fun!  I’ll almost certainly have to back burner this idea for the foreseeable future, as I am still working on the Gulf, but I might be able to dig it out at somepoint (hopefully after the full rules come out).

A bit of an aside, I have never actually seen Battlestar Galactica, been meaning to, just haven’t got to it. I just know the general concept of this game is close to the premise of the show, and it made a good pun for the title.