Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On creating a campaign setting

While I'm finishing up the basing of my first forces, I've been thinking hard about the campaign setting I'll be gaming in. The story has taken shape, and I thought I'd speak to just how it formed itself.

It started with the miniatures. Some years ago the local gaming group began playing Alien Squad Leader, a fantastic set of platoon-level rules (see the links section on this blog). The rules include an army list for alien bugs, inspired by Starship Troopers, I'm sure. I wanted a bug army, and started collecting suitable miniatures. A few dozen Necromunda Milliasaurs, Tyranid Adrenal sacks, old school Tyranid Rippers and assorted others later, I had my critters.

And then they sat in a box for some time. I dug them out of storage recently, when I wanted to paint again. I wanted to do Sci-Fi skirmish games, something like Space Hulk, using different rules. So I painted up the bugs, and added some converted MechWarrior Kanazuchi Battle Armor figures for the "Terminator" opposing force. To these, in order to provide a little variety, I added some other MW battle armor for power-armored infantry, some Peter Pig Israelis for light grunts, and a spare robot or two.

I started thinking about terrain, and printed a bunch of Space Hulk tiles. That was fine, but I wanted something much more urban. Something more frontier. Something more gritty. Blade Runner meets Serenity. I found some paper models of ramshackle hovels and shanties, and that set the tone nicely. I'll still build those some day, but I also had this huge bits box full of pieces I'd collected over the years, with the intention of turning them into 28mm Necromunda terrain. Lots of industrial bits in there. And I read an interesting article in a recent Wargames Illustrated article about urban terrain, and using a modular approach to yield different layouts with each game. A few small paper mache boxes from a craft store later (to serve as the shells) and I was on my way to creating some nice buildings to fight around and over.

So, there are hard-shelled alien beasties. A small force of well-equipped humans. And a shanty-filled colonial world to fight over. Some of the alien critters (Tyranid spore mine figures) resembled floating bags of...something. Combine that with inspiration drawn from Aliens and Dune, and you get desert-dwelling bugs with acidic bodily fluids. Why acidic, though? Ah. Corrosive alien chemistry in their native world, where the colony has been established. But why establish a colony in such a hostile environment? Resources. Chemical compounds and rare minerals in the soil and water supply. Other, biologically interesting chemical compounds in the alien creatures themselves. The competing interests between those of the bugs (stay alive, breed, defend) and those of the chemical company (harvest, collect, exploit) provided conflict and a reason for wargames to be fought.

This brought the chemical company and mining interests into the scene. And suddenly I had a reason for my brightly painted human military figures (remember, I was putting them together for Space Hulk before...they're not subtle): they'd be uniformed security and harvest teams working for the chemical company.

On a whim, and out of thin air, I made up a name for the planet: β-Ariadne-4. I checked the web for anything about a constellation called Ariadne, expecting to find nothing, but found something far more interesting. There is no constellation Ariadne. But there is one named for Ariadne's Crown (Corona Borealis). It's β star is an extremely interesting binary pair, made up of very rare and peculiar (literally...the "p" at the end of their class designation stands for "peculiar") stars. These stars are loaded with rare elements. This, honest to goodness, was just a very happy circumstance, fitting very nicely into my early thoughts on the campaign planet. These stars would have influenced the composition of the planets around them, and that soup of caustic and rare compounds seemed to fit the biology of my imagined bugs and the interests of the chemical/pharma company very well indeed.

I wanted arid, but alien. I bought some 18" linoleum tiles with adhesive backs (dirt cheap...like $3 each) printed with an interesting organic, rocky, grey/tan/green pattern, and I had the color scheme for my world. Some of the bug miniatures I have are clearly tunnelers, which was the genesis of the subterranean fauna and loose soil composition on the planet. And...I'm a big Star Wars geek...I've always loved the idea of the Tatooine "moisture vaporators." So, a desert, but with water in the air. The loose soil a tunneling ecosystem would need, and the moisture vector, brought to mind the possibility of an entire ecosystem evolving to subsist on underground aquifers, with no standing water at the surface. The binary star brought instability and periodic flux into the picture.

And there had to be colonists. I've always loved the rough-and-ready, gritty feel of Necromunda, especially the Ash Waste gangs and Ratskins. So the colonists would be miners, chemical workers and the vast array of star port dock workers, transport drivers, merchants, bar owners and other small business people required to keep a colony alive on a planet where nothing edible will grow. And there would be loners. People willing to colonize a planet like this, to raise a family there, would be tough minded and independent, or desperate. Plenty of the kinds of folks who, occasionally, would go off the reservation and look for a little piece of security all their own. So, smaller settlements outside the colony towns and industrial areas.

And those caustic chemicals just can't be good for you. So, birth defects and infant mortality are tragically common. Some of those birth defects create viable mutants, and some of those mutations are actually beneficial. Enter the Scavvies/muties/monsters/outcasts.

Finally, three other factors introduced an alien race, or what's left of it, to the world. First, I had a number of large scale robots, droids, etc. Pieces too big to really use on my vision of the 15mm battlefield, but too cool to throw away or sell off. They would become featured terrain items; the remnants of ancient conflicts. Second, I fancy a nice underground spelunking adventure now and then. A reason to fight those Space Hulk-inspired battles that started this whole thing off. And finally, it's just a cool idea. I mean, come on. Relics of an alien race far more advanced than even our star-faring descendants? How could I resist.

Lastly, I found some REALLY inspiring artwork out there on the web. I did all kinds of searches using Google's Image search engine, and found those pictures you see in the campaign setting article. None of them are EXACTLY what I picture Nusakan to be, but they inspire me greatly. I was particularly surprised to find the picture of the Final Fantasy Sand Worm. You'll see how closely it matches both the models I use for my bugs and the paint scheme I chose. To the best of my recollection, I'd never seen a picture of those creature before I'd already painted my bug force. I swear.

You'll see more of Nusakan, and learn more about it's inhabitants and their struggles, as I post photos and descriptions of the figures, terrain and battles. For now, I hope you found this article a helpful guide to the creative process behind Nusakan, and my campaign setting.

Campaign Setting

β Corona Borealis-2, β-CBr-2, Nusakan

The β star in the constellation Corona Borealis (also known as Ariadne's Crown) is, in fact, a binary pair. Both stars burn a clear blue-white. β-I is far larger than it's bright sister, β-II. Around the β-I cerulean ember orbits the system's pair of planets. The second planet, named Nusakan (noo-SAH-kahn) for the ancient Earth name for these stars before science pried them apart in the eyes of man, is a ball of rock, sand and polar ice 12% larger than Earth in diameter. The stony and wind-blown surface looks simple enough, but there is more to Nusakan than meets the eye.

The bright β-II star orbits it's larger partner every 10.5 Earth years. While it is distant enough to allow the continued survival of the system's planets1, the tidal forces it exerts wrack Nusakan with every passing. Nusakan is, as a result, tectonically unstable. Quakes are common, and volcanoes speckle the surface of the planet, concentrated most strongly around the planet's equatorial zone. When β-II swings near, the planet groans.

This tidal action and the porous composition of the soil and rock on Nusakan combine to create ground with drainage so excessive that no liquid stands on the surface of the planet. Nusakan is hardly a dry world, however. Humidity is high in the atmosphere, and drizzle and light rain is commonplace. At the poles, vast thin icecaps cover the ground. In the temperate and equatorial zones, however, the water quickly seeps underground into enormous and deep aquifers. Only during the torrential rains brought about by the passing of β-II does enough rain fall to collect for a while in vast, shallow flood planes and flow through the broad ancient dry river ways. Even then, the water is quickly gone again.

The minerals common on Nusakan are strange and rare, when considered at a stellar scale. β-I is classified as an "F0p" star, where the "p" refers to it's classification as chemically "peculiar." Like the star, the planets around it are rich in strontium, chromium, europium and other even rarer and more toxic elements. The water of Nusakan, especially in the concentrated liquid form in the aquifers, is highly acidic and poisonous.

Of course, to sustain human life, you need clean water. The few larger settlements can afford and protect the large purification plants required to make use of water drawn from the underground aquifers. Most settlements, and all independent settlers, make use of atmospheric condensation and evaporation to pull less toxic water from the air and clean it.

Humanity is not alone on Nusakan. Not much lives above ground, but the planet has a rich biosphere, consisting primarily of subterranean fungus, bacteria, and an animal food chain ranging in size from the tiny to the titanic. The xenos are, without exception, inedible to humans and highly toxic. The chemical makeup of the planet, including its highly acidic soil and water, influence the native flora and fauna directly. The mechanisms these creatures have evolved to survive this environment, and to protect themselves from each other, are the subject of intense inquiry and exploitation by a large Terran chemical conglomerate, Aridexion Solutions. Aridexion, or "AS," maintains research facilities on the planet, as well as a well-armed and equipped organization of "harvest teams" who collect specimens.

At most times, the hardest work of these teams is finding native organisms to study. The animal life on Nusakan spends virtually all of its time deep underground. Minor advances in ground-penetrating radar and a sonar-like pulse technology designed to map the aquifers and track animals within it have resulted from their quest to find some means of finding, tracking and capturing or killing specimens.

But the periodic close passes of β-II bring opportunity. Tremors around the world increase. Volcanoes spew fresh lava. The depths churn. Water pools and runs across the surface of the planet. And the creatures of Nusakan rise from the depths to breed and feed. While the mining companies pull up well heads and put their facilities into a defensive, protected state, Aridexion ramps up. The harvest teams are expanded with mercenaries and local security forces. The research facilities switch from long-term studies to emergency "fix and freeze" operations, focused on processing and preserving the huge number of animals and carcasses brought in for their use.

"Mining," per se, takes the form of massive pumps and processing plants that extract metals and other compounds from the slurry brought up from around the edges of the deep aquifers, where metal oxides have condensed. The plants evaporate the water under pressure and heat, pumping steam laden with particulates and toxins into the already poisoned atmosphere. Because the largest and richest aquifers circle the equatorial zone, the majority of these plants pepper that region. The main colonial populace clusters in the more temperate zones, to keep out of the heat, away from the biggest quakes and volcanoes, and out from under more corrosive water vapor clouds created by these massive plants.

Wildcat miners exist too, specializing in specific, lower cost and less dangerous compounds and extraction methods. Both industrial and wildcat mines use a lot of manual labor, because men and environment suites are cheaper than machinery and don't corrode (as fast).

The caustic elements abounding on the planet, unfortunately, cause large numbers of birth defects and a high infant mortality rate. Having a child on Nusakan is a high stakes, high risk gamble. These problems are at their worst close to the toxic and more highly irradiated (from the β-CBr stars) equatorial region. Mutations are not uncommon, among those few who live to adulthood. Most are debilitating. Some few bring some kind of advantage to the unlucky mutant.

Colonists on Nusakan are numerous, but Nusakan is vast. The surface of the planet is 32% larger than that of Earth. And all of it is dry land. There is a lot of open space in the arid wastes between far flung settlements, even in the more populous temperate zones. This, and the abundant radiation from the system's stars, make solar power the cheapest and most common source of energy. Solar arrays range in size from small personal units to large farms collecting power for factories and towns. In the mountains, where the winds are channeled and constant, wind power comes into play as well.

Humans have colonized Nusakan for generations. But they are not the first race to exploit this planet and its unique resources. Scattered across the planet, especially in the band of rich mineral mining sites around the equator, are the ruined remains of an ancient star-faring civilization. Someone, from somewhere, has been here before. Alien structures exist above ground, or buried under the ever-shifting sands. Above ground, some small clusters exist, but there are no alien "cities," as such. Underground, it's another story.

There are complexes that stretch for miles, both down into the ground and broadly at layers just below the surface. In most cases, these ruins are relatively intact, despite tectonic shifting over a span of time stretching back before Man invented the wheel. Many of these facilities are mining complexes, combining mine faces, living quarters and supporting structures. None have functioning mechanisms to manage atmosphere, temperature or anything else. The deeper one goes, the hotter it gets. In a hurry. And the more damage one is likely to encounter. Collapsed and flooded tunnels are common in the depths.

Many of these complexes have been explored, but many more remain partially discovered, or entirely unfound. These alien outposts have yielded technological treasures, particularly in the material and chemical sciences. Researchers are stationed at many of the sites doing active exploration, trying to learn how the aliens who left these complexes behind built them to last so long, and how they extracted the minerals and chemicals from the soil.

This race, whoever they were, did not go quietly into the dark night of history. Littered across the landscape lie the wrecks of immense vehicles of war. Armored hulks bake in the sun, their weapons and systems decayed beyond function. Like the mines, however, these ruins relics are fonts of technological innovation. Wrecks are picked over as they are revealed. Their remains of their sensitive and advanced components are taken away to research facilities, often off-world, while their armored hulks are salvaged for plating, or turned into shelters whole.

Nusakan is a dangerous, poisonous planet. But its secrets are many and very, very valuable.


    1: I took some artistic license here. The actual binary pair at Nusakan are separated by a mere 10 AU, roughly the distance from the Sun to Saturn. Most likely far too close to allow planetary formation around either one.

    Images: So far, all images were used without permission of the owner. I've linked to the sites where I found them...click on each image to go there. I'm working on establishing permission to use these images.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Getting closer...

Hi all,

I'm just finishing up the basing on the first set of miniatures for the new campaign: just under forty kit-bashed 15mm droids, painting in colors inspired by Star Wars and industrial robots. The other two initial forces: native alien fauna and the pharma company operatives that hunt them, are painted and awaiting basing.

I've found a basing scheme that works well, I think. It blends in nicely with the adhesive linoleum tiles I'm using to create the gaming surface, and provides a nice contrast to the miniature itself, fixing the eye on the figure instead of the base.

More details as these figures are ready for prime time.

Thanks for watching.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Watch this space

Well hello there.

Long time, no see, eh?

After a long hiatus, I've been painting again. Not playing many games, as life is so busy, but I grab a few minutes where I can to make progress on a collection of miniatures.

Which collection? 54mm Three Musketeers? 25mm Napoleonic Naval Boarding Actions? 20mm Star Wars?

Why no. None of the above.

You see, I'm taking a new tack, when it comes to miniatures. I have spent years collecting most everything that I take a fancy too. I have more miniatures than I can store, and far more than I'll ever paint. And don't get me started about terrain.

Actually, I take it back. Let's talk terrain. 'Cause the terrain is key to the whole decision I've made.

I've been spending time lately going through my collection, deciding which 80% (give or take) to sell, and which 10% to keep. When I started considering projects to keep, I focused first on the miniatures I liked the most. Sensible enough, sure. But quickly that turned into the polymorphous madness of scales and periods that put me right where I am today. And then I realized something key. I have almost no terrain for any of these projects. And terrain takes up a LOT of storage space, relative to figures.

So, what if I had a 54mm dock and ship, and a tavern, through and around which my Musketeers could fight their skirmishes? And a 20mm Mos Eisley? And 25mm islands and ships for my Horatio Hornblower battles? Not to mention 15mm Ancient camps and terrain. And 25mm Viking/Saxon huts and ships. And 25mm sci-fi Post Apoc / Necromunda terrain? Good grief. I'd need a dedicated storage space. Or a MUCH bigger house. And that's just silly.

So what then?

One scale. One scale would help a LOT. And a small scale at that.

For years, I've collected 25mm science fiction figures. I started with Rogue Trader characters and pirates, added Confrontation (not the Rackham game...the GW pre-cursor to Necromunda) figures, 2000 AD figures, Inquisition characters, most of the Necromunda line, and an assortment of others I've discovered in the "bits bin" of the local store over the years. At a guess, I'd say I have at least two hundred figures in this collection. Guess how many are painted? Maybe twenty.

And...here's another something to consider...these figures are collector's items anymore. Worth a few dollars.

I've also collected sci-fi figures in 6mm, 20mm and 15mm. See the pathological collector in action.

So which scale?

I like skirmish wargames. Not exclusively, but that's certainly where my preference lies, strongly. I like story-telling, reaction-based, solo-friendly games. Two Hour Wargames come to mind as the best known examples, but there are others. I like platoon-level games as well, commanding a reinforced platoon, maybe as much as a company, a squad at a time. My favorite rules for this, and (this is important) one my local friends play too, is Alien Squad Leader.

That rules out 6mm, in my opinion. The infantry is just too small to play character-based skirmish games with. 25mm works for those character-based games, duh, but the figures are so expensive, and the terrain is so large. And, my friends play Alien Squad Leader in 15mm.

15mm figures, especially sci-fi figures, have come a LONG way since I started collecting. A quick search turned up Khurasan, Rebel, 15mm.co.uk, Critical Mass and few others, and revealed that RAFM is now selling my favorite 15mm Traveller figures again. This last was quite a revelation, as I'd lost these from my collection years ago, and buying vintage Traveller figures was WAY, WAY EXPENSIVE just a couple of years ago, if you could find them at all on eBay and elsewhere.

And 15mm terrain is...well...tiny! About 1/8 the volume of the 25mm equivalent. And much, much faster for me to create, due to the relatively small detail.

And I can paint 15mm figures far faster than 25mm figures, while retaining a pleasing and characterful level of detail.

In the end, it came down to economy. Of storage space. Of time required to create and paint. Of money.

15mm it is.

Watch this space. More to come. I've been painting up critters, and robots and soldiers. They're coming.