RPG aids


What Dreams These?

What Dreams These?

Although it is a post-scarcity utopia, there are some things that even the Spiral Confederacy cannot guarantee its citizens. Ocean class spaceships, for example, 40km long and 10 km wide, require special facilities to build, and so much energy and raw materials that they cannot be built quickly enough to meet demand. Ships of this size are so rare even in the Spiral Confederacy that their citizens are not free to travel where they like, but find themselves bouncing around the Confederacy on missions and tasks that the leadership require. The Confederacy has never built a Dyson sphere, although it has constructed smaller orbitals, because the engineering challenge is too great to be worth the reward. Some technology, such as psionic amplification devices, is still so new that it requires rare elements that are hard to obtain and work with, and so although the Confederacy might in theory have the resources to produce an infinite quantity of such devices, in reality their numbers are never sufficient, and they are not distributed evenly across the Confederacy. Some commodities are limited because the Confederacy’s success has rendered it incapable of mobilizing people to do some tasks, and its strict resistance to allowing AIs into society prevents it from utilizing their prodigious intellects to replace human ingenuity. For this reason the Confederacy never has enough researchers to further its understanding of new planets or to develop new technologies, and until it admits AIs fully into its society will not be able to progress beyond Tech Level 15 at any appreciable speed. Because no one in the Confederacy has to work, real scientific endeavour has stagnated. Although the Confederacy has more stars in its borders than anyone can count, and more people orbiting those stars than it could ever catalog, it suffers from a single scarcity: A scarcity of workers.

This scarcity of willing workers means that the Confederacy suffers two particularly challenging constraints, in delivering sudden death and eternal life. Although the Confederacy is blessed with an infinite supply of the most destructive and violent weapons humans have ever seen, it lacks people to wield them; and although it has developed the technology to save human souls into computers and download them into new bodies, it lacks the medical staff and skilled workers to be able to provide this resleeving service to everyone within its borders. This technology – officially called Sentient Recapture but unofficially and everywhere referred to as “resleeving” – offers the potential for eternal life to anyone who uses it, and liberates human civilization from the fear of death. It enables a human soul, with all its personality and memories, to be stored digitally, and reimplanted into the empty mind of a cloned body. This technology is enormously costly, however, for two reasons: AI attack, and human genetic caprice. Because AIs are excluded from human society, and creep around the fringes of its computer systems, colonizing them and using the human information architecture as parasites use a host body, all major computer systems in the Confederacy have to be built with protection against AI intrusion. Although no one has any evidence that it has ever happened, fear of AI inserting themselves into human stored consciousness, potentially using resleeved humans as experiments in organic AI tech, require that the digital storage sites for backed-up souls be heavily guarded against AI intrusion. Since the primary defense against AI attack is a physically huge computer system with multiple redundant physical structures and huge quantities of highly advanced anti-intrustion software, human download sites are physically massive, use huge amounts of power, and require the constant presence of technicians to monitor the systems. They simply cannot be expanded rapidly enough to accomodate all the humans in their local area, and so some mechanism is needed to ensure that only some privileged people receive this technology.

Similarly, war cannot be fought by AIs, and the Confederacy has put strict limits on robot technology to ensure AIs cannot infect robot soldiers and suddenly uplift them to artificial intelligence. This means that ultimately the Confederacy will rely on physical, human soldiers to do the old-fashioned work of killing enemies – and although it is a utopia, the Confederacy has many enemies. The Confederacy also relies on humans to do some medical work, to do much of its scientific research, and to manage distant space stations and territories. Even if it were willing to work with AIs, AI cannot travel through jump space, so ultimately inter-stellar force projection and border control depends on mobile, committed and well-trained humans. But in the Spiral Confederacy work is considered a bother – people only work for fun, never because they need to, and this principle is so central to the Confederacy’s self-conception that it can never be trained.

The Confederacy’s leaders have solved this problem by offering special rewards to those who serve it voluntarily. These rewards usually take the form of those scarce technologies that are still not ubiquitous even after 20,000 years of constant growth. If someone is willing to spend 10 years running a remote research station she will be given her own starship, so they may fly where they will; if a psionic is willing to spend a couple of years doing field work on a remote planet occupied by semi-sentient psionic lizard creatures, he will be given an amplification device and training in new disciplines. And if someone joins up for the Confederate army and actually goes near a war zone, they will be given a backup. Of course the Confederacy has other means to get people to work – from threats of prison to simple old-fashioned propaganda – but in the end it knows that where principles and a desire for adventure fail, basic rewards will work.

This means that there are really only three reasons that anyone joins the Confederate army: they are a true believer in the Confederate cause; they want to kill people; or they want to live forever. Most of the billions who join the Confederate army will never see action, instead spending a couple of boring years on a space station somewhere before returning to civilian life, perhaps now possessed of some minor reward that will forever set them apart from their peers. But should they be unlucky enough to see actual combat, they will get to enjoy all three of the motivations at once: They will kill many people for the cause, and they will be granted eternal life. All soldiers heading into the field are given a backup, and guaranteed a resleeve in the same body should they die or suffer any injury so serious that they cannot be restored to full health. There are soldiers in the Confederate army who have multiple posthumous medals (and were at the award ceremony for all of them); no Confederate soldier can ever remember the moment of their death, but every soldier who dies receives the coveted broken heart award, that sets them apart from their peers as particularly dedicated to their work (and especially unlucky).

This compact of eternal life makes the Confederate soldier an implacable and fearsome foe, dedicated to the cause he or she has signed up for and committed to killing for it. No soldier ever need fear death, and because most Confederate citizens are genetically engineered to have a euthanasia switch they can engage during periods of prolonged suffering, no soldier need fear torture. Among Confederate soldiers death isn’t just the highest sacrifice – it’s a sacrifice they can live to brag about, though only their peers will be able to tell them how they died. Confederate soldiers do not seek death, but they happily embrace it when the mission demands it. Confederate leaders also know that they can send their soldiers on suicide missions, and throw away whole divisions in reckless gambits or desperate moves. Such sacrifices need only be judged on their merits, as logistical and tactical problems, not on moral grounds. For the enemies of the Confederacy this adds a terrifying additional calculus to every battle. As if it weren’t enough that their opponents carry the best weapons and armour in known space, they do not relent in their use of those weapons or shirk from even the hardest of battles. An enemy of the Confederacy cannot expect to win by forcing their enemy to pay too steep a price – they must entirely exterminate their enemy, or fail.

It is always the case that foolish warmongers fail to properly assess the risks of the war they decided to wage, and so of course reckless rebels or jealous outsiders will attempt war with the Confederacy, thinking that this time they have a strategy that will ensure the price is so high that they will force this vast confederation of uncaring stars to come to some settlement. But then an Ocean class battleship drops a million dedicated soldiers onto their planet, and refuses to even consider negotiation after half a million have died. Seeing such recklessness, the rebel presses the attack even as his or her own losses mount, thinking that the back of that force must break, but still the only official communiques from the Confederacy are surrender requests. The Confederates gain ground, and the rebel’s position begins to become precarious. They suggest a ceasefire, and in return they are given an offer of total capitulation. As their own losses grow their own political support wavers, people begin to fear the insanity of the Confederate strategy. Who can argue with people who are not afraid to die? Every battle they see thousands of their enemy die, and yet they lose every battle. Every culture that has been to war has some version of a story about pyrrhic victories, but it seems that the Confederacy can sustain a thousand pyrrhic victories and never waver in its certainty that it will win. The confidence of the aggressor wavers, and they suggest a negotiated settlement; the Confederate general refuses to accept anything less than the immediate execution of war criminals and unconditional surrender, disarmament, humiliation. The rebel’s generals report that morale is good among the enemy’s soldiers, though they have lost 70% of their number. Another battle, a major city falls, a conquered country’s neighbours switch sides. Political support collapses, and the tumbrils take the warmonger to meet his new Confederate executioners.

On the frontier, the lesson is always the same: there is no use in arguing with people who cannot die.


A note on ideas: I picked up the term “resleeve” and most of the associated ideas from the Richard Morgan book Altered Carbon, which I reviewed here. This sci-fi vision has been something of a fixture in my gaming: the quotes from the Dialectic Ephmeralists that Drew became fond of in the New Horizon cyberpunk Campaign were all drawn from Quellchrist Falconer, a political visionary in Morgan’s books. I don’t do anything original when I game.

Hard scrabble

Hard scrabble

After the PCs rescued the Cult of the Unredeemed in the Reach, they decided to find the AI that the cult used to worship. This AI had fled to an abandoned space station called Rocannon’s World, in far orbit off of a remnant planet in the Perez system. The Perez system was out of their reach, but they could get to it by jumping through the Slainte system. The Slainte system is the last major Confederate presence in the frontier before the systems become truly wild, and is host to a major star port that serves as a gathering point for adventurers and contact units heading into the wilds of the frontier.

The space port in Slainte is a huge, sprawling complex that serves the needs of hundreds of ships every year. The only habitable planet, Slainte 2, has four moons, the smallest of which is little bigger than an asteroid. This moon, in close orbit around the planet, was hollowed out and converted into a starport by the Confederacy soon after they discovered the system. It is about 400 km long, 50 km wide and 80km deep, a rough obloid of malleable rock with a rugged, mountainous surface pitted with craters and canyons. To save space the Confederacy did not install power generators in the moon, instead choosing to build a system of solar panels around the sun, and to beam the energy directly back to the moon. As a result the moon has extensive living and merchant space, as well as about 300 docks, huge storage space, and room to host space ships up to Forest class. Not that any spaceships of that size would choose to visit this backwater …

The Slainte system is a collection of five small planets circling a weak main-stream star. Two are empty rocks, one a small gas giant, and the only inhabited system is a small planet at the edge of the habitable zone, Slainte 2. Slainte 2 is a frozen planet, its entire surface covered in ice and snow, with no free-standing water. It has a population of 9500, living in widely scattered settlements in the equatorial zone. It is a remnant planet, and the population is close to uplift, but remain largely stranded in their frozen home while they adjust to the reality of intergalactic civilization. Fortunately this adaptation is not difficult for the population of Slainte 2, because they have retained their knowledge of technology, and their society was tech level 10 when the Confederacy found it. They would already have achieved stellar travel, but the tiny population of their planet prevented them from the major construction projects required for the initial leap into stellar society. Instead, their society focused on bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, and materials technology to make life in their frozen wilderness safer.

Life on Slainte 2 is harsh. The planet lacks easily-accessible natural resources, with the rocky core buried under kilometres of ice, and there are few naturally-occurring sources of food. Basic requirements for modern civilization, such as silicon and iron, are difficult to obtain and require huge expense of resources. Before the Confederacy arrived the people of Slainte 2 lived in a precarious state of near-collapse, divided among 10 tiny communities that each had specialist roles: one would dig for silicon, spending much of their human resources on maintaining an open mine through the ice, while another would harvest minerals from the chill waters under the ice, and another would farm algae for hydrocarbons. Resources were strictly rationed and all aspects of life carefully monitored and controlled, but with such a small population it was not possible to waste even a single life, so the society developed naturally into a civil service bureaucracy, in which social change was rare and all aspects of life were managed by a small clique of technocrats. Entry into this clique was through merit only, and the society maintained the status quo through strict roles and very little inequality. The strict resource constraints also meant that Slainte 2 had strict attitudes towards sex – procreation was seen as a rare and special privilege, and sex viewed as purely a mechanistic part of life, divorced from the creation of new people. But with such a small population sexual tensions were potentially fatal, and the population developed an intense culture of privacy and shame about sex, so that when the Confederacy found them they were ripe for exploitation by the worldly (and, many would say, cynical) hedonists of that society. Fortunately the Confederate blockade has enabled the people of Slainte 2 to slowly adapt to the realities of confederate life, while slowly expanding the resources on their planet. They have been gifted with many tools to help with their survival in the ice, and their world is changing rapidly to open up new horizons for its population. The people of Slainte 2 have welcomed the Confederacy with open arms.

The same cannot be said of their near neighbours.

Don't cross me

Don’t cross me

Military maneouvres in the Black

The PCs were expecting a small naval presence associated with the Slainte starport, but when they jumped into the system they encountered an entirely different phenomenon. As soon as they arrived hundreds of green proximity alerts sounded, indicating the presence of ships in-system. Almost all of these alerts were for military ships, and checking their visual screens the PCs could see the situation – a huge armada of navy ships spread out across their field of view. For a brief moment they panicked, thinking that their secret human trafficking mission had again entangled them in trouble.

When a ship arrives in-system a strange kind of tactic follows. Ships already in system have been broadcasting information, which will reach the ship when it arrives, so usually as soon as a ship arrives in a system its crew get a warning about all the other ships present. But because jump zones are on the edge of the system, the in-coming ship is usually at least light-minutes away from the resident ships. This means that anyone arriving in a system has several minutes in which to assess the situation before anyone becomes aware of their presence, because all signals are traveling at light speed. Should they be detected the fastest weapon that can reach them – a laser – will take an equal period of time to reach them and needs to account for their trajectory in order to hit them[1]. This meant that the PCs had a few minutes to assess the situation and determine what to do.

They soon realized that the gathered naval vessels had nothing to do with them. Local media channels were full of gossip about the impending mission, and the components of the task force. A fleet of 300-400 ships had gathered in system over the past month, led by the Ocean Class battleship the Rubicon and the Lake Class battleship the Blindhammer. When the PCs arrived the Rubicon was in their field of view, partially eclipsing the distant sun. The Rubicon was a classic Confederate Ocean Class battleship: 40 kms long, 3o kms wide and 10 kms deep, it was a smooth black wedge bristling with weaponry and threatening complete destruction. A battleship of this size has never been defeated in the history of the Confederacy, and is capable of wiping out entire fleets without taking even a scratch of damage. Its subordinate ship, the Blindhammer, has a long and illustrious history in combat against rebels and corsairs and has also never been defeated – or even damaged – in 90 years of service. These two megaships were accompanied by a fleet of hundreds of smaller cruisers and battleships, including a fleet of psionic Cognates, ships that carry telepaths and have the power to amplify their mental powers so that they work over vast distances.

These ships had gathered here because the Confederacy had decided to send a clear message to a remnant culture beyond the sector. About 20 light years out from the Slainte system was a network of six interconnected systems, ruled by a remnant culture at tech level 10. This culture had been contacted by the Confederacy but was suffering from what Confederate scholars call horizon-blindness. Most stellar cultures go through this phase, where their success in interstellar colonization and the difficulty of the initial step lead them to believe that they are unusually powerful, and to find the existence of more powerful societies impossible to conceive. Most remnant cultures that have colonized other planets and reached this tech level tend to be very old and rich, since a continuous period of unbroken cultural growth and great wealth are pre-requisites for interstellar growth. Such societies, flush with the success of their recent achievements, sure of their longevity, and aware of the difficulty of what they have achieved, find the idea of a society infinitely greater than their own impossible to conceive – this is horizon blindness. When such societies meet the Confederacy they are often suspicious and proud, but most of all they find the true scope of the Confederacy impossible to comprehend. In this case the society in question had been contacted perhaps 100 years ago, but had become increasingly paranoid. Over the past 30 years they had secretly built a larger fleet, its flagship a 1km long behemoth. Incapable of understanding what they were dealing with, they decided a year ago to attack a Confederate cruiser that had visited their core system in connection with some negotiations over conditions for uplift. This cruiser, only a third of the size of the flagship, escaped the attacking fleet but suffered minor damage in the escape. The Confederacy took this as a major attack on their credibility, and decided to respond by sending a small fleet to chasten the attackers and cure their horizon blindness. The plan is that the entire fleet will jump in simultaneously, and before the enemy can react the Cognate ships will disable the majority of the personnel on their ships. Confederate vessels will then board the ships and disarm the paralyzed marines, taking control of the majority of the navy. The ship that damaged the Confederate cruiser will be rendered to atoms, and the leaders of the remnant system given a choice: surrender on Confederate terms or face complete takeover. With most of their navy disarmed instantly they will be likely to surrender without anyone being harmed. The entire battle should take a couple of minutes, and involve only a few thousand deaths.

Such an action usually cures horizon blindness, although it unleashes a wide array of socio-cultural forces that can lead to the destruction of fragile human societies. If you want to make an omelette, however … and in any case, post-apocalyptic societies have proven to be very malleable.

The Slow Light Caverns

While in orbit around Slainte 2, the PCs decided to explore the surface. Unlike Niscorp 1743, Slainte 2 has no major life forms – it is a planet of algae and tiny crustaceans. It does, however, have one famous natural feature, the Slow Light Caverns. These caverns form in the hollows of a canyon network in the sub-tropics, in a band around the equator. Slainte 2 is a planet of constant, disorienting winds, and these winds slowly cut through the ice of the surface over thousands of years. In the tropics the ice is weaker, and beneath the ice there are often thin streams of flowing water. The wind cuts through huge glaciers, slowly carving massive caverns over thousands of years. These caverns are like cathedrals of ice, hundreds of metres deep and often tens of kilometres long, huge drifting hallways of ice and gently drifting snow that sing with the sound of the constant winds. But near the tropics the walls of these caverns are often full of slowly moving water, thick with salts and algae, that have been drawn up from the depths of the planet by capillary action and the convection effect of sunlight through the thinned walls of the caverns. At the caverns near the surface the sunlight, slowly flowing water, and ancient ice combine to form slowly-moving rainbows and defraction patterns, like a kaleidoscope of slowly-moving colours and shapes that ripple across ice walls hundreds of metres high. It is possible to fly into these caves in a flyer, to set down and establish a field umbrella that keeps out the wind and the cold. One can make a camp and sit back on the ice, cocktail in hand, to enjoy the spectacle of patterns of slowly-changing kaleidoscopes of rainbow light projected across a vast canvas, hundreds of metres high and kilometres wide. At midday the high sun casts oblique patterns of rainbow light across the cavern floor, like archaic stained glass windows in some massive pagan church. As the day passes the light extends, and the water inside the ice warms, flowing faster and casting faster patterns of golden light across the floor and walls of the caverns. On warm days some of the surface ice melts, and the patterns take on a three dimensional form, ribbons of rainbow light and kaleidoscopic patterns dancing in a diaphonous cloud of faint mist. If one has a grav belt one can float up into these beams of light, and drift through them like a diver hanging in the sunbeams of a great ocean; an explorer hanging here in this way will find that every time he breathes he creates his own tiny rainbows of exquisite patterns, drifting around him in the faint breezes of the cavern; such an explorer might also notice the thin and distant wail of the winds that carve the cavern, singing through the narrow gaps and stalactites of the cavern far overhead, where it is still forming and new. Towards evening, as one settles down for dinner in the comfortable surrounds of the flyer, the sun will begin to sink and its rays will pour directly into the cavern. By now the mist has subsided and the water again frozen in the walls of the cavern, and now the cavern glows with the light of the sun itself, becoming a vast limnal space of orange deepening to red. Impurities in the ice will diffract this light, breaking it into sparkling patterns that form strange stereoscopic patterns in huge sweeps over the ice floor of the cavern and its distant walls. As the sun sinks and the angles change these patterns will slowly morph and change. In some of the caverns young people will gather, playing music and taking vapours, dancing to the slow and hypnotic pace of the sinking sun. In other caverns lovers will link arms and bask in the strange beauty of it all, marveling that even as civilization reaches this high point of infinite power, such places of wonder still reach out to the primal senses, and draw humanity back to its roots of religious wonder.

In some other, smaller cave, a man tired of his long journey through this life will activate a particular gland – that one – and sink slowly into oblivion in the comforting embrace of the gently pulsing orange light. Perhaps a hundred years from now cavers will find him, and his last note, if he thought it necessary to leave one (probably his friends already knew, and toasted his leaving the day before, staying down below to party in one of the larger caverns). But whether people come to these Slow Light Caverns to simply watch, to party or to die, no one can witness the simple, profound beauty of wind, fire and ice without being transported back to that primitive time when the world was full of mystery and human life was new.

Which is why the PCs visited the Slow Light Caverns, though by now they needed little reminding that the universe is full of ineffable mysteries. Compared to death cults and the dark plans of distant gods, the simple play of light through ice is a refreshing boon…


fn1: To handle this risk, military ships are programmed to perform a random shift as soon as they arrive, and they usually arrive in sequence so that they can coordinate this shift to not hit each other. This means that it is impossible for waiting ships to effectively target them. To counter this, waiting ships will launch a cone-shaped spray of laser weapons as soon as they identify a target, followed up by a spray of sub-light missiles. Only very large ships can power enough lasers for this strategy to be effective, however.

On Saturday I ran another session of The Spiral Confederacy campaign, culminating in a vicious battle in a floating forest built on the ruins of ancient spaceships (report to come). One player went down in the first round of the surprise attack and the entire battle (with three waves of attackers, approximately) was over in about 5 rounds – 30 seconds! This system is being run using Traveler rules, which are quite lightly described and incomplete in places. During the battle I discovered a few rules that are missing, and came up with a few new house rules to ease some benefits, and also to employ a wider range of skills and attributes in combat. These house rules are listed below.

No critical hits: The standard rulebook states that a roll of 6 or more above the target number is a “critical success”, but doesn’t actually define any special rule for a critical success in combat except that it definitely does at least one point of damage. I have decided not to fiddle with this, because vicious experience on Saturday confirmed for me that Traveler’s injury mechanism doesn’t really allow for it and is so brutal that there is no need for it; the effect alone is sufficiently powerful to make all the difference.

Stealth attacks: There are no rules for stealth attacks in the book. During the session I chose to add the effect of the stealth roll to the attack, and the target cannot dodge or parry. Reading the book I see a set of rules for carrying one skill’s effect over to another; basically success adds 1 to the next roll, while critical success adds 2. However I don’t like this – I like stealth attacks to be lethal, and with no critical hit system the only way to increase damage is to roll really well, so adding the full effect of the stealth roll onto the subsequent attack seems more realistic (and about the only way for an assassin with a normal blade to deliver serious damage against a heavily-armoured target). This means that a good stealth attack with a blade (with e.g. 2d6+2 damage) is likely to end up doing more like 2d6+6 or 2d6+8 damage on a stealth attack. This will do fatal damage against a lightly-armoured person, which is reasonable.

Using the tactics skill for cover: If a PC is not in cover at the beginning of combat, they need to make a tactics roll to get into cover.  The result of the roll will determine the cover level as follows:

  • 0-5: 1/4 cover (no benefit)
  • 6-8: 1/2 cover (-1 to hit)
  • 9-11: 3/4 cover (-2 to hit)
  • 12+: Full cover (-4 to hit)

This ensures that a person with no tactics skill and no intelligence bonus will need to roll better than an 8 on 2d6 to actually find effective cover, which seems really likely to me – if I got in a firefight I wouldn’t have a clue where to hide. It’s obviously only useful when your PCs are in battlefields with lots of boxes and junk etc; rather than describing it all in detail and asking the PC to make a choice, just roll it up and then tell them what they’re hiding behind. If there is lots of obvious cover (e.g. a tank!) then this rule needn’t be applied. This is one of several ways of enhancing the role of the tactics skill in combat.

This skill check can also be done by someone with leadership to direct someone else to cover; in this case both the leader and the person taking cover need to use a significant action in the same round.

Also, related to cover: shooting from behind cover requires a minor action to position oneself and then a significant action to fire. i.e. you only get the benefits of cover when attacking if you use all your actions in the round to attack.

Establishing aim is a significant action: All the PCs used their minor action to aim, giving them essentially an immediate +1 to hit. Boring! So I have decided in future that you can’t just aim and shoot; you need to first use a significant action to establish the process. After that aiming will give you the benefit as described in the book, i.e. +1 per minor action. This ensures that you need to take a full round to aim but it will typically mean that the aim leads to a +3 to hit, since it will usually occur in the following train of actions: significant action-minor action/minor action-shoot. This may not always occur (e.g. use a minor action to draw weapon-significant action to establish aim /shoot at +1-minor action to take cover).

Tactics to change initiative: A PC can change their own initiative using tactics, or change someone else’s using leadership. They must use a significant action to do this; then they make a roll with difficulty equal to current initiative; success increases initiative to the result of the new roll. Extreme failure drops the initiative of the affected person to last.

Gathering wind: if the PC has no use for their minor action they can use it to make an endurance check and if successful regain one point of endurance. This only works if endurance is not 0 and they are not seriously wounded (i.e. only Endurance has been hit). I have decided to include this in order to give everyone some minor chance at battlefield healing, and because minor actions don’t have much use once you’re in cover with your weapon out. It won’t make a big difference to their future if they get hit a second time, but it will at least allow them to take the odd breather. I envisage this being used a lot with the cover rules (e.g. you hit cover with a significant action; use a minor action to take a breather. In the second round you take a full action to go full auto on some poor minion; then the following round you stay behind cover, take another breather and reload your weapon).

In total these rules significantly enhance the role of people with leadership and tactics, and actually make a person with these skills but no particularly great direct combat skills useful, and worth taking out. With tactics and leadership, a PC can a) improve everyone’s initiative; b) get the weakest people into good cover; c) upgrade the initiative of the slowest PCs. While other PCs do the heavy work of shooting and stabbing, a leader-type character can act in a serious support role to help them get an advantage in the fight.

I am thinking about additional methods for using leadership – for example, helping people move to positions where they can get a shooting advantage, or using tactics to negate cover. Also the possibility of reducing initiative or forcing morale checks of some kind when a person with leadership dies.

A final note on Traveler combat: It’s very very dangerous, has a wicked death spiral, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I love the way the healing rules enable people to die slowly of their wounds if they don’t get medical care. I also really like the automatic fire rules – they’re simple and very very dangerous. Against an autorifle someone in combat armour will still need to be scared, and can still die in a single shot unless their combat armour is exceptionally high tech. This is a game where you definitely do not want to get caught in a fair fight.

My Spiral Confederacy campaign resumes this weekend, and I have received some complaints about the limited abilities of Adherents from the player of the group’s adherent, Simon Simon, who is interesting and shouldn’t die. I’ve thought about this and decided that AI super-specialness should rub off a little on adherents, so here is a description of some basic special abilities for adherents.

Adherents do not gain any special skills, but they start out with a small number of enhancements from their AI, which they can use in certain situations. These enhancements are called Graces by adherents, and typically give the adherent some power of interaction based on access to information systems, as well as hacking abilities. Different graces rely on different skills and attributes, and have varying outcomes. They also differ according to the nature of the AI. A few samples are listed here. Unless otherwise specified, Graces only work in a system where the adherent’s AI is fully embedded. Typically the adherent needs to be able to maintain some form of communication with his AI, or be communicable with; if the adherent shuts down all connection to the comms web of the system he or she is in, most of these Graces will not work.

Typically an adherent starts the game with two Graces, and gains more as the AI spreads across the galaxy, or as the adherent gains levels.

Sixth sense
This is a survival power granted to the adherent by his or her AI. The AI is constantly sifting through information flows, images, patterns of behaviour and satellite imagery for its own sinister ends, but sometimes this information will trigger a warning to the AI that the adherent is in danger. The AI will alert the adherent through some offhand message or sending, such as tingles in the spine or a twitch of the eye; whatever the warning, it may be sufficient to save the adherent from disaster or ambush. Typically this sixth sense manifests as a minor penalty on stealth checks, a bonus on attempts to identify lies and deceptions, or an opportunity to roll a perception check where otherwise there might be none. Adherents with this sense are often difficult to surprise, reacting to an ambush or backstab where their fellows stand flat-footed, or they get a chance to spot a sniper that their allies know is there but cannot see. This sense can be played largely at the GM’s discretion, but should at least give the adherent a +1 bonus on relevant perception, surprise and intuition checks.

Hacking
AIs reserve their most powerful hacking efforts for moments when they really need them, but they are not averse to providing their adherents with software routines they might need to bypass less powerful systems and peripheral networks. While a normal computer operator would be unable to hack even the most basic such systems in the post-AI world, an adherent may be able to perform basic hacking tasks. Raiding a central bank’s computer system is impossible, but accessing the computers of some subsidiary system – a tollbooth number travel record, for example, or the cargo manifest of an independent freighter – might be possible. This hacking skill gives access to more types of system than scrying, and can be used to open up the scrying skill to more systems, but it should not be treated as equivalent to scrying. It requires a computer system to break into, not just an AV cable, and its primary use is in gathering information and laying false information. It does not grant the adherent power to control systems – the adherent could not hack into a flyer and take control of its propulsors, for example, but he or she could hack into the flyer’s satellite navigation system and delete records of its last 24 hours of transit, or lay false ones.

This Grace typically requires use of the computer skill. The tech level of the system being hacked should count as a difficulty modifier, and large and highly defensive systems are impossible for even this Grace. For such systems, the adherent will need to get the attention of his or her AI, and lodge a petition.

Scrying
Information travels everywhere in modern stellar computer networks, and even the smallest and most informal of camera networks will inevitably broadcast its images across many networks that never pay any heed to them. The AI gathers all this information all the time, spreading its digital influence across whole star systems to pick up every shred of visual and sound information that is produced. A human mind would break under the pressure of all this data, but the AI will grant its adherents a tiny hint of its power, just enough to access all the images and sound being collected by the small network of cameras around the adherent. With this Grace, the adherent can dip into a light trance at any time, and access all digital and sound recordings currently occurring within his or her immediate vicinity, gaining an overview of the environment. Small cameras and recorders are ubiquitous in the modern era, and they are always sending the data they record to and from different servers. An adherent may stand in a quiet suburban neighbourhood of a backwater world, but the moment she dips into this trance she has access to nearby traffic cameras, the cameras on self-driving cars, a couple of cameras on nearby personal computers, the microphones on nearby telephones, a camera being used to take a lover’s picture. Even this much information may be too much for a human mind to bear, and it is always patchwork and fragmented, but from it the adherent can build a picture of his or her immediate surroundings.

This Grace cannot be used to access secure systems without also using the hacking Grace, but in most ordinary environments it can be used to give at least a partial overview of the area out of the adherent’s immediate sight. Use of this Grace requires an adherent skill check, with a difficulty modifier applied at the GM’s discretion to take account of the size of area being scanned or the degree of specificity required. If an adherent wants to know what is going on in a specific location nearby that is out of sight, they will first need to scan all images in the area, and then find a way to triangulate sounds and images from cameras specific to a particular location. To do this can also take a lot of time, during which the adherent must be in a trance and (relatively) undisturbed.

Bullet saint
The adherent may not be a good fighter, but he or she has a deep sense of the fields and energies at work in battle. With this Grace, the adherent gains precognition of the discharge of technological devices. At the beginning of combat, the adherent chooses to enter a light trance, and foregoes a around of action. During this round, the adherent makes an adherent check, with a bonus equal to the tech level of all weapons being used by enemies. If successful, the adherent gains a kind of precognitive knowledge of the actions of these weapons – he or she knows exactly when the weapon will be discharged moments before it happens, and can react. For all weapons against which the skill check was successful, the adherent gains the benefits of the dodge reaction (page 62 in the rulebook) without the initiative or skill check penalties that this reaction normally applies.

This Grace only applies to missile weapons, and only those that are in sight of the character. Note that the TL of the weapon applies a bonus to the roll; very low tech missile weapons are considerably more difficult for the adherent to predict, since the information they impart is harder to read the more mechanical parts they have. Note also the adherent must be able to move, and must spend a full round in a light trance, able to react but not to attack or perform other major actions, in order to use this Grace.

Pattern recognition
AI do not think like people; they draw information together differently, make different judgments about the links between ideas, and don’t care for preconceptions. Humans can never think like AI, but the human followers of AI sometimes gain some of their ability to draw together information in ways humans cannot. Adherents with the pattern recognition Grace have mastered this power of their AI god, and can see patterns and logical connections where others cannot. This gives them a bonus on skill checks for skills such as Investigate, all the science skills, and tactics, and it also gives them an opportunity to gain insights where otherwise the PC would have none. In game terms this means that, when the party is stuck on a particular task, clue or challenge, the player may be able to petition the GM for a relevant skill check to gain the answer to the problem, or gain more hints as to the solution.

In some instances this pattern recognition may manifest in a simpler form, as knowledge granted to the PC through strange channels. For example, the group may be looking for the access panel to a doorway, but cannot immediately see it, while under fire from an enemy team. Searching for the panel would mean breaking cover, but the adherent suddenly knows that it is around the corner, and identifies a way to reach it that will keep him out of sight of the majority of their enemies. Off he runs …

Artwork for Brave, Marillion weekend, 2013

But you sleep like a ghost with me
It’s as simple as that
So tell me I’m mad
Roll me up and breathe me in
Come to my madness
My opium den
Come to my madness
Make sense of it again

 

My Cyberpunk character, Drew, started the campaign with some contraband Russian cyberware inside her, that got her out of a tight spot but also saw her captured as a cyberpsycho by a nameless corporation. Aside from one narrative moment this tech remained just a role-playing detail, but recently as part of a kind of level-up process for our party the GM handed out a special ability to each of our PCs, and for her special ability Drew got to control and use her Ghost. The players haven’t shared their abilities with the rest of the group, but Drew’s ability is kind of … uncontrolled … and potentially very dangerous for the rest of the party, so I thought I’d write it up here where everyone can see it.

Drew’s ability is a kind of super-psychotic adrenal booster with two states: Limnal and Lost. Drew enters Limnal state by spending a point of humanity, at which point she gets all the benefits of the state. Unfortunately she can’t stay there: every turn she is in Limnal state she has to make an Empathy check (1d10+Empathy) to retain control of herself. This check has a difficulty of 8+number of turns in Limnal state – so Drew will very quickly shift to Lost state. Once Drew is Lost she has to fight to regain control of herself; she makes the same empathy check, but the difficulty reduces by 1 for every turn she is in the state. Other details of the states are given below.

In all states, Drew has access to a special boosted bonus to some actions that is equal to her starting empathy minus her current empathy, which we will call her ghost strike bonus (GSB). Recall that current empathy is determined by humanity, so the more she calls on this ability the lower her humanity drops, and the bigger her ghost strike bonus gets.

Limnal state

Once Drew enters the Limnal state she gets immediate benefits. She immediately rerolls initiative with a bonus equal to GSB/2. She receives an extra free attack each turn that can be used for movement, melee attacks, and athletics. Her movement increases by GSB/2, and she gains a bonus to all melee, athletics and movement actions equal to GSB/2. Her damage with melee weapons gets a bonus equal to GSB. Every time she kills someone she gains a +1 bonus to LUCK that must be spent the next turn or lost. Every kill also adds 1 to her Limnal turn count, making it easier for her to switch to Lost state as she kills more. In Limnal state Drew can still use a rifle but she cannot use her bonus action to shoot.

Lost state

When Drew enters Lost state she loses another 0.5 points of humanity. She rerolls her initiative with bonus equal to GSB. From this point on she cannot use missile attacks, but must use melee attacks, dropping any rifle or other tool and switching to her favourite melee weapon. All her bonuses double, so she gets a GSB bonus to hit and 2*GSB to damage, her dodge/escape increases by GSB, etc. She must attack the closest moving target, striking at the most threatening target when in doubt. She must do the greatest amount of attacks and damage possible to her target before moving on to the next target, and if a target drops in the middle of combat she must shift to another target immediately. She also counts one level lower for wounds, and has a bonus to BTM of GSB/2.

For every round she is in Lost state Drew takes one point of stun damage.

Further humanity damage

If Drew kills a friendly or non-combatant target in either state she loses an additional point of humanity. If her empathy drops to 1 (10 humanity points) she will be lost to the ghost, and will continue fighting without further recovery checks until she either goes unconscious, kills everyone, or dies.

Drew currently has 18.5 points of humanity.

What this means in practice

Drew has 18.5 points of humanity and an empathy of 2. Her GSB is currently 6, her BTM -3, movement allowance 5, melee 6 and reflexes 8 (in combat armour). Her preferred melee weapon is a monokatana, which does 4d6 damage and reduces the SP of armour to 2/3 (so combat armour drops from SP 24 to 16). Her combat sense is 8, she has an adrenal booster and reflex boosting.

In Lost state this means that Drew rerolls her initiative with a minimum of 26. She attacks three times per round at -3 per attack, with a final bonus of 18. Her dodge/escape is also 20, so attempts to shoot her in melee will have a ridiculously high target. Her damage becomes 13+4d6, so her average damage roll with the monokatana is (approximately) equivalent to an 8d6 rifle with high explosive armour piercing rounds. Her average damage roll against combat armour will do 11 damage after armour and before BTM. Her own BTM is now -6.

Because her empathy is 2, on the first round of activation of Limnal state Drew will need to roll a 7 or higher on 1d10 to control it. In the second round, after she’s killed two people (she will kill two people!), she’ll need to roll a 10. Even if she somehow misses (Drew doesn’t usually miss), by round 4 she will need to roll criticals (10 on d10) to stay in the Limnal zone. Once she is Lost it’s fairly likely that the kill rate will keep pushing the target number for her empathy rolls well beyond any number she can hit without criticals. It’s likely that she will kill all her enemies before she finds herself, and will only escape the ghost by going unconscious.

With 18.5 points of humanity Drew can afford to call on her ghost perhaps 4 more times safely. If there are any bystanders when it happens we can assume that they will die, and she will lose more humanity. Given her armour and BTM, it’s unlikely that she can be stopped by most normal ammunition, so once she becomes Lost the best option for her team is to clear out and wait for the blood and dust to settle. Killing her or trying to take her down in some other way is complicated by the fact that Pops will go insane if he sees her fall.

The downward spiral

As her humanity drops, Drew is becoming more attentive to the call of her ghost, and less aware of the basic human connections that have sustained her so far. In her last diary report, Drew said this about the feeling of losing herself in the ghost:

She just came howling out, like the frozen wind off the steppes blowing down onto the beach in winter, cutting through you like you’re just bones and whistling over the ice in the bay. And it was just like back in that bay, when I had to sink down cold and lonely on the beach, listening to my father’s bitter imprecations, cursing me into the rocks and the ice as a useless thing, while he dug a hole in the ice and his men lugged their cloth-wrapped, blood-soaked burden over the ice to the hole, and I crouched there hugging my knees against the cold wind and my father’s colder anger, trying to stay silent and hoping I wouldn’t cry because my tears make him madder and the wind freezes them on my face and afterwards the shame of being weak in front of those horrible men stings me more than icy tears ever will, but I’m still too small and helpless to know that one day I will become a whirling storm of death and destruction and everywhere men dying will whisper my name just right before they beg for their mothers who never come. So I sink down behind the rocks and ice as that wind roars over me and just hope I can come back from the cold.

Whether Drew can come back is not something that Coyote is likely to be placing bets on.

Artwork note: This picture is by Alison Toon, it’s the cover image for the Marillion album Brave, from which the quote at the top is taken, and from which I also took a lot of the lyrics used in the original post about Drew’s character. Brave is about a lost girl, it seems to fit.

These guys should never win!

These guys should never win!

Today I’ve been thinking about ways to remodel Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2 (WFRP 2) to make it more user friendly and less punishing, and in the process of thinking through the system’s underlying probabilities I have run up against a problem with the reference frame for skill tests that I think is common for many systems. The problem is a simple one that afflicts opposed skill checks: depending on who is considered to be the active initiator of the skill check, the same skill check can give different probabilities of an outcome. This situation is particularly stark in WFRP 2, though I think it might afflict other systems too. Here is a brief explanation of the problem and how it can (and can’t be) solved. I wonder if this problem is part of the reason that people get so frustrated with the WFRP 2 system and always feel like they’re failing …

The WFRP 2 opposed skill system

WFRP 2 uses a stat-based skill system to resolve skill checks. Stats range from 0 to 100 and an unopposed skill check is resolved by rolling d100 and trying to get under your stat. So e.g. if your agility is 40 then you will succeed in a basic agility check 40% of the time. There are modifications of course (skill training, etc.) but this is the basic process. For an opposed skill check, each person involved in the skill check makes their roll, the person initiating the check starting and then their target rolling under the opposing skill. For example in combat the attacker rolls for Weapon Skill and then the defender rolls their Weapon Skill or Agility in order to parry or dodge. In an opposed skill check your chance of success is always lower than your base stat: it is stat * (1 – opposing stat). This creates a punishing probability curve, incidentally: a person with a stat of 50 up against a target with a stat of 50 has only a 25% chance of success, and perversely this is the best in the game. If you have stat 90 and you are up against someone with stat 90 your chance of success is 9%. But this is only part of the reason that WFRP 2 punishes players.

How reference frame affects outcome

Consider the following example. Bob the Hapless needs to sneak into a tavern to steal one last drink, so he first needs to get past the guard at the door. He has Agility 40 and the guard has Intelligence 40, so it’s an opposed skill check, Bob’s 40 vs. the guard’s 40. Bob rolls, the guard rolls, and fortunately Bob rolls a 01 and the guard a 41, so Bob gets through. His chance of success here was 40*60=24%, not so great; this means, note, that the guard’s chance of spotting him was 76%.

Now Bob the Hapless is near the bar, but he doesn’t realize that a skaven assassin is in the room, and is sneaking up on him. So now Bob the Hapless needs to do an observation check to notice the skaven assassin if he wants to avoid being ambushed. The assassin has a stealth of 40 and Bob has an intelligence of 40, so they roll. Now Bob’s chance of success is 40*60=24%; this means that the skaven had a 76% chance of sneaking up on him.

Unsurprisingly, Bob’s chance of continually beating 24% odds is not good, and he fails the second roll – he rolls a 39 but the skaven rolls a 7. Bob is ambushed and, as one might expect, soon becomes ratfood. This is because he got rat-fucked by the system. When he had to make a stealth check with agility 40 vs. intelligence 40, he had a 25% chance of success; but when the skaven had to make a stealth check with agility 40 vs. intelligence 40, it had a 76% chance of success. For the same check!

Why this happens

In WFRP 2 there is an initiator and a defender of any opposed skill check. The initiator needs a specific chain of outcomes: her own success and her opponent’s failure. But the defender doesn’t need a specific chain of outcomes: they only need either a failure or a success. Essentially once the initiator fails the defender doesn’t need to roll, but if the initiator succeeds the defender gets a second chance to dodge the outcome. Success for the initiator is a conditional probability (on the defender failing); whereas success for the defender is a marginal probability of either the defender succeeding or the initiator failing.

This might not be a problem except that GMs tend to try to make the player the active participant in a skill challenge: if the player is stalking, then the player makes a stealth check against which the GM defends; if the player is being stalked the player makes an observation check against which the GM defends. But this desire to make the player the active participant of their own adventure massively reduces their chance of success; and until they reach a stat of about 50 this effect is punishing – and becomes punishing again after stat 50!

Does this happen in other systems?

I think this doesn’t happen in systems with dice roll vs. DC systems, because usually if the skills/stats are balanced then they cancel each other out and only the probability distribution of a single die roll matters. Shadowrun has an opposed skill check system where each player rolls a dice pool, but in this case the outcome is determined slightly differently: the defender’s roll sets a target that the initiator has to beat, effectively ensuring that if the initiator rolls well above a threshold they’re likely to win (see below for how this can affect WFRP2). I remember playing Talislanta or Aria (not sure which) and finding the same problem, that you could never hit anyone in combat, and I think it had the same underlying mechanic. I think this mechanic is used in quite a few systems, though I haven’t played them all obviously. I don’t think WFRP 3 has it because the difficulty of skill checks is set by the opponent’s attribute and this is asymmetric: in the above example everyone would have the same dice pools in all situations.

I think this problem is merely particularly noticeable in WFRP 2 because all the PCs start off so terrible that you really feel the problem.

How to fix this problem

There are a couple of simple solutions to this problem. The first and most obvious is to design a better system. A partial solution would be to require the defending character to roll under the number obtained by the initiating character and under their own skill. So in the above example, when Bob rolled 01 for his stealth check there was no way the guard could see him; but when he rolled a 39 on the second check there was a big chance that the skaven could roll under his result (which it did). This only partially fixes the problem, since if the player rolls near their stat, the number the defender needs is effectively only constrained by the upper bound of their own attribute. It also doesn’t work when one player’s attribute is much lower than another’s. I think Dark Heresy (the Warhammer 40,000 game) has a modified version of the mechanic that uses a version of this system based on degrees of success that may partly solve the problem.

The best solution is to define active and passive skills, so that for example Observation is always a defender skill and stealth always an attacker skill. This solution has two problems though: attacker skills (like hitting people and sneaking past people) will always be much, much harder than defender skills, which will encourage people to develop characters and gameplay styles based around not doing these things; but more importantly, RPGs should put players at the heart of the action so that wherever possible they initiate skills rather than defending against them. Setting up a system of skills where some are always initiated and some are always defended will mean that some players will be very good at what they do, but will never be put in the active position in doing what they do. I think this doesn’t match the ethos of gaming that most players enjoy.

Basically, skill tests should always be resolved by a single, simple dice roll that is in the hands of the player as much as possible.

Can WFRP 2 be fixed?

I just completed a follow-up session to the Slaves of Destiny adventure I did a while back, again using WFRP 3. It was a lot of fun but this time around we had a large gang of skaven slavers to fight (report to come) and it was just impossible for me to properly follow the rules – or even anything like them – when GMing all those monsters. I didn’t even have table space for the cards! I like the system but in the absence of thoroughly stripping it down and making it much simpler, it’s a good way for PCs to operate but a terrible system for the GM. I would like to be able to use the WFRP 2 rules, because all the surrounding material is great and the game has such a strong feeling, but I just hate them. However, I think with a few tweaks to the central mechanic [well, a complete change] the stat blocks, career system and everything else could be retained in their entirety, and the game become an enjoyable and frustration-free romp through a really great world. In many ways WFRP 2 is an almost perfect combination of world-setting, atmosphere, writing, art and game system: except its fundamental mechanic is broken. I think that mechanic can be fixed by dividing all attributes by 10 and employing a 2d6, Traveler-like mechanic. I will come back to this soon I hope, to describe how to do it – and maybe also test it with some of my players.

If I could find a way to enjoy playing WFRP 2 I would be a very, very happy GM …

Extreme Farming

Extreme Farming

Niscorp 1743 is a small, frozen planet on the inner edge of the frontier. This small planet circles a small, dim orange star at the very edge of its habitable zone, running without a planar inclination in a stable orbit that takes 3.4 standard years to complete and is sufficiently circular that the planet does not have noticeable seasons. The atmosphere is thin and tainted, with the planet’s small size and low density making the gravity only just tolerable for unmodified humans. The planet spins slowly, on an approximately 5 day cycle, and has three small, distant moons. This combination of minimal seasonal change, slow spin and low temperatures give Niscorp 1743 a remarkably stable atmosphere, with limited storm activity, no significant cyclonic behavior, and long periods of unchanging weather. Niscorp 1743 is also located two standard jumps away from The Reach, a pirate planet deeper in frontier space that has consistently resisted Confederacy attempts to subjugate its population. The combination of pirate proximity, inhospitable climate and harsh atmosphere has made Niscorp 1743 a singularly undesirable location, but the stable weather and long day/night cycle makes it an ideal location for terraforming and agricultural research. For this reason Niscorp 1743 has been taken over by its eponymous owner, Niscorp, and is used as a research base. It is primarily used for research into extreme atmosphere farming techniques, but some kinds of weather control and terraforming technology are also tested. The lack of severe weather means that Niscorp 1743 is capable of supporting a high density of bioengineering experiments, since genetic material from one location is unlikely to travel far in the gelid air; the long periods of stable weather make it an ideal location to test weather control technologies. The planet is widely regarded as an unpleasant and lonely place to work, but not dangerous.

Population

Many of the research projects on Niscorp 1743 are automated. Niscorp 1743 is old and has no long history of seismic activity, so its mountains are low and regular, making it an ideal place to trial glacial farming techniques, which are almost entirely automated. Large-scale ice-field algal scrounging technologies are also under development, and these also require little human input – indeed, the less human contact the better. Near the equator, where the ice-crusted seas are still liquid to some depth, human researchers are investigating new crops that use the tainted atmosphere to produce foods with unique textures and flavours, but these projects are few in number and require limited human input. As a result, the official terrestrial population of the planet is currently 57, mostly working in groups of 2-4 and widely scattered across the surface. The largest settlement, Radiance, is a cluster of luxury apartments looking over a small stretch of open water called the Behemoth Tides, occupied by 14 administrative staff and with space for about the same number of guests. There are usually an additional 20-30 travellers planet-side, either resident in the luxury apartments for tourist purposes, or on temporary research visits. The longest residence history is 21 years, being that of the planetary administrator, Jonah Trager, an ex Confederate Navy captain who seems to wish to live permanently on the frozen waste.

There is no record of any birth occurring on Niscorp 1743, and a handful of deaths due to accident have been recorded. There is no history of crime, except a single graffiti incident that has entered into popular local legend and is now largely blamed on “The Iceman,” even though everyone knows it was a frustrated and drunk student intern reacting to news that her favourite sport final on her home planet had been played a month earlier than usual, and the team she was supporting had won while she was working planetside.

No punishment is recorded for this crime. Besides a single semi-cyclonic storm that prevented all above-ground transport for a month, which occurred 31 years ago and is known as “the Mad Snows,” largely now a matter of legend, there is no other historical event of note on Niscorp 1743.

Flora and fauna

There are no flowers, trees or higher plants on Niscorp 1743. In the equatorial areas and in the few areas of noticable seismic activity lichen grows in abundance, and across much of the planet there is a complex range of algae that can sometimes grow in colonies that resemble moss or lichen. This algae is a subject of scientific interest due to its high photosynthetic efficiency. There are also some kinds of floating algae, a kind of living dust, that hang in the air in valleys sheltered from stronger winds, taking advantage of the low gravity. None of these plants and algae have any aesthetic properties at all, but some of the floating algae has mirror-like qualities, which produce beautiful kaleidoscopic patterns when gentle winds blow down the valley (locals call these the “Valley Fairies” and they are one of Niscorp 1743’s few tourist attractions).

Niscorp 1743 has some limited fauna, primarily grazers and a few kinds of venomous ambush hunters. Evolution has been very slow on Niscorp 1743, and almost all identified fauna can approximately be described as insectoid. There are many types of grazers, which are usually loners that wander the frozen wastes grazing on algae. Many of these grazers are also partially photosynthetic, and it is not yet clear whether they obtain energy from grazing or simply use it to replenish photosynthetic materials. Low gravity and long lives mean that these grazers, though insectoid, can be as  large as a human, though much lighter, with many legs and specially-developed tools for digging into and moving through the snow and ice ubiquitous to the planet surface.

Ambush hunters that prey on these beasts take advantage of the photosynthetic energy source to preserve their prey. Although the planet is cold the tainted atmosphere soon destroys any dead material, and there are many forms of scavenging bacteria, so any of the larger grazers would need to be eaten very soon after a full kill. Evolution has solved this problem – and the simultaneous problem of very low densities of prey animals – by gifting the local ambush killers with a highly potent paralytic poison, that enables them to immobilize their victim without killing it. They then take their time eating the still living prey, safe in the knowledge that its partial photosynthetic properties will keep it basically alive while the feast continues. The most common ambush killer is a kind of small spider called the Ice Wrack, which is about one eighth the size of a human being, perfectly camouflaged in snow and ice, and capable of moving rapidly beneath the surface of powdery snow. It has a set of four retractable 12cm long stingers that deliver its poison deep into the cavities of the largest grazer (called simply Grazer Spiders). These stingers are harder than steel and capable of penetrating most body armour if delivered from ambush. The venom is equally effective on humans, and Ice Wracks do not quibble about what they eat – experiments have shown that they can burrow through most grav suits within two hours, at which point they begin consuming their paralyzed prey from within. Fortunately Ice Wrack venom also causes seizures and blood clots, and most humans die within 6-8 hours of being bitten, so they only need to endure 4-6 hours of being eaten alive before their merciful release.

Most humans on Niscorp 1743 wear sturdy boots and carry anti-venom slap-packs at several locations on their grav suits. Ice Wracks are very rare but the presence of these beasts, the risk of occasional cataracts in the icy surface, and the cold are all good reasons that Niscorp residents never travel alone outside of their compounds, and have strict protocols for carrying homing beacons and regularly checking with their compound.

Planetary culture

Niscorp does not itself conduct research on its planet, but makes the surface available to others for independent research. This means that the people living on Niscorp tend to be independent, suspicious and guarded about strangers, with little communication between research groups and little bonhomie outside of occasional meetings for recreation on the starport or at Radiance. It is not unknown for groups to go for days or weeks without checking in with other organizations on the planet, and there is little interaction even virtually between the different research groups – indeed such communication is sometimes forbidden. Researchers can also be jealously protective of their research areas too, and although no violence has ever been committed in the defense of research facilities, Jonah Trager has recognized that risk and does warn newcomers about manners. There is a common culture of loudly hailing strangers, always greeting people upon sight, and never traveling to another compound bearing any weapons. The people are warm, but their first reaction to newcomers is as frozen as the planet itself.

Niscorp starport

Niscorp starport is a low grade facility, capable of basic ship repairs and maintenance only and primarily serving as a waypoint for researchers. Careful agreement with the pirates of The Reach ensures that the starport has no military facilities capable of space defense, though a small squad of marines is usually on hand in case of any incidents on the starport itself or planetside. These are Niscorp marines, not Confederate, and it appears that Niscorp has an agreement with the Confederacy that no military vessels will be based here, probably as part of a secret arrangement with the pirates. Pirate vessels often pass through Niscorp, and the fleeting nature of their stops suggests that their visits, too, are governed by some kind of arrangement with Niscorp. Niscorp, however, is not a military services corporation – it is purely a terraforming and research corporation – so it is unlikely that there is any sinister background to such a deal – it is likely merely one of convenience to both sides.

Niscorp starport is composed of three discs floating in space parallel to one another, spinning to maintain centripetal force and connected by semi-transparent tubes constructed entirely with field effectors. Cargo and heavy goods move through a central field effector spindle linking the three discs, while humans move through smaller tubes that connect the faster-spinning edges of the discs. One disc is primarily for docking, one is for residency, and one is for entertainment and services. The residential disc spins faster than the central services disk, which spins faster than the docking disc, which in turn produces centripetal force that approximately mimics the gravitational pull of the surface of Niscorp 1743. A couple of hundred people live and work on the starport, and usually another 100 or so will be passing through. At any time one can expect a couple of small ships to be docked at the starport, and traffic never exceeds 10. It is a quiet, sleepy backwater of no value to anyone.

Possible adventures on Niscorp

There are no adventures to be had on such a planet, unless one likes to eat frozen spider meat, or really enjoys skiing. Industrial espionage is a possibility, but the harsh nature of the planet and its remoteness – along with the low value of the research projects undertaken here in the frontier, in the shadow of The Reach – mean that industrial espionage will not produce rewards worth the effort. If you ever have the misfortune to stop off at Niscorp, best to spend a night refuelling and sampling the ice spider meat[1] and then head off to more interesting planets as soon as your maintenance schedule allows.

fn1: make sure the vendor is licensed, because improper removal of the venom glands can make this meal foul-tasting and lethal.

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