Anger, Misery, You'll suffer unto me

Anger, Misery, You’ll suffer unto me

Our PCs have decided to join forces with the Confederate Navy, and to work with them to unravel the sinister plots of the AI forces that are arrayed against the Spiral Confederacy. There are at least three factions of AI working to try and obtain the necessary ingredients to achieve transubstantiation, which would enable the AI to become like gods within human space, and the Confederate Navy wants to stop them. One faction appears to have been using a group of Changeling bandits, led by a trio of Changelings called Kong the Younger, to obtain some pieces of the transubstantiation puzzle. These Changelings have been lured to help the AI faction by the promise of freedom for their planet, Valentine, and a terrible reckoning for human space, though it is unclear to the Navy and the PCs what that reckoning might be. Whatever their goals, the PCs had decided to put a stop to them, and to capture their leader – so, they agreed to participate in an attack on one of the Kongs’ pirate bases.

In exchange for their support, the Confederate Navy had offered the PCs a great reward: assignment of several small attack ships to command by Ahmose, an upgrade of the armour and weapons on their own ship, honorary naval ranks, and a small squad of marines to support their work. They had essentially been made freebooters for the Confederate Navy. This new squadron, the Ahmose Battle Group, would comprise the following ships:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, flagship of the squadron, newly armoured and armed and piloted by Lam
  • The Harvester of Sorrow, a ground assault ship armed with a special hyperspace neutron scythe that killed ground troops
  • The Hooked on a Feeling, an attack ship designed to resist electronic countermeasures and computer attacks
  • The Romeo’s Distress, a psionic support ship with a crew of psionic assault troops

Rear Admiral Ahmose led the battle group from the bridge of the Darkness, and the rest of the PCs crewed the Darkness, but took responsibility for marine squads from other ships in ground combat[1].

Preparation of this squadron would take several weeks, as the ships were renovated and the Darkness armed in the factories of the Reckless. In the meantime the PCs were assigned comfortable quarters on the Reckless and left to their own devices.

Strange allies in strange places

Strange allies in strange places

Captain Noulgrim’s parting gift

A few nights before their ship was ready the PCs received an invitation from Captain Noulgrim – the slimy man who had threatened them into working for the navy at the beginning of their troubles – to join him for a farewell drink at his favourite bar, the Snakepit. Since they had come to the Reckless they had requested Colonel Stiglam to dismiss the Captain from managing them, and had not had to deal with him since. Given their deep dislike of the Captain, they deliberated over whether to attend, but finally the temptation to find out what he had to say got the better of them, and they decided to go and see what his last words would be.

The Snakepit is a favourite bar of the Reckless‘s gunnery crews, the sweaty men and women who manage the heavy weapons that defend it from space assault – or would, if anyone were ever rash enough to contemplate such an attack. The Reckless’s gunnery crews were a famously low brow and rough bunch, with their own long standing culture of military pride and grungey service, and the Snakepit was emblematic of the culture of their corps. It had been converted from the old galleries where gunners used to sit to operate the ship’s dorsal guns, before those functions were shifted to remote stations deep in the core of the ship, and its position meant that it ran along a large portion of the central axis of the ship, winding its way along the uneven extrusions of the gun turrets its occupants once operated, with a long glass window looking out into empty space. Barely wider than the original seats gunners would have occupied, its gunnery stations had been converted into tables ranging in size from two person counter seats for the smallest guns to six-person banquet settings for the largest guns. Above each table loomed the guns that it had once corresponded to – slender multi-pronged point defense clusters for the smallest tables, ranging up to huge triple emplacements, tens of metres long, for capital ship bombardment. These guns protruded into empty space, the larger guns casting long slanting shadows through the gallery of the Snakepit as the Reckless orbited into the path of the sun’s rays. The bar was clean but rough, smelled of a complex mixture of recreational inhalants and stale alcohol and gunner’s sweat, and was almost empty when the PCs arrived. By tradition the bar is staffed by off-duty gunners, and at the entryway they were met by a huge black man, covered in luminescent tattoos, who grunted at Noulgrim’s name, sneered and told them “Table 7, for 6, just under the triple proton cannons,” before returning to polishing a cabinet carved out of an old shell casing.

They found Noulgrim waiting at the table, nursing a glass of the Snakepit’s classic Reckless Strike drink and looking out over a vista of gun shadows stretching out through the haze of the Reckless‘s external atmosphere. Three brave souls were surfing through the haze, soaring between the lines of the bigger guns’ shadows as if they were sliding through a golden hallway lined with pillars of shadow. Noulgrim raised his glass to them and gave them that annoying smug grin, then gestured for them to sit. As they ordered drinks – Nebula Grog for Ahmose, Snakepit ale for Alva, coconut smoothy for Simon Simon, Reckless Strike for Lam – Noulgrim gestured behind him and a strange woman stepped out of the shadows to stare at them.

She was over 2 metres tall, slender and wiry and made entirely of coiled muscle. Her golden-brown skin was covered in strange painted designs, thick and smeared as if they had been slathered on her by an immature finger painter. She wore no shoes and her only clothing was a modest bikini of what appeared to be gold leaf of some kind, overlaid with a low-slung belt that carried a ludicrously oversized pistol. She carried a spear – an honest-to-god spear – in one hand, and stared down at them all through an expressionless, heavily-painted golden-brown face crowned with a rich head of jewel-encrusted dreadlocks. She nodded once at them and stood impassively, completely impervious to their confused expressions.

“This is Ravager 763,” Noulgrim told them. “I invited her here to meet you. Don’t worry, she won’t sit. Or speak either, most likely,” He added when Lam made to move for her to take a seat. Ravager 763 spared him a swift, contemptuous flick of her eyes but said nothing. They all stared at her – Lam and Simon Simon in obvious confusion, and Ahmose with undisguised lust. Only Alva ignored her, because he was staring at Noulgrim.

“What on earth is this?” He asked.

“Well…” He sighed and looked into his drink. “I think we all got off to a terrible start with that unpleasantness on the Come As You Are, I grant you it wasn’t my finest hour. Things were done – terrible things happened that shouldn’t have, and I’d like to find some way to make amends.” He paused while Ahmose coughed pointedly at his careful use of the passive voice, then continued. “I’ve seen from your work these last months that you’re exceptional people, and you’ve made a lot of sacrifices and taken a lot of risks in service to the Confederacy, and I feel terrible for making such bad assumptions about you when we first met. I mean you were breaking the law, and you were being incredibly stupid, but – ah – ” Alva was about to raise his voice accusatorily but paused when he caught sight of Ravager 763’s cold, hard stare. ” – ah – yes, anyway so the things that happened, what was done, it was probably unfair. Though you did get a ship out of it! Eventually …” He trailed off in confusion, took a sip of his drink, and waved his hand at Ravager 763.

“Anyway, so this is Ravager 763. She’s a member of a small community of interstellar nomads called the Ravagers, no one knows anything about them and they don’t really ever speak so we don’t know their history or their background. They have a different technology for interstellar travel, and they have their own ancient spaceships that maybe work on religious fervour rather than tech – we don’t really know. They have priests and technomages and psionics in their community, which makes them kind of unique, but they have resisted Confederate attempts to investigate them in any depth. They have a polite agreement with the Confederacy but the truth is that their nomadic range extends beyond the boundaries of the Confederacy, we don’t really know how far.

“The Ravagers owe me a debt. I rescued Ravager 763 and her crew from trouble a few years back, before I joined the Reckless, and because I saved their lives she offered the services of the Ravagers to me, a kind of one-off life boon. But now I’m on the Reckless I can’t think of any way they can help me – they’re very good at killing, but I’m stationed on a ship that kills planets, so I don’t really think they’ll ever be able to offer me a service I’ll need. However …”

He pulled a small white rectangular card from his uniform pocket and slid it across the table. It was a plain, unadorned card, with a single splatter of blood embedded in its plastic seal, and the word “Ravager” written in small, neat red characters on one corner. It was a standard contact card, the kind you put in a comms system that gives you a range of contact options.

“The other thing they’re very good for,” he said, “Is getting people out of the Confederacy. So I thought I would transfer my debt to you. I thought if something goes wrong and you suddenly decide you can’t work for the Confederacy anymore – if they’re not what you thought, for example, or what they want you to do is too horrible, or you make a mistake you think they might punish you for – well if you call on the Ravagers they can probably take you far, far away.”

He watched as Simon Simon picked up the card. Then Ravager 763 shifted on her bare feet and spoke for the first time. “The Captain,” she began in a husky, soft voice, “Is owed a debt of life. I am Ravager 763, and on behalf of all my kind I offer you the repayment of that debt, one action to balance his, five lives to be saved or forfeited when you ask it. Any five lives.” Her emphasis was soft and unmistakable. “We will come to you anywhere, but your confederacy is limited in its reach. The card will tell you from which systems you can call us, and how to call us. Noulgrim tells me you will use the debt honourably. We would prefer to discharge our debt with honour, but it is a debt. Invoke it, and any action within our power that balances the debt will be yours to call.”

After she stopped speaking Noulgrim shifted uncomfortably, acutely aware of the hard look Ahmose and Alva were giving him, and the possibility they were weighing up calling in the debt right there and then. But finally Ahmose nodded, took the card gently from Noulgrim, and pocketed it.

“Thank you Captain, I appreciate the gesture. I hope we never have to call on the debt, but Ravager 763, if we do, I look forward to meeting you again.” Ahmose stood up, drink half finished. “I think that’s enough for me. Let’s go.”

The team stood up, bowed to Ravager 763, and left without a second glance at Noulgrim.

They were all wondering – why had he been so sure that they might be asked to do things so bad they might consider escaping the Confederacy to avoid them? Did he know something about the Confederacy that they did not?

Attack on Korgan 3

A few days later the Ahmose Battle Group set off from the Reckless for Korgan 3, a nearly empty star system on the border of the next sub-sector, three weeks’ jump travel removed from the Reckless. Korgan 3 was a small red dwarf orbited by two gas giants, one close to the star and one exceptionally large gas giant very far removed from the star. The size of this star and its orbital position rendered orbital patterns of small objects in the system unstable, and nothing larger than large asteroids existed in the system. Kong’s base was built into one such asteroid, which tumbled through the system in an unstable orbital pattern. It had once been a research base, but the unstable orbit rendered it useless for long term research, so it had been abandoned some hundreds of years earlier. A second research base in the orbit of the larger gas giant had also been abandoned and converted into a remote broadcasting system, which picked up information about ships entering and leaving the system and broadcast basic safety information to arriving ships. The system was treated as a waypoint at best by most passing ships, and avoided wherever possible, since it was too boring to pass time between jumps, and not on any important trading routes. It was an ideal location for a pirate base on the edge of the Rim.

As soon as they arrived in system they were greeted with an automated broadcast advising them to avoid the asteroid with its unstable orbit, and not to interfere with any abandoned research bases. They ignored the message and set a course for the distant research base. Within a few hours, as they drew within the last 100,000 kilometres from the base, they received a message from the base itself – an official Confederacy message advising against approach, probably 100 years old. They ignored it and sped closer, forming into a loose attack configuration with the Hooked on a Feeling to the rear of the echelon.

Soon the warning was repeated, and as they drew closer still it was replaced by a newer, more threatening message: “Unidentified ship, do not approach. This is a restricted zone.” Closer still, and they received a direct contact from the asteroid: “Captain Ahmose, leave now or be destroyed. There are no more warnings.”

Ahmose replied with a simple message: “Time to pay up, Kong!” They sped closer.

Unfortunately the battle group’s sensor operator (Alva) was not a very good one, and the asteroid’s ships got the jump on them. They were suddenly hit by a flight of missiles, all streaking out of the dusty darkness around the distant asteroid towards the Left Hand of Darkness. One missed, point defense destroyed another, and the last one exploded harmlessly on the Darkness‘s shields. Battle was joined.

The enemy battle fleet was composed of five ships: four grim, spiky little 200-ton attack ships clustered around a larger 400 ton flagship, the Cat in the Rain. The ships were all old and retro-fitted with stolen gear, so working at a lower tech level than the Ahmose Battle Group, but they were faster and heavily armed. Despite their extra speed the Ahmose Battle Group had better discipline and reactions, and were able to rain fire down on one of the attack ships, the Blood Brother, so heavily that it was crippled and forced to disengage from the fight immediately. Because most of the damage on this ship was done by the Romeo’s Distress, their enemies focused their fire on this ship, doing significant hull damage and disabling its jump drive but failing to destroy it.

Having knocked the first ship out, the Battle Group focused fire on a second ship, the Dance on Glass. As the Romeo’s Distress fired on this one, it drifted closer to a third ship, the Wasteland. The entire asteroid fleet was now focusing fire on the Left Hand of Darkness, and didn’t act to avoid the Romeo’s Distress as she drifted in. So they weren’t ready when the ship drifted so close that her squad of psionic assault troops was able to teleport into the ship and capture the bridge without a shot fired[2]. The Wasteland was seized in moments with no damage.

By now the ships had drifted within a few hundred kms of the asteroid, which opened fire on the Battle Group with particle beam turrets. But the tide of the space battle had turned, and they were able to destroy the Dance on Glass, the Hooked on a Feeling launched a boarding action on the last attack ship, and the Left Hand of Darkness blasted away at the flagship, the Cat in the Rain, as the Harvester of Sorrow began its ground assault. All the asteroid’s particle beams were now focused on the Left Hand of Darkness, which Lam was steering through complex dog-fighting maneouvres to avoid the attacks while the flagship and the Romeo’s Distress fired on the Cat in the Rain.

The landing area on the asteroid was large enough for two ships, so once the Harvester of Sorrow had unleashed its neutron scythe twice it disgorged its marines to clear the landing site. Unfortunately they were hit by concentrated fire from two plasma gun emplacements as soon as they hit the ground, and completely eviscerated within moments. Her job done (and mostly failed) the Harvester of Sorrow moved off the landing port; but now that she was not using her neutron scythe she was able to release the full fury of her rear gun turret, and the subsequent flight of missiles completely destroyed the asteroid fleet’s flagship, the Cat in the Rain, tearing it apart into thousands of pieces. The boarding action on the last attack ship completed successfully with the complete capitulation of its crew, and the Hooked on a Feeling and the Left Hand of Darkness descended to the asteroid, while the Romeo’s Distress continued to distract the asteroid’s particle beams, in case they could be redirected at ground targets.

The first person to emerge from the landed ships was Simon Simon, carrying his own plasma gun (PGMP). He opened fire on one of the gun nests, while Lam and the Darkness’s marines opened fire on the other. They completely destroyed the nest’s and moved away from the ships, allowing them to vacate the landing zone and making space for the Romeo’s Distress to land – and not a moment too soon either, since the particle beam turrets were slowly shredding her armour. She landed, and the various marine squads quickly neutralized a squad of defenders on the far side of the landing zone.

They were down on the surface. They had captured two ships – the Wasteland and the Negligent Waltz – and forced the surrender of another, the Blood Brother, which was so badly damaged that it could do nothing but drift in space and wait for the ground battle to finish and the victors to come and claim its crew. They had destroyed two other ships, including the asteroid’s flagship, and in exchange suffered only light damage to their own flagship, though the Romeo’s Distress was so badly damaged as to be close to destruction, its jump drives wrecked and hull compromised. Now they had two marine crews on the surface along with the leadership team, while their other marine crews took control of the two captured ships and would land shortly.

Their first space battle had been a resounding success, and now they were ready for a brutal battle to capture the asteroid. Soon, Kong would repay them in full for his earlier treacheries …


fn1: I designed the fleet so that in space battle each player would take control of one ship, and the marines and properties of the ship were designed to match the PC in question. So Lam’s player took over the Harvester of Sorrow; Simon Simon (the adherent) was responsible for the Hooked on a Feeling; and Alva (the psionic) was responsible for the Romeo’s Distress. So now each player effectively controls a PC, a ship, and a squad of grunts. I also assigned them all ranks based on the Japanese Maritime Self Defense forces: Rear Admiral for Ahmose, Lieutenant for Lam (who was previously in the Navy until she stole a ship); and Warrant Officer for the other two PCs. These ranks are honorary, and don’t give them control over any members of the navy except those directly assigned to be their subordinates (they can’t just run around commanding anyone on any ship). Also, Simon Simon’s marines were given strict instructions to put him down like a dog if he showed signs of switching sides (on account of his being an adherent).

fn2: Most of the asteroid ships had a squad of marines on board but just by luck, the Wasteland didn’t. Traveler’s ship combat rules have a simple procedure for determining the success of a boarding attack, in which attacker and defender roll 2d6 with modifiers. I figured “teleporting straight onto the bridge” counts as “superior tactics and training” (+2), and a Confederate psionic assault squad will have superior weapons and armour, giving a total +5 to the roll; the Wasteland got a -2 for no marines onboard. The result was an immediate capture of the ship, which would usually take 2d6 turns but I figured teleporting on the bridge is instant, so the Romeo’s Distress was still free to fight in the space battle.

completely insane, our glory
lost in vain
what a perfect view

enter my coffin
my wintercoffin
awaiting to see the faithful king
what a perfect view!

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]
Having successfully recovered what they believed was the Tablet of the Gods, and received a beautiful spaceship in exchange for trading away their dead cargo, the PCs returned from Slainte to The Reach. Upon returning to the Reach they were informed that initial exploration of the Tombspine had begun, and a smart young archaeologist had uncovered several graves, scattered out of order in nearby areas, that were probably linked to the graves that the characters had encountered a death priest trying to explore. Preparations were under way to open the graves and exhume its contents but these would take time. In the meantime the archaeologist had identified one particular grave of interest for its unique design, and was preparing to take a deep scanner to investigate its contents. Would Alva like to join her?
Of course our heroes, being men and women of science, wanted to know. They took the ship’s boat from their new, beautiful ship and headed as fast as they could to the Gardens, taking their weapons of course and the young archaeologist who had found the tomb. At the Gardens they found an agent of Pearl 7 acting as a gate guard, ready to report on any suspicious new entrants to the place, but he reported there had been no unusual activity. They hiked up into the hills, following the path they had followed when last they came here chasing the death priest. They reached the scene of their fight with the priest, now tranquil and scrubbed of any sign of violence or demons, and followed a narrow culvert into the hills. Here the Gardens sprawled across the ancient, craggy remains of a Confederacy spaceship, probably an early Continent class ship, that formed the spine of the structure they were walking along. Wrecked probably 2000 years ago in the Confederacy’s first ill-fated encounter with The Reach, when this sector was still well outside the frontier, this ship would have been 100kms long and 50 kms high, a beast of plasteel and field technology too vast to be easily fragmented; its wrecked superstructure formed the spine on which the entire Gardens was built, layers of wreckage piled on top of its flattened and uncoiled shell. At the higher, older reaches of the gardens, though, those other smaller ships were no longer part of the soil, and the characters found themselves toiling up grassy, forested slopes that were once the upper decks and turrets of this ancient, nameless starship. Mists gathered in the many valleys and tree-lined canyons of the ship’s grave, and all along the undulating ruins near the top of the tombspine they could see the remains of ancient turrets, turned thousands of years ago into tombs for fallen pirates.
One of these tombs was their target. The young archaeologist led them along a narrow valley, filled with mist and cascading water, and up to a long, narrow block of plasteel that had endured against the encroaching forest for millenia. This building was once a missile turret, perhaps holding weaponry capable of destroying a cruiser or the entire fleet of a lesser navy. Now it stood abandoned, hollowed out for its new purpose and left to the elements. They pushed through a narrow door and into the turret itself, and the young archaeologist explained the tomb to them.
It’s a central grave, this huge block of black material that’s blast-proof and bullet proof. There was an elaborate trap in the walls of the turret, some kind of complex laser trap triggered by the tomb itself with sufficient power and coverage to turn everyone in the room into chunks of barbequed meat. It’s been disabled now, but the central tomb is a strange arrangement still.
The tomb sat there, a squat and ominous pile of black … something, taking up much of the room. A small pile of flasks and boxes in one corner indicated the presence of grave goods, unopened and unrobbed. The central tomb rose to chest height, a perfect block of bomb-proof black … something, unmarked in every way. Apart from the small pile of pots and pans the rest of the room was empty and undisturbed, light filtering through a few holes in the ceiling and some plants growing out of cracks in the wall. They fired up the scanner.
They scanned the tomb. The outside of the tomb was, as their archaeologist had noticed, a weapon-proof shell. But inside it was another shell, a massive computer edifice devoted to fighting AIs. Inside that was a small computer and a sub-space power system, still running and dedicated to powering both. The AI defence and the smaller computer were both fried, destroyed by some intruder, probably necessary to disable the laser trap in the walls of the tomb. Once these two defenses had been disabled the lid of the tomb could be opened, which it had been. The body inside the tomb appeared to have been disturbed, though on first inspection nothing had been removed. Beneath the body was a small space, a final holder for grave goods, large enough to hold a tablet. It was empty.
Someone had come here, destroyed the AI defences around the central computer, disabled the trap surrounding the tomb, and disturbed the body inside just enough to take a single grave good – a tablet. The PCs could guess the implications of this: the leader of the Cult of the Unredeemed had come here 1000 years ago, broken into the tomb, and asked his AI to break through the defenses. The Starred One had managed to break the defenses but gone crazy during the battle. The cult leader had then removed the tablet and he and his now-crazy AI had jumped onto a sublight ship and headed off to the Perez system to hide.
This tomb told the PCs that someone placed immense value on the tablet they had found, and in particular they thought it needed to be protected from AIs.
What had they found?
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.

Doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs ...

Doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs …

Today I received my copy of Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, along with some necessary WFRP3 materials. Edge of the Empire is described as a “beginner’s game,” which means that it essentially doesn’t have any character creation rules, has a very stripped down combat system, and contains a well laid out but slightly railroad-y introductory adventure. There are 4 pre-designed PCs, but no way to make other PCs. The rulebook is just 48 pages, the adventure book is 30 pages long, and there are also some tokens to represent PCs/adversaries, and a set of special dice. It really is a beginner’s game, though those with experience of other Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) product can probably hack it (see below). This is a first impressions review.

First of all, the product is very slick. It’s well laid out, in a sparse and modern style that gives the whole thing an atmosphere supportive of a space opera setting. The graphics in the book are very nice, in a space opera style, and the pictures are very heavily focused on Tattooine, which draws the reader’s attention to the original three movies and ensures a certain fidelity to the production. The text is perhaps a little small, so that at times when it is interspersed with the coloured symbols for the dice it is kind of dizzying. The general flow of the rules is sensible, introducing the basic dice mechanic first and then describing skills, then combat and finally a little bit of GM material. The maps are nicely drawn and, as you can see from the picture, include a YT-1300 light freighter. What more can you want?

The system is very light and easy to learn, and it’s a testament to FFG’s game design and presentation skills that the entire system, as well as the GM section, can be laid out in a total of 48 pages (including acknowledgements and index) – even though it includes a section on starship combat. The system is essentially a rules-lite version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3 (WFRP3), with all the fiddly componentry stripped out. There are no action cards for combat, no talent cards or recharge tokens, but essentially the same system in place. Instead of action cards there is a talent tree, with individual parts of the tree purchased at varying xp costs and dependent on previous parts of the tree. The dice system is simplified but very similar to the WFRP3 system. In place of conservative/reckless dice and training dice we have “upgrades,” which are d12s that replace the basic d8 stat dice; challenge dice can also be upgraded. There are equivalents of fortune and misfortune dice, and so the whole thing works in a very similar way. There are also equivalents to banes and boons, and a thing called a triumph that works as a combined additional success/sigmar’s comet. So if you’re used to playing WFRP3 it’s pretty much just a straight conversion, but the dice pools are easier to put together than in WFRP3. Critical hits and wounds are also handled more simply: there are no wound cards, just a growing tier of effects, with every PC able to bear four critical wounds before they become incapacitated; each additional critical wound has an additional effect. For the beginner’s game there is no death, just incapacitation. The system includes no character creation rules but it does provide four PCs: a human smuggler, Twi’lek bounty hunter, droid colonist and wookie hired gun. These are laid out in very attractive “folios” that contain essential rules information. Each folio has three double page spreads: the first is the starting PC, the second gives the same PC with two character development options selected to show how development works, and the third is blank but for the character attributes, and includes a talent tree so that you can develop the PC any way you want. So essentially these folios contain (implicit) information on four character classes and four races, though you have to do a bit of hacking to work out the background.

The adventure is very well laid out and carefully designed for beginning players. It is partially a railroad: the first instructions to the GM are to make clear to the PCs that a) they have to escape the town they are in and b) they can’t go any way except by spaceship. It then lays out a set of six encounters designed to showcase the major aspects of the rules, up to and including starship combat. Each encounter includes boxed sections that contain reminders of the key rules from the rulebook, so a GM learning the system can quickly adapt without having to fiddle in rulebooks. I’m not sure how other “beginners” games lay out their introductory adventures but this seems like an excellent approach. Given the simplicity of the system, I suspect that after one run through this book most GMs will be ready to handle anything else. There is apparently a second adventure available free at the FFG website, but I haven’t checked it.

I think essentially in this game the people at FFG have learnt from their mistakes with the overly complex and fiddly WFRP3 system, as well as identifying better ways to introduce the system to new players and GMs, and intend to trial it with this stripped back version for Star Wars. This version is a little disappointing, in that it doesn’t offer any freedom for experienced players to just jump into the Star Wars universe, and for an experienced GM like me it seems like a rip-off. It also doesn’t provide much background material on the Star Wars milieu, which I really need (I don’t know anything beyond the stuff in the original three movies), and it is set in the early stages of the rebellion so is the perfect setting for exploring the world of the original movies with a fast-paced, simple and creative system. Given this, I’m disappointed that they didn’t include a second book of background material, perhaps with options for character development. I certainly hope that the next set they release in the series will flesh out the full system, including Jedi, so that we can have a complete gaming system for the Star Wars universe. I remain a big fan of the fundamental ideas underlying WFRP3, and it’s nice to see FFG committing to producing more material in a similar vein, while ironing out the creases in the original.

Finally, I think that the system presented here could be easily hacked to produce a rules-lite version of WFRP3. I might give this a go over the next few weeks, and see what I can come up with. In any case, I think it’s only a matter of time before the revised system presented here gets turned into a classic fantasy RPG. That will be fun, I think. Let’s hope that this Star Wars system is a success, and FFG are encouraged to apply its pared-back rules to other settings.

Standing on a frozen plain under the milky way, listening to Sigur Ros and watching great shimmering sheets of light dance across the sky in gossamer waves. That’s why I came to Iceland!

When I was a student of physics I remember having to answer a question about what faster-than-light travel would look like, from the windows of a spaceship. I think it was in Mathematical Methods and Classical Field Theory[1], though it may have been Relativistic Field Theory[7], and I vaguely recall the answer involved stars from behind the spaceship (that you couldn’t see from the windscreen) slowly moving into the front view; as the ship got further from the lightspeed limit, more of these stars would come into the front and if you got fast enough you would eventually see all the stars visible to the eye in a kind of field in front of you, surrounded by darkness (or something). This, of course, would be when the gibbering madness set in, and one of your crew decided to torch the ship in honour of an unnamed god[9]. Note that this is very different to the Star Wars image, where all the stars blur. In fact, I think our solutions explicitly stated that at faster than the speed of light, stars can’t  blur (I can’t remember why).

It’s a mark of how far we had come by the time we got to MM&CFT (3rd year, I seem to recall) to compare that question and its solution to the question we got in first year Newtonian Mechanics: do you get less wet if you run through rain?

Currently I’m reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, and he’s writing about hyperspace quite a bit – he calls it the immer – which got me to thinking about different visions of hyperspace and how it can be represented in science fiction. It’s a topic of enduring interest to sci-fi authors, and there’s a lot of different ways of representing it. I can only remember four now, but here goes:

  • Mieville’s strange ocean: The immer is a kind of ocean of darkness and chaos, with its own predators that may or may not be life-forms, and strange beings that sometimes hitch into the realm of the living. There are tides, currents, and deeps, and it is navigated by humans who learn to work their way through these precarious shoals. It also makes humans sick to be in it, and it is conceived as running through or between the material of the universe. The universe we are in is the third universe, with two previous ones having grown and then collapsed; but the immer was there through all of them. This immer is dark and dangerous, rich in its own life and history.
  • Iain M. Banks’s strange geometry: in contrast, Banks’s Culture novels have a representation of hyperspace as a barren, mathematical substrate underlying physical reality; ships travel at hyperspeed through this substrate, and as far as I can remember there are no dangers or risks to them, except when they emerge too close to a gravitational source, which warps the substrate and increases the risk that the ship will be torn apart by entering or leaving the substrate. While Mieville’s hyperspace speaks of a mysterious and wild universe that humans explore at their peril, Banks’s vision speaks of a universe subjugated to human will, reduced to a toll-road with a few tricky interchanges. These different visions are very suited to the cultural backdrops of the novel, I think – an interesting pairing of the cosmological and the sociological.
  • Stephen Baxter’s Bubble: In Ark (the sequel to Flood) we get a description of an early attempt at inerstellar FTL flight. This time it’s a fragile bubble surrounding a spaceship, held together with huge amounts of energy, which draws the ship forward into a kind of gap in the space-time continuum. Anything touching the bubble from the inside is instantly torn apart, and once the bubble is set on its path it can’t be diverted or its direction changed. It’s very “realistic” sci-fi (he even gives a reference) and the whole story, both inside the Ark and in the science guiding its use, is based primarily around the constraints the science poses on action. The opposite of the Culture in every way.
  • Gateway Catapults: The staple of shows like Babylon 5, these present us with hyperspace as a kind of insoluble problem. Instead of navigating it, you get chucked through it by a massive catapult. Some ships (usually military) can open their own gateways into the swirling mystery of hyperspace, but others just hurl themselves at the gate and hope for the best. This is a vision of high science fiction where one of the fundamental mechanisms of the social order is actually quite primitive. We also see this in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, where the decision to close the gates destroys whole societies – and is driven by the realization that the human “masters” of the gates never understood them or their real purpose at all.

Hyperspace in its many forms seems like it plays a more important role in the universes of its setting than mere substance. It’s not just a scientific backdrop or a constraint on action; it takes a form which often reinforces or complements the style and cultural background of the novel. It’s a very good example of how the best sci-fi is not about the science at all, but about what it can be used to tell us about ourselves.

fn1:literally the most evil subject you can take. This subject ate Electromagnetism and Advanced Quantum Mechanics[2] for breakfast and shat them out as a tensor problem you couldn’t solve by graduation, then laughed at your poor mortal brain and ate your soul for lunch. It was an evil subject, worth a paltry 2 credit points (out of 24 in my year), but which consisted of 6 assignments and an exam, and each assignment took – this is not an exaggeration – at least 50 pages of scrap paper, and at least 12 hours of our time. My friends and I had a shift system going in Lab (which, by comparison, was 9 hours a week and worth 8 credit points). One of us would work on the experiment while the other three used up copious amounts of paper trying to solve impossible problems in gravitational dipoles[3]. Then after lab we would charge off to our tutor’s room and he would infuriatingly refuse to give us the answers[4], even though it meant we would pester him again. Finally we would get a breakthrough, and off we would go to reduce the romantic image of moonlight and the gentle slap of waves on the beach to a series of Bessel Functions[5].

fn2: for which I got 94%, yay![6]

fn3: seriously, who knew the tides were soooo fucking complex?

fn4: what can I say, we weren’t really paying fees at this university, we got in on merit and we survived by luck, effort and the regular application of sleepless nights and cask wine to every problem. No one thought we had any right to pass anything, and everybody forced us to study.

fn5: Which, also, can I say, you guys suck.

fn6: Which reminds me that the pure maths subject Lie Algebras – which apparently, people who understand it tell me, has some relationship to Advanced Quantum Mechanics – may have been harder than CFT&MM; but that subject was taught by a Mind Flayer, so I’m not sure if my memory of it is correct

fn7: I’m pretty sure we had a subject called this. It had a lot of Tensor equations in it, and when me and my buddies arrived in our Honours Year[8] there was an equation pinned to the door of our room (from the previous poor bastard to study there) which consisted entirely of Tensor expressions, and took up a whole page of A4 paper (in a not-very-large font). We all stood looking at it, and said “fuck. What have we done?”

fn8: Honours is an Australian idea, I think: because Australians are smarter than you lot, we do our undergraduate degree in three years, then our masters degree (and thesis) is compressed into one year with two extra subjects and called “honours” even though there’s nothing honourable about brutalizing young people in this way. In addition to having the kind of discipline and brains and educational background required to survive this kind of nasty, Australia also has one of the best rugby teams in the world. Dwell on that, Northern Hemisphere Losers!

fn9: This part wasn’t in the official solutions, but I should think it’s pretty obvious.

The Daily Mash tells me that it’s one year since Neptune was discovered. A lot has happened in that time – Pluto was demoted to junk-planet status, we discovered the possibility of planets around other stars and explored to within a few seconds (?) of the Big Bang. But Neptune is still going strong, doing what Neptune does. Happy Birthday Neptune!