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!