My business, the VSCA, is in a very privileged space. It’s not for me to talk about whether someone elses pricing scheme is good or bad, just or unjust. It is certainly all those things. So let’s just look at some things that are certainly true and wonder how much we care. You get to decide how much you care for yourself.
Monte Cook Games pays a decent wage to their writers and artists. Far above the indie norm.
A hundred bucks in one outlay is too much money for some people to pay. They cannot afford to buy this game (Invisible Sun) even in digital only form.
A hundred bucks does not seem to me to be out of line with my personal rule for pricing: generate the same profit in print as in digital. It just tells me that MCG is making about eighty bucks per unit on the print version too.
Big price-tag games are not new. Hell I would love to own that monster box Ogre release but there’s no way I could justify the price. I still have to pay off the stair elevator chair thing my wife uses to get to the bathroom since she can’t walk. But there are lots of things I can’t afford. I usually talk myself into believing I don’t want them. Same as everyone. Pfft, Lambourghini, where would you even drive one in this city and expect to use its performance?
There are thousands of games with lower production values but better play values one could own. It is hard to find out about all of them. Even most of them. Because…
…it is very hard for a producer of low priced excellent games to get eyes on their game. They can’t afford the sort of marketing available to better capitalized endeavours, they don’t have the industry heft and consequently the social media reach that these folks have. And manufacturing that reach is very difficult (and as we have seen elsewhere in the so-called “industry”, sometimes poisonous: it might not be wise to trust people who have spent a lot of energy developing social capital like that).
Kickstarter enables almost anyone to either effectively capitalize whatever project they want (including one of the scale of Invisible Sun) or fail trying. The nice thing about this is they don’t need to eat the risk unless they succeed at the Kickstarter. That’s when the risk kicks in and sometimes eats you alive. The problem here is probably that “great game designer” and “great project planner” and “fiscal genius” don’t necessarily overlap in any given enthusiastic person starting a Kickstarter. But if you do Kickstart and you do your fiscal homework, you can pay artists and writers top dollar too. And if you can’t (Kickstarter fails) then you don’t play out that risk. This is what Kickstarter is good for.
This might not be a fact but I believe it firmly: more people buy a digital product than read it and more people read it than play it. If you want to sell a lot of copies your game can be crap as long as it’s pretty and entertaining to read.
The front page of DriveThruRPG is driven by revenue not units sold. If you sell two copies a day at a hundred bucks each you will stay on the front page for a long time. Smaller entities will last hours at best, and then fall under the radar. So even if a consumer checks the site once a day, they will never see many new titles. Never ever.
Poor people deserve a good time too. In fact I’ll say they deserve it more. A lot more. You wouldn’t believe how much the oppression of living day to day with Not Enough is lifted, however briefly, by a fun time with cool people.
To my mind then there is nothing “to do” about this hefty pricing of a PDF. It’s easy to justify. It’s easy to deride. Ultimately, a business has set a price and you can afford it or not. They don’t owe you access and you don’t owe them your money.
At the same time there is a boom in insanely cheap, deliberately low-fidelity gaming zines produced by people who are only paying themselves and barely managing that. Should we also be examining that? Is that “ethical”? There are and have always been a ton of pay-what-you-want or even just free games out there that are largely invisible because the heuristics of DTRPG guarantee it and the authors are not facile at getting visibility. Should we be concerned that they pressure indie developers to keep their prices low? They do. Should we be concerned?
No, not particularly. What we should care about is that people who do work get paid for it and paid adequately. That’s pretty much it. Whether a product sells enough to stay afloat is not our problem. Pricing is not our problem. Consumer goods being out of reach is old news (and is a feature of capitalism, so changing it is a substantial project). Cheap and occasionally excellent goods being available is awesome and unusual.
There are at least two ethical actions then (and I like to talk about things in terms of what to do next — criticism without some logical next steps is cathartic but less useful): supporting lines that pay their artists and supporting lines that are single-author (since these are largely the same thing). If you tell me the rates you are paying artists and writers on your Kickstarter, I’m more likely to think about backing (depending on what you actually say). If you’re a single-author publisher and especially if you’re not using Kickstarter, I will happily highlight your project here and tweet the hell out of it, lending you my (sorry but) limited reach.
If you want everyone to be able to afford games, you can’t drive down the price of Elite Games and also support adequate pay to artists. There are a lot of talented people getting paid to make that sort of thing. You can help make already affordable games more visible, though, and by side effect put more money in the hands of artists. So they can make more (affordable) games.
That is, the solution isn’t deriding luxury games. The solution is celebrating the rest of them. Inasmuch as a solution is needed.
Oh and for heaven’s sake play your games. If you read it, yell about it, good bad or mediocre. If you play it, yell with more authority.
If you build a map you pretty much have to do something with it. I was looking at maps the other day — nautical maps showing depths as contours — and thought I’d like to try a new technique or two and make a similar map for a science fiction game.
So what would the contour lines be on a star map? I decided they are hydrogen densities.
When you make choices like that and you are like me and want to create, this only raises more questions. Why would you chart hydrogen densities? What does it mean when a star is in a high density region? What about a low density one? Whole games are born this way.
So I built a toy. It’s kind of part of a game that doesn’t exist. It’s a thing you could use to run whole campaigns with your favourite system. A framework for exploration. Here’s the schtick:
You are c-luggers, traders in ramscoop starships that can get very close to the speed of light but of course not past it. You trade. The secret purpose of your organization is actually to keep civilization going — to prevent the inevitable falls you’ve seen a hundred times and to uplift the fallen so they can be functioning trade partners. And to keep your ships flying. Yes, I’m absolutely calling on Vernor Vinge‘s character Pham Nguyen from A Deepness in the Sky. I am unashamed.
You can move faster through higher hydrogen densities (though not the top end — that’s fast, sure, but risky as hell). Your subjective time that passes in travel isn’t much, relativity is your friend, but lots of time passes where you stop. Your old pals on Pig’s Eye are long dead, that’s a certainty, but what else has changed? You remember they were headed for a serious panopticon problem but can you get there in time to bring the social tech you found at the Younger Sister? Maybe you could take the fast route, through the high density zone and make it in time, but what if you’re both wrong and damaged by the fast path?
Oh well, find out when you get there I guess.
So I built a little on page toy — this map and some rules for how to move in it and how to determine what you find. If it’s a new place to visit, what is it like (in the narrow terms the toy cares about — you can use your system to provide the rest of the detail)? If you’ve been there before, how has it changed? And can you get your software updated? Surely there’s a certified software archaeologist around here somewhere.
You can get this at the Patreon page. It’s free now if you’re a patron (and if you are you are free to do with it as you please, including give it to others, talk about it, or just print it and keep it under your pillow). If you’re not, it’ll be available to everyone else on March 15, 2019.
I keep trying to up my art game. I’ve been playing around with improving my shading skills, trying new brushes, and generally just trying to more…gooder. When you practice at this you constantly get better, but you get better slower and slower until you suddenly get a lot better and then the curve starts over getting slower again.
You can force that reset.
One way to force it is to try something outside your comfort zone. Now I’m normally all about pencil and ink. When I first started drawing it was with technical pens. Straight from blank page to ink on paper. I was not very good, but I got a little better. Today I still love ink; I love line work. I love an outline for making an image concrete.
One day Juan Ochoa showed my a trick. At first tricks seem like cheating but tricks are not cheating. Tricks are ways that a decent artist gets better results faster. Anyway, Juan’s trick is this: do your ink. Then create a new layer under the ink and paint your values. Your grey scale. Your shading. Very cool, this lets you do some shading and looks swell. But that’s not the trick. The trick is, when you want to add colour, add another layer between the ink and the values and set the layer to multiply. What this does is add the value of the lower layer to the current layer. What that means is that you can paint flat colour and the shading layer will come through, shading your colour. This gives you the illusion of having mixed a bunch of colour shades when in fact you just did the grey scale in one pass first. It’s not perfect but it looks good and it’s fast. It’s a trick. A very valuable trick.
Anyway, I needed to force the plateau again and what I’ve been doing feels half way to, well, painting.
I grabbed some new software for this — I love using the Adobe Sketch app for ink and values illustration but it’s limited for painting. So on a recommendation I got Procreate. It’s solid. Good brushes and a good blender. And I started painting.
It’s not the same. It’s a much more interesting problem to mix shades but the side effect is that you get some hue variation as well just because you’re imperfect. And that’s actually better. It’s more real. Things reflect all kinds of different colours and your eye notices even if your brain doesn’t process it analytically. Consciously. It matters.
And there are tricks. And they are not cheating. I swear it. For example, I used a fair amount of cut and paste in this one so far. But it’s far faster to cut and paste and then correct colour, change up texture with the blending tool, and so on than to repaint identical objects identically. I can barely draw a straight line let alone the same one twice.
So now I’m on that upward slope again, learning new tricks. Even if it is, at the moment, just to go back to Elysium Flare ships.
This is from late 2009, after release of Diaspora and, more significantly, being (correctly, I think) criticized for using Optima as body type.
The choice to set Diaspora in the typeface, Optima, was not a casual one. It was considered, nuanced, and ultimately probably wrong, though the vision — the text as I hoped it would be — would still be set in Optima.
First and most obvious, Optima is the titling Face for Traveller (albeit the oblique in that document). Certainly Diaspora contains many homages to Traveller and setting the text in Optima was something that the original authors of Traveller probably could not readily do. So in the sense that we were updating that game, I chose to also update the physical text. I wanted to at least in part be what that could have been if done with modern tools and the same early vision. So, homage.
It was more than that, though. Optima is a heavily modulated sans serif, which is a rare beast. It lacks terminal ornamentation, yet its strokes change from thick to thin as though drawn by a human being with a brush. It is both man and machine. This was thematically consistent. Optima was also a Linotype font — it was designed for use in a machine that performed typesetting by taking keyboard input and actually casting a slug of metal type inside a compartmentalized foundry. An assembly line took the input, chose letter forms from molds, poured molten metal into them, cooled them, and dumped them into a page board as a complete line set in metal. When complete, the typesetter would remove the page of type and use it to perform letterpress printing or to press a proof for photography as part of a lithographic process.
This kind of early mechanization has parallels with the Diasporan view of technology: the first step in automating a process is to make a machine that does exactly what the process did. It was a long time before we cut the metal type out of the process altogether. Imagine a machine that actually performs molten metal casting in its innards — a word processor with a foundry inside it!
The fact of this early mechanization imposed restrictions on font design. One could not kern letters (because the type was set as a line, unlike the later Monotype machines which set by letter and could be manipulated at that unit) and so fonts built for the linotype have horizontally truncated f’s. They lack elaborate tails and serifs. The upper case Q never swoops into neighbouring territory. The idea of being constrained by technology is part of the Diasporan theme, and so again, Optima resonates. Another Linotype choice would have been Palatino, but this quasi-Renaissance letter form didn’t have the stark industrial feel of a sans serif face. Nonetheless, we do see use of Palatino in the text — the fiction blocks are set in Palatino Italic.
We could summarize that by saying that Optima is, at its very core, a “retro” choice. Not just because it’s old, but because it is representative of the way that nascent technological upheavals force art and culture. Before we figure out how best to use technology, it already begins to mold us — to determine how best humans are used in the service of technology.
The downside to Optima was something that did not show up in proofing the text: Optima is meant to be set with metal and so it assumes the high resolution of analog production methods. It is a beautiful and highly legible font digitally at 1200 dots per inch. It remains elegant at 300 dpi (common laser printer resolution) provided the black is consistent. Sadly, with an inconsistent black and low resolution, the strong modulation of the type can undo it — the thin lines become swamped by the thick. The d, the f, the c all start to look a little blobby and anemic by turns. So when I discovered that our printer’s blacks were less than perfect, my delight in the finished product was wounded. Not slain, but injured. And so the best and well considered intentions of the human behind the technology is undermined by the technology itself.
And so, this is a kind of apology. Diaspora could have been more legible with more attention paid to the demands of technology. Fortunately, the failure is thematic: should I, the conscious, free-willed, human mind sacrifice my vision — even my autonomy, to some extent — to service a technology’s failure? Perhaps I should — Optima itself is just such a compromise. And as technology advances we make these same kinds of compromises: we answer the phone even when we don’t want to, we treat humans as machines when we talk to them through a machine, and we choose convenience over beauty to stay ahead of the game. And these choices are part of what Diaspora explores. And so it’s a failure I embrace.
What if gods have nothing whatsoever to do with people?
I don’t mean that they ignore them or refuse to commune with them. I mean that they have no relationship with humans at all?
We’ve invented gods largely as explanations. We have gods of things, gods that explain lightning, famine, plague. And as we’ve added our own explanations through observation and analysis, our gods have become more esoteric but still explicative, now chased into the remote corners of spaces unknowable. Gods now explain why we exist, what comes after, and guarantee that there is a point. They are present to give a face to a concept and to let us know that there is a plan, that it’s all fine, that there are reasons.
So what would a god look like who is not any of those things?
In Sand Dogs the tombs that stud the desert are the places where gods dwell. I was going to say “the homes of gods” but that’s not really right because the gods don’t have homes. They aren’t sitting inside the tomb watching Deity TV. They don’t have lunch. They are just in there somewhere, inert, for reasons of their own. And these gods are unfathomable. Not unfathomable in the sense that they know so much and have a plan that’s just too complex for us. Unfathomable in the sense that they are thinking and doing things that are not just beyond us to understand because we are too simple, but they are beyond us to understand because they have nothing to do with us. They have bigger fish to fry and at different time scales (and directions).
That doesn’t mean that they don’t intersect with us. They do. We will meet gods in Sand Dogs and they will be strange and weirdly half approachable. They make an effort to seem humanish but they are bad at it. They will choose icons from our histories (and from histories that don’t exist in our world but do exist in others with humans in them) and sort of be like them physically. Sort of. They will make strange choices that to them make perfect sense. But they appear humanoid only so as to make the meeting and communication slightly less bizarre and not because they have motivations that have anything to do with us.
Gods travel the planes at will. Since there are infinite planes there are multiples of that infinity of purposes for gods. Since humans do no appear on all those planes and even where they do, those humans have nothing to do with you, gods can have incredibly rich, compassionate, intense feelings for people somewhere. Just not here and not you. Imagine an entymologist with a passion for the ticks that live off reindeer in Siberia. Now imagine that scientist on vacation in Mexico, lying on the beach, bothered by sand fleas. You are the sand flea and not the tick. The scientist is not near you on business and even if they were, you would not be that business.
Gods leave garbage lying around. It’s just stuff they don’t need any more. Its purpose is as unknowable to you as their thoughts. But this stuff has properties. It has behaviours. But from your perspective and like the gods, they lack a purpose. Or rather whatever their purpose is, it’s not a purpose that intersects with your needs. But their incidental properties might! Or might not. In fact this garbage might be crazy dangerous. What does a god care? Yes this is drawn very much from the Strugatsky brothers’ classic novel, Roadside Picnic and it’s important. It asks what a story looks like that’s just not about us? What if our story is the story of intersecting with this other narrative, this impenetrable story, that has nothing at all to do with us? Our story is still important (the most important) but we are forced to confront the fact that not everything is about us.
And this is intended to be consternating. We want the story to be about us. Not just our story but their story. And so we bend a little. We invite the characters, eventually, into the grander story.
And at that point, perhaps, they too become as gods.
Sometimes I am doing what I’m good at but not having any fun doing it. Now my father would tell me that sometimes it’s not any fun, any of it, but it still needs to get done. But what I’m good at should be fun. Right?
But maybe sometimes it’s just the case that nothing’s fun and that’s a brain problem not a fun problem.
I am fortunate, however, in that there are at least three things that I’m good at and when one is not fun it’s often the case that another is. My craving for novelty is so shallow that the other thing is novel enough.
I’m good at making games. At least, I’m good at making games that I like to play (and that’s good enough for me). And so when the other two falter I can often get in the groove and write and lay out that game. Since I now have several games in the pipeline I’m no longer in a situation where I am wondering what to do. There’s plenty to do.
When that’s dragging (like when I have a ton of tables to typeset and fuck that) I can still lean on work. At work I design software systems — multiple components that communicate together to solve a problem — to ensure the security of a safety-critical infrastructure. That’s pretty exciting. There are a lot of similarities with game design, actually, and not just because there’s a crapton of writing that needs to get done. It also involves problem analysis and breaking out solutions that work together to meet those needs. It involves finding components that work together without being so coupled to each other that changing one destroys the other. It involves finding a method to turn a complicated issue into a series of executable and explainable solutions. And it involves a lot of explaining. And math.
And when all that’s dragging I draw. I’m not a great artist (not fishing here — I know enough about illustration to know my limitations) but I love doing it. It requires little to no initial analysis. It needs no words. It’s just a matter of moving an image from inside my head to outside my head. And while it happens I get to enjoy the media I use. Drawing is simple, tactile, emotional fun.
Interestingly, when I fall back on drawing, when nothing else at all is fun, it breaks the barrier. Not always but often. When the drawing is done something plugged is unplugged. The other things seem fun again.
So thank you joyless paladin, unable to be excited by the heroic swing because of the burden, the loss of momentum, and the inadequate rewards. You summarized the mood and invalidated at the same time. That’s heroic.
What this means is that Sand Dogs layout is back on track.
Postscript: yesterday The King Machine was the deal of the day at DTRPG. We sold a lot (relatively I mean) of copies. It was marked up so hard that not a lot of money got made but far more importantly there are more eyeballs on the pages. If you got a copy, I hope you dig it. If you dig it I hope you shout out about it. I hope you play it. I hope it brings you joy. It was a joy and a relief to make.
A thing I love to do is to mechanize the un-mechanized. In 2015, before my wife started her Troubles (which I have detailed elsewhere but aren’t the subject of this discussion but suffice to say it was Bad and it was Stressful), I took a course on lithography. My chosen image was a sketch of a dragonfly which I mechanized and militarized.
Insects are really good for this — they are almost machines anyway. And you can see in this some of the doo-dad doodling that would find its way into the light-hearted designs in Elysium Flare, both ships and robots. I developed something between a style and a technique for adding elaborate mechanical bits to something.
My second image for the course was a mechanized wasp which, sadly, did not print well but the prepared stone was lovely. There’s a significant improvement in the detail and the execution. It felt like a major leap forward and so the failed printing was a real disappointment.
Last night I was flailing for work to do, with nothing really penetrating my mood and then I found a micrograph of a T4 microphage.
These things are pretty much literally mechanical — you’d be very hard-pressed to claim they are alive. It’s really a shell containing some RNA and some chemical-mechanical manipulators. These things drift around looking for suitable bacteria (in the case of the T4 I think it’s e.coli) which they latch onto and inject their partial DNA bits. These are designed to steal the bacterium’s DNA and assembly processes to turn it into a factory to make more T4s. That’s it. That’s all it does. There’s no metabolism, no sense it which it eats or breaths. Or senses. It just drifts until a chemical connection is made, a mechanical action is triggered, and some very specific acids and proteins hijack the vastly more complex machine of the bacterium to make more T4s.
So here’s a T4 Terminator fabricated in the future to hunt down an e.coli that will have a detrimental effect on Skynet if allowed to live.
Technically a blast from the past, this is resurrected from the old skunkworks wiki — a constructed script for our lizardfolk overlords from a Burning Wheel game in the ancient past.
Literacy in humans originates from the lizardfolk and has recently spread to humans since cultural contact with the lizardfolk has progressed beyond territorial warfare. The alphabet of the lizardfolk, the ”anatake”, is not particularly well suited to the human tongue and it remains to be seen how the language and the alphabet will evolve under their use. As there is no formal method for transcribing the ”anatake” to human languages, spelling will vary widely from place to place and time to time.
The ”anatake” is a composed syllabary. It is not ideographic and while it is essentially alphabetic, pure separation of consonant and vowel does not exist in the lizardfolk tongue and is consequently poorly represented in the alphabet. The ”anatake” is written from right to left. Each syllable is composed of a main stem or ”pane” (meaning exit) and a decoration or ”faru” (meaning entrance). The exit stroke is the vowel that terminates the syllable and the decoration is the consonant that begins the syllable. When preceding vowels are necessary (as in ”anatake”) they are free-floating characters.
The ”anatake” is best suited to a brush or oblique cut quill, but can be cut in stone with simple tools with only some minor stylistic changes to reduce curvature.
In the ”pane”, pronunciation is roughly standard for Latin alphabet transliteration of Japanese. That is, ”u” is pronounced like ”oo” in ”boot”, ”o” is a long ”o” as in ”boat”, ”ai” is a long ”i” as in ”bite”, ”i” is pronounced as ”ea” in ”beak”, ”a” is a simple ”ah”, and ”e” is pronounced as ”eh”. Vowels have no special modifying characteristics as they would in English. Adjacent pronounced vowels are mysterious to lizardfolk and consequently letters like ”w” have no obvious translation. It remains to be seen how humans will adapt to this.
When transliterating it is common to use the ”u pane” for terminal consonants as in the terminal position a ”u pane” is barely pronounced in the lizardfolk tongue. Sometimes other ”pane” will be used however.
These entrances are all inscribed against the ”a” exit.
The origin of the ”faru” is not known, though presumably they are stylised from a previous ideographic character set. As the lizardfolk have been literate for a profoundly long time (while they appear to periodically lose technology they never seem to lose the art of writing and reading), the ”anatake” has undergone substantial normalisation since its origins.
The free-floating vowels are used to precede the initial syllable when used in the lizardfolk tongue:
In human literacy these characters might be present before an internal syllable to indicate a dieresis or even stacked to indicate multiple vowel sounds as in, for example, the traditional transcription for Three Ways:
In some of the advanced cities of the lizardfolk a more cursive form is frequently seen. This is used more often in copies of books intended for rich patrons and are typically also illuminated.
Typographic details can vary quite dramatically in the e, a, and in some ways the u ”pane” without creating any ambiguity. The following variations on the a ”pane” are all feasible:
Obviously a stylistically consistent font can be made by inverting and reversing these for the e ”pane”.
The ”faru” are rather less amenable to variation and can rapidly lose their distinction if pushed too far.
In designing the ”anatake” I assume that the instinctive solution to creating a text from oral language is to map words onto symbols rather than phonemes as the phonemic structure appears to be the result of a deeper analysis — a greater level of generalisation than might initially be available to civilisations. The structure of the ”anatake” suggests, however, some of this deeper analysis in its construction and it might therefore even be the result of a later wave of lizardfolk to make sense of an earlier wave’s technology. That is, the reptiles may once have achieved the higher level of abstraction but when the technology was lost so was the context in which it existed. The ”anatake” would then be the result of a culture without sufficient context trying to make sense of an alphabetic system, ending up with the hybrid of a composed syllabary. The irony of this is evident in the Korean system of composed syllabary which is of explicitly modern design, though as a compromise between the power of an alphabetic system and the tradition of the existing Asian syllabaries rather than as the result of any lack of analysis.
It strikes me as interesting also that the inevitable battle between pronunciation derived purely from the written forms and pronunciation derived from the context plays itself out largely in the effort to abuse the ”anatake” by trying to get it to represent the human tongue, which is highly analogous to our own context-sensitive use of the Latin alphabet to transcribe English. The ”anatake” has a limited set of vowel sounds, for example, that are insufficient for English and has a pure syllabic structure that is also insufficient and therefore correct English pronunciation has to come from contextual interpretation of the letter forms that would not be necessary to the originators of the syllabary. In real languages forced to operate under the inadequately generalised Latin alphabet we solve this with contextually relevant groupings (”th” does not sound like a ”t” followed by an ”h”), contextual back references (vowels are elongated if they are followed several characters later by an ”e” as in ”rote” or ”lathe”), and diacritical marks. In Spiritus Mundi we have a world that is only now stumbling over these obstacles and will have widely varying unstandardised solutions.
There’s also an interesting translation problem that relates to the transliteration problem — when we talk about the human language of Spiritus Mundi, are we talking about English? The names suggest both yes and no. Does it make sense to transliterate English words into the ”anatake” if they are essentially translations of an unelaborated tongue? Further muddying this is the fact that we have used some certainly English words for names and some obviously Latin words as well, yet one of the tenets clearly indicates there is only one tongue amongst humans (and it’s certainly not believable that a society with only one language would have English as that language). This probably only bugs me and there can be no solution except to not transliterate English into the ”anatake” and that would suck so I choose to ignore the problem hereafter.
This first appeared on the now defunct skunkworks wiki for VSCA. It’s a love letter to the way I used to run Traveller and a response to canon fanatics on the Traveller Mailing List.
The Imperium According to Brad
There are many ways to interpret the setting details for Traveller — between multiple revisions of the game, board games with implied (and explicit) historical information , the ramifications of the technology, and the myriad actual games being played, the divergence is (pardon me) astronomical. So this here is just mine. When I run Traveller, this is the context.
The Imperium is an effort at maintenance — a philanthropic project that confronts the limitations of technology head on and makes hard decisions about how to minimize human suffering within that reality. It has no loftier (nor lesser) goal than the minimum suffering of Humaniti. The mechanism by which this is accomplished, however, is a vast disorder — a loosely connected and barely controlled balkanization of trillions. The secret to the success of the Emperor is an almost total release of command.
The Speed of Civilization
The core limitation of the Traveller universe is the speed of information. The only superluminal mechanism for transmission of information is the Jump drive which has a maximum range (approximately six parsecs) and a minimum time (a week). Nothing travels faster than that. We’ll take for granted that Special Relativity is wrong or incomplete so we can ignore causality issues. Anyway, this limitation means that you can’t maintain central control over any interesting distance — the minimum time between an event and your response is two weeks. The practical response time is vastly larger and the response must physically travel along one of a small number of calculable paths, making interception or blockade quite feasible. Empires that tried to maintain central control have fallen.
So this means that an existing high technology society cannot sustain neighbouring technologies — if a given society is suffering a major setback (war, future shock, catastrophic ennui) there is no certainty that it is possible, let alone economically viable, to sustain it externally. A critical tenet of the Imperium’s ruling philosophy, then, is that you can’t save everyone. The practical goal that follows is that there is a minimum level of technology that can be sustained on average given the limitations of travel speed and economics. That tech level, it turns out, is around 10.
The Imperium’s concrete efforts are to ensure that jump technology gets to societies that have lost it and to help create and sustain sufficient infrastructure to do so. They do not make any effort to control the leadership of these systems except where that leadership inhibits the primary goal of sufficient technology. The net result is a kind of feudalism and certainly the trappings of ancient feudal societies have been cheerfully adopted.
Fealty: The Exchange of Servitude for Jump Drives
The transaction that all systems in the Imperium undergo is an oath of fealty: the system agrees to have its economy and industry influenced (sometimes outright controlled but not necessarily) by an Imperial agent of noble blood. Their duty to the Emperor is to see to it that their charge attains and sustains at least tech level 10 — establishing a space port and the technology to make and keep making jump drives and therefore participate actively in interstellar trade. Their authority relies in large measure on the fact that he’s a conduit for improvement of the local way of life, but also on the military guarantee of the Empire — if things go badly the marines will show up. Not necessarily in any great hurry, but the Empire will assert itself.
These governor/observers usually carry some traditional feudal title like Duke or Count depending on the region, the social standing of the individual, the value of the holding, and the culture of the location. This Imperial delegate lasts as long as they are needed — sometimes that is decided by them, sometimes by the Imperium, and, in some unfortunate cases, it’s decided by the populace with the tacit approval of the Imperium. The actual mechanism of the observation and its connection to local authority is entirely at the discretion of this noble, but usually pursues an established ((Imperial Advancement Strategies|advancement schedule)). As long as they are demonstrating results their methods are rarely questioned.
The Reality of Technological Limits
Maintenance of a culture past tech level 15 appears to be impossible — no post-15 cultures have demonstrated any lasting stability and those currently at that state are all on the cusp of failure. The Imperium has tried to maintain these in the past but it is now considered an unarguable fact that these civilizations will fall. 15 appears to be a relatively stable level of technology and consequently this is the target technology level for all systems. It is not, however, commercially viable to try to do this outside of the immediate core of the Imperium, so the Empire stops pushing once a system can communicate and compete in interstellar affairs on its own.
A side effect of this is that the Imperial core worlds are all a little paranoid about technology — there is an effort (sometimes deliberate and sometimes unconscious) to fail to progress. Typically this expresses itself in an accretion of mysticism and in socio-political rituals around technology, limiting its efficiency and therefore its capacity to accelerate itself. Imperial core worlds are high tech places with low tech appearances. Swords are favoured over lasers, costume is highly decorative and hand crafted, the nobility ride horses to court, but everyone carries their hand computers and communications gear and is hooked into the world network. Technology has produced a great deal of leisure and luxury and the Imperials are determined to choke technological advancement with it. This as much as their goal of maintenance may explain the durability of the Imperium.
The systems that fall inside the Imperial borders that have shucked off the Imperial guidance are free to pursue their own interests as long as they do not disrupt Imperial interests. The obedience thus demanded from the Emperor is simple:
* You don’t interrupt the mail. The X-boat routes and the people and ships that ply them are absolutely sacrosanct. Problems with regular X-boat deliveries will result in the eventual arrival of the Imperial Navy and its Marines. Resolution will be swift and under the local discretion of the arriving military commanders (you can’t wait for clarification on orders with a six month turn around in the sticks).
* You obey interdiction zones. If the Imperium says you can’t visit a system, you can’t visit the system. An Imperial response here is usually restricted to systemic exploitation — systems are interdicted because it would be dangerous if colonised or exploited on a large scale. Sometimes, however, red zones can be very strict indeed with Imperial attention even to individuals crossing the line. Again, the threatened response is autonomous naval units with marine support.
* You don’t mess with the elevation exercises. Systems without jump technology are not interdicted, but any effort to keep the Imperium from achieving its goal of elevating the local technology to an interstellar one will be frowned upon. With ships and guns.
Other than that you are free to wreck your own and other civilizations through devastating local or interstellar warfare. Be careful of unplanned side effects that might attract Imperial attention though — when the Imperium chooses to end a war it takes the simplest possible route.
The Imperial Marines
Few things command faster compliance with Imperial dicta than the arrival of a squad of black and red battle dress uniforms — featureless visors, the whir of electro-mechanically enhance strength and mobility, and the blunt snouts of man portable fusion guns all contribute to the staggering awe inspired by these troops. Rumour of their dispatch is often enough to compel even the most stubborn rebel.
These troops are the expensive elite of a much broader organization, of course, but they are also the face of Imperial force, so while they are deployed as part of a more complex order of battle, they are nearly always present in every order of battle. The Imperium only sends troops when it intends to fight — there are no idle Imperial threats — so it never holds back to cut costs. The unit types available to any given deployment include:
Elite Imperial Guard
These are what you think of when you hear “Imperial marines”. They wear full battledress armour and wield FGMP-15s for all duties except boarding or the interdiction of high value structures, in which case they will carry a mix of Gauss rifles and laser rifles, retaining the FGMP as a squad support weapon instead of the standard longarm. These units are deployed to swiftly crush all resistance through sheer shock — they land without warning dropped from orbit individually and their missions are simple.
Imperial Interdiction Forces: Infantry
The IIF units are a little less imposing than the EIG but what they lack in enormity they gain back in number: the IIF deploys unpowered combat armour with FGMP-15 sidearms. The armour is lighter and cheaper but can’t be used for individual re-entry, so the IIF is deployed by carrier landing groups en masse. These units are used to occupy and defend ground taken by the EIG shock troops and will also provide the bulk of any counter-attacking forces.
IIF units will also maintain artillery components and nuclear damping units.
Imperial Interdiction Forces: Armour
The IIF infantry is supported by fast fire and maneuver grav tank platoons capable of delivering direct and indirect heavy weapons fire on distant targets. As they are extremely expensive to move (mass is cost when you’re shipping a hundred parsecs) these armour units are often built to specification at the nearest TL-15 industrial base and as a result will vary in specific loadout depending on local resources and, perhaps more relevantly, local terrain and opposition.
Armament will vary most widely ranging from rocket-assisted low velocity CPR artillery to VRF gauss anti-personnel only to Z-category fusion weapons. Closer to the Imperial core meson guns may also be present in some numbers.
Armour is always the most bonded superdense that can be manufactured and deployed on the frame and power supply: the marines like their armour invulnerable.
Supporting gear will include laser detection and counter-measures, a full range of target detection and acquisition electronics, and nuclear damping gear.
The Imperial marines are further supported by a broad base of logistic and command personnel wearing uniform cut black and red combat environment suits. The standard sidearm for support troops is the ((IMS-66 TL15 Snub Pistol)), an autoloading variant of the snub pistol loaded with self-guiding subsonic ammunition with a dual purpose explosive warhead and a sophisticated ranging and target marking system.
The Solomani are a loose confederacy of interstellar governments that achieves by accident what the Imperial devotes effort to. No central authority exists and efforts to make one happen are stillborn. The difference in actual effort results in a similar result but with a different statistical profile — Solomani systems have the same mean technology level but the distribution is closer to even. In the Imperium there is a big bump in the curve around tech 11-12 because of Imperial management policies. In the Solomani space there is no such bump — any efforts to elevate pre-interstellar cultures are purely local efforts.
Similarly there is no resistance to technological advance. Practically speaking this means that there are more TL15+ worlds than in Imperial space because there are no brakes on progress, but there are also many more recently fallen cultures that have reached there socio-technological barriers and been crushed back to pre-atomic industrial capacity. Or worse — there are plenty of scarred and empty wastelands in Solomani space too.
The nature of this near anarchy is such that further describing the Solomani as though they were a single entity is fruitless. Where they war with the Imperium their war is local in both effect and context for the Solomani even where it is of Imperial interest.
The Solomani do have an X-boat system and it is the reason they continue to exist as an interstellar entity, but it is not centralised as it is with the Vilani. Instead meddling with the Express is something of a cultural taboo — it’s simply not done. This means, of course, that it is indeed occasionally done, but it’s generally reacted to violently by all affected systems. It most often happens in times of war though its impact on systems nearby that are not involved in the fray makes it an undesirable tactic for the aggressors, almost to the point of being considered a war crime.
The Express is a system of private companies that manage the routes between themselves. In high density subsectors the competition is fierce and a valuable system may have as many as a dozen competing Express companies, some inter-sector and many inter-system. This system is less efficient than the Imperial X-boat network but is also completely unmanaged, making support of the system the problem of the interested parties rather than all citizens. In practice the differences are negligable. Basically in the Imperium your delivery is a near certainty with a very predictable schedule whereas in Solomani space your delivery is marginally less certain and you have a wide variety of choice for delivery speed, insurance, route, and of course, cost.
While not truly alien in any strict sense, the Vargr represent a problem in perspective as well as practical politics for the Imperium. They are loosely organised, much like the Solomani, but have much less of a pre-disposition towards order. Their internal communications are again similar to the Solomani but, due to their cultural tendency towards piracy, not nearly as reliable. This means that there really is no one in Vargr space for the Imperium to talk to — at least with the Solomani they can negotiate with the various Express companies and big traders, but with the Vargr the largest clans represent only a few thousand individuals at best.
The most obvious consequence of this is that, where the Imperium borders on Vargr space, a military presence is provided to deter Vargr piracy but no actual effort towards political contact is made. This seems to suit the Vargr just fine.
The Incursion Zones
The Incursion Zones are a series of systems in the ((Arbalest)) sector that have no clear relationship but that are the source of significant attention from an otherwise unaggressive alien species — the Khelkevarians. Each of the systems were colonised many years ago by designated Imperial colony forces but have been in a constant state of warfare since their inception. Whether they were previously occupied or have since been invaded is not clearly understood though the Imperium, in choosing the terminology of “Incursion Zones” has declared their position on the matter.
The first contact in the Incursion Zones occurred in the colony of ((Typhoon: Khelkevaria|Khelkevaria)), a habitable moon of a gas giant in the bio zone of a yellow star in the region. Early technology imports established an industry there in the lush jungles that proved a rich source of organics ranging in utility from tailored bacteria to anagathics. Valuable both for its stratgeic location on a single jump path through the Corridor and for these natural resource, it soon became hotly contested by a species that has come to be knowne as the Khelkevarians even though they do not originate from that system.
The Khelkevarian moon is a deep jungle with a dense canopy that reaches dozens of kilomters above ground. The base of the forest is an organic soup in a high pressure atmosphere while the upper zones are dominated by predatory avian species and flimsy light gathering foliage. Only in the middle zone is there a suitable region for habitation and this is where the colonies themselves lie — using the trunk and branch systems of the huge World Trees for both foundation and transportation in the mid-zone where the atmospheric pressure is roughly normal for human habitation.
It is in this forested world that the Khelkevarians, a pseudo-reptilian high technology race battle Imperial forces for control. No real attempt at communication has ever been made between the two forces and the war has raged for many years. The electromagnetic interference from the gas giant makes ship detection extremely difficult and so both sides regularly attempt rapid deployment of ground troops while larger scale naval battles occasionally break out in deeper space. Both are essentially attempting to blockade access to the surface and both are largely unsuccessful.
The Khelkevarians appear to excel in gravitics technology — in these areas they are closer to TL15.
Khelkevarian Assault Forces
The Khelkevarian invaders have substantial technological and industrial resources somewhere on the moon — something that is very easy to hide in the dense forest that covers the entire planetoid — and produce effective fighting forces well suited to the environment. They do not appear to be able to breath the atmosphere in the mid-world (nudge nudge) but may be more suited to the higher pressures below. Their technology level is approximately TL13 but they exhibit both higher and lower variations, leading to speculation that they have a widely spanning empire not unlike the Imperium in which some variation of technological capacity exists.
The basic unit of the Khelkevarian forces is the Incursor — a Khelkevarian in TL13 hardsuit combat armour with a “gravcan” on the lower half that can be detached instantly if needed. The gravcan provides rapid propulsion and lift allowing for speedy traversal of the World Tree branch networks. Incursors are typically armed with some Gauss rifle system, often the ((KM-119 Khelkevarian Close Quarters Gauss System|KM-119 system)) designed for very close quarters combat. These troops obviously specialise in very rapid deployment and ambush and will typically establish an ambush with two or more wings of reinforcements ready to exploit or extract the ambush once sprung. The Khelkevarians invented the gravitically polarised charge, TDX, that is now prevalent in Imperial forces and the Incursors always carry a great deal of it as demolitions charges or grenades.
The logistic and command arm of the Khelkevarians have not bee sighted and certainly not captured. They may not exist or they may not be distinct from the Incursors. Certainly when heavy weapons installations are established (such as the usual VRF Gauss brackets often installed on Khelkevarian owned branches) they are installed and manned by Incursor troops. There appear to be no distinct engineers or other supporting units.
Film has certainly influenced the games I play and the games I design. Which films?
The first game I ever designed was a Rollerball simulator. Based on a single and heavily edited viewing on television I decoded the rules to the sport and built an oval track game complete with the starting gun, motorcycles, the magnetic goal, and punching.
I was 11 or 12. The game worked. So right out of the gate I knew I could make games. It would be a long time before I decided I could (and that would come mostly by being handed a way — POD) make games for other people to play.
Did my game manage to capture the theme of corporate management and violence as entertainment? No.
But it was a functional simulation of a fictional sport and it was fun to play. It is gone without a trace.
the road warrior
This film fed into our love of all things apocalyptic (since we knew we were going to die in atomic fire). It added wild cars, which we hadn’t considered, and consequently drove the purchase and near-constant playing of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars.
Weirdly (though we were older now) we did get the underlying themes and did start playing games about rebuilding community and about the difference between survival and thriving. Of course the games were still combat-heavy and centered on our gear, whether vehicles or weapons, but we were also exploring how we would cope should we survive the coming nuclear disaster. In fact I spent a day with my social studies teacher driving around Vancouver taking pictures of buildings. When I got them developed (you had to do that in the Old Days) I marked them up with a technical pen, adding the necessary destruction: our games were about surviving the thermonuclear holocaust in our home town. And my idea of post-apocalypse would always center about my home town.
This wasn’t fantasy for us. This was planning. We really thought this could happen. And yet it still didn’t influence me enough to make me learn how to drive: in an emergency I could perhaps be the gyrocopter pilot but not Mad Max.
This film is primarily about being cool above all else. Above intelligence, above compassion, above common sense. Everyone in this film is obsessed with how cool they are and, most importantly, that they are cooler than everyone else. The big surrender at the end is a surrender of cool, the agony of compassion betrayed, an actual uncool warm masculine feeling undermined and soaked in blood.
Of course this was part of what would be Hollowpoint — a game in which you can only be violent. There is no mechanism for anything else and so any compassion you bring to the game is all you. It is constantly undermined by the mechanism. Eventually your character is taken out, and while that is prosaically death, most players have their characters leave in disgust at who they’ve become–and then roll up a character who is worse and start play by giving the rest of the group shit for screwing up and losing a partner. That is, the scene starts by establishing your cool dominance.
2001: a space odyssey
Finally a space ship that might actually work. A space station with spin gravity. Weightlessness on the transit from Earth to the Moon. And the quiet coldness of hard science fiction.
I was a big reader of classic science fiction as a kid and when I read science fiction now it is more often older classics than newer material. Sure, I dig The Expanse of course, but it’s an outlier. Now 2001 didn’t really influence in a sense — it more epitomizes what I wanted out of science fiction gaming and consequently what I wanted from an sf game. It didn’t make me play Traveller, but it acted as visual and thematic touchstones for it. We spent a lot of time seeking ancient incomprehensible artifacts. We constantly made ourselves feel that the immediate drama of being human was in fact tiny and pointless compared to what the universe was really about. And it wasn’t about us.
Of course this aesthetic would carry on to Diaspora.
The Duellists is a Napoleonic period piece about obsession. One character (Harvey Keitel) is obsessed with his honour and duelling the other character (Keith Carradine) to the death. Feraud (Harvey) is single-minded and uncomplicated but not above fear. d’Hubert (Keith) has a full rich story for his life and is continuously nagged, tormented by Harvey’s pursuit and their periodic inconclusive duels.
The two characters are opposing views of (in an extreme way) what it means to be male. The senseless pursuit of honour as an excuse for violence destroys every other aspect of Feraud’s life and he doesn’t care. He has defined himself by this pursuit of violence. And on the other side is a man who tries to live a full, thoughtful, and compassionate life but is constantly forced to address the obsession of another man.
I’m pleased that I can see this stress in most of my games. That there is always an acknowledgement of the compassion that humans (and men, from my own perspective) must fight to preserve in the face of a world that sometimes only offers us violence and stupidity as an option. If the game is going to have violence in it, it’s going to be an interruption and not the focus. My hope is that we will pick up the game and play d’Hubert and not Feraud.
Except in Hollowpoint. In Hollowpoint you more likely play Feraud through to his logical end. See the film. It’s not what you think.
Also, check out the design on that poster. You can’t really think I wasn’t influenced by that.