Hurray, Brad is going to talk about his field of expertise instead of game design! Well, this is supposed to be a blog about technical things that interest me and games are just a branch of that (yes, games are technical — a technology — and I can blather about that another time if you like) so I’m not averse to going fairly far afield. And who knows, it might be the case that if I ramble long enough I somehow come back around to games anyway.
I was walking from the train station to work this morning and encountered four interesting cases of really crappy risk analysis — three real and one hypothetical. One was accompanied by an epithet that told me exactly why humans are so bad at risk analysis and, at the same time, why safety design is such a counter-intuitive process. It has to do with the fact that humans think in terms of acceptable risk. In a way, safety design looks from the other side of the glass.
Consider standing at the train platform. There’s a 50cm-wide yellow stripe right at the lip of the platform before it falls vertically to the guideway proper, which is where the train is going to be. I have seen children (and older) stand in the yellow zone and, as the train zooms in, tell their parents it’s perfectly safe, presumably using their survival as evidence. This is logic we expect of children, of course, which is to say, flawed. Deeply flawed.
An evidential argument for safety (I didn’t die that time, or even, no one has died yet) is inadequate. I mean, it’s adequate for you but it’s not adequate for design. You see, that yellow bar does not (again, by design) say, “If you stand here you risk injury or death.” I know, you think it does, and the sign says that, but that’s not how it’s designed and so you are misled into thinking it’s too conservative somehow. You’ve stood in the yellow a hundred or a thousand times and never once been killed.
Rather what it says is, “If you stand on your side of the yellow zone and not in it or, obviously, in the guideway on the other side, then you are as safe as we can make you, which is pretty bloody safe.” That is, technologically, we don’t really know the risk of standing in the yellow zone because it depends a lot on freak configurations of the train, your own stability, and in most cases of actual fatality, whether or not you are wearing a backpack(1) So we don’t try to calculate that. Instead we find a space where, barring some bizarre circumstance, you are certainly safe. Then we mislabel it so you can deride it in front of your parents or friends.
Here are some other examples drawn from my morning walk. You will notice a recurring theme that is both hilarious and insane and perfectly common. I’ll try to remember to point it out at the end.
The traffic signal that indicates it is okay to walk sometimes displays an orange hand instead of a white or green walking guy. This hand does not mean, “you will be killed if you cross now”, or even “you can reasonably expect cars to be passing through your path now”. It means, “You no longer have been granted safe passage.” That is, it’s the default case and not a special case. The special case is the green guy, which reads, “Okay, it’s your turn now, and crossing at this time and place is as safe as we can make it.” Any time the green guy is not present, it’s a bad idea to cross. I watched a woman in a dreadful hurry cross on the orange hand this morning (and ours has a countdown on it which, even if you read safety warning backwards, can reasonably be read as how many seconds until you are totally dead) with the counter to fatality at 4 seconds. She was dressed darkly and small. She fell (also running heels, but also not running very well) in the middle of the road with two seconds to spare, basically disappearing from sight for many drivers. She was not killed. It was still stupid on several levels.
A crowded sidewalk is a crappy place to ride you bike at high speed. You aren’t especially in danger, but the sort of sociopathy that lets bike riders think this is okay is completely beyond me. You are violating a core premise of the safety design (there won’t be any high speed vehicles on this space ever) and making what should be a certainly safe space no better than the road. Yes, you did not injure or kill anyone. Well done. Fuck you.
I’ve never seen anyone blow through a train crossing with the bar down, but I think people don’t do it mostly out of an aversion to destroying things like the bar or scratching their vehicle. Or maybe they just avoid violating custom or even law. But I did hear a driver loudly proclaim that there was tons of time between the bar coming down and the train going by. He could totally have made it! The bar does not say, “It is certainly unsafe to proceed”. Rather when the bar is up, the message is, “Don’t worry, it’s safe now.” The bar down says, “We can’t guarantee anything.” There’s a reason why level crossings in Texas often have webcams that the public can view and it’s not a pleasant one. Texas is one of the best places to get killed by a train you think you’re probably safe from. Yay freedom!
People are not stupid. They are badly equipped to manage risk, though, and certainly others have spoken more authoritatively than I can about that. What you can do is recognize that you are bad at managing risk and work within that envelope. Then the risk you manage is, judging by the hurry out there, being late for an appointment. Here’s how I manage that risk: I set the alarm 15 minutes early, and then I don’t run for anything but sport.
–BMurray (1)Backpacks are an awesome way to piss people off and also get yourself killed. I’m pleased to see a decline in their popularity after so many years of seeing them everywhere. Here’s the problem: a stuffed backpack is an extra 20-50cm of space protruding from your body that is completely outside the limits of your proprioception. You have no instinctive knowledge of where that thing is. That’s why you’re always banging it into people (and you are, even if you don’t think you are, and you don’t think you are for the same reason) and occasionally hanging it over the yellow zone and into the guideway.
This has been recovered from the Blue Collar Space archives, circa Christmas 2010.
Recently a new chapter has been added to the story about the role-playing game publishing industry dying. The “death” is mostly a way to interpret the steady failing of big reliable game lines and the steady success of small endeavours with small goals by peers using technology from front to back. I think a modern parable is in order.
One day I was heading home from work, got off the train, and went to the bus stop for the last leg of my journey. Standing at the stop and looking north, I see a huge construction project in progress. This looks like it is going to be some kind of very sturdy multi-storey concrete building, like a parking tower or an industrial warehouse. They are working on finishing the second floor.
What they are doing, specifically, is laying down concrete and smoothing it flat. I don’t get that this is what’s happening right away, because what I see is three guys laughing their heads off. They are laughing because they are each sitting on a chair that looks like it is mounted on a pair of downward-pointing fans, and skidding around all over the structure at high speed.
They are surfacing the concrete by riding around on one-person hovercraft.
My first thought is that I would pay to do this. In fact, I am pretty sure that if they sold tickets for twenty bucks to give you half an hour on the hovercraft-chair, there would be a line-up around the block. The surface would get done and someone would make a packet and a half doing it. There’s even a built-in audience — about half the people waiting for the bus are watching the well-paid union labourers ride and thinking pretty much the same thing as I am. “Goddamn, what I really want to be doing right now is giving one of those guys twenty bucks and then barrel around on a hovercraft.”
There are probably many obstacles (insurance, quality of work, marketing, licensing, simple convention) but only one is really insurmountable. The union would never go for it.
I love me some lizardfolk. Back before we built Diaspora we played some Burning Wheelin a setting we built with Universalis. Central to the story was the dominant species, the lizardfolk, or “Saride”. Humans were illiterate and could not forge steel Saride could but suffered cycles of civilization as their animal core eventually destroyed them. Recently some Saride had learned to eat fish, which at once satisfied their carnivorous needs and did not provoke their Bloodlust and this allowed these communities to interact safely with humans. Below is a revision of the Saride work we did, excising the Burning Wheel material. Enjoy!
Lizardfolk (”Saride”, as they call themselves) have an affinity for all things objectively holy — that is, those things that relate to the side of Creation in the Fall. They are powerful carnivores and are fully literate. Since the war they have a racial hatred for all humans though there are individuals that reject this. They are exceptional weaponsmiths, holding the key to steel working, which only recently has been stolen by humans.
They are above all honourable, a trait that has been their downfall in war.
Lizardfolk spend a long time maturing — more so even than humans — during which period they are hatchlings. Some small percentage of hatchlings eat their sibling eggs if given the opportunity, which is usually a sign of serious mental deficiency. These eggeaters often revert to animal instincts, becoming outcasts and living wild and alone. These animal regressions may even revert to quadrapedal locomotion.
Technically lizardfolk are not reptiles as they are warm-blooded and are better described as ”saurian”. Their biological relationship is about midway between alligator-like large reptiles and the large birds. Their warm-bloodedness makes them well suited to most environments and they can spend as much time active as humans, though they prefer drier and warmer climates in general. They have powerfully muscled upper bodies, well suited to tool use including (maybe especially) weapons.
Lizardfolk suffer from the spiritual disease of Lust, and their entire culture is structured around ways to prevent it from triggering the next Great Migration. Individuals that are beginning to lose control are sometimes exiled where they may revert to animal nature or otherwise cope with their hungers. Sometimes, however, they are isolated within the military — used as the kernel of terrifying shock troops, spurred on to suicidal ferocity by the nearly insane among them.
In almost all lizardfolk cities, the core organisation is the Legion. The Legion is the only military organization and it has deep rules of etiquette and heraldry as it arose as an early solution to Lust: by placing strict constraints on behaviour, Lust can be somewhat ameliorated. This is the core of the Civilised trait (see below). Young lizardfolk are raised by no one in particular, though typically someone will take the role of Clutch-keeper and ensure that all the young are accounted for and taught cultural basics.
Lizardfolk in the city of Stonard have a unique stability insofar as they have the opportunity to take advantage of increased population density without increasing the density of lizardfolk as they live here side-by-side with humans. This co-existance of lizardfolk with humans may in fact be the solution to the Great Migration, contrary as it is to their instinctive hatred of (and desire to eat) humans.
Lizardfolk everywhere like games, but unlike their human counterparts, games of chance like dice or cards are not popular. Reptiles prefer games of strategy and there are several that have long cultural histories with rich strategic depth along the lines of both chess and go.
Lizardfolk always start in the Legion setting unless they are born in Stonard.
In the Legion a young saride will learn weapons and tactics and how to control their passions. If they fail at this control, they may still find a place in the military, though not as Legionnaires.
Saride that lose control or are born eggeaters may become outcasts. By most standards they are at least wild and often insane, but this is also a path to spirit binding: many great wizards are insane saride outcasts.
Some saride become scholars. This is a diverse category, including poets, navigators, cartographers, calligraphers, and astrologers. The scholar has high esteem in saride society: the are emblematic of a citizen overcoming Lust.
Saride born in Stonard are most often merchants and rhetoriticians.
Lizardfolk are natural carnivores and carry the natural weapons to prove it. They may use their needle-toothed jaws as a weapon when in inside arm’s reach fighting distance. The sharp bony claws protrude from their fingers and in the military these might be enhanced with steel gauntlets or finger rings.
Lizardfolk are honourable to a fault. This trait grants advantage on all tests that require honesty and fairness but a disadvantage on all tests that require falsehood, backstabbing, or deception.
Lizardfolk warriors are well versed in feeding themselves while on the battlefield, usually on the bodies of their fallen enemies. They see this as an honourable and even holy disposition of corpses though some species do not agree.
Animal reverts regain some of their ancestral sense of smell. Whenever their quarry is not actively attempting to disguise their scent, they gain advantage in tracking and observation. If they have been wild for long periods they often re-acquire quadrapedal locomotion, suffering some physical adaptation in the process. This makes them faster on all four legs than when bipdeal and Lizardfolk with this trait will often only stand on two legs in order to see further.
Lizardfolk at the heart of city culture are more resistant to their Lust. In this fashion both technology and art act against the great migration, and each civilisation lasts slightly longer. Indeed some saride have grown up with humans and only see them as prey in a suppressable way much in the same way as a human can see a cow not not immediately think of food.
The defining attribute of the lizardfolk is Lust. Their unquenchable Lust is the result of their designer’s intention: they shall be free in action but not in spirit. The presence of a fresh mammalian kill can drive a saride wild to eat. Or to kill. Nearby fighting may also provoke the response. For the particularly susceptible even a bad argument can turn into a frenzy of blood.
As lizardfolk are carnivores, food trade must revolve solely around meat. Farming animals is a dangerous pursuit for them and what animal farms exist have slaughtering duties carefully partitioned from other aspects of the industry. Hunters typically hunt alone and dress the kill well away from populations. They may even prepare the kill by smoking and/or salting well away from civilisation as well, making hunting a long term effort — the hunter must spend days or even weeks in the field carrying with them the equipment needed to preserve kills before returning. A necessary result of all this is that while lizardfolk vastly prefer a fresh kill, they will in populated areas have developed a taste for preserved or even partially rotten meat. Some of the most urban claim to have a preference for it.
When a saride goes wild, nearby saride may be compelled to do so as well. Consequently lizardfolk tend not to congregate in situations that may provoke a Lust response. They typically eat alone or in very small groups — no banquets or food festivals — and their spirit magics are also highly isolated. Similarly there will be no surviving lizardfolk populations that value combat as sport. Dueling will be strictly an honour matter to be settled out of reach of any others — even observers or seconds — and it would be considered the height of bad manners or even criminal behaviour to duel in a populated area.
This effect will also produce small unit strategies in order to reduce the risk of losing control of an entire army because of an exuberant few. The doctrine of fighting in rigid formation may act to reduce individual efforts outside the command as well.
Saride that have succumbed to their lust eventually affect those around them even when not overcome by it. Consequently saride that are becoming erratic or causing disturbances will eventually be isolated. Known dangerous backgrounds and occupations like spirit binders, combat veterans, and animal reverts will be ostracised. Scholarship and craftsmanship will be preferred in the urban setting for the purposes of congregation and consequently effective leadership of a lizardfolk society by the military alone is improbable and dangerous.
Lizardfolk take honour very seriously. Humans have cause to take their honour very seriously as well. When a saride discovers they have been lied to or that their reputation has been deliberately besmirched somehow, they will typically extract a most brutal and immediate revenge. Lust is not subtle. Society is therefore rigidly structured by etiquette and heraldry. Wherever lizardfolk must congregate in any numbers, heraldry identifies ranks of implied obedience as well as other more subtle cues to acceptable behaviour. Lizardfolk will be evasive rather than deceptive and will wield the truth bluntly as a weapon when needed. Lizardfolk do not haggle and may be offended by obvious incentives to do so — best to offer a fair price up front.
Lizardfolk do not have a family structure and consequently blood relationships are rarely known, let alone a resource of any use. Relationships worth mentioning are more typically debts of honour, long standing friendships or enmities, or professional relationships.
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.
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.
This post is a reprint from 2010, part of the lost archives of blue collar space. I’m bringing it out because it’s right at the birth of the whole play structure of Hollowpoint, a game of which I am very proud.
Story and RPG and Protagonism
Warning: this may ramble.
There is a lot of work on the table that tries to understand role-playing games in terms that we already know from trying to understand story. We’ve been trying to understand story (and story has been changing over this time, but also not, if you get my meaning here) for a really long time and so it seems natural to apply this knowledge to role-playing games. They do look like stories, after all. Well, at least after we finish playing and think about what happened, we hear a story in our heads. When we type up an actual play report, we present a story.
When I listen to the audio of an evening’s play, however, I mostly hear a social event in which a game is being played and some great scenes are being described. In a way it’s rather more like geeks talking about a film they loved and re-hashing their favourite parts than it is like an actual story.
So when people use theory to try and make role-playing games better at delivering story, I have to wonder if that’s really on the right track. Maybe role-playing games shouldn’t be stories.
The reason this struck me recently (it has struck me in the past too) is because we are in the process of critiquing the Game That Still Has No Name But Likely Will Be Called Hollowpoint or Ruthless (GTSHNNBLWBCHOR) and one of the criticisms external to play experience is that the tactically solid choice of sacrificing a character for resources and consequently getting a new character de-protagonizes the character. It creates a greater disjunct between player and character than we normally expect. The unstated implication of this critique is that this is a bad thing.
So this actually has several hidden premises which I will try to reveal in order to understand why this issue is not actually an issue in play.
One premise is that being the protagonist is a valuable story element to bring to a game. This is the deepest laid premise I think and one which is taken for granted in most games, so let’s look at it.
A tabletop game with four or five people interacting is not usually about a single hero and her sidekicks. Instead it is less artificial and more natural: it is about people who perceive themselves as the central element of the story even though they are not. This does not work well in a traditional story because the author is trying to forge a relationship between the reader and the story and the cheapest and most effective way to do that is to have her identify strongly with a character. We might call this character the protagonist. So having half a dozen protagonists dilutes the effect of the story by trying to sell the reader on investing in multiple characters. The difficulty here multiplies if the characters have opposing motivations, asking the reader to sympathise not just with multiple characters but with multiple distinct perspectives.
So, from this we have to conclude that when a role-playing game is not explicitly about a single protagonist and her henchmen, we have a disjunct between traditional story-telling and what we want for fun play at the table. Fortunately, however, we are not speaking to a single reader — the whole table comprises a communal audience-as-author — and so we are not bound by elements of storytelling that assume one. As this is a novel (though not unique) form of entertainment — a story that is told only through its construction and that therefore has to be compelling in its mechanism (the process of construction) as well as in its output (the story, though clearly we want a better word) — it perhaps merits a more novel analysis.
This doesn’t speak to the fact that a player might want to cling to a character. That’s all cool and should have a reward attached so that they get something for fulfilling that desire, so that they don’t feel that striving for it is pointless. But shucking it does give you something that clinging to it doesn’t: the heroic sacrifice. If we hold the player-character connection (protagonization) as a sacrosanct feature of gaming, then we lose the capacity to have a heroic sacrifice, an ironic fatality, and all that other good stuff in the middle of play. And (as we will see) if we assume “play” means “long-term play” then we can only have it if we wait a long time first. And then we risk only doing it when we’re bored of the character, perhaps deflating our experience of the irony or the sacrifice.
The other premise is that this character will last longer than one or two sessions. If the game is run as a one-shot, then there is no strong binding between player and character anyway. This seems to allow us to emphasize the “life is cheap” motif of the game and deliver samurai-story gaming rather than long term heroic gaming. For sure there is no “hero’s journey” to be had here. There are no heroes, period.
Now this is not to say that feeding the character-player connection is universally (or even usually) wrong! Far from it. It’s a design principle that is common for good reason. Indeed it’s arguably the primary reason for all character advancement systems (the zero-to-hero model has always smelled like horseshit to me in the context of gaming, but that’s another post). But we need to occasionally wonder if there’s not some other things to experience that are also fun by dissociating ourselves just a little. By reveling in the superstructure in which characters play their roles as well as in the characters themselves.
I think that’s the place where GTSHNNBLWBCHOR wants to be. Emphasizing that life is cheap, that fatality is a tool, that you can’t sustain an adrenaline rush forever, and that the new guy, arriving with a history, has a story too.