Saturday, November 16, 2019

GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

I need to reassess this book. The original version of my post was under a misapprehension about what it was and what it was doing, but after quickly popping in to the video game version of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, I realized GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was a much different beast than I'd originally made it out to be.

See, the problem is that I have a lot of good memories of SMAC, so I was inclined to be very generous about its merits, but a corollary to that is that the more generous I was to the video game, the more I was tempted to discount the unique contributions of the book.

The thing I remember very clearly about Alpha Centauri the video game is that it had a rich and fascinating back story, and when I read the rpg adaptation, my primary feeling was "none of this surprises me." So, I guess I just assumed that everything that was good about the book was present in the original game.

The turn around came when I was writing my first post's Ukss contribution. I went with The Dream Twister, and was a little frustrated with how little detail the book had about it. So I decided I would look up its entry in the game's Datalinks, and use that that to flesh out my entry. Only, when I did that, I discovered that the Datalinks entry was just a couple of sentences and, in fact, the book went into dramatically more detail.

It was a very weird feeling. Everyone knows that Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is the gold standard when it comes to 4X games with a plot. And make no mistake, it's still so great that I very nearly got sucked in to playing it all over again, but it's shocking how much it is just roughly sketched and left to your imagination to fill in. The Dream Twister has this creepy, evocative video that absolutely sells what a terrifying psionic weapon it is, and it's so effective that you never really notice that the game never comes out and tells you that's what it is.

So I'm not sure I can really fault GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri for being vague. What I wanted was a detailed write-up of The Dream Twister as a location. What would it be like to set an adventure there? What horrors would the PCs witness as they walked its halls? What sounds would take up permanent residence in their nightmares? The book answers precisely none of those questions, but it does give us three paragraphs of social and technological context, which comes to about six times the information in the video game.

All-in-all, the book is a slim volume which doesn't quite provide enough useful information to run an rpg. There's more original detail than I gave it credit for, but it really is quite conservative in its extrapolations. It never commits to building a concrete Alpha Centauri canon, and as a consequence often comes across as pointlessly vague (it's filled with things like, "the faction which built this device . . ."). So it never really gives you the benefit of immediately gameable scenario ideas like, "the turmoil that resulted when Morgan Industries monopolized the Longevity Vaccine." Which is a definite weakness. The video game needed to keep its options open, but when you try to put things into a narrative, you've got to make choices.

Ultimately, GURPS: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri feels like a curiosity. It's a fun little illustrated guide to the game's backstory, and it was an absolute blast to experience the world again in a new form, but if you don't have the benefit of nostalgia, I'm not sure it makes a very compelling case as to why you'd want to use it as the basis for a sci-fi rpg.

Ukss Contribution: I'm really spoiled for choice here, because SMAC has a lot of bold science fiction ideas, but I'm going to stick with my choice from the first version of the post. The Dream Twister is a creepy psychic WMD, and I'm just going to have to come up with the ground-eye view myself.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Charlemagne's Paladins Campaign Sourcebook

Charlemagne's Paladins is an AD&D campaign sourcebook with the radical, yet appealing premise of playing an AD&D game, but set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe.

Oh, okay, that was needlessly catty. This book is really quite good, but I'm still annoyed by all the times AD&D pigeonholed Asian-inspired fantasy as belonging to an "exotic oriental setting." According to this book, in Carolingian France, the job of Parish Priest was so unattractive that the local lords would often have to conscript their serfs into doing it. "Occasionally, the village idiot or another equally useless person would be chosen since he had no other practical value to the landlord."

Damn. But more than being an uncalled-for burn on Christianity, it's such an interesting and specific bit of world-building. I've been playing and running this game for decades and it never occurred to me to answer the question "how was this priest called to service" with "their landlord thought they were useless, so gave them this position in the near-certain conviction that they'd be so weak-willed and ineffectual that the noble lord would be able to come by and raid the tithing box whenever they felt like it."

Could you even imagine if that shit showed up in Greyhawk? Like the priests of Pelor are constantly butting heads with a secularized aristocracy that follows the faith for reasons of cultural identification, but which alternately resents and condescends to its moral teachings for seeming otherworldly and better suited to a docile peasantry. We'd never hear the end of how "sophisticated and complex" OD&D's politics were.

I guess that's the advantage of drawing from real life. Like Age of Heroes, this book has a near-perfect level of detail for rpg use, to a degree that it seems almost shameful that fictional settings don't follow its example. Also like Age of Heroes, the only part of the book that doesn't work is when it tries to apply the AD&D rules.

In theory, there are three different genre settings for your Charlemagne's Paladins game - historical, full fantasy, and the compromise option, "legendary." But oddly enough, you can play a cleric, complete with magical spells, in all three options. In a Legendary game, you can also play a wizard, but only a specialist.

I bring it up, because it's a great example of the game not quite understanding that it can change the rules to suit its setting (or genre, for that matter). Priests (presumably above the level of the local parish, at least) play an important part in the setting, so you can never ban the Cleric class. Because Clerics are priests, and thus priests must be clerics. And you just have to not think too hard about how their spells are a poor fit for Christian miracles.

But with all the magic using classes, the book sort of half-asses their mechanics in order to kind-of/sort-of bring them in line with the setting. Clerics get access to only a limited number of spheres. But spell curation within the spheres is extremely limited. In the sample adventure, one of the antagonists uses Darkness and Call Lightning, despite the fact that it was ostensibly for the "historical" version of the setting. It's sloppy.

But if you accept that you pretty much have to build all the rules stuff from the ground up (or, better yet, use this setting to play an all-Martial game of 4th edition), then Charlemagne's Paladins is an admirable setting book. In fact, there are significant swaths of this book that I wish would just get appended to any fictional setting that proclaimed itself "standard medieval fantasy." If it then turned out that doing so would too dramatically change the nature of the world, then maybe the authors could rethink a thing or two.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go with a detail that charmed the hell out of me because it was exactly the sort of weird thing that real medieval Europeans were always doing, but which never winds up making it into "medieval fantasy." In one of the romances to spin off from the Song of Roland, the warrior Ogier the Dane performed a great deed of heroism and was rewarded by Charlemagne with a blade that bore the inscription, "Wear Me Until You Find A Better."

It's good to remember that the ancients also liked to have fun.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Transhuman Space: Deep Beyond

This book really wants me to critique libertarianism. It keeps waving the flag in front of my face, daring me to charge it, but I'm not going to be goaded.

Even though it has a list of important outer-system organizations that includes a "Duncanite Charity" called "The Free Minors Association" which specializes in offering legal aid to help "take an abusive parent to court," I am very heroically going to resist. The world does not need my half-assed political philosophy.

Oh, but it's a strain. I've gone red in the face as I wrenched my trembling away from the keyboard . . . Their society requires an abused child to initiate a civil suit against their parents, and if they do, there's a charity which "may" offer assistance. . . I don't write, because seriously, the huge philosophical blindspot that libertarianism has for children would be the work of months or years to untangle. It's the job of a serious scholar, not some yahoo with a gaming blog.

I'm beginning to suspect that Transhuman Space as a whole has a right-libertarian bias. Because you don't shove a subject that suggests horrors into a throw-away paragraph near the back of the book if you think it's a serious problem with the philosophy. Depiction doesn't equal endorsement, of course, but it looks suspicious when you spend three pages describing their for-profit legal system and not once do you mention any of the huge fucking problems with making your entire legal code based on contracts and then resolving disputes through binding arbitration paid for by the litigants themselves. It didn't even think to answer the obvious question of what happens if one of the parties attempts a procedural deadlock by refusing to agree to a venue.

And I'm doing it. I don't want to do it. Maybe I can turn away . . .

Okay, one last dig, and I'm done. This book finally explains who Silas Duncan is and it turns out that it's not a sci-fi philosopher who helped found the Duncanites, but a real guy. A 19th century naval officer . . . with the keen political instincts of a 19th century naval officer. I don't want to get too into it, because I've basically done about 15 minutes of research on the guy, and he, a captain in the US Navy, sailed down to the Falkland Islands, blew up some "pirates" who may or may not have just been the Argentine Navy, and then, as legend has it, declared the Falklands "free from all government." And all I can thinks is, if the year is 2002, and you know who this dipshit is, then not only are you obviously a huge libertarian, but you've clearly never thought critically about colonialism, like, at all.

Or, maybe you're just a US history nerd. This guy did have three warships named after him.

Still, an unreflective reverence for colonialism does put a lot of Transhuman Space's setting choices into focus. One of the more important runners through this book is "The War Under the Ice." Basically, life has been discovered on Europa. A scientific outpost has been sent to study it. Also, the Green Duncanites are there and they've been introducing genetically-engineered invasive species in an attempt to change the ocean's chemistry in order to make it habitable for their cold-adapted bioroids.

And one thing the book fails to make clear is, holy shit, what the fuck do the Duncanites think they're doing? It's the most important discovery in biological science since Charles fucking Darwin, and they're literally shitting all over it because . . . Nope, I'm drawing a blank. Because the vast empty spaces where they were previously living were basically a solved problem? Because they're mad scientists who just get off on the thought of terraforming planets, even if they have to travel to the most inhospitable regions of the solar system to find a candidate?

What they're doing is beyond interfering with scientific research. Beyond vandalism. It's a bona fide crime against humanity.

Opposing the Green Duncanites is the Europa Defense Force, which the book describes as "terrorists." But the weird thing about that designation is that they are so obviously in the right here that it makes me wonder about the other "radical preservationist" groups they're supposedly tied to. Negative Growth didn't seem to have all that great a point when they were trying to blow up the Martian space elevator, but if terrestrial law enforcement cares so little about the peaceful scientific exploration of the solar system that they'll allow the rogue terraformers of the Ares Conspiracy to ruin another planet, than maybe I've got to factor that in to my ethical calculations.

I guess that could be an interesting philosophical question, though. What if you've got a conflict where one side is 100% in the right, like so much so that it's almost funny how lopsided the disagreement is, but then the correct side is full of inflexible fanatics who are willing to use lethal force to accomplish their goals.

What the Green Duncanites are doing on Europa is a travesty - threatening to destroy, through thoughtless techbro arrogance, the legacy of an entirely separate abiogenesis, an environment that would allow scientists their one and only chance for centuries of addressing some fundamental questions about the nature of life. And they absolutely should be in jail for that. But having their habitat blown up and every cell of their body scorched by lasers so their proteins won't contaminate the fragile Europan ecosystem?

All I can say for sure is that Deep Beyond has successfully cemented my intuition that human pantropy is a reckless idea and that the survival of the human species would be more effectively secured if its adherents devoted even half that energy to preserving the Earth.

Since this is my last Transhuman Space book, I guess now is as good a time as any to get into my thoughts about the line as a whole.

It's frustrating as hell.

It's really hard to reconcile the line's meticulous attention to detail with its almost willful lack of vision. It's a sci-fi world with wondrous, transformative technology, but politics that rarely stray from late-90s - early 2000s conventional wisdom.

Why are there poor people in space? It's the books' most consistent plot-hole, from the run-down communities in L5 to the nomadic comet-herders of the deep beyond. Transhuman Space is full of charming, hard-working, ridiculously educated people getting by with nothing more than gumption, moxie, and their own personal fusion reactors. I have to figure that if the tech and resource level necessary to reach an equilibrium with the void of space and live hand-to-mouth billions of miles from Earth is a 1 out of 10, then a solid-gold space station constructed by a swarm of self-replicating factory bots has got to be about a 1.1, 1.2 tops.

Transhuman Space's greatest weakness its the refusal to engage with these questions about the ways technology can both empower the people who have access and disenfranchise the ones who don't. Funnily enough, it's the times when it's being the most "out there," that ring most true. Habitats full of a rich guy's clones, or the white supremacists who somehow infiltrated the "Jefferson Mission," or the immortal cyborg dictator of Kazakhstan or the "infomorph homeland" on Triton. These are ideas that speak to the transgressive nature of transhuman technology, the ways it is dangerous to existing social structures, both just and unjust.

In its mission to be neither a utopia nor a dystopia, it forgot to take its own "Fifth Wave" terminology seriously. The world of THS's 2100 is as different from ours as the industrial world of the early 20th century was from pre-agricultural nomads. If we're 3rd Wave, now, then Transhuman Space is attempting to describe a world that underwent a fundamental, unimaginable transformation . . . twice.

It doesn't quite do that, though I'm willing to admit that part of the problem may just be that in-setting they're jumping the gun on declaring the fourth wave over. People do tend to get over-excited when they learn terms like that. Truthfully, in the real world, we'd probably want to play it safe and say that all this disruptive stuff we're going through with apps and automation are simply the crest of the third wave finally catching up with us.

Ultimately, what I want most from Transhuman Space is an alternate setting that runs parallel to all of its intricate world-building, never contradicting concrete, established events, but rather giving them a much-needed radical spin that would subject the whole edifice of techno-colonialist capitalism to the skepticism it deserves. Maybe one day I'll just run it that way.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to go abstract here and pick the concept of asteroid homesteading. Deep Beyond never quite gets down to that level of resolution, so I can't pick a specific example, but I like the general idea of families and small communities making their own custom-built worlds, so I'll allow that to inform my depiction of the Cosmic Sphere.

Friday, November 8, 2019

(AD&D 2e) Age of Heroes

Age of Heroes exists in a weird space where I think it may be good, but I'm not sure what it's for.

Some older roleplaying books seem to exist purely to save their readers a trip to the library. Age of Heroes is about 75% one of those, quite clearly condensing a bunch of books about Greek history and culture into one slim volume. And you know what? That aspect of the book is pretty great.

If the historical sections of Age of Heroes were a new campaign setting, they'd hit pretty much the exact right level of detail for roleplaying. There are sections about fashion, trade, laws, and religion that don't begin to do justice to the complex and fascinating culture of classical Greece, but also don't overstay their welcome, and give you just enough detail to sketch out a backdrop to an adventure. Reading this book does not feel like homework.

It even does something that I wish ALL rpg settings would do - it walks us through the typical day of a well-off Athenian. From gossip in the barber shop during the morning to watching the ships getting built after lunch to working out at the gymnasium in the evening, it brings the city to life in a way I rarely see in any rpg material. It's actually kind of distressing to see what should be setting-guide best practices in a book from 1994 and realize that almost nothing in the subsequent years has followed its lead.

Then again, Age of Heroes may be cheating, having real history to work from. Still, the "day in the life" stuff is something I'm going to take pains to incorporate into my own worldbuilding from now on.

Where Age of Heroes doesn't really work is its AD&D material. It tries to give options for both historical and fantasy games, but it never quite manages to break free of certain vanilla AD&D assumptions, so you've got things like the suggestion that players stick to upper class Greeks, because characters like freed slaves wouldn't have the money to outfit themselves with equipment - you know, because character classes are jobs and only certain people can afford to be fighters. What it really needs is a frank discussion of things like "theme" and "genre," but D&D discourse wasn't really there yet, and fantastic Greece, especially, suffered for it.

Though funnily enough, it was in the course of the book once again being a total pill about AD&D rules that it accidentally pitched one of the best campaign ideas I've ever seen. To set the scene - it's explaining a chart that contains monsters from the first couple of Monster's Compendiums that you should not use in a Greek campaign, and then it offhandedly throws this out:
[A] Companion on a fantasy campaign with Alexander the Great might find himself facing a rakshasa who takes poorly to the notion of Alexander's legions conquering India.
Excuse me, what? You're just going to toss this out there to explain why your "forbidden encounters" aren't always forbidden, and you're never going to mention it again? You had the idea that Alexander of Macedon maintained a crack squad of monster hunters who traveled alongside his armies to face off against each region's native supernatural creatures as he conquered his way across half of Eurasia, and then you didn't develop that into a series of fantasy novels that got optioned into the mid-2010s most popular prestige drama? It's infuriating, that I can't buy a campaign guide that is basically just that.

I think in 1994, Age of Heroes was as close as AD&D got to an A+ book, and if it's less useful now, then it's still pretty concise and accessible, and there are worse places to start when building your Greece-inspired rpg.

Ukss Contribution: Aw man, this one is tough because the best stuff in this book is the real history. The fantasy stuff I know has the potential to be cool, but generally it's not used in a very cool way here.

Fuck it. Sparta. I'm going to encounter a lot of fantasy civilizations that will try to be "Sparta with X," so I might as well nip those in the bud and just put in the real thing. Maybe if I do that, I can control the narrative and show what a hateful, cruel, and hypocritical place it really was.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Transhuman Space: In the Well

Finally, I can write about one of these Transhuman Space books without feeling compelled to go off on a tangent about capitalism.

I could. Despite this being a much less economically-focused book than its predecessors, there are a couple of real juicy quotes that could support years and years of arguments all by themselves. But I don't need to. In The Well is much more interested in the science fiction side of the setting, and most of its politics revolve around the ethics of terraforming, with only a hint of nationalist rivalry thrown in for spice.

Oh, okay, one quick dig at capitalism, for the sake of tradition. When talking about claiming land in outer space:
"[The Revised Outer Space Treaty] doesn't use the word 'owned,' but rather suggests that the occupants are holding the land in stewardship for humanity. The distinction amounts to nothing."
Arggh! Why, Transhuman Space, why? You've got rogue engineers illegally terraforming Mars vs militant environmentalists willing to do anything to preserve it, and you could so easily draw us in to a purely speculative sci-fi conflict, but then you have to go and write shit like this. Forget capitalism, you've just set humanity back to the 16th century. That's what people are going to fight about - the near certain knowledge that the first few generations are pulling the ladder up behind them, and that anyone who doesn't become a transhuman space-dweller as early as possible is going to get left hopelessly behind.

Which is as smooth a transition as I'm going to get into my main observation about this book - it kind of . . . sort of . . . from a certain point of view . . . completely and utterly demolishes Transhuman Space's underlying setting assumptions.

That's probably not the take-away most people are going to get from this book, but when you start to add up all the little inconsistencies, the conclusion becomes inescapable - there is precisely zero reason for any of these people to be in space. Mars is a giant money pit, even with the magic of sci-fi imprecision speeding up the terraforming process by 1000-100000%.  But even to the extent that it does have an economy, its main export is food. Food. To the thousands of people who themselves are living in outer space for no discernible reason.

There's a group that's introduced in this book, called the Truckers. They ship cargo from place to place on Mars, and they have a whole subculture, including a rigorous code of honor about always delivering cargo on time, and for a fair price, and helping out both fellow travelers and each other. Romantic. But the interesting thing about the Truckers is that they are, literally, trucks. As in, AIs or uploaded humans are put into robotic cargo vehicles and that vehicle becomes their body.

Once you've introduced that concept, it's all over. Minds are cheap enough that you're using them to haul cargo, which means that they're going to be even more profitable at the more fundamental levels of your industrial processes. Especially when you factor in the need to engineer those processes to include pointless empty spaces filled with oxygen and kept at the (relatively) sweltering temperatures necessary to preserve human life.

This is something we can attach numbers to. According to the book, "Estimates of personal wealth that include infrastructure say everyone living off Earth is fabulously wealthy!" That's a tricky statement from a rules perspective, because it could mean anything from Wealthy (150,000$) to Very Wealthy (600,000$), but either way you slice it, a fully sapient AI with average human intelligence (100,000$) + a computer to run it (50,000-200,00$) + a (frankly, over-designed) humanoid body (145,000$) is anywhere between six months and three years of life support and no more than 11 years of regular wages. If you can get away with a low-sapient AI, the cost goes down dramatically. And a ghost (software emulation of a human mind)? Sixty thousand for the software + computer, and then the regular price for the body. When you take the humanoid body out of the equation (and with it the automatic need to miniaturize the AI's computer) and put your workers directly into industrial machinery that no longer has to compromise function to accommodate human physiology? The economic choice could not be more obvious.

By the rules of the game, and, honestly, the basic common sense Transhuman Space prides itself upon, the civilization that roams the solar system should be a machine civilization. At the very least, there's no reason to send something as fragile as a human to mine heavy metals on Mercury.

It's clear that the setting started from a desired result (humans living and working in space) and then worked backwards to come up with the justification for it. That's probably why we're talking about terraforming in the context of decades rather than millenia, and why you can have 2 million people living on Mars, despite the fact that most of them would die from carbon dioxide poisoning if any of the fragile systems keeping them alive were to fail for even a short amount of time.

That's not a complaint, by the way. Because, seriously, how much of a curmudgeon would I have to be to be like, "Well, by your own logic, Transhuman Space, you have no reason to actually exist." Nonetheless, it's kind of noticeable when you've got a central conflict about how much humans are permitted to alter Mars to suit their needs, but the only reason they're even on Mars is demonstrably an irrational and bull-headed compulsion to shove a human in any remotely human-shaped niche, regardless of the cost in resources or human lives.

I just kind of wish that was what Transhuman Space were about.

Ukss Contribution: There are so many little details here that are kind of awful, but which I also sort of love. On Mars you can play as a "grizzled prospector" who may be "genetically part grizzly bear" . . . And, how can I continue as a critic after that? Seriously, how do I go on, knowing this exists?

Or maybe you want to get involved in pointless territorial dick-waving, so you buy a self-guiding seeker missile that is usually non-sapient. That's the character you build your transhumanist sci-fi around. The missile whose guidance AI slipped through the cracks during QA and wound up fully self-aware. What is that person's story?

Or maybe I should repay In the Well for granting my wish for more billionaires with ridiculous hobbies and include the guy who wanted to hoax the world into thinking there were native Martians, so he genetically engineered a bunch of fake aliens, put them into elaborate "alien" cryogenic chambers, and then had them wake up inside the fake Martian ruins he had built, where they were tricked by "records their ancestors left behind" into believing they were the sole survivors of the ancient Martian civilization. Like all the best practical jokes, it's both hilarious and pointlessly cruel.

But honestly, any one of those thing would require me to explain so much social context that I'd basically be importing half a near-future sci fi setting to get it to work. So I'll go with something simpler - the Martian settlers' culture of martial arts.  While I wish a little more had been made of the pun, it's nonetheless pretty cool to juxtapose Wuxia and outer space.

So that's a thing now. The different settlements in the Cosmic Sphere will all have their own home-grown martial arts traditions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Trinity Continuum: Aeon

I can't stop thinking about the sci-fi Lunar garbage crisis. I was so hard on High Frontier for not taking it more seriously. I don't know what it was, but the imagery really affected me. Growing up, I was inspired by pictures of the moon. Seeing disc of the Earth rising over that serene, silvery landscape sparked my imagination and awakened both my intellectual curiosity and my sense that we are all one human family, trying to make it on our ridiculously small and fragile blue orb. So there was some romantic and sentimental part of me that was troubled by the thought of 290,000 Lunar residents just dumping willy-nilly their mine tailings, broken drill bits, dead batteries, and god knows what else.

In the world of Trinity Continuum: Aeon, there are 50 million people living on the Moon. And I'm haunted by the question, what are they doing with their garbage? Damned Transhuman Space. If I'd read these last two books in the opposite order, I'd never even think about this issue, but now it's all I can think about. The book doesn't say that the people of Olympia use the Lunar surface as their own half-assed garbage dump, but it also doesn't say that they don't.

I guess the fact that their city is made of implausible soft sci-fi crystal domes and impractical sealed-environment skyscrapers would at least give them an incentive to keep their immediate environs beautiful. And it's completely unclear what productive economic activity makes it preferable to settle the Lunar south pole, rather than, say, Detroit, so I don't necessarily have to imagine vast swaths of mining and heavy industry. In the end, though, what calmed my fears most about the potential for a sci-fi trash apocalypse was the certain knowledge that the Aeon Trinity would never stand for it.

But I think I have to admit that's a pretty thin thread to tie my hopes onto. The Aeon Trinity is a nebulous group of comics-inspired do-gooders. They are financed by a global cabal of impossibly wealthy philanthropists who prefer to remain anonymous (presumably because if they were ever given anything so concrete as an identity, we'd start to wonder why bank-rolling an organization that meddles in everything from public education to developing the technology to invade alien planets doesn't instantly bankrupt them) and the only thing we can be absolutely certain about is that they are on the right side of history.

It's kind of a weird train of thought. Central to Trinity Continuum: Aeon's pitch is the idea that the Illuminati is real, they're actually pretty good guys, and in the future they'll go public. It almost seems like I'm pushing it a little too far to also imagine that they'll use their diplomatic and economic clout to ensure that the Moon's waste-disposal regulations are robust enough to preserve its beauty for generations to come.

There's a treacherous part of me that wants to make this the centerpiece of an introductory adventure. You've just been recruited by Aeon, a venerable conspiracy of two-fisted adventurers and action-scientists whose self-appointed mandate is to act as a force for interplanetary justice! Your first mission? To find out who has been illegally dumping their rubbish on the outskirts of Olympia (womp womp).

But, of course, we all know how that would play out. The group starts off grumbling in disappointment. Maybe the team rebel even storms off in a huff. But the team leader gives a speech about how "everybody has to start somewhere" and "they can't all be vid-worthy." And then, in the course of their investigation, they discover the illegal dumping is tied to a sinister corporation, and in the course of infiltrating that corporation, they learn that it is a secret front for a mutant-worshipping cult, and maybe the team rebel's earlier tantrum puts them in the optimal position to stage a timely rescue, and in the end, they all band together to expose the conspiracy, but the main perpetrators get away and the team has just earned themselves a powerful and persistent enemy. Time for brevet promotions to the Aeon task force that has been tracking them for years!

Call it the power of genre at work. Genre is Trinity Continuum: Aeon's greatest strength. It's got a charming and self-aware approach, making explicit 1e's convention of associating each region of the setting with a different science-fiction sub-genre (seriously, there's a chart in the "Storyguiding" chapter and everything).

This is where I have to slow down and tread carefully. Trinity Continuum: Aeon corrects or improves almost every problem I had with the first edition of Trinity (and I've got, like 4 pages of notes that I'm just now realizing would be too tedious to recap, filled with things like "Legion no longer mercenaries😀 - working for UN, but sometimes rogue?"), but now that there are fewer speed-bumps, I can better see how objectifying such an approach might seem.

Nippon is where you set a game if you want a sort of 90s retro-future look, with robots and video screens everywhere, set inside a giant arcology that covers most of the home islands (or perhaps "only" about 33% of Honshu - there are contradictory passages), and the backstory is that in the chaos and uncertainty of the Aberrant war, it made some kind of economic and strategic sense for them to strip-mine their entire nation to make themselves a 100% artificial environment. And look, I'm no scholar of Japanese culture, and I can't speak authoritatively about its relationship with nature, but I'd be surprised by a timeline where the Japanese leveled Mount Fuji and "sifted it for minerals," and I'd be a little bit heartbroken if they tore up the cherry trees.

Now, this is science-fiction we're talking about, and not your subtler, more thoughtful science fiction at that. An entire country inside a single massive building is cool. And when you're shopping around for a place to put that, Japan works as well as any. But in a very real sense, if you do that, then in your setting you've destroyed Japan. There is no Japan in Trinity Continuum: Aeon. There is something where Japan used to be, and it carries with it a dusting of Japanese flavor, but when I look at Nippon and ask myself what details were chosen to make this fantastic arcology nation evoke the Japan of our day, I can't help but go hmm.

I am probably being relatively unfair to Trinity Continuum: Aeon, by targeting it at possibly its weakest point. I could have made a similar observation about any of the regions. To a certain degree, that's just the nature of time. If you look a century into the past, you're going to see a lot of familiar things that are barely recognizable, but you'll also see the roots of thing that have endured.

Which is to say, the interregnum provided by the Aberrant War can explain away a lot, but is it sufficient for Pakistan and India to unite under a single political authority?

Trinity Continuum: Aeon is another mid-future sci-fi rpg that likes to bill itself as "optimistic," and it's interesting to compare its version of optimism to Transhuman Space. For me, the most direct point of comparison would have to be Chile. In THS, it's a triumph of conventional capitalist wisdom, a thriving post-industrial market economy that specializes in robots. In TC:Aeon, it's the Mapuche Nation, and the native-descended people have been given full ownership of the country's genetic IP (I'm not sure what that comes out to in yuan, but it sounds valuable).

There's a definite contrast, there, but I'm not sure I can deliver a definite conclusion. Is this the result of a decade and a half's worth of cultural change or just a difference in the authors' values? Perhaps, in time, Aeon's sci-fi future will age as poorly as THS's, and I'm simply too close to the issue to see it. I feel like there's something, there, some insight that will allow us to better understand the shifting artistic and ideological priorities of the early 21st century Anglosphere, but that will probably have to wait until the blog's 15 year retrospective, where I go back and complain about how none of these rpg books presaged the 2030s obsession with recycling your own urine to fight back against climate change.

I think, overall, it would be a mistake to look for Trinity Continuum: Aeon's optimism in the fate of any particular nation. Parts of it are downright grim. Like, the Federated States of America are a more keenly observed fascist state, with a pointless and one-sided, but distressingly plausible rivalry with the United African Nations that is so mean-spirited they are financially backing Al-Qaeda. I mean, I've been known to be overly cynical at times, but damn.

The optimism in Trinity Continuum: Aeon comes from the same place as my conviction that there won't be a garbage crisis on the Moon - the idea that however bad things may seem, Aeon is there to help. It's a vision that has the potential to be as awkwardly aristocratic as any superhero fantasy, but is more or less saved from that by the fact that Aeon is really just an amped-up NGO. The good work it does is made possible by thousands of people on the ground, pitching in as best they can. That's nice, the idea that people can work together to solve the world's problems.

Although, yes, there is also some magical superhero-designed technology to make things easier.

I'd say that Trinity Continuum: Aeon is pretty much the ideal 2nd edition. For veterans, it's a distillation of everything that was good about 1st edition, but with the rougher and more awkward edges smoothed away. For newcomers, it's a great place to get started, comprehensive enough to let you keep up with the fandom's conversations, but self-contained enough that you don't have to. It's dramatically more niche than the Trinity Continuum Core, so I don't think it has the same potential to become a landmark title, but it's clear that the Trinity Continuum as a whole has a bright future ahead of it.

Ukss Contribution: China in this game is weird. I hesitate to even bring it up because, like the rest of us, TC: Aeon sees the inevitability of an upcoming Chinese Century, but it never quite settles on a coherent vision of what that will mean. However, there is one little detail that is maybe a bit too condescending to apply to a real nation state, but which is perfect fantasy fodder.

Basically, a lot of stuff in the Aeon era is left over detritus from when superheros roamed the Earth and deformed the world's culture and economy by producing regular miracles. One such example was in China, where a child with the apparent power of super-insightfulness advised the government to make a whole bunch of laws nobody but she understood. And the government followed that advice. And it worked. So now that the superheroes have been banished to the outer reaches of space, China has a complicated legal code that protects it from market shocks, but which no one understands well enough to amend or replicate.

It treads a little close to the "mysterious Asian" stereotype to be completely comfortable, but it amuses me, so I'll overlook it. In the setting, the child is nicknamed the Bodhisattva, but I don't know enough about the cultural context surrounding that term to properly understand how it should be used, so I'll just call her The Incarnate.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Transhuman Space: High Frontier

Why must these Transhuman Space books task me so? They're so complex. I was so smug when I started reading High Frontier. I thought I had it all figured out. But every time I made the mistake of letting my guard down, something new would appear to force me to re-evaluate my opinion.

I've not always had the kindest things to say about the various Transhuman Space supplements, but it is becoming clear to me that the series as a whole is a bona fide classic. Now, people who have followed me for any length of time will realize that this isn't necessarily the blog's highest compliment (that would be "garbage fire of awesome"), but it does mean that I think Transhuman space is something that needs to be taken seriously.

Not that I will, of course, because High Frontier has a lot of stuff that can rightfully be considered laughable.

Some of it is along expected lines, where the book will just state, as a matter of fact, some naively libertarian setting detail and then just not explore the implications. The Lunar colonies will privatize their search and rescue response? Is this an adventure seed? Are the PCs going to have to clean up the wreckage of corporate callousness? Will a poor community need help it can't afford?

No, it's just a thing, and it mostly works out fine. Same with the private space junk clean-up teams. It's not full-on libertarian "privatize the roads" - the corporations in question take public contracts, but the book just takes it for granted that private companies can Do It Better.

The funniest manifestation of this unspoken ideology is when the book talks about space craft registration and orbital law enforcement. "Flags of Convenience aren't just popular with legitimate operators who want to avoid taxes or stifling regulations. They're also a haven for various criminal organizations with a toehold in space."

I decided I was going to be really condescending and sarcastic about this, because the alternative is shouting at the top of my lungs about a world gone mad. Imagine my "oh, honey" voice as you read this next part - it's weird the way High Frontier gets 90% of the way towards understanding the problems of global capitalism and then stops.

There's this luxury resort on the moon. It's underground, but the walls project images of the lunar surface . . . the old lunar surface. Because as of the game's start date, the part of the Moon directly above the Moonshadow resort is within sight of an active mine, and thanks to an absence of "stifling regulations," the miners feel free to just dump their garbage any old place. And that's it. Nothing happens to the moon miners. There's no environmental advocates, not even strawman terrorists. There's no bad publicity. The companies get to pick and choose which laws they want to follow, so it's not even as if they have to fear a government. Thus, trash on the Moon.

Once more, Transhuman Space frustrates by presenting a world whose building blocks should inspire punk stories and then forgetting the "punk" part. The Moon is owned by whoever gets there first, and they can strip it for parts and cover it in their waste and nobody can stop them because the promise of endless economic growth puts you above the law. Humanity's legacy, a celestial body whose beauty has inspired generations of poets, scientists, and dreamers, gets ruined because that's what's most convenient, and . . . nothing. The setting is "optimistic," which means that nobody is going to get in trouble for the honest pursuit of capitalism.

Anyway, that's my standard critique. That's the thought I have to get out every time I read one of these books, lest my heart burst open and I lose my "kind of left-ish, but too frivolous to count on" credibility forever.

Where High Frontier threw me through a loop is in not being only that. A lot of this book is merely incredibly dry. There's talk of the different types of orbits, a brief mention of the fact that rocket burns in space don't necessarily have intuitive effects, a lot of talk about the geology of the Moon (rock composition, the practicalities of navigating a crater, etc), and careful attention paid to things like radiation and vacuum.

It's real bedrock space nerd stuff, which I can only imagine is the reason no one thought better of chapter 2.

One of the persistent complaints about Transhuman Space as a game line is that there's no obvious campaign model (a claim that, in general, is only true if you take its "optimism" at face value), so it appears that High Frontier is generously providing us with one. . . I assume. I can't imagine any other reason that you'd devote a whole chapter to the subject of orbiting space junk and the intrepid blue-collar subculture that cleans it up.

Reading "The Vacuum Cleaners" gave me flashbacks to The Wilderness Survival Guide. It's clearly something that received a lot of thought, and there's something admirable about its thorough, meticulous world-building, but who is this for? I'm trying to imagine pitching this campaign to my players.

"You fly around space, collecting dangerous debris before it collides with valuable satellites and vulnerable habitats. There's some really precise rules for spotting objects in lower and higher orbits. Think of it like a treasure hunt, except none of the treasure is especially valuable. . . I mean, there are complications sometimes too. Some of the garbage is old military stuff that may be booby-trapped. Some of it may even be active military equipment that is so classified it doesn't appear on any of the charts. Then you'll have to very carefully run away and sort out jurisdictional issues after the fact. There may even be times when you're called upon to play 'garbage detective,' and find the original owner of a derelict bit of space debris so you can determine who must be billed for cleanup under the requisite international treaties."

I mean, I'm not saying it's a bad idea for a campaign, but I've never had a group of players who wouldn't treat it as a joke.

The most challenging part of High Frontier, however, are the chapters on the L4 and L5 colonies. I wouldn't say that they break from Transhuman Space's overall philosophy, but it does seem like editorial control was a bit looser in these chapters. Some of the colonies feel almost speculative.

This isn't always done in the most effective way. For example - Margaret, the all-female space habitat/lifestyle dojo, is just a mess, politically. I can't even with regards to its take on gender. I literally. . . can't . . . even.

If I have to try. . . I guess it's like politically lesbian TERFS, but it's from 2003, so maybe that's a little bit woke and it's okay to use the phrase "elective hermaphrodites" to refer to what we'd call nonbinary people, because the context is advanced biotechnology giving people control of their physiology as well as their presentation and identification . . . and that's(?) why it's okay that there are no visible trans people, because medical treatments in 2100 are so effective it would take a molecular scan to out someone. In any event, the population of Margaret is greying because there's so much gender equality on Earth that the younger generation doesn't need feminism, and never mind that in this timeline Saudi Arabia still doesn't let women drive, because they don't count for some reason. Despite a constant refrain in the setting being the way advanced geriatric medicine means the young can never escape the domination of the old, "patriarchy" gets scare quotes in the text because who has time to figure out what that even means.

Sometimes, Trnashuman Space can be just totally exhausting. There are plenty of interesting things here, social, economic, and political fracture lines that would be ripe for both engaging conflict and stimulating speculation, but which never get off the ground because the books seem pathologically adverse to asking the tough questions. It's like there's this complex and fascinating sci-fi world and we're learning about it by watching CNN.

There was a little glimmer of something, though. One of the habitats was originally the vanity project of an arrogant billionaire, but unbeknownst to its creator, one of his closest associates was actually an infosocialist infiltrator, who goaded him into giving in to his hubris and bankrupting his company to create a space station that was also a work of art. Then, through complex financial fraud (that doesn't actually seem very plausible in Transhuman Space's world of savvy capitalists), the billionaire's primary creditor was an infosocialist front company. And now this subversive conspiracy of . . . data pirates, operates out of a state-of-the-art space station and works to undermine the economic order of settled space through, frankly, some over-the-top spy shit that was probably meant to build them up as a threat, but which kind of wound up making them seem pretty cool.

I'm not sure if the IAs ("Intellectual Artistes") were meant to be a heroic resistance movement, but the very fact that they are reasonably admirable (much is made of their pacifism and respect for pan-sapient rights, in contrast to the bad socialists from Earth) and also willing to act to oppose the obvious injustices of 5th Wave capitalism made them a refreshing break from the line's otherwise monolithic politics.

I don't know how they got in the book. My hunch is that since High Frontier had seven credited authors, a bit of ideological diversity could happen to sneak in around the margins. Maybe that's too cynical, though. Maybe it's just a case of things in orbit being pure sci-fi inventions, and thus freer to explore wilder ideas.

Once again, I'm finishing a Transhuman Space post both humbled and physically and emotionally drained. There's a lot I didn't cover, but I kind of want to get started on my next book before forever. Ultimately, I think this series is shaping up to be a real "critic's" rpg. It's brilliant in ways you really wouldn't want to duplicate and bad in ways that are fascinating to unravel. But honestly, I don't think it's possible to play it without first hating it just a little.

Ukss Contribution: There's this billionaire, and I think the book wants us to think of him as a bit of a creep, who builds an expensive space station and fills it with thousands of clones of himself. I'm sure in 2003, this was one of the book's more shocking and fantastic sci-fi conceits, but all I can think now is "yep, that basically tracks."

The hardest thing to believe about Transhuman Space is that more billionaires aren't doing similarly bizarre and offputting things with their historically unprecedented wealth.

Still, a tin can flying through space stuffed with the clones of one narcissistic weirdo is a pretty amusing idea.