Saturday, November 26, 2022

(Alternity) StarDrive Campaign Setting

Normally, when I take more than two weeks to read a book, it's because I spent a lot of time goofing off, doing something else. I'd read the book in a total of three days, but only after I spent 13 playing video games or watching youtube videos. This time, however, I kept up a relatively stable pace. I took a few days off, sure, but mostly I read this 253 page book in 12 sessions of 20-30 pages per day. 

It's very dense. It describes seven major star systems, and each one gets approximately 20 pages worth of detail. First it talks about the high concept, and then the history, and then the geography of the most populous world, then various adjunct lieutenants and smuggler captains of that world, and then the less inhabited worlds and their flora and fauna and mid-level functionaries, and then a few dangling plot points, and by the time it's all over, I was like "I've been a very good boy, studying all this new information and taking notes, time to cool down by playing a video game."

I think I have to count this as a strength of the work. David Eckelberry and Richard Baker were clearly setting out to lay the groundwork for not just an rpg campaign, but an entire franchise, and, well, it definitely captured the feeling of clicking on a random article on Wookiepedia and discovering that the background character who was in that one movie for 5 seconds had an entire series of novels based on their life and they are so filled with incident that even reading the summary takes the better part of an afternoon. In many ways, it was even better. At no point did I read something in this book and feel the need to exclaim, "oh, come on, there's no way that's a thing."

Well, maybe with the Picts, a group of ultra-violent space pirates who form one of the six Baronies that control a former prison colony while maintaining a brutal system of medieval-style serfdom. I kind of felt like, balance of power or no, the other five Baronies would not really want these guys as neighbors. Also, their poor economic output and lack of technical acumen might be a bad fit for a world where humans can only survive inside sealed habitats. But, aside from that one thing, almost everything else felt like someone put some serious thought into it.

Where it gets awkward for me is that while StarDrive is clearly aiming to be a franchise, it was not a franchise I have any emotional connection to or nostalgia for in any way. In retrospect, this is not my first encounter with the setting - it's one of the campaign models pitched in d20 Future, and I've read that book at least one and a half times, but it had a very unassuming presence, with no more wordcount than the half-dozen other campaign pitches which were not based on existing properties with hundreds of pages worth of canon. And it's not like I need to draw on nostalgia to enjoy these books . . . but it helps.

On the other hand, it's not like I didn't enjoy it. It's more that I spent the entire book on the cusp of enjoyment. I read through the whole thing, chapter-by-proper-noun-stuffed-chapter with the recognition that I could come to really enjoy it, were I willing to put in the effort to become invested in its splatbook-friendly factions and ongoing plotlines. The only thing really standing in my way is my own lack of exciting stories to recount about the StarDrive universe.

Which is weird, because I am all-in on other settings where I have a similar deficit. Never ran a game of Changeling: the Lost, but I love the setting to bits. Same thing with Eclipse Phase, Reign, and Earthdawn.  

I could just chalk it up to timing - I happened to encounter this elaborate science-fiction world when I was in grumpy mode and had no inclination to try and immerse myself in it. However, I don't think my disconnect is so circumstantial. I think there really is something holding me back and that something is theme. Namely, I'm not sure it has one.

This is a book that is very clearly trying to deliver a fully-formed alternative to Star Wars, and if that's the goal, I'd say that it almost succeeds. StarDrive is a more complex and dynamic setting, with more points of entry for new players and new stories, and a greater versatility in the kinds of stories that it's able to tell. I'd say, for worldbuilding, it even compares favorably to Star Trek, the other expansive science-fiction setting that serves as a clear source of inspiration. However, it lacks something vital that lies at the heart of both of those franchises - an articulate moral vision of humanity's place in the universe. At times, it felt like reading one of those "the empire did nothing wrong" or "the Federation is as corrupt as all its rivals" fanfics that pop up to plague us from time to time.

The book used the objective voice for things that absolutely were not being described objectively. "Heretics grew in number and the normally reclusive and peaceful Brethren were forced to put down several splinter groups." Forced, you say? Anything more we should know about these splinter groups and the nature of their specific heresies? No? Well, I guess I'll just take your word for it that these religious wars were uncharacteristic for the Brethren.

Or the whole deal between Voidcorp and the Sesheyans. The Sesheyans were an alien species that lived a hunter-gatherer type lifestyle until Voidcorp made contact with the planet and "offered" them a "contract" that purported to exchange advanced technology for the entire species' indefinite servitude. Ahhh!!! 

It is, of course, villain behavior, and it's no great crime for a sci-fi setting to have realistic villainy. The problem is that the book has very little pro-Sesheyan editorializing. It says that their "attempts to win freedom are crushed whenever they are discovered," which does convey something of Voidcorp's ruthlessness, but later on in the book, when it talks about the Sesheyan colony on Grith, it portrays them as criminals and outlaws. Escaped slaves made their way to a distant planet, set up a thriving colony, and came up with a cover story where they pretended to be transplanted by a friendly elder civilization a thousand years before the Voidcorp "contract," and that's called "a monstrous lie." Oh, no, when they arrived as refugees, they attacked the previous human colony and drove off the settlers from the theocratic Hatire Community! Couldn't they see that this was an entirely different group of humans than the ones that condemned them to eternal slavery?

Which isn't to say that they should have attacked those uninvolved colonists, but seeing as how there were mitigating circumstances, maybe the book could have been a little bit more sympathetic. At the very least, it should push back on the idea that Voidcorp has a claim on their descendants, hundreds of years later. Because that's how the conflict is framed - if the Grith Sesheyans' secret is ever revealed, then they'll fall back under Voidcorp's jurisdiction. The book doesn't seem to understand that it's describing the Fugitive Slave Act in the Year 2501.

I think the setting as a whole would work better if it was presented from the perspective of the Galactic Concord. The Concord is kind of a space-UN, established after the Second Galactic War as a neutral peacekeeping force that has a responsibility to arbitrate disputes in "Open Space" (areas not controlled by the surviving nations as of the end of the last war).  There are times when the book flirts with them as the Obvious Protagonists, but it winds up settling on portraying them as just another galactic power, of roughly equal status to the nations it deals with (it actually controls territory made up of the colonies of nations whose capital-worlds were destroyed and/or conquered in the Second Galactic War, which strikes me as a bit of a conflict of interest).

What the book doesn't seem to understand is that it's portraying humanity in a really terrible light - a parasitical, planet-devouring species that runs roughshod over other species as it pursues infinite expansion driven by an unstoppable exponential population growth (roughly 10 trillion humans as of the start date, and that's after a war that killed billions). And you have to assume that maybe the reason each of the 14 surviving stellar nations seems driven by one bad idea or another is because no one sensible could have possibly committed the atrocities necessary to be a "victor" of the last war. But they did one reasonable thing and gave their space UN an independent military so that international law might actually have some teeth, and that's really what the game should be about - a group of idealists running themselves ragged riding herd over these ravenous colonialists.  The bulk of the setting focuses on the Verge, an area of space that lost contact with the stellar nations for more than a century during the last war. The Galactic Concord has jurisdiction over this entire area. Yet the book doesn't quite recognize the pattern of the stellar nations repeatedly coming in and "claiming" entire societies that have had generations of independence. It could say something interesting about colonialism, but it doesn't. It never even seems to occur to it that the Klicks, who attacked humanity's most distant colony, might possibly be waging a war of defense.

Overall, I think StarDrive features some masterful worldbuilding, and as a result the book has a lot of utility in running any number of games set in its universe, but I think it would benefit greatly from having a stronger thesis and a little less gritty 90s "nuance."

Ukss Contribution: About 50 years before the game's start date, everyone on the planet Bluefall mysteriously vanished. All 10 million of them. Then, a decade later, a bunch of colonists found the deserted world, listened to the scavengers tell them the tale of how nobody knows how or why it happened, but it was so sudden that the machines were left running, and then said to themselves, "sweet, free buildings," and settled down without coming even one iota closer to figuring out whether it might happen again. 

There's something about this oblivious bull-headedness that rings true to me. So Ukss will have a city-state or an island with a similar backstory - the previous residents disappeared under mysterious circumstances and new people moved in without first establishing that the danger has passed.

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