Picaresque: alternate Traveller universe, retroclone, or ...?

I’ve alluded a couple of times to a Traveller-ish campaign I’ve been working on. Please feel free to share comments and feedback, so that I’m not confined to the contents of my own head.

I had been searching for an evocative working title, and finally settled a few days ago on:

Picaresque: Science Fiction Adventure on Alternate Earths

Hence, my bemusement with finding the discussion of “picaresque” in another topic. The OED defines it:

picaresque, adj. 1. Originally: relating to or characteristic of a rogue or knave. Now chiefly: designating a genre of narrative fiction which deals episodically with the adventures of an individual, usually a roguish and dishonest but attractive hero (cf. picaro, picaroon). Also: having the attributes associated with this genre of narrative. 2. Of a lifestyle, etc.: wandering, drifting; transitory, impermanent.

The parallels to “traveller” and the Traveller rpg as it is often played should be self-evident. I was particularly drawn to the episodic nature of the genre, since I wanted to facilitate something like what Justin Alexander calls an Open Table play style.

My motivation for this effort has been the idiosyncratic, quixotic goal of “Traveller Done Right” – maintaining the essential core of a game that has served well for decades, while cleaning up some of the ancillary issues that I, personally, find irritating. If the result is simpler and more coherent into the bargain, so much the better. Of course, the things that bother me will be very different than what anyone else might choose, and therefore so will the result.

My approach is to firm up the science fiction of Traveller by reducing the applied phlebotium to a single substance: probability manipulation, including paratime travel or world jumping. Handwavium (things that are theoretically possible, but we don’t yet know how to do) like fusion power is acceptable, mostly to help maintain the pulpish feel of the original, but other forms of unobtanium (that flagrantly violate Reality As We Know It) are not. So no gravitics, no “meson” devices – no FTL.

Instead, the worlds that Our Heroes visit are alternate Earths. Traveller’s “jump” drive is replaced by parachronic transposition. Shifts take place on a 2-dimensional manifold orthogonal to our everyday 4-dimensional world, and are blind – there are no instruments to “see” that map besides the ships themselves, by trial and error. Shifts are instantaneous, but reducing sources of error (from differences between alternates) dictates moving some distance out away from the Earth and taking time to re-calibrate between attempts. The shift drive doesn’t require liquid hydrogen, but fusion rocket maneuver drives require reaction mass.

This set-up does several things I find beneficial:

  • All worlds are habitable, besides a deliberate few with divergence points in the Archaean eon.
  • All worlds have standard surface gravity and atmospheric pressure, which saves bookkeeping.
  • On the other hand, a proper sense of scale is built in: no “it was raining on planet Mongo” issues.
  • A wealth of divergent human cultures can exist side by side with characters from a recognizable, near-future version of our own.

So far, I am fairly comfortable with the campaign background and setting; I’ll share some of the details in other posts. I am debating, however, how far I want or need to diverge from classic Traveller game mechanics. My baseline assumption is old school Classic Traveller (sometimes called proto-Traveller): Books 1-3, Supplement 4, no Mercenary-style character generation, no High Guard shipbuilding, etc. Worldbuilding needs tweaking to better reflect the differences among alternate Earths, but how far do I want to go in customizing the shipbuilding (assuming I don’t simply forbid ships to players except as plot devices)? And so on.

At what point is it more confusing than useful to call this an alternate Traveller universe? Would it be more accurate to refer to it as a Traveller retroclone, or something else entirely? Let me hear your thoughts.

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I think it’s a different game that uses a large part of Traveller mechanics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Are you having different continental configurations on some of these worlds? I’m not sure how much room there is for alternate plate tectonics; the probable variations might be small and/or not add up to much. But if the landforms are much the same, I think you’re going to have a lot of cities and trade routes in similar places, even if epiphenomena like languages and religions are different.

Take a look at my post on Tempus Ante Quem (TAQ). My assessment is that divergence points early enough to result in significantly different landforms (continents, etc.) probably interfere with the evolution of anatomically modern humans. On the other hand, I think there is enough room for variation in climate that (e.g.) a warm, wet Sahara would produce a very different history and culture than our own.

When I’ve been using “picaresque” it’s been less in the sense of roguishness and more in the sense of a travelogue-type story: part of the story’s job is to show off the world to the reader, and the story tends to consist of loosely-connected episodes. (Phil Masters uses it this way in Changing Times for Transhuman Space.)

I’m inclined to agree with Bill that this is not helpfully described as “a Traveller game” even if the campaign does centre on people travelling: alien environments (like those insidious atmospheres) are a part of a Traveller game for me, including the alien environment of space.

I quoted the definition I’m using, which seems to me to be a pretty apt description of most of the Traveller campaigns I’ve been involved with. Making it into a travelogue per se seems a stretch to me: the world that the picaresque protagonist encounters is defined by the people he meets more than the scenery.

Fair enough point about not calling it a Traveller variant, though I should point out that the setting depends on space travel, and I do have a few worlds with exotic atmospheres – TAQ 9 worlds with non-standard or non-existent biochemistry. Perhaps I should post that table, too.

I wasn’t clear that it depends on space travel, and I don’t see why it needs to. If you’re going from Earth to an alternate Earth where Neanderthals dominate Eurasia and Homo erectus occupies Africa, I’m not sure how going to the Moon, or Mars, or a space station would fit into the trip.

Ah, I see that I glossed over that part.

In order to have parachronic transpositions without violating conservation of energy, it is necessary that the external forces acting on the ship at the shift point be identical in both timelines, down to some acceptable noise level. For the drives used on shift-capable vessels, this means that all major sources of gravitational forces (Earth, Moon, Sun, Jupiter) have to be in the same positions in both origin and destination, and that perturbing forces (other bodies, non-sphericity of Earth and Moon) are small enough to neglect. This second requirement translates to a minimum distance from Earth and Moon, roughly 40,000 km from Earth’s center of mass.

These requirements were arrived at empirically, in that all successful shifts appear to meet these criteria. It is presumed that violating them results in something like a misjump, in that ships that have deliberately set out to do so have disappeared and never been heard from again. It is also possible that a fortuitous configuration might temporarily match forces at origin and destination, allowing a ship to shift in but then leaving it unable to return. Scouts, particularly, worry about such things.

This is the Watsonian version. The Doylest answer is that I want to mirror Traveller’s requirements on some level. Travel between worlds (alternate timelines) is by spacecraft. Without reactionless drives, however, it is much more difficult and time-consuming to reach 100 diameters (although a different “noise level” might require traveling to Earth’s Hill sphere, ~1.5 million km). Moreover, I like the effect that remaining relatively close to the Earth has on space combat: it is possible to hide over the horizon, or shift in and be on the ground before a hostile ground station rotates into view.

As I alluded (under Anthropoids), there are other methods of parachronic travel in the setting that don’t have these restrictions, but they are not available to player-characters. I intend to use them as mysteries and plot devices over time. The big hint that such things exist is the “dog that didn’t bark”: there are usually not massive virgin field epidemics every time someone lands on a new inhabited world. This is because a handful of naturally occurring world-walkers have carried diseases (Benjamin Bathurst style) back and forth over the centuries. In contrast, the reason the Columbian exchange was so devastating is that at low technology it was actually easier to connect versions of a continent in different timelines than it was to travel between continents.

What’s your template adventure? Who are the PCs in a normal campaign, and what do they do on a typical adventure?

Yes, that’s strange. To posit that the parachonic worldhopatron only works in outer space is just as legitimate as positing that the FTL spaceskipatron only works in outer space. Nevertheless something feels queer to me about taking a spaceship to alternate worlds.

I’d have to try it to see if it works.

Former professionals quit the everyday and wash up on the frontier, taking whatever (often shady) odd jobs and chasing whatever rumors may come their way to make ends meet, while looking for the Big Score that will allow them to retire in style.

Since I have a hard time recruiting regular players, I’ve been developing this project with an eye to short (one session) adventures with pick-up teams of characters: essentially, a campaign built around 76 Patrons, but with an established map and location for each adventure.

A Patron approaches the characters in their hangout in the startown at the far end of the regular shipping lines. The Patron needs capable people for a task, and the characters are the best (only) ones available. The Patron provides transportation (tickets, charter, owned vessel) to another world in the sector and arranges for the characters to get picked up and returned when they are done. The session often begins in media res, with the genre-savvy assumption that the characters wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t accepted the job. The players have to work out what’s really going on, resolve the problem, and make pickup.

Most times, the characters are assumed to make it back to the starting point somehow, to start fresh the next time. If something intervenes (e.g., the Patron double-crosses them), the return may be a separate session, with room for some characters to split off on their own (player can’t make it) or join the group (new player).

Tales of the Gold Monkey and Firefly/Serenity are pretty good references, as are High Road to China, Casablanca as it must have been before the war, and the non-Federation parts of Deep Space Nine.

Does that mean that a spacecraft carries a significant overhead for getting to and from space where the manifold is accessible, but then has a very long range in the manifold without refuelling?

Yes: ships use up considerable reaction mass getting to and from the shift point, but the shift itself requires only time and energy. Short-range vessels take an eccentric orbit with the perigee in low Earth orbit and the apogee at the distance required; long-range vessels may circularize their orbits at the shift distance and string shifts without returning to low Earth orbit in between.

I did the math on an xboat network, by the bye, and for the outworld activity I’m projecting on the frontier it isn’t economically feasible. Messages are carried by ships or couriers, and arrive at irregular intervals – sometimes weeks or months apart. Closer to Janus, there is generally enough traffic that a dedicated xboat network isn’t necessary.