Episode 56: It all comes down to fire in the end
In August 2017, Mike and Roger gave advice to the GM of a new travel game, and considered the thousands of worlds of a Traveller-like setting. What makes them interesting. How can his work?
One of the topics that the Sages of High Wycombe discussed in Episode 56 was settings like that of Traveller, in which there are hundreds, thousands, or myriads of inhabited worlds, each with its own divergent society. I maintain that the value of such settings is that they allow parties of PCs to have serial encounters with people behaving bizarrely, whose behaviour has to be decoded and either exploited or at least circumvented to prevail in their conflict.
When you’re designing a setting for a game like that there are probably things that you can do to make it work well and other things that you ought to avoid because they make it work badly. One of the things that occurs to me (perhaps because I was for many years a transport economist) is that you have to get the technology of interstellar transport and communications right — for which my solution is “rather slow, and not very expensive”. It’s also handy to have a list of freakish features of governments and societies to jog he imagination when world-building. Here are a few that I put together in a thread on the forum at SFRPG-discussion.net.
When you are setting up a campaign to make the most of a setting like that it helps to have some sort of campaign postulate that will take a party of PCs to world after world and give them a procedural or dramatic task to accomplish there. I have made 64 suggestions in a thread on the SFRPG discussion site.
Here is the text of the e-mail that I sent to email@example.com to provoke the discussion in Episode 56: It all comes down to fire in the end. We’ve heard Mike’s and Roger’s main thoughts on the subjects I raise. Now I should like to hear yours.
There is a category of sci-fi settings that consist of myriads (or at least chiliads) of worlds inhabited by people who are (mostly) effectively human but who have madly diverse cultures and sometimes physical environments. Protagonists and player characters are usually cosmopolitan or not too different from people of the readers’ or players’ culture, and they visit world after world in the setting to encounter the strangenesses. It’s a set-up for serial adventures involving confrontation with anthropological &c. oddities, for serial duels between the one sane protagonist and a world gone eccentric*. Examples include Vance’s Oikumene, Gaean Reach, and Alastor Cluster settings, the implied setting of “The Worlds of Magnus Ridolph”, Poul Anderson’s Technic History, H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future setting, the setting of Asimov’s “Foundation” and later “Robots” stories, the implied setting of Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy”, the setting of Stephen Goldin’s “Family D’Alembert” (attributed to E.E. Smith), Larry Niven’s Known Space, and Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium/Empire setting†. For that matter the setting of E.E. Smith’s “Lensman” series is supposed to be like this, though I think he cocked up the world-building on that one. The venerable SFRPG “Traveller” at first assumed some sort of such setting and then exuded a specific example: the Official Traveller Universe.
I would like you to don your very fetching setting-designers’ hats and ruminate for a while about these “‘traveller’-like” settings. What’s the appeal? What makes them tick? What are their limitations and weak points?
Here are a few points on the subject that have occurred to me. You might like to address, endorse, or dispute some of them.
It seems to me that the oddity of an alien societies made up of beings with an alien psychology, is neither so provoking as humans behaving strangely, nor does it so strongly afford the possibility of the PCs solving the puzzle of the Vancean society. I maintain therefore that “Traveller”-like settings work best with myriads of planets occupied by beings that are essentially human. Which is not what we expect to find, and which, therefore, requires a justification. Justifications range from e.g. “Arisians effected panspermia and intervened in evolution, and they guided a myriad of species to evolve more or less like their early selves: half the alien species are very like humans because they like humans are like proto-Arisians” through “the Forerunners for inscrutable reasons collected early humans &c. from Earth and established human populations widely” to “humans emigrated from Earth after the time of writing but before the time of the adventure and settled all these planets; social oddities either reflect the preservation of minority cultures on Earth (Pournelle) or developed in isolation on the planets, from founder effects, social drift, misguided social engineering, and adaptation to strange environments.
It seems to me that in setting up a “Traveller”-like setting a world-builder ought to consider carefully his or her transport and communications technology, because those determine the ability of player characters to engage in serial encounters and the plausibility of a wide array of strange and unfamiliar cultures.
(2a). If interstellar travel is quick and cheap (like intercontinental air travel today) then large numbers of people will travel between worlds. There will be tourists. There will be numerous large interstellar firms shuffling managers around and sending them to business meetings. People will migrate easily and either visit or be visited by relatives. On one hand this will make people from the PCs’ home culture somewhat familiar with other cultures, undermining the essential wrestle of the protagonist/PCs with the bizarre unknown culture. On the other that broad current of contact will result in cultural influences that will lead to cultural convergence. Gotta keep the cultures isolated to keep ’em distinct!
(2b). If travel is really, really slow then protagonists/PCs will never be able to go home and trade will be unrewarding. Virtually no-one will travel, and those who do will be very special, heavily subsidised, and about important business. (See Ursula le Guin’s “Hainish” cycle.) It’s not a recipe for serial adventures or for conflict over personal stakes. I think that “Traveller”-like settings have to feature FTL travel as an enabling conceit.
(2c). If travel is very expensive there will be few travellers enough to keep the cultural influences in check, but those there are will be very rich and very idle, or very important to very rich patrons and engaged largely in important business.
(2d). If travel is expensive and kind of slow you’ll have the same problem as (2c).
(2e). That’s why my solution is for FTL travel to be inexpensive but kind of slow. If travel is inexpensive then there is broad enough interstellar trade to produce interstellar concerns that PCs might be involved in, but if a typical interstellar trip takes weeks then people won’t be flitting to Zawijah for a couple of weeks on their annual holiday, still less for a weekend at Sailmakers’ Beach on Alphanor or a four-hour business meeting on Cassilda. But people with a low value of time in transit or who earn their livings by travelling will travel: there will be migrants, spacehands, and soldiers and administrators travelling to take up long postings on distant worlds, plus students, travel writers, correspondents. Unimportant people on low wages will travel on business of no great import to anyone else.
(2f). The obvious other case is moments of transformative change. e.g. in John Barnes’ “Thousand Cultures”, in which the first novel begins just as a new means of rapid travel is coming into use. This suggests the exploration campaign in which PCs travel the worlds as explorers, doing serial first contact adventures, and rendering the unknown known as they go.
Moving on to communications, it seems to me that high bandwidth, low-latency communications threaten (a) to make it implausible that any culture that PCs were likely to encounter should be little-known, and (b) to effect such broad cultural contact as to homogenise the cultures of the setting. Furthermore, even narrow bandwidth low-latency signals are likely to lead to organisations micromanaging from the centre. Whereas one of the charms of a “Traveller”-like setting is that it affords a great deal of independence to even quite low-ranked Johnnies on the spot, such as might plausibly be PCs. Another charm is that of arriving in system six weeks after the dispatch of the latest signal you’ve received. More “dealing with the unknown”, which is what we like these settings for. On the whole I’m very happy in these settings to go with “Traveller”’s formulation that there is no communication significantly faster than a spaceship.
Vance wrote many excellent novels about their protagonists’ extended encounters with different cultures. But that’s not typical for a roleplaying campaign. Mostly, players are going to want to have multiple such confrontations with different strange societies, and to me this speaks of iconic characters in procedural adventures (dynamic characters in dramatic adventures get used up or worn out by repeated personal growth). So it seems to me that a campaign that makes the most of a “Traveller”-like setting ought to involve the PCs making up a group or team that has a job, mission, commission, or business that takes them to world after world with a goal to achieve or a mission to accomplish while they are there. It seems to me to behove any “Traveller”-like RPG to include a list of possibilities, for which I have suggestions here: (http://www.sfrpg-discussion.net/viewtopic.php?f=44&t=2924&p=32203).
There is a certain convenience to having at least one Federation, Commonwealth, Empire, Oikumene etc. to employ PCs in many of the occupations that provide serial opportunities for adventures. They can also be useful in keeping the warfare down to a dull roar if desired, or employing PCs in military or naval adventure where that is wanted.
If you want to make an easy entry for players such as can’t be bothered to study up on the weird culture and society that their character is supposed to come from, it is a great convenience to include at least one planet of Yanks¶ in Space (etc.), which a player can play a native of with minimal awkwardness or study.
I’m a big fan of having nigh-universal languages spoken throughout at least an “Orlanthi all” of my “Traveller”-like setting. RPGs are such a talk-based form that I have never found it fun to role-play the encounter between two characters who can’t talk to each other. This consideration tends to dominate my approach to point 1 (above).
* I feel that Robin D. Laws missed this in his design of the “Gaean Reach” RPG. I don’t like the way he narrows designs to a single core experience anyway, and I don’t like the way that his mechanisations push players towards author stance — “off the stage and out of the auditorium and into the writers’ room” — but even accept that I think his analysis of the core experience of a Vancian protagonist (which is that it is a revenge plot) is in error or at least oversimplified: Vance’s revenge plots are a vehicle for the serial encounters with social oddity.
† And where-ever it is Earl Dumarest lives, I’m told. But I’ve never read any E.C. Tubb.
¶ Or Poms in Space, if you have an Empire rather than a Federation.