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[RPGs] Hard SF Setting Idea - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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May 29th, 2007

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02:12 pm - [RPGs] Hard SF Setting Idea
I love well-done hard SF, and have often thought that it would be very interesting and fun to write a game setting where FTL travel was impossible. The obvious challenge in such a setting is to make interstellar travel an important part of the setting, w/o having the various problems inherent in using relativistic interstellar travel overwhelm the setting.

The primary problem is that even if the starships travel at almost the speed of light, every interstellar journey sets the characters a minimum of 10 years in the future of the world they just let (assuming the destination is 5 light years away, and the PCs return to the world they departed after finishing their business at their destination). So, revisiting a world means jumping between one and six or seven decades into the future. Even assuming that people live several hundred years and the pace of technological change has slowed somewhat, massive changes can still occur in this time period – wars, revolution, large-scale social movements.

For example, an anarchic confederation of hundreds of independent space colonies could have experienced a massive war of conquest while the PCs were out of the system. When the PC's return, the same system might consist of half as many space colonies, now under the rule of a brutal dictatorship, as in a time period that the PCs will have experienced as a few weeks or maybe a month or two. This could be very nifty, but could easily be a massive headache for GMs, since they can't just write up a few star systems to visit, they must also deal with how each of these star systems changes over time.

Alternately, if you avoid this problem by having the PCs remain in one star system for the entire game, then the rest of the setting (including both other star systems, and the ships traveling between them) would be essentially irrelevant, and so the entire point of the setting vanishes.

the ships might use some form of light-speed drive as in Ken Macleod's Engine of Light series or for that matter, LeGuin's Hainish novels, where subjective travel time is effectively zero.

There are three advantages to this sort of star-drive for roleplaying:
  • Because of the nature of the star-drive, ships (or asteroids fitted with the drive) cannot be used as relativistic missiles.
  • Although I prefer the idea of starships being relatively large and expensive, they need not be ludicrously so – it all depends upon how difficult the drive is to create and operate.
  • Interstellar travel is effectively instant, so in-system maneuvering is the only part of a journey that needs to be (or even can be) played out, thus utterly eliminating the necessity of wondering what the PCs are doing on the years that even relativistic travel at a constant 1-G acceleration would require.
This sort of interstellar travel also fits perfectly with the high-tech model for interstellar colonization that I worked out.

To further make the setting enjoyable for roleplaying, I would also place the PCs in a star system that is a center for interstellar commerce, like Alastair Reynold's Yellowstone system before the Melding Plague, where the PCs are in charge of dealing with arriving ships. So, you could have a new ship arriving from some destination or other every month or two. Each new ship presents new opportunities to deal with and new information or valuable technologies. Essentially, you've got the PCs are the command crew of an equivalent of Babylon 5 or DS: 9 in a setting with relatively frequent STL travel.

One reason for the frequent interstellar travel (besides it's relative ease) might be that star systems prefer to send data and prototypes of new tech via ship rather than broadcasting it via radio, since it's actually possible to sell it this way, rather than just giving it away, which seems somewhat unlikely, but not impossible, especially if building light speed drives is not horrifically energy intensive.

Also, all forms of STL travel become easier in a star cluster or some particularly dense region of space, where stellar densities are perhaps 50 times that of our stellar neighborhood, meaning stars would on average be only 2 light years apart and there would be 30-40 stars within 5 light years. You could either presume humanity long ago colonized that region of space, or simply posit the solar system occurred in a different region of space.

Also, to liven things up for a long-term campaign, if you have a nearby system that's only 3 light years away, then the PCs could even visit it and come back before much too changed, allowing the PCs to have a small taste of interstellar travel. The more I think about it, the more I think that you could definitely make a workable STL travel campaign. I'd definitely go for a light-speed transform into photon drive, both because it vastly reduces the weapon potential of starships and eliminates the fact that even traveling at relativistic speeds, w/o both gravity control and 5+ g accelerations, voyages take at least several subjective years. I'd never considered that this might be workable, but now I definitely think it is. Now all I need is someone to pay me to write it.
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Date:May 30th, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
This could be very nifty, but could easily be a massive headache for GMs, since they can't just write up a few star systems to visit, they must also deal with how each of these star systems changes over time.

I think this could be both interesting and workable.

Developing the different "eras" of a star system really wouldn't be all that different from working out their histories, which is pretty commonly done already (at least in a broad-brush kind of way). You just keep the "history" in your back pocket and plonk the players into whatever era they happen to stumble upon.

As a mechanical aid, I could imagine some sort of "historical dynamics" table that lets you generate a kind of random-walk history (again, in a very broad-brush way that a setting developer or game-runner would flesh out). Hmmm...or instead of a table, perhaps a deck of cards. Or something.

Another thing which occurs to me: presumably, the "time dislocated" would be a relatively small minority of the population of any of the systems. Wouldn't they tend to cluster together with other "fellow travellers" dislocted from the same time periods? (If there were a bunch of thirty year olds alive today who grew up in Rennaisance Florence, wouldn't they tend to hang out together?) This could create some opportunities for "localized" continuity, even if the global cast of characters was changing all the time.


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