So, off and on, I have been working on Stellar Warriors, which is turning into the mega space opera game I’ve had as a “thing to do” pretty much since I discovered gaming back in 1978. After toying with several systems, I’ve found the one I currently have passion for is Pathfinder (and 4e, though I’ve got Earth Delta to satisfy my itch for that), and as I started working, I also found I was “correcting” everything I thought was wrong with D20 that Pathfinder didn’t fix, and, sorry to all you rules-light folks out there, that tends to mean more detail and options, not less, though I’m also trying to apply what I’ve learned from 4e about which details are useful and which aren’t, and how to abstract things that need to be abstracted.
This post has no mechanics whatsoever, though. It’s the first pass at a general background and framework for the setting, and I’m presenting it here first because early drafts of things are often lost and forgotten in the age of digital clay, and, second, because I have the delusion that people are interested in how creators create; how they make decisions, what they were thinking, etc. So I figured I’d post the text as it currently appears in the draft I’m writing, but also include comments, explanations, etc, as to what my goals were and why I made some choices. Hopefully, it will be entertaining.
My comments are going to be in monospace font.
Here Beginneth The Text
Providing setting information in a game is always complicated. On the one hand, the best part of being a game master is being a worldbuilder; it’s always more fun to build your own sandbox than to play in someone else’s. On the other hand, it is often necessary to have some idea where to start, as well as some kind of shared context or assumptions which can be used to frame new content or ideas.
Every choice made in rules design, from how lethal a weapon is to how faster than light travel works to how “mystic” powers, like Qa, function, contributes towards implying a setting. If there’s no FTL communication, a “galactic democracy” where people across the galaxy are up to the minute on the news and share a common culture becomes impossible. The captains of starships must have great leeway to decide how to enact general policies, as new orders can be months or years away. Worlds can diverge from “galactic culture” rapidly.
A set of rules for stellar generation that produce only one world in a thousand that’s easily habitable by humans implies a much different galaxy than one in which all but the most extreme worlds can be easily settled. A system of starship design that puts small starships into the price range of luxury yachts or private jets creates a different setting than one that makes the smallest FTL ship solely the province of governments or large corporations, and so forth.
While the “implied setting” sets borders on what kind of background is supported best by the rules, those borders are immensely broad. Hundreds or thousands of different settings can be built that all fit within what’s implied by this set of rules, and a thousand times as many can be built with only small fudging and pushing at the edges just a tad.
The setting here, the Eighth Interregnum, is one of many. It is designed to support a wide variety of playstyles and backdrops while still being a single universe. The vast bulk of it is left very deliberately undesigned and vague, with regions painted in only the broadest of strokes. It exists to help provide context for things like racial descriptions, background traits, and to create a sense of place, but it is not an exhaustively detailed setting and never will be. It uses common tropes and themes in order to set the boundary points of a framework that each GM is free to fill in as he sees fit, or to discard entirely. It can also serve as a sort of ablative skeleton, providing a structure to those parts of the universe the GM hasn’t detailed yet, to be removed as his world grows and replaces the default.
I am not a buyer, in general, of settings. I prefer games with strong genre flavor. I often buy games that combine system and setting, especially if the setting is so broad as to give me plenty of room to play, or if the setting more-or-less is the game. (Shadowrun, for example — it’s not like there’s a “Cyberpunk And Magic” genre with many examples out there. It’s also easy with Shadowrun to lift nothing but the basic premise, races, mechanics, and fill in your own megacorps, nations, and so on without regard for the ‘official’ rules.) On the other hand, a lot of people like settings, or hints of settings, and I’ve found that writing rules completely without any reference to a world or a context is dull and uninspiring. Hints of how the rules interact with the world and the kinds of things one is likely to do with the rules brings them to life and inspires the GM. Overly-detailed encyclopedic settings where the rules are intimately tied to the setting, on the other hand, I find to be extremely useless. There’s a difference between “Here’s a magic system with some flavor text in the descriptions naming a few great wizards” and “Here’s a magic system whose entire balance and mechanics relies on the cosmology and calendar of this setting and which you can’t disconnect from it.”
Interregnum And Empire
It is commonly considered that the galaxy moves through cycles of Empire (when a single power or culture dominates at least 80% of the known galaxy) and Interregnum (when no power dominates more than 5%). Galactic historians debate tremendously on precise dates, boundaries, and so on, but there is a general consensus among all but a few fringe scholars that there have been eight such cycles since the collapse of the Progenitors.
This is one of those themes I always return to, time and again, mostly because it’s a rich source of background material when you need it, and it appeals to my general view of the universe. “The Eighth Interregnum” was a phrase I came up with when writing some of my earliest science fiction, back in my freshman year of college; you’d think, given that, it would be extensively detailed by now, but, in fact, it’s mostly some names and ideas I’ve occasionally re-used but never seriously developed. (I always find it hilarious when people think their “ideas”, undeveloped and unexplored, are valuable, and that doing the grunt work of “actually writing it all down” is something some other shmuck can do after he’s paid you a fortune for your “idea”. Please. This is also why no company is going to “steal your ideas” — the worth of an idea is nothing. It’s not worth stealing.)
Before any of the known races existed in space, or possibly even evolved, there were the Progenitors. It is unknown what their physical form was; they are known only by the occasional artifacts found in the strangest and most obscure reaches of space, and no two of these artifacts seems designed for beings of the same body type, yet all are clearly from one culture, and, it is believed, that culture consisted of a single race, due to the lack of any evidence of multiple spacefaring societies prior to the Progenitors. It is widely speculated that when they arose, the very laws of the universe were different, and that they literally altered all reality on the most fundamental level to allow life as it is currently known to exist. Then they vanished. That was more than a billion years ago.
I don’t really have much more to say about this than what’s there; I don’t have a Secret Detailed Origin. I mostly wanted the ultimate macguffin in the background, primarily as a way of explaining a universe of mostly-compatible biochemistry and, perhaps more importantly, evolutionary cycles “synced up” so that nearly all intelligent races are within a million or so years of each other.
Sometime between the Progenitors and the Eight Empires, there was a period known as the Reign Of The Stargods. This time was marked by the existence of a dozen different species, which apparently rose to power roughly concurrently, and which then fell to a massive war of “all against all”. Their technology was beyond anything which the Eight Empires ever achieved, though it was still less than that of the Progenitors. Their battles scarred and shaped the universe, and their relics, though far more common than those of the Progenitors, are literally worth the price of a world. There are constant rumors that some of the Stargods may exist, hiding in folds of spacetime or (if you’re really paranoid) striding the galaxy posing as mere mortals, observing… or controlling…. the lesser species.
A somewhat more useful set of macguffins. I have a very strong “vision” for these guys — they are much akin to the Celestials from Jack Kirby’s Eternals, with a side order of Vorlons and Shadows. In some ways, they could be called the “Zeroeth Empire”.
This is the best known artifact of the Stargods. “Olympus” is a very vague translation; the place has hundreds of names, all basically “the home of the gods” — Valhalla, the Shining City, the Watchtower. It is a structure the size of a large gas giant, made of glistening metal in a hundred colors, all strange tubes and odd shapes and immense blocky substructures. The outer surface defies all attempts to penetrate it with any sensors, and it radiates a constant heat of 74.23 degrees. Any craft, from the largest mega-battleships to the most intricate nanoprobes, vanishes instantly when it approaches within 0.67 light years. No energy is detected coming from Olympus, nor is there any energy emitted when the craft are destroyed, or teleported, or shifted to a parallel world, or warped to the dawn of time, or whatever happens to them. A few cultists believe they are transported inside to join the gods.
You see how the use of arbitrary and random “exact numbers” gives an aura of faux legitimacy to a thing? No, I have no idea what Olympus is for; it’s probably a base where some of them are sleeping, but it could just as easily be the Stargod version of a monthly storage rental.
During the time of the Fifth Empire, one particularly cunning local governor decided to take advantage of this, and began having all unwanted refuse and garbage hurled in the direction of Olympus, treating it as a galactic garbage disposal. Three weeks after he began this practice, he vanished utterly. So did the planet he governed. No one has tried to exploit the defenses of Olympus since then.
This is a bit of a reply to how PCs, in general, will take anything you create that is Cool and Mysterious and Awesome and turn it into some kind of tool they can use to get m0ar l00tz.
Rise And Fall
Technology tends to progress in a sort of bell curve. On most worlds, there is a long period of stagnation and slow change, followed by a time of extremely rapid development that can take a world from swords to spaceships in a few hundred years, followed by one of two things: Either the discovery of FTL travel (or being contacted by a race which already has it), or the rapid consumption of all in-system resources, followed by war and collapse.
Space Opera is anti-singularity. If you ever look at most “tech level” charts, including the one in Stellar Warriors, you’ll see that you have something like “Bronze Age”, “Iron Age”, “Renaissance”, and then 4 or 5 levels that span the 19th and 20th centuries (sometimes 4 or 5 just from WW2 to 2000), and then something like “Early Stellar” and “Advanced Stellar” that presume stagnation for hundreds of years. I figured I’d just lampshade the idea that once you hit FTL, you’ve maxed out the “big changes” and that most of what’s left is incremental, with truly revolutionary breakthroughs occurring at a much slower pace. It’s utterly unrealistic based on everything we know, but it’s necessary for the kind of setting this is.
The first world in a region to discover FTL has a huge edge; it will quickly contact and exploit nearby worlds, and then use these new resources to keep expanding. Because no message can travel faster than a starship, the instantaneous communication that is a precursor to rapid technological change stops; further, the vast array of resources to exploit once the stars are opened undermines the search for new technologies, as competition becomes more a matter of expanding and acquiring than of doing more and more with the same supplies. This creates the other side of the bell curve, another period of slow discoveries and refinements, with few revolutionary breakthroughs.
Eventually, one expanding culture reaches another, and then they may form trading alliances, or they may do battle, or both, in succession. Eventually, they merge into a single larger culture, by conquest or by trade, and then they expand until they meet another, and so on. Over hundreds or thousands of years, the galaxy becomes the province of an ever smaller number of ever larger nations, until one dominates.
Some folks (though, granted, not the kind of folks likely to be reading this site) would probably object that this is a particularly Western European Patriarchal Capitalistic Imperialistic view of the universe, and declaring it as a universal constant that occurs throughout time and space is narrow minded provincialism and that truly advanced races would live in peace and harmony and sharing. Some folks are idiots. Lizard says:”Those that beat their swords into plowshares shall do the plowing for those who do not.” Even if I’m wrong, it’s irrelevant — Cosmic Space Hippies are boring.
It is just as inevitable that it will collapse. This may take a long time, usually thousands of years, but it follows the pattern of the avalanche. Once the collapse begins, it accelerates, usually taking less than a century from the first real cracks in the Imperial structure until the galaxy is consumed in war. Worlds are blasted to the stone age, if they are not destroyed entirely. Trade, except between a few close worlds, sputters and dies. Knowledge is reduced to myth or lost forever. A small handful of systems retain their old technology, but they do so by huddling close and not venturing out. Fragments of the old form tiny stellar holdfasts of a dozen worlds or so, often locked into tense wars with their neighbors that flare from cold to hot at any moment. A thousand petty planetary leaders look at the galactic chaos and seem themselves or their world as the new Empire. And on the tens of thousands of worlds abandoned and destroyed, someone rediscovers pressing a stylus into clay to make words, someone works out the laws of gravity and inertia, someone learns to build rockets, and then it all starts again.
The Lost/Forgotten Homeworld Of Mankind is a trope I like; I also like the idea of a constant cycle of collapse and rediscovery, that since the universe is one which is inherently rational and understandable, advancement isn’t the result of a one in a billion Great Genius having a Vision, but is something that is inevitable anywhere you’ve got a mind to perceive reality and the means to manipulate it.
The Eighth Empire was immense, and immensely old. It had survived so long, weathering three great crisis (later called the False Collapses), that many had begun to call it the Last Empire. Quite a few historians became rich and famous authoring treatises on “The End Of Interregnum” and foreseeing a glorious future that would last until the heat death of the universe, and then beyond, because given enough time, the Empire would reach the same level as the Progenitors and rewrite the laws of nature.
First, I love pseudo-history. There’s nothing like reading a phrase like “the third war of the North” or “the era of the Shining Fortress” or the like, especially when it’s wrapped up in mention of how this fictional period in fictional history was given its name by fictional historians. Second, that’s a pretty explicit and unrepentant dig at the moron who wrote, following the collapse of the USSR, a best selling steaming pile of bantha poodoo called “The End Of History”, in which he prognosticated (that’s a big word; it means “made up some total horsecrap”) that “history” was now over because the last “great conflict” had been resolved. I’ve got some 1000+ corpses in downtown Manhattan who might have something to say on that, if, you know, corpses could talk.
Yeah, right. Pull the other one, it has space-bells on.
I’ve developed this weird habit of deliberately using the clumsy construction that is more found in mock pulp sci fi than in actual pulp sci fi, of sticking “space” in front of every word. Go figure.
The first came from the great spaces between galaxies, a region no species had managed to cross within the time of the Eight Empires. As they came from the void, ravening and terrifying, they became known as the Void Demons.
The second were born in the flare of a hundred novas. It’s believed they were using the stars as a kind of gateway between galaxies, or perhaps between realities, in the absence of any other explanation. Vaguely reptilian and masters of a kind of bio-technological fusion never seen before, they became known as the Star Dragons.
This is another bit of my past. Sometime in the early 1990s, I had made some notation on a timeline I was working on regarding the “war between the Void Demons and the Star Dragons”. I just liked the names. Again, this is more detail on them than has occurred before.(I’d toyed with “Stardrakes” in other parts of my draft, but “Star Dragons” just sounds better to my ears.)
Both forces were advanced far beyond the Eighth Empire, so advanced some thought they might be the Stargods come again. Neither seemed to concern themselves with the existing Empire; they destroyed any ships that attacked them without effort or hesitation, but otherwise showed no sign they were even aware other beings existed. They would transform a planet into a factory for war machines with no reaction whatsoever to the people already on it, not even to conquer and enslave them. All that mattered to either side was destroying each other. By the time the war ended, which occurred when both sides had reached a position of stalemate that caused them to vanish as suddenly as they’d came, leaving only ruins and relics behind, the Empire had been rent into a thousand pieces, great lines of war and devastation criss-crossing the galactic structure. When the Void War (sometimes called the Demon/Dragon war), ended, a few optimists hoped this would be the Fourth False Crisis, and that the Empire could, after perhaps only one or two hundred years of disorganization, pull itself together.
Ah, there’s nothing like completely handwaving away any and all questions about motive or methods. Absolute, total, and unrepentant deus ex machina. The uber-powerful whatevers showed up and kicked you all to the cosmic curb. Buh-bye now!
But the important thing is, they left behind their toys. I really like space opera games where there are immensely powerful artifacts to quest after.
It didn’t happen. Once shown to be vulnerable, it lost a crucial amount of respect. All the petty enemies of the Empire who had never dared to strike against it or defy it were emboldened. Furthermore, it had lost much of its military and economic might in futile battles against the Demons and Dragons. (I wish I could have worked Dungeons in there. Oh well.) Many of those regions which maintained some kind of communication and control declared themselves independent, or claimed that they were the true heirs to the Empire, and they fell to battle against each other. Many parts of the galaxy simply drifted apart. Others were destroyed by raiders and pirates following rumors of a ruined Void Demon blackship, or a partially functioning Star Dragon planetary seeder.
I have only vague notions of what a “blackship” or a “planetary seeder” are. But they sure sound cool!
And so, here we are.
Here Endeth The Text
Coming soon (since I’ve already written it and just need to paste it in): Several regions of space, defined by theme and function, and not by a catalog of the worlds they contain or the names of the local politicans.