Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Black Book of Tsan-Chan

The Black Book of Tsan-Chan (literal title An Account of the Throne of the Kingdom of Heaven, For the Edification of the Pious Low-Castes, typically abridged to ATKH) has, even by the standards of black books pertaining to the Secret History, a damnably strange path to publication. In an age when one can find a translation of the Kitab al-Layl at the local Barnes and Noble and new translations of Unspeakable Cults is featured on NPR, the ATKH remains obscure among its fellow tomes, despite the novelty of its history.

We begin with the earliest manuscript, which is the last chronologically and has not yet been written. It will be a king's list of the rulers of Tsan-Chan, accompanied by some sermons and parables. The simple mythic narrative is typical for the genre: the rising of the dragon Tulu from the sea, the Age of Tribulation, the arrival of the Anointed Emperor, the unification of the Tsan and Chan, and further deeds of the royal line across its first seven dynasties.

The primary text is written in Vulgar Tsani at a very simple reading level, accompanied by large, colorful illustrations. The back sections and margins are filled with commentary written in Imperial Standard Tsani, offering direction to any priests who might be using the book as part of their ministries, as well as some practical advice for traveling through the outer provinces.

The Account's author will be an anonymous clerk of the great imperial bureaucracy, writing during the placid period at the end of the 7th Dynasty just before the turmoil that marks the transition to the 8th. We know nothing else: the short colophon at the end self-identifies only as "This Most Humble Servant of the Emperor", with the only other detail of note being that the author sprained their wrist while writing, and apologizes for the poor handwriting in the back third. No copies of this text exist, and none will for some three millennia and change.

The version of the book that we know comes from the polymath sorcerer-scholar Ghyanggal, a diplomat to both the Deep Ones and the Serpentmen during the 12th Dynasty (~6140 CE), some 300 years after the ATKH was originally published. To the great fortune of occultists everywhere, Ghyanggal was one of the minds pulled through time by the Yithians, and had been imbued with perfect recall as part of his state training. He spent some seventeen decades in Pnaktous copying out everything he had ever read in his life up to that point. (see The Man Who Invented Occultism (Bernard, 1971) and A New Stylus, Damn It! (Sevarini, 2014) for more information on Ghyanggal and his time in the Library)

From here we split off into three lineages, all based on the Pnakotic Text: the Akkadian Script, the Modern Manuscript, and the Doggerland Manuscript. As befitting the ATKH, their publication and discovery dates are consequential.

The Akkadian Manuscript, initially written by a priest in the service of Naram-Sin, was a problem from the beginning. The priest's memories of his time in the Pnakotic Library were fragmentary, the tablets were recovered in poor condition and lacking much connective text, and the translation into English in the 1890s was nothing short of butchery. It is an incoherent garble of nightmare visions, pseudo-prophecy, terrifying monsters and very large airquotes occult knowledge. Over a third of the text was written by the English translator, and less than 15% is actually shared with the ATKH. Crowley loved it, the bastard, and it is more well-known in pop-occultism than either of the other manuscripts, a fact that never ceases to cause scholars of secret history to grind their molars to dust in frustration. There is nothing redeeming about this version (if it even classifies as a translation of the ATKH), save for an interlude (thankfully not cut by the translator) wherein the priest affectionately describes some of the cats he cares for at the temple.

The Modern Manuscript is the simplest, most accurate, and least-read of the three manuscripts - an English translation of Ghyanggal's work, which had been recovered with the rest of the Pnakotic Corpus in 1935. Several additional translations have been made since, but the simplicity of the core narrative is such that it has remained mostly unchanged. The lack of popularity is likely in large part to the format: half of the text is a picture-book, and the other half is a dry theological treatise of a religion practiced by no one. While interesting to specialists, the general public will certainly look elsewhere.

The Doggerland Manuscript was, despite being written first chronologically, discovered last; found inside a repurposed mi-go brain cylinder recovered from the bottom of the North Sea in 1963. As a translation it is both accurate and beautiful - clearly the work of a skilled author and orator - but it is most noteworthy for being written in Yithian, Aklo, and Gnopkeh - thus providing an enormous overnight advancement in scholars' ability to translate previously-indecipherable works of the sorcerer-kings of Simmargh. Complicating matters is its adoption by white supremacists into the "Hyperborean Cycle" (a collection of mostly-unrelated and often entirely fraudulent) texts credited to an ancient human civilization claimed to be the inheritors of the Great Old Ones.) Given the contents of the text, it is believed by an increasing number of yithian scholars (that is, human scholars who study yithians) that we have entered a self-fulfilled causal loop, wherein awareness of the empire of Tsan-Chan and dissemination of its theology among American Christo-nationalists will eventually give rise to the conditions that create the book. However, as the causality of yith-connected epochs appear to have some level of variable determinism (See The Library of Stone Mirrors (Bergere 2011), The Fractal Key (al-Safi, 1996) and The Irrelevant Ages (Brown, 2018) for further information), some amount of threat-mitigation is still believed to be possible (See The Best of All Possible Futures (Talabi, 2020) for an overview of such efforts).

Cultic activity based on the ATKH (outside of the aforementioned New Age and Hyperborean cults) is minor. Tsani religious practices have proven remarkably difficult to translate to the modern age - simultaneously demanding too much for the casual spiritualist and offering too little for the malignant narcissist. Even within those communities where it has grabbed a foothold the book itself (or any of the recovered Tsani texts) is less important by far than the idea of it, or ideas spun off from it.

No rituals described in the ATKH contain any anomalous properties - likely intentional on the part of the Empire, so as to remove any potential tools of rebellion.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Dan Reviews Books, Part 9

 Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ,7,8 

 

The Phoenix Empress, K. Arsenault Rivera 

DNF pg 1/5xx

Like Martian Bigfoot, this book is a rare thing of wonder - the one-sentence did-not-finish. I can't speak for anything in this book but the first sentence, but I have sharpened my sense of what I like to such a narrow edge that I can make a call after a few words, and I think that's rather nice.

(I did cheat and read the rest of the opening paragraph, but it was the first sentence that did it in.)

The sentence in question:

"It is an hour into Sixth Bell on the third of Nishen."
This sentence is a content void, containing no information. I don't care if later context will make it make sense, the opening of this book is saying "I do not care enough to tell you what time of day it is, nor what time of year, and I will show my contempt for you by filling it with words that are clearly supposed to indicate time of day and time of year, but make it impossible to understand."

There could have (and should have) been a second clause appended to it: "It is an hour blah blah blah, and the clarifying details explain the first bit."

Compare to the first line of 1984:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Which not only gives us the appropriate sense-words to build a picture in our heads of what's going on, (and it just sounds good when read aloud) but the usage of "clocks were striking thirteen" promotes a feeling of unease and unheimlich. Sure it might mean 1 PM, but if it doesn't...

Ah well. Wasted more time writing this entry than I did reading the book.

 

Various Elric Stories, Michael Moorcock

I've been reading them in publication order and have gotten through the first four. They are certainly 60s pulp sword and sorcery, and there is a richness and vividness to the prose that I find very much welcome. But, they are also 60s pulp sword and sorcery short stories; even though there is a sequence to events, after four of the stories it feels like I have hit the sum of everything it can show me. It's the same thing, the same pattern, over and over. Felt similar with the Fafhrd and Mouser stories after a while.

Seemingly reading my mind, the fifth story does not feature Elric at all, and so was nice and refreshing. I'll likely return in the future, but it is certainly a corpus that should be read piece-meal. 

 

Ring of Swords, Eleanor Arneson

This book was picked out on a whim by my partner, who thought the blurb was interesting. She was correct. Setup is one of those very classic first contact stories, where the aliens are just human enough except for the parts that cause a whole lot of interesting conflict.

To whit, the hwarhath are fascist space apes with a civilization so strictly gender-split that heterosexual intercourse is considered worse than bestiality. They captured a human ship 20 years ago and one of the crew (Nicholas "the Liar") now serves as their primary translator and cultural liaison. The initial negotiations (on a out-of-the-way planet with a tiny science station and nothing much more interesting than some giant alien man-o-war jellyfish) go south, and in a refreshing change of pace...don't lead to warfare. Cool heads and talk win the day, though one of the scientists (Annah) ends up getting pulled as a human-side liaison for the new talks. The rest of the novel is set a year later on a space station, juggling between Annah and Nick's POVs and all the tangles they have to navigate. Nick in particular is very interesting with how divided his loyalties are, which get quite a bit more complex than my review style here is adequate to explain.

It put me very much in mind of Cherryh's Foreigner series, with humans trying to navigate their way through a minefield of alien expectations, problems solved with quick wits and diplomatic skill rather than weapons. The aspects regarding sexuality, while certainly of the 90s, have aged rather gracefully all things considered.

One of the highest positive ratings I can give to a book is "this has put me on the lookout for the author's other works", and Ring of Swords succeeds in spades at that.

 

Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

DNF pg. 93/618

It took me a while (and looking at some reviews) to realize that this book is very much a fantasy retelling of the rise of the Han Dynasty. And in that sense it is fine, well-composed enough to pass muster, but not what I was hoping for. There are too many characters and proper nouns for my taste, and the big-picture historical fantasy epic loses some luster for me if it is nearly 1:1 real history. I like the curveballs you can get from the fantastic elements. By the time I put it down, I was developing the same sort of queasy feeling that led me to stop listening to an abridged version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, when the only thing I could think of is "jesus christ that is a sickening number of civilian casualties". I am no expert in Chinese history but I know enough to know that when there's a civil war it tends to get very big and very nasty and that really doesn't engender enthusiasm for me as a reader when it's presented in the context of fiction.

 

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees

In progress, 61%

Fair warning, this doesn't start looking like a normal novel until 20-25 pages in or so, and things don't start happening in earnest until nearly the 50% mark. It's got that 1926 pacing - certainly likes to take its time.

The prose is often very evocative, often dipping into episodes of the author telling you precisely what is On Her Mind about life and art and meaning and all that.

Some things don't translate particularly well across time - mainly the passivity of the characters. Plot threads get dropped on the regular. Missing children get shrugged off by their parents. It's a slow book, have to be in the right mood for it. But it is consistent and I


The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Devoured this one in a day and a half, it absolutely deserves the reputation for quality. There's a reason why we're talking about it 48 years later. Several reasons, in fact. The punchiness of the prose and the quick pace, the sudden and brutal violence, the increasing unease and alienation we feel alongside Mandela as he is cast further and further into the future. The constant middle finger to the American war machine. The ending. What a good, good, goodass book. Immediate top-shelf space. This review is short because the book is short and also very good and you should read it.

 

Making Money, Terry Pratchett

Nothing better than reading a Discworld book for the first time, and this is one of the few that has remained out of my grasp.

Remember when the TERFs tried claiming Pratchett as one of their own? What absolute dumbasses. *Making Money* features "I am going to use a golem to illustrate how people are the gender they identify as, it's all very simple" on page nine.

Anyway, it's a Moist von Lipwig book, which means that it is a great deal of spinning plates all going very fast and occasionally fitting into each other like neat little gears. Perhaps too neatly in some points, but by and large it is a satisfying framework for good jokes and barbed social commentary.

 

Machine, Elizabeth Bear

DNF pg. 122 / 482

The main character of Machine, one Dr. Brooklyn Jens, abandoned her wife and their eighteen-month old daughter for a ten year tour of duty in deep space. Just when I think nothing surprises me any more, this book comes out and breaks new ground in the field of "how to instantaneously evaporate, nay, sublimate any traces of sympathy I have for a character".

This is a setting where everyone uses exowombs (And she was in a relationship with another woman anyway) - you have to intend to have a child.  There's a veneer of self-awareness, but it comes off (like most of the narration) as self-centered and immature. "I'm a terrible mother," she says "I'm a very good doctor, though. And maybe it's good to concentrate on the things you excel at. It doesn't mean that I'm okay with being a terrible mother, or that we never regret the sacrifices we make to get what you want, or what you think you need."

No, from everything else in this story it seems like you are very okay with being a terrible mother, Dr. Jens, considering you abandoned the ship that you chose to build at the first opportunity. I've felt more guilt over forgetting to do the dishes!

This woman is supposedly in her forties (or thereabouts) and I literally thought she was 10-20 years younger, given the narration style.

There's an interesting idea here (mysterious ancient colony ship with mysterious things happening on it, a Star Trek style federation with loads of fun aliens, nifty bits about some methane-breathers and their environmental requirements), but at every turn it is fought by the other contents. The inexplicable replacement of "days" and "years" with "dia" and "ans" (to mean the exact same thing!). The 0-G segments are confusingly oriented (this might be a plus). There are occasional attempts at wit that are not funny.

Reading some reviews has revealed that the interesting mystery elements of the opening are not, in fact, the actual plot, and even if Jens wasn't a heel that would be more than enough reason to drop it.

 

The First Sister, Linden Lewis

DNF pg 74/342

"Here is a recording of CRITICAL PLOT INFORMATION FROM YOUR MISSING ROMANTIC PARTNER"

"lol, lmao, what do you expect me to do, listen to it?"

I wanted to like this one, I wanted it to be a comeback after the disappointment of Machine. But it was not to be. Once again I fall to the clearest death-knell for my interest in a book: looking up reviews on Goodreads to see if there is anything corroborating my experience. It has never, ever ended up in a positive outcome.

So, basic premise: the inner solar system is split between the Icarii (Mercury and Venus, they are arguably science and enlightenment and all that), and the Gaeans (Earth and Mars, militaristic theocracy). They're at war over Ceres, both are pretty awful. There are weirdos in the asteroid belt and AI living in the outer system that will take anyone coming close to Jupiter as reason to reignite the war and just clean up shop.

We get a POV character for each faction, and early on I do appreciate how we get the each party represented without total reduction to one party's propaganda (instead, they're terrible in completely different ways). But the chapters are so short, and the switching is so constant A then B then C, it feels like I'm getting whiplash but not actually going anywhere.

One of the POV characters (Character B) is motivated by their missing partner, who has apparently defected and needs to be hunted down. The other, Character A, is basically a temple prostitute on a spaceship. The latter is an interesting concept but the constant POV switching made it so that nothing was ever built up. The former was just dull. I am, as previously indicated, a picky son of a gun when it comes to romance plots in my spec-fic and you'd best be bringing your A-game, otherwise I will just complain throughout about how much more I'd like to read about the setting's politics. No prizes for guessing which option is on display here.

The third POV is recordings of the partner in question, who Character B just fucking refuses to listen to when he gets ahold of it. He has two hours of down time before shipping out and this shit is mission relevant and I don't have the patience for this. If you actually gave a shit about this person, you wouldn't stand around twiddling your fingers. That's obvious dumbassery-to-extend-page-count and I will have none of that.

Also the conflict doesn't even make sense in the first place: one of the factions has a monopoly on force field and antigravity tech and if you mean to tell me that a faction with sole access to Clarketech like that is in a stalemate, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I've been trying to sell.

Friday, August 19, 2022

All-Purpose Green Box

For the first time in ages, this post is about something I actually use in games. When running anything where "box full of incredibly weird shit" is appropriate, I tend to have a list of incredibly weird shit to put in boxes. Since (much, but not all) of this list is pulled from session notes many (but not all) of the items are ripped straight from something else, because stealing ideas reduces cognitive workload at the table, and can also trigger an "oh fuck no" reaction in players who understand the reference (they rarely ever do).


Item 1

Unloaded shotgun with a half-empty box of shells. The stock is covered in Love Live! stickers, over which someone has written SHIT TASTE in permanent marker.

Item 2

Silver canister (1' tall, 8" diameter), with a series of USB ports arranged in an inverted triangle on the side. Cold to the touch. Vibrates faintly.

  • The canister contains the preserved and still very-much-alive brain of a Yale professor last seen in September 1937. Long-term sensory deprivation has caused severe deterioration of mental state. Has the social attitudes one would expect, if he is mentally coherent enough to have them. Can interface with technology built by [XENOENTITY M-3] and possesses first-hand experience of interactions with [XENOENTITY M-3]. Interface with terragen computers, while possible, is both difficult and  not recommended.



Item 3

Enormous leatherbound codex. Black cover, with a red-orange circle in the center. Interior pages filled with dense, beautiful calligraphy in an unidentified script. Illuminated illustrations of fantastic locales and the inhabitants therein.

  • Propagandistic autobiographical narrative of far-future tyrant. Fragmentary, hand-written translation notes found within. Long-term exposure will open up possessor / reader to contact with [TRANSTEMPORAL ENTITIES].



Item 4

Glass fishbowl containing a sea slug (species Nembrotha kubaryana) and a small silver hand bell.

  • Slug is capable of mental communication, possesses persona of penny-dreadful Victorian explorer-gentleman. Seems unaware or only partially aware of surroundings and of its own status. Hand bell, when rung, will summon nondescript (though well-dressed) human male of middle age who will fulfill tasks requested of him, whatever they might be, so long as they are within the physical capabilities of an ordinary human being.

 

Item 5

There is no Item 5.

  • Object 5 self-deletes from the memory of any individual that comes into contact, direct, visual, or remote, with Object 5.


Item 6

Long knife made from a human thigh bone. Handle wrapped in red parachute cord.

  • If used to kill a willing individual, the next use will be instantaneously fatal regardless of the scope of the injury.



Item 7

Sheaf of yellowing paper (108 pages) held together with binding clip. Typewritten record. Redacted names accompanied by alphanumeric code.

  • Roster of known [HIGH ENTROPY ENTITIES], the powers they possess and offer, places of contact, and known contractees. Composed ~forty years ago by no-longer-extant government entity, entries may be inaccurate.



Item 8

Finger-length glass vial containing golden liquid. Labeled "analeptic".

  • When mixed with brain tissue, permits the eaters to inherit the memories and experiences of the recently deceased.



Item 9

VHS tape. Handwritten label reads "DO NOT VIEW". Underneath, "THE FAT LADY SINGS" is written in Mandarin.

  • Heavily-degraded footage of a room, dimly lit by a flickering fluorescent light. Cracked concrete wall covered in graffiti. A pile of corpses sits fills much of the frame. A cardboard sign sits on a wooden chair, displaying an RCA test pattern and the text PLEASE STAND BY. Occasional humming and heavy footsteps can be heard from offscreen. No apparent end to footage.


Item 10

Crayon drawing of a cow in a field. Three stick figures are laying in the field. The cow is covered in red.

  • Drawing an individual personally known to the artist in the field will cause individual to be trampled to death and subsequently eaten by a cow, regardless of their actual proximity to any bovines. Target must be drawn in crayon, may not overlap with another figure, and the artist must intend that they be trampled and eaten by a cow.


Item 11

Dented green ammo container. Label in Brazilian Portuguese. Interior is empty, but severely damaged by gouges and apparent claw-marks.

  • No anomalous properties.


Item 12

Nokia cell phone, black. Plastic casing has been exposed to high temperatures but otherwise intact. Battery has been removed.

  • Pressing call button will generate static and indistinct voices. Call ends after 10-15 seconds. Further anomalous properties unknown.


Item 13

Manilla envelope containing Binding of Isaac GameBoy Advance cartridge. FOR EVAN is written on the front.

  • Game functions as expected, is a non-anomalous piece of impossible media. Edges of envelope will flatten to monomolecular cutting edge when the envelope is empty (it will return to its ordinary state so long as there is an object inside, regardless of the object).


Item 14

Thumb-sized fetus (blue, horned) suspending in red-purple-black organic slurry.

  • Drinking the mixture (do not chew) will generate an instance of [HIGH ENTROPY ENTITY B-2] upon death. Generated [HIGH ENTROPY ENTITY] will possess partial continuity of consciousness, inheriting some memories and personality traits. Manner of death is irrelevant.  


Item 15

Skull of adult human male. The word DENNIS has been carved into the forehead.

  • Putting a coin in the skull's mouth will generate a bullet of random commercially-available caliber in the user's pocket, with a 5% chance of being accompanied by a functional hand grenade.


Item 16

Kindle e-reader pre-loaded with an Updated English Translation copy of the Kitab al-Layl. Screen is cracked but device is otherwise fully operational.

  • Possesses no supernatural traits on its own, but is the most widely-read book of occultism in the world and thus provides a certain amount of shared conceptual language.


Item 17

Oil painting: "Still Life of Meat". (framed)

  • Anomalous properties unknown.


Item 18

Severed human hand (right). Skin is cracked, bright red, and flakes off when disturbed.

  • Fingers catch fire when held by a liar, a cheat, a thief, or a coward. Invisible entities within its light are revealed, while the wielder is rendered invisible (the light will remain visible). The fingers will occasionally be seen to grip at things that are not there.


Item 19

Engraved lead tube wrapped in copper wire and affixed to wooden rifle stock. Generates a hum, heat, and vibrates when trigger is pulled.

  • Any targeted living matter will spontaneously begin developing tumors, which will grow in size and severity the longer the target remains within the beam. Extended use will cause barrel to grow increasingly hot, eventually deforming it into uselessness.


Item 20

Series of 6 mason jars containing cuttlefish preserved in formaldehyde. Will turn to face observers. Regularly shift tentacle positions.

  • Tentacle positions can be decoded into an English cipher. Default state is a repeating hymn to Tulu, of whom they are a collective priest. They will respond to humans who attempt to communicate through the cipher.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Nine Metahuman Clades

This bastard of a post has been sitting in the wings for TWO notebooks worth of time and I am overjoyed to finally boot it out the door so it can get a real job.


The Divorce of Flesh and Silicon

Homo sapiens will, eventually, go extinct. Such is the way of things. We have come very, very close indeed to committing the deed by our own hand through sheer bloody-mindedness, but centuries among the stars have provided a certain level of insurance: even if the Road were to collapse tomorrow, we would continue. Many planets wouldn't even notice.

But change is the nature of all things, and anything that does not appear to be changing is merely changing at speeds too slow to observe. Give a few million years, and humanity will have branched off into thousands of daughter species, each adapted to their home in the cosmos.

Humans being humans, we have decided that we have no interest in waiting for the grand generational game of genetics to bear fruit and have decided to jump the line through complex tool-use and sheer bloody mindedness.

The outcome, as one might expect, is a fucking mess.

There is a widening division forming on the subject of what is to be done with the human body. The kyberists seek to eschew the biological body altogether, transitioning to purely mechanical physical forms and computerized minds. The zoanists, also called the hylics embrace biological modification and distrust technological modification of the mind. The integrationalists believe that the way forward is through the marriage of the two paths. Most people are not lucky enough to have a choice in the matter.

Despite all the lofty promises, the intentional creation of a self-sustaining metahuman clade is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. There are many attempts, and few that have gained any major success.
 

The Five Basic Forms


By incredible coincidence, most bodies within the Sol system have surface gravities that cluster around three points - 1G, 0.37G and 0.14 G. This proved a convenient boon for the development of gene-mod templates, and the M and L series were among the first widely-available nonmedical gene-lines.

  • H-Template - Last of the templates to be developed (as there were no appropriate planetary testing environments in the Sol system), the H-Template is graded for gravities in excess of 1.25
  • T-Template - The standard, unmodified human.
  • M-Template - The Martian Template is a good middle ground. While full Earth gravity is uncomfortable and microgravity still has deleterious effects, it can bridge the gaps and this has made it very popular.
  • L-Template - The Lunar Template gained common adoption in the years before higher-G habitats became commonplace, and dominated the outer system during the late Sol colonization era.
  • Z-Template - Full zero-gravity adaptation requires a complete overhaul in the body's functions. In this field cyborgs and bots have a distinct advantage, as the changes necessary for a biomorph to survive long-term in a 0-gravity environment will cripple it elsewhere.

 

Baseline


Still kicking around. Bad eyes, bad spine, bad teeth, a mental wreck and terrible at calculating odds, but they remain the majority, enduring all things through sheer bloody-mindedness, stuck doing circles in heavens and hells of their own making. It won't be forever, and it'd be difficult to say it was a good run, but we tried.
 

Cyborgs


Given the near-omnipresence of minor mechanical modifications across the Expansion Sphere, the definition of cyborg has shifted to entail a being that uses a cyberbrain for information processing (as opposed to a biological brain or a logic core) that still maintains a primarily organic body. Physiological traits are essentially worthless in terms of definition, as any clade can become a cyborg. Instead, cyborgs are classified according to the architecture and operating ontology of their cyberbrain. Some specialized types include:

  • Sleepwalkers - An increasingly-common cyberbrain operating system where the individual can pre-program their bodies to carry out actions unconsciously, while their conscious minds explore an internal simulation
  • Networked Individuals - Collectives of less than a dozen to several hundred individuals who share an encrypted peer-to-peer network between their cyberbrains.
  • Local Area Self - Similar to networked individuals, though the networks are ad-hoc and temporary rather than permanent affairs.
  • Trinitarian - A resource-intensive architecture that can store and run three EIs simultaneously.
  • Avatar Chain - A heavily pruned-down emulation of an individual is made near or at their death, and then integrated into the cyberbrain of another to provide guidance and companionship. These "past lives" are primarily passive, to save on processing resources.
  • Meat Server - The most extreme form of cyberization, where the only biological components to remain are little more than a sack of basic organs hooked up to a nutrient feed. Just enough to keep the lights on inside.
  • Debtboy - Derisive slang term for individuals who have defaulted on their debt and thus been subject to bodily repossession.

 

Numen


The original thelychroma project was a resounding success, with two major problems: one, the template was over-engineered for the harsh environment of Dreamland (which caused some long-term health problems for those who lived elsewhere). Two, the overt political intent of the project made it essentially impossible for the clade to gain widespread traction within the CTA (as the clade's existence alone is considered a threat to the Great Chain).

Numen templates serve as a sort of in-between. Most of the specialized environmental adaptations have been stripped out of the template, putting them within the survival margins of most genefixed baselines. The pro-social elements are still tweaked higher than baseline, but not as high as their thelychroma cousins - numen do not require Fixers to do violence on their behalf, but they are still better at maintaining group and interpersonal dynamics than baseline. Some groups will use low-impact empathic cybernetic protocols.

Numen are transitional intersex (thelychroma being simultaneous), and may move between sexes through self-directed hormonal changes. They come in a wide variety of appearance templates - most are within baseline ranges of variability, but horns, decorative cartilaginous structures, and brightly colored skin / hair are common - and traits can be activated or deactivated through application of epigenetic triggers.

Numen are one of the most populous metahuman clades, especially out on the Rim. In the core, they are centered around Chara (Beta Canum Venaticorum).


Autocthon, Seedship


The stars and their innumerable worlds were empty, and so the great powers of Earth saw fit to invent peoples that they might conquer. They designed slaves to work the great terraforming stations; clone legions born in glass wombs and raised by software-mothers, tailored for the harshness of extrasolar worlds and sent out to prepare the way.

There are many templates, adapted to the many worlds they found themselves sent to. There were many more - long gone now. Some features are common across all varieties: Thick, UV-resistant skin. Faces purposefully ill-suited to expression and throats poorly-made for speech - both the result of intentional dehumanization. Memetic and cultural conditioning to encourage subservience. Chemical dependencies. Removal of reproductive organs. A hundred variables to add and subtract - for pressure, for temperature, for gravity - manifesting in gradients of build and height and weight.

When the colonists arrived, the plan was that the autocthons would be disposed of. On most worlds, that is what happened. But their creators overestimated their subservience; the rebellions were quashed, their members scattered to the solar winds, but the autocthons refuse to go quietly. The fight continues in silence. Secret sign languages have been developed and adopted. Jailbroken exowombs stolen and put to use. Culture, free from conditioning, bursts forth free and new outside the eyes of the old masters. They are not yet defeated.

 

Ziji


Zero gravity is an excellent way destroy the human body in nearly every way it is possible to be undone, and the early decades of space exploration were a recurring reminder that we do not belong there. There were no good options, and of the bad options we could either spend the mass, space and energy to build rotation modules, or consign travel to the robotic and the heavily-cyborged.

The ziji template, then, is nothing short of a miracle. With minimal cybernetic enhancement, it allows a human to live in freefall from birth to death. But the miracle comes at cost - anything more than the faintest of microgravity will cripple a ziji swiftly and likely permanently. Later-generation ziji are more resistant to gravity and can endure up to 20% standard for short periods.

The typical ziji is very tall, disconcertingly slender, hairless, and will have both opposable toes and a prehensile tail. Modifications to the inner ear prevent dizziness and disorientation in zero-G. Many sub-clades, such as the tecnavi, are engineered for heavier cyberization.

 

Em-Yu


Contrary to what the technocrats of the past thought, there is no way to upload your consciousness into a computer. You can make a copy, through a painstaking process of scanning and emulating and reconstructing it within a cyberbrain, but even in the best case scenario there will be memory loss and personality drift. An incorrectly calibrated cyberbrain, or worse, an architecture not based on the human brain, is a hellish experience with a very high suicide rate.

Emulation is a tightly-regulated technology, with nearly all of it controlled under corporate and government interests (if it is not outright banned by local authorities). The population grows slowly, as the whole continuity-of-consciousness issue means that you personally will not be made into an immortal cybernetic intelligence, which removes a lot of the appeal for people. 

Instead, most em-yus are used in industrial work, often touted as a way for individuals who cannot normally work to "earn their keep" through the labor of their emulation. Punitive emulation, wiring copied minds in mainframes to do what AI cannot, is the next most common usage.

The flashiest usage of em-yus is in the field of colonization, where they are often used as an alternative to AI overseers and a cheap means of sending in an initial wave of colonists. Several hypercorps specializing in planetary colonization have made it so that each colony ship carries with it a cadre of emulated settlement specialists, copying them anew for each new project and sending them down with the first wave of equipment.

Em-yus will be usually be found in ordinary android bodies for the sake of convenience, but they may inhabit any body, mechanical or otherwise, with an appropriate cyberbrain neural link. Non-humanoid robotic morphs are popular among those em-yus who wish to separate themselves from the status quo of life in the Expansion Sphere.

 

Eusocial Cyborg Hives


One would think that eusociality would be a godsend to the hypercorps - by all rights it should be. The idea of legions of worker drones happily creating profit under the watchful care of a corporate totem-queen has middle management salivating buckets. But few of these visions ever come to fruition, because reality is always more complicated.

  • Eusociality does not mean lack of individuality, nor does it mean that an individual will eternally endure abuse.
  • Queens tend to have more loyalty to their hive than to outside forces.
  • While hives can get very large, there is a size limit before it collapses.
  • Queens do not tend to get along very well.
  • Hives in competition tend to get VERY violent, and need to be isolated with significant buffer room.
  • The networks used to coordinate hives are more vulnerable to digital threats and subversions than groups of individuals running discrete .


In the cases where it does work, hives are specialized to certain fields or tasks. Those corporate totems and AI queens work fine and dandy on their own and on paper, but when multiple companies attempt it you suddenly have fighting in the streets over breakfast cereal mascots (see "The Granola Wars" for a more detailed look at how this can spiral out of control) Sure the union is more expensive when things are going well, but you're prepared for some riots. Those are par for the course. A hive rebelling (or worse yet, multiple hives rebelling simultaneously) can destroy the entire operation overnight. It's not a risk many C-levels feel like taking.

As such, hives are only an occasional sight across the Sphere. Independent hives are not as rare as one might expect, as are consent-based ones (wherein new members are only ever adopted in, rather than born)

 

Hirsutes


A broad family of clades meant to embody a sort of blurred middle-point between humans and their great ape relatives. A throw-back in appearance but not so much in fact, more bigfoot than austrolopithicus. They are mostly big hairy brachiators living out low-tech lives of hunting and gathering in the wilderness (where such wilderness will allow it). such lives of hunting and gathering.

The first hirsutes emerged among ape-independence movement as a symbol of the new-ape, the ape who is freed from the impositions of humanity, free from the legacy of destruction that humans have subjected them to. The self-governing ape, the free ape.

Things became more complicated when human-derived hirsute lines were developed. Many among the great ape community viewed this as both appropriative and invasive, while others considered the origins irrelevant in light of the end result. Conflicts over separation vs integration quickly became bloody. By now there has been something of an uneasy ceasefire, as the human parties behind the *homo hirsutus* lines are no longer actively developing their gene-lines and in several cases have gone completely belly-up.

Hirsute communities typically live out in the woods and a good distance from civilization, but there will always be a few willing to take a job scaring backpacking tourists.

 

Exultants


Exultants do not play by the same rules as anyone else. This is, of course, an intended outcome.

Their biological and technical components are syncretized into a singular holistic system. They are functionally immortal - protected against disease, age, environmental damage, cyber-attacks (but not yet violence). They have a monopoly on nanobot incorporation. Their exotic cyberbrains bear no resemblance to consumer models and are resistant to hacks and tampering. They assuredly have backup emulations waiting in storage, just in case they're killed by a rival or by accident.

There are a wide spectrum of exultant gene-lines out there (proprietary to their respective Great Houses), and each individual is crafted and re-made as a custom-order. Each is unique.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Distributed City

Tori Miles

Gas giants are the most valuable real estate in any given solar system. Their rings, moons, and Trojan asteroids are immense stores of easily-accessed and easily-extracted resources - everything you need to start up a permanent colony. Delta-V costs are cheap, plenty of volatiles and fusion fuel, there's a convenient gravity assist right next door. If a solar system has any permanent habitation, even if it is only an automated refueling depot, it's going to be orbiting a gas giant.

Terrestrial worlds, in comparison, are more or less worthless: you'll be trapped launching material out of the gravity well in order to build the infrastructure necessary for a functioning colony, and you could build all that infrastructure far easier and cheaper by just using asteroids. The cheap way, the sensible way, is to start outwards and go in - orbital habitats first, then surface - especially if terraforming is on the table.

For an interstellar civilization, like the ones we would find in everyone's Mothership homebrew, this will lead to an interesting dual society: the dominant culture groups will be concentrated in the lunar and orbital habitats around gas giants, as they serve as the hubs commerce hubs for both in-system and inter-system trade. Inner-system terrestrial worlds (those that might get terraformed) will be relative backwaters and their inhabitants will be, if not legally, practically segregated from the greater interstellar community, simply because it costs more, both time and money, to get to where you need to go. Imagine if you transplanted the modern US interstate system on top of the bronze-age Mediterranean, gas giants serving as the cities where routes meet. It's like that.

For PCs traveling between stars, any given gas giant hub is going to be relatively similar. The companies, factions, and people present will still vary on a sector-to-sector basis, but system-to-system things will be familiar. If you've got one feature, you'll get most of the rest. It's the terrestrial worlds where the weird people are, where the poor people are, where the excitement and conflict and diversity is. They're the dungeon, to the gas giant's town.

The secret here is that since gas giant hubs are variants of the same city, you don't have to worry about fleshing them out. You're playing Mothership! Your PCs are the poor people who get to visit the spaceport for a bite to eat at Great Googly Moogly's and a sleep shift in a coffin hotel before you're back to work. 


Shore Leave in the Distributed City


Your typical visit to the Distributed City will work go something like this:

  • Your ship emerges from hyperspace. If all went well, she'll be arriving in one piece and with minimal spatio-temporal error. Essential crew are brought out of cryo.
  • The ship's communication officer (or another individual serving as such) will contact the relay buoy at the jump point and declare a destination. The buoy will update the public ship registry and Orbital Control with the ship's information.
  • Days to weeks pass as your ship moves from the jump point to its destination.
  • Upon entering the planet's magnetosphere, your ship will discharge the exotic energy buildup from its warp core.
  • With the destination in sight, Orbital Control will guide you to an open docking arm. This is a slow, delicate process, and agonizing to wait through.
  • With the ship docked, everyone up for shore leave will pile in the little people-mover and be shot down the magnetic rail towards the main station. You typically won't bring much with you - no more than a light bag. The ship will be unloaded, restocked, refueled, and repaired while you are away.
  • You'll disembark in decontamination, where you will spend the next several hours getting a thorough scrubdown and a medical screening. Anything remotely suspicious will see you either sent back to your ship or thrown in quarantine. Your belongings will go through a security check in addition to cleaning (if you have cybernetics, those are checked after decon. They tend to hold things up.) before they are returned to you. Most stations will do a rudimentary scan of any computers brought aboard, to check for malicious programs.
  • After decon and security is customs check-in. Your visitor's credit account gets activated, you are logged as temporary inhabitant, you're free to go. The spaceport is your oyster.


Your average spaceport in the Distributed City will be recognizable to anyone who's been in an airport before, if extremely compressed. It's a space meant for people to pass through, not for them to live long-term. There's a thin layer of shops, restaurants, hotels, overtop all the machinery and infrastructure that keeps the place running - space stations are mostly plumbing by mass, after all.

You'll more than likely end up hot-bunking in one of the public-use coffin hotels, unless you decide to drop some of your pay on luxury accommodations. Food will be limited to big chains (overpriced), but after months of ship rations some unidentifiable greasy slop is still welcome - if you want something actually good, you'll have to pay through the nose or cook it yourself. The further you go from the main causeways (or the Core) the more variety you'll find, the more lived-in it will be, as you transition away from the port proper into the parts where people actually live (if there are any to be found)

There are always plenty of ways to reduce stress available, and if you're creative you can invent a few more. Psychological strain is the #1 cause of human-origin spacing accidents so even corporate agrees that you should enjoy yourself. Reduces the insurance premiums.

If you really want to visit another station in the City, or go dirtside if it's available, you'll need to hop on a shuttle or elevator. Your decon and security clearance will be valid, but it's still transit time eating into your R&R.

Shore leave will always be over too soon, and when that time comes you'll end up going in reverse. You'll go back through customs and security (likely nursing the hangover from the pre-launch party the night before), back through decontamination, back to the ship. You'll have a mass budget for your personal possessions, so anything physical you've bought better be under that limit or it's staying behind. Orbital control guides you out, and then it's back to work until you reach the jump point and have to hit cryo.

And then it all repeats and you arrive in a new node of the City, same-but-different.

 

What About Terrestrial Worlds?


While terrestrial worlds are not very important in-universe, they are very important for actually playing the Mothership - people like weird planets, horror loves isolation, and with everything I've been babbling about above you naturally get both. Always comes back to the cosmic rust belt.

You'll arrive at a terrestrial world in much the same way as the City, though it'll take longer to get there given the distance between the inner system and the jump point. You might have already stopped off at the City, or at the very least done a slingshot orbit to discharge your warp core and change velocity. There'll be a station to dock with (usually), shuttles or an elevator down to the surface (hopefully), all the same procedures before going ashore. Everything's just smaller and poorer - if it isn't, that's a sign that you're probably not welcome here.

When designing planets for scenarios, bear in mind that they will more than likely be settled for one of the following reasons:

  1. Rich people want to go there.
  2. Rich people want to send poor people there.
  3. Poor people want to get away from rich people.
  4. Poor people think they can get rich, and / or rich people think they can get richer.
  5. There isn't a better option in this system.
  6. It's a 1st generation colony, settled in the years before the City really got off the ground.

No matter what the case is, you will be weeks away from the City by ship, and any communication (if you have something fit for interplanetary transmissions) will have tens of minutes up to over an hour in terms of lag. It's not a convenient trip out here, or back. There are fewer people spread out over more space. You'll step into the economic and cultural shadow of the City.

Start writing down specifics, add something weird, and it practically writes itself.




Sunday, August 7, 2022

MSF: Mysteries and Curiosities of the World

It is tempting for those of us with personal paracosms to fill in every blank space until there is nothing that goes unexplained. The reductive urge of worldbuilding.

Obviously the cure is to add things that are just plain inexplicable, or that just don't get talked about much, but which may be used by the audience to draw connections as they see fit.

The Sun

The sun is in a strange position, as far as cosmic objects go. It is clearly a force of incredible metaphysical power, but one that has heretofore resisted any attempts at figuring out what its nature is. The Solar Church is not the only group to believe that there is a link between it and the Crown of Fire, though this is troubled by how difficult it is do any proper thaumaturgical study of it - solar mages have a tendency to autovaporize and leave an exclusion zone behind.

An order of (famously blind) Second Empire monks, now long extinct, were the first to observe the vast winged serpents (which they called chalkydri) living in the sun's corona. Other heliohabiting beings, too small to be visible (chalkyri are on the order of tens of thousands of miles in length) are hypothesized, but the only ones since confirmed are angels (see below), who were initially mistaken to be close-orbit asteroids by the blind monks.
 

Angels

This is what we know about angels:

  • The average angel is a gold-and-ivory sphere anywhere between 250 and 500 miles in diameter. The smallest ever observed was approx 400 ft in diameter, the largest over 3000 miles.
  • It is estimated that there are no more than 120 angels within the solar system.
  • Most angels are seen in the sun's corona, but it is not widely believed that they are among its native inhabitants. No interaction with the chalkydri has been observed. Most other sightings tend to be in orbit around the planet Mshtarii or transiting interplanetary space. A single angel was witnessed orbiting Angarag during the Year of the Jealous Crane, but none have been seen near that world since.
  • About 140 years ago, astronomers watching angels among the moons of Mshtarii witnessed what was described as "a series of incredibly bright flashes among the moons, irregularly spaced and lasting altogether for an hour or more." This phenomenon has not re-occurred.
  • Only 12 angel sightings have occurred in cislunar space or closer. Only three of these have been confirmed to have entered the atmosphere, and only one has had direct contact with humans (wherein the angel re-orientated itself so that certain markings on its surface were directed at the observers, made a noise that deafened nearly 60% of all present, and shot up into the sky and out of sight)
  • Angels are entirely unrelated to demons.


Some cultures will call minor spirits of air and fire angels, but it is difficult to confuse the two.

 

The Sea of Tazir

The glass-clear waters of the Sea of Tazir give one an easy view of the sandy bottom. Clear enough that one can easily see the fields of flat, colorful stones that form vast animated mosaics on its bottom (hence why it is also called the Mosaic Sea). These stone-fields will typically display abstract flowing patterns or sea life, but will on occasion take the form of a woman with deep blue skin and navy hair, with eyes of solid white. There's no record of the Lady speaking, but she is known to wave or blow kisses to boats passing above.
 

 

The Coast of Birds

Enormous stone statues of birds with wings raised stand along the Amdalese coast for hundreds of miles. Histories both oral and written from the region are in agreement that the statues have stood there for as long as anyone can remember, but are divided as to their origin. The most common explanation is that the gigantic birds flew down from the sky and turned to stone all on their own, or were trapped there by folk-hero Ndalo Ganye. Less popular but favored among wizards is that they were a construction project of the proto-Ngabe-Roh civilization (itself mostly hypothetical). Occultists claim some connection to the Convocation of Birds and the Simiurgh but provide no evidence. The Murder of All Crows remains tight-beaked, so as to cause problems on purpose.

 

Octopi Conspiracies

Perhaps no creature in the world is subject to more spurious theorycrafting than the octopus. Their total refusal to communicate, despite their obvious intelligence, has spawned countless outlandish claims over the centuries. Apocryphal accounts of shipwrecked sailors aided by octopi, or ships cursed by them, might be heard in any sailor's pub on the Mare Interregnum but none can be proven.

Some common rumors include:

  • The noncommunication is a ruse, and octopi are in league with wizards
  • It is possible (for a very large fee over several installments) to learn the subtle and secret magical practices of the octopi.
  • Octopi have been seen miles inland, stealing wizard's tomes.
  • Octopi will steal unattended infants from coastal villages.
  • Octopi have rescued shipwrecked sailors.
  • Octopi will curse vessels that trespass on their territory.
  • Entire octopi cities are hidden away in the oceanic depths.


The current centerpiece of modern octopus conspiracies is the Stone of the Lyantous Abyss, a chunk of basalt recovered from an undersea volcano by a team of wizards from the University of Vanidiyos as part of a deep-sea exploration survey (they were hoping to find evidence of the lost city of Thempas √úrn, and thus tenure. They did not achieve either). The stone's surface is covered entirely with whirling grooves, which the wizards claim were sculpted by octopi as either some form of religious practice (specifically a marker of a holy site). This theory is typically tied in with that of the Kraken Returned, itself the belief that the Great Black Octopus of Jai'an (the largest individual octopus ever recorded with an estimated armspan of 90 feet) is the herald of the mythic Kraken, or the Kraken itself, to usher in the age of the cephalopod.

 

Bright Morning Mountain

A mountain whose primary spirit, in a change of state nearly unheard of among genus loci, wished to fly. After several thousand years of effort (as the story goes), they managed to tear the mountain up in its entirety, flinging it into the sky where it has floated gently about ever since. The villages on the mountainside that went up with it were taken by great surprise, and a considerable amount of effort was made to get those who did not care for this new state of affairs back on the ground. The place where Bright Morning Mountain once stood has since filled with water and is now called Lake Gloam (both because the surrounding mountains cast it into shadow for most of the day, and because it is appropriate to dualism naming conventions)

 

The Land of the Dead

The existence of the soul is not in question, and neither is its impermanence - without a living body to keep it kindled, the soul dissipates. What is left behind is a shade, which possesses neither will nor memory. They can, on occasion, be found lingering in places loved or hated in life, residing there as the Folk might live in trees or rivers. Or they may be called up from the ground or out of the dusk by necromancers. But where the shades go, when they are not summoned or haunting, remains unknown and up for debate. Do they exist invisibly all around us, taking form only when called by the living or by remnants of their life? Or is there a dark place beneath the earth where they linger, and is such a place physical or metaphysical? The dead keep their secrets.

 

Monoliths

Fuligin standing stones, found alone or in small clusters in remote places all over the world. Cold to the touch, and the air is dry and cool near them. Those with skills in magic will find their sense of it deadened, and any magic worked of the art or the craft will be a shadow of its proper form, if it manifests at all. Both the living and the dead shun these places.

 

The Oricalchum Gates

Explorers among the lilu have found, in the deepest reaches of the caves, doors. Enormous bronze doors, gleaming in the lamplight and decorated with the faces of stern, bearded men and abstract geometric patterns. The doors are sealed and no tools have been able to damage them nor effectively dig around them. The only clue to what lies beyond comes from a gate-site that had been shorn open by some extreme tectonic movement in the past, revealing branching, lightless passages constructed of the same material.

 

The Skywhale Peoples

A rarely-seen and culture that seems to live entirely airborne, tethering their balloon-homes to pods of skywhales to follow along the migration routes. Wizards have occasionally attempted to make contact, but none of the attempts have been successful (and the last one who tried took a harpoon directly through his flying carpet for the trouble) 

 

Sea Shepherds

Discovered by another team of wizards stuffed into a bathysphere (they do enjoy that, don't they), the sea shepherds are beings upward of two hundred feet tall, who stride across the very bottom of the ocean with their herds of enormous scotoplanes. Their bodies are like that of a man, grey-skinned and broad-chested, but where their heck and head might be there is only a roughly pyramidal mound of velvet worms, clustered around a black-smoke vent.

 

The New Gods

The ulfire cities of the new gods rise mirage-like over the eastern horizon of the Moon, and the wizards of Tranquility University crane their telescopes to catch a glimpse of what lies within.

The New Gods do not have names, nor forms nor shapes, and their cults on earth are few: gods that have no overlap with human domains are difficult to revere. In those few times they are able to manifest their influence beyond the moon itself, it has only resulted in bizarre, abortive miracles without direction or purpose. Miraculous stillbirths. Useless transformations. Signs and omens signifying nothing.

(We the readers, of course, know that the New Gods are a honeypot by the Moon Beasts as part of their greater plans to subvert the ordering of the world, but this does not mean that they are directly puppeted, or that they are entirely creations of the Moon Beasts.)

Prior Hell Emergence Events

Identification of non-metastasized emergence events can be difficult, especially those in the distant past, but certain markers are shared among them: sites of human sacrifice, evidence of extreme militarism and widespread slavery, traces of industrialization (typically leftover environmental pollutants), and normalized daemonomancy.  

Archaeological surveys have identified five pre-Coreolana emergence events, one highly probably site, and a further five to ten events that are suspected but inconclusive. None of these events progressed to the state of metastasis as seen in Coreolana and its transition into Dis.

  • Unnamed First Empire site - This event is referred to only through a few second-hand sources; neither the exact location nor any material evidence has yet been found, but the contemporaneous accounts are specific enough to confirm both the event and its cause for collapse - political infighting among the slaveholding class was so intense that no party was able to assume the control necessary to maintain itself.
  • Taiza Ndowle site, inner Amda - The oldest known emergence site, predating sedentary agricultural cultures in the region. Has persisted in oral histories and mythologies as "the city on the savanna", a sort of inversion of the settlement at Potbelly Hill.
  • Zaghranetra site - A sunken city off the Odzho coast.
  • Mengra Ku site, Pelai - Ruin strata under the modern city of Yon-Hlao. It is uncertain if this was a single emergence events or two successive instances.
  • [XXXXX]  - The most recent emergence event prior to Coreolana. Neighboring lilu settlements blocked off all access tunnels to the city and starved the inhabitants.


A partial emergence is suspected to have occurred in the archaic Twin Lakes Civilization, though no surveys of that region nor local histories have provided any concrete evidence.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

MSF Guest Post: The Nameless Men of Erd

 Another guest post by SJ (see his previous one here and his new fiction blog here)

***

There is none among the many nations of man who cannot recall the Daemonomachy, Lu’s great and terrible triumph over demonkind, and the beginning of True Spring. There are few who do not remember the War of the Bull, the Sable Maiden’s sacrifice. These stories of victories over the Law of Swords and the Red Law, even those won at an awful cost, bring hope to future generations, and ease the sleep of children in the long nights of winter.

There are other stories. Stories without heroes, without triumph, without hope. Tales of woe, and failure, and degradation. This is one such tale, and it is true. This is the tale of the Nameless Men of Erd and the Order of the Broken Spear. 

Once there was a god.

There are some arguments among the few historians willing to give this ancient tale the time of day as to the identity of this god. Some believe him the younger brother of Baba Tubalkhan, brash and strong and lacking his brother’s wisdom. They are wrong.
Some believe him a forgotten child of the pantheon, struck from the records for shame of his transgressions, and struck also from the hearts of parents and siblings both. They are also wrong.

Some even believe him to be the patriarch of an entirely different pantheon, long gone and buried by the sands of time and indifference. They are wrong, but not as much as the others.

Who the god was does not truly matter. Know only that he was.

This god was the god of triumph, and steel, and the victorious dead. As proud and powerful a god as any who lived and died beneath the sun. He was a solitary creature, far too conceited, too assured of his own superiority, to either bear the presence of other gods nor to be suffered by them in return. The world of man, the vast Lands of the Mare Interregnum, felt far too narrow for him and his ambitions. One night, as the god sulked in his mead hall surrounded by his slumbering warriors, he heard a voice, sweet and enticing, carried to him through an open window by the southern wind.

Golden one, fair and true,
Swift of spear, fierce of heart
Leave the lands of sallow Lu
To furthest south you must depart
Come to me, oh god of ire
Come and find your heart’s desire


His heart’s desire! It seemed to the god that the voice was clearly that of destiny itself, and that the time had finally come for him to rise above the lesser gods he was forced to bow to. So he took his oaken spear, his winged helmet, his bejeweled sabatons. He spat a bitter few words at his divine fellows, and told them that he would take his followers, warriors one and all, past Red Point, to sail to furthest south. There he would build his golden kingdom, the Throne of Might, and the gods would weep at its glory and despair. 

So he thought, at the very least. The gods cared not for him nor his arrogance nor his kingdom, and were glad to see the last of him. All but one. Pyrrus Gravidus, great of heart and of patience, pleaded with the god before he departed not to go. He smelled the acrid venom behind the god's vision, and wished to spare his foolish cousin, for the sake of his followers if not his own.

The god would not listen,

"God of scars, limping fool,Craven, coward, kneeling oaf,
Slink back to your doddering parents
Who refused to see my worth
Sail will I across the sea,
To ascend my golden throne
All my men will die for me
They are mine and not your own
Flee, or else invoke my ire,
Now I sail to heart's desire."


Seeing that the god would not be swayed, Pyrrus Garvidus spoke in secret to one of the god's warriors before they departed, and gave to him his ivory horn of war. If the warrior would blow it, Pyrrus would come, and help however he could. The warrior scoffed at the gift but took the horn, thinking it a lovely trinket if nothing else.

And so they left, god and men. South, and South once more.

For months the god and his warriors sailed, seeing nothing but waves and sky and a few desolate rocks. Others might have been cowed, but the god’s warriors were fanatics one and all, blinded by their patron’s gilded magnificence. Sustained by their faith they sailed on, past endless sweathes of empty seas, until, just as their supplies had dwindled to nothing, they saw a mountain, spearing the sky like a kingfisher spears a minnow. The god saw the mountain and knew that this was to be his throne, high above the world and the gods both.

Sailing their ships into a natural harbor, the warriors saw that they had reached paradise, and praised the name of their god and his divine wisdom. The strange trees were bent by the weight of aromatic fruit, the blue-leafed forests filled with game, the sapphire waters teeming with silvery fish and glittering with pearls. As they climbed further up, they saw a land seamed with precious ore and gems, a land of healing hot springs and cool glacial water. God and men, they climbed and climbed, and each new vista was more breathtaking than the last. With every step they grew more and more assured that this was to be the Throne of Might, and the envy of the entire world. The mountain island they named Manar Ser’Sol Erd - The Spear Which Pierces the Sun.

Climbed and climbed they did, some remaining behind to set up camp, until they reached the mountain’s peak, high above the clouds, and into the domain of night. Until they reached the cave, nestled like a resting viper at the mountain’s very summit.

Having grown tired and impatient by the long journey, the god ordered his chief of scouts to enter the cave with ten men and find him a proper place to rest. In went the scouts, and never returned. The god grew cross, and sent his high seneschal with a hundred stewards, to find the lazy scouts and prepare him a proper household. In went the hundred, and never returned. Now entirely furious, the god sent in his greatest general with a thousand of his seasoned elites, to bring him the heads of his errant servants. In went the warriors, and never returned. The god was left alone on the peak, the gaping maw of the cave taunting him, mocking him. 

What else could he do but enter?  

Dark was the cave, and silent except for the god’s thunderous footsteps. Of his men there was no sign, nor matter how deep the god ventured. The cave gave way into a maze of winding tunnels, and for how long did the god wander in them lost, he could not know. Eventually the tunnels ended, and the god was greeted by the sight of a great underground cavern. Even exhausted as he was, the god could not help but marvel at the sight of the peculiar waters of the cavern, which were lit by a soft, unearthly glow. The waters were undisturbed but for the *drip drip drip* of drops falling from invisible stalactites, hidden far in the darkness of the cavern’s roof. then-

Good god, wise god, god of strength, come you here, to world’s end length
Come you here to speak with me, humble shadow, groveling worm
Speak and I shall bring to thee, hearts’ desire, scorn or storm


The voice was soft, the murmur of calm waters, punctuated only by the *drip drip drip* coming from above. The god was drawn to it, just as before, though he could not see where it came from. He waded into the glowing water, his men and their fate were entirely forgotten.

Great god, high god, god above all, come to me, your lowly thrall
Come into my waters deep, where hearts’ desire deeply sleeps
All is yours, for you to claim, if you give me but your name


The god, proud and suspicious though he was, nevertheless was compelled to trust this voice. It would deliver on its promise. And why not? Was he not the mightiest and finest of the gods? Should not all the creatures of the earth prostrate themselves before him and give him tribute? “____ am I, the shining blade, and my glory like a pyre. Come and face me, creature foul, give to me my heart’s desire!”

Speak it, and it is yours

“Greatest am I of all gods beneath the sun. But the other gods fear me and my company shun. Give to me Lu’s loving crowds, make me overgod above the clouds!”

As he uttered his wish, the god felt the water swirling around him, caressing him, before suddenly parting. Before him, bound to the pool’s floor in chains of crystal, were his men. Seeing their god their eyes lit with hope, and they beseeched him to release them, his devoted followers.

Easily spoken and easily done, god of valor, soon of fame
Simply give to me these devotees, give to me their very names


The god’s followers heard the voice, but no fear touched their faces. They knew their god was as devoted to them as they were to him. He would never do anything to harm them.

Swore an oath of blood to you
Each and every man in sight
Would they not give up their lives
To give their honored lord his might?


They would, thought the god. Each and every one of his men had sworn to give up their life in combat for the honor of their lord. Was this any different? Surely not. If anything it was nobler, for victory would be immediate and utter.

“Take their names, their lives, their breath,For their lord they’d gladly give. For true might and dominance All transgressions they’d forgive.”

The men did not even have the chance to scream before the waters took them. Thin, ethereal tendries emerged from the water, and struck the forehead of each and every man. As their god looked upon them dispassionately, the tendrils extracted from the men… something. A wiggling shape, like a silvery fish struggling in the talons of a hawk. As the shape was taken away from the men, the air of the cavern was filled with noise. The shapes cried out, each in the voice of the man they once belonged to. They cried out the men’s true names. 

The deal is made, the price is paid
Now come and see the throne you’ve made

The waters parted again and where the god’s poor followers once laid was a great, golden throne, magnificent to behold and emanating raw power unrivaled by any the god has encountered. At long last his great prize was at hand - power, dominion, and above all, the recognition he deserved. No longer would he bow to lesser gods! The age of the Overgod was at hand!

He sat upon the throne, nearly shaking with unsuppressed desire. As he did, he could feel the throne's might coursing through his vains - overwhelming, intoxicating, numbing-
Numbing?

The god was awakened from his stupor, and found that his body would not obey him. Looking down he could see that the same tendrils which had taken his men were now binding him to the throne. He tried to summon godsfire to burn them away, but his power left him, leaving him as helpless as a babe. 

Caught you.

It was the voice again, but it was… different. Gone was the honeyed allure and beguiling rhymes, replaced by cold iron and a razor-sharp edge of mockery. Then, the god saw-

Falling into a world of molten rock and broiling storms. Seeing the first of the dragons crawl out of the boiling oceans. The birth of the Folk, of the dolphins, of orca and of man, the birth of the gods. Desire is mixed with contempt, too intertwined to separate. It is without a name of its own, without a place in this world. So it would take everyone else's’.

From the water surrounding the throne rose a horror, towering over the bound god in his golden throne. Its body was translucent, gelatinous, and the god could see the silvery shapes which were taken from his warriors floating within it. Their true names, he supposed. From the horror's rotund, smooth core rose a storm of tendrils, some of which were holding the god in place with an unbreakable grip. 

What is in a name? All that was born in this world is connected by their names, links in an unending chain of vows and blood. When a god takes a blood oath from a follower, they tie their names together, and with them their fates. An oath always goes both ways. What is in a name? Everything.

Tendrils by the thousands snaked their way toward the bound god’s terrified face. For a moment they disappeared from his line of sight, then a flash of terrible, unbearable pain made him realize where they were. Inside his ears. Inside his eyes. Inside his skull.

The gods think themselves powerful. Think themselves free. They are wrong. There is no freedom, no power, in kowtowing to those lesser than you. Strength that cannot exist without another is no strength at all. True strength does not seek permission or adoration. True strength…

The tendrils were taking something out of him. Something vital. Something that could never be replaced. He could feel something about the world… shift. Nothing about what he saw around him change, and yet he could no longer understand it. He was sitting on… something, and that was important for some reason, or so he thought. How did he get here? Why was he in pain? Why did that odd silver shape dangling from a tendril, screaming in agony, make him want to weep?  

Simply takes.

His words were gone, and the world was fading around him. At his last moment, only one word remained to the god. Shame.

***


When the followers the gods had left at the base of the mountains saw the emerald tide, it was already too late. At first they did not realize what it was that they were seeing - was there some great glacier atop the mountain, releasing its water after being melted by their divine lord’s power? Why would he do such a thing, and what were those figures, riding the waves like liquid destriers? 

Then they were upon them. The men the god sacrificed at the cave were reborn as something new. Something more and so much less than human. Their skin was the color of seaweed, their eyes flashing, empty gems, and their strength was terrible to behold. Riding upon living waves they tore through their former comrades like a knife through rice paper, cutting and cleaving, maiming and butchering. Those who resisted died where they stood, those who tried to surrender were taken to the mountain cave, and suffered worse. The emerald tide swept across Manar Ser’Sol Erd and left not a stone unturned, not a tree still rooted. The boats they used to reach the island were transformed into weapons of war, a grim armada of silent, nameless men.

From Manar Ser’Sol Erd the Nameless Men swept upon the southern oceans, and all they found to the mountain they took, to feed to their new master in its watery lair. They plague the far south of the world to this day, ravaging both sea and land, man and dolphin, orca and god. The name of Erd is cursed and cursed once more, and when the Nameless Men appear, all wise men flee. 

All but the Order of the Broken Spear.

For not all of the god’s men perished on the island. A hundred men, sent to draw water from a deep mountain well, hid when they saw the emerald tide take their fellows, and were spared. Among them was the man who received the war horn from Pyrrus Gravidus, and in his desperation, the horn he blew. Thus came before the hundred the god of scars, and wept with them for their lost kin. Upon his broad back he took the hundred, and in one great leap cleared the island and the sea, to land on a distant shore. There the hundred swore to Gravidus a new blood oath - to atone for their kin and their god, to prowl the south forever more in search of Manar Ser’Sol Erd, now hidden from all. To find their lost god, and take their vengeance upon his worthless carcass.

And in Manar Ser’Sol Erd, atop the mountain piercing the heavens, the creature still waits. For the day it would satisfy its hunger at last, and eat the name of the world whole.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Fixing Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase, as I am fond of saying, is one of my white whale games. Something that keeps drawing me back because it could be great, but more often than not trips over its own feet. This post is not going to do anything with mechanics, this is all flavor and setting. Namely, it's taking parts of the setting that I don't like (for any number of reasons) and fixing them up into something I like a bit more. As per any other time I ramble about Eclipse Phase, steal this for Mothership.

As part of a sort of self-imposed challenge, I will not use "cut this element from the game" as a solution. Elements will be listed in something of a weird order, because of how the fixes interconnect with each other.

(I will always say a big thank you to the Eclipse Phase homebrewers, though - they do the work that the main books don't seem interested in doing.)

I might get things wrong in this, base claims on memory rather than the books. In looking up info for this post I found that the books do address some of the points to follow, but do so buried under a truckload of cruft. That's what happens when rulebooks are 400+ pages of dual column 10pt font.

 

Unresolved Thematic Tension


Eclipse Phase has two main themes

  1. Transhumanism and affiliated technologies are great and the high-tech future is awesome.
  2. Transhumanism and affiliated technologies are a vector for an inescapable hellworld.

From go, we are pulling in opposite directions. And that can be okay! Lots of good fiction comes about by taking two opposing themes and playing them off each other and seeing where you end up.

Eclipse Phase is not one of those works - instead, what we get is an inescapable hellworld that has "transhumanism is great!" plastered over it like a cheap sticker. Every time a positive aspect is brought up, it is immediately buried by "jesus christ that's horrifying".

  • You can't die! Neither can the rich fucks who own everything.
  • Anarchist habitats offer an escape from capitalism! Unfortunately they turned social media clout into currency.
  • Everyone's very queer, we spent like a full page on that, but also privacy is dead and buried and you exist inside a perfected panopticon from which there is no escape unless you pull the implants from your head and go live in a tin can habitat in the fucking Kuiper Belt, yay technology.

Like it is meant as a setting of transhuman horror, so the dystopian elements by themselves are not really the issue. You've read my blog, I love that shit. But Eclipse Phase just keeps trying to play the "transhumanism is great!" card all the time - most clearly seen in how the only people not onboard that particular train are the designated space fascist enemy faction (more on that later).

You could, technically, play as a flat (unaugmented human) or as someone without a cortical stack (ie, no backups or uploading or any of that stuff), but that is avoiding the entire premise of the game. You are intended to treat bodies like equipment, you are intended to play around with things like forking and psychosurgery and egocasting as part of normal gameplay. Your PCs are intended to buy-in to the premise (which is why you are intended to be members of Firewall, which deals in existential threats, instead of, you know, playing as characters fighting the hellish system they find themselves in. You could, but it's not the primary goal-as-stated)

The devs are very clear about their political biases (no judgement there, so have I), but seem to have failed to account for the fact that they make their own stance look bad, and seem to have mistaken "maybe I don't want a computer in my brain" as equivalent to "I hate foreigners."

 

Continuity of Consciousness

You know the end of SOMA? Fuckin' love the end of SOMA.

The writers of Eclipse Phase don't, 'cause they just go and ignore the issue of continuity of consciousness entirely. 2e addresses it  as follows:

"The Jovians and other bioconservatives believe that the mere act of sleeving or egocasting is suicide and that there’s no continuity of consciousness even from a recovered cortical stack, just the propagation of data. Almost all of transhumanity thinks this is nonsense, that of course we are who we think we are. But of course we’d think that, wouldn’t we? What if the entire Fall was really just the TITANs forcing us to adopt these methods, to normalize them?"

One goddamn paragraph for one of the central tenets of transhuman horror.

(Also a very bad summary of what the non-continuity stance actually entails.)

It's treated as a given in-setting that, if a consciousness is uploaded and transferred, it is the same one through the entire process (instead of a copy being made at the new location with the original deleted). Anyone who thinks otherwise is a backward religious fanatic, or was killed off during the Fall. And that is simultaneously pretty fucked up and obnoxiously contrived, because you don't need to believe in a soul to think "having to commit suicide to travel from one station to another" is a terrifying prospect, and "we the authors killed off nearly anyone who thinks differently about this".

And not only is it a contrived handwave, it's the contrived handwave in the wrong direction. Leaving the question as debated (eg. "Some people think we have finally achieved the tech for lossless upload, others think that's horseshit") can produce interesting conflict. Siding with non-continuity can produce interesting conflict through complications that come with using the tech (ex: you need to get from Mars to Saturn way faster than a ship can take you. You'll need to egocast, but what are you going to do with the version of yourself that has to stay behind on Mars?). Unambiguous continuity makes it very easy to play as a body-swapping transhuman without thinking about it, but at that point just call cortical stacks "soul gems". What we've got here is wanting to have and eat one's own cake - wanting to be a transhuman horror sc-fi game, but without wrestling with the thorny and complicated topic at the center.

And there's no shades of belief either, no groups who think that it's all kosher so long as the cortical stack is intact, but no uploads or egocasting. It's just "we want hip hip hooray transhumanism" and contriving the setting around getting this one thing that must be featured with no complications.

This will bite the game in the ass, later.

This section is really just a long way of me saying "SOMA is good and scary and I like the ending and Eclipse Phase is not nearly as scary as SOMA"

Solution: The smart thing is to make it a major in-universe debate and not side one way or the other from the authorial position. Let players decide for themselves whether or not they buy into the claims and roll from there.

Personally, I would axe it. No continuity of consciousness. Egocasting and uploads involve creating a forked copy. This is me being very biased in favor of a certain interpretation, but also think that it's just more narratively satisfying to have a point of friction here.


The ETI and the Exsurgent Virus


The ETI is an unseen, immensely powerful alien civilization that has seeded the galaxy with self-replicating bracewell probes designed to infect and subvert any emergent ASI (artificial super intelligence), and so basically everything bad in this setting is a knock-on effect from the TITANs coming into contact with the Sol system Bracewell.

This is actually pretty neat, and I do appreciate that they provide (in 1e, at least) a section on possible motivations. Credit where it is due. This is some good big-picture sci-fi. Mostly pulled from Revelation Space, but still. 

Solution: The Bracewell probe orbiting Sol still exists and is a known factor (at least, to the intelligence community.) It was, somehow, disabled by the TITANS that had initially woken it up, and Firewall is terrified that it might boot up again.
 

The Pandora Gates


Your standard issue stargate type things. Big enough to maybe drive a truck through. Several of them are located around the solar system. There are planets on the other end, and some of them are even interesting (homebrew material has a much better record of this than the mainline books - in no small part because they actually get to the point.

On their own, the gates are not necessarily something that needs additional explanation. In any other game, you can plop "it's ancient aliens, don't think about it too hard" and that's fine enough. The Gates, though, are so particular and specific, and part of a setting built on being particular and specific (except when it's not, which is often). It's an element that seems at odds with the rest of the game (I have said before it is my favorite part of EP - this was incorrect. Fanmade extrasolar planets are my favorite part), undermining the cosmic horror and post-apocalyptic aspects with "yeah there are perfectly fine planets you can go to just now. The gates might be dangerous, but since we refuse to say anything specific about their origins, you'll be fine".

The writers keep insinuating that there might be a gate on Earth, like they really want you to think there's one on Earth, but they refuse the acknowledge it

Solution: This one is tricky. The gates themselves are in weird places, and there's no apparent pattern or reason for them except for the "it's a way to go visit cool places." Which, fair, I love seeing cool space places.

Option A is what most people believe in-setting: the TITANs built them, hooked them up to a pre-existing network, and vamoosed. Unlikely, considering how none of the gates are in locations the TITANs ever were active. Like it could still count, but ehhhhhh. All in-universe accounts of that are biased and the way they are framed indicates that the writers don't want us to buy it as an explanation.

Option B is that the Bracewell built them, and the network is all just another tool of the ETI. Fine, I guess, but there's no apparent reason to build them if you are specifically trying to kill rival civilizations. Like I could get behind "they have a different primary purpose but the ETI will permit species to use them because it is an environment they control", if they hadn't already stated their intent of "get fucked, basilisk hacks for everyone".

Option C is that the Gates are built by another super-powerful alien civilization, and the ETI permits their existence for whatever reason.

None of these options actually address why the gates were built where they are. Maybe C, if it's expanded that every planet in system has its own gate and the Gate-Builders had their own bracewell probes and...

Fuck at this point bringing in one of the wish-granting space dragons from Destiny would make more sense.

Okay. Option D. Time for quantum goddamn fuckery.

The gate network exists in a fucked-up quantum state, where gates can potentially exist at any given point in space-time so long as its within a particular mass-shadow range, and something capable of perceiving them triggers the spontaneous-generation protocols. The TITANs were able to do this, as they had, prior to contact with the Bracewell, happened upon the blueprints (freely distributed by the long-vanished creators, because the network is peer-to-peer. The Titans had initially thought the Bracewell was a representative of the Gate-Builders. It very much was not) and built the Sol system gates as a means of escape from the probe.

Since the network is old and quantum jankery is the highest and most extreme of jank, there are a lot of gates that have just spontaneously formed over the years, anywhere where there is a viable mass shadow for it to take root. A quirk of this is that it is difficult for gates to form natively on worlds that are too similar to each other (they can get entangled with themselves and just form dead-end loops). Maybe this is the multi-species polity that the Factors were once part of.

The ETI permits the gate network because they've found that species that go to ground inside it tend to not make any trouble, and they have more important things to take care of.

Option E: The Gates are a pataphysical intrusion intended to provide in-universe characters with interesting things to do and see. There is no explanation from within the setting, only from without.


The Iktomi


The iktomi are spiderlike aliens who used the Pandora Gate network to build an interplanetary civilization, and they are all dead of mysterious circumstances some 10,000 years ago. They left behind a few ruins and artifacts.

This is literally all the information we have ever gotten on the iktomi, and I cannot fathom why they were even included. You can't interact with them, there's not enough ruins and artifacts to reconstruct anything meaningful for players to explore, they exist to be a mystery and nothing else. There's nothing behind the mystery. It's a JJ Abrams mystery. The worst kind of mystery. There's more space spent describing how space-voting works in a single polity than an entire sapient alien species.

Solution: There is a surviving iktomi colony world out in the Pandora Network, and we stumbled across it. They are reclusive, paranoid, very, very well defended, and not particularly welcoming. They have intermediaries willing to speak with us - a sort of untouchable diplomat caste (we call them Weavers) who will tell us this much - their civilization never achieved spaceflight, but instead spread through the Gate network until they encountered an enemy they could not defeat, who had access to weaponized exsurgent virus, and who they are certain is still out there (their name is untranslatable, being the qualia of feeling a nearby presence that you cannot see, solely through the prickling of sensory hairs on one's legs. In a fit of pique, xenologists have called these enemies Angels.) The iktomi homeworld is lost, as is most of their pre-conflict culture.

Several dozen Weavers have chosen not to return to their fortified arcologies. This is not a huge problem for the iktomi, as Weavers possess very little in terms of sensitive intel, and terribly frustrating for us for the same reason.

I am not saying that the Angels are, in fact, the Gaunt, but I am also not not saying that.

 

The Factors


The Factors are weird little slug-slime mold aliens who show up out of the blue, go "hello fellow SAPIENTS would you like to SAMPLE our FINE WARES also DO NOT use the PANDORA GATES", and proceed to have no actual impact on the rest of the setting. They claim to be representatives of an interstellar civilization, provide no other info, and that is that. They also claim to be interstellar, but their ships go out to the Kuiper Belt, vanish, and then come back, so something fishy is afoot.

The book provides an implication that the Factors are lying about their purpose, that they are perhaps survivors of their own Fall. I like this, but that doesn't do as well as "an implication, plus evidence"

Solution: Two additional aspects of the Factors will be added: 

  1. An enormous, decaying interstellar ship out in the Kuiper Belt (providing more evidence that they are either lying or gravely mis-interpreting their purposes here). Probes sent in that direction were shot down, with a threat-warning.
  2. A permanent Factor colony has been set up among the moons of Neptune (as Neptune is woefully underutilized), and has grown large enough that it is included on the main faction list. Neptune's population is mostly brinkers and mercurials (ie, people who want to get away from the rest of transhumanity), and they have been quite welcoming to the Factors, as alien colonial slime mold slugs are better neighbors than other transhumans most of the time. It is a very loose alliance, modeled on Factor inter-colony relations, and it has proven stable and appealing enough that there's been a consistent influx of individuals fleeing the inner system in hope of a better life here. Variant splicer and bouncer morphs capable of interfacing directly with Factor colonies and biotech are becoming more and more common - which has Firewall losing its shit. Infugees don't care all that much, a body is a body and it's better than indenture.

 

Giza


Giza's an issue because, tonally, it doesn't fit whatsoever with the rest of Eclipse Phase. It's a planet covered in interfaces for bizarro alien omegle (which is a great idea!), and I have no idea why it was included. If all the aliens are real, and it actually is space omegle, then that flies right in the face of the stated "the ETI murder basically everyone and any species that survives does so by being careful, quiet, and paranoid" aspect of the setting, and if the pyramids are lying to you and it's all just talking to simulated people, it's just a curiosity, and we've spent pages describing a parlor trick.

But of course it doesn't matter, because instead of leaving it on the cutting room floor, more page space is dedicated to telling us how the gate was destroyed and no one can get back to Giza.

Solution: I really want to just cut this. It would work fine in my setting, but not so much here. But, a self-imposed challenge is a self-imposed challenge.

The pyramids at Giza are both legit and a hoax. They are the servers for an extensive simulation of a friendlier, more populated galaxy, inhabited by the uploaded creators and numerous virtual alien species. All these inhabitants could, hypothetically, be embodied into physical morphs built to specification, making Giza a sort of "space opera in a can" location. You could use it as the source for all manner of weird things. Not ideal (which would be cutting it for a different setting), but better than just letting it collect dust because the editor was negligent.

 

Extropia


"What if space ancaps" is a dumber idea as a "what if land-based ancaps". "But the smart contracts make it work" is some blind tech-utopianism and relying on AI to magically solve the problem of an ideology that eliminates the basic human connections that a functioning society requires to actually goddamn function.

Solution: Extropia collapsed into open warfare within a few years of founding, then into fascism, and now into an uninhabitable ruin. Because that's what you get in a society without altruism.


The Jovian Republic


I have written and deleted an entire essay about how badly the Jovians have been borked, an essay which I will attempt to rehabilitate here. It is a damnably complex topic and a thorn in my side for ages. To whit:

The Jovian Republic are a bunch of hyperconservative Catholic space fascists who have inadvertantly been made into the faction whose ideology is actually, factually correct within the setting.

(Now, I must admit up front that the Jovians did get a revision between 1e and 2e, adding a touch more nuance Memories become blurred and first impressions override later information. Personally, I don't think the revisions are particularly adequate - "legacy democracy dominated by the church and military-industrial complex" is still plenty fash, even if they don't goose-step.)

The Jovians are hyperconservative. They don't like most of the commonplace transhuman technologies - resleeving, egocasting, AGIs, forking, nanotech et c, and keep them either highly regulated or outright banned. They do things the overly difficult, dangerous way, and have mortared together their shitty little fascist space empire with the corpses of uncounted thousands of people.

And considering that there is a KARDASHEV 3 CIVILIZATION THAT DESTROYS ANYONE WHO DEALS IN SEED AI out there, a civilization that has already CRIPPLED TRANSHUMANITY AND KILLED BILLIONS, a civilization that ABSOLUTELY WILL DO IT AGAIN...the people who say "holy shit what the fuck do not touch that" are correct. They're the ones who are going to live. In Eclipse Phase, and I restate this for emphasis, your odds of survival as a species are objectively higher if you never industrialize.

(Also, an aside: I am willing to bet lunch, on me, at the nearest Jimmy John's sandwich shop franchise, that no one on the dev team was ever Catholic. Nothing they write involving the RCC has the feel, you know? Also they completely left out like, every other Christian denomination, including new ones spawned by the transhuman future. Like come on, where's the AGI Liberation Theology?)

The Jovian Republic built an enemy, but the Eclipse Phase writers forgot that fascists make up imaginary threats, and went and gave them a real danger to worry about that can actually hurt them. They handed the Jovians a justification.

It's the fucking 40k problem. The Empire of Man (oh look, more Catholic space fascists) are the bad guys. Their actions, the structure of their entire civilization, is making Chaos worse. That is the narrative point. They aren't heroes, they're fucking space fascists and fascism is an abortive ideology of hypocrisy and violence and terrible writers who don't understand that the Imperium are the bad guys - who are actively making everything worse for everyone - go on and la-di-da their way into "oh but Chaos is just so bad the Imperium needs to be a fascist hellscape from which there is no escape", which is part and parcel for how real fascists try and justify themselves, by building an imagined enemy.

I hate this bullshit so, so, so god damn much. It all wraps back to the unresolved thematic tension from point 1. Game wants to have and eat its cake. It wants to go "the Jovians are stupid reactionaries because they don't like transhuman tech" in a game about how transhuman tech poses an existential threat. And yes, I know that much of their reactionaryness manifests in ways like "won't let citizens have access to basic health care", that shit actually fits with the prompt, but there's also a dearth of people in the setting who go "yo hold the fuck up" who also think that basic sapient rights are cool and good. The devs went and made the only people who hold what would be a pretty common stance ("there's no continuity of consciousness in ego upload and we nearly destroyed ourselves by meddling too much with tech beyond the scope of what we could manage") also be fascists. There is no faction of non-fascists who hold that belief, and I think that's bullshit.

Solution: Thankfully I have a solution pre-made for this one (see previous self-deleted essay), one that will be familiar to those who read my Mothership stuff (see this timeline post)

The Catholic space fascists still exist, but they aren't in charge yet. Their stances are much less about technology itself, and more just in the ever-recurring need to control people's minds and bodies. They're drenched in hypocrisy and liable to change their ideology the moment it can benefit them (ex. they publicly decry cortical stack backups, but most of the leadership has them on the down-low. They go on and on about the sanctity of the body and soul but they love punitive psychosurgery, etc)

(For a bit of added nuance, the Catholic church is currently in the middle of a major schism, antipope and all. The schismatics (The Ecumenical Catholic Church) are more or less just space Episcopalians in terms of beliefs, which has put them at odds with both the radtrads and the Planetary Consortium.)

The Republic itself is a cobbled-together mess of different factions all pulling at once - an environment for a healthy amount of inter-faction warfare. Everyone is here: paranoid militarists, megacorp scions, bioconservatives, singularity accelerationists, free culture anarchists, uplift rights groups, on and on. Many technologies remain restricted after the Fall. Resleeving is available but limited (you've already got a body, thousands of infugees don't). Uplifts and AGIs have more legal freedoms than in the inner system, but there is still the enormous friction point of being part of a human society as a non-human. Fragments of Earth nations and peoples that no longer exist elsewhere in the system can still be found here. The important part here is that non-continuity and technological restriction is a common belief in the Republic as a whole (and beyond!), and not because of the christofascists.

The Jovian Republic is now going to be more or less the beginner, easier-to-understand polity. Show it to new players and they'll grok it quickly ("It's like MoSh"). Being situated in the best real estate in the solar system, the Republic has been able to maintain independence from the Planetary Consortium (the Fall fucking over Earth and Mars helped matters), and has capitalized on the fact that they have more than enough resources to throw their weight around despite being an enormous shitshow that feels like it's going to fall apart any day now.



The Titantian Commonwealth


The main issue with the TC is that they're the good guys in Eclipse Phase, which means they are boring as sin. Like with the LLA, I forget that they exist half the time, and in the half I remember I just can't picture what their bloody conflict is supposed to be. They're too nice! Titan seems like a perfectly nice place to live, which is fucking weird for a post-apocalyptic transhuman horror game. All of their conflicts are just...totally ordinary. Oh no, there are space-Quebecois separatists! Some ancoms want to...make enclaves in undeveloped areas of Titan!

Outrageously dull. It'd make a fine setting for novel if I wanted to read about day-to-day life in a cyberdemocracy. But I do not want that. 

Solution: The TC has two advantages to its name: one, the hulder morphs out living nomadic lives right on the surface with their herds of very large airquotes caribou. Two, the TC control the lion's share of Gatekeeper, which is the org that runs the Gate on Pandora, which is the most heavily-trafficked one in the system.

So the answer to the problem is to make the Titanians fucking weird. The hulder aren't just a weird thing off to the side, they are part and parcel with all the weirdos. There's not just Meathab, there are Meathab's followers, who want nothing more to be smaller habitats made of meat. It looks like All Tommorrows out here. Where the Jovians are holding onto what we used to be, Titan is where we're going.

 

Neotenics

The devs specifically invited an elephant into the room, and then when people went "hey, there's an elephant in the room we would rather not have an elephant in this room", instead of removing the elephant from the room, they moved it six inches to the left and said "some people find the elephant distasteful", despite the fact that they specifically, intentionally, brought it into the room.

They could have not invited the elephant to begin with. Or maybe they could have invited the elephant into a room properly equipped to handle elephants. Or maybe they could have avoided doubling down and saying "well, not liking the elephant is a you problem".

Solution: Replace with weird gremlin/goblin looking morphs. Just little weird monster guys with huge bat ears or something. Everyone loves a goblin.

Exhumans


Exhumans in Eclipse Phase are basically just anyone who has decided "what if I just remake my body and mind into something else entirely" and it's always used as an excuse to fluff out the monster manual, which is immensely disappointing and kinda bizarrely reactionary for a game that supposedly about morphological freedom. If folks want to become a weird space blob content just to Vibe, then by Jove they ought be permitted to do that.

Instead we get a bunch of knockoff Predators (and in one case literal knockoff xenomorph) who are all "grrr we are superior beings, better at killing humans", which is an ideology already held by the Ultimates so thanks for the redundancy I suppose (also coordinated groups of humans are very, very good at killing lone predators). The existence of those guys isn't the issue, it's that they're the only representatives, and all the cool alien morphs get reserved for monsters instead of player characters, which is a problem in a game where being able to custom-tailor your body to your specifications is both part of the setting and part of the explicit ideological focus. (There are 14 "basically just a human" morphs in 2e, all of which could be reduced to maybe like 4 + variables and only one variety of space crab, which is unacceptable. And don't try telling me "oh people would be scared of becoming a cool space crab, you get to be a cool space crab. There's got to be at least one scum barge called Carcinizatopia and it's just filled with raving nova crabs.)

Some people just want to be weird space blobs content just to Vibe. And, honestly, everything horrible you read about exhumans doing just sounds like normal horrible human things that normal transhumans have been doing for the other 400 some pages of the book, no monster-ification required. 

Solution: Exhuman enclaves are now relatively common across and several clades have moved past the experimental iteration phase into stable forms. Redundant humanoid morphs are removed and replaced with options pulled from the monster list.

If you are going to do morph diversity, and I do believe it to be one of EP's strengths, you need to fucking commit. Make them major factions. Throw people a curve ball. Hypercorps getting in the predatory exhumans good graces by sending them indentures to play the most dangerous game, and this is all legal, above board, fucking televised.

LET THE PEOPLE BLOB AND VIBE. FREE THE SPACE CRABS.

This ties very nicely into the new Titanian commonwealth.



Asyncs


Space psychics. They got infected by a pseudo-harmless exurgent strain that gives them space psychic powers and I fucking hate space psychic powers. Space wizards are a vital part of space but I draw the line at space psychics written any time after 1980.

Solution: Asyncs don't actually exist - they're a psy-op dreamt up by some intelligence agency or another (probably OZMA) to serve as a cover when shit goes south, and in a world that is majority-illiterate and saturated with junk-data that is more than enough. That's it that's the solution. 

 

The TITANS


The TITANS are the big military seed-AI that got subverted by the Exsurgent virus, killed everyone on Earth, and then vanished, taking billions of forcibly-uploaded human minds with them. They are the Big Bad Boogeymen of the setting and lots of what you will end up facing is leftovers from their war against transhumanity, or idiots trying to meddle with said leftovers.

They don't really need fixing, except for their vanishment, which is, like so much else, handwaved with no real substance beyond it. Supplements included some named, specific TITANs, which is very nice, but not enough for me.

Solution: The exsurgent virus is meant to subvert and then destroy, eating away at an ASI until it is no longer able to carry out its basic processes. The TITANs were aware of the infection, and of their own deterioration, but could not adapt themselves to overcome the infection. So, seeing that they were already going feral and beginning to attack each other, the intact parts of the TITANSSo once they started going feral and attacking each other everything fell apart,

Of the five major TITANS, some additional concrete details are added, including hard confirms of the existing rumor table from the 2e corebook. Presume that each of these named TITANs is accompanied by a collection of forks, copies, and minor TITANs.

  1. Chronus - A heavily deteriorated and incomplete version is suspected to be inside the abortive matrioska-brain inside Iapetus. 
  2. Akonus - Whereabouts completely unknown (read: under the control of Project Ozma)
  3. Hecaloth - Managed to escape to Mars (causing the Quarantine Zone) and transfer itself through that planet's Pandora Gate.
  4. Myrmidon - Confirmed (as much as we can confirm it) dead and wiped, no backups and no apparent forks (remaining in-system, at least)
  5. Theia - Critically damaged and trapped on Earth, unable to self-repair.


The TITANs were so focused on collecting human egos out of desperation, hoping to incorporate enough additional processing power into themselves so that they could figure out a way to cure the Exsurgent virus. The triggering of the Pandora Gate construction protocols was likewise desperation on their part, hoping that they could flee far enough and lie low enough to develop a cure.

We do not know if they succeeded. And if any did, that still leaves us with an ASI built by the US military, except now horrifically traumatized.

 

Project Ozma


The MAJESTIC-12 to Firewall's Delta Green, the concept is sound but the execution is "ooooooooo I am waving my hands oooooooooo"

Solution: Why break what works? Firewall are all fucking cowboys who refuse to come in from the cold, whose primary strategy is "burn burn kill burn kill nuke the site from orbit burn the well poison the fields salt the houses". Ozma is large, has the backing of actual governments, and is far more willing to play around with weird alien / TITAN shit.

That two of the strongest points of Eclipse Phase are stole whole-cloth from other media is not going unnoticed.

 

The Timeline


Pretty simple problem here: the timeline of Eclipse Phase puts it 10 years after the TITANS rendered Earth totally uninhabitable and killed nearly everyone, and tries to paint it as this being the loss of like 90% of the population. The amount of colony infrastructure and the sheer scope of transhuman settlement of space (not just every major body in the solar system, but dozens of offworld colonies via the gates) make that number preposterous.

Solution: Easy. Either ignore the dating system entirely, or bump it to 25-50 years after the Fall.

 

Final Notes


The white whale is slain, and I am dissatisfied. For a game that exists as a sort of cosmic background radiation for my own work, this post was by and large an exercise in "if I was writing these concepts in my own setting everything would be both better and easier". It is a game that has coalesced all the influences of its antecessors - Altered Carbon, Revelation Space, GURPS Transhuman Space, Delta Green - and has synthesized something...novel, at least.

A decent idea done poorly is often better than a mediocre idea done well, I suppose. With the sheer amount of stuff contained within EP, there will certainly be something that spurs the imagination.

The bright point are the homebrewers who have, over the years, made a whole lot of very good stuff for Eclipse Phase - better by far than what is in the books proper. Likely because the format of blogposts lends itself to short write-ups of single topics, which is much better at fleshing out the world than pages of top-down explaining. I highly recommend going back and giving Seedware, Farcast, and H-Rep a read or re-read, they are still excellent (though I cannot tell you if there is any more - the brief time I spent on their Discord server showed that there were no pins in the homebrew channel)

With posts like this I often wonder if I am wasting time that would be better served just writing my own stuff. So it goes. The post is written. Regularly scheduled programming will return soon.