This is a continuation of my earlier post about the Gamma Planet game setting I’m slowly thinking over and building, in the hope of running a game sometime in the future. If you’re not interested in tabletop RPG setting design, this is one you might prefer to skip.
One thing I’ve always loved and admired about Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is how the novel works almost as a series of frameshifts: it starts with a man on a hill looking up into the sky, wondering how humanity’s ever going to figure out how to get along when it’s so hard to pull off just in his own marriage.
Next you frameshift to a bigger scale, and you see a outer space, and a whole clan of intergalactic wandering souls: a community. Then you see a world live out its life, and pass into darkness. Then worlds. Then a galaxy. then a universe. Then a series of universes, arcing toward ever more life and ever civilizations going through the same thing. Then the Star Maker itself.
I’ve always thought Greg Egan was paying tribute to that structure in his astonishing novel Diaspora, which starts with a planet and then zooms out to the universe, a multiverse, then the collectivity of multiverses—and, more excitingly, without the godlike “Star Maker” figure of Stapledon’s book.
I don’t know how doable a frameshift structure like that would necessarily be in an RPG—especially if I’m running this over the space of a year, meaning twenty-some sessions at most. (And it’s hard to expect more than that, living as I do in a place where there’s such a high rate of turnover in the population of potential players… that’s expat life!)
Still, I think a game setting with that kind of frameshift structure built into it—without necessarily having an associated, planned plotline leading from A to B to C—might be a pretty cool thing to explore and experiment with. It also sort of allows for the kind of challenge growth that goes along with players figuring out how to operate on each level of the setting (and with their characters’ effective “leveling up” in whatever form that takes in a given game).
Here’s the frameshift set I have in mind for my Gamma Planet setting.
Tight Closeup: Setting #1—Gamma Korea
The campaign’s starting point would likely be the southern tip of what’s left of the Korean peninsula, or maybe on the hard, wild slopes of Jeju Island, the volcanic outcropping to the south of the peninsula, at the bottom of the map. Of course, that’s a peninsula that’s barely recognizable, thanks to heavy climate change, a human dieoff, and a surprising amount of water being pulled out of the transitional layer for mysterious reasons known only to the Ancients—though it may have to do with attempted manipulation of volcanic activity or plate tectonics, both of which seem linked to the hydrous transitional layer.
If it was a desire to halt volcanic activity—maybe heading off a supervolcano like Toba?—the effects haven’t held on: Halla Mountain is once again an active volcano (the large egg-shape south of the peninsula, at the bottom of the map), and the majority of what were (in the early 21st century) the most heavily-populated regions of the peninsula are now underwater:
What’s left, though—besides mountains and vast wetlands, and the occasional last-ditch land reclamation project—includes the ruins of a reunified Korea focused on pop culture exports and (extremely) niche tourism concentrated in out-of-the-way rural areas.
Think of Hallyu as a postindustrial experiential economic paradigm that rises and falls in through 21st century, long after it passes into socioeconomic unlife as an actual force for anything. Imagine, in fact, the Korean Wave as an eternal theme park franchise—Hallyuland—commemorating and perpetuating the brief rise and fall of Korean popular culture in the historical past, preserved for all eternity: self-repairing animatronic girl groups and boy bands, androids and cybernetically enhanced clones enacting films of the early 21st century, and of course brothels with bots designed to fulfill the fantasies of the region’s biggest of aging fans:
In other corners of the wilds lie the remnants of the peninsula’s other long-term social control systems: Confucian/military boot camps designed for “problem” kids (i.e. punitive camps for kids who don’t study all day long, like we have already in Korea) and tech addicts (like we have already in China and in South Korea alike) and anticapitalist deviants and those needing “political reeducation” and so on.
Turn this into a regional tourist industry, and neotraditionalize the camps: they’re like multicultural hubbed “Confucianism” villages with high tech disguised as low, with wings for separating kids by mother tongue (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian/Malay, and English) and for inmates categorized by types of digital addiction.
The camps were abandoned sometime in the 21st century, but left functional (or resurrected?) as historical “nature preserves”—for a definition of nature that includes human behaviour from centuries past—and also occasionally pressed into service for use in mass social-experiment simulations of historical behaviour patterns from the 20th and 21st centuries, after the rest of society moved on and people leapt full force into the 22nd century. The self-repairing, embedded modeling bots used to trick inmates into internalizing the camp’s stated norms still exist, and still go about the business of their programmed routines:
The robots cleverly play roles like “problem child” and “kid who learned his lesson and is just trying to help you,” and “benevolent taskmaster” and “asshole drill sergeant type.”
Most of that, of course, is what survives further north, across the remnants of Gyeonggi and Gangwon Provinces: the PCs would have to get through a lot of rough, mountainous territory to reach the bulk of such places it.
How do they emerge into those hostile wilds in the first place? Well… I think a Paranoia-styled Alpha Complex-type setting might be the best place to start my group’s adventure.
Probably one session—during which the Computer goes from wonky to breaking-down to completely broken—would probably suffice as a reason for their exodus into the wilderness. I have been hearing about the Paranoia game and setting since it was new and heavily advertised in Dragon, but only recently been able to get my hands on some of the game books.
So, as they venture through and past all this stuff, still further north lie the endless factories and work prisons and food vat plants, and underground survival complexes run by computers gone mad are more common here, too, for geological reasons. More Alpha Complexes, run by Computers of their own, of varying degrees of insanity and at least intended benevolence—but always a degree of insanity, for such is the fate of Alpha Complex-type computers.
I also expect there would be a number of factories and factory farms are focused on growing food despite a deeply despoiled environment. (Famine in Far-Go could easily be ported to this setting.)
I imagine the Korea that remains would be somewhat more ethnically diverse than the Korea we know today—if there’s any population by that point, it would have to be, given the greying of the population in the 21st century; it would be littered with old technology and ruins; it would also include a fairly fractious population, I think, and lots of odd religions and what Gamma World called Cryptic Alliances: weird little cults seem to be popular here for some reason, and seem to have been for a long time. I’m guessing the animal population would be smaller, as would the mutant animal population, but the mutant plant population would be huge. There’d probably be small regions under the control of warlords, a number of them having reverted to some pseudo-historical system of social order just as classic Gamma World had feudal warlords in the ruins of America.
You also would of course have your independent villages of farmers and mutants, weird ancient industrial complexes, the ruins of eco-cities built (too little, too late) after the oceans started to rise and populations fled inland, and the cratered ruins of battlefields destroyed and poisoned for millennia to come, all the way back in the Reunification War. A gloriously postapocalyptic funhouse of the Korea we know, in other words.
By exploring beyond those borders, PCs would discover three other local regions opened up to them:
- the wreckage of the Japanese archipelago (literally overrun by AI bots fighting over a verdant ruin that some wish to rebuild in the image of the nation that once was, and others wish to keep in its current state; humans and mutants exist, but only in hidden, endangered enclaves here and there)
- Manchuria & China heavily flooded, but the remaining zones are brutal desert arcologies and experimental closed-hab microecologies (say, thirty or fifty kilometers across, with extensive underground sections, some still closed and some partially opened up to the elements) established prior to China’s colonization of Mars, along with a (very broken) spaceport in the Gobi (less of an “unmitigated train wreck” than Biosphere 2 ended up being, presumably because the inhabitants have little choice but to make it work):
- a vibrant range of communities living on the surface of (and beneath) the oceans and seas: like Waterworld (a movie I didn’t love, but hated less than most people did) except grittier and more diverse, and with better factions, and of course lots of opportunities for marine (and submarine) adventure:
(I imagine the rules for oceanic combat would probably be a fusion of Outrider (or the new 6th edition of the Car Wars system coming out next year) with modifications cribbed from the rules for the classic Boat Wars supplement for earlier editions of Car Wars. I can’t see myself using straight-up Boat Wars, of course: I like cinematic and streamlined action for vehicular combat, not simulation down tenths of a second.)
And of course, patches of all these territories—including a sizable chunk of the ocean floor—would be claimed by one or another of the alien invader groups, so you’d have characters doing their best to mosey on through and not get caught… or, maybe, to invade and gather intelligence, or sabotage? It all depends on the PCs and their goals, but yeah, there’d be ETs in the mix, too.
Not that I would necessarily limit things to these regions…
Zoomed Out: Setting #2—Gamma World
This one’s a remix of Gary Jaquet’s famous “The Cavern of the Sub-Train.” (Certainly not the first!) For those who don’t know it, Jaquet was co-designer for the first edition of Gamma World, and “The Cavern…” is an adventure that appeared in issue #52 of Dragon Magazine. As written, it seems at first as if characters have stumbled upon a subway station that connects to a network of subway tunnels—but eventually, they’re supposed to realize, those tunnels actually comprise a high-speed underground rail network connecting most major cities across the United States.
Like so many ideas in good old original Gamma World, it’s really cool, but a bit provincial—hence the emphasis on Gamma World above. I think a more interesting idea is a self-maintaining, self-repairing network of pressurized, high-speed pneumatrain tunnels connecting major cities across the planet. Of course, this is 150 years after the trains were properly used and maintained, so some sections colonized by various species—alien, mutant, Cryptic Alliance, and so on. But the trains continue to run, at least on selected routes, and the tunnels still stand, deep beneath the earth. In some places, villages feel the rumbling and can only wonder what it is that stirs in the belly of the bedrock, but there are plenty of stations across the face of the planet.
Upkeep has continued, on an automated basis, and the system is mostly still functional, though aside from the stretches of track colonized by various groups, other stretches would be rendered partially or wholly nonfunctional. (Some tunnels absolutely have collapsed, and have been sealed off by the upkeep bots. But many still remain functional.)
That still leaves a lot of possible sites to visit, all over the planet: TSR’s original American Gamma World setting, but also post-Cataclysm Europe, Africa, Central Asia, Oceania, Central and South America.
I mean, who could resist having characters wander through post-Cataclysm cities—those that aren’t totally flooded, anyway?
Beyond the gonzo fun of visiting the ruins of distant spaceports and once-great cities (and of course whatever’s built upon them, if anything), this would also allow a larger backdrop puzzle to take shape—or maybe several of them. Some possibilities include:
- Why has the sun been slowly dimming for the last fifty years?
- Who are the aliens who invaded, and what do they want? Where is their hold strongest—which regions of the planet are their territory—and why?
- What caused the Cataclysm, and why does it matter now?
- Which factions rebuilding the world trace back to the Cataclysm, and how have they maintained continuity, if indeed any have managed to do so (instead of just claiming to do so)?
- How far offworld did humankind actually get, and are there any functional spaceports left from which Terrans could get offworld?
More than one of those riddles leads to the third “region” I have in mind:
Zoomed All the Way Out: Setting #3—Gamma Galaxy
Offworld, but within the solar system, there would be the Moon—a classic Gamma World setting, if you count the old writeups of the ruins of the Moon base in Dragon—though I’d probably adapt it to more closely resemble a specific cinematic Lunar colony (one strewn with Hangeul, and significantly so):
But I also envision a partially-terraformed (but currently imperiled) Chinese-occupied Mars. The Martian colonists—not all of them Chinese, mind—would be busy terraforming and farming, but also—well, among their elite scientists—expanding out to the moons of Jupiter, Neptunian orbit, mining the hell out of the asteroid belt, and beyond. They’re not much interested in the ruined Earth: China might be gone, but the China of the mind lives forever.
And, yeah, they’d also be busy battling those invading aliens, possibly multiple species of them, and keeping secret the fact that they’ve made contact with other, more distant civilizations, somehow communicating with them using a faster-than-light method.
One might distrust those aliens, but… that solar dimming? Something’s been taking apart the inner planets, and slowly building something around the sun…
… and China Eternal has noticed and figures expanding outward is probably wiser than hoping they can find a way to overcome this force anytime soon.
And, of course, out in the galactic reaches someplace would be a generation ship with a problem… a little less Red Dwarf and a little more Non-Stop/Starship (that’s two titles for a book by Brian Aldiss) or Orphans of the Sky (the Heinlein book), is how I’d play it—not that I’d actually use any of the various rulesets for Metamorphosis Alpha for it, I don’t think. More likely Stars Without Number, perhaps with the Other Dust supplement in my back pocket as a way of handling the mutant side of things.
Though Star Frontiers is free now, and could work. Chances are, though, I’d probably just keep using whatever rules I used for the Terran adventures, and add in space battle and space travel rules. Why mess with what works?
Then again, the forthcoming Mutant Crawl Classics does sound interesting. No pun intended, though yes, I’m mentioning the Glowburn podcast associated with the (not yet released) game. And yeah, I missed the MCC Kickstarter, but anyone will be able to buy the core game next summer.
Er, but I’ve gone off topic, and that seems like a good place to stop.