Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dawning Star Ten Years On

So for the past few weeks I've been working on rewriting the history for Dawning Star while noodling around various bits and pieces of Fate Core to see where I want to go with it. When I say rewriting I don't mean making huge changes; the core story is the same, I'm tweaking some things here and there to make the setting make more sense. I made contact with the velin happen earlier, changed the nature of what kept the settlers on Eos close to the planet, etc. For the most part minor stuff. The big new stuff has been additions to the setting as we're moving the timeline ahead five years and introducing a whole bucket of new stuff to the setting; stuff that takes Dawning Star in new directions that that I think are much more interesting than the previous version. I think I've actually ended up putting political allegory into my game about humans trying to survive on another planet.

So some background with those not familiar with Dawning Star, it originally was a d20 Future setting about a cold sleep evacuation ship from 23rd century Earth ending up on a distant planet, Eos, after getting separated from the rest of an evacuation fleet fleeing the destruction of Earth by a comet. The fleet was separated by an alien stargate type device built by a long dead alien civilization that threw the fleet across the galaxy, and the Dawning Star ended up near the capital planet of that dead civilization. The game was sort of a pulp mashup of Firefly and D&D; mixed high tech and frontier tech, riding horses with laser guns, and exploring ancient ruins looking for hyper-advanced tech from the previous inhabitants of the planet. The sound track would be a mixture of Johnny Cash and Afro-Celt Sound System. It was a pretty morally clear game; there were good guys, there were bad guys, all pretty black and white. As an example it turns out there was a group of human-ish aliens on Eos called the velin that were pretty much stone age tech, and instead of abusing them as usually happens with indigenous people, the colonists of Dawning Star were fair with them all the away around. I guess you could say humans learned something in the centuries between now and then, but a Western scifi game with a Native American analog that pretty much plays into a lot of Native American stereotypes...well, not exactly the best plan in hindsight. I don't know if it counts as cultural appropriation since they're purple skinned humanoids who ride lizards, but if you look at the setting their place in it is pretty clear. They're about two steps from Tonto-ing it up.

As the setting expanded through the second sourcebook, Helios Rising about the other planets in the system, this mashup nature was maintained and every planet sort of had it's own genre + science fiction mashup. If Eos was Western scifi, C'thalk was Samurai scifi and Thres was Fantasy scifi, etc. Dawning Star was very much a product of where I was at the time and the influences present in my life, which was almost ten years ago now. I had just started working freelance full time and had big plans for it being awesome. I was writing for realsies now. I was elated to have moved out of New York City after three years (did not like the city, dearly loved and miss the friends though). But now I'm working on Dawning Star and its coming out very different. Everyone's motivations are more suspect. No one's totally a good guy. Self interest is everywhere. This is explicitly spelled out by characters in in-play writings, such as admitting the evacuation fleet brought nukes in case they had to take a new home world by force and wipe out some other species. That sort of hard edged realism and pragmatism has crept into a lot of the game; the idea that people in the setting sleep better at night thinking they're the good guys, but are totally ready to do terrible things if they have to in order to survive. It's a game about numerous species on the edge of extinction, so this seems apt. The faction-camps in original Dawning Star were human settlements that were nebulously up to no good and plotted against the Dawning Star Republic, the main human settlement on Eos, because...they were bad. Pretty much. Their motivations were terrible. Okay, one is being mind controlled by an alien relic, but the rest had no real motivation. So they've become sort of self interested libertarians who are motivated by a desire to escape the government of the Dawning Star Republic and its growing and corrupt bureaucracy. They're right in that the Republic is flawed, but theire alternative may be no better.

As I said, original Dawning Star was pretty much Firefly plus D&D; this version is becoming more District 9, BSG, and Mass Effect. One of the big events in the moving of the time line is the introduction of a second human evacuation ship to Eos along with an alien ship carrying millions of refugees from dozens of alien species, the two ships having spent the last five decades together fighting their way through hostile alien space to get to Eos. Now a colony that could barely feed it's own people has millions more to worry about, some of which they can't communicate with and don't even breathe the same air. The tension meter has been cranked way up as the Republic gives the newcomers citizenship, but the newcomers will be able to completely dominate the upcoming election through sheer numbers. Political parties have formed on both sides of that question. All of the aliens are the last of their people, so there's a moral imperative to save them, but when there's just not enough food and resources to go around what do you do? Who can you trust out of all these aliens and their strange religions, philosophies, etc? Especially since many of these new human colonists are actually more loyal to the aliens they've been fighting alongside for fifty years then the humans who were just chilling on Eos during that time. That's a big question in the new Dawning Star. The Dawning Star Republic is not just some settled, high tech place the players can go back to after raiding an alien dungeon; it's a overcrowded, dirty city surrounded by ghettos and camps with every variety of inhuman creatures lurking in the corners just looking for some organic material they can actually digest or another methane capsule before their breather dies out.

Sure, there's still ancient alien threats to face, strange intelligences from other dimensions, and all the other fun stuff that was in Dawning Star, but there's a lot more weight to it now. I'm hoping I can stretch this out through all the setting, though I do think the other planets had more complicated societies to begin with. It feels like now I'm writing from a very different place than I was on original Dawning Star. I've moved several times, almost gone bankrupt, become a father, seen more of the conflicts that are part of human nature. Have vs have nots. Racism. Never ending war. Government surveillance vs privacy. All those have much more part in Dawning Star, in addition to changes to reflect how science fiction has changed in ten years (the lack of any real transhumanism elements in the original game is sort of shameful now). Hopefully it makes it better.

Not sure why I felt the need to write all this, but it's been nagging on me since I got started on the revisions. I guess I just wanted to warn people that Dawning Star is going to be different, but hopefully better.   

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Star Saga: A new game idea

Because what I need is another project.

Occasionally I get ideas for games or stories that I can't stop thinking about until I get something down on paper for.  This is one of those times, despite having Dawning Star and some other stuff being more effective uses of my time.  Not that I haven't been working on Dawning Star; I have, but posting big chunks of background text doesn't seem that interesting to me.  Could be wrong.  

Anyways, this is a game concept I initially thought of based on my Shadow of Azathoth game about space marines trying to fight back the forces of the great old ones in deep space without help, resupply, or reinforcements.  Sort of the same idea of a lone ship crew standing against great evil, only with the viking knob turned way up (because everything needs a viking knob).  I see this as a table top rpg with some pretty light mechanics though lots of gear and mechanics for building your ship and saga so far as group characters. 

The oracle had alerted the village that the ship of heroes had arrived six hours after noon.  It being winter, this meant the sky was dark enough to see the new star twinkling overhead, travelling at a speed across the night sky that made its presence obvious.  By the time the heroes has descended to the village of Ferruheim the inhabitants had collected the prescribed tribute around the oracle beacon, heedful of the ancient traditions dictating this momentous transaction.  
The heroes descended from their vessel of the stars in a smaller steel star boat the size of four wagons, landing the boat in the cradle the ancients had built for such.  Though no star boat had used the cradle in five generations, the people of Ferruheim had kept it clean and repaired according to the litanies of the ancients for just such an occasion as this.   The heroes’ star boat snapped into the cradle and immediately began replenishing itself from the supplies contained therein, the spirits that carried the arcane machine consuming much in their hunger.
The ten score inhabitants of Ferruheim had gathered in the village center between the cradle and the oracle beacon, a sea of dirt caked faces, soiled blonde hair, and rough spun wool dyed the color of the earth surrounded by a collection of thatch huts occasionally broken up by the metal structures of the ancients.  The tension in the air was palpable. The mood of the assembled host was one of respect, hope, and fear.  They had all grown up with the stories of the heroes who roam the stars protecting the colonies of man that survived when the great empires of the past age collapsed, but those stories always had cautionary lessons.  These were men and women with tragedy always nipping at their heels, and it was content to bite anyone who got within reach. Activating the oracle beacon in the first place had been a contentious choice in the village such was the fear of these beings clad in the weapons and armor of a world long dead, but another the loss of another family to the beasts of the caves had settled the matter.
The star boat opened with a hiss, spilling brilliant white light across the village center, causing the entire village to recoil and shield their eyes.  By the time they had recovered the heroes had begun exiting the ship, approaching Alfairn and the village elders who stood closest to the boat and cradle.  Alfairn and the elders, eight in number, were all gray of hair and bent of frame, their best days behind them.  Though they were the oldest in the village, none of them had actually seen a star boat before. Seven forms stepped off the ship, three men and three women that were nearly indistinguishable since they all had long hair and all wore various forms of armor.  The seventh form lagged behind, towering over the others and moving with a whir and clank that spoke not of flesh and blood.  A golem.  
The first of the heroes, the tallest aside from the golem at over two meters tall, stepped up to Alfairn and removed her plast-steel helmet, revealing a battle scarred woman in her middle years whose face was made of iron and strength.  She wore the Goliath armor of the ancients, decked out in runes and trophies from dozens of worlds, wreathing her in power arcane.  On her back she carried a massive sword that glowed softly with an unnatural light, while a fire wand rested at her hip.  She surveyed Alfrain and the elders, then the rest of the crowd.  She did not seem impressed.  
“You have called us here, we crew of the starship Pennsylvania, and asked for our help,” she shouted to the crowd. “Your beacon said you were in mortal danger, and that the strong people of Ferruheim would soon perish without our help.  It spoke of monsters and a witch to lead them. We have come to see if you are worthy of our help.”  She looked to Alfrain, cocking an eyebrow as she did.
“Mighty and honorable Captain of the Pennsylvania, we petition your help to deal with the monsters that live beneath our mines.  Our miners broke into their lair and her children have harried us since with no respite or parlay.  The one known as Grendel leads them and attacks our mead hall nightly.  They have killed dozens, leaving us nearly defenseless as children, the old, and the infirm are all that remain.  We would not call you away from your duties if we thought we could survive otherwise, but we cannot.”  Alfairn gestured at the crowd behind him and a score of older children began carrying up dozens of hemp bags, each clanking heavily as it is put down before the heroes. The pile quickly grew to stand taller than the captain or Alfrain.   
“We have collected the tribute prescribed by the ancient rites, a tonne of iron to pay for your assistance. Further,” Alfairn said with a gulp, “you may take what supplies of grain, mead, and wool you need from our stores and up to five of our number to replace those who fall in our defense.”  
The captain looked over the assemblage and the pile of iron without reaction.  She gestured towards the iron and the golem moved towards it, extruding a wand from its arm that it waved above the iron.  “Iron ore, grade B, eleven hundred and twelve point three kilograms,” it said in a metallic voice.  
The captain walked over to one of the older boys who brought the iron, grabbing his arm and inspecting him with a series of pokes and prods.  After a moment she seemed pleased.  “Mining folk, good strong arms and backs.  We could make soldiers out of you.  We’ll take your cause, Ferruheim.”  She yelled the last sentence so the entire village could hear her.  There were muted cheers throughout the crowd; while there was little jubilation there was noticeable relief in the crowd.  
“Now take me to your mead hall and we’ll see what we can do about this Grendel creature, and how much he likes plasma burns.”  Alfairn gestured towards the heart of the village, the crowd parting before him as he lead the six heroes and their mechanical servant towards the largest structure at the center of town.  

Long ago there were great empires that stretched between the stars, ruling dozens of worlds across vast reaches of space using ships of steel powered by arcane forces.  These empires ruled their worlds for centuries, but then something happened.  What no one is sure, but the legends offer many options.  Some say it was war among the empires that destroyed all their capitol worlds, while others say it was some star exploding at the heart of the galaxy.  Some even whisper it was demons summoned by ancient men desperate for power.  Whatever the truth, nearly overnight they fell into chaos and the tightly woven economies of the imperial worlds collapsed as most planets has developed specialized economies and relied on trade so heavily they could not survive alone.  A mining world with no atmosphere had no hope of growing the food it needed, while farming worlds regressed as their technology failed.  Only in the outer colonies where the imperial subjects still had to be self sufficient did much survive in the way of technology or civilization, but even then only the barest glimmers of each remained.  Humankind fell into a new dark age, reverting back to being violent, superstitious, and desperate.
The lone beacon of hope among the outer worlds were the ships of the imperial border forces.  The crews of theses ships went by many names.  Some were called Colonial Marines, other Emergency Responders, or any of a dozen other names varying from region to region and empire to empire.  All were charged with supporting the colony worlds, of which there were thousands spread across vast distance inconceivable to man, and helping them deal with threats they could not face lone.  Famine, disease, floods, war; all these were dealt with. These ships were designed to operate without resupply for decades at a time through use of nanofactories and other advanced manufacturing technologies, so when the empires fell these ships continued. They went where the distress beacons summoned them, sometimes taking weeks or months to do so due to the vagaries of space travel, and at each stop saw the colonies falling apart around them.  These few heroes in their ships of the stars dedicated themselves to do everything they could to save humankind, and now five hundred years after the empires fell they remain at their task.  
As soldiers have been lost, ships destroyed, technology broken, and resources consumed, their old allegiances, ranks, procedures, and training have been passed down in fragments to create a mythology of the ancient world that only superficially resembles the truth.  Resupply procedures have become tribute, plasma weapons magic wands, and robots golems.  These few surviving crews have fed this mythology to the surviving colony worlds over time, creating a vast lore of heroic sagas about the heroes and their star ships.  While this may seem self-aggrandizing, these heroes and their ships are one of the last threads holding the worlds of humanity together.  Only they still have the technology and skills to deal with threats from the old world.  The empires of the ancients knew that humanity was not alone among the stars, and many of these others did not hold humankind in their goodwill.  

Star Saga is a tabletop role playing game about playing the last remnants of an advanced, spacefaring civilization that has been reduced to iron age level technology save for a few remaining star ships and their crew fighting to keep humanity alive.  It is a game of larger than life heroes, lost artifacts, history becoming mythology, doomed last stands, and sacrificing everything for a greater cause.