Strange Stars Setting Overview
The Strange Stars is the sphere of the human phyle in the far future, a
time millennia after the first human expansion and the rise (and fall)
of builders of the hyperspace nodes, the Archaic Oikumene. In the current era, the Strange Stars are fragmented into smaller cultures and civilizations.
The former cradle of the Archaic Oikumene is a depopulated area without a central authority known as The Zuran Expanse. The Expanse is home to dangers like the inhuman Ssraad (in three colors), and ruined worlds that entice treasure-seekers like Tenebrae and the Library of Atoz-Theln. It’s also home to unusual cultures like the invertebrate Zhmun of Aygo and the self-improvement cult of Aurogov.
Spinward from the Expanse is the Alliance , a union of species allied for
protection and trade. Members of the Alliance include the green-skinned
psionicists of Smaragdoz, the privacy obsessed Neshekk of Kuznuh, the avian-humanoid splice Hyehoon of Omu, the human-alien blended cyborg Blesh, the Gnomes of Dzrrn and the angel-like Deva of Altair.
Bordering the Alliance is the expansionistic and theocratic Instrumentality of Aom.
On the other side of the Expanse is The Vokun Empire. Besides the decadent vokun, the empire contains several client species. The cybernetic crustacean-like Engineers build much of Vokun technology. The yellow-skinned Ibglibdishpan are their biologic computers. The Kuath are bioarmored child-soldiers.
There are a number of other interesting cultures and worlds: the oneirochemist Phantasist, the ancient mind excavators of Deshret, and the warrior-poet Moravecs of Eridanus, among others. The major galactic powers are at least openingly cordial (whatever may go on behind the scenes) and trade takes place between the two “civilized” portions of the galaxy that must pass through hyperspace nodes in the “wilder” areas (not just the Expanse, but the Rim and Coreward Reach, as well). New cultures, lost since the Great Collapse are discovered from time to time, and their are number of ruined worlds with treasures to loot.
Strange Stars Setting Assumptions
There are a set of underlying premises to the Strange Stars setting which might affect the play of the game.
Post-Apocalyptic. The technology level of civilization in the past was higher than today. This provides the rationale for some “sufficiently advanced” Clark level technology, the “points of light” nature of civilization, and also for lost world exploration and space scavenging.
Big But Bounded, and Subdivided. Strange Stars exists within one galaxy--and only a relatively small part of that one, but still there’s plenty of room for new clades, cultures, even minor empires to be introduced without much disruption. The use of hyperspace means that there are “clusters” that can serve as smaller sandboxes if the whole area is too daunting. The game can be as focused as a single world or station.
Harder than Average. While Strange Stars is in no sense a “hard science fiction setting,” there are a number of details I tried to keep “semi-hard” and realistic. Earthlike worlds are most often the result of engineering and there are seldom multiple earth-like planets in a system. Most people will live in orbital habitats. FTL exists but works in such a way that it couldn’t violate causality. There are very few “single biome” planets, and those there are tend to have an explanation for why they exist. The aliens aren't very alien, but that’s because they’re most likely the descendants of humans or human creations.
Intersystem, Fast. Intrasystem, Slow. Related to the last point is the way FTL works. Hyperspace nodes tend to go to one place in a system (and may well dump out somewhere other than directly at the planet of interest). In system travel is most likely non-FTL and takes a while. This allows both zipping around the galaxy (at least a part of it) and “realistic” distribution of clades, but with a hard science fiction scale to a solar system, allowing the full array of grizzled asteroid prospectors, fringe religious communities on gas giant moons, or isolated research bases. The planets highlighted in the setting book are just the “major feature” of their respective systems, not the whole story. Of course, the way space travel works also has implications for how and where space battles are fought.
A Post-Internet Conception. Most classic space opera doesn’t take into account the internet in general, much less ubiquitous social media, but these things are present in Strange Stars. As a rule of thumb, imagining “how would that work in the Strange Stars?” involves more extrapolation from the present that looking back to how it was done in Star Wars or Star Trek.
There’s Always Belief. The future doesn’t mean belief systems go away. The best of space opera (Dune, for instance) deals with this, but it was something I didn’t want to leave out or to portray one-dimensionally. From the arbitrary taboos of the Kosmoniks to the realpolitik theocracy of the Instrumentality, it’s an important part of what makes cultures in the setting distinct.
Technology In The Strange Stars
The level of technology is more advanced in the Strange Stars setting than the default assumptions of Stars Without Number or most old school science fiction roleplaying games. A Game Master may choose to ignore some or all of these elements to make the setting more in keeping with the preferences of their group. For those wishing to use the setting as written, here is a brief discussion of the basic technologies of the setting, with suggestions on how to implement them. Remember that the tech level varies across worlds and habitats: some places are at a Stone Age level, while others border on post-scarcity.METASCAPE
Most people experience the world through an augmented reality overlay referred to as the metascape. Each world (or world plus its satellites) contains useful information for travel, social media messages, and lots and lots of spam. Nobody walks through a public square without their filters on, lest they be bombarded by all sorts of unsolicited virtual messages. Clothing is enhanced — or even sometimes completely generated — in the metascape. Some jurisdictions make it a crime to view the world unfiltered by the metascape, as this is seen as an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
The metascape primarily comes into play in how the GM describes the world and how the players approach it; it doesn’t require a lot of rules changes. When entering a new location, the GM will need to describe both the physical (people, equipment, structures) and the virtual (animations, signage, notes/tags, etc.) elements that the characters will see. Characters can leave messages for other specific people in locations or call up publicly available building floorplans. They can also hack or falsify the metascape using the standard Hacking rules.
The noosphere is essentially the cyberspace of the far future, encompassing traditional internet activities, the metascape, and the living environment of Infosophonts. Think of it as the nervous system of a civilization. In gameplay, again, this is more a matter of presentation. GMs and players should just keep in mind the availability of information in the real world, via a standard smartphone, and use this as a model to extrapolate from rather than looking to most cinematic space opera.
Noospheric messages or queries that must travel between worlds or between star systems do so no faster than the speed of light or the Hyperspace Network, if available. The noosphere isn’t real-time or continuous; it’s like a collection of networks between which information can be passed.IMPLANTED CYBERWARE
In the Strange Stars, brain-computer interfaces are as common as smartphones are today and are used for similar purposes. The typical pre-programmed software package allows metascape interface, noospheric connectivity, communication
(where messages can either be read or heard as read by an avatar or the sender or anyone else), chronometry, basic calculation, and interface with most modern devices. Most individuals don’t navigate their own apps, but use a daemon or “mook” (a nonsophont artificial intelligence) as a personal assistant and answering service. Some cultures (like the Vokun) find implanted devices distasteful, as do some individuals. These groups use wearable devices instead, for the most part.
The only mechanical impact of this sort of cyberware is in the (dis)use of the SWN Computer skill. Like on Star Trek, most characters will simply ask their personal assistants for things and never need to make a Computer skill check. Hacking or deep searches of ancient or restricted data records will be the only time these skills come into play — unless characters are on a pre-noosphere world.
FABBER (MATTER COMPILER)
A fabber is a nanofabrication unit (essentially an advanced 3D printer) that assembles finished products from raw materials at a molecular level. These aren’t easily portable, but they are near ubiquitous household and shipboard items, and public units can be used for a fee, generally figured on total mass of the item(s) fabricated. For portable items this can be approximated via encumbrance: Every unit of encumbrance fabricated after 1 carries an additional 5% charge to the standard price based on item cost per fabber user per day. (Example: Faizura Deyr fabbers lowlight goggles, a pressure tent, and 6 days rations on a public fabber. This will cost her 200 credits for the goggles, 120 for the pressure tent, and 5.25 for the rations). Anything from food-stuffs (though this would only be done on long space voyages) to starship parts can be made given enough substrate and the necessary “blueprints.” Commercially available models can be “jailbroken” to make illicit drugs or weapons, but it’s generally easier just to buy or steal such common items.
In rules terms, these function like the personal matter compilers described in Mandate Archive: Transhuman Tech. There are also larger units like the stationary matter compilers found on polities or the largest vessels, as well. As a rule of thumb, making one item will cost about the same as the list price in the Stars Without Number core book given the matter required, licensing fees for software, etc. Additional items will only cost half the listed price.
Programmable matter is able to change its properties or functions on the basis of user input or trigger stimuli. Programmable matter (or smart matter) is used to make exoskins (vacc suits that form around the wearer as they pass through a membrane aperture on an airlock) and smart-tools (similar to Ismeretlen, but with multiple uses, able to become any tool that would part of a toolkit).
ARCHAIC & ALIEN TECHNOLOGY
The above describes the technologies of the most advanced civilizations of the Strange Stars, but some societies have more specialized areas of expertise, and there is remnant technology of the Archaic Oikumene that falls into the category of Clarke’s Third Law. The most common example of the latter is the Hyperspace Node Network discussed in the next chapter, but there are the other, more classically Space Opera technological aspects of the setting: the sky city of Eidolon, the Circus megastructure, and mysterious things like the Tenebrae Labyrinths and the Apotheosis Maze. Any examples of Pretech given in SWN books not already present in basic Strange Stars technology would be appropriate as examples of Archaitech.
The Smaragdines are the only culture described in the SSGSB that makes a concerted effort to develop psitech, and they do not tend to exploit it for military purposes. The psitech items described in the SWN core rules would be within their ability to create, however.
RECENTLY MODIFIED ARTICLES
Random Sophont Races
The official Vokun assessment of Yantra was that it had little to offer the Empire. It's natives were primitive (at best they had mastered iron) and demonstrated a pervasive culture of nonviolence so ingrained that they were insuitable for military conscription. The Ibglibdishpan analysts verified that there had once by an advanced civilization on Yantra: the environment had been finely tuned, nanotechnology (though dormant) still permeated the biosphere, and seemingly primitive stone structures (shrines, mostly, for the superstitious Yantrans) actually showed complex femto-level engineering.
Obviously, the primitives had no knowledge of these technologies, and there was no indication they ever did. The vokun are an incurious species. They assumed some great pre-Collapse civilization had left its mark and moved on. Yantra was only usefully as a pleasure world; it's mostly tropical clime and pliant, simpleminded, and exotically attractive populace provided an ideal place of relaxation for vokun nobility.
The Ibglibdishpan were vexed by the anomalies. It only took a few in the continuing series of seemingly random network and equipment failures that have plagued the Imperial conquest of Yantra for them to deduce the truth. They were not at all surprised when vokun junior officers began to disappear or have unusal accidents--never frequently enough to arouse suspicion on the part of the vokun, but a detectable statistical signal, nonetheless. For reasons known only to them, the ibglibdishpan have kept their conclusions to themselves.
Physical Characteristics: Yantrans are attractive, lithe humans with yellow skin tones and short antennae emerging from their foreheads.
Psychological Characteristics: Yantran culture tends to emphasize nonviolence, the importance of the “now,” and the interconnectedness of all things.
Names: Yantrans use a personal name and a family name. The family name is typically given first.
Surnames: Aranun, Haunahi, Hokuni, Kamata, Nohoka, Pomaku, Tutani
Female: Ahilani, Aonami, Elaheli, Hani, Ko’ana, Mululani, Poma, Uku
Male: Atamu, Aonga, Hukono, Isako, Kamaki, Rano, Tuati, Yano, Uko.
Backgrounds: Peasant, Priest, Tribesman.
Classes: Expert most commonly, followed by Warrior. Psychics are rare.
Yantran have nanotechnology through their nervous system, allowing integration with the extensive (though hidden) engineering of their Vokun-occupied homeworld, Yantra . This is not generally of use elsewhere, though it can be detected with the appropriate equipment.
The blesh are members of the Alliance in the Orion Spur. Unique among the Alliance species (and rare in the known galaxy), the blesh are gestalt beings, a blending of human and nonhuman.
Physical Characteristics: Physically, the blesh are six-limbed bipeds, with some vaguely insectoid features. They appear to made of crystal, with translucent bodies within which their organs (like strangely-shaped decanters) can be glimpsed. They are likely either the bioroid creations or descendants of a long dead species. Blesh do not reproduce sexually, but are instead grow like fruit from specialized cybernetic “trees” on their homeworld.
History: Until their “Great Awakening,” the bioroids were a post-sapient species; they had long ago broken the strange-loop of self to live edenic lives in the tranquil gardens of the totally controlled biosphere of their homeworld. All their needs were provided by the techno-organic trees they tended. Sometime in the dark age following the Great Collapse, a slower-than-light ark, launched from Old Earth long ago, crashed on their world. The trees dutifully downloaded the refugee human minds from the ark and (reading the ark's purpose) began distributing the minds to their charges/gardeners. The blending of the human minds and the minds and bodies of the bioroids formed the merged entities who call themselves blesh.
Psychological Characteristics: There were 1803 human minds recovered from the ark. Every blesh is one of these minds blended with a bioroid post-sapient to form a new consciousness. They name themselves by combining the name of the human mind, a number designation related to the tree they grew from, and a monosyllabic prefix. Blesh are a peaceful species with respect for other sophonts. They have not historically been explorers, but they believe their culture to be enriched by learning about other species, and they are interested in galactic stability.
Perhaps from the human elements in their minds, they have a great curiosity about ancient human artifacts. Though the blesh have the memories of the human part of their composite mind, these memories belong to someone long dead and have for them a dream-like quality; they feel like visions of the past rather than events actually experienced.
Names: Blesh names are a combination of the name of their human mind, a number designation related to the tree they grew from, and a monosyllabic prefix.
Examples: Li-Glissa-19, Nal-Reza-23, El-7-Syblline, Ko-99-Izaak.
Backgrounds: Peasant, Scholar, Researcher.
Classes: The best fit for the blesh is the Expert class. They are unlikely Warriors and never Psychics.
Attributes: Minimum Intelligence and Constitution of 9.
Blesh have the equivalent of the Basic Immunity benefit package (see Transhuman Tech), +3 to saves versus poison, disease, and radiation.
Blesh have a base AC 7 vs weapons of Tech Level 3 or lower.
Without access to the cybernetic trees of their homeworld, blesh suffer a +1 penalty to all rolls for length of time for healing.
Physical Characteristics: Atozans are ectomorphic biologic humanoids with tall, narrow, domed skulls.
Psychological Characteristics: Atozans often come off as scholarly and pedantic to other sophonts.
Names: Atozans have a lineage designator consisting of a letter in the ancient Greek alphabet followed by a numerical code (typically 3 letters, but occasionally up to five) and then a short personal name.
Examples: Alpha-729 An, Chi-0113 Bel, Beta-451 Hano, Kappa-002 Lin, Gamma-882 Mish, Omega-024 Mek, Phi-169 Sus, Tau-931 Pol, Rho-644 Rog, Eta-404 Thom, Nu-063 Kar.
Backgrounds: Bureaucrat. Data Prospector, Researcher, Technician.
Classes: Expert is the most common class for Atozans; Psychics are very rare.
All Atozans learn a secret, ceremonial language that allows them to locate holdings within the Library, the vast and ancient noospheric and physical archive of most known worlds. Anyone else trying to locate a particular record would be completely lost.
Random Planets, Megastructures, and other Habitats
The Instrumentality of Aom is a theocracy controlling several systems spinward of the old core of the Archaic Oikumene and providing spiritual guidance for the faithful scattered throughout many more. It aggressively seeks to expand its sphere of influence, particularly into the coterminous members of the League of Habitats. The Instrumentality grows primarily by peaceful conversion, but it’s willing to use more violent means.
A binary system comprised of an F class yellow-white star, Dragon A, and an orange K class star, Dragon B.
Dragon A is as massive as Sol of Old Terra, but nearly twice as luminous. Dragon B is lesser in both mass and luminocity than Sol.
Few galactic sporting events offer the sheer spectacle of the giant robot combats of Gogmagog. The humanoid robots are of unique design and tower anywhere from around 10 m to over 80 m. Mostly, they simply stand there; they may not move for years or even decades. Then, abruptly, they move to engage one of their fellows in hand-to-hand combat.
That’s when the bot breaker gangs go into action. They have to work fast to salvage what they can from the defeated giant before swarms of von Neumann machines skitter and crawl from their underground lairs to repair the fallen gladiator — and disassemble the bot-breakers’ tools and transport for raw materials. What the bot breakers can get away with they can sell to fringe scientists and inventors trying to duplicate exotic alloys or to wealthy collectors looking for an alien objet trouvé.
The Pharesmid Syndicate is criminal organization centered on the planet Smaragdoz. The members of the group are all bio-clones or mind copies of their founder, Smaragdine terrorist Uln Pharesm. Pharesm was a mole within the development group in the beta phase of the Smaragdine noospheric Consensus. With his access to the computing power of the noosphere, he was able to generate several copies of his mind, and abscond with governmental funds. Pharesm betrayed the members of his terrorist cell, keeping the money for himself, and hijacking their bodies with his copies. With his new mind-confederates, he embarked on a criminal enterprise that continues to this day.
Pharesmids all wear facial tattoos, though they may disguise them in the course of their criminal operations. Their progenitor has augmented his brain to give himself limited psi abilities, and it may be that some lieutenants have similar enhancements.
The Radiant Polity directly ruled only a few worlds or habitats, but it claimed ultimate guardianship over the future of the entire human-descended tribe. Membership in the polity was ostensibly voluntary, yet each of its lords wielded absolute power, checked only by other lords. Their mantra was: "We civilize; we do not govern. We end war; we do not wage it. We guard; we do not control. Our thoughts look always to the future."
The civil servants of the Polity were it's most common face. Many were volunteers; others were drafted. They administered the noospheric fora (where members could petition the lords) and the Polity controlled hyperspace network, collected tolls, and handed out encryption keys for it's use to members. Through these measures the Polity effectively controlled interstellar trade and exerted soft power to shape planetary governments.
Not all it's power was soft. Polity membership made a sophont or a world subject to the justice of the Radiant Lords--justice meaning anything the lord in question felt would further the needs of the Polity and by extension humanity. They had a strict code and seldom acted rashly, as actions determined to be in error by review of their fellow lords carried harsh penalties, but they wielded great power and acted decisively--even brutally--when necessary. The lords all appeared baseline human, but their nervous systems were linked to their swift sophont ships, their brains modified with psybernetics, and their bodies enhanced. Each acted as a combination law enforcer, spy, advisor, and diplomat. When real war was needed, lords' code required they withdraw, and Hannibal Early was summoned.
In an effort to keep the peace, the Polity prohibited the export of irrational memeplexes such as religion between cultures. It was this prohibition that brought it into the conflict with the emerging Instrumentality of Aom and ultimately led to it's dissolution.
It's believed that the psi-research NGO the Phaidros Group was involved with the Polity inception. If so, they abandoned it before it's final fall to begin their colony on Smaragdoz.
A menace on the Coreward Reach, the Scavengers are opportunistic pirates who follow the Locusts, a giant swarm of von Neumann machines that devour any habitats they encounter. The Scavenger scouts perform hit and run raids before the arrival of the mass of the swarm, and the majority of their fleet sweeps up any surviving ships once the swarm passes. Scavengers commonly have obvious and primitivist cybernetics, the better to frighten victims into submission.