After the War, the tabletop RPG I’ve been developing for the last couple of years with the amazing Jason Pitre, is crowdfunding as we speak/read/type! As part of the project, I’ll be posting regular essays about the background and design over the next month.
Starfleet’s Worst Day
Let’s plot some cultural compass points and let’s start with North. Star Trek was the first TV show I wasn’t old enough to stay up to watch. Endlessly repeated in the UK in the 1980s, presumably because the other option was the test-card, I caught glimpses of it and it fascinated me. More so because I wasn’t allowed to watch it. As several people have pointed out, the best way to get a kid to do something is to tell them they can’t. And while it toook me some time, I watched ALL the Star Trek. Nearly. There’s chunks of Voyager and the animated show I still have to get to but just you wait…
I mention this not just because I’m always there for an off-hand Hamilton joke but also because the core idea of Star Trek, Starfleet, is one of the most powerful ideas in modern genre fiction. A group of people of every gender identity, age, nationality and ethnicity going out into the universe to see what they can find and who they can help. Altruism with a warp drive. I loved that. Always have. So that’s North on our compass.
East is Jack McDevitt’s Academy books. Start with Engines of God and work your way up and through, Deep Six and Chindi especially are fantastic. The series deals with the Academy, essentially the air arm of humanity whose job it is to make sure everything runs smoothly between the interstellar colonies. Engines of God follows one pilot, Priscilla Hutchins, and how her latest job brings her into contact with the remnants of the civilization that came before our own. Massive sweeping ideas, humans with their sleeves rolled up and exploration, discovery and survival as a job as much as a calling.
South is Battlestar Galactica, the reboot series rather more than the original. From the Kodo
drumming of the opening down to All Along The Watchtower, the show entranced me. Here was the ideal I saw and loved in Starfleet but with a more militaristic and traumatized edge and desperately lonely. The last humans struggling to survive in a universe that’s already forgotten about them. The joyous exploration and discovery of the new replaced by the frantic search for a bolt hole, any bolt hole, regardless of how long it will last. Jumping way past the Red Line not to see what’s out there but because it’s the last place you have left to go. Altruism, exploration, survivalism and desperation. Plus the coolest launch method EVER.
West is Babylon 5, and the show’s irresistible sense of something about to become. B5 was one of my core texts for serial narrative and a massive part of that was how humanity interrogates it’s own purpose within the show. EarthForce lose the Minbari war. They fall to President Clark’s fascism remarkably quickly. They fail to stop the plague at the heart of Crusade. But the B5 command crew in particular are also instrumental in turning a near elemental war away from known space, negotiate a series of almost impossible diplomatic situations and blow up Space Cthulhu. That is not nothing. It’s also our West; hard working,permanently pressed, endlessly outmaneuvered by organisations it can’t begin to understand, scrappy and hopeful.
What lies in the middle of that particular compass?
Starfleet’s Worst Day. A defining event that would shape, forever, the future of the organisation and the shape of galactic life.
How the Hell do you build something like that? Turns out? Backwards.
We knew we wanted lots of groups on Polvo in a chaotic, survival-driven fashion. We knew we wanted Polvo to have Boneyards, vast ship graveyards where multiple vessels fell from the sky. We knew it had to be the last redoubt of galactic civilization (Well, not quite last…)) and we knew the planet needed to be a 16,000 km wide open book full of wonders and horrors for players to arrive, interact with and be horribly traumatized by.
So the first stage was to work out what got all the ships above Polvo. A battle is obvious but which one? The decisive battle of the war because that would get the most people there. A last stand but it’s not clear who it’s for. Polvo as the end of the war and the place most people end up. But if that’s the case, then what happened to everywhere else? Some form of mass assault, a wave a galaxy wide just sweeping across people and destroying them. The scale’s fun but that wouldn’t work for this game of personal horror and personal survival. Besides, the thing no one likes to talk about with vast galactic scourges is they tend to be a little dull. Oh sure the uniforms are usually nice and they tend to have cool ships but they’re not actually that interesting.
We are though.
And by we I mean the humans in After the War and the alien races they share space with. A handful of young races, newly galactic in outlook and all desperately interested in everything. Inspirational. Hopeful. Brave. Prey.
So we’re the enemy, why? Something that unifies people, a universal truth to cross every kind of barrier. Something no one can run from or, more interestingly, would want to run from. What could that be?
Doctor Who has already done evil statues and while I love the idea of a demonic intergalactic oil painting or sculpture, that doesn’t quite cut it here. This needs to be art that people experience all at once but in individual ways. Branching trees of unique experience coming off a singular carrier wave. This needs to be music. This has to be music.
So, alien music that affects everyone. What does it want to do? Why does it affect everyone? This one is actually pretty simple. It wants to be heard. It wants what every creator wants and infuses everything they create with; the desire to be seen, too be recognized. To be validated. The music just wants someone to hear it. The Song just wants to be sung. By Everyone. Forever. An ancient piece of alien music, endlessly cycling through the space on the same frequency as Hydrogen.
Who built it? And why? The Precursors aren’t a big part of After The War but as you’ll see, their influence is felt everywhere. All we need to know, as the game begins, is this. The Precursors found the Song. And they worked out how to steer it as far away from themselves as possible. But it didn’t take. Again, why?
Curiosity. Humanity as the architect of its own destruction when it discovers evidence of the Song. The Permancer,uncomfortably aware that they’re alone, reluctantly accepting some help on the biggest problem in history. Except, of course, humanity really wants to get paid. So someone goes looking for the Song to weaponise it. The Black Sky Initiative is formed and formed in a way that it fulfills everyone’s goals at once. Altruism. Discovery. Exploration. Profit. Worse still, succeeds. We attract the attention of a musical predator from before the dawn of time and in doing so we change the shape of our galaxy forever. Boldly going, straight to Hell. The bloody nose of EarthForce. The optimism of Starfleet. The blue collar pragmatism of the Academy books. The grueling determination of Battlestar Galactica, And in the middle of them all, After the War. A game that begins on Starfleet’s worst day and asks the question no one is ever equipped to answer until they are:
What happens next?