Horizon's Verge

Roger Burton West
24 February 2005

Table of Contents

Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
'Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon's verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be!

-- from Byron, Don Juan (1824) canto 15, st. 99

1. Introduction

This game is about the exploration of the solar system, starting with a mission to Mars to investigate some anomalous data returned by automated probes.

1.1. Suggested reading/viewing

1.1.1. Books

1.1.2. Anime

1.1.3. Films

2. Rules

This game is intended to be run under GURPS Fourth Edition. However, I've tried not to be too GURPS-specific, and it should be possible to run this setting in any reasonably-capable system without too much trouble.

2.1. Genre

This is a semi-cinematic game; astronaut player characters have been through an intensive selection process, so while they aren't supermen they are still still a great deal more skilled and competent than the average. Death is an ever-present risk.

2.2. Technology

This is approximately a GURPS 3e TL8 setting; in GURPS4 terms it's mostly a mature TL8 with some TL9 elements. Artificial gravity and FTL are not available; all space-drives are reaction systems.

2.2.1. Power and propulsion

The most efficient means of space propulsion yet constructed is getting its first true operational test in the Artemis mission. The gas-core fission rocket has its problems, most notably a very radioactive exhaust and a high consumption of fissionables, but its specific impulse is some 80% higher than that of its nearest competitor the conventional fission rocket, allowing a wider choice of trajectories and mission profiles than those of any previous spacecraft. (A nuclear pulse drive was considered, but rejected for political and technical reasons.)

Most other spacecraft use fission rockets, ion drives, electric rockets, metal-oxide rockets or even chemical rockets, powered where necessary by fission plants, power cells or solar cells, depending on the mission profile and local fuel availability. Short-range scooters and thrust packs use pressurised argon. Surface launch from Earth uses laser lift (for heavy cargoes) or HOTOL spaceplanes, the latter powered by laser turbofan and laser rocket.

On Earth, owning a petroleum-burning ground vehicle is now an expensive hobby rather than an expected part of life, even in the richest countries; teleworking, mass transit and fuel-cell electric vehicles have taken up the slack. In the air, laser turbofans are increasingly popular. Hydrogen combustion engines are under development but not yet available.

Most power used on Earth is solar, supplied by the powersat network via maser to large rectenna stations in areas of low population density and distributed on the ground over superconducting cables. Some nuclear power plants remain as backups in case of large-scale failure, but most other generating capacity has been decomissioned.

2.2.2. Computers

Computers are able to respond to simple voice commands, but are not at all intelligent. For time-critical tasks like flying spacecraft, conventional joysticks, keyboards and trackballs are still very much preferred input devices. Some experimentation has been done with virtual-reality control systems, but the lack of haptic feedback has prevented widespread adaptation.

2.2.3. Cybernetics

Some cybernetics exist, but they are only used to replace severely damaged body parts - it's very unlikely any PC would have them, unless he has a lot to offer in other respects, especially since they mostly don't have much protection against high-energy radiation. There is no neural interface.

2.2.4. Weapons

The commonest light weapons are still chemical slugthrowers, though gauss weapons are starting to be used on the battlefield (mostly on AFVs or in the squad support role - power storage is the big problem). Laser weapons are lagging behind because of the power storage problem, being used at the moment only for missile defence on large platforms.

2.3. Character generation

This is a fairly cinematic campaign; characters should start at about 250 points (but see modifications below).

The basic tech level for the society is 8. Literacy is standard.

Common languages in the spacefaring community are English (compulsory for anyone conducting space operations), German and Japanese, with Russian and French a little way behind.

Wealth is expected to be irrelevant in the campaign; no unusual levels may be purchased. Reputations are unlikely to be relevant outside the PC group and will be at 50% reduced cost whether good or bad.

Most physical disadvantages will have been weeded out in the crew selection process; only those with a great deal to offer in other regards will have reached crew status with substantial physical shortcomings.

3. History

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew, And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four- And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

-- from Kipling, The Gods of the Copybook Headings (1919)

3.1. American hegemony (2001-2012)

The American tendency to follow the Soviet model of securing strategic resources by taking over the countries that contained them became increasingly bogged down towards the end of G.W.Bush's second term; ever-increasing demands for overseas manpower, and an ever-weakening economy with which to pay for them, proved both to America and to the rest of the world that conquest was no longer a self-funding proposition.

Of course, it didn't come apart easily. Israel and Palestine were largely destroyed by "terrorists" using nuclear weapons (their actual identity and motives are still debated), and large parts of Iraq, Iran and Syria followed. Among other things, this very substantially reduced the available oil supply.

3.2. "Death of capitalism" (2001-2020)

As world-wide economic slowdowns continued, people started to notice that the consumerist lifestyle that was still being advertised to them was increasingly impossible of attainment. Instead, increasing numbers of people flocked in part or in whole to "post-capitalist" economic models, ranging from the free-software hacker ethic to freecycling and similar schemes for giving away (rather than throwing away) unwanted but serviceable items. Small-scale manufacturing, often using multi-purpose tooling taken from scrap-heaps after it had been replaced by the latest automated systems, also took off.

On a larger scale, global corporatism stagnated as the number of participants in the market decreased; a long period of retrenchment and massive redundancies saw many people, particularly the most innovative, moving into the parallel economy (formerly known as the black economy, until it became more profitable for governments to tax it than to try to wipe it out).

3.3. Crash and reconstruction (2016-2025)

The begining of the final demise of the corporatist approach is generally dated to Wednesday 18 May, 2016, when the commercial internet backbone collapsed under bandwidth demands of spam and virus traffic. Since many services supplied to the end user, such as voice telephony, had been switched to the IP infrastructure to save money, the impact was severe at all levels.

The first complete loss of power to a major city occurred on Monday 23 May. Food rioting on a large scale was first reported in Chicago on Friday 27 May, and in Moscow on Saturday 28 May. Subsequent events cannot be reliably documented in detail, since with no power in many population centres it was not possible to obtain accurate information via what was left of the communications infrastructure even before the final collapse.

Even corporate and government systems were severely impaired by the sudden absence of a previously-reliable communications medium. Many personnel acted informally with local communities to maintain order; those who sat and waited for central command mostly found that the rioters got there first. After the first few days, the cities emptied, and their surviving populations dispersed into the countryside.

The old academic network structure, supplemented by ad-hoc freenet peering services, eventually took up much of the load (blocking off entire networks, and indeed several countries, that were major sources of bandwidth abuse).

3.4. Modern day (2025-2030)

The typical modern organisation is not a corporation or a government but a community-of-interests (the German word interessengemeinschaft has been adopted, usually abbreviated as "IG"), a group of people and subgroups that comes together for a particular purpose and quite often disperses afterwards as its members go on to other jobs. The first successful example of this was the Powersat IG: starting with little except skill, goodwill and contacts, it used all of these to get first a heavy lift capacity and later a large network of solar-power satellites and ground stations into service.

4. Astrography

4.1. Low Earth Orbit

Powersats, transfer stations

4.2. Cislunar space

4.2.1. L4

4.2.2. L5

4.3. Luna

5. Organisations

5.1. International Space Development IG

The ISDIG is the principal funder of the Artemis mission.