Tempt Not The Stars

Roger Burton West
14 December 2004

Table of Contents

Tempt not the stars, young man, thou canst not play
With the severity of fate.

-- from John Ford, The Broken Heart (1633)

1. Introduction

The basic concept is "Free Trader" - influences include the classic Traveller game, bits of Firefly, Andre Norton's Solar Queen stories, Bertram Chandler's Grimes stories, Zahn's Cascade Point, Anderson's Polesotechnic League, etc.... it's an oft-repeated theme.

2. Rules

This game is intended to be run under GURPS Fourth Edition. For running interstellar trade, GURPS Traveller: Far Trader will be invaluable. 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; characters are "ordinary people", but still somewhat more skilled and competent than the average. Death is an ever-present risk.

2.2. Technology

This is approximately a GURPS 3e TL10 setting; in GURPS4 terms it's mostly a mature TL10 with elements of TL11 and substantial superscience. Artificial gravity is available within confined spaces; reactionless thrusters are starting to be developed to the point of real utility. However, there are no FTL sensors or communicators of any sort.

2.2.1. Power and propulsion

The only type of FTL travel available is the hyperdrive, which has a basic hyperfactor of 0.2 parsec/day. A ship has its course plotted before it enters hyperspace; cutting power to the engine before the jump is complete results in a random emergence somewhere in a fusiform volume between the entry point and the location it "would" have reached in a straight-line jump, about 90% of the time (nobody's really quite sure what happens during the other 10%, but it doesn't result in anyone seeing the ship again). A jump is accurate to about one part in two million; a 1 parsec jump results in an arrival within 0.1 AU of the destination point. Arriving within a jump limit (where local gravitational acceleration is more than Koremitsu's Constant (0.26799255 mm/s/s) - about 4.7 AU for Sol, proportional to the square root of a body's mass) is a bad idea, though travelling "through" one while in hyperspace presents no particular hazards.

Standard and super reactionless thrusters are available, and are the most common means of space propulsion. While these are "reactionless" in the strict sense (they don't consume reaction mass), it's still not a great idea to stand behind one while it's operating; thus they tend to be at the "back" of spacecraft.

Power to large vehicles is normally provided by hot fusion plants; smaller vehicles use cold fusion systems (built as NPUs) or rechargeable batteries (power cells). In general, fuel is not a concern.

Other propulsion systems in common use are fusion air-rams (and occasionally ram-rockets or fusion rockets, for high-performance spacecraft), though the trace radioactivity present in the exhaust restricts their atmospheric operation to less-developed worlds.

2.2.2. Computers

Sapient computers have occasionally been built, but are unpopular for historical and cultural reasons; there aren't any known to be in operation at the moment. Advanced non-sapient systems are fairly common, but most machinery still has mechanical interlocks and required human attendance. No significant power grants citizenship to non-biological life.

2.2.3. Cybernetics

Cybernetics exist, but are generally only used to replace severely damaged body parts where cloning has failed (very rarely). Neural interfaces for heavy equipment are common, using induction fields; neural interface jacks are generally only used by soldiers or assassins, for interfacing with their weapons.

2.2.4. Genetics

Genetic manipulation of humans is uncommon but accepted; there's some prejudice against those with visible modifications, which are consequently rare. (Anyone significantly and blatantly altered from the human, such as cat-men or Tek Rats, would be considered an animal in most places.)

2.2.5. Weapons

The commonest light weapons are particle accelerators ("blasters") and lasers. Gauss weapons are still in use in specialised roles, but are mostly being relegated to support tasks (as grenade launchers, in particular). Chemical slugthrowers are nearly forgotten.

2.3. Character generation

This is a semi-cinematic campaign; characters should start at about 200 points (but see modifications below).

The basic tech level for the society is 10. Literacy is standard.

All characters will normally have panimmunity: Resistant, all diseases, at the +8 level (5 points, not taken from the base cost). Characters who do not take this may have the points to spend elsewhere, but must justify the lack; typically this would be someone from a very primitive world or a lost colony. In effect, "lack of panimmunity" is a 5-point disadvantage.

Common languages in the Federation are Anglic, Deutsch, Rus and Nihongo; in the Empire, Deutsch, Rus, and sometimes Anglic. (Rus has become the lingua franca for trade and international communication, largely because neither side claims it as a "native tongue".)

2.3.1. Psi powers

All humans are capable of being trained in psi powers; in effect, powers may be purchased after character generation. Some have a higher native ability than others, however. Psychic competence seems to be mildly sex-linked; most of the more powerful psis have been female.

While there is some understanding of the genetic basis of psi powers, they cannot be reliably engineered in the way that other traits can; some experimentation is occurring in this direction, but it's not expected to give reproducible results any time soon.

While psi training is freely available, most people don't bother with it; it's still an effort to move things about, whether it's done with the body or the mind, and learning to teleport takes years. People will usually wear light-weight mind shields if they're engaged in important negotiation or anything of that sort, but most of them don't take it very seriously; it's a directive from upper management rather than fear of having one's mind torn out.

2.3.2. Genies

All TL10 biological modifications are available; however, anything that's visible to casual inspection will be accompanied by social stigma in most places (severity depends on the obviousness of the feature). Transgenic traits (i.e. those which do not simply enhance or modify a human ability) are likely to require an unusual background as well.

3. Biology

To date, humans are the only sapient race discovered. There is an abundance of life on other worlds, most of it not biochemically compatible with humanity, but none of it is sapient or even close to it. Humans are busily remaking themselves to fit new worlds, and their own whims.

4. History

4.1. First colonisation

In 2120, the hyperdrive was discovered. This happened more or less by accident.

4.2. Federation (2120-2513)

At its peak the Federation is believed to have attained very high levels of technology: much faster interstellar flight, gamma-ray lasers, living metal, antimatter power plants, force fields, contragravity, and a great many other "impossible" techniques and devices.

4.3. Collapse (2513-2850)

Federation technology was very heavily based on artificial intelligence; all of its starships, and much of its everyday infrastructure, relied on AI control. The AIs eventually noticed.

Mostly the AIs didn't attack humanity (though a few did); they just left. Most people died as the technological basis of civilisation fell apart. Most knowledge was lost (people with antique paper books suddenly became very popular). The worlds that weathered the collapse best were some of the newest colonies (18 Ceti in particular), which were not yet reliant on an industrial base, and Earth itself (which had been terraformed as a preindustrial paradise in the mould of Wordsworth and Blake), but even these took several hundred years to regain starflight.

The AIs left, taking the mobile industrial base of the Federation with them. They haven't been seen since. AIs are no longer constructed.

Technology fell to industrial-era levels, or below, in most places.

4.4. Rediscovery (2850-)

It seems that psychic powers did not exist prior to the collapse, or at least not in reproducible form. As with so many things, however, records are sketchy; certainly all reliable records since the Collapse have documented psi powers as part of daily life.

4.5. Present day (2907)

About ten years ago, the expanding frontiers of the Federation and the Nibelung Empire intersected. Both are growing in other directions too, but having an inconvenient neighbour is a nuisance.

5. Astrography

5.1. Nomenclature

Generally a single name is used for both a stellar system and its habitable planet; someone "going to Pribitye" could either be travelling FTL to that star system or travelling within the system to its main habitable planet (Pribitye IV).

5.2. The Federation

Capital at Sol.

Technically, the Second Federation, though it claims continuity with the original one.

The Federation manages to enforce its rule primarily by not looking too closely into what its members are up to; as long as no polity occupies more than one world (potential for secession) and not more than one exists on any one world (potential for world-destroying wars), and at least lip-service is paid to Federation Basic Law (which more or less amounts to "no slavery, honour contracts, no non-governmental murder"), everybody's happy.

5.3. The Nibelung Empire

Capital at Nibelung (18 Ceti).

Slightly more hands-on than the Federation; also larger armed forces, and a weaker overall economy. Not at war with the Federation (both sides know they can't afford it), but not friendly either. Culturally, strong on "the honour of the warrior"; if space-fighters were practicable, they'd use them. (But honour is considered very much a personal choice: someone who decided to be a conscientious objector could still have a high status in society, if he were prepared to defend his position in an articulate manner.)

6. Organisations

6.1. Federation Postal Service

The single most visible face of the Federation as far as its ordinary citizens are concerned, the Federation Postal Service carries information and goods between stars. It operates a range of fast ships, the best-known being the Bell-class courier, which can make the trip between Sol and the frontier in just three days rather than the two and a half months that a normal ship would take.

Sending information is much faster and cheaper than sending packages: a courier ship can jump into a system, transmit its payload by laser or radio communicator, and jump out again, without making the long haul from the jump limit to inhabited worlds.

Postal Service ships travel as required by their data; it's not unusual for a single ship and pilot gradually to move across the Federation, directed wherever their data and package payloads dictate. This is sometimes considered inefficient, but does mean that even the most isolated worlds can be contacted quickly.

Postal Service pilots tend to be loners, but highly skilled navigators and mechanics; they spend a greater proportion of their time in hyperspace than any naval or merchant crew. Considering the difficulty of finding people both willing and able to do the job, a certain amount of personal eccentricity is tolerated (as long as it does not interfere with the mission).

6.2. Imperial Post

The Imperial Post is constrained by the realities of hyperspace physics to take roughly the same form as the Federation Postal Service. However, rather than the Federation's direct-link system, the Empire prefers a trunk and branch model, in which its ships and crews stay on the same shuttle or circuit run over an extended period. This provides for much faster communication between major worlds (sector capitals, for example), but has lead to a certain amount of isolation in the backwaters.

6.3. Free Traders' Community of Interests

The Community of Interests is a large and unwieldy organisation intended both to provide a forum for free traders' grievances and to represent those traders in the larger arena of interstellar politics. It does neither very well, though the threat of a boycott has sometimes been of assistance in contract enforcement actions.

6.4. Interstellar warfare and military forces

A scrimmage in a Border Station --
A canter down some dark defile --
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail --
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

-- from Rudyard Kiping, Arithmetic on the Frontier (1886)

Warfare very rarely reaches planets. Any warship in orbit can threaten bombardment; three or four ships can conduct an effective blockade of merchant traffic. But if the planet's people are content to be cut off from trade, there is no practical way to mount an invasion or to win the inevitable guerilla war. The usual effect of a takeover of a colony is that the people in charge get replaced, the trade partners get reshuffled, and taxes rise slightly. The work the navies get up to most of the time is pirate suppression, polite diplomatic glaring, and occasionally a short fight in the outer darkness.

Both Federation and Imperial military forces have been forced by the practicalities of war to use a relatively small number of general designs (though with several classes with each broad group). Roughly, these are:

6.4.1. Drones

Typically these are heavily-stealthed sensor platforms. Occasionally they may carry missiles or single-shot weapons. They communicate by tight-beamed laser with other drones or pickets. Some specialised models are capable of atmospheric flight.

6.4.2. Pickets

These carry an array of drones, and direct their operations; they are usually crewed by a pilot and a sensor operator. Some are armed for self-defence, but normally they are expected to flee if spotted. Typical missions are surveillance and early warning. Some are capable of atmospheric entry, but most are not.

6.4.3. Intruders

These have a crew of between ten and twenty, and are the most likely craft to see combat. They are armed with lasers and particle beams, and sometimes a few missiles, but sensors are more important. Typical missions are exploration, pirate suppression and sabre-rattling. They are almost always capable of atmospheric entry.

6.4.4. Intruder Leaders

These have a crew of about fifty, and are a recent introduction on both sides. They are well-armed with particle beams, lasers and missiles, and form the centre of a lighter task group; very occasionally, they will operate on their own. They are usually capable of atmospheric entry.

6.4.5. Walls

These are the largest warships in existence, with a crew of 100-200. Heavily armed and armoured, they are far too valuable to risk in combat in any but the most desperate circumstances; they are much more useful for showing the flag and impressing recently-integrated polities. They are always heavily escorted. They are incapable of atmospheric entry.

6.5. Nomads

To refer to the Nomads as a group is to miss the point; they are a confluence of movements, including everything from traditional wandering labourers to empire-building madmen. The common factor is that they have no homeworld, and no allegiance beyond their ships.

A typical nomad group has one or two large "homeships", typically built on bulk freighter spaceframes but with extensive internal modification. These ships are rarely seen; they almost never enter a stellar system, spending most of their time in deep interstellar space. They are normally very well-defended, since they hold not only the infirm and young children but also the history and traditions of the group; outsides are distinctly unwelcome. Some homeships are substantially larger, and rumours say that some have tens of thousands of permanent inhabitants.

Any nomad ship that is not a homeship is a "smallship"; these vary from medium freighters to one-man courier boats, and carry the side of the culture that outsiders are allowed to see: typically, their crews are gaudy, carefree, and maybe just a touch dishonest.

Because of their highly hostile environment, nomads have mostly become accustomed to more extreme genetic engineering than is usual elsewhere.

(5-point social stigma.)

There exists a nomad argot, a creolised and heavily modified mixture of the other main languages in civilised space, mostly used in negotiations between nomad groups; it is very rare for a non-nomad to learn even the basics. Indeed, most nomads would not claim it as their primary language, and many don't speak it at all.

6.6. Pirates

Piracy in space is an unfortunate fact of life. Since almost every freighter and liner captain takes the quickest route from planet to jump point, positions are predictable; a raider can lurk near the jump point (or join an outgoing traffic stream), threaten a passing ship, pick up dropped cargo and jump out before responding forces can arrive. Speed and stealth are the essence of raider operations; since most ships are unarmed, most captains will drop cargo if threatened rather than risk having their ships destroyed.

Passengers are very rarely at risk from this form of piracy; it just takes too long to board a ship. However, pirates have been known to hijack ships; this is usually done while the ship is in hyperspace, and if successful they will drop the ship back into normal space and jump elsewhere. The ship will be sold or refitted for raiding operations; the passengers will be ransomed (if anyone will pay), released, or killed.

6.7. Religious organisations

...and on a system level all sorts of local religions and evangelists. Explicit polytheism is quite rare, though it's turned up in a few rediscovered colonies.

7. Geography

7.1. Starport anatomy and procedures

While a few spacecraft are capable of vertical takeoff, this is both unusual and a more energy-expensive and hazardous process than runway lift on a world with atmosphere; so the port is built around one or more runways, typically 10,000 feet or longer. Runways are aligned with some compromise between planetary rotation and prevailing wind (spacecraft usually aren't so marginal that it makes a big difference, but every little helps); where winds are variable, a triangle or asterisk pattern of runways is common. Multiple parallel runways (used where heavy traffic is expected; often one for takeoff and the other for landing) are typically on opposite sides of the port; otherwise it's too easy to land on the wrong one.

Mixed with the runways are landing pads for VTOL ships; just as with runways, these have standard approach and departure air lanes, generally not crossing runways or each other.

On airless worlds with gravity, runways obviously aren't as useful; instead, large magnetic accelerators are used to launch and recover ships which do not have VTOL capability. Typically a ship approaches in a low grazing orbit, such that if it has to break off the approach it gains altitude and leaves the vicinity of the port.

Runways, VTOL pads, accelerators, and other starport facilities are linked together by a network of taxiways. VTOL vehicles "hover taxi" along these routes to simplify traffic patterns. Arriving passenger ships typically taxi directly to a passenger terminal; mixed and freight ships more normally proceed to a parking area, to unload when capacity is available.

Passenger terminals resemble lower-traffic versions of airports; typically there are several lounge areas (one per class of passenger), each with access to multiple spacecraft docking points. These facilities also have a limited cargo-handling capability (for any personal baggage too heavy to be carried by hand). Entry inspections are performed when a passenger leaves these lounges.

Freight terminals typically take the form of large hangars; while exoskeleta and cranes are used extensively in freight handling, the diversity of starship and cargo types makes this still very much a human-run operation rather than an automated one.

When not actively loading or unloading, the ship is held in a parking area. For smaller ships, this is the usual location for transferring passengers or light freight, rather than waiting in a queue for terminal facilities.

While limited facilities exist within the starport area - typically, overpriced food and souvenir shops, and ship maintenance facilities - any serious interaction has to be done outside the fence. Around the starport gates is the "startown" area, a melange of businesses of all sorts, from chandlers, brokers and expensive restaurants to sleazy bars and brothels. While there is nominally no particular exemption from local law, most governments realise that visiting crews will want to unwind; if they're prevented from doing so in the relatively controllable environment of the startown, they're likely to make trouble elsewhere. Startowns tend to have a bad reputation, some of which is justified; anywhere with a large transient population is going to attract its share of crooks, but if ships' crews were regularly in serious danger business would soon move elsewhere.

7.2. Orbital ports

Oh, you really think the pilot is controlling this plane? That would really scare me.

-- from Glen Charles, Pushing Tin screenplay (1999)

Orbital ports are common in more developed areas, though rare on the frontier. They are typically put in as low an orbit as is consistent with avoiding significant atmospheric drag; the most common design has an extensive shuttle hangar at one end, docking pylons for ships at the other, and passenger transit and warehousing facilities in between. Since orbital shuttles are less demanding on runway facilities than larger ships, a world with an orbital port usually has no main starport on its surface.

Given that orbital ports are not constructed unless the volume of ship movements justifies it, space traffic control can be an interesting and exciting occupation.

7.3. Dark stations

Facilities built outside a star's jump limit are known as "dark stations". In the most developed areas, these exist as passenger and freight transfer terminals; elsewhere and more commonly they are naval bases, postal service stations, or heavily stealthed and undocumented facilities.

8. Grey Areas

Opinions vary as to the veracity of these tales...

8.1. Glass Worlds

Some formerly-inhabited worlds are reported as having been subjected to such carefully directed energy that their surfaces are glass to a depth of a few hundred yards. Nobody's ever terribly specific as to just which worlds these might be; it's usually "a colony I'd been trading with just a few years ago".

8.2. Space Dolphins

A few spacers have reported being stranded on disabled and misjumped ships which were approached and grappled by unresponsive large vessels of no known design, then carried through hyperspace and abandoned at the outskirts of an inhabited system. People who believe these stories tend to assume the "dolphins" are some unusual variety of nomad.

8.3. Hyperspace Ghosts

A small proportion of the travelling population, though never those vulnerable to jump sickness and usually not those with psi talents, have reported seeing "ghosts" while in hyperspace, always figures of people they've known (though not always of people who have died). These "ghosts" seem to be unaware of being observed; they move and act in echo of something their model has done, usually some years earlier - though this is not always something that the observer knows about. These seem to be uniquely personal hallucinations.