Saturday, January 4, 2014

[the Scrapyard] Two Visions of Empire

Happy New Year!

This is the Scrapyard - where I post gaming ideas that have come up in my mind, but which I cannot follow up at the moment due to having to focus on my main gaming projects (Barbarian Conqueror King, Outer Veil and Alkonost, as well as painting minis for Tomorrow's War).

This post is about two similar visions of a Traveller (or maybe Stars Without Number?) space-opera setting. So far my main Traveller setting is Outer Veil, which is relatively hard sci-fi near-future in the vein of Alien(s), Outland, System Shock and Firefly; it is EXTREMELY FUN to write for, and, hopefully, sooner or later I'll run a PbP game set in this universe (as the local roleplayers seem too keen on playing D&D 3.5E, or, at most, ACKS, rather than sci-fi games). The ideas I'll present here are very different from Outer Veil - as they belong to a different genre, of proper space-opera, with living aliens, star-spanning empires, big-scale space battles, epic plots... Just like my favourite space-opera computer games Star Control 2 and Mass Effect, like the epic Babylon 5 of my youth, or books such as Dune or the Hyperion Cantos. A little bit of this I already do in my Alkonost setting for SWN, but Alkonost is a small pond where four pocket-empires fight for dominance. What I'll present here is of a bigger scope.

This is about space empires. Outer Veil, modernist and down-to-earth, laughs in the face of such space feudalism. But space-opera, a different genre, need space empires, huge fleet battles, and epic wars of galactic conquest. It needs its Talanas, Londo Mollaris and Matriarch Benezias. It also needs a menagerie of alien species, exotic planets and exciting gadgets. So here is my "scrapyard" vision of two potential Traveller (or Stars Without Number?) settings with a Space Empire, space-opera theme.

How does a Space Empire Work?
There was an intense discussion on the SFRPG boards about how the Official Traveller Universe's Third Imperium actually works. Here I present an Empire which is somewhat different from the Traveller default, though also somewhat similar in spirit. Whether this is an alien Empire (as in Vision #1) or a Terran Empire (as in Vision #2), my basic idea for them is the same. The idea is this: An Empire of Zaibatsus. The Empire is ruled by the Major Houses, as well as Minor Houses; each House is a massive, family-owned, semi-monopolist megacorp, similar to the Zaibatsus of Imperial Japan, though with even bigger political clout. Eventually, these Houses - initially mercantile and industrial combines - have ossified themselves into the very political fabric of the Empire, with various fancy titles of nobility foisted on their controlling, old-money families, and a pseudo-feudal mystique and culture surrounding them. But, at the most basic level, the Empire is not feudal per se - it is not ruled by a class of land-owners - but rather more like highly monopolized capitalism.

So each House is essentially a corporation, with a single extended family controlling it. Each House owns a very wide variety of subsidiaries, industries and outlets, and also has the right to govern planets, subsectors or even sectors. When communications are limited to the speed of travel and the speed of travel is, at most, 6 parsecs per week, it means that planetary business, even when owned by an interstellar corporation, must run itself almost independently. So how does the controlling family make sure that all its interstellar holdings are run in its interest? By appointing relatives, or, at least, members of long-time allied families (i.e. retainers) to run businesses, planets and subsectors. It's all in the family, you see.

The Empire is 9 Sectors in size (3x3), with each of the 8 peripheral Sectors controlled by one Major House, and the central Sector controlled by the biggest and richest of the Houses, the Imperial Family. Major Houses have much autonomy in how they run their Sectors, and are relatively self-sufficient, at least in basic goods. Inter-sector trade is in luxuries, high-tech items, rare earthes and other things which the local industrial World or Asteroid Belt couldn't simply produce.

Minor Houses own smaller businesses, typically on the Subsector level; some are independent and provide services which the Major Houses do not see profitable enough to monopolize; others are, in essence, independent subsidiaries ("vassals") of Major Houses. Free Traders also have their place, as highly ossified monopolies cannot always cater to each and every need of multiple disparate planets, so these holes in the system are plugged by independents, as well as smugglers, who, as small companies, are much more flexible in their response to the market.

Each House has its own military, and is expected to take care of its Sector's defences on its own. The Emperor also owns several high-tech Legions and Imperial Fleets, whom he uses to keep the Houses in line, as well as take care of emergencies that the local Houses cannot deal with (such as major invasions or massive rebellions). These are mostly kept in the Core, though some squadrons patrol the Periphery to show the flag and remind the Houses who is in charge. But usually the ones to face the initial thrust of foreign invasions and rebellions are House troops, with the Imperial forces intervening only as the last resort.

While each planet in the Empire is ruled by a member of a House (i.e. a noble), the actual government, and thus the Traveller government code, varies, as not all nobles rule in the same way. The ideal (from the Imperial viewpoint, that is) planetary administration is Traveller Government 5 (Feudal Technocracy), but some rulers take a more direct hand (Govs A-B) or let their servants run things for them (Govs 8-9); sometimes the world is split between several Houses (Gov 7), sometimes the ruling family runs things rather than a proper Zaibatsu subsidiary (Gov 3) and sometimes (rarely) the ruler steps back and, as long as the taxes are flowing, lets the local run their own lives (Govs 2 and 4).

Vision #1: The Reticulan Empire and the United Terran Republic
Reticulan in Space Suit

Reticulan Legionnaires
(Critical Mass Games Ygs Fighters)
In this Vision, Humanity has missed its chance to start its own interstellar state. In the hyper-consumerist 21st century, apart from some privately-owned space tourist outfits and some abortive attempts at belt mining, we Humans did not pay much attention to space, preferring instead to focus on our day-to-day lives here on Earth. Space programs were cut back, and the single manned Mars landing in 2043 was not followed by any further exploration. But then the Reticulans came.

In 2082, several Reticulan (more particularly, House Thiragin) capital ships appeared in Earth orbit, sending a wave of smaller saucers to hover above Earth's major cities. Soon enough, through promises of advanced technology and access to vast wealth through interstellar trade, most Earth governments signed pacts with the alien visitors. In a matter of months, Earth was transformed from a chaotic collection of independent states
FSA Operatives
into one big client-state of the Reticulan House Thiragin, ruled by the Earth Federal Administration (EFA). A few Earthlings did resist this economic and political takeover, however, under the umbrella of the hastily-formed Terran Defence Committee (TDC), which, for several years, launched covert operations against the aliens and their collaborators, until hunted down and defeated by the EFA's bio-augmented Federal Security Apparatus (FSA), better known as the Men in Black.

Flag of the UTR (Vision #1)
Flag of the NTR (Vision #2)
Cickek Warriors
(Stan Johanssen Miniatures Draco Infantry)
While self-administered and allowed to build its own armed forces - mostly to serve as auxiliary troops for House Thiragin - Terra was under the alien thumb, its economy and resources exploited by the alien Thiragin, some of its people used by Thiragin scientists as lab-rats for various bio-tech experiments, and its soldiers send off to fight distant wars on the behalf of its alien masters. the EFA allowed relatively little freedom to its citizens, but, on the other hand, developed its own sphere of space around Earth with nine new colonies settled by Mankind, exporting goods to the Thiragin monopoly and the larger Reticulan Empire.

But then, in 2232, Humanity had enough. After a century and a half of subjugation, massive protests against the EFA's unfair tax burden and tyrannical practices turned into open rebellion on Terra and the nine major colonies. Out of the chaos, rose the United Terran Republic (UTR), which declared itself an independent state, and, soon after, called
Sselassians - another Reticulan Client Species
(Critical Mass Games Astagar Fighters)
for the Reticulans' other thralls and client states to rise up in rebellion as well, towards a free Interstellar Republic.

The Reticulans responded by trying to crush this impudent uprising, sending their own Thiragin Huscarls as well as Cicek mercenaries. Thus began the Terran Liberation War. Stubborn Terran military resistance, as well as diplomatic efforts, found, however, their success, as parts of the Cicek hordes broke off from their own, Reticulan-dominated client-state, forming
Fanja-Kanja - yet another Reticulan Client Species
(Khurasan Miniatures Felids)
what was first known as the Cicek Democracy and later as the Cicke Confederacy. The combined might of Terran troops and allied Cicek dissidents crushed, in 2239, House Thiragin's might, breaking through the defensive lines and approaching Zeta 2 Reticuli, House Thiragin's Sector Capital. Until then, however, the other Reticulan houses, content to see their Thiragin competitors embroiled in what was seen as a minor rebellion of barbarians and thus
Ph'noonk - yet another Reticulan Client Species
( Octopods)
weakened, have not intervened. Only when UTR and Cicek Confederation troops were two jumps away from Zeta 2 Reticuli, the Empress herself sent her Legions, supported by numerous to crush the rebellion.

Ultimately, they failed. Fighting raged for a decade more, with the lines moving back
Zhuzzh - yet another Reticulan Client Species
(Spriggan Miniatures Spug)
and forth between the Terran-Cicek alliance and the Reticulan Empire, but, in January 2250, the fabled Terran Guard, supported by Colonial Troops and a heavy Cicek fleet, crushed through the Reticulan lines, capturing Zeta 2 Reticuli and thus declaring the entire Reticuli Sector (now Terra Sector) their own.

Terran Guard troops
(Khurasan Miniatures Nova Respublik)
The Empire had to capitulate. In June 2250, they signed a treaty with the UTR, recognizing its sovereignty, as well as its conquest of the Reticuli Sector, and setting up a Demilitarized Zone between the two states, where ships above 2,000 tons were disallowed to enter (the war saw ships as big as 50,000 tons in action). Furthermore, Terra forced the Reticulans' hand into allowing the various minor races of the Demilitarized Zone to secede, if desired, from the Empire.

Now it is 2258. After two decades of war and eight years of recovery, a large part of the Terran military is being demobilized. Your characters were among those who were mustered out (anyone serving 3 or more Traveller terms have actually fought in the Terran Liberation War!). Opportunities for civilian, or mercenary life abound in the far reaches of the Demilitarized Zone. Between petty squabbles of newly-independent worlds and the two major powers' attempts to covertly exert their influence into the DMZ, there is a big market for mercs, spies-for-hire, and, on the other hand, merchants opening up new markets on distant worlds. Adventures await!

Technologically speaking, the current Reticulan Empire is squarely at Traveller TL13, the UTR at most at TL12 for civilian applications with some TL13 military gear (especially starship weapons and Jump-4 military couriers) and the Cicek TL11 for the most part.

Vision #2: Decline and Fall of the Terran Empire
Terran Imperial Marines
(Laserburn Imperial Troopers)
In this Vision, most earth governments of the early-mid 21st century did indeed cut deep into their space budgets, preferring to focus on more terrestrial matters instead. However, space exploration was taken up by Terran corporations, who saw the new frontier as a means for gaining vast wealth. And wealth they found indeed. Operating under Terran 'flags of convenience', they soon found their way into the asteroid belt, growing rich from its ore. In 2091, a faster-than-light engine, dubbed the 'Jump Drive', was invented, seemingly simultaneously, by several of the corporations. Soon enough, they were all over the nearby stars, exploring and exploiting their resources and colonizing distant planets.

By the mid-22nd century, ten stable megacorporations, each owned by a single family, arose from this exploration - the so-called Zaibatsus. Each laid claim to a major slice of explored and unexplored space, and held a vertical, as well as horizontal, monopoly over the majority of goods produced and consumed in that slice Inter-corporation trade was mostly in rare earth elements, radioactives and specialized technologies. It was by the early 23rd centurt that the Zaibatsus deemed their old Terran 'flags of convenience' to be an inconvenience. Ossified and highly monopolized, in 2233 they used their enormous economic clout to manoeuvre the various Earth governments into forming Terra's first world-state: the Terran Empire. Upon their fossilized and highly nepotist corporate machines they foisted traditional titles from Earth's past, and the richest of all Zaibatsu families - the Durnhal family - became the Imperial Household. A major air of nostalgic pseudo-feudal mystique was stirred up by the Great Houses, with a strong rhetoric of honour and tradition. But, at its heart, the Terran Empire was a glorified price-fixing scheme, a deal between monopolies to divide known space between their interests.

For three centuries things went well, with the empire growing and expanding, making contact with the Reticulan Technate, with the Cicek Tribes, the Sselessian Hegemony, the Fanja-Kanja Condfederation, the Ph'noonk Cooperative and the nomadic Zhuzzh. The era between the Empire's stabilization in 2239 and the Great Stagnation beginning in 2526 was called the Terran Golden Age. While Great House nepotism and bureaucracy made scientific discoveries slow, trade with the alien neighbours brought new ideas to Terra, and technology progressed up to Traveller TL13, albeit in a conservative fashion. Apart from the occasional border skirmish with alien polities, as well as the growing threat of piracy, the single greatest military threat to the Terran Empire was the Matriarchate, a posthuman polity formed by dissident belters in the far reaches of space, and embraced cybertechnology to the hilt (unlike the conservative Empire), up to an including creating a synthetic shared consciousness of their group. And, indeed, the threat of the utterly alien (though of Human origin) Matriarchate served as a whip to keep Imperial citizens in line for several generations.

Republican Militias
( Rim Mercenaries)
The Great Stagnation was cooking, in fact, since the mid-25th century. Ossified, decadent and introverted, the Imperial Core saw innovation as an inconvenience and progress as a threat. An economy and a society which is not moving forward, however, is bound to start sliding back. In 2526, the first Great House was forced to declare bankruptcy, an unprecedented event in Imperial history. Recession set in, and the power struggles betwen the Great Houses grew bitter. When Empress Elena IV died an early death in 2539, despite TL13 medical technology, and left the line with no clear successor, the Empire fell into disarray, with the Great Houses scrambling to place themselves on the Terran Throne instead of the dying House Durnhal.

The actual Civil War, and the Terran Revolution which followed, were actually relatively short. Between 2539 and 2547, brief fire was exchanged between the major houses, and a major uprising had occurred in several parts of the Empire, including on Terra itself. But lacking economic strength to back up their war machines, the remaining Great Houses, as well as the Republican rebels, were unable to claim a victory. When the dust settled in 2547, the Terran Republic was no more, a weak Emperor found his way to the Terran Throne (ruling Terra itself and a handful of nearby worlds in bad economic shape); only three of the Great Houses remain in any measurable strength.

Into this vacuum came new forces seeking to gain ascendency from the chaos. First and foremost, Terran space was invaded by aliens, chief among them the Cicek, the Sselassians, the Zhuzzh and the Reticulans, seeking to expand their territories and grow rich from Imperial plunder; little or no Human forces were able to repel these invasions. Secondly, local warlords, as well as opportunistic Oligarchs - interstellar robber-barons feeding on the rotting carrion of the fallen Great Houses - rose and consolidated their local forces. The Republican armada and its rag-tag civilian followers, fleeing prosecution and near-defeat in the Core and the Coreward-Spinward by the remaining Great Houses, crossed known space into the utter Rimward, where they found sympathetic locals and established the New Terran Republic (NTR) - far from Terra itself.

The year is 2551 and the former Terran Empire lies in ruins. But out of the chaos, new opportunities arise for the brave, the enterprising and the opportunistic. Whether they serve one of the old Great Houses, align themselves with a warlord or Oligarch, join the Republican cause or strike out in their own, player characters have a chance for fame, glory and empire-building.

Technology is Traveller TL12 at best for most post-Imperial factions. The Empire was late TL13. The Reticulan Technate are early TL14; the old Reticulan State was TL16.


So, which of these would you, hypothetically, wish to play in? Which do you prefer?


  1. Both are great settings but I prefer the first one, as it feels more Traveller to me.
    The second has a sort of Firefly universe feel to it, which is not bad mind you
    but, I like playing on the edges of a big empire.

  2. +1
    I like the first one slightly more as well, since it lets the player root for Humanity a bit more.

  3. Regarding my inspiration for this:

    #1: X-COM series, Star Control 2, Roman Empire vs. the Barbarians (Terrans are the barbarians here), various anti-colonial struggles, Babylon 5 and Mass Effect.

    #2: Fall of the Roman Empire, Collapse of the USSR, Battlestar Galactica, China in the 1930's, Firefly and some Mass Effect and Babylon 5.

    The Matriarchate are a special case - inspired by Deus Ex: Invisible War, Dan Simmon's Ousters (from the Hyperion Cantos), Mass Effect's Geth, Battlestar Galactica's (2000's series) Cylon and a bit of Star Trek's original Borg...