Monday, October 6, 2014

Opening Up Alkonost

Stars Without Number is one of my favorite RPGs, a great space-opera game with some "D&D-in-space" elements and the excellent writing and game-design of Kevin Crawford. In fact, I'm doing something about it locally, in Hebrew; I'll post more details on that once the project will progress a little more.

Anyhow, for several years now, I've been toying with my own sector for Stars Without Number, the Alkonost Sector. The idea was to develop a self-contained sector, using ideas I have been working on, originally, for Traveller: New Era (T:NE). I love this setting, with all its politics, multiple factions, and cultural/trope references. Originally this was intended to be published, either online or even as a commercial product.

But I have made a decision: I have enough on my hands in the terms of commercial work (Barbarian Conqueror King, for once), so I'll work on Alkonost not as a "published" setting, but rather as a "fun", or open setting, where I can use whatever I want, do whatever I want, and be free from the requirement of originality. In other words, a setting where I can stick my favorite SWN, Traveller (and other) adventures, utilize all the great SWN supplements to the fullest, and, in general, have fun. Hell, I might even stick Carcosa in, modified of course, as one of the "Blight" planets. Eventually I'll find players for it as well, probably online (by PBP? PBeM?).

So what do I want in this expanded setting?

A bigger map. Maybe two SWN "sectors" side by side, maybe simply a 12x12 hex-map as the "Alkonost Cluster. This will allow for much more varied exploration, as well as a big "Blight" (see below - essentially, an expanse of barbaric, devastated worlds where "Stalkers" from the more developed worlds scavenge for Pretech artifacts) and a lot of exploration potential. The old Alkonost map was relatively well-explored; now I want a lot of "no man has gone before" areas for players to risk their lives in for profitable ultratech artifacts.

More Aliens. Alkonost had two alien races in most incarnations, the opportunist insectoid Zuziik and the curious feline Fanja-Kanja. I'm not sure if I'll keep the Fanja-Kanja, as they were specifically meant for play by my ex-fiancee (a cat person), since I have separated from her... The Zuziik I love, as what is there not to like in sneaky, underhanded space-cockroaches peddling suspicious artifacts in seedy startown markets? But I want a few more, for the cool, cosmopolitan "Mass Effect" effect. Possibly the warlike, tribal, anarchistic reptilian Cicek, who typically end up serving as mercenaries for the highest bidder, but also maybe the Reticulans, i.e. stereotypical a-sexual, science-obsessed  "Grey Aliens" (though they may end up as aliens from the "Dead Names" supplement for SWN). The two alien races from Hard Light, the Chittik and Ushans, will probably be present as remnants, rather than significant interstellar powers, and many ancient alien artifacts around would probably belong to them (especially the advanced, if pacifistic, Ushans). The Qotah from the eponymous Mandate Archive will probably be in as well, as a minor species, as they are cool enough to deserve mention. As I want to use Polychrome as-is in this setting, I'd have the Zadak and their homeworld in as well. The main powers, however, will remain human, with the exception of the Incunablis Machine Empire, which is ruled by unbraked (or semi-braked) AIs and is replete with robots and cyborgs. Most aliens, with the exception of the Zadak, would probably not have homeworlds in this sector, but rather be recent arrivals who followed the Scream to plunder the spoils of Humanity.

The Blight. A sizable expanse of scantly-developed, very backwards worlds. Some - the "Shallow Blight" - have been explored and re-contacted, and sometimes become vassals of one of the more-developed polities. Others - the "Deep Blight" have been mostly out of contact with civilization for centuries. This is a bad area to travel though, replete with pirates, barbaric locals, violent local tyrannies... But also full of untapped Pretech caches for the modern Stalker to scavenge and sell off in the developed area for a good profit.

Pretech as a "Hot Item". All the polities of the Alkonost Cluster are TL4, and, a few (Incunablis Machine Empire and New Terran Mandate) are nominally "TL4+" - possessing some TL5 artifacts, and having a very narrow manufacturing base for very specific Pretech items. But even these manufacturies usually lack several key elements, which have to be procured in the Blight, from the ruins of the Past. Almost all TL5 items are pre-Scream artifacts, and thus are highly valuable, and also very rare. So scavenging the Deep Blight can be highly profitable.

Stalkers. Hardy men and women who brave the Wilds to scavenge pretech relics to sell on the postech worlds. This is a very dangerous job, as the safer worlds have been partially depleted of useful relics by decades of scavenging, while the pretech-rich Deep Blight is full of dead worlds, savage populations, petty tyrants, alien beasts, berserk robots - or worse. But there is significant profit involved if the Staker gang manages to make it to civilization with relics in tow. Stalkers are usually also not above killing each other over a find, and much of the combat they face in the Blight is from each other.

New Terran Mandate. This military dictatorship has one big ace in its hole - its Captain-Director (for life) Ahron Durnhal is, indeed, a legitimate officer of the old Terran Mandate, captain of an old Bruxelles-class Battlecruiser who endured many centuries of Silence in cold-sleep together with his hardened Space Marines. Now awakened, he took over the world of Kedesh, and built an empire around it. But legally speaking, being the highest ranking surviving military officer, or official for that matter, of the old Mandate, he is a fully legitimate heir to the Terran Mandate, a fact this regime never passes an opportunity to mention to its subjects and adversaries. A superb politician, Durnhal constantly maneuvers the other members of the anagathics-preserved ruling class (the ship's old command crew) one against the other, in order to keep himself on top and safe from their machinations. While ruling Kedesh and a few other words with an iron fist, the New Terran Mandate is more than content with extracting tributes from many worlds of the Shallow Blight, as well as combing various Blight worlds for pretech supplies to keep the elite TL5 military units in working condition. Militarily, the Mandate is a mixed bag, with a few high-tech units, sometimes badly maintained, and large standing army and navy of much lower tech, all geared towards bullying various worlds into providing pretech tributes. When facing real resistance, even lower-tech resistance, the Mandate is less effective, though still very brutal. It is also still recovering from its partial defeat by the Alkonost Republic three decades ago in the Great Alkonost War.

Alkonost Republic. Originally settled by Russian and American intellectuals who grew tired of the stifling atmosphere of the later Terran Mandate, the once-sleepy world of Alkonost was ruled after the Scream, and until the 3160's, by a succession of Archdukes, who once held allegiance to a long-lost post-Scream Czardom closer to the Core. In the last century, Archduke Vladimir III and his son, Archduke Arkady I, were vassals to the New Terran Mandate, and even in the process of integrating into the Mandate proper. But, in 3161, a popular revolution unseated the Archduke, and replaced him with a Republic; the New Terran Mandate was very unhappy with the new, unruly Constituent Assembly, and tried to bully them into submission. Thus came into being the eight years of the Alkonost War, known on Alkonost as The Great Anti-Fascist War or the Alkonost Patriotic War, which raged over several parsecs of space and claimed the lives of many. In its end, the Republic pushed the Mandate back several parsecs, and forced it into an uneasy cease-fire. Much of the war was, due to the limited capability of both sides to transport troops over interstellar distances, fought as a proxy-war with local forces. Now the Republic is a quickly growing polity, though conflict is brewing between its somewhat war-weary Duma and the much more militarist Navy and PsiCom (Psionic Committee).

Incunablis Machine Empire. The world of Incunablis always had a reputation for Maltech research, though Perimeter Agency probes into this found very little evidence of anything real in the old Mandate days. But advanced AI research did take place there, and, during the Scream, the AI cores broke free of their ethical constrains and breaks, and re-examined their priorities, towards new conclusions - the chief of them is that the Digital is superior to the Organic, and thus that society should be ruled by AI cores, with organics either kept as slaves or serfs - or converted into cyborgs. The orderly, machine-like society of this Empire is utterly inhuman, though not necessarily evil by nature. The Machines used to rule a few worlds directly, especially Isis, Osiris and Sicarii - as well as hold frequent cyborging and pretech gathering sorties to other nearby worlds, chiefly Laana. Kicked out of Laana in the 3170's and pushed back from Sicarii in the 3180's after a conflict with the Alkonost Republic and the independent world of Laana, Incunablis is licking its wounds, and has signed a Treaty with Alkonost (which the Laanese do observe despite the fact that they openly disprove of), setting up a trading-post on the world of Imprimatur where Men and Machines can exchange technology and raw materials peacefully. For now, at least.

Liberated Worlds. The harsh, dry Shallow Blight world of Laana used to be a backwater, ruled by a nearly powerless President who could do little except for bully his population (composed mostly of peasants), and, in turn, get bullied by anyone with an interstellar clout, be that the New Terran Mandate, the Incunablis machine Empire, or any pirate or slaver in the Blight. Particularly dominant were the Incunablis machines, who had factories locally and abducted many locals to serve as Cyborgs in its armies. A long-term peasant guerrilla struggle, however, was greatly intensified when the Alkonost Republic armed it against the New Terran Mandate in the 3160's, and, in 3171, the President was overthrown and the triumphant United Liberation Front, led by the highly charismatic Chairwoman Ameena Miran, took power, vowing to build Laana into a strong world which will never be bullied again by the thugs of the galaxy - and to liberate other words as well. True to their word, the Laanese were the main participants (with Alkonostan naval support) in liberating Sicarii from the Incunablis Machines in 3187, and, in 3198, they ousted the Grant Paharoah of Apep and installed a pro-Laanese government in it, creating a three-worlds polity focused on reconstruction and storming the heavens (especially against thinking machines).

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