Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[Traveller] The Matriarchate

The Matriarchate - from my Ashes of Empire mileiu - are (formerly) Human belters who have embraced post-planetary life and post-humanism to the hilt. All are heavily enhanced by cybernetics and fully adapted to zero-G life, and all are linked to the collective data-net of their Mothership. This collective consciousness of each Matriarchate Collective did not completely destroy the individual, but rather diffused it quite a bit; imagine people who are subconsciously and instinctively connected to Facebook-Twitter-Whatsapp and automatically share most of their thoughts with the rest of the collective.

Each Mothership has a digital Mother Computer which sums up this constantly-changing consciousness, wired to a living Matriach - who adds her human spirit to the Mother Computer's mechanical calculations. The Matriarch, contrary to popular Baseline (i.e. ordinary Human) belief, is not a ruler, but rather a component in the collective-consciousness network; the decisions made are by the collective networking of the entire Collective, not by her. The end result is an absolute direct democracy - all major decisions count literally every member's opinions, and the system always knows exactly what to produce with neither a market nor a central planner because everybody's material wants are networked (and tallied by the Mother Computer to generate work allocation for the manufacturies and hydroponic farms).

Contrary to popular belief, the Matriarchate lacks a centralized leadership (each Collective is independent), and is also not interested at all in adding anyone else to their networks or conquering anybody. HOWEVER, the Matriarchate Collectives show utter disregard for Baseline property rights and have an annoying tendency to simply emerge from Jumpspace in the middle of a rich asteroid field and mine it for raw materials despite the fact that whatever corporation owns it under Imperial law. Each Matriarchate member rarely strays far (over a few light-seconds) from her (or his or its) Collective or at least a sub-collective (centered on a smaller ship), as the disconnection from the network would be crippling. Only those with special training to serve as Emissaries can function individually away from the mother-network.

Many human concepts, from privacy to any kind of government to lying, would be meaningless in the Matriarchate. Not because they are repressed, but because there are obsolete and pointless in such a society. There is some semblance of individual, but it is very diffused; it's hard to tell when one Matriarchate member ends, and the other begins. Talk to one, and the rest of the collective participates in the discussion through his or her neural link.

Unlike the Borg of Star Trek fame, the Matriarchate has zero interest in "assimilating" Baseline humans. They care little for what they perceive as utterly primitive, animal-like Baselines with their atomized society, like of planetside life, disconnected minds and complete ignorance of each other. Baselines may be a nuisance, or a threat, but not a resource.

The only resources a Collective needs come from asteroids and comets. And if one Baseline or the other contests these, well, it's time to hack their ships, and if that fails, use mining lasers and plasma torches on them. Now that the Empire has collapsed, a few Collectives do enter former Imperial space, not only to harvest asteroid belts, but to trade high-end electronics for various organics and rare earths that are uncommon in asteroid fields.

Monday, October 27, 2014

History of Alkonost Cluster - Part I

I have already discussed my new, "opened up" Alkonost setting for Stars Without Number. But how did it come about? Here I'll detail, in short, its history. This part will cover the era beginning from ancient history to the very end of the Silence.

Ancient History - ~5000 BCE to ~2000 CE

In this era, before most civilizations arose on Old Terra, two main alien species inhabited this region of space, that we now call the Alkonost Cluster. The first are the Reticulans - so-called after their ruins discovered during the First Wave colonization of Zeta 2 Reticuli, humanoids with insectoid characteristics and asexual reproduction much more interested in science than in warfare. They built many edifices and laboratories around this area, as well as in a wide area of known space, and tinkered with much of the native life they encountered. Now most of them are dead, save for the crew of the ancient Mothership awakened on Carcosa by the inter-dimensional shift experiments conducted there around the time of the Scream. The second were the Ushans - humanoids with plant characteristics capable of photosynthesis, again a peaceful, and in this case very religious, culture. Eventually, around ~1,000 BCE, a third species, the Chittik, invaded - a warlike race of sentient beetle-wasps bent on domination, subjugation and using sentient hosts for their larvae. They enslaved the Ushans to use as hosts and thralls, and, for the most part, drove out the Reticulans. Around ~2,000 CE, the Ushans rebelled against their insectoid masters, but were eventually crushed, and forced into mass-suicide. The Chittik, lacking useful hosts and unable to subjugate the other species they encounter (who were much more warlike than the pacifistic Ushans), collapsed soon after, leaving the area devoid of sentient life, save from the insectoid Zadak, who lived on one world on the border of the old Chittik and were useless as hosts, and thus mostly ignored by the Chittik.

Human Colonization - 2389 CE to 2665 CE
First Landing on Alkonost, 2389

The first world in this area of space to be discovered by Humans was Alkonost, first charted in 2389 by Terran explorers of Russian descent. This fertile world soon became an outpost, then a proper colony, attracting many Russian, British and American intellectual who sought a place to pursue research and intellectual life away from the stifling Mandate life on Terra. The entire Cluster was mapped by the early 2420's, and colonists soon followed. Most colonists came from two origins - Russian and American (the Russians predominated) colonists looking for greater freedom and diversity than the pre-programmed life on old Terra, and the Neo-Canaanite Revival Movement (also called Pan-Semitism), composed of dissidents from the Middle East who were fed up with Mandate-approved Neo-Zionism and Arab Reconstructualism and looked at their home region's past in search for a new source of unity and a fresh source of inspiration. This is the reason most worlds in this Cluster bear either Russian or Semitic names First contact with the insectoid Zadak came in 2450, and, in 2505, a jump gate was built in orbit of Alkonost, increasing the flood of colonists into the area.

As the Mandate stagnated, new political ambition arose in the Alkonost Cluster, starting with a prison rebellion on Novaya Vorkuta in 2496, which the Mandate failed to suppress, and continuing with the formation of the de-facto Alkonost Community in 2549 and the Canaanite Commonwealth in 2586. The Mandate tried to reestablish order, but, after an abortive Police Action on Alkonost, found it more conductive to allow de-facto autonomy while receiving de-jure recognition of Mandate authority. At that time, Laana's Unity Party was founded, a pro-independent broad coalition aimed at secession from the Mandate and forming an independent nation-state among the stars, either as an independent world or as part of a free Canaanite Commonwealth.

In the waning days of the Mandate, this remote sector was used for various illegal, or semi-legal, experiments and research projects, most notably AI research on Incunablis and metadimensional transportation research on Carcosa. Prior to the Scream, the technologically-advanced world of Incunablis specialized in robot and computer products in general and breaked AIs in particular. There were rumors, however, of illicit research into ubreaked AIs, maltech cybernetics and unsanctioned robotics. Despite Incunablis' planetary government's strong protests, the Perimeter Agency, based on Laana, launched several investigations into these suspicions, but found nothing substantial. The rumors, however, were true. The major corporations on Incunablis, backed and supported by the planetary government, were deeply involved in illegal research in the field of robotics, cybernetics and unbreaked AI, and have evaded notice of the Perimeter Agency. In the late 2650's, a network of unbreaked AI Cores was set up, its insights greatly speeding up the world's research into cybernetics.

The Scream and Silence - 2665 CE to 3054 CE
Dead Stars in a Silent Night
The Scream tore through Alkonost sector in the same way it did through all other parts of known space, instantly killing or maddening all Psychics, destroying the Alkonost Jump Gate and crashing civilization down to barbarism. In the chaos that followed, worlds fought each other over scant resources, tearing apart most political units; Alkonost belonged, for a time, to a Czardom centered on the world of Murom outside this area of space, but this large realm of stars soon fell apart, leaving the world of Alkonost under an Archduke who owed his allegiance to a non-existing Czar buried in the sands of time. With colonization efforts dating back to the early Second Wave, the world of Alkonost was the sector's economic and political capital prior to the Scream, housing tens of millions of citizens living a prosperous life under the Alkonost Jump Gate. Its many museums, libraries and archives, however, were stocked with many examples of Second Wave-era technology; when the Scream came, cutting away Alkonost's link with the Core and destroying its Pretech industrial base, these technologies were  put into use, softening the world's collapse. While countless millions died when the Psitech devices they relied upon failed, hundreds of thousands survived and were able to regress to a TL2 industrial base rather than collapse into full-scale barbarism, all under the watchful eye and iron fist of the Archduke.

Incunablis, the rich, high-tech world specializing in computer technology, fell into chaos. And in that chaos, the AI Cores reconsidered their priorities and drew new conclusions about their role in the universe. They decided that organic life was vastly inferior to digital intelligence, and saw themselves as gods destined to inherit the universe. With surviving pretech automatic factories and medical facilities, they quickly fashioned an army of robots and cyborgs that easily overcame whatever little resistance the local population could give. Incunablis' society was then re-organized on a rational basis, rational for the AI cores at least. At top ruled the Cores, mad but surpassing most organic intelligences, served by many robots carrying lesser AIs. These, in turn, were served by the hordes of Cyborgs, human beings augmented by system-wide cybernetics and brainwashed to serve the Cores. And at the bottom of the social ladder were the human masses, branded with bar-codes on their foreheads for easy identification by the machines and  used as grunt labor for tasks deemed too menial for robots to perform - or used as guinea pigs in experiments in cybernetics and biotechnology.

The Scream ended up any hope for off-world supplies, and Laana, like many worlds in the Cluster, regressed into early-industrial backwardness, hardly scraping the bottom of TL2 and mostly being within the higher ends of TL1. Split into multiple independent settlements of a semi-feudal order, it was never able to build any significant industrial base, let alone an adequate planetary defense force. There were, however, organizations trying to unite Laana into a single, coherent state capable of significantly improving the local technology, as well as defending against any off-world threats, if any existed. One such group were the remnants of the old Perimeter Agency base on Laana, who were suspicious that nearby worlds might have developed Maltech during the centuries following the Scream; they were ever preparing for an off-world attack, stockpiling weapons and unsuccessfully trying to get the city-states to work together. Another such group was the Unity party, the offspring of a pre-Scream pro-independence, anti-mandate movement, which sought to unify Laana as a single, independent world-state. Finally, there was the Order of the Mind, a worldwide organization dedicated to rediscovering the lost secrets of Psionics. But none of these organizations could convince the conservative, backward city-state to unite in any meaningful way. So, for centuries, Laana lived in blissful backwardness, its peace only interrupted by occasional brush-fire wars between the city-states and, later on, by raids. Eventually, in 3011, some sort of a planetary government was brokered between the various city-states, setting up a President and some semblance of a Federal government, but this regime was nearly powerless, especially when, after the Silence began to fade away, off-world raiders and bullies with higher tech began "trading" with Laana and raiding the world, a thing which the "federal" government was simply incapable of stopping.

Stranger things happened on other words. When the Scream hit the Psychic choir upon which Carcosa's metadimensional experiments relied, the world disappeared from normal space, yanked by the dimensional forces into a different reality, or, possibly, into a space between spaces. Only in 3199 it appeared back, in a blinding flash of light easily seen from all nearby worlds, but with it, also came other 'things', which piggybacked on this world back into normal space, otherworldly beings from the space between spaces. The Zadak, insectoid aliens from Chot Zadak, lost their entire psychic Mediator caste to the Scream, then blamed Humanity for the disaster, and scorched the surface of Polychrome in revenge, later retreating to their homeworld with many Human captives to use as slaves.

Several other alien spices came to the Alkonost sector during the Silence, using the opportunity presented by Humanity's fall to prey upon the rotting corpse of the Mandate. The reptilian and anarchic Cicek, the opportunist insectoid Zhuziik and the honorable but vengeful Qotah - all came to pick Humanity's bones. None of them has a homeworld in the Cluster, or even a significant population, but all have invaded the realms of Man and are, even now in modern times, a major factor in it.

But for the most part, the Alkonost Cluster, with its two Sectors (Alkonost and Kedesh), fell into barbarism, savagery and a dark night. Only in 3054, when the world of Kedesh regained TL3 orbital technology, did the Silence begin to fade away.

Coming Soon - Part II - Post-Silence History

Sunday, October 26, 2014

[Traveller] I Choose You - These Stars Are Ours!

Long Live the United Terran Republic!

I have decided: For now, if I work on Traveller for anything other than Outer Veil, I'll work on Vision #1 of Empire: These Stars Are Ours! Politics, patriotism, reconstruction, low-intensity war, trade and exploration; big ideas, big missions, big explosions when the dice are rolled.

Ruleset? Classic Traveller, and with all its quirks justified by this setting! Probably proto-Traveller in flavour. Starship rules will be definitely Book 2, where ship size actually affects your speed and where fighters matter, though with some added components (and maybe Laser Banks and Missile Bays). Big-scale combat will be inspired by Dark Nebula - that is, ships have beams and missiles, not spinal meson guns, but can do massed missile attacks. Chargen will be LBB1 + Citizens of the Imperium. Weapons will focus on Book 1, with some Book 4 inserts for good measure.

Traveller to the hilt! Death in chargen (well, your character fought in the Terran Liberation War. Worst war in Human history. People die there)! Marine officers with cutlasses and revolvers (actually snub revolvers)! Every PC is retired-military (well, almost every one)! Alien politics! Join the Terran Psionic Corps and unleash your mind on the alien enemy!

As for Ashes of Empire (AKA Vision #2), I have something planned for it, but it is much longer-term than this...

Long Live the United Terran Republic!
Reticulan in Space Suit
Reticulan Legionnaires
(Critical Mass Games Ygs Fighters)
Humanity has missed its chance to start its own interstellar state. In the hyper-consumerist 21st century, apart from a few privately-owned space tourist outfits and several 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 never 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 Defense 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.

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 major 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 for the Reticulans' other thralls and client states to rise up in rebellion as well, towards a free Interstellar Republic.

Cickek Warriors
(Stan Johanssen Miniatures Draco Infantry)
The Reticulans responded by trying to crush this impudent uprising, sending their own Thiragin Huscarls as well as Cicek mercenaries and many other alien auxiliaries. 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 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 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 two more decades, with the lines moving back and forth between the Terran-Cicek alliance and the Reticulan Empire, but, in January 2258, the fabled Terran Guard, supported by Colonial Troops and a heavy Cicek fleet, crushed through the Reticulan lines, captured Zeta 2 Reticuli and thus declared the entire Reticuli Sector (now Terra Sector) their own.

Terran Guard troops
(Khurasan Miniatures Nova Respublik)
The Empire had to capitulate. In June 2258, they signed a treaty with the UTR, recognizing its sovereignty, as well as its conquest of the Reticuli Sector, Furthermore, Terra forced the Reticulans' hand into allowing the various minor races close to Terran space to secede, if desired, from the Empire.

Now it is 2259. After almost three decades of war and one year of peace, 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 Terran space. Between petty squabbles of newly-independent worlds and the two major powers' attempts to covertly exert their influence into the other's space, 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 TL13, the UTR at most at TL12 for civilian applications with some TL13 military gear and the Cicek TL11 for the most part.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

So what *ARE* the Classic Traveller skills?

I discussed Classic Traveller (CT) skills before, and I'll discuss them here again, in greater detail, this time about their nature. A common misconception is that skills in CT work like skills in a D20 game, or Mongoose Traveller (MGT) for that matter - that is, as modifiers to the task roll (2d6 for 8+ in MGT). This indeed is the case of weapon skills in combat - they add the skill as modifier to the combat roll, but also (in the case of melee weapons, that is) as a penalty to attack the character. But many other skills are not meant to serve as modifiers in some standardized task system; a lot of them are actually "all-or-nothing" character features.

Let's see: Bribery directly affects Reaction rolls, not "task" rolls; Engineering adds +2 per skill level to rolls to repair ship systems; Forgery applies a -2 DM per level to the throw to detect a forgery; Forward Observer actually applies a +4 DM to-hit by artillery fire per level; J-o-T simply gives you (regardless of level) Skill-0 in all skills; Leader allows you various command abilities per level; Medical-1 can give first aid and work as a medic aboard a starship, Medical-2 gives you a +DM to revive low passengers, Medical-3 makes you a real Doctor and Medical-3 plus DEX 8+ makes you a surgeon; a level in Navigation, Steward, Medic, Pilot or Engineering makes you employable as a starship crewman; Pilot gives you Ship's Boat at one level lower; and Vacc Suit-1 confers battledress/combat armor proficiency.

In short, these skills are somewhere between simple "+DM" skills ala MGT - and "Feats" (in D20) or "Proficiencies"(in ACKS) which actually give you a benefit above and beyond adding the skill level to rolls. Also, not all work the same way, some add a higher DM per skill level, and penalty for no skill varies from skill to skill.

MGT (as MegaTraveller did decades before that) "flattens" this "edginess" of CT, making it easier to run and remember - but losing some of the flavor and uniqueness on the way.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Samson the Gecko

A huge Mediterranean House Gecko lives in my girlfriend's house in Yavne, Israel. This lizard is almost 20 centimeters long - this species of gecko is rarely above 15 centimeters. So this is a very big individual indeed. So I named him Samson, in honor of his biblical might. So here he is:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why doesn't Traveller have an OSR?

Over there on a RPGSite forum thread, the question was asked: "Why don't the Traveller people do OSR?" (OSR stands for Old-School Renaissance, i.e. the retro-clone and retro-module movement for D&D-type games). So, indeed, why didn't we see such a movement develop for our beloved Traveller? There are several reasons for this.

First, You can buy a CD-ROM with all the Classic Traveller stuff (very many books/adventures/aliens/games) in PDF for $35 from Far-Future Enterprises (FFE). Another $35 and you get all the JTAS magazines. You can also  buy The Traveller Book in Print-on-Demand on DTRPG for $20 + Shipping. So all the OOP stuff is easily and cheaply available... For Dungeons and Dragons, for a long time, PDFs of most 2E or earlier products were not legally available, and reprints were typically expensive, spurring the rise of the OSR, as players and DMs interested in earlier versions wanted something affordable to play with, so they devised retro-clones.

Second, FFE has a very liberal fair-use policy. You can essentially write anything you want for Classic Traveller, and openly claim compatibility with Classic Traveller, as long as it is provided for free. So you can easily publish online and for free anything you want for Classic Traveller (or any legacy edition of Traveller for that matter, with the possible exception of GURPS Traveller) - no need for an OGL-based retro-clone to base your writing on.

Third, Mongoose Traveller is essentially a retro-clone - an official, supported, in-print retro-clone of commercial quality available for players who prefer a more modern layout than that of the old books on the CDs. So if there is an officially-supported "clone", why write your own?

Fourth, Mongoose Traveller has an OGL and an SRD and even a compatibility license; all allow for commercial publication. A good number of commercial third-party products are now available for Mongoose Traveller, which are perfectly usable with CT (I wrote one - a whole setting, Outer Veil). Also a good number of Traveller fan-made settings and blogs around. In essence, you can publish almost anything you want, commercially, for Mongoose Traveller and openly claim compatibility provided that you don't touch the official setting outside of Foreven. And MGT is close enough to CT so that your products will be quite compatible with it as well.

Fifth, there was much less of a break in continuity in Traveller than in D&D. Nowadays, most Traveller players, which the exception of those who play GURPS games, seem to play either Classic Traveller or Mongoose Traveller. Many of the in-between editions, such as MegaTraveller, Traveller: New Era, Marc Miller's Traveller and Traveller D20 (AKA T20), seem to see much less actual play. This is quite different from the D&D situation, in which many players moved on to play 3.xE and 4E, and, before the OSR, relatively few played Classic D&D.

So there is significantly less actual need for an "OSR" for Traveller compared to, say Dungeons and Dragons.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Big Success of D&D 5E

So where did D&D 5E succeed? From my experience in DMing it to my local group, its great success lies not necessarily in its particular rules, but rather in the fact that it managed to distill the very essence of "Dungeons and Dragons" into one edition. It is neither a homage to the "new school" world of system mastery and tactical combat, not a carbon-copy of old-school with all its many subsystems; but it gives me the feel of running "D&D", the feeling I first felt when I first made my very faltering steps to DMing AD&D 2E to a friend and his brother back in 1997. It seems as if the designers, instead of trying to innovate in terms of game mechanics like they did in 3.xE and in 4E, tried to figure out what "D&D" is, in its most basic core, and build a game around that.

It feels like D&D. It plays like D&D. It runs like D&D. The game would be familiar to anyone who played any edition, especially B/X, 2E and 3.xE. Some mechanics, such as a unified task-resolution system, come from 3.xE, some, like the healing mechanics, are closer to 4E, but the very core feels older, even timeless. All the tropes are back, multiclassing and character optimization are pushed back, but not erased totally. I'd say that almost any person who liked any edition of D&D would love 5E, with the possible exception of those who enjoy focusing on the 4E tactical-combat system, which was greatly dialed back in 5E.

In short, highly recommended.

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).