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Altered Spaces

"Now let's look briefly at how planets and stars form . . . Although broad limits exist,
it seems that much of the details . . . do not seem to be inevitable. Instead they
reflect vagaries in the formation of the particular planetary system. This strong
element of historic contingency gives us a lot of options for storytelling."
-- Stephen L. Gillet, World-Building

The redoubtable Dave Pulver's swell new edition of GURPS Space cries out for
salute, and five rayguns' worth shall it receive here. Space, as they say, is big, and
GURPS Space even moreso, spanning everything from Allen Steele-flavored near-
space near-future storylines to the whispering crash of future civilizations of
Stapledons and Smiths. Which means, of course, that it's more than ripe for five
more directions to sprawl in, five spaceframes (or, rather, Space campaign frames)
stress-rigged for travel into hyperdimensional gaming -- and beyond. Let's boldly
go, then, sideways and forward, and into the darkness between the stars.

"This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and
photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose
motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It
was just a colour out of space . . . from realms whose mere existence stuns the
brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our
frenzied eyes."
-- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Colour Out Of Space"

Even people who correctly identify H.P. Lovecraft as a science fiction writer
sometimes forget exactly what that implies. The presence of numerous interplanetary
civilizations, of hideously ancient alien beings, of metals and colors unknowable by
terrestrial laws -- it's all horror, and it's all out there for a GURPS Cthulhupunk-
Space crossover. The discovery of a grav-drive system by a Russo-Japanese korp
opens up the solar system. Reports immediately start filtering back of "bogeys,"
things that fade in and out of radar and imagers -- things with wings instead of grav
fields that maneuver in some unknown way. The other powers also launch reverse-
engineered ships, and one of them draws the attention of the Beings of Yaddith, a
relatively benign race which travels in FTL light-envelopes; a technology soon
shared. However, the distortions of spacetime created by the human FTL systems
attract other entities -- the Byakhee, Insects from Shaggai, the Xothic Star-Spawn,
and other interstellar dangers (and interdimensional ones like the Hounds of
Tindalos). Ships disappear, pilots go mad, colonies fall into dark worship on distant
planets. The Mi-Go watch and wait, seizing control of the human colony on Yuggoth
and using its brains for their sinister purposes. On one level, the campaign is one of
trying to understand humanity's place in the universe, a traditional First Contact
theme. But in this universe, the understanding is tainted, and as the Earth's ossified
systems splinter under madness and anarchy, the human colonies see themselves
left alone in the dark . . .

"Just think of it . . . Class Fours with a military organization tough enough and
flexible enough to retaliate like that! We'd already beaten them once and they
counterattacked . . . and that with no weapons, no technology, nothing but their
hands . . . all I can say is, give them a few years to soak up our brand of know-how
and they'll be out here with us . . .
-- Keith Roberts, "Survey of the Third Planet"

Stuck for a plot, Isaac Asimov transposed Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire into the future of our Galaxy and got the Foundation. Here, the Galaxy
transposes itself into Rome -- the aliens (possibly the Kaa or Engai from GURPS
Aliens, the Alphans from GURPS Illuminati, or even the Greys from GURPS Black
Ops) land on Earth to secure the rimward flank of the Orion Arm. Appreciative of the
human martial spirit and impressed by the primitve Roman military, the aliens rapidly
begin recruiting legions to serve as bodyguards, slaves, and mercenaries across the
vast expanse of their own Empire. Outmoded technology is more than sufficient to
let the Romans conquer the Earth for their alien patrons and ensure a large supply of
Homo romanus. (It's probably more fun if the aliens use force swords, cybersuits,
and single-shot energy weapons, the better to replicate Roman arms drill.) A
campaign could even start with PC German "barbarians" in Rome who become
Roman "barbarians" on Rigel; the parallelism adds resonance and serves as a great
story mine, as Roman backstabbing politics becomes alien backstabbing politics
with just a search-and-replace. Remember, it didn't take too long at all in our
history for the "barbarian" guardsmen to start naming Emperors -- and can we
expect any less from Romans in the Engai capitals?

"Victory and defeat are matters of temporary force of circumstances."

-- Yamamoto Tsunetomo

This frame, like the last, begins with an alternate history, but pits it not against the
decadent backdrop of alien empire but against -- our own world. Whether the result
of some freakish dimensional flux, a quark experiment gone horribly wrong, or an
incredibly peculiar pocket where Einstein's spacetime continuum meets
Schroedinger's, two Earths exist in the same galactic neighborhood. One is our
Earth, perhaps a century hence. The other -- Reich-5 from GURPS Alternate Earths,
also a century into its future. On this Earth, Japan not only won World War II, it
blindsided its Axis allies and fascist America with a biowar attack, genetically
engineered to destroy non-Japanese. The global Japanese Empire then turned its
attention to the stars, to conquer new worlds for the Emperor. The shocked reaction
as the two Earths met gave way to rivalry and war over the few human-habitable
planets known to both. Giant space-carriers drop fighters and bombers out of warp
to attack the enemy's positions, cloaked destroyers hunt ore freighters and troop
transports, and battleships clash across the light-years as battlesuited space
marines fight for every kilometer of hellish jungle worlds scattered between the rival
Earths. This frame exists (of course) to replicate World War Two action on a grand
space scale; trading the fighters for mecha and bringing in GURPS Mecha would be
the work of a moment, were the GM so inclined. For the GM who hates to see
cousins fight, the two sides might be forced to make peace when the Bugs attack,
unable to tell (or uninterested in telling) one set of soft humans from another.

"Welcome to the amazing and wonderful world of Extra-terrestrial Archaeology! . . .

[T]he book is about artifacts. Ancient artifacts. Artifacts so old, and so out-of-
place that their very existence threatens every religious and scientific dogma
cherished by modern man. Is the world ready for pyramids, obelisks, platforms,
huge walls, giant statues and glowing UFOs . . . ?"
-- David Hatcher Childress, Extraterrestrial Archaeology

Teasing out the unreality a trifle farther -- okay, a lot farther -- we come to the
world of the roaring 2020s, when the exoarchaeologist is the woman of the hour,
discovering the secrets of the exploded planet and the Martian pyramids. This is
GURPS Cliffhangers set in the serial future rather than in the newsreel past; from
deadly fungi running amok in London to battles between the University of Chicago
and the Chinese People's Liberation Army over the Sacred Ark of Cydonia, this is the
carefree world of space crackpottery played for thrills rather than paranoia. You
don't even have to go with the 1940s "Martian canals and Venusian jungles" model if
you want; part of the feel of this frame draws, after all, from its relatively straight-
faced use of legitimate astrophysics bisociated with its flagrant abuse of
archaeology. (Player tech is a different matter; the trusty blaster should be handy,
and to speed things along you can slip torch ships or some other bogus
reactionless drive in. Do it while the players are still goggling at the lost Atlantean
colony under the ice of Europa, if you want.) Or, if you want, introduce a lodge of
magicians who don't want the sacred geometric ratios of the Aristarchus petroglyphs
published, and spin in some occultist mojo with your neurolashes and epigraphic
linguistics software.

"We both knew who the real targets of the SDI were, and it wasn't a bunch of ICBM
warheads. It was the UFOs, alien spacecraft thinking themselves invulnerable and
invisible as they soared around the edges of our atmosphere . . ."
-- Col. Philip J. Corso (ret.), The Day After Roswell

Or, step into fullblown conspiracy, and find out the truth that humanity can't handle.
The galaxy is big, and it is full. The Rigellians, Antareans, Betelgeusans, Sirians, the
whole crew have the good real estate locked down, and they're fighting over the
wildlife preserves now -- over us and planets like us. Teller reverse-engineered the
salvaged Roswell saucer under MJ-12 direction just in time to forestall our planet's
annexation, but humanity remains an annoying afterthought and irritant in cosmic
politics -- the Kurds or Kosovars or Tutsis of the galaxy. Fortunately, the Russians
and the British cooperated and we presented a relatively unified front at the Sirius
Conference of 1970. Meanwhile, human "cultural observers" try to steal tech, bribe
friends, connive against enemies, and somehow keep the whole system boiling
without getting Earth conquered. There's just no time or margin for global panic and
frenzy; we have to run a bluff and bid for friends while we modernize. MJ-12 has
been desperately trying to release more alien tech into Earth's scientific
understanding (the transistor was only the first of many MJ-12 "inventions") in a
desperate crash-course powering Earth up to speed with our hungry neighbors. This
is GURPS Espionage meets GURPS Uplift against the background of the alien
conspiracy theory. MJ-12 agents on Earth may be creepy, all-powerful Men In
Black, but out in the real galaxy, they're the rats in the walls. Join MJ-12 and see
the universe -- so that the rest of mankind doesn't have to yet.

Past Columns

Article publication date: September 24, 1999

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