Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scarcity, Traveller, and Starcraft

Several things happened recently which reminded me of Traveller.

My father flies cargo around the Pacific, and it came up in conversation with him that much of what he carries is hazardous or generally "does not play well with other cargoes".  Oxidizers, corrosives, fertilizer, livestock...  and when you put these on a big container ship, there are more things for them to interact violently with if something goes wrong.  So instead they travel alone in a cargo plane.  Seems to me that this provides a potential out for one of the core problems of Traveller economics - why is anyone hiring this tramp freighter to move their goods when there are enormous shipping lines who have economies of scale?  Because there are some things that are more hassle than they're worth to the big players.  This is already supported, technically, but it's a shift from "hazardous cargoes exist" to "hazardous cargoes are the default."  This also adds an extra layer of potential excitement to cargo operations, especially since cargo is on the table of "things that can be hit in space combat."

I also tested for a ham radio license, and all the finicky details of talking to satellites got me thinking about how we abstracted away communications (between, say, ship and ground) completely.  Even outside of dealing with doppler shift and the ship only being in line of sight a fraction of the time, ground-to-ground communication might be complicated by alien atmospheres (in this case, it looks like Mars' ionosphere is sufficiently lower and thinner than Earth's that practical range for single-bounce ground-to-ground RF comms is about 600 miles instead of 2500+ miles you can get on Earth).  This seems like the sort of thing the old Traveller nerds, with their planet-to-planet time tables based off of acceleration, would've enjoyed thinking about.

Finally, I read this post of Charles Stross'.  His bit about economics got me thinking about post-scarcity, and I came to the conclusion that I'm extremely critical of the notion.  Hanson articulates a reasonable critique here.  So I was reminded of Niven and Traveller's belters (grungy, working-class subsistence futures) and also generally that populations expand to fill their carrying capacities - biological replicators.

Between radios, future-scarcity, jobs, and replicators, I got to thinking about Starcraft, in its grungy, space-Australia-western-full-of-ugly-assholes-but-oh-god-what-are-these-bugs-aiiieeee flavor that I enjoyed at the beginning of the first campaign (it is, of course, hardly great science fiction, but so be it).  I realized that I had never actually caught up on the plot of Starcraft II, so I set about fixing that.  In so doing, I found this little gem (just the next ~30s after the linked time).  A hell of a Traveller campaign that would make: a posse of destitute space hicks - miners, drone operators, mechanics, welders, hydroponic farmers, meth cooks...  probably two or three terms, one or two military or criminal and one civilian - living dirtside and working day jobs to afford ammunition, stimulants, and explosives to go zerg hunting in the desert on the weekends, and selling the body parts for mad science...  or barbeque ("Infestation?  Naw son, you just gotta cook it real good.").  It's just another bug hunt until you wake up something you shouldn't've...  and then the fun really starts ("Worlds will burn.").

This also starts to get into some more typical OSR territory; it could turn into a rather dungeon-crawly (tunnels), resource-managementy (cash and consumables), and probably high-body-count way to play (might want to find a way to accelerate character generation...).  Taken from that perspective, starship deckplans start to look rather dungeonesque too, after you have some transport, vacc suits, and a reputation as crazy bastards who will go into infested holes for fun and money (enjoy your zero-G melee...).  Maybe Stars Without Number would do it better, since it supports mechanical advancement and building capital ships as a PC activity.

NPC palette:

  • Patrons:
    • Scientist wants samples (or to radio-tag some live specimens, or to test some attractant / repellent, or...)
    • Tourist on zerg-hunting safari seeks guides
    • Company-town mine foreman needs a mine cleared of bugs, willing to look the other way if you use weapons normally forbidden by town charter as long as you don't do too much collateral damage
    • Crashlanded bush pilot or starship crew in infested zone needs rescued (practically traditional at this point)
    • Crime boss needs something retrieved from infested zone or something transported through it, can hook you up with good (illegal) gear
    • Prospectors / colonists seek protection and guides while looking for site to mine or settle
    • Separatists looking for a few good men to help liberate the armory of the local military base
  • Rivals:
    • Other posses of zerg-hunting rurals
    • Confederate marshal concerned about heavily-armed civilians
    • Confederate troops using hunting area as a training ground
  • Enemies:
    • The bugs
    • Old buddy that you left behind back in your criminal days

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