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World building continues

Late night dabblings in cosmic horror

So, that setting idea with the space Arks and weird multidimensional gribblies that used to be religious fundies and non-euclidean protein folding, it isn’t done with me yet. What follows are a few snippets from what I imagine is the indoctrination ritual for a particular Ark. It’s quite a challenge to consider. The general shape of such a thing should ideally emerge as a natural result of the Ark’s past. What was the prevailing orthodoxy on the Ark? Why did they leave? How would that colour their experience of the sanity-blasting multidimensional awareness mentioned previously?

“Generic semi-catholic Christian” is the flavour of this evening’s origins. Partly because I cannot be arsed reading up on specific faiths in this heat, partly because I’m starting out small and doing what I know, partly because proper blasphemy takes time to do right. I’m calling them the Broken Mirror for now, but I’m sure something better will occur later.

Accept despair. Embrace it as an old friend, a lover returned. Sing as it permeates the core of your being. Learn, in the farthest corners of who and what you are, the truths it lays bare. Let it grind away your past and present as the ocean turns the cliff to sand. Strangle your future in its crib, that despair may feed on the sweet rot of the corpse. To unlock your potential, you first must murder it. Let emptiness fill you. And know, when the void is all that remains, that Life is a lie.

-Initiate’s rite, Catechism of the Broken Mirror

The cult teaches that enlightenment comes from stripping away the barriers they claim separate a disciple from reality. This could involve destroying a person’s “limited” senses like their sight or hearing, stripping away their self-confidence or drastically altering brain chemistry to induce severe depression; to the Broken Mirror, serotonin and dopamine are liars that cushion the sharp edges of reality.

It should go without saying that the Broken Mirror are *utterly* divorced from what most of humanity considers the baseline for sanity. And yet, they display similar abilities to the Awoken children. So they must have figured *something* out, right?

Your senses are a mirror, reflecting only yourself. Let that mirror shatter. In that collection of imperfect reflections, you will begin to truly see. Shatter each shard again and again, and in the gentle caress of each razor-edged prison by which each new shard is bound, true understanding dawns. See, and bleed, and shatter until the mirror is as dust and the reflections beyond counting, and behold the truth. And know, when the space between you and your reflection is no more, that Reality is a lie.

-Acolyte’s rite, Catechism of the Broken Mirror

As I see it, the people on this Ark that survived did so only after being nearly destroyed, inside and out. When their brains began forming hypercube structures, and receiving and sending signals they couldn’t possibly hope to understand, it would break most people, no matter how hard they fought, much like how depression can steamroll over the strongest will without even noticing. And everyone’s first instinct would have been to fight it. But ugly as it is, there’s a tiny nugget of truth in their creed. Fighting the changes, holding on to the normal you know, that’s a death sentence. But embracing it? It’s not easy, letting go of the world you know, but it causes far less damage.

Well. In a strictly medical sense, and all things being equal, less damage. But the Arks were tin cans in space, filled with prideful, arrogant zealots who may not have had the healthiest outlook to begin with. They were subject to radiation from poor shielding, starvation when people could no longer maintain the hydroponic gardens, and violent gang wars as security and social order disintegrated. Without the infrastructure and resources of a whole world, they had no chance of coming out relatively unscathed. They learned that accepting the change worked, but they discovered it in an INCREDIBLY unhealthy way, surrounded as they were on all sides by insanity, violence, cannibalism, and worse. Their initiations have a high death toll, because they fundamentally misunderstand what it is that lets a person coexist with the changes coursing through their bodies. But enough of the utterly disenfranchised, broken souls they recruit are ready to accept whatever happens them that they can maintain and even grow their numbers.

Let the hollow bell of your soul ring out! Let it toll its great peals of negation. Emptiness will flow from your shattered form, and entire nations will drown in you! Let angel and demon alike cower before the dead thunder of your great and terrible apotheosis! And know, as the embers fade and the last thread unravels, as even the gods bleed their last upon the altars of your fury, that I was a lie.

-Penultimate rite, Catechism of the Broken Mirror

Broken Mirror members delight in stripping away what they believe are the barriers between humanity and harsh reality. To put a positive spin on something, to enjoy any of the little comforts of life from a hug to euphoria-inducing drugs, these are all sins, further barriers placed between the mind and the brutal truth of reality. They delight in crushing such barriers, and draw their targets ever further downwards. Much as various cults have done for centuries, they employ psychological torture to break their victims, to brainwash them. Once a victim has lost any sense of self, they are considered to have removed the final barriers between them and the truth, and the initiation begins as they are slowly remoulded into more fitting servants of the Arkborn.

Fluffdiving TTRPG Uncategorized

Further adventures in World-Building

Those of you who read this blag may recall Back in November that I had a little word-building seed I wanted to plant, about billionaire conservative religious nutters leaving Earth on Arks and coming back all… gribbly.

Those of you who don’t (and if you’re not reading then why the heck am I even writing this bit?) can find it right here:

So that seed has, it turns out, been growing in the wet soil of my brain matter, its new shoots tickling the odd neuron here, the odd synapse there. I wanted, I realised, a way to explain the weird world I’d described. Well, explain is probably the wrong word. More “figure out a way to hand wave it all away”, really. After many nights staring at the ceiling in the dark, wondering what it was I wanted to make “sense” of, I came to the conclusion that what I wanted was a way of linking magic into the proto-setting I’d got here. “Just invent a new magic system, how hard can it be?” I thought to myself, future CiarĂ¡n laughing bitterly but as yet unheard.

Back when I studied it, I really quite enjoyed the more unusual and less immediately practical mathematics areas. Basic geometry, sure, handy for thinking about angles, but I can’t exactly apply hyperdimensional polytopes to a game of pool or soccer in the same way.

“He sees his opening, he shoots, he… JESUS CHRIST WHAT THE HELL IS THAT”

Now, some time last year I had jotted down a little idea that amused me. It was about how many viruses have a little protein shell that often resembles a a simple symmetrical shape, like a 12- or 20-sided die. And I suddenly remembered the gif above (I have a small folder of hypercube gifs like this, I find them really soothing to watch), and wondered: What if virus, but hypercube?

The idea was pretty simple, sort of. Definitely simple if you’ve studied microbiology. But for the uninitiated: One of the most basic processes of life is the translation of DNA to proteins. That accounts for a HUGE amount of how a living thing actually functions from moment to moment. DNA is a code for a string of amino acids, which fold into various shapes to form larger proteins. And with proteins, the shapes they fold into are as important or moreso than the individual amino acids that make them up. So, why not explore what might happen if proteins folded into MORE than the usual three dimensions?

I read a lot of science fiction, and I have a few physicist friends, and pop-culture often references it, so I was familiar with the ideas Einstein put forward that space is 4-dimensional, with time being the 4th. And there are fields of research in both physics and maths that talk about more dimensions than that. My last maths lecturer often told us it was a common joke in his department that all you had to do to imagine 13 dimensions was to start by imagining there were n dimensions, and then let n=13. Mathematicians are odd people.

So originally I thought I’d write a little story about the world’s first tesseract virus, which contained more dimensions than the ones we’re familiar with. I even sought some criticism on the SCP forums, which was honestly invaluable and excellent. And I would have developed it further as an SCP thing, but that Ark story just kept coming back to me, and I wondered if I might be able to marry the two.

And one very late night (it was definitely closer to 7am) it struck me. And then I sort of forgot it for a few days because you know what trying to remember things when you half dreamed them is like. It came back to me slowly over the next few days, and I started scribbling, and slowly an idea I really liked took shape.

I dunno if I’ll develop this little world of mine further. I’d certainly like to, but don’t let the bible fool you, world building takes an absolute FUCKtonne of work and time. The below is, I suppose, the equivalent of the start of the “Magic” chapter of any RPG rulebook. Or Psyker powers, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe it’ll develop into an RPG setting. Maybe this is the last I’ll ever write about it.

Either way, it was enjoyable.

Magic? Don’t be daft. No such thing. Oh sure, the Arkborn are horrifying monstrosities that can turn you to ash with a flick of the… well, the ones that still *have* wrists might flick them. And yes, you’ve seen humans seemingly create fire out of nothing, or move impossibly fast, or even fly. But it’s not magic. For the full story you need to go back two generations, not that there’s much left of either. But as far as we can establish, it goes a bit like this…

So… dimensions. Your average human is kinda 3.5-D; They can freely manipulate 3 dimensions and have an intuitive understanding of Time, but they’re stuck going in the same one second per second direction as everyone else. Other dimensions exist, but we are wholly unaware of them except as abstract theoretical concepts demanded by our best physics models.

With me so far? Good, because it gets weird.

Towards the end of the 21st century, physicists managed to create a physical hypercube, a shape related to a cube the same way a cube is related to a square. It only lasted for a few trillionths of a second and drank several hydrogen bombs worth of energy, but it paved the way for an explosion in technological advancement. Can you believe our computers used to be flat wafers of 2-dimensional circuitry? It’s not the electronics we’re about here, though, it’s the squishy sciences. Some decades after CERN 2, molecular biologists successfully created a “hyperprotein”, a string of amino acids folded into 5 dimensions. Medicine was revolutionised overnight; Gene therapy became orders of magnitude more precise and powerful, drugs too large to cross the blood-brain barrier could be attached to a small hyperprotein which tucked them into a pocket of spacetime until they crossed the barrier and could release the drug into the body’s 3-D space.

Some viruses adapted to match our new tools, as they always do. Most famous is Adenovirus Tesseracteae, a variation of the Adenovirus genus responsible for about 5% of cases of the common cold, but there are others. It wasn’t long until we saw human bodies developing hyperproteins. Hypercube viruses hijacking our cellular machinery to replicate might have kickstarted it, or maybe it was deliberately inflicted on the population by the returning Arkborn, but either way the results were varied and deeply unpleasant; the lucky ones would suddenly die from an aneurysm, as part of a tiny capillary in their brains shifted dimensions and became a blockage. Whole or partial organs might “disappear” for a split second, or suddenly exist outside the body, or worse. A rare few were driven mad as hyperprions in their brains caused neural networks to develop across more dimensions than a human was born equipped to deal with. The symptoms were horrendous, and ran from nightmare visions borne of the brain trying to interpret hyperspatial shapes, to the complete loss of perception of linear causality. Between the hrperprion disease and the Arkborn slaughters, millions died, and more prayed for death.

It’s a little ironic that our salvation came from those broken, wretched souls. A handful of that first generation were pregnant when the hyperprion condition took hold. They crossed the placenta easily, working their changes on the developing embryos. To much relief, they were born without complications, and seemed just like any other newborn, something of a blank canvas as the brain began to learn and react to the outside world. It was hypothesised that if a human was born with a multidimensional neural network, they would adapt and grow alongside it, as opposed to the sudden, jarring changes experienced by infected adults. As they grew, they displayed many tendencies and mannerisms that were not unlike their parents, albeit on a far less fatal scale. The scientists and psychologists studying them put it down to their brain cells including dimensions the rest of us aren’t even aware of. It quickly became clear that they also possessed an instinctive awareness of spacetime; with a bare minimum of education, teenagers could solve complex equations that took mathematicians weeks to work out. They could navigate the kinds of advanced geometry that would have taken their parents’ generation decades of study to grasp. Not that they were *smarter* or *superior* in any way; Those that excelled at complex mathematics had no time to become sports stars, just like anyone else. They had tools the rest of us didn’t, is all. Like kids raised with the internet versus their parents who didn’t know what an email was.

It was early adulthood when the serious changes occurred. The hyperprions hadn’t just changed their brains, and with puberty came a slew of modified hormones. Most still performed the expected functions, but a few caused… Well, most people call it an Awakening now. Already possessed of an instinctive understanding of spacetime, puberty brought perception. Their parents’ brains were unequipped to deal with seeing spacetime, but the adolescents welcomed it easily, like an old friend. Well, for the most part. Not everyone made it through puberty. The sudden changes were like what their parents endured, and more than one child simply disappeared, or died of old age over the course of a week, or even disintegrated in a burst of gamma radiation. It was a change of extremes, you either made it through pretty unscathed, or you died, but out of maybe 30 hyperprion children worldwide, 20 were confirmed to make it to adulthood. And now that they could see what they already innately understood, they could manipulate it.

The first generation of Awakened became young adults of extraordinary perception and ability. They could perceive, understand and manipulate reality on its most basic, primal levels. Some conjured fire, some could slow or accelerate regions of spacetime, some altered the gravitational constant of their bodies from moment to moment and, in lay terms, learned to fly. Of all the new phenomena these men and women displayed to the astonished world, by far the strangest thing was that they didn’t fight amongst themselves, didn’t use their powers to bend and break others into submission. What few Arkborn humanity has managed to defeat and bring home for autopsy reveals that the brains of the Arkborn and our Awakened are unnervingly similar. They appear to see reality much in the same way, but where the Arkborn are like demons out of the very worst religious apocalypse scriptures, something in Awakened perception led to a surprising and powerful altruism. Maybe they saw further down the path humanity was walking, and knew fighting the Arkborn was the only choice leading to a better tomorrow. Maybe their parents, blinded and tortured by the hyperprion infection, are a sobering reminder of what the Arkborn used to be, and what the Awakened could become, and they resolved to be better than that. Whatever the case, they are sorely needed lights in a time of unparallelled darkness.

Fluffdiving From Patreon TTRPG

An exercise in world-building

Or: why you shouldn't stay up til 5am playing Scifi horror

The end of the world was right on schedule, nutcases and all. The richest evangelicals were no exception. A second Flood was coming, they said, and none on earth would be spared. Details varied from figurehead to figurehead, and espionage was rife between groups with differing interpretations of one book or another, but there was no setback more donations from the faithful couldn’t fix. We don’t know how many succeeded in the end, but several massive vessels took shape in orbit, funded by armies of loyal fanatics eager to buy their ticket to paradise. They were dubbed Arks, of course, each one the sole anointed saviour of humanity for thousands on board as they set off, the best technology money could buy, piloted by numerologists who saw a map of heaven in whatever ancient scriptures most appealed to them.

Those of us left behind, the alleged lost and damned, tried to get on with our lives in the face of impending Armageddon. Surprisingly, it didn’t happen. Maybe because so many assholes fled to the stars, or because they took so much with them, or maybe the sheer idiocy of the act simply knocked sense into the world’s remaining leaders, but cooler heads prevailed, ceasefires were made, agreements signed,  treaties ratified. We had a chance at repairing some of the damage to the planet. Maybe even most of it. The UN grew teeth, and brought rogue nations to heel from North Korea to the remaining United States. People started to hope.

Then the Arks returned.

After decades in space we thought the ones that hadn’t exploded had reached the edge of the solar system. The first ignored attempts at contact and flew straight into the atmosphere, breaking apart and burning to dust save for some minor impacts in Siberia. The second stopped over the Pacific, in a geosynchronous orbit exactly above the halfway point of the main tectonic fault line. This one responded to calls from earth, although most wished it hadn’t; the video feeds show dark, empty corridors and unmanned stations, the thousand or so passengers nowhere to be seen, and the only audio response to any contact is the scream of a man that has not stopped in 3 years.

We had assembled a team of astronauts to investigate this ghost ship when the third Ark returned, stopping above the side of the moon forever facing earth, casting a shadow visible to the naked eye. This one contacted us first, four voices in unison broadcast worldwide. They simply said “come and see”.

And then, all Hell broke loose.

Fluffdiving Reviews TTRPG

Coriolis: The Third Horizon

In which I wax lyrical about a game I have yet to actually play

Coriolis - A Sci-Fi RPG from the makers of Mutant: Year ...
Coriolis Core book cover

Free League Publishing have quickly found a soft spot in my heart, like some burrowing parasite that lays its eggs in there to be whisked off around the body until they hatch. I had heard very good things about Tales From the Loop/Things From the Flood, but I hadn’t actually paid them much attention until they announced Alien, and anyone who knows me knows that if there’s one movie monster I fucking love it’s good ol’ face hugging, chestbursting head chomping xenomorphs. I fell in love with the system, so simple and yet so very good at representing the players’ slowly rising panic, and I’ve run several games of it since it came out almost a year ago. I’ve since gone in hard on Free League games, picking up Tales/Things From the Loop/Flood, Vaesen, Symbaroum, and now Coriolis: The Third Horizon. I haven’t actually sat down to play it yet, but I know the core system inside out from all the other Free League games (with some small modifications of course), and I know that any game using that as its core is easy to learn, versatile and doesn’t bog the story down in working out complicated dice rolls. These are all things I love as a GM, and the only thing that would spoil them really is a terrible GM or a dull setting.

Thankfully, I’m actually a pretty fucking good GM, and more to the point, Coriolis is not at all dull.

One thing that I cannot stress enough about Free League’s games is how good the artwork is. It ranges from super-detailed to almost abstract broad strokes, but it’s always vivid and colourful and very much in harmony with the writing. Even Alien’s dimly lit, grimy starship interiors are balanced with blazing fires, bright splashes of yellow-green acid blood and the multi-hued glare of CRT computer monitors. So it’s no surprise that Coriolis is, upon first glance, fucking gorgeous.

Space is vast and dark, but the stars and planets blaze with colour. The setting’s “Arabian Nights in Space” aesthetic is very strong, with architecture, fashion, customs and landscapes drawing heavily from North African, West Asian and some South European cultures. First impressions put me in mind of Destiny 2 at times, with places, people and even starships sporting a blending of sleek and futuristic with the sort of decorative embellishments you might expect to see adorning a priceless museum artifact. If you can picture “Warhammer 40K but flying space-mosques instead of Space-Catholic” you’re headed in the right direction. Souks, bazaars, cantinas and oases are more likely where your adventures will take you, as well as space.

What of the lore? Well, There have been three great pushes by humanity in colonising the stars over history, and each new region was called a Horizon. Somewhere in the distant past, the first Portals were discovered; The first cluster of worlds colonised by Portal travel was called the First Horizon, and so on. A schism grew between the First and Second Horizons as people flocked to the Third to escape the increasing oppression of the others. At some point in the past the Portal Wars began across all Horizons, and ended, at least in the Third, with a battle that destroyed the Third Horizon’s only link to the older Horizons. There was a long dark age after that, until a ship called the Zenith appeared. It was a colony ship carrying hundreds of thousands of people in cryostasis from ancient Earth, and they were quite surprised to find that the star system they’d set out to colonise had already been colonised 500 years before they arrived. Still, they couldn’t just head back, so they elected to turn their massive colony ship into an equally massive space station dubbed Coriolis. Today it functions as a sort of Babylon 5/Deep Space Nine for all the peoples of the Third Horizon. Which is to say it’s full of diplomats, traders, emissaries, crooks, assassins, religious zealots and enough courtly intrigue to put Game of Thrones to shame. Entire campaigns could be set there without the players having to leave.

The titular station is B I G

Enter the players! And your ship! The game revolves around the crew of a ship, who may have a patron or other authority to send them on missions, or who may be freelancers, scavengers, explorers or whatever. Like the other Free League games there’s a *sort* of class system which gives access to a list of exclusive abilities, but everyone gets the same points for their attributes and skills, as well as a generic list of abilities, so there’s a tonne of possible within classes. When a roll is called for, you add the relevant attribute and skill and roll that many d6. If you get at least one 6, you pass. Roll three or more 6s and you have a critical success. In combat you can trade excess 6s for benefits like damage or called shots. If you want, you can “Pray to the Icons” (the Icons are the main pantheon of gods in the Third Horizon, quite beautifully represented in the deck of cards that comes with the game), and re-roll the dice in a test that didn’t come up 6. If you do that though, the GM gets a Darkness Point. Which brings us to the Darkness Between the Stars. It’s an unknown (perhaps unknowable) force which spawns all manner of evil and corruption. Possession, ethereal monsters, even powerful djinni can all be introduced by the Darkness. The antagonists at the back of the book often have special abilities that can be activated by Darkness Points, so the player really has to consider whether re-rolling those dice might lead to horrible consequences later on. It’s a simple twist that’s at once similar to their other games but tailored towards the mystical almost heroic aspect of the setting instead of, say, the grim tension and horror of Alien. There are more little twists, but suffice to say it’s very simple as mechanics go and I like it a lot.

What else? Well, there are over 30 systems in the Third Horizon, some safe, others horrifically dangerous. There are jungles and deserts and forests and swamps, mighty cities and squalid backwater settlements. Religion and social etiquette are very important to the various cultures, and play a major role in the mysticism most people apply in their daily lives. While the setting is very human centric there *are* a couple of alien species you can play if you want, albeit with the caveat that they are seen by most as a bit primitive, and by some as amusing pets. Oh, yeah, there’s some slavery, because RPG designers love having slavery in their settings for some reason. You can ignore it if it bothers you; the Third Horizon is a big place with plenty of other things to do after all.

Again, I really cannot stress how GOOD the art in Free League books is.

And that’s basically (very basically) Coriolis: The Third Horizon. It’s well-presented, very simple mechanically, rich in lore and fluff, and from the looks of it has strong support from the publishers (“The Free League” is a faction in the setting that the publishers took their name from, so it’s safe to say they’re fans). I am absolutely dying to get a game of it going some time soon. Once I’m done with Gaelcon, perhaps…