A Container of Ashes

I have generally modeled the Hegemony of Lorean as a stolid National-Socialist kind of place, perhaps going a bit soft in the Colonies (a.k.a. the Empty Quarter’s Beta Quadrant), but with the homeworlds as militarized and as fanatically unpleasant as ever.

So it was with interest that I read an article on a young German girl who lived in those time.  Some things that stuck in my mind:

“I asked my aunt if I could take my little toy doggie.”

Ortrun Kneifel had just turned 12 in the autumn of 1944. She and her sister were living with her aunt in Silesia, the eastern section of what was then war-torn Germany.

“The Russians are marching.” That’s what her uncle told them after returning from Germany’s Eastern front — the remnants of Otrun’s family must leave immediately.

As the sound of Russian bombs pounded on the horizon, Ortrun’s life as a refugee began.

Ortrun would become one of about 12 million Germans fleeing oncoming Russians during that bitterly cold winter, says historian Manuel Meune, of the University of Montreal. Two million would be killed, raped or die of starvation.

The Blood Vargr don’t do major invasions anymore – but there are still the occasional raid, and these Vargr are not here to steal, they are here to kill. So if you see ortillery, rockets, and lasers raining in from the sky, grab a gun and ammo before heading for the shelter, bug-out site or the woods.

More than 45,000 Canadian soldiers had died fighting German and Japanese troops. On top of Second World War tensions, Muene says Canadians of German origin — many of whom arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries — had “never recovered” their public voice because of the suspicion they came under after the First World War.

It’s why Canadians don’t hear much about Germans as an ethno-cultural group, he says, even though there are far more of them than Canadians of, say, Greek, Chinese, Filipino or Latin descent.

Guilt is a puzzling phenomenon, but a real one. I will note that not one of the various heavily-armed tribes of the Empty Quarter have ever felt an ounce of guilt over any atrocity, however vicious or unjustified, their tribe has done. “We will do what we deem necessary to take care of our own. Period.”

Tribe, tribe over all!

It is left to the Imperials to keep everyone from simply tearing open the throat of their neighbour. Talk about the brotherhood of man is laughed out of the room, but pragmatic self-interest can at least get a hearing. The best way to make the case for peace (or at least lowered hostilities) as of 993 are economic considerations, as you can’t build wealth if you are endlessly at war with everybody else.

A fact that is slowly dawning on the Emptyheads, as they compare themselves with the rest of the Imperium.

Many German adults lived in terror of being exposed as unpatriotic. Ortrun learned later a family friend had disappeared and Nazi officials had shown up at his wife’s door, delivering nothing but a container of his ashes.

There is a lot of winking, knowing nods, and deliberate not-seeing-stuff  in Beta Quadrant, so even open private disagreement with the Hegemon is unlikely to get you disappeared (although a sound beating is a distinct possibility). Try to organize a group to oppose the Hegemony, though, and there could well be a container with your name on it, waiting patiently…

The scope to oppose/ignore Hegemonic rules is greater in Beta (non-Arzula race) human communities and among the Vargr, so long as, again, they don’t directly oppose the Hegemon or fundamentally challenge his authority. Then again, if you don’t paly ball, don’t be surprised if you are last in line for rations, or overlooked when it’s time to hand out political pork.

Ortrun’s father was also in a bind. He would not be allowed to teach in the public schools unless he joined the Nazi party. At the same time, some people believed he lacked enthusiasm about Naziism.

Neither side trusted him, said Ortrun. “In German we say, ‘He was sitting between the chairs.’”

Friedrich’s dilemma was common, Meune says. “Some people in Germany were full-fledged Nazis, and others just had to become Nazis to preserve their jobs and support their families.”

Going against the authorities is always more dangerous in dictatorships. As for compromises to be made… I leave the Referee to set up such choices, and the PC to choose his destiny.

Like virtually all young German men, Ortrun’s father joined the army. He left home around the beginning of the war. Ortrun never saw him again.

She heard of her father’s fate when a soldier showed up at their home and described the strange way he had died.

It was on June 22, 1941, the first day of the massive German assault against Russia.

“My father was very tall,” Ortrun says. For some reason, Friedrich decided to stand in his army raft, making himself a target, as it crossed the Bug River, near Warsaw.

“My father stood up: So he was killed. And my sister and I have the feeling that he must have been very, very sad his marriage didn’t work. My sister and I said perhaps he didn’t want to live any more. And later we found out he had known a bit about what the Nazis were doing in the concentration camps.”

There is more than one way for a soldier to commit suicide, and more than one reason to do so. Something that military PCs might know about.

As the war turned against Germany and Ortrun’s uncle told them they had to flee, Ortrun, her sister and aunt were lucky to get on one of the crammed trains leaving Silesia. “Others had to walk.”

An interesting circumstance, if the PCs, say, decide to take in a crowd of civilians fleeing war or raids. Will the life support hold out? How will they be fed? What about human waste? Disease? Hostility among the refugees? And exactly where will the PCs fly to?

Over the next weeks, Ortrun got off and on many trains, some of them open boxcars, heading like others for the region northwest of Berlin. But no German family seemed ready to take them in.

“There was no space for us. They resented us refugees. We didn’t have money. We were hungry and cold.”

You’d think that people would open their hearts to orphans on the run. And you’d be wrong more often than you think. Google “Grave of the Fireflies” for the details (Japanese flavour rather than German).

In 1956, Ortrun began her life in East Vancouver, living around 46th Avenue and Fraser Street. “We had nothing.” Her husband worked at first in a tanning mill.

If the PCs lose their starship, they may well be in exactly this same position. I hope they have a backup plan… and can speak the local language.

 

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Traveller Tintin

If you have been reading this blog, you know that I’m far more into Scouting than into Fighting when it comes to Traveller.

But this Tintin reminds me that reporting and scouting isn’t all to life.

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Deep Living

So, we have the recent Gizmag article “Former missile silos turned into luxury disaster survival condos” which would definitely be the perfect setting for a good Traveller’s Tale.

Pirates

For one thing, in the Quarter they would make good hide-outs for the inevitable pirate raids. (Their low TLs, say TL 6+, also helps. Cheap is good in the Six Subsectors…)

But if the Vargr can find a way in, it would also make a ferocious death trap.

And even worse, if poison gas is used.

Fortunately, the Suedzuk Vargr (a.k.a. Blood Vargr) prefer to kill people face-to-face – the scent of fear, the cry of agony, the bright red blood on the floor, it’s an art form for them. And it is their love of cruel, direct violence that gives the PCs a fighting chance to win.

The sophisticated, Vilanized, cost-conscious Ovaghoun Vargr may well decide to tun to poison gas to get what they want. It’s less charismatic than a face-to-face fight, ‘but wealth has a charisma all its own.’ Some Ovaghoun will still at least play with their prey, but others gain charisma and respect with a ‘zero losses’ attitude to fighting. And if they can, they would give the PCs no chance to win at all.

“No muss, no fuss – just drop by, pick up the goods, and walk away.”

The Stronghold Problem

This points to what could be called ‘The Stronghold Problem’.

Now, the benefit of strong defensive positions is that, well-designed and properly run, they can outlast any attack the enemy can throw at it. After the enemy has wearied himself, then the defenders can sally forth and tear apart the remaining forces. Moreover, it’s more efficient to hold a strong position than to take it – typically, you need a good five-to-one advantage for an attacker to take out an equally competent defender. And, depending on the quality of the men and equipment involved, it could easily be 10-to-1, and even more.

For example, right now in Iraq, the hostile Islamic State has refused to try to take out any of the American bases there. Vicious they are, but they know their limitations and work accordingly.

The basic problem with Strongholds is that they are passive and rigid. They assume that the enemy can only fight in a certain way, or approach from a certain direction, or only has access to certain tools & tech, or can only fight for a certain length of time.

Now, these assumptions can be correct – and they often are. But if something goes wrong, then you get Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Singapore, or the Maginot Line… and there is no way to recover from such a defeat.

A good, military-oriented Traveller Referee should have his PCs experience both the strengths and weaknesses of strongholds.

Civilian Usage

Traveller being Traveller, there are quite a number of habitats that resemble the missile silos out there. A world that is tectonically quiet, say, and the main threat are occasional gamma ray bursts from the primary. An alien aquatic species that likes dark, deep places could have a network of such sites on a human or Vargr world, linked by tunnels.

And you can go a lot more than just a hundred feet or so, thanks to meson tunneling. Right down to the mantle or even the core, if the planet permits it and you can handle the low-impact tremors (preferably, there should be no tremors: it ain’t easy, developing bracing that can resist that kind of force!)

And Silo Living is not so different from asteroid habitats. There’s still the lack of space, and worries about life support (HVAC et al.) On the other hand, most silos in breathable atmospheres don’t have to worry so much about oxygen levels or gravity (either orientation or health problems).

“Whose the richest man on the Silo/Asteroid? That’s easy – they guy who has a proper three-bedroom apartment, a full living room, and – gasp! – a storage room, too!”

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“Fire Extinguisher… Check.”

It looks like a fire extinguisher is now 100% mandatory, non-negotiable equipment for every single last spacer.

NO EXCEPTIONS.

That fire extinguisher upped her chances of survival from “zero” to “fractions of a percent above zero”.

And sometimes, that’s all you need.

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Pit Stop

In My Traveller Universe (as the saying goes), the major shippers like Tukera Lines keep their own private starports. The reason can be seen in the video: they just can’t afford to have a starship down for a month, as every day that ship isn’t working is money down the drain.

Working assets must keep on working!

Things are different in the major Vilani lines, as tradition and stability and consensus are of higher priority in their minds. They still like their profits, but are satisfied with a slower but longer curve up, with less dips and more built-in margins for error in case the ‘just in time’ thing fouls up for some reason.

Like pirates, or trade wars, or natural disasters…

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Admiral Kirk

From Blood in the Sand:

Omaha had had bad luck all around. It was known beforehand that the Omaha terrain was perhaps the roughest of the five, a crescent-shaped dish with a bluff on top and only two exit roads, which could be a devastating defensive position. It was not known that a fresh, crack division, the 352nd, had been moved into the area a few days before. In addition the air bombardment had missed its target, the majority of the Duplex Drive tanks (semi-amphibious tanks that were to lead off) had sunk in the heavy seas before they reached the beach, and the beach and underwater obstructions were much tougher than expected. As late as 1030 hours the good-as-gold old First Division lay pinned down behind the seawall while the enemy swept the beaches with small-arms fire. German artillery chased the landing craft where they milled off shore. By 1300 hours the crisis was pretty much over. Much credit for that goes to Admiral Kirk, the U.S. naval commander, who bunched his destroyers off the coast and delivered maximum fire on the German strong points. At the same time, the German 352nd Division was running out of shells, as the excellent U.S. aerial bombardment on the roads behind them kept them from getting resupplied and reinforced. But at midnight the deepest penetration on Omaha was barely more than a mile. For almost 3,900 casualties.

…And now you know. Good thinking, about the massed destroyer fire and cutting off resupplies for German artillery.

How you translate this into Traveller terms is up to you.

(Actually, with the incredible variation of planetary tech levels, you could actually replay this scene by scene in 993 on low-tech worlds without interstellar support. Just replace ‘Allies & Axis’ with ‘Imperial & Solomani’…)

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What is Essential…

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – The Little Prince

This is exceedingly true in the world of cyberwarfare.

North notes two incidents: one, where a Russian plane disabled a USN missile destroyer leaving it blind and helpless, and two, where the Chinese (or is it the Russians?) stole the designs of two dozen major weapon systems.

“You’ve seen significant improvements in Chinese military capabilities through their willingness to spend, their acquisitions of advanced Russian weapons, and from their cyber-espionage campaign,” said James A. Lewis, a cyber-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Ten years ago, I used to call the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] the world’s largest open-air military museum. I can’t say that now.”

The Referee can use these stories as a jump-off point for an Imperial Response Team, working fervently to repair the damage before the invisible becomes far too visible…

…but beware of sleeper cells.

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Wind Map

The only reason why I am posting the Wind Map here is because it looks so cool and science-fictiony.

(Snapshots of earlier Wind Maps are here.)

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Sci-fi Games, Today!

If someone described this game to me when I was younger – before the World Wide Web, say, I would have pegged it as “early stellar tech” – the game a civilization play when they have already colonized the Moon and Mars, and are extending their reach to the outer system.

Things are moving fast, and the childhood games of 2100 – never mind the interstellar era – will be quite different from the games I played when I was a young boy.

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Storytelling Practice

I was thinking: As a Traveller referee, how would I convey the same information – and the emotional content – as the following cutscenes do? Let’s say I wanted to convey the word-picture, a single scene, in 30 seconds or so?

(Using Script-timer, the average rate is 90 words across in 30 seconds.)

Scene 1:

Scene 2:

Scene 3:

It takes practice to get both the factual details (so the PCs know what happening) and the emotional content (so the PCs know how important it is) right. Large-scale prep for a set-piece battle (Scene 1), surveying a devastated city (Scene 2), and cultural weirdness (Scene 3) are all things most PC’s need to deal with on a fairly regular basis.

It’s easy enough to say exactly what is happening, but I am expecting more of a punch to get the meaning of what’s happening across. Not easy to do with the right pacing so the Players don’t fall asleep – and without a soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, Kenji Kawai, or the O’Donnell/Salvatori team.

For a little fun & storytelling practice, you and your group can give a session over to practicing 21 Awesome Storytelling Techniques. First, see who can tell a short story – maybe a minute long – set in your universe.

“Just how blockheaded is an Emptyhead? Let me tell you…”

“There’s a time to speak up, and a time to shut up. Like when I was docking the Spinnmaster in a corporate port…”

“When someone puts money in your hand, close the hand! There was that time when…”

Very few people are going to get it right the first time – but never mind that. Good storytelling, like everything else, takes practice.

But you don’t have to make it hard on yourself. Successfully conveying quiet scenes of only implied, hidden significance like the ones I pasted above – in a way that’s interesting to people – is the end-point of the storyteller’s art, not the start. There is no shame is learning how to tell a story with bright action, colour, and humour like…

Scene 4:

(It’s a lot more fun for players, too! And the players have to have fun, if you want them to keep on coming back. Once they’re hooked, then the Referee can – every so often – try something new.)

It’s easier to tell an interesting story when lot of stuff – and explosions – are kicking in everywhere. But it takes a bit of time to quickly and effectively get across the high-tech of the Traveller genre right, like the difference between high-velocity bullets and ordinary bullets, or how you can spot a digitally-cloaked enemy if you are looking for the right tell-tales.

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