Fantasy and Reality

I just had an interesting read with Game of Thrones and the Politics of Fantasy.

As the author notes, fiction is certainly useful as a source of “what-if” thought experiments, to model how various ideas and societies would work out in real life. But “there’s more to it than that…”

*** quote begins

Fantasy can also strip away irrelevant and misleading details of the real world that cloud our thinking.

C.S. Lewis captures this idea perfectly in a 1956 essay:

The Fantastic… if it is used well by the author and meets the right reader, has the [following] power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.

*** quote ends

It’s possible that a well-developed Traveller campaign can actually help people better understand real life. I certainly hope that my Empty Quarter setting has proven at least somewhat useful here.

Because role-playing is a more active experience than book-reading, it would be the Players, not the Referees (or the setting designer) who benefits the most from a good game of Traveller. It should be fun to them (via the joy of violence, seeing a plan kick in smoothly, interacting with NPCs, learning new things, gaining new skills… even seeing new sights), and it should at least give the illusion of depth, of rules and places that are solid – and that then can be leveraged or used by the Players to improve their mastery of the universe.

There are others who have better thought out the art of Refereeing than I: some good links after a casual search includes something from Classic  RPG realms, WikiHow, & YouTube. There is certainly more out there,if you dig a bit!

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Firece Financial Disasters

I think that – after reading an article on Eike Batista, who went from $34.5 Billion to negative net worth in a single year – it could be a lot of fun for the PCs to get a front-row seat in a full-on financial collapse.

A few basic questions:

  • Are the PCs friends of the Doomed Rich Man (DRM)? Employees? Allies? Family?
  • Are the PCs people who owe money to the DRM – and who have an interest in seeing him busted, so they can hopefully write off their debts to him? After all, if he can’t afford the lawyers, or a private army, or buy off the nobles…
  • Are the PCs one of his creditors? If the DRM owes money to the PCs, and he can’t pay, it’s quite likely that the PCs will have to eat the loss. If they don’t want to do this, they’ll have to get to work…
  • Are the PCs old enemies of the DRM? If so, how do they plan to capitalize on the weakness of an old foe?

When making this kind of story, the Referee should think of what angle he’s aiming for. Pride goeth before a fall? The DRM underestimate a politician he though he owned? The power of magical thinking fails again? Belief in your own press? After being kept in the dark for a long time, the truth comes out – and it’s all bad news, all of the time? Stuck in the old ways?


And something more Travelleresque…

  • If the PCs are crewing one of his ships, what are they going to do when the DRM can’t pay their bills or their salaries? Seize the ship themselves? Arrange to buy it, at pennies on the credit?
  • If the DRM has an Imperial Title, then that title is just one of the assets the creditors are going to go after. Will he just sell it to the highest bidder? Try to keep the title no matter what – without any money, any political pull, and at the risk of having himself and his family wiped out? Appeal to the Emperor? (…and how long would it take for his appeal to be heard?)


And – most difficult – can the PCs who are tied to the Doomed Rich Man actually help him make a comeback? It is possible – see Masayoshi Son – but it’s not easy. (Especially with the occasional hail of lead coming their way – Vilani Debt Collection firms are very aggressive…)

Continue reading

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Bwap Control Panels

The MisTable puts all that fog and skin drenching humidity to good use, as is shown here:

MisTable: Reach-through Personal Screens for Tabletops

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Overly Honest Methods

Or, “how science is done in the Imperial Empty Quarter”.


The Scientific Method

“Experiment was repeated until we had three statistically significant similar results and could discard the outliers” – From the top 75

“Error bars represent SEM rather than 2SD as it looks significant that way.” – From the top 75

“We used this magnification microscope image to crop out the weird bits of the sample we don’t want to address.” – From the top 75

“We didn’t understand the physics behind this so we claimed it was beyond the scope of this report.” – From the top 75

“We didn’t read half of the papers we cite because they are behind a paywall” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

“We assume 50 Ivy League kids represent the average population. b/c actual ‘real people’ can be sketchy or expensive” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

Scientific Secrets

“We didn’t show the structure because we forgot to patent it so only three people actually know what it is.” – From the top 75

“Plants were grown at temperature and light conditions last set by the only person understanding the incubator set-up. ” – From the top 75

Trust Authority (The Vilani Approve)

“A Northern blot was run instead of realtime QPCR because the PI is old and does not trust results unless he sees a band” – From the top 75

“It’s wrong. We know it’s wrong. The literature says it’s wrong, but our PI told us to do it so we’re doing it anyway” – From the top 75

“Samples were prepared by our collaborators at MIT. We assumed no contamination because, well… they’re MIT” – From the top 75  (Traveller: Replace “MIT” with “the University of Sylea”)

Competent Researchers

“A modified protocol was implemented because a certain graduate student seems unable to follow simple instructions.” – From the top 75

“I can’t send you the original data because I don’t remember what my excel file names mean anymore” – From the top 75

“We grew the cells in DMEM not GMEM because I couldn’t read the handwriting of whoever froze them last time. ” – From the top 75

“Samples were prepared under cleanroom conditions, after removing the pile of dirt behind the big machine.” – From the top 75

“The dose was so crazy high because got ng and mg mixed up in calculations” – From the top 75

“incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge” – From the top 75

Just Plain Lazy

“We developed these unrealistic simulations because we couldn’t be bothered going out in the field for more sampling.”- From the top 75

“Experiments were repeated only once because our PI was away at a conference & quite frankly NO work got done that week ” – From the top 75

“This dye was selected because the bottle was within reach ” – From the top 75

“The samples incubated at ambient temperature in a remote customs office for 5 months.” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

Top-flight Equipment

“Buffers were prepared with the stock solutions inherited from the PhD student who left the lab a couple of years ago. ” – From the top 75

“The temperature controller on the spectrometer wouldn’t go any lower in July, so this is the temperature we used. ” – From the top 75

“Our representative device is representative of the ones which didn’t immediately explode.” – From the top 75

“We used a modified version of Dr. IDidItFirst’s apparatus, as we couldn’t figure out how to build an exact replica. ” – From the top 75

Smart Moves

“We used method X because Invitrogen/Sigma/etc make a kit for it with idiot-proof instructions.” – From the top 75

“To confirm the findings, we decided to repeat the same experiments in our collaborator’s lab. In Hawaii” – From the top 75

“Plasmids were a gracious gift from the Miser lab after many emails, phone calls, & drunken reminders at conferences.” – From the top 75

“Brains were removed and dissected in, on average, 58 seconds. We know precisely due to a long running lab competition ” – From the top 75

Internal Feuds

“Our paper lacks post-2010 references as it’s taken the co-authors that long to agree on where to submit the final draft ” – From the top 75

“We settled on co-first authorship because it’s less bloody than dueling.” – From the top 75

“This additional experimental condition was carried out because we heard our competitor lab was working on it” – From the top 75

“We have not given you a reference for this bit of information because it is a paper of one of our arch rivals. ” – From the top 75

Simply Hilarious

“If you pay close attention to our degrees-of-freedom you will realize we have no idea what test we actually ran” – From the top 75

“green belt katas were practiced in the dark room as blots were developed; yes I think it helped” – From the top 75

“1 week=went on holiday, 4 weeks=forgot about it, 6 months=someone took over project, 2 years = found in cupboard” – From the top 75

“Heat shock of E.coli was performed at 42-43 degree C for exactly 45-120 seconds.” – From the top 75

“We don’t know how the results were obtained. The postdoc who did all the work has since left to start a bakery.” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

Publish or Perish

“There should have been more experiments but our funding ran out but we published it anyway.” – From the top 75

“We don’t know how this method was performed because the PhD student’s lab book is written in a foreign language. ” – From the top 75

Just Begging for a Traveller Adventure

“Well we had to do *something* with that free sample we scored at a vendor booth” – From the top 75

PCs get to be a big part of the that *something*. The odds that they will live to tell the tale are actually pretty good, at 75%…

“we didn’t test as many clams as oysters because we’re pretty sure someone found the samples and ate them” – From the top 75

It could be the local janitor, it could be the grinning Vargr…

“Tiny metal rods were used to unravel each of the (hundreds of) butterflies’ probescus for feeding. Every. Flippin. Day.” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

…and one day, the Imperial Scout simply snaps

“All reagents were purchased from Fisher scientific, because Fisher is like the Walmart of science”  – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

Well, someone has to go running around the sector taking orders and dropping off shipping packages with all sorts of esoteric handling warnings on them…

“Rat sacrifices were performed to Tom Petty, because that’s how we roll in this lab” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

Did I mention how deeply religious the Empty Quarter is?
Yes… yes I did.

“Reagent became unavailable in 2002 because nobody wanted to order more and risk being added to terrorist watchlists.” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest

“Ah, it doesn’t matter: I’m on so many Imperial Navy watchlists already, what’s one more?”

“Our results are inconclusive because IACUC doesn’t let us replicate the actual disease.” – From Scientists Get a Little Too Honest (comments)

As I’m sure you know by now, the Imperial Empty Quarter is as backwater as you want, so nobody will notice (or even care much) if the rather secretive Imperial Noble Aide or Megacorp executive sets up a lab in the middle of nowhere for some completely illegal research studies…

I Knew It!

“We used jargon instead of plain English to prove that a decade of grad school and postdoc made us smart.” – From the top 75

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Vengeance and Accountability

Just a brief reflection on the recent sad maritime tragedy in Korean waters:

In the West, there is a strong legal tradition where angry parties do not look to the tribe for vengeance, but bring their disputes to court.

But this tradition of legal, impartial resolution for major disputes by widely respected courts does not really exist in the Imperial Empty Quarter.

Or, more properly, it was heavily corrupted during the Stellar Sheik/Bengal Lion conflicts, where your religion, race and tribe counted for far more than your actual guilt or innocence before the local Imperial courts.

Ever since the end of the Hebrin Rebellion in the last Imperial century, the rule of predictable, impartial law has been slowly regaining lost ground. But the average local trader remains rather distrustful of the Imperial courts – and especially the Bwap dominance of them (with their official incorruptibility, as per Traveller Canon ) – and major outrages are likely to be resolved outside of the Imperial courts.

So in sum, if the PCs get caught up in an incident where many innocents were killed, it would be best for them to surrender to the Imperial authorities pronto. Before the locals sniff out where you are.

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Fun with Microstates

Are Hong Kong & Macau Countries?

Note that all Imperial Starports are, in effect, microstates under Imperial (not planetary) law. And over the centuries, some of those microstates have grown rather muscular – monetarily: think of a combination of Manhattan and the City of London and the private military and banks of the local Medici-style Noble,

territorially: just to properly secure the perimeter of the starport from the very powerful and very annoyed natives, a good 50 km-wide buffer zone was fought over, heavily secured, overrun, and again clawed back by the Imperial Marines

or gained interstellar fame by the nature of the world it serves: I expect Sylean Starport – the capital of the 11,000-world Imperium – to be a very emphatic political statement, at least as grand as the Moscow Subway (or the Tempelhof Airport: but that’s actually better suited for a different famous interstellar government…). The starport at Vland will, naturally, be a perfect fit for ancient Vilani specifications (with subtle changes that fit in the TL 14/15 requirements of modern Vland).

Also, note that these microstates all have an odd legal status – fun with messing with the PCs – and are heavily oriented with trade with the outside world (or the rest of the galaxy, in the Traveller universe.) An interstellar Traveller is a good deal more likely to interact with these mercantile, trade-oriented governments than a local would…

A hard-working Referee could even decree that every Imperial Starport is a genuine microstate, complete with sovereignty, legal system, local diplomatic policy, etc – united with the rest of the Imperial Starports by the Imperial Credit, the Imperial Marines, and the Imperial Transport Authority to keep everyone on compatible standards. You could even give them all modified flags, with the Imperial Starburst in the canton, and the local starport/planetary badge in the fly.

(But this is a LOT of work, compared to just keeping them as uniform and interchangeable as possible. Uniformity is easier on the Referee (and the authorities back at Capital) – and there’s a lot to be said for reducing his workload. On the other hand, a 1000-year old Imperium has generated a LOT of odd quirks and local weirdness, so a realistic *ahem* Imperium would have starports that are very distinct from each other, even as they all honour the authority of the Iridium Throne.)


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The Dog and the Wolf

From Aesop’s Fables.

A gaunt Wolf was almost dead with hunger when he happened to meet a House-dog who was passing by.

“Ah, Cousin,” said the Dog.
“I knew how it would be; your irregular life will soon be the ruin of you. Why do you not work steadily as I do, and get your food regularly given to you?”

“I would have no objection,” said the Wolf, “if I could only get a place.”

“I will easily arrange that for you,” said the Dog; “come with me to my master and you shall share my work.”

So the Wolf and the Dog went towards the town together. On the way there the Wolf noticed that the hair on a certain part of the Dog’s neck was very much worn away, so he asked him how that had come about.

“Oh, it is nothing,” said the Dog. “That is only the place where the collar is put on at night to keep me chained up; it chafes a bit, but one soon gets used to it.”

“Is that all?” said the Wolf.  “Then good-bye to you, Master Dog.”

Moral of Aesops Fable: Better starve free than be a fat slave

This particular fable is applicable to the Empty Quarter in several ways:

The Julian Vargr (a.k.a. the Irilitok) and the Blood Vargr (a.k.a. the Suedzuk). Long ago, the Irilitok were not only enslaved, but bred for obedience and and an increase in human traits – complete with the “big eyes, short snout, upright posture” look that most pleases the human eye. The Blood Vargr, on the other hand, razed Gashikan and built a reputation for bloodthirsty behaviour.

Centuries later, the slave race is now free legally, and has a genuine social equality with humans in much of the Julian Protectorate, including the leading starnation of the Asimikigir Confederation (but not in the Rukadukaz Republic – where the Ovaghoun Vargr and the Vilani push the newcomer Irilitok down). Moreover, while the Irilitok grow in numbers and wealth and – far more slowly – political pull, the Suedzuk have gotten hammered by the humans, and are estranged from the Ovaghoun Vargr. Their glory days in the sector have long past, and those who have not retreated to current Suedzuk-held space face extinction or submersion within the surging Irilitok tide, or retreat to Sslinthis, the last free high-pop Suedzuk-dominant world in the sector. Gaunt they are… hunted they are… but some still remain free.

But perhaps, free only to choose the manner of death that awaits them, so long as they refuse to adapt as the corporate-minded Ovaghoun Vargr has. If they refuse to be tamed inwardly (like the Ovaghoun, adapting Vilani ways) and escape external domestication (like the Irilitok suffered), perhaps the best the Blood Vargr can do is dig in, avoid attracting the full wrath of the humans, and wait for better days… days that may never arrive.

Local business vs the Megacorporations. In the Six Subsectors, the locals are serious about local rule. While few challenge the authority of the Emperor – and fewer yet, after the fiasco of the Hebrin Rebellion – many are willing to strike at the Imperial Megacorporations. The main power of the corporations is money: yet this power is strangely ineffective in the Six Subsectors, compared to the rest of the Imperium. (There is always an outlier somewhere…)

The Megacorporations have not been truly driven out: all have offices and local production in Bwap space, and the major Vilani worlds. Yet overall, the hold of the megacorporations is weaker here than anywhere else in the Imperium, and local businesses more successful. This unofficial tariff keeps the region noticeably poorer than the rest of the Imperium: yet it is a price the highly parochial locals are willing to pay to keep their businesses in their own hands – and not answer to a distant head office in Capital or Vland.

[Follow-up: You would think that this localization strategy would help the locals when the empire inevitably falls. And interestingly enough, it actually did so in Canon Traveller: the wealthier/high-tech the world, the more harder it was smashed by Virus. Coupled with the lack of fighting in this low-priority backwater, and the Imperial Empty Quarter suffered the lowest level of average-casualties-per-starsystem of all the sectors of the Imperium - excluding the relatively violence & virus-free Domain of Deneb.]

[Follow-up II:

"If the locals hate the megacorporations so much, why are they so supportive of the Emperor?"

"The megacorporations are largely impersonal bureaucracies, money machines with replaceable faces. The highly personal - perhaps even unconsciously Vargr-influenced - Solomani cultures of the Six Subsectors are innately repulsed by such impersonal, mechanical organizations. This is also tied to the success of the only widely accepted megacorpoation in the sector, Tukera Lines."
"Tukera Lines wins again!"

"They have a habit of doing so, yes, but you have to know why they succeeded here, where  all the other megacorpoations failed to a greater or lesser extent. Both the Imperium and Tukera Lines have Imperium-wide recognizable faces - His Imperial Majesty and the Count of Tukera, respectively. These men of flesh and bone, their personalities, their wisdom and folly - all their personal attributes  palpably shape the organizations they lead. The local inhabitants of the Quarter, the Gushgusi, honour and respect such powerful men: but they despise the responsibility-evading nature of the unaccountable bureaucrat."]

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Tech Level Problems

KIDS REACT TO WALKMANS (Portable Cassette Players)

GURPS Traveller had a nice little difficulty modifier, when PCs were trying to work with equipment more or less difficult than their own homeworld Tech Level.

Note that, in the Imperial Empty Quarter, almost all sophonts (and so, most mass culture, literature, science, etc) live and work in the TL 7 to TL 9 range (AD 1970 to 2010s technology). The high-pop outliers here are

  • Irash (TL A, East Indian),
  • Lazisar (TL B, Vilani/Afro-Asian) and
  • Pamushgar (TL B, Vilani)

There are a few higher-tech goods floating about, but they tend to be ‘built for the Bwap’,  pre-owned hand-me-downs, factory seconds, and cast offs from the rest of the Imperium.

In the Hegemonic Empty Quarter, the spread is a more gradual, broader curve. There is a high-pop system for each technology level between 7 and B (or the 1970s and a solidly interstellar economy – the top level of the First Imperium). The mid-pop Irilitok Vargr systems are wealthier on average, and have access to better technology: but are careful to keep their technological edge discreet and low-profile, to better shield it from the humans who hold the political power.

There is one HUGE outlier – Reshkhuda, a world of 30 billion people with medieval-level technology. I justified this with an extremely rich ecosystem, but there are other possibilities – for example, relic technology that just keeps on pumping out healthy food and clean water while removing waste. Or lots and lots of imported technology: say, legions of high-tech self-repairing robots (and medical droids, and sanitation robots), while the uncaring & ignorant TL 2 inhabitants just loll around and sip fine wine… until The Machine Stops.

The Rukadukaz Republic has a good selection of high-pop worlds, but only one actually matters – ultra-high tech and fantastically wealthy Ikon. As the golden egg of the interstellar welfare state, Ikon partially subsidies most of the worlds of the Republic: even the poorest pup in the poorest world has access to a few TL 14 toys and trinkets, and low-quality TL 14 consumer goods are common enough on most worlds.

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Small Packages

I was quite surprised to discover that one of the best anti-surveillance systems on the market can fit on a thumb drive.  That suggests that people who knows what they are doing – a small group, admittedly, but anyways – really can evade a huge and expensive surveillance network.

So, even in a TL 15, Law Level Outrageous society, even there, a small band of highly trained PCs can do business, get the cash, and get out. True: this leaves out the Zhodani Thought Police, but if you assume that psionics can be electromechanically replicated (a reasonable assumption: see the psi helmet as a brute-force mindprobe blocker), then there is a way…

I’d still not want to try it myself though: a properly kitted out TL F police state is going to be a terror to deal with, the moment you cross the XT line and enter their domain. And if they demand that all visitors get chips in their skulls and/or control collars and/or intrusive personality inspections, it will get exponentially difficult to see the mission through.

Exponentially difficult… but still not impossible.

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The Universe of 1960

They didn’t know as much as we do… but they knew a lot.

Even before we visited the moon…

Universe – National Film Board of Canada (1960)

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