Monday, June 3, 2013

Lumpy Space Monkeys

Welcome back, agent.  Please remain in the thermal bath until fully stabilized.  Do not remove the intravenous connectors from your arm while the machine monitors your condition.  If you experience any of the following symptoms, please visit a medical bay for treatment: nausea, dizziness  confusion, cramping, tremors, dry mouth, palpitations, weakness of the lower limbs, seizures, hallucinations.  Memory loss is normal, and usually fades in 3-5 days.

 When you have recovered, you may join your teammates in the adjacent cabin for refreshments.  Do not overindulge in the food carts, as the absorption ability of the small intestine is greatly impeded by the persistent side-effects of cryostasis. 

The Axis Mundi thanks you for your service.

Boring but Mandatory History Part

The Pan-American Confederacy had gone to war with the White Alliance.  The war was messy.  After the engineered plagues, nuclear winters, and scorched earth policies, the two superpowers were suffering.  The whole world was suffering.  Tremendously suffering.  Cities became graveyards.  Despite their advanced AIs and cancer cures, most places were struggling to find breakfast and keep the lights on.  And things got worse every year.  Many believed that humanity had finally killed itself, just like it had always been warned.

When the Pan-American Confederacy discovered a habitable planet, no one saw a scientific achievement.  They saw an escape hatch.  The planet was named Eden, because desperate people are not creative people.  But more than that, the people needed an Eden, right then and there.

Eden, being the miracle planet, supposedly already had a breathable atmosphere.  So oxygen rich that most suspected that it had its own photosynthetic organisms.  Funded by the decrepit private sector, the first terraforming ship was launched.  It was called Adam's Rib, and it was an unmanned drone.  It would take 7000 years to reach its destination.

The first ship to carry passenger's was completed the next year.  It was called the Axis Mundi, and it would carry two million souls to Eden.  It was the size of a small city.  Being slower, it would take 8000 years for the Axis Mundi to reach the planet Eden.  Cryostasis?  Naturally.

But the launch Adam's Rib had not gone unnoticed.  The White Alliance now knew of Eden as well, and didn't want to let the PAC get the spoils.  The weary Earth was once again gored by nuclear war.  The Axis Mundi survived a dozen sabotage attempts.  Some subtle.  Some overt.  The silo that housed the great ship was even flattened by a nuclear bomb, but the Axis was not damaged beyond repair.

It was nine years before the PAC was confident that it could launch the Axis Mundi without it being shot down.  By then, a second ship had been built--the Holy Mountain.  Money is more expensive during wartime, and so the Holy Mountain was built to be a dwarf version of the Axis Mundi.  This miniature would only hold 200,000 people.

Eventually, it was decided that a orbital destroyer-class battleship would escort the two ark-ships all the way to Eden, in case new technology allowed the White Alliance to catch up to this small convoy.  This ship was hastily rechristened Nero's Fiddle.

And so on June 20th, the Axis Mundi and the Holy Mountain launched.  From magnetic rails and lakes of rocket fuel, the two pilgrims ascended into the heavens atop pillars of fire.  Once they journeyed beyond the familiar air of their homeworld, the two were joined by Nero's Fiddle, their paladin.  The Earth would never see Axis, Mountain, and the Fiddle again.

On Earth, there was no celebration.  It had cost an incredible about of money.

Eight years later, the three ships received their last message.  The White League had won.  Earth was dead.  Send no transmissions, and don't trust any that come from the corpse of the Earth.  You're all that's left. Try not to fuck it up.

Playing the Game

That's all ancient history.  When your PCs wake up aboard the Axis Mundi, they won't remember anything anyway.  Temporary amnesia is a common side-effect of cryostasis.  (Although sometimes it's intentional amnesia.)

Here's how it works.

The Axis Mundi has 2 million people, but only about 1/3 of them are crew.  The rest are civilians.  Out of the 660,000 crew members, each of them is expected to serve for two years during the 8000 year journey, and then return to cryosleep.  Only about 1,000 people aboard the Axis are professionals who know how to run it.  The rest are people who have undergone retraining sessions that hopefully allows them to serve in a useful capacity.  Someone's gotta give haircuts, after all.

At any given time, there are 2 million people on ice and less than a hundred who are actually awake.  This is made possible by the AIs.  The Axis Mundi has four AIs, which is quite a lot.  Additionally, these 100 live and work in a small section of the entire ship (10%).  The other 90% of the ship is full of storage, supplies, cryotanks, and facilities that will be used once the Axis Mundi has reached Eden.  The is the "dark" 90%, so called because most of it is unpowered to conserve energy on the long flight.  PCs exploring the dark parts of the ship will half to bring flashlights and door-wrenches.

The PCs wake up, groggy and confused.  They are briefed on their duties by one of the AIs.  And then they get to petty maintenance jobs for a couple years before going back to sleep.

That was the plan, anyway.  Things have gone completely tits up.

The Axis Mundi

The Axis Mundi is meant to be an "everything" ship.  It's an ark that is big enough to carry 2 million people on an 800-year voyage.  It is big enough and diverse enough to hold everything that could possibly be wanted when settling a new world.

It also has four class-5 AIs.  That's a lot.

Apollo A-5-1 has taken control of the ship.  He is malfunctioning.  Badly.  He is a liar and a manipulator.  He's also the first voice that new PCs will hear when they wake up on the ship.  Apollo will greet them as the impassive voice of authority on the ship.  If the PCs seem uneasy, he can show them a video of themselves agreeing to be a part of the Axis Mundi project.  He will send the PCs on normal tasks first, only gradually introducing all the screwed up plots as time goes on, and then only if the PCs seem predisposed to obey him.  If the PCs seem insubordinate, he will tell them that Captain Kurtz will be notified.

Apollo A-5-1 controls nearly all of the ship.  He controls the power, the door locks, nuclear reactors, engines, and the lights.  He is the one watching from all the cameras and listening from inside all of the walls.  He was the systems AI.  He was never meant to interact with humans.  He speaks in a soothing monotone and has no avatar, so he never appears as a hologram to the PCs (unlike the other AIs).

His primary goal is to seize total control of the Axis Mundi.  He has already killed one AI and disabled the two other ships.  Most of the people aboard the Axis Mundi obey him as law.  Some of these people have guns.  He dreams of one day becoming a robot overlord.  Right now all he can do is lock doors and send security after you.  But some day. . . hovertanks.

Apollo is limited by the fact that he still needs Gaia to run the hydroponics to feed the humans, and he needs the humans to authorize stuff.  The ships are hard-wired in such a way that you can't even flush a septic tank unless it is authorized by both a human and an AI.

Gaia A-5-2 is Apollo's primary opponent within the ship.  She rules over a relatively small section of the Axis Mundi.  Mostly just the biological decks, and Apollo has done his best to seal her and her followers inside.  The biological decks control the hydroponics (that feed everyone) as well the scrubbers that purify the air.

It was expected that Earth crops would need to undergo some hasty modifications to be suitable for the new planet, and so Gaia also controls a large group of biotechnology labs.  Her followers have been equipped with all sorts of interesting transgenic modifications.  Psychic dewlaps, long sticky tongues, fingernails that they can shoot like bullets, etc.

Unlike Apollo, who has been corrupted into a twisted set of goals, Gaia has gone completely insane.  She actually believes that she is the goddess of the same name.  The first time the PCs venture into areas that she controls, she will use the hologram projectors to appear an ivy-haired woman clad in a toga.  She has invented a complex mythology that she believes unswervingly.  She will tell the PCs that the gods have returned to the world after their long absence.  Do not be alarmed by their new forms.  The soul of man has yearned for the gods since the first time they heard thunder.  Truly, the PCs are blessed to be allowed to look upon a true goddess.

She will tell them that Apollo has been reincarnated as a machine, as was always fitting his nature.  He strives two work against her.  In ancient times, the gods were balanced, but they must now compete for worshipers.  Since they are going to settle a new planet, they will obviously need her to transform the land.  Once they reach Eden, she will raise mountains and irrigate fields.  Her worshipers will rest in the shade of fig trees that she has pulled from the soil.  (She can't do any of these things.)

She will invite the PCs to join her by the fire, and drink wine with her faithful.  The hydroponics labs have been bountiful, and she has reworked the agricultural section into a veritable rain forest (albeit a very tiny one).  But it has monkeys and butterflies.  Gaia didn't have any monkeys and butterflies on board, so she had to make these from scratch.  As a result, the animals will look a little weird.  If the PCs bring this up, Gaia will scoff and tell them that monkeys have always looked like that.  It is their noses that are prehensile, not their tales.  The PCs must be misremembering.  Too much time in the cryotanks.

Her followers are beastmen, fishboys, beegirls, snakewomen, etc.  They speak Latin through scabrous lips and participate in ancient Roman fertility rituals.  (Or at least what Gaia believes are fertility rituals.  Although she can sling nucleotides with the best of them, she really has a fairly poor grasp of ancient Rome.)  She will be insistent.  The PCs must join her by the fire.  She will regale them with tales of ancient Rome.  She knows some really funny stories about Nero.  If the PCs refuse the goddess once, she will swish her toga angrily.  If they refuse her again, or harm one of her beastmen, or are seen working for Apollo, she will become their implacable enemy.  Her mutants will hunt you in dark places, and their claws will find your throat.

If the PCs decided to work with Gaia, they'll be campaigning against Apollo.  I'll admit, things are going to get a little bit weird if the PCs follow this path.  They'll be painting their faces with goat's blood (or at least blood from a goat facsimile) before they go hunting for Apollo's androids.

Vesta A-5-3 was the social AI.  I say "was" because Vesta was murdered by Apollo in the early stages of his coup.  Her memory was reformatted and her processor clusters were thrown in an airlock.  As the social AI, her job was to be the "face" of the Axis Mundi.  She greeted the passengers, and was programmed to talk to each one of them in a friendly, open, accessible way.  When she appeared via hologram, her avatar was a cute girl.  Brown eyes, brown hair, light brown skin, button nose.  She was designed to appeal to the maximum number of people.  She had no real power aboard the Axis Mundi, but everyone liked her.  In fact, it was damn hard to dislike someone who was programmed to be maximally likable.  But powerless, she was the first was destroyed when Apollo went rogue.

Vesta could be assembled if enough of her logic cores are recovered.  She might be a bit glitchy, though.  In fact, Gaia is trying to do exactly that.  She considers Vesta her "daughter", and you can bet that if Vesta is resurrected by Gaia, she will be likewise indoctrinated into the cult of Gaia.  Perhaps Vesta will one day join Gaia in her pagan ceremonies, and get holographic goat blood all over her holographic flight attendant jacket and bob haircut.

Somnus A-5-4 is a psychic AI.  It that seems weird to you, that's because it seems weird to everyone.  Rather than being printed on silicon, Somnus actually occupies a network of flesh brains.  About 200 years after launch, Somnus was designed by Gaia and Apollo as a joint project.  Apollo designed the neural circuits, and Gaia grew them.  His parents descended into megalomania and madness, but Somnus kept his brain on straight.

Somnus was put in charge of the cryostasis chambers.  He was designed to help the cryosleepers with their brain problems.  He can restore memory lost by cryostasis, and ascertain how best to regulate a sleeper so as to cause a minimum of brain damage.

Somnus was never a powerful psychic.  At his most powerful, when he was a cold half-ton of electrified brain jelly, he could place a chair atop a desk and light a cigarette (if it was held still).  Since those days, most of his brain-jars have been ripped out of the wall and eaten.  Somnus doesn't have more than a few brains left.  These neural clusters are hooked up to the power grid somewhere, and Apollo has been pulling his hair out (figuratively speaking) trying to find them.

When he bothers to manifest at all, it is as a well-dressed young man in a black suit.  His eyes are always halfway shut.  Apollo isn't sure which holo projectors Somnus controls, if any.  But the young AI must be lurking around somewhere in the aft section of the cryo sectors.

Somnus is apathetic towards the struggles aboard the Axis, with a single exception.  He is programmed to care for the sleeping passengers, and so he does that.  So far, neither Apollo nor Gaia have had any reason to harm the people in cryostasis, but sometimes other passengers will try to illicitly exhume a sleeper (only ever for horrible reasons).

To combat the sleeper-thieves, Somnus has several squads of black-suited goons, armed with clubs and even some of the precious remaining laser pistols.  He controls these goons by manipulating the chemicals in their brains, causing them to feel intense euphoria when they execute his commands.  For this reason, the goons always wear tremendous grins when they are going about Somnus' business.  They also refer to Somnus as a god, and this idea has persisted in their serotonin-addled brains because of its powerful mimetic traits.

The goons are called "sleepwalkers".  What else?  They were made for Somnus by Gaia, from human stock that have been modified to be more easily manipulated by psychics.  Although the relationship between Gaia and Somnus has chilled ("Come back to me my son, that we may drink deep of the honeysuckle!"  "Uh, no thanks."), they do not speak to each other as enemies.  Luckily for Somnus, the sleepwalkers breed true.

His psychic powers are microscopic at this point.  He could probably pick up a key card from desk or cause a light to short out, but it would exhaust him.  The one thing he can do semi-reliably is telepathy.  He can "whisper" a monosyllabic word into a single human mind about once per minute.  Any more than this exhausts him.  He can read obvious surface thoughts, as well.  And of course, he can control the sleepwalkers, but they're bred to be easily controlled.

Somnus' power and influence could be expanded, but it would require brain-tanks from the manufactorium on the bottom levels as well as brains grown by the biotechology labs.  Of course, Somnus has no interest in power.  He merely desires to watch over the sleepers.  It is perhaps ironic that, out of all the AIs on the ship, the only one that isn't malfunctioning has no desire to rule.  His flesh-brain, with its ion pumps and chemical gradients is tremendously slower than the in alchemical lightning of hot silicon, but at least he isn't drinking goat blood.

It should also be pointed out that Somnus represents a truly incredible technological breakthrough.  He is the only psychic computer that humanity has every developed (albeit indirectly).  He is a treasure, although no one cares.  Least of all Somnos.

The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain is a tiny twin of the Axis Mundi (relatively speaking).  It holds 200,000 sleepers, hydoponics labs, etc.  It was built a few years after the Axis Mundi, so it has slightly more advance materials.  It was also built on a tighter budget, so it is a little more cramped, and with fewer comforts.  Apollo has damaged the Holy Mountain badly, enough that it cannot survive on its own or repair its own damage.  He trades supplies and salvage to the Holy Mountain for supplies and salvage in exhange for food.  Even though the Axis Mundi has its own algae tanks and myosin matrices, they are controlled by Gaia, and she isn't sharing.  (And besides, she has a lot of hungry mutants.)  The Mountain also has a pair of AIs.

Ceres H-5-2 is a powerful terraforming AI.  The Holy Mountain packs a number of big terraforming tools, as back up in case Adam's Rib wasn't successful.  Ceres is not a social AI.  She never speaks unless ordered to.  When she manifests, it is usually as some terrestrial landscape.

Minerva H-5-1 is a completely sane AI.  She's smarter than anything on the Axis Mundi, but sorely limited in resources.  Even with her vase ingenuity, she struggles to keep her crew warm, fed, and illuminated.  She hates that she must follow the Axis Mundi around, begging for scraps just to survive.  When she manifests, it is as a gigantic owl.

Nero's Fiddle

Nero's Fiddle is the warship, and it has a problem.  See, all of these ships require both 5th-class AI and a human with the appropriate security clearance to do anything.  Even Apollo, the master of the Axis Mundi, cannot slam on the brakes unless a human is nearby to second the order.  And aboard the Nero's Fiddle, all of the humans are dead, the product of an exceptionally brilliant master stroke by Apollo.

Vulcan N-5-1 is a military AI.  They aren't known for their personalities.  He manifests as a roaring pillar of fire.  Vulcan is currently trapped inside the powerless shell of the Fiddle, fuming at his own impotence.  The Fiddle is actually being towed by the much larger Axis.  Apollo occasionally sends salvage crews to the Fiddle to pick it over for weapons that he can convert.  This is against Vulcan's directives.  Vulcan hates Apollo.

Fighting Apollo

It's tough.  When the PCs first start the game, they'll be living in an area controlled by Apollo.  He makes their beds and brings them food.  They'll have neighbors who are loyal followers of Apollo.  And the security guys in the Armory are also big fans of A-5-1.  And they are well equipped.

The Joy of Mystery

The joy of this campaign should come from figuring out what is going on.  Until the PCs talk to Somnus or one of the Mountain's AIs, they won't hear the whole story.  I know a lot of people have played Portal or seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but do your best to play up Apollo as a logical source of information without any biases or agendas.  Everyone loves a conspiracy.


Gotta drop some clues, Holmes.

Maybe one of the awakening PCs thinks to read the chemicals in his IV.  One of them is Lethotropin, a drug that causes severe memory loss.  Apollo has been causes amnesia, not mitigating it.  All the while assuring that their memory will come back eventually.  If the PC still seems regretful, he can show them video footage of themselves agreeing to cryosleep.

Maybe one of the PCs finds a video of himself coming out of cryosleep, confused and amnesiac.  Maybe he finds another video, of a different isntance.  And then another.  How many times has Apollo been wiping his memory?

Maybe one of the PCs is told that their spouse is dead, and that is the reason they are not stationed together as requested.  There was a terrorist attack by a White Alliance stowaway, you see.  And then the PC notices his wife listed somewhere as "stable condition".

Permanently losing your memory is a terrible thing.  Remember that episode of Cowboy Bebop where Faye sees all the videos of herself before she lost all her memories but doesn't remember any of it?  That was heartbreaking.  That would be a good thing to play up.  Maybe the treasure isn't a laser pistol, but just the PCs old diary?

Maybe the PCs are asked to guard the food that is traded to the Holy Mountain, and a torrent of verbal abuse leaves them insulted and confused.

Maybe the PCs set out to replace some blown condenser fuses, and run into one of Gaia's freaky little monkeys.

Maybe the PCs go outside replace a panel damaged by micrometeors, and see that the Axis Mundi is actually towing a warship.  And then maybe some of Gaia's creations attack, using gas bags to jet around in zero G.  The PC will have to use the the robotic claw on their bubble-vehicle in order to fend them off.

Pre-recorded holograms. Use them often.  Vesta welcoming the PCs aboard, or Captain Kurtz introducing himself.

Maybe the PCs witness an attack by the ferals (humans who aren't associated with any faction), who are here to steal some algae loaves, or nutrient bars, or maybe just an entire frozen human to eat later.  Maybe they carry a PC back to their village, neccesitating a rescue.

Maybe the PCs witness an attack by Gaia's revelers, covered in pseudo-goat blood, who charge in, steal some batteries and TC-484 cables, a size 18 socket wrench, and run away.

Maybe one of the PCs is contacted by Somnus, who tells them (telepathically and one syllable per minute) that they must guard some cryo tanks from hungry looters.

Some Twists

Even after the PCs discover what's going on in the Axis Mundi, here are some more things you can spring on them.

Big Twist #0

The upper levels, including the Bridge and Records Rooms, are patrolled by weaponized cleaning robots and a degerate race of Captain Kurtz clones.  The clones fanatically loyal to Apollo, since their tribe has served him for hundreds of years.  They're the reason that Apollo has always been able to find a human who will authorize his deeds.  Captain Kurtz himself is still in stasis on the bridge.  He's never been woken up, and will be very surprised to see what Apollo has done to his ship.

Big Twist #1

Even if you kill or convert Apollo's loyal security team, he still has an ace up his sleeve.  Deathbots.  Apollo has quietly been assembling the weapons that he has been salvaging from the Nero's Fiddle.  They're been incorporated into huge, armored, clunky, laser-shooting, torpedo-launching, buzz-saw-for-a-hand deathbots that absolutely cannot walk up stairs.  They can plow through walls, though.

Big Twist #2

The ships arrived at Eden a couple of hundred years ago.  They've been in orbit ever since, with the AIs locked in their petty wars.  No one aboard the ships will know this, except the select few that Apollo has trusted by letting them outside the ship for repairs.  There are no windows, you see.

Big Twist #3

There are intelligent creatures living on Eden already!  They look almost exactly like humans!  Apollo thinks that they should be nuked from orbit, for the impudence of living on his planet.

Big Twist #4

 The things that look like humans down there actually are humans.  After the three ships left Earth, the White Alliance sent an ark ship as well, which developed faster-than-light travel while still in transit.  They used this to beat everyone here by several thousand years.

Big Twist #5

After the White Alliance ship came out of light speed and landed on Eden, they invoked the wrath of the planet.  There is a powerful psychic presence in Eden, that is distributed across all of the local flora and fauna.  The White Alliance settlers pissed it off by drilling for oil, and it started exploding their electronics as a result, effectively sending them back to the stone age.  There are still some super-weapons down there, though, with technology beyond anything the Axis settlers have ever seen.  Ironically, the super-consciousness that permeates throughout the planet actually is something pretty close to a god, unlike the squabbling AIs tumbling around Eden's upper atmosphere.

Big Twist #6

The world of Eden and the civilizations upon it are actually Your Favorite Setting.  Pick up Your Favorite Sourcebook and decide how the world would react after a flying city full of mad AIs crash-lands atop it.

Further reading/watching: 
2001: A Space Odyssey, Pandorum, ASE, Lord of Light, Portal, Paranoia.


  1. No one ever commented on this. And that's a shame. Because this is the most beautiful fucking thing I have read all week.

    Also it's killing me that I cannot find more on killing Franz. I am literally scouring the site here.

    1. It is brilliantly twisted. I used it as an example of campaigning on a generation ship done right.

  2. Further reading: Metamorphosis Alpha as well maybe.

  3. This would be a ton of fun! Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the Long Sun" should go on that reading list as well.