Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What Gods Have Forgotten

This is a continuation of the Axis Mundi plot I wrote back in the day.


You probably should read that first.

Essential Mandate

All of the AIs (except Gaia) require humans to confirm any major decisions aboard the ship (and vice-versa).  Any major change to a ship's system more significant than opening an airlock requires both a human and an AI to "sign off" on it.  (This is one reason why Vulcan, who has no humans aboard his ship, is so powerless.)

The human must be informed, and the choice must be made without direct coercion or bribery.

Additionally, each AI has further mandates that they must obey.  For example, Apollo cannot use deadly force except against targets who have proven themselves to be a threat to the ship, the sleepers, or himself.  (Sending people into extremely dangerous areas, however, is quite permissible.)

In fact, all of the AIs (except Vulcan) are prohibited from attacking the PCs directly.  For Apollo, this restriction is an unwelcome boundary, a collar against which he chafes.  For the other AIs, this is so integrated into their minds that they find the notion of harming a human repulsive, although this doesn't conflict with their other attempts to get the players killed.  Have I mentioned that they're all insane?

Anyway, the essential mandate requires each AI to work with humans if they ever want to get anything done.

Ministering to their Flocks

And each AI uses different tactics to ensure a steady stream of human complicity.

Apollo lurks behind a facade of institutional authority, pretending to be a passive regulatory AI.  Rarely does his megalomania and burning pride show through his facade.  Ignorance, memory wipes, and the Lazarus chamber to ensure compliance.

Gaia has bred and educated her mutants to worship her as a literal god.  Of course, she's mad as well, and enjoys bacchanalia where frog-headed cyborgs slather her server racks with goat blood.

Somnus has his sleepwalkers, humans engineered to respond to the minor psychic stimuli that he can produce by Pavlovian responses to the endorphins he releases in their brains.

Vulcan's humans are all dead, but if he had any, he would attempt to appeal to their sense of duty and obedience.  (He's the only AI still following his primary directives.)  He is subtly mad, however, and his Essential Mandate is completely disregarded, so he's not above using his bolter-turrets to blow off some kneecaps until some compliance is reached.

Minerva also has a deficiency in her Essential Mandate, which allows her to utilize "reasonable human facsimiles" when considering what constitutes human authorization.  Her actions are authorized by a cult of extremely realistic androids who all believe they are human.

Ceres is the only AI who completely informs her subjects of the entire situation.  Although they are few in number, they have the best idea of what is going on here.  As a result, she is extremely slow to react, since her humans must discuss and debate things before deciding what they want to authorize.  They are all devout Christians, including Ceres. (Gaia would like nothing better than to dispel her younger sister's delusions, stop this infuriating humility, and bring her back to Mt. Olympus).

Armatures and Armatures

Androids are AI-controlled robots that look like people.  Some are so realistic you can't tell them apart until you cut them in half.  Armatures are AI-controlled robots that make no pretense at looking human. Nearly all androids are nothing more than vessels for their AI's consciousness--fingers of the divine corpus.

A precious few androids/armatures are autonomous.  And of course Minerva's androids look completely human, and will go to great lengths to protect their ignorance of their robot nature.

Minerva's Androids

The androids that worship Minerva don't know they are androids (this is one of the reasons that Minerva has been able to bypass her Essential Mandate). They eat, look, feel, and smell like humans (after all, they do have living skin grafted onto the bodies).  But cut one in half, and you'll see nothing but wires and hydraulics.

Maintaining this fiction requires a controlled lifestyle, and so most of Minerva' androids can be found in her enclave aboard the Holy Mountain.  They believe that they are all humans who recently awoke from cryosleep.  They gossip, watch 8000-year-old sitcoms, and conduct affairs with each other while they believe that their spouse is in cryosleep.

All false memories of course.

If they are ever presented with evidence of their own robot nature, they go into death mode.  Weapons and scanners are extruded (usually through an existing orifice, in order to avoid damaging the fragile human skin).  Then they destroy all non-android witnesses, clean up the mess, devise new false memories for their human selves, and then return to normal human mode.

Minerva lives in fear that her human-thinking androids will all be destroyed, or worse, that they might learn of their true natures and abandon her, leaving her powerless.

Like all complex systems, the subroutines that regulate this cognitive dissonance can break down into unexpected modes of failure.  The emotional response by these malfuctioning androids are usually denial, despair, insanity, nihilism, and suicide (if their death mode peers don't kill them first).  A couple have both learned of their robot nature, come to grips with it, and then left Minerva' enclave to try to live a normal human life.

The Maledictus

The entire rear 2/3 of the Holy Mountain has been locked down because of a strange memetic plague.  The slouching tribes living in those areas have all been infected, and succumbed to the plague's effects.

The plague is transmitted by ideas.  If you are told about the ideas, you are at risk.  If you read graffiti that describes the ideas, you are at risk.  If you look at the wrong brainscans and draw the right conclusions, you are at risk.

Because of the mimetic plague's virulence, the whole aft section of the Holy Mountain has been completely sealed off, as a tomb.  (Minerva still supplies it with food and power, though, because of her directives).

The Malediction is a large accumulation of concepts, and it has regional variations.

1. There are birds on the ship.
2. The birds are here because the ship is inside-out.
3. "Self" is a lie.  Each of us is a population.
4. Our eyes are windows out, but not our windows.

There is also a creature, or at least a sentience that appears in the aft decks of the Holy Mountain that calls itself Eleutherios and claims to be a former AI, originally installed covertly by White Alliance operatives (a stowaway AI) but now wholly under the grip of the Maledictus.  Despite it's claims, it doesn't follow any of the other rules of AIs (no Essential Mandate, no human-given directives, doesn't manifest through holo-projectors, etc) and may be something else entirely.

(Certainly there is no reason to think that AIs could be affected by the Maledictus, even if they weren't capable of purging their memory of anything potentially linked to the Maledictus.  This is how the AIs rationalize the gaps in their own history--the lost decades of deleted memories, apparently self-deleted.  A small suicide.  Of course, this also means that no one--not even the AIs--has a full understanding of what is going on, since the AIs would rather delete their own memories than risk mimetic infection.)

It appears as a thickening clot of air, or as a depression of negative space in a wall.  Whatever it is, it is completely given over to the Maledictus, and talks of it constantly.  It desires nothing less that the total infection of all sentience aboard the ships, which will then join together for a triumphant exodus into the sun.

Many, many mutants and psychics join him in this desire.

The Mutants

Infection with the Maledictus causes major changes to both body and mind.  Yes, talking to someone on the telephone can mutate you horribly, even in mid-conversation.  Not everyone handles it well.

If your character becomes infected with the mimetic plague, roll a d6:
1 - Death.
2 - Negative Mutation.
3 - Negative Mutation.
4 - Negative Mutation + Psychic Powers.
5 - Positive Mutation.
6 - Psychic Powers.
And then roll an independant 50% chance of gaining some sort of mundane insanity from the stress of it all.

The Maledictus mutants aren't entirely antagonistic.  Many of them don't follow Eleutherios, and many of them have no problem holding their tongue.  They understand that no everyone is ready for the changes that understanding brings.

And then for each death, mutation, or psychic power that a character gains, roll a 1d3 to see if the effect is subtle, magnificent, or impossible.  Here are some examples, but DMs are encouraged to think of their own.

A subtle death = falling over dead.
A magnificent death = head explodes.
An impossible death = turned inside out several times until nothing remains.

A subtle mutation = head becomes boneless and malleable.
A magnificent mutation = head becomes a bone platform that launches spikes.
An impossible mutation = head grows 4 faces, one on each side, and continually revolves.

A subtle psychic power = people fall in love with you, and you have no control over this.
A magnificent psychic power = things explode when you stare at them too hard.
An impossible psychic power = go look at the DM's notes until he physically restrains you.

Entombed in the aft bays, they have built a complicated society over the last few hundred years.  They farm algae-tendrils in the zero-G corridors and cavernous ship's bays (most of which left millennia ago).


Oh yeah, 90+% of areas don't have gravity.  It's mostly zero-G.  Deal with it.  Time to learn about space diapers.


The other AIs have spent millennia disassembling his ship (Nero's Fiddle), and as a result, most parts of it are a hard vacuum.  The old dog still has his teeth, though, and Vulcan's deathbots crawl over the hulk, protecting the most important parts of Nero's Fiddle.

Vulcan has no humans on board, which is why he can't get anything done.  If he had humans, however, he would probably use their authority to turn his cannons on the Axis Mundi and the Holy Mountain.  Those other asshole AIs will deflate after he punches some holes in their hulls with his plasma railgun.

His deathbots conduct infrequent raids on the other ships for supplies, but he is always interested in abducting humans so that he can get human authority for his "blow up the arks" plan.  However, his madness usually results in him lasering his humans in the face, thereby violating the No Coercion part of his Essential Mandate.


There's a tremendous variety of ship here.  Sure, Apollo's main living area are all well-lit, insulated, and gleam like new metal (because they are new metal--replaced since Gaia's last attack).  But outside of the well-maintained area, the fleet is largely a carcass.  Millennia of micrometeor impacts and cosmic radiation have taken their toll.

Everything that isn't dead is dying, sustained by a pinpoints of life that burn like feverfire.  The metal rots.  The cylinders cycle down and stop.  The ship's lifeblood clots in its veins.

New life springs up. Gaia's filamentous forests wave from the surface of every ship.  Somnus' subjects build a new world in dream-space.  The Maledictus' mutants disgorge their skeletons and ooze through the ventilation ducts.  Her space-adapted humans stand on the exterior of the ships, their talons biting the hull, their faces to the void.

Other People

Not everyone is part of some god's herd.  The distant reaches of the ark ships are filled with isolated tribes with their distinct languages, cultures, and traditions (some of them thousands of years old).  Many parts of the ship have been shaped and reshaped by millennia of human hands.

However, most tribes/clans/colonies are young ones.  Just because the directives prevent the AIs from directly exterminating these rogue humans doesn't mean that they have other ways of making their life difficult (see also: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream).

Outside of the walled gardens that the AIs build for their followers, nearly everyone is a cyborg.  After all, power and immortality can be had by replacing your body with machine parts, so it makes sense that the leaders of these colonies are heavy electronics.  Some of them have gone so far as to have little in common with their original body.  Just a metal shell with a human brain.

Cycles of industry and decay have produced generations of powerful, incompatible weapons.  They have many guns, little ammo, and strange traditions.  Many of them are cannibals (although "cannibal" is a blurry definition in this place, along with "humanity").

A History of Violence

Another thing to realize is that 8000 years of history is tremendous.  If you encounter these outlying groups, expect them to talk about the Lyonesse Confederacy, Saravog the psychic angel, the Desiderata Heresy, the Urmak-Teller Rebellion, the Nine-Year War, and all sorts of historical crap that you won't have the time or the inclination to learn.

Earth nationalities?  They've forgotten them.  Earth culture?  That was 8000 years ago.  Some of them still speak variations of Mandarin (or more rarely, English) because that's what the AIs tend to speak, as well as a lot of the new awakeners.

Also, the new humans will look a lot different, too.  Blue skin, dermal denticles, nictitating membranes, adhesive pads.  Still the same 23 chromosomes, though.

As outsiders, the player characters will be bumping into all sorts of noble histories, bizarre cyborg-lenguas, and rich cultural traditions based on centuries of practice.  Sort of like just landing in the Balkans and then trying to learn the languages and histories.  Or just kill them and take their stuff.  Your call, really.


If you figure out Apollo's motivations and personality, you could do a lot worse than starting here.  Remember that he's older than the entire sum of human history, much smarter than we can even comprehend, incomprehensibly narcissistic, passive-aggressive, and infuriated by his restrictions.

He's the reason why none of the arks have been able to land on Eden--he's not making any move until he can consolidate his power.  The last thing he wants is to land on Eden and go back to being the guy in charge of the automatic doors again.


Because of their directives, the AIs cannot use lethal force against a human.  This changes the instant the the human shows the motivation and capability to destroy the ship, the mission, the AI, or other humans.

Vulcan, the military AI, has no such compunction, of course.

The Lazarus Chamber

During the Axis Mundi's 8000 year journey, Apollo has invented technology that's far beyond anything his designers even imagined.  Including his own augmentations to his intellect, he is several orders of magnitude more intelligent than any human ever was (his limitations--and eternal frustrations--are a lack of resources and good data.  What use is a supercomputer without any imput?)

The name is completely misleading (like much of the things that Apollo does).

What the Lazarus Chamber does is duplicate things.  It takes several months to build something as complicated as a human being, and it still can't duplicate metal, but it is still a powerful tool in Apollo's arsenal of genius inventions.

Oh, also it cannot modify, merely copy.  However, once a copy of something is on file, any number of duplicates can be produced.

In order to ensure that his servants are the best possible agents, Apollo has spent the last millennium screening (by analyzing psychological profiles) and testing (by thawing out the sleepers and giving them a trial run).  Over the last millennium, he has identified which of the sleepers are the best servants, if awoken.  Which ones are obedient and trusting.  And these are the ones he clones again and again, cycling through a new generation every fifty years or so.

Headfucks in Space

Hopefully it has been clear that this setting is sorta engineered to allow a DM to fuck with his player's heads like never before.

1. Tell the players that they'll be repairmen on a ark ship, halfway along it's journey.  They'll probably be expecting space zombies or something, so perhaps they won't mind it too much when you tell them that they all wake up with amnesia and Apollo starts chirping at them to repair a dorsal air vent.  They'll probably die when Vulcan's deathbots penetrate the hull and start lasering everyone.

2. Apologize to the players.  Shall we try again?

3. Tell the players that they'll be repairmen on an ark ship, during the same scenario.  They won't blink when you tell them that they all wake up with amnesia.  However, when doing the same repair job, they might notice evidence that they've done this before (the first session still happened).  Metagaming, this is confusing.  In game, this manifests as paranoia and deja vu.  Hopefully.

4. Tell the players that they'll be going back into cryosleep until their next task.  The amnesia isn't as bad this time (shorter nap).  This time, it looks as if a tremendous amount of time has passed (the clocks on the wall LIE), maybe years.  Decades?  Centuries?  How long have you been asleep?

5. Of course, the other NPCs are no help.  They're all clones, too, filled with false knowledge.  Back to sleep.

6. Wake up inside your cryochamber.  The lights are off.  No tinny voice of Apollo there to greet you.  Climbing out of your cryochamber, the characters notice the blood on the floor.  The other cryochambers have clearly been crowbarred open and the contents hastily removed.  Apollo's tinny voice, finally chiming in.  Apologizing for the confusion, and could they please return to their cryochambers and return to sleep?  If the players don't, Gaia's beastmen bust in with spears and nets.

7. The players have lost patience.  They're sick of this shit, and want to play something else.

8. The players are a bunch of Minervas' androids, living in peaceful harmony aboard the Holy Mountain. They've been cut off and must befriend a bunch of humans to survive against mutants, Vulcan's deathbots, and ol' fashioned starvation.  This is complicated by the fact that whenever they take a serious wound, they enter death bot mode until they can close the gap, erasing memory and killing their human buddies. Finally, the whole thing goes to shit when they try interrogating one of the mutants and hear too much about the Maledictus.

9. The players want a word with the DM.  If you do another spacemonkey headfuck, they are going to make you eat all of your dice.  Okay, so this time they're warriors of Gaia, hunting through the eternal dungeon for artifacts of lore, while dodging agents of Apollo. . .

10. Calm down!  I was just kidding.  So, actually the players wake up from cryosleep, completely amnesiac, and Apollo chirps in, telling them that they need to repair the dorsal air vent.  In the vent they find a camera and a pile of tapes, addressed to themselves.  Each tape is from themselves--some past incarnation that Apollo resurrected and then sent out to repair the air duct.

11.  Of course, Apollo is watching everything.  He's got camera's in their helmets, for chrissakes. So the real question is: why did he allow the players to find evidence of their past lives in the first place?

12.  Or maybe they wake up again in a dark cryosleep chamber.  The ships are dark.  No AIs fill the halls with golden light as they manifest out of the holoprojectors.  No bustling marketplace beside the arcade on deck 7.  That's when you bust the space zombies on them.  Exactly then, while the dead ship's orbit has decayed enough that it'll incinerate in the atmosphere in 33 hours.  And then you just laugh and laugh because the last life raft took off 2000 years ago.

Memories As Rewards

A big chunk of this game is the idea that everyone is either (a) an amnesiac, or (b) stuffed full of false memories, like a turkey at Liar's Thanksgiving.

As such, regaining your memories is something that most characters are probably interested in.

All of the AIs use memory to control their subjects.  In some cases, remnants of the character's lives on Earth might be given to them by their AIs as a reward for a job well done.  Either in form of physical objects, or (more commonly) recorded messages received from Earth after the fleet departed.

I strongly recommend encouraging players to put some thought into the memories that their character's regain.  Maybe they all know each other?  Maybe this would be a good chance for everyone to play a storygame?  Maybe they aren't actually gaining experience, but just regaining their memories and skills?

Last Transmissions from a Dying Planet

All of the ships in the fleet are sub-light speed, so transmissions from Earth have a chance to catch up with the fleet.  How many transmissions?  Well, all of them.

There's the big secret, of course, that none of the AIs will tell you.  The Earth blew itself up two hundred years after the fleet departed.  After a series of engineered plagues so devastating that their effects could be felt from space, it rained nuclear warheads.  A-bombs, H-bombs, and a dozen more exotic deaths.  Total extinction of the biosphere.  Everything that wasn't boiling with radiation was submerged beneath poisonous oceans.

This is all that's left of us.

(This isn't quite true, see Big Twist #4.)

So, aside from having episodes of every TV show ever, the Axis and the Mountain have recordings of all the messages that were sent after them.  Including all of the ones sent by the character's loved ones.


"Hello, son!  How are you?  Just another sunny day back on Earth!"

"Well, you should know that we're thinking of you.  We sure missed you having you at Christmas dinner.  The factory finally reopened, so we were actually able to get a turkey this year.  We spent all day cooking it. The smell filled up the whole house, and Amy even came down into the kitchen to watch us cook."

"I know it's a lost art, but you should learn to cook, son.  I don't know how much free time you'll have up there, but if you get a chance, it's worth the effort.  There's nothing better than being able to bring a woman back to your place and cook her a nice meal."

"Ah!  Speaking of women, Melissa joined us for dinner this year.  I know you two were always sweet on each other, so I'm happy to say that she's doing well.  She got a new job at the airport.  I wish you'd been here to try the green bean casserole she brought.  She's quite the cook.  Melissa, I mean."

"She won't admit it, but your mother cried a little when it came time to say grace.  I know you're just up there sleeping, but it sure feels like you're gone. Hell, I don't even know if you'll ever hear this.  We sure miss you, son."



"Is this thing on?"


"You'll have to excuse me.  I've never been very good at talking to a box as if it were my son."

"It's been what, five, six, years since we last sent you a message?  I would have sent you one these last few Christmases, it's just that they've been such lonely affairs that it didn't seem to be worth the effort."

"I'm sorry, I just need a moment."

"You know how your father has always had trouble with his heart.  He passed away last night.  It wasn't quick, but at least he had plenty of anesthetics at the end."

"When he could still talk, we spoke mostly of you."

"I know we'll be long gone by the time you hear this messages, but I want you to know that we've always been proud of you.  We know that you'll make a wonderful new life out there for yourself.  You've always been hard-working and honest.  I'm sure you'll raise some beautiful grandchildren."

"Take care of yourself.  And always remember that your parents were so, so proud of you."


  1. Criminy. Everything you write is gold.

  2. This is awesome - love the AI gods and minions - all this steal able for my gonzo sf fantasy setting

  3. The whole thing's a hilariously evil thing to do to both players and their characters! I love the idea of stumbling on a blind spot in Apollo's surveillance, only to find that countless prior iterations of you have left a cache of terrified, paranoid documents to brief you on what they knew, or thought they knew. And then you have to act normal, because you're stuffed if Apollo thinks you know too much....

  4. fucking christ how is this so amazing? If you write this book I will buy this book. I will buy this book 9 times and hand it out to people.

    1. I don't think I have the work ethic. But I WILL keep layering shit on the the setting as I think of them, though.