Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Arctic


Arctic environments are any place where the temperature hovers around  the low end possible for that type of life. For Earth life, it’s places where it’s often below freezing.
-GURPS Space, page 142
Star Wars is space opera, and space opera tends to steal the stories of its day.  The stories Star Wars most likes to steal come from the early pulp era, when fascination with arctic expeditions to the world's poles ran high.  Space opera stories set in arctic environments tend to borrow on themes of loneliness, isolation and man-against-nature survival found in the works of Jack London or in the harrowing accounts of the Shakelton expedition or other arctic survival tales.  Thus, the arctic is a world of struggle, tribulation and isolation, where people worry your tauntaun will freeze solid before you reach the first marker, or where you wander for days in empty wastes only to find a single outpost.

Why visit  the Arctic?

Snow-swept arctic terrains seldom carry especially rich resources.  They lack the ecological diversity necessary to give rise to biologically exotic resource, and they don't particularly have any more mineral resources than any other world/terrain might, and those other worlds are typically easier to mine.  

Life isn't particularly easy in an arctic world either, which means that few colonies will spring up on them large enough to house major space ports. They might house ruins, though.  Like deserts, arctic conditions tend to be excellent for keeping ruins in pristine condition, thus if someone once built something on an arctic world, we're likely to find it again hundreds of years later in more-or-less the same condition.  Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness feature bizarre alien ruins in the Antarctic, which might serve as inspiration for a Psi-Wars adventure.  Furthermore, the very remoteness of the world in question might be the very thing that attracts people to it.  The rebels settled on Hoth as a headquarters for their rebellion precisely because it was the last place the Empire would expect, and thus the safest place to hide.  Pirates, rebels and smugglers all might make a home on some remote, barren, arctic waste.

But the biggest draw of an arctic world may well be how common they are.  Nearly every world in our Solar system either features arctic terrain (Including, surprisingly, Mercury, which actually has ice on it),  or is arctic.  The most likely candidate for a single-biome planet is the arctic world, simply because from the perspective of humans, most worlds are arctic.  The universe is cold, and most of its worlds are frozen hunks of ice.  Thus, if a space pilot is going to crash on some random planet, chances are, that planet will be arctic.

One might not be able to simply land directly at a site because the ice of a location is too rugged for an easy landing (see snow dunes below) or too thin to support the weight of the ship, or too treacherous or shifting to rely on (a glacier).  Arctic terrain, often carved out by glaciers, tends to be rough and sharp.  Even if a location isn't, arctic environments tend to have high winds that make even contragravity tricky, and blizzards can reduce visibility to the point where landing becomes nearly impossible.  All of these can justify landing some distance away and going overland to your destination.

The Perils of the Arctic

The defining danger of the arctic is the cold.  The rules for the cold found in either GURPS Campaigns (B430) or DF16 p30 work fine, and are essentially restatements of each other.  A heatsuit (UT177) or expedition suit (UT178) provide a +10(!) to your roll, or allow you to waive it as long as the powercell runs, and then acts as "genuine arctic clothing" thereafter.  Armor that is climate controlled works like a heatsuit for as long as the powercell lasts, but then only counts as "winter clothing," not as genuine arctic clothing, unless your armor has been specifically designed to work well in the cold, in which case treat it like a heatsuit in all cases.

The cold can be hard on your equipment at the GM's discretion.  Roll the better of your equipments HT or your Armoury/Mechanic skill (if you regularly tend to it) at most once per day to see if the gear has "frozen up" and needs to be repaired.  Characters with Tap-Rack-Bang can attempt to quickly repair it after such a failure, but otherwise the equipment needs an hour of off-screen tinkering to get it back up and running.

Most arctic environments are deserts.  They have very little precipitation.  They do have plenty of wind, though, which can whip snowflakes into a flurry that inhibits visibility, as can falling snow.  Treat both as "inclement weather" worth -1 to -2 for ranged attacks and vision rolls.  If the players face an absolute storm, apply a -6 (or worse!) to vision.  IR vision halves these penalties.

Even sunshine can be dangerous in an arctic environment.  Snow tends to be very reflective, which can cause a glare (-1 to vision without protective eyegear).  Artic terrain on Earth is typically full of ultraviolet radiation which can cause both sunburns (DF16 30 or B434) and snowblindness.  Roll HT (Or HT-based Survival (Arctic)) once per day, and on failure, the character gains Bad Sight and Moderate Pain until the he can spend an hour or so out of the light (roll HT per hour to recover, or just assume that sufficient downtime does the job).  Characters with Protected Vision, either from equipment or naturally, gain +5 to this roll, or may waive it entirely at the GM's discretion.  Fur or scales protect against sunburn, but not snowblindness.

Ice and snow make footing difficult.  Characters suffer a -2 to DX and -1 to defense while in deep snow or on slippery ice and must spend 2 movement points to move one yard. Icy surfaces may require DX rolls after attacking or defending, or the character slips and falls.  Surefooted (Ice/Snow)  avoids -2 in attack and -1 in defense, and Terrain Adaption (Arctic) avoids all of the above.

Thus, general conditions are:
  • Cold (DF 16 30 or B430)
  • Snowy/Icy: -2 DX and -1 to defense, x2 movement cost
  • Slippery Ice: Roll DX or DX-based Survival after Attack/Defense or fall.
  • Falling snow or wind: -1 to -2 visibility
  • Blizzard: -6 or worse to visibility
  • Sunburn/Snowblindness: Roll HT once per day or take 1 HP damage.  Roll HT once per day or take Bad Sight and Moderate Pain until you have a chance to recover (Protected Vision protects normally).
Specific perils include

  • Snow Avalanche: Flow, DF 16 32, most likely in hilly or mountainous terrain during a snowstorm.
  • Sinkhole: DF 16 33, most likely if characters cross a glacier, as sudden cracks can open up at any time.
  • Thin Ice: DF 16 34.  The ice in an arctic environment might not be as thick as you think, and (supremely cold) water might lie just below.

The Wonders of the Arctic

Snow is probably the most iconic feature of an arctic environment.  Acting like sand, individual snow particles pile up until they become great "dune seas" of snow, which can create areas of particularly soft, "fluffy" snow, though snow will begin to eventually compress into icier sheets.  Knowing the difference between "soft" snow and dunes that have hardened into icy hills might be vital for keep one's vehicle from being damaged.

Snow isn't always white either.  It can come in a rainbow of colors, depending on what contaminants the snow has it in it. Of particular interest to me, personally, is "blood snow," a red or pink color caused by a particular algae that thrives in frozen conditions.  Some worlds might have entire fields of blood snow, or some other, unusual color caused by a different algae or life-form ("the lavendar snows of Xytorax III")

When snow compacts even further, it becomes ice.  Layer and layers of ice form glaciers, which will dominate any truly arctic world.  Our own world saw great, titanic glaciers dominate it in its past, and much of what we think of as "arctic" is, in fact, great glaciers, either on the sea or on the land.  They're shifting environments, with audible cracking sounds at times, suddenly opening into yawning chasms, and slowly devouring terrain around them.  Where glacier meets the sea, it creates icebergs, and can carve great fjords out of the land, and when they retreat, they can leave great boulders just sitting out on the land.  This suggests rugged, uncertain terrain full of gorges, chasms and cliffs.

Not every thing in arctic terrain is covered by snow.  Permanent frost ("Permafrost") can lie just beneath the surface of the land, in what we call tundra or, when covered with trees, tiaga.  The life here tends to be small and stunted, with little wizened trees, lichen on stones and a few, grazing creatures trying to get by on the paltry plants they can find.  Such lands might even be seasonal: blooming back into life during a warm "summer" and then frosting over again during the harsh, cold "winter."  In a seasonal land, flowing water might carve out rivers that freeze over during the winter, becoming excellent impromptu "roads" to travel on.

If there is life in an arctic environment, it either tends to be small, to deal with the lack of available calories, or very, very large for better heat regulation.  The arctic on Earth is home to whales, polar bears and walruses, all of which can reach terrifying sizes.  Predation is also very common, as there's few plants for gentle herbivores to eat.  Thus, arctic terrain is a great place to meet terrifying space monsters.

Nebora - Heart of the Arctic by Sandrorybak
People tend not to colonize arctic areas except, traditionally and thematically, in isolated outposts, either to mine some local resource or to engage in isolated scientific research.  Because of arctic environments tend to preserve environments, this means that wandering characters might often find pristine but uninhabited locations, long-abandoned outposts covered in a layer of frost and holding a few icy corpses within.

The endless white of the arctic, the increased ultraviolet radiation, the mental pressure of isolation, and the onset of cold-induced delirium all contribute to a sense of other-worldliness of an arctic environment.  They can create beautiful mirages like the Fata Morgana, and legends of cannibalism, such as the wendigo, tend to be persistent among arctic cultures.  Psionically, this suggests a potentially disturbing Communion-scape.  The extreme isolation is likely to create worlds sacred to Dark Communion, and the rumors of madness, snow-ghosts, snow-monsters and people turning into raving cannibals suggest pockets of Broken Communion and twisted Psionic Energy.

Suggested Landmarks include:

  • Fields of snow dunes
  • Unusual snow-colors
  • Enormous glaciers
  • Seas filled with ice bergs
  • An expanse of fjord or picturesque valleys carved out by glaciers with strange standing stones
  • Great tundra fields or tiaga/snow-forests
  • Giant monsters
  • Ice-preserved ruins
  • Desecrated or Twisted Psionic Holy Sites known for hallucinations, cannibalism or madness.

Arctic Technologies

Heat is of prime importance to a people in an arctic environment.  We might expect to see small, visible space heaters in a variety of locations, especially for the poor, who might huddle around them while wearing what rags or furs they can. Envirobags (UT75) might be especially common.   People will depend on technology to survive.  A failed fusion reactor quickly will result in deaths within days, so people in an arctic environment will tend to their technology as they would in an urban environment, or find more primitive ways to deal with the cold that won't break down (like furs and igloos).  A living environment in arctic terrain might be very isolated, like an artificial habitat that happens to be on the icy surface of a planet.

Arctic clothing will be nigh ubiquitous, but heatsuits and expedition suits, as noted above, might be as common among an arctic people as desert environmental suits are for Dune's Fremen.  Armor meant for arctic environments can integrate a heatsuit for superior protection against the cold, giving us "snow troopers."  Characters from an arctic environment will often wear some form of eye-protection, to keep the glare out and to prevent snowblindness.  Equipment might also be "cold-hardened" and gain +5 to resist problems associated with the cold, or wave the cold-related breakdown rules suggested above entirely.

Arctic environments don't have the capacity to support huge populations and seldom have the necessary resources to encourage sufficient trade that this is no longer a problem.  Expect a speckling of either wandering tribes or isolated outposts/colonies.  Transport between them require vehicles or people/animals equipped with the equivalent to great tracks, snowshoes, skis or skates.  Most travel will occur along frozen rivers, relatively clear parts of the sea or by air.
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