Thursday, January 26, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Island/Beach

Ahch-To
Island/Beach environments are an interface between land and sea, and as such are especially suited for amphibious beings... Islands in particular can support isolated micro-ecologies where species evolve in unusual ways.-GURPS Space, Page 142
Star Wars borrows heavily from the pulp and swashbuckling stories of yesteryear, often adding sci-fi window dressing in the process.  In those older stories, islands represent an undiscovered, savage paradise.  Sometimes the stories feature "man against the world" survival stories, with castaways trying to survive, but often in such stories survival comes relatively easily (as opposed to survival stories from the arctic) and focus on interesting innovations and exploration of the islands.  Islands also feature strange cultures, dangerous cannibals, beautiful maidens and any number of exotic things to discover before packing up on your ship and sailing off.

Star Wars doesn't feature many true island planets (Ahch-To is probably the first to be featured in the actual films), likely because in the sort of story that featured islands, those islands were replaced with planets.  That is, in a story about  man who traveled to a beautiful paradise where he fell in love, then to a rugged desert island where he survived, to a volcanic island where he rescued his love, the space opera version would feature a beautiful paradise planet, then a desert planet and then a volcanic planet.  Instead, it might be better to think of "island planets" as oceanic planets, likely the homeworld of an aquatic or amphibious species, or islands are just one part of a larger planet that features other biomes.

When focusing on islands themselves, it's useful to think about what other biome might be on the island: a jungle island is very different from an arctic island.  In fact, it's so useful to think about islands this way that I won't.  This post will focus exclusively on islands qua islands, which means I'll focus exclusively on things unique to islands and on that specific water/land interface, as well as a general discussion of water in general.  Thus, while one might expect a discussion of islands as jungles, or islands as mountainous, I'll reserve those elements for their specific biomes.  So, for example, if you want to create a planet full of little arctic islands, I encourage you to open up my discussion of arctic terrain as well islands.

More importantly, this means that when I discuss islands, I am necessarily discussing small islands.  This is not to say that the British Isles or Greenland are unworthy of discussion, but there's no functional difference between being in a British forest and a German forest.  What we're worried about here is exclusively the interface between land and sea.

Why Visit Islands?

The ocean is a desert with it's life underground and a perfect disguise above
-A Horse With No Name, America
While a world covered in water isn't necessarily habitable, if we follow our rules for space opera planets regarding gravity and breathable atmospheres, a world with water probably brims with life, which makes it an excellent candidate for colonization.  The problem with an ocean world is the same as the problem with a desert world, only reversed: a desert world has endless real estate but lacks the water and life to support huge cities, and an ocean world has endless sources of life and water, but lacks the real estate to build anything upon it.  Unless ships are perfectly happy diving underwater to land, they'll be forced to find some sufficiently flat island to land upon, and unless the islands are large enough, the planet will boast very few major cities or starports (except, perhaps, orbital starports).  But they are almost certain to harbor people.

Even so, islands have life, and life means exotic biologicals.  This is especially true of island life, because islands tend to have ecologies isolated from mainland ecologies, which means they can have enormous biological diversity, which is your ideal sort of breeding ground for crazy biological resources.

Oceans can hide fantastic non-biological resources too.  Psi-Wars could have a parallel to oceanic drilling rigs that pump hyperium or other rare resources out of the ocean floor, and then use nearby islands as landing strips for supply ships.

Whatever reason someone has to visit islands, chances are you can't actually land on the island you want.  Most of the planet is ocean, and many of the islands will be too rugged or small to support a star port or even a landing strip.  It's highly probable that you'll need to land somewhere else, get a boat, and make your way to the island you want.

The Perils of Islands

Islands themselves do not have any particular climatological conditions to worry about specifically, though it should be noted that salt water is more likely to be "too cold" than "too warm," at least in any weather that a human can handle easily.  Sunburn is also a potential issue if you spend days and days on a boat.

Weather is definitely a potential problem.  Rain or fog are -1 or -2 to vision or ranged shots, and as usual, IR vision halves these penalties.

The sand on the beach might be sufficiently troublesome to inflict a -2 to DX and a -1 to defense from bad footing and 2x movement cost.  Surefooted (Sand) avoids -2 in to attack and -1 to defense on sand. Characters who are up to their waist in water must apply the same unless they have Surefooted (Water). Characters who fight in deeper water must use the lower of their Swimming or their combat skill. . Terrain Adaption (Island/Beach) avoids all of the above. Characters who are fighting on wet surfaces might, at the GM's discretion, need Surefooted (Slippery) to avoid a -2 to DX and -1 to defense (Terrain Adaption doesn't help here) and might need to make a DX roll after defense or attack or fall over (Perfect Balance offers a +4 as usual).

General conditions include
  • Sunburn
  • Sand: -2 DX and -1 to defense, x2 movement cost
  • Water:  -2 DX and -1 to defense, x2 movement cost
  • Rain or Fog: -1 to -2 to visibility.
Specific Dangers can include:
  • Freak Wave (DF16 33): For any sudden wave, especially if there's a storm.
  • Lightning Strike (DF16 33): Especially during a storm.
  • Quicksand (DF16 33): For the more cinematic take on beach dangers.
  • Tornado (DF16 34): Though they're called water-spouts on an ocean.

The Wonders of Islands

Islands come in a wide variety.  The one we might think of most readily and the ones most stable for things like space ports and cities are continental islands.  These rest on large, stable continental plates.  These can be huge, like England or Greenland, but aren't necessarily large (the little islets near a landmass are certainly continental islands too).  Often, these smaller continental islands happen when a continent begins to "rift", or when erosive forces either work to carve a chunk of land away from the mainland or to build up a piece of land, such as when silt deposits grow and grow at the mouth of a river until they begin to form their own (relatively small) landmass.

Islands that rest on an oceanic plate are called oceanic islands.  These are generally volcanic.  A volcano builds and builds up until it pokes up out of the ocean.  Thus, while volcanoes might be best discussed when I get to mountainous terrain, it should be noted they're exceptionally common among islands, because they're often the cause of the island.

Some islands aren't created by geological processes, but by industrial or biological ones.  People build islands, often in shallow water, by dumping land in the point they want to fill.  This might be especially common on largely oceanic worlds that are rich in resources, if a civilization wants to have a convenient point on which to build a space port.  The laboratories of Kamino have a point of access above the water in a sort of (very) artificial island.  For "organic" artificial islands, coral reefs and other organic barriers can grow to the point that they rise up out of the water to form an island. An atoll, a small ring island, is usually formed by a coral reef that formed on the rounded caldera of a barely submerged volcano.

Islands can often appear together in an archipelago.  The island chain often becomes culturally, economically, politically and even ecologically interconnected with one another, like the Philippines on Earth, thus an island world might be an archipelago world, known for a specific island chain.

Islands might barely breach the surface and, with a few geological changes or a rise in sea level, sink back beneath it again.  Things like "sunken continents" actually happen, though usually on a process too slow to be interesting for space adventurers, though with ultra-tech weaponry, anything is possible.  While things like Atlantis or the Yonaguni monument are unlikely to be "real things," there's no reason that has to be true in a space opera game: after all, hyperspace travel is also unlikely to be a real thing!  And if you find a million-year-old civilization whose cities were (inexplicably) designed to last millions of years, they may well have sunken beneath the waves over time thanks to the inevitable march of geography.

The sea can do a lot of that work for you.  The city of Dunwich is a literal sunken city, though in this case the ocean wore away cliffs and caused the buildings to collapse into the ocean.  Such erosion can create spectacular cliffs and caverns, or to leave ancient, abandoned cities perched precariously on the knife edge of a precipice.

Like cliffs, land and sea meet in more ways than just beaches.  As mentioned above, atolls form circular islands with a "lake" trapped within.  Lagoons work on a similar principle, a piece of land that just barely traps some ocean away from the rest of the ocean.  Both create an interesting mingling of land and water, and the sorts of cities built atop these (like Venice) make for interesting examples of alternate city-building.  Where the land is buried just beneath the surface of the ocean, we get reefs, which can create fantastic biodiversity, or really ruin your day if you're out boating and not paying attention.

Beaches come in a rich variety of colors, as can ocean water.  An alien world might have blue beaches with green water, for example, or green beaches with ugly, brown water.  Not all beaches are particularly sandy either.  Many beaches are stony, with the water stripping away their sand and depositing it elsewhere.  These often form tidal pools, places where land and ocean blur together depending on the time of day.  Life in these pools adapt to moments of wet and moments of dry, and at least on Earth, this change happens twice a day, but for a planet orbiting on a long elliptical that brings it very close to its relatively cool star (say, a red giant), tides might last years!

Life on an island world tends to be highly unique in any case.  Setting aside the unique conditions created in a tide pool, atolls, islands, reefs and deep ocean all isolate animals from one another, creating unique conditions in which to thrive.  Biodiversity on a specific island might be low, but when all the islands of a world are looked at together, biodiversity explodes.  If you're looking for a test bed of weird biological ideas, there are few better places than a planet dotted with millions of islands.  This also applies when creating space monsters.  Island gigantism can justify surprisingly large critters, and an ocean itself can support enormous beasts, like whales or, much more cinematically, Godzilla.

Islands support human life nicely as well.  Especially as one moves to the tropics, they tend to very conducive to human life, so much so that they often end up as tourist destinations.   Without any other resources, a planet full of islands might find itself a popular tourist destination, depending on the climate.  Cities and such are harder to justify on a series of islands, unless they're particularly large, but if a planet contains a resource, or is simply wealthy enough, people might engineer land via artificial islands.  Given the abundance of life, feeding a city worth of people isn't necessarily a problem, if they don't mind whale meat and seaweed salad.  An archipelago full of bridges and ports and little towns and cities is an excellent substitute for a full city.

Even so, life on islands can be rather precarious.  With so little land, colonists have little margin for error.  Overfarming or overlogging an island can rapidly deplete all of its resources, and the people on an island can vanish over time, leaving behind only the remains of their civilization.  Because islands are so remote, it makes getting to them particularly difficult, which can make investigating some lost, ancient temple hidden away on one of the thousands of islands on an otherwise dead world an interesting challenge.

This naturally suggests sites powerful in Communion.  Blessed islands (like Avalon or Peng Lai), cursed islands and haunted islands all appear in literature, but I would suggest the most interesting way to treat "holy" islands is either as a coveted mystery or a threat.  For the first, one specific island, lost and mysterious, is very holy to either Communion or Dark Communion and offers power to those who find it.  It becomes the target of a quest, and ideally results in a journey of discovery akin to Gulliver's Travels, where a series of increasingly interesting islands are explored until "the sacred island" is found.  For the later, the island, rich in Twisted Communion, tends to draw ships to it, wrecking them on its surface and casting them into its haunted interior where the pain and suffering of Broken Communion devours them.

The Technology of Islands

Islanders need to eat, of course, and if they lack sufficient land for farming or to live off the land, they'll need to fish.  Ultra-Tech lacks specific fishing tools, but one might expect fishing boats, nets, fishing lines and harpoons to feature strongly in such a society.  Boats, however, might not be strictly necessary  Hovercraft (UT 227), or even grav cars can easily replace boats.  Boats have the advantage of resting directly on the water, and they perform better in a storm, but grav vehicles or hovercraft might suffice for most people. If we want to include boats, ultra-tech versions of water-transports from Low-Tech or High-Tech might add a touch of color to the locale.

Mini-subs, dry suits and artificial gills aren't strictly necessary.  Most islanders don't need to dive under the water to get at their food or supplies.. but they could!  A domed city (UT71) under the water is a common trope for oceanic islands.  An island-planet might have a single, small space port attached to some kind of elevator or submarine transportation that brings visitors to the real city, deep beneath the waves.  Such a people might behave something like a space-based people, becoming as connected with their artificial gills and their watery environment as spacers are with their vaccsuits.  Island planets are also typically home to "exotic" water-breathing or amphibious species, who prefer underwater habitats, leaving the islands to air-breathers.
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