Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Mountain

Mountain environments are often poor in resources for life, simply because fluids drain away downhill and erosion scours away the soil. At very high altitudes, even air is scarce! Mountains often support lots of “micro-ecologies” specialized for a particular altitude-GURPS Space, page 142
The era of fiction that inspired Star Wars mostly discussed mountains in terms of the conquest of nature: the attempts by many explorers to summit Mount Everest, for example.  These represent tales of man's conquest of nature.  But Star Wars also draws heavily from the mysticism of the East, especially from traditions that make their home in the Himalayas.  Mountains brim with mythology, representing the place where one can come closest to God, or the ultimate location one seeks in his quest.  Villainous mountain hide-aways, especially volcanic ones, also feature in the sorts of stories Star Wars draws inspiration from, which certainly inspired the final battle of the prequels on Mustafar (depicted above).

Why visit Mountains?

The geological churn represented by mountains, especially volcanic ones, ensures that mountains are the ideal place to find exotic mineral resources.  Whatever threat, dangers or or problems posed by a mountainous planet, someone will want to lay down roots on such a world if only to gain access to that resource.  Even if no such resources exist, mountains usually offer a fantastic wealth of less exotic resources, like iron, uranium and gold.  While asteroids will certainly offer superior mining possibilities, the traditional stories of mountains feature mines (plus you don't have to worry as much about space habitats blowing up, or how your inhabitants will breath, etc)

The rough, uneven countryside of a mountainous region makes city-building difficult but not impossible (In a lot of ways, mountains face the same difficulties as deserts, but their rugged terrain is even less forgiving).  Earth has plenty of cities at high elevations or in mountainous regions, so its entirely possible for a more advanced civilization to do the same.  Traditionally, though, one expects scattered and isolated villages.  "Mountain man" doesn't usually imply a wise or cosmopolitan person, but someone who has suffered extreme isolation.  Old stories about mountain villages often make them spooky or haunted.  Psi-Wars could plausibly follow suit, given the difficulty in reaching them across rugged terrain, in landing on uneven areas, and in even seeing a need to do so.  Mines might represent an exception, given the resources they can produce.  Mines might represent areas of extreme industrialization, carving out the while sides of mountains to get at some particularly valuable resource.

Mountains are also traditionally holy.  Moses received his revelations on the top of a mountain, as did Mohammed.  Olympus was home to the Gods, and modern pilgrims clamber up the Himalayas to find enlightenment at the feet of Buddhist masters.  Mountains in Psi-Wars might have a similar sacredness, being somehow deeply connected with Communion, and representing a place where a space knight might go to reach deeper mastery of his own powers.

Getting to a mountain is very difficult, however.  Updrafts and extreme weather threaten any flying craft, including descending shuttles and grav vehicles.  The rough terrain also makes landing practically impossible.  Practically, most ships will need to find someplace less rugged, outside of a huge, uneven mountain range, to land and then characters will need to hike/climb into the mountains to find whatever it is they seek, or take some locally designed transportation system (tunnels, winding roads) to reach their destination.

The Perils of Mountains

Mountains tend to be Cold (DF16 30) simply from being so high in elevation, though they're generally less cold than arctic environments unless one gets very high up or, worse, is on an arctic mountain!  A more unique problem is thin atmosphere.  Characters at extreme elevation without some sort of rebreather or oxygen tanks need to spend one additional fatigue on all costs and roll HT+4 once per day or suffer -2 to DX/IQ for that day until they become acclimatized (See B429 for more).

Weather is particularly treacherous and varied for a mountain.  They tend to experience rain (-1 or -2 to vision, depending on how heavy it is), fog (-1 to -2 depending on how heavy it is) and heavy winds.  Sunny days might cause sunburn, though most characters are sufficiently bundled that this isn't a real risk.

Active volcanoes or lava-filled terrain present different problems.  The area is Hot rather than Cold (DF16 30).  The outgassing of the volcano is more likely to be toxic rather than thin, requiring at least an HT roll every day (at between -0 and -5) to avoid 1 point of toxic damage, or, even worse, once per minute.  Smoke generally applies a -4 vision penalty.  IR visors generally can't see through smoke, especially hot smoke!

Naturally, mountains feature uneven terrain.  Characters suffer a -2 to DX and -1 to defense, and characters must roll DX or trip if attempting to move at a pace faster than a careful walk. Surefooted (Uneven) avoids a -2 to attack and -1 to defense.  Rain-slicked precipices become slippery-2 to DX and a -1 to Defense, and characters must roll DX or trip if attempting to move at a pace faster than a careful walk, or (at the GM's discretion) after making an attack or a defense (at +4 if they have Perfect Balance). Surefooted (Slippery) avoids -2 to attack and -1 to defense under such circumstances.  Characters who are dangling from ropes or climbing up a cliff replace these penalties with the climbing rules and must roll the lower of their combat skill or Climbing. Characters with Terrain Adaption (Mountain) ignore all of the above.

General concerns are:
  • Cold (DF16 30 or B430)
  • Thin atmosphere (B429)
  • Uneven ground: -2 DX and -1 to defense, DX or fall if moving too quickl
  • Rain or Fog: -1 to -2 to visibility.

Specific dangers include:

  • Falling Rocks (DF16 32)
  • Flow (DF16 32) for an avalanche.  Definitely consider the cinematic "loud sounds can trigger avalanches" rule.  Lava flows might occur in volcanic areas.
  • Lightning Strike (DF16 32) might occur during a storm.

The Wonders of Mountains

Mountains come in bewildering varieties.  Sometimes, magma cools within the crust and forms a great, often "uniform" stone formation, called "intrusive rock." These come in a variety of shapes, from irregular batholiths, the foundation for the Himalayas, to laccolithic formations, which are "lens" shaped with a rounded top and a flat bottom, or lappolithic, which is the reverse.  Most such formations occur in magma pools deep in the planet, and it takes continental movement to push them up, so they tend to show up at tectonic faultlines.  Such mountains tend to be relatively smooth and gentle on their own.

Volcanoes also create mountains.  The most obvious and classic "volcano" is the stratovolcano, a conical volcano that looks a great deal like a child's science experiment.  Volcanoes might be conical, but they're often rounded, like a warrior's shield lying on the ground.  Shield volcanoes form slowly, over millions of years, from magma flow after magma flow.  If a hotspot remains still in one spot, the result can be mind-bogglingly huge, such as Olympus Mons on Mars, which literally pokes up out of the Martian atmosphere.  Alien worlds have all sorts of unique formations, like Venusian "pancake domes".  The magma-madness of a world like Mustafar is more typical of a polygenetic volcano field, where a magma chamber (or several!) lies near the surface and feeds a variety of volcanic outlets that regularly churn forth lava.  Finally, the most terrifying of volcanoes don't regularly erupt, but threats to do so might serve as the basis for an adventure: the super-volcano.  Such an eruption, or a recent such eruption, might ruin civilization on an entire continent and blanket an entire world in dust and smoke.  Perhaps a world like Mustafar was disrupted in recent (geological) history and is still settling down from such an explosion!

Nothing gives a mountain character quite like a erosion. Especially on cold worlds (or worlds that used to be cold), glaciers can carve out fascinating shapes.  Two examples are pyramidal peaks, where glaciers carve the mountain into a sort of "horn", or arete, a knife's edge peak carved by two glaciers grinding away both sides of a mountain.  Gentler forces, like wind, rain and frost can also strip away the fine edges of a mountain, giving it a softer, more weathered look, or stripping away top soil to reveal the hard lines of stone within, or creating crazy, wind-swept shapes.  Oceans can eat at the base of a mountain, slowly stripping away its sides and leaving tall, sheer cliffs behind. In thinking of interesting mountains, look not just to geology, but erosion, for inspiration.

The material of a mountain makes a huge difference in its composition and structure.  The classic mountain is made of hard, grey granite, a form of "igneous" rock.  Other examples include "sedimentary rock" like brown sandstone or chalky white limestone, to "metamorphic rock", one form of rock changed into another through great pressure and heat, like elegant mountains of marble, or glittering mountains of quartzite.  The most breathtaking mountain ranges are those that mix and mingle minerals to create a veritable rainbow of colors and materials, like those found in the Zhangye National Geopark.  One might also imagine unusual or alien geology that might create particularly exotic mountains, though it should be noted that any planet that could create such geology is likely so alien that it stops being habitable, like speculation about planets "made of diamond."

The solid structure of mountains offer unique building opportunities.  Caverns naturally form in caverns, from water dissolving sedimentary mountains to lava carving out lava tubes, to wind and water hollowing out strange formations, all offer a unique environment to explore.  Man can carve out caverns himself.  Real mines tend to be extraordinarily vast and industrial affairs often leveling entire mountains, but the more classic "ye olde gold mine" offers interesting possibilities, especially if they have been abandoned.  Unique materials offer unique mines, such as the beautiful salt mines of Poland. We don't need to mine a mountain to make interesting tunnels, though.  The US government carved the heart out of a mountain to create the Cheyenne Mountain Complex as a defense in case of nuclear attack.  Hiding under a sufficient amount of mountain might actually prevent one from being killed by orbital bombardment, so a rebellion might want to bury itself deep below some mountains.  Of course, a world-destroying weapon would defeat even that...

As usual, terrain can justify nearly any form of "holy site."  Dark and terrible mountains might be steeped in Dark Communion.  A haunted mine or a reach of mountains known to drive people mad might be full of twisted Broken Communion.  But mountains are most often treated as sacred and holy, a place where one goes to get close to heaven, to learn the will of God.  The most interesting mountains might carry lost temples in their heart, and offer enlightenment to those willing to make the difficult trek up to their top.

Technology of Mountains

The most important technologies for mountains aren't climbing technologies, but mining technologies.  Good mining tools justify the presence of a people on a mountain, as it means they can extract resources to trade for food, shelter, and wealth.  If on a mountain world, expect people with plasma torches, morph mattocks (UT 88), and explosives (recalling the crazed mountain man with dynamite sticks jutting out of his pockets).  Rather than build their homes on the mountain, some civilizations might build their civilization in the mountains, like the salt-mine cathedral in
Wieliczka.  Either way, expect a lot of stone construction, whether stone-block buildings or great marble statues.

If the mountain offers an unusual climate, such as people from a very high elevation or living near a toxic volcano, expect to see a lot of health problems and/or filter masks as a common accoutrement.  Some civilizations turn this to their advantage: many of the great olympic runners come from countries with a high elevation: living at altitudes with a thinner atmosphere gives on an advantage when breathing in "normal" atmosphere.

Most such people won't make such a point of climbing.  They'll have built tunnels and roads and found all the easiest passes to get around.  That said, given the nearness of the mountains and the usefulness of climbing, extreme climbing skill, endurance and pastimes such as skiing might be exceptionally common.  Think of the Alpine people of Europe, or the Sherpa people of Nepal.

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