Monday, April 22, 2019

A Psi-Wars Historical Timeline Part I: Introduction and Calendars

For April, my patrons voted for an overview of the history of Psi-Wars.  I've already written on the topic rather extensively:
But these were rough draft concepts scribbled out when I was just beginning to put together the setting.  Since then, I've created a more internally consistent and cohesive history that I often refer to, but rarely fully reveal.  This week, we're going to dive into the whole thing.  Before we do, it might be helpful to reread the first one, as today we're mostly going to discuss the ideas of how to use history in a setting, why I chose the format that I did, and some concepts.

This series also assumes you're familiar with the Eldoth and the Ranathim; it would help to be familiar with the houses of the Alliance as well.



How to Write your History Revisited

I've already dicussed this in the History of Psi-Wars post, linked above, but it's worth revisiting.  Everything in your setting should serve a purpose, and that purpose should be to assist your game.  The average person playing D&D doesn't need to read a 20 page timeline to understand "Kill monsters, take their things," and so writing said timeline is generally a waste of time.  On the other side of the coin, conspiratorial settings, horror settings and other campaigns where investigation is very important, history is often central, so central that "Antiquarian" is an actual template in GURPS Horror.  How much history you need and at what level of detail depends greatly on your campaign and its needs. 

Psi-Wars leans much more heavily towards the "investigative" side of things, as do many Action movies, which may seem surprising given how HIGH OCTANE most action movies are, but if you think about it, all of them are steeped in context.  Atomic Blonde is set in the 1980s in divided, Cold War Berlin; the Bourne series revolves around a set of experiments that took place in the past; Mission Impossible Fallout and most of the current Fast and Furious franchise is heavily based on events that took place in previous films.  The swashbuckling genre, and the wuxia genre, both of which Psi-Wars heavily draws from and are in principle are kissing cousins to the action film, rely even more heavily on history, especially wuxia, which often has the hero stumbling into the midst of a century old feud while dealing with the fallout of a crumbling and corrupt empire.

In principle, a well written history can  serve several purposes for an RPG:
  • It provides context: it explains why the players do what they do.  To use a D&D example, without context, then your players go through nameless dungeons killing random monsters and gaining random loot.  It might be fun, but it lacks a sense of meaning.  A named dungeon embedded in the world with consequences to the rest of the narrative can really amp of the investment the players will have in the adventure.  History can be one example of context.
  • It provides continuity: a well-written history embedded in a well-written campaign begins to make the players feel like a part of a larger adventure. Their actions are a logical continuation of what came before them, and they can begin to see how history will spool out before them after their adventure continued.  They can invest themselves in the stories of the past to create the new stories of the future.
  • It's a good source of ideas: Players who read your history may want to tie themselves into that history.  They might want to acquire relics from a particular part of history, or they might want to belong to this lost but important bloodline, or they may want to hunt down some historically relevant but currently lost location.  The rolling context of history might provide plenty of things to do in the present too, giving you adventure ideas as the "press of history" forces your hand in events.
  • It creates a larger picture: When looking for adventure ideas, many "sandbox" GMs like to have a full cohesive setting in which the consequences of the players' actions naturally impact the world and create the next obvious adventures.  Having played in a few such games, I can say that they're quite fun.  History is one ingredient that might fit into such a game.
So, when creating your history, ask yourselves a few questions:
  • Will my players care?  What can they use out of this material for their own characters?
  • Will it matter to my campaign? Will it provide me with ideas I can use?
  • Does it feel logical, like events naturally follow from events?
  • Is it fun to read? If it's tedious, nobody will read it.
As a rule, I tend to make sure I write in interesting relics, interesting characters, and interesting locations in the past, so that players who invest in history can explore those concepts.  I also try to make sure that there's sort of a logic that history follows. The last, though, is the trickiest.

Writing Readable History

If you're going to write your history, how do you know people will read it?  Allow me to offer some thoughts on the shape of your history, its purpose, and how to present it.

Iceberg Theory

One of my favorite concepts for writing is Earnest Hemingway’s Iceberg theory which, briefly stated, is that you should do your homework, let your homework inform your final work, but don't actually put your homework in your final work. When it comes to history, that means it’s important for me to have it worked out in detail, so I understand it, but I don’t necessarily put this material in my final setting document. In fact, I probably shouldn’t (it might overwhelm the reader). Very large works, like the Lord of the Rings, the Marvel universe and Transformers Prime often have a setting bible that sets out how the universe works and encourages cohesion between the various elements in the setting (Star Wars definitely lacked one of these, which explains how much crazy got injected into the EU). Think of this document as a “Setting bible” for history.

History is ultimately more for the GM than it is for the player. The best history is entirely optional.  For example, sit down and watch Star Wars: A New Hope again, and you'll notice that literally all the history you need to know is in the opening crawl.  The prequels are unnecessary, the expanded universe is unnecessary, KOTOR is unnecessary; you can enjoy the work on its own.  In principle, your setting should be the same and, where possible, I've tried to nail Psi-Wars down to "There's an Empire, it's fighting an alliance, there are some space templars from long ago still running around: go!" and that's all you have to know.
 
But a full document helps me understand how the world should work.  If the players investigate the past of the Emperor, what will they find?  If they go deep into the Cult of the Mystical Tyrant in the Umbral Rim, what sort of ruins might they uncover?  I can make up stuff on the spot, and that's fine, but if the players get a sense of discovery of a cohesive world, as though the world was real and they were discovering it, they really appreciate that extra effort.

Thus the primary thing to know about history is that the GM needs the full details, but the players probably only need an executive summary and, really, will enjoy discovering history "in game" more than reading it from a book.

History as a Story

If you're going to present your history to your players, the best way is probably in a narrative form.  The human mind naturally understands and appreciates narrative, and you can see this in history classes: students fall asleep while memorizing dates, but come wide awake when the history teacher launches into lurid stories about crimes and conspiracies in the final years of the court of the Ancien Regime.  Most successful RPG histories I've read follow this format: you start at the beginning and read your way forward. Such histories tend to be full of lurid details, judgement cast on the characters involved, and lead up to the present where they suddenly stop, presenting the reader with what they might be doing.

The problem with history as a story is that it's meant to be read as a single narrative yarn, and that presents numerous problems.  The first is that they can become quite long, especially if the GM feels the need to tell you every little detail.  A player is more likely to read a single A4 of history than a 100-page volume. 

History-as-a-story also tends to be told sequentially, starting at the beginning of history and wending its way forward, as there are no natural "breaks" and jumping around might create unnecessary confusion.  This compounds the problem of a long history, since if players are only going to read a single page, and you started with the creation myth of your setting, then everyone is going to be familiar with the creation myth and have no sense of recent events, which is precisely the opposite of how people actually work.  It would be like every American being deeply aware of all of the details of colonial life in America, down to the fashions, religious practices and relations with one another and Native American tribes, but no idea who the current president is.

Finally, History-as-a-story struggles with parallel histories, and these often matter, especially if they all lead to the same point.  For example, if telling the story of WW2, you might reasonably start with the rise of Hitler, his aggression, the beginning of the war, and then America's involvement, then the defeat of the Nazis, but then the war isn't over, becaue the War in the Pacific needs to be won, and to explain that, you have to go all the way back and talk about how the Japanese got involved.  You might cut back and forth, but this can be challenging in the narrative as well, especially if you have a very long history (imagine being in the midst of reading of the Roman Empire and the narrator keeps cutting to completely unrelated events in China and the Americas: he's going somewhere, but you might need to wait 1000 pages before you know what that is).

As a general rule, when it comes to History-as-a-story, I recommend keeping them tight, short and focused.  No more than a page if you can avoid it, focus on a single narrative thread, and don't try to tell all the history of the world this way, but give an overview of the most important points.

For Psi-Wars, I handled this with my intro. I might revise and expand it, but I wouldn't want it to be more than about a page's worth of material, with a strong focus on the current war, the players involved and the Templars vs the Cult of the Mystical Tyrant, as these are the central conflicts of the setting.

History as a Series of Ages

Weapons of the Gods has the nicest form of history I've seen in a long time. Rather than "tell the history of the setting," it talks about specific eras. This has several advantages. First, this breaks up the history into digestible chunks that don't rely overly much on what came before it. This is also how we tend to read history: we don't start with the Sumerians and end with man on the moon. Instead, we study "the Greeks" or "the Roman Empire" or "The Medieval Ages."  Second, it lets you discuss everything about the era.  If you're talking about the medieval ages, you can also talk about the armor, the culture, the weapons, the religion, interesting people, the "spirit of the age" and so on.  This makes it a great way to drop names, locations and relics that the players might connect with.  Finally, it handles parallel history better, because you can talk about a different era somewhere else: for example, you might discuss medieval history in one section, and the Islamic Caliphate in another section, and Viking History in a third.

The "Series of Ages" approach is that it doesn't really follow the "flow" of history.  It gives the impression that history happens in chapters, as though there were romans and then, suddenly, knights, when in reality, one slowly evolved into the other.  You also have to pick arbitrary eras and choose that which you feel is most interesting.  It should be noted that neither of these are necessarily problems for a fictional setting, as the natural flow of history can be less interesting than highly specific ages ("First came the age of monsters, then the age of magic, then the age of apocalypse; now is the fallen age").

The "Series of Ages" can make it a little difficult on the reader to know where to start.  I recommend pointing him to the sections most relevant to his character or the current setting.

This would have been my preferred way to handle showing you the history of Psi-Wars, and I started writing up these ages, but they quickly got away from me and I started running out of time.  I seem to have made a rather elaborate and detailed history.  To make sense of it, I needed a timeline, and it became easier to just give you the timeline, as that will take less time (which is very scarce at the moment, for reasons pertaining to the last post in this blog).  Which brings me to:

History as a Timeline

I tend to like this form of history the least.  It exemplifies everything boring about history: it's a series of events noted by date, with no additional connections of context.  It serves a purpose, but that purpose is not to introduce your players to a setting.  Rather, it's the historical equivalent to a map: it lets you sort of out specific details ("Wait. Exactly how long has it been since X happened, and how much time separated Y and Z?").  It's useful as a reference, and that makes it useful to the GM, but it's not so useful to the players.

So, naturally I've chosen to write out the history of Psi-Wars as a timeline.  Why? Well, I need the timeline anyway, to get a sense of the flow of history.  I need to know if eras go on "too long," or if there's overlap between events, or where I can insert eras.  A timeline is a classic example of the iceberg theory: a GM needs it to do his homework, but it's not something to necessarily show his players.

So why am I showing you?  Well, it doesn't hurt to show you guys; it only hurts if I run a game and expect you to know all of this history.  As I said above, time is very precious at the moment, and since I needed to iron this out anyway, once I had done so, to stop and turn to writing the eras in detail might take me another month, and it's better to give you what I have no than to force you to wait for what I'd like to do later, especially given that I need to get back to other things (What were we doing?  Oh right! Vehicles!)

Thus, the rest of this week will be the Psi-Wars timeline, split into large chunks.  Forgive me if you find it a little tedious to get through.

Calendars

When discussing time, it’s useful to stop and think about how one measures it. This can well be a bridge too far, as most people don’t actually care about “fantasy calendars,” at least for the most part. Consider, for a moment, the Star Wars calendar. Do you know what it is? Do you know how they measure time? The short answer is you probably don’t and, if you think of it, it’s never come up. They don’t really talk about it, and when they do mention time it seems to be in familiar units. That’s because we, as an audience, don’t really care. We want actual information transmitted to us, and knowing that something is going to happen “2.695 kilocycle” tells you nothing, not compared to “45 minutes.”

That said, we do tend to want to have some sort of distancing mechanism, something to remind us that we’re in space or in the future. Farscape did very well with its “microts” (about a second) and its “Arns” (about an hour.”) Thus we could hear an alien say “Give me 10 microts,” and we knew they meant about 10 seconds, and we also knew we were in space.

Psi-Wars is especially large, and we have a theme of creating different cultural feels for different regions of space, to give us a sense of the vast distances involved in galactic travel. Thus, it makes sense to have different calendars: a familiar calendar for humanity and the galactic center, and alien calendars in alien parts of space: the more alien the culture, the more alien the calendar.

The Human Calendar

Humanity needs an obvious calendar and, being human, there’s no reason they wouldn’t have a familiar day/night cycle. They may even descend from Earthlings and would likely favor planets with similar rotation speeds and gravity, thus seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years can all remain the same. In principle, we’d need different month names, but it’s such a rare thing that people would say in game “Let’s meet in December” that I don’t think it’s a major issue. The only real issue I see is how we note the years.

I don’t want to set this in a definable future. Is this in the year 2500 AD? 40,000 AD? Who knows. Mankind has lost its roots, which means they’ve lost connection with how we date years (And beyond perhaps Sheperdism, they’ve lost any “Christianity” they might have had). So, we need to pick a new central year, and the obvious fit is the Alexian dynasty’s founding. We’ll call this the “Alexian Era,” of “AE,” which is a nice nod to various sci-fi works that use “After Earth.” For everything before that, we’ll use “BD” or “Before the Dynasty.” Some people might prefer “Galactic Era” and “Before Galactic Era.”

The Lithian Calendar

The Umbral Rim should obviously be alien and unusual with unfamiliar terms and ideas, and thus their calendar should be unique. The Empire is powerful and influential enough that many denizens there might be familiar with the human calendar, but we might expect that when aliens talk to one another, they would use different units, ideas and concepts. Not terribly different, but different enough that the players feel like they’re in an alien space, our “Microts” and “Arns.”
In this case, for words, we have the Lithian Conlang to draw on, so:
  • Nata: year
  • Marhan: Month
  • Thari: Day
  • Junta: Hour
  • Miena: Minute
  • Nita: Second
If we wanted to fill out the calendar, noting the names of the months or special days, we would note when the “holy days” of the various cults are, and that would likely dominate the calendar.
For the year, a common sci-fi trope is to give years different lengths based on the orbital period of the star. Realistically, given that the home star of the Ranathim turned into a black hole, it should be an extremely large star, so they should orbit very far away, giving them a long year. If we use GURPS Space, we come to about 1620 days for a year to give them a habitable world around a 2 solar mass star. However, I’d like to use a value closer to an Earth year, and given the “Orientalist” tropes of the Ranathim, I’d like to use a value closer to a lunar calendar, which would give them 354 days in a year, making their year almost but not quite a Human Year, which is a perfect reflection of how the Ranathim feel as a culture. As for their “year zero,” their dating system would probably focus on the reign of the current Ranathim Tyrant, but that’s not a thing anymore, thus they probably base their years on the “Dark Cataclysm” (Moriktani Nobet), or when their homestar went supernova, broke their homeworld and completely changed the Umbral Rim forever.

The Eldothic Calendar

Most of the Arkhaian Spiral is dominated by humans these days, but the Eldoth and their Deep Engine would use a unique time system and it would continue to be pertinent today if you want to interface with either the Deep Engine or Eldothic mysteries.

They’re a very alien species and deeply logical and clinical and they have a universal “computer” in the form of the Deep Engine, thus it seems logical that they wouldn’t bother with a time system based on something so provincial as the orbital period of their homeworld (they’re not that sentimental). Instead, they might do something similar to unix time and have everything in seconds. They might also make it metric and describe their time in tens, hundreds, thousand and millions of seconds. We’d use the term “cycle” instead of “seconds,” and append the right metric designation. (We could use Eldothic words for it, but we’re going to translate the concept anyway, so we might as well use these words in english here).

As for their “year zero,” we’ll borrow an idea from Unix time again, and simply note everything from some arbitrary period and simply call that period “universal.” If you go before that, you’re in “negative time,” or possibly “Archival.”
  • 1 “Cycle” = 1 second
  • 1 “kilocycle” = about 15 minutes
  • 1 “megacycle” = a bit less than a fortnight
  • 1 “gigacycle” = 32 years and their preferred notation for historical dating (also the length of time most Eldoth go between regeneration cycles).
     

The Sylvan Calendar

I’ve not put much thought here. I expect the species of the Sylvan Spiral as sufficiently primitive that they have their own calendars, though if they had a universal, it might have to do with the thalline filaments cycle of “blooming” and “growth,” as that would be a useful universal for the species of the Sylvan Spiral to know.

The Draco Cluster, however, and its resident Mug civilization regularly makes incursions into the Galaxy on a cyclical basis. Their dwarf galaxy orbits slowly around the central Psi-Wars galaxy on a path that takes literally millions of years, and thus it has not appreciably moved throughout the history of the Galaxy, but it has moved, and its movement shifts its relationship to the hyperspatial passages between it and the rest of the Galaxy. It spends most of its time in “eclipse,” or unable to easily access the Galaxy, but for a few centuries every 1124 years by the Lithian calender (approximately, but not precisely1159 years by the human calendar), it is able to access the Galaxy. When it does so, it is able to invade the Sylvan and Umbral Rim.

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