Tuesday, September 1, 2015

23 Things About Sky Racers Unlimited

We're just starting our Crimson Skies-tinged campaign arc in OCI. As I've done for the other portals and campaigns recently, I drafted a list of information about the setting. I wanted this to be all the background necessary; to break down everything into easy to get chunks and keep me from spending too much time on the world building.  Of course originally I'd planned for these lists to be ten items, then twelve, then twenty, and now finally 23. So far the effort to utility ratio feels pretty good. It takes me a few hours, maybe six, to put these things together. It helps frame the game and a good chunk of it hits the table. It's also dense enough that I can always find new things when I'm going over it before a session. 

For this portal, I had Sherri contribute nine of the items. That's a new experiment. She'd picked this portal, so she should have the chance to put her stamp on things. That worked well and she drew in some areas that wouldn't have occurred to me. That's sparked some cool idea for future incidents connecting to those. You can see some previous "23 Things" here: Ocean City, Abashan, Masks of the Empire. For other material on the Sky Racers mechanics, see here and here. I've also pulled together a Pinterest reference board for the campaign.   

1. The World Asunder: The world cracked in the mid-19th Century. Even as local wars shook Europe and colonial powers cemented their holding, the tide shifted. Looking back today, many can now identify the hand of the Aurichalc. In scattered places rapid technological developments, suddenly industrialization, political collapse, cultural shifts, and revolutionary movements upturned the old order. Aetheric technology appeared in many hands, often among the powerless but just as often among those simply out of power with the will to destroy. The Aurichalc had been operating in secret crafting their means to shatter the established powers and engineer the world they desired. While this period saw rapid advancements in many areas, the devastating impact these new technologies had on the environment, political freedom, and cultural traditions cannot be discounted.

2. Break Up of the Colonial Empires. The efforts of the Aurichalc initially seemed focused on local overthrow of Colonial Empires of the French, British, American, and others. They succeeded in shattering many of those structures- putting new powers, industrial technologies, and weapons into the hands of indigenous peoples. However the Aurichalc proved fickle allies. While each member of the cabal had their own temperament, they generally acted to destroy authority. Revolutionaries would overthrow their oppressors, only to be immediately undercut by agents of the Aurichalc. Warlords who stepped into the power vacuum would overstep their reach and be cast down just as easily. While these sunderings settled down over time, they remained a constant fear for generations. Why the Aurichalc worked to destroy the Chinese Imperial House but kept royal elements in Korea, the Mamluks among the Ottomans, and other lands remains a mystery.

3. Our Robot Overlords: The Aurichalc’s work eventually brought them out into the daylight and they took an open and more active hand in affairs. More importantly their experiments began to drastically reshape the world- now less about changes in social power and more about things like the Living Gas Cloud that swallowed great swathes of Texas, the Cracking of Austria, and the Night of Black Wings in Japan. And they began to war among themselves, using man and science in an effort to do…something? What they fought for remains uncertain. They stole border lands from one another and struck at operations within various territories, but what did they gain? Some suggested that the Aurichalc had always been at war; that their earlier interventions had been an agreed upon truce to build up.

And then at some point the Aurichalcs left. But rather than freeing the world from their noose, it only tightened it. Each of the Aurichalc had created some form of replacement, constructs created in their image. Dr. Sagawthi survived his encounter with the dread Lady Mahabir in 19XX and returned with his tale of a humanoid robot. Soon visitations and sightings of the other Aurichalc confirmed this change. How and when these mad scientists died remains a mystery. Some suggested they’d always been mechanical and had merely shed their disguises. Others believed that the Aurichalc had been aliens and had left their machines to secure a conquest. Regardless, the shift to robot overlords signaled a wider shift in the Aurichalc and the beginning of a battle against them.

4. Timeline: The year is 192X. Technology is a weird mix of retrofuturist visions and desperate jerry rigging. The Aurichalc dispensed science, know how, and half-truths in many places, leading to revolutions in development and advancement of the oppressed. But it also led to accidents, to collapses, to destructive conflicts, and to some grasping beyond their reach. Many things have a gleaming, art deco look to them (The Rocketeer, Sky Captain), while others have a grittier, dieselpunk appearance. It depends on how they’ve developed. Imagine the 1940’s for the general tech level, with certain areas being significantly higher (like flight) and others being lower (like nuclear science). The old empires and nations still remain, but scattered, stripped, and skeletal. New countries and peoples have arisen to dominance.

5. Aetheric Technology: Over time technologies developed by Aurichalc leaked out to be adapted by others in the world. Perhaps none has impacted more than the potent, low-cost Aetheric engines and related technology. While such devices could be turned to many purposes, most strikingly they allowed for advanced powered flight. In combination with propeller systems, fast and maneuverable aircraft could be created. In fact Aetheric technology worked well in transport because in use, the engines must be kept moving. An Aetheric device operating in a stationary location will eventually begin to warp and poison the area. Kept moving, they have almost no negative effects.

6. Who were the Aurichalc? Seven figures made up the original Aurichalc, though only five robot servitors survive. While these Mad Scientists had tremendous technical expertise that pushed local science and industry decades forward, they each eventually came to be known for a particular field. 
  • Tabansi Diallo, the Maker of Monsters. Using unknown genetic techniques he crafted a menagerie of fantastical beasts and let them loose on the world. They rule the land and air in many places around the globe. 
  • Darco Bryde, Father of the “New Races.” His earliest experiments centered on transformation of existing populations, resulting in groups which echoed old myths and stories. But Dr. Bryde seemed to tire of that and within a few years had populated his holdings with humanoid beasts. Some escaped, while others served loyally. Different regions have treated these uplifted peoples differently, but almost always with deep suspicion. However they were instrumental in the destruction of Bryde’s robot doppelganger. 
  • Sara Oxendine, the Automatic Duchess. Unlike Bryde and Diallo, Oxendine worked in steel and gears. She created robotic servants of various sizes, though even the most human of them appeared unnatural. She echoed several of Diallo’s designs, resulting in packs of clockwork beasts which still haunt the world. 
  • Jiang Rao, the Alchemist. Rao remains one of the most mysterious of the Aurichalc. He created several chemical disasters and let loose the Burn Mist which affects several regions. He learned to manipulate people with chemicals and some kind of hypnotic devices. These he used to subvert and assassinate. That seems not to have helped him in his conflict with the Automatic Duchess who destroyed his mountain HQ in 19XX. 
  • Kasa Mahabir, the Shadow Surgeon. Mahabir developed implants and devices she installed in her agents. While some were obvious and monstrous, many were more subtle. Mahabir was more bizarrely capricious than most of her compatriots. Several times she kidnapped terminally ill subjects in order to repair them. Most she returned intact, some she returned transformed. 
  • Luis Zegarra, the Black Gardener. Zegarra worked with turning nature itself to his ends- transforming vast areas into wild and deadly ranges. His terraforming through alien and invasive plants forced migrations and created forbidden areas only the most foolhardy or adventurous explore. 
  • Avedis Sahakian, the Engineer. Unlike many of her colleagues, Sahakian never created anything which could operate completely independently. Instead she constructed vast moving fortresses, massive walking armored suits, and of course the basis for Aetheric Flight.
7. The Reign in Spain: Dotted around the Seville City-State are the “Golden Orchards”.  These are small, protected and walled campuses ostensibly dedicated to scholarship and research and financed by the Goldens House.  Among other possible agendas, each Orchard is built around an orphanage and some refugee housing. Here, the Seville City-State extends succor to people displaced by the Aurichalc and their legacies, including some of those altered permanently and visibly by the Many experience. The stated reason is that the public is uncomfortable with these outsiders until they have been shown to be harmless and useful members of society. 

The refugees have historically remained in these Orchards, surrounded by Goldens House loyals, until they’ve been trained to take up duties and positions arranged within the greater City-State. There have always been rumors of Goldens using ‘Aurichalc monsters’ to do their political bidding--and many of those rumors point back to the Orchards. The Orchards are home to a great deal of secret research--so secret that it is even hidden away from it’s own board.  Increasingly, the unsettling habits of the heir of Goldens House and the refusal of the Orchards to satisfactorily disclose projects and purpose have set some board members to agitating for defunding the Orchards for ‘failing to show proper respect and fiscal decorum’. 

8. The Present: It has been three years since the last appearance of any of the Aurichalc. The raid on Bryde’s island seemed to signal a change, though prior to that the cabal had become quiet and rarely acted outside of their core domains. Many think that they’ve simply shifted purpose and programming. But many others believe that the robots left behind in their place have simply shut down. Still few wish to travel to the heartlands held by these monsters to test that theory. But the last seven years have seen significant changes. Several zones once lost have been reclaimed, technologies have been learned from and adapted, new techniques for battling fallout from the Aurichalc’s programs have been discovered. As well populations have stabilized, international contact and trade have become more stable, and several years of natural weather patterns have led some to hope. Whether this shift will lead to peace or an era of increased conflict and competition remains to be seen.

9. The Race: Months ago, Lord Adelbright Ruthven contacted several major industrialists, scientific compacts, and gentleperson’s adventuring clubs. He represented a consortium sponsoring a competition, a race. Each invited group had connections with one of the new class of aerial dreadnaughts: enormous sky-liners intended to cross the globe. These ships could be used to transport passengers, move explorers, and survey the lost lands. All had flight decks and hangers allowing them to carry small patrols of fighter planes for defense. Each group wagered a massive an entry fee and had agree to certain terms. The race would be handled in several leg, taking the ships across the Atlantic from the coast of Spain. The vessels would then run a series of location heats across North and Central America. The prize? That remains rumored. Few have spoken, but the terms convinced seven to enter and expend vast sums. Add to that the chance for publicity and exploration of lands cut off from the rest of the world.

10. Your Patron: One of the strongest industrial collectives to have arisen in recent years has been Goldens House, headquartered in the Seville City-State (formerly Spain). The original company came together from a marriage of several trading families in the mid-1800’s. They saw the writing on the wall and worked to come to terms with locals and workers. This allowed them to weather the storm of revolution and commercial disasters. Even when communications broke down in the darkest days, they kept a network of international family members passing reports and warnings. They’re considered the key player supporting Seville which has come to control most of the Southern Iberian Peninsula as well as the northern coast of Morocco and Algeria. Some other industrial powers regard them with suspicion, whispering that their ideals line up more with the revolutionaries than established nations, companies, and nobilities. The current heir to Goldens House is Nur Al-Taneen. Over objections of her board, she will be personally commanding the maiden flight of the Osprey de Acero.

11. Your Mission: The Osprey de Acero is a wonder, a massive flying vessel designed to carry personnel safely, transport goods, and eventually open up lost areas. The vessel will be armed and equipped with at least two flights of planes to act as a defense against air pirates, flying monsters, and other strange occurrences. As well it is one among several competitors, and the terms of the race are a little open. You and your compatriots have hired on as members of the “B” team. This means you act as support, backup technicians, and emergency pilots. Some of you have been hired for talents outside of your piloting and engineering, some of you have been assigned here because of a clouded past.

12. Take to the Skies: While ground transport remains a vital and important mode of transportation, flight has become crucial to the development and reconnection of regions and peoples. In many areas, the plane has become as ubiquitous as the automobile did in the early 20th Century. Larger flying vessels, buildings, and “towns” serve as modern caravans and circuses. As well, there’s a modern planes and gyrocopters- dashing pilots and daring aviatrixes. Flying companies and mercenary groups have developed, often in response to sky pirates and aerial banditry.

13. Changes: As the 19th Century crept to a close, with the leviathan of the Aurichalc gripping the globe, many thought the worst had passed. Then, as the last year of the century waned, new plagues exploded. Over several weeks, in one form or another, it struck widely separated communities, hitting every region of the world. The plague changed people, altering their physiology. Most died as their bodies became alien to them. Some caught in the zones underwent no changes or ill effects. Only the young survived, and even they had a significant mortality rate. They became different: slight shifts in appearance, slight modifications to their physiology, new flaws and limitations. It became known as the Changeling Plague, the Tithing, or the Coming of the Night Children. To some the changes made these transformed seem like legends or myths come to like: pointy ears, glowing eyes, bizarre stockiness. The same affected population could result in many different forms, some like the so-called Selkie, more inhuman than others. Those who survived the plague often suffered at the hands of their neighbors and countrymen. Populations were scattered, interred, or murdered. Some joined with the Aurichalc where they could. Others tried to hide their condition. But the singular outbreak of the plague was not the end as the changed and unchanged survivors of the plague gave birth to a new generation of these new humans.

14. Communications: Planes and vessels use Aetheric communication technology, like radio but clearer. It has a relatively short range, but can be run through relay towers with only modest noise gain. Some planes have larger arrays, and some have these connected to scanners or other scientific instruments. In particular some recon planes can transmit back the images from their Aetheric Scatter Positional Sensors (or ASPS).

15. Monsters: They made monsters, many of them. And while their numbers have diminished, many still remain. Some had radical and experimental forms, while others harkened back to old stories. Dragons, in particular, have proven to be a continual threat to sky security. Pilots in the highest altitudes have claimed to have encountered stranger beasts, seemingly stolen from the depths of the ocean. Tales abound of Sky Pirates who have co-opted or domesticated the most dangerous creatures, but that’s clearly a stratagem to enhance their reputation. Most monsters of flesh and bone do possess a traditional adversary, their robotic counterparts. Monstrous automatons have been seen battling against horrors of flesh and bone. The wise, however, make themselves scarce during such encounters.

16. New Maps: Pre-Aurichalc maps and globes are mere curiosities anymore. Beautiful as they may be, they reserve no more interest than the lowest souvenirs of the more-glorious human past. Why? Because they lack the single-most important monitor of borders, populations and legal ownership: beacons. Every population of significant size, every region possessed of some security, any community with aspirations to any designation greater than a compound maintains at least one unique beacon. A good-sized city boasts a network of beacons of differing signal types, sending out messages that contain hierarchies of identification--nation, region, city, alliances.  As well, these places maintain monitoring stations of all sorts to track signals coming in, sputtering out and changing affiliation. Newspapers contain columns of beacon designations along with the most recent signal & messages--this is how many immigrants and travellers keep tabs on their home regions, but also how the populace as a whole tracks the state of nations, of war & peace and prosperity.  Some people monitor as a hobby, making their own stations from kits and keeping records of the signals. (Think ham radios (spoken & code) or even CB radios (specialized lingo) as a hobby--also some of the signal types are more like seismography or light signals.)

17. Recruiters: Since Ruthven’s Challenge, there has been a scramble for expertise.  Academia has lost luminaries to conveniently timed sabbatical requests. Guides, monster hunters and quartermasters of any note have been scarce for the hiring.  Retirements abound in air navies throughout the re-civilized nations.  There are even rumors of kidnappings of cartographers and signalmen.  The lucrative offers for race staff have attracted the most brilliant stars of exploration, and most of these experts are meant for the respective War Rooms of their employers.  More a concept than an actual room, these experts gather to confer over plans, new intelligence and the goals at hand to hatch tactics most advantageous to their consortium.

18. Challenges: While details are scant, it’s clear that the aerial dreadnaughts and their crews are expected to stage a number of successful expeditions along the way. The original specifications for the race provided by Ruthven are not generally known, but the air of excitement and breadth of experts being collected by the competing consortiums suggest a range of targets. Rumors are flying about one industrialist instructing his recruiters to ‘hire for a series of scientific and art scavenger hunts...lists and clues and confounded puzzles!’.

19. Sky Salons: As the time has drawn closer to the advent of the race, it’s become clear that almost all of the sky-liners are selling tickets and promising luxurious accommodations and entertainments to those who can pay the price.  Bands, musicians, singers, popular entertainers and even an orchestra or two have apparently been booked -- and newspapers are full of sketches and articles describing ballrooms, stages and viewing decks. 

20. To What End? Maps of the expedition course are expected of course--but inquiries and gathered experts suggest that each of the consortium may be mapping different priorities.  Goldens seems intent on last-known, now-silenced or irregular beacons; another seems to be chasing down scraps and rumors about mines, another about orchids.  Some suspect that each of the contenders may have individual non-overlapping win conditions--and others suggest that these are simply independent opportunities that each competitor hopes to profit from.

21. Batten the Hatches: Much of the preparation of these dreadnaughts has been converting them from vessels intended to travel established territories to readiness to face a multitude of threats beyond mundane piracy.  Great creativity in gunnery and deck battlements is evident--but whispers of aetheric shields, nets and beams abound.  Certainly, many remember the wild days when the skies darkened regularly with monsters, swarms, hostile vessels and strange probes loosed by the Aurichalc.  Experience suggests that ships will need an array of different protections and offenses to keep away the threats that are certainly teaming over the foreign wilderness.

22. Monster Lore: Aerial veterans of the days when the Aurichalc’s creations roamed know that many of the preparations are fitting the dreadnaughts and their small-bodied fleets to carry out the modifications needed to avoid or deter many of those creatures--at a minimum, each craft must be able to travel for some time at near silence, be able to create a cacophony and, for the smaller craft, to ‘lure’ with rhythmic metallic noise to draw off the most dangerous predators from the big open decks of their parent ship.

23.  Bringing You the World: Each ship has a aetheric radio room and each competitor has been allotted two slices of time each day, one during daylight and the other on the overnight, designated for updating sponsors and their supporters with news of their progress and to show off their wit and style--a variety hour of discussion, news and music.  The intent is to create 24 hours of race programming for the duration of the event.  Test broadcasts are already immensely popular.