Monday, October 25, 2010

Introducing the Insurgents

I've been doing some light research on science fiction themes with added focus on technologies that scientists today are already working on the foundations of. One that has really grabbed my attention is this concept of uplift. To quote the Wikipedia article:
In science fiction, uplift is the development or transformation of animals into an intelligent race by other, superior beings.
An example of uplift would be genetically altering chimps so that they are as intelligent as humans. I don't know about you, gentle reader, but I find the possibility of this type of tampering to be unsettling. I'm not going to go so far as to say it's ethically indefensible, but it just feels very wrong to me.

It also opens up all kinds of crazy possibilities in our science fantasy role playing game. For example, yesterday I was thinking ahead to our next session. The kids have spent a considerable sum on rent and deposits, and soon they're going to start literally eating up all their funds. They're going to need jobs. What kind of jobs should they find? Far be it for me to railroad them into specific careers, so I did a quick Google search on "NYC help wanted." I wanted to find lots of options for them to choose from. Whatever I found I would modify to fit into the distant future setting. UPS needs a driver helper, ergo an interplanetary shipping agency on the planet Sxibi does too. There were also quite a few ads for entry level jobs with the National Guard, and that gave me all kinds of ideas about a planetary defense force that has its hands full with local, subterranean insurgents. That's when the uplift idea struck me.

The planet Sxibi is one huge megalopolis, miles high and deeper still, but it wasn't always so. It used to be a vibrant, natural world, teeming with life. Sapient life forms were beginning to evolve, being perhaps only a few million years off, when the galaxy's wider civilization intruded. Sxibi was chosen as the galactic capitol for its central location and vast natural resources. The city was built with arcological principles in mind, blending architectures to meet the needs of the 1+ trillion populace with ecologically beneficial elements to provide a semblance of balance and prevent the wholesale destruction of the planet's native life forms. To some extent the architects were successful, though many wild indigenous species were driven to extinction. Those few to survive did so on the city's outer fringes, which in most cases meant far underground where the bottommost levels abutted the magma layer. Most of these extremophiles were simple organisms, but one turned out to be fairly intelligent.

I had this idea of a subterranean species living on the fringe, intelligent but not truly sapient, not like us. An ideological human scientist, angry at the "civilized" races' treatment of this native Sxibian species, uplifts them to give them true sapience. They are naturally a hive mind species, like bees or ants, so the uplift gives the collective, not individuals, sentience. It doesn't take long for the hive to realize the predicament it's been put in, and it begins attacks to undermine the massive civilization above. These are the first salvos in a war that will culminate in the extinction of the hive mind species, or the reclamation of its planet...and perhaps conquests beyond?

My initial thoughts included presenting knowledge of the attacks to the characters through the filter of the city's massive propaganda machinery. The spin from media outlets, exacerbated by word of mouth of the frightened masses, would frame the attacks in the worst possible light: as terrorist acts perpetrated by insurgents. No mention would be made of the fact that the species responsible for the acts was indigenous to the planet and striking out in what it perceived as self-defense. These kinds of facts can always come out later and muddy the picture for the players, forcing them to wrestle with ethical gray areas. I'm looking forward to that.

But I had more immediate concerns. What does the species look like? I had been thinking of some kind of arachnid species, something terrifying and alien in the way that our own terrestrial spiders are. The more I thought about it, though, the more it smacked of Starship Troopers. So I sent an instant message to my friend David Burgess. David is a gamer who can always be counted on for thought-provoking ideas. It was like he already knew what I was thinking, because right away he started asking me what the indigenous species was like. I said I didn't know and needed some ideas. Over the next few minutes he gave me two great words to latch onto: moss, and hive mind. I've already given away that I took the hive mind idea and ran with it.

The moss idea turned out to be pretty good too. I don't know what my buddy had in mind, but the moss made me think of kudzu and extremophiles and zombies and golems, almost all at once. Here's how I see it working: the moss - which isn't really a plant, of course - is a chemosynthetic organism, deep indigo in color with a velvety texture, that spreads through reproduction using spores. The moss slowly covers organic or inorganic material. It can then consume that material's nutrients, or it can put the material to more sinister use. For example, the moss can grow over a deserted battle robot, then "drive" that robot, becoming a fearsome, moss-covered war machine serving the hive mind. Or it can convert its slain foes to moss zombies. Alternatively it can attack living tissue with its spores, attempting to invade a host organism and kill it to take over its form. The moss growth is slow, though, so while this can be a painful attack leading to a serious condition that requires prompt medical attention to arrest the spread of the moss' growth, it is not acutely effective. In other words, the moss isn't able to mobilize zombie followers during the same battle in which it kills its victims to create the zombies. It takes hours, let's say, maybe even a full day. Of course, breathing the spores is not wise and may hasten onset of symptoms.

The moss also has the ability to form phosphorescent patterns over its surface. This it can use to attempt to confuse its victims, as well as to imitate light patterns and effectively camouflage it under certain conditions.

This is very cool and all and gives me plenty of material to work with for multiple adventures. I'll be able to weave this into the backdrop of the characters' daily lives fairly easily, even unobtrusively, starting slowly with minor news items in the media and progressing to word of mouth. And terrorism can strike anywhere, so if things get too slow, the moss can always be counted on to pick things up no matter where the characters find themselves. Since context can have a huge impact on how events are perceived, anything can happen with the moss and how the characters react to it (immediately or ongoing), so I can't even be accused of railroading.

The moss idea is not, however, particularly original. Hive minds have been present in science fiction and gaming for ages. David pointed out the Thorian in Mass Effect as obviously similar, along with the buggers in Ender's Game. In fact, I've read Ender's Game to my kids, so they are already familiar with the concept of the hive mind. Meanwhile the mental picture I have of the Prometheus-esque NPC, the fanatical environmentalist who uplifts the moss hive mind, looks suspiciously like Dr. Peters
from the movie 12 Monkeys (whether he continues to maintain a passing resemblance to his original human appearance after the hive mind fuses him into the collective, and the extent to which either it controls him or he exerts his influence over it, are matters for speculation and outside the scope of this discussion. All I know is that I have a rather amiable BBEG - with the 'E' as in "evil" being somewhat ambiguous and debatable - with whom reasoning is completely out of the question).

Originality was never my goal, however; I don't intend to publish this campaign setting. I was just looking for something wicked cool that I could use in lots of interesting ways that would allow me to introduce some challenging ideas with lots of murky gray areas. I think I've found it.

Any suggestions on what to name the moss species?


  1. I suggest 'the Attollobries'.

    Mosses are Bryophytes.
    Attollo is Latin for 'lift'.

    The first time I saw an Attollobry
    It was not on the North of it's host tree
    I thought nothing more
    But completed my chore
    And now that thing's growing on me