Monthly Archives: August 2011

Plot-a-Day: Genetic Engineering

Lugh’s comment on The Evil of Eugenics plot-a-day inspired me to write up a plot-a-day for Genetic Engineering. Lugh basically suggested that wizards created monsters in genetic experiments as a weapon against an undead horde, which is a nice and modern take on the origin of those creatures.

Genetic Engineering is really a staple of fiction by now. It usually goes horribly wrong, unleashing monsters or designer plagues on mankind. The sort of story you would associate with Genetic Engineering roots in Frankenstein and encompasses a lot of Post-Apocalyptic fiction; at the high end an unstoppable virus has become a popular alternative to global thermonuclear war for the purpose of destroying Earth to allow for such a setting or story.

Ignoring the total destruction of human society – which is usually a setting choice rather than a plot device – Genetic Engineering can be used in many ways in your adventures or stories.

  • The evil villain is breeding an army of unstoppable mutants – usable in (almost) any campaign and setting. The player characters need to stop him from unleashing that army. Perhaps the villain is already using some of his creations to terrorize the nation or to assassinate politicians that stand in his way. Even the Aliens movie franchise could be seen as a variation of this idea (and indeed, Alien Resurrection picks up on that theme).
  • Genetically engineered plants and creatures often feature in the colonization of other planets; realistically, Mars could be terraformed with their help. And you know what may happen next, of course – the plants used begin to mutate, the animals go crazy, and some may even develop intelligence. Depending on your setting this could result in anything from man-eating insects to a full exotic and alien ecosystem. Jungles on Mars! But that is setting. The players may have to investigate why colonists in an outlaying mining town disappear, and then find a way to exterminate the smart bugs, or they may even have to protect the new Martian ecosystems from an evil Colonial Authority that attempts to eradicate the “mistake”.
  • A lone mutant runs rampant in a city, and the PCs have to stop him.
  • Genetically-modified humans are patented and used as a slave labor force by an evil corporation.
  • According to urban legend, Stalin wanted to breed  human-ape crossbreeds to be used as soldiers. While there seems to have been little to this, at least one Russian scientist was conducting experiments to that end. No matter what the purpose, such experiments pass as unethical by today’s standards, and the PCs might have to look into a scientist who is doing follow-up experiments of the same nature. Or it could lead to a Planet of the Apes scenario.
  • In general, genetically-modified pets may go on a rampage.
  • A corporation on a distant colony world / in a dystopian future controls the world’s grain because it genetically engineered it in such a way that it is not viable after the first generation. Each year, the farmers have to buy new grain from said corporation which is abusing this monopoly more and more. The antagonists need to step in and end this injustice once and for all.
  • Genetic engineering is usually portrayed as “evil”, but it doesn’t need to be. A good, easy twist would be to offer a genetically engineered vaccine that is the only thing that can save mankind from a mutated plague; or a certain type of genetically modified grain that could solve a famine. If the producer of these is then less than clean – say, they also use their products for “evil” things – that sort of plot could offer a good amount of conflict of interests.
  • To cover another cliche: It’s not people who are behind the genetic experiments, it’s aliens. This can easily become zany, too, if you combine it with any sort of whacky conspiracy theory. Then twist it around and set it in a High Fantasy world.

There are surely countless other ideas, but that’s what I can come up with for now.

Ross 154 and Lacialle 8760

Together with Barnard’s Star and Lacialle 8760, the Ross 154 system is an absolutely vital link for Earth: With the 7.7 light-years limit of current Jump drive technology, these three systems are Earth’s only link to the rest of the galaxy. This also means that, should it prove impossible to extend said limit, mankind will be trapped on Earth once any one of these stars moves too far away from its ‘neighbors’. While this won’t happen for at least hundreds of thousands of years, it is a long-term concern to the think-tanks that worry about such things. It is also remarkable, at least to some cosmologists and to some philosophers, that mankind developed the technology to travel to the stars during an age when a great number of solar systems are available to it.

Some SETI scientists have proposed such a potential isolation as one solution to the Fermi paradox, however if an alien civilization is truly separated from other stars by a jump drive “chasm”, we will likely never know about it.

Ross 154

Ross 154 is 5.53 light-years from Barnard’s Star. The voyage from Earth to Ross 154 is a total of 11.49 light years due to the detour via Barnard’s Star, Ross is only 9,68 light years from Earth. This nicely illustrates the “inefficiency” inherent in Jump drive technology. And at 30 days to a light-year, it took the first interstellar probe almost a year to reach Ross 154 – 345 days – of pure travel time. The probe had been launched soon after the return of “Hope” from Alpha Centauri, in February of 2173, and it returned to Terra in April 2175.

The Ross 154 system was a disappointment after the exciting planetary discoveries made previously, but nobody had expected Ross 154 to contain any habitable worlds.

  1. Desert World (0.03 AU): 6000km diameter, density 0.4, Gravity 0.2. Thin atmosphere, no water, 2 moons.
  2. Rock ball (0.07 AU): 4000km diameter, density 0.8, Gravity 0.27. Very Thin atmosphere, ice crystal deposits at the poles.
  3. Ice Ball (0.13 AU): 3000km diameter, density 0.3 Gravity 0.08. No atmosphere, 20% surface ice.
  4. Failed Core (0.21 AU): 7000km diameter, density 0.4 Gravity 0.23. Thin atmosphere, 70% surface ice, two moons.
  5. Ice Ball (0.45 AU): 1000km diameter, density 0.2 Gravity 0.02. No atmosphere, 40% surface ice. Three tiny moons.
  6. Failed Core (0.98 AU): 6000km diameter, density 0.6 Gravity 0.3. Thin atmosphere, 40% surface ice, 3 moons.
  7. Failed Core (1.97 AU): 6000km diameter, density 1.3 Gravity 0.65. Standard atmosphere, 80% surface ice.

Even though the system offers no obvious choices for a settlement, the Colonial Authority and the star-faring nations are likely to set up outposts throughout the system to service and refuel starships. Likely candidates are the Failed Core world in Orbit 7, due to its relatively high gravity which will cause fewer health problems in humans, as well as the tiny ice ball world #5 and the moons of the Failed Core in orbit #4; in the later two cases because the low gravity makes landing and take-off of spacecraft fairly low energy affairs.

Lacialle 8760

Lacialle 8760 is 7.36 from Ross 154. From this system, four other systems can be reached: Lacialle 9352, Epsilon Indi, Gliese 832, and 2MASS J18450541-6357475. While Lacialle 8760 is 12,87 light years from Earth, a ship must travel 18.85 light years to get there, 566 days of travel-time not counting any pauses. And that is only counting one way. The first probe to visit the system was launched together with the one targeting Ross 154, and indeed both probes traveled “in tandem” – one of the secondary objectives was to test synchronization of the arrival of the probes, and the Ross 154 probe recorded departure data for its sister ship as it continued its voyage to Lacialle 8760. It took the Lacialle 8760 probe until April 2176 to return to Earth.

Interestingly, all worlds orbiting Lacialle 8760 are located in the star’s “outer” zone; the habitable zone and inner zone are completely empty.

  1. Ice Ball (0.3 AU): 11000km diameter, density 0.1, Gravity 0.09. Very Thin atmosphere, 40% surface ice, 1 moon.
  2. Ice Ball (0.57 AU): 9000km diameter, density 0.1, Gravity 0.08. Very Thin atmosphere, 40% surface ice, No moons.
  3. Failed Core (0.8 AU): 14000km diameter, density 0.2, Gravity 0.23. Standard atmosphere, 10% surface ice, 2 moons.
  4. Ice Ball (1.36 AU): 6000km diameter, density 0.1, Gravity 0.05. Standard atmosphere, 30% surface ice, 1 moon.
  5. Rock (2.44 AU): 2000km diameter, density 0.7, Gravity 0.12. No atmosphere, Ice crystals, 1 tiny moon.
  6. Rock (5.13 AU): 3000km diameter, density 0.6, Gravity 0.15. No atmosphere, Ice crystals.

The Colonial Authority and various nations are also planning to set up bases in the Lacialle 8760 system. Prime candidate is world #4, because it possesses ice and a low surface gravity.

Plot-a-Day: Lost and Found

Things get lost. Sometimes, they are valuable or important enough that someone goes and looks for them. This sort of treasure hunt makes for a good adventure, especially if you run an investigative RPG like Call of Cthulhu, but even for a D&D camopaign it could be a welcome change of pace.

However, a pirate’s treasure is a little stereotypical. So, what other things could get lost that are valuable enough that players could start looking for them?

As it turns out, there are many, many things:

  • Keys or clues that lead to something else. (Bait and switch approach.)
  • Coins – many of them are collectors’ items and thus are worth much more than their face or material value.
  • Art objects, in the real world these are usually paintings.
  • Music instruments. Think Stradivarius.
  • Gems. Keep in mind that some valuable, named gems have not only elaborate histories, they are also sometimes said to be “cursed”, “unlucky”, “haunted”, or even to possess magic properties. For our purposes, such rumors could literally be true.
  • First (or early) editions of famous classical works.
  • Code ciphers needed to decrypt a secret message.
  • Items of historic significance. The declaration of independence. The original draft constitution of your conrepublic. The banner of the king’s grandfather that was flown for 180 days while his castle held against overwhelming odds. Lead miniatures with which a famous conqueror planned his military campaigns. Some of these could have great practical significance in your constructed world, too. “Whoever holds the scepter of the seven kings shall rule over the kingdom. So it is written in the book of laws, and so it must be.”
  • Illuminated religious tomes. Either for their historic or artistic value, or because they contain evidence that some people might want to keep hidden. In the Nine Gates, pages from a book are even used to open the gates to hell and summon Satan into the world. The Necronomicon is another classic example.
  • Expensive wine
  • Beer for which the recipe has been lost.
  • Teddy Bears. I kid you not.
  • Shipwrecks. These usually carry valuable cargo – and some have cultural significance. The search for the Titanic is a prime example.
  • Crashed airplanes, as a modern variation of the above. The hunt could be for survivors if it’s a recent crash.
  • Secret documents are an obvious item to look for – works in any setting, really, but it’s classic Cyberpunk or James-Bond-Spy-Adventure stuff.
  • Lost nuclear warheads (Broken Arrow).
  • Spaceships. This includes historic spacecraft (Liberty Bell 7), modern space ships for any reason (their cargo, the value they represent themselves, a rescue mission is a kind of treasure hunt too, or even alien technology if it’s a UFO). Alternatively, a space station or base. Such an object could be hidden in space, too, depending on your setting.
  • In a post-apocalyptic world, the PCs could be searching for a lost seed vault.
  • Every-day objects can be used as items the characters need to search. The treasure map in Tintin’s “Secret of the Unicorn” is hidden in the mast of a model ship. Hiding something in a hollowed-out book is already a trope. The British secret service once built a (working!) pipe that had hidden paper documents hidden inside it, and they also had a golf ball (that could be used) that had a compass inside it. The point is, you can hide important documents (magical gems, a dinosaur tooth, a piece of alien alloy) pretty much anywhere. And if one of these objects go missing, the PCs will have to retrieve it. Who else?
  • Human remains. Imposters have a harder time nowadays, especially if someone still has living relatives, because of DNA testing. Back in the days – or in less advanced settings – finding the actual human remains of the prince / wealthy industrialist may be the only way to prove that this guy who suddenly showed up is not who he claims to be. Alternatively, the PCs could be sent on a search for the remains of someone important. To illustrate, Hitler’s remains were scattered to prevent that they could become a reliquary for Neo-Nazis. Now imagine you have a Weird World War II setting, or post-WW2, where magic actually works – some of said Neo-Nazis might hunt for some small remains of Hitler in the hopes of being able to summon his ghost – maybe even bind his spirit into the body of a living “volunteer”, suited to be a best match by whatever twisted criteria that might entail.
  • Lost mines. The challenge here is that the object of the search is stationary and cannot be moved; the protagonists may find that it is on private land they need to secretly purchase, it may be in a national park where mining is now illegal, and/or they could get involved in a race against time to file a claim for the area.
  • Famous memorabilia – Elvis’ wig, that sort of item.
  • Watches. Some of these are valuable in and of themselves; in addition, they could also be custom-designed in that their mechanism triggers special events at a preset time and date that unlock clues to finding a greater treasure or secret.

Unsurprisingly, treasures and treasure hunting is also covered by many sites:

  • Wikipedia has a short list of Lost Treasure.
  • Lost Gold is another site which could provide good material for treasure hunting games.
  • Geocaching is a modern type of treasure-hunting game that is played via GPS positioning. You might wish to read up on this for modern settings – plus, a harmless Geocaching game could turn into something lethally serious in your story when the protagonists discover something they were not meant to find.