Shall We Play A Game?
I don't expect everyone to understand where all the terms I've used through this book come from. So here is an attempt at going over what I feel might cause head scratching in readers. Hopefully I've caught everything. Plus there are just a few things I flat out wanted to throw in since it's not meant to be entirely serious and I like little nods here and there to what else has gone on.
If you're reading this far in hoping for an explanation on what happened to humanity that isn't in the main text I'm sorry but I'll have to disappoint you. That is something I'm not going to ever cover because, for the purposes of my story, it never was important. Humanity's gone. Maybe it was war. Maybe it was the Rapture. What matters isn't why they're gone, but that they aren't around for all the thins all the little robots need to keep surviving. Now that I think I've said everything I think needs saying, let's get started.
This story is based off a little thing called Engine Heart. Wait what's that you ask? Anyone remember WALL-E? You know that lovable trash compactor that fell in love with a bot with an overpowered plasma cannon? For those of us nerds out there that like our games of pretend to include stats and rules and structure so everything is in theory fair ever wanted to play in that post-human world as all the little helper bots, AI, animals, and such left behind?
Viral made this thing back in 2010 and finished with a kickstarter in May 2013 letting him sell print copies in game-stores around the country. However he's also giving the pdf version away under a creative commons (attribution noncommercial) license. That means so long as you aren't intending on making profit and you credit him you can do as you like; share, remix, incorporate into other things. He doesn't care so long as you aren’t trying to make money without his say so. I find this to be a very sensible alternative to the current ‘standard’ copyright procedure where no matter if it’s a fan project that isn’t looking to make money or not it would still tehnically be illegal.
That is what I'm doing here, remixing what he's let out into the wild to try jump-starting my own creativity. You can be as serious or silly as you like. It's something I feel needs more love. Very simple and easy system to get into. I'd already made a group for it, posted about it repeatedly so tried to figure out what I could do when I don't have a group to play-test and act as a sounding-board for an actual playable scenario. Then I get wind that even though Script Frenzy is dead there is an event in July I could do. Then July passed and while I got most of the way done I wasn't all the way there yet. Fine, no worries, there's always November. So here we are. I still don't think I got everything, but if I left this thing sitting until I was completely 100% happy with it, nobody would ever see the thing because nobody, not even Steven Jackson after finishing work on Lord of the Rings, is completely absolutely satisfied with their work. I write. It isn't for Money, even though that would be really really nice.
When I've managed to get feedback from people with common interests I've been told I'm reasonably good.
Where did this come from?
I started off wanting to do an Engine Heart based novel based off the idea of 'hey I want to write a campaign for this setting because I think it's really neat but nothing has been done for it yet' but decided to re-think the idea because, even with the help of the internet, finding a group to play with was difficult enough that it became too much of a bother to keep trying. The original idea was going to be 'Martian robots sent to peacefully try figuring out what happened to Earth' with the Game Master/Narrator/Programmer/Etc given the option ofadding a hostile Mars twist after the players had gotten used to the world and game concept. Like with the Power and Lights PDF I didn't go by 'this and this and this happens here here and there' and instead gave out a few location set pieces, NPCs, and some notes for anyone wanting to use the NPCs in other games (such as Russ or Zhuzhi showing up at The Factory, or Sav-R-Mart, or whatever.) It's this 'I intended on letting players plug this into the already available material' that gave me the shove to see how much from the core book, Lights and Power, and the kickstarter material I could shove into a single story. What's the harm so long as I respected Viral's licensing system? It would potentially be advertising for the game at large (even though it's freely available to download the kickstarter was so stores across the country, mostly local places nobody outside of the county would have heard of, where print copies can be found.)
Plus I figure with tying into Engine Heart any popularity gained from that could be used to build an audience that would hopefully be willing to look at any other material I've written or will write in the future. The thing is I originally wanted to have a path open to Mars, or at least leave player Notes on what Mars was like in case they wanted to have a game set there instead of Earth. The fact none of the Kickstarter material addresses space travel beyond 'how do you make a robot that's suited to space' and a little bit about an ever-expanding moon colony left Mars as unexplored and up for grabs. Of course things do not usually go the way you think they will and my 'include everything engine heart related' got shortened to 'the Martians, Sav-R-Mart, the factory, and cameo the wasteland cannibals.' Oh well. Let's move on to talk about the things I've added to the mad-max toaster setting.
This is one area I didn't actually have to do much work on; just flip through what already existed and start picking out roles and personalities. Thing is even if you have a million yard clippers one might develop personality quirks because its owner would leave music playing in the garage, or another would talk to it, or a third might have to do its own maintenance because the owner was an eighty year old retiree that got it as a gift from the grandkids because they shouldn't have to do their own work. These machines might not count as 'Turing compliant' AI depending on how you look at them; with 'Turing' AI being a thing that could pass itself as human in conversation but they're definitely intelligent enough to have preferences and thoughts outside of completing an assigned task. That sort of flexibility in even a rat catcher is something I had to try keeping in mind when coming up with how society might have built things. For my setting I'd treated the whole machine rights thing as having never really been addressed outside of owner's discretion and on a case by case basis if a machine started lobbying civil rights groups on the issue. It isn't fair or right or probably how things would be treated in the real world (The blog 'Law and the Multiverse' covers this subject along with other issues of how fantasy, SciFi, and comics handle legal realities. It's a very interesting read.)
Fortunately since people never show up in my story I never had to address the issue. Unfortunately since I want to leave anyone that follows up some wiggle room in case they do I have to address it, at least somewhat, here. This is not easy for me since I've been a fan of robots in fiction ever since Transformers. I'd like to think my 'ignore the issue unless its individuality brought up' was an ad-hoc thing thought up in the decade before the war since it had started to be unignorable, but there were larger problems going on and governments didn't really want to have to deal with a big picture solution.
Good Guys, Deere, and so on" I never really statted any of my robots out since a lot of what happens in book is doable in system by lucky rolls or just the GM going 'OK you know what? that's awesome, let's do it.' On the other hand there was an actual game session podcast ending with the player group overpowered in combat and in the process of being turned into seeker drones when one of the players managed to beat the factory AI while they were just a main board on a bench plugged in somewhere. That isn't just snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.That's ramming your fist down defeat's throat pulling victory out then punching defeat in the face with it. Entertaining and totally awesome, but in a novel it would feel too much like the author pulling a win out of fat air for the sake of favoring a particular group.
Lastly on the subject of the earth bots is Kara. If she were statted out she'd have to be a 150 point build since while she doesn't have all sorts of fancy features she has high mental stats plus is next to indistinguishable from human. All sorts of excuses could be used, or it could be a temporary thing and she could lose that human like exterior leaving her in the same condition Macy's in (She's from Lights and Power along with Frank, Lon, Sal, and Muir.) I mainly wanted to keep her human looking because of her namesake from the Quantic Dreams demo video. In other words it's a case going 'You. You have Awesome Thing' and then barely using it other than being distinctive in story.
Originally it was going to be Russ sent out alone with a more capable lander that would have had its own AI, searchable databases, charging ports, and basically serve as a home base to explore from and or get taken away as plot demanded. The idea of going with more than one machine ended up coming from the fact Mars was not colonies by a single nation, but several, and each would demand having a hand in the expedition. So instead of having Russ be a generalist I'd geared it more towards repair and social interactions since the background was to be a 'face' to help sell a skeptical public on colonizing Mars when Earth itself is going down the drain.
Iskatel I'd envisioned to be both the most primitive in design, but also the most practical. Think of it as a smaller version of the curiosity rover given an AI. Iskatel was designed to weather Martian storms and deal with the likelihood of not getting repaired and still needing to do its job. The poor thing's Russian because it just feels right to me that Russia would go with older but tried and true designs that have only gotten incremental upgrades rather than complete redesigns (see also the Soyuz capsules people get to and from the international space station from.) Role-wise Iskatel is supposed to be the group Muscle but since I hate the idea of 'dumb' muscle I wanted to give it a few chances to show insight into the situation at hand because why not?
Zhuzhi is a bit tougher and is more out of the blue in terms of design. In fact up until I'd started writing my blog notes it was simply 'the third robot that handles most of the sneaking and interfacing bits.' Then I had to decide on a form so a random Google later I found a lego spider and thought that would be absolutely perfect. Zhuzhi is not a figther even though I do abuse the tow cable and wench during the rooftop fights that's against things its own size rating. Against bigger things it gets crunched.
I didn't really have to do much with Earth location-wise thanks to the fact that's the default setting for Engine Heart and the minimods tend to give enough information to roll on. I was deliberately vague about distances, time needed to travel, and where buildings were in location to each other because I get horribly lost really easy. Feel free to call me out on this vagueness. Robert Jordan I am not so I focused on what I felt was important to the story rather than try describing everything to the point of being able to exactly build a copy of what's on page somewhere in New Zealand or Toronto.
There might be some flack for having a town so close to the factory, but it makes snes to me. Company Town. Even with most of the factory's processes automated you still have inspectors, maintenance workers, warehouse and shipping workers, and all those people need things to do with themselves. This is why I put the Luck E. Dog's here instead of the Red/Green city.Mars
Here is where I feel the most missed opportunities were. Mars has always been something people have wanted. There's been hundreds if not thousands of stories centered on the red planet, and we've sent a lot of stuff out that way over the years. There are more than three colonies on Mars, but all the others are either corporate attempts, abandoned sites, automated science stations, or empty shells people could park in while waiting a storm out.
The Big Three are each dug out of Olympus Mons, and if the idea of three city sized colonies sharing the same mountain seems a bit fantastic then you need to understand that Olympus Mons is Huge. It isn't Everest Big. It isn't even 'drain the oceans and measure the big Hawaiian island from the sea floor on up' big. It's above and beyond anything we have on earth. Why people would dig into that mountain is something I'd left unclear, but I'd imagine that much dirt and rock would make a great radiation barrier, or at least a far better barrier than being out in the open would be. There is also the fact that Mars's core may or may not still have some warmth. So try tapping that energy if possible, which is one of the reasons the three colonies keep expanding. Their end goal is to link tunnels with each other in case one needs help the other is able to provide, and with them all digging into he center of the mountain they might be able to create a collective geothermal (martianthermal?) plant to give them all the power they'll ever need.
By the time the story starts, none of the three big colonies care particularly for the politics of the home world, but it doesn't have to be like this. It could be one is programmed to be a little bit paranoid, or try sabotaging the collective. I dislike this but it's something to go on and would extend to their servants. It is worth noting that any above ground installations, unless given high repair priority (such as the uplink to beam information to and from Earth) is probably going to rapidly get corroded by weathering into uselessness. We are talking about a planet wide desert with only whatever materials you've been given ahead of time and with only a slim chance at getting more there's the whole 'OK where do I put my bits in at?' problem. Do you keep the easily damaged over time weather and science stations running, or do you harvest most of them for parts to keep a few weather things up and going as long as you can, or do you scrap all of them? The Archive
As for theArchive that is something I blame Clarke for. While the moon still has a bit of geologic activity and weather it is far enough away from Earth (but still reachable) that in theory an underground bunker could be used to store copies of what is considered valuable. This would be horribly expensive and largely a tinker toy project compared to the 'real' business of colonizing. However I see it as having enough funding to be at least somewhat impressive. Like the big three it has an AI, but unlike the other three it is at its final internal configuration and is interested solely in maintaining the condition of the things inside and isn't generally in a talkative sort of mood. Where the big three are on Olympus Mons, it is located somewhere in Valles Marineris, and I say 'somewhere' because I don't know where specificity and that canyon system is stupidly huge (running the length of North America.) It's hard to get to, away from everything else, and since 'proper authorization' is impossible to get anymore it is paranoid and trigger happy.
Fortunately it is one of three archives with the other two being on the moon and somewhere unspecified since I like having a third one around but I don't know where to put it. The sum total of human knowledge is not lost, and that is something I wanted to make sure of. Exact contents I’m leaving up in the air since maybe they managed to mirror large chunks of the Internet, or possibly only included a copy of wikipedia alongside Shakespeare, different recordings, and all that. Personally I like to think a bit more ambitious since a lot of this is going to be digitized information; the sum total of Everything digitally scannable. This also leaves open plot hooks for robots on earth attempting, with whatever degree of comedic failure you like, to still be working with the Archives scanning things in.
Engine Heart has stats but no real leveling system and I'm the sort of person that would rather only bring the dice out if they're needed rather than at every opportunity. I would probably make a terrible GM since cries of favoritism would likely crop up and drama is a fun killer. The world I used is not the world you have to use; so feel free to play things out differently and just try going with whatever bits of crazy seem most appealing at the time. I don't want anyone to feel like since this is how I did things it is how they must. So I'm not going to be offended if Kara ends up being played as dense, Andy vindictive, and Ted as a chessmaster. It's your game. Have fun making it your own.
One Final Note:
Writing pronouns when technically none of your cast has a gender is hard!