Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Adventures in the Nth Imperium

So here's a campaign idea I've been kicking around in my head off and on for a couple of years. Feel free to steal it for your home game if the spirit moves you. One of my favorite popular science books of the last decade is Fred Adams and Gregory Laughlin's The Five Age of the Universe. I've squeezed some mojo out of this particular gem once before. Today I'm going to tackle the idea on page 74 I mentioned in that old post.

The premise these guys tackle is diabolically simple: what if we run out the clock on the cosmos? Assume everything presently (well, circa 1999) understood about quantum mechanics and astrophysics is right, what happens to the large scale features of the universe over the course of a trillion years? A quadrillion years? A googol years? Turns out some pretty crazy stuff goes down, which can all be broadly divided up into five different periods. Hence the title.

According to Adams and Laughlin's analysis, we are presently living in the Second Age of the universe, the Stelliferous Era. That's the time when stars are plentiful and varied, spanning the first stellar ignitions after the big bang until the last miserly red dwarf sputters out sometime around 100 trillion years from now (give or take). That's when the Degenerate Era begins, a period where the only vaguely starlike objects left in the universe are white dwarfs, brown dwarfs and black holes. The Degenerate Era is when the Nth Imperium campaign happens.

This is the part that comes straight from Five Ages, in the form of a short fictional introduction to the chapter on the Degenerate Era. In this piece the authors imagine a future humanity as living in Dyson sphere type shells surrounding white dwarfs, the last bright emitters of radiation in the universe. Planets have long been abandoned since they no longer have suns to warm them and power biological processes. Only by completely enclosing white dwarfs in solar panel arrays can future society tap enough energy to sustain itself.

Imagine this set-up for a moment as an oddball Traveller game, where all the usual things that can happen in standard Trav are available against this unorthodox backdrop. Good ol' hydrogen, the fuel source for standard Trav FTL drives, ain't as plentiful as it used to be. The only easily accessible hydrogen sources left in the universe are the brown dwarfs, substars that never achieved sufficient mass to ignite the fusion process. In the realm of Nth Imperium, brown dwarf mining is a major factor in the maintenance of interstellar society.

Incidentally, the Dyson sphere white dwarfs, brown dwarf mines and black holes will be a lot less densely distributed throughout the galaxy than stars are today. Imagine a standard Traveller sector map with only a few dozen non-empty hexes instead of the normal 300-500. For Nth Imperium I would posit Quantum 2 Jump Technology. A Q2 jump drive can hop its jump number squared, allowing a jump-6 drive to travel 36 hexes in a single trip. Basically Q2 types drives allow for 'controlled misjumps'.

The wee tale on page 74 suffers from the same basic flaw as most future societies in science fiction: the assumption that people in the future will act just like the folks you meet at the grocery store, except they'll wear shiny silver pantaloons. In this case we're not going to solve that by trying to project some weird transhumanic society. We're talking about people who live so far in the future that they talk about the Sun as a long-gone by-product of the Big Bang. Imagine a timeline from the Big Bang to Now. Stack nearly seven thousand of those babies from end to end. That's how far in the future the Nth Imperium can be found, you can fit about 6,700 everything-that-has-ever-happened in the same period of time. Big Bang to now: one inch. Big Bang to Nth Imperium: nearly two football fields.

The sheer difference in scale demands that merely cyborging up the future ain't gonna cut the mustard. Think about how much 1977's Traveller missed the boat by in terms of computer technology. The first printing of Traveller measured computer memory in K and computer mass in tons. It took a few measly years of realworld technological developments to completely obliterate Trav's predictions of computer technology a mere 3,000 years in the future. Multiply that staggering miscalculation by ten billion to find our margin of error. It just ain't gonna work. Homework: if the sum of human knowledge, X, is presently doubling every five years, how big will the sume of human knowledge be 100 trillion years from now? For extra credit, compare your total to the number of grains of sand in all the beaches of the earth or all the synaptic pathways in the average human brain.

I see two solutions to getting a handle on the social milieu of the Nth Imperium. The first is to assume that rather than a technological singularity sometime in the future, humanity hits some sort of technological and sociological plateau. I reject that option as boring. I'm not about to substitute boring for baffling. I want a setting that is both weird and comprehensible. That's where my good buddy Fred Nietzche comes in.

I'm pretty sure it was Nietzche's Thus Spake Zarathustra where I first encountered the idea of the Eternal Recurrence. I've read a fair bit of Germany's craziest philosopher (at least in translation), but I won't pretend to have any deep understanding of the dude's work. But that won't stop me from woefully misunderstanding him and using that folly to power a game. So in this particular context I've decided that the Eternal Recurrence refers to the cycle of human history, in direct contrast to the arrow inherent in physical cosmology. To put it simply: there was a Roman Empire, there will be a Roman Empire again. And again and again. Over 100 trillion years there may be a thousand Roman Empires, a thousand Marcel Marceaus, a thousand House Unamerican Activities Committees. So when your Q2 jumpship lands at a white dwarf Dyson, you may bump into Mark Twain at the starport bar. Thomas Jefferson may be president of the subsector. Blackbeard is definitely a space pirate. Moreover, since pretty much every other science fiction setting is far, far younger than the Nth Imperium, you can pick one or two of your favorite sci-fi galaxies to be part of this recurrent history.

But why is Mae West, Adolf Hitler and your crazy uncle periodically reincarnated like that? Time to swipe from Babylon 5 here: There are a finite number of souls in the universe. At some point humanity hits its limit and people start getting recycled. Population control in the Nth Imperium isn't simply a matter of rationally managing life in the shadow of energy-poor white dwarfs, its also a way of keeping Philosophical Zombies from being born. And AI's are limited in numbers because every computer sentient is one fewer soul that can inhabit a human body. I hear Abraham Lincoln is a matrioshka brain in the next sector over.

So yeah, that's been knocking around in my head for maybe a couple of years. I think it might make a decent Encounter Critical setting.


  1. Jeff,

    Didn't anyone tell you drugs and books on cosmology don't mix.

    Or that I'm terribly jealous I can't think this up.

  2. Okay, two ideas from the shower.

    1: A long while back I was reading a book dealing with reincarnation and one question that author tackled is why are there seven reincarnations of Cleopatra, six of Napoleon, and 27 of Allester Crowley? One suggestion is that each of them only got a part of the original and thus had only 1/7 of Cleopatra's beauty or 1/6 of Napoleon's military genius.

    So what if two 1/6th Napoleons are in the same sector wasting resources trying to prove they're the real deal.

    2: Continuing on the famous people riff, what about the Joe Blows who haven't been famous in over a trillion incarnations. Would they have a Famous Fairness League? Would they form the only part of humanity willing to adventure knowing this could truly be their last incarnation to make its mark before it's all a uniform grey ooze?

    That could be a great pool for all PCs to come from and a target for them to aim at.

  3. I was about to suggest the old "cataclysm puts humanity back a few hundred years" chestnut, but I like your gonzo reincarnation idea better. Have you read Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction? It deals with some of the same ideas.

  4. @kelvingreen
    Yeah, a cataclysm can buy you some time, but at the scale he's talking about a couple hundred years ain't but a blink.

    Interesting stuff. Kinda shades of "Riverworld"

  5. Oh wow. It's like a not-sucky Riverworld and the Xeelee Sequence had a bizarro genius baby.

    Needs MOAR photino birds. :)

  6. I have to question that why there are humans at all 100 trillion years in the future. Even with only about 5 billion years of life, not ONE life-form on Earth, not even the most conservative and simple of Bacteria, has survived unchanged to the present.

    Even with Eternal Recurrence giving you essentially human minds traveling down the ages, the fleshy shells those mind/souls inhabit are not going to be remotely hominid after 100 trillion years. That would knock me out of the "shared imaginative space" of the game so fast, and I'm able to suspend my disbelief enough to cope with the Enterprise encountering Abraham Lincoln floating in the void of space and the big excitement is "Abraham Lincoln is awesome!" not "Abraham Lincoln died 500 years ago and could not breathe in space"

  7. Anonymous10:25 AM

    In that large of a timeline, humans could have gone (almost) extinct and have re-evolved from scratch a few times over. Or you simply have several species running around (prehistoric cavemen who are still oppressed by the evil tyrannical GeicoCorp to super-evolved Trekkie human/Organians. Anything goes. Everything old ius new again...and again...and again...

    Throw in a bit of Asimovian "Empire/Foundation" to advance/decline the human state of affairs and technology...with a dash of Warhammer's decaying Imperium...

    Thanks for the ideas; it's definitely something I will be looking into using.


  8. Or you simply have several species running around

    Well, if I'm using Encounter Critical some people will be reincarnated as elves or wookeys or what have you. Maybe ordinary humans can be a rarity, genetic throwbacks as it were. That help you at all, cappadocius?

  9. "head a'splode!"

    What are the other 2 ages after the Degenerate Era? Does Laughlin go with the Heat Death finale or something else?

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Anonymous11:33 AM

    The remaining two are:

    Black Hole Era - In this era, according to the book, organized matter will remain only in the form of black holes. Black holes themselves slowly "evaporate" away the matter contained in them, by the quantum mechanical process of Hawking radiation. By the end of this era, only extremely low-energy photons, electrons, positrons, and neutrinos will remain.

    Dark Era - By this era, with only very diffuse matter remaining, activity in the universe will have tailed off dramatically, with very low energy levels and very large time scales. Electrons and positrons drifting through space will encounter one another and occasionally form positronium atoms. These structures are unstable, however, and their constituent particles must eventually annihilate. Other low-level annihilation events will also take place, albeit very slowly.


  12. This is great! I like this setup purely as a science fantasy setting; as much as I dig Riverworld-esque settings, I'm not inclinded to include such a spin with this one. Instead, what appeals to me is that the setting offers the option of having a sort of "Phantasy Star" environment, with different quasi-medieval planets but also starships and lasers. As others have pointed out, with a setting this far in the future, you can pretty much justify any level of tech, including Traveller's "archaeotech." Likewise, you can have as many "alien" species as you like by making them evolutionary offshoots (or other species evolved to sentience). I particularly like the de-evolve/re-evolve cycle; very pulpy!

  13. Man! You are creative, I want to eat your brains out!

    I like your idea a lot, however I'd like to address the idea of limited number of souls.

    Perhaps it would be better, to assume, that the souls have constant properties, but their identities differ from one incarnation to another.

    Let us look at the example of Hitler. In my concept, he's soul will always have the property of being a dictator and a xenophobe. However he won't always look like a little man with horrible mustache and haircut.

    I think that would give an opportunity to fiddle with some cultural motifs and tropes in a more inventive way.

    Imagine players landing on a "planet" or "colony", with a dictatorship. They suddenly realize that the authorities use the swastika as their emblem... They get uneasy, cause the reference is very obvious and triggers specific emotions.

    Now let's suppose that during the course of the adventure/ campaign they find out the same authoritarian government is planning to wipe out a specific group of people... What will the players do?

    I think that would be more interesting than just putting Hitler in the campaign.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. For rules Critical Encounter would work or you could go with good old Moldvay Lords of Creation (many famous persons real and fictional stated up already.) Heck if you wanted gonzo sci-fi technomagic you could even use Bill King's Wasteworld rules!

  16. 100 Trillion Years, Jeff! Sol has been dead for 9,950 billion years; the "current" era is 1400 times farther away from 2009 AD than the BIG BANG. Having humans around at all, even as a genetic race memory, just doesn't work for me. Encounter Critical is great fun, I love Deep Time settings, but I'm just too aware of how incomprehensibly vast a scale of time that is, and how quickly biological evolution works on a scale that large.

    But make it all a bunch of crazy-ass non-humanoid aliens, and I'm on this like white on rice.

  17. @cappa - the cool thing is you *could* have a whole new human race - that time period has too many quantum possibilities that you might not repeat our race. You get to make up a whole new history. Maybe even make some genetic modifications. :)

  18. Maybe a group of humans have been in some bizzarro stasis (or some crazy hyperspace time displacement- whatever) for several billion years and they came out a while ago and established a civilization.

  19. cappadocius, I'm aware of the scales involved and I acknowledge your problem. It just doesn't concern me the least. I want humans, so I ignore the problem. If you were a player in my campaign, I'd probably say "You're right. Your PC is absolutely convinced that there shouldn't be humans in the year 100 Trillion. Now go find out what is really going on."

  20. As much as I love this concept out the whazoo, I'm afraid I would be inclined to agree with cappadocius' train of thought.

    In a fashion I'm think that the prominent 'Human' species of such a setting would have as much similarity to us as we have to the Adelobasileus ( I'm thinking the scenes at the end of the film 'A.I.' but even more extreme.

    Still, it could make an awesome transhuman setting if approached similar to the RPG Sufficiently Advanced.

  21. Anonymous5:00 PM

    Dude, that's awesome! Congrats!

    Xbox Live Generator

  22. Wonderful concept! I'm only catching up on my blogging now and I just read up your post on this. Reading it got my mind churning on so many possibilities- even a traveller or gurps game!

  23. It sure is mind boggling.

    Thinking some more it reminds me of the sf writer Samuel R. Delany. His short novel "The Einstein Intersection" is a really crazy story about aliens who not knowing what humans were (yes, past tense) are acting out the cultural myths of humanity. Thus we have Billy the Kid and Robin Hood walzing about in a very surreal sf setting. Go read it, very inspiring and could probably work well as inspiration for something as crazy as this.

    Nothing involving uncle Fred can be bad, by the way. I haven't read anything by Nietzsche in far to long. I need to re-read some of those classics on my shelves.