Each of the 4 pre-defined eras (and any custom eras) starts with understanding the time period, state of the world, and the location of the story. What is the defining event that begins this era – whether it’s a deviation from our own history, or a future timeline? What is scarce, exciting, and new? What is common or mundane? What would scare the characters?
Era 1 – The Space Race
In 1969, Apollo 13 finds an artifact on the moon, advancing computer technology much faster. This is never revealed to the world at large though the uptick in technology is noticeable and abrupt. It’s explained away by governments and industry as a consequence of the space race. Mostly, it’s the same decade we know. Concordes and 747s. The gas crisis. Vietnam. The F-14 Tomcat. The WTC is completed in NYC. ARPANET comes online. MASH airs and Watergate occurs. Technology takes time to ramp up, but it starts with military and government technology – the sharing of information between the powers that be are suddenly able to find and share information much, much faster.
The era comes to an end on April 5, 1973, with the launch of the Pioneer 11 probe from Cape Canaveral, FL, onboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket. In our world, the Pioneer 11 was launched to explore the solar system. In this alternate world, its mission is to search the solar system for more signs of artifacts.
In this era, the players may be young adults in the US, draft age. With the draft lottery starting in late 1969, this is a pivotal era for youth. You could be potential draftees, unsure about the future, or anti-war activists, actively antagonizing the authorities, who stumble onto hidden information. You’re not the establishment and you’re not thrilled about where things are going. So when you find evidence of a conspiracy, your world goes from a little crazy, to entirely upside-down.
The group may want to explore the following questions: What is the nature of the artifact? How does the group find evidence of the artifact? The only people who know are the highest of the high in the military and government. Do they try to share that information? How does it remain hidden, in the end?
Era 2 – Technology Races Ahead
In 1992, the Shuttle Program has with the last launch and subsequent retirement of the Challenger shuttle and the establishment of the ISS. They’ve been replaced by autonomous spaceplanes (transport of people and light cargo) and reusable vertical rockets for heavier launches. Civilian transportation is faster, sleeker, and more often autonomous that not. More attention is given to high speed networks – trains connecting major cities and hubs many miles apart with ‘quiet’ supersonic transport (well, the sonic boom isn’t as bad, at least, but engine noise is engine noise).
TVs and computers are decades ahead of what we knew – closer to 2018, though the styling has not evolved as quickly. The height of ‘cool’ personal technology is essentially a mix between a TI-83, a Gameboy Color, and a BlackBerry. There are different versions/brands, but they’re nearly ubiquitous for high school kids through young adults. You communicate with your friends using the ubiquitous networking that allows for the autonomous transit systems.
The players may be high school kids in the 1990’s. You live in central NJ, and spend your free time at malls, wishing you could go to New York City, taking the maglev to the shore, hanging out with your friends, and generally avoiding your parents and any real responsibility. Then, one day while watching the SSTs take off from Lakehurst (connected to New York and Philadelphia, as well as the nearby McGuire Air Force Base from one of the miles-long noise buffers, your personal tech goes nuts. You get messages in nonsensical English, your memory gets filled up, you lose your homework, and in general things start to go wrong with any bit of technology you encounter.
The era ends with the secret launch of a rocket – at first thought to be the first salvo in a missile launch, and a nuclear war nearly erupts. Claimed, eventually, to be a test by the US of a new entirely new autonomous rocket, it contained no crew, and only a small probe containing a previously unknown AI core, which would be sent out into deep space.
The group should consider: How do the players determine that an AI is communicating with them? What type of AI is it? Why did it try to escape? Do they try to return it to the military, protect it, take advantage of it, or something else? What clues the authorities into the fact that the group ‘possesses’ the AI? How does it get to the launch site and why? What does the AI know about the mysterious artifact? Tip: For an unstable AI, use translate software and translation from English to multiple unrelated languages then back to English. For example, English > Welsh > Chinese > English.
Era 3 – The Gravity Well
A colony has been established around earth – it orbits at the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange Point (a stable point where its position is held between the two bodies with no need for additional energy). It houses a few thousand people – scientists and engineers who are working to build our first permanent home among the stars, and a launching point to further explorations. Your characters are support staff. Regular engineers, vacuum welders, doctors, and pilots who would regularly cycle in and out. It’s business as usual, until communications are cut off. The players become isolated in one part of the colony.
What is their goal? Do they attempt to escape? They must get to the docks. Re-establish control? Get to the control center. Their only regular communication occurs with a very put-upon AI colony administrator which is constantly interrupted by the third party that is attempting to take over the station. Eventually players become aware that the colony is being destabilized and must make choices – evacuating the color vs evacuating the landing zone.
The era ends with the colony crashing (into the moon or the Earth, find a reason for one or the other to be the destination). Perhaps many (or most) are saved. Perhaps none survive. Regardless, the impact area is devastated for thousands of miles.
The group should consider who would want to halt humanity’s progress into space – and why they would. Is it to hurt us or save us? Is it a human presence or something else? Humanity moves out of Earth’s gravity well regardless – why? How will the players’ actions encourage this? These questions impact not just the end of the story, but the challenges they players will face.
Era 4 – The Stars
Humankind has populated the solar system – Mars, Ceres, and Ganymede all have a permanent human presence of some sort, in addition to smaller ‘orbitals’ in various stable orbits. The moon remains conspicuously un-colonized, except for small military stations with near- and far-side relays. For most people, it’s simply not important enough to bother with. The actual travel is almost mundane at this point. AI controls nearly every point in the trip.
The players work for Orbital & Atmospheric Recovery Corp (aka The OARC, a governmental and semi-military group), assisting with the terraforming (warming) of Enceladus as a potential source of clean water and as a transition point to further space exploration. At this point in human existence, conflict is rare, as resources are plentiful, but this far on the edge the basics can be scarce – food, drinkable water, breathable air. You’re only a bit of metal, plastic, and insulation away from the cold vacuum of space – and even moon-side, people sometimes decide they know better and want to do things their way.
A ship from the inner solar system with no flight plan, life signs, or identification arrives in orbit, claimed by multiple factions. Your group is sent to find the ship, and discover it is not what it seems.
The era ends with the appearance of a new star – the incoming deceleration burn of an unknown, uncommunicative spaceship spaceship. Does it come in greeting, a threat, or a warning? Meanwhile, the successful opening of the Enceladus colony with a special dedication to your players, who bravely sacrificed themselves to preserve the fledgling settlement… or, did they? Here, at the edge of space, what has remained hidden or been reveal?
The group should consider, in a society that has everything, what happens when there is suddenly something new and scarce? What is on the ship and why did it appear? What is the relationship between the two ships and the artifact from the first era?
Really, none of the above are worlds. However, they are sketches that allow me to re-evaluate the types of stories I’d want to tell, the types of characters that inhabit this world, what these characters could do, and how conflict might be resolved. Meaning, virtually everything I’ve written up until this point is potentially up for a re-think.