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Saturday 4 April 2020

On the Star Frontier

The year is 2260 AD. Two years ago, the United Terran Republic and its allies won the Terran Liberation War, forcing the mighty and ancient Reticulan Empire to sue for peace after twenty-five years of uprisings and war. For some one-hundred-and-seventy-five years, Earth and Humanity had been repressively suborned as the Reticulan client state of House Thiragin, the Earth Federal Administration. Humanity was allowed to expand and establish colonies, but in return had to commit auxiliary troops to serve in the wars against House Thiragin’s rival houses in the Reticulan Empire and other alien species, and was subject to both a tight rein on its economy and Reticulan abductions and bio-technological experimentation. The latter not only resulted in the confirmation and development of psionics among humans, but also the creation of Human-Reticulan Hybrids. Besides having a higher likelihood of possessing psionics, Hybrids were favoured by House Thiragin and dominated the Earth Federal Administration government, the loathed Federal Security Apparatus, and the Exalted Order of Fomalhaut, the latter the Earth Federal Administration’s state sanctioned faith. Ultimately, it would be an unexplained mass abduction of children by the Reticulans that would trigger the Terran Revolution and it would be troops who had served with House Thiragin, known as the Returnees’ Circles, who would form the backbone of the Terran forces in the revolution.

As of 2260 AD, the United Terran Republic is a presidential republic attempting to switch from a wartime to peacetime footing; to expand coreward to explore and establish new colonies and make contact with lost ‘black’ colonies established in secret from the Earth Federal Administration; and maintain vigorous defences against Earth’s former master, the Reticulan Empire to rimward. Although there is trade and contact between the United Terran Republic and the Reticulan Empire, the two states are wary of each other and a state of cold war exists between them. The territories of the United Terran Republic and the Reticulan Empire come together in an area known as the Terran Badlands, along with a third interstellar power, the Ciek Confederation. Located within the Terran Badlands are two client states supported and maintained by the United Terran Republic, the Reticulan Technate and the Ssesslessian Harmony. The first of these is governed by the rebel Technocratic Movement, consisting of Reticulans who supported the Terran revolution, whilst the latter was given to the serpentine Ssesslessians as a new homeworld after theirs had been glassed by the Reticulans.

This is the set up for These Stars Are Ours!, a near future setting published by Stellagama Publishing for use with the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document from Samardan Press which details the core rules for a Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Gaming System. If the Third Imperium of Classic Traveller draws upon the Imperial Science Fiction of the 1950s, then These Stars Are Ours! draws upon another sub genre of the same period—UFOlogy and ‘little green men’. Or rather, ‘little grey men’, for the Reticulans are akin to the Greys of UFO lore and their spaceships and starships are saucers. What these point to are the space opera or  pulp sensibilities of the These Stars Are Ours! setting, and these sensibilities continue with the other alien species to be found across known space. These include the Cicek, aggressive and personal glory-obsessed warm-blooded, humanoid reptiles complete with tails; the snakelike Ssesslessians, a theocratic species with a complex pantheon who served the Reticulans as assassins; and the Zhuzzh, pragmatic, opportunistic, and nomadic insectoids who all but worship technology and who are inveterate tinkerers rather than designers and innovators. There are other races to be found across known space, but these are the main ones to be found in the Terran Badlands. Behind them though are the ‘Precursors’, one or more ancient species who disappeared millennia ago following a devastating war leaving behind mysterious ruins, who may have seeded and manipulated species across known space and who may be the forebears of numerous species.

Now despite the strong nods to both pulp and space opera sensibilities with these alien species, These Stars Are Ours! is not really a pulp or even a space opera setting. This is because it still uses the dry, technical mechanics and terminology of the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document—and thus ultimately of Traveller. So it employs Tech Levels, Maneuvre Drives, Jump Drives, Parsecs, Sectors, Subsectors, the Universal World Profile, and so on.  Looking to the sources of inspiration in the book’s appendices and it is clear that the tone and feel is other than Pulp Sci-Fi—so Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy; films such as Alien, Outland, and Serenity; television series like Babylon 5, Dark Skies, and Space: Above and Beyond; and computer games including Mass Effect, UFO: Enemy Unknown, and Dead Space. The Science Fiction of These Stars Are Ours! is much drier than straight space opera, but the inclusion of both the film Serenity and the television series Firefly point towards another influence and that is the Western genre. Much like both of those sources, These Stars Are Ours! is set after a devastating war, during a period of reconstruction, much like the years after the American Civil War. 

Now as much as there are similarities between the aftermath of the American Civil War and the aftermath of the Terran Liberation War—or the Terran Rebellion as the Reticulans call it—there are numerous differences too. The most notable difference is that These Stars Are Ours! presents an obvious and very alien enemy in the form of the Reticulans whilst moving the Human-Reticulan relationship into one of a cold war. Yet it retains the sense of distrust and resentment that arises from a period of occupation and civil war, which in the United Terran Republic—and beyond of These Stars Are Ours! is aimed at Reticulan Hybrids—humans genetically modified as embryos with Reticulan dna—who were seen as collaborators.

In terms of background, These Stars Are Ours! is richly packed. Not just with a history of the Terran Liberation War, but also the state of the United Terran Republic and its politics, military and intelligence agencies—notably CRC-32 which provides the military and government with covert Psionic Intelligence (or PSINT) support and its civilian research counterpart, the Psionic Research Institute (or PRI). It also covers the major corporations in the United Terran Republic, along with religion and spirituality, legal system, and various criminal and terrorist groups. It covers the various alien races in similar detail, from the Reticulans of the Reticulan Empire and the separatist Reticulan Technate to the eight-limbed, two metres tall, crustacean-like Klax who serve as security forces for the Reticulans, whilst of course adding details about their various biologies, psychologies, and societies. Where a particular alien species is available to choose as a player character, notes are given on how to play them. 

As well as Humans, These Stars Are Ours! offers the Cicek, Reticulans, Reticulan Hybrids, Ssesslessians, and Zhuzzh as playable races. The main major difference in the setting to the more familiar Traveller is that Psionics are more freely available and that Psionic Strength is added as a seventh attribute. In terms of Careers, These Stars Are Ours! uses those from Cepheus Engine System Reference Document, but adds another twenty on top. Those available to Humans are the most diverse, including Teran Navy and Terran Police as well as Terran Naval Infantry and Teran Marines. For the most part,  the new Careers reflect the past quarter of a century that Humans have spent at war. If a character is a Psion, then he will serve in CRC-32 or the PRI, depending upon his Psionic Strength. Those of the Alien species are not as diverse, apart from the Reticulans, typically presenting one Career per species—essentially much like Basic Dungeons & Dragons did Race as Class. There are Event tables for all of the new Careers and the character rules also allow for cybernetics and cyborgs.

Creating a character in These Stars Are Ours! is the same as Cepheus Engine System Reference Document or Traveller. A player rolls two six-sided dice for his character’s seven attributes and then chooses a Career for him. Over the course of the Career, the player will add skills and other benefits to the character. A character may have an illustrious career, be discharged following an injury, and so on. The process will require a little flipping back and forth between These Stars Are Ours! and Cepheus Engine System Reference Document, especially if a player decides on a career not in These Stars Are Ours! Either way, the process is a lengthy one.

Our sample character was one of the elite of the Earth Federal Administration who was in training to become a politician and administrator before he discovered the extent of Reticulan activities in Terran space and defected. He was tested for psionic capability and recruited by CRC-32 and constantly trained throughout his career. He was on active military campaign in the last years of the Terran Liberation War, but was captured and held captive until the armistice between the United Terran Republic and Reticulan Empire was signed.

Brigadier Jeffry Ennes
Reticulan Hybrid Age 50
Elite-2 (Rank 3: Manager)/CRC-32-6 (Rank 5: Brigadier)
Admin-2, Advocate-3, Carousing-o, Clairvoyance-1, Comms-1, Computer-1, Gun Combat-1, Jack-of-All-Trades-2, Leadership-1, Liaison-0, Linguistics-0, Medicine-1, Melee Combat-0, Reticulan-1, Telepathy-3, Teleportation-3, Vehicle-0, Zero-G-0
History: Political Infighting, Psionic Training, Strange Science, Advancement, Psionic Training, Battle, Captured.
Benefits: Explorer’s Society, CR 30,000, Pension: CR 12,000
Traits: Bad First Impression (humans only), Engineered (TL13), Notable Dexterity, Weak Strength, Psionic.

In terms of technology, These Stars Are Ours! is roughly Technology Level 11, with military equipment and technology being typically Technology Level 11 and Technology Level 12. This means that starships are commonly capable of Jump-2 (travelling two parsecs in a single jump), fine gravitics is being developed, fusion power is freely available, and so on. Reticulan technology is generally higher, most notably shown in its mastery of gravitics and longer Jump ranges. As befitting the setting, their ships are saucers rather than the sleeker, if not streamlined ships deployed by other races. Some six ships—starships and small craft—are detailed and given deck plans, and where necessary civilian and military versions are both given. They include the Reticulan Abductor and Saucers, the Ssesslessian Infiltrator, Zhuzzh Scavenger, Cicek Raider, and Terran Shaka-class Light Military Transport. The latter is the only Terran ship, which is perhaps a little disappointing, but given the post-war state of the United Terran Republic, these ships are commonly available to purchase and are used as by free traders. Plus the fact that it happens to look not unlike the Firefly class is likely to make it a popular choice with the players (if not their characters). 

Some seventy or so worlds of the region Trailing-Rimward to Terra are described as part of the Terran Borderlands. The latter lies at the point where three interstellar powers meet—the Reticulan Empire, the Cicek Confederation, and the United Terran Republic—and contains the two Terran client-states, the Reticulan Technate and the Ssesslessian Harmony. Each of the worlds comes with its own Universal World Profile and a fairly detailed description, though this can vary in length from one to as many as five paragraphs. Along with the accompanying star map, this gives a good-sized area for the player characters to explore and to support that, These Stars Are Ours! comes with a dozen patrons. These range from supporting a colonisation on a ‘jackpot’ planet and transporting a Reticulan diplomat—hopefully her money will be enough to overcome any lingering antipathy towards the Reticulans, to the exploration of a Precursor site and a hunt for a celebrity’s missing yacht. They represent a good mix of adventure types and make good use of the background to the setting. These Stars Are Ours! is rounded out with a pair of appendices, one a bibliography of inspirations, the other various news entries or Terran News Agency Dispatches, which the Game Master could develop into scenarios of her own.

Physically, These Stars Are Ours! is simply and clearly presented and there is a good index. The few illustrations are decent, the star maps clear, and the deckplans good. As much as the content is interesting and engaging, what lets the setting supplement down is the editing. At worst someone has edited the book, at best no one has, and in places, the unpolished writing in These Stars Are Ours! does sometimes make a cringeworthy read.

If there is anything missing from the These Stars Are Ours! setting it is perhaps a few more starships to individualise the setting some more and certainly some personalities. Apart from the president of the United Terran Republic, no individuals are really mentioned, so the history and setting do feel slightly impersonal. There is no advice for the Game Master, but anyway, she should be able to come up with scenarios and campaign ideas from the background material given in These Stars Are Ours!.

Although using mechanics derived from Traveller, the setting of These Stars Are Ours! is very different to that of Traveller. It is not ‘high’ or Imperial Space Opera, but has a harder, rougher edge to it, drawing from a source that is more pulp Sci-Fi in its sensibilities even as the Cepheus mechanics serve to reduce said pulp tendencies. Nevertheless, These Stars Are Ours! draws deeply upon its source material of UFOlogy and ‘Little Green Men’ and infuses them with a frontier, almost Wild West feel to present a very accessible setting in terms of background and size.

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