Too many SF RPG settings don't ask the right questions about technology
and its consequences. All too often, some technologies (human genetic
engineering is a favorite) is retarded because (a) every nation on the
planet agrees that this technology is dangerous and outlaws it, leaving
its development in the hands of stereotypical Mad Scientists, (b)
because it inevitably creates monsters that either go on a killing
spree or attempt to Take Over The World, or (c) nobody bothers with it.
And even if these technologies exist, their impact on the social
structure of the setting seems minimal - people act and think just as
they did in the 1990s (or 1970s, or whatever), the only difference
being that they now have starships and laser guns.
While such settings can be lots of fun (and I love such unapologetic science fantasies like Fading Suns),
this is, in my eyes, missing a big opportunity. People with future
technology won't act and think like we do. Humans are tool users, and
our tools shape us as much as we shape them. That is even more the case
when the tools available to us can alter us and our descendants
directly in drastic ways. Which leads us to one of the main questions
behind the new setting of Transhuman Space by Steve Jackson Games:
What is "human"?
No other SF RPG setting has asked this question as aggressively, and with as interesting results. Blue Planet
comes perhaps closest, but its main focus is the exploration of an
alien world, and not exploration of the "human condition" itself...
But I digress. You presumably came here to learn more about Transhuman Space, the main book of SJG's new "Powered By GURPS" SF line. Let's break the contents down by chapter.
Chapter 1: Transhuman Space
This chapter details the history of the setting, both as a yearly
timeline (covering the years of 2010-2099) and as a discussion of
specific movements and events that transformed the world. Among the
The Colonisation of Space, including Chinese dominance on Mars ever since the manned American Horus I mission to the red planet ended in disaster, the European-Japanese mining of the Lunar surface for the vital fusion fuel 3He,
the Ares conspiracy, a group of roguescientists that spread
genengineered bacteria and plants across Mars to jump-start the
terraforming process, and the new American 3He mines on Saturn that finally succeeded in breaking the Lunar monopoly.
The rise of the Transpacific Socialist Alliance and the outbreak of
the Pacific War between it and China, when the world got its first
glimpse what modern warfare is capable of.
The Transformation of Mankind, detailing the splintering of the human species into several new subspecies or even new forms of existence
All this gives the setting a vital sense of history and makes it more
plausible. For instance, the colonisation of space wasn't merely driven
by national prestige (though that also played a part, especially on
Mars) - the use of 3He
in modern fusion reactors required moving first to the Moon, and then
to Saturn, since that Helium isotope could not be found in sufficient
numbers on Earth to feed Earth's ever-increasing demand for energy.
Rounding this chapter off are several possible campaign themes, ranging
from the expected (soldiers, criminals, law enforcement) to the unusual
- how about creationg a society of your own, either in space or another
Chapter 2: The Solar SystemThis chapter details the
various planets (and other celestial bodies of importance) in the solar
system. Humanity has spread far and wide, and there is a colony almost
everywhere. From the crowded Earth-Lunar system and its Lagrange Points
(places where the gravitational forces of Earth and the Moon balance
each other out) to the rapidly greening Mars, the libertarian Duncanite
asteroid bases in the Main Belt, the fragile and bitterly fought-over
ecosphere of the Jovian Moon of Europa, to the pride and joy of the
American space forces, the US colony on Titan, and all the way to the
Kuiper Belt, this chapter shows just how diverse space is in both
environments and human cultures. And not all of these cultures get
along, which provides plenty of opportunities for adventures.
In fact the only complaint I have with this chapter is SJG's insistence
on using the Imperial system of measurements, which is pretty jarring
in an SF background. Reading about an escape velocity of "3.1 mps" or
an average surface temperature of "20°F" isn't helpful for those of us
who are used to thinking in metric units...
The chapter ends with a few short rules about travel times for
spacecrafts and the various environmental dangers (from non-standard
atmospheres to radiation) one might encounter in the reaches of the
solar system. In other words, nobody has to buy GURPS Space for these rules, and converting them to other game systems shouldn't be too difficult for those who are inclined this way...
Chapter 3: Encyclopedia of Transhuman Space
This chapter details the basic forces and issues that shape the setting. The subsections are:
Core Technologies: The technological base of the setting.
This covers the various forms of Artificial Intelligences that exist in
the setting, from the non-sapient workhorses that can be found almost
everywhere to sapient programs that can display genuine emotions (or at
least fake them so convincingly that it doesn't matter to most people)
and that can achieve citizenship in several nations; Augmented Reality
(most people in the setting have either Virtual Interface Glasses or
Implants that overlay all kinds of information about their surroundings
over their field of vision), genetic engineering (from the
modifications of various plants and animals for fun and profit to the
creation of new human subspecies that are becoming increasingly common
in the wealthier nations), new manufacturing techniques (that even
allow the - highly controversial - creation of sapient beings,
so-called "bioroids", out of whole cloth), and much more. Technology in
Transhuman Space isn't just a matter of producing things
"faster and better"; it allows the creation of entire new industries
that can and do radically change the basic assumptions of society.
Nations: It's good to see a near-future SF setting that isn't
US-centric (especially for a non-American like me). This subsection
presents the Great Powers of the setting. Three nations (or groups of
nations) are dominant and shape the politics on Earth (and beyond): The
People's Republic of China (leader in military power and political
influence), the European Union (leader in technology and sheer wealth),
and the USA (trying hard to catch up to the other two after decades of
withdrawal from world affairs). Several other Powers are also gaining
world-wide influence: India (in "danger" of going over to the
nanosocialist camp after the next elections), the Pacific Rim Alliance
(a military mutual defence pact dominated by Japan, Korea, and
Australia), the Transpacific Socialist Alliance (an alliance of
so-called "nanosocialist" nations and favorite villain of capitalists
everywhere), the Islamic Caliphate (a group of Arabic nations united
under a Caliph and dedicated to creating an "ideal" Islamic state), and
the South African Coalition (a group of African nations dedicated to
mutual economic development). The Duncanites, a loose group of
transhumanists and libertarians mostly concentrated in the Main Belt,
is also becoming increasingly influental in space. Such a wide variety
of influental power groups makes for complicated international (and
interplanetary) politics, providing plenty of opportunity for spy games
and other adventures.
Memes: Memes, according to modern psychological theories,
are ideas, pieces of information, or beliefs which are passed from one
mind to another, and which are duplicated and mutate over time
analogous to genes, the basic building blocks of hereditary biological
information. In Transhuman Space, Memetic Theory is
treated as essentially correct, and this subsection discusses some of
its implacation, as well as some of the more common memes (or beliefs).
Some of the more noteworthy memes include Biochauvinism (the belief
that biosapient life, like humanity and its subspecies, is inherently
more valuable than digital life forms like sapient AIs), Nanosocialism
(the belief that only governments can make sure that the benefits of
technology can be distributed in a way that benefits everyone - and
that private individuals or organisations should not be allowed to
"own" intellectual property and patents. This isn't so strange if you
consider how hard it is for many of the poorest and most afflicted
nations today to afford the AIDS treatments they need...), Pan-Sapient
Rights (the belief that all sapient beings deserve the same rights as
humans, no matter what their form), and, of course, Transhumanism (the
belief that humans should "transcend their limits" in any way possible,
whether through human genetic engineering, "uploading" of minds as
computer programs, or even stranger methods).
Institutions and Organisations: A collection of important corporations, intelligence agencies, and NGOs.
War and the Military: A description of how the various
armies in existence operate. Normal humans are becoming increasingly
scarce on the battlefield in the more advanced nations - the militaries
that can afford them use advanced robots controlled by artificial
Outlaws and Terrorists Various groups, organisations, people, and entities that make life unsafe for the rest of pansapiency. Of special interest are groups like Negative Growth and the Europa Defense Force,
dedicated to stopping the terraforming efforts on Mars and Europa, and
various organisations that want to either exploit bioroids or free them.
All this gives the reader a good idea about how people in 2100 think,
what they believe in - and what they argue about, which is probably the
most important issue for anyone planning an RPG campaign...
Chapter 4: Characters
The usual (for GURPS
books) chapter on the various types of characters existing in the
setting, and how to create them. What is impressive is the sheer
variety of "racial packages" available to characters - especially
considering that Transhuman Space is a "hard" SF setting with no aliens. These templates fall roughly into the following categories:
"Normal" humans: These include humans with no genetic
modification at all (increasingly a rarity in most nations except among
the elderly - and now often victims of discrimination), "genefixed"
humans (humans whose genes were screened against hereditary diseases -
and any such hereditary flaws were fixed before birth), and Floaters, humans who grew up in microgravity, but who don't have genetic modifications to cope with the medical problems.
Genetic Upgrades: Humans whose genes were changed to
emphasise certain traits, like improved health, longer lives, or even
slightly enhanced intelligence.
Parahumans: These "human variants" include genes that are
not normally found within the human genome. As a result, more radical
changes are possible than with "mere" upgrades, but the resulting
"parahumans" are in effect distinct species and not interfertile with
"normal humans". Variants are frequently adapted to normally hostile
environments, like underwater, microgravity, or the still thin
atmosphere of Mars.
Bioroids: These (usually) humanoid beings are created
entirely through an artificial process known as "biogenesis", and
emerge from their tanks with fully adult bodies. They are educated
through highly advanced virtual reality training programs, which allows
a company or government to have a fully trained worker (for the
military, manual labour... or the sex industry) that is optimized for
its job in just three years. What's more, that worker has been
conditioned to fully enjoy its job and is unlikely to complain over job
conditions that would make any normal human balk. The creation of
bioroids is controversial, to say the least, and their legal status
varies widely from indentured service to outright slavery, while other
nations (most notably the European Union) forbid their manufacture and
automatically grant asylum to all bioroids that reach their territory.
Artificial Intelligences: Yes, playing a sapient piece of software is a viable choice for player characters in Transhuman Space.
And they don't have to be bound to a single computer mainframe, either
- most AIs are small enough (in terms of relative processing power) to
fit into the core computer of one of the many robot bodies, or
"cybershells", that are also found in this chapter. These can provide
vital support for any party, instead of just being doomed to playing
"matrix overwatch" like many hackers in cyberpunk games...
Ghosts and Shadows: Like in Classic Traveller, you can die during character creation in Transhuman Space. Unlike in Classic Traveller
this doesn't stop you from actually playing that character... Thanks to
modern technologies it is possible to "peel" a brain, scan its
contents, and use the data to construct a personality simulation - a
"ghost" - that is indistinguishable from the original - except that it
is now a computer program instead of a living brain... For those who
don't want to die to become a computer program, there are always
"shadows", low-res variants that leave the original brain intact, but
that are rather incomplete when compared to the original.
All this allows a staggering variety of characters that can co-exist in
a single party of adventures without straining believability. And given
these examples it isn't different for the GM to create new variants of
existing Ugrades, Parahumans, Bioroids and so on for his own campaign.
The world of 2100 is an even more diverse place than in our own time,
and there is no reason why the PCs shouldn't reflect this.
Chapter 5: Technology
This chapter covers a variety of tools and equipment likely
of interest to the PCs, from an overview of computers and software
(vital in an era when everyone who doesn't civilization altogether
either wears a computer on his body or has one implanted in his head),
consumer goods ("Alibanana
- The new biofruit from Biotech Euphrates, combining two great tastes:
alligator and banana. Peel off the scaly hide and bite down for
scrumptious goodness! Serve with milk."), communications and
information equipment, implants, tools, survival gear, medical
equipment (including biomod transplants - fancy a liver upgrade to cope
with all those drunken binges?), do-it-yourself nanodrugs,
nanosymbionts (tiny machines that live in your body and make it perform
better - or worse), a cyberswarm construction kit(much of the physical
work that doesn't require brute force is done by swarms of insect-sized
robots. Of course, these can be used for all kinds of purposes)... and, of course, the inevitable weapons and armor.
This is a long and exhaustive chapter, and most gearheads will be
satisfied with it for a long time before compelled to seek out
additional sources (like GURPS Ultratech 1 & 2
Rounding the book off are three appendices. The first one details the
spacecraft design system, using a streamlined version of the system
from GURPS Vehicles. Spacecraft in Transhuman Space
are subject to real-world physics, so expect to do some
number-crunching if you want to get much use out of this chapter. If
not, you can always use the sample spacecraft (and other vehicles)
found in the next appendix. And if you want to blow these spacegraft up
you can use the space combat system in the last appendix.
After this, there are two pages of jargon and slang terms,
abbreviations used in the book, and the ever-popular biography that is
always a favorite with GURPS fans. A lengthy two-page index helps you
finding information on all the topics mentioned in the book.
This book is full of information. I could go on and on about
various things described in it - the Martian Orbital Elevator, the
"Junk Jungle" of the L5 point, the various political factions fighting
each other, various strange yet plausible technologies... but I would
be barely scratching the surface. There are so many ideas in this book
that almost everyone can find something. It also lends itself to all
kinds of adventures and campaign styles. On one hand, the world of Transhuman Space seems to be fairly optimistic - people are healthier, longer-lived,
wealthier and often happier than people today. On the other hand, many
of the technologies that exist - and their applications - are genuinely
disturbing. In other wordsthe setting can be as dark or as bright as
you want to portray it.
So, should you buy this book? That depends.
If you want a near-to-medium future "hard" SF setting that asks lots of interesting philosophical questions - without getting preachy - you will want to buy this book.
If you want to get lots of ideas for your own SF setting (or even a
fantasy setting with "sufficiently advanced magic"), you will want to
buy this book.
Finally, if you wonder sometimes just where life on this planet might
be heading, you will want to take a look at this book. If nothing else,
it will give you plenty of things to ponder about...
(This review was previously published on rpg.net)
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