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My system of choice for this is GURPS, for a variety of reasons, and the more I reread it, the more I think it’s a good choice. Of other game systems, there’s D20 Modern, which has the benefit of having the bugs well-known, Spycraft (which is more complex than most D20 games and which is more focused on true adventuring types), and one I’d forgotten, Basic Role Playing from Chaosium, which is the core system of Call of Cthulhu.
PCs, obviously, are the Fringeworthy. Drawn from all walks of life, their initial commonality is only that they can use the portals. In GURPS terms, I’d put starting characters at, first, 100 points; this would make a “skilled normal”, the equivalent of a cop, a trained soldier, or a well-educated researcher. Before the game would actually begin, an additional package of points (50) would be awarded to represent special skills and training acquired while learning to use the portals and discovering what lies beyond, a lot like the White Wolf process. I’m looking at a total disadvantage allowance of 40-50 points, divided as needed between the two steps of the build process. This lets you create characters who are plausible “people” in the modern world, and still let them pick up a lot of “adventuring” skills and abilities they might not otherwise have logically had.
Some system-specific mechanical notes are being assembled over on More Character Guidelines.
Motivation and Personality
Regardless of system, for PCs, I would want characters who have a strong reason or motivation to explore, even at some risk to life and limb. I do not necessarily want perfect angels, but I would like characters who would be trusted to be placed in teams where team members would have to rely on each other for survival. IDET (The UN team overseeing the operation) is desperate for warm bodies, but there are plenty of jobs they can offer people which don’t involve exploring new worlds, and that’s what the game will focus on. I expect there will be plenty of moral and ethical dilemmas that will lead to dramatic conflict even among PCs who are basically cooperative.
Some motivations might be curiosity, a desire for adventure, a commitment to helping people (many of the worlds are in dire straits), greed (there’s a pretty big paycheck for those who stick with the program long enough), or duty (members of the active military found to be Fringeworthy are in particularly high demand). Doctors could be interested in testing their skills in alien environments, discovering medical technologies unimagined on Earth, or curing plagues that have wiped out entire continents. Similar motivations could drive any other professional. Historians can see cultures long vanished on Earth either in their original glory, or in strange variations.
Because the campaign focuses on teams pulled from a large pool of possible candidates, swapping in and out characters becomes much easier; there are can also be well-established relationships between new and old PCs, since they will be training together, sharing stories, etc,. Retroactive backstories to connect characters become easier to justify. (Further, GURPS can be pretty lethal, and there’s no known resurrection technology at this point in the campaign.)
I see the campaign as being a mix of 50% “realistic” alternate histories of various sorts, and 50% “strange” worlds, including bizarre alternate Earths, pocket dimensions, and so on. The aliens who build the fringepaths left behind unknown technologies, custom-built universes, and more, few of which have been explored. Almost everything that is currently “known” about the fringepaths is based on a very small data set and consists of a lot of extrapolation; the PCs will be making major discoveries and changing the known “rules” of the universe.
One of these may be the biggest riddle of them all — what happened to the builders? There is evidence they were in a war with something across the dimensions; entire worlds devoted to armaments have been found, hastily built — there’s reason to believe the builders were originally pacifistic and scholarly, and took to war late and poorly, against an incredible foe. But, so far, there’s no sign of this enemy, and it’s almost certain it was not a civil war within the builder’s own race. The discovery of the enemy will be a background story arc through the campaign, or so I hope.
Depending on player preferences and choices, there might be a “world a day” structure with no particular location getting a lot of detailed development, or multiple adventures set on a smaller set of worlds, with a few sidetrips.
Other Background Bits
These are some of the other “rules” of the setting as I currently see it; they may change. One of the themes, as noted, is that while the PCs aren’t the first team sent in, it’s still very early in exploration and policies are being made on an ad-hoc basis. There’s going to be a lot of things “the Book” doesn’t cover and the actions the PCs take in response to different scenarios may set precedent to be followed — or serve as a “Why we DON’T do this” warning.
- Maintain cover, if at all possible. First, there’s worlds out there we don’t want discovering gateways to all realities — yes, there’s one where the Nazis won, and others just as bad. Second, at least one team lost three members due to the locals not believing that there was some factor that kept them from using the portal, torturing captives until they gave up “the secret”. (No one who tested the portal on that world was fringeworthy; it was unknown if anyone on that world was.) It is policy that giving up the secret is preferable to torture or death… at the team’s discretion. If this seems to be the case, try to get the locals to cooperate with IDET and share intel.
- Humanitarian and anonymous aid only: US and Russian divisions within IDET came close to destroying any hope of cooperation when the world tagged as Red Dawn by the first explorers was found; in this world, a powerful Stalinist USSR had conquered the US in the early 1950s, and the year was currently 1966. Americans wanted to provide 21st century weapons and gear to the underground; the Russians, of course, disapproved, and threatened to provide equally powerful equipment to the American People’s Congress if anyone tried. Eventually, a policy allowing for “humanitarian infiltration” to provide food and “timeline appropriate” medical gear to various worlds or factions was approved, but there’s a lot of tension about what teams do when they’re off the grid and suspected moles in teams from any number of intelligence agencies. (This is a viable character concept, but my noting this should not be considered a sign I want/expect/need someone to do this.)
- The other stations: Most worlds have only one portal; Some have up to 8. The Earth of the campaign is one such. Three of the eight are inoperable. Of the five remaining, one is the Antarctic base. One is buried under the Sea of Japan and attempts are being made to reach it. One is deep in Mongolia, and it is known the Chinese are running their own teams through it; they are occasionally seen on the pathways, though there have been no violent altercations yet. Another is in Nicaragua, and it is believed to be capable of activation, though the portal is being blocked. The final base is half-buried in the Australian Outback; a team is working to surreptitiously connect the portal area to the surface and begin using it for additional operations.
- Advanced or alien technology is turned over for study. Any team which brings back “exploitable” technology is entitled to 1% (divided among the team) of any profits earned from commercial development, for their lives or, of if they die in the line of duty, for the next eighty years to any family member or charity they see fit. It will be many years before any of the technology found makes it to commercial development, but some people will be very rich when it happens.
- We can’t solve everything. It became apparent early on that many of the worlds encountered had serious problems. Commies, Nazis, plagues of all sorts, slavery, failed technology, global warming, global freezing… since Earth itself cannot address its own starving and displaced masses, it can’t bear the burden of those of dozens of other worlds. Quite a few explorers have put their “potential earnings” towards planned charities or relief efforts for worlds they’d formed a particular attachment to. Some, overwhelmed by the constant stream of misery that could not be addressed, have had emotional breakdowns; others have become dangerously cold-hearted when confronted with one more disaster-ridden world. (It is also hoped by some that, in the future, access to the vast resources of the Fringe will first solve Earth’s problems and then be used for those of other worlds; the more cynical note that most of Earth’s problems are not caused by insufficient resources but by how those resources are distributed, and that it’s primarily the United States, Russia, and China who will end up dividing the interdimensional pie among themselves, and the same power blocs who now control one world will control a thousand.)
- There are no universal translators. Language skills are highly valued, as is a facility for learning languages quickly.
- Worlds are bigger than the portal: Generally, it’s not enough to just poke your head in, walk around a few feet, and walk back. A portal to an “empty” world might be in a national forest or other area dozens or hundreds of miles from a city of millions. At the same time, resources are scarce and automated probes are difficult to place and maintain. Quite a few worlds have been added to what some are calling “cold case” files; worlds that appear to be of little scientific or economic interest based on the preliminary surveys, but which should be re-examined once resources permit.
- Portals are weird. Most portals are on/off. You go in, you come back. Many, though, are not. Some are on cycles — opening only once every ten days. Others are always open from the fringepaths, but return only once a month. Some won’t pass iron (except within the bloodstream). One wouldn’t let anyone under 20 or over 45 through, though the world on the other side showed no age-related oddities in the population. Some dump you twenty feet in the air. None, so far, have caused people to materialize in solid rock — though some will open to deadly environments. (Fortunately, there’s a mechanism that provides warning about those.. a mechanism decoded the hard way.) No one is sure if the portals are working as designed from the perspective of the aliens who built them, or if the system is slowly breaking down.
- The builders, based on artifacts found in the base and elsewhere, somewhat resembled four-armed humanoid otter-bears. Based on the best guesses of translations of a few surviving sound recordings, they called themselves “Tehremelhern”. No alternate worlds with beings of this species have been found.
- There are alternate worlds with non-humans of various sorts, from sentient dinosaurs to sentient spiders. Contact and exploration of these worlds is handled very carefully.
- There are other worlds exploring the paths. Relatively peaceful contact and limited cooperation has been established with one such world, from a reality where America never revolted and the British Empire is quite strong as of their present date of 1919. There have been some relatively minor incidents of cultural conflict, as they have very firm ideas about the proper role of women, ethnic minorities, and anyone without the proper breeding. (They would consider the Victorians of our Earth to be a bunch of radical leftists…their Rudyard Kipling was, in fact, an infamous anarchist and a good example of the risks of ‘going native’). There’s evidence of several other worlds exploring the paths, but direct contact has yet to be established. Protocol is “Try to be peaceful, but we’d rather apologize to them over an unfortunate misunderstanding than to your families over your needless deaths.”
- Team members are expected to conduct themselves according to the UN Charter and Universal Bill Of Human Rights, whenever reasonably possible. The exact meaning of those last three words are endlessly debated in after-mission reports. Torture of prisoners, killing innocent people, and similar atrocities are to be avoided under almost all circumstances. It quickly became obvious that theft of clothing and money, and sometimes food, was often required to begin any kind of infiltration and exploration, but it should be minimized and done without violence, or at least not lethal violence. Also, no setting yourselves up as gods, and no religious or political proselytizing. (Of course, no one knows what happened on the other side except what team members report… however, other teams follow up in time and might learn things.)
- Two-Team Limit: If a team fails to return at a scheduled time, a second team will be organized to rescue them. If that team fails… no third team will be formed, and the portal will be marked as dangerous. It will be monitored, though, just in case someone comes back. There’s a hope that when the program is better established and there’s more bodies to spare, rescue efforts can be made, but, right now, IDET doesn’t have the people to spare when they don’t know what’s on the other side.
- No worlds have yet been found with phenomenon such as magic, super-powers, or faster-than-light space travel. There’s strong reasons to believe such things do exist, somewhere. One thing which has been established is that “psionic” powers do exist and can be verified; the fringe portals seem to activate latent abilities in that regard. The full scope and potential of these powers has yet to be established. One world which has been discovered is currently in a state of “psychic cold war” between global powers in their year 1979.
- No world has been found where the local date is later than the current date on Earth (late 2011). About 75% of the alternate worlds are time-synced as well; the other 25% are at a “current year” anywhere from 4000 BC to 2010 AD (though often with very different numbering schemes; astronomical observations or global events are used to find the current year.). No explanation for this is known, and many feel it’s only a matter of time before they find a “future” world.
Additional Character Stuff
Since it seems there’s at least a willingness to try my campaign proposal, here is some more information you may find useful when considering character concepts and rules.
The GURPS rules can look overwhelming, but, in actual play, they’re generally simpler than 3.5/4e, especially since I won’t be using the most detailed combat options (we’ll be going without hit location, except for called shots, and we won’t be worried about crippling injuries, blow-through, and other realistic but time-consuming details).
One of the nifty ideas from Fringeworthy was the concept that the pool of interdimensional explorers is pretty random; a PC can come from any background and not be an “adventuring type”. The needs of cohesive play and game balance mandate that I play with this a little bit; it’s not 1982 and we don’t want to have hugely-varying competence levels in a party where you just take what you rolled.
The reason I went with a “build a 100 point character, then add 50 points” model is to let players make sensible, well-rounded, and coherent characters who aren’t built as “adventurers” (though certainly that’s an option), and then let them add on whatever skills or options they might decide to learn once they realized the new possibilities open to them. This lets you avoid having to hammer in a background reason why your character can shoot a gun, ride a horse, or do other things which you know, as a player, will be useful, but which might not fit the concept you had in mind, and likewise avoid the “Well, sure, my character doesn’t have any helpful skills in most situations, because it wouldn’t have been realistic for someone of his background to learn them!” problem. I would strongly recommend that every character put at least 5-10 points into combat skills — this is enough to be able to use a gun, a knife, and your fists without penalties, though not especially well.
It’s also something of a roleplaying tool. If your character is basically told, "We are literally trying to prepare you for anything, including things we can’t imagine. We can train you in everything from martial arts to traditional Chinese poetry1. What do you want to learn?", what would they choose? Would they expand and refine their existing skills or pursue goals they were forced to abandon? (To be clear, you can spend the 50 bonus points on anything permitted, including attributes and advantages, if it’s reasonable you’d pick them up as a consequence of training.)
I’m anticipating the PCs being primarily a “first in” team: Groundbreakers and explorers, sometimes literally the very first through a portal, other times being the first team to do more than a very brief survey of approximate culture, technology, etc. This means you should have appropriate traits to be assigned such a role, which is not particularly limiting. Mostly, it limits disadvantages that would disqualify you. These include psychological/mental issues which would make it difficult or impossible to deal with unknown societies or face lethal threats, and physical issues which are extremely limiting (One Eye is acceptable; Blind is not. Shyness above the -5 point level is probably not acceptable. Etc. I trust in your common sense to figure out what’s logically going to be acceptable. ) Note that there’s a bit of a grey area here, especially since IDET simply doesn’t have all the warm bodies it needs and will sometimes be forced to “make do”. Having a high self-control roll for some disads could model either the ability to not let anyone know you have the disadvantage in question, or have it so controlled people are convinced you “can handle it”. From a gameplay perspective, I’d also prefer to avoid overloading on disadvantages likely to cause excessive in-character arguments, such as sadistic or bully, though I don’t want to ban them outright.
Because the PCs will spend relatively little time on Core Earth or interacting with the world, think carefully about disadvantages like Dependents, Enemy, and so on, and advantages like Ally Group, Patron, etc. Because of the huge range of possible cultures and societies you’ll be interacting with, things like Rank, Social Status, Social Stigma, and other highly culturally dependent attributes cost 1/5th the normal points (or give 1/5th if they’re disads). This doesn’t include general personality traits, appearance, or things that are considered problematic in almost all societies. (Virtually all human societies have taboos against incest or cannibalism, barring, in both cases, narrowly defined exceptions (Pharoahs, religious rituals), for example.)) If you’re unsure if a trait is considered highly culturally biased or should be considered “effectively” universal (nothing is absolutely universal), ask me. Because there will be elements of the game (mostly involving ongoing plotlines that will run as background threads between more episodic adventures) that will take place on Core Earth and benefit from social status, wealth, connections, etc, I humbly ask players not go TOO hog wild in buying social advantages because “they’re so cheap!”.
IDET is de-facto patron and employer (no point cost), and characters are assumed to have a reasonable (no point value) sense of duty to it, for whatever background reason you choose (and I agree with). Duty “above and beyond” is worth points.
At the start of the campaign, as noted earlier, the existence of alternate worlds is a rapidly-leaking secret. The operations have gone on too long and involved too many people for there not to be active rumors; everyone just told “this one guy I really trusted”. Everyone on the Congressional Committee On The Development Of Unique Foreign Resources, for example, has at least one pal in business or lobbying who they “confided in”. Highly-placed spies in various intelligence agencies have spread the word. Etc. IDET plans a formal announcement roughly a year from now, and is laying groundwork to help deal with the fallout.
The biggest wrench in everyone’s gears is the nature of the Fringeworthy. You can’t just enlist your best or most trusted personnel; you have to get lucky. At the 1-in-100,000 rule, there’s maybe one person each in the FBI or CIA who might qualify, and he’s as likely to be a cryptographic analyst, or a maintenance worker, as a trained field agent. The military has the best luck in finding people, since they’ve been running all sorts of “inspections” and “mass inoculations” and other excuses to run soldiers past scanning devices unaware, but there’s still the basic problem of having to work with what you’ve got.
I’m mentioning this because characters might want to come from some large organization (government, corporate, religious) which has a few higher-ups in on the secret and which wants to position itself for when the “reveal” comes, gathering information and otherwise using these rare assets. This may or may not be secret, and your agenda may be relatively benign even if it is secret. (Agents of intelligence services, of course, rarely admit to being that, though there’s often levels of deception — the guy who claims he was just a codebreaker for the NSA might well have been something more… or not.) This kind of background provides a good reason to have patrons and/or enemies, though I’d want to work out the details with any player interested in this, as these are world-elements that would need to be codified.
Another thing to consider in terms of character concepts is that 100 points doesn’t make you superhuman, but it does make you noticeably above average in many ways. (A typical adult is built on 25 base points; a “beginning adventurer” is built on 150 points, which is where you’ll end up when gameplay begins.) This can reflect a lot of skills and training, natural aptitude, advantages, or any mix. Characters who are supposed to be younger or inexperienced should obviously put most of their points into innate aspects, those who are more experienced can stock up on skills, but there’s no absolute ratio or mandated mix. Again, the goal is to make someone who is a reasonably believable person at the 100 point level, however this is divided up. I would like characters to have no more than 40 points in disadvantages and 5 quirks.
Some motivations that could work, and of course characters can have more than one in varying degrees:
- Competitive: This is a chance to do things no one else has done, and to test yourself against challenges few others have ever faced. Shoot a tyrannosaur. Outride Attila The Hun.
- Social Studies: It’s hard to prove theories with a sample set of “one”. Alternate worlds and non-human intelligences offer the chance to prove or disprove long-held theories.
- Historian: While the fringepaths aren’t quite time travel, they do lead to some worlds very similar to Earth at different points in time. Another option is a character with a conspiratorial or non-standard view of history, looking to find proof on another world that Earth’s own alleged past isn’t what they say. This can include religious and anti-religious people: If God is universal, how different can his teachings be from world to world?
- Occultist: Just because magic doesn’t seem to work on Earth doesn’t mean it might not work somewhere else, and there are worlds where occult or esoteric philosophies, valid or not, have been much more studied than on Earth.
- Compassion: While it’s a sad truth that the resources barely exist to explore alternate worlds, much less provide massive assistance, there are still people to be helped who no one else can reach, and when the fringepaths open up to more robust exploration, it will be good to know what priorities to set.
- Greed: I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a lot of ways to spin it. When everyone is clamoring for access to the worlds of the fringes, someone’s going to need to offer an “expert opinion” for a hefty fee, and serve as a guide to newcomers. Every contact you make or world you chart is a potential piece of knowledge to sell later.
- Defense: Something exterminated the race that built the fringes… or drove them into total hiding, so that no sign of a living one has been found. Even beyond that, there’s other Earths out there on the Fringes, and maybe they can get more people onto the paths, or establish colonies or base stations hidden on nearby alternate worlds. Someone has to catalog all the potential threats, and look for ways to deal with them.
- Offense: Similar to Competitive, but more direct. You want to kick ass. There’s an infinity of ass to kick, and usually a good enough reason for doing so that you won’t get in too much trouble back on Core Earth, if you make it back.
- Personal: Somewhere there’s a world where your spouse/child/parent didn’t die, or where you became the millionaire you always deserved to be, or where you can kill Hitler. Again. This is a good secondary motivation, but making is a sole motivation is problematic, because you end up with, “Well, it’s obvious my parents never existed on this world, so I can’t meet the twin brother who died when we were born. I’m bored now. Can we go back?” Likewise, any particular quest for knowledge, answers, discoveries, etc, should be relatively broad, not easily answered once you find the right world (unless you then want to swap to an alt or have some other motivation evolved).
- Outsider: This is somewhere between a motivation and an archetype. The UN Permanent Security Council, consisting of the US, China, France, the UK, and the Russian Federation, controls all primary access to Carpenter Station. Simply on population alone, the “Big Three” dominate exploration, with France and the UK playing somewhat disgruntled second fiddle to the US. However, Fringeworthy can come from all backgrounds, and citizens of many nations have been recruited by one or another of the Security Council. Most of these are expatriates living in one of the five nations, sometimes for years, but a few are students, “guest workers”, illegal immigrants, or even tourists who happened to get noticed at the right time.
There’s a few questions no one knows the answer to yet, and probably a lot more no one’s even realized are questions.
- What happened to the builders, and can it happen to US?
- How did they conduct their business? There’s ample evidence that the fringes were used for massive trade and industry, a civilization that may have spanned thousands of worlds… but the gates are not suitable for mass transit, and there’s no sign of the kind of transportation infrastructure you’d need. Many speculate the fringes were a “back door” of sorts, a secondary system… but where, or what, is the primary one?
- Did the builders somehow pick and choose the worlds on the paths, or did they just create a system that followed some kind of natural structure to reality?
1 Platform -1, -1, 5, holds an expanding Confucianist Chinese Empire that has effectively conquered plague-ravaged Western Europe, local year approximately 1561. Impressing a local noble with artistic skills proved invaluable.