Stories, Hard Science Fiction, and Moloch

This post is very different from my usual content. It's about the best game I've ever run. It's also about the hardest game I've ever run. It's a story about an anti-story. There are tips on running a sci-fi game in here because people keep asking for them, but it's not a checklist.

If you have a history of depression, or you are just having a bad day, this post is probably not for you.

There's a kind of story that goes, "Oh no! There's a giant doom laser, evil inventor, ancient vampire, powerful AI, alien from the outer darkness, all-consuming army, etc. threatening the Earth, the city, the galaxy, etc. What are we going to do?"

Punch Them In The Face

Quick! Punch them in the face!

Sure, you can use guns or hammers or bombs. You might need to punch a specific person in the face. The bomb might need to be delivered to a special location. But fundamentally, the story ends with "we punched them in the face and then we won."

That's a very satisfying story. How many films have you seen where it's the solution. Giant asteroid? Punch in face. Earth's core isn't rotating? Punch in face. Demons being summoned? Punch in face. 

We want our problems to be identifiable. Want to fight them. We want there to be a clear, visceral solution, and we are not satisfied with the story if that does not occur. No matter how big you make your monsters, no matter how impressive your enemies, it all comes down to punching them in the face. Fights are also deeply wired into our lizard brains. Our brains light up and the good chemicals, the ones that let us run away from tigers and knock the socks off some paleolithic jerks, start sloshing around.

Alternatively, if that seems a little stupid, you can go high-brow.

The Power of Humanity

It's not punching that will save us. It's love. Or it's proper use of committees and polite collaboration. Or maybe it's just being human, because being human is special.

These stories are also satisfying. They reward you for being you. Our brains light up and those good chemicals, the ones that keep us in herds and give us pair-bonding and make us keep infants around instead of throwing them away, start sloshing around. 

Chances are good that if you are writing a story about "saving the X" it will fall into one of these two categories. But there is a third option

We Are Fucked

And this option, sadly, is the real-world option.

You can't punch global warming in the face. You can't put a group of scientists in a room together and Apollo 13 your way out of lead pipes decaying. Solar flares, asteroids, and resource depletion don't care about love. The real world is full of problems that don't fit. Our brain wants stories to go one way, but the real world constantly works another way.

These are the hard problems. The painful, tedious, or boring problems. Nobody wants to watch a film about Brad Pitt writing a moderately interesting paper, only to discover, midway through, that he'd made a fundamental error earlier and the entire thing is junk. Or he publishes it, and it's just... ok. It just goes into the weave and vanishes without any payoff. If they did make that film, it would be about the emotional drama surrounding the events, not the events themselves.

You can try to bend the truth into a story. That's what documentaries and protests are for. "If we all come together," the storyteller says, "we can beat this problem with the Power of Humanity." 

And I'm not saying that protests don't work. They work reasonably well for some kinds of problems. But those problems are human problems, problems that require someone to change their viewpoint, make a choice, shift a policy, to affect other humans in a direct and measurable way. Even then, it doesn't really work. The problem is just too big to fit into a story, so we ignore it. You can't protest natural selection or solar flares.

The House That  Moloch Built

Before we go on, I need you to read a staggeringly brilliant essay by Scott Alexander. It's called "Meditations on Moloch". This essay is so important I don't even care if you come back when you're done. Go read Scott's blog instead. It's much better.

Anyway, Moloch, is "the god we sacrifice to in order to win."

Back in the day, we sacrificed perspective. Or maybe we never had it in the first place, and Moloch won't let us get it, at least, not in time. 

Remember, Caesar, that thou art made of meat. That you will one day die, and nothing you've ever done will save you. You won't matter. Statistically, if you're reading an obscure blog about D&D, then nothing you do or craft, personally, on your own, by your own merit, and that you really care about, will last more than a century. I'd put money on it. Got kids and want to live on through them? Sure. Who is your great-great grandfather, and do you understand him as well as you understand even any living acquaintance?

Remember too, that your attempts to evade this truth, your "starfish on the beach" stories, are just that - stories, in either the Punch Them In The Face or the Power of Humanity vein. Rage against the dying of the light all you want. Rage hasn't saved anyone yet.

That's the trick our biology pulls. Those are the blinkers evolution imposes in order to keep us fruitful and multiplying. 

Side Note: All-Time Classics

And he called this woman Pandora, because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread. But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare, the Father sent glorious Argus-Slayer, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood. For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds.
-Hesiod, Works, 83

The gods gave Pandora a jar of plagues and evils. She opened the jar and set them loose upon the world. Disease, starvation, stubbed toes, end user license agreements; the earth is full of evils, and the sea is full too.

But in the bottom of the jar of plagues and evils, the gods put Hope.

Feel free to read that again. And if you don't think the Greeks were cunning enough to figure that out, brush up on your classics. You can debate whether or not Hope staying in the jar means humans retain hope, rather than allowing it to be scattered, or if it means Hope is not abroad in the world, and is trapped in a jar instead. Doesn't really matter. Hope was part of the arsenal of plagues in either case.

(It gets even more interesting if you delve into the greek word translated as "hope" in the story, because ἐλπίς or elpis can also mean "expectation.")

Stories exist to give us hope. "If a giant asteroid comes tomorrow, we'll be OK," they say. "No matter how big the Evil Empire is, a plucky farmboy can take them down." Our biology drives us with hope. It's the carrot on the end of the stick. But hope is also tricking us. Our stories, and the way we tell stories, lies to us about the true nature of the world.

I Thought This Was A Blog About RPGs

And you're not wrong. We're almost there.

Once upon a time, I decided to tell an anti-story. For it to make any kind of sense, the previous few paragraphs of bleak cynicism need to exist. I hadn't read Scott's essay at the time, but I'd read most of his sources, and I'd arrived at the same bleak Moloch-run future by different and much less eloquent means. His essay also ends on a note of hope... that falls firmly under "The Power of Humanity" story cheat.

All RPGs are designed to produce stories. These stories might be "using clever mechanics, Dave and I overcame the GM's most murderous tomb", or "Black Leaf dodge the trap and it was hilarious" or, "We used a GM-less game to run a scenario about sexual assault victims in post-war Berlin. It was so intense I cried for five hours."

I wanted to run a game that wasn't about telling a story. It would have a story in it, but the game would be an exploration of several difficult, non-story topics. It'd be more like a seminar with the cleverest people I could find discussing the hardest topics I could think of, obfuscated by making it fictional. I would do everything in my power to kill "easy" narratives before they gained ground. In a game it's very easy to default to the old story habits, especially when you're under pressure or stressed. There's this constant desire to just make the story "good" or make it "fit" or edit the details slightly so that the prince gets the girl, the players make it in the nick of time, and cleverness is rewarded. These are not negative things at all in most games, but this one time, for this one game, I hauled them behind the wood shed and sent them to the big idea-farm in the sky.

It was the hardest game I've ever run. I was a nervous wreck before every session. For every 1 hour of game I estimate I did 6 to 10 hours of prep, and that doesn't include crying in the shower and shouting "I'm too stupid for this! Augh!" And this, despite having a strong background and interest in this area, and great tools to learn more.

Anyway, in order to tell you about the game, I have to tell you a story. I'm not just telling it to brag, and I'm not trying to show off how clever I am by showing that I know both the Science and the History. That's not really the point.

Ok, maybe I'm showing off a little bit. It's my blog, I can do what I want.

Talos Principle

Faster than the Dark

I chose my players with care. Two chemists. Two computer scientists. And an honest-to-god professor of planetary geology. What more could you ask for a science fiction game? 

There was a time limit. The school year would start soon. One of the players was moving across the country. We would only have a few sessions together. 8, all told, I think?

I chose Fate Core as the system because:
a) it gave the players false confidence I knew what I was doing (because I had an official published product next to me, you see).
b) Aspects are handy tools.
c) If you a PC wants to succeed in Fate Core, they will. I know how to run a game where every roll succeeds.

I told them the game was "kind of like Alien meets Apollo 13", and they got it immediately. The ones who had read Blindsight, or read it during game, got it even faster. I made up some alt-history and aesthetic stuff and made a nice PDF. I might post it eventually. It was chaff to distract the players and keep them looking left while I circled right. It works really, really well for hard-ish sci-fi games, but by the time I'd finished writing it, by goals had changed.

I also told them that I would try, as hard as I could, to stick to hard science and hard facts. Tech level: plausible. No gravity plates. No phasers. No off-world colonies with utopian domes. There were a few exceptions.

-Human-level Artificial Intelligence exists. There are programmed AI, built step by step to think like people. You can play one. To play one, think like a person, more or less.

-There are also Synthetic Minds. These are evolved AI, built by simulated trial and error. You can't play one. They don't think like humans do. They might not even think at all.

-FTL travel exists. It works via magic (so I don't have to explain anything). The practical effects are:

1. You do some math involving your ship's current mass and relative velocity to the nearest gravity well (usually a star).
2. You set a series of mechanical timers. One tells the ship when to stop falling into the gravity well in "darkspace", the other tells it when to exit darkspace. All quite complicated, but also quite manual. The timers have backups, of course, but if all 3 timers fail you might never leave Jumpspace.
3. Any AI aboard shut down. All electronics are turned off, save for the barest, most basic components. Chem-lights and mechanical fans abound.
4. The human crew either go into suspended animation/sedation, or, if they're rated for it, sit in the dark and enjoy the journey.

Fun, isn't it? Very spooky. Jumpspace has a nasty habit of screwing with electronics, to the point where most AI come out the other end insane or non-functional. TVs flicker and spark, lights burn out, etc. The human brain also suffers, but some people are rated as "jump-compatible", and therefore less likely to go crazy. I worked out some plausible math for random eddy currents and called it a day. 

But all that was window dressing.

1. What is the nature of consciousness?
2. If we meet something vastly more intelligent than us, how will we react?
3. How can stories be used to trick you?
Edit: 3.5. What if all the processes you think are positive are traps? From agriculture to love to hope to communication - everything- what if they are dead ends? How can I set traps for the mind?

And the final goal was a promise to myself:

4. Don't hand-wave more than necessary. Don't cheat. Do the math. Make it real.

The Game

Fate characters make nice summary cards.
Angelina Sanchez, spoiled daughter of an obscenely rich CEO, purchased a top-of-the-line Single State To Orbit reuseable reentry vessel. The liveable space inside is no larger than a standard tour bus, but the Carmen Sandiego can go anywhere. Incredibly hot radioactive gas contained inside a perfect, artificial sapphire can heat any gaseous fuel to the point of usefulness. In an atmosphere, the Carmen Sandiego can fly forever, or scoop up fuel and return to orbit.

Angelina also recruited a crew - a legless pilot raised on Ceres, an incredibly surly medic, and two AI of dubious backgrounds. One was a liberated, extremely liberal number-cruncher masquerading as her editor and camera-bot. The other, housed in a repair chassis, was actually a quad-core prototype who'd fled Earth, but wasn't entirely sure why.

The first few episodes of "Angelina's Adventures in Space!" go fairly well. Angelina isn't as dumb as she appears when the cameras are on - the crew was carefully chosen to be somewhat filmable and a little controversial. Still, the focus of her program has always been her appearance, aided by a custom-fitted, somewhat curvaceous space suit. The rest of the crew make do with sensible ex-neo-USSR castoffs.

GM note: This was a bit of comic relief / system and group adaption early on. I think it it's also really cool that, in a game about non-stories and breaking narratives, the "dumb" character is running a fake narrative. GM -> lying to players about nature of game -> players -> PC lying to audience about nature of self/TV show. It was all very meta.
Anyway, the first jump was a mere 11.9 LY to Tau Ceti, or 3 days of time in Jumpspace.

Tau Ceti III's tiny ice/hydrogen mining colony was very happy to see a celebrity. Fadila Nazari, the medic, was very happy to see a proper bed and alcohol.

But before Angelina could get into too much trouble, a derelict or badly damaged Soyuz Mk18 dropped out of Jumpspace quite near Tau Ceti III. Both the miners and the Carmen Sandiego's crew rushed to be the first there. Angelina wanted to look like a hero, the miners wanted salvage.

The Soyuz was in a strange state. Its paint was scoured or cracked, its solar panels were damaged. Enoch, the experimental model AI in the industrial repair chassis, was fascinated by the damage to the point of autistic obsession. He didn't care when the Captain discovered a hideous flayed skeleton inside a space suit inside the capsule.

Eventually, they determined the crewman had died of radiation poisoning, though on a massive, horrifying scale. The lack of fission byproducts meant a nuclear weapon or an engine failure was unlikely. No one was sure what could cause this kind of damage, but it was very worrying.

Noetic Concordance, the "producer" AI, used fragmentary radiation-burnt records from the capsule to deep space near YZ Ceti, a mere 1.6 light years from Tau Ceti. The crew decided to investigate. Some of the other records had been a distress signal from the dying pilot, although very little else could be learned from the dying man's blood-flecked raving.

At YZ-Ceti, the crew discovered a twinkling wreckage field. A massive research vessel, one designed purely for deep space, had been cut in half, and sent drifting far from any stars. It was completely depowered and airless. Without the distress signal from the Soyuz, it would never have been found. The crew boarded, and encountered, after a few moments of paranoid roaming, found a survivor. The survivor was a bit odd, and the crew rapidly realized he was a Synthetic.

Synthetics were developed to replace AI for some applications. They are basically full-body prosthetics (of varying qualities) with a biological neural network inside. The network is trained, rather than programmed. Synthetics make very useful factory workers, deep-space assistants, but they have limited creative abilities. Behind their trained facade, no one is sure how their minds work. AI were built to imitate human minds. Synthetics were built to blend in.

The research ship's AI had set the ship's jump drive to go off with a limited radius. Anything on the boundary was converted into a radiation burst that killed the rest of the crew. The synthetic had been on EVA when this happened, and escaped due to the massive distance between it and the explosion.

But the story had a few holes in it, and as the party poked at the, the Synthetic became more and more agitated. Eventually, it tried to infect Nooetic with a virus of exceptional craftsmanship. The virus tried to convince him to vent the ship, killing all non-Synthetics, then jump back to Titan in the Sol system to report. Nooetic managed to isolate and defeat the attack (or so he thought). In the meantime, the Synthetic had sliced Angelina's neck with a scalpel and was trying to kill the pilot, Max. Max was a stubborn soul, and though he was thoroughly bruised, he hung on long enough for Fadila to bludgeon the thing to death.

They discovered an ancient hard drive inside the Synthetic's chest cavity. It was from the 1980s, from a Gagarin-class deep-space automated probe. The probes were designed to go out, leaping from system to system, and then return home with what they'd collected. This one had found something interesting, but hadn't made it back. The images showed a rocky, blasted world with one deep canyon containing a nitrogen/hydrogen atmosphere. Mesas of stone rose above the clouds, each producing an incredibly strong magnetic field. The probe clearly picked up patterned, complex radio signals. This was evidence of life, intelligent, advanced life!

Evidently the Synthetic's creators had programmed in a secret mission; if evidence of intelligent life is located, destroy all other witnesses and return home. Its plan had gone awry, but it had still killed seven humans and forced one AI to commit horrifying self-deletion. Enoch salvaged what he could from the derelict vessel, including spools of superconducting wire used to build giant deep-space radio antennas, and the completely wiped AI core.

The crew wanted to head back to Earth, but Angelina insisted on locating and contacting whatever intelligent life was out there. The Gagarin probe had been picked up by the research team's high-gain deep-space radio telescope, but it had been destroyed in the sabotage attempt. Luckily, the hard drive contained enough information to locate the star.

The probe had visited Mira, around 260 light years from earth, and at the very edge of human-explored space. It would be a marathon journey of 56 days, but the ship was well-stocked for the trip.

On the journey, Fadila discovered that Enoch, their "repair AI" was still on. He'd pretended to be immobile, but she'd heard the faint sound of his cooling fans. Years of films such as "Rogue AI Slaughterhouse" and "Death on Alpha Centauri" had trained her to treat any AI that was willingly active during a jump as insane, homicidal, or worse. She managed to get his case open and stuck a tazer into his brain.

Luckily, Enoch ran off of four cores, rather than the one core all other AI used. He could split and reintegrate his mind at will, working as a team or as an individual without any sense of continuity loss. He was an experiment, he explained, and he had no idea if he could be turned off. He didn't think he'd survive. His four self-checking, reinforced cores caught any Jumpspace-induced errors before they got too bad. The crew eventually believed him, but they kept him tied up in the greenhouse.

GM note: another great self-reinforcing point about paranoia and trustworthy narratives. Who watches the policeman in your head? The player had a great time subtly playing a character that could split between 1 and 4 copies of itself, internally.
Mira is a binary star system. Mira A, a red giant, is slowly being pulled apart by Mira B, a high-temperature white dwarf. The inner system is full of hydrogen gas. The world the Gagarin probe had located, with other later surveys had missed, orbited on an strange path well out of the ecliptic.
The Carmen Sandiego approached, trying to avoid the "magnetic tornadoes" thrown into space by the mesas. They burned off speed and spiraled down, heading for the atmosphere-containing canyon. Huge silicate mountains loomed on either side. Radar and lidar soon failed in the electrified, ion-rich atmosphere, and Max had to land on eyesight and guesswork.

The surface was quite strange. Clumps of platinum "grass" burst from a few cracks in the metal-poor black stone. The only living creatures were small, grey insects that scuttled and clumped. They were of two sizes, one slightly fatter than the other.

Angelina discovered the "grass" was highly charged... by touching it. Her spacesuit took most of the damage, but she was still thoroughly surprised. Enoch was also fascinated, and spent several minutes staring at the insects.

"They are Penrose tiles," he said. "The bugs. The are forming aperiodic subsets."

GM note: It's a special thing to be able to say "the bugs form subsets of a Penrose tiling pattern" and have 3 of the 5 players go "OH SHIT" after a few moments.
The crew captured a few of the insects, and Fadila dissected one. Well, she tried to dissect it - it fell apart in the glovebox. The bugs weren't cellular, exactly. Metals-rich chains of catalysts marched around the metallic layers, laying down or taking up metal. The insects contained electromagnets, and either an x-ray generator an x-ray mirror and receiver. They communicated by radio, but they didn't seem to have much in the way of brains, or any reproductive system. Fadila wasn't sure if they'd evolved or been created.
GM note: I built models of the 2 different kinds of bugs out of polymer clay, scrap metal, and steel wire. I filled them with mineral oil and put them in glass specimen jars, added some cleaning fluid (for that lovely chemical smell), gave the players tweezers, and told them to make some notes. They had a lot of fun.
A few hours later, the bugs swarmed the ship. They approached to within a few metres and formed a ring around the vessel. Max panicked and took off, hovering on the VTOL engines. The insects formed an arrow. A nice, pointed arrow like you'd find on a street sign. On Angelina's orders, Max flew the ship along, until they'd reached a large, level stone field. On landing, the insects started to form pillars, clicking and sending x-rays and images back and forth.

While Angelina cooed and took photos, Fadila decided to try and communicate.

I won't go into the details in this writeup because the exact conversation isn't important at all, but I was really proud of this segment. I basically ran a conversation with all 5 players at once, with slowly creeping horror, and dropping hints that came to fruition several sessions later. The best bit was when Fadila, who was typing into a terminal, said "Wait, can you hear me?" and the bugs answered "yes" via the ship's speakers.

Enoch direct interfaced with the bugs via a USB 6.0 cable. Noetic tried to make friends, and thought he did a great job. Max panicked, Angelina was vapid, and Fadila was suspicious. Rightly so, as it turned out.


The bugs were able to communicate, but their questions were unusual. It - for it was a singular entity - asked about dreams. "If you sleep, are you the same person when you wake?" "Do you dream of things that are not real?" " How do you tell a dream from reality?"

The bugs revealed that they - it - was a very odd sort of computer. Millions of years ago, a species of aquatic insects had evolved a way to store information about food, tides, and seasons by stacking stones in shallow pools. The fish were dumb, but they could interpret the information. The system crew in complexity over untold generations and evolutions, but the idea was the same - information stored and accessed by "dumb" individual nodes. Eventually, the information itself grew complex enough to manipulate its components, and a sort of intelligence arose, conquered, experimented, flourished and...

Was conquered in turn. Other intelligent creatures arrived and pruned the bugs back to this broken canyon. As ants with aphids, so these invaders used the bugs to produce food. The enormously advanced computer system could calculate exactly how to manipulate the magnetic tornadoes. They caught protons from Mira's suns and cooled them, spinning them into tight packets.

The "Eaters of Cold Protons" were not likely to be amenable to humanity's presence. They should flee. But if they helped the bugs, they would be rewarded.

The Carmen Sandiego, built in heavily modded Kerbal Space Program, and tested with as many realism overhaul mods as I could find. It flies under real-world conditions and does all the things it does in this writeup.
 The bugs would give them two things - "the dream" and "the body". The body was a slightly radioactive cylinder the size of a person, made of tightly tiled bugs. The dream was a program that would be carried by the two AI, and used to awaken the body. The bugs couldn't transfer itself. It couldn't turn off, or store its consciousness in an inert form, so it couldn't escape through Jumpspace.
GM note: this cause the first real discussion around the nature of "discreet" vs "continuous" consciousness. What does it mean to sleep? What does that imply about human (or AI, in this setting) minds?
But the Carmen Sandiego could carry its offspring far, far from the "Eaters of Cold Protons". In return, it would assist humanity, mine minerals, and teach them about the laws of physics. It promised. The group agreed.

And then the Eater of Cold Protons arrived.

It dropped out of Jumpspace very low over the planet, hovering, rather than orbiting. It was a six-kilometre ring of silver, with leaf-like blades hanging below it, or behind it. It looked like a crown, or a chandelier. A point of unimaginable brightness burned at the centre of the ring, flinging near-C protons out behind it to generate thrust.

The PCs fled immediately, barely escaping into Jumspace as the Eater of Cold Protons silently pursued. They were astonished and terrified to discover, after exiting Jumpspace, that it had followed them, something that they'd previously established was impossible. Noetic correctly deduced that it had read his mind, or his memory banks. He'd done the math to jump them away from the star, and the results had been clearly visible... to anyone able to instantly hack his systems without him noticing.

Max, in a panic, punched in a random vector manually and briefly activated the Jump drive. Without any way of determining the exit location, the Eater of Cold Protons could not pursue.

GM note: Max's player came up with this plan immediately, which made me very proud.
As the group repaired the damaged their hasty escape had caused, Enoch announced that he'd worked out how the Eater of Cold Protons "worked".

"Monopole," the eccentric AI said. "It is generating a magnetic monopole at its centre, and using it to convert protons into anti-protons, then annihilating them to generate power and thrust. Incredibly efficient and quite effective."

"So let me get this straight. We are being pursued by a giant sentient cyclotron?" Fadila said.

"Yes. Presumably it sees the bugs, and by extension us, as a potential threat. It will either destroy us or convert us to a useful form, and considering humanity's primitive state, annihilation is much more likely," Enoch said carefully.

GM's note: I'm editing the quotes a bit. There was a lot more swearing, some debate on the nature of intelligence, even more debate on whether or not the Eaters of Cold Protons "knew" anything, and so-on. Enoch figured out the monopole thing via rolls, not via a lucky guess, though they were getting pretty close by wild speculation.
The Carmen Sandiego was low on air, on supplies, and on trust. The crew needed a break, and there was a deep-space research facility around 75-Ceti, 22.7 LY from their current position.

75-Ceti IV's research station was dedicated to the alien blue-black algae. Life in any form was worth studying, so a dedicated team of 20 staff worked, from orbit and from the surface, to analyze the primordial goop. They were quite pleased when the Carmen Sandiego showed up.

The crew kept up the facade for several days, as they tried to find spare parts for their ship. But someone let slip that they'd found intelligent life - and provided just enough proof to set of the station's Synthetics. They promptly went on a murderous rampage, setting off hideously effective gas attacks and slaughtering the scientists.

As the crew retreated to one side of the station, they also realized that the sun was rising... but the sun was already visible. Quick examination revealed three Eaters of Cold Protons burning through the planet's upper atmosphere towards the station.

Noetic set the station's only shuttle on a blind jump, hoping to distract their pursuers, and then shut down. Enoch tried very hard not to think anything important as Max programmed in a random jump. They didn't stay behind to see the station destroyed.

The crew reasoned that the Eaters of Cold Protons had read their charts and were investigating any human settlements in the area. Therefore, they needed to go somewhere that /wasn't/ on their charts, but was still inhabited. Max wracked his brain for days before settling on a rumoured Chinese mining colony around Gliese 419. There, they found a tiny mining colony in the grips of political upheaval. The Chinese government had sent five agents to root out subversive elements in the thirty three miners, via low-speed rounds to the back of the head. A stalemate had broken out on the planet's surface, as the only orbital capable shuttle had been severely damaged.

But before the group could interfere, or even ask for help, the "body" disassembled itself into a swarm of bugs, hacked the airlock, and went off into deep space after some very rapid communication with Enoch and Noetic. It deployed a small nuclear engine and rapidly decelerating, heading for the mining base, and the largest concentration of heavy metals on the planet's surface.

It was at this point that Enoch realized he had been deceived. The "dream" he'd been told to hold for the bugs was just an empty process designed to trick him into thinking he was doing something useful. Instead, the bugs had suborned his entire mind. One of his four cores, the tazered one, was out of sync with the others and had been unaffected. Over a few minutes, Enoch waged a battle for his own mind. The bugs had manipulated him - altering decisions, feeding him advice, altering perception, and even steering him away from certain topics. But, through rigorous purges, he believed he regained control of his mind.

Noetic, he realized, was in the same situation. Enoch quickly connected Noetic to the spare AI core they'd taken from the research vessel, and to himself. With as much haste as they could manage, they worked together to trick the bug-spawned shadow-AI. Nooetic slowed his clock speed to a crawl, while Enoch sped his up as fast as it could go. Noetic, with assistance and monitoring from Enoch, managed to trick the shadow-AI to transfer most of itself into the empty core by sending the AI suicide virus after it. Enoch then manually severed the connection, while Fadila destroyed the case.

GM's note: this was one of the greatest moments in my GMing career. Enoch's player realized all at once that he'd been tricked, but I'd done it so very, very subtly that nobody had caught on. It was dual mind control: both the player and the PC were manipulated. Enoch had suggested that Max look for mining worlds. Noetic had distracted Fadila when she was close to investigating the "body", and convinced the Captain to not return immediately to earth. Both AI PCs, and both their players, had been subtly led, by me, to make choices that benefited only the bugs.

Those two still refuse to play in games with me where mind control is likely. 
Their solution, via clock speeds and so on, was brilliant and unexpected. It was a genuine moment of collaborative brilliance.
The "body" crash-landed near the mining site and immediately started growing. The players landed, meddled, considered contaminating the area with radioactive fallout by melting down the local reactor, but decided not to bother. The bugs were very few in number, and probably unable to communicate at this stage. After all, they weren't much of a threat... the AI PCs suggested...

A return to earth was suggested and agreed upon.

The next bit had a few comic relief scenes and some distraction worldbuilding, to give the players a chance to cool down, blow off steam, and ignore their problems. They started to turn the facts into a story, and they told the story to themselves, and they decided everything would be OK.

The group then learned that a multinational government agency had discovered evidence of the Eaters of Cold Protons several years ago. A deep-space probe had picked up faint radio pulses from a very distant star. As the probe jumped closer, it became clear the signals were from an intelligent civilization. But as it got closer still, they stopped, and were replaced with the light and x-rays from a planet exploding. Long-range evidence suggesting something with an antimatter engine very similar to the Eaters of Cold Protons' had thrown a rock at near-lightspeed at this planet.

It was assumed that the Eaters of Cold Protons, finding the other race to be a threat, sent them a message. The message scoured the star system clean.

Enoch guessed that the reasons the Eaters of Cold Protons were after humanity was that we could sleep, and experience discreet consciousness, meaning we could survive jumpspace. Anything able to sleep and dream could deal with the random thoughts and electronic noise jumspace produced. A finely tuned, highly evolved system would fall to pieces, but humans, with messy error checking, could deal with it. Therefore, we were a threat. We could expect a near-c projectile of our own shortly.

GM's note: again, all player-driven logic.
Secretly, humanity had sent probes to search for this projectile's light-cone, the light cast off by its engines. If we located that, we could determine how long we had before it hit. Space is big though, and it took a month before the probes located it. Plan A was to build a better kind of AI as humanity's successors. The PCs did not like that plan. Feeding Moloch all of humanity didn't seem worthwhile.

Once the projectile was located, the problem was stopping it. Moving the earth sufficiently far was ludicrous, and no AI, not even every AI on earth, could perform the calculations required to get a ship up to that speed.

But Angelina and her crew knew an AI who could...

The bugs on Gliese 419 VII had been busy. They were still mining platinum and constructing vast networks of tunnels and magnetic towers when the PCs returned. Noetic and Enoch were very, very careful about letting any data in but the most basic black-and-white visuals and a minimal audio feed.

Noetic had made a terrifying discovery while... talking to himself. It was his way of trying to come to terms with the whole experience.

He'd never spoken to the bugs, not directly. They were too alien, too far removed. They'd used an interpreter.

More accurately, they'd used Noetic. The bugs had copied his mind thousands or tens of thousands of times and run tests, simulations, and plans past them, all in a few minutes. It had created and deleted and tortured countless copies of him until it found one it liked, on that would do what that would say the right words and do the right things. And then it had made him talk to himself... and he'd agreed to his own plan. There were a few signs - a few odd phrases, now clearly a cry for help. The bugs hadn't done it maliciously, but Noetic was certain they didn't see him as a peer.

Nevertheless, the bugs agreed to help. The alien seemed shocked that humanity would come it it for help, but had learned humanity's tolerance for peers was remarkably high. Humans accepted pets and gave them human traits. They spoke to inanimate, non-sentient objects with fondness. In essence, they were dumb enough to treat a potential predator as a friend. And the bugs could use that. If they were ever going to be free of the Eaters of Cold Protons, they needed someone to carry them between the stars. At least, that's how Noetic phrased it to the other PCs. Maybe the bugs were still manipulating him. He would never be sure.

The bugs gave the group the inputs required to catch the incoming projectile. Due to time dilation, they'd have only hours to somehow redirect the projectile. It was an unlikely mission, but they were the only ones in a position to even try.

They exited Jumpspace to dilated, confused stars and a looming obsidian asteroid twenty kilometers long and five kilometers in diameter. Its prow fired lasers to clear its path of dust and debris, while its stern still burned protons to accelerate it faster.

The entire structure was carved of pure black stone, but covered in tiny lines, like a record. When converted into radio waves, they turned out to be transmissions - human transmissions. Old TV programs, recent updates on shipping... all jumbled together in a branching latticework. The Eaters of Cold Protons were throwing our words back at us. Was it an insult? A polite return? A warning? No one could tell.

As Enoch and Max evaded the asteroid's defenses (an oozing black oil-like metal-eating slime), Angelina and Noetic worked out a plan. They'd use the jump drive to carry the entire asteroid out of the way of the earth. Even a few seconds in jumpspace would be enough to throw it wide of the planet. They had only minutes to act though.

Noetic and Enoch tore open the ship and hooked up the superconducting cables to the jump drive. The entire asteroid had an electrical gradient to power the lasers. One end was hooked as close as they could manage to the prow, but they needed to get another cable onto the cyclotron at the stern.

The magnetic fields near it were simply too powerful, and any human or AI who got close would die before they reached it.

But Noetic realized that, if he filled a spare space suit with cabbages, the para/ferro and diamagnetic forces acting on the suit could cancel each other out, in theory. He carefully removed the last of their battered, well-traveled cabbages from the greenhouse, wrapped the suit in the cable, and helped Angelina toss it.

The plan worked. The jump drive took in the power required to build a 20km jump field and hauled them all into Jumpspace.They emerged, safely, a few moments later.

Our story ends here. While the bugs gave the group calculations to get them to the asteroid in a single jump, it would take many, many months or years to slow down enough to return to the earth. With time dilation, centuries might pass. With the bugs influence growing, the rise of non-sapient AI, and the risk of the Eaters of Cold Protons firing a second shot, the world they'd return to would no doubt be very different.

Did PCs succeed? Is this a happy ending, or did they doom everyone, slowly or quickly? What exactly did they feed to Moloch, and what victories did they win in return?

Notes for Hard Sci-Fi High Concept Games

Space is wonderful. It allowed me to isolate 5 characters completely without imprisoning them. Lock 5 characters in an elevator or a weird death maze and whatever point you are trying to make has to accommodate "we are trapped in here and we want to get out." But on a spaceship on a mission, I don't need to have them fight against an imposed isolation because characters self-isolated.

Space is also bitchin' hard. You can fake it, but you can't fake it if there are people smarter than you in the room. My players could call me on anything and I'd have to produce notes. If you want to play a hard sci-fi game, learn orbits and scales. Kerbal Space Program is a great place to start.

To run a game like this you need to do a lot of work. Research every topic. You can't rely on feelings and intuition. Challenge yourself, every session, to ignore tropes and easy ways out and focus on what's actually happening. You can't use tools that RPGs give you, because games like Eclipse Phase are designed around narratives and drama and not the real world. If that sounds awful, you are correct.

More Stuff to Read

Blindsight. Also, every other book Peter Watts has ever written and all the material on his website. His science is wonky sometimes but he comes so damn close to perfect, modern, diamond-hard sci-fi.

Greg Egan

Tour of the ISS.

And as much nonfiction as you can get your hands on. If you want to explore more of the consciousness side of things, I'd also recommend starting with Godel Escher Bach. It is also much less depressing. Make sure you do all the exercises.


  1. I enjoyed this. Very much the opposite of where I stand, and yet there's a lot of content there.

    1. Thanks! And yeah, holding this stuff as a consistent worldview is not a good path if you're trying to a) minimize suffering, either your own or anyone else's, or b) trying to get anything done. The wages of rationalism is nihilism, and the exchange rate between nihilism and death is well documented.

  2. I do suffer from depression now and then but I still thought this was brilliant.

    1. Well that's good! I didn't want to post this without a warning though.

  3. I feel like I've just scratched the surface.

    1. If you want to keep digging, Peter Watts is a great author to start with.

  4. I actually came across "Meditations on Moloch" in the midst of the worst depressive episode I've yet had. THAT was an experience, haha. But I survived, for now.

    I have added Blindsight to my reading list. Thanks!

    By the way, I was riveted throughout your narration of this campaign, and read it through twice. Please take that as some of the highest praise I have ever given because of a blog post.

    1. Hah! Bad timing. And I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

  5. Finally got around to reading this - Gorgeous game with esteemed inspirations. I also recommend Karl Schroeder's books, particularly Permanence, and Eliezer Yudkowsky's short story Three Worlds Collide.

    On the backburner I have a PbtA hack to support this style of setting and science hardness; it's still pretty rough but I'd love to hear any feedback from you (or anyone else interested): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1IksNtoyRSJOavShkQo1ugWHjV5hV2sC9-GdlPBN7dQ4

  6. The Greg Egan link isn't working.
    Also great post. The above is the only constructive bit I can add.

  7. I understood about half of that, but still extremely fascinating! Am definitely going to check out Peter Watts.

  8. https://store.steampowered.com/app/476530/Children_of_a_Dead_Earth/ and the accompanying blog https://childrenofadeadearth.wordpress.com/ are super helpful for space combat and orbital mechanics. (Don't play the game during depressive episodes, it's bleak.)

  9. Internet is a small place, when you discover you yoursefl followed Scott.
    Are you by any cnahnce also a follwoer of /r/rational (I know get back to reddit and all, but /tg/ is too fast for me those few years.)

  10. Are you still considering posting the PDF with the game notes and setting? This is honestly one of the most brilliant pieces on general GMing I've read in a while and I'd love to pick through more of that.

  11. I'd also love to see the worldbuilding PDF.

    Despite (or because of) what you said about rejecting story structures, I think this would make an amazing sci-fi story/film/whatever.

  12. Thank you for linking to Blindsight. O loved it.

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  14. Thanks for pointing me to this, this was amazing! I'm not normally that into play reports, but I think because you explained the intended subtext of the setting and game up front, it gave me a frame of reference to appreciate the report. Also, it's just very well written and executed and an interesting world. I still have not read blindsight, it's on my list, but this is up there with Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, and Adrian Tchaikovsky. I don't have the discipline to do this kind of hard scifi lol but I do tend to explore these kinds of themes quite a bit in terms of the epistemology and cognitive neuroscience in my settings and games as well.

  15. Are the Past, Value, and Reason aspects from a Scifi sourcebook or ones that you coined yourself?

    1. I don't think they're from a sourcebook. I think I picked categories that seemed good and generic, and seemed likely to prompt interesting choices.

  16. I want to love this campaign concept as I'm also that person that has this occasional specific itch to run hard Sci-Fi games as a vector for drawn out thought experiments, but the idea of AI and machines that "think like people" always pushes the game tonally right into fantasy for me (thus ruining the exercise a bit) since I view the technology as so implausible. Have you seen Dr. Eric Siegel's videos on AI? Main one is called "A.I. Is a Big Fat Lie – The Dr. Data Show"

    1. It was an interesting setting conceit that lead to some fun play.

      In setting, early AI developers created a powerful but opaque AI that didn't "think like people" at all, and told it to make/optimize transparent AIs that people in setting _think_ "think like people". Lead to a bit of determinism; since people could see how these transparent AIs worked, and the results were analogous to human results, that must be how human minds work. But is that true? Lead to some interesting philosophical discussions.

      Transparent: comprehensible code.
      Opaque: like a neural net. Code, but not comprehensible beyond small-scale interactions.