Sci-Fi: Plot Seeds for the Bright Conference

If the Bright Conference ever gets made into an RPG book, I’d like to have a cutaway illustration of a pod and its contents. Like this, with much more detail, and actually good:

Here’s what you’ve got. Now solve your problems.

In the 1995 film Apollo 13, there’s a great deal of dramatic panic and shouting and flailing around while problem-solving. In reality, everyone behaved far more sensibly and professionally. Very few of the situations encountered were outside the realm of training. A lot of very clever people worked out possible scenarios, tested them, refined them, and filed them in case they were ever needed. Using the LEM as a lifeboat, using its engine to boost both vessels, and even connecting the mismatched CO2 scrubbers, were not entirely improvised procedures.

In the real world, the problem is figuring out what is happening, and then deciding what to do. Not guessing. Just math. But in the Bright Conference, guesswork and improvisation are required. Without live access to the collective brains of Mission Control, a lone astronaut/ambassador in the Bright Conference has to think, improvise, and set their own objectives. There is a mission, but there is no mission plan.

Before launch, an astronaut can drill for known problems (a failure of one or more of the pod’s many systems, a solar storm, first contact in general), and for scenarios dreamed up by instructors and ambassadors, but no training can cover every scenario. The computers in a pod contain thousands of plans, procedures, and contingencies (and a lot of backup info), but sorting through them under pressure isn't easy. 

Compressed Plot Seeds

In a boring, bare-bones format. The seeds assume that you are a human in an exploration pod on the far side of a gate. These aren't the only plot seeds, or even the best ones. They're on the level of "there's a dungeon full of gold" or "bring me six wolf pelts". 
Plots need to follow the rules of the Bright Conference. No magic technology. No floating alien obelisks, zombie rays, reactionless drives, precurors, nanomachines, or bottled genetic engineering. 

1. Plenty Of Time For Caution

A nearby spacecraft is rotating uncontrollably. Cause:
1. Gyro failure.
2. Power loss.
3. Propellant leak.
4. Life support leak.
5. In a strong magnetic field.
6. Abandoned and adrift.

If you can rendezvous with the ship and line up with its axis of rotation, you could use your ship’s gyros or reaction control system to stop it.


  • Your ship doesn’t have a docking port (and even if it does, docking ports aren't universal). You’d need to move your ship’s magnetic plate to the very front or grab it with your ship's robot arm.
  • Electrostatic discharge. Your ship can take care of itself (hopefully!), but the other ship may have built up a huge electrostatic potential. It might spot-weld the first piece of metal to touch it.
  • You have enough delta-v to catch the ship, and enough delta-v to return (to a station or safe orbit) on your own, but you don’t have enough delta-v to catch the ship and haul it back, unless you can use its fuel and engines.

2. Space Madness

An alien reports that a human is behaving oddly. They’re telling you out of politeness (because you are also a human), not demanding/requesting that you take action. The human ship isn’t transmitting.

The human is:
1. Depressed after an equipment failure. Might be possible to repair.
2. Celebrating a holiday.
3. Drunk (also see 2.).
4. Impaired due to slow carbon monoxide (or another toxin) buildup.
5. Ill and contagious.
6. Violent. Prepare to avoid EVA axe murder.


  • Do you believe the alien? The description isn’t clear.
  • Do you want to get involved?

3. Requiem for a Dingbat

An alien reports that a human on a Hitchhiker Waiver died some time ago. They want to observe our funeral rights (and are willing to pay/trade for the privilege, something that mission control has put).


  • Another alien contact/previous info hints that the alien might be obsessed with death (a personal or cultural quirk). They might have killed a human on a Hitchhiker Waiver just to arrange this situation.
  • Or were they framed?
  • Is the ship safe to approach?
  • What rites would you consider appropriate? 

4. Sargasso Sea

“What’s a Sargasso?" "There was this... manuscript. I think. They made a film of it which was very influential. A sort of nested story thing.”

Recycling dead or abandoned spacecraft is too much trouble for some highly developed species. Shipping junk between systems isn’t energy efficient. Dead ships are not just boosted to a graveyard orbit, but manipulated into a graveyard lump, typically in deep space or behind the heat shield of an asteroid. This minimizes tracking and the chance of debris.

These agglomerations can be a gold mine for low-tech species, but also pose significant risks.


  • Nuclear reactors are hard to disable temporarily. Expect (and avoid) radioactive lumps.
  • What does it say about humanity that we resort to picking over the remains of the dead?
  • If you loot something from another species, can you explain it later. Will they care?
  • Is this an alien politely saying "dig your own grave before your ship fails?"

5. Shooting War

Go to bed, everything's quiet. Wake up, it's a civil war. Beaming power from solar collectors near a star to manufacturing stations near asteroids is common, but beamed power can easily become a weapon. Microwaves and lasers burn across the system. Clouds of debris flash and sparkle. Who’s shooting? And why?

Nobody’s aiming at you. In fact, they'll probably try to avoid collateral damage and transmit warnings about dangerous zones or lines of fire. The gate, or anything near the gate, is also probably safe. 


  • The species controlling the system has transmitted a blank cheque to use the system's gate, possibly to prevent anyone else from entering. A free ticket anywhere in the galaxy. That legendary destination you heard about? Or home?
  • Or play chicken. You probably shouldn’t lie, but you don’t have to tell anyone about Earth’s capabilities for messy revenge. Can you help (in more ways than just being a diplomatic wildcard/shield)?
  • A sweeping beam fried a number of your pod's surface systems. Now you've got to do whatever you were going to do, but also fix your ship.

6. Landing Not Advisable

An ambitious human program attempted to land an astronaut on an alien world (with permission and with plenty of on-Earth mission planning). The world has a thin atmosphere atmosphere, low gravity. The plan was for the astronaut to land, shake hands, deliver gifts, walk around, then back to orbit on an alien rocket (pod and all). 

The landing worked, the contact mission went well, but the human ship in orbit – the crewed lifeboat – suffered a catastrophic failure. The aliens picked your pod as a backup.


  • Delta-v, for once, is not a problem. The aliens can tow you around the system. But they can't keep a human alive.
  • Contamination and sterilization issues. The original plan involved a full and complex decontamination procedure. You could rig up umbilicals and use the lander pod as a separate “room”, but that's not a permanent solution.
  • The landed astronaut is from a very different ideology/program/background. Trust and language issues.
  • Dust. Dust is a terrible thing in space.

Maciej Rebisz

Resource Requirements

"You're out of X resource, what do you do?" is a fairly basic problem. Solutions can still be interesting, until the last variable in the Cold Equations falls into place.

Fuel (delta-v)

  • Controlled atmosphere release. Very low thrust. 
  • Ask for a pickup. 


  • Run out a long loop of conductive wire. If there's a local magnetic field, you might be able to pick up eddy currents. Spinning might help. Might be enough to keep the lights on.
  • Shut down everything you possibly can.
  • Some tech (flashlights, in particular) have independent power sources. At least you can read the printed manuals.


  • If your recycling system is working, then there's very little you can do. Any system you rig up is unlikely to be more efficient than that.
  • If it's not, break out the emergency procedures manual.


  • If you're lucky, your ship has an emergency water-splitting system. 
  • If not, you might have an oxygen candle. 
  • Or you can try and make an open electrolyzer, but filling your ship with hydrogen is, traditionally a bad plan.
  • If not, any ship that uses oxygen as an oxidizer can top off your tank (assuming you still have a tank) if you have the right adapter, or if you can make an adapter.


  • It's hard to unexpectedly run out of food.
  • If you're lucky, you've got refining microbes that can turn The Vital Ingredients into starches and sugars, which will keep you alive (but malnourished). You can stretch them using nutrient pills and your remaining food.
  • The emergency procedures manual has a section on cannibalism. It's not a fun section. If you find another human out there, and it's a dead human, then Mission Control feels you should have all the options.
  • The emergency procedures manual also points out that if you find a dead human, you might find that dead human's food.Check all your options.


  • Galactistandard uses visual patterns (glyphs, gestures), frequency patterns (sound, radio), sequence patterns (binary, Morse code), etc. If you want to talk, you've got options.
  • If your radio goes down, you can rig up a very simple transmitter as long as you've got power. 
  • If you've got a laser, point it at something and blink out a message, then write down the reply (if there is one).
  • If you don't have a bright light, use the big free fusion reactor in the sky. I.e. a mirror on a stick. Ideally you'd want this on a motorized control, like the end of a robot arm.
  • If you can point a camera or a detector in the right direction, a computer program can automatically parse incoming pulses into Galactistandard. If you can't, writing them down and converting them is possible; it's not easy for humans to gain casual fluency in pulse-patterned Galactistandard.

Alex Ries


You are not solving problems in a vacuum. 

Well, you literally are, but not in a metaphorical vacuum. You have to assume you are being watched and evaluated. Every action is part of a pattern. Not just an ethical dilemma, but potentially the only data point any observers have on how humans solve ethical dilemmas.

"Remember that time we picked up a Human and they immediately exploded?"
"Urgh, yeah. Let's not do that again."

If you rush in, are you saying humans are bold and selfless, or terrible at statistics and incapable of thinking quickly? If you avoid interaction, are you cold, pragmatic, aloof, ignorant, or hibernating? Greedy, desperate, or ambitious? 

Should you modify your actions based on the preferences (or perceived preferences) of potential observers? 

If and when you return to Earth, your communications and actions will be scrutinized and evaluated. Programs have to balance trust with a desire for knowledge. If you make a mistake, and you know you'll be evaluated on it, why come back at all? Sensible programs offer a blanket amnesty and untouchable benefits.


  1. This was an interesting read! I'm currently reading The Expanse series, and it has slightly similar vibes.

    1. Yup, the Expanse is great. I should do an Appendix N for the Bright Conference some point.

  2. Oooh, interesting stuff. I was imagining that it would be more to do with contact and grand diplomacy, but I guess that'd require a lot of fleshing out for the various races and politics and that's less what this is about. I do kind of like the focus on being a little sardine in a can amidst the enormous vastness, with all contact and communication done at a distance.