GURPS and Transhuman Space – fear of drowning

+Christian Blouin has started a new blog and a new campaign, and it’s in the 3rd edition setting of +David Pulver‘s Transhuman Space.

This will wind up being a bit of a fact-free post, because while I own several of the books (at least two, and only in hard-copy), and have loved reading through them, I’ve always found Transhuman Space daunting as a potential campaign setting.

It is truly a top-notch imagining of a future world. It’s got utopia and dystopia baked right into it, far-removed and side-by-side. 

It’s got terrifying nanobugs, takes the drone revolution to one of several possible logical conclusions, and memetic warfare, which might have seemed far-fetched or unlikely when the setting came out, but in today’s selective-information climate on social media, now seems nearly inevitable.

I think what puts me off of such a deep, rich setting – and isn’t that a hell of a thing to write – is that both the GM and the players either have to know, or will want to know, more about the background than they can easily absorb. 


Heck, +Christopher R. Rice is running a mildly alternate history campaign with superheroes in the Aeon Campaign whose game I transcribe, and even some of that – our area of New York City, what events actually happened as the players remember them, vs what events happened differently for the characters can be hard to sort out.

Transhuman Space takes that to 11. I’d almost want to read a few novels, and have the players do the same, to approach that setting as “OK, make characters for X, assuming you’re part of that world and always have been!”

But those don’t exist (pity – it would make great fiction fodder, with as much depth as many award-winning SciFi novels. I’d devour a THS novel with more gusto than I read Accelerando, for example, and I read that book with fairly significant gusto). So I balk at running the game.

How to get around that?

The first would be to either pick, or invent if it wasn’t there already, an isolated region on earth, in orbit, or in a way-out-in-space location where the information the players have to absorb before game-time starts is limited. 

That way, the characters and the players will be overwhelmed when presented with however many billions of people, AIs, cybershells, nanobugs, memetic wars, regular wars, economic wars, and Third-through-Fifth Wave cultures are currently vying for supremacy and survival.

Parting Shot

I look forward to seeing how the campaign shakes out, and in particular how information loads are handled.

In a way, this is the same quandary that any group faces when looking at a developed setting that isn’t firmly grounded in common knowledge. 

I think it’s the reason why “It’s our world, but now with Monsters!” is so popular as a stepping-off point for games. (or, as +Ken Hite told me when I was talking about/showing him the setting map for my Dragon Heresy RPG, “just use Earth, you big baby.”)

There’s a lot of background knowledge we bring along when we’ve got a lifetime of familiarity with a place. Good and bad parts of town? Social behavior between different groups of people? Different ages of people (chronologically – in traditional Korean culture, for example, you are expected to defer to elders, and from what my native-born Korean martial arts master was saying, it doesn’t take much to differentiate between “same age” and “can’t socialize equally.”)

When approaching a world or a map like Transhuman Space, where sure, it’s the same geography, but social, political, and economic assumptions must all be modified or jettisoned, it makes for a bit of an urge to say “yeah, give me my broadsword and let’s go kill orcs.”

Many “deep” fantasy worlds run into this problem too. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it, and am in the process of being guilty of it for Dragon Heresy. But the question remains: if setting is important, and if background matters, how, without assigning a hundred pages of homework, do you bring everyone along so that the setting informs relationships and choices, and the play of the game?

In short, how do you keep from drowning?

4 thoughts on “GURPS and Transhuman Space – fear of drowning

  1. Heck, even post disaster in the real world can be too big a nut to crack. Some players minds skid off the things they don't care for like water on a hot griddle.

    Science fiction is a tough place to game. So many inventions will have enormous effects on the assumptions.

    Even a "simple" setting like Traveller has so much volume made for it in the 38 years it's been around that you can read everything multiple times and still encounter something you missed. It happens to me and I've been playing Traveller since 1980!

    Transhuman has the added layer of crunchy realism added to it that Traveller doesn't. Traveller is merely self-consistent, not realistic.

  2. This is also why I enjoy reading about, but won't run, Tekumel. Even if I assume the PCs are foreigners, and suffer from confusion and "culture shock", as the GM I need to have it down or accept that my off the cuff answers define and defy the canon. That's tougher than, as you say, "our world plus monsters" or how I run my game – some vague stuff plus whatever we make up as we go. It's more freeing than everyone needing to have the same native understanding of the setting.

  3. Thanks for the pointer to Christian's blog.

    Yeah, TS is a deep setting but at least it's all in one set of easily-accessible books! I've played with groups who've been visiting Glorantha for twenty years, and they're just talking a different language from me.

    The quick guide page in Changing Times (which is free in the preview) is possibly the most important document for the new TS GM to read. It tells you, at a very basic level, where the lines are: this stuff is happening, that stuff isn't. Then you can fill in fine detail later in the bits that interest you.

    The other consideration is that, like GURPS itself, one doesn't have to (and shouldn't) expect to use all of the nifty stuff in the books in a single campaign. As you say, an isolated area is a good way to start (I ran a TS campaign mostly in low earth orbit, and Phil Masters ran one I played in set on Mars), but it's surprisingly easy to incorporate more ideas fairly quickly.

    To be fair this is partly a matter of player/GM taste – if you want to go kill orcs, hey, go kill orcs. TS is not a great setting for that, and for that matter while it can do action-adventure that really isn't its strength either; I find it best for thoughtful adventures that sneak up on Big Questions.

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