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.
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?