Stargate: Universe

If you’re a sci fi geek or even any sort of regular fellow who watched blockbusters in the 90s, you know the premise of Stargate: A network of ancient portal devices has been left on various planets by an ancient race, and can be used to travel from one planet to another with ease.

It’s a high concept setting, but not quite as original as one may think. Tunnel in the Sky comes to mind as an obvious source of inspiration, but that doesn’t matter so terribly. There are no new ideas, as they say, anyway.

Like most people, I did watch the movie and then watched some of the TV show (Stargate: SG-1). Didn’t follow it for too long and never really watched any of the spin-offs until a year or so ago. Stargate: Atlantis seemed very silly, and I never even heard of Stargate: Universe until long after it got cancelled. After watching it, I felt quite mixed about the show but eventually decided that it was overall a fairly decent effort. Much like my post about Star Trek: Enterprise, I thought I’d offer some notes from a world builder’s perspective.

SPOILER WARNING - Some plot details will be mentioned in this post.

The Premise In Short: Earth discovers a special stargate – one that leads not to another planet, but to a star ship that has been traveling for aeons. Due to an unfortunate incident, a group of unprepared soldiers and civilians is stranded on this ship, with no way of getting home.

The Setup: The series seems to have been Star Gate’s take on the Star Trek “planet of the week” premise. On a fundamental level, it’s about humans and their relationships and conflicts in an extreme situation (cut off from Earth) and exploration (of strange new worlds).

The Worldbuilding: I have an okayish understanding of Star Gate lore, and SG:U doesn’t really expand it all that much. The idea of an ancient starship travelling towards an unknown destination is a pretty cool one – and one I must steal at some point – as long as you are willing to accept that your audience’s suspension of disbelief will be a bit strained when your ship inevitably arrives at its destination during the show’s run on TV. Talk about cosmic coincidences, right?

I’m definitely amazed that anybody in their right minds thinks that something like the Stargate project could be kept secret for decades, to the point where Earth has hyperspace capable spaceships of their own. I guess the show creators simply didn’t want to tackle the implications for Earth’s society – nor spend the money on the sets and cgi necessary for anything that does not look like “present day earth” – but it’s still bad worldbuilding.

This becomes a real immersion breaker when the Lucian Alliance bombs Stargate HQ/Pentagon/whatever in one episode. If you want to damage Earth’s government and you have access to spaceships – just land one in a public place and hold a press conference. You’re safely off based elsewhere in the galaxy; the governments on Earth suddenly have a big problem on their hands.

Lessons learned: Don’t do it if you can’t explain it. In the case of SG:U’s unchanged earth, even a short piece of dialogue could have helped. “How did you manage to keep all this secret,” Eli asked. Lt. Gen O’Neill shrugged. “Really tight security. Luck. Most people who get involved realize that there’s a lot of dangerous stuff out there and we can’t simply open the floodgates. We’ll go public when we have a handle on things.”

It’s not perfect but better than the NDA in the pilot. Of course an even better way to do it would have been to just not show Earth much at all.

Consider the implications of changes you introduce. They never stay confined to your group of protagonists – earth-shattering revelations have a tendency to shatter earth. Don’t use them unless you can deal with the consequences.

The Plot: The writers of the show had clearly no plan of where they were going, and were incredibly bad at handling the situations they wrote themselves into. Without checking for script credits, I have to assume that writers changed constantly and were each responsible for a handful of episodes at most. There was also quite obviously no-one on the show’s staff who cared for consistency or the show’s plot arc.

There is an arc, but it’s so jumbled together that it would have been better to just throw it out the window completely and go with the “Captain’s Log – today we find ourselves in orbit around a hitherto unknown class M planet” of Star Trek tradition.

This is most apparent in season two where, when faced by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the form of berserker drones, the only solution the authors could come up with was “Well, let’s just leave the galaxy”. Cancellation, it seems, is a logical consequence of such a weak showing.

But this is not the only example. Another problematic one: The castaways don’t know how to control Destiny at first, which, combined with their need for information and supplies, is great if you want to run a “planet of the week” show. The crew found Destiny’s control center when the writers wanted a more “star ship combat” show, which ruined the planet of the week setup – the crew could always just jump away – and indeed required artifice when they did want to create conflict. Why not just go FTL? Because technobabble reasons. It’s the science fiction equivalent of modern day haunted house horror movies: Why wouldn’t the characters just call for the cops on their mobile phones once bad things happen?

Other examples include the Rush-Young drama, the Lucian attacks, the mystery aliens, the silly time travel stuff, and the Novus colony.

Lessons learned: If you create a series, it’s not only important to have a cool setup – you also need to know what your destination is. This applies to the overall arc as well as minor arcs. “Cool, let’s throw berserkers at them” should have immediately been followed by “…and their weakness is xyz and that’s how they are eventually defeated”. This goes for all your major conflicts, really. Even if it’s not in the scope of what you are doing now, know where it’s going. Say your show or series is set to the background of a civil war. Who is fighting, and why? Who will win, and why? If you know this, you’ll know what events will happen in between. You’ll need to show the world’s background sooner or later, and it simply helps you to stay on track and consistent. It’s fine to have one-off’s, but you should stick to your show’s general theme.

Technology: The technology used by the characters is all “present day”. They use notebooks, flashlights, guns, mobile phones appropriately – though they gloss over how they charge them and ignore the difficulties in hooking any of these things up with the Ancient technology of destiny. The actual “sci fi” technology is just “magical”. The communications stones are a particularly bad design: Not only do they work by magic, they also result in characters swapping bodies. Unfortunately, this allows the Destiny folks to just bring in the world’s greatest experts on any subject unless they add artificial barriers that prevent the stones from working.

Now, one could argue that not having them also limits the type of problem the castaways can encounter and thus lessen the diversity of plots. But if your protagonists can’t deal with a problem at hand, you’ve got a classic case of deus ex machina. And that’s been crappy design for thousands of years.

Lessons learned: Larry Niven famously pointed out that it got hard to write for the Known Space setting because of all the wonder technologies he had introduced: Indestructible hulls, super-intelligent Protectors, longevity drugs, super-fast hyperdrives and antimatter fuel. The communication stones, as presented, are such a technology. Always consider how anything you introduce could short-circuit your story down the line. Plan for it or don’t use the magic technology or whatever it is.

Characters: Oh, what a dysfunctional bunch. Character design in SGU is mostly good, with some exceptions. The good part is that they clearly designed the characters as a group – pretty much everybody has a foil, for example. Some characters are way over the top, which in itself isn’t necessarily bad. I felt that the Rush-Young conflict escalated too much, for reasons that were too flimsy, and wasn’t ever really resolved properly. It just seems that after some point everybody got tired of writing for it, and their near-civil war dropped to occasional insults.

There is an obvious problem with the cast in that – as mentioned above – they had to constantly bring minor character on board destiny to solve this crisis or that. In my opinion this severely detracted from the protagonists. They also thought it necessary to bring Lucian Alliance (“terrorist”) soldiers aboard. My initial thought was that they did this to add characters that might appeal more to their target audience, but that wasn’t the case; it was probably another subplot-gone-wrong.

A minor nitpick is that even after two seasons, there were still chubby characters on the ship. Everybody survives on tight rations that are almost entirely vegetarian – no candy, no surplus; everybody should have slimmed down considerably.

Lessons learned: Design your protagonists well. Don’t just design them as people, make sure they are capable of dealing with their environment and the conflicts you throw at them. That doesn’t mean they always succeed – and not all of them will survive; it’s quite acceptable to kill off characters. But don’t make it a habit to magically introduce someone who was never mentioned before and then goes on to solve the problem in a significant way.

If you do have a situation where contact with the outside world is limited, write up a complete roster of characters. And I do mean complete, if you are looking at, say, 100 or so characters at most. Not everybody needs a full bio, but at least note down name, age, profession, appearance if you are working in a graphical medium, and a reason for why he is where he is. A few words suffice. Some ties to other characters – colleagues, love interests, etc – are a nice bonus. You can flesh them out later or change details, but if you need, say, a cook, you know who in your roster fills that slot.

The same, by the way, goes for equipment in such a situation, though you can always have crates of unspecified items. Just, for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t have your characters unpack an item that could have been REALLY useful in last week’s episode. They would have taken a stock and known about it.

Aliens: There are few aliens in the show, which fits well with the human-centric setting. There are a few nonsentient species; a species of tiny swarm creatures that shows at least rudimentary intelligence; the berserker drones mentioned, the Novus colonists (a really dumb subplot), and two alien races that use spaceships.

One of them is a race that was in conflict with the berserker drones and lost. I liked the physical design; they were very humanoid and vaguely lemur and corpse like. I am not sure if they were cgi, puppets, or actors – maybe a mix. They didn’t play any sort of major role, interaction with them was minimal and they were killed off once they fulfilled their role as a plot piece. The show probably would have worked just as well without them.

The other race is more involved with Destiny; they wanted to get on board for a long time and failed. Which is odd, since they do manage to get aboard during the show’s first season and kidnap a crew member. Their physical design was less impressive, being clearly CGI in appearance. The conflict with them, too, is left unresolved; that is, it is simply “written out” when the writers got tired of it.

Lessons learned: Just because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to have aliens. If you do set one up as an antagonistic species, make sure they integrate into your overall story arc and you figure out how to deal with them properly.

In closing, I see why SG:U was cancelled. It was the right decision; too much was wrong with the show. It’s still a bit sad because the premise and basics were all there to make it a great show. I do recommend watching it – there are just barely enough good episodes to make it worth-while. And it is great as an instructional piece. Pay attention to the characters and their conflicts. Pay attention to the problems the antagonists face and how they solve them. Think of each episode’s story on its own, and how it relates to “mini arcs” and the “overall arc” of the show. It’ll be a really good lesson for your own storytelling.

 

 

A Short Note on Evil Clowns

Enrico_Caruso_As_CanioLife oftentimes writes the best stories. A French town has banned clown costumes and makeup after several cases of assault.

Of course, evil clowns are one of the big tropes of horror and while the current issue is – hopefully – just another social media fad, this incident is also perfect for a story or role-playing game session.

Your protagonists, who likely grew up on King’s “IT” and other horror lecture, may suspect the worst when they hear that clowns are terrorizing a small town for Halloween – and might actually be relieved when it turns out they are just local kids being idiots. Of course, and especially in the next few months, or based on their reaction, you could pull a switcheroo on them – some of the clowns are actually evil creatures.

If I were to run such a scenario, I would present ambiguous evidence and then swing the story based on my players’ theories and fears. And I’d bring circus music on my iPad and play it very faintly whenever they get into a clown encounter or are getting close to the Nest…

The Crowd

Evening rush hour is not fun on the subway. Hundreds of men and women, crowded like sardines in a can. Party goers mixed with tired office workers. Every station, some get out – and a genereal reshuffling follows. You sigh with relief, as for a moment you can breathe again. Human odors hang heavily in the air, and then the car refills. More people, going to gods-know-where.

The train approaches the end of the line. More people get off the train than enter. Soon, you will be home. You even manage to find a seat. You close your eyes for a moment. You sense a presence, and open them again – a man now sits opposite you. He has an empty expression and stares right through you. There are only five or six people in the car when you exit at your station.

You take the nearest exist, pass through a tunnel and approach the stairs. There’s a man there, unsure of himself. He sees you and his face becomes expressionless. He, too, sees right through you, but stands between the steps and the escalator. You feel menaced and you do not know why. Hairs on your neck stand up. You glance behind you, four of the other guys from thee train are slowly approaching. You panic; there’s a side tunnel that leads underneath the main street. You follow it, the men stay behind you. You take a right turn, and you realize it was a mistake. There’s the maintenance section, off to the left, and the deserted platform to your right. More strangers appear in other tunnels. You fall into a run, but soon every exit is blocked by the men, as they shuffle, expressionless, towards you.

You stumble and fall. Shield your head with your hands and whimper as they begin to tear into you.

The Crowd consists of a group of mysterious men and – more rarely – women who inhabit the subway networks of the world. They appear, outwardly, as completely normal people, though their behavior is off. They don’t talk, they don’t really pay attention to their surroundings. They lie in prey at selected stations, while some membeers of the Crowd will chase a selected victim after it exists the train. The victim is herded into a side tunnel, where he is then devoured alive by The Crowed.

They are also known to attack isolated passengers on a train if all other passengers in the car are of the Crowd.

When they do not stalk prey, they live deep in the maintenance shacks and tunnels, where they build regular nests. The Crowd has not yet come to the attention of the authorities, and none have been dissected, but investigators claim that they are not actually human.

Statistics

Strength: Human normal
Agility: Human normal
Intelligence: Low, probably purely instinct driven
Weapons: Hands, bites – unarmed human
Armor: None

 

Sewer Worms

I had heard the rumors for years, but it wasn’t before one of these… things ate our remotely-operated robots during an inspection that I believed them. One moment, the dark, gloomy sewer was in the camera’s views, the next a slithering shape rose from the murk – a circular, black mouth with glistening white and razor-sharp teeth, and the robot went offline.

Luckily we had the recording to show our bosses, and so the follow-up inspection team was well armed. Two guys even made it back. Now that part of the city sewer is off-limits until we can find a solution and I will certainly not laugh the next time a colleague tells me of the horrors he has seen.

Sever Worms are grow to be 2-3 meters long (6-10 feet) and have a diameter of about 70 cm (2 feet). Their skin is chitinous and segmented, glistening brown or black. The head is bulbous, with two small, beady inky black eyes on its sides and a wide, circular mouth with white, triangular and very sharp teeth.

The worms live in a city’s sewers and feed on rats and other vermin. They have good reflexes and can achieve bursts of surprising speed, which helps them catch the smaller rodents. They do not normally venture out of the sewers, though they can sometimes infest very dirty basements, sewage plants, or nearby swamps. Thus, they are not normally dangerous, unless someone is fool-hardy enough to invade their territory. They will attack humans and, while they can’t actually swallow a human entirely like a snake swallows its prey, they can easily bite off a leg or arm. Smaller children might easily be killed, however. In addition, the worms do carry nasty diseases, and exposure to a sewer environment will also infect large open wounds.

Sewer worms are “just” strange animals, or monsters, and not in any way supernatural. They possess no sentience or intelligence, but their appearance combines with the claustrophobic environments and can easily panic a man.

Sewer worms are genderless and reproduce by laying a large number of eggs in hidden spots; the eggs hatch after several months. Sewer worms are not above eating their own young, and the hatchlings do attack and eat each other as well.

Statistics

Strength: High
Agility: Medium
Endurance: High
Intelligence: None – Animal
Weapons: Bite / Swallow, risk of infections
Armor: Some

 

Black Mold

 We realized quickly enough that something was wrong with the dream house we had just purchased. At first it was just floors that were wet without cause, and we thought there was an insulation problem, or a leaky roof. The mildewy smell that set in after a week didn’t help. We had no clue how terrible the truth was!

One night my wife woke me up with her screams. Seems she had wanted to go to the bathroom, only to step on a thick carpet of black mold. I swear by all that is holy that the mold writhed and shifted in the dim shine of the nightlight. It retreated under the bed, then appeared on the other side. It looked more like a colony of tiny creatures, mobile as an ant colony, but it was a layer of thick, black rot.

We made a run for it, got in the car and drove off to stay at our neighbors. We avoided thee specifics when we called for help the next day. The cleaner found our home empty but with that distinct mildewy smell. He said it might be covered by wallpapers, and that it might be quite a project to check and clean the building. Still scared, we agreed. I think none of us will ever forgeet what happened next. He never had a chance, and my wife and I barely escaped with our lives. The authorities took over, and I saw CDC vans and several men in dark suits at our house. We aren’t allowed back. Nor would we want to. My wife’s developed severe rashes on her feet and I am having a hard time breathing. We should have moved to California, after all.

Black mold infests houses in humid, warmer areas; usually after a flood brought moisture into the house. The mold is of a dark, blue-black color but otherwise looks like regular mold.

Once the infestation begins, it rapidly spreads, hiding behind wall panels and wallpaper, or under the floor. The mold doesn’t require any light, merely some heat, and any human house has plenty of that for the mold. The spread of the mold can be detected by some slight discolorations in places, especially when only a wallpaper covers the mold, but someone who does not know the tell-tale signs will assume it is merely a normal water discoloration.

After some time, however, the black mold will break out in the open; it will eat through the wooden panels of the wall, the floor, and the wallpaper. It can also be exposed by accident, for example when the house owners open up the wall or floor.

The mold has a rudimentary intelligence that grows as the colony increases in size. At first the mold may only be smart enough to avoid growing in places that would make detection obvious; later it may try to actively infect humans, for example by growing in places where it is likely to be exposed to people, or even by trying to over-grow a person in its sleep.

The mold is corrosive and highly poisonous. Touching the mold will lead to rashes. If the mold enters a person’s bloodstream, the person will suffer severe poisoning and will likely die.

Breathing in the mold’s spores is even more dangerous, as the lungs are a warm, wet place of the mold’s liking and it will infest the lungs of a human and grow there. If this happens, the mold will be able to spread all through the host’s body. When it reaches the brain, the host will go insane from intense headaches. Once the mold has thoroughly infested the host’s brain, it will be able to control the mad host on a rudimentary level. The host will not be smarted than the colony of the mold controlling it; but it will attempt to expose nearby humans to the mold culture. It may also attempt to kill those who threaten the mold. Eventually, the host is killed as the black mold slowly eats up its host from the inside.

The mold is resistant against most commonly used fungicides and because of its throughout spread in the smallest corners it is basically impossible to remove it from a house once infected. Burning the house could release spores, which are then carried to neighboring houses. The safest way to get rid of a black mold colony is to tear down the house, making sure the workers wear protective suits, and then burn the parts in sealed high temperature ovens. Black mold will also wither and die if its environment becomes too dry.

Statistics

Strength: N/A
Agility: N/A
Endurance: N/A
Intelligence: Varies (Low – Medium)
Weapons: Poison (death), lesser mind control
Armor: Immune to physical damage; vulnerable to fire

Moon Ghosts

I was seventeen when I first saw them. I had spent a late evening at a friend’s place – Fridays were D&D nights – and was on my way home. The streets were dark, the full moon blanketed out by dark, thick clouds. The city I lived in was peaceful and quiet, almost no crime rate, and so the darkness was rather cozy than threatening. There was not another living soul out in the streets.

I crossed a small park and came upon the suburb’s market place, a wide, open space bordered by the tiny, newly-reconstructed town hall to my right and the library to my left. As I neared the middle of the square the clouds opened and silver moonlight shone down through the gaps, in wide, silvery beams. I halted, taking in the pale, otherworldly beauty and thought how different a familiar, busy place looked under the circumstances.

It took me a while to notice that I was not, after all, alone. A man stood next to the library, a tall man in light clothes. He was watching me, which felt a bit weird, but I didn’t think too much of it. I averted my eyes and resumed my walk, when I thought I saw a streak of light to my right. Again I halted and looked. There, in front of the townhall, stood another man, white clothes, shiny in the moonlight. There was something very peculiar about these two, I thought, and again resumed my walk.

I saw the next two men as I reached the main road. They stood on the other side, and again they looked in my direction. They were perfectly still, but I kept looking at them as I walked, and I thought that their heads turned to follow me. It was then that I realized what had bothered me about the men – not their white suits or their pale skin, no, it was that none of them seemed to have any hair on their heads whatsoever.

By now my nerves were rattled quite considerably. I was faced with something unknown and, at least to my youthful imagination, unknowable. Who were these men, and why were they watching me?

I kept walking, my pace now quickening. No longer did the moonlit city seem beautiful, it was menacing, cold, alien. I expected to be jumped from the shadows at any time. And I passed several more of the men, all just standing there, watching me. They did not follow me and indeed, none of them moved at all. None spoke. I kept to my side of the road and forced myself not to break into a run. Finally – the East street which would lead me home. I glanced around, to see several of the men still watching me.

As I turned into East street I stopped dead in my tracks. There they were again, three of them. Two on the other side of the road, and one on mine. Should I walk around? Should I pass them? So far, none of them had been hostile. And as I realized this, I told myself that I should man up, these were just regular people – And I was being a scared chicken.

I took a deep breath and resumed walking. As I got closer, I was able to see the man’s features in more detail. He had no hair at all, not even a beard, nor eyebrows. His suit looked like any other white suit, but as I came closer I noticed subtle differences. There seemed to be no pockets in his jacket, no buttons, and no seams. Jacket, shirt, pants and shoes each seemed to be made of one piece, more moulded than sewn. His eyes were the worst about him – they were dark, almost inky black, and they stared at me intently.

I had closed in to about ten meters when a shadow fell on me. I looked behind me, then up, and saw that the dark clouds were pushing in front of the full moon again. I quickly looked back, as I realized I had let myself be distracted, fearing that the men had watched to find just such a moment of opportunity. The man was no longer in front of me. I looked to my left – the ones on the other side of the road had vanished as well. I spun around, but I could discern no trace of them anywhere.

I finally broke into that run. I was now too frightened to think. I ran down East street, turned down into my small side street. I fumbled with the lock, ran up the stairs and into my room, making sure that all curtains were closed and all lights turned on. I never did see the men again, but I took no chances – I’m never leaving home again on a night of a full moon.

When you are young and have an active imagination you sometimes dream the weirdest things. I woke up one morning thinking that I had been chased home the previous night by ghostly figures, and only gradually realized that it had all been just a dream.

Moon Ghosts are strange spirits that only show up on nights when the full moon’s rays touch the earth. They descend from Luna and if you are attentive, you can catch them as they fall – it looks a little bit like a glob of moonlight, silvery-sparkling, a shooting star that silently hits the ground. Where it touches, a moon ghost appears – immobile, immaterial and always silent. They watch, and wait, and they will not harm or interfere with the real world. Indeed you could pass right through them if you are brave, though the sensation is exceedingly unpleasant. If you look away when you are too close, they will disappear.

Their true intentions, and indeed if they have any, are unknown. The Tome of Forbidden Knowledge states that they are the disembodied spirits of a people who lived on Earth’s moon eons ago, but as with all information found in the Tome this has to be taken with a great deal of skepticism.

 

 

Things that Go Bump in the Night

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallThe Blog Carnival – this month hosted by Of Dice And Dragons – is dealing with Things That Go Bump In The Night – or in other words, the strange horrors and creepy-crawlies that lurk just outside your field of view in the darkness. What I am trying to say is, it’s Halloween time! And, although I got a late start, I am going to try and catch up. I have some notes on strange creatures on file that I will post about in the next ten days.

Meanwhile, here are three suitable articles from my archives:

 Update, Nov 1st: My posts on this subject were:

You can find links to all other posts in the Carnival on Scot’s Wrap-up post.

Links for October 2014

More semi-monthly links:

  • Mysteries of Medieval Graffiti – Really useful and inspiring if you are looking for flavor for your dungeons, towns, ruins etc.
  • What does war sound like? – War features heavily in our fiction, but few people (in the so-called west, but also in many others) are lucky enough not to ever have been in one. So this article by the BBC should be quite helpful to role-players and authors.
  • Old West Slang and Phrases - I don’t know how authentic this is, but it’s surely inspirational. Also works for your Firefly fanfic, I guess.
  • Apollo Image Atlas – Raw images from Apollo missions in huge resolutions. Not maps, just pretty much the entire catalog.
  • The Painted Warships of WW1.
  • If the average income in 1955 was, say, 4200 Dollars, how much would that be in 1988s Dollars? About 18500. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a handy Inflation Calculator.

 

 

 

Some assorted links, as usual:

 

Contact Light

I decided to move the science fiction stuff to a new blog, Contact Light. That blog is basically the “world-builder’s commentary”, a logbook as I create my own science fiction setting, discussing the how’s and why’s as the setting slowly takes shape.

I’d be very happy to see you there!