Aiming aids in Space Dungeon Fantasy

A game I recently started playing in inspired me to mull over the various rules on targeting systems and to consolidate them into a coherent whole for Hidden Suns. This is a topic which frequently comes up in GURPS circles and the rules have been gradually clarified I even dare say corrected during a course of several supplements.

It all started with Ultra-Tech and the HUD link, which was listed as giving +1 to Acc within 300 yards, not cumulative with other targeting systems. A multispectral laser sight, however, gave +1 to skill out to the weapon’s 1/2D range. There were two scopes, the compact and enhanced targeting scope, the former granting +2 to Acc at TL9-10 and the latter +3. This increased up to +3 and +4 respectively at TL11, and to +4 and +5 at TL12. Finally, targeting software could grant +1 or +2 to skill. Were laser sights cumulative with HUDs and scopes? No word on that, so an implied yes.

Then High-Tech came along, with collimating and reflex sights granting +1 to skill up to 300 yards. Suspiciously similar to a HUD, both in the range limitation and the description of how they worked. Could they be used together? No word in the book, but a reality check dictated that it would make sense to either use one of those two, or an ultratech HUD, but not both (a reflex sight was actually mounted on a HUD). But the ultratech HUD, as written, was inferior.

The wording on laser sights changed so that they gave “+1 to hit”, and it was possible to use them together with telescopic sights but not with collimating and reflex sights. And with a HUD? The implied answer changed from yes to no, if we followed the above reasoning. Speaking of telescopic sights, they offered up to 32x magnification translating to a +5 Acc bonus already at TL5!

Other features High-Tech introduced include the laser rangefinder, which granted +3 to Acc by making the exact range and speed of the target known to the shooter, match-grade ammunition which increased a weapon’s Acc by +1 if it was already +4 or greater, and pistol stocks which added +1 to Acc of pistols.

Next was Tactical Shooting which introduced Precision Aiming, allowing for additional Acc bonuses for Aiming longer than the standard three turns but which couldn’t exceed the lower of the used scope’s Acc bonus or the weapon’s base Acc, and clarifying that a laser rangefinder was not the only way to claim the bonus for knowing the exact speed and location of the target, offering the example of claiming it by plotting the landmarks in a field of battle.

Finally, Tactical Shooting: Tomorrow was released in Pyramid #3-55, tying up most of the loose ends. HUDs were brought in line with collimating/reflex sights from HT, giving a +1 bonus to skill but without any range limitations. It was clarified that the laser sight bonus was not cumulative with a HUD, but a targeting laser used with a HUD would automatically act as a rangefinder providing those sweet +3 to Acc. Scopes were also “modernized”, with the enhanced targeting scope becoming redundant as a variable up to 32x or +5 to Acc magnification was included for free in the compact targeting scope.

But was the HUD bonus cumulative with a scope? No explicit answer, although it was explained that a scope actually fed its video directly into the HUD, effectively focusing the user’s field of view onto the target and bringing any magnification with it. My conclusion? If a HUD gave a +1 bonus to skill by having a crosshair on the target all by its own without zoom, then having that same crosshair there but while zoomed in through a scope was the same deal. Cumulative!

The only remaining question was which of these bonuses count against the “combined bonus from all targeting systems” which can’t exceed the weapon’s base Acc, as per B364. Kromm put that to rest in his post thereby wrapping up this topic.

In the Hidden Suns, I use all of the rules covered above in their clarified state, except match-grade ammo. I don’t really use chemical slugthrowers in the setting and didn’t want to fuss around with match-grade gauss bullets or optimized plasma cartridges. As for rangefinders, I rule that it works automatically as you take an Aim action, your smartgun electronics taking care of everything in the background.

Innate Attack and DR at high TLs

A problem that often crops up in higher TL games which feature any form of special abilities built from advantages is that Innate Attack and its counterpart Damage Resistance seem to be way overpriced in comparison to what you can easily attain with off-the-shelf gear. This most recently came up for me when assisting one of my players build a robot character for the Hidden Suns campaign.

With the Can’t Wear Armor limitation, the character would have had to invest a whopping 90 of his 330 points to get the same level of protection as other player’s characters would for no point cost and just spending 1/10 of the campaign starting wealth on widely-available suit of armor. Even when slapping on the appropriate Gadget limitations bringing the total modifier to -75%, that’s still 38 points. It was similar with his built-in weapon, where it would have cost 75 points in order to perform exactly the same as a commonly available piece of gear.

I decided to solve this case relatively simple. Since both abilities essentially emulated easily available gear, I priced each of them as an Accessory perk. Because the cost of such gear is not trivial, I still required the character to pay the appropriate monetary cost. The caveat is of course that these two items can be temporarily forcibly removed from the character in the same manner as the gear they represent, but that fits with the way in which the abilities are “skinned”. The DR is simply an outer layer of plating, which could be stripped from the robot with the same amount of effort as a sealed suit of armor from a man. It’s similar with the built-in weapon, which isn’t as much built-in as just attached to the robot’s arm on a mount.

I actually already solved a similar problem earlier in the same manner. Instead of including Infravision into the android racial template as the full-priced advantage, I included it simply as an Accessory. Infrared contact lenses are cheap and commonly available in the setting.

While I’m perfectly happy to use this approach with things such as robots and cybernetics, I’m not quite willing to use it for modeling supernatural abilities (magic, psionics, etc). Funny, because it’s primarily a “look and feel” issue.

Anyway, my second solution is to give all Innate Attacks a free level of the Armor Divisor enhancement corresponding to the most common armor divisor of weapons in the setting. This can sometimes be tricky to adjudicate if you use multiple “families” of weapons available at a specific TL, for example high-energy lasers and gauss guns are both TL10 weapons, yet the former have armor divisor (2) while the latter have (3).

As for Damage Resistance, I let 5 character points buy more than 1 point of DR, again depending on the campaign “average” values. The simplest solution is a multiplier with the same value as the free armor divisor granted to Innate Attack. An alternative would be to grant free levels of the Hardened enhancement, but I don’t like this approach because DR from gear doesn’t have Hardened and having multiple layers of DR with different levels of Hardened complicates damage calculations. The two approaches also cause different interactions with other enhancements, which is something that needs to be kept in mind. Both Innate Attack and Damage Resistance should ideally be modified in the same way, so I’m actually inclined to change my approach and instead of granting a free Armor Divisor to Innate Attack, I’d let 5 character points (in case of Burning Attack, appropriately scaled for other types) buy more than 1d of damage, just as with DR.

The above approach is relatively simple, but can still produce too expensive results. For finer calibration, I think it would be better to base the cost on the level of “threat” expected to be encountered in the campaign. If we take TL3 as a baseline (which I personally find as a sweet spot in the terms of damage and DR numbers) where damage is usually (eyeballing) 1d – 3d at TL3 and say that the Innate Attack and Damage Resistance prices are ok, then if the damage is usually 12d – 16d in for example a TL10 campaign (including the effects of armor divisor), 5 points in Damage Resistance or Burning Attack would give 7 DR or 7d damage.

I am sure a “default” multiplier could be calculated for each TL by analyzing the values for damage and DR present in equipment available at that TL. It could also be fine-tuned for each campaign, since “threat” can vary due to other, setting or campaign style specific factors.

Session 1 impressions and campaign plans

Our first session went excellent. About 2/3 into what I prepared which makes me glad since it’s always best to overprepare rather than underprepare. We also had an impromptu roleplaying of the first encounter between 4-5 and the organics, which actually happened quite some time before the start of the adventure. One part of the setup was that the party is already an established adventuring company, so to speak.

I’m letting the players decide if they’d like to play the campaign like a sandbox on their own initiative, or for me to offer up “quests”. My personal preference would be the former, but for the campaign start I did prepare a classic adventure anyway because it meant we could start playing sooner.

I am also taking a more systematic approach to my preparation than ever before, where I outline an adventure as a series of key points or encounters, and then elaborate on each of them until I have enough detail. That also refines all of the points and brings them neatly together. If the players decide on the more sandboxy approach, I’ll probably make such an outline of several ineteresting locations to explore and let them decide (via rumors and similar) which one they wish to pursue. That one I will refine in the above manner. It would be somewhat simpler in a megadungeon campaign where there’s only one dungeon, but that’s not what I’d like to run at the moment.

One of the options for later expeditions could actually be further exploring the locations on Glacigneous which will be introduced in the coming sessions. That would let me build up on the material I already have, though I would still like for the players to also branch out to other parts of the Hidden Suns afterwards. One of the main reasons I created the mini-setting as a pretty diverse place was to be able to have fun in different interesting environments.

I am still allowing bigger changes to characters, as the players sync up into a functional group. As for spending character point rewards, I will allow it between session as long as the characters had time to rest. I’d let any trait be bought if it makes sense for a character, either due to their concept, or if they can justify acquiring it after their experiences on the session, or if someone can teach them. Otherwise, they’ll have to find and probably pay for training. I don’t feel the need for restricting how many levels of traits they may buy at a time.

Speaking of buying traits, 4-5 has a Computer Brain. I let him buy new programs anytime he’s hooked up to the internet which means he’s pretty much restricted to the Wayfinder between adventures in that regard. I’d also like to enable this possibility in the field, just not anywhere and anytime. My current idea is to have computer hacking “spikes” as consumable items, which would among other things allow the user to extract the programs from any system which could plausibly contain such algorithms. For example, one would be able to download a Gunnery program from a computer found in a derelict defensive installation. The price for a single spike would probably be something like 100 credits, since Computer Brain programs cost in multiples of 100. A certain amount of spikes would need to be consumed to extract a single program, so that their combined value is somewhat more than what it would normally cost to download a program from the internet. I don’t have any concrete ideas for other uses of these spikes at the moment. One would perhaps be to attain a bonus to Computer Hacking or Electronics Operation (Security). In such a case multiple spikes would need to be consumed for a single attempt too, since I wouldn’t want it to be very cheap. Taking a look at quality gear giving a permanent bonus to those skills would be a good starting point.

As a final note, the party has one* gaping hole in its composition. They have no healing capabilities beyond spell amps (Starfinder equivalent of potions). I have suggested to one player that they could take an Ally to remedy that and the idea seems to have stuck. More on that probably in a later post.

*They also don’t have a dedicated “wizard”, but currently I don’t find that nearly as big a problem as not having a healer.

Hidden Suns session 1: Risk and Reward

Date: 2018-07-16

Player Characters (330 points):
ESA1000 45460 (4-5 for organics), humanoid engineering robot
Gaichu Koschei, android infiltrator/assassin
James Titus Kane, human legendary starship Captain of the Stewards Navy (retired)
Alva von Kirchess, aasimar diva / Captain of the Knights of Golarion (retired), breach and clear specialist

Notable NPCs:
Archibald Grey, renowned explorer

After deciding to seek their fortune in the mysterious Hidden Suns nebula, the adventuring company was through their network of contacts introduced to the renowned explorer Archibald Grey. He contacted them online with a job proposal: escort him on a dangerous expedition in search for a specific item, serving as his security detail and performing a wide range of exploration-related tasks. The offer was sound, 5000 credits down payment and a further 25000 after the expedition’s completion (successful or not) for each of them, or an equal share in any treasure found. To be decided at the expedition’s conclusion, which itself should last no longer than a month and a half. Further details he would only reveal in person.

The company accepted the invitation and set out to meet Archibald aboard the starship Wanderer, roaming the Hidden Suns and serving as the base camp for all exploration of the nebula. Recommended by Archibald, they arranged for transport with a tramp freighter captain doing supply runs for the Wanderer.

Approaching the captain to discuss payment, Alva banked on her looks and celebrity reputation to haggle a good price. It didn’t matter – he was star struck to have the legendary Captain James T. Kane as a passenger. He and his entourage were to fly for free. Jimmy Kane!

The flight to the Hidden Suns was uneventful. Alva composed scores for her next album, Gaichu sat in a corner and sharpened his blades, while 4-5 just stood there plugged into a wall socket, browsing the ship’s databanks. He and Gaichu also maintained each other a couple times. Jimmy just enjoyed the captain’s cabin, who graciously turned it over to him for the trip and bunked with the rest of the passengers.

After 19 days in the Drift, the freighter appeared in the Centerpoint system. Asteroids and debris as far as eyes and sensors can see, and a giant metal sphere in the center, letting through what little starlight of the captured star managed to escape it through its rings. The Wanderer was unfortunately at the other side of the system, so they flew another 6 days through the debris.

Reaching the Wanderer, they docked in one of its many hangar bays. Disembarking, Alva went to look for a rental hovertrolley for her baggage pile. Meanwhile, 4-5 made acquaintance with a local load lifter droid. Alva ended up buying the hovertrolley instead of renting it. The freighter captain thanked them for this wonderful opportunity, and gave them his contact details if they needed him in the future.

The company set out to find the Four Point Star hotel where they were supposed to meet with Archibald. Aboard a turbolift, Alva and Gaichu experienced a slight sickness in the stomach, while Jimmy had to hold down his breakfast in his mouth with his hand, muttering something about accursed mid-section gravity planes. The lift opened up to one of the habitat decks, this one with a simulated day and night cycle. It appears it was around noon. On their way through the streets, 4-5 noticed that the ratio of miniature organics still upgrading themselves rapidly to that of the standard models was lower than usual.

Finding the hotel, which appeared to be decently classy but nothing too luxurious, Alva rented a luxury room (bit below her standard really) for three weeks. Exploring this concept of “renting a room”, 4-5 rented one of the cheapest ones, suspecting the receptionist of ripping him off. The small room with a bed folding into the wall and a view to a bulkhead wall didn’t help. Gaichu just manned the bar until their meeting with Archibald tonight. Jimmy soon arrived there too, accompanied by a gaggle of women. Jimmy Kane! Sometime during late afternoon, he just faceplanted on the table, the girls poked him a bit, shrug and left. Gaichu collected him and paid (out of Jimmy’s pocket, as usual) the hotel staff to clean him up and get him back to his room.

It was eventually evening, and Alva came down to the bar in one of her uncountable night-time outfits after an afternoon of relaxation. Gaichu changed his appearance to be wearing a suit for a business meeting. 4-5 was there too, observing once again this strange protocol the organics have for changing their outer shell periodically. Jimmy was still in his room, and would be until sometime tomorrow when he would wake up with a monster hangover.

Archibald arrived, and led the company to join him in a private part of the bar. After the transparent isolation walls closed, he revealed that he was actually looking for the final resting place of the legendary pirate captain Harkwood, the item he was seeking being Harkwood’s equally legendary ship the Black Star Diamond. He came into the possession of a lead to Harkwood’s last destination, in the form of logs belonging to one of Harkwood’s liutenants written just before his departure, inherited by his descendants. Apparently, Harkwood’s last journey was right here to the Hidden Suns, specifically to the planet Glacigneous orbiting one of the Vertices. Alva was suspicious about how was Archibald able to dig up this intel since the Knights of Golarion have always been on Harkwood’s trail and were looking for him since he disappeared those 50 years ago, but haven’t managed to find out anything so far. Gaichu countered that people don’t just go bragging around that their relatives were space pirates, unless they are themselves similar unsavory types, which is not a guarantee. Archibald seemed honest enough and Alva could smell no deception, so she let it go. 4-5 was confused as to why would anyone spend significant resources and embark on a dangerous journey to find something that they weren’t actually sure it was there. Archibald explained that it was called risk, and that without risk there was no reward. Gaichu tangentially brought up the topic of gambling, which 4-5 went to google in his head straight away. He narrowly avoided mental stun, because it definitively did not compute. But he did recognize that this was what Jimmy was doing so often, and some things about his illogical behavior have now started to make sense. The company accepted the deal, received their down payment, and arranged with Archibald to embark on the expedition in three days, in order to obtain some additional gear in the meantime.

The next day, Alva wanted to find out how exactly was the Wanderer governed, but critically failed her Administration roll. She got the impression that it was a completely lawless hive of scum and villainy. Wanting to find out where she could buy some maps of Glacigneous, she went around intimidating the locals until she got a line on some expedition gear stores. The clerk was somewhat perplexed by her request and didn’t really know which price to ask, so he offered it for 10 credits, which Alva bargained down to 5 since he didn’t really care. Downloading the map, it became clear to her why the clerk was so confused. The map was really just an orbital hi-res photo of the planet. There were no detailed maps of Glacigneous, as none of the planets within the Hidden Suns are actually properly charted. It was a good thing she was in a mellow mood, so she also bought some gear from the store.

Gaichu spent the days, aside from shopping, in the bar drinking on Jimmy’s expense, as is customary after Jimmy ends up needing to be taken care of. Jimmy was also drinking on his expense, just much more than Gaichu and in many more establishments. Just before their departure, Alva rented out a secure storage unit for her stuff, and in the meantime managed to discover that there is a semblance of law here, called “don’t do stupid things or all of the active and retired adventurers who live here will draw on you”. The local crime rate was actually very, very low.

Home is where the town is

Every Dungeon Fantasy game needs a Town, and the Hidden Suns campaign is no different. The characters need a safe haven to rest and recover in between adventures, to resupply, and to find out about new opportunities.

The Wanderer is a capital starship (more of a mobile space station) roughly two miles long and half a mile high and wide. It vaguely resembles kasathan design, especially with a rotating ring surrounding the ship in what appears to be a magnetic field lock at the stern, but any kasatha can tell at a glance that it was definitively not built with their technology. Helmed by the mysterious Captain, it roams the five core systems of the Hidden Suns nebula and serves as a staging point for expeditions into the area.

The Captain arrived to the nebula in the early years after the discovery of the Vertices. At first, his ship was often mistaken by other explorers for yet another mystery of the Hidden Suns, due to its unusual design and avoiding contact with other visitors while silenty drifting at the edges of the solar systems. Eventually, contact was made, and the Wanderer gradually opened up its hangar bays to more and more explorers seeking repairs and respite from the nebula’s dangers. Although aloof, the Captain foresaw the cooperation with other explorers would further his own inscrutable goals, so he starting allowing them to set up long-term bases of operation on his vessel. With time, it practically turned into a typical starbase, with a multitude of services for the coming and going visitors.

Originally an immense battleship, the Wanderer already had a lot of vacant hangar space, much of which is now repurposed for habitation. Indeed, the upper decks now comprise a series of large open spaces under the ship’s armored hull. Some resemble shanty towns of containers stacked atop one another while others are little different from domed habitats containing a couple city blocks. Some even go so far as to simulate day/night cycles using huge holovid screens built into the ceilings.

The aft section contains most of the ship’s critical infrastructure – power plants, engines, shield generators etc. With rare exceptions, they are closed off to the “public” and are tended to by miniature maintenance bots ubiquitous throughout the vessel. An artificial gravity plane extends thoughout the horizontal midsection, surrounded on both sides by decks containig life support systems and various non-critical infrastructure. The gravity plane is usually crossed with turbolifts which are constructed in such a way to make the experience as comfortable as possible, yet first-time visitors sometimes lose their lunch anyway.

The lower decks contain hangars, vehicle maintenance bays, warehouses and workshops. It is here that the visiting, smaller spaceships dock and where intrepid explorers set off on their expeditions.

The Wanderer is a safe haven in a sea of danger. Any and all are welcome aboard as long as they behave themselves. Smaller scuffles are tolerated, but as soon as it gets serious the residents themselves rise to take care of the problem, most of them being either active or retired adventurers. Surviving offenders find themselves exiled from the ship and barred from returning. There have been a few occasions where hostile forces attempted attacking the vessel but all of them ended in just a spectacular display of the Wanderer’s exotic beam weapons, the attackers reduced to space dust having failed to dent its shields.

Visitors can find all manner of amenities aboard. Recuperation and and entertainment opportunities are abundant, ranging from plain to exotic. Most space, exploration, adventuring and combat gear is readily available at decent prices while the rest can be special ordered for delivery from Absalom. Indeed, even if the Hidden suns nebula is by no means a well known hotspot, there is more than enough explorers coming and going to have inspired a budding industry catering to them.

The vessel is also frequented by scholars, scientists and corporate types looking for hired help. Such individuals count to find the personell they require among those recuperating from their latest expedition, and indeed, for many adventurers that is a convenient way of finding new opportunities for profit. Those who prefer to explore the Hidden Suns on thier own incentive have access to a wealth of rumors about lost treasures of the nebula, and indeed many of those striking it rich embarked on their journeys based on exactly such information.

Some stats

Wherein the chaotic GM describes some of his house rules for the Hidden Suns campaign, namely for attributes and skills.

I have long been a fan of deconstructed attributes, where ST is split from FP, IQ from Per and Will, and so on. Such an approach produces certain problems, mainly that in my concrete case DX costs just as much as a top-tier talent and IQ merely as a mid-tier one. I really don’t like Per and Will being in lockstep with IQ though, for example all wizards automatically being extremely perceptive and willful just bugs the hell outta me. Especially if reducing secondary attributes counts against the disadvantage limit. Which it doesn’t in my games, even when I’m not using deconstruction.

Anyway, I use the following attribute costs in my games:

Attribute points/level
ST 5
HP 2
HT 5
FP 3
DX 15
IQ 10
Per 5
Will 5
RF 10

The last of them is an entirely new attribute, Reflexes, whose only purpose is to determine a character’s Basic Speed which is equal to RF/2. I allow buying it in half-levels to allow for +/-0.25 of Speed. Basic Move is still coupled to Basic Speed.

My reasoning is as follows. Since a level of HP is worth 2 points, a level of “pure” ST is worth 8. A level of DX grants 0.25 of Basic Speed, so because 0.25 Basic Speed is worth 5 points, a level of “pure” DX is worth 15. The same goes for HT, which leaves a cost of 5 points/level after removing the Basic Speed component. That ends up being only 2 when be subtract 3 for FP which it normally provides. “Pure” IQ is worth 10 points/level, since a level of both Per and Will is worth 5 points each. This brings us to the following costs:

Attribute points/level
ST 8
HP 2
HT 2
FP 3
DX 15
IQ 10
Per 5
Will 5
RF 10

Raising all of those attributes by 1 level gets us exactly the same stats as GURPS RAW, for exactly the same cost. I only have one real problem with these costs: pure HT costs 2 points/level, that’s way too cheap. So I raise its cost to 5 while reducing that of ST to the same value, with no change to the total cost of raising all attributes by 1.

Aside from Talents some other advantages may also suddenly seem overpriced, for example Fit or Hard to Kill/Subdue. However, I directly address only the various ST and DX variants.

For ST-based ones, I calculate their costs by looking taking the ratio of my cost for ST vs the RAW cost of ST minus a level of HP, so 0.625 (5/8). I simply multiply the original costs of these traits with it. That gets us 1.875 for Lifting ST, 3.125 for Striking ST and Telekinesis, and those same values of 1.875 and 3.125 for the one- and two-armed variants of Arm ST (the three-armed variant becomes obsolete due to cost so pure ST should be bought instead). Since those are some ugly fractional values, I round them to the nearest integer.

I can’t use the exact same approach for Arm DX, because the cost of a single level for both arms is already more expensive than a single level of DX. So I just multiply their original values with 0.75, the ratio between my cost for DX and the RAW cost. This leaves us with the following costs for those advantages:

Advantage points/level
Arm DX (one arm) 9
Arm DX(two arms) 12
Arm ST (one arm) 2
Arm ST (two arms) 3
Lifting ST 2
Striking ST 3
Telekinesis 3

As previously hinted, attributes are not the only core character building blocks whose cost I adjust. I use an altered skill progression where the cost of each relative level gets increasingly more expensive. After 2 points in a skill, every subsequent level costs 1 more point to improve than the previous one:

Total points in skill 1 2 4 7 11 16 22 29
Relative level 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5 +6 +7

Average skills of course slap -1 on the relative level, Hard ones -2 and Very Hard ones -3.

The reason for this is that I’m a huge fan of (combat) techniques. It not making sense to improve more than 3 of them per skill because of point efficiency makes me a sad panda. With techniques keeping their RAW cost, this solves that problem. It also causes a new one. Attributes will at some point become cheaper than raising a single skill. Talents even sooner. But that’s a tradeoff I accept because it causes much less trouble in my games, especially because I don’t really allow talents most of the time.

I replace them with what I call “General Skill”. It’s really a free talent representing a “synergy bonus” between skills of a certain “group”. So having a certan amount of points in skills belonging to a single group will increase their level:

Total points in skill group 11 29 56 92 250 every additional 250
General skill bonus +1 +2 +3 +4 +5 additional +1

Notice that up to including 92 the values are actually the costs for certain skill levels, but I don’t remember how I’ve gotten to 250, it was a looooong time ago.

For concrete skill groups we just use the GURPS Skill Groups PDF, although sometimes I also rule ad hoc that it makes sense for a certain skill to also belong to another group.

One last remark in regard to the relationship between the cost of attributes and skills. Since I’m using an ever increasing cost for skills, I should actually do the same for attributes, similarly as was the case in GURPS 3rd edition. For now I’ve decided against it, because I actually very much prefer the flat point costs of attributes in the 4th edition. It just causes a problem I can’t shake with techniques.

If I were to address that in the future, I wouldn’t change the cost of ST because it doesn’t control any skills (yes, I know that’s not true according to RAW but I reroute all such cases to DX) and unlike DX, IQ, Per or Will, any value – no matter how high – makes perfect sense. A robot that can lift 1600000 lbs over its head? ST 1000. But DX, IQ or a skill at level 1000, what does that even mean?

The Vertices

Similarly to Centerpoint, the four stars orbiting the dyson sphere were unimaginatively named The Vertices. All four are G-type stars similar to our own Sun. Scientists have so far failed to reveal any measurable difference between them, and the stars have in the meantime simply been named according to the order in which they were first visited: Vertex Alpha, Vertex Beta, Vertex Gamma and Vertex Delta. Although the stars themselves seem identical, the compositions of their solar systems differ significantly. All share one commonality, however: they are dotted by ruins of bygone civilisations. The following is just a small sampling of planets in their orbits.


One of the farthest planets orbiting Vertex Alpha, Glacigneus doesn’t receive much heat from its sun and its surface is mostly covered by eternal ice and snow. The inhospitable terrain is not entirely devoid of life, but most of the creatures surviving here are equally harsh as the environment.

The remaining portions of the surface are pockets of steamy tropical jungles, gathered around magma flows criss-crossing the planet’s surface. They are inhabited by a wide range of dangerous flora and fauna, and bands of barbaric aliens battle for territory among themselves and the beasts.

Despite its dangers Glacigneus is a popular destination for explorers, as both the glaciers and the jungles hide the remains of a vanished civilisation in their depths. Entire cities of stone structures are encased within the ice or hidden beneath thick layers of flora, with traces of advanced technologies within. Undisturbed for millenia, what secrets could they hold? So far they have brought only misery to their visitors, as survivors report strange machines, undead and indescribable horrors raising from slumber.


By all evidence this was once a prosperous world mostly covered by a single immense city. But sometime during the Gap, a devastating global war engulfed this planet orbiting Vertex Beta. Was it a mad terrorist plot, a civil war or an alien invasion, nobody remembers and all the records are lost. Denuri remains an urban graveyard of decrepit skyscrapers rising high into the atmosphere, multiple sublevels between them, and lower reaches covered with refuse and rubble.

Remnants of the native humanoids survive among the ruins. Their lives are harsh as scavenging is complicated by hostility between the tribes, collapsing debris, haywire servitor robots and more. Addicted to an endemic plant sprouting throughout the urban jungle, they are unable to leave the planet. The few efforts by offworlders to find a cure have so far been fruitless, and the Denurians themselves have very little left in the way of technology or knowledge which could help.

When resources grow scarce, many are tempted to consume more of the plant than is neccessary for survival for the increased strength and resilience it grants. But that is a slippery path, leading to gradual degradation of mental faculties until only feral cunning remains. The body simultaneously grows stronger and twisted, until the afflicted is completely transformed into a monstrous form called the Forsaken by Denurians. As time goes on, their numbers are ever increasing…



Orbiting Vertex Gamma, Ravenus is a hot world of bleak wastelands, jagged cliffs and gigantic skeletal remains of creatures which can only be described as demonic. Its atmosphere is choking and its waters resemble oily blood, poisonous to most living creatures. Small wonder then that it’s inhabited mostly by savage fiends, and indeed the boundaries to the hellish realms are thin across the globe. The opressive landscape is only accented by the visages of the planet’s broken moons.

There are traces of civilisation here, if they can be called that. Grotesque complexes of iron, stone and bone dot the landscape and tunnel into the ground, abandoned, infested by unintelligent monsters or ruled by fiendish overlords in equal measure. Only the insane would venture here, if it weren’t for the promises of vast eldritch secrets and ruinous weapons to be uncovered in hidden vaults. Thus, the desperate and the reckless are the most common visitors in addition to madmen. Few return, and fewer still unscarred.


A planet in the temperate belt of Vertex Delta’s solar system, oceans and other bodies of water cover 80% of Arcad’s surface. The rest is evenly distributed between continents and large island archipelagos. The climate ranges from tropical along the equator to merely cool around the poles, with temperate in between and no frozen or arid areas. And ideal location for a vacation or setting up a colony.

Or it would be, if the natives were more welcoming. They live in small secluded communities and are amenable to negotiation if approached correctly. But woe to anyone who unwittingly breaks one of their taboos, most often by simply entering an unmarked (to the unknowing eye) sacred territory. Of which there are a lot dispersed across the lands. In such cases, they descend upon the oblivious transgressors with unrelentable fury and highly advanced magitech weaponry.

That is also which draws most of the visitors to Arcad. Highly advanced ruins of what appears as highly polished stone but has properties of extremely light and tough metals dot the planet, not so much ruined as abandoned and obviously de-powered. Sometimes inhabited by dangerous creatures, but mostly just guarded by ageless automata, many hope to loot their blend of technology and magic. It is supposed that they were built and inhabited by the natives in ages past, but the mere mention of the ruins is taboo.

The Centerpoint System

Image credit: Stellaris / Paradox Interactive
Image not representative of actual Hidden Suns dyson sphere :P

Where planets would be located in a “normal” solar system, the dyson sphere at the nebula’s center is surrounded by a vast field of asteroids and space debris. None of them have any significant natural resources. The largest ones have a measure of gravity and thin atmospheres, but all are barren. Some surely serve as hidden bases for those wishing not to be found.

A tiny but noticeable portion of the debris field are starship graveyards. Many of these are of unknown design. This has led to speculation that the nebula was over time discovered by various spacefaring civilizations wanting to plunder its riches, only for the would-be conquerors to meet their doom when arriving en masse.

The sphere itself (unimaginatively named Centerpoint by the early explorers who discovered its relation with its companion stars) is about the size of Jupiter, built around a white dwarf star massive just as much as our Sun, but no larger than Earth. It encloses the star almost completely, with only a single equatorial and four meridian-like rings perpendicular to the equatorial one cutting entirely through it and letting a bit of the starlight out.

Those who wish to approach the sphere must first get past its automated defenses. Any incoming vessel will be set upon by an array of blaster turrets. This response is proportional to the perceived threat. Smaller ships only get fired on by a couple turrets and skilled pilots can get them into low orbit, where the barrage ceases, without much trouble. A capital ship would be beset by hundereds, including much more powerful ones. A fleet would be met by the full might of the sphere, obliterating it completely.

The outer surface of the sphere mostly looks like any other space station; exhaust ports, docking bays etc, but no habitat domes. Those are found on the inner side, although there is also an Earth-type breathable atmosphere there. Starships may pass through the ring-like cracks in the sphere, and there are docking ports on the inner side as well.

The inside of the sphere is a tangle of tunnels connecting habitats, factories, hangars, warehouses, maintenance bays and many other kinds of facilities. The inner surface is similarly dotted, the endless metal occasionally interrupted by a habitat dome. Curiously, there are streams, ponds, rivers and even seas of fluids on the inside. Some of them are clearly the byproduct of the sphere’s functioning, but others seem tho have no rational reason to be there other than artificially being placed and maintained. Some are pure and drinkable water, some are saltwater, others are polluted water, and yet others are various other kinds of fluids, sometimes harmful and sometimes not.

The sphere is not inhabited by any sentient creatures, in the manner in which a starbase normally is. It seems to have been abandoned by its creators a long time ago. But there is still an ecology present. In and around the habitat zones, diverse plant and animal life survives. Aside from before unseen exotica, explorers have also noticed familiar life forms, poached from their planets of origin. While many parts of the sphere seem abandoned and disused, some indeed in a state of disrepair and blocked by debris, others are meticulously maintained by a diverse array of ever replenishing robots.

While some ignore any visitors not interfering with their duties, many are hostile on sight. During engagements, they appear to communicate with their targets in various languages, and while most of them are unknown, some are not. In such encounters, they have identified themselves as the Caretakers, and have been urging their targets to “return to their assigned cell blocks”. No known encounter has resulted in anything other than either the total destruction of one of the engaged sides, or the visitors escaping.

There is also other life present on the sphere besides the plants and animals. Some sections are infested by monsters. Others are inhabited by small communities of aliens seemingly transplanted from their native environments. While most of them are hostile, a few can be peacefully interacted with. If they lower their guard enough, they reveal that they do not remember how they have gotten there, only that they have either arrived recently, or have been there for generations. In most cases, they eagerly accept offers of rescue.

Who or what created the sphere, as well as when, why and for what purpose remains a mystery. The Caretakers do not reveal, none of the other inhabitants know, and no records remain. The various station controls use as of yet undeciphered pictograms and are usable by humanoids. Together with the rest of the station construction, they indicate that the creators were humanoid as well. What happened to them is a question many of the more scientifically-minded explorers actively pursue.

The Hidden Suns

One of my main goals for the campaign was to have a self-contained sandbox as the setting. A frontier wilderness ripe for exploration, discovering ancient secrets and plundering them. I could have used some of the star systems presented in the Starfinder sourcebooks for that, but I wanted to do my own thing, with Starfinder serving as solid footing in the background. Some of the main points I wanted to hit were the following:

  • Isolated from the rest of the universe.
  • A dangerous, mysterious frontier only recently discovered by the Pact Worlds.
  • Facilitates exploration, including interesting space travel.
  • Littered with the remains of ancient civilisations, both space-based, overland and underground.
  • A beacon for adventurers and frontiersmen, yet difficult or unattractive for corporations or governments to exploit en-masse.
  • An up and coming favorite of nefarious types to hide from do-gooders and just perform their grotesque experiments in peace
  • Contains a “town” acting as home base between expeditions.

The entirety of the campaign will happen within this sandbox. The only times the characters should leave it would be to go to Absalom for major resupplies, or if the fancy strikes us for one-time journey to one of the Pact Worlds in order to retrieve some resource or similar.

But let’s cut to the chase. I present to you my notes on the Hidden Suns!

Image credit: NASA / ESA / M. Robberto, Space Telescope Science Institute & ESA / Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team.A cluster of stars concealed from the rest of the galaxy by a nebula disrupting outside communications and sensors. In the middle of the nebula there lies an artificial construct, a dyson sphere. Four other star systems were discovered in its vicinity, their suns forming a perfect tetrahedron with the sphere at the center, all revolving around it in perfect sync. Not suspicious at all. A dozen other stars have so far been discovered within the nebula, with thousands more still to be found.

The nebula is a part of the Vast for the purposes of Drift travel (the setting hyperspace-equivalent), 5d days to reach, but the Drift itself is very anomalous within it:

  • Drift travel from anywhere within the nebula to the dyson system takes only 1d/2 days.
  • Travel between the solar systems lasts as long as within a single system normally (1d days)
  • Travel time within the nebula, or from inside the nebula to the outside, isn’t affected by higher rating drift engines.
  • Drift geography is uncommonly rich, making it equally attractive to explorers as realspace (but more dangerous).
  • Small regions of the Drift sometimes temporarily planeshift to realspace, only to return after anywhere between a day and several weeks.
  • Drift matter is sometimes permanently ejected into realspace in “drift geysers”. This never takes the form of objects larger than an asteroid, but often includes creatures from the Drift.
  • Drift storms, theorized to be an advanced form of Drift geysers, sometimes appear in the solar systems as localized “weather” or even cover whole planets. They make all drift travel extremely perilous, wreaking havoc with comms and sensors, while the more intense ones also tear rifts between the planes resulting in discharges of planar energies and crossing over of hostile creatures (most of which get shifted back to their home planes after the storm ends). They are relatively common but thankfully don’t last long, usually anywhere from less than an hour to several days. Longer ones have been observed rarely, with the longest recorded one lasting several months.
  • Those traveling from outside into the nebula always arrive in the dyson sphere system, unless they have good knowledge of the local Drift anomalies and “weather” which allows them to plot their course into other systems.
  • Large masses exiting the drift within the nebula cause short but extremely volatile Drift storms. This can be caused even by lone capital starships, and the effect is worse for whole fleets entering the nebula as a group. Lone ships can sometimes survive, but fleets are decimated.
  • As a theorized sideeffect of these Drift anomalies, there are a lot of planetary and realspace sites where the boundaries between the planes are thin, enabling easy planar travel.

I have focused so much and so early on Drift travel because it strongly sets the stage for exploring the setting. I feel the above points enable and encourage the exploration of both realspace and the Drift in a similar manner as with terrestrial wilderness exploration, without shortcuts that completely safe “hyperspacing” at will between points of interest would enable.

These notes, by the way, are still a work in progress, and are my actual campaign prep notes and thoughts, without much preparation for publishing beyond the very basics. That’s why, for example, neither the nebula nor the five solar systems which are intended as the core of the setting have names yet. I will present most of my material in this manner.

A Starfinder primer

starfindercrbSince I assume most of my audience (hopefully someone read this by now heh heh) are GURPS fans not necessarily familiar with the Starfinder setting, I feel the need for the obligatory exposition. I will try to be relatively brief and interject some personal commentary as for it not to be a pure info dump.

Starfinder is set in the same setting as Pathfinder, but thousands of years in the future. Golarion (the Earth-equivalent where Pathfinder takes place) has vanished and everyone in the universe has forgotten everything which happened earlier than about 400 years ago. All records have similarly vanished. The gods don’t want to talk about it. Instead of Golarion, the massive Absalom space station is located in its orbit around the Sun. The setting is (for now) focused on the Golarion solar system (also called the Pact Worlds), although many others are also described and standard play assumes interstellar travel via a hyperspace-equivalent called the Drift.

That’s actually just another plane of existence, albeit with some quirks I won’t go into right now beyond that it can only be reached via technological means, so no planeshifting to it. In order to (assumingly) simplify travel, travel times through the Drift are the same no matter the distance between two points, the only thing that matters is if the destination is “near” to the galaxy’s center (not necessarily physically, but more in the sense of being easily reachable through the Drift), the so called Near Space, or not – The Vast. In the former case travel takes 3d6 days and 5d6 in the latter, while Drift travel within a single solar system always takes 1d6 days which is marginally faster than traveling with max sublight speed. I like the simplicity, and the setting is definitively not Star Trek. More Star Wars with proper magic. Oh, the Starstone at the core of Absalom Station is a beacon for Drift travel, so the station is always just 1d6 days away.

All of the classic Pathfinder races are also present in Starfinder, but they’re not in the focus, that role is taken by the brand new ones. We have near-humans with forehead-antennae originally from the same world as elves (Lashuntas), four-armed protoss-lookalikes with an affinity for the local variant of the Force (Kasathas), big militaristic lizardmen (Vesk), living androids (Androids, doh), insect-people who only recently discovered individuality (Shirrens) and diminutive ratfolk (Ysoki). Many others are also available from the alien creatures sourcebook.

Gods are still an important part of the setting, although the split between arcane and divine magic is gone now, everything is just magic and there is an additional “school” of technomagic. Some of the old gods are no longer as commonly worshipped as before and there are a couple of new ones, for example the patron deity of technology who also happens to be the “owner” of the Drift. One magical discipline is obviously heavily inspired by the Force from Star Wars, with a skin of manipulating the dual cosmic energies of radiant stars and dark black holes. Creation and destruction, light and darknes, push and pull, yin and yang. Its wielders, the Solarians, are the local pyschic warrior equivalent. As of now, there are no explicit psionic powers in the setting, everything is just magic.

Technology is “standard” space opera, meaning a kitchen sink of basically anything possible although for the purposes of my campaign I have pegged the TL at 10. It’s rather safe-tech, no transformative effects are assumed. A bit of everything, but nothing extremely exotic. Cybertech and biotech are common, together simply called augments. Since the setting inherits from Pathfinder there is also necrotech (corpse ships, necrografts etc), and one of the “core” Pact World members is a race of undead (Eoxians). There’s also the obligatory Cthulhu influence in the form of some gods, elder things, and the outermost planet of the Golarion system for which some assume is a gestating Outer God.

I don’t find the setting exquisite, but it’s decent and I forsee good fun to be had with it. Creating a bounded sandbox within it for the campaign has certainly been so.