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.

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.

Glacigneus

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.

Denuri

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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…

Ravenus

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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.

Arcad

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.