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It is the dawn of the sixth millennium and the skies are darkening, for the suns themselves are fading. Humans reached the stars long ago, building a Republic of high technology and universal emancipation — and then squandered it, fought over it, and finally lost it. A new Dark Age has descended on humanity, for the greatest of civilizations has fallen and even the stars die. Now, feudal lords rule the Known Worlds, vying for power with fanatic priests and scheming guilds.
A science-fiction role-playing game by Holistic Design company, designed by Bill Bridges and Andrew Greenberg, known also for their work on The World of Darkness games.
In the near future, Earth unifies politically under the aegis of international megacorporations. Corporate rule quickly turned oppressive, yet the First Republic also saw exploration and economic development of Solar System. Then, in the 24th Century, humans discovered the Stargate, a first proof (excluding several dubious findings on Mars) of extraterrestrial civilisation. What's more important, the huge artifact opened the door to the Jumpweb left by the ancient race, dubbed Ur or Anunnaki.
The corporations seized the opportunity; quickly, though, they discovered their inability to exert control over the colonists, who, one community after another, declared themselves independent from Earth. Thus the Diaspora was born. Many of these communities were led by charismatic people, often forming ruling clans. These clans, for added splendor, often traced their lineages to royalty and aristocracy of pre-Space Earth, becoming noble houses.
The discovery of alien civilisations was a blow to already weak organised religions, and various sects, Anunnaki cults and others sprang up. Among them, the most notorious (and most hunted, due to its dangerousness to corporate and social order) was the Sathra cult, popular among starship pilots. In the 28th Century, Zebulon, a Christian - either Catholic or Orthodox - priest took to the stars, hoping for some kind of sign. The illumination he found was beyond his dreams. He became the Prophet of a new, ultimate faith, preaching to humans and aliens of the Diaspora, performing miracles and gathering Apostles and followers, who after his death wrote the Omega Gospels and started the Church of Celestial Sun.
In the early to mid-fourth millenium, inspired by the Church and ideas of free trade and philosophies of human rights, the people of the Diaspora united again, forming the mighty Second Republic. It was a period of unparallelled progress; people settled countless worlds, scientists were on track to prove anything was possible, illnesses and hunger belonged to legends, and medical care made even the most suicidal of extreme sports safe. But all things come to an end.
Closing to the turn of millenium, cheap robotic and alien labour left many jobless, scientific experiments began to turn Frankensteinian, the man-on-the-street linked the Republic with heavy taxes and political squabbles. And above all, stars began to fade. While one by one, border worlds were leaving the republic, at its heart people turned to noble houses preaching the ideals of noblesse oblige. The ten most powerful of these took up arms to fight the separatists, but to save the Republic was not their intention. Finally, the Ten conquered the capital world and Second Republic came to an end.
The first half of the fifth millenium became known as the New Dark Ages. Most people became simple peasants, The Church prohibited advanced technology, nobles ruled from their castles, and remnants of Republican know-how formed Guilds. When barbarians of former separatist worlds invaded, one man - Vladimir of House Alecto - stood to fight them. He managed to unite the forces of the Known Worlds (as the core worlds of human space were now called) behind him and drove off the invaders, but was assassinated during his crowning by an unknown assailant (though gossip says he was killed by daemons).
Vladimir, however, did leave an apparatus of administration - and a precedent. In the 50th Century, one Imperial claim unleashed an avalanche, plunging the Known Worlds into a five-way (as five of the original Ten perished or lost their influence in the meantime) war, with the Church and Merchant League eyeing the situation in case of a possibility to establish a theocracy or another republic. But one man - Alexius Hawkwood - managed to gather the support of the Church and League, forged an alliance with Houses al-Malik and Li Halan, defeated his opponents, and crowned himself as Emperor Alexius the First.
The new Emperor took swiftly to rebuilding the Known Worlds after the war. Instead of imposing his rule by force of his army, Alexius opted for a more charismatic and peaceful lead, by inspiring others to join him and stirring the old power structures to release the eager young. Thus he started a period of opportunity and hope - a perfect time for those who want to forge their own destiny.
...And this is when the Player Characters appear.
A great strength of the game is its versatility - do you like court intrigues? It's here. War stories? At least three fronts at the moment. Hard SF or space opera? We've got the ships, we've got the weapons. Guilds and fleets await. Soft SF, fantasy elements? Psionic powers, Ur ruins, Church demonology in the countryside. Lovecraftian horror? Daemons and Void Krakens. Cyberpunk? Guild affairs at the lowest levels of megacities. Dungeon crawl? Ur ruins and forgotten Republican complexes still here. Even D&D-style heroic fantasy, if you try.
The creators' idea for a game is Passion Play, that is, to view the adventures of the Player Characters as a saga of Mankind's redemption.
This RPG provides examples of:
- Apocalypse How -- the stars themselves are getting dim (hence the title) for reasons unknown. Also, a taste of After the End since the fall of republic.
- Blue Blood -- both nice and nasty.
- Bug War -- the Symbiots. Though they're as much plants as they are bugs.
- Burn the Witch -- we've got the Church, we've got feudalism, so don't say you didn't see the Inquisition coming...
- Casual Interstellar Travel -- in the form of the Stargates. Though still too expensive for the planet-bound serfs who make up 80% of the population.
- The Church -- Fading Suns is the kind of Feudal Future which comes with Medieval-style religiosity, so a multitude of Church tropes is quite welcome. The Church divides into several sects:
- Urth Orthodoxy is your typical Christianity Is Catholic In Space, forming most of the Church hierarchy in both forms and supplying Sinister Ministers and Good Shepherds to the masses internally and abroad;
- The Brothers Battle are Warrior Monk future incarnate of The Knights Templar, down to the banking and rumours of heresy;
- Eskatonics are an eccentric bunch of mystics and wizards, known among the common folk as weird doomsayers, and in Church circles, as having irritating tendency to delve into heterodox views;
- The Avestites are a rather fanatical sect which treats the concept of "burning away sins" quite literally. And liberally, too;
- The Amaltheans are Actual Pacifists and Good Shepherds to the last one, bringing free healthcare to the masses. Well, as long as you don't mind the preaching and occasional penances.
- When something still doesn't fit, you may be looking at one of the minor monastic communities, heretics, or various pagan faiths.
- Church Militant -- the Church has its own army, plus the Inquisition, plus the ability to quickly whip up a Torches and Pitchforks angry mob.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive -- bad image is more common with the freemen than with the two other classes; the Guildsmen are perceived as motivated by greed, while the other have their fig leaves of piety or honour.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus -- the Church of the Celestial Sun, though it is better described as an evolved and amalgamated form of organised religions of today... It even has Jesus as a saint.
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul -- this is the official stance of Church, but cyberpsychosis does indeed occasionally occur.
- The Dark Side -- Psis and theurges who don't adhere to proper codes of conduct suffer from The Corruption; Urge for psis and Hubris for theurges. This is played with, however, as both Urge and Hubris are judged by relativistic standards rather than absolute morality. Urge is caused by violating the norms of your society, and Hubris is caused by violating the beliefs of your religious sect, irrespective of whether a factual sin (which do exist, and can be measured) was committed.
- Deadly Decadent Court -- in particular, House Decados has scheming as favourite pastime, also obviously the Imperial Court.
- Deflector Shields -- somewhat Dune-like. You can slip your blade "under" the activating force threshold (as in Dune), or try to overwhelm it with raw strength. One notable difference from Dune is that energy weapons won't cause any mutually destructive reactions with shields, though plasma and fire damage has a small chance of leaking through a shield.
- Does This Remind You of Anything? -- well... It's kind of like Warhammer and its relation to JRR Tolkien and Renaissance Europe - at first glance it's almost a ripoff, but when you begin to explore it, you discover it is quite worthy of interest on its own.
- Superficial similarities to Warhammer are just that: superficial. This setting has a real sense of humanity struggling to survive, to hold on to what it's got. Warhammer is just far too 'big picture' to have anything but a passing resmblance. If you have doubts, simply recall that the Imperium is perfectly willing to sacrifice planets to save sectors, and sectors to save even larger regions.
- Eldritch Abomination -- The Void Krakens, natch. They dwell in the darkness between stars, making hyperspace the less scary (and lethal) alternative to interstellar travel in the setting.
- The Empire
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture -- each noble house has a feel:
- House Hawkwood are Anglo-Germanic/Scandinavian/Celtic, with an upbeat, anything-you-do-a-Hawkwood-can-do-better, noblesse oblige attitude (in short, Atreides Expy);
- Hazat are Hispanic with roots in our Latin America with appropriate machoistic, honour-obsessed culture;
- Decados are Russians with a backstabby mentality quite out of Renaissance Italy, and they like it (the House Harkonnen Expy);
- Li Halan is a mix of Chinese and Japanese with an added twist of being fervently religious after a great reformer turned them from their sorcerous and pagan ways;
- al-Malik are sophisticated Arabic/Semitic types with occasional dashes of Hindu, who are fond of philosophy and trade and speaking in Ice Cream Koans (also limousine liberal Space Jews);
- apart from the minor houses (of whom some have a distinct cultural feel, while others are too insignificant) there are also Vuldroks (the Space Vikings), Kurgans (the Space Caliphate, another kind of Space Arabs mixed with Mongol elements), and Zuranists (a kind of Space Gypsies and Space Jews mix). Alien races are usually Space Elves and/or Noble Savages.
- The original intention was to create noble families that might have once been Russian (Decados) or Hispanic (Hazat) etc, but four of the five Royal Houses are at least 2,500 years old. The youngest are The Hazat (never House Hazat), who have a mere 1,000 years under their belt. This results in the Li Halan being about as 'Chinese & Japanese' as British people are Roman. Since around the 26th Century the number of noble Houses declined from over 70 to around 15, usually due to their absorption by larger Houses (or their conquest, then absorption). The Royal Houses in the 51st Century are a patchwork of ethnicities, usually only linked by the House name. Even the name 'Li Halan' suggests a fusion of separate ethnicities (Oriental with Caucasian) over two and a half millennia prior.
- The Federation -- the old Republic.
- Feudal Future
- Five-Man Band -- the Houses seem to correspond to this kind of dynamic:
- Grim Up North -- well, is there any other reason for the Vuldrok planets to be placed "above" the Empire on the star chart? Funnily enough, Vuldrok culture was engineered during the fall of Second Republic, so it might have even been invoked.
- Humans Are Bastards -- there are many alien races, but usually restricted to reserves. Guess why. On the other hand, at least one alien race, the Ukar, could have been just as nice if they won.
- Hyperspace Is a Scary Place -- an inversion: hyperspace (what is between the Stargates) actually is the safe way. It's the interstellar space (beyond Kuiper's Belt) which is filled with shapeless Cthulhoid monstrosities going by the lovely name of Void Kraken. Still, spaceships jumping through hyperspace need to be protected by special shields, because otherwise people experience a strongly addictive quasi-religious epiphany, known as the Sathra effect.
- Unfortunately played very literally by most, including characters within the setting - going all the way down to: 'This is the lovely, Pancreator-blessed space all the way up to the Jumpgate, and that is the nasty, demon filled space starting just behind it.' Some systems have Pluto-style planets with orbits that oscillate beyond that of the Jumpgate, which is apparently enough to make them demon-haunted places that people seldom return from.
- Imported Alien Phlebotinum -- the Jumpgates, not to mention how a lot of crucial technologies (anti-gravity, for example) are reverse-engineered versions of Vau tech.
- Lost Technology -- plenty of, due to the fall of the Republic. There is a major guild making quite a profit by digging it up. The Ur artifacts may also count (particularly to Oro'ym who appear to have been once a star-faring species), but given how they work, it's probably closer to Lost Magical Artifacts than to Lost Technology.
- Mega Corp -- the Guilds (at least the biggest ones) are descendants of such and may share some traits.
- Neo-Medieval Stasis -- justified by the Church declaring tech evil for everyone except the rich, the noble and the ordained and everyone else in a state of shock after the fall of Republic. The game is set in a period when the stasis is ending.
- Mohs Scale of Sci Fi Hardness -- the system tries to act tough once in a while, but is a big softie.
- Our Elves Are Better -- ur-Obun and ur-Ukar are pretty much space elves and space dark elves.
- It's actually far closer to the Vulcan/Romulan relationship than simply something in space.
- Point Build System -- yay for making your character miss a leg to get that lovely monofilament sword. But a d20 version also exists.
- Portal Network -- Stargates again.
- That it exists is the only thing that can really be said. Use the system they wrote for the game (VPS).
- Precursors -- and occasional Ancient Astronauts, responsible for the Jumpgate network.
- Psychic Powers -- there are two kinds of it: one is ritualistic religious magic, the other is your common choking people Vader-style or reading minds.
- It is heavily hinted that Theurgy (religious 'magic') and Psychic powers are simply two different applications of the same thing. Both are invoked using the same 'inner battery' and have incremental level-based powers. Even the Vuldrok and Kurgan versions are simply applications of awoken human abilities applied in different ways.
- Psychoactive Powers -- in terms of game mechanics, activating psychic powers needs a test of an appropriate Spirit characteristic plus appropriate skill. In-game, it means an introvert, calm person won't go Shock and Awe unless he can make up for the lack of spirit with proper training, while a passionate extrovert will have it come naturally.
- Scary Dogmatic Aliens -- the Vau. Guys who could smash humanity with marginally more effort than is needed to swat a fly, but don't feel like it, because their dogmatism is all about strict isolationism and rigid social order. So, pretty much Inscrutable Oriental In Space.
- Science Is Bad -- a part of the Church's teachings. Of course, important people exercise "extreme penance" and can thus operate high technology so that the lesser folk "doesn't have" to "endanger" their souls.
- Soulsaving Crusader -- Played straight sometimes, subverted at other times. The "extreme penance" required of psychics does work and is helpful to reduce Urge, and some psychics and theurges can literally see people's sins and know the means to correct them. On the other hand, the Church doesn't always get it right; for example, the Pancreator does not agree that Invention is a sin, and Cybernetics Eat Your Soul is more or less incorrect.
- That is of course assuming the Pancreator is as humans believe 'him' to be. The religious angle is a very subtle dig at how mythologies erupt around people. The Prophet may (as in probably) actually have been just another man, who simply had a group of companions later venerated as saints ('Saint Paulus' was actually a pilot called Paul Deveroux).
- The Church's reasoning is beginning to fall apart because they preached that the Fading Suns (which began a thousand years earlier, but had happened in earlier times) were being caused by humanity's technological hubris (that science and technology were the source of the sin that was letting the demons fade the suns). Unfortunately a thousand years of penance has resulted in exactly nothing changing.
- Space Opera
- Space Is an Ocean -- the starships are very expensive to produce and repair so it's in nobody's interest to blow them to smithereens during battle: this means that after a few shots to disable the enemy's main weapons, the ship is boarded by marines who, using bladed weapons, make their way to the bridge (get the Charioteer) and the drive section (get the Engineer) and generally try to take over the ship with as minimal damage to the ship as possible. Also, the weapons are very short range (for distances in space) and thus any exchange of fire happens at distances of kilometers or less. According to Word of God, Fading Suns spacefaring is supposed to emulate the age of sail.
- The Stars Are Going Out -- as in the title, for reasons unknown. According to one legend that may or may not be true, inverted. A star supposedly blazed to new life at the moment Alexius Hawkwood took the throne.
- Sword Fight -- the nobility likes to solve their issues by duelling, thus sword fights abound.
- Most of the nobility does that with rapiers. House Hazat prefers larger, heavier swords, which could be read as anything from a longsword to a two-handed claymore. The more rustic among Hawkwood can sometimes be seen with swords and shields.
- Vibro Weapons
- Razor Floss -- swords of monofilament (wireblades) are often prized Ancestral Weapons.
- Used Future -- the areas with higher tech levels tend to be full of slums, Back Alley Doctors offering used cybernetics, rust and dirt, while the high-tech stuff itself (like starships) tends to be centuries old and dilapidated.
- Weird Trade Union -- the Guilds. The great five are:
- The Charioteers are space pilots and interstellar traders;
- The Engineers are (obviously) The Engineers and Science Inc. (however, they're probably closer to a Masonic lodge than to a trade union);
- The Muster are officially a job intermediary agency, in practice mainly Private Military Contractors and slavers;
- The Reeves are amoral attorneys and bankers;
- The Scravers are The Syndicate IN SPACE!!!, with a knack for digging up lost tech.
- And it gets even better with the minor guilds.
- We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future -- Played straight in the New Dark Ages, notably averted (unfortunately, for millions of people) in the Second Republic era.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human? -- everyone is a racist, which is particularly seen given the difference between al-Malik talk about freedom and equality and their treatment of their vassal alien races.
- This is almost entirely the fault of the Church and something called the Doctrine of the Unethical Alien. Despite the fact that there is a minor sect of the Church that was founded by the Prophet's one alien disciple, the Pancreator apparently values human souls that bit more.
- World Half Full -- it's full of exploitation, prejudice, dirt and decay and yet on the other hand firmly on the idealist side of Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.