Star Charts of the New Frontier

Nearly 200 years ago, several of the major mining clans created the New Frontiers Consortium, pooling their financial resources together to fund a private astrometric project on a never before seen scale. After two decades of surveying the outer edge of the galactic arm with telescopes to search for stars with exceptionally high metalicity, which favors the formation of large numbers of rocky planets with rare heavy elements, over 500 star systems were selected for further close up prospecting missions. The precise astrometric measurements of the stars’ positions, movement, velocity, and gravitational interactions required for calculating hyperspace jumps took more than another decade until the first survey missions could be launched.

Once the first survey reports from the most promising planets came in, the members of the consortium rushed their vast mining fleets into the New Frontier to stake their claims. While first seen as a great success, the initial gold rush that saw millions of miners from the home systems sign up for very well paying 10-year-contracts lasted only for a good 50 years. The first planets that had been mined did indeed provide resource deposits of exceptionaly high concentrations which were easily accessible with only limited amount of energy. But it turned out that the quality of the New Frontiers project had been so high that it had located nearly all of the grade A++ sites before the mining fleets had even launched, and the anticipated  discovery of many more new sites of comparable quality never materialized. Large scale mining on the new worlds continued for another hundred years, but the high transportation cost of hauling the metals back to shipyards and factories made it no more profitiable than mining more labor and energy intensive deposits much closer to the home systems. Once it became cheaper to simply move the mining fleets back into the established borders of Known Space, most of the mining clans pulled out of the New Frontier. There are still vast amounts of highly valuable metals in the New Frontier that continue to be mined by smaller independent mining companies, but the profits are comperatively low and not worth the time of the mining clans.

Since there are still 200 million people living in the New Frontier, even after the departure of the mining fleets, the New Frontiers Consortium still continues to release new updated hyperspace charts for the routes between settled planets and a planets that might still have economic value for independent miners. But the charts for the New Frontier now only cover around 300, barely more than half of what is found on outdated charts from over a century ago. And a large number of the systems are home only to refuelling and repair stations along the main routes.

Alien Suns

Something that has kept coming up to be bothering me over the last few months is how rarely space stories pay any attention to sunlight. Space is typically portrayed as dark and cold, and for the vast empty interstellar space that makes up most of the universe, this is actually true. But the space within a solar system is anything but. The name should give it away. The vicinity of a star is absolutely blasted with light and harmful radiation, with the small shadows of planets and moons being the only places where you can possibly escape from it. The only good exception to this that I am aware of is Rogue One, and despite its countless failings as a Star Wars movie, I really love the incredible lighting in the final space battle scenes.

When you’re in orbit around the Earth, the sunlight would be like on the clearest day with the bluest sky, in the middle of summer at noon, except without a good 100km of atmosphere to diffuse and block some of the most intense radiation. In space movies and games where ships jump directly from planets to planets, all space scenes should look as bright as this.

Another thing is that typically you see the daylight on alien planets to look just like on Earth. This is of course convenient when you are shooting on film outside, but these days movies get digital color adjustments anyway, and there is no excuse for videogames that can just make up any kind of lighting they want. Even though various types of stars don’t look that much different from the distance of a planet that isn’t completely incinerated or frozen, there’s still a lot more you can do than just having a generic Earth Sun in the sky. Again, it’s Star Wars that stands out, but I don’t recall seeing a cool sky like Tatooine anywhere else in fiction. Even when there’s all kinds of crazy giant moons in the sky, we don’t typically see the sun at all, since you don’t want to have it in the frame when shooting film. But there’s so much more cool stuff that you can do with your suns.

In non-visual mediums, bringing the look of the lighting of the environment to life is of course much more difficult. But as someone who is into all this space and stars stuff, I think it’s still something that is worth incorporating in the description of planets and space scenes. Even if it’s just as minor details no more prominent than occasionally mentioning smells and sounds of alien environments.

Randomizing Suns

In Iridium Moons, routes to stars are only charted and published if a star has any planets that anyone might want to visit. So when coming up with a random kind of star that characters might fly to, what we’re really interested in is not the average frequency of different types of stars, but what types of stars are likely to be the sun of a planet that is being visited. Getting really good numbers about how common various kinds of stars are is quite difficult, and we really have not much to go on to determine what even makes planets around them worth visiting. So the following table I created is only partly based on actual astronomical data and to a good extend just edjucated guessing.

Type Frequency Binary
Red Dwarf 50% 25%
Orange Dwarf 30% 35%
Yellow Star 10% 45%
Red Giant 4% 40%
Yellow-White Star 3% 55%
White Dwarf 2% 40%
White Star 1% 65%

Larger stars like blue giants or supergiants are much less common, as are neutron stars and black holes, and they are so rare that I didn’t include them on this table. These stars can show up as a deliberate design choice for a special planet, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to include them if there’s only going to be a couple dozen star systems in total. Systems with more than two stars also exist, but they are also very rare.

Star Types

Stars come in a wide range of types, but ultimately they are all giant balls of hydrogen and helium whose gravity is strong enough to create the pressure to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium atoms and release huge amounts of energy that make all the gases glow bright hot. There are also several types of objects that are left behind after all the fusion processes have ended, which are better described as stellar remnants but typically treated as kinds of stars as well. There are also brown dwarfs, which are large balls of hydrogen gas that can become hot enough to glow in visible light, but they don’t really light up in the way stars do.

The main traits of stars and the different classifications that come from them are pretty straightforward. The more massive a type of star is, the larger its size, the faster its fusion, the hotter its temperature, the greater its brightness, the more dangerous its radiation, and the shorter its total lifetime. Even though larger stars have more fuel, they fuse it much faster and burn through it much sooner. Since larger stars are shorter lived and the conditions for their formation are more rare, the larger a type of star is, the more rare it is in the universe.

Red Dwarfs are the smallest and by far the most common type of stars. While they don’t have a lot of fuel to start out with, they burn through it very slowly and are extremely long lived. Even the first red dwarfs that formed right after the big bang have still not used up even 1% of their hydrogen. Since their temperature it literally only “red hot”, they produce mostly red light with only increasingly small amounts of yellow, green, and blue light. However, with the way that human eyes work, all these colors blur together into white light that is slightly leaning towards the yellow-red, making them more a pale orange than actual red to sight.

Orange Dwarfs are the next size of stars, being somewhat smaller and less bright than the sun. They mostly produce orange light, but again this results in only a slight orange tint probably no more dramatic than normal sunlight on Earth early in the morning or the late afternoon. Orange dwarfs make up an eighth of all stars and live about several times as long as the Sun, and they are also exceptionally stable in the amount of light and radiation they emit during their lifetime. This provides a lot of time for life to evolve into complex multicelular creatures and then stay around for several billions of years. They are quite possibly the most common type of sun for planets that have native life.

Yellow Stars are the same kind of stars as the Sun. They are much less rare than red and orange dwarfs, but still relatively common among the many billions of stars in a galaxy. Their radiation is energetic enough to probably make it difficult for life to evolve on the surface of planets without strong magnetic fields and dense atmospheres, but that’s less an issue for life existing entirely underwater.

Yellow-White Stars are slightly larger and hotter than the Sun. This makes their total lifetime shorter and their radiation more dangerous, which makes it somewhat less likely for them to have planets suitable for life, but it can still happen on rare occasions.

White Stars are even bigger and hotter, releasing a lot of harmful radiation and having a lifetime only a tenth of that of the sun. They also make up less than a percent stars in a galaxy, so finding any complex life that evolved around a white stars seems very unlikely.

Blue Giants are the most massive of all stars. They are extremely rare and live for just a few million years, and produce the brightness of many thousands of Suns. Because they are incredibly hot, the plasma expands to absolutely gigantic sizes. There are no real reasons to visit them other than for study.

Red Giants are the final phase of orange, yellow, and yellow-white stars. At the end of their lives, the energy released by fusion in their core increases dramatically, causing the hydrogen around the core to become extremely hot and expand massively to many thousands of times the star’s original size. Planets close to the star end up falling into it, and any planets that previously had mild temperatures will be completely roasted as the sun covers the entire sky. Hoever, previously frozen stars further out may thaw and become quite suitable for settlements and colonies for several millions of years, though the evolution of new life in such a short time frame seems very unlikely. Ultimately the expanding hydrogen will have moved so far away from the core that its gravity can no longer hold on to it and the hydrogen simply floats away into interstellar space, leaving the burned out core behind with no more fuel to continue fusion.

White Dwarfs are the left over core after the end of a red giant. Red dwarfs will also turn into white dwarfs eventually, but since they are so incredibly long lived this has never happened yet in the universe. The white dwarf is only the size of a rocky planet but also extremely dense and may still have as much mass as the Sun. It is also still glowing white hot and the vacuum of space is an extremely efficient insulator, continuing to glow far beyond the deaths of the last stars in the very distant future. White dwarfs can still have some of their planets, and while they would appear no larger than any other stars in the sky, they would still be very bright and cover the planets in dim daylight. Since the kinds of stars that end up as white dwarfs are quite common, white dwarfs can be expected to be quite numerous as well, even though they are very dificult to detect.

Red Supergiants and Hypergiants are the final phase of white stars and blue giants. They are similar to red giants but of course much larger than even those.

Neutron Stats are similar to white dwarfs but are produced in the supernovas of red supergiants. When a core is able to grow to a size much larger than a white dwarf, it’s own gravity is enough to crush atoms into a single giant ball of neutrons and the incredible shockwave of this event blow the rest of the star apart. The resulting neutron star is much more dense than a white dwarf and only the size of a modestly large asteroid. If a neutron star gets too large, its gravity can even crush the neutrons into pure energy and it turns into a Black Hole.

Retro-futuristic Space Opera

This is Iridium Moons.

It’s a retro-futurisic space opera that I’ve been working on on and off for about the last year for a swashbuckling adventure RPG campaign. The original idea came from some vague plans to run a big cool campaign in the classic Star Wars d6 RPG, which I have been thinking about for many years now. But as I’ve been playing around with ideas, I became increasingly aware of how much baggage gets piled up when you invite people to “a Star Wars campaign”. While I am as big a Star Wars fan as you can be without it becomes embarassing, I am really very much only a Classic Star Wars fan, and the number of works in my own headcanon of what Star Wars is truly about that came out after 1998 can be counted on one hand. Unless I could get together a group of only hardcore 90s EU fans like me, it just wouldn’t be the kind of campaign that I’d want it to be. Obviously, there’s only one logical thing to do in such a situation, and that’s to create a new space opera setting from scratch. One that emulates all the things I really love from the original movies and 90s Star Wars, discards the elements that I never was that hot about, and adds a lot of new original ideas. To become something similar, but new.

The Sources

Since I originally started looking for ideas for a space opera setting nearly a year ago, a short list of main influential sources has solidified from all the works that I’ve been browsing. Roughly in order of importance.

  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Shadows of the Empire
  • Knights of the Old Republic
  • Dune
  • Kenshi
  • The Wrath of Khan
  • Prey (2017)
  • Mass Effect 2
  • StarCraft
  • Blade Runner
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • Bioshock
  • Cowboy Bebop

Something I always find very imporant in great campaign settings is that the fiction of the world meshes well with the mechanics of the game, so that the gameplay moves that are logical and efficient for the players also make sense as actions for the characters within the events they are experiencing. A good mechanical choice for a player should also be a good narrative choice for the character. You don’t want to have situations in which the players want one thing for reasons related to the story, but do a different things because it will be much more effective in the game mechanics. If you build a campaign setting for a game, it always helps a lot to consider the structures created by the rules, and incorporate them into the material you create.

I started working on this setting while I was learning the rules of Stars Without Number. The rules for space travel in particular became quite influential for how I decided these things to work in Iridium Moons. I’ve also been looking into Scum and Villainy and Coriolis, and is it turned out, all three games are based on very similar premises and core assumptions about the game world. I am actually quite convinced that Stars Without Number and Scum and Villainy drew several major ideas directly from Coriolis. Currently, Coriolis is my favorite out of the three, but that won’t have to be a fixed decision for all time. As the setting is taking shape, all three of them should work perfectly with it if the others turn out not to be that fun to play mechanically.

The Style

The main two cornerstones for my own image of how the world of Iridium Moons looks like and feels like are the Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back and Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi. Those two places should be possible to exist somewhere in the New Frontier of Known Space almost unaltered. The whole purpose of Iridium Moons is to create a setting where these two places would fit in perfectly.

I’m also a big sucker for Art Deco. The architectural and interior design style of the early 20th century just looks amazing. It’s bold without being gaudy, monumental but also looking restrained. Very distinguishing and classy, but it also looks great when run down and filthy, similar to the decay seen in Blade Runner and Bioshock. In Mass Effect 2, the planet Illium is kind of a blend between the two. And of course, you also see it in Cloud City.

Evoking such aesthetic styles isn’t easy in non-visual mediums, but thinking about it led me to the idea to draw heavily on the late 19th and early 20th century as a source for inspirations as a general thing. Instead of World War 2 style fighter planes and aircraft carrier battles as seen in Star Wars, going with World War 1 style dreadnaughts with no air support could make an interesting change in how space warships are designed and fight battles. Instead of soldiers decked out in all kinds of modern high tech gadgets, helmets inspired by early gas masks and flying goggles could also be really cool. What if passage from one planet to another takes several weaks, like taking a steam ship from England to India or Australia? 1910 in space is a style I’ve never really seen before, but which I think could be just as cool as Star Wars’ 1950 in space appproach.

The Themes

I think when I was first thinking about creating a space opera setting, I was currently having both Dune and Cyberpunk 2077 on my mind. And the futuristic megacorporations of the cyberpunk genre are really not that different from the industrial barons of the early 1900s. Saburo Arasaka is practically completely interchangeable with J.P. Morgan. And Baron Harkonen and Duke Leto from Dune aren’t really that different either. There is a reason they were called “industrial barons”. They were the new nobility of their day. To tell the truth, the whole Rebels against the Empire thing in Star Wars was never one of the big highlights of that setting for me. The world of smugglers and bounty hunters was always much more intriguing, and both Lando and Jabba, as well as Xixor in Shadows of the Empire make it very clear that the line between the crime world and the business world doesn’t actually exist. This is an environment that I find many times more interesting than big industrialized wars between great political powers. Super-rich industrialists and businessmen with their ridiculously massive companies are an interesting alternative to noble houses and national leaders as the main movers and shakers of a setting, and a different type of villain.

The early 1900s where the prime era of the labor movement in Europe and North America, with the formation of all kinds of socialist parties and even communist militias, and an expectation that the conflict over wages and working conditions would boil over into a full out civil war. Which in Eastern Europe, it actually did. As a true red blooded social democrat until the day I die, I’ve been thinking very deeply many times about the great question of how the struggle for freedom and equality through solidarity has not just repeatedly but regularly ended up in bitter infighting and brutal oppression. The simple conflict of workers getting exploited by industrialists isn’t very interesting. Simply because it’s too obvious and clear cut. You know who the good guys and the bad guys are and who is right and who is wrong. However, the rivalry and infighting among those who are supposedly on the good side is something I’ve almost never seen explored in fiction in general, and RPGs in particular. This is somewhat played with in StarCraft with the Terran campaigns. Arcturus Mengsk starts out as a revolutionary leader fighting against a genocidal dictatorship, but then throws his own lieutenants to the hounds to make himself the new emperor.

Based on all these ideas, the main concept for Iridium Moons now revolves around the New Frontier of Known Space, a remote region far away from the homeworlds of the major species where there are no governments but only giant mining companies and merchant consortiums. Big businesses claim entire planets on the edges of explored space, strip mine them for two or three generations until the profit margin drops, and then move on to new targets. Left behind are former workers who either can’t or won’t go looking for greener pastures and instead attempt to make a living salvaging broken and discarded mining equipment or continue digging for minerals considered not profitable enough to be worth the time of huge interstellar companies. These independent miners and settlers often find themselves exploited by merchants bringing in new electronics and medicine from the homeworld, or preyed upon by pirates. There are attempts in many places to unite small settlements and pool together their resources to have a better bargaining position and stronger defenses. But those who profit from their deprivations have no interest in seeing the situation change, and even when these attempts are seeing some progress, there are always people who would rather be a lord than a comrade.