Wednesday, 9 July 2014

10 Villainous Oceanpunk Factions

Picture from Brian Wood's The Massive, just about my favourite ongoing comic







Lately I've been building sandboxes: it's been far too long since I've run Cyberpunk 2020 and both me and some old friends are jonesing for it. Worldbuilding has always been one of my favourite parts of the hobby, and I'm always exploring new methodologies for creating a diverse and "alive" gaming environment. I'll probably have to write about them sometime!

The book which has held my attention lately has been the astonishing Darkness Visible espionage supplement for Stars Without Number. I'm a huge fan of what Sine Nomine publishing does, in just about any format and genre - Kevin Crawford's work has been a huge inspiration for what I've tried to do with this blog. Right now I'm especially besotted by the "maltech cult" generator in Darkness Visible - replace "cult" with "corporation" and it's been a perfect cyberpunk tool.


I really like the format SWN uses to provide sample factions, providing a brief paragraph and then brief hooks below - friends to help the party fight the faction, enemies to bedevil them when they launch their war, complications and things and places to centre the story. It's just the right level of detail for my purposes. I really like them as a framework to inspire the imagination.

One of my players has expressed a desire to head out to sea, so I've put some ideas together for expanding that world. It isn't a setting I've thought much about, except half my favourite sourcebooks seem to be set there: CP2020: Stormfront, Shadowrun's Cyberpirates, Blue Planet's Fluid Mechanics... even Transhuman Space's Under Pressure. It's an evocative environment which really takes the PCs out of their depths... zing. I want privateers, salvagers, radar seeking missiles, rusted ship wrecks, re-purposed military ships. I want to cover the big themes of oceanic stories in science fiction: environmental politics, claustrophobia, offshore freedom and strange underwater discoveries in the last Earthly frontier.

Presented below is the result of my faction brainstorming. Rather than just writing them out in a long list, I thought I'd experiment with the SWN faction format. Next time I do this I'll probably use Cyberpunk V3's "metacharacter" idea, and after that a completely different methodology...

I've intentionally left out "pirates" because that's the first thing everyone thinks of. "Hidden Researchers" almost made the cut, but it turned out to be too wide a subject!

Incidentally, a few of these archetypes could have been presented very differently - as utopian "good guys" or plain old morally-grey human organisations. The same applies to the depiction of certain technologies throughout this post. I've simply chosen to portray the worst possible incarnation of each, because I enjoy overblown dystopian fiction. If you've stuck with me through some of the recent posts on this blog, I imagine you do too!

1. Deep Drillers:

This organisation is drilling far down in the ocean depths. They might be looking for oil or mineral reserves, exploring the deep ocean floor, or perhaps preparing to open up thermal boreholes. Or maybe they want to (Bond Villain style) assume control of a tectonic fault line and declare geological war on an enemy. That is if they didn't find something alive down there in the high pressure depths.

Friends: wild eyed cryptozoologist hunting for Kraken, geological scientist, deep sea explorer who saw too much
Enemies: rogue terraformer, grim bathyscaphe pilot, member of mysterious cult
Complications: the organisation provides energy to a nearby city or nation, the organisation is hiding strange discoveries, the organisation began as an ordinary mining/energy company and was subverted from within.
Things: geological survey, extreme pressure hardsuit, seismic sensors
Places: a region of "black smokers," a deep sea trench, a sunken city, a massive new thermal borehole, a burning drilling rig

2. Doolittle Doctors:


At the time of writing, one of the more startling controversies surrounding the Russian intervention in the Crimea regards their abduction of Ukrainian military dolphins (I intentionally chose the news article with the stupidest headline AND I HAVE NO REGRETS).

There are people in the world who dream of raising animals to sentience, and two of the most promising candidates live in the deep oceans. Dolphins and Cephalopods (Optopi!) could both be undergoing "uplift" procedures in offshore labs, to be used as military cannon fodder, deep ocean engineers or in more sinister roles - as bioengineered slaves, covert killers, brainwashed saboteurs, sexual puppets...

The list below pre-supposes a sinister purpose, naturally. That said, plenty of people would be opposed to any uplift research on general principles, and might hire the players to attack even a "benign" project.

Friends: discredited neuroscientist, "bioconservative" activist, neo-dolphin liberator
Enemies: deranged military scientist, scruple free "blue sky" researcher, brainwashed neo-octopus
Complications: the researchers are environmentalists out to prove a complicated political point, the researchers belong to a massive military-industrial complex, the researchers are surviving "results" of an earlier uplift programme looking to make more of themselves
Things: complicated medical gear, horrifying "electrical training devices," educational toys
Places: research base located in the heart of a Special Forces training complex, "educational" centre full of electrical torture gear, Seaworld

3. Militant Environmentalists


The environmental devastation wrought on the oceans has inspired many to fight back. Some pursue non-violent activism. Others have embraced terrorist tactics. The most deranged and broken sects believe in inhuman or post-human nihilist ideologies. The world is overcrowded, so they unleash bioweapons. The corporations are complicit, so they bomb oil platforms and kill the workers. The animals are being exterminated, so they raise them to sentience and turn them on the perpetrators (see Doolittle Doctors, above...). 

Friends: sectarian having second thoughts, amoral corporate paycop, INTERPOL undercover agent, victim of terrorist violence, "negotiator"
Enemies: nihilistic bomber, maniacal biochemist, corporate engineer gone rogue, cadre trainer, sect ideologue
Complications: the sect has broken away from a mainstream organisation, the sect is actually a false flag operation, the sect receives funding from a supportive public or nation, sect attacks risk disturbing some greater hidden conspiracy
Things: improvised explosives, chemical printers, Augmented Reality propaganda tags, automatic weapons, thermoptic camouflage rig
Places: an isolated drilling rig, the offices of a major corporation, a bomb factory, a cafe with a hidden store room, prison where sect members are being held

4. Nuclear Nightmares:


Nuclear "boomer" subs are a product of the age of great nation states, increasingly difficult to field in an age of hollow nations, fragmented microstates and metanational corporate navies. Few have the resources or the profit motives necessary to deploy a doomsday weapon.

Which doesn't mean they aren't still out there, sitting forgotten in rusting naval yards or hijacked to the purposes of revanchist military officers. There are a hundred airport novels about rogue naval officers setting out to restore the glory of the Soviet Union - in our science fiction future this rogue officer might want to rebuild the power of the nation state and the military industrial complex, burn the headquarters of a megacorporation for profit or revenge, or destroy the tax havens of the world in an ideological crusade. Whatever the case, him and his ship need to be put down hard before he kills millions.

Friends: panicked quartermaster, out of her depth IAEA agent, grizzled naval officer brought out of retirement, soldier who knew the rogue captain back in the old days
Enemies: revanchist military technician, hardbitten nationalist, rogue on-shore supply officer
Complications: the boomer is ancient and falling apart, the rogue captain has hidden backers, the boomer possesses the most modern defensive technology, other factions want the boomer for themselves
Things: the key unlocking the red button, a missile targeting system, supercaptivating recon drone, dummy torpedoes 
Places: the deck of a Coast Guard shipthe launch tubes, the rogue captain's on-shore home

5. Offshore Separatists:


Retreating into international waters to escape the grasping claws of government is an old libertarian dream. They aren't the only ones to pursue that idea - a motley crew of tax evaders, casino owners, data-haven sysops and even abortion providers were there long before the first successful "seastead" ships launched. In recent years they've been joined by biotech havens and corporate factory towns. These communities are united by a desire to evade the laws of the societies they emerged from, which might be a noble aim - or a degenerate nightmare, in the case of criminal biotech centres, illicit data havens and slave-staffed fish-factories.

Friends: Coast Guard agent, undercover spy, "white hat" hacker, labour activist
Enemies: private security officer, blockade running smuggler, on-shore lawyer, data-haven sysop with a drone army, well informed blackmailer
Complications: the seastead has the financial and military backing of a major organisation or trust fund magnate, the criminal operation occurs on-board a seastead full of innocent people, the biotech haven is manufacturing sentient "toys," the data-haven can draw on unexpected criminal, terrorist and corporate allies
Things: sexual "content" illegal on the mainland, a magnate's financial records, water purifiers keeping the ship afloat and fed
Places: water cooled server stacks, aquaculture farms, slave-run canning plants, radar installation, cyber-shark control room

6. Pestilent Polluters:

"Millions of giant Pacific crabs, whose ancestors were brought to Europe by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, are marching south along Norway's coast, devouring everything in their path."
Actual sentence printed in a reputable newspaper, 2004

Anyone who has ever stepped on a beach in a third world country will know that most corporations and corrupt city governments will happily use the sea as a toilet for as long as they can get away with it, public and ecological health consequences be damned. 

Science fictional technologies create entirely new ways for culpable organisations to screw up their local environment. Genemod animals - not so different from the "Stalin crabs" apparently eating their way through ecologies in the Norwegian Sea - escape and proliferate. Mining nanobots run out of control. GMO seeds are carried on the tides far beyond their original plantation zones.

The ecological effects of pollution can annihilate local economies, creating a whole new set of antagonists: for instance, it's been alleged that toxic dumping by companies linked to the 'Ndrangheta triggered the wave of Somali piracy that bedevilled Red Sea shipping during the last decade.

Friends: environmental activist, dispossessed farmer, local researcher, crusading lawyer, eco-terrorist with a grudge
Enemies: corporate media officer, corporate lawyer, PMC sent to "cover-up," mafia soldier, toxic waste smuggler
Complications: the polluter is the bulwark of the local economy, employing thousands, the polluter is producing something vital, the polluter owns the local politicians, including the ones the PCs like, the polluter will smear anyone who publicly tries to stop them
Things: canisters of Hexachlorocyclopentadiene, rusting barrels, crate of dead fish, biomonitor, Geiger-counter 
Places: beach covered in sewage, factory complex, fishing village, mafia run "waste management plant," freighter dumping waste overboard 

7. Privateers:


Privateers are pirates given legitimacy by a "letter of marque" issued by a participant in a war. When corporations fight for control of resource zones, dozens of small militias and private security companies sign on for the duration. Just like Elizabethan times, anyone who can outfit a merchant ship with a few weapons (anti-missile THEL lasers, a cheap container launched missile - see the video below - and maybe some electrothermal cannons) can take to the seas and start knocking over supply ships.

There are two types of sponsored pirate: overt and covert. Overt privateers sign a letter of marque and go to war legally. Covert privateers are fighters who attack under a deniable false flag - posing as militant environmentalists, "ordinary" pirates, anti-corporate rebels and so on. In fact, some of those groups literally fight as privateers, taking weapons and funding from one side in a war and then merrily turning those guns on their former backers as soon as the fighting is over.

As a side note, the most dangerous enemy of the commercial privateer often turns out to be the postwar lawsuit, just as it was in the 1800s.

Friends: privateer on your side, merchant navy soldiers, dockside spies, corporate lawyer
Enemies: corporate liaison officer, opportunistic adventurer, hardbitten veteran murderhobo, corrupt port authority officer with access to cargo manifests and shipping schedules
Complications: the privateer is an old friend, the privateer has a modern military vessel, the privateer has access to shipping schedules, the privateer employs many veteran soldiers, the privateer's crew are all press-ganged teenagers jacked up on combat drugs
Things: anti-material rifle, anti-boarding hose, shipping manifest, signal guided RPG, anti-ship missile, cruise missile launcher disguised as a shipping container
Places: dirty dockside bar, covert training centre, corporate shipping lane, brutal prisoner gaol


8. Rapacious Exploiters:

Gigantic megacorporations scour the seas for resources no longer available on land and too expensive to mine in orbit. They might be mining or fishing, sending huge factory-ships into un-policed waters to grab as much as they can, international law and the future be damned. When a zone is exhausted the corporation (or clan-network, or national mining fleet, or robot neumannswarm) moves on, leaving wrecked ecologies and broken economies behind.

Friends: dispossessed local fishers (they get about!), agent of the regulatory body, underwater survivalist who community is threatened by the miners, wildcat miner, agent of a corporate rival, "zone trooper" looking for salvage
Enemies: oilfield guard, corporate prospector, grizzled mining crew chief with a gun and a mission, "zone trooper" looking for salvage
Complications: the world is running out of a vital resource they provide, the company is operating in a warzone or the waters of a failed state, the company is nomadic and operates from floating fortress-arcologies
Things: prospector's tools, deep-sea worksuit, PR agent
Places: mining rig, processing ship, loading dock, shipbreakers yard, prospector's submarine base

9. Survivalist Isolationists:


Like the separatists, isolationists have taken their communities to the sea, to avoid the laws of the landed states. Unlike the separatists, they have no wish to continue participating in the life of the world. Instead they've retreated into rude colonies to pursue their social goals in peace.

Isolationist colonies can be truly nightmarish, combining small town politics and cult mania with resource scarcity and high-tech surveillance. Simple boredom makes these people crazy where politics fails. There's no running away from a bunker hundreds of feet below sea level, even if the cheap seals have broken and the water is flooding in. These places hide fanatics and terrorists and suicide cults. They are ideal places for criminals and messianic charlatans to hide and prosper ("prosper" is a relative term!).

Friends: professional cult "deprogrammer," escapee from the community, cult sectarian with a different interpretation of scripture, concerned parents of an isolationist, well funded bounty hunters
Enemies: cult militia, prophet of a religious movement, upstanding armed moralists who just want to be left alone, criminal with a hidden past
Complications: the cult indulges in horrible religious or sexual practices, the isolationists are refugees from a fascistic power, the isolationist genuinely wants to stay
Things: malfunctioning airlock, non-lethal weapons of all kinds, security cameras, cheap diving gear, austere furnishings
Places: high-pressure "tin can" habitat, re-purposed military facility, the cult's groundside bunker, fetid aquaculture centre, fortified airlock

10. Tomb Raiders:


There are plenty of ship wrecks on the ocean floor, and plenty of unlicensed salvagers looking to get rich quick. Artefacts, treasure or even simply scrap metal await those willing to descend into the depths and grab what they can carry. In the process they'll desecrate war graves, destroy archaeological evidence and even wreck fisheries (is there a single faction in this list that doesn't do that?).


Friends: historian, officer of the war graves commission, dispossessed fisher (of course!), passionate Hollywood film-maker
Enemies: poor thief, high-tech wannabe Indiana Jones, fixer for the illegal art market
Complications: the wreck is a controversial war grave, the salvagers are working for a government, the salvagers are trying to raise money to pay for something legitimate, the salvagers are connected to an international ring of perverse art collectors
Things: fragment of the Titanic, WW2 dog tags, Roman Pottery, monofilament chainsaw, camera drone, spider bot covered in hacksaws 
Places: a rusting Russian freighter, a helicopter base, a junkyard, a high class members club where deals are made and plans are exchanged

An even ten factions; that seems like enough for now!