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Ubi dubium… | Skeptical Inquiry in a Fantasy Setting


There’s a thing that seems to me to result from sloppy storytelling and a deep failure of the imagination in many genres of fiction: the so-called “skeptic in a mystical world” trope I’ll call it. I’m side-eyeing here the first MCU Doctor Strange movie, many episodes of Supernatural, and Stargate Atlantis in particular.

Such poorly written, poorly imagined fare is an ill fit for the magical, superhero, and monster-ridden worlds it’s portrayed in.

I’d like to discuss an alternative I’ll call Arcane Inquiry, a fantasy-based version of the thinking and methods of real world skeptical inquiry that offers a much better fit story-wise to a fantasy milieu. Why arcane? Because of the implied meaning the word carries of things not generally known, even secretive knowledge. Unless the world-builder involved has a good rationale for it, critical thinking and a firm literacy in the workings of reality will likely not be widely known, much less universally taught, in a typical fantasy milieu.

In these worlds, often based on earlier fantasy literature or popular RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, magic and monsters are a demonstrable, repeatable, and actionable reality, and plausible Inquirers would be straying from their own methods and ethical values to deny these things, or even to deliberately hide or refuse to look at the evidence for them.

It’s my understanding that even when monsters and magic abound, modern skeptical inquiry, properly translated as the intersection of critical thinking, literacy in (the milieu’s) science, and consumer/buyer/customer protection would flourish among knowledge-experts like clergy or wizards.

Who hasn’t played a fantasy RPG and occasionally failed a perception check, fumbled a saving roll against mind-befuddling spells, or thought they were fighting one monster but really another masked by a disguise or spell of some sort? Clearly, skeptical thinking should and would convey some advantage when planning strategy or tactical choices.

Then, there are also those beings of various kinds who pose as gods and similar entities through their powers or guile; powerful wizards, witches, or sorcerers, undead like liches or vampires, and nether-worldly beings like demons, daemons, or devils.

Even in a world where everyone can conjure demons or djinn to do their bidding, opportunities for skullduggery and shenanigans abound. Sometimes the conjured djinn seek to subvert their master’s intent, or a summoned devil seeks to pervert the spirit of a bargain by brilliant lawyering of the contract; always look at the fine print before signing!

Every fantasy RPG I’ve ever played has rules, a system for its magic, to define the procedure, power limits, and the sometimes draining costs of casting magic. These rules translate well to the implied laws governing the setting, and at least in part amount to that setting’s science along with whatever real science the GM includes specifically or is otherwise implied in that game’s rule mechanics.

From my own previous experience in refereeing Call of Cthulhu in the late 1990s, magic is the physics of the true (CoC) universe, that true but thankfully hidden reality concealed from everyday scrutiny by a veil of sanity, obvious and comprehensible only to the mad and the horrors from beyond space-time with which they traffick.

Far more extraordinary to me than a world whose laws allow magic and monsters would be one in which there are no attempts by anyone to deceive anyone else, in which no one ever fools themselves, nor misperceive, misremember, or misinterpret and misreport what they think they perceive and remember, and in which there are no attempts by anyone to cheat, con, or defraud another for spite, fun, or personal gain. 

Such a world would be an incredibly unchallenging, boring, and implausible one. Most fantasy worlds in literature are rife with deception of some sort. In those worlds, there are scads of beings that make it their business to fool others. Outstanding examples include demons, devils, human and nonhuman thieves and assassins, fairies, tricky sellers of rare “magic items,” mischievous elementals, actual gods, and quite a few of the smarter dragon species…

…but most of all, those all-seeing Dungeon Masters, or GMs if GURPS is your thing. 

Even in a fantasy world, clear, clever thinking and thorough investigation can be your strongest weapon against the most powerful magicks or extra-planar beings, and any engaging, well designed setting will account for this.

Even in fantasy, superhero fiction, or the realms of horror where monsters bring vast and frightening powers to bear, using your brain instead of thinking with whatever supernormal powers the setting permits will often be your greatest asset. 

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Mongo Fiction | Evicted


The clawed octopoid towered over the comparatively tiny human standing defiantly at its feet. With its waking, a wave of madness had swept the planet, and this world looked as though it would meet its end. But still the lone human stood there, waiting.

“I know you can understand me, just like last time. We both know I can speak with anything that has language, so I’ll warn you just once: leave. This planet is protected, and you are not welcome here. Maybe come back in a billion years after the sun brightens and the oceans have boiled away on their own. And I know how you’re causing the madness outbreak, you fraud. ‘Cosmic Mysterium Tremendum,’ my ***! You’re using a planet-wide psychotronic disruptor network, which I’ll just shut down like so.” The human clicked his finger, as a wave of blue light rippled across the planet, shorting out the network of alien devices as sanity returned to the suddenly lucid but bewildered humans, those who did no serious harm to themselves or others under the influence.

“Get off this planet, you charlatan. I’ve got worlds to create, not pretend gods to unmask!”

The octopoid stood silently for a few seconds as others of its race gathered nearby. Then, it began to unfurl massive membranous wings, of the sort that could ride the solar wind, and soared skyward as its fellows followed suit. In minutes, they were gone. This world would survive, at least for a little while longer.

Humans nearby gathered around the man from a distance, terrified by the fact he had the power to stand down Old Ones, but grateful that he had saved their lives and minds.

The man glanced at them, saying, “You’re all safe for at least another few million years, until the next alien catastrophe ambles along, or you get smacked by an asteroid. But don’t get used to it. I only sent him on his way this time because he once tried to cheat me in a game of cards. I hate cheats.”

Gods of Terra Primer | The Assumptions of Psionics


Vanakkam. Here, I give the basic ideas that go into the use of supernormal mental powers, or psionics, for the setting. Psionics are powers of the brain, and are utterly physicalistic in how they operate, having nothing to do with anything spiritual or nonmaterial in nature. There is no such thing here as astral or spiritual travel abilities, as the soul as a nonphysical entity does not exist in this setting. The mind here is not some homunculus loosely connected to the brain operating it like a puppet, but rather a thing that the brain does in its normal operation. Minds are an emergent property of the brain, not something separable from it. But psionics are still powerful, and those who use them are capable of demonstrable feats that any stage conjuror or performing mentalist in the real world would be hard-pressed to duplicate. Psionics here are on the level of comic book and pulp SF super-powers. This will offend alleged psychics, mediums, and intuitives in the real world, and their supporters, but think X-Men, or better still, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen, not the late Sylvia Browne or the extant John Edward. Gods of Terra psis don’t mess around with mere tricks or stage illusions, and that’s because they don’t need to. 

So, here are the basic principles governing the functioning of such powers and abilities:

  • There is no such thing as a uniquely psionic energy or force-carrying wave-particle generated by the mind for psionic effects. Psionic abilities employ only the fundamental forces of real-world modern physics: the electroweak force, the strong force, and gravity. Psionics may be partly understood from the standpoint of a more mature, future theory of quantum gravity, possibly descended from current Loop Quantum Gravity or M-Theory. There is an element of psionics that is still poorly understood in the setting, and that is its ability to bend natural laws and physical constants locally, using portions of certain physical laws to seemingly violate major portions of other laws. It may be the emerging and still young discipline of Axiomatic physics that leads to a better understanding of how hypershards, and the brains of Stage Three wavetouched, achieve this.
  • Psionic potential is software in the brains of psis that needs additional hardware to power and operate effects. That hardware is usually an active hypershard, or the central prefrontal lobes of Stage Three wavetouched. The brain provides the instructions, the hardware provides the energy source and the means to produce the effect. The signal strength possible for unaugmented human brainwaves is far too weak, and attenuates far too quickly from brain, skull, and flesh to be of use.
  • Psionics obeys conservation of energy and momentum. It needs a power source that can tap, generate, and transmit greater amounts of energy than the ordinary human brain alone can possibly generate and emit at range. While there appears to be some bending of physical laws by psionicists in the use of their powers, fundamental conservation laws cannot be violated or overturned, even locally or temporarily.
  • Psionic effects are non-local, using shortcuts through hyperspace, with range from the body for that nonlocality limited by the strength of the psionicist. Weaker psis generate effects nearer to the body, stronger psis further away. The strongest psis’ nonlocality can ignore physical barriers, except psionic screens and Kurtz-Dunar fields, which can block them. Psionic effects do not radiate through and out of the brain, through skull and flesh or other body tissues, to produce effects in the world. All psi-effects are generated at a focal point in a hypershard or specialized neuronal tissue in Stage Three wavetouched, and appear at the target location without travelling across the intervening space. This allows some stronger psis to generate effects using nuclear forces, despite the rapid decay rates and extreme range-limits of the force-carrying particles involved, by cutting the actual space crossed to less than the diameter of a proton. Weaker psis often generate effects microscopically close to the skin, and must touch the target to affect it.
  • Psionics obeys Special Relativity in the speed of transmission of energy and information from point to point in conventional spacetime, limited primarily by the level of hyperspace accessible by the psionicist. Higher levels of hyperspace, more difficult to access, give more rapid relative transmission time. Such transfer of energy/information is never instantaneous for macroscopic objects, as there is always a lag time from sender to target, or from origin to destination for physical teleports. Teleportation here does not rely on quantum-level information, as it is not a mass-transference of particles in which the exact position and quantum state of each must be known. I’m talking subjectively rapid travel through warps in spacetime, closer to stargates, tesseracts, or wormholes than Star Trek transporters. No “Heisenberg compensators” need apply. Relativistic time-dilation occurs with teleportation over interstellar distances. 

With these five principles in mind, we can then take a look at the powers themselves and how they operate in greater detail. Next time, we examine the power-level classifications of psionicists according to military and law-enforcement organizations in the setting, while after that we’ll do a deep dive into the specifics of the powers themselves and their sub-abilities.

I’ll see you then!

Tf. Tk. Tts.

Gods of Terra Primer | Setting History, Part 2


The Shutter was a catastrophic event that closed all access to M-level hyperspace, halting all interstellar travel, settlement, commerce, and warfare, and resulting in the collapse of Local Galaxy civilizations for centuries. The previous installment in this series ended at the onset of the Shutter, and this one opens at its end, leading to the timeline in my planned novelette, The Null Dance, and the adventures of the Meera:

190 BPE: Development of S-drive by emerging Local Galaxy civilizations, replacing the now-useless M-drive. Resumption of interstellar trade, exploration, and warfare. 

130 BPE: The Broogh Flow meanders into Tellusine space. Intermittent warfare between Broogh and Kai’Siri Koorgraada fleets. Bombardment of Terra by Broogh Giyagh6 fleet. Destruction of Giyagh6 fleet in two stages by Tellusine at the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Jupiter’s moon Europa is destroyed in the conflict. Phobos is fragmented, knocked from orbit, and crashes into Mars. Rebuilding of Terra begins. 

100 BPE: Founding of the Second Great Tellusine Civilization, centered on Terra. Sirug becomes an imperial ally, as Kai’Siri enlist in the Tellusine military along with Mentite-, Sensorian-, Brute-, Bomb-, Cannon-, and Dreadnought-class wavetouched as special forces troops, but no Planet Killers (Officially). 

45 BPE: Creation of Indigo Sigma by Tellusine, as an elite intelligence and paramilitary organization. Personnel makeup is highly classified but suspected to involve at least one Planet Killer-class wavetouched. Maybe. 

0 PE: Reconstruction of Terra is complete. The Indian subcontinent, Africa, and South America took the least of the Giyagh6 fleet bombardment of Terra. Much of Africa, South America, and everything south of the Himalayas is once again fit for human habitation. Lagos, Khartoum, Rio de Janeiro, New Kolkata, Colombo, and Chennai become major economic and space transport hubs. 

115 PE: First contact between humanity and the alien Tathladi. Alliance between human and Tathladi against their ancient enemies, the Dinathog-Trulg. 

336 PE: The Meera is given the now-regenerated hypershard once belonging to the Mirus, becoming for a short while the second Magna. She wakes up, quits the role, and goes into hiding while those who tried turning her into a superweapon seek to re-enslave her and recover “their property.”

50 Billion PE: The far-future descendants of humanity loop back in time to ensure the evolution of humans, and thus themselves. These beings will be known to xeno-archaeologists as the Strangers, and known only by the fruits of their biological engineering and meddling with early Homo sapiens and its relatives on Terra. This generates a predestination paradox in which humanity brings about its own existence, a causal chain with neither beginning nor end.

Gods of Terra Primer | The Wavetouched: Children of the Shard


Gods of Terra actually has little to do with any sort of truely supernatural forces or supreme beings, beyond the fact that religions that promote belief in them exist. So though there are beings in the setting with tremendous power, ultimately, even they have limits, and even they can die. 

So, Gods of Terra is really about false gods, and the evolution of humanity, of  beings with sometimes remarkable powers and abilities whether aliens, new emerging hominin species, or technologically weaponised humans. 

One such hominin species, a new side-branch of Homo sapiens, is the wavetouched, H. mirus, and its three stages, each its own subspecies, and each progressively further isolated reproductively from H. sapiens. I’ll hereafter refer to Homo sapiens as baseline humans as they are the standards against which all other species in  the setting are compared for admittedly humanocentric reasons as well as game-balance in an RPG setting.

Each stage is as follows, with each having its own taxonomic name, with in fact a rather tangled web of descent from baselines, and in fact much intermixing going on between these to the chagrin of so-called “race realists:” 

Stage I: (H. mirus mutans

Called mirants, these are not strictly mutants despite the nomenclature, but the offspring of mutants, and are the first stage to breed true with itself or with baseline humans to produce hybrid offspring sharing the robustness of both parents. Mirant genes tend to be dominant, though in no way necessarily “superior” to baseline genes, but seldom bearing recessive traits. Offspring are fully fertile with baselines. 

About 50% of the subspecies have some potential for psi-abilities, but without a hyperseed, a submicroscopic quantum hypershard that grows and unfolds  to coexist with the developing brains of such talented individuals, there is no energy source available to fuel this potential and put it to use beyond the latent stage. The law of conservation of energy applies here, and only a fully developed, unfolded, and active hypershard can tap into an external energy source for the psionic latent to achieve a fully active stage. 

Mirants have less of the usual baseline human psychological weaknesses, and more of the strengths. Mirants find it easier to pick up effective reasoning skills on average than baselines, and though possessing many of the same psychological biases and heuristics, tend towards better insight and more efficient ways of countering them. Abstract reasoning and critical thinking come to them more readily, more naturally, though they must still be trained in these to do them with skill. 

As well as that, mirants have the full range of human emotions and expressiveness, but are less prone to fuzzing the clarity of their thinking under stress and strong emotion. The first four Gods of Terra were all Stage I’s weaponized with Prime hypershards, without significant innate psi-ability of their own. They were beings of tremendous power even then. 

Stage II: (H. mirus miradi) 

With higher on average psi-q scores than even mirants, and known as miradi, this stage is reproductively less compatible with baselines, and only about 60% of the time will such mixes produce fertile offspring. All wavetouched are fully fertile with each other across subspecies. 

Wavetouched are across all subspecies about 99.9% genetically similar to baselines, with most of the difference going to their cognitive strengths and psionic potential. Stage II’s still require an active hypershard in their brains to power their psionics, having only baseline metabolisms though with more robust physiques and fewer of the hereditary disorders common to baselines on average, while they sometimes have others of their own that can cause problems.  

Stage III: (H. mirus hyperiadi

This subspecies, called hyperiads in common parlance, are almost fully reproductively isolated from baselines, and have the highest degree of neurobiological distinction. They cannot serve as hosts to a hypershard implant, either imposed from without or inherited by hyperseed. They also have the highest average psi-q’s of all wavetouched, and one other important feature that allows them to use it: a brain structure similar to a third prefrontal lobe, situated between the left and right prefrontal lobes, with specialized neural and glial tissues permitting the transduction of energy from an external source to a psionically useful form. 

They can draw power to fuel their abilities merely by being physically near, or better, touching an external source and willing the transduction process. Geothermal taps, high-intensity flood lights, and high-voltage electrical sources are good for this. 

So long as transduction occurs, no injury or harm from the source will result to the user, though the energy source must continually generate output, for while a Stage III’s remarkable brain structure can transduce energy, it cannot store it like a capacitor. 

Stage III wavetouched are estimated at one out of a billion humans, though none have yet been unambiguously identified in observations of any known world’s population.

Conclusion: 

These three subspecies may even diversify further, and are at present already beginning their ascendance in human planetary demographics since H. sapiens began its decline during the Shutter era more than five centuries ago. Baselines are on their way out, and it is projected that they will be supplanted on their own worlds by Stage I wavetouched within the next thousand years or so.

Evolution marches on, and that of humans can be no exception.

Gods of Terra Primer | Setting History, Part 1


Vanakkam. I’ve provided the following timeline for Gods of Terra, ending at the onset of the Shutter and the collapse of Local Galaxy civilizations. Part 2 of this history will resume on the resumption of interstellar travel in the setting, post-Shutter. Enjoy.

9 billion BPE (Before Present Era): abiogenesis and evolution of first life in the universe. 

4 billion BPE: earliest known intelligent life. Primitive artifacts date from this period, eventually leading to traces of the first technical civilizations. 

3.5 billion BPE: the King of Shards ascends as a hyperdimensional being. In the next 30 million years BPE, several other alien entities will arise as godlike beings, and join the King of Shards as the Nine Who are One. 

3.47 billion BPE: the Nine Who are One formally join forces, ruling the Grand Civilization of the Local Group until three billion BPE. 

3 billion BPE: fall of the Grand Civilization in a bloody civil war as relations among the Nine break down into chaos. The King of Shards splits into Its avatars across all spacetime to survive, others of the Nine go into hiding or face destruction at the hands of their fellows. 

Creation of the Prime hypershards. 

1 billion BPE: Evolution of early multicellular life on Terra. First known Stranger artifacts date from this period on many worlds, and in increments over time lasting several million years. The longevity, nature, and sophistication of Stranger civilization remains a mystery. 

300000 BPE: earliest anatomically modern humans, visit of Terra by the Strangers. Human samples, not live individual humans, are taken from Terra, genetically altered, gestated, and seeded to hundreds of worlds in and beyond the Local Galaxy. 

30000 BPE: Kai’Siri civilizations begin. Early organized religions, primitive political systems. Science as an institution would rise, fall, and rise again in successive dark ages. 

15000 BPE: Kai’Siri develop early M-drive, and begin settlements across their region of the galaxy. First contact with Mokthraga of Tokmolos, upon which war breaks out. 

6000 BPE: Founding of the First Exarchate of Sirug by the Kai’Siri.  

5260 BPE: Collapse of first Exarchate, Last Great Sirugian Dark Age begins. 

2000 BPE: End of Last Great Sirugian Dark Age. Founding of Second Exarchate. 

900 BPE: First contact with the Tellusine of Terra. First interstellar conflict between the two branches of humanity. Founding of the Tellusine Federated Worlds.  

850 BPE: The Galactic Ripple washes across Terra, empowering a new species of humanity, the wavetouched. Four of these would a century later host the original Prime hypershards and become the four Gods of Terra.

750 BPE: Discovery by the Kai’Siri of three Prime hypershards, first use of hypershard warfare using weaponized humans. Origin of the Fractus, the Mirus, and the Magna. The Tempest receives her hypershard from Sarusammog of the Gates, AKA, It Who Scratches at the Gate. The Broogh Flow enters this region of the galaxy, threatening local civilizations. 

400 BPE: Death of the Mirus by natural causes. His funeral pod is intercepted and his hypershard is stolen. The regenerating hypershard, now without a host, triggers a cosmological accident as it self-repairs, rendering all use of the interstellar M-drive impossible. Collapse of Local Galaxy civilizations as interstellar travel is halted by this event, later to be known as the Shutter.

Mongo Fiction | The Meera


A nondescript-looking young woman made her way down the poorly lit street. It was quiet, too quiet this night, and her senses were alert to the slightest disturbance to her peace of mind at this late hour. She was in no mood for threats, so she smiled when she saw the ludicrous — ahem — gentleman — step out of a side alley with shiv in hand, evidently eager to try his hand at gutting her and taking her stuff. Never mind that the only apparent goods on her person were her mirror-shades and her scavenged work uniform. She saw the idiot in augmented reality overlay in her field of vision, thinking he was hiding before he even stepped out into the street. This would be quick.

“All dressed for Halloween, are we, girly? Why the shades at this hour of night? They look good enough to take! Hand ‘em over, and your money, too, or I slit your mongrel face!” She quickly downgraded her estimation of his intelligence by several standard deviations below the mean. He waved his blade “menacingly” just half a meter in front of her, trying pathetically to look impressive and scary. Scary? To a girl who’s killed planets all by herself?

The farce was quickly ended when she casually grabbed him at the waist by his belt, and with a strength and ease seemingly impossible for someone of her size and build, lifted him over her head and tossed him headfirst into a nearby waste bin with a muted “thud,” and what sounded like the “crunch” of a likely skull fracture. Oops.

Hmm. Moron dropped his knife when he took a dive, she thought.
She picked up the blade, balancing the tip on her finger. It’s dull. Badly balanced. Crappy workmanship. Meh.

She tossed it aside, and silently giggled inside at the thought of anyone trying to threaten her with such a shoddy excuse for a weapon.

Not worth the effort of writing, “I got punked by a girl,” on his face with his own blade, she thought.

Fictitious gods. You’ve one hell of a mean streak, said the silent voice within, heard only in her mind’s ear, the constant companion riding around in her skull. She knew who it once was. A digital consciousness deep in her hypershard’s fractal-like q-bits had kept her company since she first regained control of her own mind on a dead planet. A planet that she had just killed as the resurrected Magna.

I make my own rules, Mirus. She responded. Understood. Still, you’re a wanted woman, and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. Even during my life, I had to travel with an assumed name and identity to avoid bringing the local military down on my head. Thinking with your powers will only get you killed. Really? She asked. You had an assumed name? What was it? That was Murugan Sanchez. My real parents were of Tamil and Filipino descent, and it showed in me, so the name worked. You’ll need one too, at least for the mundane things like forging documents and such. I can teach you how to do that, and to do it well. So, what’ll it be?

The girl thought for a moment. Murugan. That was the name of an old god of war wasn’t it. So I’ll go as Korravi – and I’m stealing your surname, Mirus – Korravi Sanchez, it’ll be. There are few ethnicities I can’t easily pass as with a little touching up, and several hundred years after your time no one will notice.

For those who find out the hard way, my life as the second Magna is officially over, she thought to herself.

I’m the Meera, once the destroyer of worlds. But one day, I’ll be able to walk in the open without terrifying every planet I set foot on.

And that day will be good.