Friday, April 17, 2015

Scraping By on the Belt

Sean Gugler treated me with: progress striking unscrewed heinous kilt free sunshine

For an RPG setting, there are some very simple words to work with here. Oddly, "free" is a tricky one, because it's overused in so many settings. The combination of "kilt" and "striking" suggested immigrant labo, probably in a colonial setting. But it was working on the odd inclusion of "unscrewed" that made things start to click.

And I really want to dive so deep into this setting.

The nations of Earth and Mars are running low on critical minerals. Those minerals are abundantly available in the Belt, but difficult and dangerous to extract. Due to international treaties, the Belt cannot be claimed by any governmental or corporate interest. As such, it is peopled by a wide range of "independent entrepreneurs", better known as prospectors. Each prospector lays claim to a particular area, known as a "striking", that they work and, ideally, extract enormous wealth from.

While there is no official government, the Belt is run by a central authority that is truly democratic. The Progress (named as a result of an old joke involving "pro" and "con") is a body for resolving disputes among the prospectors and other inhabitants of the Belt. It is a true democracy in that, theoretically, every resident of the Belt gets one vote. Of course, most prospectors can afford neither the fuel to get to the Forum nor the time to sit in on debates. The fact that the meetings are all run according to Robert's Rules of Order, which your average miner can't make heads or tails of, and the Progress ends up mostly being run by the rich (as most governments are).

One thing the Progress has never been able to get formed is a police force. Most of the small towns hire sheriffs who enforce a rather arbitrary version of the law. If there is a serious problem, the Progress can call in backup from the Martian Federation. The Federated Regulation Enforcement Expedition, more often known by the somewhat ironic acronym F.R.E.E., is a paramilitary force that is all too happy to move into an area. There are two problems. First, F.R.E.E. has a tendency to be rather exuberant in their problem solving methodology. There are stories of entire towns being blasted to dust in order to eliminate one fugitive. The second problem is that F.R.E.E. is not, well, free. Their services come with a significant price tag. As such, many miners prefer to hire independent bounty hunters to solve problems.

Problems like Heinous George Waltzmann. Heinous George is the leader of a large, reasonably well organized gang of bandits. In fact, they are the only gang that numbers more than a dozen men, something that Heinous George brutally enforces. His gang sweeps around the Belt like locusts, robbing, raping, gambling, and murdering. They are a scourge, a living natural disaster, a criminal plague. Why haven't the Progress and F.R.E.E. done more to stop him? That's an excellent question.

Another problem that plagues a group of people who depend on machines for their very lives is maintenance and repair. A number of machinists operate in the Belt, some setting up shops in towns and some traveling from place to place. The most respected belong to the MacLaurin School. Graduates can be easily spotted by their black kilts (certainly an unusual mode of dress in an area with unpredictable gravity). Not only do the MacLaurins have a remarkable amount of training as engineers, but they take an oath to provide their services with high ethical standards.

One of the reasons that so many miners need the services of the MacLaurins is that they rely on robotic assistance. Nearly half the population of the Belt are robots with AI capability. AIs are still not recognized as being "people", and can be owned as slaves. When a miner purchases a bot, a restraining bolt is screwed into its chassis that prevents it from disobeying its master. Some few AIs have attained a measure of freedom and self-determination. They have organized, and are working to purchase other bots and remove their restraining bolts. Demonstrating an appreciation of the pun that proves some level of intelligence, the bots freed from slavery refer to themselves as the "unscrewed". The leader of the unscrewed, a bot named Mike, is working hard to not only free as many bots as possible, but fight Progress to get them recognized as citizens.

The other technological marvel of the Belt is known as the Sunshine Terrace. It is the brainchild of Nikola Sikorsky (he claims to be a direct descendant of Igor Sikorsky), a billionaire inventor who left Earth to pursue his dream. The Sunshine Terrace itself is a massive floating railway that will, in theory, eventually circle the entire Belt. For now, there are several lengths connecting a few of the major cities, representing a bit less than 10% of the planned length. Attached to the railways are huge solar panel arrays, collecting a constant flow of power from the sun (hence the name). The Sunshine Terrace is built from a form of extremely strong concrete made from mining waste rock and HBR (human biological residue, more colloquially known as "shit"). This material is both essentially free to acquire and gains him the goodwill of cleaning up the trash of the Belt. But most miners still consider him to be straight-up crazy.

This setting owes a lot to several different inspirations. A bit of Firefly, a bit of Heinlein, one touch of Discworld, and a sprinkle of Rifts. Rather than being a stable world that has experienced a shock, opening up an opportunity for adventure, this is a wild and woolly place that strongly encourages ambitious individuals to carve out their own destiny.

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