Godlings and Magic

I’m rethinking how magic and religion might work in a fantasy RPG. The long and short of it is this:

  1. A godling is a formless being with magical power. It can be a divinity, a ghost, an ancestor spirit, the manifestation of some natural force, or any other supernatural construction.
  2. Each godling has an altar, a specific location which serves as its earthly home. Although godlings are formless and unseen, they do reside in the physical world. Some godlings may have multiple altars.
  3. Godlings are not omnipotent or omnipresent. A godling has access to power beyond the mundane, but its extent is limited and varies greatly from one godling to the next.
  4. Mortals may bargain with a godling to form a pact, performing its rituals and carrying out its aims in exchange for magical power. This is distinct from ordinary veneration and appeasement, which are expected from all mortals.
  5. Some godlings might have a cult of organized worship around them. Membership in one godling’s cult does not preclude the veneration of other godlings within their respective domains.
  6. Gods are just bigger, better godlings. Their power is vast and global, making them unapproachable to ordinary mortals. While private veneration is customary, bargaining with the gods is the responsibility of an entire community.

On reflection, this seems startlingly similar to the conception of kami in Japanese Shintō. This is unintentional, but I’m not totally surprised. A major influence in my thinking is Dr. Bret Devereaux’s blog series on polytheistic religion. While his focus is on ancient Greek and Roman practice, the underlying logic seems to be decently common worldwide.

Why go to the trouble? I have three reasons.

For one, I’ve always been unsatisfied with the wizard archetype — an arcane professor” who casts spells out of a book and is defined by their education. In D&D parlance, I’m more interested in the cleric and warlock — magic users who derive their power from supernatural beings.

The second reason is that I like conceptualizing gods and godlings as non-player characters. This makes them much more comprehensible at the gaming table. NPCs have wants, needs, likes, and dislikes. They have personalities, agendas, ideas, and schemes. The only difference is that you’re giving this particular NPC access to some magic they can offer as a reward for service.

Finally, the search for a godling’s altar can be a quest hook all on its own. Scatter a bunch of altars across a megadungeon or hexcrawl, put them in your rumor tables, and players will be motivated to go find them. This fits a low-magic setting where even having one spell is a big deal, which is generally my preference.

To demonstrate how this might work, I’ve written a handful of godlings.

The Wode Knight

The Wode Knight is watchkeeper of the old forest south of your home village. Not only the trees — all within the forest is her domain.

Deep in the thickest part of the wood, a ring of standing stones sits in a clearing. Her voice sounds like the song of dozens of birds. She is prideful and protetive, secretive and fearful of outsiders.

The Wode Knight appreciates libations of milk, honey, or wine. She especially appreciates animal sacrifice, and will grant you a single use of one of her spells.

You renounce the wearing of any metal when you make a pact with the Wode Knight. The Wode Knight is willing to lend you one spell, at first. She may grant you more with further acts of devotion.

Once per day, if you daub your forehead with dirt, you may cast a spell.

Plant Growth: The vegetation around you becomes thick and overgrown, an impossible tangle preventing movement.
Speak with Animals: For one hour, you are able to converse with animals.
Bird Song: Choose a nearby bird. Give it a message, specify a recipient, and it will immediately fly to deliver that message.

Wrath lasts for 1d6 days — rolled with Disadvantage for minor slights, or Advantage for more grievous insults. Abandoning a pact results in punishment lasting 2d6 days.

For the duration of your punishment, you may not enter the old forest. If you do, nature itself will rise against you. You will be swarmed by insects, strangled by vines, drowned in water, and attacked by wild animals.

In addition, roll 1d6.
1-2: Each day, 1d6 wooden items are cracked, warped, and rendered unusable.
3-4: Vines, roots, and other low-lying plants attempt to strangle you in your sleep each night for the duration of your punishment.
5-6: An insect swarm is sent to devour you and your companions.

The Vulture

The Vulture is ravenous — he craves the flavor of rotting flesh, and cherishes its putrid stench. He will make do with any carrion, but the human cadaver is sweetest. His hunger will never be satiated.

A human corpse is impaled on a stake. It is always rotting, but somehow never fully decomposes. The Vulture speaks through the mouth of this corpse. He does not want you to know how desperate he is.

The Vulture appreciates offerings of carrion left at the altar’s base. If you leave him an offering of human flesh, he will grant you a single use of one of his spells.

To make a pact with the Vulture is to lend him your mouth and stomach. From now on, you hunger only for rotting flesh. The Vulture is willing to lend you one spell, at first. He may grant you more with further acts of devotion.

Once per day, if you devour a meal of carrion, you may cast a spell.

Cure Wounds: Restore 1d6 HP.
Resist Poison: You are rendered immune from any poisons or venoms for one hour.
Speak with Dead: You may ask 1d6 questions of a corpse or funerary urn. The answers you receive do not have to be truthful.

Wrath lasts for 1d6 days — rolled with Disadvantage for minor slights, or Advantage for more grievous insults. Abandoning a pact results in punishment lasting 2d6 days.

If you had made a pact, you immediately lose your hunger for carrion. In addition, roll 1d6.
1-2: You become violently sick and must spend the duration of your punishment resting and recuperating.
3-4: Each day, 1d6 rations spoil and become inedible.
5-6: You are unable to heal your wounds for the duration of your punishment.

The Firekeeper

Ordinarily, death releases soul from body, allowing it to transition into the afterlife. But sometimes, the corpse becomes a prison. The Firekeeper is but one of many psychopomp godlings tasked with assisting the unhappy dead.

The Firekeeper’s mountaintop columbarium is maintained by a small group of village priests. Her sacred pyre has been lit for generations.

The Firekeeper appreciates the destruction of the undead. She especially appreciates the bringing of undead corpses to her altar so they might be given proper funerary rites. If you leave her such an offering, she will grant you a single use of one of her spells.

When you make a pact with the Firekeeper, you renounce all necromancy or defilement of the dead. The Firekeeper is willing to lend you one spell, at first. She may grant you more with further acts of devotion.

Once per day, if you carry a lit torch dedicated to the Firekeeper, you may cast a spell.

Banish: 1d6 undead become ordinary corpses for one hour.
Protection: Attack rolls have Disadvantage against 1d6 creatures of your choice for one hour.
Pyrokinesis: A fire forms in your hands, lasting for one hour or until dispelled. It deals 1d6 damage when flung at an enemy.

Wrath lasts for 1d6 days — rolled with Disadvantage for minor slights, or Advantage for more grevious insults. Abandoning a pact results in punishment lasting 2d6 days.

For the duration of your punishment, you are forbidden from columbariums, tombs, graves, and other places where the dead have come to rest. If you violate this prohibition, the Firekeeper will set you alight.

In addition, roll 1d6.
1-2: Even the smallest, safest fires — like candles — will sear you for 1d6 damage for the duration of your punishment.
3-4: Your attributes are reduced by 1d6 for the duration of your punishment.
5-6: You are forcibly put to sleep for the duration of your punishment.

Thank you to my friend Vidcom for the idea of the Firekeeper!

Further Reading

April 23, 2024 D&D Fantasy Religion Magic

You Don’t Have to Speak in Character

I’ve been slow to update this blog recently because I’ve spent more time at the table. I’m a player in one campaign, a referee in another, and I’m preparing to restart that open table I wrote about in 2022. This means introducing more people to RPGs — friends, coworkers, acquaintances, etc. — and that means overcoming barriers that make roleplaying seem harder than it is.

One thing I’ve stopped doing (for the most part) is speaking in character. I don’t enjoy it, I’m not good at it, and it wastes everyone’s time if I’m fumbling around looking for the exact right way to phrase my argument. I’m not an actor, I don’t like roleplaying-as-improv-performance.

Instead, I just describe how my character approaches a social situation — yeah, he wants to appeal to the king’s sense of duty to his people. He’s being extremely polite and formal with his language, and he’s using plenty of flattery.”

There we go. That communicates everything I wanted to get across, without getting bogged down in word choice or tone or what-have-you. It also highlights the decisions inherent to a negotiation. I need to find the right way to approach this conversation, using the information I have available to me, or else I won’t get what I want from this person.

I’m far from the first person to come up with this idea, but it’s completely changed how I approach roleplaying games. Personally, it’s a lot less stressful for me both as a player and as a referee.

A corollary is that I’m increasingly in favor of ditching social stats. I tried this in the short campaign I ran last year, and I thought it worked really well. In this conception, being persuasive isn’t about being generally charismatic or getting lucky with the dice — it’s more about finding the right angle for an argument using the available information. If I know this non-player character is greedy, I should make it profitable for them to do what I want. If this other NPC cares about their deity, I should appeal to their faith somehow when making my case.

The way I see it, a conversation is a puzzle, and that’s something better left to players than their characters. They don’t need to put on a performance, they just need to solve the puzzle.

April 10, 2024 GM Advice Player Advice

My Personal Style of Play

I recently watched Questing Beast’s video on six cultures of play” in tabletop RPGs, as described in a blog post by The Retired Adventurer. It got me thinking: how would I describe my own style of play?

The six cultures described aren’t mutually exclusive buckets — they’re trends which inform the values of individual groups and tables. In that spirit, here are a few notes on how I’d describe my own preferences.

  • I prefer game systems to be short, simple, and elegant. All else equal, I’d rather engage with the world than with the rules. This is a core feature of the Old-School Renaissance.
  • That said, I think there’s a place for mechanics that provide structure for things too fiddly to roleplay. A good example might be The Hotline’s rules for debt in Mothership.
  • Tactics games can be fun, but generally I’m not too interested in mechanically optimizing my character. Leveling up, picking new abilities, etc. — it’s not for me. This is part of why I soured on D&D 5e, and it’s why I’ve never played Pathfinder.
  • My favorite games are driven by the actions of the player characters. The referee establishes the situation, but doesn’t plan a specific outcome or story arc. The story emerges from what happens at the table, and the players’ choices should have real in-world consequences. This is another core tenet of the OSR.
  • Borrowing from the trad style, I appreciate a sense of referee authorship” over the setting, if not the events of the game itself. I don’t like the very collaborative worldbuilding process common in the story-game scene. If I’m a player at your table, I want to inhabit your setting and leave a mark on the world you’ve built.
  • Tonally, I prefer games where the characters aren’t too powerful, where the challenges are mostly human-scaled, and where magic is infrequent or poorly understood. In sci-fi, I prefer games that are more scientifically grounded. This tends to be more common in OSR circles, but it’s not universal.

March 17, 2024 D&D Rules GM Advice

Hacking Violence

Credit to Luke Gearing for creating Violence, a fast and nasty system for resolving violent encounters which I used to much success in a recent campaign. Here, I’ve adjusted the rules based on personal preference, aligning the dice logic with my rules for spaceship combat, and my players’ desire for more structure in situations outside of combat.

Characters have the following four Stats. Roll 3d6 for them, in order.

  • Wits: Your cleverness, quick-thinking, and motor discipline.
  • Smarts: Your capacity for abstract reasoning and problem-solving.
  • Tough: Your physique, stamina, and pain tolerance.
  • Fight: Your combat training and stomach for blood.

When the outcome of an action is uncertain and the stakes are high, roll 1d20 equal to or under your most relevant Stat.

Advantage and Disadvantage

Whenever circumstances make a check particularly easy or difficult, roll twice and take the better or worse result.


Characters start with four points to spend on Aspects. Aspects represent the occupations, careers, experiences, and accomplishments that define a character’s history and grant them expertise.

A character can have any number of Aspects, chosen by them and agreed upon by the Referee, so long as their bonuses total up to four.

If when making a check, the player and Referee agree that a character’s Aspect provides them relevant expertise, the Aspect’s bonus is added to the Stat threshold. Only one Aspect can apply to a check, but Aspects are not tied to any specific Stat.

Some possible Aspects include: asteroid miner, atmospheric technician, bodyguard, bureaucrat, chemist, diplomat, engineer, lawyer, medical doctor, naval officer, psychologist, retail employee, space marine, union organizer, virologist, etc.


Every player character involved in a combat makes a Wits check.

Everyone who succeeds acts before their opponents, and everyone who fails acts after.

Do this at the beginning of each round.


To shoot someone, make a Fight check. If they are not in cover or moving, roll with Advantage.

If someone is shot, they make a Tough check.

  • Subtract -2 from the threshold for each Injury they have.
  • Rifle-calibers subtract -2.
  • Automatic weapons subtract an additional -2.
  • Shotguns subtract -4 at close ranges and -2 at medium.

If they fail this check, they go Down. Otherwise, they are Injured.


Both combatants make Fight checks.

  • If both combatants succeed, the low-scorer is Injured. The high-scorer is Injured and goes Down.
  • If one combatant succeeds and the other fails, the loser is Injured and goes Down.
  • If both combatants fail the check, both are Injured and go Down.


In a combat, characters can perform maneuvers — fire to suppress, restrain an opponent, use them as a zero-G springboard, etc.

To do this, make a Fight check. On a success, the opponent may choose to either let the maneuver happen, or resolve the attack as per usual (in melee, the opponent also makes a Fight check).


When a character goes Down, they make a Tough check. Subtract -2 from the threshold for each Injury. If they fail, they are dead. Otherwise, they are critically injured and will die without swift medical attention.


I added Aspects and Maneuvers for the same reason — to avoid making lists.

For Aspects, I wanted a way to reward a character’s specific training and expertise. At first, I thought I’d write a formal list of skills or careers, but gave up about 30 entries into a d100 table of backgrounds. I wanted to foreground the fiction and let my players’ creativity guide the mechanics, not the other way around. Traverse Fantasy, taking a page from 13th Age, had a much better take on how to do backgrounds in her game, FIVEY.

As for Maneuvers, I borrowed from Odd Skull’s classic blog post on the subject, taking an I cut, you choose” route and giving your opponent the decision whether to pay in blood to stop you. And since this is Violence, that’s a steep price to pay.

I got rid of tracking individual bullets because it felt too granular for me. And since my setting presumes the widespread use of automatic firearms, there are a lot more bullets flying around in general. I’d rather keep the focus on did you hit or miss?”

For initiative and (dis)advantage I just swapped in some clean, elegant rules I like.

Further Reading

February 7, 2024 Violence Rules Rockhoppers

Labor Unions in the Solar System

I failed Dungeon23 pretty early last year, unfortunately. I like the idea of a daily, low-stakes RPG writing ritual, but I ran into a creative block pretty early on. So this year, I’m trying Lore24, which gives me more leeway to follow my creativity wherever it leads, rather than forcing myself to just write dungeon rooms. I’m using the opportunity to add details to my sci-fi world.

I’m giving myself permission to allow a daily entry to be just a name and a brief, one-sentence description. But a few weeks back, I put in the work to detail the Solar System’s most prominent labor unions, and I wanted to share that here.

Mineworkers Industrial Union (MIU)

An old and once-powerful labor union, founded in 2219, with a heavy presence on Luna and in the Asteroid Belt. The MIU not only represents blue-collar industrial workers, but also skilled roboticists, engineers, cargo technicians, and various white-collar workers who support the heavily-automated mining industry.

The 2308 Lunar Rising devastated the Mineworkers, who were at the forefront of anti-Restitutionary resistance in the wake of Operation Hawkeye. The External Bureau of Intelligence arrested thousands of members and executed hundreds of organizers. Any informal arrangements that had existed between union and company were severed, and the remnants of the union’s leadership fled into exile.

Today, the MIU is the most heavily suppressed of all the Spacer labor unions. It’s recovered somewhat from its post-Rising nadir, but still doesn’t have the membership or bargaining position it once had. The MIU is affiliated with the All-System Alliance of Labor Unions. The current president is Gabriel Shala (they/them).

United Gas & Refinery Workers (UGRW)

A relatively small but rapidly-growing labor union, concentrated in the Outer Planets. Founded in 2282 from a collection of local refiners’ unions, the UGRW is organized in key industrial centers around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The union is generally understood to be militant, strike-prone, radically left-wing, and hostile to spacer nomads who bear a reputation as dishonorable scabs. The UGRW is a founding affiliate of the Industrial Democratic Congress. The current president is Maysoun Sasaki (she/her).

Interplanetary Shipbuilders Association (ISA)

One of the oldest and largest labor unions in the Solar System, founded on Luna in 2207. Despite an early history of combative strike activity, the founding of the External Service and the system-wide repression of labor activity drove the ISA underground. Today, the Shipbuilders act as off-the-books negotiating partners, promising not to lead strikes or slowdowns in exchange for modest concessions. The Shipbuilders are generally seen as conciliatory toward the External Service. The ISA is affiliated with the All-System Alliance of Labor Unions. The current president is Pau Prem Khin (he/him).

Spacefarers and Teamsters Interplanetary Union (STIU)

Another of the largest labor unions in the Solar System, covering crews on all commercial passenger and cargo spacecraft. Due to their unique bargaining position out in space for potentially weeks at a time, STIU crews are noted for their frequent conflict with both corporate flight commanders and independent owner-operators. The STIU is also associated with organized crime, corruption, and religious heterodoxy. Corrupt locals are known for bribery, embezzlement, extortion, and violence in order to protect their interests and muscle out non-union crew. The STIU is affiliated with the All-System Alliance of Labor Unions. The current president is Rahman Chen Chieh (he/him).

Space Station Operations Union (SSOU)

Originally a firefighters’ union, now a broad umbrella of workers who maintain critical infrastructure aboard space stations. Founded in 2235 as the Interplanetary Union of Station Firefighters (IUSF), the union renamed itself in 2290 to recognize its increasingly diversified membership. The SSOU has been affiliated with the Industrial Democratic Congress since 2314, and is the IDCs largest union. The current president is Nahia-Maria Sante (she/her).

All-System Alliance of Labor Unions (ASALU)

The largest trade union confederation in the Solar System, founded in 2256 to present a united front to the newly-created External Service. While labor organizing has always been illegal under Restitutionary law, ASALU and its unions maintain an unofficial relationship with corporate authorities and the External Service. This relationship has been variously combative or conciliatory, depending on circumstance, but tends toward cooperation in exchange for limited, begrudging acceptance.

This détente suffered a grievous wound following the election of Cyril Brook as president of the Executive Council. From the left, ASALUs decision not to publicly oppose Operation Hawkeye incited a membership revolt, which in 2301 led several unions to split and form the Industrial Democratic Congress. From the right, the EBI led a system-wide repression of labor activity, and companies were pressured not to make the sort of informal deals that were once common.

ASALU eventually followed the IDC into a more militant stance against the External Service, but this did little to improve its fortunes. The Lunar Rising nearly destroyed the Mineworkers, and the ensuing crackdown implicated ASALU leaders in all sorts of anti-Restitutionary activity. ASALU reversed course again to try and repair its situation, but its bargaining position was severely weakened, and the unions were unable to extract the concessions they once could. In 2314, the SSOU ditched ASALU to affiliate with the IDC, instantly becoming the latter federations’ largest member union.

Today, ASALU is still the larger of the two big labor confederations in the Solar System, but its power has been severely weakened after decades of rudderless leadership and an inability to adapt to an increasingly polarized political situation. The leadership of ASALU is traditionally supportive of planetary restitution in abstract, but advocates for the accountability and democratization of the External Service.

Unions affiliated with ASALU include:

  • Mineworkers Industrial Union (MIU)
  • Interplanetary Shipbuilders Association (ISA)
  • Spacefarers and Teamsters Interplanetary Union (STIU)

Industrial Democratic Congress (IDC)

A trade union confederation founded in 2301 after the All-System Alliance of Labor Unions split in a dispute over Operation Hawkeye. The IDC is generally considered to be more militant than ASALU, and unlike ASALU officially endorses a program of Spacer independence and socialist reorganization of the interplanetary economy.

The IDC initially consisted of the UGRW and a handful of smaller unions, united by a willingness to directly challenge the External Service even if it risked losing the short-term gains of conciliation. This stance grew exponentially more popular as Operation Hawkeye wore on, so much so that even ASALU was pressured to adopt a more combative posture.

Capitalizing on this newfound labor radicalism, the IDC spent the postwar recession years pressing for strikes and protests throughout the Solar System. In particular, the IDC and allied unions actively recruited unemployed war veterans, taking advantage of their expertise to fight the External Service. The Lunar Rising further emboldened the militant unionists of the IDC, as did ASALUs decision to reverse course and renew its attempts at conciliation. With the admission of the SSOU, the IDC now represents a significant fraction of the Solar System’s unionized workers.

Unions affiliated with the IDC include:

  • United Gas & Refinery Workers (UGRW)
  • Space Station Operations Union (SSOU)
  • Agri-Food and Commercial Services Union (AFCSU)
  • Independent Electrical Workers (IEW)

February 4, 2024 Rockhoppers Sci-Fi Space Worldbuilding

The Kuiper Belt and The Art of Not Being Governed

I recently started reading The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott. The basic thesis of the book is that, rather than being unrefined barbarians or our living ancestors,” the people of marginal regions like Upland Southeast Asia (or the cossacks and Romani in Europe, Berbers in North Africa, maroons in the Americas, etc.) actively shape their lives in such a way as to avoid absorption into a nearby state. They are, in other words, barbarians by design.”

The first few chapters, however, are dedicated to the internal logic of statecraft in preindustrial Southeast Asia. Consider the following passages from the beginning of chapter 3:

The concentration of manpower was the key to political power in premodern Southeast Asia. It was the first principle of statecraft and the mantra of virtually every history of precolonial kingdoms in the region. Creating such space was easiest where there was a substantial expanse of flat, fertile land, watered by perennial streams and rivers, and, better yet, not far from a navigable waterway. Tracing the far-reaching logic of state spaces will help distinguish the fundamental differences between manpower-poor, land-rich political systems on the one hand and land-poor, manpower-rich systems on the other.”

The need to concentrate population and, at the same time, the difficulty of doing so was inscribed in the demographic given that Southeast Asia’s land mass was only one-seventh as populated as was that of China in 1600. As a consequence, in Southeast Asia control over people conferred control over land, while in China control over land increasingly conferred control over people. The abundance of arable land in Southeast Asia favored shifting cultivation, a pattern of farming that often yielded higher returns for less labor and produced a substantial surplus for the families practicing it. What constituted an advantage for the cultivators, however, was profoundly prejudicial to the ambitions of would-be state-makers. Shifting cultivation requires far more land than irrigated rice and therefore disperses population; where it prevails, it appears to impose an upper limit of population density of about 20-30 per square kilometer.’ Once again, concentration is the key. It matters little how wealthy a kingdom is if its potential surplus of manpower and grain is dispersed across a landscape that makes its collection difficult and costly. Effective strength often came down to a polity’s core, not the realm’s total size or wealth,’ as Richard O’Connor has put it. Irrigated wet-rice created stronger heartlands… It not only supported a denser population, but grain-supported villages would have been easier to mobilize.’ The very name of the northern Thai kingdom — Lanna, one million padi fields’ — amply reflects this fiscal and manpower obsession.”

So, that’s a lot, but it got me thinking about the logic of statecraft in the Solar System.

A chart of the relative distances between planets in our Solar System
(Wikipedia) A chart of the relative distances between planets in our Solar System. The sizes of the Sun and planets are not scaled to their distances.

Space is big. This is sort of obvious, but it’s worth repeating. Space is big. The circumference around Earth at its equator is 40,075.017 kilometers. That’s a long way — literally all the way around the planet — but you’d have to go more than nine and a half times that distance to get to the Moon. Thirty Earth-sized planets could fit in between.

Seems like a long way, right?

You’d have to travel almost 3,733 times around the Earth to equal one astronomical unit, roughly the distance from here to the Sun. You could line up more than 11,000 Earth-sized planets in that area.

It gets bigger from there. The average distance from the Sun to Mars is a bit over 1.5 AU, or one-and-a-half times the distance from the Sun to Earth. For Jupiter it’s 5.2 AU, for Saturn it’s 9.6 AU, for Uranus it’s 19.2 AU, and for Neptune it’s 30.1 AU. I could recite numbers at you all day, but I hope you get the point. The Solar System is so incomprehensibly vast that light itself takes hours to reach its farthest reaches.

What does that mean for a state centered around planet Earth, especially one interested in extracting material wealth from the rest of the system?

For the Restitution Project and its corporate allies, the mission of restoring Earth’s biosphere depends on maintaining the flow of commerce. For that, they need people and machinery in locations around the Solar System where material wealth can be found. Artificial intelligence can lower the minimum human population necessary to support a colony, but not fully.

Therefore, it’s essential to concentrate human settlement in places optimal for resource extraction and industrial manufacturing. There, the supply chain can be accurately monitored and taxed, and manpower can be effectively counted and mobilized. This is what Scott terms state-accessible product” — not the entire wealth of a country, but only that which can be identified, monitored, and accessed by the state.

It profits the ruler not at all if his nominal subjects flourish, say, by foraging, hunting, or shifting agriculture at too great a distance from the court. It similarly profits the ruler little if his subjects grow a diverse suite of crops of different maturation or crops that spoil quickly and are therefore hard to assess, collect, and store. Given a choice between patterns of subsistence that are relatively unfavorable to the cultivator but which yield a greater return in manpower or grain to the state and those patterns that benefit the cultivator but deprive the state, the ruler will choose the former every time. The ruler, then, maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects.”

For the Restitution Project, state-accessible product is maximized when large populations live in central city-stations located at optimal points along the interplanetary supply chain. But for those who actually live in those city-stations, life can be hard. They are the people most subject to Restitutionary laws and corporate regulations. They are the people drawn up for service in the External Navy, and subject to punishment if they fail to meet their obligations. If soldiers, settlers, or workers are needed, then both state and company reach for the pool of people most easily accessible.

According to Scott, in a precolonial Southeast Asian padi-state, this power dynamic leads to a sort of systemic vulnerability: the state presses hardest on its core population, which flees or rebels if the burden is too great. The core population shrinks, and the state must press even harder on those who remain to extract the same wealth and manpower. This accelerates the population decline, and the state contracts in power until it either recovers or collapses.

Here, the Restitution Project is different. Unlike the padi-state, the Restitution Project has Earth: the home of over 99% of the human population, and a near-infinite supply of state-accessible wealth and manpower. But in the 24th century, Earth is not enough. What the mother planet needs for the health of its biosphere, it can only find elsewhere in the Solar System.

In this way, the Restitution Project also operates like a colonial empire: badly-needed resources flow from the frontier to the metropole, where the state’s core population uses the wealth for its own purposes. And this population is reluctant to move out to some rock millions of kilometers from home. That’s not to say that none do — job opportunities in the External Service are lucrative, and there wouldn’t be Spacers in the first place if at least some Earthers didn’t relocate offworld for one reason or another. But the population of outer space is limited for a reason.

Beyond the bounds of Earth’s hill sphere, the Restitutionary political system is very much manpower-poor and land-rich. Therefore, the External Service uses control over people to gain control over asteroids, moons, and planets. The particulars are hugely different between a premodern padi-state and a planetary industrial empire, but the political dynamics are similar in key ways.

So if you’re a Spacer interested in fleeing the burdens of hard labor in service of planetary reconstruction and corporate profit, where can you go?

A diagram of the New Horizons spacecraft’s journey through the Outer Solar System
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory) A diagram of the New Horizons spacecraft’s journey through the Outer Solar System, with the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto shown, as well as the Kuiper Belt. Seriously, I can’t express how big the Solar System is.

The furthest outposts of the External Service are in orbit around Uranus and Neptune — atmospheric gas refineries generating helium-3 fuel for fusion-powered spaceships. Beyond Neptune, some 30-50 AU from the Sun, there are hundreds of millions of objects, asteroids and comets and dwarf planets. This incomprehensibly vast region of space is known as the Kuiper Belt.

The Kuiper Belt has little economic value for the Restitution Project. Those small objects are composed primarily of icy volatiles rather than rock or metal — useful for sure, but it’s nothing that can’t be found closer to the Sun. Furthermore, it’s all dispersed in small bodies at enormous distances, hard to concentrate into a central supply chain. And with such little sunlight, energy production at scale would be a huge problem.

All of that makes the Kuiper Belt unsuitable for mass settlement and industrial manufacturing, but it does make it ideal as a zone of refuge away from the External Service. Small communities can build a parabolic dish to capture sunlight and concentrate it on a town-sized settlement. Other communities might opt for fusion- or fission-powered habitats, depending on what they can mine or steal. All those icy volatiles like water, ammonia, and methane can be used to create climate-controlled biospheres for agriculture.

You might find your next-door neighbor only a few days or weeks away. That sounds like a lot, but it’s not bad given that it might take a month or more to head back toward the Sun. That journey may be worth it, though — all those concentrated centers of production and population make juicy targets for pillage. Cargo ships can be intercepted and robbed, settlements can be forced to provide tribute at gunpoint, and entire stations of people can be uprooted and carried back to the Kuiper Belt.

Indeed, this rampant piracy is the primary raison d’être for the External Navy. There are no state competitors to the External Service, so the only threat comes from raiders. Of course, this intermittent conflict creates even more pressure on the urban population of the Solar System, as the External Service must levy higher taxes and draw up more soldiers to defend its supply chain.

There’s lots more I can say about the actual lifeways of those who live in the Kuiper Belt, but I’ll leave it here for now. For this post, I wanted to draw out the comparison between the Kuiper Belt and highland Southeast Asia as described in The Art of Not Being Governed. They’re both marginal regions from the perspective of state authorities, home to less developed” populations who have yet to come to civilization.” They’re also regions of refuge for those fleeing the burdens of life under state domination, pockets of freedom made possible through a geography hostile to the ambitions of state-builders.

I really strongly recommend The Art of Not Being Governed. I’ve stuck sticky notes all through my copy to keep track of everything I’ve learned. It’s a great and informative work that’ll teach you a lot about power, statecraft, and the makeup of the premodern world.

December 18, 2023 Rockhoppers Sci-Fi Worldbuilding