Tag Archives: Worldbuilding

Why Colonize a Crappy Planet?

Since I am hosting this month’s RPGBA Blog Carnival over at Enderra, I thought I might post a little bit about colonies this month.

One of the quirks of the Traveller world generation system is that it creates populations on Earthlike and hostile worlds alike. The modifiers in the Mongoose rules somewhat mitigate this, but not much. Combined with an abundance of Earthlike worlds, the question naturally arises: “Why would anybody live on such a hell-hole?”

Low Tech Levels: Isolated cultures of Tech Level 7 or 8 (20th-21st Century) might attempt to settle a moon or a hostile or marginal world in their own system simply because it’s the only option they’ve got. If they have Grav drives or a lot of resources, they can even reach nearby star systems (very slowly), but without Hyperdrives their choices are limited.

Paid to stay: There might be excellent reasons for the colonists to stay. Alien ruins, abundant natural resources, research, or something else might make a colony on a hostile world economically viable. The colonists are mostly employees of whatever corporation or organization runs the show, and they are paid premiums to stick around.

No place else to go: The original colonists were outcasts, voluntarily or forced. All the good planets were taken, and they had to contend with what was left. The main objection to this is that new Earthlike worlds can bee easily found by traveling outside the Empire/Republic, but proximity to the core might outweigh the problems and challenges the planet poses – and may ensure that the colonists are left alone, where a more desirable planet could be a target for a takeover.

Terraforming: The colonists could be a terraforming crew. The planet is a mess right now, but give it two hundred years and it’ll be a man-made paradise. By signing up for terraforming duty, the colonists and their heirs are guaranteed choice land parcels and a better life.

It’s Not That Bad: A world that is extremely hostile to us – say, Venus – might be easy to colonize at very high technologies. A super-earth with a high gravity isn’t that daunting if you can just stick grav plates into your colony – you get the idea.

Modified Humans and Aliens: Some alien species will find a “hostile” world to be quite to their liking. The Traveller world generation makes no assumption about the species of inhabitants, and in a space opera-ish setting like Contact Light, the locals could actually be non-humans. A variation of this is the concept that we might genetically modify some colonists to thrive in an environment that humans would otherwise find unpleasant or unbearable.

We don’t actually ever go there: The settlement is actually on a moon or space station and not the hostile planet itself. Technically, under the Traveller rules, the UWP should describe the station in this case. However, there might be excellent reasons for the locals to claim to be a planetary colony and make it stick – government subsidies, or better rights, representation in the Senate, better military protection, it all depends on interstellar law. Perhaps this requires a small colony on the surface for legal reasons, with staff well-paid and rotated out regularly (in which case it becomes Paid to Stay).

There is no spoon: The colony might not actually exist. It could be a census mistake, or a cartographic artifact. In the Contact Light universe, starships do not need to refuel with Hydrogen after every jump; in a Traveller universe this could lead to some stranded ships. A variation of this is an abandoned colony – they attempted to settle this world but failed, and the census data has not been updated.

Get With It, RNG: It’s always permissible to change the random results. Make the atmosphere a little more friendly, decrease the planet’s size, what have you – Or just make it an uninhabited world after all.



Humans as a Baseline

Humans are a useful baseline species for any setting. The reason is simple – The audience is human, and they know what humans are like. There is no need to specify what colors their hair has, or how tall they are – we all know these things automatically. And we can more easily relate to humans.

On Earth, humans became the One Sentient Species because we’ve been the meanest, toughest, luckiest and perhaps smartest bastards around. We’ve outlived, exterminated or assimilated all competition. It stands to reason that either the same happened – or should have happened – in our fictional settings long before the onset of civilized society.

Does it have to be this way? Yeah. Kind of.

Let’s think of the alternatives.

One: We have company, and are slowly crowding them out. This is what happened in Earth’s past, and is really only the precursor to the above-described situation. Good choice for your average fantasy campaign – and this is actually the situation in Colonial Space.

Two: Humans are slowly being crowded out. In this case, it still makes sense to pick humans as the “baseline”, it just means we’re the Neanderthals of your setting. It’s a good choice and can lead to either a dystopian setting, or a “heroic fight for survival”.

Three: A balance of power. I don’t believe this is possible; sooner or later, one species will one-up the other. Cultural or technological sophistication don’t help much, either. We didn’t stop after we got rid of the other human species, we just turned on each other – if you don’t see it, ask the Native Americans, the Rwandans, the Tibetans, and so on. You get the point.

Humans in Colonial Space

Enderra was a multi-species planet. Humans, Endari, Mineons and Thurin made it off the homeworld alive; many others did not. The short explanation is that these four races had developed a series of historic alliances against common threats – and there has simply not been enough time for anybody to get the upper hand; as illustrated by the Endari’s possible off-world origin.

Let’s put this into in-Universe terms:

Humans dominate the major interstellar nations of Colonial Space. This is not due to their greater intelligence or physical strength; indeed, comparative xenobiology shows that humans are mediocre in both aspects. Instead, humans have a much higher reproduction rate than the other Enderran peoples. More children who reach maturity quicker has two effects: One, humans can adapt more easily to changing conditions (both in terms of biological evolution as well as cultural change) and two, it means that human society can more easily absorb deaths caused by hostile environments and wars.

This dominance is not a new development of the space age, but was already in effect back on the original homeworld, Enderra, where most powerful nations were ruled by humans. It was humans who led the age of discovery in their sailing ships and colonized new continents. Humans spearheaded space exploration. Humans led the Continuity Project, and were firmly in control of Fleet Command and the colonial administration. Both Empire and Republic are ruled by humans.

Short and to the point, and we’ve got a rationale that’ll work.

Well, What Sort of Aliens?

Before I go into detailing some of the races in the setting, let’s take a look at common approaches to alien design and their problems (and beenefits) and lay out what sort of aliens we will have in our setting.

Level of Anthropomorphism

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: I am talking about Rubber-Forehead Aliens.

Science Fiction is full of aliens who are little more than humans with some stuff glued to their forehead (and in some cases, in obvious rubber suits). To some extent this is of course necessary because aliens in science fiction are portrayed by humans, and more extreme makeup or even CGI is expensive (and used to be impossible). Still, this is one trope that I should avoid like the plague – no matter how “in genre” it might be.

That is not to say that humanoid aliens are a bad idea. There is a lot to be said for a basic humanoid shape, not the least of which is that it’s the only sentient, tool-making, technologically advanced species we know of – ourselves. If it works in one place, it’ll work everywhere.

Indeed, I expect a large number of aliens in the setting to fall into this category. It will be a tough job to make them convincing and interesting.

There is a subset of humanoid aliens, and those are the human aliens – Aliens that look to human that they are mistaken for them, and often they can interbreed with humans, too.  These exist in many, many settings – Spock and the Vulcans, the humans in Star Wars, Elves and other fantasy races, Vineans from Yoko Tsuno, H. Beam Piper’s Freyans, and so on. They may be slightly odd – Spock’s supposedly somewhat greenish, and has long ears; Vineans are blue, and so on – but they are identical with humans in every other respect.

In general, these are a problem because they make no sense. There’s always the Ancient Astronauts approach that is so over-used (Traveller, Battlestar Galactica are notable examples), but that’s pretty much it. Parallel evolution won’t account for it.

However, in my particular case I will actually use human aliens. Humans, Endari, Thurin, and Mineons are all refugees from Enderra, and Enderra is – as you may be aware – a D&D fantasy world. The Endari are Elves, the Thurin are Dwarfs, and the Mineons are Gnomes. Just don’t tell anybody – it’s a secret.

Last but not least there is that category of Starfish Aliens.

It includes all aliens made to be truly alien. When creating bizarre aliens we need to keep in mind that they also have to be functional – that is, they need certain features such as hands to be able to build a tool-using, technological civilization. A whale, for instance, might be sentient, but he will never build a fire. And when used as characters, it becomes more and more difficult for the audience to emphasize with these truly strange aliens, which is why they are usually antagonists or mere mysteries or flavor.

What capabilities do aliens have?

It often seems that designers give their creatures and monsters all sorts of nifty powers. Some of these make sense, some are borderline, and some are impossible. Fundamentally, I think that if an animal species on Earth has a certain feature or ability, then one of our alien species can have that same ability. The important thing is that we need to consider the implications of such biology when we then design their culture.

They will not have truly fantastic features – invisbility, for example –  but I’ll get back to you on breaking this self-imposed rule at some point, too.

Species vs Culture

One last important distinction that I need to point out is that “species is not equal to culture”. Again, many fictional setting offend on this count – mostly because it is easier on both designer and the audience. All Vulcans are logical and emotionless. All gnomes are terrifying engineers. All Hutts are criminals. All Orcs are evil brutes.

Obviously, I will not have the time and creative energy to create hundreds of cultures for each species, but I’d like to create at least a few distinct variations each to avoid this trope.


A Note on Names

I’ve always had trouble coming up with good names, and in this regard names for colony worlds aren’t any different from names for people. Over the past few years I’ve built a list with about 700-ish names for colonies. However, these were intended for a Terro-centric culture, and many make little sense in Contact Light.

There was no Washington on Enderra, for example. That’s straight forward. But you’ll notice I have already been using names from Earth mythology, for example.

I think these are fair game; they resonate with us because we’re so used to them. Everybody connects Arthur to Avalon, for example. We can assume that these are translations, or an artifact of the strange way the multiverse works.

That said, I may revisit some of the names later, when I’ve got more of Colonial Space nailed down, so to speak.


The Unwashed Masses (High Population Worlds, Part 2)

Now that I’ve brought those mega-high-population worlds a little bit in line with the rest, let’s take a look at each of them in order to figure out what conditions might be like. For this post I will omit worlds with less than about 15 billion people.

I won’t post detailed analysis for all worlds in the sector, but this should serve as a good example of the way I work, and of how you can turn the simplistic UWP codes into actual places.

(As a note, yellow fields are how I mark data I’ve changed from the original dice rolls in some way.)


The most populated world in Colonial Space is an interesting one. It is a large (A = 16,000 km) waterworld with a dense (1.5-2.49) atmosphere. It also has the highest tech level of any system (16), and it absolutely needs it.

What fresh, natural food is being produced is entirely aquatic. Most food is produced in vats and by synthesizers. The human population lives under water, on the water, and in floating cities and there’s probably a sizable off-world presence that gets counted in the total (a billion or two on the moon).

I say “human” because the world is actually quite hostile to human habitation. The gravity is too high, the air unpleasant. Yes, they have the technology to compensate, but I will assume that there is also a sentient aquatic species present. Since you can’t really develop technology underwater, they’ve either been uplifted by the colonists, or are being suppressed and exploited. Perhaps both.

The world is governed by a king and severely restricts contact and trade with off-worlders. The government is keenly aware of their technological edge over the other worlds and seeks to maintain it.


Another huge world, this one must be even less pleasant to live on. On top of its high gravity, it has an Exotic atmosphere and half the surface is covered in some sort of non-water. I wonder why anybody would want to live on such a planet, and it’s quite amazing that they managed to grow to 45 billion! I don’t want to assume non-humans, that’s a cop-out.

The planet’s government may give us a hint: code D is a “religious dictatorship”, which the Mongoose Traveller rules book says could be a “cult, trasncendent philosophy, psionic group mind”. None of those are very pleasant, and the implications are clear: The world was originally settled by religious outcasts, and they have some sort of inverse China syndrome. That is, instead of banning people from having children they strongly encourage or even force people to have a large number of children.

Why would they do this? I actually rolled on the Cultural Difference table and got a result of 55 – “Unusual Customs: Lifecycle”. Thanks, dice, I guess I was ahead of you.

Let’s leave the exact motivation up for later, but a large population is a large power base. These guys are certainly not up to anything good.

Last but not least I am going to go out on a limb here and assume that the fluid oceans are hydrocarbons, which serve as basic ingredients for the local synthifoods.


Compared to our first two worlds, this one is almost boring. Yes, massive population, but also quite close to Earth: Size 8, about 80% water, just a bit of a denser atmosphere. It’s still classified as a Garden world and the only downside is the fairly low technology. It’s still high enough that they use carniculture vats, hydroponics, and maybe even imported food synthesizers, but the quality of the food will be a lot worse than on that tech level 16 water world.

With the environment fairly normal, and a Charismatic dictatorship (probably still revolutionary leaders in place from the war), this planet may seem like a fairly pleasant one. However, the massive population and the high law level do mean that the citizens’ daily lives are controlled to a great extent. Unlike the religious planet, this one probably does have strict family planning laws in place. Think fertility boards similar to what Larry Niven’s flatlanders have to deal with.


Ah, something completely different – a small vacuum world. Small as in Mars-sized, and without oceans this still means about the same land surface as Earth. To accommodate 63 billion people, this world is riddled with caves. The high tech level easily supports all these people, and the surprisingly low law level means that this world is probably the most pleasant to be a citizen on of all the high population worlds we’ve looked at so far.

The planet is probably an economic powerhouse – Industrialized trade code – supported by vacuum industries which in turn are fueled by mining. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there are several dense asteroid belts, ringed gas giants, and many moons in this system that are all used to provide ore for the main world.


Next up, another overpopulated Garden world. With a size close to Earth’s, a dense atmosphere and extensive oceans it’s actually as close to the dystopic visions of an overcrowded Earth as we’ve got so far. The tech level is only 8 – about what we have on Earth today, maybe a little bit higher – which means 21.7 billion people is about the maximum the society can support, especially considering the C class starport implies a limited amount of interstellar space travel and the tech level is not high enough for a lot of “domestic” interplanetary travel.

Government code “A” is a charismatic dictator again, but I think this world – due to its location, if nothing else – was a supporter of Empire. So the local government is essentially unchanged under the Republic, and the locals support their leader because they realize that tight government control is necessary to cope with the large population. This is supported by the relatively low law code – much as on the previous vacuum world, the government is as hands-off as it can be.

If we’d ever want to set any sort of “cyberpunk” sort of adventure in the Contact Light setting, this world is a good candidate for it.


This is another overpopulated garden world. The higher tech level supports more people than on the previous world. The government is a civil service bureaucracy, the rules book names communism or technocracy as examples. With the higher law level, this one might be a good candidate for a communist state and in a setting that derives inspiration from 1950s golden age science fiction, communist states make for great antagonists.

Beyond that, the UWP is fairly boring in my opinion.


Didn’t we already do this world? It’s very similar to #2614, except for the government type and for being smaller. A lot will depend on why people settled this world, but we can’t deduct that from the UWP. Alien ruins…


The first thing I notice about this world is the Hot climate; interestingly it’s still got oceans! The atmosphere is thin and tainted, so this world is certainly no paradise. It is industrialized, but poor – the reasons for this are the low tech level and its location in subsector O, outside the Empire (and now Republic). Perhaps the civil war caused it to lose what markets it had, or perhaps the Empire was supporting it and that support now vanished.

On the other hand we’re now looking at a world with “only” 15 billion people. Merely twice what we have on Earth today. And with the amount of dry land this planet has there is a lot of room for these people to spread around. It’s got crowded cities, for sure, but it doesn’t have the massive population problems of some of the other planets.

0.7atmospheres, the upper limit for this atmospheric code, is about equal to a height of 3000m on Earth. A quick check shows that this is below the tree line in some regions, so it’s entirely possible that this planet actually has quite a bit of vegetation.


Another Mars-sized world, and with its trace atmosphere it is very much like Mars indeed. The most interesting thing about this world is its location: It is situated in subsector A, which is very much on the edge of a major rift. It’s also a religious dictatorship.

Why did all these people come here? The UWP won’t give us anything. With law code 8, I think that this world serves as a base of operations to explore the spaces beyond, but the powers that be permit no contact between travelers and the locals (change law level to 7). What are they hiding? It’s a mystery for our protagonists to uncover at some point…


The UWP codes give us surprisingly much to work with, considering it’s just a handful of numbers. At the same time, I am very happy I reduced the number of systems in the sector. The more worlds we have, the higher the chances for similar results.

It does make a lot of sense to use the additional rules Mongoose added – such as various power groups and the cultural difference table – and I will do that for all systems when I work out detailed profiles for them.

Finally, we should never be afraid to override the dice. The random results are a guide, not the law. But this should go without saying, right?


Whenever I set out to create a setting (or brainstorm for one) I spend an evening or two to find quotes that describe it. I find that that words, wise and beautiful, spoken by true poets give me a sense of direction and purpose…

Here are some examples for the setting Contact Light documents (and yes, I really need to name it):

“Imperium et libertas.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Empire and Liberty”. The rallying cry of the Imperial Marines.

“An empire founded by war has to maintain itself by war.” – Charles de Montesquieu

This “empire founded by war” is the Republic.

“Prometheus is reaching out for the stars with an empty grin on his face.” – Arthur Koestler

Hm. This one we’ll get around to much, much later.

“We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” – Thomas Jefferson

This essentially describes the Paladins.

“A man with a club can lick a man with his fists. A man with a gun can lick half a dozen with clubs. And two ships with nuclear weapons can lick a whole planet without them.” – H. Beam Piper

“War does not decide who is right, war decides who is left”. – Anonymous

Warfare isn’t pretty where we’re going.

“The universe beckons.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

There’s a lot of stuff out there waiting to be found, seen, experienced. And where I come from we spell Exploration with a capital E – or all caps, if you prefer. I love exploration.

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

“Hang on, travelers.” – Joss Wheedon (Firefly)

Traveling from one star to another is sort of the core of an interstellar science fiction setting. Boldly going to strange new worlds just as much as visiting the resort planet Oceania.

I have more, but I think you get the idea. I personally feel that having such items in your scratchpad folders really help to get me in the right mind-set to work on the setting.

How Many Colonists Does It Take?

One of the big questions you face when working on an interstellar science fiction setting is: Just how many people does a colony start with?

Cue this timely article by Popular Mechanic. They assume colonization by generation ship, but I think the results are still applicable if you simply look at the colony at its destination. It takes between 10000 and 40000 people to maintain genetic diversity and guard against accidents that wipe out a substantial number of colonists. As a side note, the authors also recommend that it’s better to send a small fleet of vessels rather than one big ship – but that sort of redundancy is pretty much a given if you are sending that big an expedition.

10-40k is a really good match for population characteristic value 4 (“tens of thousand”), and you could assume that any world that has Pop 4 and a TL that is close to your setting’s mainline technology level is a fresh young colony – especially if it’s out in the periphery.

At first glance it might seem that colonies are big busy places – forty thousand people is a fair-sized town – but keep in mind that this is the entire population of an entire planet. They’ll spread out at least a little bit, into homesteads, camps, and outposts, and the main settlement with the starport won’t be a very big settlement at all.

It’s also worth noting that 10,000 individuals is the assumed number of survivors during the Toba catastrophe human population bottleneck.

For comparison: Concord, NH has about 40k inhabitants. Caldwell Parish in Louisiana has 10,004 inhabitants. Its largest town, Clarks, has just over 1000 inhabitants.

World Generator Progress

Work days keep me from being productive where it counts – like science fiction world building!

I’ve made a number of improvements to my sector generator scripts…

  • I generate a “Habitability Index” – this has actually been in the script for a few days. I don’t use it for anything, but it’s a quick index of how nice the planet is to live on. Numbers are only ever added, not subtracted, so a world with a medium HI can still be crappy, but it’s still quite useful for judging worlds at-a-glance. Ranges from 0 (=abysmal) to 8(=perfectly earthlike).
  • I now use random seeds. As long as you know a sector’s seed, you can always recreate it again a second time with the script (as long as the script didn’t change).
  • The script now rolls for actual population, using Benford’s Law. (Thanks Berka.)
  • The script prints out some aggregated statistics about a sector – still a WIP.

Actual Population Sample

Here are the populations of the High Pop worlds of sector#121:

(8)Temperate   0110 B566998-8 Ga Hi  HI=8 A=6320000000
(3)Temperate   1502 B310999-C Hi Ht In Na  HI=3 A=1420000000
(7)Temperate   1710 A66ABD9-E Hi Ht Wa  HI=7 A=119000000000
(5)Temperate   3209 C8B5998-A Fl Hi  HI=5 A=3400000000
(6)Temperate   1617 B79AAD9-9 Hi In Wa  HI=6 A=31600000000
(3)Roasting    1620 A554A96-C Ga Hi Ht  HI=3 A=25100000000
(6)Temperate   2013 C841AD9-6 Hi In Po  HI=6 A=10800000000
(4)Roasting    2718 B5869B8-A Ga Hi  HI=4 A=7190000000
(6)Temperate   0330 D9729B9-7 Hi In  HI=6 A=4980000000
(7)Temperate   0923 B577A75-A Ga Hi In  HI=7 A=87300000000
(7)Temperate   1124 BA669B9-A Ga Hi  HI=7 A=1550000000
(7)Temperate   1127 C578BD9-7 Ga Hi In  HI=7 A=310000000000
(8)Temperate   1326 B8759D9-4 Ga Hi In Lt  HI=8 A=4960000000
(7)Temperate   1522 A675B66-B Ga Hi In  HI=7 A=206000000000
(3)Temperate   1527 A410A96-G Hi Ht In Na  HI=3 A=50000000000
(3)Cold        2229 A631AC9-E Hi Ht Na Po  HI=3 A=61200000000
(6)Temperate   2429 C894996-4 Ga Hi In Lt  HI=6 A=2990000000
(7)Temperate   1839 A585AA8-B Ga Hi  HI=7 A=79600000000

A= is the actual population. I only generate the leading 3 digits and then scale it up to the correct power of ten. Yeah that’s 300 billion people at TL7 on #1127 – with a small planet and more water surface than Earth has. Must be a lovely place. Lots of algae farms… Not to mention those TL4 and TL6 worlds.

Aggregated Statistics Sample

Generating sector: 121


Total Systems: 251

Total Population: 1022367735546

Star Ports:
   A: 12
   B: 24
   C: 40
   D: 48
   E: 57
   X: 70

To Do

I’ll add TLs and World Types to the statistics as well…

And I presumably should tackle unrealistic TLs somehow.

By the way, if anybody wants these scripts – let me know. You need unix (or a mac) for them, there is one shell script and one awk script – plus of course the sector map script I’ve modified.

Creating Local Space (2)

Today I decided to put one and one together, so to speak: Apply the theory I build up in the world building posts to the creation of our little nook of local space. Let’s call this our third trial run, that is, I may or may not keep the results.

For subsectors that had a split system probability, I rolled two subsectors each and then “masked” them manually. This was by far easier than to attempt to teach the script which hexes had what probability… However, for the lower-right corner two subsectors I got tired of this and just rolled 4- for the entire subsector. It will do.

Without much fuss, here is the sector map:


Click on it for the full-sized image. I kept my sketch as a translucent overlay.

The sector ended up having 213 worlds, slightly short of the 236 I had estimated. Tech level distribution is heavily stacked towards the low end:


World types are fairly well spread, though I stupidly removed my Se/Sm classes again:


I’ve made the sector data the sample data for the hacked svg sector map script, if you want to look at or play with the raw data.

As for the results themselves, there are good and bad things.


  • Decent mix of world types
  • Fewer worlds than my draft sector (smaller is better)
  • Highest “regular” tech level is 13 (C), on 9 worlds.


  • The ten high tech worlds are all fairly low population (2×8, 1×9). The 15 High Pop worlds are 9×9, 5xA and 1xB, or between 159 and 1231 billion people, give or take a few. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction; neither China nor India have the highest tech on Earth.


  • The sector almost seems TOO sparse considering it is supposed to host the main interstellar nation in the region – even IF it is a frontier region
  • Distinction between “sparse” and more “dense” star region absolutely not visible based on sheer system presence.

Open questions:

  1. Does the setting work with so few TL10-13 worlds?
  2. Is the sector as-is viable for the sort of setting I have in mind?
  3. Is it, and this may sound silly, aesthetically pleasing?
  4. Is it a “good sector” for adventure?

There are probably more… we’ll see…