Academic Materials


(Video is loud but sound is unnecessary)

In Human Contact, the Academics have these subtle and powerful materials that they use for all sorts of stuff — materials that change volume, texture, or color, for instance.

I’m not really making that stuff up. I’m just extrapolating.

PAX East 2010

(You’ll have to pardon what I can only assume is totally incoherent writing in this post. I’m totally exhausted.)

So, this settles it: if you’re an independent RPG publisher, what the fuck were you doing not at PAX East this weekend?

It’s better than Gen Con in every dimension. The players are more enthusiastic and interested in what you’re doing, the booths are cheaper, you get to (and in fact have to) run long demos all the time, the Enforcers are flexible and able to figure out how to get you doing what you need to do, and they bring you bottles of water when you’re thirsty.

I’m not joking. An Enforcer (those are the volunteers, of which there were hundreds) brought me water and lip balm because it was really dry in there. He brought me water and lip balm.

But, as excellent as the structure of the con is, the thing that really made it shine were the attendees. When I said “Hi! How ya doin’?” across the table, they told me. It’s totally different form the Gen Con Grunt. I shook (and washed) a lot of  hands just because I was actually launching into social interaction every few minutes. I mean, we’re all here cuz we like games, right? We know we’ve got a lot to talk about. A lot of people have games they’re working on themselves — board games, card games, roleplaying games — and they love to talk about them. Only once did I have a “let me tell you about my character” moment, and honestly, that guy would have been the prettiest princess in Indianapolis if he’d been there instead.

At the end of the weekend, we had maybe ten books left, out of hundreds, to sell. I sold out of Shock: about two thirds the way through Saturday, but then I had all these copies of Human Contact. I started emailing PDFs to a bunch of people just so they’d have the core rules, and a handful pre-ordered from the next print run, even. Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and Burning Empires all were gone yesterday morning. Dread vanished within moments of the end of the Beyond D&D panel. The four copies of Cold City and Hot War both sold out within a few hours once I’d figured out how to find out from people what they wanted (and they wanted Cold City and Hot War).

But it was a one-two punch. The sales were only one. The “two” was the play. I got to play several (three?) games of Human Contact. There were return players bringing their friends in, and we had a really neat, very subversive game of Human Contact. Which was great, because the previous two games had been fantastic explorations of just how the Academy can screw up.

In the first expedition (played with Jason and his brother Mike), the Messenger craft carrying the three envoys crashed. One of the envoys died in the crash, the body discovered by local theocrats who had mythological records of their arrival from a starship that had apparently promised them a return. Another of the envoys dragged himself ashore to be hidden by a disgruntled socialist farmer. The third managed to land right in the middle of the theocratic capital around their observatory-temple.

It was not subtle. There was a purge that led directly to a civil war, which was the power vacuum that the socialist revolution needed to succeed. One of the envoys had to prove his non-godhood by getting shot to death, leaving only the one remaining. They’d been there about one week out of the seven years they had until the starship returned.

So, that went well.

In the second case, Dennis, Brandi, and I visited Acad, a world of company towns. Education was nepotistic and, as a result, medicine was appallingly misunderstood and misused. One of the envoys realized that she had an opportunity to live comfortably and used her own access to the extraordinary medicine of the Academy as a carrot/stick with which to build a crime empire. The other surviving envoy was meanwhile living comfortably in an embassy in the capital city, doing what he could from the top down. They didn’t help any of the objectives they had as envoys, despite using a solid year doing stuff.

In the third case, the Acadmy’s envoys visited Turaku. Philomena, the returning Brandi, and her friend Leah did an amazing job. They worked to put childbirth in the hands of the women giving birth (rather than a grim, industrial establishment) by making art about vaginas, they established an “enlightened” factory town where they could take in the unemployed, and they managed to keep all three envoys alive! Their shifts to the society were through art, music, and poetry, designing a youth culture that would be able to take the reins of the society before the starship returned. This game was particularly awesome, despite the fact that Philomena and her birth canal art had to leave the game early.

So it was awesome. I’m already looking forward to next year. I hope Luke Crane (and his inestimable Burning Crew), Jared Sorensen, John Carimando, and I are there with a bunch more indie publishers.

Academy Law

There are several parts of Academy law that will be broadly applicable to the interstellar expeditions that will be the core of play in Human Contact. I’m interested to see how these are interpreted (and ignored) in the course of play — after all, it’ll be years, or maybe decades (or maybe never!) before contact is made with the rest of the Academy again.

Those things listed as crimes are subject to investigation and are dealt with by subjecting the perpetrator to psychological treatment.

For legal purposes, a “meme” is “a unit of information expressed through symbols”, e.g. writing, speech, body language, or pictures. It is to distinguish direct manipulation of another nervous system without passing through the ethical, cognitive, and self-aware aspects of an individual’s mind, thereby removing their choice in the matter.

Note that Academics keep a record of their experiences. When on trial, specific parts of that record can be subpoenaed, but there is no law preventing one from deleting parts of the record. An accused individual is assumed innocent unless proven guilty. However, even a not-guilty result in a trial can damage one’s reputation.

  • Professional ethics
    • All Academics are expected to keep an objective mindset in their scientific careers with regard to their fellow explorers.
      • Preferential or detrimental treatment of individuals (and particularly their work) according to one’s relationship, rather than the value of the work, is a crime subject to censure (the reduction of one’s formal reputation, including the likelihood of publishing again
  • Hominin rights
    • Torture is a crime. This includes rape and coercion.
    • Killing another person is legal (but subject to investigation) in the following circumstances, and illegal in all others:
      • Defense of an individual from torture or murder
      • At that person’s memetically expressed request
    • Deprivation of an available necessity (water, food, air, choice, medicine) is a crime.
    • Prevention of the dissemination of memes (i.e. censorship) of an individual’s voice is a crime.
    • Directly affecting the nervous system of another (that is, outside of memetic modes, such as by drugging or tampering with their network wetware) without their consent is a crime
  • Interactions with colonies
    • If the colony is deemed dangerous by current standards for contact by a starship crew, a low-impact envoy mission must go first, with the starship taking a stealth route.
      • Envoys must make every effort to preserve the nature of the colony for study
      • Envoys must make the colony ready for the approaching starship in a way that will:
        • reduce the risk to the starship
        • reduce the risk to the colony
        • enhance the understanding of the society to the Academy at large
    • Interactions with other hominins are judged by the same standards as interactions within the Academy.

Things that are legal, but differ from many of our laws:

  • Any consensual activity between individuals. Consent must be transferred memetically.
  • Recreational drug use
  • Suicide (though depression is treated medically)
  • Any harm, experimentation, and modification of one’s self
  • Abortion (very rarely applied within the Academy, since conception is consciously controlled)

I’d love to hear some opinions on these matters. Some of these elements directly contradict each other, as they represent different schools of thought in Academic culture, such as the rules for envoy missions as regarding colonial culture.

Human Contact:Alone Pre-Order

The front cover of Human Contact: Alone. That's the starship coming back to pick up the envoys, but after nine years, I bet those people reeeeally want to get off that ship.

So, Malcolm, Courtny, Rob, and Soren all got me to thinkin’. What happens when a starship can’t land? The answer is, they do a careful insertion of a small team of emissaries to make it so they can land when they loop back around in seven years.

The groundwork they have to lay is social, but it can take many forms. They might have to win a war, start a religion, or change the colony’s socioeconomic system. In seven years. Because when those Academics finally get into orbit after their now nine year journey, there’s no force in the universe that could keep them off the surface.

To help pay for the print run, I’m taking pre-orders! Paypal $10 +$4 s&h in the US or $6 elsewhere to and put “Human Contact:Alone” in the subject line.

Academic Stealth Operations

An Academic starship, about a year before arrival, lighting the night sky ever brighter as it approaches a colony.

Over at the new Shock:Human Contact forum, Malcolm Craig asks,

Are the Academy always overt when they arrive at a planet?

The answer is, “It’s hard not to be, but there are ways, when the circumstances are right.” Join the conversation and help form the Academic Contact Best Practices document!

Shock:Human Contact limited edition almost gone

Shock:Human Contact 2010 Dreamation Preview

I’ve got just a handful of copies of the Shock:Human Contact Dreamation 2010 Preview left. I’d love to see them in the hands of some fans of Ian Banks’ Culture, Ursula LeGuin’s Ekumen, and Asimov’s Foundation.

If you’re one who lives in the US, paypal me $9 + $4 s&h.

If you’re one who lives elsewhere on Earth, paypal me $9 +$6 s&h.

You can send it to

I will send you one!

It’s 18 pages long, heavily illustrated, and full of excellent Minutiæ for Shock: It requires the full Shock: game to play, so you might want to get a copy of that, too.

[Edit! Sold out! Look for a new edition at PAX East, though!]

Shock:Human Contact Is At the Printer

Human Contact

For 800 years the Academy has been slowly bringing the humans of Earth back from the brink of extinction to enlightenment. For the last 300, it has looked in wonder at the faint signals from the stars, knowing that humans had fled their home deep in its terrible past and may now be struggling without aid. Only now, with its powerful wormhole technology, can the Academy bring its light to the rest of the galaxy.

This special Dreamation 2010 preview includes material about the Academy and limited rules specific to its mission of exploration.

You need a copy of Shock: to play.

The Dreamation 2010 Preview of Human Contact is at the printer as we speak. I’m running two official sessions of it on Friday and Saturday night and anyone who goes will get one.

I’ve got a bunch of extras printed that are helping me pay my way at the con, too. I’ll be running games off the schedule, too, so pick up a copy and corner me if you weren’t able to get a slot! We’ll sit down with your and your friend for a couple of hours and see what happens where the Academy goes next!