When I announced that Star Trek: Cypher wouldn’t be part of the site anymore, I told you all that I was planning on focusing that energy into reviving an old sci-fi setting that I have been playing around with for years. Called Dark Horizon, it was among my first creations for roleplaying games and I’m really excited to give it some new life.
My first foray into RPGs was a bastardization of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules that I made my siblings suffer through, a sci-fi-esque setting where dinosaurs had survived and grew into the dominant species on Earth. Once I got a handle on the fantasy aspect of the game I had my put-upon brother and sisters stumble into a multiversal hub where they quickly found themselves in a series of fantasy worlds where they learned magic, rode giant dragonflies, and punched out goblins. It was a mess, but it was totally fun.
I never forgot my sci-fi ideas, though, and so when I started poking around at other RPGs and found Alternity and the first Wizards of the Coast Star Wars books I revised my original idea into a purely sci-fi setting with aliens and lasers and strangeness. From the start I tried to turn science-fiction tropes on their heads like some of my favorite authors and I kept tweaking and pushing and writing. There were some short-lived campaigns but this was really a back-burner project that I thought about in my spare time or when a new idea struck me. I even pulled it out in high school when charged with a creative writing project and confused my classmates when it came to give a presentation as I outlined the language I had made up for a species of aliens in a galaxy I imagined.
As I have many times in the past, I’ve decided to revive Dark Horizons for another go but this time I’m going to do it with an audience. I’m going to recycle many of the mechanics I made for the Cypher System into this version and make PDF products that I plan to put up through the Cypher System Community on DriveThru RPG. This setting will be free if you want it, with mechanics and setting information posted here, but if you want a snazzy PDF you’ll be able to buy it for whatever price you want as Community Content. That means you can get it for free but if you want to send me a few bucks I won’t say no!
So, what can you expect from Dark Horizons? Well, here are a few key concepts to wrap your head around.
Ten Things to Know
About Dark Horizon
1. This is “Firm” Sci-Fi
There’s hard sci-fi like The Expanse that demands a solid scientific principles behind everything and there’s soft sci-fi like Star Trek that hand-waves a lot of things in the name of the narrative. This is in between. A lot of it is limited by established science topics (there are no FTL drives, no transporters, no “scanning for lifeforms”) but there are also science principles that are invented or guessed at (nanotechnology, quantum entanglement, and so on). Not everything here is 100% scientifically defensible but it’s pretty close, hence the moniker “firm” sci-fi.
2. The Scale is Vast
This setting draws inspiration from authors like Iain M. Banks, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, and Hannu Rajaniemi. Orbital complexes housing trillions of people are definitely not unheard of and spaceships routinely travel for days or months to reach destinations within a system. The galaxy is a huge place, to understate things dramatically, and so a game that spans the galaxy will be similarly huge. While it’s possible to limit your game to a single star system or even a single planet or space station, the default assumption is to set your games across hundreds of light years with a cast of millions.
3. Humans Are In the Minority
Part of the vastness of the setting is the timescale. There has been an interstellar society for millennia, although the difficulties of galactic travel means that it has spread very, very slowly. On top of that, there have been events that have caused interstellar connections to collapse which has necessitated a “reset” of that society’s fabric on more than one occasion. Humans, however, have only been involved for a few centuries which makes them relative newcomers on the galactic stage. They have tried to adapt and spread quickly to make up for lost time but they are still a minor species both in terms of numbers and in terms of cultural sway.
4. Aliens Are Not Humanoid
There are aliens in this setting (oh boy, are there aliens) but they are not humans-with-weird faces. They are floating flesh bags, multi-eyed lizards, tripedal ambush-predators, and other strange beings. They think like humans (mostly) and can talk with humans (mostly) but they are definitely something other. Equipment designed for humans is not easily usable by non-humans and vice versa and some species can’t even survive at the same environmental conditions as others. Players can make characters of all these different species but the divides between them are vast.
5. More Like Pan-Species
There aren’t scores of different sentient alien species out there, just a few worlds out of hundreds of potential homeworlds lead to the evolution of self-aware species. On the other hand, isolation and natural consequence leads to extensive modification of bodies in myriad different ways. Members of a given species might resemble each other superficially or be noticeably different but either way there is a good chance they are very different underneath. Gene resequencing, cybernetics, bioware, nano-augmentation, and other strange processes make the galaxy a very different place.
6. Spaceships Don’t Travel Faster-Than-Light By Themselves
There is certainly FTL travel in this setting but ships don’t have their own drives. There are Singularity Gates that stabilize the ends of wormholes, connecting different star systems. These wormholes aren’t interchangeable so they’re really are routes to follow and you can’t just warp to the other side of territory where hostile forces wait. Within a star system you have to travel at normal, sublight speeds which can take an awfully long time and if you have to go somewhere that doesn’t have a gate it will take years. This is why the collapse and isolation mentioned above is possible: if one of the gates is destroyed the wormhole collapses and you have to truck another one out there over decades (at least).
7. There Are Dungeons to Delve
Some of those collapses that led to an unraveling of galactic society over the millennia isolated star systems which didn’t make it. Cut off from the rest of the galaxy they had too many people, not enough food, and no real infrastructure to sustain them. They collapsed, leaving behind empty stations and abandoned cities, not to mention swirling clouds of debris from the battles that marked their death throes. As a result, there are ruins out there for brave souls to explore and recover artifacts of these lost worlds and as more and more “lost” systems are restored to the Network of wormholes the need for such explorers becomes a bigger deal.
8. The Galaxy Is Not United
In the past there have been times when everyone got along and cooperated but that is done with and not just because of the Network collapse. Infighting, territorial bickering, and social upheaval has fractured galactic society so that they don’t see eye to eye. Outright war is a rare thing because of the inconveniences of interstellar travel (you’d have to send your warships through a wormhole where the enemy knows to expect you or you send them the long way and take a century to do so) but posturing, embargoes, and hostile laws are not uncommon.
9. Species Does Not Equal Politics
Because everyone was all over the place when the wormhole Network collapsed, there are members of all different species in all parts of the galaxy. Over the intervening decades and centuries they assimilated and changed so that when they re-established contact an alien might have more in common with their alien neighbors than with members of their same species coming through a newly-opened wormhole. There are governments and regions where a given species dominates or even where they are the only species around until the wormholes return, but most people in the galaxy live in mixed, cosmopolitan governments. This is good news for players as a grab-bag party of different aliens won’t turn too many heads.
10. Head For the Frontier
Generally speaking, the unknown systems newly opened to the wormhole Network are where the action is. The expanding outer edges of the new Network, the so-called “Dark Horizon,” is made of systems that have new things to offer established systems and they are new markets for the stagnant cores of the regions that have been collected for longer. If you are someone looking for excitement and profit (in other words, a player character adventurer) you want to head away from the stuffy core systems and to the new, exciting systems just getting their wormhole connections.