Operatic Tactical Warfare in the Spinward Rift
I've always liked tactical wargaming, although I never have time for it these days. Either way, I usually enjoy the list-building aspect just as much as the actual game (especially as I'm never the best tactician). Probably the wargame equivalent of OSR-style rules is Fast and Dirty, which has been a basically open-source, extremely flexible skirmish ruleset for years. (More resources available here. However, there hasn't really been a complete "generic" setting for the game, so here's a bit of a go at it. I use the term "operatic tactical warfare" because I'm integrating more "heroic" aspects than the speculative fiction mould FAD defaults to.
The Spinward Rift
Centuries ago, Earth was drowned by rising tides of water and blood. The survivors clambered aboard scores of generation ships, forging thousands of new identities and creeds during the decades spent en route to their new home.
The ships’ designers had sent them to the Spinward Rift, a stretch of the galaxy with an exponentially higher density of habitable planets than any other ever detected. Even if their flight paths diverged, it was reasoned, crews would be able to redirect to a convenient second, third, or fourth choice, rather than being carried by their momentum infinitely through the void.
Each ship expected that, due to the realities of interstellar travel, they would barely ever have contact with one another once they arrived in the Rift. They were wrong.
Cyclopean gateways, fashioned out of an unknown, iridescent black metal, were spread across most of the Rift’s worlds. There was no rhyme nor reason to their placement – most had twelve or fifteen, some thirty or fifty, and they were scattered across verdant forest worlds, fertile archipelagoes, blasted acid deserts, hellish primordial worlds, and airless rogue planets alike. Nor did they provide instantaneous travel, as their first explorers expected – though certainly superluminal, travel between worlds still took weeks, sometimes even months. Furthermore, they only connected a few of the closest planets, and their energy weakened when transmitting large amounts of matter. And no other sign of their builders was ever found.
Nevertheless, they were exponentially more efficient than the generation ships that brought humanity to the Rift, and soon only rudimentary, system-bound craft roamed through space. The Dreamgates became the exclusive means of interplanetary transportation, and colonists raced between them to discover new resources for plunder, the crashed remains of failed ships, and to make links with the burgeoning cities of the successful ones. But this travel was not without cost. Dreamgate users, in their liminal days within, experienced strange, waking dreams, of fantastical landscapes, strange beasts, non-Euclidean flora, and of the spaces between stars. The initial studies revealed no behavioral or psychological effects, and the dreams did demonstrate continuity of consciousness, which put to rest early fears that the dreamgates killed those who entered them, and simply reconstituted a copy on the other side. So the colonists continued their use, not knowing the seed a select few of them were left with…
One in one million Dreamgate travelers, it soon became clear, manifested odd powers. Repeated use made this more likely, and one family of eager explorers – the Porphyrii – began to benefit more than most. The Porphyrii, guided in part by the uncanny intuitions and parapsychological abilities they were developing, devised a genetic test that did what no previous researchers had done, and isolated a stretch of DNA associated with the Dreamgates’ effects. They immediately began locating other psionics and bringing them into the family, or killing them. While other groups soon followed their lead, the Porphyrii had an insurmountable first-mover advantage, and within a generation had unified nearly every colonized world under their banner. They declared an Empire, with no qualifier – there was, after all, no other.
But heredity, even coupled with psionic power, is no guarantor of good rule. The Porphyrii were no exception. For centuries, their abilities and the rifles of their Phalanx kept order in the Rift, even as successive Emperors lost themselves to hedonistic dissolution, grandiose bouts of self-deification, or quixotic attempts to map the ends of the dreamgate network. Worlds chafed under misrule, rose in revolt, or had to be granted forms of autonomy.
Then, Emperor Ouranov, the Empire’s twenty-fourth of their line, found a new object of worship. Wracked by weeks of visions, akin to those felt within the passage of the dreamgates, they felt something calling. Something akin to angels, or aliens, both entities that humanity thought had passed long ago. There was another step, they felt, beyond the rift, beyond even the fabric of spacetime, even beyond the strange beings that built the dreamgates. It was humanity’s time to take that step, even if the masses could never see.
Ouranov first converted the remnants of their family to this insight, and bade them scatter among the worlds, to prepare for their unveiling. Second, they contacted the Phalanx, asking the Empire’s famed army to lock down public plazas and buildings to stave off the possibility of unrest. Unfortunately, they did not react as had been foreseen.
It took time for the coup to emerge, so byzantine were the Phalanx’s ranks. Most were long dissatisfied with the errands given them, by their lack of success pacifying the peripheral worlds and the constant harrying strikes of the few independent holdouts. In the end, though, a cabal of Phalanx commanders sent emergency orders countermanding the lockdown and assassinated Ouranov as they were in the middle of giving a public speech explaining their insights.
It has been decades since that day. The Remnant Empire, now ruled by some of the original cabal in conjunction with whichever local despots they bribed into remaining, controls a bit more than half its original territory. Most of the rest is led by the Secessionists, a fractious confederation of rebellious, victimized, and previously autonomous planets seeking to place itself at the head of a new order. The Companions, bereft of an emperor to protect but still dependent on the arcane techno-spiritual fusion that undergirds their engineered psychology, roam the Rift in search of their own inscrutable mission. The Phalanx fights itself seemingly as much as the Remnant Empire’s real threats, as local despots use its exhausted soldiers in their own petty turf wars.
Meanwhile, stranger threats circle the Remnant Empire like flies with a corpse. The Ascended, disciples of the Ouranov’s vision, gather turncoat Companions and distant Porphyrii cousins to nests hidden within its most peaceful core words. Abandoned rimworld factories pump out legions of Processors, deadly battle drones from a secret project whose creators were killed in the war. Dozens of independent worlds have banded together under the banner of the Dualists, a psionicist movement which claims to have corrected the last Emperor’s errors, and which has found a novel means of navigating the dreamgates. Other independent worlds have sent out teams of Scavengers to pick the choicest bones from between the feet of these squabbling giants.