The Kickstarter is long behind us and development of the Aethera Campaign Setting continues at full speed. Months ago, when we were first previewing the iconic representatives of the core Aethera races, we promised you five. Well, time came and went and one iconic was late to the party. The iconic infused, Surestra, went through several revisions of her design before reaching the final illustration you see here. Long before Surestra was a fully-realized iconic, Jeff Dahl, one of our intrepid authors, wrote up Surestra's background. This is a story we've been sitting on for a while, waiting for art and word to join together. Like we've said before: the stars have aligned.
Enjoy Jeff's story of Surestra's origins and another sneak peak into the worlds of Aethera! Make sure to follow us at our Facebook page for up-to-the minute news and new artwork!
When I was younger, when you’d ask me what I wanted to be
when I grew up, I’d answer with “space detective.” That response is a little
more than snark. In my formative years I was exposed to a lot of dramatic
sci-fi, from Blade Runner and Metropolis to Cowboy Bebop and The Sixth Element.
I grew up in suburbia. Urban life was so unreachable to me that it was as
foreign and enticing as a high fantasy world. In my mind, science fiction will
always be linked to the city. It’s a genre where people of technological excess
have to navigate labyinthian living structures. New machines are developed with
the purpose of helping people live either closer or further apart.
I’m a graphic designer, mobile device repair technician and
salesman, and occasional column writer and illustrator. At least, that’s what I
get paid to do. One of my assignments for the Aethera Campaign Setting is to
flesh out Complex Four. It’s a metropolis-sized colony on an asteroid in the
Amrita Asteroid Belt. Now, when Robert approached me about Aethera, the first
thoughts that came to my head were hardboiled crime stories. I imagined
detectives in tattered beige coats pursuing truths they should have pretended
were dreams, with worn faces that betrayed knife fights. I thought of bounty
hunters, bail bondsmen and cleaners on the gray side of order. I dreamed of
kung fu hooligans and gun kata specialists dancing on rain-slicked streets so
that secrets remain secrets.
I wanted a little corner of this game’s world to make that
happen. The largest city of the lawless Amrita region was the obvious choice.
Now that I’m older, I like my fiction just a little more complex than what I
described above. I’m a huge fan of David Simon’s The Wire; in fact, our very
own Robert Brookes and I hung out in Baltimore several years ago, and that
particular city left a mark on the both of us I imagine. It would be
disingenuous to characterize Baltimore through the crime-ridden lens of The
Wire. The people of Baltimore are resilient, tough, and not to be crossed, but
they are also lively and kind. But Baltimore is still a city in a precarious
state and I channeled some memories of it in Complex Four.
Before I go on about the colony proper, another place that
inspired me was New Orleans. I’ve never been there myself, I’m ashamed to
admit. I lived in Austin, Texas when Katrina hit, and I wound up meeting and
befriending several refugees from there. New Orleans just so happens to be the
subject of another David Simon series, Treme, which I love despite its lack of
a clearly defined conflict outside of the bureaucracy of living in a post-FEMA
city. Treme didn’t hesitate to devote several episodes to Mardi Gras, or
showing downtrodden people earnest trying to party. It’s from this that I
remembered that Complex Four should be this grimy, depressing, and dangerous
place, yet is a blast to hang out in.
I thought something was missing from the concept until I
remembered that the pulp fiction of the era included the first golden age
superheroes and masked avengers. I also thought about the vigilante class
that’s about to premiere in the Ultimate Intrigue book, and wondered if there
was a way to accommodate players who want to play Green Hornet or Zorro in
space. So, I decided that Complex Four’s also home to a small but growing
population of community volunteer superheroes. A little less Avengers, a little
more Rain City Superhero Movement. Good deeds don’t go unpunished though, so I
recommend GMs punish anyone trying to run a superhero vigilante; the best ones
have tragic backstories, after all.
So Complex Four is a former mining project turned bandit
storehouse turned full-fledged metropolis after the discovery of some
especially rare resources. It has an interesting, if relatively recent history,
and is a hub for war refugees, vicious yet charismatic gangsters, promising
scientists, economic opportunists, and creative dissidents. It’s a melting pot
of people who gather together because of promises and convenience.
You would be forgiven for thinking that I prefer playing
campaigns where society is complex and morality is ambiguous. It’s true that
this is my preference in fiction. But I also enjoy killing things in my dice rolling
games. I am aware many people want to just kill things sincerely. So, there are
plenty of things to just kill in Complex Four, if you so desire. Giant amoebas,
rogue shaolin mantises, dudes with guns, and maybe even the occasional
So you’ve made it through the gate hub network only to be immediately set upon by pirates. I’m very glad that I am not physically on the ship with you, merely relaying this kiosk information via radio. Because I do not want to die, which you are probably about to do. I will do my best to lay out the options for survival you have before you.
The pirates are definitely gaining on you, and the radio signals they’re broadcasting make it seem like they might run with the no-respect-for-the-sanctity-of-life crowd. You could try to raise Gate Hub Security, but their primary motivation is protecting the hub itself and you came out of there at speed so there’s actually a surprising number of miles between here and there. Also, the paragon marshals of the Orbis Aurea Hierarchy haven’t spent as much time clearing the pirate/smuggler types out of the gate hub, so the place is crawling with them. You might just start a blood-in-the-water shooting war for the contents of your ship.
How fast does this ship go? I’m hoping really fast but you’re new at this so I’m assuming your first ship isn’t built for races. I know a lot of aetherships are pretty easily customisable, so it wouldn’t have been too hard for you to swap out the stock engine for something that would make a lot more noise (if we weren’t in space where there is none of that).
Orbis Aurea’s gate hub sits in the barycenter of the planet and its massive captured-rogue-planet moon. It’s pretty much an equal sprint in either direction, and neither option is particularly palatable. One is a barren, inhospitable frozen nightmare and the other is the moon, a distinct yet equally terrible place. However, Orbis Aurea does have breathable atmosphere so my vote, and I can’t believe I’m actually recommending that you do this, is that you head there.
I suppose you could make a break for some space debris and try to lose them. Maybe you could agitate a void kraken so the pirates get caught up in those crushing, sucking tentacles to be slowly compressed into nothing in its black hole of a beak, but there’s a chance that’d happen to you instead so maybe not. If you were closer to the Amrita asteroid belt you could do all sorts of hiding there, but out here there aren’t a lot of options other than Orbis Aurea’s cloud cover and that’s not exactly a great place to hide an aethership. It’s pretty much only a great place to lose all power to the ship and catch on fire as you hurtle at blinding speed toward a frozen mountain.
You have failed to run and hide like a sensible person, leaving you with one unspeakable option: you must rally your crew of misfits and fight to survive! Get into your spacesuits (or creepy erahthi vacuum-symbiont), buckle up, and hope you weren’t mentioned in the Score as “Dies in Space Today”. You’re all going to have to work together to make it out of this. Put your gunslinger on weapons control, your cavalier in the pilot seat and maybe get a magey-type to blast a few spells out through the arcane turrets.
Remember to stay a reasonable distance from the enemy lest they board you! Some pirates, or even taur, have mechanical grabby-arms for pulling you in so they can punch through your hull, in which case you’ll have to resort to good old-fashion melee combat.
You made it! I honestly did not see that coming. Though, I am no cantor of the Score, merely a lowly knowledge-relay servant. Your ship seems to have taken quite a beating, so you’ll need to get that repaired at Catena. I’m referring of course to Orbis Aurea’s space-elevator station and sole means of transit to making the biggest mistake of your life.
Well, if I can’t talk you out of your foolish journey to Orbis Aurea, I am at least glad you are electing to use the gate hub to get you there. Who wants to die in space, am I right? We’re becoming familiar with each other, so don’t mind if I mention a thing or two you should have already known when you got this far.
1. What Are The Gate Hubs
The gate hub network is a series of honeycomb-like space stations orbiting the planets of the Aethera System. Gate hexes come in many different sizes on this honeycomb, allowing small personal craft and ships all the way up to war cruisers to pass through them. This eliminates the need for long, wildly dangerous journeys through nightmare-infested vacuum in order to get from planet to planet. Fun fact, they are also the reason we discovered the erahthi people of Kir-Sharaat and immediately went to interplanetary war with them! For one hundred years!
2. Exploited Ancient Ruins
It might come as a surprise you but no contemporary species built these. The gate hubs are ancient Progenitor artifacts which have been retrofitted with aethertech to function. It takes a lot of aetherite to power these hexes, and the bigger the hex the greater the expenditure required. Don’t have the aetherite to pay? Don’t get to go. Please tell me you brought money. Also...
Many of hexes of the hub have not been reactivated, restricting our access to those which are regulated and functional. The stations themselves are massive, with large areas of the structures unexplored to this day. Some foolish, foolish people will occasionally enter restricted or abandoned area in search of riches, but rarely find anything other than millennia-old monsters or death in vacuum. Some scavengers are more successful, mapping safe areas and powering them as needed, far from the watchful eye of local law enforcement. These scavengers work with smuggling organizations, repairing hub hexes in secret for discrete black market transportation.
The Hierarchy does not have exclusive claim to the gate hub network. Due to conditions of the treaty that ended the Century War, the erahthi tritarchy maintains total control of their world’s gate hub, as do the paragon marshals of Orbis Aurea theirs. The other powers have dedicated hexes for their private use, determined through lengthy negotiations during the treaty signing. Though the gate hub itself is controlled by the governing body of its host planet, these dedicated hexes and the functional station surrounding them are considered embassies and sovereign soil of the power that resides there. Obviously, once your ship is out in space, you fall into the jurisdiction of whatever party controls that area of space for laws and taxes. Also, some interplanetary business conglomerates or other monied powers can rent sections for their own exclusive use to not have to wait in line with us poor, unwashed plebs.
5. The Fold
When a gate hub hex is activated, a demiplane called the Fold is accessed to get you from point here to point there. A demiplane created by the use of a gate hub, the Fold makes the distance between those two points incredibly short.The journey will be uneventful, and only take a few minutes instead of months or years! What’s that? Noises you say? Wailing of the damned you say. I didn’t hear anything and neither did you.
Good job! You’ve successfully made it through a gate hub and can now continue on to oh for the love of the score, it’s pirates, isn’t it. Yeah, it’s pirates.
So, you’ve done it. You got yourself an arguably spaceworthy aethership and you’re in orbit. Good job, this has never gone poorly for anyone before I’m sure you’ll do fine. Before you hammer down on that accelerator, let me just remind you of some of the challenges you will face out here in the black.
I hope you cleared your voyage in advance, because the gate hubs are highly regulated. Your ship will probably be inspected because we can’t have invasive flora and fauna just spewing out into the system. There are taxes and forms and rituals. You can grease palms to save time, but some cantors are actually good people who frown on bribery and it’s hard to tell them apart because they all wear the same outfit.
You’re right, you should just skip the gate hub and rocket through space until you get to your destination the old fashion way. This will probably take a few months of travel if you time it right. Also, if you are off from your original estimation by half of a degree you could miss your target by millions of miles, but let’s table that.
You’re going to need to eat and drink for this whole voyage. Bring lots of food. Make sure you enjoy the company of your crewmates because you will be seeing a lot of them and have no way to avoid them unless you put them in the airlock. That reminds me…
3. Space Is Awful Even When You Don’t Count All Of The Monsters
It’s cold out here. Also, you will die if you go outside. Some sort of radiation is pulsing in every direction at all times, so while you freeze to death you will also be irradiated. There is no air in space, so it will take whatever is in your lungs faster than you can breathe it out which I’m told is more painful than it sounds. It’s pretty dark out here too, and the Plane of Shadow is nearby at all times. Also, you probably saw this coming, but...
4. All Of The Monsters
Space is lousy with monsters. There are lots of harmless ones, or at least some that aren’t malicious but occasionally crash into you and break your ship. There’s not much you can do about these ones other than not fly into them, but there are some types of monsters which warrant special attention.
Fish: There are swarms of monsters in space which for all intents and purposes behave like fish. They can be pretty, but some are as terrifying as you would expect a thing that can survive in space without a suit to be. Whether it’s an acidic hull barnacle jamming up your ducts with its spores or what is effectively a whale swallowing your entire ship, keep an eye out for these guys.
Ghosts: I’m not a scientist, so I shouldn’t wager a guess as to why they haven’t moved on. Obviously, a lot of ghosts ended up in space due to people dying here during the Century War. Sometimes they have the decency to haunt the ships they died on, but generally they’re just flying around, presumably wailing about how unfinished their business is. If you are lucky, they will be too consumed with existential sadness to notice that they are floating through your ship, but who am I kidding?
Taur: You obviously remember when these aliens arrived and literally stole a moon. I should now remind you that no one knows for sure where they went after they did that. They came here, they stole a whole moon, and we do not know where they went with it. We do know that they are really good at stealing people for mysterious purposes but it’s a pretty safe bet those people have been eaten or enslaved.
Demons: I don’t want you to blame the Plane of Shadow for everything that’s wrong with space, but I have to tell you it’s pretty awful. As an example, apparently it is just full of masochistic pain-worshiping torture-demons. I don’t know how I can make that sound worse.
Do you know who else doesn’t use the gate hubs? Pirates. While some will allow you to live in exchange for your calmly standing by while they rob you blind, others have gained a harsher reputation. The latter have found aethership crews to be far more pliable when all of the breathing air has been unceremoniously vented from the ship through large cannon holes.
6. Near Total Lack of Information
Probably the most dangerous thing about space is our complete ignorance of what else is out here. The Progenitors were here first, and presumably they were here for a long time. They left some of their technology behind, and we don’t know how to use it properly. This ignorance results in dozens of deaths a year even under laboratory conditions. We’ve only been travelling around the system for a little over one hundred years and the Aethera system is enormous. To put this in perspective, Akasaat has had an active civilization for thousands of years and we still haven't explored the entire surface, let alone the underground.
After all of these warnings, do you still want to go into space? It can be quite rewarding if done with a little forethought. There are vast riches to exploit and ruins to explore. There are sights unseen and miracles and wonders waiting for discovery. For every unknowable horror, there is a ray of hope. So, maybe don’t give up on your dream just yet. Get back to the gate hub, wait in line, and head on to, where were you headed? Orbis Aurea? Why, in the name of all that is-
No. You know what? There’s obviously no reasoning with you.
Hello and welcome to the Aethera Information Kiosk. As you are a resident of the Aethera system, I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain most of this to you but maybe you hit your head or something. Regardless, you came to me and I am legally required to answer your questions. I will have this job until I die and never get a raise, and I think you should feel bad about that. Let’s get this over with. What would you like to know?
1. The Progenitors
Exactly nothing is known for sure about the civilization which came before humanity. Signs indicate that ancient humans lived around the same time as the Progenitors to some extent, as they have populations on multiple worlds in the system. Aside from ancient, unusable (or occasionally usable but incredibly dangerous) technology found in ruins, there is no data detailing the Progenitors—not where they came from, what they looked like, where they went or why they left.
2. The Collapse
We know that before the Collapse the system was wildly different. Elemental energies appear to have been realigned between the planets, resulting in massive ecosystem changes. Worlds went through millennia worth of changes in a very short timespan. The Progenitors left, leaving behind technology which no longer functioned. People were abandoned to chance and survived by whatever means were available to them, sometimes resulting in drastic physical changes.
Aetherite is an important enough resource that’s it’s not much of a stretch to say it’s what keeps the planets spinning. Apparently it is flash-frozen magical ley lines which can be refined into a pretty amazing power source and widely accepted form of currency. It’s the reason we had flying vehicles almost immediately following the guy who invented the wheel being patted on the back for his discovery and then immediately forgotten from the annuls of history.
Aetherite also has many mystic uses, serving as fuel for magical enhancements and other powerful spellcraft. This stuff is also absurdly toxic, so don’t pick it up if you see some. Actually, if you are out in the world and come across some, go find a doctor. You might die or, worse, have your soul sucked out. I’m not kidding it’s horrible.
Originally hobbled together from long-lost Progenitor technology, aethertech keeps human society moving. Whether it be a radio or a spacefaring aethership, all of these devices run on the power of refined aetherite.
5. Gate Hub Network
The gate hubs enable near-instantaneous travel from one gate hub to another. They’re floating around all of the planets, which makes interplanetary travel a breeze if you like bureaucracy or smugglers. These things were left behind by the Progenitors before the Collapse and presumably more of them worked back then than they do now.
6. The Aethera System
The Aethera system is a binary star system with four planets and an asteroid belt. The stars are named Aethera and Ashra, and one is doing its best to consume the other. As best as we can tell, Aethera is also responsible for having crippled extradimensional movement in the ancient past.
Akasaat: Once a world of endless oceans, this planet has all but dried up since the Collapse. Humanity has survived here through equal parts determination and religious oppression. Don’t tell the cantors I said that, I actually don’t hate this job as much as I pretend to.
Kir-Sharaat: Forest world of the Erahthi, alien plant-folk with whom Akasaat waged a resource war for roughly one hundred years. They didn’t use aetherite as a power source until we came along with our war and ruined their planet up good, so I guess that’s irony.
Orbis Aurea: Inhospitable ball of ice, monsters and aetherite accessible only by way of a space elevator controlled by the paragons (more on them later). Well, you can get there if you don’t use the elevator, but something in the atmosphere will cripple your ship and cause you to plummet and explode. Also, this is the home of the okanta, burly but incredibly savvy beastfolk. You probably won’t go here unless you are a prisoner bound for the aetherite mines or indentured military service.
Amrita Asteroid Belt: Probably a planet at one point, this asteroid belt is home to people too free-spirited to hold down a soul-crushing desk job like mine. It’s not bad if you hate gravity and predictable food deliveries, but it’s awesome if you like being raided and kidnapped-for-eating by space monsters.
Seraos: A gas giant of little description. Most of the action on this planet takes place on its dozen moons and plentiful space stations. Also, I’m pretty sure there’s something swimming just below the cloud layer.
Aethera has a respectably diverse assortment of species, some natives to their home planets, others the results of centuries of arcane interference and isolation after being abandoned by the Progenitors.
Humans: People like you and me, probably the most populous species in the system.
Erahthi: Denizens of Kir-Sharaat, these elemental plant people enjoy a unique connection to their world.
Infused: Created during the century war for use in combat, their creation apparently involved torturous magical manipulation and a lot of aetherite.
Okanta: Large, tribal, but incredibly adaptable to the harsh conditions of their homeworld Orbis Aurea.
Phalanx: Progenitor tech which we hotwired with aetherite and accidentally made into sentient beings. Intended for service in the Century War, these beings have only just received individual rights.
Others: Some lesser-known races are the paragons (the ultimate achievement of the torture-experiments which made the infused, though apparently there’s only a few of them left), zahajin (Kir-Sharaat’s underwater fey-tampered humans) and morlocks (Orbis Aurea’s mean cave-humans). There are also occurrences of people being born with a close association with the elemental plane tied to their planet of birth.
8. The Century War
While scrambling to replenish their dwindling aetherite supply to keep the lights on, the Akasaat Hierarchy accidentally started an interplanetary war. I mean, Kir-Sharaat started it, obviously, the Hierarchy can do no wrong believe you me. This war raged for nearly one hundred years before two very important things happened.
The first thing was that the Paragons, science experiments gone wrong who were shot at Orbis Aurea in hopes that they would explode and die, came back from Orbis Aurea with news of a near-limitless supply of aetherite. They monopolized it and bullied the Hierarchy into letting them control it, but aetherite’s aetherite and society is no longer in threat of collapse.
The second thing is that aliens showed up and stole a moon. I can not stress that part enough. The taur, cow-monsters from apparently nowhere, showed up, took a moon, and left with it. I’ll pause while you let that soak in. Good? Good. Also they left and we don’t know where they are based now. Apparently they like to attack Amrita colonies and steal all of their people, though, so at least we know that they are doing that.
After these two disparate events, the human and erahthi powers-that-be decided that they weren’t so different after all and should probably cooperate to prepare for an invasion by moon-thieving, bull-headed, cannibal murder-monsters from space.
So, that’s a primer on some of the more noteworthy aspects of life in our system. Is there anything else you need to know specifically? You’re going into space?