Genre: Space opera
Springboard: The more violent uprisings of the Arab Spring once again provoke us to consider the moral arguments both for and against military intervention on humanitarian grounds. As ever, the framework of the space opera allows us to explore these life-and-death questions from a pop-cultural remove.
Setting: This adventure assumes an SF universe whose heroes ply the spaceway in small craft big enough for a PC party, and where inhabitants of certain worlds exist at a technological level much lower than their own.
Premise: Either for hire or to fulfill some other personal agenda, the crew agrees to perform a rescue mission, extracting a team of engineers from a low-tech world suddenly gripped by deadly civil conflict.
Until recently, no one outside of its solar system cared about the backwater planet of Belisarius. Its population of roughly 25 million clusters in a small habitable zone on a surface mostly consisting of ocean or desert wasteland. The ruling Variak party, as headed by President Kodap Keman, keeps its grip on power by restricting the flow of technology onto the world. Planetary laser batteries prevent unauthorized importers from bringing in telecommunications equipment or advanced weaponry. Elite families of the minority Sukusan and Patangi ethnic groups enjoy access to futuristic luxuries, while the populace subsists at a barely industrial development level.
Recently Variak Party scientists found large quantities of valuable trace metals in its far wastes. They invited a team of engineers from the setting’s key interstellar civilization to investigate mining prospects.
With these technicians present in Belisarius’ capitol city, Akan, a rebellion by the majority Caran people broke out.
Depending on the nature of your interstellar civilization, either the business entity that sent the engineers, or the government itself, assigns the PCs to safely extract them. The crew receives orders to intervene in local affairs only to the minimum extent necessary to complete the rescue.
(Corporate masters want to be able to deal with whoever wins; government officials either obey a general non-interventionist policy, or want to delay and gather more information before acting.)
Massacre at Akan-452
On arrival, the crew finds a brutal aerial bombardment in progress, pummeling the rebel neighborhood Akan-452. It exacts a terrible toll on civilians.
The engineering team has split up. Some are guests at the Presidential Palace, while others have broken free of their minders. They’ve gone to Akan-452 with their advanced medical equipment, to render humanitarian assistance.
At the Palace
Engineering team chief Masako Yuko wants the team rescued immediately and is appalled by the split in her ranks. Although the half of the team at the palace is being well-treated at the moment, it’s clear that the wily and paranoid Kodap Keman will refuse their exit unless he’s assured of non-interference from all interstellar visitors.
Shattered by the carnage he’s seen in Akan-452, breakaway engineer Yoris Mylis has joined the resistance and refuses to leave. His three comrades aren’t so committed but want to see the massive slaughter of civilians stopped. With thousands of lives at stake, Mylis argues that the crew must use its superior firepower to bring down the regime.
Splits Within Splits
By interacting with the rebels, the crew learns that there are two main groups, held together by opposition to the regime. The charismatic Pembawa Inabila rallies the dispossessed with rhetoric of righteous vengeance. Questioning him, crew members find that he’s another dictator in the making. His idealistic rival Medanj Mereska eschews both violence and demagoguery. Though much more likely to institute a responsible government, he lacks the ruthless personal magnetism that earns loyalty in a crisis.
To follow orders as written, the team must extract Mylis’ unwilling and resistant humanitarians from the mobile field hospital in Akan-452 and whisk them away. This would clear the way for Kodap Keman to escalate the massacre.
Or do they declare their orders moot due to facts on the ground, and work to overthrow the regime?
The Snake and its Tail
Ending the crisis isn’t as simple as simply taking out Keman. His support of a broader elite gives him a cadre powerfully motivated to fight for him. Were the majority Caran people to take over, they’d lose everything—their lives possibly included. Should the crew assassinate Keman, the military chain of command offers a clear path of succession for someone much like him to step into his jackboots.
If the crew dithers too long, mercenary ships show up, offering to protect the regime in exchange for mineral contacts. These must be negotiated around, or driven off.
Taking down the regime requires the crew to disable, from the ground, the laser batteries that could shoot their ship out of the sky. They would then achieve the orbital artillery superiority necessary to destroy Kodap Keman’s air force and key military installations. With an interstellar ship in orbit, these batteries are on high alert.
In for a Micro-Credit, In for a Macro-Credit?
If the crew does remove the regime, how much responsibility does it take for the new government? Pembawa Inabila seems ready merely to install a new elite and carry on in his hated enemy’s footsteps. But he’s popular with his people, who lack the crew’s historical perspective of revolutions and their tendency to turn into fresh tyrannies.
Do they somehow broker a settlement that leaves some chance for long-term self-determination? Or do they take the moral short-cut of arranging for Pembawa Inabila to take a fatal laser shot to the back of the head?
This scenario doesn’t work as presented for a crew styling itself as a bunch of hardbitten scumbags. Test their dedication to selfishness by having the regime hire them to take out Yoris Mylis’ humanitarians. Kodap Keman requires them to frame the rebels, keeping the interstellars off his back. Keep tightening the moral screws on them, to see just how committed they are to their outlaw attitude. Maybe they decide to get rid of the Keman regime and put themselves in his place. How long can they hold onto power as all of the factions unite against them?
AUTHOR: Robin D. Laws
Robin designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Upcoming projects include Hillfolk, the first game using the DramaSystem RPG rules for personal interaction, and his eight novel, Blood of the City, available August 2012 from Paizo‚s Pathfinder Tales line. There Goes My Dream Job, the second volume of his comic strip, The Birds, is now available from Pelgrane Press.
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