Across a Sea of Stars: Neptune’s Pride Game Diary #1

Neptune's Pride featured image

{The crystalline lattice sings. The hyperdrive roars. The children haul themselves. To the shores of Kleeia. The roaring heartfires of a thousand stars. Burn beneath a hundred thousand shells.}

The technician ponderously turned his head to face the shrunken figure that stooped off to the left, surrounded by a hard-eyed and hard-shelled entourage of guards. He regarded the Primary Seer with one eye, then swang and tilted his head to watch it with the other. Two of the guards fixed him with steely gazes, their heavy flipperlike hands curving tighter around their regimental halberds. The Seer itself failed to notice.

{So many birthing worlds. So many possibilities. The manifold topology. Of this space-time node. Shall buoy up our people. And the currents shall carry them. To infinite shores.}

Blasting air through his nostrils, the technician returned his attention to his duties. The automated systems were on the sixty-seventh cycle of their tertiary safety sequence. His head bobbed in approval at the bank of green, circular pass-flags marked on the screen before him.

The hard-shelled people of Kleeia and its nearby worlds – colonised centuries before using sublight arkships – were nothing if not thorough. They had been preparing for this day for several decades, their researchers patiently refining the core conceptual framework that had revealed the secrets of faster than light travel half a generation ago.

The moment of launch fast approached. Simultaneously, the great birthing fleets of Kleeia and the secondary fleets of her colonies would make the transition into hyperspace, setting course for the nearest star systems boasting habitable planets or exploitable asteroid belts. Simultaneously, a network of hyperspace scanners would be deployed, mapping out the sector around Kleeia at a range once believed impossible.

The technician’s console beeped approval. Above, below and beside him, scores of other consoles manned by other hard-shelled technicians emitted similar tones. The same occurred on every other space station arrayed around the five lagrange points of Kleeia, Terebellum, Baham and Zuben-el-Akribi. The Primary Seer began to roar, its nictating membranes flickering rapidly over dark eyes as it slipped deeper into trance.

{It begins! The fissionables char! Space-time is breached! Manifold topologies are defied! Our people swim! Our children sing!}

A thousand screens transmitted footage from cameras mounted on the external hulls of every space station; lights brighter than the surface of stars flared for but a moment, and then every ship and scanner was gone from reality, transferred instead to an impossible quantum knife-edge that vibrated keenly along the curves of space-time.

A klaxon blared. The Primary Seer’s eyes snapped open, alert and alarmed. Its bellows stilled for a moment before it spoke with a chilling lucidity.

{We are not alone. OTHERS seek to claim these stars.}

The technician blinked once, slowly. This eventuality had not been anticipated.

The hard-shelled people of the dark blue empire.

It's turtles all the way down.

It began, as so many things do, on a whim. In an Electron Dance comment thread a proposal was made that fans of The Aspiration and the RPS Neptune’s Pride series get together and participate in their own bout of spacewar. Finally, those idle comment-thread inhabiting rubes would experience the sheer torture that was a game of Neptune’s Pride played against people who cared!

I’ve played Neptune’s Pride in the past and made an abortive stab at writing it up on my other site, Nostalgia For Infinity. I managed one post and then redacted the entire series, essentially out of embarassment that I couldn’t sustain it. Playing Iron Helmet games against internet randoms is a very mixed experience, although one of the biggest problems is the fact that it’s hard to invest yourself in a long-haul strategy game against opponents who may as well be inexplicably buggy AI for all that you know.

When the game began I found my proud, nascent empire of space turtles occupying the central southern area of the galactic map. Cowabunga, dudes! It seemed like a fairly safe position to begin from: to my north was the cyan empire of Captain Wells and to the west were the dark green heartlands of Blueshift2k5. My southern and eastern borders were secure thanks to the absence of anyone there who could attack me, so I just had these two to worry about.

Unfortunately, it had taken several days for the game to get going: we were waiting for the requisite number of players to sign up. And when does the game begin? That’s right: when I’m at an open mic night for a friend’s birthday, getting drunk and chatting to cute barmaids about single malt whiskey. I am a shitty, shitty space emperor. Still, this level of decadence is nothing compared to what many Roman Emperors got up to, so it’s time to man up–sorry, turtle up–and get down to it. I get home, discover the game has started, and despatch my starting fleets to nearby stars. I invest every penny I have in upgrades to economy and industry. In my first game I invested heavily in economy, sacrificing ship production in the early game so that I might bankroll myself more effectively in the future. It didn’t work well. Neptune’s Pride demands balance on a knife edge. Contemplating this terrifying fact I go to bed and slip into drunken slumber.

I wake to discover that, already, several people are getting friendly. Captain Wells to my north has extended an olive branch. He’s surrounded by other players and wants to cover his borders to the south if possible–so I assume, at any rate. Right now I’m not entirely trusting anyone. He even offers me a few stars between us. I accept and decide instead to push west, toward Blueshift2k5’s dark green stars. His homeworld is not terribly far from my own so I need to move  fast to push the border away from me and towards him.

LiberalEurope, the ruler of yellow space, contacts me with an offer of trade. We settle on a mutually beneficial arrangement of Scanning tech for Range. Meanwhile my fleets are gobbling up nearby stars but I keep noticing stars within reach that I’ve not yet grabbed. What am I, an idiot? Oh no, that’s right: I’m a drunk. And a turtle. A turtle with a raygun. Sweet. I go out again. My social schedule doesn’t gel well with Neptune’s Pride but I’m determined to make this work.

My inbox groans! My borders with Blueshift2k5 are chafing. While I’ve drunk and slept two alliances have formed: an aggressor alliance of red, dark-red and orange–or was it purple? My notes are inadequate–has struck at several others, who have formed a larger Southern Alliance. It includes my two current friends as well as dark-green, whose territory I’m almost impinging on. Uh-oh. I fire off numerous messages in the hopes of fixing things.

It’s at around this point that I settle into a groove I’ll maintain for the rest of the game: I’m going to role-play things.The hard-shelled people of Kleeia are a serious and honest bunch. They speak in single clauses. Their intonation is deliberate and simple. This allows me to fill my messages. With a slightly alien air. Whilst also making them. Comparatively simple to write. No complex Aspiration-esque sophistry for me. Even questions must be expressed. In this flat and inflection-free manner. Query: have I achieved peace with my neighbours.

Well, almost. I’ve been warned by Captain Wells that Blueshift2k5 has offered to join him in pincering me and splitting my territory. I read this before I learn of the alliance so I am initially somewhat reserved about Blueshift2k5’s message to me whining that he’s new to the game and demanding to know why I’m attacking him. Still, at least this suggests that Captain Wells is committed to maintaining friendly relations with me.

As I read more about the alliances my thoughts change. I don’t want to piss off a powerful alliance of five species, especially one including both of my neighbours and both of my friends. So I tell Blueshift2k5 that I’m going to grab just one unoccupied star that my fleet is already mere hours away from, and otherwise I’ll leave him alone. After that I’ll use this well-placed star to strike northwest, toward dark-red – a species commanded by a weird-looking alien beast named Sirron.

Sirron, the dark red emperor

Pray tell, space entity: what the fuck are you supposed to be? A... mushroomsaur?Â

Admittedly this strategy will leave me over-extended with broad, hard to defend borders, even assuming that Blueshift2k5–or, god forbid, the apparently friendly Captain Wells–remain within the terms of the alliance and don’t betray me. But there’s little else I can do now. Diplomacy has strong-armed me into this position. Still, at least I can position my fleets near my two borders and at this staging post toward Sirron. That’s surely better than what most other players must be facing right now.

This is day three of what eventually becomes a twenty three-day game. It’s very early on. Still, the game has more surprises in store: my yellow-hued friend, the chitinous spider-thing known as LiberalEurope, suggests the formation of a Galactic Confederecy. This diplomatic proposal somehow winds its way into the global comms network of a far-flung planet known as Urth and is hosted on a blog.

This organisation soon becomes known as the GPO–Galactic Peace Organisation, I think–and is quickly signed by all five members of the pre-existing southern alliance. You should have a read of the GPO mandate at the link above. It’s pretty improbable stuff for Neptune’s Pride.

This game, which is all about opportunistic back-stabbing, short-term betrayal for long-term gain, constant warfare and territory grabs just became something which is about establishing and perpetuating peaceful co-existence.

This is not how the game is supposed to be played.

This is brilliant.

[This is part one of an ongoing series about a match of Neptune’s Pride played by fans of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Electron Dance. The game is now concluded. The follow-ups to this post will appear on Mondays throughout February 2012. 

I apologise for the lack of screenshots from the actual game itself. I neglected to take any until the game was well underway. Thankfully, via Harbour Master and Captain Wells I’ve gotten hold of a screenshot of the galaxy circa day 4 or 5, where things haven’t changed too much. It’s just below.

Oh, and I decided to take the opportunity to spice things up with a little bit of fluffy fiction from the perspective of the space turtles. I hope you don’t mind the space opera.]

[UPDATE: the hard-carapaced beings designated “LiberalEurope” have been working to construct a fresh new hive composed of lies and false hope. You can read hard reportage from the front lines of their labour here.]

[UPDATE 2: You can read part 2 of Across a Sea of Stars here.]

Neptune's Pride - early starmap

The proud hard-shelled people of CitiesInDust are to the south of the circled cyan territory.