Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mercenary and Traveller World Building

Recently I read a short story called Mercenary by Mack Reynolds. It appeared in Analog science fiction magazine in April 1962. It contains a great deal of political speech-making which may be the authors views on then-current political trends in thought. It presents a future Earth where unemployment is the norm. The masses are kept civil (best way I can put it) by a modern form of 'bread and circuses'. There is a substance never described but identified as 'Trank' which they get for free. As in tranquilizer. There is also the omnipresent 'Telly' to keep the masses entertained. I see definite shades of Brave New World to this setting. 
The main form of entertainment on Telly is watching corporate warfare. Corporations, unions, and governments resolve disputes by contract wars; they hire private armies to duke it out. The battles (the vernacular term is 'fracas') are broadcast live. People speak of armies, but most forces fielded are more Battalion or Brigade sized. Some time in the past there was a world-wide disarmament treaty signed. This keeps things from getting too out of hand and avoids nuclear exchanges. Now no one can use or even produce military weaponry or technology from after the year 1900. This becomes relevant for the resolution of the story.
Even in the future there's nothing good on TV . . .
This limitation means that the mechanized warfare of the 20th century is absent. No machine guns, no rapid-fire artillery, no tanks, no aircraft. Personal weapons are breach-loading rifles, like the type used by the US Army in the Spanish-American War. The story does not describe the available technology in a meaningful way. There are no accounts of a battle, so the reader can fill in for themselves what it looks like in practice.

The story concerns one Joe Mauser, a soldier/officer for hire who wants to sign on for the next corporate fracas. He has a plan which will enable him to rise in society. The society of this setting is very stratified into 'Lowers', 'Middles', and 'Uppers'. The Uppers are the ruling elite, who own the property, the companies, and the armies. They run the factories that are producing everything, especially the Trank and Telly to keep the masses somnolent. Mauser wants to break into the Uppers. Being a Telly hero can give him a status boost.

The world-building for the story is this: take Earth, go forward far enough that robotics and automation come into general use to do the manufacturing. Most people don't have to work. It is in many ways a familiar dystopian set-up. Unemployment is universal , there is free entertainment all day every day. The government gives handouts instead of people being productive. Cradle to the grave, the people are spoon-fed by Uncle Sugar. 
I have the idea that the author does not approve of these ideas, or see them as a desirable future. Everyone in this setting should be happy and satisfied. Why then are the public 'schools' producing propaganda like “What was good enough for Daddy is good enough for me”? To discourage initiative, competition or self-betterment. My suspicion of the author's attitude found support in the character of a woman of the Upper class, the romantic interest of the story. The hero always has to get the girl in the end, right? This woman has an education, and is vocal in her disapproval of the existing system. The Uppers, a small percentage of the population, have arranged things for their own benefit. They have made it all but impossible for someone from Lower Down to move into the Uppers. 
She says the system will eventually implode. “a ruling caste and a socio-economic system perpetuates itself, just so long as it ever can. No matter what damage it may do to society as a whole, it perpetuates itself even to the point of complete destruction of everything.” She is not so radical that she actually suggests tearing the whole system down, for she would fall with it. She does at least acknowledge the coming crash, and the Uppers' responsibility for it. 
The story ends with the system intact, and in fact not even threatened. Mauser survives the current fracas, and his plan works out, for the most part. There is very little action in the story until the climax; the majority of it is dialogue between characters and exposition to the reader. So it's not a great story, but it is not terrible either. I prefer less author-lecturing in my science fiction, even if I generally agree with what the author is saying. 

Yes, and . . .?

My point in bringing all this up is that the setting as given in the story makes for a great bit of world-building for Traveller. I can easily map to Traveller world UPP terms: a planet of any size, breathable atmosphere, decent hydrosphere with a population of the ten millions at least, under a Charismatic Oligarchy or Impersonal Bureaucracy government, with a Law Level of seven or higher to forbid personal firearm ownership, and to show the stratification of society. Tech level should be 9-10, enough to introduce robotics and automation (and computer control) but no common space travel. The Trade code should be either Industrial or Poor. Military tech level will be late 4, early 5. 
Welcome to Bertollio (Barrick Cluster 0503) C-3427C7-A Poor 41 million people Charismatic Oligarchy (The 'Uppers”)

Bertollio is run by robotics and automation. Most of the population is unemployed, and kept docile by the Caste system, the freely available 'Tranquil' drug, and the non-stop presentation of corporate warfare on the CommNets. Society is stratified into 'Lowers', 'Middles' and 'Uppers'. Ownership of firearms is prohibited; except when serving in one of the corporate 'armies' that resolve all disputes by battling on video. The Uppers run everything and own everything. The Middles have some education and do most of the work that computers can't do. The Lowers mostly sit around snorting Tranquil and watching Battle Shows.

What might Adventurers who arrive on Bertollio do? They could be hired in as cadre for a corporate army or as a special operations unit. Maybe they're sneaking in higher tech weaponry to tip the scales for their client but they have to be careful not to be seen on Telly with it, or they would face prison and execution. As weapon possession is forbidden any fracases they get into outside of corporate warfare would be with fists and blades. Sneaking higher tech weapons onto the planet would make the PCs very dangerous, but also make them Public Enemies numbers one through whatever. In the short term they could dominate any battlefield, until they get swamped by numbers. All of which would make for great Telly.

Could they try to overthrow the system? It should be possible; but as presented, the world system can only be altered by destroying it. According to the Mauser's girl, the Upper caste would resist any kind of change that might threaten their authority, even changes that might forestall the collapse of the whole thing. PCs who come down to 'liberate' the world could be responsible for a massive catastrophe. A population dulled into stupefaction by Trank and Telly would not have the education, physique or the social conditioning necessary to survive in a capitalist society; and even reforming the world along socialist lines would still have massive chaos and disorder as everyone scrambles for a place at the top.

What would your PCs get up to on Bertollio? Leave a comment with your ideas.



  1. I have the expanded novel version of this story, "Mercenary from Tomorrow." There were a couple of sequels were I think the social structure gets challenged but I haven't come across them yet.

  2. Starting PCs on the world, and meeting starfaring Mercs smuggling advanced weapons, throwing in their lot with the mercs, and then the survivors leaving the planet on the far trader, is the way I would run it. The PCs from that world would be pretty happy with just about anything else in the setting.

  3. I couldn't quite place the story. Then I read the first sentence and immediately remembered it. I must have read it in an anthology.

    My players would either be selling luxuries on spec to the Uppers or would be hired by others to cause trouble. In the former case, they'd be troubled by others who want the sale or others who don't want the Upper to get their goodies.

    In the case of the latter, my players were rarely "movers & shakers". (Our campaigns suffered for that IMHO). They wouldn't have a plan to remake Bertollio, they'd be working for some other group who did. They'd be on-world for sabotage and other purposes. Disrupting the trank supply and Telly broadcasts in various ways are obvious. Spiking tranks supplies is obvious too. Messing with scheduled "fracas" can really screw things up too.

    Winning a fracas confers economic benefits to the winning side, part of the story's plot hinges on that fact. Imagine what a TL12 command detonated minefield could do to a force which is just about to win. Or a TL12 cluster bomb MRLS strike from a hidden launcher could do to a marshaling point. As seen in the story, something as simple as real time intel from orbital or other sensors would provide a priceless advantage. Someone queering seemingly foregone fracas results could make a killing of a different sort on the planetary stock exchange.

    Finally, working as a "Johnny" or merc recruiter for off-world conflicts among the Lowers fighting in fracas might be something the Uppers won't care for. They may not like their circus performers being poached.