The Dirge of Holofernes; or, a randomly generated scifi seed.

by Daniel

Among my recent DriveThruRPG purchases was Rafael Chandler‘s The Starship from Hell, an assortment of random tables for generating starships and/or significant NPCs for your scifi RPG (the book is system neutral, so you can readily adapt the generated content to whatever ruleset you prefer). Always interested in seeing how well these collections of random tables mesh with one another to create a cohesive whole, I couldn’t wait to give it a try. What follows is my first creation from the book. All told, I’m quite satisfied!

The Dirge of Holofernes, a decker class combat ship equipped with a secret, experimental weapon, rigged out to appear and function as a scientific research vessel. High shields, high weapons, high sensors, medium speed and medium maneuverability. The weapon is not clearly defined—but can be hooked into some of what follows—beyond saying that “when it fails (and obviously, it will fail), all hell breaks loose”.

The passengers/crew on board consist of xenobiologists (some real, others being soldiers masquerading in the role) along with a cohort of actual soldiers for protection from potentially unfriendly aliens, and… an ancient entity encased in amber. The amber extrusion is several dozen meters tall and is currently located in the immense, converted cargo hold that’s been opened up to be accessible and viewable from Med Lab #2. Preserved within is a creature thought to be several million years old, at the least: it’s intact and very much alive, according to every reading and measurement the crew has been able to achieve so far. Apparently a not insignificant number of the crew scientists wish to release the entity and are actively seeking a means to do so without killing it, though not all are aware of each others’ plans—even though they are all perfectly aware it will result in catastrophically widespread death, perhaps even wholesale genocide of countless worlds. (I would be inclined to connect the entity to or interpret the entity as the secret/experimental weapon.)

As for the distress beacon which brings the PCs to the ship (and it’s indicated that this is merely what the crew cites as the reason for the beacon: they may well be lying), the Holofernes‘ crew fears the ship is entering into a potential meltdown due to a crisis with the proton coil, another experimental piece of hardware on the ship. It is suddenly and unexpectedly overheating with no clear reason; if it reaches a certain heat threshold, the resultant explosion will vaporize any ships in the current solar system, as well as laying untold waste to planets in the region. (The ship is a giant disaster waiting to happen due to the extremely experimental nature of almost the whole design: it was created to allow it to reach a fantastic distance from the crew’s own home system in as little time as possible so that the use, exploration/exploitation, even release of the weapon/entity should pose no immediate risk or threat to their own world, despite that it may eradicate in their entirety any/all of the systems in this remote sector.) Unknown to the crew—or at least unknown to most of them—and very likely responsible for the proton coil problems, among other things, nanoscale spherical nodules of dark matter, which obliterate everything in their path, appear to be moving in guided, deliberate ways, pursuing a distinct path around and across certain areas of the ship, affecting key systems, as if either intelligent in themselves or being guided by some intelligence (possibly the entity moving to enact its own release, as perhaps it doesn’t understand—or care—what the plans are of the undeveloped, tiny, meaningless creatures that have brought it aboard the Holofernes). [Not from the charts, but I’d personally say that the encasement in amber wasn’t in any way accidental but was done purposefully by either another powerful entity or as a successful attack / large scale action by some other species fighting the entity, b/c some quality or nature of the amber, or perhaps of this particular type of amber—perhaps there is some unique property or other to it that has so far eluded the researchers due to their preoccupancy with other factors of this scenario—in some way hinders certain of the entity’s abilities. For instance, perhaps it’s the only way to block its significant mind control/psychic features, such as those which are allowing it to influence things from the dark matter to the ivory organ (see below), etc., … if the entity is behind that. Unaware of that purpose, the researchers have therefore also failed to notice or realize that some of their own handling of the amber and the tests they’ve run have damaged the encasement in such a way that the entity has been able to reassert some of itself and its abilities in the immediate environment, which influence is continuing to grow and expand in range and capability. The control of the dark matter in particular will, given enough time and opportunity, allow it to wholly crack the amber shell off its body.]

When the PCs’ vessel drops out of subspace and gets within shuttle range of the distressed ship, their own vessel loses all power and goes offline, with no obvious reason as to why. Everything had been perfectly functional up until that moment, and the ship has only recently been retooled and made ready for a new duty tour. What tests the crew can run on emergency backup show no obvious problems in any system, but still, they are unable to bring any systems back online, but can operate a shuttle by which they can, if they choose (there’s little option else, as life support is offline and their on-suit reserves and supplies will not last forever), take themselves to the Dirge. Adding to the difficulties—and it may not be clearly or immediately obvious to the PCs without time or maybe some suggestive perception rolls/checks—the PC crew members are becoming increasingly angry/agitated.

Onboard The Dirge of Holofernes, among the standard crew, captain, etc., already vaguely outlined, there is a distinct NPC of note: science officer Salacia Bastia, representative of the Shaliah, from Gliese 667C F, called Tonantzin, renowned for its learning and discipline. A specialist in xenobiology—her reason for being recruited to this mission—she is currently in Med Lab #2 on the upper decks, observing the ambered entity. Cynical, clever and unbeknownst to the rest of the crew or their sponsors, also a member of the secret sect, the Continuum Council. Council members embrace art and philosophy, and at their clandestine meetings they also embrace a plan to locate and bring back the ageless and nameless entity they believe was banished when our universe was created. They think this being once occupied all of our universe and they wish to return it to our reality; when it manifests, all empty space will be occupied by its infinite body, and there will be pockets of (presumably habitable) emptiness where stars and planets once and might again spin. Bastia (mistakenly?) believes the entity trapped in amber is either the entity sought by the Council or at least a shard, fragment or avatar of it which might be used to recover the rest, and thinks this could be the closest the society has ever come to being able to reach—or even prove—their hypothesis and agenda.

In her possession, she has a communications channel manipulator—illegal and held to be treasonous in most civilized systems in this sector—which allows her to not only eavesdrop on any, even encrypted, communications but to suppress, mask or even replace any incoming or outgoing messages. Facilitating this is the equally illegal and treasonous possession of the military grade control codes for the sector-wide Sense net. She has and “controls” a personal surveillance drone: small, quiet, largely self-willed and self-directed (or, now, possibly being directed by a different intelligence), and occasionally overprotective, in a most violent and permanent way. Located somewhere in a constantly shifting subdermal pathway of her left forearm, there is a digital skin coffer containing a value of 1,000 Terlian credits, part of her fee for services rendered in this infiltration. The credits are actually not encrypted and rely merely on location for security, so anyone who might gain access to the physical hardware—by, say, making an incision and digging it out of her forearm if they can find its present location in its constantly moving path, which is not susceptible to any scanning equipment—can freely use or transfer the credits themselves. Her last, and perhaps most interesting possession, for what it contains/reveals perhaps far more than what it does in and of itself, is a vascular pathogen sequencer and integrated blood scanner. This device can and will diagnose most any medical problems, and can retain an almost limitless amount of data, including the full medical histories of those it scans. If one can access it and look at the history file of Dr. Salacia Bastia, herself, they will discover the information about the subdermal coffer (though its location is not indicated beyond the forearm) as well as the surprise that her entire torso has been hollowed out, all vital organs removed and replaced with a single sac of some kind of pulsing, throbbing, greasy ivory-ish tissue. This artificial organ, created by the same Terlians funding her infiltration, perfectly reproduces all the functions of the now missing organs, and is itself more robust and resilient and resistant to infections, allowing the now largely empty torso to operate, when needed (though it is not currently employed in such a capacity), as a smuggling resource for storing/hiding/transporting sensitive goods. Unknown to Dr. Bastia, this organ is also sentient, with a mind and will of its own. Under normal operating conditions, these organs obey the instructions given by their Terlian controllers (one of the reasons she was equipped with the ultra long range communications channel manipulator, allowing Control to both send their own guidance to and receive reports from the Ivory Organ while simultaneously masking the same from both the ship and regional authorities in general, as well as from Salacia herself)—but as should be clear by now, these are hardly normal operating conditions, and something has begun to interfere with the signals and instructions from Control, and the Organ may be beginning to act under the guidance of an intelligence other than its own. Whether that’s the same intelligence as is directing the dark matter is up to the DM.

For a few minutes’ work and a handful of dice, it seems quite workable to me for getting the ball rolling on some adventure or other. I look forward to tinkering about with this some more—and perhaps choosing a preferred setting to establish it in. Which reminds me, as the author states on page 2, “This book is open content. Have at it!”—the purchase at DriveThruRPG includes an RTF file of the contents which you can edit as you please to create your own ready reference, customizing tables to suit your setting of choice (for instance, changing “Terlians” or secret society names, cultures, planets, etc., to match those of your setting).