Roleplayer
Roleplayer #26, October 1991

Primary Sources

Reviews of Gameable Fiction

by Ben Iglauer

The Shaper/Mechanist Universe

Bruce Sterling

In the distant future, human civilization has expanded throughout the solar system, and has spawned two rival factions, each with a radically different vision of humanity. These factions are the Mechanists and the Shapers.

The Mechanists utilize machines and artificial intelligence to augment their members. They specialize in robotics, cybernetics, computers, and spacecraft. They hold the economic advantage over their rivals, the Shapers, having access to great wealth from their superior mining techniques and speed of travel and communications.

The Shapers use genetic manipulation and bioengineering to augment and improve humanity. They have genetically modified humans into super-beings with amazing intelligence, charisma, and health. The Shapers believe that they will ultimately defeat the Mechanists because of their superior adaptability.

Both sides are heavily factionalized, along both political and philosophical lines. The Shapers can't agree on the best way to improve mankind . . . so they experiment. The Mechanists, too, are divided into groups, including one society whose members are permanently installed in mechanical exoskeletons.

Civilization has abandoned Earth, but there are many space habitats and colonies throughout the system . . . the majority occupied by old-style humanity. Some habitats, and some parties within habitats, lean toward one or the other of the new factions; others are resolutely unaligned, or try to take the best from both cultures without becoming subject to the politics of either. The Mechanists and the Shapers are just part of a system-wide "cool" war of piracy, espionage, sabotage, and assassination – and each group has its own internal disputes – just the stuff for a good GURPS game.

But there is more. A group of extraterrestrials who call themselves the Investors has made contact with humanity. They trade ultra-tech information, which the humans find invaluable, for raw materials and works of art. Both the Mechanists and the Shapers are desperate for the Investors' ultimate secret – the star drive. They'll gladly resort to murder and mayhem to make sure that their group is the first to have this technology. And it seems that there is a whole galactic civilization of ETs out there, but only the Investors can provide access to them . . . and only for a high price.

Campaign Ideas

Players could begin the game as almost anything – Shapers, Mechanists, defectors, pirates, mercenaries, black marketeers, a non-aligned group of university students in a space habitat . . .

Beginning as either Shaper or Mechanist would certainly allow the characters some extremely powerful advantages. Almost all of the Mechanists are very wealthy, and have access to powerful technology of at least TL10, especially in the areas of cybernetics and computers. Beginning as a Shaper would give significant great physical and mental advantages.

Both groups have powerful and pernicious enemies – each other. But the friends and enemies within one's own faction are likely to be closer and more important. Your enemies can't betray you, but your "friends" can.

In a campaign with lower point totals, PCs could be pirates, mercenaries, or black marketeers. Things could rapidly become very interesting for a group of relatively unaugmented adventurers who find themselves more and more embroiled in some factional dispute or interplanetary power play.

The Background

The Shaper/Mechanist universe is extremely rich in background. Everything from the political intricacies of various sub factions, to varieties of gene engineered humans and their associated disadvantages, to pirate clans, to various metaphysical movements are described in detail using the vivid, information-dense prose style of vintage cyberpunk.

The writings are so strong on background that almost any given page can provide at least one excellent jumping-off place for an adventure. An example from the story "Cicada Queen" –

"The Ring Council tried to break the 200 (IQ) limit last century. Most of the so-called Superbrights went mad, defected, turned against their fellows, or all three. They've been hunted down by pirates and mercenaries for decades now."

The Books

The novel Schismatrix deals with the internal and external warfare of the Shapers and the coming of the Investors. The collection Crystal Express also includes several short stories set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe. These provide more information on the Investors, galactic society, and the Mechanists.

The whole cycle of stories features wild imagination and intense conflict. They can be excellent source material for a world, and also a great source of adventure ideas for any GURPS Cyberpunk or Space game.

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