This article originally appeared in Pyramid #5
"Clear Ether, Chum!"
GURPS Lensman Designer's Notes
by Sean BarrettThe scrambled communicator crackled and spit. "Cobbler Tax. I say again, Cobbler Tax."
The Council had decided. The Admiral sighed, feeling the incalculable weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Responsibility for the future of the Solar system. He felt sudden doubt -- would it work? He had stated it as a certainty many times; what if he was wrong?
He nodded to the communications officer, who flipped one switch. On panels through the enormous fleet, the mightiest ever assembled, a single light flashed on.
The maneuver proceeded awkwardly, never having been performed or even rehearsed before, but from each ship, tractors and pressors pulled and shoved. In less than an hour, the entire war fleet of the Triplanetary League was formed into a single vast, flexible structure. That structure surrounded and protected and propelled humanity's last, best hope for ending this Fourth Jovian War -- a comet, many millions of tons of dirty ice, now a prisoner. Already aimed at Jupiter's North Pole, it accelerated slowly under the fleet's thrust.
E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman story was the first great space opera. Serials, open-ended strings of adventures, were already popular, but Doc was the first to tell a unified multi-volume tale with an ending. Others followed, but Doc broke the ground. The Lensman story can seem hackneyed or full of cliches to modern readers, but Doc described the ships of intergalactic war 30 years before Gene Roddenberry thought up the Enterprise. He wrote about world-sized battle stations 40 years before George Lucas diminished the idea to the Death Star. These vast concepts were original with him.
The story is ideal for roleplaying, with its enormous breadth in time and space. Any type of adventure can be set against its backdrop. Glorious military action abounds, but so does dirty espionage. The heroes of the series are clean-cut and straightforward, but there are millions upon millions of ordinary, fallible, complex people, and of course, all too many corrupt, criminal villains -- not all of whom are military foes. The war makes many direct "capture this planet" missions available, as well as the most inconceivably convoluted conspiracy ever created, to be explored by those who are more illuminated. Even at the end of the War, the Lensmen still have no idea of Boskone's full extent. (The entire Bavarian Illuminati is but one tiny, insignificant creeper of an off-shoot of a tendril of Boskone. Fnord.)
The possibilities for cross-over campaigns are tremendous. Within the timeline of the Lensman series, any historical worldbook can be used; Triplanetary describes an episode that would fit into a GURPS Rome campaign, and immediately before the Third World War, GURPS Atomic Horror and Illuminati can be used.
If one gives up the space-opera setting, the possibilities become endless. The theme, the War between Good and Evil with humanity as the deciding force, applies to any genre. A few suggestions are provided in GURPS Lensman, but many others were skipped for lack of room. The most difficult challenge is retaining the sense of wonder of which Doc was the master.
A time-traveling or multidimensional campaign could encounter Eddore before it was moved into the universe of the Lens. Transistors destroy the pulp flavor of the story, but allow in turn a very different one to develop. Psionic computers? Does a Lens help a netrunner? Magic adds another facet to explore; Lensorcs become a possibility, but only one such. When the evil vizier is proven to be a pawn of Eddore, will he escape the ravening scimitars of the Lensbedouins on their undetectable carpets? Obviously, extreme crosses can get silly very quickly, but they should be considered. Certainly the War is a jihad and being pawns of Arisia or Eddore fits the Arabian Nights theme of the absolute power of fate in life...GM: "The worm rears up in front of you, dripping purple goo and making an evil chittering noise."
Lieutenant Lensman [into his microphone]: "Ralph? Gimme a one-second needle beam through the head of this annelid. And aim carefully, Ralph. It can't move while I've got this zone of compulsion on it, and I don't want you singeing my whiskers."
Lieutenant Lensman [into his microphone]: "Oh, and Ralph? Get Sheila to look up the home planet of these things, and arrange for a comet strike. They're really getting on my nerves."
GM: "Oy vey."
In addition, the space-opera background is most of the charm of the story. Like all other science-fiction writers prior to World War II, Doc never imagined transistors or automatic electronic computers. (A rocket engineer of my acquaintance often sighs nostalgically for the days when computers were blonde and cute. A computer was a person with good math skills, who worked out calculations for the engineers.) Doc's highly technical universe is filled with vacuum tube equipment, powered through massive bus-bars. Though I could have skipped the issue altogether, just saying "of course transistors don't exist -- Doc never heard of them," I preferred to explain their lack within the context of the story. Why no transistors? Mentor doesn't like the idea. Why not? See the "History and Society" chapter.The Jovians rose to meet them. An unusual battle began, for the Triplanetary fleet could not stop. The millions of millions of tons of ice could not be slowed or turned in less than days now. Escorts broke formation to engage the Jovians, and the ether was shocked by thousands of atomic explosions as missiles sought matter to vaporize and polychromatic rays of force clawed at hard-driven wall screens. The escorts hampered and delayed and broke up the Jovian formations, and the main force, with its icy cargo, drove on, unstoppable, through empty space.GURPS provided nearly every feature needed to simulate the Lensman universe, except a roleplaying space combat system. The system in Space is excellent for gaming out space battles, but is very number-heavy and not at all quick. Its detailed damage-location tables in particular are not appropriate when the energies employed are utterly irresistible by mere matter. In Lensman battles, the screens coruscate in ways not detailed in Space, and when the screens go down, the ship is vaporized.
As Jupiter neared, the fleet shifted, moving away from the comet. It suddenly shuddered under the triphammer blow of the atomic explosives buried in its heart. It cracked, but even that mighty force did little to its tremendous mass. It began to come apart, slowly.
Within a few hours, the comet had separated into seventeen main masses, and about a million tons of sand-to-boulder-sized debris, all on an unswerving trajectory toward Jupiter's pole.
So the GURPS Space Opera Combat System was born. A set of guidelines for numbers-light resolution of ship-to-ship combat, SOCS is not specific to the Lensman universe -- it handles X-wings and heavy cruisers and battlestars just as easily as maulers and speedsters. It does not require maps, record sheets or trigonometry. It is not balanced, realistic or detailed. Rather, it is a fast, colorful and accurate simulation of how space combat proceeds in movies and stories. (It is also compatible with GURPS Space, so GMs still have that system available for more detailed battles.) Good roleplaying is absolutely crucial to success in battle under this system -- after all, a space-opera hero does not win because his space fighter has a tight turning radius; he wins because his heart(s) are pure!
SOCS was deliberately made similar to the GURPS melee combat system. Like ST and DX in melee, there are only two numbers to keep track of in SOCS: the Firepower of each weapon and the Maneuver Rating of each ship. All actions are taken as maneuvers, although ships are divided into three classes - fighters, cutters and ships of the line - by their design, and not all ship classes can perform all maneuvers. The maneuvers listed in the book, including most of the classics, such as leading the pursuit through the asteroid field and the ever-popular "I'll hit the brakes and he'll fly right by," are by no means the only ones possible. Fighter pilots can attempt to develop new, unexpected tricks of space-dogfighting, and the captains of larger ships can try unorthodox techniques of their own.
GURPS Space also lacked an inertialess space drive - understandably, as it is a very difficult concept to explain. The distinction between "hard to shove" and "heavy" is not intuitively clear, and, in fact, is one of the major issues in physics today. Einstein stated that gravitational and inertial mass are identical - they have to be for general relativity to work. He used the classic accelerating elevator "thought experiment" to illustrate this Equivalence Principle. However, quantum mechanics has to treat them as separate quantities for purposes of the Grand Unified Theory.
Doc himself believed that the Bergenholm drive was just one short step away from mathematically impossible, but he may have been mistaken in his pessimism; inertialessness is not as inconceivable as he thought. While at the Jet Propulsion Lab, I learned of a satellite experiment package scheduled to be launched by the European Space Agency which will measure the difference between gravitational and inertial mass to better than one part in one hundred thousand million million. If a difference exists, then the Bergenholm is a logical possibility.
The gazetteer of Doc's settings is quite colorful on its own, but since his time, more mysteries have been discovered. The sidebars describing stars that smoke, stars that have bands of metal floating on them, interstellar clouds of diamonds, the enigma of the core of our galaxy and other wonders are all correct by our present knowledge. While writing the travelogue introduction to the "Gazetteer" chapter, I was thinking about how much we've learned about the universe since Doc wrote the story. My wife read over my shoulder a description of the Milky Way spiral galaxy. "Barred galaxy," she corrected me. "There's an article in Nature." I ran to the library. The Milky Way has indeed been shown to be a barred galaxy. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. I could hear the First Historian growling, "Great, kid. Don't get cocky."The leading chunk was no larger than a small Tellurian mountain. It hit the Jovian atmosphere at slightly over 60 miles per second. Instantaneously it was surrounded by an inferno of plasma, and a tsunami of impenetrable noise crashed across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
The Adepts did not rely on mere electromagnetics, however. Their instruments operated on the level of the subether, and tracked the meteoroid with millimetric precision. Interceptor missiles rose from their rails at dozens of times the speed of sound.
The Triplanetarians made no attempt to protect their icy projectile. The Jovian missiles detonated as soon as they touched the plasma shock wave, but the force of their explosions altered its course enough that their base was saved -- from that one.
Behind it, though, came the 17 asteroid-size pieces, amid the cosmic shotgun blast of ice gravel. The Jovian space defense system, swamped by thousands of targets, thrashed briefly and shut down.
My second thought after learning that I was to write this book was "Klono's palladium PD, Sue's going to kill me." My wife can get very emphatic when the level of "male chauvinist piggy-tude" gets too high.
Doc described an intergalactic Civilization which has the same policies toward women that the U.S. does today: equal under the law, discriminatory in practice, and male-only in the combat arms of the military. More than that, his Lyranians showed what he he thought of "Political Correctness." (Only the name has changed. Doc would recognize a lot of what is going on today; we are firmly a part of Boskonia.)
I wanted to write a book that would sell, of course, but the GURPS historical books have never sugar-coated the low social status endured by women and minorities in Old West, China, Japan and other times and places.
Several players stated quite emphatically that they would not play in any campaign that did not allow women Lensmen. However, while a GM can design the world any way he wants, a designer working under license cannot. I could add details, describe some of the drugs, doodle in the corners of the masterpiece, but I could not change such a major facet of Civilization. (And if it's not a major point, what's all the shouting about?)
I discussed the possibility of women Lensmen with several people, but never for a moment seriously considered "fixing" Doc. I'd sooner make Shakespeare "PC." Women cannot be Lensmen. I did include an explanation of why women cannot be Lensmen and the issues involved, and some suggestions for revisionist GMs.
Doc's lack of feminism is easily seen, but he has been strongly criticized on many other points. Most infuriating of all, only the best can be Lensmen. The foundation of the Lensman series is Doc's deeply-held belief that all beings, regardless of shape, are inherently unequal. This attitude has led to charges of racism and bigotry to go with the sexism.
Along with human women, the universe of the Lens is filled with other fascinating aliens. Many of them are warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing humanoids, but most are very different. That they are all people regardless of their shapes is one of Doc's major themes.
The series has been criticized for not explicitly describing any non-Anglo humans, but why would anyone care what shade a Tellurian's skin is, when he's standing next to a dragon-like Velantian or an intrinsically-indescribable-to-humans Palainian?
Simulating alien characters, especially those with abilities far exceeding humans', is a rigorous test of any game system, and GURPS proved equal to the task. Roleplaying games tend to value fighting ability too highly, and I was worried that Peter vanBuskirk - a "combat monster" by any definition - would be more expensive than Kimball Kinnison, the product of millions of years of selective breeding. Fortunately, GURPS was ready; its superb racial design rules, particularly the Increased ST advantage, made Kinnison, vanBuskirk and Worsel a well-matched team in Galactic Patrol, yet allowed the Lensmen to far out-strip the Valerian after Mentor showed them their Second-Stage potential.
Martial Arts was the sleeper supplement to this book. Doc described several unarmed brawls, but so does any action author. However, the playtesters wanted to play those fights. The officers of the Galactic Patrol, like those before them of the Triplanetary and Solarian Leagues, are highly trained in the vicious science of hand-to-hand combat. They don't fight for pleasure or sport or rich purses, but when they enter combat without weapons, they fight with one sole purpose - to kill, as quickly as possible. How much damage does a Tomingan donganeur do?
Furthermore, those highly-trained officers are not necessarily even humanoid. What are the unarmed fighting techniques of Rigelians? What is the most efficient way to use a tentacle in melee? Velantians are combat monsters to begin with, and highly intelligent. What martial arts do multi-eyed, winged, thirty-foot dragons develop? A martial arts section was added.
An element of Lensman that proved surprisingly difficult to simulate in game terms is mental combat. Telepathic battles in GURPS Psionics proceed like a deadly but stately dance, with several exchanges of blows before the defeated lapses into unconsciousness. Even the most powerful telepath has difficulty killing even a completely defenseless victim. (Other mental powers can kill quickly -- telekinesis, for instance -- but they do not exist in the universe of the Lens.)
A Second-Stage Lensman, however, has sufficient mental power to starkly obliterate any but the most puissant mind with a single massive blow. Clearly, the redoubtable author of Psionics had been instructed to limit the telepathy sections of that work to the abilities of intellects of the first stage of development. Now, however, it is necessary to discuss the abilities of the higher stages, such as Mental Blast and the accompanying danger of ricochets, ranges extended to the intergalactic and beyond, the techniques of subtle subversion of Mind Shields, and so on.
In his hidden chamber in the center of Almalthea, Gharlane watched the fireball swelling from Jupiter's north pole. It was time to do something different. He glanced at the diagram of the Triplanetary fleet's structure. Construction of rods and cables, with no shear stresses. Chung's formation strategy would alter space warfare... he briefly considered the superhuman nature of a mind that could conceive of geodesic domes and "tensegrity," but felt no desire to continue that line of deduction.
Very well. This cause was certainly lost, although equally certainly there would be survivors. He would reform the cadre and return, but with an altered master plan. This "League" could obviously fight wars, but their problems with "civil rights" were growing. They were much less efficient in handling criminals than military foes. The Triplanetary League would be destroyed not by atomic weapons but by inner corruption. Piracy. Drugs. With those happy thoughts, he vanished.
I owe many thanks to those who helped me with this book. The Playtesters of the Lens, an international team from Italy, Great Britain and Singapore as well as Canada and the U.S., all performed prodigies. Obviously it could not have been written without the permission of Verna Smith Trestrail, but she went beyond that, corresponding with me throughout the writing. Many others, too many to name, proudly showed me first editions inscribed by Doc to their fathers and talked with me long into the dawn, making sure I would do a good job with the story they loved so well. They inspired me to keep going.
However, no one deserves as much gratitude as my wife and First Reader. If you know what a First Reader's job is, you know what she went through. If you don't, even Docspeak cannot tell you what a starkly prodigious job that is. Thank you.
While talking with these people, two questions have arisen frequently.
The easy one of the answers is, yes, the Lensman books are out of print, and have been since the Japanese animated film "Lensman" appeared. (GURPS Lensman has nothing whatsoever to do with that anime.) That movie was not authorized by the Smith estate, and caused the book rights to be revoked. There is discussion of reprinting them, but nothing has been settled yet.
The more complex question is that of the Next Lensman Book. Robert Heinlein perpetrated an enigma on the estate of the First Historian. In his essay "Larger than Life," Heinlein makes a cryptic comment to the effect that the Lensman series is unfinished, that at least one other novel was planned. The Historical Division officially confirms that statement; several other entities with whom Doc discussed the idea have verified it. Heinlein followed with a refusal to reveal the plot.
Others who might have known, including Verna Trestrail, Frederik Pohl (who edited much of Doc's work) and Virginia Heinlein, all deny finding any notes in their copious records, and it is the official position of the Historical Division that no such notes exist. The Lensman's Seal will remain intact.
It is, of course, patently obvious to any intellect of higher grade than a Zabriskan fontema that the Children have an incestuous relationship. That is a requisite bit of background and a plausible reason Doc never wrote the continuation; it is not a plot.
The current Historian maintains that with diligent effort, any mind above precisionist grade can visualize at least the larger details of the actual plot from the more than ample clues provided. Each of the novels develops inevitably from incidents in those preceding. Kinnison and the reader may not understand or even perceive those incidents at the time, but they are shown. Similar incidents occur in Children of the Lens, and require resolution.
Think, youth! Think!
Article publication date: February 1, 1994
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