The World of Zero – Steve Stone

Image copyright Steve Stone.

In 1997, Archangel Entertainment hired me to design Zero, a role-playing game world based on the artwork of Steve Stone. This chapter boils that setting down to its essence.

Background

It’s the best of all possible worlds—or so you’ve been taught—everyone telepathically conjoined in one immense, contented family, hunkered down in a world of caverns and warrens, maintaining centuries-old machinery to keep the hive alive.

But you’ve always felt a niggling sense of being different. While everyone around you basks in “The Equanimity,” a sea of psychic satisfaction, complacent in their togetherness, you’ve subconsciously felt less-than-happy. Your nascent self-awareness has made you a truly creative troubleshooter, but it has also caused you discomfort. And today, it’s about to get you terminated.

Queen Zero cannot abide malcontents. She has already birthed and programmed your replacement. You’ve been ejected from the hive mind, and Human Resources is on its way to recycle your body.

Happy birthday! And welcome to the rest of your short, miserable life.

Occupations

Unlike other D6xD6 game settings, the “World of Zero” has only five occupations: Archivist, Drone, Healer, Technician, and Warrior.

Archivists are keepers of ancient information—computer librarians, if you will. With millennia of knowledge cataloged, if they do not know something, they know how to look it up. Tall and reedy, they exist on a diet designed to maintain their enormous brains. Archivist characters must Focus Wits.

Drones are general-purpose workers, with no specialization. Highly adaptable, these characters treat all abilities as either Focused as Unfocused. They have no Unfamiliar attributes or skills.

Healers are the biological experts of the hive. They are responsible for maintaining life and health, for grafting body parts and machinery in useful combinations, and for recycling organic material. Soft and rotund, they are the only reproductively fertile members of the hive, as an emergency backup in case of mechanized birthing facility failure. Healer characters must Focus Will.

Technicians are the machine experts of the hive. They are equally adept in mechanical and electrical engineering. Small and wiry, they are designed to fit in tight places when hard-to-reach machinery requires repair. Technician characters must Focus Grace.

Warriors are the defenders of the hive, patrolling its outermost tunnels, where savage, mutated animal life yet survives. Large and bulky, they are mechanically enhanced with grafted armor (one point of subdermal mesh) and weaponry (see Equipment below). Their bodies and equipment require constant maintenance by healers and technicians to remain in fighting condition. Warrior characters must Focus Brawn.

Skills

From the Basic Skills chapter, the following are applicable to this setting: Athletics, Computers, First Aid, Navigation, Shooting, Sneaking, Swimming, Throwing, Tracking, and Vehicle. Others are unknown to this world, though the heroes’ explorations may later expose them to new skills.

In addition, characters may choose any of these skills.

Combat Psionics is the ability to use combat effects of the psychic abilities listed below. Rolls are made versus the specific psychic ability being used.

Electronics involves building and repairing electrical equipment. When combined with Computers skill, it includes programming ability.

Hydroponics is used to raise food in this underground environment that possesses no natural light or soil.

Mechanics involves building and repairing mechanical equipment—including weapons and ammunition.

Telegnosis is literally “knowledge at a distance” in time or space. Sometimes referred to as “clairvoyance,” it ranges from a hunch at low levels to virtual prophecy at higher levels. In game terms, each Success Level gains the character one insightful bit of information from the Game Host.

Combat Telegnosis lends insight into an enemy’s weaknesses. Each Success Level gives the user a 1-point bonus on attacks against one specific enemy for the duration of one combat scene.

Telekinesis, sometimes called “psychokinesis,” is the ability to move objects by the power of thought. Multiply the exact dice roll by the number of Success Levels to determine the possible combinations of kilos and meters moved in a game Round. Example: A character with Focused Telekinesis and a Focus rating of 6, whose roll is 18, would score a 36 (18 x 2 Success Levels). With that roll, the character could move 36 kilos 1 meter, or 1 kilo 36 meters, or 4 kilos 9 meters, or any other combination up to 36.

Combat Telekinesis allows the character to strike a target with loose objects in the vicinity. Use the Small Pistol rating from the Conflict and Damage chapter as a basis for damage and range.

Telepathy is the ability to communicate mind to mind. Because the heroes originated in Queen Zero’s hive, they are able to project thoughts to one another. (As explained under Special Rules, below, heroes must possess Telepathy, whether as a Focused or Unfocused skill.)

“Eavesdropping” on unprojected thoughts requires a skill roll. If the “listener” is successful, the target is allowed a Wits roll to recognize the intrusion. A target whose Success Levels equal or exceed the “listener’s” becomes aware of being scanned and is allowed a Will roll to guard thoughts. If Success Levels for this roll also equal or exceeds the original Telepathy score, the thoughts are guarded. (The Game Host may also allow characters to make an Uncertain Task roll for Will—see the Dice and Tasks chapter—to guard thoughts before entering a situation.) Guarding thoughts requires concentration, imposing a 1-point penalty on any other dice rolls the target makes.

Combat Telepathy involves projecting doubts or other distracting thoughts into a target’s mind. For each Success Level the telepath gains, the target must hesitate for one Round. During this time, the target may take no action other than attempting to shake off the effects with a Will roll. Each Success Level on this Will roll reduces the number of Rounds lost by one.

Teleportation is the ability to move from one location to another instantaneously. The number of Success Levels on a roll determines the possible distance traveled, in terms of combat ranges: 1. Throwing; 2. Shooting; 3. Viewing; 4. Lost. Teleporting another person (or object of equivalent mass) makes the task one step more difficult. Each additional person teleported imposes another step of difficulty. The teleporter must physically touch the object to be teleported, and all then travel together. Example: A character could transport itself and two additional people as a Formidable task (see the Dice and Tasks chapter).

Combat Teleportation allows a character to rapidly “blink” into and out of existence, which makes that character more difficult to target. Each Success Level gained adds one level of difficulty to attack rolls against the character. The power requires an action to activate, however, and also requires concentration to maintain, which means the teleporter treats all other task rolls as one step more difficult than usual.

Telergy is the ability to affect another person’s thoughts or emotions. The target is allowed a Will roll to resist, and Success Levels are compared. If the Will Success Levels are higher, the target is unaffected; if the Success Levels are tied, neither character can take any other action that round; if the Telergy Success Levels are higher, the telergist controls the target for one Round per excess Success Level. Example: If a telergist achieves three Success Levels versus a target who achieves one Will Success Level, the telergist controls that target for two Rounds. Note: A telergist cannot force a victim to attack itself, though it could be forced to attack its companions.

Combat Telergy allows its user to damage a living target by affecting its heart and brain. Base damage for this attack is Graze. As an action, the victim may attempt a Brawn roll, with each Success Level reducing the damage by one step.

Special Rules

Name for characters in this setting consists of Occupation and a four-digit number: “Warrior 3414,” for example. After choosing your hero’s Occupation, roll a six-sided die four times to generate the digits.

Gender doesn’t much matter for characters other than Healers. Choose one if you wish, or simply mark this spot “N/A” on the character sheet, and remember to refer to your character as “it.”

Age is either Immature, Adult, or (rarely) Elderly. Years since birth are not recorded.

Languages are literally unheard of in Queen Zero’s hive. All characters must possess Telepathy as either a Focused or Unfocused skill. Only Archivists are aware of the existence of spoken languages as a primitive form of communication.

Equipment

The equipment in Queen Zero’s realm is an odd mix of the very archaic (though carefully maintained) and high tech. Vehicles are scarce—most travel being on foot or via the Teleport skill—but weapons are readily available, for Warriors; and other odd devices can be found, or looted after battles.

Vehicles: Those few vehicles that do exist are primarily slow, treaded trucks for hauling ore, or heavily armored versions for troop transport. Some few one- or two-person flying craft or underwater vessels are sometimes seen.

Weapons: Queen Zero’s security forces have stockpiled weapons from every era. Heroes might encounter any of the weapons listed in the Conflict and Damage chapter, as well as the following. Note that Warriors often have forearm removed and a two-handed weapon mounted in its place, in order to operate the weapon one-handed. Some Warriors even have both forearms replaced with two-handed weapons, allowing them to attack twice per Round (roll four dice and assign two to each arm). For mundane tasks such as reloading, feeding themselves, and so on, they either rely on Healers and Techs or develop extraordinary Telekinesis.

  • Blaster: This Large Pistol fires a particle beam that can hit targets up to Viewing range. Unfortunately, the beam is diffused by dust or mist. (The Game Host will determine damage reduction based on level of obscurity.)
  • Flamer: This Throwing-range weapon can attack two adjacent targets, base damage of Hit against each on the Round it strikes. Each following Round, the flame causes automatic damage at one level less. (Example: If a Warrior wielding a flamer strikes with two Success Levels, Damage is Wound on the first Round, Hit on the second, Stun on the third, Graze on the fourth, and None on the fifth, at which point the fire dies.)
  • Neural Whip: This retractable Throwing-range weapon does Stun damage, ignoring most armor. As long as at least two of its metal studs can touch bare flesh, the electrical circuit completes. It is especially useful against naturally armored creatures such as cave crocodiles.
  • Power Blade: Whether a chainsaw, an electrified sword, vibro-blade, or an electrically rigidified monofilament wire, this two-hand weapon does Wound damage and ignores one level of armor.
  • Pulse Cannon: This spinning multi-barreled Blaster causes Kill Damage on a successful attack against living creatures. It also counts as an anti-vehicle weapon with a Graze Damage rating. After three shots, it must be recharged or reloaded with a new battery pack.

Special Equipment: The heroes may come across special equipment such as the following during their adventures.

  • Biohazard Suit: This bulky clothing protects the wearer in any hazardous environment. It acts as four levels of armor against all but psychic damage and contains a one-hour oxygen supply. Any physical activities suffer a two-point difficulty modifier, however.
  • Booster Drug: An adrenaline derivative, this injector gives the user with a two-point bonus on all dice rolls for 15 minutes, then causes automatic Hit damage as withdrawal.
  • Chameleon Suit: A full-body suit with computerized light sensors and matching light emitters, this clothing mimics the wearer’s environment, giving a three-point bonus to Sneaking rolls. It must be recharged after an hour of use.
  • IRE: This biomechanical infrared eye, permanently implanted in an eye socket, allows the user to see heat as if it were light.

Denizens

Queen Zero has survived millennia by body-swapping at least once each generation. She keeps a specially prepared drone on hand at all times in case of emergency. As psychic mother to the hive, she can see through anyone’s eyes and draw upon any skill with an effective Focus rating of 0. The chance of the heroes meeting her in person is virtually nil, though she might confront them through a telergically controlled surrogate.

The Cyberkillers are Queen Zero’s personal guard. Gender: Female. Age: Adult. Attributes: Will Focused; None Unfamiliar. Occupation: Assassin. Skills: Focused Combat Psionics, Shooting, Sneaking, Throwing, and Tracking; Unfocused all psychic skills. Focus: 6. Notes: Cyberkillers wear form-fitting reactive armor that provides 3 levels of protection and acts as a Chameleon Suit. Each member also carries a Pulse Cannon. But their signature equipment is a Psi Lens helmet treating all psychic skills as Focused, including these special Combat Psionics abilities:

  • Telekinesis—Pyrokinesis: 1 Success Level causes a flammable item to smolder; 2 causes them to ignite; 3 makes metal blisteringly hot; 4 causes it to melt. Against living creatures, the base Damage is Hit. Armor does not protect, though defensive Success Levels with Telekinesis can.
  • Telepathy—Psi Blast: This psychic “shout”  has a base Damage of Stun. Armor does not protect, though defensive Success Levels with Telepathy can.
  • Teleportation–Wrack: This attack pulls the target apart, doing a base Damage of Wound. Armor does protect, as can defensive Success Levels with Teleportation.

The Five and the Forty are hive members of each occupation, possessing a single-digit name (such as Breeder 1 through Breeder 9). The 1’s personally attend the queen; the remainder serve as their agents in the hive. Gender: Female. Age: Adult. Attributes, Occupation, and Skills: Varied. Focus: identical to name.

The Multi-Digits are hive members of each occupation in descending order, roughly 450 members with two-digit names, 4,500 with three-digit names, and 45,000 at the heroes’ level. They can be of any gender and age. In general, their Focus ratings are roughly twice the number of digits in their names, so most four-digit-named characters have a Focus of about 8.

Cave creatures are mutated animals that survived some long-forgotten planetary cataclysm. They survive outside the hive, raiding it for food or from sheer rage. Their exact natures are left to the Game Host.

Sample Adventure: “Severance Package”

This adventure presents the heroes’ exit from the hive.

Act I: Termination

Begin by asking the players describe what their characters are doing on a typical day in “The Equanimity.” As they become involved in this description, interrupt them with a mental command to report for duty at a new location. They arrive as strangers to one another, in an abandoned chamber none have visited before, somewhere near the center of the hive. Suddenly, their connection to the hive mind is dropped, and a warrior teleports into the room and begins attacking. Each combat Round, another warrior teleports in, to a maximum of one enemy having arrived per hero. Let the heroes begin to bond in mutual defense against this threat.

Act II: Exit the Building

If the heroes defeat their attackers, they hear the approach of many more hive members in the corridors outside. Remaining here is clearly suicide. Or the heroes may already have chosen to flee the arriving warriors. In either case, a chase scene ensues through heavily occupied regions, punctuated with drone ambushes, locked bulkhead doors a tech must open, other obstructions an archivist must find a path around, and so on. Consider providing the opportunity to steal a vehicle to ramp up the chase.

Act III: Company Store

As the climax to this adventure, a cyberkiller arrives. She begins clearing a path to the heroes by slaying anyone else in her way—using Pyrokinesis and Wrack in a display of wanton destruction. If the heroes somehow defeat this cyberkiller, more appear to take her place. Queen Zero cannot allow independent beings to remain within the hive.

If the heroes flee, they are pursued only to the edges of the hive, where light and power are left behind. The queen assumes they will perish without further pursuit.

Adventure Seeds

  • “Milk Run”: The heroes find themselves running low on food, medicine, or (more likely) ammunition. They must plot a series of raids on the hive to resupply.
  • “Library Day”: The heroes discover an impressive piece of equipment in need of repair (perhaps even a starship). An archivist recalls plans in the hive’s computer library, and a tech knows where parts might be stolen or manufactured.
  • “Here There Be Monsters”: Weary of an ever-vigilant existence on the outskirts of the hive, the heroes discover a promising new cavern—seemingly unoccupied. To move there, however, they must investigate why it is empty.

Campaign Ideas

Surviving their forced retirement, the heroes explore ever farther afield, eventually finding themselves on the planet’s surface. This ravaged wasteland is home to small enclaves of civilization, some being descendants of people who previously escaped Queen Zero, others descendants of forgotten nations, or even former members of star-faring races. The heroes may shape the destiny of this world, with supplies taken from Queen Zero.

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