History and Politics
The world in which our heroes are stranded has elements in common with the real worlds Jazz Age, but with some strange and important differences. It was inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Hector Bywater, among others. The intended tone is dramatic and serious without being dark, but with the potential for spectacle and pulp-style action.
What the player characters may deduce once theyve spent some time in their new surroundings is that the vehicle is a paratemporal conveyer, able to move among parallel timelines, and that they have been stranded in one of these parallel worlds. The world in question looks somewhat recognizable . . . but very, very odd. They will have to piece together the following information.
Divergence from the world they know began in the late nineteenth century. In their own history, Heike Onnes discovered superconductivity in 1911; in this world, Nikola Tesla discovered it early in his career, in the 1880s. Fascinated, he threw himself into this newfound phenomenon with unwonted single-mindedness. In a few years, he demonstrated both levitation and weight-reduction effects and predicted they could be used to create true ships of the air, better even than zeppelins, blimps, and other lighter-than-air craft.
This sparked a massive competition among many of the leading scientists, engineers, and speculators of the day, and it wasnt long before designs started taking to the air—and crashing immediately, as likely as not. Still, early successes began plying the airways shortly before the Wright brothers, equally stubborn in their own way, proved with their Flyer that aerodynamic aircraft were just as viable.
However, further development—in nearly every field, not merely aviation—came to a crashing halt in the summer of 1908. Only the player characters may realize there was no Tunguska Incident, but in early August, a month or so after it would have happened, the first known cases of a strange new illness were recorded. Almost immediately it ballooned into a worldwide pandemic, more quickly and thoroughly even than the plagues of the Middle Ages.
The only blessing of the epidemic is that it burned out nearly as quickly as it spread—in less than a year. Unfortunately, not only was it unusually lethal in its own right, but that very virulence, as well as the (visible) effects many of its survivors suffered, inspired such widespread panic as had not been seen in centuries: riots, rebellions, mutinies, and violence of all sorts swept much of the planet.
It took years for the figurative dust to settle. The Western imperial powers, which thanks to better medical knowledge and less superstition suffered marginally less than the rest of the world, rode things out as best they could. As soon as they were able, they clamped down on the anarchy bubbling over in their overseas possessions. It took a generation and unprecedented international cooperation, but by the end of the 1920s, the world was, once more, as stable as it ever was.
The Great Plague and its aftermath scotched both the ruinous interlocking alliances that would have led to the Great War and the Great Depression. That, in turn, effectively prevented the Second World War. So, then, the imperial system persisted, generations after its demise in the player characters world. Needless to say, it evolved, as did international friendships and enmities, but the 2004 of this world in some ways may look distinctly storybookish to the bemused castaways, if they squint a little.
Science, technology, and demographics plainly suffered badly as a result of the Plague and Unrest—and seem never to have recovered completely. The state of the art in most fields, and the population in most regions, would not look out of place in the 1920s and 1930s of the newcomers world. Partly this can be explained by the devastation of nearly a century ago, but even so, things should be farther along than they are. Why, then, arent they?
The Great Plague
In the early twentieth century, people were fairly inured to lethal epidemics; in the real world, the flu of 1918 killed millions of people in the US alone. The Great Plague, however, was fundamentally different. It was deadly enough in its own right, but what made it the object of terror rather than concern were its sudden and seemingly complete omnipresence and the visible transformation it worked on many of the survivors.
Significantly altering the skin, skull, facial features, brain, and gonads of a human being—and especially doing so quickly—requires enormous energy. Starvation, dehydration, or raging fever probably killed most of the Plagues direct victims. The results of the alteration, though, were bizarre, to say the least, especially to a world still in the grip of Victorian values. In general, there are three basic elements that distinguish altered individuals from one another and from unaltered humans: the fur, the tail, and the head.
The former is actually modified human body hair, growing out of modified human skin. In normal human skin, only about ten percent of the hair follicles are active at any given time; the other ninety percent are resting. In the furry skin, the proportion is reversed. The pseudo-fur may end just before any set of knuckles on the extremities—which knuckles depends on the individual. It may be plain or patterned with stripes, spots, or both, and may contain any typical animal colors from white through various earth tones to black.
The tail, if present, may reach as far as the bottom of the calves—or it may be knee-length, mid-thigh-length, or even shorter. If present, fur may be short or long, coarse or fine, and there may or may not be a tuft at the end. The initial transformed survivors did not sprout tails; it was only the second and subsequent generations that were born with them.
The head is more complicated. While the crown and back of the skull does not vary much from baseline human parameters, the face and ears do. Each may be vaguely suggestive of some type of animal, but they may not necessarily match one another or the fur patterning or coloring. The ears are mounted slightly higher on the head than a mainstream humans and are tipped outward. The profile of the ear may be altered to accommodate this placement.
The animal-like facial features tend to be highly stylized and generalized, so that one cannot pinpoint a single model species. Instead, they tend to be archetypical. In general, there is a short half-muzzle; the skull and jaw are modified to exaggerate the nose and mouth area, pushing it forward notably more than in unmodified humans. To balance this, most muzzled people have occipital buns—the skull extends relatively far back of the spine.
The Current State of the World
While its true that European imperialism still dominates the world, things are not quite as the player characters may assume them to be. Conditions still vary widely from place to place, of course, but the system has evolved significantly since the bad old days of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The exigencies of the post-Plague years culminated in a somewhat less restrictive relationship between an imperial power and its possessions. The former cooperated to an unprecedented degree in policing one anothers colonies where needed—whoever had the resources on the spot. The precedent of intervention was set, and while the imperial powers viewed it strictly as a temporary measure, the colonies—especially those who benefited from more benign treatment than they ordinarily got—hung on tenaciously to that precedent.
By now it is a tradition, and the imperial powers are more careful to treat their colonies relatively well, lest those colonies entreat another power to intervene, effectively voting with their feet. Even if this didnt spark a wider war, nobody wants the loss of prestige or of resources such moves would entail. In return, the colonies get the benefit of European investment. This worlds twentieth century was, aside from the Plague and Unrest, less tumultuous than the real worlds, and where infrastructure exists, it is reasonably solid.
The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well. Europe keeps its hands off on pain of the displeasure of the United States; the few other military and political powers in the world have more pressing issues. Britain has some minor influence, thanks to lingering ties to Canada, but thats about the extent of it.
Canada is vast and thinly settled, nearly all of it wilderness outside the few cities and extensive farmlands. It is a dutiful daughter of the Empire, peaceful and unremarkable, and is on the same ambivalent terms with its more powerful southern neighbor as in the real world: politically friendly, culturally slightly resentful.
The United States is not a global superpower, but in its own bailiwick—the Americas—it cannot be challenged. Though its army has few obligations beyond security of the Mexican border, and thus is small and of moderate quality, its navy and marines are unequalled. Even so, the US rarely attempts to influence policies elsewhere unless it has an immediate interest. A strong, self-sufficient industrial and agricultural economy allows the nation to coast along; immigration is relatively small and controlled not out of active isolationism but because there is little interest in heavy influxes from the rest of the world. Without the pressure cooker of the Second World War, the West Coast remained sparsely populated and the US did not emerge as the powerhouse of innovation it became in the real world.
After French abandonment of the Panama Canal debacle, the idea of a Central American canal languished—but only for a few years; the need was too pressing. When the United States inevitably stepped up, alternatives were studied. The route that finally won approval was quite a bit longer, but avoided tall mountains and took advantage of Lake Nicaragua. Panama remained part of Colombia, since the US had no need to foment revolution there to generate an independent state.
Instead, the US used promises of security and prosperity to entice Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica into resurrecting the (short-lived) Central American Federation of the mid-nineteenth century. Security was guaranteed in blood by the Battle of the Caribbean Sea, where the US Navy annihilated a poorly integrated flotilla cobbled together by several of the European powers uncomfortable with Yanqui machinations. Prosperity inevitably mushroomed once the canal opened; it was not long before busy, thriving trade ports dotted the coast of Lake Nicaragua as well as the ocean coasts near the canal mouths.
Of course, the smaller nations patron carefully avoided mention of the equally inevitable cost. It is a rough and ready place, corrupt wherever the government does not directly control trade, and a den of intrigue and black markets. It is a great melting pot, with adventurers from around the world coming to make their fortune. It also exports large quantities of rubber and produce to the US. This well-developed source has made the US less dependent upon its Pacific properties.
Mexico thus is caught between two prosperous countries, neither of which really wants much to do with it. As a result, it is a large anarchistic mess. Its nominal government holds real power only in Mexico City and the larger coastal towns. Warlords and local despots run everything else. Attempts to build a railroad between the US and the CAF failed due to extensive banditry and Mexican resentment—the former almost certainly exacerbated by the latter. These have led to a rather hot border with both the United States and the Central American Federation, but Mexico really isnt much of a threat to anyone. Since Pancho Villa—who made waves in this world as well—the US has demonstrated its willingness to send armies into Mexico to annihilate errant bandit kings.
The United States has also maintained economic domination of Cuba, which is in fact doing well. Havana is a lively place, a tourist destination, and the major source of sugar for the US.
Most of South America is a backwater. Brazil is a virtual nonentity; its rain forest remains intact and almost completely unknown. Argentinas only importance is as an exporter of beef and lamb. Most of the other nations on the continent are similarly of minor account. Chile, however, prospers and is the most powerful South American state. Chilean leaders and ambassadors are busy in Europe, the Central American Federation, and the United States, and adeptly protect their interests.
The United States keeps a close eye on the few remaining colonial possessions here and in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. The US would love nothing better than to kick the European powers out, but so far—thanks to careful diplomacy on the part of those powers, especially after the Battle of the Caribbean Sea—lacks an excuse to do so.
Europe remains at the forefront of technical advancement and political activity. Thats where the global power-brokering occurs; thats where the high-level action is.
Russia never suffered the Bolshevik Revolution. Once the incompetent Nicholas died of the plague, Anastasia became tsarina and began a series of major reforms that satisfied the Russian populace. Russia remains a monarchy (Tsar Alexandr Romanov is currently on the throne), with stern authoritarian internal policies—but the people of Russia enjoy better conditions than they ever had previously, and feel strong national pride. Russia did not suffer from the plague as badly as the more densely populated portions of Europe, and has emerged as a healthy (if autocratic) nation. Russia maintains a strong defense, wary of perceived European jealousy of the Ukrainian breadbasket. How deserved this wariness is remains a matter of debate.
As a result of this, Ottoman Turkey has re-emerged as a regional player and become a power broker, though not a major power itself. The Balkans have managed to retain enough unity under the threat of Turkish expansionism to avoid internal bloodshed, but this is a dynamic stability that could come apart under the right pressures.
In Southeast Asia, the major trade hubs are Hong Kong and Singapore. China has become somewhat isolationist, and has forbidden contact at any place other than Hong Kong (much like 1600s Japan required trade to be at Nagasaki only). Macao has been retaken by China and closed to foreigners. The United States has taken control of Hong Kong, for which they ceded the Philippines to Britain. This has served to heal relations to some extent between China and Britain (China remembers who introduced opium), and gives Britain access to the resources of the Philippines (something it needs more than Hong Kong). The trade route between Hong Kong and Singapore is a very busy one, heavily pirated and heavily patrolled both in sea and air.
The Ottoman Empire continues to dodder along, mostly on sheer momentum. With the death of Ibn Saud during the Plague, there was no organized resistance in the Arabian Peninsulas interior to Ottoman claims, but given the regions inhospitable climate and terrain, the borders remain somewhat tenuous. Several times the Ottomans have attempted to break the Empire out of its somnolence, usually by picking a fight with Persia, which generally ends indecisively, or with Britain, which has resulted in the Sinai becoming a no-mans-land of military bases and barbed wire.
Oil was discovered in the Persian Gulf shortly before the Plague, though nobody realizes the full extent of the fields. Sporadic Ottoman and Persian development efforts have seen mixed results; even the successes have been limited. Without Arab oil to focus the worlds attention or to lend status, Islam has not spread much outside North Africa, the Persian Gulf region, and south Asia.
Japans military forces are small but of high quality, as demonstrated by their conquest of Korea. China, wary of Japanese ambitions, is turning Manchuria into a fortress. Russia, on the other hand, with its westward and inward focus, has built only a moderate military presence centered in Vladivostok.
China still claims sovereignty over both Mongolia and Tibet. The West cares little about events in such isolated lands, still regarded as fantastic places of mystery. Some of the inhabitants, however, care a great deal, resulting in the occasional desultory insurrection and military response.
Control of the Spratley and Paracel archipelagoes off the coast of French Indochina (Viet Nam) has become a serious bone of contention due to the discovery of oil in the area. Claims made by the Netherlands (via Indonesia), China, France, Britain (via the Philippines), and Japan are leading to a buildup of naval forces. What with competing interests elsewhere, the European powers lack the military influence to enforce their claims from their colonies, and so often resort to political lets you and him fight maneuvering instead. War may not be far off.
As it traditionally has been in the real world, Australia is boisterous, sparsely inhabited, agrarian, and unconcerned with outside doings unless they have a direct impact.
Africa remains largely the colonial pie it was sliced into during the feeding frenzy of the late nineteenth century. Since the continent never suffered the population explosion seen in the real world, its interior is still the thinly settled dark continent of market hunters, intrepid philanthropic physicians, and brightly garbed or nearly naked tribes. The coasts are somewhat better developed in places—notably in Nigeria, as a result of the Nigerian Affair of the 1960s.
The Plague nearly wiped out the garrison of Gibraltar. Morocco seized it—if for no other reason than to keep it from Spanish control—and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. That nation easily won the brief war that erupted, and the resulting treaty exchanged token Moroccan reparations for permanent Spanish cession of the enclaves. Relations remain frosty to this day; the respective navies constantly engage in cat-and-mouse games in the Straits.
Morocco reached a less acrimonious accord with Britain: Gibraltar stayed in Moroccan hands, but as part of a much-ballyhooed mutual-defense pact the British were allowed to establish a major airship base on the southern side of the Straits, on the seized Ceutan lands outside of Tangiers. The subsequent good relationship with Britain has advanced Moroccan standing in the Mediterranean Sea. Casablanca is a thriving seaport, rowdy and busy.
Tripoli and Cairo are very busy as well—the latter in particular, given its proximity to the Suez Canal. An Ottoman attempt to stir up trouble with the hope that Cairo and the Canal would fall into its lap was forestalled by a vigorous British response. The Sinai Peninsula became a buffer zone dotted with British military bases, collectively considered one of the worst postings in the Empire.
Ethiopia successfully resisted European conquest. The western European powers in general, and Britain (currently ruled by King Andrew Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) in particular, now view it as a useful buffer state to keep at least a small part of the Ottoman Empires and Russias attention focused south rather than west. Its military is not large, but it is better equipped and trained than one might expect. Ω
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