My Science Fiction Universe Worldbuilding

A recent project I’ve started demanded that I create a universe that follows some sort of logical consistency. I’ve always felt the intrigue and excitement of mystery and discovery is a lot more fun if the outcomes are plausible, rather than random. So I buckled down and decided I would do my best with some science fiction universe worldbuilding.

My first step was to identify what my design needs were.

Design Needs

The purpose of this universe is to serve as the setting for a game I am currently designing. I started my design by creating a list of needs that my game required of my universe. The list I ended up with was something like this:

  • Trade: The game needs an economy where trade is necessary.
  • Travel: The game needs a way for a ship to get from one end of a system to the other, and for a ship to get from one end of the universe to the other.
  • Ship Durability: There are moments in science fiction where someone finds that decade-old ship, and it still works. I love those moments, and need to allow for them to happen in this game.
  • Freedom: The game needs to allow the player freedom to travel to most places (though some locations will act like gated communities)
  • Discovery: The game needs to allow for some discovery

There is a much bigger list of design needs for this game, but those five will do for now. After all, the universe will support the game, but isn’t the game itself.

This first draft of a drawing will serve as the foundation for the “Ship Sheet”, similar to a character sheet, for the game.

Big Questions

In my mind, it makes sense to go to the big questions next. These questions usually include alien life, FTL travel, etc. I’ve tried to keep my design needs in mind as I’ve answered these questions below.

Who are the main inhabitants of this universe?

Humans. It has to be humans. I think it’s incredibly hard to design a game without giving the player something they can connect with. In the case of space games (and fantasy), humans are one of the easiest ways to help the player feel immersed. So humans are the main inhabitants of the universe.

Are there aliens?

This is the next obvious question. I think the answer is yes. Discovery is one of the design needs I have for this game, and a universe without alien life would, I think, take away from the joy of discovery.

Specifically, I think that non-intelligent life will be heard of, but not super common in the universe. Intelligent life will exist, though I’m not sure in what capacity. I probably don’t want non-humans walking around in spaceports. I would much rather have intelligent life be rumored about at the edge of the galaxy.

How does space travel work?

There are two items I want to address in this answer. First, I want ships to be durable. It’s the future, so I would like ships to be made out of some sort of ever-enduring metal/ceramic/plastic hybrid. That way, if a ship is found on an asteroid after a century of abandonment, or underwater after decades of submersion, the materials are strong enough to withstand most minor impacts and any other elemental concerns.

Second, I don’t want ships to worry about fuel. The game will have an economy, but I don’t want the tension to revolve around fuel supply. If I feel the economy needs some sort of currency sink, I can rely on ship repairs to supply this.

Is there Faster Than Light Travel?

I don’t think so. I don’t want players the option of “jumping to hyperspace” every time a space pirate shows up. Of course I could make rules about the mass of nearby objects and how faster than light travel only works if the “runway is clear” so to speak…but that gets a bit complex.

I think I like the idea of wormholes that act like gates. Wormholes would present a pathway from one star system to the next. In fact, some wormholes would be mostly stable, presenting a good trade route. Others might be less stable and more risky to take.

Is this a continuation of our universe, or a new, unrelated universe?

I think this will be a continuation of our universe. For the game I’m designing, that feels right. How much time has passed from “now” to when the player starts playing the game, I’m not sure. Probably quite a bit, I don’t think I want “travel to Earth” to be an option for the player.

I’m sure there are other big questions I could answer, but at this point I think I’m ready to move on.

The History of Humanity

My universe is a future extension of the one we live in, and humans are the central species. It makes sense to me that my next step is to create a broad-strokes view of what happens in the coming thousand or so years, which allows humanity to broadly colonize many star systems in the universe. Here’s the timeline I’ve come up with.

A Rough Timeline

  • 2050: Humans begin to take to the solar system, setting  up science gathering missions, then resources, then colonies. Improvements in metal, ceramics, plastics, and propulsion result in ships that can literally sit in space, or on a surface, for decades, and still be space-ready. Governments, organizations, spiritual and religious folk, wealthy individuals, businesses, and even those outside the realm of the law all take to the stars. Evidence of alien microbial life has been discovered in the solar system.
    • Any undamaged ships, regardless of age, should be space ready.
    • Sensors Level 0: Can map space with “markers”, and detect large bodies or nearby bodies
  • 2094: With the solar system “mapped”, everyone is startled when a ship disappears completely from the solar system. It’s there – then it’s gone.
  • 2095: The reason for the disappearing ship is discovered – a wormhole!
  • 2096: Scientists scramble for wormhole detection, and to understand what they do.
  • 2101: The first ship successfully enters the wormhole, and returns. This was done by deploying markers near the entrance to the wormhole “on the other side.”
  • 2102: The first humans successfully enter the wormhole, and return.
  • 2104: Humans begin expanding through the wormhole into the second system, following the pattern of: science gathering, resource gathering, and colonies. Disappearances also mark this time period, as 1-2% of ships never reach their destination. While it’s a serious and intriguing problem, no one has answers.
  • 2105: The Censia disappears, among a few other ships this year.
  • 2108: The Censia reappears, with an amazing story. Wormhole sensor technology was coming along. Earth’s solar system had been searched, and there was just the one wormhole. The Censia was meant to explore the second system for wormholes – but it never arrived. Instead, it was sent to a different system. To survive, the crew of the Censia were able to ration (severely) their food. Without markers, they had to analyze the system for wormholes, found 3 (and the one they came from), and entered it, hoping it would send them back to Earth’s system. It did. This resulted in three huge changes.
    • First, the discovery that all previous “lost” ships were probably in a different system somewhere.
    • Second, the discovery that Earth’s wormhole could lead to more than one place.
    • Ships from now on were fitted with wormhole sensors.
    • Sensor Level 1: Can detect wormholes.
  • 2111: Exploration and colonization into the second system continues, but is still plagued with disappearances. A few make epic returns like The Censia, but most are never seen again.
  • 2115: A researcher who served on the crew of The Censia, Stefanie London, makes a chilling discovery: Ships are getting lost through the wormhole at a greater rate. At this point, every ship made is made with Sensor Level 1.
  • 2120: Enough “lost” ships have returned with data from the system they were sent to, that these other systems begin to get mapped.
  • 2125: Stefanie London has enough data to announce that Earth’s wormhole is now in flux. What used to be a sure path to the second system, is now barely above 70%. She predicts this trend will continue for decades.
  • 2130: Pilots begin “wormhole skipping” – traveling back and forth until they get to the system they want. A small percentage are still lost. Humans have expanded greatly into 1 system, and have footholds in 2 others. Complex life forms have been reported in some systems.
  • 2131: A chilling short story is published and goes viral. In the story, a passenger ship that is “wormhole skipping” ends up skipping out of a wormhole and into a sun, killing everyone aboard. The public’s attention is morbidly captured as a fictional explanation has been offered about why some ships never reach their destination.
Imagine this being the last thing you see.
  • 2136: Stefanie London releases a theory that Earth’s wormhole path to the first system discovered may soon be closed forever. This ushers a panic, as a flood of contract workers flow back into Earth’s system, and a flood of supplies flow into the second system.
  • 2138: London’s theory is proved correct, as in February the last ship on record makes it to Earth’s system from the other one. No other ship is able to reach that system, as far as anyone knows. Humanity collectively shudders at how little they know about the universe. There is a growing sentiment of anti-wormhole travel for a few years, but the intense amount of opportunity that wormholes offer wins out the public.
  • 2140: A wormhole in another system finds a path connecting it to a third system which has already been colonized, foregoing reliance on Earth’s wormhole for travel between any two systems.
  • 2159: An older Stefanie London announces the most important, and challenging discovery, in her life. She discovers and announces that Earth’s wormhole is actually closing in on itself. The data is clear. Prior to her announcement, she sends her work, and many of her students, to other systems outside of Earth’s. She is unsure Earth will ever have a wormhole again, but vows to stay with her home system. Her news is reacted to differently by everyone. Some don’t believe. Some try to suppress the news. Others panic. Some plan.
  • 2161: The last known ship arrives at their location from Earth’s system. Earth’s system becomes unreachable. This has two major consequences.
    • Earth can no longer be relied on by colonies. Some colonies are unsustainable and die. Others never receive the shipments they need. Some survive.
    • Earth was the connecting system. Only a few systems found paths to one another. Many systems are never heard from again.
    • A third, minor consequence: One system renames itself Gaea, and establishes itself as “second Earth.”
  • 2173: One of Stef London’s prodigies, Mohamed Manu, has made a major discovery. “Strands” are discovered on the inside of wormholes. Strands can be identified and matched with systems, which can tell you what systems are possible to reach via this wormhole.
    • Sensors Level 2: Sensors can detect wormhole strands. If a strand ID database is available, they can match strands to system IDs.

It’s not perfected, but that’s what I have so far. I imagine that beyond 2173, ships will eventually be fitted with wormhole navigation tools, that make wormhole travel 99% safe. However, this technology might only be available to the richest systems in the universe.

What This Universe Affords Me

I think I will stop there for now. I am quite excited about the underlying structure of this universe, and the history I have come up with. The way this universe has grown, gives me a few advantages for the game.

Advantage 1: Discovery

There are a few elements of this universe that greatly help with the idea of discovery. First, the idea of lost ships. Wormholes are not 100% reliable, and there are many ships that have been lost over the centuries. Second, ship durability. Many ships will undoubtedly act as time capsules for their final moments. Finally, the wormholes themselves. Because the wormholes are fickle, there will be many lost colonies scattered hopelessly among the stars.

Advantage 2: Sidestepping Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law, which observes the doubling rate of transistors in computer circuitry, has also been generally applied to the exponential advancements in technology. Given 1000 years of unimpeded technological progress, the inventions by the year 3000 are unimaginable. This makes writing sci fi that far into the future tough to do.

Instead, since wormholes are fickle and establishing trade is challenging and scientific knowledge often needs to be physically passed from system to system, advancements in technology in my universe are often impeded. Sometimes, complete restarts of projects or wormhole theories are necessary.

Therefore, it’s not absurd to think that, by 2732, there wouldn’t necessarily be significant advancement in wormhole technology from 2173.

Advantage 3: No FTL

One other thing that comes to mind about the lack of faster than light travel, is news! Because news wouldn’t be immediately transmitted across the cosmos, entering a wormhole to a new system could be a very exciting affair! Finding out the latest news for that system, and sharing news from the system the player came from, I think can be pretty fun. I want news to be part of the game.

Advantage 4: Exciting Moments

The history of my science fiction universe isn’t complete yet, but already there are a ton of exciting moments that could serve for dramatic gameplay. The surprising return of the Censia could be mirrored by any other number of ships, captained or crewed by players. Wormhole skipping has disaster written all over it. Finding a ship lost from wormhole skipping, or a colony cut off from everything else can hold amazing moments of gameplay.

Like I said, I’m excited at the ideas I’ve come up with so far.

Next Steps

So what are my next steps?

Well, I have the skeleton of my game ready, and I’m running internal playtests. There are a few more mechanics and locations I want to add. Then, I’m going to do some more world-building for each location.

The worldbuilding I’ve shared above will help me ground each of my locations. It will help me answer some origin questions. For example, Aon-4:

  • Where did the angular ruins on the surface come from?
  • Why was a starport built to orbit the planet?
  • When was the starport built?
  • Who built the starport?

I also am curious to explore the idea of companies, organizations, and even nations that originated on Earth, but have fractured through wormhole space after being cut off from Earth, and then cut off again.

For example, a religious organization that requires a daily sacrificial ritual involving goats, might have originated on Earth (thanks for the idea, Star Smuggler). Maybe it’s spread to two systems before the wormhole shifted, cutting it off from its source.

Poor guys.

In the first system, the organization may have been lead by a pragmatic leader. The organization shifts the meaning of “sacrifice” to “donating a personal good”, and becomes a favored charity in the system.

In the second system, the organization may have been lead by a fanatic. The organization shifts to any sacrifice involving mammals, including beasts of burden, pets, and perhaps eventually humans. The organization becomes feared throughout the system.

How would these organizations react if they were reunited? How will a player interact with them? Will a player recognize the similarities among the two versions of the organization, and guess at its origins?

Having an answer to these questions that makes logical sense in this specific system, and the universe as a whole, will allow me to add fun details in the game that makes everything feel just a bit more real.

At this point, I have a good starting point for the universe. The next time I pick up this project I’ll be worldbuilding each location within the universe, as well as a few businesses and organizations.

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