By Peter Freeman and Jim Webster
The Gaean Reach is a fictional setting created by author Jack Vance and developed across a series of loosely connected novels. It exists in the far future and can be defined as those parts of our galaxy in which human colonies have become established. The scope of the Gaean Reach varies between novels, growing large over a timeline of several millennia at least.
The Gaean Reach is not an exact concept and appears to have its genesis in the first novel of the Demon Princes series, Star King (1964), in which human space is divided into the Oikumene, a loose federation of planets, and the lawless Beyond. The term itself first appears in the Alastor series and has since become Vance’s standard science fiction/fantasy universe. Many of his major works, including the Chronicles of Cadwal and the three Alastor books are set in the Gaean Reach universe, as are his most recent books, such as Ports of Call. Other books, most notably the Planet of Adventure Series are more loosely associated with the Gaean Reach, containing no specific references but apparently following the same time frame and internal logic.
This is a rational universe, unlike much of Vance’s work, containing no magic or inexplicable phenomena, but the books are not hard science fiction, with technical detail used only to support the story rather than for its own sake. The focus is on character and story-telling. Perhaps the most notable feature of the Gaean Reach, and one of Vance’s strong points, is the sheer scale and variety of human society, both that encountered by the protagonists of the various novels and hinted at in the rich background that is always a part of his work. Thus we see Earth itself and other long inhabited planets as ancient, hyper- civilized societies whose inhabitant are cultivated and specialized to an extraordinary degree, and in sharp contrast new, raw worlds, planets settled by monomaniac cults or forgotten and reverted to barbarity, along with very point between.
The books are also full of classic Vancian motifs; the remote intellectual, the terrifying virago, the swaggering bully, and the skilled but flawed hero. Characterization is always strong, perhaps even unnecessarily detailed in books such as Night Lamp, and even minor characters are usually distinctive, created with few but skilled strokes. Settings are equally rich, and Vance shows extraordinary skill in creating atmosphere with a minimal use of words.
The Gaean Reach as a Game Setting
Whilst the Gaean Reach shares with the Dying Earth the classic characters and the almost infinite variety of human societies, unlike the Dying Earth, the Reach has within it a concept of Law. There is within the Oikumene, a shared overarching legality to which individual worlds add their own particular eccentricities. Also, unlike in the Dying Earth, the law is not a set of regulations which appear to have been concocted for the sole purpose of extorting money out of the innocent stranger, but instead they appear to have been set up to ensure the smooth running of society. Indeed this respect for law as necessary to bind society together can be seen even in the Beyond, where on Planets such as Brinktown “the magistrates are assassins, the civil guard arsonists, extortioners and rapists, the elders of the council, bordello owners. But civic affairs proceeded with a punctilio and gravity worthy of the Grand Sessions at Borugstone.”
It has to be admitted that the law is often portrayed as slow and dependent entirely upon the initiative of individuals to function properly, and in many cases the protagonist has to work outside the law to ensure that the law functions. So as an RPG background it is rather different from the Dying Earth. Whereas there characters always drift through the scenarios, interacting as whim and fancy takes them, secure in the knowledge that the problems they encounter in one locality will not pursue them to the next, in the Gaean reach the characters may have long term goals, aims and objectives that they work towards. They may perhaps be Effectuators, or affiliates of the Interstellar Police Coordinating Committee (IPCC). There is also a far greater emphasis on investigation and solving mysteries that might take several sessions to unravel. However, morality is still loosely defined, and the law open to flexible interpretation.
Still you shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking this is just another detective RPG set in space, or another Space Opera role playing game. The richness of the settings, the vast array of cultures and races, each with their own bewildering customs and traditions ensure that this is a setting unlike any other. This is not a background where NPCs exist purely to provide clues for the next stage of the adventure, instead, the NPCs are complex individuals, with their own aims and objectives, with whom you have to interact and that interaction may send the game off in surprising directions.