This primer is intended to help new readers quickly grasp the central ideas, themes, and shared background of Ascension Epoch.
Style and Substance
Ascension Epoch’s originators were big fans of American superhero comics, but had become increasingly disenchanted with them over the last decade. One big irritant was the inability or unwillingness of comic writers to respect continuity. A few slippages here and there are unavoidable, but the general trend was one of carelessness and even contempt for what came before. Nowadays, new stories often contradict the previous events in their own title, to say nothing of maintaining coherence with other series that supposedly take place in the same world. This trend is ultimately self-destructive. Even in a setting filled with fantastic events and people, there must still be an air of believability and sense about the world. Fictional worlds still need to be internally self consistent.
In Ascension Epoch, stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Events have an effect on the characters and the world around them – if they don’t, what’s the point of telling the story at all, let alone having a shared universe? Actions have consequences that cannot be wished away or ignored.
It’s hard to maintain continuity or self-consistency when you’re always trying to make your next antagonist more dangerous or the feats more incredible – or a character’s behavior more outrageous. This is just titillation and should not be mistaken for good storytelling. Arousing excitement is the intent, but the end result is usually tedium and farce.
Thus, we’ve toned down the power levels. Talents, magic, and advanced technology can accomplish miraculous things, but they have fairly rigorous constraints. Talents need to have sufficient ‘fuel’ to run. Most superpowers work on a relatively localized level; incomprehensible (and often dangerous) entities intervene to limit the most drastic effects. Conservation of matter and energy are obeyed, even if there are some tricks to make it look like they’ve been violated. There is no instantaneous shape-shifting, no reality altering , and no one is indestructible. Superpowers often have significant trade-offs: if someone can shrug off bullets, it’s probably because they’re in bulky armor or have super-dense tissue that makes it more difficult to move; pyrokinetics have to worry about not falling victim to heat stroke; and so on.
Not the ‘World Outside Your Window’
Another problem with fantastic fiction (it is particularly acute in American comics, but movies and novels are not immune): there were lots of brilliant and powerful people with easy access to magic and fantastic technology, but they seemed to have no effect at all on the outside world. Ascension Epoch assumes right off the bat that these things, toned down though they are, have made the world very different than the one we live in. Many places, peoples and institutions have survived, of course, but the setting is not interchangeable with reality. This is not “the world outside your window, only with giant monsters and guys flying around in tights and capes.”
By the first half of the 19th century, the world witnessed the advent of people with supernatural abilities. Unlike the hushed whispers of witches and magicians and the tricks of charlatans from previous centuries, the power demonstrated by these people was repeatable and often quite spectacular. By the 1850s, these superhumans were beginning to change the world in the roles of detectives, scientists, assassins, and warriors. The Crimean War witnessed the first battles between superhuman military units, and their role in the War of Southern Independence proved instrumental. Such individuals were even more important in the defeat of the Martian invasion at the turn of the new century.
There were many names for such individuals, but the name talent, coined by supernatural investigator Charles Fort at the end of the 19th century, has achieved preeminence. Every year, more and more talents appeared, and their abilities multiplied and increased in power. There were hundreds of theories attempting to explain how these abilities functioned and why they suddenly appeared, but no one really understood. It was as if God had just flipped a switch. By the first decades of the 21st century, as many as 5% of the entire human population may be talented.
Today, many talents command high salaries in occupations particularly suited to their abilities, while a few have used it to achieve political power, wealth, and celebrity. Only a very small fraction of them adopt disguises to engage in crime or vigilantism, but these are among the best known. The majority, however, possess abilities so marginal or erratic that they are no better off than their mundane brethren.
Aether is a metaphysical substance that seeps into the universe, the raw material from which life and reality are built. It is neither matter nor energy, time nor space, but something more fundamental. Aether eventually becomes differentiated into the aforementioned forms, and others besides. It is also the fuel for metahuman talents and magic, though usually in a somewhat adulterated form.
Raw aether is neither easily detectible nor quantifiable, and so is not known to modern science. However, the semi-differentiated form of aether called the Psychic Potential Field is both detectible and quantifiable. The PPF is not everywhere uniform and talents are often constrained in their abilities by the availability of this ‘fuel’ in the environment.
All rational creatures, and humans especially, interact with the Psychic Potential Field even if they are not Talents. Their thoughts, beliefs, fears, hopes, and aspirations all resonate with the PPF and alter its character, sometimes in significant ways. When the field is altered to the point that it starts having a feedback effect on people, altering their thoughts and moods to reflect its nature, it is called an Egregore. Egregores can even acquire enough strength to make physical changes to the local environment.
Sufficiently powerful Egregores, strengthened by the weight of long years or multitudes of people, can take on the appearance of sentience and autonomy. Such an entity is called a Tulpa. Sometimes, these Egregores bind themselves to a person or other creature, bestowing supernatural abilities on them or altering their forms and personality. These people or creatures are called Incarnates.
The Empyrean and Travel Nodes
The physical universe we are familiar with is not the totality of existence. There is a vast network of alien worlds and strange dimensions, and many of these are directly accessible from the Earth. This network of worlds is called the Empyrean and the access points are called Travel Nodes. Travel Nodes are discontinuities in time and space. Many are temporary or accessible only during certain times of the year or under particular conditions. Some require considerable amounts of energy to activate, while others are hazards that unwary travelers can ignorantly stumble into, never to find their way back. There are numerous examples of Empyrean locations referenced in the literature: Baum’s Oz, Barrie’s Neverland, Carroll’s Wonderland, Burroughs’ Pellucidar, and Fort’s concept of the “Super Sargasso Sea” are but a few examples. Travel Nodes are not as easily recognizable, but hints of their existence are sprinkled throughout the literature: the Arizona cave through which John Carter traveled to Mars, Hodgson’s House on the Borderland, the haunted riverbanks of Blackwood’s The Willows, and perhaps even the jungle passage leading to Conan Doyle’s Maple White Land.
Although the Empyrean is virtually infinite, experienced Empyreal travelers often speak of it being divided into three somewhat arbitrary ‘zones’. Those places connected directly with the Earth, and thus the ones most easily accessed and most similar to our own reality, are said to lie in the Tellurian Empyrean. The Fae primarily dwell here, and any mysterious and wonderful places like Oz are encompassed by the Tellurian Empyrean. More exotic realms beyond the bounds of the Earth and of human perception are called the Astral Empyrean. Many of these can still be reached by those who know the secrets of Empyrean travel. The deepest, most fantastic parts are called the Sublime Empyrean, and are almost entirely beyond the reach of humanity, though its denizens sometimes take an active interest in our affairs.
Mars is not the still, lifeless rock it is in our reality. It is inhabited not by one, but several intelligent races and a great diversity of non-intelligent flora and fauna. It is also at least marginally inhabitable by human beings. As far as human science knows, it has always been inhabited and habitable. Humans have never observed the Red Planet with their telescopes without being able to see liquid oceans, rivers, clouds, and swaths of vegetation.
The Martian Invasion
The Martian attack as told in the H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds actually happened, only the Martians didn’t all die from the flu in a few months, but were only defeated after a seven year war of attrition. Although overwhelmed by the invaders’ superior weaponry, mankind had several other advantages that eventually tilted the war in their favor. Besides the aforementioned terrestrial diseases, the Martians were hampered by Earth’s much higher gravity and a thicker, more humid atmosphere that wreaked havoc on their temperamental war machines. Humanity also had many early superheroes to fight the invaders, as well as a host of supernatural helpers–more covert perhaps than the talents, but ultimately more influential on the war.
A History Remade
The impact of the Martian invasion was staggering. Somewhere between 1/4th and 1/3rd of the global population was wiped out and few institutions survived intact. Political borders were redrawn all over: North America was heavily balkanized, a rump British Empire was ruled from India, and countries like Japan and Brazil became major world powers. The prevailing trend was one of political decentralization and peace – most of the world being too weak for serious warfare for almost three decades after the Martian defeat – although the situation was explosive in many areas where refugee populations collided with each other far from their ancestral homelands. While empires collapsed, the power and influence of religion, from the Catholic Church to new age cults like Vril-Ya, waxed to heights not seen since the Middle Ages. A postwar population boom and the rapid harnessing of new technologies, including the first tenuous steps toward understanding the wondrous Martian artifacts has culminated in a world that is more prosperous and advanced than our own. And, for some reason, the advent of new Talents has increased significantly.