Sunday, November 17, 2013

[Urbis] The Surtus Termite

We interrupt our examination of the Pathfinder Bestiaries for a new creature which I thought up just now and need to write down before I forget it.

Explorers of the planet Surtus have encountered encountered the so-called Surtus Termites (named for their similarity in size and appearance to their Rothean equivalent) but have largely dismissed them as a nuisance, or at worst a dangerous pest. In fact, they are one of the dominant intelligent life forms on the planet. To understand how this species could be so misunderstood we must look at its life cycle.

From time to time a large and healthy hive will generate a number of fertilized females with wings. These female termites will fly as far as the wind will carry them, and then dig into a suitable location and start laying eggs in order to form a new hive. In the beginning, this hive is not too different from other insect hives, building a large mound to shelter it from the elements and predators, but as it grows larger, it becomes self-aware - intelligent. With an adult hive, the swarm intelligence is easily equal to that of a human. However, this intelligence is also fragile - if enough members of the hive are killed, it looses its intelligence and accumulated knowledge. To prevent the loss of knowledge even in the case of disaster, each hive also instinctually creates so-called "memory stacks" beneath its mound where all accumulated knowledge is encoded in physical patterns and trace chemicals the termites can decypher. The precise encoding varies from hive to hive, but genetically "related" hives tend to have similar encoding patterns. Thus, if portions of the hive are killed, it can recover over the course of days or weeks by breeding new termites and recovering the information from the memory stacks into the gestalt intelligence. Conversely, if the memory stacks are destroyed an intact hive can recreate them - but if both are damaged, the loss of knowledge will be permanent.

Each hive starts out as a "blank slate" that rapidly learns from its environment. Apart from the limitations (and advantages) of its natural form, it is fully capable of learning as much of a human being, and it is often quite a lot faster in learning new information than humans are. In Pathfinder game terms, the hive starts out as an intelligent insect swarm that can learn class levels. A swarm in a tough, hostile environment might gain ranger or fighter levels, but a swarm that observes magical phenomena might gain sorcerer levels. And a swarm that might be able to observe a wizard over a long time might become a wizard itself... (Damage will, of course, cause negative levels which are gradually healed over time if the memory stacks are available - 1 negative level removed per 3 days sounds about right.)

When encountering humans for the first time, a Surtus Termite swarm will almost certainly not have any prior knowledge of that species. It might quickly deduce that these beings are intelligent, but will not have any means of communicating with them. While it will eventually learn how to understand human language after sufficient observation, it will not be able to speak (barring use of magic or similar extreme cases). However, if it is able to observe human writing, the termites will be able to form letters.

Relationships to other intelligent beings will greatly depend on the past experiences of a particular hive. That being said, hives quickly become aware of their inherent vulnerability - they cannot disperse themselves too greatly or else they will lose their intelligence, and they cannot leave their memory stacks unguarded because doing so would risk their entire memory. Of course, the termites can come up with strategies to counteract these weaknesses - many will start maintaining multiple memory stacks at different locations (though only one will be truly "up-to-date"), and they might form some kind of symbiosis with other beings to defend their mounds. In extreme cases, hives with magical knowledge might create magical constructs as protectors.

Ultimately, Surtus Termites have little in the way of loyalty to their species as a whole - their first loyalty is always to the hive. In fact, they often get along better with other intelligent beings which do not need the same resources as they do, and newly-established young hives are often savagely attacked by older hives to prevent them from becoming rivals for the same resources. That being said, termites are fully capable of understanding trade and agreements for mutual benefit, and from time to time whole regions on Surtus develop vast networks of trade and knowledge sharing between termite hives.

Unfortunately, a certain paranoia always remains. To destroy a hive it is important to strike suddenly and hard so that it is greatly weakened for further attacks - and the hives are aware of this and use this as their attitude in warfare. They do not posture or threaten - if they determine that something threatens them, they gather as much information as they can and then strike as hard as possible. Thus, a hive always fears being betrayed by those it deals with, and the more insecure they perceive their position to be, the more likely are they to lash out to solve the problem preemptively. Larger networks of hives - "nations" of termites - can only exist because any hive that attacks another can expect to be attacked by others in turn. The relationship of individual hives with humans will also be colored by how much they see the humans as a threat to their survival and to their memory stacks.

This paranoid streak also explains why the population of termite hives on Surtus often collapses on short order - from time, their "mutual assured destruction" agreements fail, and all-out warfare devastates whole regions, with artificial bio-plagues and specially bread anti-termite life forms killing off hives in enormous numbers while the hives that originally created them have long since died. Surtus recently had such a die-off on a planetary scale, and the termite hives have only begun to recover - though the strange artifacts of the dead hives still litter the landscape.

So much for the description of the creatures themselves. But of course, I want to tie this into my Cold Frontier campaign. I've already hinted that the "Northern Desolation" possibly has gates to other planets. One such gate - to the planet Surtus - has opened recently and some fertilized females have passed through. Now new hives will begin to pop up in the Cold Frontier, and after a while the PCs will stumble across them. Nobody will know where they came from unless someone reads the right magazines about interplanetary exploration - and the hives themselves won't be able to tell them how they came to this world, since they have literally no memory of coming here. And even that assumes that the PCs will be able to establish communication with them. They are an enigma - a sign that the Cold Frontier will gradually grow stranger over time just as the PCs cement their hold on the region...