It’s hard to summarize a planet without falling into what Pierce Fraser described as “frozen planet syndrome,” one planet is a ball of ice, the next an endless desert. So here’s a few keywords that might open up some of Mars’s major themes.
If we use “Mars” and “MarsCo” interchangeably here, that’s okay. So do Vectors.
For a relatively small planet, Mars is big. Geologically it has some phenomenal assets—the solar system’s biggest canyon, tallest mountain, deepest trenches, biggest crater. Its low gravity lets Mars grow upward: trees can grow a half mile high, and architects regularly plan buildings that stretch two or more miles. Even the sky seems big: Mars’s atmosphere scales at about twice earth’s atmosphere, leading to towering clouds that stretch a hundred miles high and reflect light long after the sun sets.
Mapping Mars is challenging: the Pangea-like supercontinent defies paper maps, particularly since Marsco builds both up and down. It’s big. It’s ancient, complex, dangerous, and…big. The starting point and dramatic ending of the hero’s quest, and maybe the journey into the underworld, too. There’s even gladiatorial battles to the death. By any metric, Mars defines “epic.”
With the exception of upstart “megacorp” Lumen, every current megacorp got its start on Mars. Okay, TTI really came of age on Europa, but its origins are solidly on Mars. That’s where it launched its crowdfunding campaign.
Mars has dusty ancient crypts to raid in spades: the genetic archives on Phobos, the labs where the first Vectors were decanted, the secret histories in Genesis’s database, dead and haunted corptowns, hidden troves of Terran data, the secret towers that hold Ledger algorhythms, the strange data black hole that is the Cog’s virtual afterlife…700 years (if that number is accurate) is a lot of history.
On Terra, 700 years spans the birth of the English language, most of the reformations that shaped modern western religion, and technological innovations like the printing press, steam and internal combustion engines, harnessing electricity, and all the dozens of advances in communication that have accelerated our world. And almost all of those 700 years were made with the full weight of Terran technology behind them (plus whatever happened between the year 2000 and the end of life on earth.) History may continue at its current breakneck pace for quite some time.
Not only is Mars old, it is the ultimate authority on history. In a sense, Sol’s Marsco has defined time in Sol. If we’re still on the Terran calendar, it’s to add Terra’s historical legacy to Mars’s grandeur—or to obscure something under the calendar pages.
See above: Everything began on Mars. The Megacorps, Vectors, Cogs…anything that predates Mars is rumor and campaign secrets. And as the home of most of the Vector race, it’s likely where your characters began their lives. But in a setting that references the blank spaces on ancient maps in its title, there’s not a lot of white space left on Mars. MarsCo’s control over technology, information, secrets, and the economy is strongest on its homeworld. It’s a good place to begin the journey, but maybe not the best place for the journey itself.
MarsCo is eternal: it’s definitely jot somethign that will change in a day. But it, and its child corporation ASR, draw much of their power from slowing and regulating culture and technology—they’re gatekeepers, better at throwing on the breaks than speeding forward.
Many stories on Mars are about ancient grudges and conspiracies. The entire planet is trapped in time as an “Eden,” but if you know your bible, you know that every Eden is a place to leave, not stay. They’re too perfect and eternal for conflict and stories.
Much of Mars, perhaps all of Mars, is owned and explored. It’s a small planet. Very little happens to change the map without MarsCo’s approval, and it’s not likely to upset its profitable status quo. Mars and MarCo are synonymous, and Big M can turn a profit without taking any action at all. Why change?
For all its epic scale, there’s little room left on the map of Mars. The world has built upwards and downwards, creating structures so big the average vector spends the majority of their lives in a single building. Surveillance is constant: except in the most destitute slum or most exclusive residence, cameras are everywhere. Finances are continually tracked, personal data is continually recorded. It’s very hard to keep secrets or find true privacy on the red planet. The major cities are terrifyingly crowded, dense cores packed with mile-high apartment blocks. If there was something like a mass evacuation from a nuclear or post-nuclear threat, or an unexpected celebrity appearance down the road, the crush of bodies would be terrifying.
Mars sits at the edge of the convenient solar system. Sure, there’s Jupiter and its moons, but they’re outliers, more than three times the distance from Mars to the sun. As such, Mars stands as the gateway to the outer ring.
Every major corporation has offices on Mars—usually in the Vale, which is huge, but still a single zip code. That, and the manufacturing and shipping hubs of Olympus Mons and Phobos, are the commerce, manufacturing, and social hubs of Sol. Sooner or later, every person, every idea…and every threat…come to Mars.
Whatever Terra was, Mars is. At the final years of the Mars/Terra conflict, every major corporation (and certainly every corporation that survived the holocaust) threw its lot in with MarsCo. And while the early colonists of Mars were scientists and researchers, the Hemivector refugee wave brought Gods only know how much of their culture with them. Some of it took roots in Mars’s red soil. Some didn’t. That’s really a GM call.
Mars itself, particularly in its older cities, preserved and reflects human culture. The ecology is an adaptation of the flora and fauna of earth, and Mars’s terraforming was overseen by humans building a new home for their children, whatever shape they would ultimately take. The architecture of Mars reflects human designs and ideals. Much of Mars contains a reflection of the world that was, and humanity’s legacy still lives, though perhaps in cold storage.
Big M may do many things well, but it is not an innovator. It acquires, repurposes, and above all, recycles. This is most observably true in fashion and entertainment (certainly, MarsCo hasn’t created a new sitcom in 650 years. Applying recombinant DNA concepts to television scripts had been in practice on Terra long before the bombs fell.) But beyond cultural and physical technology, even history can be recycled, as the current conspiracy theory of Phantom Time suggests. The secret masters may have invented entire centuries wholecloth, copy-pasting old dates, adding 400 or 700, changing the names and locations and filing off serial numbers. Nobody’s the wiser. How much of the Vectors’ history was procedurally generated?
It’s hard to spin this one out into a mini-essay, it’s too easy. But Mars is owned by a single organization, and exists in a haze of bribes, microtransactions, and corporate laws written to protect the corporation that writes every law. The Vale is its own law and culture, and may exist in something like a corporate hands-off zone, but even then the culture has been festering for over 700 years. Every century adds its own layer of CYA to a deep pile of the stuff. Wheels within wheels, all needing a certain amount of grease to keep spinning.
There are areas of Mars that are barely mappable. The dark and complex Noctis Labyrinth, the tunnels left by Mars’s terraforming, Phobos’s architectural catastrophe…but even in a city, a megastructure can have hundreds of thousands of stories, bedrooms, secrets, rivalries. That’s a social labyrinth.
Mars builds down and recycles. That’s a pattern that likely leaves some secrets buried in the rock and soil. When a building is demolished, what pains are taken to fill the warrens underneath? A single badly-informed subcontractor is all that’s needed to create what is effectively a dungeon. And then if it takes more than a few layers of bureaucracy to track down the paperwork, there’s no telling how many secrets have been accidentally buried.
MarsCo itself is a labyrinth. No one book could document even a small fraction of its organizational structure. There are multiple boards of directors, a concept that should never exist in plural, operating independently and in secret, governed by an ancient artificial intelligence that is best served by creating clouds of obfuscation and confusion. Bureaucracy is perhaps the biggest labyrinth of all…think of the “fun” that could be had trying to track down legal ownership of a luxurious estate in the Vale, willed to the PCs by a deceased benefactor.