Often, the simplest answers are the best.
In the case of SCEs, I think what makes them unique is their diversity.
Okay, so I have really been thinking about Sovereign Corporate Entities and what they bring to the table in The Difference Equation (per my last post). I asked for a couple idea on what I could do to make my Corporations different than all the others out there in transhuman and cyberpunk games -- and the suggesitons I got were fantastic. Thanks to Ben, Jason and Sootch. They each game me an idea, and each was quite different. Initially I waffled back and forth on which one to adopt - and then the easy answer hit me - why adopt just one?
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One of the problems I see with the corps in Shadowrun and Eclipse Phase is that they feel very monolithic - which makes sense for those settings. In both cases, the authorial voice wants you to believe the MegaCrosp are bad things, or at the very least, sleazy. I don't want to automatically evoke that same sentiment with the corps of TDE. Instead, I want the corporations to be rogue actors that operate outside the bounds of conventional power politics. They have seats at the table, sure, but it doesn't mean they are playing by the same rules or even striving for the same goal. Similarly, and importantly, no two SCE will look quite the same.
One corp is going to be an integrated hive-mind with distinct personalities embedded into the various branches. Another is going to be a para-statal, with ambitions to develop the same power and influences of the traditional states. Another will test the boundaries of what it is to be "family." In every case, they will have very different approaches to pretty much the same endgame - survival and the accumulation of wealth.
The thing that binds the SCEs into a distinct group is the fact that at some point in the history of TDE each one of the SCEs garnered enough influence to demand a seat at the UN. Nothing would have been given to the SCEs, especialy not at first. Instead, they would have had to bribe, cajole, and intimidate the traditional member states of the UN into allowing a very different actor the same rights and responsibilities of the rest of the group. I imagine this was a tumultuous and very controversial decision - and probably only reasonable in the wake of major social upheaval -- perhaps something like a major population crash? Perhaps.
So, thats it. In the wake of the massive human dieback, the first one or two SCEs had the resources to make some major contributions to stabilizing the ecosystem -- and eventually get humanity on an upward trend (not in terms of population, in terms of general social development). At a time when the States and their allies were weakest, a handful of corporations were strongest. At that point, when the States and the UN apparatus had the least ability to say no, the first SCEs demanded new rights and representation -- and the nation states would not have been in a position to say "no."
Thus was born the new sovereign entities.