Friday, May 25, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 5 - Putting it All Together

Once you’ve created your technological framework, you need to get it into your players’ hands. Players will interact and learn about your framework via a setting description, a gear catalog or alternate rules; optionally, they might use it during character creation (but we can treat this as a gear catalog).

Setting description is typically the most key point, as it will occur for any and all sci-fi settings, whether or not the players even have access to a gear-list. Typically, Familiar-Tech is not worth mentioning at all; it should be implied in the basic premise of “Like X but in the future.” The exception to this is Weird Safe-Tech; you don’t need to be very explicit about it, but painting the technology’s differences helps. Convenience-Tech and Standard Issue Sci-Fi Tech also doesn’t need a great deal of discussion, at least not in the setting description, as they are meant to be familiar or to simply remove problems. These tend to come across nicely in the broader descriptions of the setting itself. In short, unless it drastically changes how the characters interact with the setting beyond default assumptions, it doesn’t need to be stated outright; it can be implied instead.

Miracle-Tech definitely needs a discussion and should be set aside and highlighted. These are the technologies that largely make the setting. You should also discuss whatever limitations are in place, or any variant rules you’re using, or how people see that technology. This can and should be fairly explicit.

When it comes to a gear catalog, preface it with any sweeping mechanical changes, including the base TL, the effectiveness of power cells, special rules for handling computer programs, etc. The gear catalog, after that, should tackle only the things that matter to your game, typically things that the players will want to get for their characters. This can be as detailed as you want, and may be divided up into different markets (“This technology is available only to Alphan players; this technology is available to everyone, but Betans get a 10% discount”) and sections. Use GURPS Dungeon Fantasy or GURPS Action as a guideline.

If your campaign framework revolves around something innovative or requires substantial changes to the rules, make sure those rules are available to the players. For example, if you have detailed hacking rules, players should be able to access those so they know what it is that they need to buy.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 4 - Customize your Technology

Once we know what our baseline technology is, we can further tailor our gadgets to our setting. GURPS Ultra-Tech offers us only the most generic material. It will offer you a grav car, but not a grav ferrari or grav pinto; it’ll offer a heavy blaster and a light blaster, but not a Deagle Blaster or a 38 Special blaster. If we want more detail than “car” and “gun,” we’ll have to make it ourselves.

This step is not strictly necessary. In some cases, baseline technology is enough. Consider, for example, a high school drama set in the future: generic technology would be sufficient for capturing the futuristic feel of the game, and you could even inject some Miracle-Tech to force your high school students to wrestle with their changing world. They live in a world where “gun” and “car” is good enough.

But we’ll often find ourselves in a situation where we want more nuance to our technology. This may be because the technology in GURPS ultra-tech doesn’t quite offer what we want. A common example of this might be a desire for a specific model of robot that doesn’t exist in the book. More commonly, we’re fine with the technological principles as outlined in GURPS Ultra-Tech but we want to offer more variety, especially when it comes to our core activity. For example if our game is about space soldiers killing aliens, we might want to offer players numerous guns to choose from and we might want to make the various aliens they fight feel distinct and original.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 3 - Choosing Available Technology (Part 2: Miraculous Technology)

One way to classify SF worlds is to consider what technological miracles are inherent to the setting or story. In this context, we can think of a “miracle” as some area of technology that has a significant effect on the environment in which adventures take place. A technological miracle defines a significant difference between the fictional setting and the real world familiar to the reader or player. – GURPS Space page 29; A Taxonomy of Miracles
The previous sections may make it sound like one should avoid any technology with broader implications at all costs. This is not so! You should, however, only introduce the setting-altering technologies that you wish to introduce, and ensure that all other technologies don’t interfere with them. In fact, “Miracle-Tech” is often the most interesting part of your setting.

Now, to be clear, you don’t need “Miracle-Tech.” Much sci-fi out there uses space tropes as an excuse for exploring exotic things, much as fantasy uses magic for the same purpose. If you want your hero to rescue a blue-skinned space-babe from a tentacled monstrosity, it’s a little more believable if it’s set on the moon of a dying Jovian world than it is if it’s set in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean it must have transformative technologies and tackle deeper philosophical implications unless you want it to. If not, then use the previously mentioned technologies as advised to create a familiar setting without worrying about exotic technologies.

But if you want Miracle-Tech that provokes thought and exploration, the first thing to realize is that nearly any technology can be miracle tech. For example, even if we set aside the qualitative differences TL 12 medicine might have and just look at the quantitative differences of a TL 12 physician’s kit, imagine the sweeping implications if modern doctors could treat five times as many patients five times as effectively? That alone would mean many more lives saved and an absolute improvement on standard of living. Most of the work I’ve done in the past there sections is about downplaying the potentially transformative nature of technology. Here, we do the opposite and play it up. The best candidates, however, tend to be fairly obvious. Anything where I tell you to be careful of the broader implications is a great candidate for transformative technology.

The next question is, of course, how much Miracle-tech, and this is entirely up to you and your setting. You must understand, first and foremost, the mental cost of such a setting, and try to understand your target audience. For some groups, the crazier the better: they want to explore every facet of future technologies and how different and weird the world could be in the future. For others, the weirder the worse, and they’ll react with hostility to things that take them too far from their comfort zone. You’ll have to tailor to what your group can handle. One word of caution on excessive miracle-tech: the weirder your setting, the harder it is for your group to relate or to know what to do. A poster child for this sort of game is Transhuman Space, and the most common criticism made about the setting is “What do I do with it?” You’ll need to double down on your core activity and focus your players attention on it, so they have a starting point from which to jump into the setting. This can require a lot of work on your part as you carefully spoon feed the weird to your players in bite-size pieces until they fully grasp the setting and its implications. If done correctly, though, it can be an exceptionally rewarding experience.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 3 - Choose Available Technology (Part 1: Familiar, Convenience and Standard Sci-Fi)

Unrestricted tech can be challenging for the GM, especially at TL11 and TL12, due to the enormous range of possibilities and the array of resources it provides to adventurers –GURPS Ultra-Tech, “Unlimited Technology,” page 9
Once you’ve settled on your starting point, your technological “concept stage,” it’s time to move on to choosing what technology is available to us. I highly recommend against using all possible technology, in part because of the above quote, but also because it makes a setting very difficult to differentiate, as most people will naturally gravitate towards “the best” technologies they can find for a specific thing. It’s also difficult because even if you manage to work out all the implications of every technology in the Ultra-Tech book for a given tech-level, your players will have a very difficult time “getting into” your setting.

At its most conservative, science fiction invokes as few miracles as possible. - GURPS Space page 29
While we tend to think of sci-fi as about being “exotic” and chock full of wondrous technologies (“miracles,”) most effective sci-fi limits the number of truly unusual technologies or truly strange societal changes. Altered Carbon mostly focuses on sleeving technology with almost everything else readily recognizable by a modern audience; Asimov’s robot stories are essentially set in the “modern” 1950s but with intelligent robots. Even when we have a host of technological advances, most of them are stand-ins for readily recognizable technologies: Star Wars has blasters and lightsabers and droids and hyperspace travel, but it’s mostly just WW2 in space with mystical space samurai; Star Trek has numerous, highly advanced technologies, but borrows heavily from the naval traditions and American culture of the 1960s, and wields the technology in a familiar fashion.

Every setting element you add to your game has a “mental cost,” an amount of effort necessary for your players to expend to “get” the setting. It also has a “learning curve,” the speed at which they must expend mental effort to learn everything. By reducing complexity to just a few “miracles,” we can reduce mental load and focus audience attention to only those technologies that we care about. Similarly, if we “disguise” technology in a familiar form, then our audience can wait to learn more about them (a phaser is not a gun and can do a lot of things that a gun cannot, but you can think of it as a gun, and that’s helpful for getting up to speed on the setting).

So it behooves us when thinking about our setting to decide on what the general feel of the game will be, and then what technologies we want to highlight and explore. Any technology that is not a highlighted one should be made as simple and intuitive as possible. We have several methods of doing that. We can break these methods into broad categories: Familiar technology, Advanced Technology, Standard Issue Sci-Fi technology, and Miracle-Tech. These methods are not choices of approach to take; think of them rather as layers that build atop one another, like layering paint: first you lay down your foundation, and then you more sparingly apply the more unusual and distinct levels atop it as necessary.

The following section will list appropriate technologies for the approach. This is meant to be a sampling, rather than an exhaustive list. I also don’t touch on weapon or armor technology, not because you can’t treat it this way, but because few campaigns do, and if yours does, you can simply apply the same principles below.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 2 - Choose a Tech Level

The tech levels of the various items in this book should be treated simply as guidelines – a culture may develop some technologies more rapidly than others. --GURPS Ultra-Tech, page 8
The first step most people take when designing a sci-fi setting is to choose an appropriate tech-level. This is fine, but the first thing you must understand is that tech level is only a starting point, at best a loose guideline. You should not treat tech-level as an absolute. The point of tech level is not to define what is available and what isn't, but to describe what is generally available. This, by the way, is true of all TLs. American TL 8 is not really the same as Nigerian TL 8, and Chinese TL 3 is definitely not the same as British TL 3. Even works like Dungeon Fantasy or Action don't precisely hit a single TL: DF is better understood as TL 4 "but without guns," and Action is often "TL 8 but with a sprinkling of select TL 9 super-gadgets." If I say that a setting belongs to a particular TL, it already tells you a lot, but there's a lot it doesn't tell you.

Furthermore, all tech levels assigned to ultra-tech gadgets is ultimately arbitrary. Just because a setting is pegged at a particular TL doesn’t mean it has access to all technology of that TL, or that it has no access to higher TL technology. GURPS explicitly discusses alternate development paths and advocates breaking down TL into categories. Personally, working with split tech-levels is less important than understanding that tech-level is really just setting a baseline of expectations and pointing you in a particular direction. This is especially true of Super-Science technology, as there is no physical basis for them anyway, so you can declare them to be available when and if you want. This is explicitly true of super-science power cells, cosmic power-cells and most psychotronics, but all the tech levels of super-science gadgets in Ultra-Tech are definitely just suggestions.

So, given that all future tech-levels are ultimately arbitrary, the authors of GURPS Ultra-Tech seem to have chosen particular themes around which to wrap the idea of tech levels, guesses at how advanced and strange a society would have to be to gain access to a tech level. If we’re going to use tech levels, it behooves us, then, to understand what the assumptions behind a given TL is. GURPS Ultra-Tech lays this out for us starting on page 6, but allow me to approach them with more explicit themes in mind.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 1: Your Technological Concept and Core Activity

A useful concept in designing a campaign is to think of the “default adventure.” This is simply what the characters are expected to do...The GM can use default adventures to play up different aspects of the game and the setting. – GURPS Space page 208, the Default Adventure
What sort of setting are you trying to build? This should be your first question, but it often isn’t. Many people start by saying something like “I’m building a TL 10 setting and...” but this doesn’t tell us anything. TL 10 can be anything from advanced cyberpunk spy-thriller to conspiratorial supers to anti-alien warfare ala X-Com to full-on space opera. You need to know, first, what your game is about.

While there’s no such thing as “generic fantasy,” the fantasy genre does benefit from the dominance of Tolkien-esque D&D-inspired knock-offs so you can say “I’m running a fantasy game and...” and most people have a rough idea of what you’re doing, sci-fi absolutely does not have the benefit of this. Even if you refine it to something like “Cyberpunk” or “space opera,” it can still mean any number of things; after all, both Star Wars and Star Trek are in the “space opera” genre, yet are very dissimilar in just about every aspect. Tech level will vary, available technology will vary, and what the players will do will vary.

So the first thing we need to do is to come up with at least a sentence to describe what the game is like. You can borrow from existing tropes, but keep it short; think of it like an elevator pitch. It should, in the very least, invoke some of the technologies one might expect, not explicitly, but implicitly. Additionally, or supplementing this, you should think about what players do, the “Core activity” of the game.

A “core activity” of a role-playing game is anything that the mechanics and gameplay focuses on most intently. When players are “making choices” in gameplay, these tend to circle around core activities, and when people talk about “game balance,” they mean the balance of strategies around the core activity. You can think of it as “what the players generally do.” The most common example of this is Dungeon Fantasy’s “Killing monsters and taking their stuff.” Players will focus most of their character builds on going into dungeons, killing a wide variety of monsters with varied tactics, and then setting about acquiring their loot (while avoiding traps). They do not spend much time, for example, worrying about if their characters will arrange the right marriage necessary to secure a treaty between two factions, or who murdered Old Man Jenkins. These aren’t the core activities of Dungeon Fantasy; you could make them the focus of your game, but arguably you’d be playing in a different genre. Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy games, for example, care very much about arranging marriages and securing treaties between rival factions, while Monster Hunter games or Mystery-Solving games care very much about murder mysteries. These also tend to have far more mechanics focused on them: a princess with high status, very good looks, Empathy, Psychology and high levels of poise but absolutely no combat skills to speak of makes for an absolutely worthless dungeon fantasy character, but an excellent game-of-thrones character.

This matters because your technology should serve your settings’ goals. A cyberpunk game may need cybernetics (or some form transhuman augmentation), information technology and a bad attitude, but additionally, its core activities will shape it too. If the game is mostly about being part of a resistance cell that fights an oppressive government, then combat may be your core focus, and you’ll need to have plenty of interesting guns to choose from. If your core focus is on running a game where hackers can dig into the dark net to ferret out the insidious plots of the evil megacorp, then computers, security and software need far more focus. What they don’t need, you shouldn’t waste much time or effort on; for example, if your cyberpunk game has robots as background characters, then you shouldn’t spend much time on robots, nor draw undo attention to them.

By creating a concept and a core activity, we focus down on just what we need and, critically, no more. It’s our starting point, our spring-board for building the rest of the technological framework.

Some examples might include:

  • Genetically enhanced super-soldiers on an interstellar crusade to clear out alien races and make way for humanity to colonize the stars. Core activity: fighting aliens.

  • A new model of high-intelligence android has been created to work with law enforcement, always an android with a human officer; however, this same technology may lie behind a series of terrorist crimes as the robot revolution may have already begun, and its up to the player characters to stop it (but which side will the androids choose). Core Activities: solving crimes, unraveling conspiracies, fighting criminals/terrorists

  • The space cruiser’s continuing mission is to seek out new worlds and new alien species and investigate them, then bring home the data, while fending off the encroaching Alien Empire who seeks to seize these worlds before the heroic Space Alliance does. Core Activities: exploring new worlds, solving “science” mysteries, and fighting other spaceships.

  • The heroes awake from cryo-sleep to find that the solar system has gone silent, and their ship has been damaged. They must repair their ship, and then navigate back towards Earth, picking up supplies where they can, to find out what’s happened to humanity and, perhaps, to see if they can find any other survivors. Core Activities: Scavenging, survival, the logistics of space travel.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Designing an Ultra-Tech Framework

Given my blog’s focus on GURPS sci-fi, I often find myself fielding a lot of questions, especially about Ultra-Tech. I often see criticisms leveled against it that it is the most flawed GURPS book, apart from (perhaps) Magic. While I do not wish to argue for or against this point, I do understand where and how people can find it frustrating. So what I want to do with this post is get to the heart of what I think Ultra-Tech is and what it isn’t. I want to discuss how I use it, and how I recommend you use it too, if you want to get the most out of it, and if you want to understand how GURPS really works, especially when it comes to sci-fi.

I think the biggest problem with GURPS Ultra-Tech stems from the fact that people try to treat it as a catalog when it is better understood as a world-building tool. I see many people try to use Ultra-Tech in a similar manner to how they might use GURPS High-Tech; For example, if you can dig through High-Tech to find that one highly specific gun you want, y ou should be able to do the same in Ultra-Tech, right? Only what they find in Ultra-Tech is, at best, very generic ("Blaster Rifle"), and at worst, potentially profoundly unbalanced. However, GURPS Ultra-Tech dedicates a considerable volume of its pages not to gear that characters could carry around, but to concepts and megastructures, like terraforming projects, cryptography and even playable robots. These certainly impact characters, but they can often be better understood as things that exist in the world with them better than things they carry in their pocket (Incidentally, this is true of High Tech and Low-Tech too, especially when you combine the latter with its companions). Ultra-Tech itself takes this stance, as you can see from the introduction where it discusses how to use the book, including different technological frameworks, different development cycles and gadget control.

My approach with Ultra-Tech has always to take it as a guidebook of inspiration and ideas. Consider, for a moment, if you were to throw up your hands over GURPS, and step over to another system of your choice for your sci-fi epic, such as Fate, World of Darkness or D20. In what sort of book would you look for ideas about your sci-fi game? You might dig through Atomic Rockets or a wiki on a setting you wished to convert, but personally, I'd just pick up Ultra-Tech again, not because I intended to directly use its mechanics, but because those mechanics act like benchmarks, and the discussions in the book offer inspiration. The point of Ultra-Tech, then, is to inform your sci-fi game. The rest, alas, must be done by you.

Just how much work this actually requires can vary from "Just create a list of appropriate technologies" to "How good are you with algebra?"

This will be a short-running series over the next couple of weeks.  Patrons ($1+) gain immediate access to, and in two weeks from this posting date, the full document will be publicly available to everyone.  You can find it (patron and patient reader a like) here.

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