Monday, February 27, 2017

Psi-Wars: A Manifesto on Setting Design

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
-Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
As I promised before, Iteration 6 is as much about how to build a setting as it's about the actual setting I'll build throughout it.  In principle, nothing in this post explicitly addresses a sci-fi setting set in a galaxy far, far away, because the rules for good setting design apply to all settings.  I want to outline those rules, which I've personally picked up from years of building my own settings, watching some crash and burn and others soar into the imaginations of my players, and from collecting nuggets of wisdom from various GM guides, the experiences of other players, and self-help books with catchy slogans.

Setting design is, of course, an art and there's no "one right way" to build it, and that's not really what I'm proposing here.  However, there are lots of ways for them to go horribly wrong.  A few examples:

  • The Epic Setting: Your GM has spent literally years building his setting.  It's exquisitely intricate in its detail, epic in scope and magnificent in its realism.  He's also printed it all out, the document is heavy enough to kill you if it fell on you, and it's required reading. Nobody reads it. Nobody knows what's going on.  The GM rails at his players for being "lazy."  Campaign crashes and burns.  No matter how good your setting is, it won't matter if nobody can figure it out.
  • The Window Dressing Setting: The GM has spent no time at all building his setting.  As you play the setting, you begin to get the impression that whatever you say, he'll just use, or if a TV show came out with something interesting yesterday, the setting will suddenly incorporate it today.  And, of course, vital elements from yesterday's session mysteriously vanish, as though forgotten by God, in today's session.  The game works, more or less, but you might be left with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.  At least this game gets run!  But wouldn't it be nicer if the campaign had some internal consistency?
  • The Unfinished Setting: The GM has a grand and amazing idea, and he can see it in his head, but he has no idea how to get it out.  He's done some writing, but got caught up on a snag somewhere that he just can't resolve.  There's some document with hastily scribbled notes somewhere on his computer, slowly rotting from neglect.  Can a setting truly live without players seeing it, or breathing life into it?

The intent of my rules is less to tell you how to build your setting, and more a series of guidelines and best practices that will act as a framework for avoiding the worst of the pitfalls.  Within those guidelines, you should be fairly safe to build whatever you like.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The State of the Patreon: March

Last month, I gave everyone a heads up on what they could expect in February, and I'd like to do the same, now, for March, as well as make an announcement at the end of this post, so stay tuned!

Last month, Psi-Wars doubled its pledges and achieved its first goal! Thank you, my dear patrons, for your support, and for your feedback! The next goalpost means I can afford to fund one piece of art per month.

Next month, I'll be diving into Psi-Wars as a setting, and we'll start, first, with a discussion of how I go about building settings, then with the setting "as a whole" and then we'll dive into history and then, most crucially, the Empire.

For Dreamers ($1+) I have two Patron-Only posts.

First will be Building Grav Cars, where I offer up my notes on my struggles in coming up with vehicles without having access to GURPS Vehicles, and I show the benefits and drawbacks of a few different approaches, and then show you how I used Vehices 3e in GURPS 4e.

Next, I have an all new template, the Security Agent! As I unveil Imperial Security, you'll also recieve a template you can use to play as one.

For Fellow Travellers ($3+), In the beginning of March, you'll receive my first draft material for the Empire of Psi-Wars.

For Companions ($5+), I have a new poll coming up, where we'll decide on the Emperor himself.

For Disciples ($7+), I'm going to extend an offer to add signature characters to the Empire: Your own senators, admirals and ministerss, built right into the setting.

Introducing Orphans of the Stars

The big announcement! Alright, so, it turns out my blog has turned a few heads, and I've been approached to write a treatise on running politics in a setting inspired by Dune, and paid handsomely up front. This means two things.

First, it means I have to slow down Psi-Wars for a bit. I've already wrapped up the Empire, which runs into the middle of April, and after that, we'll have to see when I can get back to it. The rest of my energy has been directed towards collating existing material (the Empire is huge!) and handling feedback/polls. If we get to mid April and I haven't finished my work on Orphan of the Stars, then we'll see less Psi-Wars content for time.

Here's the bright side, though. After setting aside a responsible amount for real-life things, I've saved the rest and I'm going to use it to pick up some artwork for Psi-Wars. You've already enjoyed Michelle Kuster's sketches for the Traders. She's also agreed to help me build a vision for the rest of Psi-Wars, so that as the work continues, I can begin to show you with art as well as with words my vision for Psi-Wars.

This doesn't mean Mailanka's Musings will slow or stop, however. Part of the deal is that my written material is mine, so once we get to April, I'll be posting some of my thoughts and design work for my material for Orphan of the Stars. This should prove interesting to anyone who wants to inject some politics, planetary domain management, organizational infighting or ideological struggle into their games. Psi-Wars may or may not see a slow down, but either way, I'll have plenty of material for you.

See you in March!
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Ending Iteration 5... and Beginning Iteration 6

I'm going to tell you what I should do.  I should take all of the stuff I've just given you, and then offer some worked examples.  For example, perhaps I could fully detail the Dun Beltain's homeworld, the World of Grist: I could show you the culture, the terrain, a few strange critters lurking in the bowels of the sewers, some of the races that frequent the world, etc.  Why not do that? Because if I'm going to do that, I might as well build the entire setting!

As always, when I end an iteration, I explain why we can just stop here, and Iteration 5 is no different.  With this iteration, I created the tools we need to build our own planets, organizations, cultures, etc, which means that if our players need to visit some Random New World, we can build one with a little bit of work.  There's no explicit need to create a cohesive setting, since we can just keep making up stuff as we go (which is precisely what I've been doing up until now).  After all, each piece can stand on its own.

But if I'm going to show you how to create a world, or an organization (say, the Empire), why not go all the way and make it official and part of my completed setting?  Setting elements might interrelate in some way (How does the history of Grist interact with the history of the setting?  How does it feel about the Empire?  Does it house sites sacred to a widespread faith?), and when building a setting, it's often easiest to create a great framework and then begin to plugin the holes.  If I'm going to think of the details of a specific world (its history and its religion and how it relates to the larger setting), I might as well go ahead and detail those other parts of the setting along with it. That's not the intention of Iteration 5, of course.  We should be able to get away with not doing that, but it kills two birds with one stone, and I'm beginning to tire of Psi-Wars.  I want to finish it sooner than later.  So, I'm going to do it this way.

Iteration 6 thus becomes Psi-Wars as a Specific Setting and doubles as "the playtest/worked example of Iteration 5."

Oh, and are you here for the downloads?  You can find them here (and in the Primer).  Note to my Patrons: This material includes the most up-to-date stuff, including your feedback.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Traders Part 2: Culture

Last week, I introduced a series of polls for my Patrons for the creation of a new alien race known as "the Traders."  An ancient race, the Traders had once warred with humanity for control of the galactic center and lost, the Carthage to humanity's Rome.  I wanted them to be a clever "mastermind" race, but without a focus on psionic abilities, but beyond that, I had no idea what they should be.

The poll proved to be a hit, and I realized I had more room for user input.  I intended to use Part 1 to illustrate the precepts of alien design: We need to know what they're like, we need to give them an obvious visual ("Weird-Pretty") and narrative signature ("They trade"), a mechanical schtick (ETS, Hyperdimensional Meditation, physical frailty), and then bind them into the setting (They look out for themselves).  The result is a nice and trim template, but with lots of flavor, which is ideal.

But what I missed still was culture.  If you hang out with Traders, what do you see?  How do they dress?  What do they eat?  They're alien because they're physically alien, sure, but are they culturally alien? That's an open question, of course.  Some aliens will just integrate with the local populace and loose any sense of unique identity, but others retain a deeply unique culture, and based on the polls, it seemed clear that the Traders were a unique culture that retained a sense of identity.

So that brings us to step 2: Trader Culture.  Using the cultural checklist, I picked out a variety of values that I found potentially appropriate, a few distancing mechanisms (I have a couple more in mind: Trader language is very unique, for example, as is their life on starships), a question about how Traders organize themselves, and what cool additional secret techniques and arts they get.  With that complete, we should know not just what they look like, but what life with them is like, at least enough to have space adventures with them, which is what matters.

If your a Companion-level Patron ($5+), come over and vote.  If you're not, we'd love to have you, and the eventual results will be in the final setting document.
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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Patron Post: The Traders (First Draft)

Last week, I put together a poll for the $5+ patrons to help me design the first Psi-Wars race, named "the Traders," an ancient race of wandering space merchants that once warred with humanity over dominion of the galactic center.  Now, I offer the results of the poll, with a few edits where I had to best interpret what my voters wanted.  This material is available to all $3+ patrons!

If you're a patron, check it out!  If you're not a patron, I'd love to have you.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Patron Post: Power-Up Previews

A lot of my work lately has been on organizational power, and I think some players will really want to embrace that beyond what the Officer and the Diplomat can do.  They'll want to be more than action heroes, and become the movers and shakers of the setting who happen to also be action heroes.  In that line, I've worked on a few new power-ups, one associated with the Spy and the Diplomat, which you may have already seen, and an entirely new power-up anyone can take for 50 points: the Conspirator and the Magnate.

If you want to look at the design notes and get a deeper look at the logic of them, become a $1+ patron!

Support me on Patreon!

Psi-Wars: Extreme Aliens!

Hmmm, a little outside of your point budget
For the most part, alien templates work perfectly fine in Psi-Wars: Kendra is a bounty-hunter first and foremost, and she just happens to be felinoid.  This works like in Star Wars where the "jedi" part of "twi'lek jedi" matters more than the "twi'lek" part.  But, for some aliens, this isn't so.  Chewbacca isn't a smuggler who happens to be a wookie, he's, you know, just a wookie who happens to be a smuggler.  All you have to say about Chewbacca is that he's a wookie.  Likewise, Hutts are Hutts.  If you introduce a Hutt into your game, players don't stop and ask "Hutt what?  A Hutt security agent?  A Hutt Jedi?  A Hutt Bounty Hunter?"  No, it's just a Hutt.  And this sort of makes sense.  A twi'lek is just a human with tentacles on her head, but a Hutt's huttness, or a Wookie's wookienss is so dominant that it occupies our attention.  I'm not saying they never have variation, I'm arguing that the central element of these characters isn't their occupation, it's their race.

On a related note, some of the templates I pointed you to back on Monday were too expensive for a mere 50 point template.  None of the racial templates from Monster Hunters 5, for example, are remotely affordable on a 50-point budget, and your horrific Things Man Was Not Meant To Know certainly don't fit on that level of a budget. And, in a sense, that's fine, because they don't really need to fit into 50 points because, like Hutts and Wookies, their race is obviously their dominant trait.  One does not introduce a Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know knowing you'll have to field questions like "What? Like a Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know Cop?  Or maybe a Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know Scientist?").  But if they don't fit in our current model of character design, how do we play them?

We need a way to handle both of these problems, which are clearly interconnected.  Fortunately, we have an answer and, as before in this iteration, it's Dungeon Fantasy that rides to our rescue.  Specifically, Pyramid #3-50 Dungeon Fantasy II, with its article "Races as Professions."  Here, Sean Punch rewrites Elves and Dwarves as occupational templates worth 250 points.  For our extreme races, we can do the same.  We don't have Hutt Bounty Hunters, we just have Hutts, because a Hutt costs 250 points, and he's a self-contained template.

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