Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Psi-Wars: Don't Convert, Create!

Holy crap, guys!  Star Wars is back in the theaters!  And do you know what that means?  It means star wars gaming!  People crack out their X-Wing minis, or dust off their Dark Forces 2 cds, or scramble for their lost Old Republic password and, of course, pull their Star Wars RPG books off the shelf. And, naturally, some GURPS fan will inevitably ask "How do you convert Star Wars to GURPS?" and a thousand voices will all cry out with their own homebrews.

Stop.  Stop the madness!  Down that dark path there is only frustration and arguments.  I have a better path.  The path of creation.

I had long resolved to kick off this blog again, but alas I never do things by halves, so instead of having articles, I have series.  This will be the first: A worked example of setting and framework building, using the tools readily available to all GURPS fans.  I'll walk you through each step of the process that I take, so you can draw from that was lessons you want.  And, of course, when I am finished, you can run the finished product, or use the process to create your own.

Before I begin, though, I want to explain why I am building the way I am, why I am making an obvious Star Wars knock-off called "Psi-Wars" rather than just converting Star Wars directly.  I often make this call for creation rather than conversion, and I want to make the case for it, because I believe that taking that step away from conversion is the first step towards becoming a genuine RPG author (or, really, any kind of creator).

Reason 1: It's not actually yours to convert

Copyright
Recently, a Mass Effect RPG for Fate Core was nominated for an Ennie.  That's basically as good as you can hope for your conversion to become: A critically acclaimed success that everyone agrees is the best possible interpretation of that particular concept.  Then, the nomination was revoked and, later, the RPG taken down.  Why? Because it was a fan conversion, one not endorsed by the copyright holder.

Alright, I know what you're thinking "Yeah, well, I just want to run this game for my buddies, nobody is going to take me to court over that."  Perhaps, though there's a moral case to make as well as a legal one.  But let me suggest this: If that author had stopped for a second to just scratch the serial numbers off of his work, to call it "Gravity Principle" or something, referred to Biotics and Psionics, called the Asari the Blue Kusari or something, then he would still have the ability to put that nomination on his resume.  It's not particularly hard to step away from converting an existing product and into creating your own.  But he refused, he failed to acknowledge both a cultural and legal principle, and now you'll have a devil of a time even finding his conversion, while works like Nova Praxis are for sale on DTRPG!  Which fate would you like your work to have?

Reason 2: You don't actually want Star Wars

Because if you're a Star Wars fan, you hate Star Wars.  And what you actually want isn't Star Wars, it's your personal idea of what Star Wars should be.  You watched the movies, you played the games, certain things resonated with you, and others did not.  You have your own vision of Star Wars.  You are not alone in this.  This is how people actually work. It's even true of the Star Wars series itself.

One problem some fans have with the Force Awakens is that one character in the movie, without training, was able to use a trick that took Luke Skywalker three movies to master.  Doesn't that make this character "overpowered?"  Well, that depends on your perspective.  In the game "The Force Unleashed," a sith with incomplete training is able to smash up a giant vehicle with nothing but his telekinesis in the first stage of the game.  What is the standard power-level for the force?

In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is knocked out of the sky under the feet of an AT-AT.  He scrambles to get his tow-cable, his lightsaber, and some grenades.  Then he grapples up to a grate in the bottom of the AT-AT, cuts it open with his lightsaber, and then tosses his grenade in.  But why didn't he just slice off the legs of the AT-AT with his all-powerful lightsaber? Because in Phantom Menace, a lightsaber is able to (slowly) slice through an armored door.  In Clone Wars, Yoda cuts tanks in half. But in the Force Awakens, characters regularly take blows from a lightsaber without dying.  How powerful is a lightsaber?

In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi comments on how "only Stormtroopers are so precise," yet we see them regularly missing the heroes, to the point where a GURPS optional rule (The Imperial Stormtrooper's Academy of Marksmanship) was named after them.  We see them wear armor, but some little teddy-bear aliens were able to penetrate that armor with sticks and stones.  How competent is a stormtrooper?  What is the point of his armor?

You have an opinion on each of these questions.  You also have an opinion on what the focus of Star Wars should be.  Perhaps you like the clean lines of the empire, or you enjoy the messy chaos of the world of Star Wars crime, bounty hunters and smugglers, or perhaps you like the elegant philosophies of the jedi, or perhaps you just want to blow stuff up and have jedi with amazing super-powers.  The problem is that you'll be running your game for someone who has a different perspective and opinion than you do.  You might want a wuxia-jedi game, but I might want a down-to-earth smuggler game.  In your game, stormtroopers are a terrifying and lethal threat, a force able to conquer the galaxy.  In my game, they might be fodder for my space super-heroes, and possibly even a joke.  The movies, books and games support all of these positions, so someone can always cite something in disagreement with you.

Unless, of course, you create your own work.  The Imperial Shock Troopers might be a seriously lethal threat and the Federation Space Knights might start off at 500 points.  Psionic powers might be subtle, and crime might be rampant, and nobody can tell you that you're wrong because it's your game.  No more fussing with what George Lucas did or did not do in his "canon."  It's your work, and you merely drew inspiration from Star Wars.  That's far more powerful than being beholden to what someone else did.

This applies equally to most popular franchises. In Warhammer 40k, how powerful Space Marines are, or how wicked the Imperium is, varies from work to work.  The capabilities of the characters in the Matrix has been re-interpreted and revisited depending on the medium and the author.  Even RPG settings, like Exalted, can be inconsistent.  Rather than getting into arguments about what the "true canon" is, you could simply accept that you have your own vision of that setting, and that it's a good vision, but you can take that vision and make it into something that is uniquely your own.

Reason 3: You're inspired by more than just Star Wars

Star Wars inspires gamers; that's why they seek to convert it in the first place.  It's easier to sell "Star Wars" to someone than it is to sell "Psi-Wars," which feels like a cheap knock-off of a better thing.  Plus, if you tell people "The Jedi ignites his lightsaber as he approaches you," they know exactly what's going on and how dangerous is might be, while "The Space Knight activates his force sword as he approaches you" might lack that punch, at least initially.

But you need to realize that Star Wars itself was a cheap knock-off of better things.  That's how the creative process works: You take something you like, you file the serial numbers off, and you toss in some other bits that you like.
  • Why use lightsabers? Why not use the Master Key and the Light Hawk Wings of Tenchi Muyo?
  • Why use the Empire vs the Republic when you can use the Houses of Dune?
  • Why use Storm Troopers when you can use the Space Marines of Warhammer 40k?
  • Why use the Force when you can use the psychic powers of Push?
If you're going to file the serial numbers off of Star Wars anyway, why not file the serial numbers off of other things too, and then meld them together into a cohesive whole?  You'll end up with something uniquely your own, and composed of all the bits you like best.

Again, this applies to other settings.  Nobody likes just one setting.  They also like other works, such as the works that inspired it, or works that have come out since, and they like tangential works.  Why not combine take Warhammer 40k, which is Dungeon Fantasy in Space, and re-interpret it as "Monster Hunters in Space?"  Why not take the lessons you learned by studying the Lord of the Rings, and apply that same myth-making to Arabian myth and culture?  Why not set your next Game of Thrones-inspired campaign in the world of the Aztecs?  By mixing and matching, you can actually gain the punch of an established setting, and add a twist that will make players sit up and notice.

Reason 4: Let GURPS be GURPS

GURPS is a generic, universal resource.  It has loads of weapons, vehicles, powers and templates that already have the serial numbers filed off.  It doesn't have Tie-fighters and X-wings, but it does have Typhoon-Class and Starhawk-Class deep-space fighters.  It doesn't have Jedi and lightsabers, but it does have space knights and force swords.

If we're determined to make our conversion feel like (our specific, unique vision of) Star Wars, then you must necessarily rework all of that GURPS material, from scratch, to make your vision happen. On the other hand, if you don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, you can just grab what already exists.  Adjusting existing rules and stats is far easier than making things completely from scratch, and your players would probably prefer to play now rather than play later.

This doesn't just apply to Star Wars.  GURPS doesn't have bolters, but it does have gyrocs.  It doesn't have space marines, but it does have the Spartan or Herakles genetic engineering templates.  It doesn't have Tyranids, but it does have Insectoids. GURPS is chock-full of generic versions of your favorite stuff, because GURPS authors already understand what I'm talking about in this article, and they've gone ahead and filed the serial numbers off of your favorite franchises and put them into books.  They just haven't assembled them into complete settings for you, but it's pretty easy for you to lock them into place, if you like.

A Final Plea

So, what is gained by conversion?  You need to spend extra time to create a work that many people will disagree with, that will never be acknowledged as yours, because it isn't yours.  What is gained by creation? A swifter campaign that generates less argument, works better with your chosen system, and involves a setting that is uniquely yours.

John Cleese has an excellent speech on how creativity works, that is absolutely worth your time.  The crux of the matter is this: Creativity is best served when you are free to play, and it is most harmed when you are forced to follow a specific, pre-set path. Because the conversion process is slaved to an existing work and surrounded with expectations and arguments, conversion kills the creative process.  The moment you liberate yourself from "being true" to that setting, you are free to do whatever you want, to play with the concepts of your specific setting, and that gives your mind, your passion, the energy it needs to make something amazing.  The results of doing this are, in my experience, pretty spectacular.  I have never finished a single conversion, but I did most of Psi-Wars in a single week.

Give it a shot. I know quite a few of you reading this are bristling at the idea, but give it a shot.  Take a look at your conversion as resource material and inspiration, meld it with existing GURPS material, give it a new spin, a new name, and free yourself, with the goal of something you can run for your friends now.  You'll like the results.
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