Thursday, January 14, 2016

Psi-Wars: The First Iteration

First Contact by Adam Burn
A friend of mine once asked me "How do you create complicated settings?"

To which I said "Start simple and work your way up from there."

As promised in my previous post, I want to create a Star-Wars knock-off setting called "Psi-Wars," using the readily available material in GURPS, and that as I create the setting, I want walk you through my process so that if you want to build your own setting, you have a worked example to play with.

The mantra of design is "fail faster." The faster you have a working model you can play with, the sooner you can tinker with it, find out what's wrong with it, and then fix it. Thus, we want something to play with as soon as possible, and we must accept that our first attempt will be flawed.  I also believe that we should not attempt to create the entire setting in one go.  Instead, we should start with a simple core, and then as we iterate, we can add more and more complexity with each cycle until we have iterated enough to have a completed setting. So we're going to build a quick, imperfect setting, one that you can use as soon as you've finished reading this post, and then as this series goes on, we'll make it even better.

For the first step, we'll need GURPS Characters and Campaigns, GURPS Space and GURPS Ultra-Tech.  This will cover everything for this iteration, though you'll quickly see it leaves some gaps in our setting that we'll need to paper over in later iterations.

Psi-Wars: The Concept

What is Psi-Wars?  It's a knock-off of Star Wars, which is itself an odd mixture of chambara storytelling set in a world war 2-inspired conflict thinly dressed with the trappings of space opera.  We want space samurai fighting space nazis to protect the space princess of space England from being kidnapped, all to the wooshing sounds of space fighters and the pyrotechnics of physically implausible laser beams.

This is a deeply cinematic universe, one in which the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black (or brown and white, but you get the idea), where a few plucky heroes can bring down an entire space station, and the villain randomly kills his minions because he's ticked off.  This is a universe full of death traps for the heroes to escape, melodrama, and slow-motion fight-scenes.  The players, whether they are straight up good-guys, golden-hearted rogues, or tortured villains on the path to redemption, are Big Damn Heroes who will eventually save the day.

Designing the Space Campaign: the Core Activity

When building a campaign, pause for a moment to consider the "core activity," the default thing you'll do a given, generic session. If you flip to page 7 of your copy of GURPS Space, we have their guidelines for designing a campaign.  What does Psi-Wars look like?

Star Wars tells, roughly, three sorts of stories:
  • (Starship troopers) Military stories featuring soldiers fighting dramatic and often tragic planet-side battles.
  • (Ace pilots) Military stories featuring ace pilots in small space-fighters taking on much larger opponents in wildly kinetic fights.
  • (Agents of Terra) Espionage stories where a handful of agents need to either uncover a plot or enact a plot of their own to sabotage an enemy installation, rescue one of their own, or bring stolen plans back to base.
We might call Star Wars a straight-forward action-movie with the trappings of space opera, but generally, it tends to be rather specifically focused on those three things.  It tends to lack the heists, computer hacking or police investigations we might find in more typical action movies.  We should probably add a more Martial Arts-like "uncover lost kung fu techniques" quests and grudge matches, but we'll worry about that in a later iteration.

Similarly, while the above seems driven by politics and economics (the action in the Star Wars prequels were initiated by trade concerns), those tend to play a back-seat role.  Princess Leia might be a diplomat, but her peace negotiations are never the center of the story. Likewise, the negotiations between the trade federation and the jedi council is a thinly veiled excuse to get our wuxia heroes onto an enemy ship so they could blow away droids in totally cool battles.

We don't have to keep things like this, but for now, this means Psi-Wars should remain focused on military action (It's about a war with psi).  This is a game about physically fighting bad guys with military-scale weapons, on land or in space, in secret or in the open, by any means necessary.  We need politics and economics, but only as a motivator for these actions, not as a central component of the game.

Designing a Space Campaign: the Setting

Next, the book asks us to look at scale and scope.  Star Wars is set throughout an entire galaxy, which absolutely brims with alien life.  Not once have I seen a character in Star Wars don a vacuum suit and step out onto a lifeless world.  Even asteroids have giant space worms on them.  That said, Star Wars seems to return again and again to the same planets, and while it describes a vast scale, we rarely see it.  Star Wars claims to be vast, but this seems more of an excuse to add whatever aliens or new planets it wants, at some later time than a real investigation into what life in a galactic society might be.

Thus, it seems sufficient for now to say that Psi-Wars should cover numerous star systems, and that it should have plenty of alien races, and that the scope of the game covers the rise and fall of interstellar civilizations and polities.

For more specific elements, we have the interstellar governments.  Star Wars has "the Republic" and "The Empire."  GURPS Space lacks a "Republic," but an Alliance or a Federation could easily work as one.  Given the more centralized nature of the Republic, a Federation will probably work best.  Our Federation, if it matters, will be a (Utopian?) Representative Democracy with Control Rating 3, while the Empire will be a Control Rating 6 (mwahahaha) Dictatorship.  We could go into additional details, but this is already too much for our first iteration.

For factions/organizations within each interstellar civilization, it isn't our intent to exquisitely define each facet of our society, but we can browse through the organizations section of GURPS Space (starting on page 202) and see if anything jumps out at us:

Diplomatic Corps: Star Wars featured Princess Leia, who was described as a diplomat.  Negotiations might not be central to the action of the game, but diplomats and their presence often initiate action.  The heroes may need to rescue them, or escort them to a new world.  They seem to make more sense for the Federation than for the Empire, as the Federation seems to invite new worlds to join them, while the Empire simply conquers them, but asking someone to surrender seems preferable to wasting unnecessary military resources when negotiation might be enough.  For now, it's enough to know that each faction has a diplomatic corps.

Space Navy: Obviously, in a game featuring space fighters and giant star destroyers, we need space navies!  These are certainly worth additional detail, and Space has a discussion of armies and navies, their purposes and their ranks.  We don't need to get into that level of detail yet (it's enough at this stage to say that someone is "Oh, I don't know, a Military Rank 3 lieutenant"), but we know that this is a game-space that might need more detail.

Security and Intelligence Agency: Spying is also pretty central to Star Wars, and given that espionage is one of our core activities, it makes sense that spy agencies and those that defend against them might be of extreme importance in our campaign.  Again, each side would have one.

Space Patrol: If we have spies, then we have people regularly interacting with criminals.  Star Wars also featured bounty hunters, implying yet more law enforcement details, though we never see an actual space cop in the series.  There's no reason we can't have one, or at least consider its importance.  Perhaps its folded into our Security Agency, or perhaps it is an aspect of the Space Navy, or perhaps they are separate.  We can return to it later, but it's clearly an element worth paying attention to.

Independent Organizations: Non-governmental organizations might proliferate in our Psi-Wars setting.  Corporations aren't that important in Star Wars, but someone is making all of those star destroyers.  Mercenary Companies also don't show up in Star Wars often, but there's no particular reason that a setting that features war might not also feature mercenaries.  Criminal organizations are  must in this setting, featuring spies, smugglers, mobsters and criminal gangs.  Arguably, Star Wars has always had three factions: the Republic, the Empire, and Organized Crime (which was the premise behind Star Wars: Empire at War).  A psionic institute might fit well in a game featuring psi.  While not noted, the Jedi order was an independent religious order.  We might have the same sort of thing in our setting.

Designing a Space Campaign: Metaphysics

Star-Wars has the Force.  Psi-Wars, of course, must have Psionics.  For now, simply use the Psionics rules out of GURPS Characters, and limit characters to ESP, Telepathy and Psychokinesis (though Pyschic Vampirism might make for a wicked "dark-side" power)

Designing a Space Campaign: the Technology

A sci-fi campaign lives and dies by the technology available to it.  In my experience, one should avoid trying to grab everything in the Ultra-Tech book: Less is more, when it comes to ultra-tech.  Hit on the key points that you want in your setting and avoid the rest for now.

For Psi-Wars, we need FTL travel. GURPS Space discusses this starting on page 37. The obvious choice, based on Star Wars, is Hyperspace travel.  The default speed for FTL travel is 1 day/parsec, but that might be a bit slow, so let's consider 1 hour/light year (at this speed, it would take about 12 years to go from one side of the galaxy to another, or ~300 years to get to the Andromeda galaxy).  We also need some limitations, so how about this:  Before you go into hyperspace, you need to make Navigation (Hyperspace) roll, which takes 30 minutes.  Failure means your ship gets lost.  A hyperdrive needs maintenance after every "skip" and that maintenance roll takes an hour.  Too much missed maintenance means your engine needs to make an HT roll when you attempt to go into hyperspace.  Failure results in a strange whining sound and a failure to enter hyperspace.

Psi-Wars should also feature FTL communication (assume instant communication anywhere within the galaxy, though distances farther than, say, 100 light years might have degraded quality and/or require Electronics Operations (Comms) rolls.  Things like nebulas, "ion storms" or other useful hand-wavy excuses can also impede communication).  Furthermore, to assist in our whole "war" scenario, we need to be able to see a ship coming: FTL sensors allow for detecting ships in hyperspace, which allows for people to predict their exit point, and to mount defenses.

The setting is a retro-tech/safe-tech TL 11^ setting, which is the closest fit to Star Wars.  Specifics (see Ultra-Tech) include:
  • Power: Fusion power
  • Computers: Robots (which use neural nets: Intelligence is a hardware principle, not a software principle, so if you destroy a robot's body, you also destroy its mind.  This also means that robots are not easily reprogrammable, though they can be wiped and "trained") and simple, non-intelligent computers.
  • Gravity: Artificial gravity and contra-gravity (or "hover-tech")
  • Sensors: Hyperspectral binoculars and vehicle-mounted ultrascanners
  • Communication and Media: Radio communication for individuals. Large FTL arrays (mounted on satellites or large ships) for interstellar communication.  Hologram projectors certainly exist, though they are obviously holograms and cannot be used to fool people.
  • Tools: Use standard tool kits.  Use Plasma torches for welding.
  • Security: Electronic locks, bioscanners, ultrascanner portals, hyperspectral cameras, neural disruption fields (agony only), electronic cuffs and neuronic restraints (agony only).  Oh, and of course, power dampers for those pesky psis.
  • Intrusion: Characters can break through electronic locks either by using at toolkit to sabotage the lock, or by using an electronic lockpick.  Smugglers can use deception chips to fool portal scanners.
  • Surveillance: Use bugs and homing beacons.
  • Weapons: Blasters, obviously.  We can also include Rainbow Lasers for sniper weapons or assault weapons, and TL 10^ plasma weapons for heavy "space shotguns."  For heavier ordinance, we use Plasma explosives or EMP rounds, which we can use as (smart) hand grenades, or as missiles in an Infantry Missile Launcher.  If we use chemical weapons or posions, we use either Lethal Nerve Gas/Poison, or Sleep Gas/Poison.  For melee weapons, we use Super-Fine weapons, Vibro-Weapons, Neurolash Batons (agony only) and, of course, Force Swords.
  • Armor: For light armor, we'll use Bioplastic but ignore the smart matter rules for now, as we need something that will defend against blasters.  For heavier armor, we'll use the Combat Hardsuit with Combat Infantry helmet.  We'll set aside battlesuits for now.  We can use barrier force screens (but we'll set aside conformal screens for now, as well as force wards and force bucklers).
  • Medicine: Use standard rules for TL 11 medicine.  Ignore the special gadgets for now.
  • Cybernetics: Limited to anything marked "bionic."  You can get a replacement arm, eye or heart, but you cannot get a ripsnake or cyberhair, etc.
  • Vehicles: all "grav" vehicles use the pressor technology described on UT 230.  This means they cannot "fly," but they have doubled endurance.
    • Grav Bike
    • Grav Jeep
    • Grav Tank (but reduce its speed to 5/50)
  • Spaceships: We don't have any spaceships in our "set" of books, but if you've got access to the Spaceships series, then you can add the following to your game:
    • Dark Horse-Class Free Trader (SS2 p7)
    • Betelgeuse-Class Super Freighter (SS2 p8)
    • Alpha Shuttlecraft (SS2 p20)
    • Empire-Class Dreadnought (SS3 p10)
    • Sword-Class Heavy Cruiser (SS3 p14)
    • Tiger-Class Frigate (SS3 p 18)
    • Viking-Class Planetary Assault Carrier (SS4 p9)
    • Typhoon Space Fighter (SS4 p11)
    • Starhawk Star Fighter (SS4 p12)
    • Banshee-Class Drop Ship (SS4 p 17)

Psi-Wars Characters

Now that we have a core setting to play with, we need to fill it with characters.  GURPS Space has plenty of templates in the back.  A few leap out at me as pertinent for Psi-Wars:
  • Astronomer (With Fighter Jock lens): 120 points.  Examples include Poe Dameron and Luke Skywalker (from A New Hope).
  • Bounty Hunter: 120 points.  Examples include Boba Fett.
  • Con-Artist (Gambler): 100 points. Examples include Lando Calrissian.
  • Security Officer (With Field Marshal lens): 135 points. No examples exist in Star Wars, but the idea of a space sheriff seems particularly fitting to the genre.
  • Spy (With Superspy lens): 150 points. No examples exist in Star Wars (though Leia has some spy-like trappings), but a spy certainly fits the central activity that we're trying to create.
  • Soldier:
    • Ranger Lens: 130 points
    • Infantry (with Elite, Veteran or Officer lens); 150, 130 or 145 points, respectively.
  • Space Knight: 150 points.
At a glance it seems clear that our point total is 150 points, but the Space templates are minimal and lack many of the more cinematic elements necessary to make Psi-Wars work.  So, I propose instead lifting the total to 200 points.  Every character should get Combat Reflexes and Luck if they wish, and the Space Knight needs ~30-50 points worth of Psionic Powers (chosen from the GURPS Characters book, from the Telepathy, ESP or Psychokinesis powers).


If we're a setting that brims with aliens, then we need some aliens.  But where do we get them?  GURPS Space has rules for rolling up your own aliens, which you can use.  Or you can borrow the templates from GURPS Characters (such as the Felinoid), or from other works, like GURPS Aliens Spariels, or the alternate-human templates from GURPS Bio-Tech (with a little window-dressing, you can turn them into humanoid aliens).

Aliens might have their own language.  Consider "Galactic Common" as the standard language for any alien that can speak "English," as in the movies.  Other aliens will have their own language, which characters (especially diplomat-types) can learn.


Ultra-Tech sports quite a few robot templates, but they still need a little work.  We know that Star Wars treats droids as valuable property, so we'll attach "Social Stigma (Subjugated) [-20]" to all our Robot characters.  Furthermore, assuming the robot is sapient or a character, they should all have Volitian AI with Non-Reprogrammable for [42] points.  Most robots will have Sculpted [0] bodies.  When purchasing a robot brain, double the cost for a "Neural net."  This means that destruction of the robot brain destroys the unrecoverable robot mind as well.

Available robot bodies are:
  • Android (UT 41)
  • Housebot (UT 69)
  • Contragrav Scout Robot (UT 80)
  • Techbot (UT 85-86)
  • Combat Android (UT 167)
  • Walking Tank Warbot (UT167-168)
  • Vertol (Contragrav) Warbot (UT167-168)
  • Nursebot (UT 202-203)
Most of these will be unsuitable as characters for now, and they lack default skill packages and calculating the cost will be a bit of a pain, but it gives you enough direction to create background elements or interesting opponents.  Assume they have a few pertinent skills at DX or IQ.


And there we have it, our psi-wars first-draft.  It has a few clear holes: It lacks spaceships, the powers are simplistic and the characters are probably too underpowered for what we have in mind.  Our technology is indistinct and we have no fleshed out organizations or factions.  All we have is a fairly generic setting, which is fine for starters.  You could use this to improvise additional details or, as we're going to do, you can flesh it out and add additional details as we go along, but this represents a solid starting point.

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