Thursday, March 10, 2016

Psi Wars: Robots

The computers from Star Wars (and thus Psi-Wars) herald from an older era of sci-fi: these gargantuan things lack interconnection or artificial intelligence.  We have already discussed computers enough in the post regarding general technology.  However, we have one exception to the "dumb computers" rule, and that is robots!

Star Wars brims with droids, in every movie, in nearly every scene.  They form the backbone of society, literally working thanklessly behind the scenes to maintain the machinery of civilization. For Star Wars, however, robots lack the transformative themes that they often embody in transhuman science fiction and, let's be honest, throughout much of GURPS Ultra-Tech.  While droids fundamentally change how the Empire and the Republic engage in both war and industry, they don't change what it means to be human, nor do they raise the question of what it means to be sapient.

Star Wars is space opera, and the term "space opera" comes from an era of exploitative fiction for young men.  Publishing houses would release pulp serials that catered to the particular interests: Westerns for the kids who liked to read about cowboys, swashbuckling stories for kids who liked to read about pirates, and sci-fi for the kids who liked reading about rocketships.  To save on cost, these publishing houses would kick out the same stories and/or comics, only with different window dressing.  In the western, the cowboy rescues the school marm from injuns, in the swashbuckling story, the musketeer rescues the princess from pirates, and in the sci-fi story, the space captain rescues the space princess from aliens.  The term "space opera" referred to this change of window dressing: they weren't really fiction about science, but adventure stories that happened to be cosmetically set in space.

Thus, the characters of a space opera tend to be stock characters, and Star Wars, which emulates that old space opera, uses the same sorts of stock characters.  And since those early adventure stories stole liberally from the adventure stories of the 19th century, the stock characters tend to reflect late 19th, early 20th century sensibilities: The heroic European nobleman strides out to conquer a dark continent, along with his stalwart servant and his mysterious, foreign guide.  In space opera, the stalwart servant becomes a robot, and the mysterious, foreign guide becomes an alien.

This explains why Star Wars treats its aliens and its droids the way it does (Note, for example, that only aliens have foreign languages).  The droids, in particular, create this strange dissonance.  On the one hand, they're "only droids," and so the story does not expect us to mourn the tragedy of the on-screen slaying of a dozen battle droids, or even the sad whimpering of some gonk droid. But, on the other hand, Star Wars treats R2-D2 and C3P0 as full characters, and generates suspense by throwing them into trouble.  We are told that the light side values life, but droids evidently don't count (given the numerous times the Jedi Order criticizes Anakin for his fixation on his droids).  We recoil horror when Leia is enslaved by Jabba, but we don't blink twice at the fact that C3P0 is similarly enslaved, and that he is never actually freed.

Are droids expendable minions, or are they fully realized characters, or are they both?  What about the transformative or introspective elements that more sophisticated robot stories evoke?  Do we want to borrow from them?

What are Robots Like?

Before I can design robots, I have to know what I want to design, which means I need to clarify my intent and, ideally, I need sources of inspiration to help fill in the holes of my design.  For starters, I can contemplate the purpose of droids, narratively, in Star Wars, but I can also look at robots from other sources, including their origin in sci-fi, their expansion with the works of Asimov, and their modern counterparts in transhuman sci-fi.

Star Wars

I've already noted the space opera origins of Star Wars above, and how robots serve a servant-like role.  A master offloads undesired work onto his servants, and Star Wars, narratively, does the same thing.  George Lucas, and his audience agreed with him, wanted to watch human heroes saving the day: Humans hold the lightsaber or blaster, fly the ship, and blow up the Death Star.  Droids don't.  They translate languages, hack doors, fix engines and provide comic relief.  Droids take on the roles that the writer doesn't find particularly exciting, but feels need a presence in his setting nonetheless.

Consider language.  Any player will readily acknowledge how unrealistic a galactic common language would be. In a galaxy with thousands of aliens, there should be millions of languages.  But if you ask players to buy a million languages, or you relegate them to being unable to communicate with the cute space princess they just met, you make the whole "exploration" and "sense of wonder" parts of the story all that harder.  Enter the protocol droid compromise: He speaks a million languages so you don't have to.  Aliens spout gibberish, so our disbelief is allayed, but then the protocol droid translates, so we can still chat with the space princess.  The same principle applies to things like mechanical maintenance or bureaucratic tasks or anything else that reasonable players would acknowledge would exist in a realistic universe, but don't actually want to do.

Droids, then, are servants in both a literal and symbolic sense.  They exist as allies and tools to the heroes and the player.

Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti

The term "Robot" has its origins in a Czech play. This robots are constructed out of synthetic biological material (and look substantially more human), and the play introduces them as an industrial measure to cut labor costs by a fifth, until eventually, the laborers/robots rise up to overthrow the capitalist class that created them.  The communist message isn't even an undertone, here, it's a straight-up overtone.  Also, the moment people start talking about robots, literally, the first thing they can say is "Robot uprising!"

Well, that escalated quickly
I'm not particularly a fan of communist thought, and I don't actually agree that robots would necessarily rise up (We'll program them as well as design their bodies), but people who comment on Star Wars often comment on the dissonance of how the droids seem to do everything that matters on a civilizational scale, also display very human-like traits, and yet are never, ever a problem with their lot in life.  In Star Wars, one can even create an entire army of robots and never fear a glitch or a problem or the robots turning against you.  I think this is a topic worth coming back to at a later point.


Bicentennial Man
Speaking of programming robots, no author has been more influential in shaping our image of how robots would think than Asimov.  He carefully outlines why robots wouldn't rise up: They wouldn't want to, for the same reason parents do not rise up against their children, or why humans don't rise up against the tyranny of sex: it's how we're hard-wired.  In Asimov's works, robots are similarly hard-wired to serve.  Because this has become so ubiquitous I hardly need to cite examples, though I would argue that Freefall is probably the greatest exploration of this concept outside of Asimov's works themselves.

The three laws are:
  • "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." We could represent this with Total Pacifism (Humans only -80%) [-6] and, arguably, Sense of Duty (All of Humanity) [-15]
  • "A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law." This is arguably Duty, but we could also reference it as Sense of Duty again.
  • "A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law." This requires no special rules.  Perhaps cowardice?
Star Wars doesn't seem to follow Asimov's laws, however (for example, battle-droids have no problem killing people).  First, Star Wars concerns itself more with what the heroes do than why droids do what they do.  Second, Star Wars seems to imply a vast, patchwork setting of technologies and programming protocols.  Astromechs and Protocol droids seem to have little in common, never mind the millions of other droids out there.  Perhaps the Blue-Skinned Space Alien Industrial Consortium creates the Blue-Man Droid model, while Sinister Industries on the Volcanic Planet of Doomtopia create assassin droids and a lovely secretary droid.  We have no reason to believe that these droids would share the same designs or programming, so while one set of droids might follow Asimov's laws, another set of droids would follow Shmebulok's laws, and so on.  That said, Star Wars does treat droids as a complete class... so we might go either way on this one.

Transhuman Sci-Fi

I've lumped numerous resources into a single set here, but I need to address them because they definitely inform GURPS Ultra-Tech.  In principle, if robots follow Moore's law, then they should definitely exceed our accidental biology with their carefully designed neural architecture: Robots should be faster, stronger and smarter than humans.  Humans would seek to upgrade themselves by making themselves more robot-like, and Star Wars definitely has this in the form of cybernetics.

These sorts of robots tend to violate Burnside's Zeroth Law of Space Combat, and violates Star Wars's space opera aesthetic.  They make the story about robots, while in Star Wars, robots take a back-seat role.  Furthermore, this sort of story tends to raise the specter of slavery by pointing out that if a robot walks like a man and talks like a man, should we not treat him as a man?  This returns us to the origins of robots as a thinking, feeling artificial being, but replaces a physical uprising with a moral conundrum.  When people ask "Why are Star Wars droids content with their role?" they channel the themes of transhuman sci-fi that were nonexistent in Star Wars' source material, but are exceedingly common now.

Penny Arcade's Automata


Penny Arcade has a few stories that it likes to return to, and one that consistently enchants me is Automata.  In particular, I think it captures everything I'm looking for, so in addition to linking it, I will cite how it interacts with the questions raised above.
  • In Automata, like in Star Wars, robots play a supporting role.  They serve humans by taking on the menial tasks that the character, and the player, wouldn't want to undertake.  They are also deeply human characters, rather than mindless machines.
  • In Automata, like in R.U.R, robots sometimes resent their thankless role as minion.  They might rise up, and humans certainly fear them.  Their nature as second-class citizen is highlighted and condemned.  But unlike in RUR, uprising is not inevitable.  We can find another solution here.
  • In Automata, like in Asimov's works, the programming of robots plays an important role in the narrative (and they often suggest that they follow something similar to Asimov's laws), but unlike in Asmov's works, it isn't the most important element of the story.
  • In Automata, like in transhuman science fiction, we are invited to ponder the morality of enslaving artificial beings.  We would never build robots if they did not serve us, but what does it say about us that we feel the need to spit upon our mechanical children?

Psi-Wars Robot Design

First, we want to emulate this idea of "robots as individuals." If a robot is killed, he cannot simply download his core programming into a new body.  A robot's computer is his brain, in the same way ours is.  This does not mean he cannot be reprogrammed, or that there isn't a "standard program template," but as time goes on, the robot will take on more and more individual personality.  The "memory wipe" mentioned in Star Wars is effectively the death of one character and the rebirth of a new character, though we might create a minor exception to that.  We will use the "Neural Net" option on page UT 23 which doubles the cost of their computer.  To compensate for this additional cost, we'll create a new perk:

Neural Net Learning Capacity [1]: Robots with a neural net are capable of self-complicating learning processes that will eventually allow them to exceed their hardware limitations. A robot with a neural net may increase his IQ two higher than his complexity limit allows, and may increase his DX two levels higher than his body template allows.
This perk has the side-benefit of explaining why Anakin is reluctant to memory-wipe R2-D2: it would wipe out all the gains R2 had made with his Neural Net Learning Capacity.
How smart should our robots be?  Well, GURPS Ultra-Tech has some guidelines.  Most robots run Personal Computers, which (doubling the cost for the neural net option) cost $2000.

  • IQ 6 (Barely sapient): $130. A dumb personal computer (complexity 7) costs $100. A complexity 6 program costs $30.
  • IQ 8 (Stupid); $200. A dumb personal computer (complexity 7) costs $100.  A complexity 7 program costs $100.
  • IQ 10 (Average): $2300. A personal computer (Complexity 8) costs $2000.  A complexity 8 program costs $300.
  • IQ 12 (Clever): $42,000 A fast personal computer (Complexity 9) costs $41,000.  A compleixty 9 program costs $1000.
  • IQ 14 (Genius): $503,000. A genius personal computer (Complexity 10) costs $500,000. A complexity 10 program costs $3000.
It seems that IQ 10 is the ideal.  IQ 6 is too low for your savings.  IQ 8 is alright if you're looking for a discount model, while IQ 12 is alright if you're willing to spend (a lot!) extra.  IQ 10 seems a happy medium.

All robots are sapient beings and thus the Volitional AI [32] template.  Even the dumb ones, like the battledroids from Clone Wars, don't lack the ability to creatively interpret orders, they're just especially bad at it (low IQ).  I had removed the "reprogrammable" disadvantage in Iteration 1, but upon review, I've decided to return it.  Star Wars does actually feature characters reprogramming droids, and I like the moral conundrum raised by casual memory wipes.  Obviously, gains made using the Neural Net Learning Capacity perk are wiped by a memory wipe.

Robots are property and slaves, thus they all have Social Stigma (Subjugated) [-20]. They cannot own property, and nobody really designs stuff for them, so they all have Wealth (Dead Broke) [-25]. This violates the "no lower wealth" rule of Action, but we'll simply state that organizations would never give droids more than minimal equipment, as they see them as expendable.

Many robots, but not all, will have a "Master" that they are programmed to obey: Sense of Duty (Master) [-2].  Many robots, but not all, will have pacifistic programming that prevents them from attacking "humans." Since "humans" represent only a small portion of the galactic races, we'll simply refer to it as "Registered Organic Sapients," and still apply a -80%, so they get Pacifism (Registered Organic Sapients only -80%) [-6].  Finally, we need a mechanic to represent their enormous facility with numerous-but-mundane skills.  An obvious mechanic would be a Wild Card skill, but I'm not sure how well that would tackle linguistics.  We could use the Computer Brain to represent the ability to switch programs in and out (thus, an astromech doesn't "know" the schematics to all ships, but it can load them up).  A robot doesn't have access to all possible skills, only a specific subset (the aspect limitation), and we'll settle for about 4 skill-points per slot, giving us Computer Brain (4-point slot, Aspect -20%) [18].
I am fluent in over six million forms of communication

 For a robot body, we'll just use the templates that exist in Ultra-Tech. However, many of the more interesting templates, like the tech-bot, are obsolete by TL 11, the Psi-Wars TL.  So, we'll set TL 10 as a standard.  TL 11 is reserved for dangerously experimental robots, or more advanced models.

Thus, we have bodies and brains for our robots, but we lack character.  How skillful are they?  What problems do they face?  We need some additional templates for specific programming, what will turn our raw hardware into a true character.

Skill Sets

In keeping with the idea of Psi-Wars robots off-loading the "boring" tasks from players, we'll keep our focus on skills that might serve the players well, but that we don't expect the players to actually take.  That includes:

  • Soaking bullets: a typical combat robot should mostly exist to pad the soldier count of an army.
  • Explosives Disposal: Again, we have a situation where we don't want to risk a "real" person.  Send in the droids!
  • Repairs and Maintenance: Obviously, someone needs to maintain our ships and our gear.  Why not have a robot do it?  "Where is TB-88?" "Oh, probably fixing an engine or something."
  • Translation: If we want to have plenty of languages, then we need to have someone who can speak them all, without charging the players an arm and a leg.
  • Data-Dumping: The players need someone to identify strange artifacts or where in space they happen to be.  We can have "expert droids" who can readily explain these things to the players.  They can also engage in dry research tasks.
  • Administrative Tasks: Heroes don't fill in paperwork.  And yet they belong to organizations that want reports. Surprisingly this even impacts the rules for Action, as Administration is used for Pulling Rank requests.  Can't a droid fill all that out?
  • Medical Tasks: Psi-wars isn't going to feature cool genetic engineering or dramatic outbreaks of plague that only the heroes can stop.  Instead, medicine is something that happens during an adventure downtime, and thus not very exciting for a hero to take on.  Sounds perfect for a medical robot (who wants to play a cleric anyway?)
  • Hacking: Hacking is actually pretty fun... when we have a system for it.  In Psi-Wars, we just want to wave our hands and get back to shooting.  So the more boring or less detailed parts of spycraft can be relegated to a robot.
We can build our skill sets with a few talents, some computer brain slots and a few "standard" skills.  Generally, these standard skills are either "meta skills" that allow the droid to identify the problem well enough to know which programs to load, and savoir-faire (Servant).

Examples include:

Assassin-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Computer Brain (1 slot, 4 points, Physiology only -20%) [18], Strangler 2 [10]
Skills: Brawl (E) DX+4* [4], Stealth DX+3* [4], Shadowing (A) IQ+2 [8]-12, Tracking (A) Per+2* [2]-12, Wrestling (A) DX+3* [4]
Cost: $1000

Battle-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Born Soldier 2 [10], Computer Brain (2 slot, 4 points each, Military Skills only -20%) [36],
Skills: Savoir-Faire (Military) (E) IQ+3* [2]-13, Soldier (A) IQ+2* [2]-12
Cost: $1000

Data-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Antiquarian 2 [10], Computer Brain (2 slots, 4 points each, Data Skills only -20%) [36],
Skills: Research (A) IQ+2* [2]-12, Savoir-Faire (Servant) (E) IQ+1 [2]-11
Cost: $1000

Inquisitor-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Computer Brain (1 slots, 4 points each, Data Skills only -20%) [18], Truth-Seeker +3 [15]
Skills: Detect Lies (H) Per+2* [2]-12, Forensics (H) IQ [4]-10, Intelligence Analysis (H) IQ+2* [2]-12, Interrogation (A) IQ+3* [2]-13, Psychology (H) IQ [4]-10, Research (A) IQ+2* [1]-12, Savoir-Faire (Police) (E) IQ+1 [2]-11
Cost: $1000

Linguist-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Computer Brain (2 slots, 4 points each, Languages only -20%) [36], Language Talent [10]
Skills: Linguistics (H) IQ-1 [2]-9, Savoir-Faire (Servant) (E) IQ+1 [2]-11
Cost: $1000

Medi-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Computer Brain (1 slot, 4 points, Physiology only -20%) [18], Healer 2 [20]
Skills: Diagnosis (H) IQ+1* [2]-11, Pharmacy (H) IQ+1* [2]-11, Physician (H) IQ+2* [4]-12, Savoir-Faire (Servant) (E) IQ+1 [2]-11, Surgery (H) IQ+1* [2]-11
Cost: $1000

Repair-Bot 50 points

Attributes: IQ 10 [0]
Advantages: Artificer 1 [10], Computer Brain (2 slots, 4 points each, Repair Skills only -20%) [36],
Skills:Engineer (H) IQ* [2]-10, Savoir-Faire (Servant) (E) IQ+1 [2]-11
Cost: $1000


To round out our characters, we need programmatical problems.  The following don't represent physical problems, but problems that arise from the design of the mind.  Some are intentional: Most programmers want honest, truthful robots.  Some represent unintended consequences, such as robots being overly fixated on their tasks.  Finally, some might represent robots going off the deep-end due to bugs or damage.

Safeguard disadvantages

The following disadvantages are not explicitly required, but most robots will have them.  Those without might even have Secret(No safeguard programming) [-30].
Disadvantages: Honesty [-10*], Pacifism (Total Nonviolence, Galactic Sapient Organics only -80%) [-6], Sense of Duty (Master) [-2], Truthfulness [-5*].

Protocol: Organic-Oriented

Some designers intend for their robots to regularly interact with organic owners: Protocol droids, servant-bots, etc.  These tend to have disadvantages that make them more interested in interacting with organic beings, and sometimes these robots take it a bit too far.
Disadvantages: Chummy [-5], Guilt Complex [-5], Odious Personal Habit (Makes everything about Master) [-5], Selfless [-5*], Sense of Duty (Galactic Sapient Organics) [-15], Vow (Refuse no request for (Appropriate type of) aid) [-10]

Protocol: Task-Oriented

Robots have a job to do, and certain programmers design their robots to be fixated on those goals.  Such robots rarely need to worry about interacting with organics, and can just get on with the task at hand.
Disadvantages: Compulsive Tinkering [-5*], Curious [-5*], Obsession (Complete specific goal) [-5], Odious Personal Habit (Insists on excessive precision, jargon) [-5], No Sense of Humor [-10], Selfless [-5*], Stubbornness [-5*], Workaholic [-5]

Protocol: Safety-Oriented

Robots represent a decent investment of capital, and few robot-owners want their robots to walk off a cliff or to go play in traffic.  Some robots, thus, are "cowardly," highly focused on self-preservation.  In the context of Squeamish, Robots will fret over dust or corrosives, anything that might potentially damage their parts.
Disadvantages: Cowardice [-10*], Fearfulness [-2/leve], Squeamish [-10*]

Socially Isolated

Robots aren't supposed to need company, so some go without sapient contact for years.  This can make some robots rather odd.
Disadvantages: Clueless [-10], Gullibility [-10*], Loner [-5*], No Sense of Humor [-10], Shyness [-5 to -10], Stubbornness [-5*]


Some robots need to kill as a part of their task.  Such robots carry a dangerous, personal edge in their programming.
Disadvantages: Bloodlust [-10*], Callous [-5], Impulsiveness [-10*], Intolerance (Specific Enemy) [-5], No Sense of Humor [-10], Obsession (Defeat specific enemy) [-5], Odious Personal Habit (Dehumanizing) [-5]


Some robots do not work as intended.  The programming quirks they acquire can range from eccentric to perilous.  Usually, such a robot is due for a memory wipe.
Disadvantages: Bad Temper [-10], Berserk [-10], Delusion (“Master is not safe”, “I used to be human” and “X counts as human.”) [-5 to -10], Impulsiveness [-10*], Jealousy [-10], On the Edge [-15*], Paranoia [-10], Pyromania [-5*], Secret (No programming safeguards) [-30]


GURPS Ultra-Tech has a variety of potentially interesting Cinematic Combat Rules on page 34.  Given the highly cinematic nature of Psi Wars, I find many of them appropriate, thus I propose allowing as standard:
  • Paint on the Sensors
  • Cinematic Knockback
  • Robot Combat Etiquette
Logical Paradoxes is an iffier one for me, so I propose a new perk:
  • Robotic Doubletalk: Your character may use the Logical Paradox rules from Ultra-Tech to disorient a robot.
These together will explain why robots are generally terrible compared to humans.  Of course, not all robots will work this way.  Allow the following perk for robots who can ignore them:
  • Tactical Programming [1]. A robot with Tactical Programming ignores the cinematic combat rules for robots and may ignore the Robotic Doubletalk perk.

Character Considerations

Characters who regularly interact with robots might consider the following traits:


Good with Robots: Empathy doesn't generally apply to Robots, but you have Sensitive with Robots only.  While emotions might be a bit of a stretch, you can generally tell if something is wrong with a robot (especially if he is berserk) or if something has changed in his programming.
Robotic Doubletalk: Your character may use the Logical Paradox rules from Ultra-Tech to disorient a robot.


Computer Hacking: For breaking into a robot mind and leaving precise programming.
Computer Programming: For understanding robot psychology (and also for writing more detailed programs, such as those used for skills, but that's beyond the scope of the average Psi-Wars scenario).
Connoisseur(Robots): To identify robots, to know the specific details about particular robots, their value, etc.
Electronics Repair (Computers): For repairing a neural net.
Engineering (Robotics): For understanding or building robots.
Mechanics (Robotics): For repairing a robot body

New Skillsets


Advantages: Cyberneticist 2 [10]
Perks: Good with Robots [1]
Skills: Computer Hacking (IQ/H) [2], Computer Operation (IQ/E) [2], Computer Programming (IQ/H) [2], Connoisseur (Robots) (IQ/A) [2] Electronics Repair (Computers) (IQ/A) [2], Engineering (Robotics) (IQ/A) [2], Mechanics (Robotics) (IQ/A) [2]


(Updated from Action 4)
Advantages: Artificer 1[10]
Perks: Equipment Bond (any one toolkit) [1]
Skills: Electrician (IQ/A) [2], Macinist (IQ/A) [2], Mechanic (Starship) (IQ/A) [4], choose two of Armoury (Any) or Mechanic (Hovercraft, Contragravity or Robotics) all (IQ/A) [2]; Scrounging (Per/E) [2]
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