Thursday, April 14, 2016

Psi Wars: Scavenger-Tech (and other economic concerns)

I very much enjoyed the Force Awaken's addition to the Star Wars universe of Rey, primarily because she's a scavenger.  Star Wars centers on, among other things, a theme of a civilization in collapse.  The collapse began in the prequels, and it continued in the original trilogy as the Alliance and the Empire tore the galaxy apart, and Rey picks the bones of that civilization during her first moments in the Force Awakens.

Unlike much of the sci-fi that preceded it, Stars Wars depicts a run-down, second-hand future, full of worn gear, desolate landscapes and rust-speckled starships.  Only the empire, the evil of the setting, enjoys the clean lines and snow-white of pristine, new technology, and the films contrasts the newness of that technology with the patchwork technology of the Rebel Alliance.

Star Wars does not look forward to the future, but keeps its eyes firmly fixed on its own past.  The future that the Empire seeks to create is abhorrent, and the aim of the Rebel Alliance is to restore the glory of the past.  The exemplification of this is Anakin's lightsaber, which appears in all three trilogies.  It represents his virtuous past, and the heroes carry it, through the generations, seeking to restore what the original Anakin fought for.  The reason the heroes of Star Wars wield tarnished technology is that it is purer than the profane new technology wielded by the empire.  Better to fight with your grandfather's lightsaber, to fly your grandfather's ship, and to restore your grandfather's republic, than to build a sinister new future with sinister new weapons of mass destruction and sinister new industrial soldiers.

For Psi Wars to feel like Star Wars, we need to touch on this second-hand technology.  Action already offers us some clues and tips on how to do this, but Action depicts a very different genre than Star Wars.  In Action, heroes tend to be James Bond rather than Mad Max, and even when an action film makes a point out of a hero's poverty (such as in the Fast and the Furious), the hero still has cool toys, just usually hand-crafted.  In Psi Wars, our Action heroes need to get by with scavenged technology and old, second-hand starships, which means we need to examine how we handle wealth, as well as how to handle our scavenger-tech.

Money Matters

Action disallows any Wealth levels lower than Average, while allowing for Wealth levels higher than Average.  It uses "budget" system that replaces individual starting wealth with a starting wealth for the entire group. But how does this impact Psi Wars, which is TL 11 and thus has $75,000 starting wealth for each character.  What does $75,000 even buy us?  A quick loadout might look something like this:
  • Clothing: $500, 2 lbs 
  • Utility Belt: $50, 0.5 lbs 
  • Data reader: $20, 0.1 lb 
  • IR Binoculars: $2500, 3 lbs. 
  • Light Tow Cable: $650, 5 lbs. 
  • Wrist Communicator: $200, 0.15 lbs 
  • Blaster Carbine: $9,200, 5.6 lbs 
  • Blaster Pistol: $2,200, 1.6 lbs 
  • Battleweave Body Suit: $2000, 6 lbs 
  • Long Coat: $1000, 5 lbs 
  • Hat: $200

I don't mean to suggest that every character would look like this, but some characters certainly would, and this gives us a good order-of-magnitude estimate of what sort of gear we might expect.  However, this loadout doesn't even come to $20,000, much less $75,000. If characters can buy everything they need for a fraction of their starting wealth, why would they bother taking crappier, "scavenger" gear?

But consider a typical trooper squad.  Every character might have a blaster pistol and some grenades and a light hardsuit and combat helmet, while the heavy trooper might have a blaster gatling, extra grenades and an IML with some missiles, the assault trooper might have a heavy combat suit and a neurolash-baton, the recon trooper might have a sniper x-ray, and the sergeant might have a man-portable holographic communicator and a set of IR binoculars.  I won't bore you with the details of the list I worked out, but I came to about $350,000 for 5 people, which is roughly $70,000 per person.

How did we get from $20,000 to $70,000 in one step like that?  Well, sniper x-rays and gatling blasters are expensive.  The heavy and the sniper cost more than a basic rifleman.  Using standard GURPS rules, we run into a problem where the heavy must either be wealthier than everyone else, or he must have signature gear.  While this fits our image of a knight (Dun might have his heavy hardsuit and force sword as signature gear), it doesn't fit our image of a soldier. Instead, armies provide gear to their soldiers based on need.  This explains why low wealth isn't allowed: what if the heavy took Dead Broke, and then enjoyed the benefits of the military's beneficence to gain access to his top-notch gear?  That's free points, and hardly fair.

But clearly, standard wealth allows for perfectly acceptable gear, and we want unacceptable gear.  We want old, run-down ships that often break when they try to go into hyperspace, or blaster that you need to smack a couple of times before they'll fire properly.  We need lower wealth.  How do we make it work?

Getting Organized

Star Wars definitely divides those who belong to organizations from those who stand alone.  An imperial stormtrooper serves the empire, while Wedge Antilles and Leia serves the Rebel Alliance.  When Luke Skywalker joins the Rebel Alliance, he gets a free X-wing.  Han Solo, on the other hand, gets nothing from the Rebel Alliance, continues to remain independent... and also has money troubles.

The first problem is this: stormtroopers have better gear than rebel soldiers.  How do we model this?  GURPS Boardroom and Curia has our answer for us: Some organizations are wealthier than others.   The Rebel Alliance is Struggling, while the Empire is either Average or Comfortable, depending on how you want to model them.  We adjust the available budget (and any other monetary values an organization can provide. See Action 1: p27 "Standard (and not so-standard) Issue")  by the organizations Wealth value.  This means that the budget for a five man team from the Alliance is not $375,000, but $187,500, while the Empire might have offer its minions a budget of $750,000.

But what happens if an imperial comando, a rebel fighter ace and an unaligned bounty hunter, who is Poor, all join up together?  What's their group budget then?

I would argue that to benefit from a budget, a character must belong to that organization.  They must have a Duty to the organization, and they must have Rank within it (even if it's only Rank 0).  Furthermore, to belong to an organization, a character must have the same Wealth as the organization.  This doesn't mean the Empire doesn't hire Poor schlubs but that once it does, it takes care of you.  A Poor character becomes Average or Comfortable once they sign up with the Empire (and thus must buy the appropriate level of Wealth).  If players switch allegiances often and you're really bothered by the Wealth values switching often, consider a "Mitigator -100% Duty" modifier, merely as a marker of  your previous wealth.  Thus, if your character is Poor and joins the Empire, he has "Poor (Mitigator, serves the Empire -100%) [-0]", meaning that he's now currently Average, and he'll return to Poor the moment he leaves the empire.

An organization does not trust outsiders with its material.  People who do not belong to the organization or who are only temporarily hired by the organization (The Imperial Commando is setting aside his loyalties for the importance of this one mission with the Alliance), then he must either provide his own items with his own wealth, or the items gained from an unaligned budget are as prone to narratively disappearing (repossession, damage, lost, theft) as any other "free" item.  Typically, they last for the one mission and disappear.

Consider the Imperial Commando working with the Alliance.  He usually has his blaster gatling, which far exceeds the budget of the Alliance.  He is not counted in determining the budget of the mission, and he's free to bring his blaster gatling, whether he acquired it on his own or gained it from the budget he had while serving the Empire, and that's fine for one mission, but if he switches sides or runs with the Alliance for too long without gaining Imperial sanction (ie, they agree to continue to fund his excursion), then the GM is free to find a reason for him to lose the gatling, or to run out of power cells, or have the Empire come knocking to find out what is up and why he's been AWOL for so long.

Consider the Poor Bounty Hunter.  She works for the Alliance only temporarily.  She also doesn't count for the total budget of the mission and must provide all of her own gear.  If the Alliance chooses to include her in the budget and provides her with a Starhawk, she can enjoy the benefits of that Starhawk for this mission only, and then after that, she either needs to give it back, or she runs into a heap of trouble when she steals it, or she has to find a way to pay for it with points (she buys it as Signature Wealth because the Alliance decided to let her keep it as a reward for good service).

More Money More Problems

So we also have starships, which are very expensive.  How do we expand the budget for those? And what about characters who don't belong to an organization?  Is Han Solo a Filthy Rich character who frequents dive bars and has debts for fun?

I don't want to get into the actual economics of starship ownership in Psi Wars.  That has its place, but not here.  Instead, I suggest that we just hand our players a starship. I suggest we have two budgets: a gear budget (which works as normal) and a starship budget. But how much budget?
  • A Dark Horse-Class Tramp Frieghter is $97M
  • A Tiger-Class Frigate is $850M
  • A Typhoon-Class Fighter is $4M
  • A Starhawk is $9M
  • A Wyvern is $23M
I've left the Empire-Class dreadnought off the list, because it's clearly in a different cost-category.

If we assume a five man team might have three starhawks and one wyvern (it has a crew of 2), we come to about $10M per character. The same budget will allow for a Dark Horse frigate if they are Comfortable (or if it's very well-used).  On the other hand, if we want to make a ship like the Wyvern readily available (a Wyvern Zero is the cheapest possible craft that has the possibility of long-duration habitability), and we want most SM+8 corvettes to be readily affordable for a group of 5 players, then 20 million becomes the ideal point.  A starhawk becomes a 1-point signature ship, or available even to Struggling pilots, and a typhoon is available even to Poor pilots.

The rule for this separate budget is that it can only be spent on ships, but it works exactly like Wealth in all other ways.  If you buy Wealth (Wealthy), then not only do you get 5x the gear budget, you get 5x the ship budget as well (Wealth that's only for a Ship is -50%, while Wealth that only applies to gear is -20%).  Signature Gear (Starship) works the same as Signature Gear: one point buys you half of the starting Ship wealth for your own ship (thus $10M). Han Solo has Signature Gear (Millenium Falcon) [10].

Wealth Summary

Because we need less money for standard gear (I'm okay with fully tricked out troopers representing Comfortable wealth), and more money for ships, then we lower the wealth of a typical adventurer from $75,000 to $50,000 (this tracks with the lower economic efficiency of Psi Wars, which more closely reflects TL 10 automation than TL 11 nanofabrication), but we grant each character a budget of $20 million for ships only.


Finn: What about that ship?
Rey: That one's garbage
[ship blows up]
Finn: The garbage will do

I told you that story so I could tell you this story.

If our gear is going to be storied, worn and rusted, then it should suffer for it.  If you go to the store and buy a used car, we expect it to have problems that a new car does not have, and we expect the same to be true of a used spaceship, plasma shotgun, or a set of IR binoculars.

Used Gear

GURPS Action 1 has a nice suggestion on how to handle used items (page 34) that we could certainly use for Psi Wars, or expand out as an idea for other items.  It might look something like this:
  • Bad Engine: becomes a Malf of 14 for whatever item is associated with it (even your IR Binoculars breaks down if you roll badly enough with them).
  • Unresponsive: becomes a -1 to any skill use with the item.
  • Mistreated: becomes a -1 to the HT of any item (particularly pertinent if you're using the Sand, Slime and Equipment Failure rule on B485, or if you use EMP pulses.
  • Short-Legs: becomes a reduced number of shots (for guns) or reduced battery life (for other items)
  • Wobbly: For guns, -1 to acc.  For other items, treat as either a -1 to some secondary function, or ignore.
  • Slow: For guns -10% damage.  For other items, treat as a -10% to range or some kind of impact (number of HP restored, information gleaned, etc), or ignore.
  • Unsafe: Unchanged.

Storied Gear

Personally, though, I would find it a hassle to always roll on that table for each bit of gear, and then to remember how they they had changed.  The Millenium Falcon runs like a dream, until the GM suddenly remembers that it's a pile of junk and inflicts a bunch of problems on it.  Gear, in Star Wars, has character.  They have stories, legends, deeds, personality and problems.  And like characters, we only care about their problems when they're dramatically interesting and ignore them the rest of the time.  

Thus, I propose an alternate version of the above "used item" rules: We apply modifiers or disadvantages to the gear, and we reduce the cost of the gear by that amount.  Because these are disadvantages, we can apply the Ham Clause. Rather than constantly apply a disadvantage, we can either bring it up when it's a problem, or simply apply a flat penalty to its use for a scene to abstract the disadvantage away.  Treat each -5% as -5 points for the purposes of the Ham Clause.

Example disadvantages might be:
Bad Smell: -10%
Fragile: Flammable: -10%
Fragile: Explosive: -15%
Increased Consumption: -10% to -20%
  • Halved or 1/5 endurance (Ignore the Super-Science cell rules for this device) 
Klutz: -5%
  • The device is very clumsy. At least once per day, when you use it, make an item-use roll to prevent some sort of terrible disaster from happening. 
Restricted Diet 
  • Increase from “Very Common”, always with the Substitution limitation to 
    • Common (Extra Refined fuel, specialised power cells; both double cost): -5% 
    • Occassional (Radioactives or Unobtanium; both multipy cost by 5): -10% 
Maintenance: -5%, -10%
  • For weekly, daily 
Noisy: -6% or -10%
  • Easier to detect. +3 to detect or +5 
Unreliable: -10% to -20%
  • 14 or less for it to work for -10%, or 11 or less for -20% 
  • Halve if just one aspect of the item( For Starships, weapons, hyperdrives and force screens all count as unique aspects of the larger system) 
Vulnerability: -10, -15 or -20
  • Weak Spot (requires -10 to hit, and appropriate knowledge): x2, x3, or x4
If you want to use the same system as the Used Vehicle system from Action, then for every roll, apply a -10% to the cost of the item, and roll on the table below:

Storied Gear Table

2: Vulnerability (Weak Spot) x3 damage or Fragile (Explosive)
3: Vulnerability (Weak Spot) x2 damage or Fragile (Flammable)
4: Maintenance (Daily)
5: Noisy (+5 detection)
6: Maintenance (Weekly) or Unreliable (14 or less on one aspect of a multi-system item)
7: No problem!
8: Klutz or Bad Smell
9: Restricted Diet (Refined Fuel or Unique Cells, double cost)
10: Unreliable (14 or less for a single-system item, or 11 or less for one aspect of a multi-system item)
11: Increased Consumption (halved endurance) or Restricted Diet (Exotic, x5 cost)
12: Increased Consumption (1/5 endurance)

Anyone who is repairing or building an item my apply any of the above as a modifier to their time: every -5% is a +1 to their roll.  A roll on the table is +2.

Quick Gadgeteer (Scavenger)

Okay, I actually told you all of that so I could tell you this.  We can now make scavengers.  The defining feature of a Scavenger will be their Quick Gadgeteer specialty, similar to how Action allows Hackers and Wire-Rats to have their own specialties.

Quick Gadgeteer (Scavenger -20%) [40]
A quick gadgeteer with the Scavenger limitation may analyze ancient technology, but not alien technology that comes from outside the galaxy. They're as lost as anyone else when it comes to something truly bizarre.  They may use the quick gadgeteer rules to improvise existing technology (that is, any technology that is already available in the gear list), but not invent new technology.  Thus, a quick gadgeteer can put together a rudimentary blaster rifle using a power cell, an overcharged plasma capacitor, some wiring, some cufftape, and a stick, but they cannot make disintegrators or force beams or nanotechnology, because things don't exist in Psi Wars. Finally, Scavengers may apply up to a -10 for time taken to their repair rolls, and double the bonus gained for applying penalties to the item repaired or improvised.

Thus, a scavenger could get a +4 to her improvised blaster if it required a unique psi-crystal for power (Restricted Diet), and another +4 because it tends to break down on a 14+ (unreliable).  When she's fixing up Tobin's starhawk, she gets a +4 for rollong on the table: Good news, she got it fixed!  Bad news, there's now an intense odor of ozone coming from the unsheathed power couplings ("You don't mind the smell, do you? You're in a vacc suit all the time anyway...").

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