Monday, July 4, 2016

Building Communion

The second half of the Psi-Wars power set is based on Divine Favor.  I chose Divine Favor because it allows a great deal of GM discrection, which assists the narrative nature of our chosen genre.  I also chose it because the inherently mystical nature of Divine Favor balances out the pseudo-scientific nature of Psionic Powers.  This lets me have my cake and eat it too: I can have psi-clones and crazy psychotronic tech, and still have sages who mutter that scientists cannot possibly understand the forces they play with, and that they'll never truly understand what Psi really is, unless they have partaken of Communion.

Divine Favor poses a few problems, though.  As written, it's meant to be a stand-alone powerset (that is, one would expect to have either psi or divine favor, and if one had both, they would be unrelated), and its powers aren't particularly Star-Wars-y.  I could, of course, discard that Star Wars connection, as I have with psi, but we're still trying to stay more-or-less close to Star Wars, at least in overall feel.

Furthermore, Divine Favor means God and God doesn't sit idly by in a setting.  God represents Cosmic Order, a fundamental truth to the way the world works (Or how, at least, it should work).  How you define God fundamentally defines your setting.  Many fantasy games, for example, are defined by Gods who fight one another, or a screw up the Gods did a long time ago.  Star Wars is no different, defining all conflict as a struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force.  Thus, how I define Communion, how I build it, will instantly set the tone for the rest of my setting.

In particular, I had to be careful to not too perfectly capture the Force.  If I ran a game with Space Knights wielding "the Psi" and Force Swords, then in short order, my players would be calling their Space Knights "Jedi" and "the Psi" would become "the Force" and they'd roll their eyes at me when I corrected them.  However, Psi-Wars is not Star-Wars.  This is not a meaningless distinction!  We must maintain this split, because without it, we run into the very problems that leads me to recommend creation over conversion. If this is just a badly converted Star-Wars, then everyone will hate it.  If it's a clever, new take on the genre, then people will appreciate it.

Design Goals

I had several design goals
  • Define a divine favor that fit the themes of Star Wars
  • Emphasize my own unique take on said themes
  • Create a relationship between Divine Favor and Psionics
  • Create appropriate Divine Favor Powers.
Obviously, whatever I designed had to be recognizable as at least inspired by the Force, but it had to be sufficiently different that players both understood that they were playing something new and, ideally, were curious to explore this new idea.  Naturally, Divine Favor can't be a standalone power: it has to be an extension of psionics.  And, finally, what Divine Favor did had to work for the themes of the setting.


My solution, and it struck me like a bolt, was that this Divine Favor was Psionic.  It was the cumulative effect of the belief of untold trillions of people.  "Collective belief" is a big element of games like Mage: the Ascension, and it's an element of some real-world magic systems.  Belief has power, especially in a world where thought creates effect.  The difference between a psion and a normal person is just a matter of scale.  A single psion might be able to move a rock, but so can a thousand people working in concert.  Of course, people don't work like that, but people can certainly mob up without realizing that they did so.  They can unconsciously do things, and those collective hopes and fears begin to create a sort of super-mind, containing echoes of all thought, hope and fear that had ever been and ever would be, and it had the power to move and shape things.  Surely, a Godlike being... but not necessarily a moralistic being.  If psionic powers reflect their user, this form of divine favor reflected the total virtues and vices of all people, everywhere.

With a core concept in hand, I needed to emphasize some Star-Wars-like themes, and that means a Light and Dark side.  Realizing that the global super-consciousness would work like a human brain ("What about alien brains?"  Well, I decided to answer this question by saying that, in this universe, all aliens (for the most part? in this galaxy?) think basically the same way, explaining why they keep falling in love with each other, or find the same jokes funny, etc), I just had to turn to psychology.  Not the real stuff, of course, but the evocative and simplistic early psychology of Sigmund Freud.

He argued for a primal, animalistic Id that is selfish and wants, and a self-critical, socially-minded, moral super-ego, and the ego that stands in-between, mediating between them.  If you want a cookie, that's your id.  If part of you says "But I can't have a cookie, I'm on a diet, and people will judge me, and I can just picture my mother shaking her finger at me", that's your super-ego.  The part that decides is your ego.  Of course, "super-ego" is a mouthful, especially for a global super-conscious ("it's the super-ego of the super-consciousness, sort of a super-super-ego!"), so I just decided to call it the Ego.  I'm aware that it is, strictly speaking, wrong.

Now, I prefer it when there's less morality attached to stuff, because I find it limits things in a way I dislike.  I would rather players could reasonably choose between the Light and Dark side, rather than having the Dark Side reserved for villainous NPCs.  By noting that these are psychological principles, we can make the case that neither side is necessarily better, and we can do that by discussing themes.  Ego would emphasize denial of self (servitude to others, slavery of your will to the will of society, self-flagellation), community awareness, and control.  Id would emphasize the self (defiance of others, willful disobedience, self-indulgence), independence (rebellion) and power.

But if I really wanted to have a true sense of choice, I needed more than two powers.  Two tends to create dualities, and it becomes easy to see this as a renaming of the Light and Dark side of the Force.  While that comparison was acceptable, I wanted to draw some attention to its uniqueness.  I found my answer in Thanatos, the so called death-instinct that Freud believed all people had, which he used to explain self-destructive behavior.  Not selfish, and not selfless, but self-destructive.  It occurred to me that, unlike God, people are flawed and broken.  Therefore, the global super-consciousness would be broken too.  What about all the collective dementia of mankind?  Our delusions, our self-destructive drives, our fundamental blindness to certain concepts or ideas?  Our minds, individually or collectively have limits.  What happens when you explore those limits? When we go into the ruins of our own minds?  I had the good (ego) and the bad (id), I needed the ugly: Psychosis.  Psychosis would emphasize broken minds (defiance of logic, uncertain action), mystery and danger to self.

The Power of Names

Words have meaning and names have power. - Anonymous 
While it's fine if my players make a connection between my global super-consciousness and the Force, but I want them to see it as an inspiration, not as the Force with the serial numbers rubbed off.  The right name would change how people see it, and might set my power apart.

"Global super-consciousness" was the first name that popped to mind, but it's quite a mouthful and has no romance to it.

"Ego, Id, Psychosis" are fine, but they describe pieces of the larger picture.

"Psi" or "the Psi" is too large a picture, and easily confused with psionic powers.

"The Dream" or "The Dream-Web" was another idea I came up with fairly quickly.  Characters awaken to the dream.  If that's not sci-fi sounding enough, then we can have "the Dream-Web."

But "the Noun!" sounds too much like "the Force!"  If you want to really change your players' headspace, change the part of their head that they use to process a name.  Why focus on a noun?  Why not an adjective or a verb, and for goodness sake, I had to get rid of "the."  I noticed that when I discussed the concept, I kept using the word "Communing,"  as in "Space knights would commune with the global super-consciousness"  So why not call it communion?  It sounded a bit euphemistic, but it also sounded very religious... which actually fit nicely. It created a new headspace that fit this idea of a fundamentally psionic ability that represented the joining of many minds.

Divine Power

Each form of Communion would need its own unique flavor and feeling and they would need their own powers, as most of the Divine Favor powers don't really fit.  Fortunately, new powers aren't that hard to create, and I could probably model concepts based on existing powers.  But I needed to define themes too.

Communion represents a galactic space-god, so each form of communion should have somewhat standard miracles, displays of divine power.  Star Wars also likes to talk about "letting the Force flow through you." It might be nice to let each form of Communion empower a character when the character relents and channels Communion directly.  Finally, Communion needs to emphasize its psionic nature by interacting on some level with the characters' psionic powers.  I wanted to have miracles that would allow players to "cast their powers through" Communion, and vastly empower them. These powers wouldn't necessarily be suitable to actual, Learnable prayers, but we could still set an effect level for them.

Ego Communion should emphasize the sort of powers that one might expect from Divine Favor.  It should have miracles that healed people, brought them wisdom, and blesse the land.  Furthermore, it should have powers that emphasize connection between others, powers like mind-links, shared knowledge and the ability to reach out anywhere and psionically interacting with one another.  As we're using a form of Psi that heavily emphasizes FP expenditures, Communion would allow Meditative Magic (That is, you could spend time meditating to build up a pool of psionic energy reserves).

Id Communion, or Dark Communion, should emphasize some of the powers one might expect from evil Divine Favor.  It should have dramatic miracles, like earthquakes and storms, and do things like desecrate the land (that is, give it appropriate Sanctity for Dark Communion).  It's psi-related powers would emphasize raw power.  Dark Communion would use Black Magic (Assisting Spirits rules, or said differently, you could always borrow psionic energy at a potential cost of corruption).

Psychosis Communion, or Broken Communion, should emphasize the other sort of powers one might expect from evil Divine Favor.  It should focus on chaos and weirdness, and do things like corrupt the land (creating the psionic equivalent of Twisted mana fields).  It's psi-related powers would allow one to corrupt other psi powers, or gain terrifying precedence over other psi abilities.
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