Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Meditations on Communion

The Design Goals of Communion

I've already discussed why I chose Divine Favor twice, but allow me to briefly summarize once more: I created Communion to fill the holes left by psionics.  I wanted to return mystical themes to the game, create a sense of universality to the power-framework, and connected the characters to the larger narrative.

Divine Favor must necessarily add a sense of mysticism to a setting because characters cannot control it.  Once something ceases to be repeatable, once something cannot be controlled in a laboratory, once something requires ridiculous mumbo jumbo to explain it, then it necessarily becomes mystical.  I chose the powers I did to express the divine power of Communion.  It can invade you, it can control you, it can empower you, it can darken the skies and rip psionics out of your control.  It's this vast and powerful thing, both terrifying and exhilarating.  It is awesome, in the classic sense of the word, just as Divine Favor should be, and as a result, it becomes something difficult to explain, something that all characters with Communion can understand, but that they must resort to metaphors to explain.

The nature of Communion, what it is described as, deeply favors symbolic associations.  Of course your true name matters, because that's how Communion knows you.  Of course wearing creepy masks and wielding the dread weapons of a horrific fallen empire will give you power, because Communion remembers those associations. Communion creates a God that thinks like us, and loves stories as much as we do, so the best way to manipulate it is by following a sort of narrative logic... just as the Star Wars stories do.

Communion does not allow niches.  To be sure, characters can choose to purchase learned prayers, but this does not guarantee an exclusive niche.  Any character can receive visions.  The character who purchases visions as a learned prayer can use it more readily than characters who have not, but nothing stops other characters from stepping on the first character's toes, because nobody really controls Communion.  Contrast this with Psionics, where a player can't even learn ESP powers if he's a Telepath, and even if he expanded out in that direction, he'll be far behind the ESPer in skill and technique.  This could cause a problem if Communion was the only source of power, but because it interacts with psionics, it creates a sort of level playing field: ESPers can see the future and Psychokinetics can move stuff around, but anyone with Communion can learn important facts or have some kind of combat advantage.

Finally, Communion uses the rules for a Patron, which means the GM can treat it as an NPC.  This is intentional, and it's definitely one of the reasons I chose this route.  The GM is always free to do what he wishes, of course, but I wanted to make his role in the lives of psionic characters very explicit.  B 73 states:

If the GM determines that your Patron appears at the start of an adventure, he may design the adventure to include an assignment or aid from the Patron.
The rules for Minimum Intervention only apply on an Appearance roll.  That is, they only apply if the player is trying to invoke Communion himself. If the GM decides Communion is going to actively participate in the scenario, he is free to do so.  If you want a PC with Communion 4 to manifest a full Avatar, you are free to do so.  If you want to just hand a PC a vision of something important, you are free to do so.  If you want Communion to participate in a negative way, you're free to do that too.  Broken Communion, in particular, is deeply appropriate for "haunted house" stories, with characters or places "cursed" by Broken Communion haunted by strange events or twisted psionic energies.

The opposite is true too.  If you find that a PC is a little too cavalier with Communion, or you don't want a miracle to save the players... then you don't have one.  That's the nature of the Minimum Intervention modifier.  Players cannot complain when they beg Communion to save them while they're in a prison, and all it does is unlock one door, or turn off the power, or give them one guard who might help them.

Star Wars is deeply cinematic, and with the inclusion of Communion, GMs have the excuse to have deeply cinematic games as well, and gives the GM the control to shift the game into a higher or lower gear as needed.

A Note on Skills

Originally, I had replaced Religious Ritual with Meditation (as connecting with Communion matters more than the external display of ritual), and Theology with Philosophy.  Upon reflection, I think Religious Ritual and Theology still has a place, but in a different way.

Religious Ritual represents ritualism, which is important to Paths, and the ability to lead others in a ritual.  The latter is vital for priests, and for leading congregations in prayer.  Given that all forms of Communion have the ability for a congregation to assist the Communer (though see below for alternate ideas), this strikes me as a Religious Ritual.  We should make a successful Religious Ritual roll a requirement for gaining the bonus for multiple people assisting.  For the Paths, Religious Ritual reflects understanding external perceptions of their chosen path, and precisely and carefully enacting it.  A successful ritual roll can grant a +1 to Reaction rolls when praying for an appropriate path miracle.

Theology represents the belief structure of a religious, while Philosophy reflects the belief structures of a philosophy. Where one ends and the other begins is largely blurry.  I've chosen Philosophy because of the philosophical overtones of Star Wars, and the fact that Communion is largely a personal act: If the Space Knights of the Order of Styx follow the Way of Law, that might be a philosophy.  If the Cult of Qo follows the crazed religion of the Alien God, that might be theology.  For all mechanical intents and purposes, though, treat them as the same: They can both be used for the same rolls, and a talent that adds to one adds to the other.

The Powers of Communion

In keep with its role as a generic toolbox available to most psionic characters, the miracles of Communion largely fill one of three roles:
  • Filling in holes with generic but appropriate powers
  • Augmenting psionic power
  • Generally impressive feats
Filling in Holes

We expect psionic characters to have certain baseline capabilities, and Communion tries to provide those.  Powers that fall into this niche are:
  • Confidence: Confidence grants characters ridiculous luck, when means if a character's luck is not enough and they STILL need to succeed, they can use Confidence.
  • Gift of Life Force: Characters will get hurt.  Communion supplies a secondary option to make sure characters can be healed.  It doesn't really step on the toes of Psychic Healing because it only heals you.
  • Tao of Communion: What if you need a skill and nobody has it?  Tao of Communion has you covered.
  • Wisdom of Communion: Characters always need to know something more.  If there's a hint that the GM needs to feed them, he has Wisdom of Communion.  The same applies if the PC is stuck and needs a hint.  Similar to Precognition, but with less facility
  • Tao of Hyperspace: Hyperspace mistakes can be a real hassle.  Having Communion means you can just wave those away.  It fulfills a similar role to the Light Jumper perk, but with added facility.
Augmenting Psionic Powers

Communion serves as sort of meta-psi.  Characters with it can do a lot more than characters without it by channeling their power through Communion.  The most obvious version of this is the inclusion of "Meditative Magic" for Psionic Powers. Normally, this wouldn't be much of a benefit, but because of Godlike Extra Effort and liberal Technique use, players will find plenty to spend their Fatigue on.

Powers that fall into this niche are:
  • Bond of Communion: Like Universal Psionics below, this allows a character to connect with another character across vast distances.  This fits the themes of Communion creating interconnection, and as a specific or learned prayer, it can facilitate communication, and as a general miracle, it can alert a character to a problem.
  • Psionic Focus: Inspired by Powerful Conviction, I liked the idea of Communion directly empowering a psion.  A character could close his eyes for a few seconds, center himself with Meditation and Communion, and then use his powers at a considerable +3 bonus for the next while.
  • Universal Psionics: Quite a few Communion miracles aren't advantages, but new options.  I'm not sure how RAW that is, but I think it fits in the sense that a Godlike being could allow something like this.  Psi-Wars covers vast distances that become impractical even when you include extreme levels of Godlike extra-effort. How do you Ping or Telesend to someone on another planet?  That sort of thing is rare in Star Wars... but it also seems feasible.  The idea of perfect interconnection through Communion means that with a deep centering focus, a character can reach out and interact with anyone.
  • Psychic Omniscience: Allows the character to sense psionic activity, which allows all psionic characters, even non-ESPer characters, to sense and detect one another.  It also serves a role in understanding the state of Communion, thus alerting characters to Low Sanctity areas, or Twisted Psionic Energy.
  • Ego Mastery: Ego has the power to say "No!" so naturally, so do characters with Ego Communion.  This fills the niche of "Force Absorption" from Star Wars, with masters of Ego Communion able to shut down the powers of others.  But it also creates a non-transitive cycle of dominance that you'll see elsewhere, borrowed from Chi Powers: Id Communion has the most directly powerful psionic abilities (thanks to Psychic Nova), while Ego Communion can shut those powers down directly, while Broken Communion can make its psionic powers untouchable by such abilities, while Id Communion can overcome Broken Communion by simply being stronger.
  • Ego Dominion: Even more powerful than Ego Mastery in that it can shut down Miracles too.  This is meant primarily to interact with Id Communion and Ego communion, not Broken Communion, which "Follows its own rules."  It's exceedingly powerful... but it's also a world-shaking miracle.  It should rarely come up.
Generally Impressive Feats

Communion should have saintly miracles and interact with itself. Ego Communion doesn't really have the large-scale miracles one might expect from Divine Favor, but that's because the source material is rather subtle too.  The Force doesn't make the skies rain blood or summon swarms of angels, so neither does Communion.  Still, it has a few powers that fall into this category
  • Sense Communion: Naturally, having the ability to understand the state of Communion around you is very important, though it's a rather meta-ability.
  • Consecrate: All the various forms of Consecrate ultimately turn into ways to make Communion more powerful in a specific area.  I don't expect it to be something PCs use often, except as a way to defeat Twisted Psionic Energy fields, which it explicitly overcomes.  However, it does explain why some temples, cities and worlds might be holy.

Communion and the Psi-Wars Framework

I don't foresee any major issues or problems with the powers listed above.  They largely won't step on any toes, they remain useful enough that players will take advantage of them, and if they start to tip into being excessively powerful, the GM can intervene.

But how often will they come up?  For 50 points, a character can only afford about Divine Favor 8.  Most characters will have substantially less power than that.  With modifiers, though, characters can expect to reach pretty decent values, especially if they're invoking the path modifiers.  Thus, we should expect characters to successfully invoke a miracle about half to a quarter of the time they try.

I'd like  players to have more direct control over that.  While I understand disallowing Luck (it doesn't make sense anyway if the roll is secret), I have chosen to allow players to spend Destiny.  My reasoning is as follows: Impulse buys are ultimately a conversation between player and GM.  The GM is always free to reject an impulse buy, but if a player makes the offer, the GM can clearly see the PC really wants to succeed at something.  Given that the GM is largely in control of Communion anyway (secret Petition rolls and secret Reaction rolls means that the player would never know if the GM just outright cheated in his favor or against it), this makes Destiny especially appropriate.  The player says he's making a petition and says he's willing to spend Destiny.  The GM can roll and see if he succeeds and accept the Destiny if he does not.

The inclusion of Legendary Reputation means that characters could have up to +4 to their reaction rolls all the time.  Is this a problem?  Well, Divine Favor page 7 allows for Power Investiture to act as a bonus as well... so I don't expect it should be an issue.

But what happens when a character wants to spend Destiny, has Legendary Reputation +4 and makes a specific prayer for something very powerful like, say, an Avatar state?  He'll automatically get his petition roll and, assuming nothing else, he'll get his Avatar State on a... 15 or better!  Which is very rare.  A character might reasonably expect a +2 for always doing the right thing, and another +2 for using it during a serious emergency, at which point he needs an 11 or better... which is still pretty hard.

It seems unlikely, thus, that characters can readily access extreme powers unless their GM wants them to.

But what about extreme investment?  Divine Favor 16 costs 200 points.  Assuming 200 character points are already invested in heroic heroeness, our character would need another 200 points just in Communion, and then something like an Avatar runs around 50 points.  Legendary Reputation +4 is 32 points.  Such a character is pushing 500 points, most of which is focused on gaining access to a few powers.  Is such a character unbalancing?  Only in so far that all 500 point characters are unbalancing.  His extreme powers also face the constant, critical eye of the GM.

What about the reverse?  What about bad rolls and low results?  Characters who want reliable results can of course purchase Learned Prayers.  Failed Petition rolls waste nothing but your time. Negative reactions can make bad situations worse in that you'll lose a lot of access to your Communion powers for awhile... but here, the fact that Communion is layered over Psionic Powers becomes useful to us.  An Esper who temporarily loses access to Communion is still an ESPer.

My verdict, thus, is that Communion looks pretty safe. It is possibly too tame, too conservative, but it definitely won't upend what we've tried to build here, and there are real reasons to take a least a few levels.

The Design Goals of Dark Communion

Obviously, Dark Communion fulfills the same role as Communion, only for our "dark" Psions.  I've done my best to strip out obvious moral interactions: Id isn't evil, but selfish, which can be evil, but isn't necessarily so.  I also stole the "Evil God" rules for simplicity, but I've left the standard Divine Favor rules in place for a few reasons.  First, it's simpler and requires you to remember less rules.  Second, it promotes things like Id cults.  But I originally wanted my rules for Petitions to be different for Id.  I've included those rules below:

Alternate Id Petition rules

  • A character may petition for 1d6 seconds for +0, or in one second for -1, or for 1 minute for +1. He may not petition for longer than this (the Id is impatient).
  • Ignore the rules for faithful followers. The Id is independent.
  • Apply the same rules for repeated prayers.  The Id doesn't want to be bothered.
  • Apply the same Sanctity rules.  Places with Holy Sanctity (that is, sacred to Communion) or with Twisted Psionic Energy count as Low-Sanctity for Dark Communion.
  • Replace the rules for loud praying with the following: +1 for closing eyes, gesturing/pointing towards subject, and chanting a mantra, as well as succeeding at a Meditation roll.
  • Characters in the throes of passion gain +1 to their petition rolls.  As a general rule, this requires behavior consistent with a failed self-control roll for an appropriate disadvantage (Bad Temper, Berserk, Lecherousness, Overconfidence; see the Paths of Dark Communion for ideas of appropriate disadvantages).
  • Characters may invoke "black magic" to assist their petition rolls.  Treat each +1 to the roll as three points of energy granted by "black magic."  They may gain no more than +3 to their petition roll this way.

The Miracles of Dark Communion

Dark Communion acts as a dark mirror for Communion.  While it has a very different theme, its powers tend to reflect the same abilities that Communion already has.  Black Magic and Meditative Magic both reflect character-point loss for power, it's just that Meditative Magic is front-loaded ("I'll give up character points gained via training time for power") while Black Magic is back-loaded ("I'll get power now, and pay character points/training time for it later").  Both offer exactly as many potential bonus points, and thus neither unbalances the other.

Most Miracles are identical as well, just with a spooky flavor.  The following are genuinely different:
  • Sense Passion: Dark Communion doesn't understand psionics nearly as well as it understands passion.  While this steps on the toes, a bit, of Emotion Sense, the idea here is to get an instant feel for what someone wants, on a primal level.  This makes masters of Dark Communion consummate tempters, which fits their role as evil/hedonistic.
  • Psychic Nova: a meta-psionic ability, this replaces Universal Psionics with a theme of "MORE POWER!"  Id says yes, loudly and with a growl, and Psychic Nova is a giant "yes."  It tempts characters with absolute, overwhelming power, which (when paired with Godlike Extra-Effort) can give spectacular results.  The one problem with this power is that it steps on the toes of Black Magic... but players can use both!  This is potentially the most problematic power of Dark Communion, but I've already looked at its ultimate implications back in our discussion of Psionic Powers.
  • Dark Storm, Eclipse, Earthquake: While I find earth-shaking miracles a hard-sell for Communion... they're dead easy for Dark Communion. We expect villainous psions to shake the earth, or to battle their foes while a dread storm lashes around them (hence the changes to the power from Divine Favor: to allow the Psion to act while still controlling his storm), or to call the night. All of these powers have profound implications during an Action scenario, but they tend to be very high-level, thus rare, and they're very broad in scope, which means the psion can do things like wreck a fortress, or grant darkness penalties for an hour, etc, but he can't use these powers to insta-kill a major named NPC or something similar.

The Design Goals of Broken Communion

The role of "Dark God" has been split between Dark and Broken communion.  The classic roles of selfishness and sin have been assigned to Dark Communion, but the rule of madness, monsters, death and chaos have been assigned to Broken Communion.  Dark Communion is evil-as-cool, while Broken Communion is evil-as-horrific.

Again, though, I wanted to keep a sort of morally neutral sense.  Broken Communion isn't actively evil so much as wounded and twisted up on itself.  I've tried to ensure that Broken Communion has some potentially beneficial elements, especially for the selfless who are willing to go deeper into Broken Communion to better understand Broken Communion and those afflicted by it.

I had originally designed Broken Communion to have the Cosmic modifier.  It couldn't be stopped or canceled by Ego Communion, and it couldn't be affected by Twisted Psionic energy.  I dropped the idea, as there was only one power (Dominion of Ego) that could affect Broken Communion and simply said that the power couldn't affect it, and the affect Twisted psionic energy has on Ego and Id communion is that it counts as Low sanctity.  That's simple enough.  That way, I didn't manipulate the costs too much.

Broken Communion also fails to offer some kind of generic power benefit, but characters may purchase empowered powers via Psychic Singularity.  The general theme of Broken Communion is not that it offers power so much as it allows you to break the rules, to exist in a slightly different paradigm.

As with Dark Communion, I've left the standard Divine Favor rules in place, but I originally had alternate rules.  I've included those rules below:

Alternate Psychosis Petition rules
  • Leave the rules for long-duration prayer the same.  Psychosis is long-suffering.
  • Remove the rules for followers.  Psychosis has no connection to others.
  • Do not apply the penalty for repeated prayers.  Prayers to Psychosis have their own price!
  • Places with High or Very High Sanctity to Broken Communion have Twisted Psionic Energy. This does not affect Communion or Dark Communion (other than representing places of Low Sanctity for them), and it does affect the psionic powers of the psi with Broken Communion, but see the Psychic Singularity miracle.  Places with high Sanctity for Communion or Dark Communion count as Low Sanctity for Broken Communion.
  • Replace the rules for loud praying with the following: +1 for closing eyes, gesturing/pointing towards subject, and chanting a mantra, as well as succeeding at a Meditation roll.
  • Apply the usual Path modifiers, but you may double them with up to 6 symbols.  Psychosis loves rituals.

The Miracles of Broken Communion

Broken Communion has completely different miracles than Communion or Dark Communion, though some themes remain the same.  By and large, rather than expressing saintly (dark or otherwise) power, Broken Communion turns the character into a monster.  Most of my powers were ripped straight from Horror, and grant characters the abilities to do things that you simply cannot have with other forms of Communion.

Thus, I'll break down the miracles in their categories again

Filling Holes
  • Servant of Unreality: The ability to lie is exceedingly useful in any Action scenario, and few would be better at telling believable lies than the insane people who believe them to be truths.
  • Inured Mind: Fright checks are rather rare outside of psionic powers, but intimidation attempts are not, making this a useful social tool.  It doubles as a meta-ability, as many of the Broken Communion powers inflict fright checks.  This means Broken Communion characters are good at fighting other Broken Communion characters.
  • Horrifying Truth grants the user information, just at a terrible cost.
  • Paths of Broken Communion: Is literally Ghost-Step from GURPS Horror.  I added it late because it became obvious that every path would reasonably have it, which means that all Broken Communion characters could have it.  Characters will often find themselves in a situation where they need to escape right now.  Personally, though I think it's utility as a miracle is less impressive than its utility as a learned prayer.
Psionic Meta-Abilities
  • Psychic Singularity is the prime benefit to your psychic powers.  It allows you to remove the ability of Anti-Psi characters to defeat you, at the price of increasing the cost of your power and gaining corruption whenever you use it. It also removes problems dealing with twisted psychic energy fields.  While many players will probably balk at this, definitely consider it for your Broken Communion NPCs, as the inability to turn off their powers or deal with them effectively in a twisted psionic energy field is the thing of nightmares!
  • Broken Window: An epic psychic defense.  I chose the Horror model over the Powers: the Weird model because I'm not sure if the latter really works as the author thinks it does.
  • Psionic Madness: In some ways, this resembles Ego Mastery in that it's an Anti-Psi power as a miracle, but this thematically reflects inflicting twisted psionic energy on your opponent directly.  Broken Communion, of course doesn't double down and control powers; rather, it makes things worse.  This is a great example of that.
Impressive Feats

These are the bread and butter of Broken Communion, as it grants you horrific powers and/or the ability to bypass "the rules."
  • Plague of Madness: I love the idea of Broken Communion as a disease, and I conceived of this less as a useful power, and more as an example as to why once someone uncovered a Broken Communion cult, they might stop at nothing to stamp it out. It's also an example as to why access to Broken Communion is a mixed blessing.  If you call upon a miracle, Broken Communion might decide the best course is to inflict your enemy with contagious Broken Communion.  Less of a useful power and more a story conceit.
  • Sanity-Blasting Horror: Again, the themes of horror, but this time emphasizing the fact that Fright checks (and cosmic themes) are the bread and butter of Broken Communion
  • Corrupt Ground: As usual, a meta-ability that facilitates the use of your own powers.  In this case, though, it also spreads twisted psionic energy.  Nasty!  No "Corrupt World" variant exists because I want to discourage corrupting entire planets.  Twisted energy fields should be relatively small, contained and rare.
  • Black Sun, Plague of Locusts: Appropriately horrific uses of divine power.
  • Paths of Broken Communion, Enhanced: Rather than gain access to Tao of Hyperspace, Broken Communion can take you directly where you need to go by following alternate paths.  I stole this straight from Powers: the Weird, but with a couple of modifications, and the requirement that this can only work when going two and from twisted energy fields to provide some form of defense from characters using this.  This is potentially problematic as it allows people to bypass ships, but the above noted limitations should keep it from consistently breaking down the campaign.

Broken Communion and the Psi-Wars Framework

This likely presents the greatest risk to Psi-Wars as it throws a lot of assumptions out on their ear. Suddenly, Psions can't be beaten by Anti-Psi.  Suddenly, your psi-powers don't work.  Suddenly, I don't need hyperspace to travel.  However, it's arguably the weakest of the three forms of Communion (it offers no free energy reserves) and it slowly destroys your character.  I suspect the net effect is a wash, though this power set is one worth watch extra-carefully.  Is it going to be overpowered? Underpowered? It's hard to see without measuring each individual interaction.

The other big problem here is Corruption, which will likely frighten many players.  The corruption of Dark Communion is voluntary and offers you a direct benefit.  The corruption of Broken Communion is mandatory and, worse, requires investment into Broken Communion.  I've offered enough ways to deal with Corruption that players who want to find "redemption" can do so, but a willingness to take Broken Communion is a sign of GM trust.  As a GM, talk with your player about what they want their eventual corruption to look like, and work with them on that.  This is one reason for the Broken Communion Paths: They allow the player to guide his own corruption to an extent.
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