Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Psionics and the Psi-Wars Framework

I've largely already addressed psionics in an Action framework in each individual post.  We can largely see where they fit into the above.  For example:
  • Violence (Psychokinesis and Ergokinesis)
  • Stealth (Telepathy and Psychokinesis)
  • Superior information and/or planning (ESP)
  • Social manipulation (Telepathy)
  • Mobility (Psychokinesis)
  • Technological Superiority (Ergokinesis)
Mobility suffers a bit, but that's because I want ships front and center to gameplay.

Beyond that, I'm largely not concerned about how well Psionic Powers will work because I believe that PK did his homework. PK is one of the shining examples of an author who understands frameworks, as can be attested by his work on the Monster Hunter and After the End series, thus I fully expect that not only will they work well with the Action framework based on the adjustments I've made, but they'll work well with one another.

That said, if a psionic, rather than classic, approach is going to work, it needs to provide reasonable power for a reasonable cost when compared to the skills and technology available to the average character: it needs to be a viable strategy.  For the most part, the psionics I've chosen offer the ability to do something that technology cannot, with a few exceptions (lightning blasts aren't really any better than blaster bolts).

My largest concern has been the considerable point-cost associated with Psionics.  A character can become pretty good at, say, information gathering with ~20 points worth of the right skills and the right technology.  An ESPer needs to spend considerably more than that to make his gift work, but his gift can offer much more than those 20 points.  To further off-set costs, I have introduced God-Like Extra-Effort.



God-Like Extra-Effort and Psi-Wars

So what are the implications of God-Like Extra-Effort?  My intent was to lower the required buy-in cost of psionics while still rewarding deep investment.  That is, players should have a reason to spend 200 points in psionic powers, but feel they got their points worth.  

The standard extra-effort rules, power-begets-power, tends to punish having low power-levels.  Going from TK-Grab 1 to TK-Grab 2 (+1 level) requires a staggering will roll of -10!  Psionic Campaigns introduces a rule where each +1 level is only -4, so in that case +1 TK Grab is only -4, but going from TK-Grab 20 to 21 is also -4, while in the standard system, "power begets power," Going from TK-Grab 20 to 22 is Will -1.  I chose to go with power-begets-power because it rewards deep investment and creates a sort of exponential increase in power typical of the genre.

However, to off-set the extreme costs of high-level upgrades, I chose to use Godlike Extra Effort.  The same character who wants to increase his TK-Grab from 1 to 2 (or from 20 to 40) could make a Will-5 roll and spend 4 fatigue, or Will -4 and spend 6 fatigue, or will-2 and spend 10 fatigue.  Or, if he can make a Will-10 roll and spend 20 fatigue, then he's gone from TK-Grab 1 to TK-Grab 10 (or from 20 to 200!).

This suits the sudden and intense power-increases often seen in the genre of Star Wars, but does it fit the framework of Action and Psi-Wars?

God-Like Extra Effort and Closed Powers

Most psionic powers fit into one of two models.  A closed power has a cap on its level.  An example of a closed power is Telerecieve, which caps out at level 6 (for unlimited range).  We tend to avoid any craziness with closed powers because they have maximum limits.  Mostly, in this case, God-Like Extra Effort just saves us some points, which is what we want.

Telerecieve has a buy-in cost of 21 points.  That lets you read someone's thoughts if you touch their skin with yours (so a kiss, or holding hands).  Raising it to level 3 will allow you to read someone's mind if they're close-by, which is typical of Star Wars.  This costs either 42 points (double our original cost) or requires 2 fatigue and an extra-effort roll at Will-10.  Alternatively, if we assume a character has Will 18 and can reasonably apply a -5, then increasing to level 3 costs him 4 fatigue.  Increasing to level 6 costs 10 fatigue, if we follow the same route.

If we already have Telerecieve 5 (buy-in cost of 60 points), increasing it to level 6 costs us 1 fatigue and a Will-2 extra effort roll.

The net result is that a character with a low buy-in cost operates something like a magician: With some fatigue, he can do nearly anything, but with no fatigue, he can do something, but it requires highly specific tricks to make it work.  High-power characters can reach even higher power level with casual ease, making the higher point cost a little more worth it, but because there's a cap on how high you can go, you won't see ridiculous results.  I think you'll also find that players won't bother to buy their power levels too high.  After all, Telerecieve already does most of what they want, and it'll do everything they could possibly want with a roll of Will-5 and 2 fatigue, so why buy level 4 or 5?  That helps keep the point costs low, and that works alright.

One exception should be noted for abilities with soft-caps, like Suggestion.  What happens when someone tries to push for Suggestion 5, despite it being banned?  A banned power is banned.  If someone wants to reach it, they need to get GM permission, usually via an unusual background (or a perk).

God-Like Extra Effort and Open Powers

Open Powers are powers with an undefined level cap.  In Psi-Wars, these are:
  • Psionic Shield (Page 24) (Increased Penalty)
  • Psychic Armor (page 25) (DR)
  • Dampen (page 33) (Radius)
  • EK Shield (page 33) (DR)
  • Lightning (page 12) (Damage)
  • Radar Sense (page 34) (Range)
  • Surge (page 34) (Damage)
  • Combat Sense (page 37) (Bonus)
  • Awareness (page 39) (Range)
  • Clairaudience (page 40) (Range)
  • Clairvoyance (page 40) (Range)
  • Cure (Page 46) (Reduced fatigue cost)
  • Life Extension (Page 48) (Increased effect)
  • Steal Life (Page 52) (Increased HP/FP drain)
  • TK-Crush (Page 54) (Damage)
  • TK-Grab (Page 54) (ST)
  • TK-Push (Unique) (Knockback)
  • Super-Jump (Page 57) (Increased distance)
  • Aspect (Page 61) (Increased Charisma)
  • Instill Fear (Page 64) (Increased Range)
  • Mind Clouding (Page 66) (Increased Penalty)
  • Mind Shield (Page 66) (Increased penalty)
These powers tend to benefit from having more than one level.  A character with TK-Grab of 1 is nearly useless.  Psionic Shield 1 or EK Shield 1 or Aspect 1 are also similarly unimpressive.  Most of them have a sweet-spot where players will tend to congregate.  For example, one wants enough TK-Grab to at least pick up most items, such as guns or data readers, and then beyond that, perhaps ST 10, and so on.

God-Like Extra-Effort can allow characters to reach reasonable levels just as it allowed characters to do decent things with closed powers.  The problem arises when players go nuts, especially when you add in the potentially unlimited power that a character can gain from Communion.

For example, Psychic Nova grants a character 24 fatigue for a single use of a psychic power.  Assuming he has 10 fatigue of his own that he's willing to spend, that gives him a total of 34 fatigue, which is up to x17 on a single extra-effort roll.  If we make our usual -5 roll, that's about 9 times the usual power level.

What could 9 times do?
  • A character with Psionic Shield 5 goes to Psionic Shield 45, making him utterly impossible to read for the next minute
  • Psychic Armor 5 goes from a DR of 5 to a DR of 45, making him effectively immune to most psionic attacks
  • A character with Dampen 5 goes from a 5 yard radius to a 45 yard radius, or an area of around 57,000 square feet, or a major building or a city block.
  • EK Shield 5 goes from DR 5 to 45, which is almost proper armor against blaster fire.
  • Lightning 3 goes from 3 dice (36 points) to 27.  That deals ~95, which actually isn't enough to penetrate a heavy hardsuit!
  • Surge 3 goes from 3 dice to 27, which will short-out a machine of up to ~300 HP regardless of its DR
  • Combat Sense 2 (already very expensive) jumps to 18, making a character virtually untouchable for one roll.
  • Awareness 5 increases to 45 for a spectacular 2000 AU
  • Clairaudience (page 40) 5 increases 45 for a spectacular 2000 AU
  • Clairvoyance (page 40) 5 increases 45 for a spectacular 2000 AU
  • Cure (Page 46) Level 4 increases to level 36, for -36 fatigue cost (which cost us 24 fatigue?)
  • Life Extension (Page 48) Soft-Capped at level 1
  • Steal Life (Page 52) Level 5 improves to level 45, from stealing 5 HP to stealing 45 HP.
  • TK-Crush (Page 54) Level 5 improves to level 45, from inflicting 5 damage to 45 damage.
  • TK-Grab (Page 54) Level 5 improves to level 45, from a basic lift of 5 to 405
  • TK-Push (Unique) Level 20 improves to level 180 from three yards of knockback to on a small person to 25 yards of knockback.
  • Super-Jump (Page 57) from level 2 to level 18, or an average long-jump of 312 miles.
  • Aspect (Page 61) from level 5 to level 45, or +45 to reaction modifiers.
  • Instill Fear (Page 64) from level 5 to level 45, for a spectacular 2000 AU
  • Mind Clouding (Page 66) Improvement beyond level 10 is largely moot.
  • Mind Shield (Page 66) A character with Psionic Shield 5 goes to Psionic Shield 45, making him utterly impossible to read for the next minute
It's possible for characters to ramp things up even more than this, but difficult. The above assume the character has spend between 25 and 50 points on the specific advantage in question, and then maxes out his possible Extra-Effort roll.  Many of these are actually pretty okay: Improved DR, improved ST and improved Damage are actually largely what you'd expect.  That a character can utterly exert himself and call upon communion to empower himself enough to surge an entire spaceship is something I'm entirely comfortable with.  I'm similarly comfortable with the extreme levels of Dampen.  Using TK Crush to instantly gib someone seems a little less fair... but it involves a contest of Skill vs Will, so some psychic noob can't just squish a dark psionic lord, because the dark psionic lord has Will 20 and the noob has skill 12.  

Quite a few are pretty impractical.  For example, extreme levels of combat sense are very powerful, but as they apply to a single roll, blowing 30+ points of energy reserves on it seems a waste.  Likewise, Mind Clouding doesn't really get any better past level 10 (Total invisibility).  Powers based on range become ridiculous and their use is questionable.  If you want to use clairvoyance on someone on Pluto and you're willing to spend 30+ energy reserves on it, sure, okay.

Some seem to create nonsensical results, mostly those that deal with fatigue in the first place, and this creates questionable results even with normal extra-effort.  These are Cure and Steal Life.  I'd simply say that extra-effort is impossible with Cure, as Cure is exclusively about reducing fatigue costs.  Spending fatigue to save fatigue is nonsense.  Steal Life is a little less certain.  Boosting it so that you can steal 45 HP from someone is on par with inflicting 45 damage.  That's completely fair.  Stealing that much life is, also, perfectly acceptable. It gets weird, though, if you spend 30 energy to regain 45 fatigue.  I think I'd say that you can't regain any fatigue if you've used extra-effort.

Finally, some of the powers just don't make sense at extreme levels, and this applies to even buying them at extreme levels.  You could purchase Aspect 15 for 60 points, and +15 to reaction modifiers is as game-breaking as if you got it from extra-effort. Super-Jump also gets silly if you dump 100 points into it, so that you can jump 32x your normal distances. The question becomes: How many levels do you find acceptable?  Pick that value, and soft-cap it at that (people might buy more with perks).  

For Aspect, I'm inclined to go with 8 levels, as talent caps at 4 levels, most people don't allow a Charisma higher than +4, and +8 represents the reaction bonus gained from transcendent appearance.  This reflects a sort of transcendent charisma.  Super-Jump is another judgment call.  Supers certain have characters who can leap from one side of the continent to another.  Do we want space-knights to do that?  I think at that point, we're better off flying.  Wookiepedia notes a distance of "up to 8x" which seems a perfectly fine number for our purposes.  That gives us a typical high jump of around 4 yards, which seems plenty of distance (The Flying Leap skill only triples distances, so 8x seems more than far enough: A flying jumper's flying jump).  Thus, I suggest we cap Super-Jump at level 3.

Niche and Psionic Power-Level

Having established that Psionics aren't necessarily game-breaking in their own venue, and they'll interact well with the Action framework of Psi-Wars, how well will they interact with non-psionic characters?  Will they steal their limelight and become the new standard?  Why have a spy when you have a telepath?  Why have a scavenger while you have an electrokinetic.

I've largely already explored these in each individual power-discussion, and for the most part, these powers have a synergy with skills and technology, rather than replacing them outright.  That said, the telepath niche could replace the spy.  If we add in the power possible with God-Like Extra-Effort, is it possible that a psion could be better at that niche than their competition, point for point?

Yes, I think so. In fact, I hope so.

Psionics has a -10% modifier which should make their powers cheaper than "wild" abilities.  A psion should have a cheaper danger sense than a non-psion, for example.  The compensation for this is the presence of psionic countermeasures, such as technological countermeasures, skills/disciplines that can defeat psionic powers, and the presence of anti-psi characters.

This last is vital, as it should create a dynamic: A 250-point psionic widget-master should be superior to a 250-point mundane widget-master, but a 250-point anti-psi should defeat the psionic widget-master, but be defeated in turn by the mundane widget-master.

However, I don't expect that psions are so powerful that anti-psi is the only way to defeat them.  Psionic powers tend to expensive.  The absurd God-Like Extra-Effort I noted above required ~50 points of advantage plus a once-a-day effort, and additional points invested in things like Communion and additional Energy Reserves, etc.

The larger fear, one legitimately worth some playtesting, is not that psions will be too powerful, but that they'll be too weak, especially at "low" point levels.  How many points does it take to gain the sort of synergy between energy reserves, psionic power levels, Communion levels, and appropriate skills/techniques to really start to shine?  300 points strikes me as low, and I suspect 400-500 would be closer to the mark.  Much more than that, though, and the balance might start to tip heavily towards the Psion, as power-begets-power tends to benefit those with hundreds of points worth of psionic powers.

The solution might well be to start at 300 points, and then be generous with points.  At high point levels, psions will tend to invest in their powers, but mundane heroes will invest more heavily in wealth, connections and deep skills.

A Comment on Star Wars and Psionic Powers

Good. Good...The Force is strong with you. A powerful Sith, you will become. Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth...Vader. 
-Chancellor Palpatine, Revenge of the Sith
One element I notice when I tinker around in the expanded universe, especially in games, is that characters often talk about how extraordinarily powerful a character is in the Force, and that power is usually expressed in psychokinetic force. A character might thrust out his hands and knock back a dozen people, and bystanders will be awed by their power in the force.  Alternatively, the reason why a character is seen as "powerful in the force" is not really described.  Perhaps people just sense his power, nebulously.  Both of these likely come about because showing that someone is telepathically powerful, or precognitively powerful, is difficult to show in a cinematic manner.

An RPG is different.  If a character has 300 points dumped into ESP powers, he's definitely "very strong," but not in a way that's visually easy to describe.  The character isn't flinging people around or shooting lightning out of his fingers. Instead, he's seeing through walls, seeing the future, and detecting psionic activity at a huge distance.  Because an RPG puts numbers on everything, players can better grasp more abstract forms of power.

Inevitably, this difference means that many characters won't follow cinematic elements, especially since Psi-Wars isn't Star Wars.  A player who wants to play a cinematically powerful Star Wars character might invest deeply into psychokinesis.  But someone who wants to be effective in combat might invest in something else.  ESP, for example, allows one to fight in situations where one cannot see, to precognitively defend themselves, to improve their defenses even further, and to sense danger.  That makes for a highly effective combatant!  In fact, Telepathy and ESP are generally superior to Psychokinesis for most situations Psi-Wars characters will find themselves in.

The result is that Psi-Wars will feel different than Star Wars.  Don't expect a great deal of psychokinetic combat action!  I would expect gameplay that more closely resembles Push or Dune, where characters use ESP to try to outread one another, where characters use their mind control abilities to enact intricate plots, and even psychokinesis is used in a more subtle fashion. I say this not to outline a design intent but to warn you, dear reader, about an emergence that's coming out of the choices I've made.  I know a lot of people smile and nod when I say that Psi-Wars isn't Star Wars, but it isn't.  It's inspired by Star Wars, but the end result will definitely be different, and this is one particular example.
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