Monday, October 31, 2016

Building Minions

Like all Action games, Psi-Wars definitely needs minions, those faceless mooks who die by the dozen beneath a hail of blaster bolts or the sweep of a force sword.  This has been true since we began, hence those troopers I've been including in every Iteration for our trusty heroes to kill.  In an Action game, we don't generally care that much what our minions are like: the difference between terrorists, pirates, military contractors and FBA agents are usually a matter of scale and resources (ie BAD) more than actual tactics: They all just shoot at you.  This isn't necessarily true in a sci-fi story, though.  In sci-fi, you want to explore, and you want a sense that different locations and different races are different.  Star Wars sometimes touches on this: Rebel troopers and Storm troopers, tactically, don't seem very different except in how much armor they get (Storm troopers are more BAD than rebel troopers), but Tusken Raiders, Gungens or Battle-Droids fight fundamentally differently.

Games like Dungeon Fantasy celebrate a variety of bad guys.  The first thing DF players complain about when it comes to DF is the lack of monsters, because DF can never have enough monsters!  But what they mean isn't "Different skins for my opponents," because any GM worth his salt can say "You're fighting werewolves!  Now you're fighting slimes!  Beware the King Slime!"  They mean tactical diversity.  They expect werewolves to fight differently than slimes, to have different strengths and weaknesses, and require different tactics to defeat.

The problem arises when one wants to create detailed opponents and run them as mooks.  Players can appreciate that dragons are different from werewolves, but it becomes difficult to handle a battle with a dozen orcs, and then another battle with a dozen skeletons, and make it meaningfully different.  D&D 4e had this down to a science: Each monster could be written on roughly an index card, and it had a very limited number of attacks and options.  This, by itself, wasn't so interesting, but it worked with others to create a sort of interesting tactical encounter.  If you fought orcs, you had to fight berserker orcs as well as orc shamans, while fighting skeletons forced you to deal with skeletal archers, dark riders and the necromancer (or whatever).

In a sense, Psi-Wars should be a little closer to DF in this regard than to Action, because Action is dominated by the human wielding a gun.  A terrorist with an AK-47 is not fundamentally different from an FBA Agent with an AK-74.  Skill, level of training and resources make a difference, but BAD covers this.  Psi-Wars, on the other hand, features aliens, and powers and alternate technology.  An army wielding force glaives and force shields will be fundamentally very different from one wielding blasters.  We can go too far in that direction (Star Trek is more interested in exploring alternate technologies and philosophies of war than Star Wars is), but as the Star Wars universe expands, we see more and more of these alternate technologies and tactics.  Psi-Wars is shaping up to be even more baroque.  Furthermore, given that Psi-Wars has martial arts as a fundamental of its gameplay, how your opponent fights really matters.

Before I began designing my martial arts, I discussed the usefulness of signature moves when creating minions.  The intent here is to allow us to rapidly construct a few simple minions with simple strategies that supports one another while also giving them a distinct flavor.  To do this, we need four things:
  • Concept (Who they are in the setting, what they stand for, what they look like, etc)
  • Overall threat level
  • Technological infrastructure
  • Preferred Tactics

    Iteration 2 gave us the overall threat level (ie BAD).  Iteration 3 gave us the technological infrastructure.  Iteration 4 gives us preferred tactics, and we'll have to wait for Iteration 6 to get at concept but we already know a lot about what we want, so we can go ahead and make some prototypes.


    Getting at the concept of minions, like anything else in an RPG (characters, setting) is key and usually your first step.  Ideally, we have only to look at the setting to understand what a particular set of minions will act like.  If we look at a fantasy setting and see orcs as rampaging marauders after the vein of the Mongols, then we instantly know what sort of threat they should represent.  

    Ideally, we should take this further, going deeper into the setting: Our minions are a natural extension of an existing race or an existing organization and represent an organic response to the threats in their existing universe.  They should be packaged with something we already know and represent part of a cohesive whole: There are three tribes of Orcs, who speak dialects of one another's languages, and they each know one martial art and worship one dark totem, and they're all rampaging barbarians, but the snow orcs are more like vikings while the plain orcs are more like Mongols and the hill orcs are more like Picts, etc and so forth.

    We don't have all of that material now, though Iteration 6 will go a long way towards putting that in place, but we can already begin to see a setting.  We know that there will be a sinister Empire and a Heroic rebellion.  We already have gobs of robots.  We know there will be pirates and spooky, primal aliens.  We can pick one of these and work it out in a little more detail.  We can also see the broader outlines of the setting, thanks to our work technology, and the symbolism created in the Paths of Communion, and the presence of psionic powers.  We can infer a lot of setting.

    Take, for example, the Empire.   We don't know who runs it, or how it's structured, but we know it's evil, that it has hordes of faceless drones, and that people fear it.  These feature storm troopers or space marines, the great fascist boot of the space emperor who crushes those who oppose him.  They are faceless, fanatically loyal and dangerously lethal.  They do not care about you, which means they don't care about their own.  A soldier who dies is one of literally billions fighting on thousands of worlds for the glory of the Emperor, who is all that matters.  Thanks to their great resources, they have the coolest of toys and the most advanced of tech, but they're cold, merciless and without spirit, so they lack supernatural powers.

    We know this because we know the Empire is the largest political entity in the setting, and that it's of sufficient imminent threat that conflict with it forms the core of the game.  That's the nature of the Empire in Star Wars, and it's the nature of the Empire in Psi-Wars.  That means a highly trained, highly lethal, and very well-equipped fighting force.  But we also know that they're "the bad guy." There are many ways one can be "the bad guy," but they tend to be dehumanized (in this case, masked), and impersonal (a great machine of soldiers, rather than a fighting force of individual heroes).  This requires fanatically loyal soldiers, especially since fanaticism seems inhuman.  Fanaticism also explains why these guys would support an obviously abhorrent organization.

    From setting-thematic perspective, this extreme extinction of self suggests an association with Ego: The whole comes together to crush the rest of the galaxy and bring it into one grand collective.  On the other hand, this serves at the will of the Emperor. This force is an extension of his personal and selfish will, his Id.  The forces of the empire represent the submission of the Ego to the Id, which is an inversion of how things should work.  The Empire is thus an abomination.

    We don't need to know more right now.  We can certainly adjust them as we understand the character of the empire better, but it gives us a starting point.

    Overall Power Level

    How dangerous are our minions?  There's a temptation to try to balance your encounters, but that would be a mistake in this genre.  A balanced encounter belongs in games like Dungeon Fantasy, where each room entered represents a unique tactical challenge, one that you expect the players can beat.  That's not true of Action, Star Wars or Psi-Wars.  In the Action genre, your "encounter" is much broader, more "strategic" than that of the Dungeon Fantasy genre. You can fill a room with nothing but unbeatable, indomitable, invincible opponents, and the right players will figure out that fact and then find a way to bypass said room. By the same token, you could throw a bunch of useless mooks at your players, and if they stop to fight them, even if they win, that might give the big bad enough time to make his escape, and thus the characters fail in their objective.

    (I don't mean to pick on DF.  Many DF GM's don't even run it this way.  But many of you come from an early career in D&D, where "balanced encounters" tend to be encouraged by things like challenge ratings.  Once you gain that paradigm, it can be hard to shake, and it becomes easy to see things like "BAD" as "Challenge Rating").

    I offer as proof Star Wars itself: In A New Hope, our heroes very first encounter on their adventure is the Death Star, the most dread starship in the galaxy, filled to the brim with the Emperor's most elite forces, and Darth Vader himself, who is so powerful, he casually defeats the most powerful force user in the party.  This does not stop the party.  In fact, they achieve their objectives and eventually defeat the Death Star itself.

    Minion encounters are not the be-all and end-all of your scenario design, and that should factor into how you build your scenario.  They are one tool in your belt.  Of course, that doesn't mean you can't make them into interesting tactical challenges, but they're just one part of a larger picture.

    So, we're free to choose our power level based on other criteria.  We could use what we find "realistic," or what suits the setting, or what suits the scenario we're trying to build.  Action itself suggests "BAD" as the basis for your minion skill levels.  Bad 0 is skill 10, Bad 5 is skill 15, and so on.  But what's appropriate?  What's "scary powerful"  and what's "not very impressive?"

    We established in our template design that skill 18 is for a PC who is a narrow specialist, 16 for a broad specialist or a narrow generalist, and 14 for a broad generalist.  Thus, we should expect most characters to have at least a 14 at something they care about.  BAD 4 means that such characters are failing roughly half the time.  That's pretty intense!

    Boardrooms and Curia, which is a book we'll revisit later, suggests contact skill levels as a basis for our minions, which isn't a terrible idea!  Those skill levels are 12, 15, 18 and 21.  When it comes to combat, Boardrooms and Curia suggest you apply a -3, so minions for organizations are skill 9, 12, 15 and 18.  That tracks well enough with BAD.

    Skill level 10 (9 is too low) represents the absolute lowest of a minion.  It's probably only appropriate for desperate partisans and low-rent thugs. It represents the sort of characters that a player can casually cake-walk through.  Consider the fact that a character with skill 18 can afford to to make a Deceptive -4 attack and lower their opponent's defense to 6. That's a 90% chance to hit your opponent, who has only a 10% chance to defend themselves.  That's not a sure bet, but it's close.  A skill 10 character who makes an All-Out Attack with an aimed blaster carbine will hit someone 30 yards away 90% of the time.  This is consistent with skill lists depicting skill 10 as "amateur."  Realistically, untrained characters would be even lower than this, usually around skill 6, but fighting a granny with a blaster pistol is not really what Psi-Wars should be about.

    Skill level 12 represents a competent minion, but not one who is substantially superior to a Skill 10 opponent.  This is typical of BAD 2, which will not appreciably inconvenience most competent (Skill 14-18) characters.  Such a character would defend themselves from a deceptive attack with a 7 or less (~15% of the time), and will hit someone with an aimed, all-out attack with a blaster out to 70 yards.  This is consistent with skill lists that depict for "low-risk professionals,"  which explicitly includes soldiers.

    Skill 15 represents a very competent minion, and a major leap over the Skill 12 minion.  This is typical of BAD 5, which is a serious challenge to anyone who is not masterful (skill 16+), or who cannot put together a variety of bonuses. Thus, one would expect to need clever tricks to defeat opponents of this skill level, such as good team work and top-notch tactics.  A character with skill 15 will defend himself against a deceptive attack with an 8 or less, or 25% of the time, which is as effective as a Skill 10 minion facing no deceptive attack, and such a character will hit someone at 200 yards with an aimed, all-out attack with a blaster.  This is consistent with GURPS depictions of high-risk professionals and explicitly includes commandos.  For example, GURPS SEALs in Vietnam depicts SEALs with skill 15 in gun combat skills.

    Skill 18 represents a masterful minion, the pinnacle of minions.  This is typical of BAD 8, which is not the sort of thing you should regularly pit your players against, as it reduces the most competent of PCs to effective skill 10.  Such a character will defend against a deceptive attack 50% of the time, or approximately as well as the character himself, and will hit an opponent with an aimed, all-out blaster attack out to 700 yards (10x the range of a skill 12 character), and can hit a character with an unaimed, all-out attack out to 15 yards 90% of the time, and 70 yards 50% of the time.  A Skill 18 Mook is on par with the PC.  The only thing that makes him weaker is that you treat him as a mook.

    Imperial troops should be somewhere between 12 and 15.  12 represents a sort of minimum of professional soldiers, and 15 makes sense for solid and frightening shock troopers.  So, as a result, I'd suggest 15 for the elites, and 12-13 for the standard "guys with guns."


    The primary purpose for having customized minions is to give the players a sense of exploration.  We want them to have a sense that the Empire is different from the Rebel Alliance not just in ideology, but in character, culture and nature.  Likewise, weird aliens should feel weird and alien.  We show this with technology.  Technology is tied to infrastructure, which is shaped by organization, culture and geography (stellography?).  It shapes, and is shaped, by how an organization trades, builds and thinks.  This will shape their soldiers too.  What equipment they give them depends on how wealthy they are, what sort of strategies they encourage, what they want to say to the world, and what they need.

    Consider the differences in Star Wars between the Rebellion and the Empire.  The Rebellion's equipment always shows the character's face (better for heroes).  It's old (showing a respect for history and a connection to it), but reliable and rugged. They've often customized, showing a sense of individualism.  The Empire, on the other hand, deploys the shiniest and newest toys.  They flaunt their enormous wealth, which doubles as showing their considerable power.  Their use of masks and armor separates their soldiers from you.  Despite having the most expensive toys, they clearly consider their minions expendable, and favor masses of low-survivability fighters and a few, exceedingly impressive dreadnoughts to a swarm of high-survivability fighters and some more low key cruisers.  Nothing is personalized or customized: the individual is subsumed into the collective.  The Emperor is the only person whose will matters.  All others are made into what he wants them to be, as though constructed by a factory.

    Ideally, this technological difference extends out to everything: Security systems, communication protocols, surveillance technology, etc.  But here, for our purposes, we're focused exclusively on minion gear. We'll get into the rest later.

    We'll do the same for Psi-War's imperial troops.  They're elite, they're scary, they have the most expensive and impressive equipment, but it's fragile and easily destroyed or damaged (which is fine, because the Empire can just get more: All is replaceable, even you).


    Once you know the concept, power-level and technology of the minions, it's important to understand how they use all of this to win.  Whatever tactics they have should work, though the objective isn't always the utter defeat of your opponent (Sometimes minions want to be impressive, or just want to keep their client alive, etc).  Understand what your minions (and their organization) want, and then create an effective strategy to get it, using available technology.

    A good example of this are the trooper mooks that I've already built.  Their design creates a sort of combined arms that makes it highly difficult to survive their attacks.  That's intentional, and it can be created by nothing more than the right equipment choices and the right skills. But if we want something more complex than that, then I suggest using signature moves.  Each style I've created has a list of five. If we give one or, at most, two, we can create dynamic and interesting opponents who are not necessarily too onerous to run. The result should be an opponent who can technically fit on an index card, but still reflect something deeper about the organization he works for, and what he believes.

    For Imperial Troopers, I want to emphasize tactics that focus on defeating large numbers of lesser opponents and make a grand display of power.  When you fight the Empire, you should tremble and fear their great noise and thunder.  But they shouldn't be particularly good at defeating singular heroes, both because that's thematically inappropriate, and also because it's not their job. The Empire has other people for that.  Imperial Troopers will prefer tactics like powerful artillery blasts, suppression fire, and brutal crowd control tactics.  The Empire deploys the faceless hordes that pound their shields, drumlike, with their neurolash batons while marching on protesting crowd.  The Empire sends great, rolling tanks accompanied by endless columns of shiny-armored soldiers marching in formation against their enemy, and when they attack, the heavens open up with orbital bombardment, and the withering hail of blaster fire cut all down before them. They are the epitome of shock and awe.  Behold the might of the Emperor and tremble before him.
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