Monday, October 17, 2016

Cybernetics in Psi-Wars

Why Cybernetics?

Before I start, let's talk a little theory. A Psi-Wars character is built up out of three templates: her occupational template, her background lens and her power-set. The occupational template determines what she does. It's her role and niche. A spy, for example, is going to fit into the information gathering and infiltration niche. The background lens tells you something about who she is. Leylana is an aristocrat, while another spy might be a slave. Both will be masters of information gathering, deception and infiltration, but Leylana wears beautiful outfits and worries about what's fashionable in court and who is marrying who, while the slave is more worried about whether her master will beat her for the terrible secrets she just uncovered while skulking in shadows.

Power sets explain why you are cool. They set you apart in a specific and precise way. Psionic Powers and Communion say that you are cool in a spooky or mystical way. If Leylana chose a psionic powerset, then she becomes the sort of spy that snatches secrets right from your mind, who sees visions of the future and worries about destiny and the future of all mankind while spouting nonsense like “I must slay the Great Beast with the Secrets of the Dark Emperor!” Martial Arts sets say that you are cool in a culturally specific and martial way. If Leylana studied Space Ninjutsu, then she becomes a ninja, able to kill with her bare hands and vanish, but also tied into a Space Ninja clan, who share their secrets with few. It suggests that she has some deep, cultural tie to them (perhaps she knows their language and their cultural familiarity).

Cybernetics say that you are cool in a physical and robotic way. A cyborg has given up some of her humanity to be stronger, faster and more technological way. She has become a bit more like a bot to gain an additional edge over everyone else. If Leylana chose to be a cyborg, then we would expect hidden weapons, gleaming red eyes when angered, a bullet-proof under-chassis, a super-strong arm, and the ability to interface directly with computers to steal their secrets.

The Problem with Cybernetics

Everything cybernetics can offer you is either an already existing technology, or it's an upgrade to your physical capabilities, usually in the form of greater toughness, strength, or speed. Speed is obviously good and useful. Strength is more questionable, but as I explored martial arts, the less situational ST seemed: It gives you extra HP, it lets you leverage weapons (whether blasters or vibro-blades) better, and it greatly improves your grappling skills. Only unarmed striking is “not really worth it”, and even then, sometimes it's better to have it than not have it.

Toughness and technology pose the greatest problem, for related reasons: the gear that they emulate are more cheaply purchased with money than with points. A hand-held holographic costs $300, while purchasing the same ability (100 mile range with real-time holographic images) is at least 17 points. A robot with the equivalent armor to a light combat hardsuit costs 300 points! Even if we account for “Cannot wear armor,” they still cost 180 points our of a characters 250-300 points! While purchasing these as advantages has some merit (“You can't take away a cyborg's armor”), they don't justify the high pricetag (“You can't take away signature gear either, and that's much cheaper! And you can turn away a heavily armored cyborg for security reasons, so it's not that much of an advantage”), given that some of these will cost more than the entire character, leaving you with a useless, underskilled character whose only trick is that he's always as armored as if he wore a hardsuit.


If we are unwilling to accept these costs-as-written, what options do we have?

The first option is the transhuman space option. In Transhuman Space, the book suggests ignoring point costs, or only tracking them in regards to how powerful your character is, rather than setting a hard limit. Thus, if you can afford to upgrade, you can buy the upgrade. Point cost becomes a rough measure of your power, rather than a limitation on how powerful your character can be. If a normal guy is hanging out with a biomodded eloi, the latter is worth far more points, and that's just all there is to that. In short, cybernetics aren't powers, they're just technology.

This works well for cyberpunk or any game where themes of self-augmentation and the cheapness of life/flesh are central. Star Wars has some superficial cyberpunk themes, and we could bring those more to the fore, but I think that would be a mistake. In Star Wars, cybernetics become something iconic to the character, a symbol of loss. With the exception of General Grievous, characters do not generally run around upgrading themselves. Moreover, Psi Wars is built on a framework where all characters remain roughly on par. While purchasing a built-in radio as opposed to a hand-held radio isn't really something worth tracking with anything more than money, things like extra attacks are, in my opinion, better taken as advantages than as equipment. If a character is super-strong because he's cybernetic, that's an interesting character-building choice, and he should pay points for it.

The second strategy, the Perk strategy, is covered in Pyramid #3-69 on page 13 (Living Better with Cybernetics) by Demi Benson. She explains that if the item is standard technology, you can treat it as just an accessory perk, especially if the character uses it as another character might. If a cyborg has to stop and lift his hand to his ear to use his radio, it's definitely a perk. On the other hand, if the advantage is inherent and important, we can treat it as an advantage.

This creates a point-cost disparity, but it's one we can carefully navigate. We can ask ourselves “How important is it that someone takes Telecommunication as an advantage? Is it really worth 17 points? Or would they rather spend their points elsewhere?” The question will have different answers for different forms of technology.

But this doesn't resolve all possible problems. Some traits and advantages simply aren't worth it for characters. What do we do about them?


Back when I started all of this, I would have told you ST isn't worth your time. Now, I'm not so sure. It's true that striking damage isn't particularly useful against guys in armor, so being able to punch or kick isn't that important, but being able to inflict some extra damage with a vibro-blade is. It also matters a great deal in grappling contests, which come up relatively frequently. It also matters when making Beats, in carrying heavy armor, and in having a few extra HP, which could be the difference between life and death. It's not as important a trait as it is in a TL 3 setting, but that doesn't men that it isn't important.

While Striking ST is almost certainly overpriced, for now, I'm okay with leaving things as they are.

Damage Resistance

As already addressed, the high cost of damage resistance is a serious problem. It's a decent cost for TL 3 (arguably too low) and it's perhaps okay at TL 8, but it's far too high for TL 11. Fortunately, others have thought about this.

Using the first, if we assume that a character with DR 20 could stop a TL 8 bullet dead, the same character would need DR 100 to stop a TL 11 blaster shot dead. If we want both to cost the same, then DR should cost 1/5 of what it does in the standard rules. That tracks nicely with giving everything in the setting (Vibro-Blades, Force Swords, Blasters, Neurolash Weaponry) an armor divisor of 5. Purchasing 20 DR (Battleweave) is 20 points, a light hardsuit is 60 points, and a heavy hardsuit is 100.

In his second post, Douglas Cole points out another problem: even low levels of DR make one effectively immune to most weapons. That's very true of Psi-Wars. If DR of 5 costs you 5 points, then for 5 points, you can be virtually immune to all unarmed strikes. That's a a great deal! He suggests scaling DR (the first few points of DR cost more than later points of DR). That's one approach., but I find it complex. We'd need a chart, which makes conversion difficult.

On the other hand, since the problem isn't brute damage so much as armor divisors, DR 20 with 3 levels of hardening costs 250 points. If we give someone 3 levels of hardening for free, then 100 points of DR 20 is the equivalent to DR 100 when it comes to blasters and vibro-weapons, while still being relatively vulnerable to punches and kicks.

But there are weapons other than just punches and kick that don't have armor divisors: slams, falling damage, explosives, missiles and so on. Moreover, most GURPS material lacks hardening. If we revise it this way, then nearly all robots become virtually indestructible, unless we instead reduce the amount of armor they have which, in many cases, isn't practical: It makes sense that basic androids have a DR of 2-4, making them hard to hurt with your first, but are easily destroyed with a blast from a blaster, while warbots are virtually untouchable with your fist and require a serious blaster to take down.

All things considered, I think I'm most comfortable with 1 point = 1 DR. Hardened DR becomes cheaper as a result, and will be something I encourage. This has a knock-on effect of altering how robots are priced, as their armor suddenly becomes much cheaper. If we're worried about twinkery, we can apply unusual backgrounds for certain levels of DR, such as an organic who wants any DR, and then again for DR over a certain threshold (say, 3), and then an unusual background for people who want more DR than can be acquired with a heavy hardsuit. I'd suggest the first one be a perk, the second 5 points, and the last 5 points.

Damage Dealing Powers

So what about blasts, blades and claws? Cyborg characters often sport melee weapons likes claws and arm blades, or hand-cannons. How should those be handled?

Hand-Cannons are the simplest: They're weapon mount points. You load a special cyborg-version of a blaster into your hand-cannon mount, and you're good to go. You don't pay points for the blast, you pay points for the right to mount a blaster inside your arm.
What about claws? Claws could be a perk (“finger knives!”), but I think most players would find that a bit weird. Claws cost points, so we make these cost points and they become an inherent weapon for the character. What, then about arm blades. Should they also cost points? Won't they get very expensive if you mount a vibro-blade onto your arm? Again, Demi suggests we use a perk, and why not? The point is that we're mounting a weapon on our arm, just like a gun. But why not apply that same logic to claws?

Claws are innate. That means they benefit from unarmed etiquette and that you cannot destroy them without destroying the hand (and repairing the hand repairs the claws). They are part of the character. For the arm-blade, the blade itself is not part of the character. A force sword parry will destroy it. You can uninstall it and install a superior one. If your arm is crippled and your arm-blade destroyed, you need to buy a new one or repair the old one seperately after your arm has been restored. However, to benefit them, we'll say that claws are “super-fine” at no cost (automatically gaining the armor divisor of 2) and that vibro-claws are a perk. That makes them pretty powerful, but claws already run 5 or more.

We'll need to apply this sort of ad-hoc logic as we go through all of our cybernetic gadgets, but the core logic remains the same: If the item is sufficiently cheap and innate, pay full cost for it. If it's too expensive or not sufficiently innate, treat it as a perk.

Cybernetics as a Power

Ultra-Tech and Living Better with Cybernetics include plenty of cybernetics for us to play with.  Because our robots were limited to TL 10, I'm going to limit our cybernetics to that as well.  If characters want access to TL 11 cybernetics, they can do so with a perk “Better Cybernetics.”

As per the “New Limitation: Cybernetic” sidebar on page of 17 of Pyramid #3-51, we should define how our cybernetics work.  Because we have pretty standard assumptions, we can set this in stone for the most part:

  • Electrical -20%
  • Unhealing (Total) -30%
  • Unliving +20%
  • Maintenance (1 person, weekly) -5%

We have to be careful here, though.  Bionics represent replaced body parts and are Mitigators with -70%, as per UT 207.  This mitigator includes Unhealing, Maintenance and Electrical.  For an advantage granted by a cybernetic body part (increased ST, damage resistance, the ability to talk via radio), we definitely need to note that it needs maintenance and that it’s electrical, as these advantages go away under those specific conditions.  Unhealing and unliving are only pertinent if we can target the cybernetic implant and damage it, thus removing it.  For bionics, that’s not usually relevant: If I cripple your cybernetic arm, the fact that you have +2 arm strength doesn’t “go away,” but nor is it relevant further.  Other factors, like DR, remain relevant no matter what.  Accessories are, in fact, gear and are treated as such, and need no further limitation.  So the remaining question is if something like an adrenal implant that grants a bonus to basic speed can be targeted and destroyed.

The answer is, of course, that it can be.  Implants have no more then a DR of 2 (-20%), they can be targeted (Most implants would probably count as “vitals” for -3 to -6, but they’re also not usually readily obvious, which means that you need some special skill to even notice that someone has an implant), and they can be stolen they that would require surgery (or killing your character) and wouldn’t work for the target immediately (he needs surgery too), making the fact that it can be stolen a -0%.  The net result would be a -20%, and allow opponents to take out your cool implant with a very precise sniper shot, provided they know where you’ve had yours implanted.
Is that what we want?  That sounds like more trouble than its worth, so let’s ditch it. In principle, we’re aware that people can damage your cybernetics, but electrical and maintenance already cover that enough, and the chances of someone removing your cybernetics by bullet are rarer than someone deploying an anti-psi against a psi, making it worth less than -5%.  We’ll ignore it.  That also means that unhealing and unliving aren’t pertinent

That said, bionics can be readily damaged, and “Unhealing” is built into their Mitigator.  What about Unliving?  Demi raises a good point in noting that a bionic limb would take less damage from piercing attacks and would need twice as much damage to cripple.  She’s also correct in noting that a full cyborg has twice as many HP as a standard human of the same weight would have.  But how do we cover that with points?  Do we give characters a limited Unliving for their limbs only?  But what happens if they go from partial bionics to a full cyborg conversion?  Why then do they have to double their HP?  Well, in fact, if you carefully walk through all of the bionics, things like reinforced bones and cybernetic spines do improve the user’s HP.  Thus, you can gradually turn someone into a cyborg and watch the full process of going from living and 1xHP to unliving and 2xHP bit by bit.  That passes the smell test.

Thus: The total limitation for cybernetic equipment is -25%.  If you take more than 1/3 your HP in an attack, you have to roll HT or your cybernetics short out.  Your cybernetics must be repaired with Mechanic (Robotics).  You have reduced damage from impaling or piercing attacks to your cybernetic limbs.  You are not immune to metabolic hazards: Cybernetics integrate enough with flesh that damage to the body will harm the cybernetic attachments.  For example, you can poison a cyborg by poisoning his nutrients.

They must also be maintained with Mechanic (Robotics) once per week.  Failure to meet this maintenance results in a loss of HT for that part only. For simplicity, assume all cybernetics have the same HT and the same maintenance level.  Maintenance takes an hour to treat all parts, and requires a Mechanic (Robotics) roll, using the standard modifiers for tools.  Apply the maintenance-missed penalty to all parts (so, if you're HT 12 and you've missed two maintenance sessions and you get hit with sufficient electrical damage to see if your cybernetics short out, they'll do so on a roll of 11 or more, rather than the usual 13 or more).

For Psi-Wars, we will not use living flesh biomorphics, despite their presence in Star Wars (Though it seemed limited to Luke Skywalker only, probably because of the difficulty of showing a robot hand all the time, and he constantly wore a glove and has a very robotic hand by the Force Awakens).  If Luke Skywalker can have human-like flesh on his hand, then a droid can have human-like flesh over its whole body, and I don’t want that.  If robots have to be chrome or mannequin, then so too do humans who slowly turn themselves into robot.  Thus, we have sculpted, mannequin and semi-mannequin biomorphics for cyborgs, just as for robots.
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