Thursday, October 27, 2016

Re-Evaluating and Revising Iteration 4

Whenever I get to this point, I feel like they're the parts I shouldn't share with you, dear reader, because there's nothing more tedious than editing (ask any editor!).  On the other hand, it's such a crucial step, that it's one I really feel I should not ignore, and one I should certainly write about.  First, I need to do it for me, because writing about it helps to frame my thoughts and knowing that I have to write about it means that the work gets done.  Second, for those among you who are novices at this sort of thing, I fee you should understand the process of drafting and editing.

Never let perfection be the enemy of the good.  When you see the polished final product of a book or a game or an artwork, I find many people think that it sprang thus, fully formed from the brow the artist.  The fact that you, dear reader, cannot do that stifles your creative process, and you think that you're not as capable as those other, more numinous and perfect creators.  In fact, what happens is this: You do the first thing that comes to mind, and you continue on that path, until you've created enough "rough material" that you can begin to shape it.  Then you do so, and as you do so, you find more flaws and problems and you keep chiseling and working until it's serviceable enough to go on to the next step.  That last part is where a lot of artists trip, but it's why I often say you should "deliver the minimum necessary product." You can polish and gold-plate forever, but then your work will never get out the door.  Do it enough so that your product works, and then move on to the next step (the next iteration in our case).

Iteration 4 presents a serious challenge because, in a sense, it's the first time we've really come to grips with Psi-Wars. It turns out that my previous formulations of Psi-Wars were wrong.  It's not really GURPS Action in space.  Neither Star Wars nor Psi Wars focus first and foremost on gunplay or the cynical real politik of Action, though it could.  Instead, it tends to focus on grand mythmaking and the galaxy as a huge stage for the epic heroes of war and history.  Some critics suggest that Star Wars is more fantasy than Sci-Fi, and certainly the beats and themes of Star Wars borrow more from mythology and fairy-tales than from sci-fi or from Action.

But that doesn't mean we need to throw it all away and start over again with TL 11 Dungeon Fantasy as our base.  In a sense, Action still supports our needs: There is a lot of gunplay, Action totally supports kung-fu, and the political arena definitely matters in Star Wars and, of course, Psi-Wars has cemented the idea of Action into itself.  Psi-Wars is a world where gunplay and heroism in the face of a gritty and cynical world have become part of the DNA of the world.  What we need, then, is to adjust some expectations.

Is that okay?  Sure!  The sense that "We should throw it all away and start over" is called creator's remorse.  Don't listen to it.  In general, the material you've come up with is quality material.  If you can't use it now, you can at least use it later.  In this case, I don't think we need to change anything.

We do need to look at our work more closely, though.  What does gameplay actually look like now?  Does this new gameplay, especially the gameplay that falls outside of the bounds of Action, actually work as we intended?  What holes can we find and fill (which will mostly take up Iteration 5, which I hope will be shorter than Iteration 4).

This will take awhile, about on the order of what Space Ships took, so probably about three weeks.  When I'm done, though, I am pleased to announce that not only can we finish off this rather successful Iteration, but I've decided that moving forward, I'm going to maintain a working document, so that all of this great stuff gets collected into one place.  The document will be available in a link in the Psi-Wars primer that 's been sitting in the sidebar for, oh, the past few weeks now (As of writing this post, I've just put the primer up!  I work pretty far ahead, eh?  But that's why I put it up, to eventually hold that document).

The Core Gamplay of Psi-Wars

Back in Iteration 1, I described the core activity of Psi-Wars thus:
  • (Starship troopers) Military stories featuring soldiers fighting dramatic and often tragic planet-side battles.
  • (Ace pilots) Military stories featuring ace pilots in small space-fighters taking on much larger opponents in wildly kinetic fights.
  • (Agents of Terra) Espionage stories where a handful of agents need to either uncover a plot or enact a plot of their own to sabotage an enemy installation, rescue one of their own, or bring stolen plans back to base.
That worked fine back then, and was taken straight from GURPS Space as a starting point for our core gameplay, but as our game has evolved, these have changed.  First, we added GURPS Action, which has its own Campaign types, almost all of which work well in Psi-Wars:
  • Brotherhood in Blue: If we change the old Space Knight into a Security Agent, which certainly seems to fit, then police games seem to fight them nicely.
  • Caper: Smugglers and (eventually) Con Artists are always going to be trying to pull these sorts of things.
  • Commandos: For, duh, Commandos.
  • Mercs: Bounty Hunters are classically soldiers for pay, and Commandos who have left their service might also fall into this sort of campaign
  • Spy vs Spy: The realm of the Spy, of course, as well as the Assassin.
  • Vigilante Justice: The raison d'etre for the Bounty Hunter and the sort of world the Frontier Marshal often finds himself.
But as you can see, these campaign types are too specific.  While one could do a story about three commandos or three bounty hunters (Killjoys!), most players will want to try a variety of different things.  Action handles this by suggesting various templates under a single lens (the Cop Shooter, the Cop Investigator and the Cop Faceman).  I've chosen to follow the Space-version of templates, which better fits the Star Wars approach, where a character's core template is largely connected to his profession and his role in the setting, rather than just his approach.  As a result, I need to fit a smuggler, a commando and a psi-knight together to have adventures and save the day.

This is the point where I need to marry my Star-Wars-inspired, Space-based template inspiration and loose setting-vision with the Action-based game-play and Action-based template design we've been using.

In short, it's time to stop borrowing, and to start building.

Core Gameplay of Psi-Wars, Revised

Psi-Wars, at its core, is about saving the galaxy.  More specifically, it's about a galaxy that's gone horribly off the rails: Where there was once order, law, justice and freedom, there is now chaos, corruption, crime and slavery.  The galaxy spins out of control, and the players need to set it right, before it's too late.

The Great Galactic War

The core, central conflict is defined in Star Wars as the Empire vs the Rebellion, and Psi-Wars will follow suite in some shape or form.  This takes Starship Troopers, Ace Pilots and Commando game-play and melds them together.  But the focus here is not on the broad scale of combat, though, it's on individual heroic action: The lone pilot making a raid on an enemy super-weapon, assisted by a smuggler and her plucky scavenger-alien, or the crack team of commandos lead by a psi-knight making a daring raid.  This sort of gameplay typically focuses on extreme odds, and lots and lots of combat against really well-equipped and powerful foes in a well-defined sort of environment.  Heroes will, ideally, have equal access to military-grade equipment, or we'd better hope they can improvise quickly.

This gameplay focuses on the Commando, who is a master of military-scale hardware, the Fighter Ace, a master of the starfighter, and the up-coming Officer, who masters tactical planning and, perhaps, Mass Combat.  The Space Knight, the Assassin, the Scavenger and the Smuggler all play something of a role here, but more in the background.

Spy vs Spy

Both Action and Space suggest spy-based gameplay, and Psi-Wars seems ripe for it.  Just as we have open and obvious warfare in the Great Galactic War, we should have a shadow war beneath the surface with agents working against agents in games of political intrigue and espionage.  This works exactly as one would expect a spy-vs-spy game, though with perhaps slightly less focus on technology.  This gameplay often works closely, hand-in-hand, with the military 

This gameplay focuses on the Spy, the master of infiltration, tradecraft and conspiracy, and the assassin, who is also a master of infiltration as well as assassination and sabotage.  The up-and-coming Diplomat will also play a role, as well as the Officer, but more from the angle of political intrigue.  We don't want to play out any actual politics (not because I dislike it, but because it's too slow for the impatient Action player), but we do still need to use them as a base for our actions here.  The Mystic, especially as Inquisitor, also assists, as does the Scavenger, the Psi-Hunter; the up-coming Security Agent and the Psi-Knight also participate, in more defensive role.

Crime and Justice

Star Wars features a strong focus on criminal elements within its setting, though it has less focus on law enforcement.  Given Action's love of capers and cops vs robbers, this seems like a natural fit.  Here, gameplay will split between the typical Action caper, and investigations to find the bad guy and then good ol' fashioned vigilante punch-ups to take him down.  In a sense, this resembles Spy vs Spy (in the form of the caper and the investigation) and the Great Galactic War, but with civilian-scale weapons: force swords, vibro-blades and blaster pistols, rather than gatling blasters, missile launchers and combat hardsuits.

On the law-abiding side, this gamplay focuses on the Bounty Hunter, the Frontier Marshal and the upcoming Security Agent, and the Psi-Knight in a support role.  On the criminal side of the divide, the Con-Artist, the Smuggler and the Assassin, with the Spy in a supporting role.

The Legends of Yore

Star Wars is a celebration of history.  It bases its politics heavily on both the Roman Empire and World War 2, amateur historians' favorite topic.  Star Wars goes further to imply a greater historical sweep and hints at an ancient, mythic past.  While Star Wars rarely focuses that intently on ancient relics, Psi-Wars will do so more explicitly, thanks to the way Communion works.  Moreover, Communion allows one to manipulate the fate and destiny of the entire galaxy. This gameplay focuses on uncovering the location of powerful relics, or fated children, and then gaining access to them and secretly using them to manipulate the destiny of the galaxy so that it lines up with your desired (heroic?) vision.

This gameplay focuses on Mystics, Psi-Knights, Psi-Hunters and Scavengers, with some support from Smugglers, the Frontier Marshal and the Spy.

Putting it into action

Not every role is equally useful.  A mystic will struggle to be engaging in a military conflict, and a Bounty Hunter will wonder what she's doing in an archaeological relic-hunt.  The ideal scenario, thus, mixes several of the above.  We have a spy-vs-spy struggle brings one into a hive of scum and villainy on the hunt for a criminal who, when caught, reveals that the Empire has uncovered the lost world of the Alexian dynasty and the head inquisitor of the Empire plans to tap the power of the ancient palace there to grant the Emperor immortality!  The forces of the Alliance must learn the location and then rush to engage them in a huge military struggle!

Many elements work well together anyway: Spy vs Spy meets Law and Justice in the shared world of shadows and grey morality.  Spy vs Spy and the Great Galactic War meet in the lofty struggles of interstellar nations clashing over the fate of worlds.  And the Legends of Yore underpins all three, representing the secret reasons why people fight, and the secret map for the eventual destiny of all sapient-kind.

Writing up the Document

Now that I've committed to a major re-evaluation, it's time to consider where this will all go.  Thus far, I've simply left all of my stuff on my blog, or scattered in various versions across notes in several different folders.  This is fine as long as it's draft work, but as we come closer to a finished product, more and more people will want to actually have a usable document containing all of this information in one single, easy-to-find place.  That's the next step in all of this: Collecting everything into that document.

Fortunately, I've made a point of writing more and more of my material as notes and then pasting them into my blog.  This has had the unintended side-effect of ruining my formatting, as you may have noticed, but it means that it'll be easier to copy and paste everything into a single document and, when finished, put that document into the Psi-Wars Primer, which is why I created the Psi-Wars primer in the first place.

The point of Psi-Wars has been to show you how to go about building your own campaign, which doesn't have to include writing up your own, but if you have the material and want people to see it, why not take that final step?  By having things on paper, that means you've thought about them and, if you forget something, you have something you can refer to.  In any case, I'm doing it because I want to be able to give it to you, dear reader, should you wish to run it for yourself.

Some of you may be thinking "So, this is done, then?" Well, no, not any more than any other iteration.  We were "done" when we finished Iteration 1, and then again when we finished 2, and then again when we finished 3.  But this iteration has changed how the game works enough that I realized that such a document was necessary.  As we move forward into iteration 5 and 6, we can edit in any changes that are necessary, and I have a master document that I can refer back to.

Document Structure

I think the Dungeon Fantasy/Action/Monster Hunter layout is pretty close to perfect: One document for characters, including templates, powers, background lenses, a character cheat sheet, and basic gear.  The second document contains the basic rules for running things, and then further documents expand elements.

I'm going to avoid showing you the bulk of this material up front, because you've seen all of it before, either in its generic Action form, or in previous posts, just not collected together.  But I will try to explain the steps that I'm making to put it together, and I'll show you details where I think they're necessary.

Today, I finished the Character Cheat Sheet.  That comes first, because it's the master list from which templates, themselves, are built (and, ideally, the cheat sheet is built from the rules in Action 2, but since that's already been done, I don't need to work that out).  I collected all of the material into a single list, collating it from Action, from Technological Character Considerations (in Iteration 3) and in Psionic Character Considerations (in this Iteration).

Template Design

Going forward, I will try to work on one template a day until all the templates are finished, and post each one, including notes on why I did what I did.

The first order of business is integrating the elements I've added, including the unique power-ups, where necessary, and static techniques or perks if the character is particularly "martial arts" oriented. 

The next step will involve a thorough editing.  Thus far, we've been using the skillsets to build our templates, but those are only useful for painting in broad strokes.  We need to make these characters leaner, meaner and more niche-oriented, especially in the context of our revised core activities.

In my experience, characters revolve primarily around their skills, especially in an ultra-tech focused game.  Therefore, some general rules of thumb for my templates:
  • Skill 18 is the standard for a specialist with a narrow focus
  • Skill 16 is the standard for a specialist with a broad focus or a generalist with a narrow focus
  • Skill 14 is the standard for a generalist with a broad focus
  • Skill 12 is the standard for minor or background skills, unless they're really only for flavor.
  • Characters with cool powers should have at least 25 points in those cool powers, though those points might be broken up (between skills, advantages, techniques, etc).  50 is the standard for the equivalent to a full power-set.
When it comes to power-ups, they should represent more than just skill packages.  They should represent something unique, that the character could not easily get another way.
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