Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fine Dining in Psi-Wars: Cuisine and Intoxicants

"So, what are we eating?"

Ever played in an RPG where someone's in a tavern and he goes to order food, then stops and asks what he's ordering?  What indeed!  In a fantasy game, we can just hand-wave away something like turkey legs and beer, but if we're in an exotic location, especially a sci-fi one, players expect that their character's aren't ordering a burger and fries.  What does one eat in Psi-Wars?

The answer should change from region to region.  Rafari's people live off the bounty of his planet and understand what it brings.  Dun's homeworld, Grist, likely offers food as appetizing as its name ("You haven't lived until you've tried fried Chort on a stick from a street vendor." "Chort... isn't that a kind of sewer crab?" "Well, we have to do something with them!").  Like all the rest of our distancing mechanisms, we can use food to push the characters farther from their comfort zone.  In the core, we might have familiar foods, like space burgers with space fries, but on the rim, nothing is recognizable.

Mostly, this just matters for flavor. It's nice to know what people can order, to be able to offer a few quick names and descriptions, but cuisine serves many roles in a setting.  It can act as social lubricant.  What is Carousing or Connoissuer without the right beer or wine?  It can also act as a unique sort of goal ("Where's the cocaine shipment?"), and it can present danger (being drunk during a raid, or working out where to get food while starving on a world).  While we need names and descriptions, sometimes, we need mechanics too!

Psi-Wars Cuisine

If you need inspiration for crazy, sci-fi food, Star Wars has plenty of examples, but you can just poke around the internet if you need more.  Ultra-Tech does too, but I want to direct your attention to GURPS Basic p265, for rules governing food prices and Pyramid #3-51 page 6-7, which gives plenty of nice ideas for making crazy food ideas more interesting.

The sort of food people eat is generally determined by the food that is available.  People near the coasts eat more fish than people on the plains, who eat more grain.  People in an industrial society eat more industrialized food than people from more agricultural societies.  Given the importance of food to most people, and the need to eat the best food one can, food quality is generally determined by ones status (which is why GURPS quantifies price of food based on quality of living).

If we're looking for inspiration for interesting cuisine, we can ask ourselves some questions.

Who eats it? The poverty-stricken will often make due with what they can find, or what other people won't eat.  They might have to settle for broadly available staples, like bland rice or bread, industrial goop, food tablets or "food cubes," and they might have to supplement it with something locally available, the equivalent to rats or pigeons.  Sometimes, they might have to resort to starvation cuisine, taking something that's not particularly edible on its own and working out a way to make it edible, such as the Icelandic delicacy, Hakarl. Low Status food tends to cost between $1 and $6 for a meal at a "restaurant."

Common people will largely make do with widely available staples, but they'll be more readily supplemented.  Their industrial glop will come in a wide variety of flavors and textures, or they'll have varied and interesting meal packs.  If they live off the land, they'll have a collection of choices between fresh game or fruits and nuts.  If a minority lives "off world," this level of cuisine will most often be what they seek from their restaurants, looking for a taste of home, and is the commonly available food of cafes and diners back home.  Common restaurants cost between $6 and $25 for a meal.

The wealthy and high status will seek novelty and ostentation in an effort to advertise their class.  They'll hunt down the rarest of game or the most dangerous of predator for a steak on safari.  They'll indulge in the most rarified of delicacy, or eat the cuisine of a fine chef who will explain precisely why his food is infinitely better than the cusine eaten by the rabble.  What matters here is Connoisseur, as you can not only talk with the chef or impress your fellow diners with your knowledge of the food, but (more importantly) you can distinction between fraudulent delicacies from the real thing.  High class food can easily run from $100 to $500 to $5000!

Is the food organic or industrial? More primal cultures will live directly off the land will have their cuisine shaped by what's available.  A desert dwelling culture will have sandworm steaks with a side of cactus fruit, while a forest culture will enjoy avian cutlets served with a wildberry sauce.  An industrial culture, on the other hand, will necessarily process and preserve food as cheaply as possible for mass distribution... or it'll concoct innovative foods impossible in nature that can delight the tastebuds of the extravagantly wealthy.

Does the food serve special needs? Different worlds create different living conditions and needs that must be met. The Hakarl example above might necessarily need to spread to the rest of cuisine if the world is so polluted or toxic that all food needs to be processed in such a way that the poison is purged.  On the other hand, leaving a little poison in creates an element of risk, or even acts as a preservative!  Or imagine a desert-living culture that needs to carefully monitor moisture intake.  Connoisseur (Water) might be a thing, with different restaurants offering different forms of mineral water, each with unique properties and flavors completely indistinguishable to outsiders.

Does the culinary culture originate here, or elsewhere? Cuisine is shaped by its environment, but also the desires of the diner.  If we transplant a culture, it might still want to eat as it did before, even if the local environment doesn't support it.  The result will be fusion cuisine, where readily available resources are modified to create something reminiscent to more traditional meals.

What makes the food stand out? For food that's particularly unusual or special, Pyramid #3-51 has an interesting rule in it called Food Additives.  We could treat foods as very low-level drugs whose effects are no worse than a perk or a quirk, qand lasts for no longer than 25-HT minutes.  I should rush to add that this is entirely unnecessary.  If chort-on-a-stick is delicious ("Tastes like... crunchy chicken!"), that's enough.  If we apply mechanical effects to everything someone can eat, then people might start twinking out about what sort of thing they eat before they fight or what have you, and that's a really interesting mechanic, but not really the focus on Psi-Wars.

Some suggestions for perks or quirks that unique delicacies could offer: Drunken Fighting (if you get drunk, and the food in question might be an intoxicant, you get +1 or +2 to  particular skill), Perfume (you smell particularly nice), Sanitized Metabolism (For foods that "cleans you of toxins"), Autotrance (for foods that help you connect with the divine), Alcohol Tolerance (for food or drink that keeps you from getting drunk), Deep Sleeper (Chamomile!), No Hangover (Any booze drunk while you have this food in your system won't give you a crash in the morning, or it makes a really great hangover cure), Purpose (+1 to some really negligible skill, like writing love poetry), Brave (for steeling the courage you already have).  Quirks might include Quirk-level Compulsive Carousing (makes partying easier) or Quirk-level gluttony or Hungry (for appetite enhancers), Mind-Numbing Magnetism, Dull Taste or Smell, Nervous Stomach (to emphasize how spicy something might be, and a test of someone's courage), Flirtatious (for improving the mood), and perhaps some very vivid dreams, or some controllable level of Flashbacks for hallucinations.

Food tends to be the same the world over, and that's unlikely to change in the future.  Fruit will be sweet and perhaps sour, while meat will be savory and vegetables healthy and detested by children.  One way to make things unusual is to make them seem unpalatable (black, tarry fruits, meat from giant bugs, or still living slug-things), or to create some unusual flavor combinations (a naturally occurring animal-spice; savory fruit; sweet meat).


Drugs and liquor play prominent roles in Action films, so we expect them to play a role in Psi-Wars.  Intoxicants serve a few different roles in society.  Some drugs actually help by improving performance, others offer no immediate benefits, or any benefits at all, but amount to no worse than a (relatively) harmless habit; then we have drugs people take for entertainment, either because they enjoy the effects or because it's a social drug; finally, we have drugs that consume the user with addiction and can run rampant over a society.

A drug can, of course, fall into multiple categories.  Many legitimate medical drugs are helpful if taken properly, but can be disastrously addictive and poisonous if over-used.  Some relatively harmless drugs, like tobacco (it won't kill you in days, at least) are often enjoyed in a social context and for the light "buzz"they give you.

Helpful Intoxicants

Some drugs actually improve the lives of the user.  You don't need a lot of work here, because Ultra-Tech and Bio-Tech have done all of it for you!  Consider Adders (BT155), Basic (BT156), NERV (BT 156), Tempo (BT 156), Aphrozine (BT 158), Sobriety Pill (BT 158) Deep Sleep (BT158), any longevity drugs (BT 159) or Psi-Boosters of any stripe.  If you do want to design your own, look at the rules on page B425!

The point here is not that these drugs can't have side-effects, but that sometimes cultural intoxicants are taken because they are useful.  Spice, from Dune, is a great example.  Nothing stop you from building a super-drug, though note that a particularly useful drug will end up seeing wide use across your galaxy.  If your not-spice lets people live forever, grants them +1 IQ and gives them psychic powers, everyone who can afford it will take it.

Harmless Intoxicants

Some drugs might cause problems or offer benefits, but they're minimal.  On the benefit side, they're a perk at best and on the harmful side, their a perk at worst.  Note that "will give you cancer after 20 years of using it" counts as a quirk at most for GURPS, which concerns itself with the immediacy of the effect.  If it doesn't completely reshape your behavior and it can't kill you with a single overdose, it's probably "harmless."

This generally manifests either as a mildly useful substance (see the perk ideas above for suggestions), or a mildly problematic Addiction (basic 122).  For drugs that are cheap, mildly addictive, have no incapacitating effects and are legal, you can treat it as a quirk.  Most such drugs will be stimulating (though they could be depressants, such as sleep aids).  Some incapacitating drugs might be alright, if they're not expensive, addicting or illegal, and their effects wear off relatively quickly.  For example, if you have a safe incense that puts its inhalers into a 20- to 30-minute hallucinogenic trance with no additional side-effects except some light-headedness, then you have a harmless intoxicant.

Harmful Intoxicants

Why would people take poison?  Because it feels good!  We don't need to work out the specifics, as the primary purpose here, from a story-perspective, is to work out what the Addiction mechanics are.  We can borrow from existing drugs ("Space Heroin" or "Space Cocaine"), or we can just cobble together a new problem to plague the galaxy.  A totally Addiction, Illegal and Very expensive substance might not incapacitate you, but it's still a terribly dangerous habit to have (and is at -30 points!).  On the other hand, a mildly addictive, incapacitating and very expensive drug is worth the same number of points.  We have quite a few ways we can play around here.

Most sci-fi setting have some drug like this.  Star Wars has Spice, Mass Effect has Red Sand, and so on.  It feeds into the criminal underworld, or allows dangerous "pusher" factions to enslave other factions with addiction.  In the real world, wars were literally fought to allow countries to sell opium to other countries.  We might see similar things happen in Psi-Wars.

Social Intoxication

Whether or not a drug is harmful, cultures often spring up around them, particularly if they promote some kind of sociability.  Alcohol can reduce inhibitions, loosen tongues and make conversation flow more easily, while marijuana relaxes the user and makes him easier to get along with.  Some drugs, like properly prepared tobacco or alcohol, are pleasant to imbibe, encouraging a culture of appreciation.  Alcohol has unique chemical properties that allow it to dissolve flavors in it that water cannot, and inhaling smoke offers flavors that drinking or eating cannot.  It might well be that a novel new intoxicant offers not just drug effects, but unusual culinary appreciation as well!

Status level can impact this.  Cheap cigarettes and watered down rum (grog) are both low status drugs, something cheap and perhaps even meant to control a population.  "Common man" drugs, like normal cigarettes or beer can be something shared together at a bar on the weekend.  High-end drugs, like fine cigars and a glass of whiskey or wine might require a Connoisseur to properly appreciate (and to tell a fake from the real thing), and signal your very high status.

Generally, these drugs will offer some kind of social benefit, though not necessarily.  Coffee lovers often get together to appreciate a cup of coffee together, but the "drug" effects of coffee aren't particularly sociable.  Instead, simply sitting around drinking a hot beverage requires patience, which itself encourages relaxation and sociability.

Example Cuisine

Fire Weasel Steak in Snowberry Sauce: The fire weasel, cat-sized vermin about as prolific as rabbits, evolved a defense similar to the capsicum.  That is, his flesh is shot through with chemicals that attack the tastebuds of its predators, making him very painful to eat.  The result is that the fire weasel is very colorful, advertising his dangerous presence, so that predators know not to eat him.  Colonists knew better, though.  If you can get past the heat of a fire weasel's natural spice, the flavor is very sweet and pleasant, especially when smoked.  The spice in the flesh of a fire weasel keeps most scavengers at bay too, making it fairly easy to preserve.  Several methods exist to tame the heat of the fire weasel, including a lengthy marinade (fire weasel jerky is especially popular), but the native snowberry, an attractive, white-and-silver berry, acts as a natural counter measure for the chemical.  Thus, a classic culinary choice for the world is a roasted fire weasel steak smothered in a creamy snowberry sauce.  Some hearty youths like to prove their toughness by eating straight fire weasel; no mean feat!  Fire Weasel is quite abundant on the world and you can find fire weasel steak in most cafes.  A nicely-cooked serving at a restaurant will cost you $25.

White Venom: The early years of White Venom's world's colonization were fraught with danger, thanks to a lethally venomous forest serpent.  The inhabitants learned eventually to counter act the venom, but discovered that by slightly counteracting the venom and mixing it with some milky sap from a particular tree, they could create a sweet, pearly white-green drink that was just venomous enough to give you a faint, numbing tingling in your limbs, a sort of drunken unsteadiness, and very minor hallucinations.  Interestingly, most of the hallucinations affect your sense of taste and smell, which means that a drink of white venom can leave you tasting unusual and fascinating things mixed with the sweetness of the wine.  Milking lethal serpents is no easy task; synthetic versions can more-or-less do the job, but recreating the full punch of the venom from the serpent itself.  Worse, the industrialization of the world has pushed back the environment of the serpent, which still defies being tamed.  The result is that legitimate white venom is very difficult to get: a true bottle easily runs $10,000, though you can get imitation bottles for around $150.

The Golden Chain: This yellow-gold liquid is usually injected directly into the veins, whereupon it acts as a mild stimulant, not much better than a shot of energy drink.  The downside is that it is totally addictive, illegal, and cheap.  You can buy a daily dose for about $50.  Why would anyone take the drug?  Most people don't, not voluntarily!  Instead, a race of slave-raiders often inject it into the veins of their captives long enough for the addiction to stick.  Those who escape soon find that their desperate withdrawal symptoms are too much to bear, and will go crawling back to their captors for another hit.  Most civilized planets outlaw the stuff, but there's a thriving underground market both to use it to trap unsuspecting youths in an insidious addiction, or to assist escaped slaves deal with their cravings.

Character Concerns

Cooking becomes an interesting background option, especially for people from worlds where proper cooking is vital to purging poisons from their meal.  Connoisseur (Food) or Connoisseur (Alcohol) can pick out the ideal food or alcohol for a particular event, or to tell a genuine delicacy from a knock-off.  These are also largely background traits.

Addiction or Alcoholism becomes pertinent again!  For dealing with drug addiction costs, I recommend finding the cost of the drug and multiplying it by 5 and then assuming the user has "enough" drugs to keep him going until such time that his supply is somehow cut off, at which point he has 5 days of doses left. Cheap drugs are less than $50 per day (thus $250 is sufficient), Expensive drugs are up to $250 (thus $1250 is sufficient) and very expensive drugs are anything more than that (though I wouldn't charge a player more than $10,000 for his habit, meaning $2000 per daily dose is probably your soft cap).  Players apply this to their "budget."
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