Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Psi-Wars and Social Engineering 2: Social Engineering Analyzed

Just as I did with GURPS Action 2, it's worth going over each page of Social Engineering to see if there's anything that leaps out at me as useful, and taking some notes as I go.  I've summarized my notes below, for the tl;dr crowd.


Understanding our alien worlds require us to create distancing mechanics, unique things that define aliens as other.

We need a reference society, the human-focused “Galactic Core” culture.

We need to better define Rank, including how many levels of it we have, what it grants us, and how it interacts with organizations

We should consider revisiting Status, perhaps even returning it to Psi-Wars.

If we wish to include Social Regard or Social Stigma, it might be worth defining what they are and how one gets them.

Social Engineering contains some rules on how aliens might work differently, though most “Communion-compatible” aliens are essentially human in their psychology, with only cultural differences separating them from humans.

The rules for diplomacy and perhaps some elements of administrative or legislative politics are fairly central to a hypothetical Diplomat template, though they need to be matched with working Action traits (in the same way that the Officer takes Mass Combat traits and makes them useful in a generic
Action game)

Check out the distraction mechanics.

Chapter 1: Social Relations in a Campaign

Cinematic Social Interaction

Easy Marks is a good option for Psi-Wars and Action, but it seems to by-and-large include it. Most social rolls just call for a roll, adjusted by BAD as usual. A few exceptions exist, mostly in Banter, but we could ignore them for mooks.

Speaking Freely isn’t currently pertinent as Psi-Wars doesn’t use Status, which might be something worth revisiting. Even if we added it, though, it’s simpler to ignore the differences.

Cinematic Traits aren’t pertinent, as Psi-Wars doesn’t use Wildcard Skills, though you’re free to change that.


The Supporting Cast is just commentary on Allies (I highly agree that allies, enemies and dependents should have speaking parts! I find it weird when I’m playing with someone to whom all characters other than perhaps the big villain and the PCs never say anything except in a narrated “He says he’s unhappy” sort of way)

Customs of the Country is vital. The point of a sci-fi game is to explore exotic new locals. Star Wars has a very generic universe, but stops to take the time to show you weird aliens and lets you listen to their crazy music or participate in their crazy games (podracing). We’ll discuss this more later.

Plot Support

Most of this chapter is advice, and this section is no different. Note that all three things here, “finding a mission,” “supplying motives” and “carrying out a mission” are thoroughly covered by Action 2!

Social Themes

A variety here might prove to be interesting.

Buying and Selling is potentially interesting. It’s not the main focus of the game, but smugglers might find it interesting, and it might be worth noting a rule somewhere where characters can get products or services cheaper. Note that Star Wars literally has a mercantile negotiation scene in it, even if it lacks details (“and fifteen thousand when we get to Alderaan.” fifteen thousand what?)

Politics might also be pertinent. It certainly mattered in the prequels, and also bored people to tears. I personally think, like in Action, this should be relegated to behind the scenes, an explanation as to why the heroes do what they do, rather than something they do directly, but it might be worth looking at in broad terms.

Love and Marriage isn’t that important in Action, nor does it typically help our heroes in Star Wars. Romance certainly happens in both! But it’s incidental to the core of gameplay. That is, Psi-Wars is not a game of getting the girl to fall in love with you. That just happens by itself over the course of rescuing her, or getting frozen in carbonite, or whatever.

Idleness is interesting, not from the perspective of actually running a Psi-Wars game where characters “just hang out” but given the alien nature of the world, having a few alien diversions might be nice.

Exotic Worlds

Ah, here we go.

The GM’s most important trick in this kind of campaign
is distancing mechanisms: situations, customs, or objects that are alien and perplexing, both to the PCs and to the players.
Star Wars brims with this, from kooky hologram chess to weird, alien music played with weird, alien instruments to blue milk on a moisture farm to random mentions of “Galactic Senates” to weird names like Alderaan and Mos Eisley and chattering aliens with incomphrehensible languages, or discussions of how Tusken Raiders are a “superstitious people” who right single file “to hide their numbers.”

Star Wars is weird and exotic. It has the exact “distancing” mechanisms described above.
This whole section is a discussion of Cultural Familiarity, but that’s an extremely important trait here, not in the sense that we should charge more for it, or that we should really penalize people who don’t have it, but that you can bury a lot of interesting stuff behind the label “Cultural Familiarity.”
GURPS Action doesn’t talk a lot about it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s in two templates (the Faceman and the Investigator) and shows up in the list of appropriate traits. But Action already knows what the cultural familiarities are, because we’re familiar with them. To use Action Movie simplifications, if one goes to the Middle East, everyone speaks Arabic, is Muslim, wears veils, the women are particularly modest and hospitality is sacred. If one goes to Japan, everyone speaks Japanese, bows upon greeting one another, takes off their shoes in their house, and take honor verious seriously. If one goes to South America, everyone speaks Spanish (or Portuguese), they’re all catholic, etc.

For Psi-Wars, we’d want something similar, places with cohesive cultures that might be familiar to the denizens of Psi-Wars, but not to us, as players. We have to balance, though, between the impulse for richly designed and cohesive cultures, and the desire to just leap in and play. I’ll favor the latter for Psi-Wars, but that doesn’t mean we should have no culture.

The Reference Society

The other big one. If we have an Exotic World, we also need “home,” a place where our players feel comfortable. For Psi-Wars, that will be what I’ve been calling “the Core,” the center of the Galaxy and galactic power, where the Empire resides and where the Alliance wants to reside. It’s primarily peopled by humans, who have familiar culture. They’ll do things like hold a door open for a lady, wear clothes, eat while sitting at a table, watch space TV, etc. It should have a few crazy things, the distancing mechanics mentioned above, but they should be minimal: they don’t watch football, but space football; they don’t eat ham and green beans, but space ham and space beans, etc. Here, the distance is “minimal” while the farther from the “center” you go, the weirder it should get. Beyond the fringe of the galaxy should be worlds of weird wonder and terror. Thus, Psi-Wars embraces the pulpy aesthete of exploration.

Chapter 2: A Place to Stand

Social Position

The bulk of this discusses Wealth, Rank and Status. Wealth we’ve already tackled, so it isn’t particularly important to go over again.


First, I want to point your attention to Converging Rank, because this will definitely come up in Psi-Wars. All organizations are fractal. That is, a sergeant runs a 10 man squad, and 5 squads serve in a platoon, and 5 platoons serve in a company, and so on. That means that platoon lieutenant is the boss of all the squads, but the sergeants are each boss over their own squad. Eventually, if you get high enough, you’ve slipped out of your military organization and into your overarching organization. This might be most clearly seen in the Force Awakens and the tense relationship between Huxley and Kylo Ren. Huxley is the top of his military heirarchy, and Kylo Ren is at the top of his (very small but super-important) religious organization. Both answer directly to Snoke. The Empire of Psi-Wars will be made up of a variety of smaller organizations.

Let’s talk the Arithmetic of Rank in regards to the scale of Psi-Wars. Rank 8 “governs an entire army.” Rank 9, then, would govern 5 armies. So, perhaps, someone who commands all of NATO or a vast army of about 1,000,000 people. Rank 10 might represent a general who commands all the armies of the world (about 5,000,000 soldiers, though, in fact, there are nations with armies nearly this large). Rank 11 might govern all the armies of 5 fully-populated worlds. In reality, we might expect there to be outposts and lesser colonies, so we might guess more like 10 star systems, or a small region of space. Rank 12 might govern all the armies over about 50 star systems, or a major region of the galaxy (or a pathetically small one, depending on how common populated worlds are). Rank 13 might represent someone who governs the armies of the galaxy, if we break the galaxy up into 5 parts.

The scale of an interstellar civilization is potentially staggering, particularly an old one like the Star Wars galaxy. Warhammer 40k comes pretty close to hitting on what that would actually look like. To dig into it more would require whipping out GURPS Space and making some hard decisions about how common worlds are, but as this is a generic setting iteration, I leave that to the individual GM to decide, for now.

Instead, I pose this question: What do you do with rank heirarchies in such a sprawling organization? If you have 12 ranks, you get some vast distance between the common grunt and the people who command them, but that’s not what Star Wars shows. Star Was collapses all of that down to remarkably small levels. In the Force Awakens, Huxley himself is giving a speech to the First Order, who seem to fit conveniently on a small moon, and then they fire a blast that destroys some five worlds, thus “ending the New Republic.” This is not a vast, sprawling galactic civilization with billions of worlds, each of which house billions of people. In fact, thinking of such a setting is a struggle for the mind, which is one of the things that, for me, makes sci-fi fun!

So what do we do? That’s a question I’ll leave to you for now. Action limits people to Rank 5, and it has upper limits for how much power someone can bring. If someone represents the Imperial Fleet as a 12-rank structure, can you go to Rank 8? And if so, can you reasonably ask for a full fleet of dreadnoughts to drop on your opponent? Is that practical or interesting? Do we limit people to the same Rank 0-5, and the fleet can go to 12, but a Rank 5 character can only call for local elements (like some assistance from a single dreadnought?) Or do we say that the whole fleet is squashed down to rank 8 to make it easier to rub elbows with grand admirals, and our “vast galaxy” is shrunk down to a more gameable level? That’s a question I leave to you, for now.

The Rank chapter also suggests alternate rank costs and alternate sorts of organizations. The former doesn’t interest me because I want to hew closely to GURPS Action and the standard GURPS rules where possible. That said, it’s interesting to note that there are multiple ways to get to “5 points.” It might be worth reviewing while we design whether rank 5 in the Imperial Fleet is as worthwhile as Rank 5 in a pirate fleet, or in the Order of True Communion. For example, the Imperial Fleet has Nominal Heirarchial Position (1), Chain of Command (1), Access to Large resources (2), Dominance (0) and Legitimacy (2) for about 6 points per level. A priest of a forbidden order of True Communion has a Nominal Heirarchy (1), no chain of command, access to typical resources (mostly training, secret temples, etc) (1), Special Assets (visions into the future, super-powered masters who can help you out, etc) (1) and perhaps Legitimacy (2), but in the sense of serving society rather than the emperor. That’s only 4 points, but if we argue that the Imperial Navy lacks legitimacy, that people will rush to help a priest but only does what the naval officer demands out of fear of death, then the Imperial Fleet is only 4/rank. Balance!

Page 51-52 talks more about rank, but most of it is just the rules from which Pulling Rank are derived. The section on “Variant Rank and Its Benefits” present an interesting guide for offering different benefits for different types of rank. Legitimacy doesn’t offer such a benefits, but it could offer bonus status, which brings us to a problem, in that we don’t have status. Free Social Regard might be an interesting alternative.


Which brings us to the next pickle: Status.

So far, I’ve neglected Status because it doesn’t show up in GURPS Action. This makes sense: the kid from the streets rubs elbow with the disgraced politician, and neither worries about the status of the other. Nobody cares that Dominic Torreto is from the streets, or that Bond isn’t. For that matter, Kingsmen proves how pointless status and class is in your typical action movie. You need to be able to walk the walk, but where your family came from doesn’t matter.

But GURPS Action takes place in a classless meritocracy. In our world, you’d hire a programmer from the streets as quickly as you would the programmer son of a nobleman, so long as they could code. But is Psi-Wars a classless meritocracy? Star Wars certainly isn’t! It features princesses and counts and emperors! That doesn’t sound like a classless meritocracy… except on Naboo, “Princess” is an elected position (?) and Leia Organa was the daughter of a senator, not a king. So… what is it?
That’s up to us to decide, of course, because it’s Psi-Wars not Star Wars. But what does it add?
In a lot of ways, Status is a self-serving system. You only need Status if other people have Status. It creates a distance between people. If you want to talk to a Status 4 person and you have Status 1, you’re at -3 to reaction rolls. He’s not impressed by you, but you’re impressed by him. Why? 

Because he access to power, via wealth, good friends or connections to the government. In a sense, if one has high rank and wealth, one already has Status… which is why those two things give you imputed status!

Status also grants some additional benefits, mainly found on page 26 and 59. First, you get a reaction bonus equal to the difference of your status, if you have more status, or a penalty if you have less status. This latter is waived if we use cinematic social rules.

The second is “similar to the benefits of rank, but more diffuse”: You can take command, lend your legitimacy to a campaign (including your own election), and use it to gain easier admission to things. This last is interesting, but involves a complex system that I worry nobody could work out fast enough, but the principle seems sound: A princess has an easier time getting invited to the great party than some jerk from the streets.

If the benefits of status are “similar to the benefits of rank,” why not simplify that entire system into something akin to pulling rank? Someone with Status +1 can make a request for information or a minor favor and succeed rarely, while someone with Status +8 would almost always get what he asked for. That might be an idea worth exploring further.

If we did add Status, we’d have to decide what sort and how much. Noble positions are usually ascribed, so something like a title would grant static status based on one’s position. Or we could use Achievement for elected princesses and former slaves who later become dark lords of the sith. We would also need to decide on the range of status, though I would use our decisions on rank as a guide.

Other Social Traits

Reputation is already fairly well established, though it might be worthwhile to offer some examples. I also say a suggestion somewhere for institutionalized reputation, such as medals offered to officers.
Social Regard and Social Stigma are interesting too, but also going to be culture specific. The Priests of True Communion might be Venerated, while the priests of the Death Cult might be Feared. We’ve already established that Robots are Subjugated, as are slaves, and we have alien Minorities and Criminal Records. If we make Status a thing, Disowned might be useful. Even with our deeply defined religions, unless those matter day-to-day, Excommunication is worthless, unless it carries some kind of supernatural weight. Uneducated might be appropriate for some alien races, such as the equivalent to Ewoks. Monster might be appropriate for certain sufficiently horrific alien races (the Psi-Wars equivalent to a Xenomorph)

For further traits, Claim to Hospitality, Legal Enforcement Powers and Security Clearance already have representations in Action and thus have a place in Psi-Wars. Clerical Investment might be pertinent if we have true “religions of Communion,” and might act as a prerequisite for joining a religious order. Legal Immunity might apply to Diplomats.

Making an Impression

Most of this discussion covers familiar topics, like Charisma or Voice, etc. These work the way one expects and need no further definition for Psi-Wars.

Visible Status and Cost of Living is well-worth a read. If we want to benefit from status, we must display status… but how? What are the rules of fashion for psi-wars? Do men wear suits (or simple, modest wear that doesn’t really show status in a flagrant way)? Or do the nobility dress up like ridiculous peacocks, or something in between? We need space opera fashion. It’s not something we need to tackle right now, but something we need to keep in mind.

Finally, we have a section on Giving Offense, which could be summed up as a paragraph on Odious Personal Habits. It might be nice to note what some common ones might be.

Chapter 3: Face to Face

Here we have the core of our social engineering rules, as most people will see it.
Most of these aren’t relevant for Action. Or, better said, most of them have already been covered by action and do not need to be revisited, though you’re free to do so.

Exotic Social Traits

This, however, is very pertinent, given the presence of aliens in Psi-Wars
Appearance does require some discussion. It should be noted that Star Wars has aliens with essentially human psychology. That is, a sexy female space alien has the same sort of traits we’d expect from a sexy human woman, rather than an especially shiny carapace of her her well-shaped thorax, bristling with succulent egg-sacs. Psi-Wars supports this with how Communion works. That is, a space elf and a space goblin see the world the way we do. They understand the same archetypes and they respond roughly the same way to things. They might reinterpret things, but this is cultural. There are aliens that do not work this way, but they fall outside of Communion, having an alien psychology, and are covered by the archetype of The Other. This doesn’t mean they’re all monstrous, but rather than our Communion views them as monstrous.

Perception and Communication is interesting, mainly for racial design. If we’re going to apply a +2 to body language rolls for characters with Infravision, then that should apply to characters using Infravision visors.

In fact, this applies broadly. When it comes to Bridging the Gap, we can ignore different mentalities, though if we feel the need to look at them anyway, apply a -2, which can be overcome with a technique if we wanted that level of detail. Only “Other” alien races would fall under worse penalties.
Racial Reputations definitely apply, given the overwhelming influence of the galactic core on how other races are viewed.

Chapter 4: The Organization Man

Most of this is also already covered by GURPS Action, mainly in the form of Pulling Rank, nor not particularly relevant.

Organizational Skills presents an interesting alternative to Administration as the prime complementary skill. For example, Philosophy or Theology might matter more for our Communion-focused organizations.

Going Through Channels is also interesting, mainly to remind us not to be jerks when a player asks for something that’s completely reasonable to ask for.

Blackmail is something not covered by Action, though it seems like the sort of thing that would be. Perhaps it’s best left as is, as it requires no special traits (other than dealing well with Secrets), but it’s an interesting topic to look over, and it doesn’t require any simplification to work well with a game. Feel free to add it!

Chapter 5: Moving the Masses

Most of the stuff that matters here, Action has already simplified and covered, with the exception of Status and various stuff associated with Politics. Status I’ve already touched on, but Politics is worth looking at.

Politics, of course, matters in the same way that Mass Combat matters: It provides a context to what people are doing. Psi-Wars heroes don’t generally fret about the legal meanderings of passing a bill. Instead, they’re the ones that break into offices, find out a politician’s secret agenda, and then rush to rescue someone before they’re assassinated in an effort to prevent them from speaking out in support of a bill, etc. Even if the Action character is, herself, a politician, she’s an action politician, and the political stuff gets swept under the rug.
If we look at it the same way we did mass combat, we might ferret out a few ideas for how things work.

Administrative Politics will be typical of how most organizations run things, if it matters. The Imperial Fleet is ultimately a bureaucracy, for example. They’ll tend to favor policies that help them expand in scope, and that don’t go against the current status quo (that is, they oppose change). The most pertinent skills are Writing, Administration and Law, though I think I’d make Administration the most important, just for simplicity.

Electoral Politics would be typical of the old republic or the alliance. These tend to favor high status, public personas and ruthless uses of Propaganda. Politics is your key skill here, with assists from Propaganda, Public Speaking and Expert Skill (Political Science) helping out. This is a more dynamic politics, though it can quickly resort to a popularity contest, where image matters more than substance. Thus, such politicians would seek to bolster their image. This is obvious in modern politics, but it was certainly true of the Roman Republic as well!

Revolutionary Politics are violent responses to totalitarianism, thus common in Psi-Wars. Such “mob” politics are maniplated with Politics primarily, but also Propaganda and Psychology. I think I would include Public Speaking too.

Totalitarianism comes down to influencing the dictator. The sidebar on 64 suggests that all dictatorships have massive propaganda efforts, secret police and death camps. If we want our Empire to fit this mold, we should have them as well.

Alliances and Diplomacy is the raison d’etre for the Diplomat. If we want to roll this out, then the skills that matter are Diplomacy, Intelligence Analysis, Pyshcology and perhaps Fast-Talk. Law also matters for working out the exact details of the agreement.

Chapter 6: From Persuasion to Force

Action already covers all of this in the simplified Banter section except for Creating a Distraction, which might be worth revisiting in a simplified form. The rules listed here Social Engineering will work well enough for Psi-Wars, though.
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