Monday, December 12, 2016

Taking the War out of Psi-Wars: Saying No to Mass Combat

Psi-Wars is about war and definitely features huge fleets, heroic starfighter pilots, daring commando raids and maniacal commanders plotting the destruction of entire worlds.  "War" is one of our core gameplay activities!  Given that, shouldn't Mass Combat be front and center in our game?

No. Jason "P.K." Levine says it better than I could in Just Say No to Mass Combat, but let me try to break it down for you in the specific context of Psi-Wars.

Core Activities and Mass Combat

As usual, I need to define some terms and clear up some misunderstandings.  When we talk about Mass Combat, many people picture something like this:

Here, Luke and many other pilots make ready to attack the Death Star.  In short order, many of them will die to tie fighters, turbo-laser turrets, or smashing into walls.  They'll talk tactics, discuss wings, shout about being unable to "shake 'em".  It's a massive combat, and ergo Mass Combat, right?

However, I would argue that this isn't Mass Combat.  I would argue that Mass Combat looks less like that and more like this:

The critical distinction is one Bjorn would make: "What is my character doing here?"  If your character is fighting, then it isn't Mass Combat.  If your character is generalling, then it's Mass Combat.

Jason's article speaks against a certain group that sees a massive battle and thinks it must be governed by Mass Combat, or that a city must have City Stats, or that to include any animals anywhere in a game requires a copy of GURPS Bestiary.  But in so doing, Jason makes some assumptions about your game.  For example, he implies that players wouldn't be the driving force that determines how a king will respond to someone raiding his livestock, or that they won´t be the driving force behind deciding who gets voted into the CEO's vacated position.  However, his comment about "Well, alright, maybe sometimes it's okay" is an admission to that assumption.  What if you're playing GURPS Suits and your game is all about legal wrangling and trying to get someone into that position? Then, of course your characters will care who gets in that position!  But what if they aren't?  What if players are just roaming murder-hobos looking for a quest?  Then all the players care about is that the king will ask them to find whoever's been raiding his livestock, not why he came to that decision.

Let's go back to the typical Star Wars action.  When Luke is flying about shooting Tie-Fighters, the focus of the camera is on Luke and his personal drama.  If we look at GURPS Action, we see a similar focus: Our characters are shooters or investigators or facemen, and the focus of the game, the choices we have to make, the tactics we'll deploy, focus entirely on the personal.  We are heroic agents who infiltrate, assassinate, steal, hack and deceive.

A typical Mass Combat focus would look more strategic.  If you use Mass Combat, then you need to worry about money and supply lines (A good rule of thumb is that if your game doesn't care about logistics, you're probably not using Mass Combat).  You need to worry about how much effort it takes to raise a particular unit, make cost-benefit analyses about mercenaries vs home-grown soldiers, and when we attack, we ideally want to attack in such a way that we achieve our larger objectives while also preserving the majority of our forces.  That is, if we played a Mass Combat game, we would playing strategically the way a typical D&D player plays tactically.  Our scope would zoom out.  Our game would play more like Civilization or Starcraft or Command and Conquer.  The question is: Does Psi-Wars play like that?

It could.  We could play major leaders in the rebel Alliance.  We could carefully navigate the various, delicate alliances we made.  We could try to secure ownership of major ship-yards and then look at timelines: If we can prevent the empire from attacking for a year, we can finish that new dreadnought and begin a major offensive.  Meanwhile, we have pirate raids pushing at the rear and the Empire is growing in strength, and a local alien criminal cartel is willing to offer us mercenaries. We have interesting choices, but on a very broad scale.

But Psi-Wars, as we've written it, doesn't work that way.  We plays as Commandos and Fighter Pilots, not generals.  This is true of Star Wars too.  We get references to larger political things, like the Galactic Senate or spice mines, but these are no different than the Expendables referencing the CIA or oil refineries.  The Expendables is not a movie about geopolitics, but a movie about action heroes personally taking on a small army.  Psi-Wars draws its DNA more from that line of fiction.

We could add it, of course, but that means supporting multiple levels of gameplay, where some characters have to sit around twiddling their thumbs while someone else is doing something.  And what would it add?  Is it enough to make Brent care?  Probably not.  Psi-Wars is scattered enough.  If we add a whole new generalship side to the game for the sole purpose of pleasing the Officer, then we create a huge load of work for very little reward and might actually make for detrimental play.  No thank you!

Does that mean we have no major battles?  Of course not.  Rafari's playtest showed how well a larger-than-life space knight could fare in a major battle.  We can totally imagine him leading his planet's resistance.  But, and this is key, the focus would be different.  Rafari would personally lead raids.  He would find himself battling some Imperial Space Knight.  He would be tempted by some wicked, femme fatale spy.  The scenes he played out would be local and focused.  They would certainly matter for the larger battle.  That larger battle would provide the context for his actions, but Rafari, himself, is not making Strategy and Administration rolls, and he's not fretting over the dwindling funds of his army.  Instead, he gets missions because the GM has decided that the resistance has dwindling funds.

Ergo, Psi-Wars doesn't have Mass Combat.  It has huge battles that the players participate in, but the battle always zooms in on them.  It's about their battles and their struggles, and how their heroic, one-man effort makes a massive difference in the grand opera of this galactic war.  It's not about logistics and grand strategy. That's the domain of those much higher up the chain of command, the sort of person who calls your space knight a loose cannon and demands that he turn in his badge.
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