Monday, January 23, 2017

Planetary Environments: an Introduction

You know Star Wars happens in space not because it literally happens in space (I've only seen characters don space-suits and take a space walk in a few cases in the extended universe), but because it takes place on strange, alien worlds like Tatooine or Dagobah.  Star Wars has planets.  Psi-Wars, obviously, needs equally dramatic and interesting planets to remind players that the action is taking place in a crazy sci-fi galaxy.

Planets for a space opera setting like Star Wars require a specific approach, however.  We could dig out GURPS Space and use their planetary creation system, but that would give us detail we don't need (the orbital order of planets don't matter, nor do barren worlds that the PCs will never visit).  I'm not saying you can't use it, I'm saying our needs are different. In Star Wars, planets serve primarily as backdrops and, perhaps, challenges.  They largely fit the various terrain types offered by GURPS: Dagobah is a swamp world, Hoth is an arctic world, and Tatooine is a desert world.  All of them have breathable atmospheres and shirt-sleeve temperatures, even the volcanic planet of Mustafar.  In fact, the planets track so well with GURPS terrains and are so far removed from the GURPS Space mechanics that I would argue that we should replace the latter with the former.

It was raining that morning on (Planet) Mongo-Jerry Pournelle

Now, a lot of sci-fi fans hate the idea of a single-biome planet, and I see their point.  Setting aside the realism of a single-biome in a setting with force blades and hyperdrives, single biome planets tend to "shrink worlds down."  All of Dagobah is a single swamp, all of Hoth is a single glacier, and so on.  However, in practice, Star Wars tends to enjoy rather thoroughly detailed worlds: Tattooine has Mos Eisely, the vast wastes in which the Sarlacc can be found, the badlands where Tusken Raiders roam.  Naboo has the rich, verdant plains owned by the Naboo, and the swamps/jungles that the Jedi first crash-landed in, and the underwater civlization of the Gungans.  Star Wars actually has rather rich world-building because it tends to revisit the same worlds again and again, and sets so much of its action planetside (as opposed to Star Trek, which tends to keep most of its drama on their starships, to keep set-costs down).

Thus, in this series, I'm not going to discuss planets-as-biomes, but offer some ideas and rules for how terrains you might place on a planet.  After all, Iteration 5 is about generic setting building, about offering us the tools we need to quickly put together a new setting, and that includes conjuring planets from nothing.  If you wish to create a completely arctic world, feel free.  If you want to spend days working out an entire planet in excruciating detail, you're free to do that too.  I would suggest that you don't map worlds in full detail, because I honestly think most stories won't stay in one place long enough for it to matter.  I think it's enough to have 1-5 biomes, with 1-5 interesting landmarks/set pieces each, in the same way that you can get far with a culture by giving them a handful of interesting distancing mechanism.

Why Planets?

Why does everyone want to go back to Jakku? 
-Finn, The Force Awakens
You know what Action doesn't have?  Detailed rules on terrains.  If you're in a jungle, you need to chop through some stuff and your character is especially sweaty and he can gain a bonus from the Naturalist skill, and that's largely all Action cares about.  Do we need more than that?


Planetary environments don't impact Star Wars so much that you couldn't run Psi-Wars without them if we wanted to.  If you're on a desert planet fighting the Nahudi or you're on forest planet fighting imperials, the GM can largely improvise everything he needs: descriptions, minor rules ("Sure-footed(Sand) is useful here but not there") and so on.  Much action in Psi-Wars won't even take place on a planet.  A space knight can duel his enemy on the bridge of a dreadnought while his fighter ace buddy shoots down the enemy out in orbit.  Once they win, they can take a shuttle down to the starport to hang out at a local bar, then hire a smuggler to take them to some remote space station, never once setting foot on anything that wasn't man-made.  Even should they choose to go somewhere more wild, they can simply go there.  With the ability to land anywhere and take off anywhere, players will rarely need to trek over a lot of planetary environments anyway, and when they do, a little GM improvisation will do the job.

Then why bother?  Because terrain shapes space opera in a bigger way than it shapes the action genre.  Finn might not have spent that long on Jakku, but it is a desert world, and he did suffer from thirst.  Hoth is an arctic world, and Luke did suffer from frostbite while on it.  One of the draws of science fiction is a chance to witness the exotic, to experience "a sense of wonder." Players expect to see grand, amazing and strange things, and one thing they expect to see is exotic worlds, so we should at least consider what makes a planet interesting and unique.  Planets can feature interesting landmarks (The ship graveyards of Jakku), unique threats (the Sarlacc of Tatooine) and can shape the culture of the people on it (the Ewoks adapted to living among great trees).  And if we have this richly described terrain that we want our players to interact with, we have a few possible reasons why players might need to trek across great expanses of planetary wilderness.

Sometimes, you'll want to interact with the planetary environment because it has something you want.  Perhaps the jungle hides the ruins of an ancient temple, or an Alexian Throne-Ship can be found out in the foreboding deserts of some ancient world.  If you want to get there, that might require some overland travel.  Unlike in Star Trek, you can't "beam" directly to  your chosen point.  You can take a shuttle, of course, but not every location is conducive to a landing.  If your temple is in the heart of thick vegetation, or the ruined ship rests in a place known for sudden and dangerous windstorms that make flight difficult, you may need to "park" some distance away and march in.  While the trip likely won't take more than a few days, that's a few days of dealing with local terrain.  Luke needed to deal with Dagobah to get to Yoda, and our heroes needed to deal with the forests of Endor to defeat the Empire.

Second, perhaps you have no choice.  In the Force Awakens, Finn didn't want to deal with the deserts of Jakku, but he crash-landed and needed some way to survive.  The entire survivor background focuses on characters who survived for years without access to a spaceship or advanced technology. Failure in a space battle almost certainly means a crash landing on an alien world and at least a few days of dealing with the environment before someone rescues you.

Finally, even if you don't deal directly with the environment, it might seep into the setting, shaping societies, cultures and technologies in the background.  If your players land on a desert world, even if they never leave the star port, they might see people in desert survival suits and have to pay top dollar just for a glass of water, and have a chance to buy sandworm steaks.

What we need, then, is the following:
  • Why, and how, would players interact with planetary environments?
  • What unique rules and threats would a terrain present?
  • What unique descriptive traits can we inspire by terrain?
  • How might terrain shape a civilization living upon it?

Which Planets?

The Survival skill has 8 specialties that define 8 different terrain types which will work well enough for our purposes, and a set of 8 we've hit on before (with the Frontier Marshal and the Survivor):
  • Arctic for dealing with ice worlds, like Hoth
  • Desert for dealing with desert worlds, like Tatooine or Jakku
  • Island/Beach for dealing with oceanic words dotted with archipelagos
  • Jungle for hot, tropical worlds full of rich, dense vegetation
  • Mountains for rugged or volcanic worlds like Mustafar or Alderaan
  • Plains for worlds featuring vast savannah or prairies.
  • Swamp for worlds that blur the line between water and land, like Dagobah.
  • Woodlands for non-tropical worlds dense with vegetation.
Finally, Urban Survival points us at an 9th form of terrain: man-made terrain.  Cloud mines, space stations and vast, domed cities or environmentally controlled spires.  Coruscant is a ecomenopolis, a world-city, that would definitely need a unique skillset to survive.

As stated before, the intent here isn't really to define worlds, though I've pointed to worlds, and Star Wars typically features single-biome worlds, but instead as pieces of a world.  A "desert world" certainly features great expanses of desert, but it might also have rugged badlands that reach into huge, towering mountains and marshy regions where what little brakish water that's on the planet merges with the deserts to create salt-swamps, and it might have an enormous and famous star port creating a vast urban landscape set into that vast desert.

A Note on Exotic Worlds

Technically, we need to further specialize our survival by world-types.  A barren world, like Mars, has deserts, mountains and arctic terrain that requires a completely different set of approaches than Earth.  However, as noted previously, every world in Star Wars (and most space opera!) are relatively temperate and have breathable atmospheres and a gravity of 1G.  This might be justified by noting that if one has an entire galaxy of planets to choose from, people will tend to choose planets that suit them, but the real reason is that authors (and GMs and players) don't want to deal with the headaches brought on by these truly exotic environments.  They want to send their heroes to a desert world so they can sit with not-Bedouin aliens and trade for not-spice spice and then punch out an chitinous alien warlord in the face who is totally not-Gengis-Khan.  They don't want to stop and think about how to let their hero breath, or to recalculate the carrying capacity of their characters from planet to planet

This will be true in Psi-Wars as well, not because I personally object to such worlds, but because Psi-Wars hasn't been designed as a game to handle that sort of environment, and I want to stay true to that space operatic aesthete.  I'll look into more fully embracing astrophysics and truly strange alien worlds in a different series. 

Note further that in such sci-fi, "planet" and "moon" and even "asteroid" are terms used interchangeably.  Farscape even features an episode set on a "botanical asteroid," of all things, and in The Empire Strikes Back, when Han goes out of his ship to go onto what he thinks is an asteroid, his one concession to the expected vacuum is to wear a breathing filter.  While such things might be tenuously justified with some crazy super-science and extremely advanced technology, I wouldn't worry about it.  If a player can visit it, it has a breathable atmosphere, one of the 8 terrains, and Earth-normal gravity.

A Planetary Tour, thanks to... Dungeon Fantasy?

If we're going to visit planets and run around in their crazy terrain, we need some simpler, Action-oriented rules to handle them. GURPS Action already has plenty of rules, but if you want a really detailed set of rules, there are few books better for you than GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Wilderness Adventures.  Despite being from the DF line, it's one of the few really detailed works on wilderness survival in GURPS, and the fantasy-focused nature of it doesn't hurt Psi-Wars, because Star Wars already has something of a fantasy-esque take on wilderness environments.

Just as I have previously analyzed Social Engineering and Action 2 for rules that might be useful for Psi-Wars, we can strip-mine DF 16 the same way.  DF and Action have slightly different underlying structures, so where possible, I'll refer back to "Travel" from Action 2 (on page 7-8).  Only one chapter in DF 16 matters for our purposes: Chapter 2, Braving the Wilderness

Terra Incognita (Page 20)

This presents an interesting point.  First, Area Knowledge (Planet) should be enough for any specific world.  Region might work, but only broadly.

Travel Arrangements (Page 20)

Knowing What You're Getting Into offers some interesting ideas.  In essence, this amounts to players asking questions about what sorts of threats they might face.  Area Knowledge, Survival and Research can all help with this.  This applies for Planning a Route as well, if they want to avoid a specific hazard.

Trudging, Trotting and Trundling (page 21)

This is covered by Action 2's travel.  Even the discussion of navigation is tackled in Action 2.  We don't need to revisit it.

Travel Loadouts and Sudden Stops (page 23)

I wouldn't worry about the specific gear characters carry, though you can if you wish.  Travel Fatigue is interesting.  For the most part, it'll be zero, but it's possible characters will ride mounted or walk, and reduced fatigue makes a difference.  Note that climate control mitigates hot environments.

Camping (Page 24)

This seems a little excessive for our needs... but we're looking into survival anyway, why not look closer?  The rules here are simple enough. If we simplified it further, we might use the complementary mechanics: failure to camp (marching through the night) costs 3 fatigue that cannot be recovered until you sleep; a successful survival roll pitches a decent shelter, which means you suffer no lost fatigue and you gain +1 to a roll that you can use for a specific roll (Alertness rolls for keeping watch, camouflage rolls for staying hidden, etc).  If you have no tent or no decent place to stay, or you fail your survival roll, you lose 1 fatigue due to bad sleep that cannot be recovered until you sleep decently.  The watch rules aren't necessary: Action 2 already has watch rules.

Getting Lost (Page 26)

This presents an interesting possibility, and it's something that does happen in Star Wars.  Wandering in the wrong direction could certainly get one in trouble.  A failed roll represents opportunity for the GM.  He can waive the roll, and he can force an interesting encounter, but if he wants to give the players a chance to bypass problems, or to avoid accidentally lengthening the trip, he can use these rules.

The basics are simple enough: Navigation (Land) or Area Knowledge (Planet), or having Absolute Direction.  The additional rules are interesting, and worth including if you're interested in something deeper, but this is enough for my purposes.

Tracking (Page 27)

Action 2 has a section on Trails, but it needs elaboration if someone is physically tracking another character. The rules here work well enough: roll Tracking every day to stay on the trail.  Your opponent can roll Camouflage or Survival of the appropriate type to attempt to hide his tracks, thus resisting your Tracking roll.  Otherwise, treat a tracking contest as a slow-motion chase using Hiking or appropriate driving/riding skills as the pertinent skills.  If the chaser catches up to the target's total, he'll encounter him that day.  Taking weird routes to lose your opponent are Stunts, using skills like Survival or Acrobatics.

Stunts (Page 28)

This is mostly covered by Insertion, Climbing and Parkour in Action 2, on pages 18-19 but Mountaineering represents something new.  In essence, it replaces Hiking with Climbing for your daily travel roll, and adds the risk of taking 2d, 6d or 6dx2 damage on a failure from a fall.  This definitely makes use of the "Got you covered" rule from Action 2 page 5.

Dangers (Page 30)

This chapter is pure gold, and there's really no "simplifying" it without outright plagiarism, not even the tip-toe "simplifications" I'm offering above.  It's simply worth the price of admission.  If I am going to simplify it, I think it best to do on a case- by-case basis, such as discussing what sorts of dangers one is likely to face.

Mother Nature's Bounty (Page 42)

I would skip this chapter.  DF concerns itself more with supplies than Action does, and while some exotic resources definitely exist out on planets, characters will rarely use Herbalism to concoct potions with them and, if they do, the rules are simple: Roll Naturalist to find the necessary component and then roll pharmacor whatever  at some penalty to create whatever UT drug you need to create, and move on.  Most of the suggests in here are simply too inferior for an ultra-tech action game to concern itself with, as a player is far better off figuring out a way to jury-rig repairs on his blasters than on constructing a club or a stone-tipped spear.
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