Tuesday, February 7, 2017

BYOSM: Bring Your Own Space Monsters: the Psi-Wars Edition

Pyramid #3-27: Monsters in Space has a fantastic article called "Aliens on Hand."  The idea behind the article is that with a quick shuffling of deck of cards, you can randomly generate a monster at the drop of a hat.  This is perfect for Psi-Wars, as the problem we face right now is not knowing what random craziness to throw against our heroes.  However, we run into the problem described yesterday, which is that these space monsters are calibrated for substantially less competent heroes, and less technological heroes, than the characters in Psi-Wars.  This works fine for creating relatively mundane threats, but will not adequately oppose a fully trained Space Knight, or a well-armed Commando.

The intention in this article isn't necessarily to rewrite the ideas in "Aliens on Hand," but to re-calibrate them.  If we know what sorts of threats will reasonably phase our heroes, we can rewrite a few key elements of the article to create monsters that will appropriately challenge them.  This has the added benefit of focusing our minds on what sorts of threats our heroes should face.  So far we've "balanced" the game on technological considerations and skill level, but how do you balance an opponent who uses no technology at all?

When this article his finished, we'll have an updated version of "Aliens on Hand" to generate our monsters randomly, and that's good, but the real benefit will be the thought we put into the process.  After all, while randomly generated monsters might be useful if you're in a pinch, ideally you'd want tightly focused and well-designed creatures in your final setting. "Aliens on Hand," and any work we do to improve it, will ultimately serve as a guidelines on how to create appropriate and interesting threats for your heroes.

I want to re-iterate that this article is not going to cover realistic space monsters, but threatening space monsters.  Presumably there are space-tigers and space hyenas and whatever and they're scary to other animals or to toddlers who wander out into the wild, but they're not the sorts of threats that keep a Psi-Wars PC up at night.  The intent of this article is to write monsters that will make a PC sweat, and that will interest him tactically, rather than ecologically (though bonus points if you can do that too!)


Rethinking Basic Monster Types

Aliens on Hands  has 3 basic sorts of monsters: Strong monsters (your space bears, space rhinos, space buffalo), agile monsters (space cats, xenomorphs, space snakes) and your fast monsters (space cheetahs, space peregrins).  If you look at basic statistics. this break down makes sense: some beasts would be very strong and tough, great bulls or might predators, like the wampa beast or the rancor. What makes them dangerous is the sheer damage they do, and the amount of damage they can take. Others might be more flexible and agile and precise, like the trash-compactor... thing.  The advantage here is the clever tricks a particularly stealthy or precise creature could pull off.  Finally, raw speed allows the predator to ambush and destroy its prey before the prey even realizes what's going on.  This is especially useful in a scenario where players have brought guns to bear: a fast animal will need to cover that distance as quickly as possible.

How Strong is Strong Enough?

"Aliens on Hand" gives each space monster an ST 10 and gives the strong space monster an ST of 16.  This is plainly insufficient... but how much is "enough?"

ST serves three purposes.  First, it gives us an overall idea of size, but I suspect that we'll end up throwing a lot of that out the window for the same reason that an ST 33 insectoid isn't the size of a small elephant.  Second, it gives us an idea of how much damage a monster can take, and third, it gives us a "base damage" the monster can inflict.

For damage, we have two obvious tiers.  The first is that it needs to be at least something of a threat to a character in battleweave, which means it needs to be strong enough to deal at least 21 points of damage, ideally on average.  That requires a mind blowing ST of 55 before that becomes practical (For comparison, that's stronger than an elephant or a t-rex).  The second tier needs to be at least a threat to someone in a combat suit, so it needs to be able to deal 61 points of damage, which is approximately ST 110 (whew!)  These numbers might be a little bit high: An ST 30 monster is going to be spectacularly good at wrestling a target and tossing him around, even if he can't get through the armor.  Still, it gives us an order of magnitude.

What about taking damage?  Assuming no armor at all, a monster with 10 HP will go down after about 1 shot from an average blaster pistol.  The ideal threat would require 2-3 solid hits, and those 2-3 solid hits would be rather hard to get. Assuming the critter could dodge half the attacks, you'd need to hit it 4-6 times.  If pistols are our gold standard, that means normal predators should have 20-30 HP, and strong predators should have 40-60.  If rifles are our gold standard, the requisite HP is doubled.

This gives us a practical number of about ST 60 for low ST predators and ST 120 for high ST predators, but those numbers are also flatly ridiculous.  ST 20 will inflict 2d-1 damage, which is within spitting distance of a vibro-blade, and allow the beast to take two hits from a pistol before going down.  It's also close enough to bears and tigers to feel "right.".  For stronger critters, if we go for ST 50 (as strong as a real-world t-rex), that allows 2.5 hits from a rifle, or five hits from a pistol, and deals 5d+2 damage, which is within spitting distance of a rifle.  It's also about as strong as an elephant, which is excessive, but not so excessive that players will find it unreasonable.

How Agile is Agile Enough?

"Aliens on Hand" give each space monster a DX of 10, except for the "Agile Monster" which has a DX of 14.  Is that enough  Well, it's not bad.  However, with our look at Minions, we have a better idea of what appropriate skill levels might be (nothing that skill and DX are largely the same for beasts): Skill 10 is appropriate for untrained, inept monsters, Skill 12 is appropriate for most monsters, skill 15 for highly skilled monsters, and Skill 18 for the most elite of monsters.

This suggests that DX 12 should be our gold standard, with DX 15 or 18 for the highly skilled monsters.  A better way to treat it might be DX 10 for the strong beast and DX 12 for the fast beast and 15 for the agile beast.

How Fast is Fast Enough?

Unless our beasts have ranged attacks, they'll need to cover ground to get at their prey before they prey can kill them with blaster fire.  When we looked at military tactics, we found ~70 yards is a good military engagement distance.  Now, we don't need all of our beasties to be able to cover that instantly, or even that full distance.  How do our beasties stack up?

"Aliens on Hand" gives strong monsters a basic speed (and move) of 5, agile monsters a basic speed and move of 7, and fast monsters a breath-taking basic speed and move of 11.  If we give all monsters enhanced move (ground) as a basis, we find that a strong monster can cover 70 yards in 7 turns, an agile monster in 5, and a fast monster in just over 3!  A space knight would be hard pressed to cover that much distance.  It passes the smell test.

It does mean that strong beasts have a dodge of 9, Agile beasts a dodge of 11, and Fast beasts a dodge of 15!  That seems excessive, but is it?  It's in an official GURPS publication, but that doesn't mean it can't be wrong.

Let's work the numbers.  

If a Strong beast has 50 HP, a move of 5 and an dodge of 9 (37% of the time), and you attack him with a pistol (an average of 10 damage), he can take 5 hits before he goes down, and 2/5 hits will miss meaning he'll go about 35-40 yards before you take him down.

If an agile beast has 20 HP, a move of 7 and a dodge of 11 (63%) and you attack him with a pistol, he can take 2 hits before he goes down, but 1/3 attacks will hit, meaning he'll make it about 41 yards before you take him down, which is on par with the Strong Beast.

If a fast beast has 20 HP and a move of 11 and a dodge of 15 (95%), then it'll take two hits to take him down, but 19/20 attacks will miss, meaning he can go ~450 yards before you take him out, which is absurd.  I don't mind a fast critter being must faster than its counterparts, but this is ten times as effective for covering ground.  If we gave the critter a basic speed of 8 (Dodge of 12 or 75%) and a move of 12, the critter would still need two hits to take down, but would cover about 90 yards before you took him down.  That feels better.

Basic Alien Types revisited


Strong Beast
ST: 50 HP: 50 Speed: 5
DX: 10 Will: 5 Move: 5
IQ: 5 Per: 10

HT: 18 FP: 18 SM: +1
Dodge: 9
Parry: NA
DR: 0
Traits: Combat Reflexes, Enhanced Move (Ground)
Bite: 5d+1 cr
Kick: 5d+2 cr
Swipe: 5d+1 cr
Agile Beast
ST: 20 HP: 20 Speed: 7
DX: 15 Will: 5 Move: 7
IQ: 5 Per: 10

HT: 12 FP: 12 SM: +1
Dodge: 11
Parry: NA
DR: 0
Traits: Combat Reflexes, Enhanced Move (Ground)
Bite: 2d-2 cr
Kick: 2d-1 cr
Swipe: 2d-2 cr
Fast Beast
ST: 20 HP: 20 Speed: 8
DX: 12 Will: 5 Move: 12
IQ: 5 Per: 12

HT: 12 FP: 12 SM: +1
Dodge: 12
Parry: NA
DR: 0
Traits: Combat Reflexes, Enhanced Move (Ground)
Bite: 2d-2 cr
Kick: 2d-1 cr
Swipe: 2d-2 cr
If we assume HT 12 (why not?) and we give them a perception of 10 (except for a 12 for the Fast Beast), SM +1 (we except our space beasts to be at least the size of a lion or a bear) and leave everything as we decided, we come to the above.

Rethinking Defenses

"Aliens on Hand" offers us three defenses: "Ultra Tough Skin", "Metal Plates" and "Tough and Nimble." The problem with all of these is that their DR is far too low.  The obvious answer is to multiply the DR of each by 5, giving us a DR of 20, 30 and 5 respectively.  However, I personally prefer the idea of particularly strong people being able to punch an armored beast directly, and if a critter is as well-armored a ultra-tech heroes, people might start taking their hide as armor.  That's not a bad thing, I rather like the idea of "primitive" aliens wearing space-monster-hide as armor, but that armor should be inferior ("lower-tech") than standard armor.

I propose hardened armor, which means I can lower the DR by a decent amount, making attacks that lack an armor divisor more effective!  For "Ultra-Tough Skin" I suggest a hardened DR of 9, which is a total DR of 3 against blaster fire, making it just a touch inferior to battle weave.  For "Plates" I suggest hardened DR of 21, which gives us a total of DR 7 against blaster fire, making it slightly better than the weaker armor of a light hardsuit.  For tough and nimble, let's leave that at DR 5.

But... is that it?  No more defenses than that?  Can we think of a few?  Sure!
It can camouflage! 
-Jurassic World
What about a stealthy space monster?  The Insectoid from MH 5 has Chameleon 4 and Silence 4.  That might be a little excessive for our needs (especially when combined with other elements), but Chameleon 3 and Silence 3 should be plenty!

Why not psionic defenses?  In fact, why not psionic creatures?  Star Wars has the Ysalamiri and psionic powers would justify a lot of the crazy nonsense we want to add to monsters with a nice hand-wave?  We could use ESP to offer a version of combat sense as a psionic defense.  If we're going to have psionic defenses, why not anti-psi defenses?  A monster could be invulnerable to psionic powers, having psi-static.  We might envision screamer creatures with the ability to cover others with their anti-psi ability, but this is enough for now for a space monster.


Rethinking Attacks

I'm fine with Poisoned Scratch (or bite!) and Extra Attack 1.  Those will work well enough in Psi-Wars.  Talons, Fangs, Knobbed Tails and Energy Blasts need some additional work.  Mostly, we need to account for additional armor.  An armor divisor of 5 would fix talons and fangs, bringing them on par with vibro-weapons, but we've already given our beasts far more ST than humans.  If we give them an armor divisor of 3, then a Strong beast with talons will punch through ~70 DR, and other beasts will punch through 21 DR.  Both are threatening enough.

Energy Blasts should probably work like plasma flamers. 4d is already a spectacular amount of damage, but to keep it to appropriate levels of threat, we can increase it to 6d.

Why not add some psionic attacks while we're here?  Three spring to mind.  First, we might want vampiric monsters who drain your life.  Second, we might want the classic Kaa move where our predator dazes our target with a mental blow.  Third, some monsters might inflict irrational Terror on their targets!

Rethinking Traits and Disadvantages

Tactics and Motivations are fine as they are.  The only thing that remains are traits. Most of the existing ones are fine, though I think Hyperspectral vision is a little weird, but I won't complain.  First, Huge needs to be improved to +30 ST rather than +15 ST.  That gives us critters with ST 50 or ST 80 (which does ~9d), which are appropriately terrifying for your Rancor-sized monstrosities.

We can add additional traits.  I'm surprised by the lack of "Superior senses."  Why not a tracker with +3 Perception and Discriminatory Smell?

And why not some psionic abilities while we're at it?  Three leap to mind.  First, the creature might be inherently more psionic than normal, detecting as psionic even if it has no powers, and gaining +3 to any psionic skills it might have.  Second, the ability to detect psionic creatures nearby: Psidar grants not only the ability to detect nearby psychics, but also to "lock on" with your abilities, including Mental Blow!  Finally, a Hive Mind makes sense, a mindlink between all members of the pack (or species or whatever) and low-level telesend and telerecieve so they can share their thoughts.

Disadvantages present some interesting options.  The Wild Animal in particular is unique, as without it, IQ 5 is presapient.  Our monsters are rather clever, it seems!  If we want to add three, we might add Psi-Susceptibility, to make our psionic characters feel more impressive, Invertebrate to represent squishier, sluggy monsters, and some sort of "unnatural" creature that frightens animals and shows up like crazy for anyone who can detect psionic things.

Results

The final version of our "Aliens on Hand" doesn't replace the original Pyramid article (I recommend picking it up!) but rather supplements it.


Sample Space Monsters

Nahudese War Ox

This great, herbivorous monsters have been domesticated by the Nehudese as their beasts of burden and warbeasts, to be ridden into combat.  The six-legged creatures with great, gleaming plates of rhino-grey and a huge horn on its brow offers an imposing and intimidating presence on the battlefield.

This is a fast space monster with heavy plating, a horn (like a knobbed tail on a slam), with "Defend its territory and offspring" as a motivation and "Intimidation before attacking" as a tactic.

Nehudese Space Ox
ST: 20 HP: 20 Speed: 8
DX: 12 Will: 5 (12) Move: 12
IQ: 5 Per: 12

HT: 12 FP: 12 SM: +1
Dodge: 12
Parry: NA
DR: 21 (hardened)
Traits: Combat Reflexes, Enhanced Move (Ground), High Pain Threshold, Horizontal, Very Fat
Bite: 2d-2 cr
Kick: 2d cr
Slam: 2d+2 cr


Dread Tiger

The Old Republic featured a creature that might have been "filled with the Dark Side."  We could have something similar, some sort of wild predator iconic to Dark Communion.  This is an Agile Beast with "Loves the thrill of combat" as a motivation and "Ambushes its prey" as a tactic.  It's enormously psionic, and can inflict terror on its prey and senses what it needs to do in the midst of combat.  It has a glossy, leathery hide and frighteningly long talons.  It hunts only at night.


Agile Beast
ST: 20 HP: 20 Speed: 7
DX: 15 Will: 5 Move: 7
IQ: 5 Per: 10

HT: 12 FP: 12 SM: +1
Dodge: 13
Parry: NA
DR: 5
Traits: Combat Reflexes, Danger Sense (Psionic), Super Jump, Instill Terror 3 (Psionic), detects as psionic (+3), Nocturnal, Horizontal
Psionic Skill: 15
Bite: 2d (3) cut
Claw: 2d (3) cut
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