Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Psi-Wars: Building Aliens Part 2: Mechanics and Templates

The beating heart of a race is its template, even if that template is constructed only of 0-point features.  Yesterday, we worked guidelines and a framework for building a context for our race, what the race means for the narrative.  Now, we need to work out what the race means for the mechanics of the game.

Building a template is more art than science and is ultimately subjective, but I personally think that, when designing racial templates, you should consider at least three things:

  • How the mechanics of the template interact with the fluff of the race's narrative
  • How the template shapes development and play for the PC
  • How the template sets the race apart, and makes it a unique experience for the player.
If you want an example of someone giving a thorough fisking to racial templates, check out Psuedonym's review of the DF 3 races.  He does a pretty good job of pointing out which templates are interesting and which are boring.  It's our job to figure out why.

Racial Template Design

Rule 1: Racial Templates should matter

If you're going to introduce a racial template, if you're going to spend all that time working out the details on how the race works and write up a template, then that template needs to impact play in some way.  This means that players can and should want to get it, that it'll shape their play (that "races feel different"), and that the race makes some kind of impact on the setting.  In fact, just by taking a racial template, the player signals to you that they want that race to matter within the setting.  That's why Wookies get a special call-out in the prequels and Rodians don't.

This is the golden template design rule from which all other rules flow.  When you're done with a template, you should look at it and think of your target audience and ask yourself "Why would any of them choose to play as this race?"

Rule 2: Racial Templates should be within the budget of the player

This is a simple enough rule.  If you're going to offer a racial template, then players should be able to access it.  That means the cost should be no more than about 50 points.

Now, not every race needs to be available to players, and you have a few options for extreme templates, but we'll get into that later, but the purpose of a racial template is for players to use it.  If you have some non-player race, then they don't need an explicit template, they just need enemy stat-blocks and some guidelines to help you create NPCs.  Consider the difference a DF racial template and a DF monster.  You can go ahead and make a racial template if you want, but it's not as important work out in excruciating detail.

Rule 3: Racial Templates should be simple

Shortly, I'm going to discuss all the cool stuff you can add to a race, and it might be tempting to come up with nuanced and detailed templates as a result, but I encourage you to resist that temptation.  Every single trait you add to a template has a mental cost associated with it.  Players need to either write out every single trait on their character sheet (which clutters the sheet enormously) or they risk forgetting what their template has.  A template with about 3 big things to remember is vastly superior to a template of equal cost that has 20 little, itty-bitty traits.

This isn't to say you can't, but that you should be aware of the cost.  If a lot of traits hang together, or make an obvious impact on the character sheet ("+1 IQ" isn't something your player will have to remember, and "Versatile, Artificer +4 and Quick Gadgeteer" are all traits that a player might associate with one another and thus be easier to remember), then they have a lower "mental cost."

Of course, some players love rich racial templates, and some settings really support those (Horror, in particular, is known for them).  But Psi-Wars is based on Star Wars, and in Star Wars, racial templates just don't matter that much.  Twi'leks are people with tentacle heads and that's basically it.  Given the sheer number of races that will be running around in your setting, you will forget some of the details, as might your players.  The simpler, and more obvious, you keep your templates, the easier they'll be to remember.  A good guide for how much detail we want are the races from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, which get their themes across with an excellent economy of traits.

Rule 4: Racial Templates should be cohesive

Racial templates, in contrast to occupational templates, don't represent a loose collection of traits, but a hard description of how a race works.  Players need to take the whole template or none of the template.  Variations can exist, of course ("the one non-evil sith!"), but the template should be designed as a whole, with the intent that it'll be taken as a whole.  Racial templates generally shouldn't consist of a bunch of "spend 10 points on X" or "Choose from one of..." lists.

Races can have things like that, but they're not found in their template.  I'll discuss those in a bit.

Rule 5: Racial Templates should match their narrative fluff

RPG mechanics should match fluff (and fluff should match mechanics).  If you say a race is known for its strength, then it should be strong.  If you say that a race is adorably fluffy, then it should have the fur perk.  "What you see is what you get" should be the rule of template design.

Now, not every line of description of a race needs to cost points!  Often, traits are just features.  A race of cat girls, for example, who look entirely human except for tail and ears only have features, but they should have those features.

This seems to contradict the rule on simplicity, as you need to have a rule for every trait a race has, but you should have as few rules as possible.  However, these actually work to improve one another.  If you realize that every rule you include has a cost, but that you must have a rule per trait, you'll realize you need to have very few traits.  This has to do with that "obvious narrative signature."  Twi'leks really are just humans with tentacle heads.  That's all you need to know about them!  Wookies really are just big, strong, fuzzy critters.  That's all you need to know!  This boils a race down to something the player can easily grasp.

Rule 6: Racial Templates should shape play

This rule is the biggest and the least important, but if you skip it, players may find your races uninteresting.  This interacts strongly with Rule 1, Rule 2 and Rule 3: If templates need to be simple, but templates need to matter, then they obviously need to impact play, but they need to do so in a simple way.  But it also needs to be as broadly available as possible.  In principle, just like with humans, your game should be able to support an entire party of the same race, while still not violating rule 3, which means we cannot solve the problem by creating a dynamic racial template.  Instead, we should think about a gimmick.  In the ideal situation, your occupational template represents what you do, and your racial template colors how you do it.

Ultimately, what I mean by shape play is the idea of asymmetric gameplay.  Psi-Wars has core conceits and gameplay ideas, things like darkness inflicts penalties, guns are better than fists and one or two hits from a blaster will probably take you out, normal people are very vulnerable to psionics, and so on.  An interesting racial template can turn some of those rules on their head.  Perhaps one race benefits from darkness, or another is largely immune to blaster fire, but not to crushing or cutting attacks, or perhaps a particular race is naturally psionic and has strategies for dealing with psionic attack, but is very vulnerable to physical efforts.  These can fundamentally change how a race approaches your game.  They'll end up a very different gameplay experience, with makes them intriguing for players, as they'll "want to try that race out."

Many fantasy games specialize a race on an occupational template: elves are the best mage race, dwarves are the best warrior race, and so on.   While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, I find it limits options, and the occupational templates already offer interesting gameplay modes.  Personally, I find the ideal gimmick involves something that offers a unique gameplay perspective to at least three templates.  For example, a race of ESPers are obviously useful as spies, but they make interesting commandos and scavengers as well!

Here's a few gimmick ideas:

Extreme Attributes
The most common racial traits are probably modified attributes, and while a +1 DX is moderately interesting, most people will end up folding it into their design already, to the point where you won't really notice that much of a difference.  But a race that pushes a trait to an extreme level will dramatically change how that race plays.  A race with +10 ST demands a unique approach to make it useful.  After all, punching people with ST 10 has pretty limited utility, but imagine the gear that race could carry!  Or consider a race with DX +5.  They'll be awesome at physical traits, but in a way that requires them to approach their skills very differently than other characters.

Extreme attributes pair well with advantages that represent how you want that extreme trait to be represented, or that make it more cinematic.  Extreme DX paired with extra flexibility and extra flexible arms represents a different sort of agility than Perfect Balance and Catfall.  Or consider extreme ST with an innate crushing melee attack or racially learned Power Blow and Breaking Blow.

Extreme Talents can work in a similar fashion, encouraging a race to invest in a particular way, though you have to be careful not to "slot" a race into a particular role with your talent.

Unique Resources
GURPS mechanics focus on a few standard resources, like HP, FP and character points for Impulse Buys.  Having a race with a unique take on these resources, or with completely new resources, can make them play very differently.  Robots, for example, don't have Fatigue, making them immune to fatiguing effects, but also unable to "push themselves" the way humans can. Vampires cannot  heal naturally, but can drain you of your health.  They might also have powers fueled by HP, meaning HP becomes a stat of prime importance to them.

We can also invent our own resources.  Imagine if a race had 10 Psionic Energy Reserves for free!  That would instantly set them on a path of mastering psionic powers, to make use of their psionic energy, but it would also give them a rather unique take on how they handled psionic powers: it's generally easier for them to use Extra-Effort, rather than to invest in higher power-levels.

Or imagine if a race could use a different trait in place of another resource.  For example, if a race could use psionic energy for physical extra-effort, or to heal their wounds.  Or, perhaps, they have additional utility out of the resources they have, such as having access to Godlike Extra-Effort for physical actions, or being able to use Extra Effort to improve things one might not generally think of, such as offering bonuses to mental rolls.  A recent Pyramid Article covers a new form of Impulse Buy point called Kill Points, where characters earn their points through murder.  Imagine how differently a race would play if it had to follow unique rules to access its impulse buy points!

One final element used in some games is a unique way of gaining power.  I don't really recommend alternate experience schemes for races in Psi-Wars (though feel free to use it), but we can still offer them unique resources they can chase for the expansion of their own powers.  Modular Abilities offer an intriguing way to handle this.  A character may slot whatever he's allowed to into a modular ability slot... but deciding how he gains access to a particular ability can itself shape gameplay.  For example, a robot can only slot skills that he's been programmed with, and finding a particularly rare or interesting program might make for interesting gameplay.  We could expand the concept: Imagine a race with modular abilities representing their ability to evolve and adapt, and they might have their own special "advancement" scheme for which abilities they can "learn" that has nothing to do with their CP level.

Unique Advantages
Races often gain access to their own advantages, but I find them most interesting when they can access stuff most races cannot.  For example, many fantasy races have Combat Reflexes, but many characters have Combat Reflexes, so this is a less interesting trait.  However, shapeshifting is a unique trait, with its own advancement scheme for new forms or faces.  A race that can shapeshift has access to abilities that nobody else has.

A note on terrain adaption.  Terrain Adaption represents an exotic trait available to aliens that isn't available to generic humans, and it offers some cool advantages, and it's not particularly expensive, so it might be a nice way to represent a race.  However, exercise caution when tying a race to a specific terrain (such as making aquatic races, or a race that begins to die if it leaves a particular sort of terrain). Psi-Wars characters travel the galaxy and will experience lots of different terrains, and will rarely actually be in terrain.  A race that's tied, for example, to the jungle will rarely have a chance to show off how cool they are, and might actively suffer in play.  Consider the idea of an "amphibious" race, or a race that deals with different terrains differently, or simply has a bit of an advantage in a particular terrain.  This gives them options and new pathways that others might not have.

Racial Problems
Players love advantages, but disadvantages shape gameplay just as much.  These should either be unique, like unique advantages, or interact interestingly with the race's advantages to shape gameplay in an interesting way.  For example a race that excels in dealing with the darkness might have problems in the light.  Or, consider a race of ESPers who all have Awareness... but are also Blind!  For them, the world seems psionic, and places with Twisted Psionic Energy mess with their sight as much as their other powers.  Vampires often have Draining, along with Unhealing, which creates a sense of urgency for their pursuit of your HP.

Features and Physiological Shenanigans
Some races, basically anything that isn't an alien-as-human, will have a unique body make-up, such as extra limbs, claws, wings, stingers, etc.  In general, these tend to be shaped by how the GM envisions the race, and thus is usually one of the most complex parts of the race, where GM spills most of his ink.  This tends to mean such a race has a lot of traits, and that's fine, but still try to remember that the more complex it is, the more effort a player will have to spent to remember it all.

But note that not all traits need to cost points.  Things like tails, extreme androgyny, being adapted to a particular climate or light level naturally, don't actually cost points, and they don't need to.  Many GURPS mechanics don't actuallly cost anything at all, but still exert a mechanical weight.  Even if an alien's template is 0 points, that doesn't mean he's exactly the same as a human.  A race might be vulnerable to completely different disease sets than humans, eat entirely different things, interact with medicines differently, and thus feel very different despite having no point-cost differences at all.

The Racial Power-Up and Expanding Races

So, you've got a simple, interesting, affordable racial template that fits your narrative fluff.  Great!  Is that enough? It can be, but we can afford to add more.

Good setting design is fractal.  An element in your setting should have an obvious "entry point" that anyone can grasp: "Elves are tall, skinny, beautiful, magical, better-than-you tree-huggers."  Okay, you can see that.  You've got your "one sentence pitch" that even the most casual player can get into.  Your initial template is like that: it captures the tall, skinny, beautiful, magical, arrogant tree-hugging, and nothing else.  But some players will want to go deeper, or you'll want to go deeper, so there's another level of detail buried beneath the first: You might have three kinds of elves: High (especially magical), Wood (especially nature-loving), and Dark (especially arrogant and cruel).  These don't really violate the previously stated point so much as expand upon it.  Those who dive further might learn that each branch of elfdom has distinct magical or martial traditions, or unique traits or powers available only to them.  Done right, and you can run entire campaigns that strongly feature your race without running out of material.

This does not violate Rule 3 because the entry point remains simple.  Players should not need to know more, the rest should be optional.  But consider that a player who chooses to be a member of a race might well spend his entire upgrade lens on being a member of that race.  That means the race matters to him.  It means he wants to explore the race in much greater detail.  Thus, buried beneath the initial template, we can offer additional options to people who took said template.

Optional Upgrade 1: Sub-Races

A race might contain "sub-races."  The human metaphor are the various "races" of mankind, or the "subraces" of elves, or the three shades of Twi'lek.  Other, more specific examples, might include a race of ant-like beings, where the average member of the race is a worker, but the race also features warriors and queens.  In this case, treat the standard racial template as the standard member of the race, and the sub-races as lenses the player may optionally take.  Generally, unless the race has some sort of option to go through metamorphosis (perhaps the "subraces" are stages of life?), this must be chosen at character creation and cannot be changed later.

Note that this is not necessary for cosmetic changes: arguably the difference between a caucasian and negroid human is basically cosmetic, certainly as far as GURPS is concerned.  The same is true of blue Twi'leks vs green Twi'leks.  To discuss the sub-race, the template should be different enough to matter.  It might be worth discussing the fact that there are cosmetic variants and whether these cosmetic differences have any cultural impact ("Black felinoids are generally considered cursed, but this is just a superstition.  Feel free to take Unluckiness if you'd like, though).

Optional Upgrade 2: Power-Ups (and Common Traits)

Consider granting players additional elements that they can invest in associated with their race.  These might be optional traits common among their race, but not requisite, or it might represent unique opportunities.  For example, say that all Twi'leks have the capacity for pheremone control, but only some actively cultivate it, then that becomes a power-up option.

Just like your cybernetic package or your psionic package grants you an entire world of things you can explore, so too should a race.  Power-Ups also give players the options to customize their alien around the core experience of that race as defined by the central template (for example, your energy-reserve-using race offered above might have some powers that use up their energy reserves.  Those powers let them be better fighters or better thieves or better socializers, but it still centers on their energy-reserve gameplay).

Optional Upgrade 3: Kung Fu

While this is a more cultural element than biological, most races will have their own culture as well, and their culture will revolve around their biology.  A race might have a unique mystical or martial tradition that they cultivate.  Perhaps they have their own religion with their own gods whom their psions can commune with (representing unique paths, or a unique focus on a specific path).  Perhaps they'll have a fighting style that takes advantage of their unique biological traits (such as felinoids with a claw-focused martial art). The intent here is to blend culture with biology to create a sort of a short-hand that shows how the race thinks and works, as well as giving players a cool power-up that they can access and invest in.

A Worked Example: the Racial Upgrade Lens

Sparrials already contain all of the above.  They have a simple, focused template and an immediate and obvious premise, as well as some martial arts and optional traits (including a discussion of albino sparrials.

In principle, a racial upgrade lens can be defined as a player spending 50 points on his racial template, and any remaining points on any power-ups the race makes available to him.

Given that Felinoids have been important thus far, let's revisit them, though I'd like to note that this won't follow my rules as nicely as I would like, in part because this is a quick design, and also because I feel constrained to keep it close to what's already in the book.  First, we have a template from GURPS Basic that we can use, and it's fine, but it could use some modifications.

Felinoid: 35 points

Attribute Modifiers: ST-1 [-10]; DX+1 [20].
Secondary Traits: Perception +1 [5]
Advantages: Catfall [10]; Claws (Sharp) [5];  Fur [1]; Teeth (Sharp) [1]; Night Vision +4 [4]; Perfect Balance [15]; Temperature Tolerance (Cold) 2 [2].
Disadvantages: Impulsiveness (12) [-10]; Sleepy (1/2 of the time) [-8].
Features: Purring Voice; Tail.

I've left the lower ST and the higher DX because they're signatures of the old template, but I removed the DR (which never should have been in there) and the Combat Reflexes (most templates already include it, which makes it confusing).  Felinoid gimmicks are her "catlike nature", including claws, fur, teeth and temperature tolerance, but what likely makes her the most interesting is that between her improved DX, Catfall and Perfect Balance, she has the ability to navigate most environments very well, making her an excellent traceur, scavenger, assassin and bounty-hunter (anyone who needs to go on a chase), makes her good with Acrobatics, and makes her a better pilot.  That fits the broad availability.  Temperature tolerance, natural claws and teeth and temperature tolerance also make felinoids excellent survivalists.

I'd personally rather a stronger gimmicky, but that we've already had felinoids makes this an easier point to start out at.  I also think the template would be stronger if you removed the ST, DX and Perception differences.  Night Vision cover their superior senses, and Catfall and Perfect Balance cover their superior grace.  That said, they'll tend to go directly on the sheet, so they don't have a huge memory cost.

Let's look at some subraces or optional traits.  The most obvious "subraces" for felinoids are alternate coloration schemes.  "Black" felinoids might have a mystical aura about them, as might white felinoids.  And, of course, we have dramatic coloration schemes that might make our characters more readily identifiable.  Finally, larger, more dangerously predatory felinoids, our tiger-aliens, might be interesting.

Subrace Lenses

Predatory Felinoids [+15]

Advantages: Penetrating Voice [1], Striking ST +4 [20]
Disadvantages: Berserker (15) [-5], Distinctive Features (Fur Pattern) [-1]

Customization Option: Often (but not always), attractive predatory felinoids are impressive.  They may take the Impressive modifier to any appearance they have, if they wish.

Distinctive Fur Pattern [-1]

Disadvantages: Distinctive Features (Fur Pattern) [-1]

Witch Cat [0]

Advantages: Latent Psi (Probability Manipulation) [1], Unique Power (Probability Manipulation) [1]
Disadvantages: Reputation (Bad luck, Superstitious Felinoids Only) [-2]
Feature: Taboo Trait (Distinctive Fur Pattern) [0]

Optional Disadvantages: Unluckiness [-10]

General Felinoid Power-Ups

Silken Purr: Voice [10]
Giant, Adorable Eyes: Pitiable [5]
Hunter's Focus: Single Minded [5]

Predatory Felinoid Power-Ups

Sudden Savagery: +1 to +5 Striking ST (1 fatigue per use -20%) [4/level]
Pounce: Super Jump [10]

Felinoid Styles

The Primal Way
A modern, scientific approach to brawling that sells itself as a return to the "natural" and "primal" return to the roots of the Felinoid race.  Many Felinoids learn it as a form of self-defense when on the mean streets, though it's far less gentle than more self-defense focused martial arts.  Several of the techniques are found on GURPS Martial Arts: Yrth Fighting Styles, page 28.  Preferred tactics are an all-out move and slam to tackle the target, and then dominate them on the ground, or if on the defensive, to make defensive feints, remain mobile, and either move around and past your opponent to escape, or wear him down with scratches and eye-rakes before going in for the kill.

Skills: Acrobatics, Brawling, Wrestling
Techniques: Attack from Above, Arm Lock, Breakfall, Disarming (Wrestling), Eye-Rake, Evasion, Feint, Ground Fighting (Brawling, Wrestling), Rake, Scratch
Cinematic Skills: Breaking Blow, Flying Leap, Mental Strength, Power Blow, 
Cinematic Techniques: Roll with Blow, Springing Attack
Perks: Dirty Fighting, Ground Guard, Iron Hands, Neck Control (Brawling), Rapid Retraction (Claws), Sure_Footed (Uneven).

Optional Skills: Climbing, Spear, Stealth, Survival (Jungle)

Death Walking
In the original culture of the Felinoids, long before various galactic powers smashed their culture and sold many of them into slavery, felinoids believed that "black" (or white) felinoids were psychopomps who guided the dead to their final rest, and guarded the living from the return of the dead.  The legacy of this cult is the superstition of black felinoids as "unlucky," reflected in their latent psionic ability.  A few lingering remnants of the cult exist, seeking black felinoids and trying to help them find their true path as guardians of Felinoid souls.

Death Walking can only be taught to those who have unlocked Probability Manipulation, which is most common among "Witch Cat" felinoids, but it could be taught to mystics of other races if they somehow acquire access to the power.

Required Skills: Meditation, Religious Ritual, Theology (Felinoid Shamanism)
Psionic Skills: Coincidence, Combat Sense, Curse, Retrocognitive Flashback, True Sight, Weather Control, 
Learned Prayers: Commune with Dead, Inured Mind, Roads of Broken Communion, Roads of Broken Communion (Enhanced), Horrifying Truth, Sense Death, 
Techniques: Deep Trance (Meditation), Delayed Effect (Curse), Remove Curse (Curse), Symobolic Death Lore (Theoloogy), Unsupervised Change (Weather Control), 
Perks: Body Discipline, Ecstatic Psi, Frightening Side Effects (Curse), Mind Games (Curse), Psionic Adaption (Retrocognitive Flashbacks to Probability Manipulation), Psionic Adaption (True Sight to Probability Manipulation), Psychic Symbolism (Death; Curse), Signature Miracle(Lesser Avatar of Death), Symbolism Mastery (Death), Stabilizing Skill (Religious Ritual), Twisted Energy Compensation, 

Optional Advantages: Legendary Reputation (Death), Thanatologist [5/level]
Optional Skills: Exorcism, Initmidation, Occultism

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