Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Psi-Wars: First Steps to a Setting

I claim that that’s how you design a novel — you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. Part of this is creative work, and I can’t teach you how to do that. Not here, anyway. But part of the work is just managing your creativity — getting it organized into a well-structured novel. That’s what I’d like to teach you here.
-Randy Ingermanson, The Snowflake Method for Novel Design

(Thanks to Justin Aquino of Game in the Brain for pointing that out to me)

Yesterday, I gave you my setting design manifesto.  Now, I should be clear, when I design a setting, I'm not nearly so rigid and systematic (as you can see from Psi-Wars itself), nor should you be.  The idea is to get a feel for how things go, so I'm much more obvious in my design here so that you can more clearly see the strokes.

In the spirit of that, let me lay out what the rest of this iteration is going to look like.  I'm going to build the setting by going from less detail to more detail, just as described in Randy Ingermason's Snowflake Method, or really how I've been working this from the beginning. I'll start with what I know, create a framework, and dig deeper into the fractal, bit by bit.

First, I'll outline the entire setting as simply as I can.  From that, I'll derive additional points worth working on (beginning my fractal), and justify each point that I add against my target audience.  Then I'll use a loose framework, which I'll set up here, to give me an overall picture of how things will look, and then I'll spill out everything I already know/want and look at the sources I want to include.  Then I'll pick a single point of the above, and do it again, more deeply, then step back and integrate it with what I have, and again and again until I'm satisfied with the results.

Today is the first step into the setting.  This is the broadest outline, the "iteration 1" of setting design.

A Note about my Target Audience

You, dear reader, are the target audience for this post, but not the target audience for my setting.  Chances are, most people who actually use the setting won't read this post (though, of course, there's an overlapping of the two).  In fact, if I had to guess, I think my target audience will be something like this:

Space opera fans who like Star Wars, but are open to something different. People who want Star Wars have Star Wars and have no time for some random blog on the internet.  Even RPGers who want Star Wars can play Edge of the Empire.  No, if you're playing Psi-Wars, you've accepted the premise that it's like Star Wars, enough that you know what you're getting into, but that it's something different.  Thus, I've tried to steer a course respectful of Star Wars (I'm not making a satire that shows you all the flaws in Star Wars), while also creating something that's distinctly different enough that you can explore it.  I think the most obvious example of this is Communion, which definitely has a "Force" vibe, enough that players can instantly grasp what it's doing, but has enough of its own kinks and unique logic that players who wish to stop and explore it in greater depth may do so.

GURPS Sci-fi fans who want a more operatic setting. If you're a GURPS fan, you've got Transhuman Space or Reign of Steel or After the End.  If you want whooshing space-fighters, though, GURPS doesn't have that many options currently.  This group probably won't use Psi-Wars straight.  They might tear it apart and use it as an example for their own material.  Even if they use it straight, they'll need lots of room to stuff their own material into the game, with some clear guides as to what those attachment points are.  They need a simple framework, and then for me to get out of their way to get to building their own gameplay.

GURPS gamers who're tired of Dungeon Fantasy and want some Space-ish, but don't want to do a lot of work. GURPS doesn't really have a plug-and-play SF option at this point.  THS is as close as they come, and it's not exactly a rollicking adventure, being more akin to thought-provoking sci-fi pieces like Her or The Martian.  There's a certain class of player who just wants to grab pre-made materials and just run a game.  If they have some premade characters (or some templates with which they can make characters in less than an hour, ideally), have a straightforward setting to play in, and have an adventure in hand, they're happy.  They need their hands held a little more than the GURPS fans above, but they also get to the business of gaming faster, which means they'll probably be the majority of people who'll play the game (though if they like it, they'll eventually morph into the GURPS fans above, as they'll need to move the game into new directions).  Thus, they need a strong setting that's already ready for play.

The Psi-Wars Setting Fractal, Step 1

In an ancient galaxy, a freedom-loving rebel alliance wages war against a domineering empire, while the secrets of a lost, legendary psionic order may hold the ultimate keys of victory.
That's it, that's Psi-Wars: the Elevator Pitch.  It's everything a player needs to know to jump in, and I think it contains everything I've worked on so far, and what I want in my setting.

Let's dive deeper, shall we?


Star Wars, to me, has always had a deeply historical feel, so much so that I sometimes hunger to watch Star Wars after a good game of Civilization.  If Star Trek is the space opera equivalent to a Neil deGrasse Tyson Astrophysics documentary, Star Wars is the space opera equivalent to a History Channel marathon on WW2 and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  The film deliberately evokes the power of Rome ("the Galactic Senate"), Nazi Germany (Stormtroopers, the First Order) and invites us to note the cycles of history, how the fall of the Roman Republic is similar to the fall of Weimar Germany and, by extension, the fall of American Democracy (George Lucas was a bit of a revolutionary leftist).

But more than that, Star Wars has a sort of mythical history.  Luke chases after Yoda like a kung fu student questing to find a master atop a mountain.  He inherits the lightsaber of his father, like a samurai receiving the blade of his father.  The story itself follows archetypal patterns found in mythology.  Paired with the "cycles of history," and we get an ancient galaxy that finds itself in the same position, over and over again (something deliberately called out in the Force Awakens).

Thus, I feel that history is deeply important to Psi-Wars, both in the sense that Psi-Wars should crib from historical events, and that it should have a lot of it.  But I'm not discussing realistic history, where we work out how mankind would have colonized the galaxy and, oh, then decided force swords were the best form of combat.  No, this is the sort of history found in legends and GURPS Fantasy.

I see the history of Psi-Wars largely in three movements.  We have the modern era, in which the conflict takes place, including the history leading right up to the moment of the war between rebellion and empire.  If we used the Roman Empire as a metaphor, this is the events leading up the the fall of the Roman Republic, going back, perhaps, a couple of generations.  The second movement, farther back in time, is the "Age of Heroes."  It's the era which sets the shape of the world in which the Galactic war is shaped, the origins of our galactic civilization, and it's the "elegant" era in which our Psionic Knights are at their peak, and is where most of the relics that our characters go hunting for came from.  Using our Roman metaphor, this is era of Alexander the Great, the era of the ancient Greeks, and the initial founding of Rome.  Finally, in the most distant past, we have the Age of Mythology, where things older than our civilization lurk.  This contains the origins of the Communion faith before humans discovered it, this is the heyday of some of the spectacularly old alien civilizations that still linger on the edges of the world.  This is where the ridiculously powerful, and dangerous, relics come from.  If we follow our Roman metaphor, this is the bronze age, this is ancient Egypt, ancient Sumeria, which were as old to Caesar as Caesar is to us.

For the structure of our history, I have a few ideas, but I'd like to use the cycles of history found in GURPS Fantasy as a basis.

Let's break it down more clearly: First, there were ancient aliens who discovered the ways of Communion, created empires, terrorized one another, created some dread weapons, and then collapsed.  Humans moved into that vacuum and created a new, rather medieval-like civilization with space knights, in part patterned on the technology that came before them, and learned the ways of Communion, then there was some civil wars and disasters and a dark time wherein the space knights disappeared, and then a new golden age and a new civilization rose up, until suddenly everything went sideways and the Emperor took over.  Now the rebellion fights against him."


Obviously, we'll need to work out the details of what our galaxy looks like.  We'll need an entire galaxy, of course, but we can't do the literally millions of systems it has.  Instead, I want to hit a few high points, a few major and interesting worlds, while leaving some implications for other worlds that other players can flesh out.

We can break the galaxy, broadly speaking, into three sections.  The central part is the "Core" of the galaxy, and it contains our imperial capital and all our civilized worlds.  If we're using Rome as a metaphor, it's the Mediterranean.  Then, we'll have the arms of the galaxy jutting out from the central core, and we'll call that our "rim."  It's where the bulk of the adventuring takes place, as it's far less civilized, and where most of the actual war is being fought. In our Roman metaphor, this is Gaulic Europe, the Parthian Empire, Africa, and the "remote" provinces like Palestine, Egypt and Britain.  Finally, beyond the rim of the Galaxy is the fringe.  Galaxies aren't singular entities.  Instead, they have globular clusters and stray star systems floating just beyond the boundary of the galaxy, but not nearly at intergalactic distances.  This is where the really weird stuff can be found, the islands beyond the known world, where there be dragons.


Psi-Wars is about a galaxy at war, of course.  But what sort of war?  I would argue that the war is fought in space (Fighter Ace), and on planets (Commando), with engines of war (the Officer), the pen of diplomacy (the Diplomat) and in the shadows of the night (the Spy, the Assassin).  In fact, that's the core of what the player characters are, especially those from the core.

What we need from the setting is how this war is fought.  That means our factions need the details on their warmachines and organization in space and on planets, what their military look like, what their spy/security agencies look like, and at least enough of their state/diplomacy branches that players know what offices to hit and why.

This is the first half of what players do.

"Freedom-Loving" vs "Domineering"

This defines the reasons for the conflict, the ideology behind it, ultimately.  It's why the players will fight.  It also, on a deeper level, represents the split between security ("domineering") and liberty ('freedom-loving"), and the choice civilizations make between the two.  Taken to its extreme, it's also a question of crime and justice, how far one will go in the pursuit of justice if it risks tyranny, and how far one will accept crime and corruption when chasing after freedom.

Note that this is not a matter of good vs evil.  I never use those words, because I don't want this to be a game about good vs evil.  Action, which is as much the ancestor of Psi-Wars as Star Wars, is all about the cynical grey morality of the institutions the hero initially seeks to protect.  How often does the cop figure out that the bad guy is a corrupt cop, or how often does the mercenary hired by the CIA to take out a dictator realize that the dictator was controlled by the CIA and is just trying to get out from under their thumb?  In the action genre, one man's terrorist is often another man's freedom fighter and the lines of right and wrong can blur.  They're there, because Action isn't nihilistic, but it's hard to navigate, until the hero inevitably casts off all shackles, becomes the Masterless Man and kicks all the butt.

Psi-Wars will be that sort of game, with complicated weaving of morality, full of corruption, idealism, hope, tyranny and hypocrisy and the hero throwing his badge at the organization and setting his own course.

"Alliance" vs "Empire"

Who fights the war of Psi-Wars?  The Alliance and the Empire, of course.  But this raises a few questions: If they're the rebellion, they were part of the Empire, and just disagreed over some point.  This is not a war over a foreign power, but a civil war, an internal struggle.  This suggests not two parties, but three:
  • The Empire, the protectors of the current order and the greatest power in the Galaxy
  • The Rebellion, the agents of change who want to either restore the old order or make a new one
  • The Foreign Powers, tied to neither, with their own agenda.
So, we have three factions, broadly speaking, and, within them, we almost certainly have several factions.  For example, the Rebel Alliance is an alliance.  But an Alliance of what?  That suggests multiple powers who have all mutually agreed to work together.  Likewise, an Empire is not an Empire unless it is dictating the policy of foreign nations.  That's what an empire is.  Thus, you have the central power (the "Rome") and the foreign nations it controls (our versions of Greece, Egypt, Palestine, France, Britain, etc).  Finally, we have the unaffiliated, who are certainly going to be more than one nation.  These are our Huns, Gauls and Parthians, the enemies at the gates, the ones against whom the Empire offers security.

"Psionic Orders"

In addition to our major factions, we have a sprinkling of hero-factory organizations, like the Jedi Order.  These house our cool martial arts and our cool psionic powers, are typically unfathomably ancient, and lurk in secret.  One must seek them out to uncover their powerful knowledge and achieve great power.

Star Wars had two: the Jedi (the good guys) and the Sith (the bad guys), and perhaps a few sprinklings of additional orders (the Witches of Dathomir).  Personally, I'd vastly prefer it if our "Jedi" were just one of many.  The thing that bothers me the most about Star Wars is how small it is: there's only the Force, and there's one group of people (in the later movies, there's literally one or two people in the entire galaxy, who understand the Force!).  I'd rather expect that you have psionic traditions all throughout the galaxy, some really good, some pretty weak.

My thoughts here are too scattered to do more than just scribble down some rough ideas.  I'd like to see an ancient and dread psionic order, a powerful psionic elite that constructed an empire in the earliest age then degenerated into a base religion, but nonetheless uncovered Communion.  I'd like to see a persecuted minority that constructs a more peaceful theology, our original True Communion, in response to this great empire.  I'd like to see an initial movement towards more clinical, cyberpunkish psionics from humans until someone rediscovers True Communion and brings it back with him like a firebrand and creates our first order of psionic space knights, our space templars.  Then I want to see that group splinter in the end of that era, so that fragments are scattered across the galaxy.

"Secrets", "Legendary", "Lost", "Ultimate Keys to Victory"

The sweeping politics of Psi-Wars serves only as a backdrop to the true action: Heists!  Our characters run around, uncovering "legendary" relics, find "lost" knowledge, uncover "secret" conspiracies, and in the end, will find (or prevent people from finding) supremely powerful macguffins that would totally turn the war.  Thus, the setting must be rife with secret conspiracies (including criminal organiz"ADD"ations, corporate cabals, secret researchers and dark cults) and dirty laundry for the characters to air.  This is not just a "Star Wars" element, but something profoundly important to the Action genre, which is ultimately all about uncovering mysteries and going deeper on a conspiracy.

Themes and Framework

So, we have the basic look at our fractal.  On what are we going to hang our works?  What patterns exist in Psi-Wars?

Well, obviously, Communion is a pattern.  Communion literally shapes the world, giving us Destiny and Fate and all that great stuff that sets the shape of the world.  Therefore, we should expect characters, planets, organizations, everything, to take on the template of Communion.  It's the Yin/Yang of Psi-Wars.

True Communion: This is the submission of the self to the greater self.  This represents community, civilization, sanctity, elegance, empathy and healing.  If we look at aliens, we expect Aliens-as-humans to fit under True Communion's symbolism.  If we look at the galaxy, the Core is most like True Communion..  When True Communion goes to war, it does so for a reason, follows strict rules, and is willing to die for its cause.  When True Communion governs, it, it either binds itself to the will and values of the community, or abdicates any gain it might receive, and when it explores, it does so just to see what is out there.

Dark Communion: This is the dominion of the self over all things.  This represents individuality, barbarism, sin, physicality, sensuality, selfishness and strength.  If we look at aliens, we expect Aliens-as-beasts to fit under Dark Communion's symbolism.  If we look at the galaxy, the rim is most like Dark Communion.  When Dark Communion goes to war, it ignores the rules, destroys order and leaves chaos in its wake, and always survives (it "comes out on top").  When it governs, it does so via seduction or via dominion of the other to itself.  When it explores, it does so with the direct intent to explore what it finds.

Broken Communion: This is the destruction of the self, or the absence of it.  It represents anarchy, monstrosity, desperation, madness and suicide.  If we look at aliens, we expect Aliens-as-wugs to fit under Broken Communion's symbolism.  If we look at the galaxy, the fringe is most like Broken Communion.  When Broken Communion goes to war, it destroys everything and leaves only death, and then despairs.  When it governs, it does so incoherently, lashing out and then curling up in on itself.  When it explores, it runs screaming into the night from what it finds.

Thus, we have symbols within symbols, thanks both to the three forms of communion and the three paths from each form of communion.

But do we have a separate axis?  Sure!  Remember back when I was writing up the Force as Chi and I proposed 5 new elements?  Why not use those again?

World represents a centering, the point from which all things flow and return.  If we broke alien types out into 5, this might represent comical aliens.

Technology represents sophistication, mastery of nurture over nature, and what someone can do with the right tools.  If we broke out our aliens into 5, this might represent Mastermind aliens.

Life represents primal nature, mastery of nature over nurture, and what someone can do innately.  If be broke out our aliens, this might represent Primitive aliens.

Light/Energy represents astrophysical phenomenon like stars and pulsars, the spread of knowledge and idealism, our hopes winning out over cynical reality.  If we broke out our aliens, this might represent idealistic (and dangerous-as-fire) warrior races.

Dark/Void represents the space between the stars and things like nebulas, the spread of mystery and cynicism, the harsh reality of the world winning out over childish idealism.  This might represent degenerate aliens.

So, for example, we might imagine the center of the galaxy as "World."  Each of the four arms could be one of the additional elements: an arm in the rim where Technology is dominant, another where life is dominant, another that is dark, and another that is light.

What do I want?

Final step: Brainstorm to get out a vision of what I'd like to see, the various elements that have been building up in my head.  This is not a particularly organized list, just something I might refer to later.

A militarily and politically feasible empire
-With a security agency that doubles as secret police
-Imperial "diplomacy" that consists of "diplomats" directly commanding the rulers of a planet or an alien civilization

A fractious, complex and somewhat hypocritical rebellion that's still a better option than the Empire, if only we could get everyone to agree.
-The old relics of the last order, such as dispossessed space knights and the genteel nobility of the old republic.
-The Black Fleet, a rogue imperial fleet that ditched order and faded into a shadowy sector.  Perhaps serving the rebellion, perhaps serving the needs of its rogue admiral (but either way, a chance for Imperial-loving players to play someone heroic)

Three great and looming threat:
-Rebellious robots
-Alien barbarian hordes
-Some ancient and terrible threat just waiting to awaken.

Pirates from the rim of the galaxy who make rapid deployments on worlds when they raid, and then just as rapidly leave, using the ideas devised in the Mass Combat part of Iteration 5.  Sort of a cross between vikings, bikers and space marines (but not necessarily viking biker space marines, aka Space Wolves).

Sexy, blue-skinned space elves, with an orientalist twist, giving us harems and slavery and unique martial arts; Twi'leks crossed with the Asari and the (Dark) Eldar.

A race of blind psions who have learned to use their psionic abilities to operate.  The Miraluka crossed with Paul after his blindness.

A race of noble beasts or wugs who have a distinct religion and mighty space yards that regularly supply the rebellion (Mon Calamari crossed with the Kilrathi)

A race of inhuman and terrifying barbarians who come from beyond the galaxy, and whose invasion helped spark the events that lead to the rise of the Empire (the Huns crossed with the Yuzhon Vong).

A race of ascendant psionic beings who house themselves in armor to remain in the world, like the wraithguard of the eldar, or the Ezrohir of Torchlight, or the Vodyani of Endless Space.

A world/race/subgroup of cloned people who carefully and precisely genetically engineer everyone in their society, including a noble lineage that has been ruled by a family of clones descended from the original person to rule that world.  The Ibars of Coraabia crossed with the Horatio of Endless Space.

Space Egypt, full of ancient splendor, rigid tradition, strange gods, and a decadent kingdom that's been slowly collapsing for longer than humanity has even been around

Lost worlds that once housed great wonders before hyperspace routes shifted and they faded away.

A jungle planet with great and mighty beasts that somehow interact with one another, like the dragons of How to Train Your Dragon 2 crossed with the Rukh of Coraabia, all tamed by a race of savage aliens.  As though someone took all of the Green color of Magic: the Gathering and made it into a planet. So, basically, Avatar.

A junkworld filled (and made toxic by) the relics of some ancient war, where an entire civilization of scavengers collects old relics and ancient technology and sells them in a raucous marketplace.

A watery world with a magnificent and sprawling space Venice full of a dangerous and criminal sort, including an order of psionic criminals/ninjas akin to the Yakuza who may or may not be a splinter group of our Jedi order.

The remnant of our Jedi/Templars/Knights of Communion whose order was shattered in a previous age, who have gone to ground, like the conspiracy-theory version of the Templars crossed with the Five Elders of Shaolin.

The "Sith," or the evil order, is just a heterodox splinter of the main order who discovered some powerful and ancient secrets that the main order had hidden away.

Other, older psionic beliefs/ideas, including:
-The religion from which our Jedi (Knights of Communion?) drew their beliefs
-An older, more barbaric and "polytheistic" ecstasy cult with some demonic vibes to it
-A strange group of psi-borgs created by the rebellious robots who have fallen behind a destructive saint of Broken Communion who seek to undermine the very robotic intelligence that created them.
-A cult dedicated to understanding the future and shaping the world to create the ideal paradise-future; sort of the Bene-Gesserit crossed with Minority Report
-At least one minor, backwater cult that doesn't have the full picture

Non-Psionic cool things, like
-A non-psionic philosophy called Neo-Rationalism, which pretends to be about science, but is really about quoting and commenting on previous scientists, as well as encouraging people to experiment with previously forbidden stuff.
-Non-psionic space knights, traditions from which the psionic space knights eventually arose
-Cyborg cults that have arisen in the area controlled by the rebellious robots.
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