Monday, May 29, 2017

Orphan of the Stars: Iteration 1 Notes

This week I take a break from Psi-Wars to present: Orphan of the Stars

At the year's end (in the heart of Iteration 5 for Psi-Wars), someone approached me to write up some setting material for them, one inspired by a mixture of Dune, GURPS Biotech and, especially, a deep political gameplay.  That last is the focus of my work on Orphan of the Stars, and today, I present the Iteration 1 notes that I cobbled together based on his request, an outline of where I saw development going.

Like Psi-Wars, Iteration 1 for Orphan of the Stars, which wasn't even called Orphan of the Stars at the time, is a basic outline of how to make it work with as little work as possible, though in this case it was more of a discussion of my thoughts and where my patron could go in his own direction if he chose not to retain my services.  Thus, you can see it as a sort of guiding document.

Iteration I: Not Dune

The premise laid out before me is one very inspired by the themes of Dune, as well as the eventual ending presented by the books (and thus might be seen as interpretation for the far future of Dune). The premise here is a deeply political game with a rich, baroque setting. We see feudal lords ruling over their domains while using their agents (played primarily by the players) to preserve their domains and expand their power.

This is a setting with rich culture, ancient traditions and deep history, where the players feel they stand on the pinnacle of a great legacy, the latest in a long chain of history extending deep in time.

Like in Dune, we have no machines. Instead, we’ve replaced robots, cyber-tech and computers with psionics and bio-tech. More importantly, and probably the single most important element of the setting, is the war against the machines (our own “Butlerian Jihad”) and the “Narrowing:” The human race was reduced to 12 individuals. All of modern human civilization, then, is built via cloning and genetic engineering and the gene-code of those original 12.

Additional Inspirations I’ll draw upon: Orphan Black, Revelation Space, House of Suns, Endless Space 2 (the Horatio), and the Ibar lineage from Coraabia.

Core Activity

The core activities of Not-Dune are politics and action. The closest Space has to offer is their section on politics, but the intent of Not-Dune is not the deep exploration of the impact of space on politics, or the impact of extreme politics on human psychology but “a Game of Thrones”-style vying for supremacy in space. Arguably, this comes closest to the gameplay of “Agents of Terra”

The espionage campaign focuses on intrigue, covert operations, and double-dealing among the stars.

This takes place in two interconnected elements. First, it handles “politics,” by which we mean the cooperation of players to form alliances and empower one’s house while undermining political rivals in the form of other houses. This takes place primarily in backroom dealings, undercover investigations and grand, ceremonial interactions.

The second half is classic action-style gameplay. Somehow, the politics always boil down to the actions of independent agents who must carry out some heroic mission to seal the alliance or to complete the defeat of the enemy.

Gameplay Modes

The Principle of Not-Dune is similar to the principle of the Psi-Wars templates circa Iteration 5: They’re meant for both high-level political action and low-level action gameplay. See the Officer and the Diplomat as examples. Thus, every template represents both an action gameplay element, and a higher “strategic” gameplay element.

The Doctor

Inspired in part by Doctor Yueh, the Doctor is the medic from GURPS Action, given appropriate technological advancements. He keeps the action heroes alive! Strategically, he represents mastery over the bio-tech elements of the setting. The extensive cloning and genetic engineering means that the nobility has (must have!) very specific genetics, which make them vulnerable to viral assassination weapons and highly specific syndromes; the doctor protects them from that, while also engineering the perfect viral weapons to defeat the enemy. Thus, in a sense, he also resembles the Hacker from Action, only with bio-tech rather than computers.

The Strategist or The Warmaster

Every noble needs armies to protect what is theirs. The Strategist is the master of those military forces, able to plan and execute attacks, and rally the men to defense. In Action-level gameplay, they take on the role of planner and master of military weapons and knowledge. See the Officer template from Psi-Wars.

The Spymaster

A noble must know the secrets of his enemies, and he must have a tool with which to execute secret plans or the assassination of his enemies. This is best represented by conspiracies that co-opt or corrupt the organization of his enemy, and the Spymaster focuses his skillset at that. He also acts as a combination of the action Infiltrator and Assassin.

The Sheriff

The noble must also protect against conspiracies against his own organization. For this, he needs law enforcement and security forces, represented and controlled by the Sheriff. He also doubles as the Investigator from Action.

The Master of Ceremonies

Politics requires pomp and circumstances to weave the illusion of grandeur and glamor around the nobles, creating and emphasizing legitimacy. The Master of Ceremonies is skilled in the arts of persuasion, propaganda and artistic pursuits, both to give his master the soft power of diplomacy, and to act as the Face in an Action-scenario.

The Chancellor

Politics also requires the harder power of finances and capital, the engines that drive energize politica power. This requires someone skilled in Domain Management; The chancellor represents someone skilled in that art, but he has no Action parallel. This might be best left as a reminder for the need to handle such rules in a game, though in Dune, the masters of this were typically the Mentats, so perhaps we could include someone from a psionic school who is both excellent and supporting a political domain as well as having advantages in the action arena.

The Weapon Master

Dune traditionally has men skilled with the blade who teach nobles how to fight. Such a character has a natural Action role, that of Weapon Master. His role in the actual organization would most likely to teach the noble to fight, and to fight in his stead in certain duels, as well as to act as his bodyguard and agent. How that plays out depends on technological choices made.

The Philosopher

Dune also emphasizes philosophical credos and the importance of morality. Characters study at the feet of masters of philosophy, to learn how they should rule and live. The Bene Geserit fulfill this role (and others) in the books. We could include a similar role, but this has no explicit action or political advantage, meaning it serves no real direct purpose in gameplay, while serving a strong narrative role. The best fix for this is to tie it with psionics or build philosophy as a threat through all templates, rather than having a single character who masters all philosophies.

The Archaeologist

An optional element arising out of the desire to use GURPS Monster Hunters and the presence of a destroyed human civilization and fallen robots: it might be an interesting gameplay element to try to uncover lost technology, genetics or robots for some cause. This character might resemble the Scavenger of Psi-Wars, but the character might also detract from the central focus. Optional.

The Aristocrat

Someone must ultimately rule, combining all the wisdom above into a single point who acts upon that guidance and directs his nation. While the design notes state that the characters should assist the noble, some of those assistants might themselves be noble (from lesser houses, or lesser members of the house, such as a princess or a cousin-knight), and one could imagine a player wishing to play as an heir or a princess or etc, thus it might be worth exploring what they might look like.

Technology and Setting

The Setting centers on a single, trinary system and neighboring systems that can be reached via FTL. The scope of the setting has few systems and few planets, numbering in perhaps a dozen; enough for each house to have at least one world, and likely a few more. The setting has no aliens.

Faster-than-Light travel mechanics are as of yet unspecified. Suggestions:

Jump Travel: Players bypass boring space and get straight to the element that interests them: Planets!

Worm Gate Travel: The old human civilization built an FTL network that required the new civilization time to re-activate. This allows them to explore existing worlds that had already been colonized by humans once upon a time, but not to expand further, into “new” space.

Irrelevant: The primary actors of Not-Dune, like in Dune, do not engage in FTL travel. They rely on an outside party to handle it for them. We don’t need to worry about the specifics of it.

Base technology is unspecified. I suggest TL 10: TL 9 is too similar to “the real world,” though it can work well for a higher society that has devolved. TL 12 is far too advanced, and makes technology more central to the game than it needs to be. TL 11 could work, but it begins to veer into nanotech, which we can ignore, but given the importance of biotech, that seems an odd thing to discard. TL 10 gives us gauss weapons and early lasers as well as all the biotech I need, making it my preferred choice. That said, I suggest we further cherry pick whatever technologies suit the setting.

For combat, we have three models, especially regarding the handling of “Shields”

There are no shields. This seems to violate the need for knife-fighting in Dune, but the real world featured sword duels well into the firearm era, simply because aristocrats preferred it. The armies of Not-Dune fight with lasers and bullets, and nobles fight with swords or knives in courts because it’s fashionable.

There are shields and they’re velocity limited, but they don’t “go nuclear” when hit with lasers. This means that sub-velocity bullets, thrown weapons and melee attacks can penetrate shields, but not full-velocity bullets and beams, except by absolutely overpowering them (You can kill a shielded noble with HEMP missile, of course)

There are shields, and they’re ridiculous. You cannot penetrate them with anything short of melee attacks or perhaps sub-velocity bullets. The only way to defeat shielded opponents are with swashbuckling duels.

If pressed, I would likely choose the second option, but I also like the first option.

Biotech is central to the setting. All characters must have some sort of biotech template. The noble houses descend from the original 12 survivors of humanity.

I propose further that much of the early means of production were coded to the gene-print of the original 12, and that characters who want to access and control these means of production need to be genetically close to the original 12, though there’s enough “wiggle room” to allow for creative intepretation, which means that each generation becomes more progressively “idealized” versions of the original 12. It also means that all nobles of a specific house must have some sort of consistent DNA pattern which a geneticist could attack via a viral weapon. Houses wage genetic war on one another, using viral weapons to eliminate their weapons while doctors work to redesign the genetic codes so that they remain true to the requirements of the gene-locks, while also protecting them from attack, and then working to overcome the unique defenses their opponents have devised.

How this interacts with marriage I do not know, as it implies a setting where cloning is ideal, but marriage is central to a traditional political game, and thus the premise above needs to be revisited to not only allow marriage, but to make it central and important.

Not-Dune has also mastered psionics, which are genetic, and held primarily by the “great schools.” This includes psi-tech. I propose that most of this is centered in higher powers and each house and great school has their own unique take on psionics.

Central to psionics is ESP and the reading of the future; characters can read much further than just “next week.” The game should have mechanics that create interesting choices regarding the future, presenting moments of choice where the players need to decide the future course of the setting based on their actions, with additional mechanics representing the cumulation of their choices and forcing them down unpleasant rails if they want “the best” future, while also allowing for some level of player agency within the setting. One major philosophical element should be “what is right?” An exploration of the Trolley Problem?

A Roadmap

Not-Dune needs the following elements, which I’ve written in the order of what I think is their priority.

Political Gameplay: This is the single least supported thing by GURPS. We have some Domain Management rules from the Low-Tech companions and Social Engineering, but they need to be stitched together into a coherent gameplay space. As we do this, we also need to integrate these elements into the templates, so that all characters can participate in both the political arena and the action arena.

Wordcount: High. We need to look at the mechanics of politics, and we need to work out how characters will interact with status and organizations.

Bio-Tech Gameplay: We need specific templates for every house, and we need thoroughly designed bio-tech mechanics, including viral weapons, defenses against said weapons, checks for marital compatibility (as well as discussing the need for marriage and how to make it central). This should result in the Doctor template and the templates for noble houses as well as the lesser clones (working drones, soldiers, etc).

Wordcount: Moderate. It’ll need quite a few templates and quite a discussion of how bio-tech works, which is a gameplay arena. It is, however, a side-element compared to some of the more central gameplay mechanics.

Psionic Gameplay: We need to master the mechanics of the future, what the psionic schools do, and how psionics and psi-tech interact with bio-tech. This will likely result in discussions of the great schools and templates to support them.

Wordcount: Moderate. A lot of psi-wars work won’t apply here, so we’ll need to devise new schools, future mechanics and choose what psi-tech to wpply to the setting.

Tactical Technology: We need to know how combat takes place in this specific model. That requires deciding on what technologies to use, and then deciding on how everyone uses them to fight. This will complete the weapon master template, and result in minion stat-blocks.

Wordcount: Moderate to high. Technology always takes quite some wordcount and time to work out in detail, not because it’s especially difficult, but because there’s so much to go through, so many base considerations worth stopping to consider.

Mass Combat: A key component of political gameplay, as the heroes will command troops and worry about logistics. This work best after political gameplay, as that will determine the resources players have at their disposal. We also need to decide if players only command planetary forces, or if they command space-forces as well.

Wordcount: Low. Mass Combat as-written largely works for us. We just need to dive into the specifics of each house.

Action Gameplay: This borrows from Action 2 and 4 in the same way Psi-Wars does. While this is at least as central to Not-Dune as political gameplay, the Psi-Wars ground-work is sufficient, and this would generate a lot of redundant word-count. We can take the action-premise as a given, and work on the templates with that premise, and then codify it and revise it in detail later, if we find we still have the wordcount to do so.

Wordcount: High. Complete templates and a thorough analysis of Action 2 always eat up wordcount, and a lot of this can essentially be borrowed from Psi-Wars, so much wordcount would be “wasted.”

A Name

We can’t keep calling this “Not Dune” forever. Some spitballed ideas:

A Game of Stars

Upon the Narrow Pedestal

The Senescence

The Godwin Legacy

Orphan Legacy

Genetic Drift

Empire of the Seven Stars

Any of the above names hyphenated with a colon (Godwin Legacy: The Senescence)

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