Monday, June 5, 2017

Orphan of the Stars: Ideology as Will

One core element I wanted for Psi-Wars was ideology.  I wanted religion, culture and the flow of ideas to be a major element of gameplay, both in trying to create it, and trying to manage it.  Dune had its faith, yes, but it also had the cultural differences between the "soft" nobility, the originally "hard" sarduakar and the legitimately "hard" fremen.  In many ways, Dune turns on what it takes to make great men, or the upsides and downsides of certain ideological leanings.

This also assists us with our desire to have multiple genetic lines, as we can use different ethnicities as receptacles for ideological differences. Thus, not only can our Not-Fremen have "wild" genetic differences from our local House, but it can have ideological differences, and when managing both the nobility of the House and the wild not-Fremen, one must be aware of the clashes in their ideologies and carefully navigate them.

Thus, I wrote up a proposal for how to treat the last of our three central elements: Ideology, which has no rulebook in GURPS (THS's memetics come closest, but those tend to be shorter lived than what I have in mind)


Several times over the course of our analysis of City Stats and organizations, both works have discussed loyalty, and they’ve done that abstractly. We can improve loyalty with a few rolls (Propaganda, mostly), and we can lose Loyalty via a few means, mainly subversion or violation of the ethics of ones organization, namely via embezzlement. This works fine. We could, in fact, stop here and I think you’d agree that we already have a good game. I want to continue for two reasons.

First, Dune has a strong theme of the chains of power. We tend to celebrate the mighty, the people who rise to the top, who becomes kings and can order all around them to do as they please, but Dune emphasizes that power doesn’t really work like this. Power, true power resides in the abstract notion of the organization itself, in that which people will power. Consider how a kingdom can outlive its king, because people honor the idea of the king. But consider too that a great man can violate the power and promise invested in him by his organization. Organizations has this in the penalties afflicted if one embezzles money, but what about what happens if a king marries the wrong bride, or if he desecrates a place held holy by the locals, or if simply seems weak when the people want a strong king? The expectations of the people control and direct the king as much as the king controls and directs the people. If the king violates those expectations, the organs of power, his capital and the inertia of his organizations, can keep him in power, but how long until someone tries to assassinate him, or his own organizations find a way to buck him? We call this legitimacy, and the Chinese call it the mandate of heaven, and Dune is full of discussion of it. Leto Atreides walks into a trap knowing full well that he does so, in part, because of this, and Paul plays the role of messiah, for the same reason.

The second important element here is that of demographic and culture. GURPS portrays society in an abstract, uniform way, not because it believes society to be so, but because it remains assiduously neutral to maintain is generic and universal nature. We don’t have to follow this, nor should we. City Stats and Organizations both point out that recruitment difficulties depend on what demographic you choose to recruit. I go further and argue that ideology changes depending on who you recruit, because different cultures value different things. Consider how the Roman culture changed as more Germans joined the ranks of the legions, or when Illyrian officers began to hold the title of Imperator. Consider, too, how Dune contains a conflict of culture at its heart, between the decadent Imperials and the desert-hardened Fremen. The ideologies and cultural values the Fremen held onto fundamentally changed how they fought when compared to the ideology of the Sarduakar.

Dan Carlin often muses about what allowed hoplites to be hoplites, or samurai to be samurai. One can take the equipment and the training and give it to another, but the result isn’t the same. Dune asks a similar question, and suggests that people’s core values determine who they are and how they fight, that only Greeks can make hoplites, and to be a good hoplite, one has to be Greek. This work is going to take the same tack, not necessarily because it’s true, but because it fits the themes of Dune, and because it creates interesting choices.

Memes, in slow motion

I’ve already explored the idea of cultural values in Psi-Wars. They give us pieces and parts of Codes of Honor, the ideals to which a particular society holds. We, of course, don’t strictly need Codes of Honor for Orphans of the Stars (though I do recommend them, because Dune definitely has tradition and honor as two of its themes), but they help us emphasize parts and pieces of a culture, what elements they hold dear.

We can think of each value as a fragment of culture, a piece of a larger idea. Knights weren’t just brave, but they did believe in bravery because, of course, they fought wars and wanted to encourage people to fight wars. At the same time, and paradoxically, they held onto a pacifist faith that argued that all men are brothers. That means the knights held onto piety as a deeply important value, even though it wasn’t entirely compatible with bravery. Other parts of that society, such as priests, might hold onto a particular idea (piety) more deeply than others, but the society as a whole definitely valued those ideas. At least, those parts of society that felt they belonged. A Jew living in medieval society might be pious,of course, but not towards the Christian faith. He held other ideas and other beliefs, but nonetheless lived in the same society. If one wanted brave warrior, one could recruit knights, but if one wanted excellent accountants, you had to look into the Jewish community in that era, and that meant dealing with Jewish culture.

In a sense, the GURPS rules for city stats and organizations are both too broad and too specific at the same time. You can choose whether or not your organization is hidebound or versatile, or whether or not your organization is fanatical or not. In practice, I don’t think that’s true. I think an organization that is fanatical is necessarily also a little narrowminded and focused on a singular goal. Likewise, an organization that is Versatile will probably chafe under an excessively strict CR. I see these cultural values as collections of traits that we can start to assign to organizations and to demographic groups. The Fremen value individual ruggedness (they let the blind die in the desert) and prowess in war, and frugality and a love of their land. These values necessarily build towards a particular sets of disadvantages and advantages. The Fremen excel at war not in spite of these values, nor coincidentally, but because of these values. One cannot have a top-notch fighting force that also values sleeping in on lazy Sundays and on making jokes and showing up when one feels like it (but at the same time, one cannot build a top software company out of ruthlessly religious desert men). Thus, these cultural values become packages of self-imposed traits, and for allowing certain levels of control and skill.

We can shape these values too. Societies change as they encounter new cultures or new ideas, and the fashions of cultures shift and sway depending on what ideas the leader or other cultural icons espouse. THS discusses them in terms of memes, but our cultural values will necessarily be slower and bigger. We’re not representing a joke fleeting across the internet, but the slow building of powerful religious ideas, or deep cultural moments. This is where propaganda steps in.

We’ll need to shape these values, not just because they shape our organizations, but because our organizations shape us. If you want fanatically loyal men, you’ll need to give them an ideal to strive for and a fear that if they fail to live up to that ideal, something terrible will happen! But at the same time, if you’ve convinced them of a deeply important ideal, the violation of which brings doom, and you violate that ideal, then you are in serious trouble! Your entire organization will rock under the scandal of your violation, and the men might come to see someone else as their rightful ruler, and you may end up with a group of extremely well-trained, fanatical men who are trying to kill you. Well done!

So, we must find a way to persuade them away from these beliefs, or understand those beliefs so that we can fulfill them, or adjust them to make them easier for us to fulfill (“Of course it’s okay for dear leader to have a harem, even if his soldiers do not. He has this great, god-given duty to bring about a prince, an heir. The woman who bears him this heir will be beloved by God, and the child that rises out of the union will be sacred!” That’ll work, at least for you sleeping around, but if your son turns out to be a turd…).

This, then, becomes the capstone of our system and the deepest part of the game. It represents the Priest of Varys’ riddle, and the Will of the Riddle of Steel. It also finishes the “sandwich” the characters find themselves in, for above them they have the demands of the City Stats and their lord, where they must come together to fulfill his will, and beneath them, they have the ideological demands of their people, which may conflict with one another and threaten to tear apart the fabric of the organizations that the players put together to serve their lord. The PCs must, then, serve two masters, the first their singular master, and the second the many headed hydra of the masses.


The next question, obviously, is “Okay, what ideologies can we have?” but a better question might be “What traits do we want to give our organizations?” Boardroom and Curia has quite a few and we can look at Mass Combat for inspiration as well.

Boardroom and Curia starting on Page 6 has a list of traits that organizations can have. Most of them fall outside of the scope of ideology (ie Legal Enforcement Powers or Duty), but some definitely suit our purposes. These include

Hidebound, for organizations generally opposed to change

Higher Purpose, for an organization particularly devoted to a particular task

Intolerance, for an organization who has been trained to despise a certain people

Methodical, similar to hidebound, but better representing a group that “wants to get it right!”

Miserliness, for an organization that avoids giving out money when it can (and thus is protected from certain forms of sabotage)

Secret, for groups that practice discretion and have secrets to keep

Versatile, which isn’t covered in those rules, but is discussed elsewhere.

While not strictly covered by these elements, contact skill-level might hinge a great deal on ideology. After all, most people don’t achieve skill-21 at something by accident.

Mass Combat is less clear with its traits, but a few obvious traits might include

Fanatical (for units with Fanatic)

Impulsiveness (for units with Impetuous)

Other traits might fall “below the radar” of organizational rules or mass combat, but nonetheless matter. They’ll tell us something about the character of individual characters we meet from the organization. If looking for inspiration for a particular NPC, the GM can simply grab some of the (self-imposed, mental) disadvantages found in that organizations values and ideology.

Bad Temper or Berserker, for groups that want to fly off the handle (might make them Impetuous)

Bloodlust, for groups that don’t take chances with prisoners

Chummy or Gregarious, for groups that work very well with one another

Code of Honor, for groups that really believe in living up to their (well-codified) ideals

Curious, for groups that want to explore

Disciplines of Faith, for religious organizations

Honesty, for groups that believe in following the rules

Incurious, for groups that have learned not to bother with things that aren’t their business

Jealousy or Selfish, for ruthlessly ambitious organizations

Loner, for groups that foster independence

Overconfidence, often seen as synonymous with genuine courage

Selfless, for a group that promotes martyrdom or service to others

Sense of Duty, for an ideal that promotes service to some specific person or concept

Trickster, for a group that promotes playful innovation

Truthfulness, for a group that prides itself on openness

Workaholic, the dream of every manager.

Codes of Behavior

As mentioned previously, values might act as a sort of “snippet of a code of honor.” Now, the point of the Code of Honor disadvantage is that a character cannot violate it. Thus, if someone chooses to take Code of Honor (Chivalry), they must respond to a challenge or rescue a damsel in distress, or fight fair against fellow nobles. However, even if one does not take such a code, that code still represents an ideal that his society believes people should live up to. Thus, if a knight fails to rescue damsels in distress, or refuses to respond to a challenge, or doesn’t fight fair against fellow nobles then, even though he has violated no self-imposed mental disadvantage, he faces the disapproval of his society.

Thus, the ideology of your organization or your “city” represent the behavior people expect of you. When you violate deeply held believes, you trigger a crisis of legitimacy, which can mean a drop in loyalty (just like embezzlement) or factions within your organization splintering off.

I intend this rule to facilitate drama. This represents the tension between ruler and ruled. If you rule based on the claim that you are noble and thus fundamentally better than others, but you choose to marry a woman who is not better than everyone else, but just a commoner, this act of “abasing” yourself might rub your organization the wrong way, and they might rebel against you. However, the intent here isn’t to punish a player for a bad choice, but to present him with a choice. That is, when the player decides to marry the commoner woman, the GM could remind the player that doing so would violate his ideology’s code of behavior and ask if he’s certain. Thus, the player faces a set of choices and walks into it willingly. Naturally, these should only be enforced when the group finds them interesting. They’re meant to drive drama, not to weigh the story down with pointless book keeping. For example, if the character just took a commoner as a mistress or a concubine, or simply had a romance with her, the GM might not feel it important or interesting to enforce the code.

Philosophy represents the character’s understanding of his ideology (and each ideology should have their own specialization). A successful roll will warn the player if he’s going to violate his ideology (unless the GM wishes to make that automatic, but consider allowing a roll at +4 for fairly obvious violations). Characters can also roll against it to find useful ways of getting around the problem (You could forge papers proving that the woman you want to marry is, in fact, of noble birth, but had her birthright stolen from her by the evil Baron! Then your people might totally accept the marriage), or as a complementary roll for Propaganda or Influence rolls that to draw a parallel between a deeply held belief from Ideology and a seemingly unrelated request (“Of course you should give me a discount on this fine sword. Did not the geneticist Diocletian himself comment on the need to have tools support genetic lineage and not the other way around? This sword, its design, its craftmanship, is the culmination of our shared genetic legacy and must be used, not left on the shelf!”)

Naturally, the real world is full of cosmopolitan societies that meld different cultures and demographics, and the same should be true of Orphans of the Stars. Much of the conflict in Dune turned on the tension between Imperial and Fremen culture. An act that could alienate your Imperial troops might endear you to your Fremen troops, or vice versa. Thus, I propose that the various cultural factions within an organization or a state be noted, with their associated ideologies and their associated loyalties. This can create “impossible” situations where no matter what choice you make, you’ll piss off someone, but such is the nature of politics! Having conflicting ideologies make navigating the annals of power even more complex and should provide a deep constellation of choices that, in my experience, make games truly memorable.

Sample Traits

I’m not going to dive into the full spectrum yet, as the point here is to just discuss what ideologies might look like.


The organization or society structures itself and adheres to a rigid set of religious (or semi-religious) instructions.

Organization Traits: Hidebound, Fanatical, Higher Purpose (Protect the Faith)

Optional Mental Disadvantages: Disciplines of Faith, Sense of Duty (Faith)

Codes of Behavior: The leader must not violate the specifics of the holy document, and unusual requests are always potential violations (use Theology to know what those specifics are, or how to get around Unusual Request violation). The leader must not disparage the holy text or the faith around it; the leader may not desecrate or insult the holy text, or allow an insult to it to go unchallenged.

Notes: Increases in CR never trigger a crisis for Fundamentalist ideologies.

Cult of Personality

The organization serves the leader out of love for that leader specifically.

Organization Traits: Fanatical, Higher Purpose (Protect Dear Leader)

Optional Mental Disadvantages: Sense of Duty (Master)

Codes of Behavior: The leader must appear regularly before his organization (extended absences can trigger a crisis of legitimacy). The leader must cultivate a persona (See Social Engineering p 61) and may not violate that persona, or appear out of persona, within the view of his organization. The death of the leader always triggers a Crisis of Legitimacy

Open Mindedness

The organization serves the leader out of love for that leader specifically.

Organization Traits: Versatile

Optional Mental Disadvantages: Curious

Codes of Behavior: Any increase in CR triggers a crisis of legitimacy (in addition to any normal problems caused by an increase in CR). The leader must not forbid any courses of action or demand sacrifice from his organization (though he may guide, cajole and bribe).

Cultivating Ideology

Ideas spread via Propaganda. Use the same rules for improving loyalty except, instead, some portion of your organization or city gains access to the ideology of choice. Teaching can be used in the same way, to instruct an organization that you control in your ideaology of choice. The same can be done to wipe out an ideology.

Ideology can also spread “naturally.” Once a year, roll against the average Will of a given demographic (including bonuses for things like Fanaticism) for each ideology that a demographic might gain with the following modifiers. Success indicates the demographic is able to resist the temptation to take on the ideology; failure means they take on the ideology.

Modifiers: +4; -4 for being in a minority (ie, most people in the organization or state have the ideology), -1 per major victory associated with the ideology, +1 for every major defeat, or every crisis of faith associated with the ideology.

The GM can roll the same to see if an ideology is lost.

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