Thursday, September 7, 2017

Philosophy in Psi-Wars: An Introduction

The most memorable and innovative part of Star Wars is, without a doubt, the Force. Star Wars created such a compelling sci-fi religion that to this day, most discussion of Star Wars revolves around the Force and its Jedi. Psi-Wars would not be complete if I didn’t take the time to really expand on our corollary for the Force and the Jedi: Communion and the Knights of Communion.

But Psi-Wars is more than just Star Wars. It draws inspiration from other works, like Coraabia, Dune, Killjoys, the Endless series, the wuxia genre, and history. Each of these have their own philosophies and religions which drive their societies and the narrative of the story. These unique philosophies act as a distancing mechanism, reminding us that we’re in an alien setting, but each story dives into their philosophies and explain them in detail, making them the center of exploration of the setting.

For me, a single philosophy just isn’t enough. The real world brims with alternate philosophies and cultures, and the conflict between them shaped history. Moreover, the sort of space opera that inspired Star Wars traded on the exploration of the exotic. While Star Wars doesn’t delve much into alternate philosophies (outside of its expanded universe), mainly, I suspect, due to a lack of time, but it’s critical for a game that focuses on the exploration of exotic worlds that characters have interesting philosophies and cultures to explore. We want the galaxy to feel large, with plenty of options for people to explore!

RPGs have different demands than films. Star Wars focuses mainly on two ideologies: the Jedi and the Sith, with one as counter point to the other, the Good of the Jedi and the Evil of the Sith. This works fine for a simple, good vs evil narrative in a story, but I find that player characters struggle with such a simplistic approach. A Sith character cannot help but be mustache-twirlingly evil, while Jedi must be tediously good. The nuance necessary for varied, dynamic and personal characters struggles against the simplicity created by the movie.

As a result, I want the philosophies of Psi-Wars to be more nuanced, each written from the perspective of the player as well as the GM: why he might choose it, what it offers him, what variations he might pursue, and how it shapes his perspective on the setting. I also want to offer him a greater variety than just two: I want to offer five, for the same reason that D&D offers a multitude of races, or why the World of Darkness offers five factions for each supernatural creature: a setting, especially one as expansive as a galaxy, needs more nuance and options for a group to explore than is offered by a simple good vs evil narrative. We need multiple flavors of good and evil to explore, in the very least, and numerous factions to draw upon.

If I can sum up the purpose of philosophy in Psi-Wars, I seek to do the following:

  • Bring the alienness of the universe to life and make it reasonable to understand
  • Offer inspiration to the GM for factions and their motivations
  • Offer inspiration to players for their own motivations and how they see the world
  • Create a repository for cool powers
If I can return to my model of four players, too many philosophies threatens to overwhelm a player like Brent, thus we must ensure that each can be summed up in a sentence or two, and we must especially make sure that we have obvious parallels for the Jedi and the Sith orders, so that a player will recognize them when he sees them. For Willow, the more detail a philosophy has, the better! It drives the setting, and it creates nuance, and is full of history and interesting characters. For Bjorn, a philosophy must differentiate itself from other philosophies by offering interesting character options, character options that matter in the context of an action scenario. Finally, Desiree will want to shape her character by following beliefs and knowing what that means in the context of other philosophies.

The Five Philosophies of Psi-Wars

Psi-wars is a vast galaxy and brims with philosophies, but most of those will be localized. They should only be the focus of gameplay if the GM wants to bring them to the fore, or a player wants to explore them. A Star Wars example might be the Witches of Dathomir and how they see/use the Force: that’s interesting if you’re doing a story that focuses on those witches, or you want to play one of the witches, then it’s good to know how they work, but one does not need to know about them to appreciate Star Wars. Thus, for Psi-Wars, I’d like to limit this iteration to the five “most important” philosophies, the ones that most broadly shape the setting and the only ones you really need to know to understand the prime conflicts of the setting.


Neo-Rationalism is the dying relic of rationalism and science in the universe. Where rationalism’s carefully measured skepticism drove scientific progress throughout the galaxy, Neo-Rationalism has replaced it with a psuedo-scientific dogma that would rather quote the great scholars of the past than push the boundaries of knowledge. Neo-Rationalism believes strongly in its ability to produce superior minds, and its students can achieve superior feats of intellect. Neo-Rationalism is currently in vogue in the Empire, and the Emperor himself hides his machinations behind a facade of Neo-Rationalism.

This philosophy offers an in-setting explanation as to why science has stagnated, offers players a genuine, non-psionic philosophy to follow, and draws inspiration from Dune’s Mentats and the real-world General Semantics that inspired the World of Null-A and the Mentats themselves.

The Akashic Mysteries

Surprise! A new name for the Oracular Order! The Akashic mysteries found their origin on the Sabine homeworld of Persephone. The colonists of that world expanded on precognitive techniques uncovered deep in the mysterious caves of that world, and use their newfound mastery to explore the whole of history, including its many paths that led to the destruction of the human race, and found the one path that didn’t, the “Golden Path.” They used this knowledge to help found the Alexian Empire and the noble houses, all with an eye towards moving mankind onto the path of ultimate salvation. Their experiment ended disastrously with the collapse of the Eternal Empire under the reign of the mad Emperor, Lucius Alexus, and they have but fragments of their former influence.

The Akashic mysteries serve as a background for the Noble Houses, and an explanation as to why the galaxy is the way it is. It also offers a human-centric alternative to True Communion as a possible “truth” of the setting, as well as an interesting source of potential conspirators. It’s also a non-communion-based psionic philosophy. It draws inspiration from the Bene Gesserit of Dune and from Minority Report, as well as the Mystery religions of ancient Greece.

The Nine Masks of the Divine (The Traditions)

Long ago, an alien Empire ruled the galaxy until a great galactic calamity destroyed their native star and sent the galaxy spiraling into a dark age. A multitude of philosophies, religions and cults spanned that Empire, and scholars, philosophers and theologians across the Empire noticed similarities between them, and began to forge a grand, pantheistic understanding of all these various psionic philosophies, bringing them under the umbrella of a single philosophy, the Nine Masks. The Nine Masks understood the essential elements of Communion, and believes the nine paths of Communion to be the “masks” that the divine wear, and that mortals who walk those paths mask themselves in a form of divinity. It began as an ecumenical exercise, a way of bringing all of the faiths of the Empire under a single roof, and a way of trying to understand the principles, but with the dissolution of the Empire, fragments of that lore has become the source for occult thought and mysticism, especially in the dark arm of the galaxy.

The Nine Masks serves as a basket we can put any interesting old cult that we want into, and acts as a de facto perspective on how Communion and its paths work. It also draws inspirations from the pantheism of the Roman Empire, and the occultism that arose around those “pagan” beliefs in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It gives us a place for spooky witches and exotic cults.

True Communion

Another race, long oppressed by the various Empires that have ruled the galaxy, formed telepathic bonds with one another and gained profound understanding of Ego Communion, or “True Communion.” Their understanding transcended the mere paths of the Nine Masks and uncovered the core truths of Communion itself. They forged a philosophy of pacifism and universal tolerance, accepting that all who could connect with Communion belonged to a oneness that transcended individual distinctness. One heretical member tested the bounds of this universal tolerance by openly spreading its wisdom to the very races that oppressed them, especially to Humanity, who eagerly took up its message of tolerance and freedom from the oppressive destinies imposed upon them by the Akashic mysteries. The philosophy reached its height shortly before the end of the Eternal Empire, and helped clear away the corruption of that failed state. The philosophy still exists, and its knights have scattered to the far stars of the rim, awaiting the time when they will be needed again, when they will be accepted again.

True Communion is the Psi-Wars equivalent to the Jedi doctrine. It offers superior understanding of Communion and a superior, heroic vision for how the Galaxy could be. It offers us the legends that Star Wars hints at, and draws inspiration from the Ikko Ikki, the Templars and the Shaolin monstary. It is, by default, the “true” philosophy if Psi-Wars.

The Cult of the Mystic Tyrant

This philosophy began as the worship of the God-Emperor of the alien empire that once ruled the Galaxy, as well as a philosophy that justified the dominion of that God Emperor. As the Empire grew, they folded the worship of the Emperor into the Nine Masks of Divinity as just another branch of the same larger tree. But long after the fall of the Empire, racial supremacists of the fallen imperial aliens resurrected the ideology as a means of regaining their former prestige, and they expanded the philosophy. In its modern incarnation, it has shed its racist origins, and sees the path of the Mystic Tyrant not as an ends, but as a means to transcend all paths, to transcend morality and to gain control of the metaphysical underpinnings of the universe itself. It worships those who manage to achieve this nihilistic mastery, and has opened its doors to anyone who can achieve this personal transcendence. They corrupted the Knights of Communion, drawing members away from it and helping bring about its downfall, and now they conspire with the Emperor to bring about the total dominion of the Galaxy under the only man who can truly rule it: one who has transcended the path of the Mystic Tyrant.

The Cult of the Mystic Tyrant is our Sith equivalent philosophy, offering us an ultimate antagonist for the philosophy of True Communion. As in Star Wars, it draws much of its philosophy from Nietzsche and from Objectivism to create a “self-centered” philosophy of moral transcendence; it also draws inspiration from State Consequentialism and Hobbesian social contracts, as it inherits a sort of “Divine Right of Rule” ideology from its origins as a monarchical cult. However, unlike in Star Wars, I want the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant to be more playable, and less of a “twisted mirror” of True Communion’s ideology. By default, thus, it may be an “evil” ideology where players who want “dark” powers can get their fix, but it should offer the real possibility of being a force for “good.”

The Philosophy Skill

If we’re going to dive into Philosophy, we should discuss what player characters can actually use Philosophy for. We can define these as techniques, which is useful for defining philosophical styles. The closest we can find to philosophical styles are found in GURPS Powers: The Weird

Aesthetic Appreciation (Average Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy+0;

Prerequisite: Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill+4.

Some philosophies allow one to better appreciate what beauty means. Treat this as a complementary roll to any artistic roll or connoisseur where beauty matters, provided the aesthetics on display subjectively line up with what the philosophy believes is beautiful.

Moral Insight (Average Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy+0;

Prerequisite: Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill.

This is the default use of Philosophy according to GURPS Characters. This is only genuinely appropriate to any philosophy that contains Ethics. This allows the character to gain moral insights into his actions based on what his philosophy would argue is ethical. Secondly, it allows one to gain insights into the behavior of someone else who follows the philosophy.

Philosophical Argument (Average Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy+0;

Prerequisite: Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill+4.

A new use of Philosophy, it allows the character to frame an ethical argument with the careful logic of his philosophy. When used with a character that believes in the philosophy, treat this as a complementary roll for the purposes of a Reaction modifier, or you may use it directly as an influence skill.

Comparative Philosophy (Philosophy) (Hard Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy-5;

Prerequisite: Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill.

Derived from the Theology skill, this represents a philosophical application of Comparative Theology. Characters may use this technique when attempting to use their philosophy skill on someone who follows a different philosophy (to gain Moral Insights on another, or to make a Philosophical Argument). Characters must specialize by philosophy, and the GM may decide that two philosophies different are too sufficiently different to allow for comparative philosophy.

Heuristics (Hard Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy-6;

Prerequisite: Illumination; Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill.

Heuristics is a technique for GURPS Powers: the Weird. It acts as a superior complementary skill to “uncover truth.” In Powers: the Weird, Heuristics requires Illumination. For our purposes, we’ll use the Secret Knowledge perk, which will allow Heuristics in specific instances. In what cases it can be used depends on the metaphysics and the epistemology of the philosophy in question, as certain philosophies may grant profound insights into the reality world.

Symbolic Communion Lore (Average Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy+0;

Prerequisite: Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill+4.

Philosophies deeply tied to Communion can better interpret the strange visions and imagery of Communion. Characters may use Symbolic Communion Lore in place of any Philosophy roll called for by a Communion Miracle.

Symbolic (Path) Lore (Average Technique)

Defaults: Philosophy+0;

Prerequisite: Philosophy; Cannot exceed prerequisite skill+4.

Paths typically have milestones or symbols associated with them. Characters trained in the right philosophies can readily recognize that imagery. They may roll Symbolic (Path) Lore in place of any Philosophy roll to recognize a milestone or to recognize someone else wittingly or unwittingly following a Path. At the GM’s discretion, this may also be used to interpret visions from Communion provided those visions are sufficiently closely tied to the appropriate path.

Following a Philosophy

Any character who chooses to believe in a philosophy may take the quirk Believer (Philosophy), which allows a character to use Philosophical Arguments against the character. Characters may alternatively take appropriate Disciplines of Faith, which assumes the Believer quirk, or Fanaticism (Philosophy).

Formal training requires the appropriate Philosophy skill, but may be expanded into a full Philosophical Style, which requires a Philosophical Style Familiarity. This does not necessarily mean that the character believes in the philosophy (take an appropriate quirk or disadvantage to represent that belief). The benefits of such a style is defined in GURPS Powers: the Weird

  • You have the equivalent to a Claim of Hospitality with other practitioners of your philosophy, whether it be access to their schools, monasteries or home, and certainly access to a place where you can practice your philosophy.
  • You have Cultural Familiarity with your philosophy, which means you never suffer cultural familiarity penalties with other practitioners of your philosophy.
  • You may freely spend points on any traits associated with the philosophy, including any optional traits.
  • You may access secret techniques, secret skills, secret powers or secret miracles associated with the style.

Philosophical Styles have a new type of trait called Removable Disadvantages. These represents disadvantages that the player may justify buying off simply by practicing his ideology. If the philosophical style also contains optional disadvantages, the character can justify replacing a Removable Disadvantage with an Optional Disadvantage.

Do characters who follow a philosophy also need to take the philosophy skill? Do they need to follow a style? No.

To be a follower of a philosophy or a religion, simply take the right quirk or disadvantage; you need nothing more (a “believer”); one can do this without studying the underlying philosophy or theology skill, in the same way that one can be Christian without understanding the deeper arguments that justify the existence of God, or without reading the Bible. Any character may study a philosophy, whether or not they believe in it (a “student”). Consider the philososphy major who makes Buddhism the focus of his study; he may know Buddhist Theology, but likely does not believe in it. Any character who studies the philosophical style must necessarily also study the philosophy, and is probably a believer, but not necessarily (a “practitioner”). Studying the style gives one access to deeper secrets associated with the philosophy: one might know Buddhism, but gaining inner peace via buddhism requires more than just reading some books on the topic or having fervent faith in its power to bring you inner peace. You must actually put those beliefs into practice.

Thus, a philosophical study involves a deep look at not just the core philosophical skill, but everything that goes around it. It might be possible to study without being a believer, especially if one studies multiple philosophies (“An Akashic Rationalist”), in such case a practitioner has enough faith in the philosophy to practice it, but not so much that he ultimately buys all of its metaphysical or ethical arguments. Because of the closely related nature of belief and practice, as an optional rule, consider creating a “Practioner Feature” which is a metatrait that includes a philosophy’s Style Familiarity and the Belief quirk, though allowing the character 5 additional perks.


Take two! I’ve tried to introduce Illumination into the game before, though it didn’t work out and I ended up removing the effort. However, as I worked on philosophical styles, which has been highly informed by Bill Stoddard’s inestimable Powers: the Weird, I realized I needed an intellectual “Trained by a Master,” and there’s nothing better for that than Illumination. So here’s my proposal:

Illuminated characters can instantly recognize one another, you can roll IQ or Philosophy (or the skill in question) to recognize whether a strange occurrence is a coincidence or the result of a conspiracy (and gain some insight into it), and you’re allowed to purchase “cinematic” esoteric skills, techniques, etc. This seems broadly worth 15 points.

Any Philosophy can offer Illumination, but only if the GM deems it “correct.” For example, if the GM decides that the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant and Neo-Rationalism offer genuine insight into the world, while True Communion and the Akashic mysteries mainly blind one with mysticism, then the first two can offer Illumination while the latter two cannot.

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