Thursday, May 3, 2018

State of the Patreon: May, and an Iteration 6 retrospective

I am behind, as usual. You'll find this becomes relatively common in the next year or so, because my day has become traveling on a train for 3 hours a day, working 8 hours a day, and then putting my boy to bed and going to bed myself.  Paradoxically, this means I'm writing more than ever, as I purchased the dinkiest laptop ever (a Lenovo Miix 320) and I've been typing away, but having the time to really sit down, do proper research and editing, never mind posting, requires sitting behind my computer, and that's going to be a rare thing.  So, fair warning!

So, what happened last month?  What are we doing this month?  And where do I see the blog going?

The State of the Blog

I didn't have enough posts last month to really run a "top ten posts of the month," so I'll just tell you which Templar Chapter "won:" The Far Striders, which really surprised me.  I worried they would be the least interesting of the set, but I think  you guys really appreciated what I was trying to do with them.  I wanted a grounded faction, one easily accessible to your players, a group clearly inspired by the classic Star Wars vision of the Jedi, and from this group, you could access or visit any other group.  You guys seemed to have enjoyed it, and they're the only group that I've seen with comments (left on the forum) praising them, so thanks for our feedback, guys!

Views were down this month, but not by much, and not the lowest level of views.  I've stabilized around 5000 views a month.

The State of the Patreon

Patron numbers are essentially flat, with one person who left, one person who joined (and then left at the beginning of May: he evidently showed up for the one work he wanted to get, and I can totally respect that!), while patron funding is up, mainly due to the new scheme I've offered.  We now have one secret councilor, and a full set of 12 disciples once more.

The polls, all of them, were a big hit, and this month I'll announce the results, which will be a $5+ post as usual; if I get to working out the fourth chapter this month, it'll be a $3+ post, as usual.  The $1+ post(s) will be about GURPS Vehicles, and that's a topic that requires additional discussion, since we're going to make something of a project of this.

An Iteration 6 retrospective

The right and proper thing to do after completing an iteration is to stop, look back on what you’ve done, and see what needs to be fixed and what can stay as is.  So this post should be a quick look back at everything, and then a discussion as to what to do next, but I already know what I need to do next, which is to look at everything, and there’s a lot of things to look at!  This is a natural part of  how I’m handling the creation: at each stage, I add to what came before, which means the complexity of everything continues to mount and mount.  Cycles of expansion (as I create more material) and contraction (as I shed the unnecessary material) are normal, and if you look at any of your favorite games that go through cycles of editions, you’ll see this is usually the case: after you release a new edition, you get expansion after expansion with more and more complexity until it becomes too much, then you release a new edition that eliminates the unnecessary cruft while keeping the good bits and then begin to release expansions, and so on.

(I use the word “Edition” which is what these iterations are beginning to turn into, but I’ll talk about that a bit more in a moment).

Iteration 6 got away from me a little, and I’ve seen a bit of a split in the community that follows it, not in the sense of arguments, but in the sense of reactions.  While I predicted iteration 6 would take a year (and it essentially did), I also predicted we’d have aliens and planets, and we really only have factions.  That said, what I set out to do was create a setting, and I’ve done that.  So I wouldn’t call it a failure.

Where iteration 1-5 was really a sort of designer diary, Iteration 6 turned into me simply churning out setting material, rather than discussing the mechanics of what I was doing.  I had said at the outset that you must follow a fractal approach, and while I did, it might not have been obvious what that fractal was.  So I’d like to tackle that here.

The Psi-Wars Setting Fractal

The main focus of my setting design in this iteration has been “high scale factions.”  That would be your starting point.  The next three points that came off of that would be: Empire, Rebellion and Philosophies (really, the Knights of Communion, but I want more philosophies than just True Communion, so Ideology became a driving element behind the last phase of Iteration 6).  This gives you your major conflict and the reasons behind it.  Beneath each of these, I wanted the sub-factions, so that a GM could run nothing but a game focusing on that faction and still have room to move, then beneath this, I had variation within each sub-faction meant to show different facets.  The end result looks something like this:

The Empire has the Chancellor and his ministries as their “mundane” faction; the Hand and Intelligence and Security, representing enforcement and control; and the Grand Admiral has the Navy and Black Ops and represents military power.

The Rebellion has the Alliance and general Insurgencies.  General Insurgencies have four variations (Freedom Fighters, Terrorists, Idealogues and Anarchists).  The Alliance has the commoners and the aristocracy and the aristocracy has four houses, representing different elements of what it means to be the Alliance: Sabine (representing nobility as Nobless Oblige), Grimshaw (representing the danger of handing your society over to elites), Elegans (representing the Alliance’s fall from grace and their changing role in the galaxy) and Kain (representing the threat the Houses still present to the Empire).

We had five philosophies, but these tied into existing factions: Neorationalism has its schisms and serves the Empire (as well as reflects the Shinjurai ethnicity); the Akashic Mysteries serve the Alliance (and reflects the Maradonian ethnicity) and has its different prophetesses and their agendas; the Divine Masks represents the aliens of the Galaxy and has its different cults; the Cult of the Mystical Tyrant represents the ultimate antithesis to the Knights of Communion (and has its four shcisms), and True Communion serves the Galaxy (and represents the Westerly ethnicity and a fusion of human and alien philosophy) and has its different chapters.

I probably could have talked more about the higher level view and how I moved up and down the “ladder of complexity,” and if you look back, it’s certainly implied, but I don’t think it was particularly obvious.  It’s also a very long iteration, so it’s hard to see where I started and how I got to where I was going.

A Very Long Iteration

I had mentioned a “split” between the community, and here’s what I mean.  I’ve seen numerous people who were once heavily involved fade away, and I’ve seen newcomers really struggle with what I was doing, while the “die hards,” the ones who have a deep investment, gained more and more of a voice in the design process.  Some of this I can chalk up to Patreon, but I don’t think that’s the driving force here.  Instead, I want to blame complexity.

See, there’s a cycle of creation that I mention above.  First, you must create loads and loads of material before you can boil it down and simplify it.  And I’ve been creating loads of material for a year now, and if you stagger in at the very end, you have very little context.  

“Wait, who are these Domen Sefelina people?  They’re a divine mask cult?  What’s that?  And who are the Ranathim? Wait, what’s this Communion stuff? I’m so lost!”

If you’re alreayd hip deep in it all, it’s fascinating to watch it evolve, but if you’re on the outside, or you stop watching for awhile and come back in, then it’s easy to be very lost, a bit like tuning into a soap opera after skipping a season.

This isn’t a mistake on my part; it’s a natural consequence of what I’ve been doing (though perhaps I could avoid it by keeping things even simpler, but I’m not sure how I would go about doing that).  But it is something I need to fix.

One of my more casual readers asked if I ever intended to put this into a book.  Another reader, interested in exploring Psi-Wars, asked where he could start and was pointed to the “Primer,” which he returned from complaining, correctly, that it was nothing but a list of links (it’s more of an index than a primer at this point).  You can follow Psi-Wars, but you have to do it the way you’d follow a web-comic, starting at the beginning and wending your way slowly forward.  But that’s not what people want from Psi-Wars anymore.

And this brings me to my retrospective of Psi-Wars itself

Psi-Wars: Not the Game It Used To Be

The premise behind Psi-Wars, as I mentioned above, was to be a diary of campaign design, and that’s precisely what it was.  I grabbed existing material and slapped it all together.  “See, if you take these Space Templates and this gear and tweak the space combat rules and sprinkle in some kung fu and psionic powers, look, you have something like Star Wars, but don’t worry about being exact.”
It was good, you guys loved it and by the end of that cycle, we saw games like Golko Wants You Dead, which is precisely the sort of thing I expected to see out of it.  I gave you the tools to go build something out of, and they did.

With Iteration 6, I began to create a more concerete setting.  Before, I assumed an Empire; now I gave you one.  Before, I assumed some force fighting the Empire; now it has a face, an aristocratic one with a specific ideology, history, culture and leading figures.  “Golko Wants You Dead” might work here, but now I see campaigns more like Heroes of the Rim, which draw on the setting material, making it less like generic D&D and more like Exalted where the game grounds itself in the setting rather than the premise.

Moreover, the setting material, because it’s defined, does not appeal to everyone.  For every reader who celebrates a detail on, say, the Akashic Mysteries, another expresses disappointment with the direction of the Divine Masks.  As it becomes less generic, it becomes more “A Game Mailanka Would Run,” which is not the same game everyone else would run.  I try to leave more, but the more specific I make it, the less generic (and thus flexible) it is.  At the same time, the specific resonates more with the community than the generic does, with a few exceptions.  The truly big hits out of Iteration 6 has been the aristocratic houses, Imperial Intelligence (like, seriously) and Insurgent Tactics (which is fairly generic).  I see people quoting names I mention in my material and speculating on them.  So, you want more specific material, but the more specific I get, the harder it is to get into.

Part of the difficulty of getting into the game is pushing past the reams and reams of redundant, irrelevant info.  I remember a gamer complaining about how inconsistent the rules of Werewolf: the Apocalypse were, but after he explained what he meant, I pointed out to him that he was trying to use rules from multiple different editions together in one game, which explained his problem.  I see a similar phenomenon, with players using outdated rules from iteration 4 and missing still relevant rules from Iteration 3.  I have “master copies” of what’s “current,” but you don’t.  That needs to change!

Finally, because iteration 6 has created such a specific game, I no longer need to rely on the generic any more. The people who play this no longer use it as a springboard for creating their own campaigns, they try to game in Psi-Wars, the same way one might try to game in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy.  They expect it to be complete and whole, rather than just chucking in whatever they feel like from the rest of GURPS.  This leads to some weirdness, as I often use proprietary material, such as the Empire-Class Dreadnought or some social engineering styles from a pyramid article.  This makes sense, as when you build a campaign that’s what you should do, but the result is that you have a cross-reference hell that requires you to own half of the GURPS library to “play as written,” which can be a nightmare, even for the die-hards.

Psi-Wars, after Iteration 6, is now it’s own game and setting.  This is not to look down upon Iteration 5 and games like Golko Wants you Dead.  Far from it, but those tools already exist and if that campaign is still running, I suspect it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) draw much from Iteration 6 but inspiration (“Oh those Ranathim are cool!  But meh on the Akashic Mysteries”).  Moving forward, I need to treat Psi-Wars as its own thing.

A Consolidation Road Map

So here’s what we’re going to do.

The last year has shown me where the gaps are.  We’re going to go back over everything with a fine tooth comb and fix parts that don’t work as well as they should until the “engine” of Psi-Wars purrs.  As part of this, I’m going to try to revise material such that I make outside references as little as possible.  Ideally, you should be able to run this with only a few books, rather than a library of pyramid articles (if included, they should be optional).

As I revise and revisit the material, they should be consolidated in a single point for people to use, so they know what is “up to date.”  The natural outcome of this will be another set of documents, similar to the Iteration 5 documents.  But I also want to give you an up-to-date online resource: salsathegeek has been kind enough to donate a wiki to the cause, which you can find here. This will eventually contain the details necessary to run your game in a more approachable and authoritative manner.  And because, honestly, combing through a blog is no way to run your campaign!

I will devise a true primer on the setting; the old primer will adopt the role of index, a way of searching through my posts with greater ease. 

Finally, when I do return to the setting elements I have created, I will define more specifics for each (especially the Empire), so that GMs can have names and places to cite.  I will still avoid specific planets and more specific races at least for the time being.  The specific geography of the galaxy and local institutions will remain nebulous: this is still a top-down perspective, and we’ll fix that in the next iteration.

A More Specific Road Map

The first and most reasonable things would be to revisit templates and the “GURPS Action” elements that I’ve used, the sort of “Book 1 and 2 of Psi-Wars.”  However, as I’ve noted before, this is backwards: these depend on the rest of the setting and game work, so they’ll be built throughout the process and then revisited near the end.

Instead, I want to look at Technology first, as it’s the thing that dearly needs the most help.  I’ve skated on generalities and borrowed technology, but I think I’m more aware of the specifics now, based on the work I’ve already done.  This will break down into four parts.  First, I want to look at general technological concepts, the technologies we’ll use to build the rest of our technology.  Second, I want to look at spaceships and space combat, as that’s sorely lacking thus far.  Third, I want to look at human-level gear, including weapons and armor. Fourth, I want to look at robotics and cybernetics.  Finally, I want to revisit these three concepts through the lens of the Empire, and the Alliance and the Ideological Factions. In particular, I want to look at their tactics and how they’ll use these technologies and then create concrete technological examples for each (ie, what ships and gear they use).

Then I want to revisit powers; I don’t think much new material needs to be added here so much as a consolidation of existing concepts, but we’ll take a look, and this will include psionics and Communion.  I’d also like to do a “full pass” on the martial arts I’ve added to the game, where they might be simplified and I need to make sure each has their own unique niche.
Then I want to take another look at the factions.  In principle, nothing needs to change, but after we’ve looked at everything that’s come before, we can do some last tweaking, add some additional details, and bring everything into a cohesive whole.

Lastly, we’ll gather up all of our material and revisit the templates and the overall rules for the game.  This should include a few new templates (Pirates! Outlaws!), fixed templates that take advantage of new rules (Mystics! Space Knights!) and a new way to handle Power-Ups.

So that’s it!  Hopefully this iteration will be more interesting from a diary perspective, and by the time we’re done, those of you curious in the setting will have more tools at your disposal to actually play the game.

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