Thursday, May 24, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 4 - Customize your Technology

Once we know what our baseline technology is, we can further tailor our gadgets to our setting. GURPS Ultra-Tech offers us only the most generic material. It will offer you a grav car, but not a grav ferrari or grav pinto; it’ll offer a heavy blaster and a light blaster, but not a Deagle Blaster or a 38 Special blaster. If we want more detail than “car” and “gun,” we’ll have to make it ourselves.

This step is not strictly necessary. In some cases, baseline technology is enough. Consider, for example, a high school drama set in the future: generic technology would be sufficient for capturing the futuristic feel of the game, and you could even inject some Miracle-Tech to force your high school students to wrestle with their changing world. They live in a world where “gun” and “car” is good enough.

But we’ll often find ourselves in a situation where we want more nuance to our technology. This may be because the technology in GURPS ultra-tech doesn’t quite offer what we want. A common example of this might be a desire for a specific model of robot that doesn’t exist in the book. More commonly, we’re fine with the technological principles as outlined in GURPS Ultra-Tech but we want to offer more variety, especially when it comes to our core activity. For example if our game is about space soldiers killing aliens, we might want to offer players numerous guns to choose from and we might want to make the various aliens they fight feel distinct and original.

Supporting your Core Activity

In step one, you determined your core activity. The most common reason to expand your technological options is to support your core activity. For example, if your game is about seeking out new life and new civilizations and then killing them, you’ll want a variety of weapons and armor to choose from, both to handle the different aliens the players might face, and to support different strategies the characters might employ (for example, a “heavy assault” soldier will expect to have different options than a “stealth commando” soldier). Similarly, if we’re focused on hacking, we might expect to face numerous different forms of computer security, and we’ll need different means of getting around those security methods.

The technology we choose must support our preferred core activity, and while Ultra-Tech might do that “out of the box” (it certainly does with weaponry and armor: see Typical Weapons by TL, page UT 148 and Typical Armor by TL, page UT 186), it often doesn’t, and we’ll need to give our players additional things to choose from.

Building a Mechanical Framework

Without diving too deeply into how to build gameplay (a post, or even a series, for another day), when you expand your core activity, you do so by trying to draw attention to certain mechanics by setting up scenarios around them, and thereafter encouraging your players to explore those mechanics in a variety of ways. What we need then is to define what challenges the players will face, what alternate strategies the players can use to get around those, and we'll want to "balance" those strategies so that each strategy is potentially interesting, instead of one exceeding all others.

Combat is typically the most intuitive framework for players to understand and a good example to start with. Ultra-Tech already does a lot of the heavy lifting here for you. Most combat technology within a particular tech level is "balanced" with itself and offers a variety of weapons and armor to choose from, allowing you to create interesting combat diversity "out of the box” (as noted above). In principle, Ultra-Tech tends to balance its weapons and armor around an ever-increasing armor divisor: TL 9 is consistent with most weapons having access to an armor divisor of 2, TL 10 around an armor divisor of 3, TL 11 around an armor divisor of 5, and TL 12 around an armor divisor of 10 (later improvements break this, immediately leaping into making all armor useless; you might instead use Armor Divisor 20, 30, 50 and then 100, if you wanted to continue the same sequence).

We can also see some interesting balance options in place around combat. For example, GURPS Ultra-Tech includes multiple forms of damage. At TL 10, one can access gauss weapons, which have an impressive armor divisor of 3 and deal piercing damage, while lasers are less impressive with armor divisor 2 on their burning damage, and one can load HEMP into relatively small weapons, improve your armor divisor to 10 using an explosive shell. Obviously, the last is the best against well armored targets, while lasers are laughably weak (though lasers have other benefits), but different forms of armor offer different protections. One can add reactive armor to almost anything, which greatly reduces the effectiveness of HEMP rounds; nanoweave armor has improved DR vs piercing attacks, reducing the damage of gauss, while reflective armor reduces the damage of lasers. We can shape the gameplay of the setting by making certain weapons fairly common and commonly defended against while making others more exotic or removing their counters entirely: for example, if everyone uses bullets and explosives, then nanoweave and reactive armor will be common, while if reflective armor is disallowed, then lasers might be especially devastating on the battlefield. One can perform similar tricks at higher TLs by defining how force screens work, what they defend against, etc.

We can also add accessories to our combat "mini-game." For example, personal radar adds a +3 to hit your target, and if you have decent sensors you can easily pick your target out, and with sufficient firepower, destroy them. "If I can see them, they are dead" might be a tactical maxim... but what if you cannot see them? Stealth options like invisibility surfaces, radar stealth and IR cloaking might make you especially difficult to detect, and distortion ECM allows you to spoof your enemy. However, using radar to detect your opponent might give away your position, which means that commando-type characters might engage in a game of electronic cat and mouse, while hulking "tank"-type characters can largely afford to ignore the whole mess if they have sufficient armor to soak the alpha strike of a commando and return fire, giving you a mess of interesting possible tactical options, both within combat, and outside of it.

But what about non-combat arenas? What about focusing our game on computer hacking, viral warfare, the solving of cosmic mysteries, or protecting people from psychic incursions by an elder race. In principle, you apply the same ideas. While I personally recoil from the idea of “social combat,” thinking of various fields as “forms of combat” is a good first step as you can begin by translating familiar mechanical frameworks into a new framework. Unfortunately, these sorts of things often don’t translate well as combat and need an alternative approach. Pyramid #3/21 has an extensive article on hacking, and GURPS Mysteries contains plenty of ideas on how to tackle mysteries of various sorts (though with a focus on murder mysteries); GURPS Monster Hunters also has an interesting research/investigation framework; After the End looks at survival and repair in great detail; Social Engineering gives you the tools you need for social “combat.” Beyond these, you’ll have to do your own homework and find inspiration where you can.

Ultra-Tech has less support for non-combat arenas of interesting mechanics than it does for combat (though it has pretty good support for survival and spycraft). Ultimately, to provide an interesting array of gadgets for a non-combat arena, we'll need to modify existing gadgets, or create our own, and we'll need to do it in such a way that we support an interesting diversity of strategies.

I find a lot of people struggle when it comes to an interesting diversity of strategies. An easy way to think of it is to contemplate various “character classes,” each representing a different approach to the core activity (these can be metaphorical: you don’t need to create specific templates, though people often do). This, like most of the best things in gaming, can be fractal and often are, so within a “class” you might have a variety of tactics, and within those “sub-classes” you might have a variety of tactics and so on. You can go as deep as you like, though I find many games get by fine with a single layer and few go deeper than 3 layers. You can add further complexity by adding new “modes,” which allows a character to approach a given strategy with different concerns, resources and themes, not so much altering his approach to a given tactic, but how he enacts that tactic.

As a start, let me propose a simple “sample” framework of 3 and then a “sample” framework of 5.

Once you choose a rough strategy framework, sketch out how it might look, how players will interface with it, and how they'll encounter choices and how those choices will be presented to them. I try to picture myself playing the game and ask myself why I would choose a particular path, or how I would deal with a particular problem. Try to avoid the trap of making "right or wrong" choices, or situations where if a player chooses a particular path, he finds himself facing insurmountable or excessively easy problems. Ideally, a players strategy should represent a mode of play, which each choice changing how the player interacts with the game.

The Dungeon Crawling Framework

If you play any sort of dungeon crawling game, either tabletop or computer, then you'll readily recognize three archetypal strategies that come up over and over again, remixed in various forms: the Fighter, the Thief and the Mage. If you imagine those archetypal concepts converting into other genres, it might be easy to see what sort of gear such a character might choose and how they might try to use that gear, and then build your gear accordingly.

The Fighter Strategy: At its core, the fighter strategy is any one that focuses on what is obviously useful, and maxes it out at the expense of everything else. In combat, this might be damage and armor, while in a hacking game, this might be brute forcing passwords while having the best possible firewalls. You can diversify Fighter Strategies by including multiple forms of the "obvious solution." For example, you can have multiple forms of damage and multiple forms of armor to protect it, so we might have bullet-specialized fighters, beam-specialized fighters, and explosive specialized fighters.

The Rogue Strategy: At its core, the rogue strategy is one that focuses on secondary concerns and lateral thinking to use skill and cleverness to defeat the obvious solution, often through technicalities. In a fighting game, this might use mobility, stealth and awareness to avoid taking damage by never allowing an opponent to reach you where you are vulnerable, and maneuvering yourself so you can strike at your opponent's vulnerable points. In hacking, this might involve researching software exploits unique to the target, tricking people into downloading software that creates backdoors, infecting networks, and hiding your tracks so nobody traces you to strike back. If we want greater diversity of rogue strategies, we create more secondary traits and more lateral avenues of attack; for example, our combat scenario might have stealth/awareness and mobility technology as well as armor that tends to favor one direction over another, and electronic warfare and hacking tricks that allow someone to "shut down" their opponent in some way as well as disrupt their targeting.

The Mage Strategy: At its core, a Mage Strategy is anyone that forces a frame-switch, using some form of limited trick to engage your opponent in some arena other than the standard one in which he is used to fighting in, pulling him into an area where you have an advantage. In D&D, of course, this involves using one-off magic tricks that can only be easily resisted with specialized traits or abilities, or that force your opponent into unexpected win/lose conditions (the classic example being save-or-die spells, but something similar to a mental duel or a curse that needs a special quest to break might also qualify). In a hacking mini-game, this might involve something like using electrokinesis to directly control computers, or defeating your opponent without using a computer at all (tracking them down the old fashioned way and putting a bullet in their rig, or them). If we want diversity of mage strategies, we include multiple possible frame-shifts into new arenas. For our space combat example, we might include psychics, bio-technological terror weapons, and memetic viruses (the hacking example above might also qualify).

The most common means of applying a “mode” in the dungeon fantasy model is with races, the most common being “elf,” “dwarf” and “human,” with elves typically having greater speed and intelligence so attempting to achieve the above three strategies with finesse (elven fighters look like swashbucklers; elven rogues and mages tend to look as we expect), while dwarves typically have greater strength and durability and so “tough out” the three strategies above (dwarven fighters look more like “knights,” while dwarven rogues might look more like engineering and dwarven mages might use their powerful stores of willpower and endurance to cast big, powerful spells, or to work with long-term runic enchantments), while humans typically have greater versatility and so can afford to specialize more deeply in their chosen strategy.

Alternate examples of modes in a combat-oriented game might be different technological bases: we might have cyber-tech assault troopers and commandos (using power armor and bullets), bio-tech assault troopers and commandos (using bio-mecha and poisons), and psychotronic assault troopers and commandos (using pyschokinetic armor and crystal-generated beams). This is, incidentally, one of the mode-themes of Starcraft! For a hacking example, the platform on which the character bases his rig on, or the target server is based on; a real world example (to over simplify) might be Windows machines vs Apple or Linux machines (though this is a little deceptive as Apple and Linux are more closely related than many people realize); games like Netrunner might offer additional inspirations.

The Five Color Strategies

In principle, one can draw inspiration from any number of familiar or unfamiliar games. You could use the five elements of Doaism, or the four elements of Western mysticism. You go with something as simple as Rock Paper Scissors, or look at the rock-scissors-paper within rock-scissors-paper of the surprisingly complex Pokemon for inspiration. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy as emergent themes of Holy vs Unholy and Natural vs Eldritch that you can play with.

Magic the Gathering is a fairly well-known strategy framework, and can also serve as inspiration for your own game design. White strategies involve patience, defense, and making use of mundane solutions well. Green strategies involve maximizing any desirable traits and creating monstrous offense/defense combos that can overpower a foe, but may prove unwieldy. Red strategies involve rapid mobility, quick strikes and offense over everything, creating a glass cannon. Black strategies involve self-sacrifice, and enormous power at a tainted cost, and much of the strategy involves accessing powerful-but-flawed tricks and then either trying to mitigate the flaw or turning it into an advantage. Blue strategies involve defeating your opponent on technicalities, precision and frame-shifts, similar to the mage strategy above.

Hackers using a framework inspired by magic might have the following strategies.

  • Green hackers might have more powerful computers and deeper integration into the internet-as-the-internet. They might have access to AI-in-development, allowing their programs to “learn” and improve over time.

  • Red hackers might have dangerously destructive programs that give them an enormous edge over their opponents but at a risk of burning out their own computer, and may have the capacity to do physical damage to other computers.

  • Black hackers use very destructive exploits that more blatantly violate the law than the rest, often including viruses and bot-nets stolen from others. They make hacking harder for everyone. They excel at turning your computer against itself.

  • Blue hackers have a detailed knowledge of the intricacies of the entire network; they often know of old, outdated architectures that many backbone systems still run on, allowing them to finesse their way through security. They also excel at hiding their presence.

  • White hackers have detailed security knowledge and may well work as security. They excel at defending their own computers and networking with other hackers. They, however, have almost exclusively legal or semi-legal software.

Customizing Gear

Once you understand how your “gameplay framework” works, you’ll need to make sure that you have sufficient technology to handle a variety of strategies, allowing you to create diverse gameplay. Ultra-Tech, being generic, has highly generic technology in it, and has a limited ability to anticipate your choice. However, you can adjust your framework to take advantage of existing gear within the book. GURPS Ultra-Tech has quite a diversity of infiltration, detection and combat gear. It also has interesting strategies built into their microbot swarms, cybernetics and nano-tech. If you're willing to expand your collection, Bio-Tech and Psi-Tech offer some pretty diverse options too! If Ultra-Tech lacks the technology you look for (for example, it defines very little in the way of computer security or hacking), then you’ll need to build your own gear.

This is where I find most people panic. They don't have a proper gear-designing book. Vehicles 4e is vaporware and there's no easy way to look up gear stats on wikipedia. So what can you do? Well, first, you can modify existing gadgets, or you can create your own wholecloth.

Creating your Own Gear

At the prospect of creating their own gear, many people freeze up, lacking a context, a system by which create said gear. To compensate for this, allow me to reveal for you the Ultra-Tech design system: They mostly make it up.

The truth is that we cannot know for sure what a futuristic device does, how it works, or how efficient it will be. So we make guesses or, in the case of super-science stuff, apply arbitrary values. We can acquire these arbitrary values from a few interesting places.

We can convert real-world vehicles from real-world values, after a quick trip to wikipedia and a few basic conversion tricks that are either commonly known, or easily picked up. A similar trick can be done with sci-fi gadgets. For hard sci-fi, we can look to real world physics, prototypes, and back-of-the-envelope calculations. A good place to start for these are Atomic Rockets, anything by Luke Campbell, or the videos of Isaac Arthur. For super-science gadgets, most series include technical volumes or wikis where such numbers as weight and effectiveness can be found or at least extrapolated.

But are these values actually "correct," per GURPS, given how GURPS works? I see this sort of question asked a lot, or at least implied. For example, are Star Destroyers "actually" a mile long? Do tricorders really work the way Star Trek describe? The answer is "yes and yes." Of course, some people argue that these numbers or values are "ridiculous" and more realistic numbers would be such and such; if you feel that way, use those numbers. If you must adhere to a system, use the metatronic generator rules: create the device, find the cost, and determine the cost as per those rules.

Many people have this sense that GURPS has this coherent system lurking behind its rules, and to be sure, it has a more coherent system than most other games, but it's far from a true physics engines that our little minds have merely failed to grasp. For example, the numbers for fusion generators in GURPS Spaceships suggest that, pound for pound, they are about twice as efficient as fission reactors, but GURPS Ultra-Tech suggests, pound for pound, that fusion is 10 to 100 times as effective. The force screens of ultra-tech are far more effective than they should be, given the values given in Spaceships, and you cannot replicate hardsuits with the new armor design rules. In short, GURPS isn't entirely coherent with itself. There may be numerous reasons for this, but it's also not important. What matters is not that your game is "coherent" with GURPS, but that it is coherent with itself.

Focus on ensuring that your system is balanced, that values make sense given what you want, and if you're concerned about mingling your own gadgets with GURPS gadgets, take those into consideration too.

Modifying Existing Gear

These modifications can be added to just about any gadget that has both a specified cost and weight (i.e., not software, drugs, etc.) – GURPS Ultra-Tech page 15, Integrating and Modifying Gadgets
Alternatively, you can take existing gadgets and apply changes to them.

The largest concern here is typically balance; after all, Pulver designed what he did for a reason, right? Well, as established above, I don’t actually believe this to be true. For example, if you allow all countermeasures to exist, TL 10 lasers are pretty easy to defeat, while TL 10 slugthrowers with the ETC option and TL 10 ammunition is pretty lethal and hard to beat. Ultimately, Ultra-Tech is necessarily arbitrary, and built around a fairly generic concept of “balance,” and so may not work for your specific needs, so I wouldn’t count on Ultra-Tech to do your balancing for you. You’ll need to carefully balance your own technology, especially if you want your framework to be especially compelling.

Still, a few benchmarks for balance might be handy, and Ultra-Tech serves as a good foundation for your design. For example, you don’t need to throw out all the weapons of gadgets of Ultra-Tech and start from scratch. You can use them as a jumping-off point. Instead of making new weapons, use the weapons that exist in Ultra-Tech and build variations. If you need new robots, take existing ones and tweak them. Ultra-Tech already has numerous options for doing just this, including making devices more attractive, more rugged, lighter, pricing tools based on quality, integrating additional gadgets into them, etc. Ultra-Tech also includes more unusual options scattered through the book, such as making them out of Smart Bioplastic (UT 170), Living Metal (UT 171) or Memory Metal to give it multiple “modes” (UT 97). Ultra-Tech began as a device design book, and only later converted to a catalog of read-to-use technology, thus most of the devices were built for your modifications. Furthermore, if you’re willing to look into new books, you can use Psychotronics from Psi-Tech, or Bio-Gadget options from Bio-Tech to further customize your gear.

If the tools Ultra-Tech offers are insufficient, you’ll have to adjust technology on your own. The easiest way to do this is to make trade-offs on whatever aspects of technology you have available. All gadgets have a weight and a cost; software has cost and complexity (and memory storage, though GURPS doesn’t get into this much); robots have a traits, point costs and dollar costs, as do cybernetics. Weapons have their weapon stat-line, and vehicles have their vehicular stat-line. All items might have a legality rating, which can change too.

Generic gadgets have very few things they can really change. Most have some measure of effectiveness that you can mess with (for example, a lockpick allows you to pick locks; a better lockpick might grant a +1, +2 or +TL/2), and they also often have power requirements. Cost, weight and power requirements all highly depend on the broader context you’re balancing the devices around. Power requirements will generally be a largely cosmetic concern; weight matters most for encumbrance (though if we include “size” in weight, whether or not the device is an effective holdout can represent an interesting option to play with), and cost mostly matters for budget. If you need more points on which to vary a gadget, you can simply create more. For example, if you need a wide variety of lockpicks, you can include a wide variety of locks; type A lockpicks might only pick type A locks, or might have a bonus to pick them; type C lockpicks might be able to pick type A and type B locks, but be too large to easily fit into your pocket, while type D lockpicks gain a big bonus to pick any locks but burn out when they’re done, making them “one shot.”

Software works largely like generic gadgets, except complexity and/or memory requirements replace weight as the limit on “how much you can carry,” and this naturally depends on the sort of computers available. A complexity 5 program is “heavy” if you only have complexity 5 computers, enormous if most people can only access Complexity 4 computers (you’ll need special computer options then) and inconsequential if everyone has access to Complexity 7 computers. Complexity ultimately determines how many programs someone can run, so an interesting conceit is to worry about computer memory and how many computer programs one can fit onto a computer, and also worry about how many a character can run. For example, a complexity 4 computer can only run two complexity 4 programs, but perhaps it can store 10, so you can swap out what 2 programs you’re running. Of course, while we’re modifying gadgets, nothing stops you from changing how complexity and memory works. You need to know how many programs a character can acesss and how many he can use. If you want this to matter, but you want different values than the default values offered in Ultra-Tech, change them. Or, of course, you can ignore them if they don’t interest you and focus on other things that matter.

Robots and Cybernetics are, perhaps, the easiest to modify, and the most self-balancing. Just build new a new template. Use whatever pricing you feel appropriate (in many campaigns, players will purchase robots and cybernetics exclusively with points, so it won’t matter). You can include additional concerns here, like power-drain or “humanity loss” as you see fit, but you’re on your own for balance concerns (a suggestion for power drain, though is to treat power as fatigue points and price the cost of power drain around fatigue costs). Demi Benson’s “Living Better with Cybernetics” in Pyramid #3/51 “Tech and Toys III” also offers some interesting insights into the thought processes behind cybernetics, and if you’re willing to dive into older works, GURPS Robots from 3e and Reign of Steel offer interesting ideas and technological concepts for building your robots around.

Weapons and armor have complex statlines around which to balance them. In general, damage should be balanced around DR. If you allow more than 20 damage in with a typical shot, then that attack is lethal. If the armor provides 6 DR (times the armor divisor of the attack) for every die of damage, then it’s completely invulnerable to the attack. Understanding this, you can play around with the values as you see fit, and add additional considerations (even impenetrable armor can be defeated if it has gaps…). You can also apply arbitrary values against specific forms of damage; Ultra-Tech certainly does this with things like Beam Adapted Armor (UT 190) and Electro-magnetic armor (UT 187); while no special option exists for piercing penetrators, like bullets, armor like Reflex or Nanoweave provides more protection against those forms of attacks than others, so you can really justify armor that’s better against any specific form of attack that you want.

Beyond damage, you have a whole statline you can play with. Christopher Rice breaks this down nicely in “It’s a Threat” in Pyramid #3/77 “Combat.” While this is geared towards Dungeon Fantasy, we can still make some loose observations. A point of accuracy is worth about as much as a point of damage, so they can be traded back and forth. Rate of fire is worth a multiple of damage provided it applies a bonus, which means roughly every +4 ROF is worth is worth about the same as doubling your damage. I would avoid altering recoil except in extreme cases (it tends to be driven by the physics of the weapon). Weight and ST have a close relationship with one another, and altering ST is worth a little less than accuracy (it affects skill, but only situationally); bulk has a similar relationship. Number of shots isn’t terribly important, and weight or cost can be modified quite liberally. Naturally, beam weapons have their own design system in Pyramid #3/37 “Tech & Toys II”

Most people hesitate to touch Vehicles because of the lack of GURPS Vehicles for the new edition, and I can certainly appreciate this position, as it’s one I hold myself, but you can treat vehicle statlines the way you would treat weapons. For example, if your main concern is the Action chase rules, +1 handling is roughly equal to +1 to chase rolls gained from speed, so any speed change worth +1 is close to the same value as +1 handling. I would be cautious messing with stability rating, but +1 or -1 is not out of the question, and worth about the same as handling. The same goes for size modifiers. Endurance is largely cosmetic and can be messed with as you please. Cargo is a slightly greater concern, but should be no problem to change by 10-20%. “Cargo” can also be seen as “spare space” in which you can place other gadgets, if you want to add things like force screens, pop-up weapons or distortion chips. You can use GURPS Spaceships to “build vehicles,” but I suggest caution here, as it plays poorly with non-SS-designed weapons, and can lead to some really weird results. I personally have better results taking existing vehicles and modifying them.

You needn’t limit your modifications to GURPS Ultra-Tech either. If there’s an existing technology that’s very close, you can borrow it and “tech it up.” For example, many of the weapons from Star Wars are drawn directly from real-world weapons, with a few gadgets slapped on and shooting blaster bolts rather than bullets. You could probably take those real-world weapons and swap out the piercing stat for tight-beam burning and give them an armor divisor of 5 and most people probably wouldn’t know the difference. Likewise, you can probably take real-world vehicles and apply some slightly different technologies to them (for example, removing the rotor from a helicopter gunship and replacing it with contragravity, and replacing its weapons with ultra-tech weapons of a similar weight) and use the resulting stat-line without too many problems. If your intent with your sci-fi game isn’t “to explore the implications of technology,” then realistic depictions of that technology are not a priority; it’s often the case that GMs want to mimic a particular genre (swashbuckling pirates, only IN SPAAACE; WW2, only IN SPAAACE!); if that’s so, starting with the gear of that genre and then adding some ultra-tech wizardry to it already takes you a pretty long way to getting nicely customized gadgetry.

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