Friday, March 1, 2019

Buckets of Technology: A Proposed Solution to Tech vs Character Points

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I've been working with Ultra-Tech settings in GURPS for a long time.  Some, like Psi-Wars, you've seen. A lot, like Resplendent Star Empire, G-Verse, Protocols of the Dark Engine, and Heroes of the Galactic Frontier, have only been hinted at here on this blog.  Many of these lean towards heroic, even super-heroic, sci-fi and space-opera, and thus have high point totals and as a result, I've often come across a problem that anyone who has attempted to run Ultra-Tech settings with high-powered characters has: the value of technology does not match the value of character points.

Available technology, like magic or other inherent elements of the setting, are simply there for characters to pick up and use. They may require some training (represented by skill), unusual backgrounds (like Margery or High TL, if these setting elements are difficult to access), or purchase with money (if you can't just steal it or it isn't universally available), but none of these really cost much in the way of character points, rarely more than 50 for the most expensive or weirdest of things, and most often on the order of 1-5 character points, or even nothing.  How much this matters depends on the tech level.  A TL 3 character can start freely with a sword, while an ultra-tech character can start with a disintegrator pistol.  The problem only arises when we attempt to build a character who has an inherent ability similar to the application of technology.  A TL 3 character might have claws, granting him damage similar to a sword, which might cost him 5-10 points, while a character with a stare that instantly kills a target or disintegrates whatever he sees might cost him hundreds of points.  Both of these are fine in the TL 3 setting (a fantasy character who can destroy you with a glance is definitely a super-heroic character), but cause problems in an ultra-tech setting: the claws are useless and the disintegrating stare, while useful, can be matched pretty easily with a purchase that a character can have with his starting budget.  Why spend hundreds of points on traits like these when you can just have them "for free?"

The answer to that question is typically "Because it fits the world."  Consider Marines vs Bugs, where a marine and bug are meant to be roughly on par with one another, both capable of inflicting serious harm upon the other at roughly similar scales, but one does so with technology (purchased with a modest budget) and the other innate traits (purchased with literally hundreds of points).  Alien, cyborgs and psychics all feature prominently in sci-fi, but in most cases, a player would be better off investing his points in better gear and the training necessary to use that gear rather than in cybernetics, alien abilities or psychic powers.  This, then, is the crux of the Tech vs CP problem, and it often stymies a lot of Ultra-Tech games.

In today's post, I'd like to briefly touch on a variety of solutions I've either used or seen proposed, and then I'll dive into my most recent solution and the one I like best: Buckets of Technology.

Other Solutions

Every time I discuss this particular problem with friends or the internet, someone inevitably brings up their own personal solutions or thoughts, which is one way you know that this is a widespread problem, but it also means I would be remiss to not bring up at least some of the solutions, as it highlights how people feel about the problem, and what thoughts they bring (the comments will, doubtless, include a few more).

Solution 0: Problem? What Problem?

Solution: Use the Rules as Written

The most common approach I've seen to this issue is to just sweep it under the rug.  The GM simply runs the game "as written," and those who buy tech-like traits are simply screwed.  The net result, in my experience, is either a "newbie trap," where someone thinks it'll be cool to dump 200 points into ST and cybernetic armor, only to be out-done by the guy in power-armor, or players carefully learn not to spend any points on traits if they can avoid it. The GM who does not think this through while creating racial templates may be surprised when nobody wants to invest in high ST races or characters with sensory abilities.

Solution 1: Tip-toe Around The Problem

This solution seems to be the most popular among those who recognize the issue: first, realize that the problem exists, and then carefully build your world around the problem:

Solution: Use the Rules as Written, but carefully pick and choose what traits you offer, and give character-point traits an advantage over technological gadgetry.  Avoid technology that replicates character abilities. Use Accessories and Weapon Mounts when you can't avoid a conflict.

The first thing to understand about character points vs tech is that, in principle, traits you invest character points into are fundamentally different than technology.  You have a greater degree of control over the ability, people cannot take it away from you (or even detect that it exists), and you might be able to do things with character traits that you cannot with technology.  Furthermore, you can limit technology to prevent too much overlap with character-point abilities.  Finally, when you absolutely must have an inbuilt trait that perfectly reflects technology, use Accessory or Weapon Mount.

The notion that you can do more with character-point-based traits is not necessarily true.  After all, you can buy character traits with the gadget limitation and, say, cybernetics or psychic powers can be both detected and "Taken away from you" or deactivated in some way.  The trick to this, though, is to avoid such things and play up where character traits might have an advantage.  For example, there's very little technology that can replicate Prognostication or Telepathy (at least when it comes to reading minds).  If you introduce technology that imitates these (such as computers that are able to accurately predict future events, or neural-comm technology), you should realize that the relative value of these traits go down.  You can also play up ideas like Extra-Effort with character traits, or defaulting to other traits to gain more utility out of the character points spent.

When it comes to traits that obviously replicate technology, like Hyperspectral Vision vs Hyperspectral Contacts, or an implanted radio vs a radio in your hands, consider the Accessory trait.  That is, after all, precisely what it's there for.  The ability to start a fire with the flick of a hand is quite a trick for a fantasy character, but barely a perk at TL 8.  Likewise, communicating across the vast gulf between stars is quite a trick at TL 8, but a perk at TL 12^.  Similarly, rather than buying a blast, you can purchase a weapon mount and simply attach an existing weapon to the mount.

This approach works in that it requires very few changes to the setting.  Psi-Wars more-or-less uses it.  It has problems, though.  You really can't do anything about ST or DR, and it locks you into certain concepts and ideas (a cybernetic radio might be fine as an accessory, but what about a biological neuro-comm that only works with other members of your species?), which can artificially shape your setting away from super-powered characters and towards favoring "cheap" technology. You're forced to constantly be on guard against noob traps.  It works, but it's not very satisfying.

Incidentally, this is the solution I've used for Psi-Wars.

Solution 2: Tech as Points

This is probably the next most common one tossed at me when I bring up the problem:

Solution: Players do not purchase tech with $, only with character points.  Every blaster, every bit of power armor, is purchased with the gadget limitation.

The core problem here is that we're using two different "purchasing" systems, and they have different "rates:" Technology is cheap, traits are expensive.  Ergo, if you remove the difference between the two systems (everything costs points or, in one variant proposed for Transhuman Space, everything costs dollars), you remove the problem.  Incidentally, Magic has similar problems to technology, and Sorcery exists as a similar sort of solution: you cannot pay a point to get a fireball, but instead you must buy it as a trait!

The problem here is not that it doesn't work, because it absolutely does.  The problem is instead in the bookwork involved.  You need to cost literally every item a character takes, or will take, or could reasonably take. Without that easily at hand, that's an insurmountable obstacle for all but the most devoted GMs. Second, every time a character drops an item or picks up one, or runs to the ship's armoury to grab a phaser rifle to repel boarders, you need to change their point totals, and this last really highlights what the actual core problem with all of this is: you can literally go to an armoury to get an upgrade, or break into a gun store to walk away with a hundred points of advantages.  Technology exists in the world, and it's readily accessible.  Therefore, while it balances the guy with the phaser rifle against the guy with the disintegrating stare, it doesn't fix the fact that anyone can run to the armoury to get their own phaser rifle.

I find this solution works best in settings where the technology tends to be sharply limited and characters rarely change loadout.  Supers tend to be an excellent example of this, where pricing Iron Man's suits or Spider-Man's webbing with character points makes a lot of sense. Yes, in principle, Iron Man could give a suit to every Avenger, but he doesn't.  Yes, in principle Spider-Man could just buy a gun, but he doesn't.  Often, it's not worth a hero's time or energy to even bother to do so, and even when it is, genre constraints push against it.

Solution 3: Reprice Traits

Many see the problem as that character traits are often too expensive.  The biggest culprit here is ST, but it can apply to other traits.  On a more extreme level, some systems reprice certain traits based on tech level.  After all, the ability to throw a fireball or have 10 innate DR is priceless at TL 0-3, but modest at TL 8, and worthless at TL 12^, thus these abilities should be priced based on their value.  Psi-Wars does this with DR and Innate Attack for these very reasons!

The problem here is the same problem with all House Rules: it divorces you from the support of the rest of the game, and from communicating with the rest of the community.  When asking questions or discussing some point about your campaign with people, you must first stop and highlight all the little rule changes you've created, and people must understand them to offer suggestions or ideas. Similarly, with each new book that comes out, you may need to go in and retroactively apply your new rule atop it to fix it.

That said, applied as a gentle bandage to a few traits, this isn't so bad and not especially difficult, and it acknowledges the problem on a fundamental level.

Buckets of Technology: A Proposed Solution

Hacking the System: My initial Inspiration

Permit me a brief detour, wherein I explain how I came to this realization.

One setting I'd very much like to explore someday is "Cyberscape," a cyberpunk setting featuring hacking.  The problem with hackers in most cyberpunk settings should be well-known to anyone who plays Shadowrun: the hacker "exists" in a parallel world to most non-hackers.  You get two different, parallel streams of gameplay, so where the cyber-samurai and gun-toting thug are rolling initiative to fight the baddies, the hacker twiddles his thumbs for the duration of the fight, and then when they get to the door they need the hacker to defeat, they twiddle their thumbs while he fights off ICE and decrypts code gates, etc.  My solution to this has generally been: pick what you want your game to be about and make it about that.  For Psi-Wars (and Action) things like hacking are incidental and done with a single roll, thus keeping the focus on gunplay and chase-scenes, where Action wants gameplay to be.  We could go in the other direction and make the game entirely about hacking, like GURPS Cabal does with wizardry.  All the characters would be hackers of some stripe, and all the gameplay would turn on their hacking.  Thus, we have no "divided" gameplay.

This creates a problem, though.  The balance between traits in a traditional cyberpunk game is built upon the need to use all traits for gameplay. Yes, the hacker needs to be smart and know how to use computers, but this is balanced by the fact that people will be shooting bullets at one another regularly, so they avoid taking Dodge or DX at their peril.  Another character can differentiate themselves from the hacker by specializing in the physical world. If everyone is a hacker, then suddenly IQ and computer skills become vastly more valuable than everything else.  Suddenly, if your group is smart, you have a bevy of anti-social, sickly basement dwellers with IQ 20 and Computer Skills in the 30s.

I was stumped as to how to encourage players to maybe be willing to play the pretty hacker, or the hardy hacker, or the dextrous hacker.  I could introduce some physical elements, but it becomes a gamble: what are the chances that your hacker will need to escape a gunfight, or seduce an engineer?  In a sense, we do have two parallel worlds and two parallel gameplay "boxes," it's just that everyone should be able to interact with both.  Everyone must be able to handle the hacker world more or less equally (but differently), and Everyone must be able to handle the physical world more or less equally (but differently).  Maybe every 200 point character has 100 points ear-marked for the physical world, and 100-points for the hacking-world.

It's a shame that many people don't see Pyramid as a fundamental part of GURPS because it's absolutely shaped my games, and SJGames themselves see it as "canon" or "RAW," at least to the same extent they see any rules options, and Sean Punch, Doctor Kromm himself, actually tackled this exact problem in Buckets of Points in Pyramid #3/65: Alternate GURPS III.

This article is the central component to bridging the divide between character points and technology.

Buckets of Points in Theory and Practice

The first step in coming to grips with this problem is to examine its roots. One source of trouble is character abilities the GM has difficulty controlling. Another is capabilities that are underpriced, in general or for a specific campaign. Unfortunately, the surest way to address these issues is to examine each trait and decide whether to permit it as written, allow it at a different point cost (e.g., by tacking on an Unusual Background), or ban it outright – a laborious process! And as prohibited options might be essential to perfectly good character concepts, the must GM also hear player appeals, adding to the workload. -- Sean Punch, Buckets of Points

Obviously, I don't want to spoil the entire article, but I'll need to get into some level of detail to discuss what we're trying to do here, and the article is more theory than practice, thus once it's explained, there's not much left to the article.  Even so, I do encourage you to take a look. There's certainly more than I'll talk about here, which will be one specific application: dealing with the tech disparity.

The core idea here is to identify separate elements of gameplay that you want to give special emphasis to, and break both the game down into those elements, and the characters into those elements.  My hacker example is pretty ideal.  We have two sides to the game: the hacker side, and the physical side, so we can break our traits down into these two camps and give them unique budgets: 100 points of "physical" traits and 100 points of "hacker" traits.  Characters can express these however they like (one hacker is physically pretty, another is physically strong, while one hacker might be an amazing decrypter and program-designer, and the other might be a master at handling viruses and social engineering their way into a system), but they must have traits in both worlds.

The core of the Technological vs Character Points is often similar.  We only really need it in specific genres; others don't really care that much about it.  For example, a typical "Marines vs Bugs" sort of scenario, if pcs are always marines, doesn't really care that much about technological character traits.  Corporal Dyson is unlikely to have cybernetics or psychic powers; instead, he's going to have gear and all of his character traits are going to focus on being good with that gear.  He's really no different than a TL 8 marine, except for the equipment that he carries.  We need it in fundamentally transhuman genres, like cyberpunk or certain flavors of super-heroic space opera, where technology or strange powers or biologies make characters fundamentally superior to the average person.  At the same time, this is often paired with characters being skilled in technology: we have pilots and gunners and space captains, but some are cyborgs, some are psychic and some are aliens.  Here, we see a clear parallel with the hacker scenario: we have two worlds that characters inhabit, their physical, "super-heroic" action world of DR, ST and innate attacks, and the "sci-fi" world of technological skill and intelligence.  Just as with the hacker scenario, we can split these into two buckets, say, 100 points of technological/problem-solving skills and 100 points of cybernetics, psychic powers or alien advantages.

Balancing the Transhuman and the Pulp Hero

 The assumption up to this point is that each bucket of points is firewalled from every other – that players can’t shuffle points between categories. This doesn’t have to be the case! It may be that some or all points can move around but don’t have the same buying power everywhere. This let the GM tailor the “exchange rates” hinted at earlier. --Sean Punch, Buckets of Points

"But what about the guy who's just really good at his job and doesn't have cybernetics or alien biology?  Captain Kirk and Spock are both awesome, but Spock has all of these alien advantages, while Kirk has the 'human heart.' How do you handle that?"

So here we return to the crux of our problem.  We can acknowledge that if everyone is equally transhuman, that the problem goes away, but not every character wants to be transhuman.  Consider the case of a space marine teaming up with a killer cyborg.  The marine has power-armor and a big gun and is effectively as strong and tough as the killer cyborg, but the killer cyborg is worth a good 500 points while the marine is worth 200 points, and is equally effective.  They're balanced in one sense (their effectiveness is largely the same), but not in another (their point costs are wildly different); if we brought their point costs into alignment (say, by giving the marine an additional 300 points in super-luck, DX, HT and gun skills), then we've lost the first balance.  On the other hand, if we force the marine to purchase transhuman advantages, the point of him "just being a dude in power-armor" disappears, and we're back to square one.

The answer are exchange rates.  An advantage purchased with the "technological skills pool" has more value than an advantage purchased with the "transhuman" pool.  If this sounds a lot to you like just discounting the technological advantages, you're not wrong.  Ultimately, that's what we have to do, but buckets of points makes what you're doing more explicit, as well as the point totals and how what you've done interfaces with the rest of GURPS.  If the Cyborg has 400/100 and the Marine has 0/200 points, then you have a clearer indication to everyone involved what's really going on here than if you said that the Marine and the Cyborg are both 200 points (but with the cyborg's traits discounted in some way).

Deciding on Pools and Exchange Rates

Once you've decided to use the Buckets system, the question is how to divide the points and what sort of exchange rate to give.  I have no easy answer for this, alas, as it depends on your campaign, but the core answer is this: if it's available as a technology, you should probably put it in the "tech" pool; if it affects your ability to use technology, it should probably go in the "skill" pool.  Another, simple variation might be to say that all alien templates, powers, cybernetics and genetic augmentation come from your "transhuman" pool, and everything else comes from your "natural" pool.  This latter one makes ST or IQ purchased via templates or augmentation "cheaper" than those gained "the hard way," but I'm not convinced that's a problem, especially if you keep it under control.

The next question is how to handle the exchange rate.  Again, that depends on your campaign and its assumptions.  A good place to start is to figure out what a character who had gear as an advantage would cost, and compare it to someone who purchased it with money would cost, and try to find a reasonable balance between the two. The surest way to do this is to price traits and compare them to how someone would get them as gear, and then make decisions.  Ultimately, this is art, not science, and you can set the ratio to whatever you like, understanding that rational players will begin to interact with it in a rational way.  If you set it to a very extreme value (100 to 1), then rational players will always favor character points over gear; if you set it to the other extreme (1:1), then rational players will favor gear over character points.  The question is where you want the break-point to be.

My own experience with it (and, disclaimer, I've not had much!) suggests that a good and intuitive break-point is around the same price as a typical armor divisor for the tech level:
  •   TL 9: 2:1
  • TL 10: 3:1
  • TL 11: 5:1
  • TL 12: 10:1
Psi-Wars more or less uses the 5:1 value for modifying innate attacks and damage resistance, for example.  If I run a game using this model, I'll update this list if my experience changes.

Eating your Own Dogfood

Would I use this in my own space opera settings?  Well, to be honest, the reason I came up with it at all is because I've been struggling with how to include power-armored characters and super-aliens in a space opera game like Heroes of the Galactic Frontier, which is where I plan on rolling this out.  I'm not sure I'd use this with Psi-Wars.  It might fix a lot of problems in Psi-Wars, especially for aliens like not-Wookies or cyborgs.  The problem with Psi-Wars, though, is that its psychic powers and Communion have been heavily built around the idea that they need to balance with extreme technology, and I've carefully controlled what technology I allow (Space Opera in the vein of Psi-Wars tends not to be especially transhuman).

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