Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Abstract Wealth in Psi-Wars - Wisdom of the Pyramids

So, recently I touched on Gear in GURPS, wherein I discussed my thoughts on how genre and gear interact.  This matters because Psi-Wars is a different sort of genre than what GURPS, by default, handles well with its gear.  This isn't a problem.  One of the reasons we build campaign frameworks is to adjust the rules of the game to better support our genre.  This is why GURPS is generic and universal because it offers support for a variety of play-styles, but we need to highlight what those differences are.

Psi-Wars emphasizes social status and wealth. Like many Space Opera settings, it revels in the travails of the poor and emphasizes the grandeur of the wealthy.  It has a positively feudal wealth disparity!  Thus wealth should matter.  However, it tends to matter narratively.  Both sorts of characters have interesting story hooks that arise from their position.  The wealthy often don't have to deal with things that poor characters do need to deal with (such as where their next meal is coming from, or how to afford a gift for that girl whose eye you want to catch), but these problems can usually be overcome with clever gameplay or good skills.  Skill, broadly, should matter more than wealth: yes, the wealthy can access better gear than the poor, but not so much better that they can "pay to win:" a knight can be defeated by a farmer with a staff, so to speak.  The differences in station tend to also manifest superficially and symbolically: the poor can expect to look "more street" than the rich while the rich can expect to look "classy," and both can expect rough treatment in the world of the other, but both can contribute to a group.

Psi-Wars allows characters to access cool stuff regardless of wealth level, and the coolest stuff tends to a character signature.  Almost everyone who wants one has a spaceship, and the space knight always has his force sword and, if appropriate, his armor.  Soldiers have whatever weaponry they've been issued, and even the most poverty-stricken, indebted smuggler has a totally sweet gun.  Characters often pursue ancient relics, and those who make regular use of them tend to be drawn into their symbolism.  Characters do not "trade up" with such gear: the character with his grandfather's Valiant starfighter doesn't "upgrade" to a Valiant 2.0 at the first opportunity, nor does the space knight go through a selection of force swords at every space port to see if he can find one better than the one currently equipped.

Psi-Wars doesn't really care about gear beyond this; player characters generally have what they need unless the narrative requires otherwise. Gear in Psi-Wars is largely about what your character looks like and their niche in the story.  A poverty-stricken space knight has a force sword and never upgrades it, and has a particular look (say, a rough jacket and boots and a low-slung belt over a simple battleweave garment) and needs to deal with hassles from richer space knights who look down on him for his lack of "proper breeding."  If it comes to checking to see if characters have rations or if they have proper lockpicks, then the GM shouldn't demand to know what the player characters have on their sheets.  Saying something like "I'm sure I have something like that in my utility belt" should be enough, unless the scenario calls for deprivation ("You're stuck in a dying space station with no food and only the air you have in your vacc suit").  At the same time, this shouldn't allow players to have infinite gear: after all, being poor should have some sort of consequence!

Does GURPS have the tools to handle this? Yes it does!  But most of it is in various Pyramid Articles.

Abstract Wealth

So, the first problem is that we expect Psi-Wars to have wealth, and for it to matter, but it shouldn't intrude on the game.  We don't expect players to have to fuss over monthly income or run excel sheets to see if they can afford something.  It's not in genre for them to do so.  Do we have a solution for this?  We do!  Abstract Wealth by Jason Brick in Pyramid #3/44 "Alternate GURPS II."

To summarize the article: rather than have income, your wealth trait represents a stat that you roll against to see if you can afford something.  This is similar to the Resource background from Exalted: either you can afford it easily, in which case you can just have it, or it's a major expense, in which case your stat is reduced for awhile, or it's a huge expense, in which case it's permanently reduced.

This tends to reflect how people actually think about wealth, in my experience, and fits nicely with how they tend to use it in genres like Space Opera.  A poor man cannot afford a nice outfit, and so must solve the problem to gain a nice new outfit.  A wealthy person can simply afford a nice new outfit, and does so without thinking about it, while someone in between might struggle a bit to afford a nice outfit and may need to think about whether it's worth the expense.  We don't "bookkeep" the wealth: if the wealthy buys outfit after outfit, or nice lunch after nice lunch, we don't worry about whether they're still rich, because it's all "perfectly affordable."  This is not true of the person of average wealth.

The abstract wealth system handles this nicely.  Rather than replicate it completely, I want to adjust it for psi-wars.  In particular:

  • We'll use TL 10 values.
  • We'll use "Adventures" rather than "Months" or "Weeks"
  • We'll use GURPS Wealth traits rather than the unique Abstract Wealth Traits for "backwards compatibility."

Psi-Wars Abstract Wealth

Dead broke [-25]: The character has no money to speak of, but can scrounge up some resources with a bit of work.  Wealth Score 6; Wealth Threshold: $15.

Poor [-15]: Wealth Score 7; Wealth Threshold: $65.

Struggling [-10]: Wealth Score 9; Wealth Threshold: $325.

Average [0]: Wealth Score 10; Wealth Threshold: $700.

Comfortable [10]: Wealth Score 11; Wealth Threshold: $1500.

Wealthy [20]: Wealth Score 12; Wealth Threshold: $5000.

Very Wealthy [30]: Wealth Score 13; Wealth Threshold: $10,000.

Filthy Rick [50]: Wealth Score 14; Wealth Threshold: $20,000.

Every increased level of wealthy grants +1 wealth score and multiplies the wealth threshold by 10×.

If a character wishes to purchase something, check its cost.

Trivial Purchase: If the cost of the item is a 1/10th or less than the character's wealth threshold, they may purchase it.

Normal Purchase: If the item is more than 1/10th their wealth threshold but less than or equal to their wealth threshold, they must roll against their wealth score:
  • Critical success: they can purchase the item
  • Success: they may purchase the item, but suffer a -1 to all future purchase rolls for the remainder of the adventure.
  • Failure: they may not purchase the item, but may try again later.
  • Critical Failure: they may not purchase the item and suffer a -1 to all future purchase rolls for the remainder of the adventure.
Expensive Purchases: They may attempt to purchase the item, but at -1; at double the threshold and every subsequent doubling, apply an additional -1 to the Wealth score roll.

  • Critical success: they can purchase the item but suffer a -1 to all future purchase rolls for the remainder of the adventure.
  • Success: they may purchase the item, but reduce their Wealth trait by one level permanently.
  • Failure: they may not purchase the item, but may try again later in a later adventure.
  • Critical Failure: they may not purchase the item and suffer a -1 to all future purchase rolls for the remainder of the adventure.

Special Situations

Moving up in life: characters who make a point of living within their means or who get major windfalls (a bounty hunter who turns in several good bounties in a row) can justify purchasing a higher level of wealth.

Windfall: Characters who gain a specific amount of money (say, from their patron or by stealing some money they see, etc) can either just spend it as normal money, or the GM can treat them as temporary +1 to Wealth Score rolls.  A value equal to the character's threshold represents a +1 to a future wealth score roll.

This is a highly simplified version.  For the actual rules, please see the actual article!


Debt often drives characters in Space Opera, from the Tramp freighter who accepts dangerous jobs because he needs to make that payment to smugglers ducking debt collectors in Cantinas.  To handle these, we'll change Debt to a new trait:

Debt [varies]: The character owes someone else a substantial amount of money!  The GM can roll against the frequency of appearance; on a success, the GM can either decide that the character must either perform a job (the "You Owe Me" rule) or that a debt-collector shows up. The debt collector is an NPC worth as much as the player character, or 2-5 characters worth less points; the debt collector will either seek to harm or imprison the debtor, or seize items belonging to the debtor.  Alternatively, the PC can "pay interest," and buy off the creditor enough that he stays his hand and avoid either issue by accepting a penalty to all wealth score rolls for the remainder of the session.

The value of this disadvantage is determined by is frequency of appearance:
  • Almost all the time (15 or less) [-20]; alternatively, applies a -4 to Wealth Score rolls.
  • Quite Often (12 or less) [-15]; alternatively, applies a -3 to Wealth Score rolls.
  • Fairly Often (9 or less) [-10]; alternatively, applies a -2 to Wealth Score rolls.
  • Rarely (6 or less) [-5]; alternatively, applies a -1 to Wealth Score rolls.

Signature Gear

For handling relics and cool gear, GURPS already has an excellent mechanic for that: signature gear.  Every point of signature gear in Psi-Wars is worth $25,000.  This means the following items are worth:
  • All blasters: 1 point (2 for the Syntech sniper rifle and, likely, any other seriously modded blasters)
  • A force sword: 1 point (maybe 2 for a really pretty/cool one)
  • Maradonian duelist armor: 3 points
  • Maradonian "Crusader" armor: 8 point
  • Imperial "Juggernaut" armor: 7 points
  • The Wyrmwerk's "Brute" armor: 10 points
For most of the "cool armor" we want, players should be able to afford them pretty handily, even the relatively crazy stuff.

But what about robots, starfighters and smuggler corvettes?  For that, we turn to the Captain's Boat by Rory Fansler in Pyramid #3/71.  The core of this is that we price our vehicles like allies and patrons, rather than make the player character purchase them via their starting budget.

For fighters, we treat them as "Allies."  The rules aren't terribly specific, but we can gauge "weak" fighters (such as a Javelin) to be worth 3 points, most starfighters worth 5 points, and truly advanced fighters (the Valkyrie) to be worth 10 points.  We can fine tune this, and we'll note them with the vehicles.

Robots are likewise treated as allies.

For larger ships, we use the "Patron" rules suggested in the rulebook.  This means that one can purchase the following:
  • A Prestige-Pattern Diplomatic Shuttle: 10 points
  • A Ronin-Pattern War Yacht: 10 points
  • A Lancer-Pattern Assault Frigate: 20 points
  • An Imperator-Class Dreadnought: 30 points
Some notes: these represent shared vehicles rather than personal vehicles like the fighter, hence the slightly higher cost.  Second, this represents vehicles personally owned by the character.  Someone who "owns" an Imperial Dreadnought would be someone more akin to Vesper Tane or Sheredyn Caul who stole their dreadnoughts, rather than a sub-admiral who was assigned one.  After all, you can get a command of a ship as part of your rank, but this means it can be taken from you as well!  

Put together, this means anyone can afford access to a pretty potent ship and solid armor for a fraction of their point budget, and then it's theirs.

Starting Gear

Wealth still provides you with starting gear, but the intention here would be to minimize the amount of work players have to do.  After all, you want to know what ship you fly (signature ship, or granted by your rank), what sort of weapons you have (either issued as an element of your rank, signature gear, or purchased with your starting budget), armor (same) and then a couple of specific things.

But then we run into a problem.  On the one hand, we don't want the "nitpicky GM" who demands that it be on your sheet if you want to use it.  But if we hand-wave that away and say "You can have whatever is appropriate," then you get the exploitative player, who will claim to have whatever they need whenever they need it without every worrying about encumbrance or budget.  We need some system in between, where players can dictate their intention to have a certain sort of gear ("I have medical gear") without getting into the details of what specific gear they have.

For this, we have Schrödinger's Backpack by Douglas Cole in Pyramid #3/83 "Alternate GURPS IV."  The idea here would be that we define some container (he uses a backpack) and set a $ amount for it. Then, when we need something, we roll against a skill (he uses scrounging but suggests a few other possible skills) to "find" it. If successfully found, then the character spends a few turns getting at the item, and then he has it, and it's listed on his sheet.

This means players have something they purchased and have as encumbrance, but they don't have to define what it is until they need it.  Thus, a character might have "survival gear" but we don't need to get into the specifics unless the GM is skeptical and wants a roll to see if a character would really have that particular item.

We don't just have to use backpacks.  We could use utility belts, which would have a smaller maximum weight value, or we could have Schrödinger's cargo hold, where we portion off a section of the cargo hold and define it later, when we need to.

We can also define specific things, so instead of having a "generic" backpack, we could have a "thief's pack" or "survival gear" or "medical equipment" etc. This allows a player to declare their intent and get a bonus to find the thing they seek, but limits what they can reasonably find.

We'd have to define these fairly specifically and explain their rules (perhaps simplified) in the PC gear section and when discussing ships.

Very Fuzzy Gear

The net effect of all of this would be as follows:
  • Player characters would have a few, well-define pieces of gear as a "part" of their characters (their signature gear).
  • Player characters would spend time selecting some more generic equipment, typically armor and other accessories, as part of their starting gear.
  • The rest of their starting gear would be "undefined" in some broad way.
  • When player characters want to have something they did not list on their sheet, they can
    • Attempt to purchase it with a wealth roll
    • Attempt to get it from a patron
    • Roll to see if they already have it in their cargo, backpack or utility belt
The net result is that player characters will almost always have access to the stuff they need provided they are not especially poor, far from civilization, or planned especially poorly.  At the same time, they do not need to dive into extreme detail with their equipment purchases, while still benefiting from a few, smart purchases.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, I see that this post addresses just-in-time equipment systems I mentioned in my last comment on your last post. Never mind then! I hadn't heard about Douglas Cole's Backpack. Thanks for that.


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