Friday, July 5, 2019

Abstract Wealth Retrospective

I've had a busy week (expect me to not respond much for the next while: my son is sleeping poorly which exhausts my wife, and the second little one requires a lot of attention too, so if I'm not working, I'm sleeping and if I'm doing neither, I'm probably looking after kids, so I snatch wht time to write that I can).  Thus, I was unable to announce my posts, but my discord picked them up anyway, and had quite a few thoughts.  I wanted to share them here and respond to them, so they can all be collected in one spot.

If I don't get to your comment, it's probably because there was too much discussion going on (the topic really blew up!) so I couldn't get to everything.  I'm picking out stuff that catch my interest sequentially.



Why Gear at All?

I definitely don't disagree with anything said in today's Meditations on Gear post, but I wonder if it begins to pull at a particular thread in Psi-Wars & GURPS in general
I don't want to overstate anything, but it seems to me that the impulse to provide all the awesome worked examples of vehicles tech and weapons we have in Psi-Wars is exactly at odds with what is posited in today's post
if the gear in Psi-Wars is largely handwaved, why detail precisely what different armor models are available?  why not just have "light, medium, and heavy"
or instead of several corporations with different takes "blaster pistol," just have a basic pistol
it seems to me that if upgrading one's gear is counter to the tone and themes of the setting, a lot of the nitty-gritty tech and hardware stuff becomes redundant..."Who cares exactly how fast my ship is, I bought the 'fast' ship at character creation and it should go exactly as fast as it needs to for the story to happen"
anyway, not meant as a criticism, just some thoughts I had while reading...apologies if this was all discussed in the original exchange and I missed it -Mwnrc
No need to apologize.  I think this sort of question is deeply important.  After all, if we're doing something that adds no value, then what are we doing with our time?  Gear is taking up a ton of my time, so why bother with it instead of working on, I dunno, Communion rules or playtests or anything else more useful?

What Mwnrc argues is, incidentally, pretty true of basic GURPS and older iterations of Psi-Wars.  We had a "blaster," all that cool armor was just "Combat Hardsuit" and you can see similar things in GURPS: we have "Broadswords" and "Heavy Pistols."  It's a pretty common approach, especially in games where this sort of thing matters (World of Darkness, FATE Core, etc).  Given that my Meditations on Gear argues against gear being important, why wouldn't we treat Psi-Wars the same way?

Well, we could and we did!  So why have I become more and more detailed in my approach?

 It's also fun to pick and see how different weapons interact with stuff, especially for badguys I don't care about.   And it's fun for players to see their cool weapon choice available.
If I have say 5 different Tie fighters I can give my X-Wing pilot more varied throwdowns - Kalzazz
Characters tending to keep the gear they start with isn't incompatible with there being distinctions between similar items. In fact, choosing whether you have an Imperial blaster rifle or an old frontier rifle tells you something about the character. Imperial gear is well engineered but hard to maintain, and reflects the industrial might of the Empire. The old frontier rifle isn't as flashy, but it's rugged, probably been handed down from generation to generation, and reflects the greater independence of the frontier.
You might distill these down to being blaster rifles with the precision engineering or rugged construction traits, but in doing so you'd lose part of that characterization. 
-Nemoricus
These guys have nailed the core of why I detail gear: because players care about it!  My core points with Meditations on Gear were that Psi-Wars shouldn't have:

  • Detailed inventory management where if its not written down, you don't have it
  • A constant cycle of upgrades based on the loot that you find.
Instead, you carefully define your character in detail, getting exactly the character that you want, similar to how supers work: you get exactly the character you want to the dot, but then your character changes very little or not at all.

Could you do this without a highly detailed set of stats on your gear? Yes!  I chose a picture of various lightsaber hilts from Star Wars because it's often my experience that die-hard fans have preferences for lightsabers, which they liked best, and they can pick them out of a line-up.  They often have opinions on what their lightsaber would look like, from hilt to blade.  Does any of this really matter? Are red blades more damaging than blue blades? Are blue blades more defensive than red blades? Nope.  It's purely fluff, but it matters, and people care about it.  So we can have two characters in Psi-Wars both with "Generic force sword" that describe them in excruciating detail and that's enough.  If we were playing Fate, I might even allow an aspect on each weapon to further individualize it.

Given all this, why bother? Mostly because players like it.  You don't need all those guns in GURPS High Tech, even in a typical Action game a +1 here and a -1 there won't mean squat.  And yet gun-nuts pick over the tables until they find their preferred weapon (and get annoyed if they can't find their preferred weapon).  The same would be true in Psi-Wars: players will want to express the nature of their character via the details of their gear: the frontiersman will want a rugged blaster, the techie will want a sophisticated blaster, etc, and GURPS being GURPS, these players will want it to have excruciatingly detailed differences, and will want these to be consistent.  They'll explore the world through their tech.

As Nemoricus says, this drive is not the same as what I discuss in Meditations on Gear.  If I may compare and contrast D&D and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, D&D is pretty obviously driven towards gear upgrades, but its gear is less detailed than GURPS gear is.  However, it has a built in progression system, with flat magical bonuses per weapon that really lends itself to weapon progression (Broadsword -> +1 Broadsword -> +2 Broadsword, etc) while that progression is less clear in GURPS, and it's entirely possible to start GURPS DF with a better sword than you'll ever find throughout the rest of your DF playthrough, if you invest enough points into signature gear.

What matters is that we have a place where we focus our attention, what matters.  We don't want to distract our readers with too many customization options (some default "Just grab this and go" should be present, ideally) especially for things that don't matter.  What matters? As Nemoricus points out: guns, armor, specialist tool kits (a hacker's computer, a spy's infiltration kit, etc).

I think Mwnrc has exactly the right attitude with this comment:
by way of example, I'll use Knights of the Old Republic.  in KOTOR, you can loot lightsaber crystals to upgrade the stats of your weapon.  It's all very fiddly and classic D&D stuff.  In Psi-Wars, we might write stats for a dozen different crystals, all of which offer slightly different mechanical abilities and, depending on how we fluff them, opportunities to characterize your weapon.
In the Star Wars films, Luke uses his father's saber until it is lost and then builds a new one.  If the crystals existed at all in a setting based purely on the films, they wouldn't matter past character generation because they would never be used except at that time.  At that point, I think it is worth asking how much time and energy it is worth investing in a multitude of crystal options.

 We should think twice about such an option.  The crystals make for great loot, and KOTOR is built around loot, but Star Wars isn't, so you never have scenes where Luke stoops over some recently defeated badguys, finds some lightsaber crystals and upgrades his weapon.  This is one reason when people talk about modding starfighters or gear, I hesitate, because I'm not sure that's a step we should take.  I'm not sure it fits at all.

I should also add that we can overstate these extremes.  A typical action character has their signature gun, and it's good enough, but that doesn't mean their character won't evolve or grow. I'm not saying that a commando will never ditch his imperial blaster for a tricked out syntech weapon.  Similarly, I can imagine a poor Street Knight with a cobbled together force sword who manages to earn a place among a noble house wouldn't upgrade to full armor and a nicer force sword.  I'm saying that climbing the ranks of gear shouldn't be a major focus for our character: no Iron -> Silver -> Gold that you see in a lot of RPGs.

Abstract Wealth Woes

Anyway, I think an abstract wealth system could do a lot to formalize what is already the defacto situation and patch other parts. It has real challenges though. One thing that I find distasteful about most abstract wealth systems is that they make purchase sequencing relevant
If you know that you want to buy a given basket of goods, there shouldn't be an incentive to buy them in a particular order. In part because that's obnoxious, and in part because it disproportionately affects some players who pay less attention to these sorts of details 
-Shinanoki
Those who know me and my history with games with doubtless notice a similarity between a lot of my design choices and Exalted, and Abstract Wealth is a good example of it.  Exalted has a resource system where anything less than your resource value could be purchased "for free," while anything at your resource level reduced your resource level.  So, imagine a character who wants to buy a cost 1, cost 2, and cost 3 item and he has resources 3: if he buys the cost 3 item, his resources will drop to 2, and if he buys the cost 2 item, his resources will drop to 1, and then if he buys the cost 1 item, he will have no resources.  On the other hand, if he buys the cost 1 and 2 item, he'll have resources 3 still and then if he buys the cost 3 item, he'll have resources 2.  So, depending on the order you buy your items in, you could have resource 2 or 0 left over.  That's a pretty stark difference.

The GURPS Abstract Wealth system has less of a problem here, but you can get weird things like if I have a threshold of $1000 and I want to buy 5 $201 items, if I buy all five as one chunk, then it's an Expensive purchase and permanently reduces my threshold.  If I buy each of them individually, I end up with a -5 to all future purchases for the remainder of the adventure.  If I buy 4 of them as a chunk and then one individually, I end up with a -2 to all future purchases for the remainder of the adventure.

All models are wrong, some models are useful, as Douglas Cole is a fan of saying.  Whatever system we choose will have some problems with it, and Abstract Wealth is no different.  The common refrain against that is "Well, don't twink," but I always find that unhelpful.  "Twinks" tend to be people with a "Tester" mentality, and those are highly useful for pointing out flaws (or unexpected features) in your game.  By contrast, a lot of people don't see emergent traits (they're often hard to spot) and only realize their mistake much later, and can feel unfairly punished.  So this sort of thing might not happen... but it might!  How do you deal with it when you do? How do we decide the abstraction is useful to us?

First, this is why we playtest, to see where kinks happen and how well things work out.  The intent is to take away a lot of fussing with the details.  To me, the trick is to see, broadly speaking, if you can get something or not, and you have a variety of means at your disposal, all of which require a die roll (thus unifying mechanics nicely).  For example, there aren't many positive modifiers in the Abstract Wealth system.  Should there be?  Like if I try to purchase a single $201 item, given that its less than half my threshold, should I get a bonus on it?   And what's the best way to handle serial purchases (It might seem silly, but it'll come up: "I need X.  Okay, I have X.  Oh! I forgot!  I need Y!").

Personally, I recommend having "shopping trips" in one chunk.  They tend to be anyway, and being free-formish with the abstract wealth system.  It lends itself well to it.  Maybe people who buy something close to, but not quite at, their trivial threshold should get a bonus to their roll.  Maybe if people barely go over their threshold, you could give them a big penalty but let them keep their wealth level.  The idea is to dispense with excel sheets and shift it to the same sort of negotiation that you get over lots of things that the table. That might mean we should get rid of the permanent drop in wealth, or find some way to handle it that feels fairer.

Spaceships

This one is a complicated topic.  

First, how often do we see space combat coming up?  That really depends on the group.  If they're all fighter aces, then "basically all the time."  If they're all Diplomats, Spies and Space Knights, then "basically never."  My default is to assume the "9 or less" default value of "Often enough that it's not weird, but not something you'd see every session."

The second question is flat monetary value (the old model) vs the signature ship (the new model).  The advantage of the flat amount is that it could be modified by your wealth value: a rich man is more likely to have a great and mighty ship than a poor man, who is more likely to have some crop-duster equivalent.  With signature ships, this goes out the window, but it should be noted that "signature" traits always offer a flat amount, so that's normal.  What I like about the patron-version of Signature Vehicles is that it scales better.  Affording a ship that costs 10× another ship, under the old system, costs 10× as many character points.  Under the new one, it costs +5 points.  That feels better to me.

This has a knock-on effect that people are far less likely to purchase a spaceship out of pocket, but to be fair, most people won't pick up a spaceship out of pocket.  It'll usually be given to them as a manifestation of their association with a powerful organization (A powerful corporate overlord is wealthy, but that's not the reason he has a giant ship: that giant ship belongs to the company that he runs).  That said, with sufficient wealth, you might be able to pick up a ship "out of pocket."

As for modding vehicles, whew.  This is one I struggle with.  On the one hand, as I've said before, I don't really want people fussing that much over their gear.  That said, fussing over your spaceship fits the genre to an extent.  Han spent an entire film trying to fix the Falcon, and Poe Dameron displayed some sweet mods of his X-wing in the Force Awakens, so I can see it, but then we slam into problem two, which is that vehicles aren't very easy to mod in GURPS.  GURPS Spaceships has the modularity to allow you to pull one component out and add another, but it lacks the detail to really make it matter.  By contrast, the vehicles system has the detail to make it matter, but lacks the modularity to make that easy. On top of that, how would you price it?  If a Starhawk is 10 points out of the box, what is it with slightly better handling or +10% speed? 10 points? 15 points? 11 points? Aaargh!  

So I'm not even sure how I'd make this one work.  Right now, I wouldn't worry about it (its niche anyway), but I'll think on it some more.

A Comment on Commentary

I always try to read commentary.  I sometimes miss it (especially on the blog, as Google doesn't always alert me, and Blogger is a slowly collapsing house), but I always try to read it. It's valuable feedback, and it's what drives a lot of my design choices.  I don't always agree with people, but even the complaints represent a data-point that I can use.  A lot of the vehicle rewrites came from wanting to better incorporate people's feedback regarding space combat and how they seemed to see their characters (people with customized fighters, for example, seems pretty common!). 

People who disagree with me also represent alternate perspectives on the game.  When I say "I don't want X" or "I want Y" I'm trying to explain why I make the design decisions that I make. I am not telling you how to run your game.  Kalzazz triggered a lot of this discussion because he was talking about "saving up for a new force sword."  This whole discussion is not to say that he musn't run a game where people save up for force swords.  It's to say that I wouldn't run the game that way, that my focus isn't on people constantly upgrading their gear, and it's not a major thing I'm going to support.  But if Kalzazz wants to run his game that way, that's his right; my job is to facilitate games.  I can't facilitate all games, but I need to know what people are going to run.  If I start to notice a demand for upgradeable force swords with complex crystal upgrade systems and loot-tables, then maybe I should reconsider my approach.

I had another discussion, often rather heated, about morality in Psi-Wars, which inspired me to think about dramatic poles and moral choices in Psi-Wars, and I'd still like to write an article on it.  It also inspired some of the ideas that led, for example, to the new Debt mechanic.

So, by all means, disagree with me.  I'm just one guy writing a setting, but you're the one who has to put it into practice with your campaign!  And tension, disagreement and limitation can fuel creativity.  They certainly fuel mine!

What I especially like about the feedback was that my Meditation on Gear really hit the mark, because it got people thinking about how they would use gear in a game, what they would want it to do, and how different models could be applied ("If gear doesn't matter, why detail it so extensively?  And if we're going to detail it, why not explore an upgrade path?") to create different sorts of gameplay.  That sort of thinking is really what I wanted to encourage with that article.

Psi-Wars is a bit of a muddle because its inspiration is a bit of a "kitchen sink setting", and people treat it as such.  People are going to run a variety of adventures, so the boundaries of clean design get fuzzy (Imperial commandos fighting rebels in a jungle really changes a lot of these constraints compared to Templars fighting Tyrants, or psychic space princesses sipping wine while trying to politically outmaneuver a Slaver and forge an alliance).  This does mean you can find conflicting design goals in Psi-Wars, so if you notice those conflicts, good!  You start to see some of the break lines, and some of the places where I get especially exasperated, and why this game is taking so long to flesh out.

But please, don't apologize for pointing out incongruences or things that you think could use improvement.  Man, I love my community and Psi-Wars has become much better for it. Sure, I get annoyed and my impulse is to defend my choices, but that's because I'm human!  Just be patient and we'll get there.

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