Monday, December 2, 2019

Psi-Wars: Let's Talk Robots

When I set out to do the military doctrine project, I knew I would need to break it down into the following pieces:

  • Weapons
  • Armor
  • Ground Vehicles
  • Space Vehicles
  • Robots
Realistically, I'd also add the resources and machinery that make it all possible.  A factory and the supply line is as much a part of a military doctrine as a rifle or a tank is, and those with superior factories and supply lines win wars just as well as those with superior tanks and rifles.  But given that players don't interact much with these, I figured we could push them into the background a bit (in a sense, the "corporations" providing all of these stand in for the factories and supply lines).

We've completed everything but robots, which represent a unique element to our doctrines.  Robots are fairly new, militarily speaking, though I can say with confidence that we do use robots militarily right now (there's a 21st century sentence if I ever read one), and a lot of time and research goes into perfecting those robots.  We see them more obviously in Star Wars, which has a rather unique take on robots, if I'm honest, as it integrates them directly into the military infrastructure: an R2-unit is a military robot, meant to interface with a fighter (fighters even have socked specifically designed for R2 units). It doesn't fight directly, but it definitely aides in military operations.

I wanted to mimic that in Psi-Wars.  Robots assist people in Psi-Wars like mobile, intelligent tools.  I built the ARC fighters and the Redjack fighters with the assumption of robotic assistance.  Similarly, many ARC vehicles come with med-bays, which suggests a need for a medical robot.  Thus, we can see robots as part of an integrated whole: an ARC-equipped space knight, as one example, is surrounded by tools that assist him in battle, from his force sword to his diamondoid armor to his medivac vehicle that tends to his wounds or his speeder bike that rushes him to the enemy to his fighter or his carrier that brings him to the right system, to his robot that maintains his fighter or assists him in donning his complex armor.

So I wanted to take some time to stop and revisit robots.  I've talked about them already back in Iteration three and looking back on that material, it's pretty good.  Sometimes I look at old material and cringe, but sometimes I look back and go "Oh, I need to remember that" or "Oh, that's actually pretty useful."  This was the same here, so I found myself reusing a lot of material.  Over the next few weeks, I'll touch on some of those topics and expand them.  Today, I'm going to talk about some polling I've done of the community, why I took the route that I did with my design and what some other routes might be, and how I broadly see robots fitting into the integrated Psi-Wars setting.

Do you wanna play a robot?

I ran a snap poll quite a few months ago, and the core thing I wanted to know was if people wanted to play as robots and, if so, what themes they wanted to see.  This is important because if nobody wants to play as robots, then basic stats, treating them as gear, is sufficient, and we don't need to worry about point totals, in the same way I don't need to worry about the point cost of a fighter or a blaster rifle.

The answer was, of course, overwhelmingly in favor of playing robots, and this didn't surprise me, Years ago, in "Golgo Wants You Dead," the two character concepts shot down by the GM due to a lack of support were "Robot" and "Druid."  Both were concepts I wanted to integrate into Psi-Wars in a cleaner way.  So people want to play robots.

But how?  Well, the answer here seems largely shaped by how I've presented robots already, though perhaps also by the source material I'm using (ie, Star Wars). By far, people preferred to see robots as essentially no better than people, just different.  They saw robots as a very different "mode" of play, and wanted to play that difference up. So, for example, in Iteration 3, I suggested robots might have computer brain slots to switch out skills.  That sort of thing would be unique to robots and represent a very different mode of play.

The second most popular theme was that of robot rights, which I found very interesting.  Star Wars largely side-steps this issue. It follows the more 1950s version of robots as cute side-kicks or nameless goons to be gunned down. It doesn't follow Asimovian questions of whether robots count as people.  The Psi-Wars community isn't necessarily saying it sees robots as people, but it likes the idea of asking the question.  This is likely because I've brought it up before and its rather embedded into the setting via the Cybernetic Union, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be super important to the setting, but my readers seem to like the idea.

The third most popular theme was robots-as-tools.  They like the idea of robots as mobile problem solvers that bring specialized tools with them.  You don't hack computers, you get your robot to do it; you don't fix your fighter, you get your robot to do it; and so on.  The point of a robot is to handle the technical aspects of the adventure, and also, to exist in the background, maintaining your civilization.  In the upstairs/downstair drama of life, humanity is "upstairs" and robots are "downstairs," which gives some tension to the choice of "robot rights" as a major theme: perhaps the setting sees this as true, but perhaps robots don't like it this way.

The next voted theme ("third least voted for) was for physical primacy.  We're getting more into the territory of "voted against" than "voted for" so this is likely something not everyone wants.  In a sense, it's something you can't really get away from.  Robots are, in GURPS at least, stronger pound for pound than a human is, less vulnerable to physical ailments, don't need to sleep, can take pretty intense physical punishment, and integrate inhuman sensing capabilities that would, if handled realistically, would make them phenomenally accurate.  The rather tepid vote seems to acknowledge this, but given the higher votes for weirdness and tools, would rather robots were "differently capable" than "better."

The second least voted for option was "Existential robots."  Broadly, the community doesn't seem that interested in pondering the philosophical implications of robots.  Given their loud support for robot rights as a theme, this seems more about not worrying about if people don't count as people.  Taken together, this suggests they don't really want to blur boundaries between human and robot or contemplate the bio-electronic nature of the human mind and would rather maintain the human supremacy of most old space opera, while paternalistically wondering if robots should be given the right to self-determination.

The least voted for option was "Mental Supremacy." Physical supremacy might be grudgingly tolerated but not mental supremacy: robots can be strong, but robots shouldn't be smarter than people, or so the consensus seems to be.  I think if you're talking about robot rights, you need to at least acknowledge that robots can be as heroically smart as people, but the community seems to prefer not to explore transhuman themes of robots coming to eclipse humanity.  I see little real risk of that, though, given that Psi-Wars grants humans access to psychic powers that robots don't have, but it means that robots with 15+ IQs need some serious thought and some work.

Smart Tools: Robots in Psi-Wars

My approach towards robots has changed little since iteration 3.  I see robots of this iteration as a refinement, creating detailed versions of what I did in iteration 3, though this has a few implications.  First, robots are mostly intended as allies ("robots as tools").  Second, what makes robots useful is their highly specific skillsets (often programmable) and the tools available in their chassis.  You are your robot-model first, and anything else second (if at all). Third, I'll follow the software/hardware dichotomy of Ultra-Tech, with one caveat, that a robot's "programming" has a physical manifestation in their neural net, which means that if you destroy a robot's body, you destroy its mind.  A back-up might be possible, but that's a physical copy of their neural net, and takes extensive work.  You can't casually do things like duplicate a ton of robots with a quick copy-and-past of a database and some code like you could in Transhuman Space.

With a focus on allies first, I've focused my designs on "grab-and-go play."  The idea is that if you want a robot, you can just pick a template and it has everything you need, and you can slap some personality on it, and move on.  A robot clocks in at 125 points (in general), which means if you're playing a 250 point character, they're worth 2 points as a base ally (this is also true of a 300-point character, a point value passionately defended by some in the community, and for good reason, but if so, you can apply another 25 points of upgrades to your ally robot, if you want).  A robot's skills clock in at 10 or 12 for the most part, making everything easy to remember.  They have the skills for a single niche, rather than the exhaustive sort of list that most adventurers have.

I've broken up robots into three parts: chassis, personality architecture and template.  The idea here is that when choosing a robot template, you're also choosing a chassis ("I want to play a Tech-bot 3000") and how it's programmed to behave as a person ("It's programmed to have a sunny disposition"), and then you integrate these together in the template.  For the most part, template and chassis are integrated already: a tech-bot is a tech-bot, though this won't always be the case (a general purpose android might be a medical robot or a technical robot) while personality is generally chosen separately.

I've been using neural nets as a basis for my robots, though this creates a weird grey area between programming and hard "mortal" robots.  Mostly I use it to prevent duplication of robots, but I'm also using it as a way to add some flexibility to robots.  First, it lets the escape some of the confines of their complexity limited IQ (and DX, which is another odd area that I didn't get a lot of guidance from GURPS on; 3e treats DX as a component of software, while 4e seems to treat it as hardware, maybe?) and it lets us explore the possibilities of personality development.  The idea here is that different personality architecture develops in different ways, so I can offer suggestions as to how to personalize your robot while also offering common tropes for NPC/Ally robots.  It also explains the need for routine memory wipes ("neural pruning") that show up in Star Wars, and a way to create "crazy robots" if they've been locked up in a derelict ship for a century.

Taken together, this follows the "race-as-occupation template" model of design.  That is, you are your robot chassis.  As I said before, a tech-bot is a tech-bot first and foremost, and his programming and everything else about that serves that.  It doesn't have to be that way; we could treat them just as racial templates.  If I were to beg Douglas Cole to let me use his Dragon Heresy rules as the basis for a Psi-Wars game, we might use robots as a race: you have a human space knight, a Ranathim smuggler and a robot bounty hunter. Why not?  

I didn't go this route for a few reasons, but primarily because I've hewed pretty close to Ultra-Tech as the basis for my material, which means I've been locked into their model of robot design for the most part.  Ultra-Tech robots are expensive.  A basic TL 10 Android from Ultra-Tech is 122 points, which is a far cry from the 50 point limit I try to put on my racial templates.  More than that, robots are complicated.  In Psi-Wars, an alien is basically a human with a few additional traits: some horns, a bonus to a stat, some particular problem, and that's it.  A robot, by contrast, has a host of technological traits, weird designs (one robot has tracks and no arms, another robot has one eye and can't talk, etc), as well as concerns like safety programming (Can robots kill? Can they break the law?), which means that most of the player's attention will be on the fact that they're playing a robot, rather than that they're playing a bounty hunter or whatever.  So I chose this route.  It fits the themes we're going for (robotic weirdness, robot rights, etc).  Another, simpler model could be possible.  I'm not advocating that you shouldn't go the "robot as racial template" route, just that I didn't choose it.

Put all of this together, and you get a tricky setup for PC robots. You'll need to pick a 125-point template and "I dunno, spend another 125 points on stuff."  I don't currently see another way to do it, though I've included plenty of power-ups for customizing your robots, and a broader discussion on typical disadvantages and advantages and how they might get them.  We'll have to see how it all plays out, as I don't expect robot PCs to be an especially popular option, but it should be a workable option.

Based on feedback, I ended up building my robots using a conversion of GURPS Robots 3e into 4e.  This didn't turn out to be nearly as bad as I feared.  For me, the core focus needs to be on the point cost.  What the design process ultimately does is give you a rough idea of what is possible, and lets you slap a price tag and weight on the robot that's internally consistent.  The design process tended to take just a few minutes, as opposed to the exhausting process of designing a vehicle.  I don't think it added that much (though it's more accurate than my own system), but it didn't cost much either.

Robots in the Psi-Wars Galaxy

Finally, some thoughts on how robots fit into the Psi-Wars Galaxy.

Robots are built by industrial complexes for a purpose and people buy them for a purpose.  They are, functionally, automated slaves.  Most of them are perfectly fine with this, and tend to be deeply devoted to their masters.  The idea of freeing them would be abhorrent to them ("But... what would master do without me? What if he got hurt! Oh no, get away from me, you weirdo abolitionist!"), but robot neural structures do evolve over time, which means they gain new disadvantages and lose old ones.  The setting usually describes this as the robot "going mad," but in reality, the robot evolves.  They might degenerate, but they can also improve their IQ and DX and may shed some previous limits and inhibitions.  Such robots, as they become more fully realized people, might be more open to the idea of freedom and rights.

Most robots are functionally tools.  Tech-Bots and Med-Bots exist to fill their particular niche and are unlikely to grow beyond them.  We'll touch on these the most in the next few days, and they're the sort of robot we see the most in Star Wars.  But I do want to explore the idea of robots-as-people.  This is both to insert some more cyberpunkish elements into the game, and to lend more weight to the idea of fighting for robot rights: it's a bit strange to ask R2-D2 if he wants rights, but not Joi from Blade Runner 2049 or Cortana from Halo, because the latter two feel like people.  Thus, I'll want to explore mannequin-robots with more flexible personalities, though we won't see them in this cycle.

The Umbral Rim and the ancient empires of Psi-Wars didn't do much with robots in the sense that we'd understand them. The Umbral Rim, of course, uses biological slaves.  Beyond that, both the ancient Ranathim Tyranny and the Eldothic Empire had their own "servitor" races, but neither really functioned like robots (the Gaunt, the Ranathim servitors, have been detailed already; I'm still working on the Eldothic servitors, who are more like golems than robots).

Traders (as with many modern Psi-Wars technologies) probably pioneered robots as a technology. We have a poll up for their technology, but their robots look to use "Good old fashioned AI" rather than neural nets, suggesting neural nets is a human innovation.

As stated above, most human-built robots follow the "smart, anthropomorphic tools" model of robot design.  Redjack (which represents the "Westerly" culture") and ARC (which represents the "Maradon" culture) will both have typical tech-bots and a couple of other robots who serve specific, predefined roles.

The "Shinjurai" culture, represented by Syntech, Wyrmwerks and many robots of the Cybernetic Union, will tend to have a broader set of robots, like "generic androids," with more flexible minds.  I intended to have some robots that feel more like "robots-as-people" and they'll likely be placed here.  The Cybernetic Union itself draws a lot of inspiration from Reign of Steel and Blame!, so expect weird, inhuman robots-as-monsters designs, plus a few transhuman-like robots, and great robotic monolithic thinking machines that run the whole thing from within their vast, constructed world, Terminus.  These I've not yet begun to explore, but I'd like to sooner than later.

Finally, we have the Empire.  I had a poll for them, and "yes, they use robots" beat out "no they don't," but most people voted for "They have robots, but they're not very smart."  I haven't worked them out in great detail yet, but expect to see a few imperial robots designed to serve as expendable, non-volitional assets that take on jobs humans wouldn't want (carrying around spare ammo, scouting, and explosives disposal).

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