Thursday, May 28, 2020

What Makes a Good (Ultra-Tech) Monster

After my last post on the Skairosian bestiary, some commenters questioned whether they were "enough" of a threat.  That's a fair question.  I'll be honest, I mostly focused on the themes (Cattle, Guard Dog, Alien Monstrosity, Source of Weird Visions) than I did on specifically making them great encounters, though I did try.  Perhaps I can do better? But if I'm going to do better, we need to think our way through this.  What makes for a good monster to hit our Psi-Wars heroes with?

To answer that, we need to answer several questions:
  • Is it dangerous enough?
  • Is it fun and unique?
  • Does it fit in the setting?



The Scale of Threat

There are several pyramid articles, especially "It's a Threat" by Christopher Rice that purport to resolve this for you, but they are flawed (and they admit they are flawed).  At best, they're a general guideline and a good way of getting the broad sense of a scale of the creature your heroes are fighting, and what your heroes can do.  But if you really want to know, you need to actually look at the numbers and think your way through it.  After all, a monster with a million HP and an active defense at 20+ but does 1d-4 toxic damage that can be resisted with an HT+4 roll is not actually that threatening, even though "It's a Threat" will rate it as a huge problem.

At the end of the day, given how dynamic GURPS is and how many possibilities it offers, there's no real way to know for sure how an encounter will play out.  An amazingly lethal monster might get rolled because the players managed to outmaneuver it or really exploit a weakness, or a minor monster will really kick the crap out of players from a combination of dumb PC choices, brilliant GM tactics and bad luck.  The best you can do is compare the numbers to one another and get a sense of how things will work. So, let's do that here.

GURPS Ultra-Tech PCs tend to have ridiculously good range, amazing damage, extreme DR, great DR penetration, really (comparatively) low HP, and average-to-high skills (especially in classic UT, as UT offers skill bonuses to certain weapons and most UT characters skimp on attributes and advantages to focus on skills).  Psi-Wars is a little different, in that it tends to keep DR low and reduces the number of technological advantages people can get, which means characters tend to have more of their own cool tricks, and they also tend to be fairly high in point cost.  Let's look at some concrete, Psi-Wars examples to really get a sense of what we're looking at.

The Space Knight

Space Knights are probably the most iconic aspect of the Psi-Wars setting, though not the only one.  We can define a few things about them. 

Offense: Space Knights always use a force sword, or a variation.  We can peg that at 8d(5) damage at base, though quite a few Space Knights will deal 8d(5)+16 with Weapon Master.  Starting PC space knights will be about skill 16 with their weapon, and can trivially rise to 18-20 with a bit of effort and focus.  They can reasonably afford to apply a -6 to their attacks to apply a -3 to their opponent's defenses, they tend to be very skilled at feints and other ways to get around an opponent's defenses, and they can absolutely destroy an opponent's weapon, making them very good at getting around any defensive techniques that aren't dodge.  They have very short range, though.

Defense: Space knights may or may not wear armor.  Armored space knights tend to have between 60 and 120 DR (typically closer to the high end, so 80-100) on their torso, and 40-80 on their limbs (again, typically more towards the high end, so 60-80). Lightly armored "duelist" space knights have DR 40.  With skill ~18 and combat reflexes, we can expect them to have a parry of 13, but they'll often pair them with shields, precognitive parries, psychic powers, and enhanced or acrobatic defenses, so we might expect a typical defense of 14-16.  This is one reason why space knights tend to have such great Beats and Feints!  For HP, they tend to be very modest, having a mere 10-15 HP, though Kainian space knights often tout a lot more than that, and we can expect a hard-pressed PC space knight will use a flesh wound or two, or rely on the protection of Communion to deal with a bad roll or two.

Other Factors: Most space knights will have a couple of psionic tricks, typically in allowing them to accurately predict something about the fight, get a lucky hit in, get bonus defenses, or attack in such a way that it bypasses armor or most defenses (TK-Crush, Mental Blow, etc).  Most space knights tend to be highly mobile, having bonus move, or some means of attacking or defending on the move.  This is to compensate for their low range.

So, typically to make an interesting fight for a space knight, we need:
  • To be able to handle at least a -3 to active defenses reasonably often
  • To handle 28 points of damage or up to ~150 points of DR penetration.
  • Either apply -3 to -5 to active defenses, or find some way of lightly bypassing defenses in a controlled way
  • The ability to punch through ~80 DR, but not deal more than about 10 damage in a single attack.

The Commando

Nobody plays commandos in my game, but it's a good way to think about a certain class of opponent, such as bounty hunters or any other heavily armed and armored ranged opponent.  These tend to be a lot more varied than space knights when it comes to gear, but less when it comes to special abilities.

Offense: A typical commando will wield a heavy rifle of some kind. 6d(5) is the gold standard here, which is 100 points of DR penetration, but I can see a lot of commandos wielding plasma weapons or heavier weapons, so 15d(2) (still around 100 DR penetration) or 8d(5) isn't out of the question. Most of these weapons are Acc 6 and we can assume a skill of 18 and an RoF of 3.  Squad support weapons will be nastier, often with an RoF ~10. If we want a minimum effective skill of 14 and assume 3 turns of aiming, we're looking at a maximum effective range of 200 yards, which is longer than the 1/2D of some Psi-Wars rifles.  We might put the maximum effective range of a commando at around 70-100 yards.  I've been very conservative with allowing means of bypassing defense with ranged attacks, so the worst we can expect to apply is a -2.

Defense: A typical commando might wear Starmail, Redjack Scrapper Armor or heavy imperial armor.  These tend to be DR 80-100, and tend towards the lighter side than Space Knight armor (which tends to be fitted and made out of super-light materials).  They tend to rely more on cover than active defenses, and will be unlikely to have a Dodge higher than 9 or 10, often less if they're up to their teeth in encumbrance penalties, though such characters will have higher DR. Commandos tend not to have lots of extra HP.

Other Concerns: Commandos tend not to have high levels of mobility, but they might shed that armor for more stealthy equipment.  This would drop their DR to 20-30 but likely give them bonuses to stealth.  Commandos will tend to prefer stealth, tactics and careful observation to simply charging in, but if they have everything set up, they can lay down some military-scale firepower.

So, to make an interesting fight for a Commando, we need
  • To be able to handle a target who is often up to 80 yards away (we should be able to close that distance relatively quickly, or force the encounter closer, or shoot back)
  • To handle ~25-50 points of damage or up to ~150 points of DR penetration.
  • To be able to ambush a target without instantly stripping them of all capabilities, and to provide an interesting tactical dilemma that rewards having high observation skills or investing in stealthy movement, or thinking in terms of overlapping zones of fire.
  • The ability to punch through ~80 DR, but not deal more than about 10 damage in a single attack, especially if the character is lightly armored.

The Gunslinger

Not every character is going to be a heavy hitter, and even those who are will often have other concerns than just being as lethal as humanely possible.  For example, a gunslinger will prefer the ability to rapidly draw a weapon in a social situation (such as a space port bar) than the ability to use a heavy, squad support weapon.  What challenges a space knight might be overwhelming to a gunslinger, which is a concern and something we need to consider.

Offense: The weapon of choice for a gunslinger is a pistol.  Most gunslingers are going to lean towards heavier pistols, so expect more akin to 4d(5) damage, or 10d(2) for the worst plasma pistol in the game. This is between 15 and 35 damage an about ~70 DR penetration.  They'll tend to have skill 18 and pistols have accuracy 3; between that and pistol 1/2d. their maximum practical range is around 50 yards, but in practice most gunslingers will focus on things like Dual Weapon Attack or neat tricks that let them put more fire on their target or bypass defenses, and thus will fight at shorter ranges but more often apply around -2 to -3 to target defenses, but typically attack targets no farther than 20-30 yards.

Defense: The gunslinger will tend towards lighter armor. Few Psi-Wars PCs will have less than 20 DR, and 30-40 will be more the norm. Aggressively combat-focused gunslingers may well have higher ST or a deeper investment in unarmed combat skills, because fist fights happen more in their world, and so they might make more use of Unarmed Combat Etiquette.  They'll also tend to have higher defense values than a Commando, as they can't afford to rely on gobs of armor or a position more tactically fortified than a flipped table. Expect higher levels of Dodge: a Dodge of 10-12 is not out of the question.

Other: Gunslingers tend to be more mobile than commandos, but less than space knights as they don't rely on it as much.  They tend to be more adaptable than commandos or space knights, but that adaptability tends to be focused on non-combat scenarios (such as focusing on intimidation or streetwise, etc).  They tend to have a bunch of clever little tricks that might add up if used together, but rarely as sweeping as what the space knights bring.

So, to make an interesting fight for a Gunslinger, we need
  • To be able to handle a target who is often up to 20-30 yards away (we should be able to close that distance relatively quickly, or force the encounter closer, or shoot back)
  • To handle ~15-35 points of damage or up to ~75 points of DR penetration.
  • To be able to test their other skills, like their unarmed combat skills, their stealth or observation, or their social connections.
  • The ability to punch through ~40 DR, but not deal more than about 15 damage in a single attack.
Clearly a gunslinger is a much lighter threat than commandos or space knights.

Thematic Constraints and Beastly Limits


I'm putting settings and themes beyond the scope of this article, except to note that they're important, they need to be distinct and they should feel different enough from one another that the players "feel" like they're fighting a different sort of opponent, rather than red-colored blob of HP vs blue-colored blob of HP.

What's more important in this context isn't how to come up with constraints, but thinking about our constraints and how they limit us. In our case, we're talking about space monsters which are, in principle, natural creatures. In particular, we're talking about monsters that will fit in caves, which limits how large we can make them.  I know a lot of D&D players won't look twice at an SM +5 Dragon at the end of winding tunnels, but enough would that I want to be able to at least answer the question of "How did that thing fit in here?"

Realistically, natural animals are no challenge to Psi-Wars heroes.  Most predators deal between 1-2d of cutting damage, which is nothing.  To be honest, though, even today animals aren't a threat to a prepared soldier.  A knight in chain mail or plate armor was pretty likely to defeat a lion.  I've even read reports of roman soldiers defeating elephants in one-on-one combat.  Gladiatorial arenas made the fight interesting by limiting the amount of armor the gladiator could wear, and I expect most people the expected the gladiator to win most of the time.

But that's okay, space monsters don't have to be realistic.  We can bend the what's plausible.  But I don't want to bend it so much that people start stripping slain beasts for their hide and wearing it into battle or using their claws to attack people.  What makes a beast dangerous should be something innate, and not something you can take from it: technology beats the tools of a beast, but a beast makes up for that lack by being (bigger, faster, stronger, whatever).

Beastly Damage

So we know we need to be able to defeat ~80-100 DR for the space knight or the commando, and around 30-40 for the gunslinger but we should try to avoid doing more than about 10 damage unless our attacks are pretty easy to avoid.

The simplest way to handle this is sheer strength behind claws, horns, fangs, or crushing attacks.  Now, Psi-Wars introduced a rule where all armor is considered flexible against crushing attacks, so every 5 points of damage stopped by DR always inflicts 1 point of injury.  This means that if we deal about 50 damage, we're already at our cap for damage, which makes ~15d a cap for "human-scale" combat. We can apply armor divisors to claws, but how much?  (5) is the standard for technology, so presumably, animals should have a lower armor divisor of (3), but the lower we reduce the armor divisor, the more we need to raise their damage to compensate.  That's fine, we might expect beasts to be brutal, but remember, not every has the same DR.  We might need to deal ~10d (3) to get through DR 100, but against DR 40, that's around 20 points of injury, while 6d(5) has the same penetration vs DR 100, but deals only 12 damage to the character in DR 40.

The easiest, most plausible way to boost damage is ST, which has a nice add-on effect of boosting their survivability by giving them more HP.  However, realistic ST totals suggest a certain mass for these creatures.
  • 15d is ST 150, which is ~175 tons for a living creature (about a Blue Whale, or SM+7), or 20 tons for an unliving one.
  • 10d is ST 90, which is 45 tons for a living creature (about the mass of a Briachiosaur), or about 5 tons for an unliving one.
  • 6d is ST 55, which is 10 tons for a living creature (a bit more than the mass /ST of an elephant) or a bit more than 1 ton for an unliving one (an ox).
I bring up unliving creatures not because I expect to be deploying zombie creatures, but machinery represents a sort of "maximum efficiency" that we migth expect.  We might plausibly say that a 20 ton creature has ST 100 or 140, but not 200.  If we want to go with the armor divisor 3, we're looking at either making some compromises in their lethality or we're looking at unreasonably large, dragon-scale creatures. 6d, or at least 5d with some nice bonuses perhaps, is more plausible, but our creatures are still realistically big and heavy.

Or we need to find some way to leverage Swing damage.  4e made that a big no-no, but we can shrug and ignore it for certain weapons (say, tails or wrenching attacks).  This drops our requisite ST to:
  • 15d becomes ST 130
  • 10d becomes ST 70
  • 6d becomes ST 33.
The first two don't make much of a difference, but the last one is quite doable (a 2 ton creature is plausibly SM +2 to +3), but it has the knock-on effect of reducing our pile'o'hp.

Beastly Survivability

We need to be able to handle ~15-50 damage at a shot, with 75-150 points of armor penetration.  We have a few ways to do that: DR or just straight up HP.

If we go with the ST totals above, we almost survive these hits pretty directly.  ST 150 can absolutely tank 15-50 damage a shot, though it can only do it 3-10 times before it goes down.  A pile of HP is fine, but on its own it isn't enough.  For Labyrinthine Monsters, I've been borrowing IT:DR, a suggestion from the Madness Dossier for monsters who are only "half" in the world, and I think it's a nice touch, as it allows us to double the survival time of our space monsters.

For DR, the maximum plausible DR of a creature is probably Organic Armor from GURPS Spaceships.  At SM +0, we're probably looking at around DR 6, which is not especially impressive in a world of blasters and force swords.  We can make the case that spaceship armor is cheap and thus doubled in weight, in which case we can go all the way to the dizzying heights of DR 12, which is still not especially impressive.  I have some behind-the-scenes rules on "space leather," was a default for the DR from animals or beasts, which clocks in at about 3/4 the protection of battleweave, so the equivalent of a slim, battleweave suit would be DR 15, and you'll probably see no heavier than DR 30-35.  That's getting more reasonable.

The high end for carapaces, chitin and heavy organic plates is probably, according to spaceships, nanopolymer.  We just straight up have rules for that, and that's about half the DR of carbide armor.  That suggest our maximum DR is around 40-50 with a carapace.

If we look at that at our high end of 150 ST and 50 DR, we're looking at a rifle dealing about 10 damage a hit, a pistol dealing no damage on a hit, and a force sword dealing 18 damage on a hit. That will take 10-15 hits for the heavy hitters to take it down.  That's probably your high end, though, and realistically you're looking at the equivalent to an organic tank, about twice the mass of an elephant or more.  If we push them down to ST 90 with 35 DR, pistols might do ~7 damage, rifles will do around 13 damage, and force words will do around 21 damage.  You'll need 5-6 hits to take it down, on average, unless it's something that's going berserk and needs to be absolutely killed.  But you're still looking at something SM +2 or +3.  Smaller than that, and we need to start relying on sheer skill to defeat our opponent.

Beastly Skill

High attack skill and defense skill is more plausible.  We can accept that maybe an alien space monster just has DX 20 or HT 20. It's not the craziest thing in the world!  However, clever tactics are unlikely.  The most common sources of defense penalties will be Attack from Above (-2), an ambush from behind (-2) and possibly blinding speed (-1 to -2) rather than feints or beats.  But -4 to an active defense is enough to challenge all but the most skilled space knights, it's just not something they can do particularly often, as an ambush is only once.

It should be noted that especially large creatures can make area attacks.  I don't think, though, that we can fit SM+6 creatures into the labyrinth.

For active defense, our primary defense will be Dodge, as it's unlikely that a beast will actively parry blasters or force swords.  And with combat reflexes, the best I think we can reasonably expect to get is Dodge 12 to 13, but that might be enough.

Beasts tend to be pretty plausibly mobile, so charging at Commando PCs should be no problem, as we might expect to see Moves of 10+ and Enhanced Moves that allow 20-30 yards covered per turn.  Paired with sufficient DR/HP or Dodge, they can reach a commando in a couple of turns.

Beastly Powers

Psychic powers, strange diseases or poisons aren't unreasonable for animals.  We can simply apply them as normal.  For example, Combat Sense can raise their defense even higher, if necessary.  Poison is nice, but we should be careful with it.  It does the opposite of what we want, which is it's doesn't help the attack bypass DR, but it raises the damage done if DR is bypassed.  Some kind of erosive area attack spray might be better, as it requires you to be sealed, and can plausibly do a modest amount of damage (say, 1d), which means it potentially get around space knight armor, but won't instantly kill a gunslinger, while 10d(3) with +2d follow-up toxic damage certainly would.

Thus, if we have some way of bypassing DR, we should think about it in terms of reduced damage, as we only need to inflict 5-10 damage to really incapacitate any of our PCs, thus 1d to 3d is more than enough.

If we have extreme ST, grapples might be worth exploring too, as it bypasses the DR problem, but it has limited facility for inflicting damage.  Nonetheless, it's worth looking into.


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