Monday, February 3, 2020

The Heroes of the Tall Tales of the Orochi Belt

So, it's been awhile since I talked about it, as I had to postpone it, but the Playtest for the Psi-Wars vehicular combat system, the Tall Tales of the Orochi Belt, is go.

I had intended to give each PC their own post, but I didn't get enough full background stories to do that, and I only have the art for a single character, so I'm going to give brief summaries so you at least have a solid idea of who's who.

The Pilots

The whole point of this exercise is to playtest vehicles, and everyone but one person is focused on having a vehicle, but I was really hoping to work out the Fighter Ace a bit, thus I wanted a focus on them.  The reason the session was post-poned was because we had no fighter aces.  Now we have three.

Baron Mallus Grimshaw, Lord-Consort to Dani Shinjurai

The Baron grew up in the cold confines of the Grimshaw orbital fortress above Denjuku.  The extreme political climate dulled his sense of empathy for others and honed his paranoia to a fine, political edge.  This culminated in the political marriage between himself and the eldest Shinjurai princess, the one originally slated to bear the Shinjurai heir, Dani Shinjurai.  As a "princess mother," she was especially beloved by the people and represented to the traditions and family values of Denjuku.  Thus, the Shinjurai people have strong opinions about her marriage to Mallus Grimshaw: some found their wedding the most beautiful they ever witnesses and see the marriage as strengthening bond between Maradon and Denjuku; other see it as tantamount to holding her as a political hostage and placing her in the unloving hands of a brute.

By all accounts, though, Dani and Mallus' marriage is a loving one.  He believes strongly in the ideals of the Alliance, and Dani seems to support him in that.  He uses his piloting "hobby" as an escape from the intense political climate of his home, and has become truly exceptional at it.  He flies the "Ashen Dragon," a Valkyrie-pattern interceptor.  He joined the Orochi liberation fleet of his own volition, as an "adventurer" in defiance of Bale Grimshaw's late withdrawal of support.

Mallus Grimshaw is a Fighter Ace Aristocrat. He has Blood Potency 2, the Surge psychic power, and a modicum of training in the force sword and dueling (enough to teach commoner's their place), the Ashen Dragon as a signature ship, and Dani Grimshaw as an ally.

Mallus' player is the Gentleman Gamer, an old friend of mine and a veteran of my game, and a patron. I tapped him to round out the fighter aces, as a "spare" player, but despite joining late, he was the second player to turn in his character, and thus I had a lot of time to work out details, such as the nature of his relationship with his wife, what her stats were, etc.  I feel like Mallus was built more like an Aristocrat who happens to be a fighter ace than the other way around, but that's not surprising, given where the Gentleman Gamer's interests lie (it's right there in the name...).  I also feel like I have a pretty good handle on his disadvantages, which tend to be obvious in play (Overconfidence, Paranoia, Code of Honor (Gentleman), etc)

Sir Tyro Pavonis

Tyro is an Alliance fighter ace born to the Pavonis family, an off-shoot of Sabine bloodline.  Afflicted with the flaws of the Bloodline, Tyro is completely blind.  This might seem to hamper his ability to fly, but fortunately, he operates an old, heirloom Devil-Pattern Interceptor, whose psychic interface and awareness module allow him to operate it without sight.  He's also a surprisingly gifted psychic, above what his blood purity might suggest, and being male, he is exceedingly precious to the bloodline.  He joined the liberation fleet out of his duty to House Sabine and serves as one of the Wing Commanders of Harlequin Squadron.

Tyro is a Fighter Ace Aristocrat with Blood Purity 2, ESP talent, a signature ship (with +1 point for +1 psychotronic module, a request that I thought was interesting).  He's got Charisma +2, and Higher Purpose Wingman.

Tyro was the second of the pilots to be completed, a few days before the session began.  Unlike Mallus, Tyro is very much a Fighter Ace, with Aristocracy tacked on because "Mmmm, aristocracy!"  He's played by Nemoricus, who I happen to know is a big fan of Wraith Squadron and thus came the closest to what I was angling for with fighter aces, having things like fighter techniques, rank and other abilities focused on being a fighter pilot. He'll be interesting to test outside of combat, but I expect he'll do well inside of combat.  I don't have nearly as much of a feel for him as I did for Mallus, though, which makes sense given his later arrival, but knowing Nemoricus, we'll get a better sense of the character fairly quickly.  I expect his role as Wing Commander will give him some interesting dynamics with some of the NPCs.

Lady Shay Sabine, Viscontess of Otranto

The Viscontess is a bit of a starlet in House Sabine.  She bears Sabine beauty and grace in her carriage and physique and displays psychic talent rarely seen outside of older tales. Indeed, she is a skilled force swordsman (rated as  Student of the Swift Form by the Threefold Order), and carries an ancient relic blade of surprising power. But like many great nobles, she bears a dead title and serves in the Alliance military directly as a pilot for House Sabine.  The rest of her house watches her career with hope and trepidation and certainly noticed when she, of her own will, joined the Orochi Liberation Fleet as an adventurer, rather than under the auspices of House Sabine proper... many suspect that this is a cover, though, as certainly Nova Sabine would not allow someone as prestigious as the Viscontess to serve in such a dangerous role except as a quiet endorsement of that effort.

Shay Sabine is an Aristocratic Space Knight with some fighter pilot training as a power-up.  She has a blood purity of 3(!), ESP Talent, a fifteen point signature resonance blade, a signature Devil-Pattern Interceptor, and a frightening knowledge (and collection) of the poisonous flowers of Persephone.

Shay was the last of the pilots added to the game, her character sheet coming out the night before.  I've never played with her player, Shinanoki before, and with the character coming so late, I've not really had a chance to really get to know her that well, and given the similarity of Nemoricus' concept and Shinanoki's concept, I suspect he doesn't know her that well yet either, as she went through a lot changes at the last moment.  Shinanoki really enjoyed the "Dune" aesthetic of House Sabine and really wanted to explore that, so she's a very baroque character, with strange, eyeless armor, a collection of poisons, the ability to communicate with other members of her house with but a touch (thus having conversations within conversations).  By going with a Space Knight rather than a Fighter Ace, Shay has more room to explore being a member of a house, but by having fighter pilot training, she gives me the chance to see how characters who seek to branch out in this direction will fare.  It'll create an interesting contrast with the fighter aces: are they too good? Is it too easy for her to outshine them both on and off the space battlefield?  We'll have to see.

My thoughts

You may have, ah, noticed a theme: every single pilot is aristocratic.  I expected the game to test the bounds of how flexible the fighter ace is, and they're certainly doing that, but this is like running a D&D game where three of the six players all choose to play Elven Clerics, with two choosing the same God. That's a really busy niche!  I think by going with Space Knight, Shay's player eased that a bit: Tyro will definitely be the better pilot, but Shay won't be bad by any stretch (or so I hope).

I also found it interesting that everyone, literally every pilot, chose the Valkyrie.  One commented that it was "obviously the PC ship," which surprised me.  The Valiant is meant to vaguely resemble the X-wing: it's a multi-role fighter which can be dynamically reconfigured in battle for whatever role you need.  The second really "PC" fighter would be the Wildcat, which is extremely customizable, and allows for very long trips if you want; it also has the firepower necessary to handle both fighters and capital ships.  The Valkyrie, by contrast, is only really an anti-fighter fighter, a very quick ship that can keep up with Imperial Javelins, with pretty solid armor and a force screen, making it very durable, but lacking in firepower, and with a "neat trick" of a psychotronic module. It's only really good at two things: taking down other fighters and keeping the pilot alive.

I think the real reason for its popularity is that the Maradonian aristocracy is very popular, and the Valkyrie is iconic for them.  It emphasizes their strengths and their attitudes, and it feels like a romantic relic, like WW2 pilots who fly biplanes that have magic crystals in them that allow them to remain competitive: sure, they should update to the Valiant, but the Valkyrie was my father's father's fighter, etc.  Given this reaction, I might need to explore the Valkyrie in more detail, perhaps finding a way to give it more flexibility (I've had one player ask for a hyperdrive sled, which basically makes the Valkryie even more like the Delta-7 than it already is; and perhaps I should find some way to squeeze a torpedo onto it.).

I worry a bit about the popularity of the aristocracy, not because I object to people wanting to play Space Knights and fighter-ace princesses, but because I want to make sure everything else is interesting too.  In some ways, the Maradonian Aristocracy are one of the signatures of Psi-Wars, one of the ways you know you're not "just" playing Star Wars.  They also have a great deal of detail and a lot of internal tension (for example, they fight "for the people," but don't want to actually be around the smelly "people" that they fight for, and certainly wouldn't marry them!).  And I had a lot of fun watching them explore various aspects of different houses and bring up themes that, sometimes, I might have even forgotten.  It was particularly interesting watching the Gentleman Gamer, because he is much less invested in the setting than the other two, so it was like watching him discover elements for the first time and then incorporate them into his character, which says a lot to me about the value of the wiki for introducing people to the setting.

But I want to make sure that people who want to play "commoners" have interesting elements to play with too.  I think the problem there is that "common" characters tend to be attached to planets, and I haven't gone into a lot of detail of planets yet, except for the Orochi Belt, and as we'll see with Walker Lee below, that pays dividends in a similar way to the details of the aristocratic houses.  The details given the alien races also help, as we'll see with Xerxes.

The Non-Fighter Pilots

I could insist that everyone play fighter pilots, but I opposed this for two reasons.  First, most Psi-Wars games won't feature fighter aces and might not even have fighter aces. Second, most Psi-Wars gameplay won't involve space combat and when it does, that space combat will be a sideshow for the main thing (like how in Return of the Jedi, the space battle is literally the background for Luke's final confrontation with Vader).

This creates a difficult situation: to make a fighter ace fun, you have to create a situation specifically suited to their talents (space combat), which tends to isolate all the other characters.  That is, during a space combat scene, the fighter aces have a ton of fun, but how much fun is the Diplomat having? And in non-space combat scenes, the Diplomat might be having fun, but how's the fighter ace doing? This is ultimately true of every niche, of course, but it seems worse with the Fighter Ace, as they operate in a "different world" from the more common "planetary" play.

I could have run a strict, space combat scenario, but I chose not to, because I tend to do that on my own anyway, and because what I want a more holistic experience to create a broader view. What will Psi-Wars actually play like, and how will Fighter Ace's experience that, and how will everyone else experience Fighter Ace gameplay?

So I requested that at least some of the players choose non-Fighter Aces.  We have three.

Sir Axton Kain, Knight Protector

"Axton Kain is a young Space Knight, but he has seen battle as a regular in Caliban's forces and proven himself  brave to a fault, perhaps even heroic.

"A few months ago, Axton came to the rescue of an Akashic delegation's yacht fleeing an Imperial Dominion-class  Cruiser, the Valorian Authority. Against orders, Axton came to the rescue of the yacht, leading a Lancer on a
bloody mission to sieze the Valorian Authority. He succeeded, and even more surprisingly he survived. He has  since been celebrated in Alliance propaganda and awarded the title of Knight Protector.

"Axton sees himself as following in the footsteps of his father, Anthor Kain. Anthor died when Axton was just a  babe in arms, protecting the Contessa Styliana Sabine in the Last Stand of Delphinus. Axton was raised in the
household of his great uncle, Archbaron Kento Kain, on tales of his father's heroism.

"In truth, the Akashic Order was aware of Axton long before he came to their aid. The oracles have foretold a  complicated destiny for him with many branches into the future, some with Axton dying an honorable hero in
the mold of Kusari Kain, others where he becomes a rogue or great warlord. All end with Axton's name being  remembered, but House Kain ultimately weakened by his actions.

"Aware of these predictions, the Archbaron has attempted to steer Axton to a place where he has the  opportunity to die a hero without completely breaking the strength of House Kain. When Axton lept at the  chance to lend his sword to the same Lady Sabine that his father had died defending, the Archbaron saw it as  the hand of destiny. He blessed Axton's going, supplied him with a ship and attendants, and prepared for the  grievous and joyous news.
"Axton is in his early twenties and stands 6'5" with a broad frame. His face is boyish and innocent of guile, framed  by dark curly hair that he wears long and loose. His voice is a sweet, booming bass, amplified by his Silvertongue
implant. Unlike most members of House Kain he has no other visible cybernetics. Beneath his skin however,  Axton's skeleton and organs are the best House Kain's foundries have to offer.

"His Crusader-pattern armor has been custom modified with a gauntlet on the right arm for protection in duels. The armor and his sword and shield were actually carried by Anthor Kain during his last stand, and later
ransomed by Axton at great cost. The Redjack pistol is his own nod to the needs of the modern battlefield. His  most consistent companion is his Shieldmaiden robot Elara, who maintains the cybernetics that run throughout  his body, as well as his armor and fashionable dress."

Axton Kain is an Aristocratic Space Knight, with a Cybernetic Power-Up.  He's a Student of Knightly Force Swordsmanship, and he has a robot of the shield maiden pattern and a racanteur personality, Elara.

All of this material comes directly from the player himself.  Axton was the first PC ready, the only one with a written background.  Since he came so early, his player and I also had a lot of time to work on his character together.  Because his robot is a storyteller, I wanted to figure out what stories she would tell, which resulted in the "Legendarium of Axton Kain," a document we've been haggling over for awhile, which details the origins of his line and major moments of it, ie the sorts of stories his robot would tell.  This intense scrutiny creates a self-perpetuating cycle detail creation (I would recommend to my other aristocratic players, if they have the time or interest, to at least contemplate their lineage and how they fit into the history of the setting; the Maradonian aristocracy is ripe for the sort of detailed family legends that we see in 40k or Vampire: the Masquerade, and it's a lot of fun).

Axton is also the ideal way to test how someone who really, really isn't a pilot  will fair when space combat comes up.

The player also created the Orochi belt, so it's interesting to see it through his eyes.

Walker Lee

Walker Lee is a war hero of the Orochi Belt.  He served in the Alliance Navy as a petty officer before he grew disenchanted with all the politics and BS and mustered out and returned to his native Orochi Belt where he operated as a salvager until the Empire invaded, where his participation in the resistance earned him the "rank" of Commander in the resistance.  With the loss of the Belt, he continued to work on the inside, occasionally slipping out along smuggler routes to resupply and to call for aid.  He didn't join the Orochi Liberation Fleet so much as it joined up with him and his Nomad-Class Corvette, the Bad Penny.

Walker Lee is a Scavenger Wanderer with some elements of the Officer skill set tossed on as power-ups.  In addition to his courtesy rank, charisma, reputation and favors and other forms of accumulated favor, he has an Ally, Jethro Page, a farm-boy from St. Borlaug's Star who has a knack for piloting, entrusted to Walker Lee to help him see the galaxy and grow up a bit.

Walker's player has played an officer before, and I've enjoyed all of his characters. This one was a particular treat, though, because he dove pretty deep into the Orochi Belt and it's culture.  He quoted some names and concepts to me that I hadn't realized anyone had bothered to read up on, which was quite a delight.  As a scavenger, in principle, he's a "ground" character, but his officer training makes him useful in space and, of course, his Nomad is built for speed and support, which means he'll be useful in space combat, but in an unusual role.

Walker is a shepherdist (though I'm not sure how devout), so I might invest some time into exploring that faith in more detail.


Xerxes is an Asrathi Witchcat pirate.  He commands the Calico, a Tigershark-Pattern Assault Frigate equipped with two Grappler-class boarding boats.  He and his crew have a careful understanding with the Archbaron of Caliban to be allowed to operate in his realm of protection provided he hits nothing under the protection of House Kain. He prefers to hit soft Imperial targets, but sometimes hits civilian transports (those operating under the auspice of the Empire).  He joined the Orochi Liberation Fleet as a mercenary, hired by the Archbaron himself.

Xerxes is a "Pirate," a new template that's so far Patron-only, not especially because it needs to remain secret, but because I'm not sure it should be a thing, and it may well need some work.  Beyond that, he's invested heavily into "Death Walking," the Asrathi mystical art of Unconscious Communion along the Path of Death.  He was the third character out, and he came out quite early.  He asked about a crew for his ship, if he needed to make them allies and, of course, he didn't: they can be hirelings, and so I went ahead and gave them some details anyway, as NPCs who posed potential problems to Xerxes and the rest of the crew (fitting for a pirate)
  • Sylvar Ro and his Reavers, a bloodthirsty Asrathi assassin with a fanatical devotion to the Asrathi old ways, and a belief that he alone knows best.
  • Born Risken and his Maurauders, a burly belter who drinks away his coin and loses his temper at the drop of a hat.
  • Winner Chau and Ripper, a Shinjurai mechanic with a chip on her should and a deep and abiding hatred of human traffickers.  Ripper is her Crankshaft-Class robot.
  • Persia Purasinga, an Asrathi college student who got caught up in all of this by a big misunderstanding.  She's not actually a pirate, but to repay the crew of the Calico for rescuing her, she acts as their medic.
Xerxes' player is not someone I've played with before, but his desire to play an Asrathi added some urgency to my desire to create a more codified version of Psi-Wars' felinoids.  I've really enjoyed exploring the race as a consequence of his addition, partly because the addition of some aliens adds to the Space Opera feel, but also because the small details I've added have had an outsized influence on how people see an interact with them.  I also really enjoyed creating his crew.

Xerxes has a pretty strong focus on piloting his frigate, but his crew also gives him the ability to bring in ground support, making him pretty flexible and able to help in both areas.  But what his player really wanted to explore was what sort of impact Communion would make on large scale battles, and his presence gives me the opportunity to explore that.


Generally, I'm pretty happy with the group.  I'm happier with my non-pilots than I am with my pilots, but that stands to reason: when you open up character options, people have the opportunity to explore things, and as weird as it might be that all the fighter pilots are aristocrats who fly the same fighter, would an Imperial game actually be so different?  I don't think so.  Thus that will make for an interesting experience.  I think our two Sabines could use some additional attention, which they lack primarily because they came late in the game, but I've got another month to work out details with them.  The problem isn't that there isn't room for interesting details and refinement, just that we haven't had the time.

We've already had the first session, so expect a report on it soon.

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