Friday, May 18, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 2 - Choose a Tech Level

The tech levels of the various items in this book should be treated simply as guidelines – a culture may develop some technologies more rapidly than others. --GURPS Ultra-Tech, page 8
The first step most people take when designing a sci-fi setting is to choose an appropriate tech-level. This is fine, but the first thing you must understand is that tech level is only a starting point, at best a loose guideline. You should not treat tech-level as an absolute. The point of tech level is not to define what is available and what isn't, but to describe what is generally available. This, by the way, is true of all TLs. American TL 8 is not really the same as Nigerian TL 8, and Chinese TL 3 is definitely not the same as British TL 3. Even works like Dungeon Fantasy or Action don't precisely hit a single TL: DF is better understood as TL 4 "but without guns," and Action is often "TL 8 but with a sprinkling of select TL 9 super-gadgets." If I say that a setting belongs to a particular TL, it already tells you a lot, but there's a lot it doesn't tell you.

Furthermore, all tech levels assigned to ultra-tech gadgets is ultimately arbitrary. Just because a setting is pegged at a particular TL doesn’t mean it has access to all technology of that TL, or that it has no access to higher TL technology. GURPS explicitly discusses alternate development paths and advocates breaking down TL into categories. Personally, working with split tech-levels is less important than understanding that tech-level is really just setting a baseline of expectations and pointing you in a particular direction. This is especially true of Super-Science technology, as there is no physical basis for them anyway, so you can declare them to be available when and if you want. This is explicitly true of super-science power cells, cosmic power-cells and most psychotronics, but all the tech levels of super-science gadgets in Ultra-Tech are definitely just suggestions.

So, given that all future tech-levels are ultimately arbitrary, the authors of GURPS Ultra-Tech seem to have chosen particular themes around which to wrap the idea of tech levels, guesses at how advanced and strange a society would have to be to gain access to a tech level. If we’re going to use tech levels, it behooves us, then, to understand what the assumptions behind a given TL is. GURPS Ultra-Tech lays this out for us starting on page 6, but allow me to approach them with more explicit themes in mind.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ultra-Tech Frameworks: Step 1: Your Technological Concept and Core Activity

A useful concept in designing a campaign is to think of the “default adventure.” This is simply what the characters are expected to do...The GM can use default adventures to play up different aspects of the game and the setting. – GURPS Space page 208, the Default Adventure
What sort of setting are you trying to build? This should be your first question, but it often isn’t. Many people start by saying something like “I’m building a TL 10 setting and...” but this doesn’t tell us anything. TL 10 can be anything from advanced cyberpunk spy-thriller to conspiratorial supers to anti-alien warfare ala X-Com to full-on space opera. You need to know, first, what your game is about.

While there’s no such thing as “generic fantasy,” the fantasy genre does benefit from the dominance of Tolkien-esque D&D-inspired knock-offs so you can say “I’m running a fantasy game and...” and most people have a rough idea of what you’re doing, sci-fi absolutely does not have the benefit of this. Even if you refine it to something like “Cyberpunk” or “space opera,” it can still mean any number of things; after all, both Star Wars and Star Trek are in the “space opera” genre, yet are very dissimilar in just about every aspect. Tech level will vary, available technology will vary, and what the players will do will vary.

So the first thing we need to do is to come up with at least a sentence to describe what the game is like. You can borrow from existing tropes, but keep it short; think of it like an elevator pitch. It should, in the very least, invoke some of the technologies one might expect, not explicitly, but implicitly. Additionally, or supplementing this, you should think about what players do, the “Core activity” of the game.

A “core activity” of a role-playing game is anything that the mechanics and gameplay focuses on most intently. When players are “making choices” in gameplay, these tend to circle around core activities, and when people talk about “game balance,” they mean the balance of strategies around the core activity. You can think of it as “what the players generally do.” The most common example of this is Dungeon Fantasy’s “Killing monsters and taking their stuff.” Players will focus most of their character builds on going into dungeons, killing a wide variety of monsters with varied tactics, and then setting about acquiring their loot (while avoiding traps). They do not spend much time, for example, worrying about if their characters will arrange the right marriage necessary to secure a treaty between two factions, or who murdered Old Man Jenkins. These aren’t the core activities of Dungeon Fantasy; you could make them the focus of your game, but arguably you’d be playing in a different genre. Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy games, for example, care very much about arranging marriages and securing treaties between rival factions, while Monster Hunter games or Mystery-Solving games care very much about murder mysteries. These also tend to have far more mechanics focused on them: a princess with high status, very good looks, Empathy, Psychology and high levels of poise but absolutely no combat skills to speak of makes for an absolutely worthless dungeon fantasy character, but an excellent game-of-thrones character.

This matters because your technology should serve your settings’ goals. A cyberpunk game may need cybernetics (or some form transhuman augmentation), information technology and a bad attitude, but additionally, its core activities will shape it too. If the game is mostly about being part of a resistance cell that fights an oppressive government, then combat may be your core focus, and you’ll need to have plenty of interesting guns to choose from. If your core focus is on running a game where hackers can dig into the dark net to ferret out the insidious plots of the evil megacorp, then computers, security and software need far more focus. What they don’t need, you shouldn’t waste much time or effort on; for example, if your cyberpunk game has robots as background characters, then you shouldn’t spend much time on robots, nor draw undo attention to them.

By creating a concept and a core activity, we focus down on just what we need and, critically, no more. It’s our starting point, our spring-board for building the rest of the technological framework.

Some examples might include:

  • Genetically enhanced super-soldiers on an interstellar crusade to clear out alien races and make way for humanity to colonize the stars. Core activity: fighting aliens.

  • A new model of high-intelligence android has been created to work with law enforcement, always an android with a human officer; however, this same technology may lie behind a series of terrorist crimes as the robot revolution may have already begun, and its up to the player characters to stop it (but which side will the androids choose). Core Activities: solving crimes, unraveling conspiracies, fighting criminals/terrorists

  • The space cruiser’s continuing mission is to seek out new worlds and new alien species and investigate them, then bring home the data, while fending off the encroaching Alien Empire who seeks to seize these worlds before the heroic Space Alliance does. Core Activities: exploring new worlds, solving “science” mysteries, and fighting other spaceships.

  • The heroes awake from cryo-sleep to find that the solar system has gone silent, and their ship has been damaged. They must repair their ship, and then navigate back towards Earth, picking up supplies where they can, to find out what’s happened to humanity and, perhaps, to see if they can find any other survivors. Core Activities: Scavenging, survival, the logistics of space travel.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Designing an Ultra-Tech Framework

Given my blog’s focus on GURPS sci-fi, I often find myself fielding a lot of questions, especially about Ultra-Tech. I often see criticisms leveled against it that it is the most flawed GURPS book, apart from (perhaps) Magic. While I do not wish to argue for or against this point, I do understand where and how people can find it frustrating. So what I want to do with this post is get to the heart of what I think Ultra-Tech is and what it isn’t. I want to discuss how I use it, and how I recommend you use it too, if you want to get the most out of it, and if you want to understand how GURPS really works, especially when it comes to sci-fi.

I think the biggest problem with GURPS Ultra-Tech stems from the fact that people try to treat it as a catalog when it is better understood as a world-building tool. I see many people try to use Ultra-Tech in a similar manner to how they might use GURPS High-Tech; For example, if you can dig through High-Tech to find that one highly specific gun you want, y ou should be able to do the same in Ultra-Tech, right? Only what they find in Ultra-Tech is, at best, very generic ("Blaster Rifle"), and at worst, potentially profoundly unbalanced. However, GURPS Ultra-Tech dedicates a considerable volume of its pages not to gear that characters could carry around, but to concepts and megastructures, like terraforming projects, cryptography and even playable robots. These certainly impact characters, but they can often be better understood as things that exist in the world with them better than things they carry in their pocket (Incidentally, this is true of High Tech and Low-Tech too, especially when you combine the latter with its companions). Ultra-Tech itself takes this stance, as you can see from the introduction where it discusses how to use the book, including different technological frameworks, different development cycles and gadget control.

My approach with Ultra-Tech has always to take it as a guidebook of inspiration and ideas. Consider, for a moment, if you were to throw up your hands over GURPS, and step over to another system of your choice for your sci-fi epic, such as Fate, World of Darkness or D20. In what sort of book would you look for ideas about your sci-fi game? You might dig through Atomic Rockets or a wiki on a setting you wished to convert, but personally, I'd just pick up Ultra-Tech again, not because I intended to directly use its mechanics, but because those mechanics act like benchmarks, and the discussions in the book offer inspiration. The point of Ultra-Tech, then, is to inform your sci-fi game. The rest, alas, must be done by you.

Just how much work this actually requires can vary from "Just create a list of appropriate technologies" to "How good are you with algebra?"

This will be a short-running series over the next couple of weeks.  Patrons ($1+) gain immediate access to, and in two weeks from this posting date, the full document will be publicly available to everyone.  You can find it (patron and patient reader a like) here.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Iteration 7 Part 1 - Technology

GURPS Vehicles is more than about just vehicles; it’s a technological infrastructure book” -David Pulver
Why start with technology? Because technology is the foundation of all sci-fi settings. While Psi-Wars endeavors to maintain a “feel” of familiar technology, both by extrapolating modern technology and by making use of familiar Star Wars technology, as well as the sort of “standard tropes” that we tend to see in space opera, rather than diving into a deep exploration of an alternate technological concepts. But even with all of that, the technological differences between the real world and Psi-Wars really need to be carefully outlined and discussed.

Psi-Wars is not a book or a film or a tightly bound computer- or board-game, it is an RPG, and in an RPG, players can and will try to do anything, which is often the source of many an amusing story. Players need to know what they can do and what they can’t, as does the GM, which means we need a really good idea of how technology works, and we need to explain it well, so that the players can see how everything works.

Furthermore, Psi-Wars deliberately draws on exotic ideas. While it doesn’t have crazy technologies like domination nano or consciousness uploading, I do make an effort to find some unusual and fascinating imagery. While Star Wars does trade in fairly familiar tropes, it goes out of its way to embrace the exotic on occassion (the salt plains of Crait, the court of Jaba, the ocean cities of the Gungans, the entire world of Geonosis), and I draw regularly from sci-fi that embraces weirdness, like Dune, the Metabarons and Barsoom. For me, the point of space opera is to go to weird places and have familiar adventures there. If you wanted to save the princess, you’d be playing D&D; you’re here because you want to save the space princess. What, exactly, is a space princess and how is she different?

One of the ways we can show that the setting is exotic is through unusual technology. We don’t have cars, we have repulsor cars. We don’t have guns, we have blasters. We don’t have fighters, we have starfighters, and so on. But, again, these need to be explained and, indeed, players will likely want to read about them! After all, the X-Wing and the Star Destroyer are nearly as discussed as the Jedi and the Force!

We spent iteration 6 exploring our setting, which means we already know a lot of technological concepts and we have a picture of how the setting works. All we really need to do is sit down and define things carefully and, more importantly, make them our own a little. I don’t think Psi-Wars players will ever get away from GURPS Ultra-Tech and I’m okay with that (though I think if we can get away from GURPS Spaceships, I’ll be happy with that!). All we really need to do now is put pen to paper and clearly define these.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Psi-Wars Primer

GURPS is a wonderful system, but cannot provide a game without a context, and typically relies on the GM to create that context, the setting and the rules of the sort of game the GM wishes to run. GURPS itself has numerous pre-published settings, such as Reign of Steel or GURPS Cabal, and campaign frameworks, such as Dungeon Fantasy and Monster Hunters, but lacks a solid Space Opera offering.

Psi-Wars fills that niche with a baroque space opera inspired primarily by Star Wars, but also draws additional inspiration from works such as Dune, Warhammer 40k, typical space opera tropes as seen in video games or TV shows, and a smattering of stranger works. Psi-Wars emuates the sort of space opera were space knights rescue space princesses from the clutches of ancient cults, or where smugglers dodge the oppressive laws of a grasping and evil Galactic Empire, or where scavengers uncover the ancient remains of once lost civilizations, discovering some wondrous psionic relic, but also awakening some ancient evil.

Psi-Wars ultimately attempts to serve two roles. First, it seeks to create a ready-to-play setting with character templates, gear catalogs, simplified rules and setting material so you can simply jump in with both feet. It also seeks to show you how to build such a setting on your own. Psi-Wars contains a design diary in the form of a blog, showing how the author came to the conclusions he did, variations he set aside (that you might take up), and how you can do something similar with other settings.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

State of the Patreon: May, and an Iteration 6 retrospective

I am behind, as usual. You'll find this becomes relatively common in the next year or so, because my day has become traveling on a train for 3 hours a day, working 8 hours a day, and then putting my boy to bed and going to bed myself.  Paradoxically, this means I'm writing more than ever, as I purchased the dinkiest laptop ever (a Lenovo Miix 320) and I've been typing away, but having the time to really sit down, do proper research and editing, never mind posting, requires sitting behind my computer, and that's going to be a rare thing.  So, fair warning!

So, what happened last month?  What are we doing this month?  And where do I see the blog going?

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Patreon Post: How Big is Big? Size Modifier Contexts

I've seen some discussion about whether or not the ships I use in Psi-Wars are "too big" or "too small."  I've just used spaceships out of GURPS Spaceships, but that's slated to change, and it got me thinking: I don't really understand size modifiers.  To me, they're just empty numbers with more empty numbers attached to them ("SM +15 is 700 yards long.  Okay.  That's like 7 football fields, but is that unbelievably enormous or are there like naval ships that big?").  So, I wanted to work out things I could visualize, see and compare them to, as well as collate a collection of values to compare them with. If I start building vehicles, I want to have a sense of how big they should be, and how big that means.

What I have for you, then, are two posts.  The first is a collated list of size modifiers and some example vehicles that fit those size modifiers as well as a discussion of what that scale might mean, and I round it out with a discussion of small-scale megastructures and why sci-fi spaceships often seem to be so gigantic.

Second, because I've found it extremely useful when working on additional vehicles, I've included an excel sheet that I collected for size modifiers, their volumes, surface areas, dimensions and GURPS SS masses.

This post is available to all Dreamers ($1+!).  Enjoy and thank you very much for your support.


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