The Core Of Psi Wars

An Introduction in the Mechanics of Psi-Wars

Psi-Wars owes it existence to the innovative ideas of recasting the mechanics of GURPS in a way that serves a specific genre, as pioneered by Sean “Dr. Kromm” Punch in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. A key component to that is not just going over specifics that matter to the genre, but making overarching assumptions about how the game will be run, like whether the genre is cinematic or realistic, simplified or detailed, and where the detail lays.

Psi-Wars originally founded itself in GURPS Action, but it has since grown to draw ideas from a wide variety of games. It seeks to emulate the high octane action of cinematic space opera, and thus focuses on simplifying action and speeding up rolls and focusing on the “rule of cool” over realism. However, like GURPS Monster Hunters, it also emphasizes player agency and their larger-than-life importance of the heroes, allowing the players to directly influence events with Impulse Buys. Finally, it draws on numerous ideas found in a variety of works, but have become fairly standard in the latter half of GURPS 4e’s lifespan.

This chapter outlines the core assumptions that governs all of Psi-Wars. This document will only restate elements from other GURPS Books where strictly necessary, both to keep this material short, and because Psi-Wars is not an official, sanctioned supplement (Psi-Wars is intended as to supplement, not replace, official GURPS materials). Where material is repeated, it is either because it is commonly known or because it would be impossible to discuss numerous concepts without at least a summary of the mechanic in question. I highly recommend that you have a copy of GURPS Action 2, GURPS Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys and the article “Ten for Ten” from Pyramid #3/70, “Fourth Edition Festival” if you want to explore these ideas in greater depth.

  • BAD is described in numerous reviews
  • Complementary Skills are available in the preview of GURPS Action 2 and the preview of Pyramid #3/70,
  • Impulse Buys are outlined in GURPS Basic, which you need to play Psi-Wars.

Basic Abstract Difficulty

See GURPS Action 2

The core assumption behind BAD is that rather than try to calculate a modifier for each action the characters undertake, you assign the adventure itself a difficulty between 0 and 10, and apply that as a penalty to all pertinent rolls. For example, if you assign an adventure a BAD of 2, then when someone attempts to pick a lock, they suffer a -2 penalty; when they attempt to seduce an enemy agent, they have a -2, when they attempt to evade local sensors, they suffer a -2 penalty, etc.
Simplified BAD guys

This idea can be extended further to the mooks or minor NPCs the PCs face. Rather than calculate the specifics, you can instead assume that their pertinent skills (especially combat skills) are equal to 10+BAD.

Just how BAD should it be?

The GM can determine BAD based on whatever criteria he wishes. As a general rule, it should reflect the overall difficulty the player characters will face in the adventure. More specifically, BAD is generally connected to the organization that the players will face. In this case, BAD is based on how well organized the enemy organization is, how secure its facilities, how loyal and how well trained its minions are, and how much wealth the organization can bring to bear. This can be determined by the cost of the organization if it were taken as an Enemy; for this to work, one must ignore how large the enemy is: a galaxy-spanning union of space truckers is unlikely to be BAD 10, while a cult of a dead god isolated to a ruined city of a forsaken planet is unlikely to be BAD 0.

Some BAD organizations are conspiratorial in nature. They might be complete ciphers, hidden forces moving beneath the surface of society, or they have infiltrated the organization the characters work for. The former are Unknown organizations and are generally have +1 BAD compared to a typical organization, while a False-Flagged organization, ones that have infiltrated the players organization and are actively working against them, are generally +2 BAD worse.
Alternatively, the GM might set the bad on the general expectations of the adventure. For example, if plumbing an ancient, alien ruin, this might be more BAD than trying to rescue a space princess marooned on a lost moon. Even with no organization involved, the GM selects a general modifier that he can apply across the adventure.

Suggested BAD Values

One can generally expect a standard Psi-Wars character to have a skill of 11-13 with background elements, skill 15 at things he or she is generally good at, and skill 18 at their most important, central skills. High end Psi-Wrs characters have skills between 18 and 22 and often enjoy super-human capabilities that augment their effectiveness further. This informs how they’ll interact with BAD.

BAD 0 to 1: Minor Opponents

Typical Enemy Value: -5
Typical Patron Value: NA

A player character facing a BAD of 0 is unlikely to fail any roll that they’re specialized in, and will rarely fail even background skills. BAD 0 adventures are those where the difficulty of the adventure typically isn’t the central part of the story: the PCs can expect to blow through opposition with ease and look good while doing it. Such adventures might emphasize how awesome the PCs are, or it might serve as a backdrop to a bigger adventure, or an adventure that focuses on some other aspect of the characters, such as their relationships with one another, or the community. For example, the player characters might battle some minor street gang while trying to clean up a local community; such an adventure is more likely to turn on them trying to convince a local youth not to join the gang rather than whether or not they’ll defeat the gang.

Example Organizations: A minor Imperial Senator and his staff; a street gang; a small corporate office; a poorly founded, back-water security department; general civilian organizations (like a mining cooperative).

Minor opponents are almost never Unknown or False-Flagged. They’re not competent enough.

BAD 2 to 4: Typical Organizations

Typical Enemy Value: -10
Typical Patron Value: 10

BAD 2 is generally a good default for lower-level adventures. A character cannot rely on his background skills succeeding and faces the real possibility of failure with his generalized skills. He will, however, shine when it comes to his extreme skills, which will still almost never fail, and while non-combat characters may feel threatened by mooks at this level, a competent combat character will not.

Example Organizations: A typical Imperial military detachment; pirates; typical rebel insurgents; a major corporate office; a well organized criminal gang. These tend to be 15-point Patrons

These organizations might be Unknown (typically BAD 3) or False-Flagged (typically BAD 4), but they tend to be mundade and without psychic or supernatural powers. Examples of such groups might be a secret insurgent cell, a secret criminal gang, or some corruption within a security agency or a military unit.

BAD 5 to 6: Elite Factions

Typical Enemy Value: -20
Typical Patron Value: 20

BAD 5 is very challenging to standard Psi-Wars characters and even advanced Psi-Wars characters will not simply blow through them. This represents the peak of “mundane” adventures, about as dangerous as most “standard” characters without access to psychic powers, serious cybernetics, or conspiratorial secrets can handle. At this level, background skills almost always fail, general skills fail 50% of the time, and even their specialties aren’t guaranteed to succeed. Minions at this level pose a significant threat. That said, with access to powers, good teamwork and impulse buy points, they should be able to handle it.

Example Organizations: A major criminal syndicate; Elite imperial forces; A typical Imperial Intelligence operation; a competent Maradonian Noble; an elite mercenary force; a cabal of psychic sorcerers.

These organizations can be Unknown (typically BAD 6) or False-Flagged (typically BAD 7). These might include an especially skillful intelligence operation, a secretive cabal, or the corrosive force of a full syndicate. These often represent the lowest tier of effective conspiratorial forces, and the sorts of conspiracies they enact tend to be mundane (spy rings, criminal corruption, military war crimes, secret experiments etc), but low level psychic or supernatural conspiracies (a cabal of sorcerers, a cult of a Broken Communion God, etc).

BAD 7 to 9: Singular Foes

Typical Enemy Value: -30
Typical Patron Value: 30

BAD 7 will typically be enough to defeat standard Psi-Wars characters, and is thus best left either for the ultimate culmination of an adventure where the deaths of a few PCs might not be a problem, or a tragic finale where the players are overwhelmed, or for more advanced characters. At this level, background skills have little chance of success, general skills are unlikely to succeed, and even a character’s specialty will fail around 40% of the time. Most “minions” at this level will be more combat-capable than any non-combat focused character, and will only be “easy” to defeat thanks to cinematic rules. Most opponents at this level won’t be minions! For advanced characters, this tends to be the sort of adventure that keeps them on their toes, but isn’t necessarily a death knell for them, especially with access to impulse buys, psychic powers and their faith in Communion.

Example Organizations: The assassins of a hidden planetary fortress; An Imperial Knight; A Templar Chapter; Ranathim Death Cultists; The Akashic Order. A conspiracy of genetically engineered super-soldiers.

These organizations are often Unknown (typically BAD 8) or False-Flagged (typically BAD 9). Secretive assassins, hidden conspiracies and lost Templar Chapters tend to operate at this level. These tend to be the standard “esoteric” conspirators with access to secret knowledge that makes them seem superhuman.

BAD 10+: The Secret Masters

Typical Enemy Value: -30
Typical Patron Value: 30 (though often with Special Powers added for at least +50%)

At this level, one must be super-human, or near to it, to even compete. Standard Psi-Wars characters will typically fail with even their most experienced skills. They might succeed with judicious use of teamwork and impulse buys, but some of them would certainly die, as the typical minion at this level is better in combat than even a combat character. Characters with skill 21+ will be able to reasonably count on success, but only if they have a few powers, some good teammates and some impulse buy points to back them up.

Example Organizations: The Emperor Ren Valorian; the Council of Terminus; A master of the Cult of the Mystical Tyrant; an Eldothic Exarch; the Anacridian Scourge; A Templar Master.

These organizations are almost always Unknown (typically BAD 11) or False-Flagged (typically BAD 12). Exceptions generally include heads of powerful states with access to vast resources (the Emperor, the Council of Terminus, the Anacridian Scourge). Almost all other organizations tend to remain hidden to prevent other major powers from disrupting their agendas.

Not So BAD after all!

BAD should not be used in all cases. It does not replace the modifiers in combat, and shouldn’t replace modifiers incidental to the adventure. The intent behind BAD is to make your life easier by acting as a sort of default “go-to” modifier that the GM can use when he’s not sure what the modifier should be, rather than trying to calculate it out by hand every time. That doesn’t mean the GM can’t discard it when he feels a greater level of detail would benefit the game, or when a different modifier would make more sense.

Scaling BAD

A common way in which BAD might change has to do with the scale of the opponent at the moment. BAD assumes that one deals with the same target at all times. Thanks to the labyrinthine conspiracies of Psi-Wars, however, it’s possible that one is dealing with several organizations at once, or different sections of a larger organization.
For example, rebels may be fighting “the Empire,” and at its worst, the Empire is represented by the Emperor, who is a BAD 10 opponent. But clearly, when insurgents go to deal with local soldiers, they are not dealing with Skill-20 elite commandos, but likely skill-12 common soldiers with somewhat lax -2 modifiers on security and such. A local military unit is a much smaller scale part of “the Empire,” which his a sprawling organization. From adventure to adventure, as the rebels fight their way up the imperial hierarchy, they may well expect the BAD to increase.

It’s also possible to deal with multiple organizations at once. If the player characters are investigating an insidious Eldothic conspiracy (BAD 10) while also trying to avoid the attention of a somewhat overzealous local security department (BAD 0) and fending off the criminal, and expendable, pawns of the Eldothic conspiracy (BAD 2), they may find themselves dealing with different BAD depending on what they’re doing and where.

When dealing with multiple levels of BAD across a wider organization or, especially, a conspiracy (such as when a BAD 2 organization works for a BAD 10 organization, knowingly or otherwise), if the characters undertake actions that directly impacts both organizations (for example, interrogating someone from the BAD 2 organization to reveal secrets of the BAD 10 organization), use the worst BAD.

In these cases, it may do well to think of BAD more as a “terrain” through which the players navigate, a large label attached to certain segments of the adventure, depending on what players do, and what their choices are.

Alternate BAD

One way in which BAD might be different is when dealing with an organization that has wildly different capabilities. A group of hackers might have extraordinary technological security, but might be utterly inept in a fight, giving them a general BAD of 5 when trying to infiltrate or find them, but their minions might have the combat capability of BAD 0.
The whole point of BAD is to provide a single modifier and thus to simplify the GM’s efforts, but it might make sense in a few cases to have a few specific “generic” modifiers for specific instances.

  • Combat: How well trained are the minions of the organization? This determines the default values for their mooks and minions when it comes to combat skills.
  • Security: How difficult is it to penetrate an organization? This includes the difficulty of picking locks or disarming alarms, the difficulty of stealth rolls for creeping past sensors or guards, and the difficulty of hacking their computers or decrypting their files.
  • Loyalty: How likely are members of the organization to betray their organization? This penalty covers all rolls to influence, intimidate, brainwash, convert or interrogate members of the organization (in short, all Social Engineering rolls).
  • Influence: If the organization manipulates other organizations, how much pull does it have with those organizations? These rules are used for the conspiratorial rules, when an action both the organization the characters currently face, and the “parent” organization that controls it, use the Influence BAD to determine how difficult it is to get people to betray the larger organization. It might also represent a difficulty in revealing the organization to the rest of the world, convincing other large organizations to act against it, successfully arresting its membership, etc.
  • Psi: Many organizations will be either much better or much worse and dealing with psionics than the typical threat. Psionics grant surprising capabilities to their users that aren’t easily countered by the standard things most organizations do: a more complex electronic lock might give way as easily as a simple electronic lock to an electrokinetic, and the most loyal man in the world cannot hide his thoughts from a telepath. On the other hand, there are tactics to deal with psychics that don’t translate well to helping an organization defeat others. Anti-psionic psi-hunters will destroy a psion, but aren’t particularly effective against normal opponents; psi-dampers and learning to think in coded phrases will also help defeat psions, but won’t help you capture or trick normal people.

Thus Psi-Wars recommends on additional layer of complexity for BAD: Psi-Bad represents the modifier that affects psychic powers, independent of normal BAD. In most cases, this will be lower than BAD, but in some cases it might match, of even exceed bad (for example, a True Communion temple might be poorly secured and full of pacifist monks, who are all extremely disciplined at dealing with psychic powers).

Psi BAD should be rated based on how well the organization deals with psis, how knowledgeable they are of them, and how much of a priority they give the dangers posed by psis. It should be noted that general security measures and training do give some edge over psions (for example, keeping knowledge secret “on a need to know” basis is as effective for protecting secrets from interrogation as from psychic intrusion: someone cannot give up what they don’t know!) so the default Psi BAD value is half (rounded down) of the adventure’s standard BAD value.

Judgment Call: Quick-And-Dirty Modifiers

See Dungeon Fantasy 2, Dungeon Fantasy 16, and Pyramid #3/70 “Ten for Ten”

If you want some middle ground between the utterly flat BAD modifier and the extremely nuanced modifiers of standard GURPS, consider the Quick-And-Dirty modifiers. The rules for these can be found under Quick-and-Dirty Modifiers in Pyramid #3/70 “Ten for Ten,” under “…with Spikes” on page 7 of Dungeon Fantasy 2, and “Unnatural Threats” in Dungeon Fantasy 16 on page 31 (all these rules are re-statements of one another). This is an entirely optional rule, but handy if you know it.

This has the advantage of allowing subtle changes to modifiers that don’t require much thinking, nor any looking up of a value in a book. I wouldn’t allow this to replace BAD, but it might modify it, allowing some nuance to the game, and rewarding clever strategies.

Additional Mechanics

Psi-Wars uses a few additional mechanics over and over again throughout its rules that are worth discussing here.

Complementary Rolls

See Action 2 and Pyramid #3/70 “Ten for Ten”

A character can assist another character. If this is a mundane skill, a success applies a +1. Characters who use psychic powers or Communion to assist someone in this abstract way doubles the bonuses to a +2 on a success. If the power would represent miraculous assistance, apply a +4 on a success.

Example: Alice wants to interrogate Bad Sam using the Interrogation skill. Carl offers to intimidate Bad Sam. A successful roll would grant Alice a +1 to her Interrogation skill. Desdemona is psychic. If she created mental illusions or manipulated his emotions, this would grant Alice a +2 to her Interrogation skill, but if Desdemona instead read his mind or used Suggestion to get him to tell them what they wanted, this would be a +4, or possibly an automatic success.

The Ham Clause

See Action 1 (page 20) and Pyramid #3/70 “Ten for Ten”

The intent behind disadvantages is that they represent a real problem for the character to face, but it’s difficult to bring every disadvantage into the game every session, and thus risks being “free points.” As an option, I highly recommend using the Ham Clause. This makes handling disadvantages easier. Some disadvantages might be crippling if taken or “active” (in the case of disads with self-control rolls, like Depression, or that might be mitigated, like Blindness). The Ham Clause allows a nice middle ground behind disabling a character for a session and ignoring or disallowing the disadvantage outright.

Note that many disadvantages suggested in Psi-Wars are specifically there to leverage certain behaviors: Secrets are meant to force a player to conceal certain truths, Code of Honor and Pacifism is meant to restrict what a player character can do, Duties allow the GM to literally order a player character to go on a particular adventure, etc. The Ham Clause shouldn’t be used for such disadvantages; the GM is the final arbiter of what can be used with the Ham Clause.

Impulse Buys and Destiny

See Influencing Success Rolls in GURPS Basic, or GURPS Power-Ups Impulse Buys

Psi-Wars assumes a cinematic setting where heroes are not only larger in life, but tend to succeed at million-to-one odds more than often than one might expect. Thematically, Psi-Wars has cosmic forces that push characters in a particular, narratively potent direction whether they want it or not.

Psi-Wars uses Impulse Buys. How the players gain Impulse Buy points is up to the GM. GMs who want to encourage all players to partake in a cinematic world might grant their players a few impulse buy points every session. As a default recommendation, consider one impulse buy point per session that the player can keep from session to session, or turn in for character points at a rate of 1 character point per 2 impulse buy points. Psi-Wars also uses the version of Destiny that grants Impulse Buy points; players may not turn convert Destiny impulse buy points to character points. By default, Psi-Wars assumes that the GM might freely reward players with IP (either a static value per session or as rewards for good RP), but Psi-Wars also uses the Impulse Buy version of Destiny. See Traits for more details on Destiny and the house rules Psi-Wars encourages.

I recommend the following Impulse Buy options for Psi-Wars (all found in Power-Ups 5: Impulse Buys); if you lack the book, the options listed under “Influencing Success Rolls” in GURPS Basic are fine.

  • Buying Successes (Page 4), but players may not Doom Foes (page 5) unless they are mooks.
  • Cursing Mooks (Page 6)
  • Buying Effect (Page 6)
  • Buying Reactions (Page 6)
  • Player Influence (Page 7)
  • Flesh Wounds (Page 10), but this is generally only appropriate from blaster fire or minor melee weapons from mooks. A named NPC with a force sword might have real consequences if he hits, and players should focus on Buying Successes to keep from being hit, or Deflecting Disadvantages if he is hit.
  • Perking Things Up: Dramatic Death (page 11)
  • Villainous Impulses (Page 16) for when enemy NPCs have Destiny.

Options that might be especially inappropriate:

  • Trading Points for Money (page 8); Psi-Wars really doesn’t book-keep money, so this sort of thing should be unnecessary.
  • Favors in Play (page 8); this short-circuits the Pulling Rank rules and is needlessly complicated for Psi-Wars.
  • Divine Intervention (page 9); this is better handled by Communion rules.
  • Deflecting Disadvantages (Page 10); in a setting with cybernetics, most disadvantages that could be inflicted on a PC can simply be repaired in short-order. Rather than use this rule, consider allowing combat-inflicted disadvantages that would be handled by this rule to result in free points equal to their disadvantage value that the player can spend on cybernetics or other appropriate advantages.
  • Miraculous Recoveries (page 10); Characters who want to make use of this should be an appropriate Unusual Background available in the setting (such as an Eldothic Sarcophagus Bond).
  • Amazing Feats (page 12); these are generally unnecessary
  • Points for Energy (page 12); extra points are handled through certain forms of True Communion or psychic powers, and this rule would short-circuit those abilities.
  • Bullet Time (Page 15); this requires an unusual background available in setting.
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