Monday, March 6, 2017

The History of Psi-Wars

I wanted to begin with history because history often explains how we got to where we were.  Thus, history and cartography are usually amongst the first choices of setting-builders when they get started, as history represents where things started.  History will explain why everything is where it is, making it the foundation upon which we'll build the setting.

That said, I almost held off on it, because history needs to explain how the setting came to be in the shape that it is, and without knowing what that shape will be, how can I write its history?  I could just write the history and then from that history derive the setting, but if I have some crazy-good idea later on as I'm working on, for example, geography or technology, should I discard it just because it doesn't fit my history?  Of course not.  The intent here is not to set everything in stone, but to build, collect and curate inspiration, and tie it together well enough to create a cohesive setting.  So, perhaps it would be better to write my history after I've finished coming up with the setting?  After all, that's how Star Wars wrote its history: George Lucas said "Space war! Evil magical samurai!  Giant planet-killing space station!  Details to follow!" and made his movie, then expanded his universe.

I propose we do both.  Having a decent grounding in the history of our setting well help guide us in our creative efforts.  It'll create a framework that will inspire the rest, but as we work on other parts of the setting, we'll fold their stories and histories into the greater fabric of the history we're writing.  Thus, we'll do this largely in two parts: Up front, to inspire our work, and at the end, a final edit of all the history we need to explain the setting we've come up with.

Before I begin, though, I'd like to do my usual discussion of setting creation theory.  First, we need to justify doing this at all, and get an idea of what our intent here is.  Second, we need a picture of how we're going to proceed, and finally, we need to tools at our disposal.

Who gives a sh*t about history?

I like history.  I love digging out the lore of various settings I'm playing in, or listening to history podcasts, so of course I'd love to have a deep and detailed history. But who else would?  Are you the sort of person who falls asleep as soon as a date prior to 1971 is mentioned?  Do you have flashbacks to the time the GM offered  you his 20-page magnum opus on setting history and demanded that you read it?  History, like any other element, needs justification.

For players who want the least work possible, history does provide a vital answer to the questions of "What's going on?  Why does any of this matter?"  A good history gives the players vital context they need to move on and understand the game they're playing in.  Action scenarios often feature complex histories, but those histories are assumed to be understood ("We're back in the 1960s fighting Soviet spies!"), but we cannot assume that in a sci-fi setting.  Of course, we can get a lot of mileage by saying "It's like Star Wars, but different!" so players can assume an empire and a rebellion and move on.  Still, it's important, that up front, the history of your setting be quickly and easily digested at a glance, so that players have enough that they can play in your setting.

Which isn't to say that your setting can't be deep, it's just that the depth shouldn't be necessary, and it should still be useful.  A well-designed history hangs together and each point flows naturally and obviously out of the things that came before.  Moreover, it can be very inspiring.  If you, as a GM, need some idea, a good history can provide you with lots of hooks or setting elements. For example, if the players need an Imperial Dreadnought, why not send them to some historical battlefield where loads of dreadnought husks still remain, waiting to be repaired... if you can snatch them from scavengers first!  If the rebels have won and the players still want to play, what opponent can you hit them with that isn't the empire? Well, history can give you loads of ideas!

I want to stop, though, before I go much further and discuss scope. Real history is full of a dizzying number of personalities. Real history is densely packed, full of nuance and an absolute riot of chaotic events and a dizzying array of dates.  Just how deeply do we want to go down the rabbit hole here?  The obvious answer is "Don't go overboard," but even that advice has a flaw: Ever notice that Star Wars is always about an Empire vs a Rebellion (or a Republic)?  That's because there's not enough background material to support more.  Too little material can pose as many problems as too much.  Thus, I encourage you to focus on your objectives.  You should not have more material than you can quickly explain to a player, but you should have enough that you have plenty of material to draw inspiration from.  I'm going to lean towards a rather detailed setting, but that's because I expect you, dear reader, will want to run different games than I do, so I need to support you as well as myself.

Finally, we get to the players who will ask "What about me?"  History should impact player characters directly.  Obviously, they can take the History skill, and we should definitely discuss that skill in greater detail, but characters who are part of a thriving setting should be shaped by its history.  You're not the only one who should draw inspiration from a setting; your players should be able to as well. Say there's a nearly dead dynasty with only a few remaining heirs to it scattered across the galaxy.  Can the players play as one of them? Of course!  What if there was a great master of Dark Communion who wielded a deadly powerful force blade thousands of years ago?  Can the players find that?  Of course!  History should shape who the player characters are and what they can get.

Weapons of the Gods, one of my favorite RPGs, did this very well by making each little bit of history a piece of lore that the PCs could learn (with a roll or a few points) and came attached with little options.  For example, you could learn about the Han dynasty, and then realize you descended from one of the princes of that era and that you got some really cool bonus from this.  Our history should be written with an eye to this: What can a player get out of this?  The most obvious answer to that question is "Relics!  They can get relics!"  And that's one reason I included relics, but we should also endeavor to make sure each part of history has some other elements they can acquire as well: Lost technologies, secret bloodlines, ancient ruins they can explore, etc.

I want to make a final note on the difference between the work you do and the work the players see.  You can do as much work as you like, the above considerations mostly focus on what the players see.  Much of the work I've done in Psi-Wars will never make it into a book, and never end up before the eyes of your players unless they read this blog, and that's okay!  Much work I do is to provide tools for myself.  For example, I worked out Cultural Values so I have an easy grab-bag of ideas I can use to quickly construct cultures, but my players only need to see the final cultures of various races, they don't need to see the design process.

History can and should work like that.  Go ahead and have richly detailed timelines.  Go ahead and work out the economics of ancient empires.  But in the end, you need to give the players a digest, something they can relate to, not the full body of the work.  The extra work you've done should mean that your history hangs better and makes more sense and that you can answer questions if you need to.  The only reason I would argue against this is that if you get lost spending a year in writing "the perfect history," you'll never get your setting finished, and a playable setting with a crappy history is always superior to an unplayable setting with a wonderful history, ergo: "Remember your objectives."

The Tools of History

How do we write history? The way we write every other part of our setting: We go with what we know, we steal from better stories (or history), we create a theme on which we can hang our history, and we design it in a fractal way, where possible.

Most elements are self-explanatory. I've already shown you some of my ideas for history, and where I'm drawing my inspiration, but what about theme? There are several works that point out useful themes we can use, but I'm going to point you towards a GURPS book: GURPS Fantasy, a very underappreciated book.  Starting on page 79, it discusses eras of history.  These eras are mythical rather than logical.  That is, Fantasy treats history the way storytellers would, as opposed to futurists.  I'm not going to look at the future of mankind and try to guess how we end up in a Star-Wars-like setting, but instead, I'm going to treat Psi-Wars as I would treat a fantasy setting, with major epochs and periods of recurring rise and fall of civilization.

This matches Star Wars itself, by the way, since the Old Republic is almost a carbon-copy of the, uh, New Republic and its history, with a few minor changes.  The history of Star Wars is a history of the Rise and Fall of the Galactic Republic in the struggle of Light against Dark, over and over again, throughout history.

I'd like to do three major eras:
  • The dawn of the first (non-human) galactic empire
  • The dawn of the first human empire
  • The resurgence of humanity after a dark age, with a golden age suddenly interrupted by disaster and the rise of dictatorship and the fall of democracy (the modern era)
GURPS Fantasy breaks down these specific eras into sub categories:
  • Dawn Ages are the mythic beginnings of an era, often housing its most famous heroes or its most interesting inventions.  This is an adventuring period before power really begins to solidify, and most of it is "lost in legend."  Some of it is likely the interface between one era and another.
  • City States might represent the first major planets to arise to regional powers.  No empire has formed at this point, but the jockeying for empire may have begun.  This is a good point for fractal design, as each city state might have some character and culture represented in the later empire, but it's not something you need to explain, so much as let players begin to observe.
  • Empires represent the consolidation of galactic power behind a single regional power who has successfully exerted dominion over the rest.
  • Decadence represents the point in time where the vigor of the original power is lost and it enjoys its spoils.  If it overuses those spoils, this could lead to Exhaustion.  Either way, this is an era of oppression and failure, the death of the dream begun in the City State era.
  • Catastrophe represents the final, climactic end of an era. Something dramatic kicks off the cascading collapse of power.
  • Dark Ages represent the era between eras, a time of piracy and depredation, where the decadence of the old empire becomes something yearned for, because as oppressive as it was, it was better than anarchy and barbarism.
  • New Beginnings completes the cycle, blurring into Dawn Ages as new heroic characters arise out of the darkness to found new city states and begin, again, the cycle.

The Scale of History

How much time should we cover?  Our history covers up to about 5000 years of history, though I would argue it only covers about 2500 of it "well."  Star Trek seems to cover about 500 years of history. Warhammer 40k covers forty-thousand years. According to this timeline, Star Wars covers about 6000 years of history, though according to this one, it literally covers millions.    How much is enough?  How much is too much?  At what point do our numbers stop making any sense?

Ultra-Tech offers us some assistance with its Technological Progression on page 8.  What's realistic for reaching TL 11^ and how long can our civilization reasonably stay there?  The Accelerated timeline says we can only stay there for 100 years, Fast says we can stay there for 400 yers, Medium says we can stay there for 1500 years, Slow says 5000 yeras, and Retarded says a whopping 13000 years.  So, if I'd like to stay at TL 11 for as long as possible (that is, the old eras use roughly the same tech as the modern era, which I'd like as then we can have ancient force swords), then I'm free to have a history as long as 13000 years, which is plenty.  And also, possibly too much.

Okay, another question: How long do ruins last?  If we want our heroes to go to some long dead planet and discover ruins, how long a time scale are we talking about before the ruins would realistically be a buried pile of rocks?  According the link above, ruins remain pretty recognizable up to 1000 years, and can be readily identified up to 5000 years (the Pyramids are about that old).  Thus, we could probably make the excuse that ruins could last up to 5000 years, though remaining operating strains belief somewhat, but if it worked for Indiana Jones, it can work for us.

How long does it take to build an Empire?  That depends, of course, on how large an empire is, but we can get some ballpark figures if we figure out, first, how long it takes to find decent worlds to colonize, then how long it takes to colonize them, and then how long to get those worlds to carrying capacity.

First, we have to find a suitable world.  With a hyperdrive, you can effectively get to any world in zero time, speaking on the scale of civilizations.  That is, one can reasonably visit several worlds in a single year.  How long it takes to find a world depends on how rare worlds are, but if we say that one in 100 worlds are nice enough to colonists in shirt-sleeves, and that we can survey one world a month, then it takes about 10 years to find a new world to colonize.

Once a world has been found, it probably takes effectively zero time to colonize.  That is, once you know where the world is, it likely takes longer to build the colony ship and the colony itself than to actually get there and, of course, transportation is easy enough that you could simply ferry people back and forth as many times as necessary.  Think of how long it would take America to colonize a continent that magically appeared in the middle of the Pacific: not very long at all!

Finally, we need an idea of population growth.  I think it's safe to say that survey ships constantly look for new worlds to colonize, and that once a suitable world is found, colony efforts begin as soon as any nearby worlds begin to feel the pinch of overpopulation.  Thus, we can treat colonization as a straight up measure of population growth.

Starting with a single homeworld a carrying capacity (say, 2 billion people), how long to fill one more world, and then another?  Well, Pyramid #3-3 has a handy spreadsheet that requires a few assumptions.  Keeping their standard birth/death rate (14 per thousand births and 8 per thousand deaths), with 90+% of children surviving, each woman having a modest average of 3 children each, and each generation is 20 years long, we come to a doubling of population every 50 years or so.  That means that in the first 50 years, the homeworld can "fill up" one additional world (provided it can find it and build the necessary resources, but both of these tasks take less than 50 years).  In a century, it would have filled 4 worlds, 200 years to fill 16, and so on.  How large is "an Empire?"  Well, I'd argue that once you get more than 150 worlds in a single polity, most people stop thinking of them as individual worlds and as a larger conglomeration.  It would take our homeworld about 400 years to fill up that many worlds (Actually 256, but that's "more than 150"), and we can round that to 500 if we account for disasters, problems and little minor wars.

The Galaxy almost certainly has more worlds than that, but it gives us a good "realistic ball park estimate" for how long it takes to build a teeming galactic nation from scratch, one that I think most players won't blink at: 500 years.

What about the rise and fall of empires?  Well, there's quite a few models of history, and really, you can grab whatever you want.  Ideally, you just need enough to get an idea of the rise and fall of various eras, and something that creates a believable course of history.  Personally, I dislike histories that have "And then for a thousand years, everything was great," but it should be noted that, like all other parts of history, our history should serve a purpose.  If there's 1000 years of "nothing interesting," and I'm just padding my year count to get to particularly awesome artifacts, then that's fine.  It's better than cluttering history will tons of things the players don't need to know.  But, on the other hand, if we want to track history in greater detail, consider how those details impact the player: do they represent events that he can trace his lineage to, or that affect his character's background, or that provide backstory for interesting relics that he can acquire?

For this, I find that the Strauss-Howe generational model works particularly well, not because it's necessarily accurate, but because it fits the "fractal" model nicely.  I can define a period ("The first Galactic Empire,") then break it down into centuries with one major crisis per century ("The Trader Wars!" "The Rise of Communion!" "The Mad Emperor" "The Civil War") and then, if I need even greater detail, I can break open the generational model to describe how each generation interacted (contributed to, responded to, resolved, overreacted in such a way to contribute to the next) the crisis of their century.  Then it's just a matter of filling in a timeline.

The Scale of Legend

Finally what about relics themselves?  We argued that they should be able to earn a single point in 5 years, which gives us the following numbers

  • 5 years ("Recent events") gives 1 point (a perk)
  • 25 years ("My father's blade") gives 5 points (Higher purpose or a level of Destiny)
  • 50 years ("Living memory) gives 10 points (Destiny 2)
  • 100 years ("Recent history") gives 20 points (a solid advantage)
  • 250 years ("The lifetime of a nation") gives 50 points
  • 500 years gives 100 points (the most expensive artifact, Severance, from my Psionc Relics post, worth half a million $).
  • 5000 years gives us a 1000 point artifact, which is absurd
According to our current scheme, the sort of history we seem to be leaning towards is frankly impossible.  The suggested rate from GURPS Thaumatology is 1/5th as fast: Thus:
  • 25 years ("My father's blade") gives us 1 point
  • 125 years ("Recent history") gives us 5 points
  • 500 years gives us 20 points (a decent set of advantages)
  • 2500 years gives us 100 points (and thus Severance)
The standard rates are a bit better for the scope of history we're talking about, but it makes recent events nearly impossible.  For example, Luke's lightsaber is a little over 50 years old by the time of the Force Awakens, meaning it only has a couple of character points by now (though Star Wars has a more compressed timeline than one might expect: You can turn into a "myth" while you're still alive in Star Wars).  Of course, we can vary things a bit here and there and say an artifact under certain circumstances grows more quickly or slowly in power, depending on its legend and reputation, and its age gives us more of a ballpark figure.  It's also worth noting that if we wanted something like 10,000 years of history, an artifact hailing from its ancient dawn would enjoy about 400 points, which is essentially on demand transformations into an avatar, instant regeneration of 10 energy reserves per turn, or a battery with 100 energy reserves

Or, we could try for some sort of logarithmic scale.  If we use the "yards" in the Range table as years and the bonuses as the number of points accrued, then we find we get:
  • 3 years (Very recent events) for 1 point (a perk)
  • 15 years ("the blade of my father) for 5 points (destiny, etc)
  • 100 years ("Recent history") for 10 points
  • 5000 years ("Truly ancient history") for 20 points
I ran the numbers for Severance, and I came to 2x10^17 years, By this point, stellar formation would have ended across the universe, and our sun would have burned down to a black dwarf, just the ashes of its former self.  So, uh, no, that's not going to work either.

Of these numbers, I'm inclined to take the Thaumatology standard, and shoot for about 10,000 years of maximum history.
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