Campaign Idea: Building a Dyson Swarm

So I’ve been working on a sci fi setting for a GURPS game for a little while now.  My starting points were as follows:

  1. I want the game to be based around a single star.  It could be the solar system, or the players could have gone to another solar system on some kind of sleeper ship.  It doesn’t matter.
  2. A Dyson Swarm is slowly being built.
  3. This is all done with technology that is plausible given current scientific knowledge.

A key feature here is how much would go into a megaproject.  If you’ve ever read Red Mars, you have an idea of what I’m thinking.  Most, if not all, of the characters will be highly technically proficient individuals in specialized fields.  Some of these fields will be on the cutting edge of science and technology, so academia and the accompanying politics might come into play.  Being a hghly lucrative megaproject, it makes sense that economic interests would come into play.  National interests might come into play as the capacity to harness huge amounts of energy could be weaponized in some form.  More cultural and personal interests might also matter, as part of the swarm will be habitats intended for human habitation.  This can be for the spread of a culture or a religion, or to just getting a place for a person’s family to live in relative safety and happiness.  Finally, environmental redundancy might be a goal: creating a backup biospheres in space, just in case of a massive catastrophe on earth.

All the motivations will usually not be at odds with one another, because each motivation is served by the construction of the Dyson Swarm.  However, there will be small ways that they are in conflict with one another.  The GM can easily make these small conflicts of interest the main force of the game.

The result is a PVP intrigue game.  Lets look at the details of making the PvP work.

Keeping the PvP in Check

The force keeping the players united, in spite of acting at cross purposes, is that they all want to see the Dyson Swarm built.  Since routine job performance isn’t exactly exciting, the action in-game that represents this is technical, disaster-movie style problems that affect the players’ entire ship or the satelite they are currently working on.  While working on a satelite that will beam power somewhere, a bunch of stuff lights on fire.  We now have Towering Inferno…  IN SPACE!  The ship is decompressing due to massive damage to the hull.  This can be used as an analogue to a sinking ship, and create The Poseidon Adventure in Space.

The force that causes players to act against one another will be influence.  Each PC has influence within at least one organization.  This doesn’t mean that they’re people of rank and privilege (although they could be).  If there’s only one person on the ship who is a member of the Spacer’s Occupational Health and Safety Audit Commision, they would have influence within whatever bureaucracy oversees public and occupational safety within the setting.  It doesn’t matter if they are a low ranked book keeper who helps out with the occasional audit or if they are a high ranked executive director; they are the only person able to represent the organization’s interest on the ship, and the only person able to provide insider information to the organization about the ship and the dyson sphere.

The players will aim to involve crisis management techniques that support their organization over other players’ organizations.  They will aim to do their routine job-related tasks in ways that encourage certain types of satelites to be built over others.  In order for the ship to have some choice in what kind of satelite is built, the nature of their obligation to build things will need to be very broad.  Instead of being assigned “build a power satelite at these coordinates” it would need to be “build 10 satelites, at least 3 of which must be power satelites, but the rest may be your decision based on availability of materials and labour.”  In order for this kind of order to be reasonable, there needs to be some reason for high degrees of variance in the availability of material and labour.  If the process is so unpredictable as to constantly lead to disaster movie-like problems, then that will certainly cause a wide variety of unexpected uses of resources.

I figure there will be several ways for a player to “win” during a crisis:

  1. Be the person to overcome an immediate problem or the crisis as a whole.
  2. Supply a plan that is used to overcome the problem, while proving the value of the organization the character represents.

Suppose that one character is a Union Rep for the Spacers’ Union and is a “plasma containment technician” (ie. a blue collar trade of some kind dealing with fusion reactors and other exceedingly hot, very high energy, mechanical devices), and another character is a physicist who is strongly associated with Simultaneity Theory (a fictional theory about the nature of space-time that might lead to the development of faster than light travel).   The crisis is that a power distribution satelite is on fire, and shooting lasers all over the place.  Lets look at the possible combinations of how these characters could both “win.”






The technician repairs things. The physicist interprets sensor readings to give warnings and clues about the spread of fire.



The technician repairs things on the satellite. The physicist models the ship to accurately predicts where the fire will spread next, demonstrating the general applicability of the Simultaneity Theory’s methods of analyzing situations.



The technician organizes the small crew on the burning satellite via union authority, and the physicist interprets sensor readings.



The small satellite crew repairs the ship and are organized through the union. They receive advanced warning from the physicist’s mathematically advanced models.

Stealing Credit and Increasing Intrigue

Lets suppose 2 players win with a “type 2” win.  Since part of the game is pvp intrigue, I want the players competing with each other for these “type 2” wins.  Only one organization will get most of the credit.  After all, a newspaper headline might read “Heroic Scientists Saves the Day with Cutting Edge Theory” or “Union Workers Band Together and Save Countless Lives.”  It probably won’t read “Heroic Scientists Saves the Day with Cutting Edge Theory and Union Workers Band Together and Save Countless Lives.”

To pull this off, players can manipulate the politics in three areas: on board the ship, within media pertaining to their professions (ie. journals), and the broader public media (ie. the news).  I will call these “Influence Domains.”  The goal will be to “spin” perception of the type 2 contributions so that only one player’s contributions are recognized within 3 Influence Domains.

We can also have a big reward for being the “hero of the day.”  This is the character who takes the most credit for “type 1” contributions.  It only includes the internal politics of the ship.

Building the Intrigue into an Action Economy Game

I’m going to say the default options for PCs during time between crises are as follows: Rest and Relaxation (R&R), Overtime, and Intrigue.  R&R is required for healing and to spend Bonus Points (ie. experience, for those of you who aren’t GURPS players), and can also manipulate internal politics.  Overtime allows the players to earn extra money, and can also manipulate professional politics/journals within only their field (because a construction worker cannot manipulate a journal about medicine by pulling extra hours, but might be able to manipulate perception about their own work).  Intrigue means the player is deliberately playing politics, and can manipulate any one of the 3 domains: internal politics, journals, or public media.

In between crises, players will have the opportunity to take 2 downtime actions.  Someone must be the only person with support in all 3 domains at the end of these 2 downtime actions to win.  Also, it is publicly available who has the support of whom.  Once a player has no support at all, another character can manipulate the politics within the ship to stop them from gaining support from this solution.  The combination of these rules is intended to prevent players from rapidly using intrigue to win immediately.  A particularly strong reaction against someone about to take all the credit might end up in them being “kicked out.”  The system of being able to kick people out is intended to slowly weed people out, in the event that everyone is playing very “defensively.”  In the event of a stalemate, players may end up forming secret alliances!  That sounds fun.

To determine if a character starts with the support of any of these organizations or public media, use Reaction Rolls.  It is highly plausible that a character will start with the support of their professional organization if the player impressed them,.  Depending on their rank and popularity within the ship, they might start with the support of the crew also.  Support of the broader media is hardest to gain.  This is all built into the relative costs of gaining reputation, and whether or not the bonus from Rank will apply: the smaller the affected group, the less it costs.  In the case of the ship (and only the ship), Rank will also have an effect.  In all cases, therefore, a simple reaction roll is all that’s necessary: a result of 11 or more means the players have support.

As the campaign goes on, players will often end up attempting to claim credit for multiple crises simultaneously.  Unfortunately, their action pool remains the same regardless.  If a character has made a type 2 solution to prevent a fire from destroying a satellite, and then also used a type 2 solution to prevent a poisonous gas leak from killing the residents of a habitation station, then there are currently 2 ongoing crisis resolutions the character can attempt to steal credit for.  The more type 2 solutions a character is currently attempting to claim, the more their actions will need to be divided up.  It may be more useful for a character to focus on just one at a time, which will make it easy for other characters to steal the credit on other missions.  Players may find it useful to negotiate “ceasfires” in order to gang up on someone who is about to win the credit for a pre-existing resolution.

Length of downtime will affect how much money a player gets from Overtime and the maximum complexity of skill they can learn in the R&R.  As such, it is important for the GM to vary the amount of time between crises to entice players to take Overtime or use R&R.  If a player is consistently stealing all the credit and has a large surplus of Bonus Points, a lengthy downtime will encourage them to spend an action on R&R and give the other players a chance to steal credit in other areas.  The GM should aim to use the length of downtime to keep the PVP competitive.  This will be most useful for ensuring that one player doesn’t get really far ahead; it won’t be useful for helping a player who falls behind get back in.

Campaign Progression:  History in the Making

I figure what might be fun is if this campaign is tied broadly to humanity and its relationship to space.  The campaign would start with a minimal space industry: some asteroid mining, some manufacturing in space, a scientific installation or two, and maybe a small amount of space tourism.  As the campaign goes on, important events can occur like planetary colonizations, terreforming, launching interstellar probes, and eventually end with a colony ship leaving for another star system.  Building towards each milestone will represent a discrete portion of the game.

Exactly what human beings choose to do might vary based on the beliefs of characters and the organizations they represent.  For example, an environmentalist organization that wants to create backup biospheres in space, they may want to create artificial, earth-like environments in space, but be ethically opposed to genetically engineering all the plants needed to terreform a planet.  Conversely, a nation that seeks glory or a character seeking to alleviate population pressure may want to terreform a planet in order to settle it as quickly as possible.

To keep the story neat and tidy, the various requirements for these projects should require the Dyson Swarm in obvious ways.  For example, beam-powered propulsion might be the norm.  As such, expanding the power infrastructure of the Dyson Swarm might contribute directly to being able to ship people around the solar system with ease.  I think beam powered propulsion is the best explanation for most of these space exploration/exploitation milestones.  The only notable exception I can think of is for the advancement of pure science, which may instead benefit from a variety of observation outposts, research centers, and communication relays.

A key point of the campaign, and probably the first milestone, will be when the PCs expand the dyson swarm to a point where multiple ships can be supported.  The PCs will now have a ship to compete with, which can be fun.  Depending on how the PCs interact with their competition, it can lead to the PCs having allied and enemy ships.  Maybe there will even be space pirates, if that fits the tone of the game.  This also implies, without actually saying, that the process of developing space industry is one of exponential growth.  This implication is largely necessary if the players are ever to complete the Dyson Swarm.

A good question for each PC to answer would be “Why is space important?”  An example would be “Human beings need more energy and raw materials to run machines, as the alternative is to expect people to spend more time doing backbreaking labour.”  Another example would be “Energy-beaming satelites has obvious potential for weaponization, so I must ensure that my country has at least a few of them under its control.”  This can help the GM prepare the milestones they wish to use.  The first example might inspire some terrestrial mega-structure as a milestone, like an Orbital Ring or Launch Loop.  The second example might use the first war in space as a milestone.  It is certainly a less optimistic milestone, for sure.

My Inspiration

As I mentioned before, I’ve been mulling over this campaign idea for quite some time.  My original idea was much more “modest.”  Instead of building a Dyson Swarm, the players are at an L5 Bernal Sphere.  They do a similar job, but it’s a bit more “zoomed in.”  They would build and maintain every step along successful asteroid mining, for example.  The milestone that ends the whole campaign might be similarly more modest, such as a mars colonization mission.  Such a campaign would play similarly, and by virtue of being more modest can also be far more plausible.  The greater attention to detail might available in such a campaign might also be good for “Hard Sci Fi” nerds.

Anyway, what inspired me to share this idea was learning about “lightcraft” and wireless power transmission.  I figured trying to build a Dyson Swarm might facilitate a story that includes these technologies more prominently, just because harnessing energy is the main reason to build a Dyson Swarm in the first place.


Space Navy Action Scenes

I was reading a different blog a while back, and it mentioned a problem with sci fi spaceships in RPGs. Generally speaking, they follow the model laid down in Startrek. Each member of the crew has a specialty: one operates weapons, one operates sensors, one is the pilot, etc. The problem for a game that operates on this model is that the vast majority of choices are made by the commanding officer, and everyone else just gets to role. Most players don’t get to make decisions, and this is unsatisfying.

The Problem

How can decisions plausibly be divided up amongst the players without interfering with the specialized roles on board a ship?

The Solution is Social

Each character’s specialization comes with social roles. A sensors operator is supposed to inform the rest of the crew about what is going on. A weapon operator is supposed to shoot at things, and maybe operate defensive equipment also. The commander is supposed to tell everyone what to do. With that in mind, lets look at social behaviour to find a way around this problem.

With this in mind, each action will involve multiple players. This overcomes the problem of overspecialization removing choice from players not in the command role. The next trick is to allow characters who would normally be suboordinate to declare their actions independently. This is primarily a social problem, and is overcome with roleplaying and the use of improvisational theater concepts. It is also a problem for action economies and time management systems (ie. Initative), but this is much easier to overcome.

Offering, Endowing, and Yielding

I am fond of improvisational theater, and to work our way out of this problem we need some improvsational theater concepts. I have written on them before, and I will cover them briefly here again.

Offering: doing or saying something that invites a reaction from someone else. Often, an offer introduces something new to a scene, but it does not need to.

Endowing: adding characteristics or definition to something already in the scene.

Yielding: responding to an offer.

Often a single act will fit into more than one category. Often the act of endowing actually doubles as an offer, in so far as it invites a response from someone else. Sometimes a yield also invites a response from someone else, thus making it simultaneously a yield and an offer.

Note how the actions taken by each role can be fit into each of these categories. Sensor operators offer by detecting new things in space, and endow by discovering the properties of the things in space. For example, a sensor operator might say something like “Captain, the enemy ship is leaking radiation.” and, in so doing, they are endowing the enemy ship and offering something for the other players to react to. A weapons operator might respond with “Programming missiles to track the radiation. Firing in 3. 2. 1.” In so doing, they are yielding to the sensor operator.

Note how this sounds remarkably like something that happens on the bridge of the enterprise during a battle. These exchanges occur quickly and independently of the captain on the enterprise, who will usually occasionally interrupt the process to assert that they should follow the plan proposed by someone else, or to shout “belay that order!” The commander role is almost unnecessary for these action scenes to play out, however. Most of the time the captain is just a yes man, and the rest of the time the captain’s role is to stop someone from doing something.

Broad Turn and Action Format

Initiative systems remain largely unchanged. The key part is that each player gets one turn per round. However, when it’s a players turn they must always offer or endow. Their offer or endow must line up with their specialized role. Any other player may respond to this, and it doesn’t even need to line up with their specialized role. However, they will tend to be more effective if it does line up with their role just because odds are good those skills are raised.

To keep the flow of the game at a faster pace, I would suggest making it so that the offering or endowing person doesn’t roll at all. However, it might still be desirable to have an effect that increases as the character becomes stronger at their specific role. The specifics of this would depend on the system. Alternity is pretty clear on how this works: at rank 1 it is a step 1 bonus, rank 4 it is a step 2 bonus, 7 it is a step 3 bonus, etc. In GURPS, I would suggest that the bonuses are +1 at level 11, +2 at level 13, +3 at level 16, and +4 at level 21. I came up with these numbers by using the usual values for degrees of success (0, -2, -5, and -10), and assuming a roll of 11 all the time.

The yielding character is the one who gets to roll. They get to decide what they are doing, of course, but it must be a reaction to the offer. Their results are determined normally. If someone totally ignores the offer they automatically fail their attempt. Note that there are ways to act against the spirit of the offer that do not ignore it.

Note that is far easier for some roles to offer than it is to yield, and vice versa. Players should take this into consideration when choosing what they would like to play as.

Enemy Initative

Since the players will quite plausibly end up taking 3-5 actions, which involve the actions of 6-10 characters, it can be quite cumbersome if the GM acts with a similar attention to detail. It is also potentially problematic in that this system could result in weapons being fired 3-5 time, before the enemy ship even gets to respond.

A nice simple way to handle this eventuality is to count the number of times a player yielded since the enemy ship acted, and give the enemy ship that many actions. If there are 4 players, and the enemy ship goes 2nd, then on the enemy’s first turn it only takes 1 action. On the enemy’s next turn, it takes 4 actions.


We have 3 player characters: Captain Charidee, Noah the Weapons Operator (and Saurian alien), and Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie. They are all aboard the spaceship Marengo, a mighty warship. They are battling an enemy flying saucer.

GM tallies everyone’s initiative. It is as follows:

  1. Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie

  2. Captain Charidee

  3. Flying Saucer

  4. Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator

Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie says “Redirecting power to lasers.” Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator responds with “We need time for the lasers to charge. Beginning evasive maneuvers.” Noah makes an appropriate piloting roll, adds the bonus from Fancy-Bowtie’s engineering skill. The result is good, and the ships defenses go up. Note how Noah acknowledged what Fancy-Bowtie said, but chose to do something totally different than what Fancy-Bowtie obviously intended.

Captain Charidee analyzes the enemy. “They’re holding back. They’re prepping something big.” Fancy-Bowtie says “I’ve got a trick up my sleeves: flaring the engines. The radiation will mess up their tracking.” Fancy-Bowtie makes a check related to ECM, with a bonus from captain charidee’s tactics skill.

The flying saucer gets to take two actions, because two players have gone. It attempts to scan the ship to find a weakness in their defenses, and then shoot them with a plasma blaster. Fancy-Bowtie’s ECM causes some severe penalties on the sensor check, and the Flying Saucer fails. The attack roll must be made without the aid of a sensors operator and the players have the benefit of evasive maneuvers. The flying saucer fails its check, and thus does not hit.

Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator says “Lasers fully charged.” Captain Charidee says “Fire!” Oddly, in this situation it will end up being the captain that determines whether the attack hits, and the Weapons Officer skill is only for buffing the attack. They never got a target lock, so they’re lacking the significant aiming bonus. The players are lucky, though, and Captain Charidee rolls a hit with the weapons operation skill.

Hogging the Yields

It is certainly possible that someone will jump in and always take the yields. By virtue of being faster and more assertive than everyone else (and by the vice of not caring enough to share), no one else will ever get to roll. This problem can probably be solved by the GM reminding them to share, but if you prefer a system that uses special game mechanics, I have a suggestion: at end of every round, if no one has yielded twice or more, the captain gets a use of a special ability of some kind. I would suggest borrowing a page from GURPS: Action, and have the captain earn a use of Good Luck. Note how I said it is earned if no one yielded twice or more, and that this is different than if everyone yielded once.

Guns vs Knives in GURPS

This is a comparison between the Move and Attack maneuver and using a Ranged Weapon in GURPS. This is continuing my personal goal of making a pistol packing mathematician, who has as few points invested into Guns as possible, but is effective in combat because I (as a player) will know all about how to use his skill effectively. This post will be an analysis of the available tactical choices in a small room, where a character may be vulnerable if their opponent charges, screaming, with knife in hand. As usual, I’m going to give the knife-wielding opponent the highest level of abilities a visibly normal human can have.

To begin, an average looking human without special powers can have a basic speed of 8, and a basic move of 11. This would cost 115 points, mind you, so it may look normal to an onlooker but it is not within the range of most NPCs. I’ll name this fellow Stabby McGee, and give him a knife.

Range penalties are very unforgiving in GURPS. Since Stabby McGee moves so fast, the range that I am most concerned about is between 10-14 feet, and 15-29. The penalties are thus -4 and -5. In order to have an optimal ratio between probable damage per turn and skill point investment, effective skill level needs to be at least 11. These penalties are too severe to just shoot without aiming first.

To make things much worse, Stabby McGee, on account of having so high a basic move, will have a dodge score of 11. Even if Angry Mathematician succeeds on that attack roll, the odds are good that Stabby McGee simply leaps out of the way.

The options I will consider for fighting Stabby are:

  1. Aiming, then Shooting. At least one shot needs to be taken before Stabby can reach Angry Mathematician, so Stabby needs to start at least 13 yards away, if Angry Mathematician has initiative. Without initiative, Stabby will need to be 26 yards away, as he could move 13 yards on the second round due to sprinting.
  2. “kiting.” Consistently using Move and Attack along a retreat path of some kind, to delay Stabby from reaching Angry Mathematician. Thankfully, pistols have low Blk., so this could actually be a useful option.

With aiming then shooting, Stabby will end up being within 2-14 yards away (13 and 14 years will only occur if Stabby goes first, and started 26 yards away). The closer he is to angry mathematician, without reaching Angry Mathematician, the better it is for our range penalties. However, this means the worst case scenario for range is -4. If Angry Mathematician has a scope on his .40 Auto Pistol, and braces with his off hand, the aim bonus will end up cancelling out the worst penalty that could occur in this scenario. That is as good as the bonus for aiming for one round can get, so that means Angry Mathematician will need a base level of at least 11 to be guaranteed an effective level of 11.

Then I take into account Stabby’s dodge chances. 62.5% of the time Stabby will dodge one hit. 50% of the time Stabby will dodge two hits. 37.5% Stabby will dodge 3 hits. I’ll be happy with a 50:50 chance, I think. Here are the odds of every possible result that will deal no damage, at an effective skill level of 11.

1 hit: 25%62.5%=15.6%

2 hits: 21.3%*50%=10.7%

3 hits:14.3%* 37.5%=5.4%

0: hits: 37.5% of 0 hits.

Total: 69.2% of the time Angry Mathematician won’t have any hits. Poor Angry Mathematician will probably be stabbed.

Lets look at an effective skill of 13.

1 hit: 11.3% * 62.50%=7.1% of one hit and a dodge.

2 hits: 10.25%*50%=5.1% of 2 hits and 2 dodges

3 hits: 35.6%* 37.5%=13.4% of 3 hits and 3 dodges

0 hits: 16.2% of 0 hits.

Total: 41.8% chance of dealing no damage, ergo 58.2% chance of dealing at least some. Of course, if Stabby is also wearing armour he might be completely protected.

The minimum Effective Skill level is 13, then, and due to range modifiers I’d want Angry Mathematician to have a Base Skill of 13..

For kiting, in the event that Stabby starts in the 8-12 range, however, running will prevent Angry Mathematician from being stabbed for one turn At 18+ yards, Angry Mathematician will be able to get off one additional attack before being reached. It should be noted that, at precisely 18 yards, the last attack will be made close enough that there is no range penalty. Since there will still be -2 on the attack roll, the skill will need to still be 13 to be useful at that point.

This means there are two relevantly different scenarios: kiting in very close range and kiting at very long range.

Kiting in very close range against a melee opponent ensures that their skill will never be above of 9. Moving 4 yards away is sufficient for the Angry Mathematician to have an upper hand, since that exceeds the distance Stabby can travel in a single step as part of an Attack maneuver. Since Move and Attack allows the attack to be made at any point along the attack, the range modifier will be 0. Ergo, the effective skill level is 11. Stabby still has his dodge defense, resulting in a hit 30.8% of the time. However, since Stabby has at most a 9, and Angry Mathematician has a dodge score of 8 (the unadjusted value), Stabby will only hit 27.8% of the time. This is only a difference of 3% in favour of the Angry Mathematician, but it’s good enough for me.

In the long range scenario, Angry mathematician makes an attack at -8 (-6 range and -2 for move and attack), one at -7 (-5 for range and -2 for move and attack), and one at -3 (1 for range, -2 for move and attack). This can only happen if Angry Mathematician wins initiative at 18+ yards, or lost initiative at 25+ yards. I will assume a base skill level 13.

Chance of Hitting Stabby at 5: 4.6%*35%=1.7%

Chance of Hitting Stabby at 6: 9.3%*35%=3.3%

Chance of Hitting Stabby at 10: 50%*35%=18%

Total: 22%

I didn’t factor in the effects of multiple hits due to high RoF, but long range kiting is clearly ineffective. The increase in effectiveness from high RoF will only significantly effect the last shot.


Against melee opponents who appear to be normal human beings the following guidelines apply:

  1. If they are beyond 13 yards, aim then shoot.
  2. If they are within 8-12 yards, move and attack.  Go further away.
  3. If they are closer than 7 yards, but more than one step away, just attack.
  4. If they are within melee range, move and attack.  Shoot when within 2 yards, move to at least 4 yards away.
  5. My character needs at least a base level of 13 in Guns, and a scope for the .40 auto pistol.

Zoomed-Out Play in Gurps


There’s a major difference between GURPS and D&D that I’ve been struggling with as a GM. In Pathfinder or 4e (or AD&D, if any of you are old like me), the mechanics the GM can use to put “pressure” on the players (to force responses, force choices, or force the plot forward) is relatively limited. If the GM uses mechanics (In this case, that’s anything that involves rolling dice), the play must focus on the immediate scene. If the GM uses “pressure” to move the plot forward, it is done with a very free-form “in-universe” reasoning or “in-genre” reasoning. GURPS, by contrast, has a variety of skills and rules that can be used to put pressure on the players using mechanics that don’t focus on the immediate scene. There are skills and actions that can only work over long periods of time. This means tactical, rule based play can occur on a broad time scale. This introduces complications for pacing any event in the game, whether the event is done on a “zoomed in” time scale (like roleplayed scenes and combats), or a “zoomed out” scale.

Maxims of Zoomed-Out Play

This list is the set of rules to follow to ensure zoomed-out play is tactical, grounded in the rules, adds to the narrative, and is balanced. The reasoning for each of these is detailed after.

  1. Zoomed-Out Play is not defined by discrete measurements of time. It is about actions taken in-between zoomed-in scenes.

  2. Complex Tasks are used to “frame” zoomed in scenes, and provide an overall objective for zoomed-out play.

  3. Zoomed-in scenes impact zoomed-out scenes, and vice versa.

  4. Zoomed-Out Play can still be roleplayed. The roleplaying can occur in two forms: montage and explanatory sample.

  5. PCs must be allowed a chance to respond to their opponents’ actions.

  6. Whenever the PCs have the time to do Zoomed-Out Play, the GM ought to ensure their enemies also have time for Zoomed-Out play.

Zoomed-Out Play, Punishment, and Reward

There are two new consequences that drive the plot forward in GURPS that are not present in Pathfinder. It introduces a punishment mechanic for actions that have long term consequences: the opponents have a better chance of succeeding if the players handle things poorly. It also has a reward mechanic for actions that have long term consequences: advantages in the form of situational modifiers, narrative privileges, HP and FP, temporary advantages, temporary relief from disadvantages, wealth, and reaction modifiers can be gained from acting on this scale. Skills can even increase, using the improvement through study rules.
Some skills that are almost exclusively useful on this zoomed-out scale are Administration, Cryptography, Engineer, Forensics, Market Analysis, Machinist, Propaganda, Research, and Urban Survival. This is intended to showcase the variety of skills that are useful on this scale; it is not an exhaustive list.

Here are some explanatory examples:
1. If the PCs are wanted by the law, NPCs will make rolls to track down PCs. The effective skill level of the investigators is determined by the NPCs skills, modified by player actions in scenes, and flaws the players have. As the investigator gets closer, the PCs are under more “pressure” to either lay low or finish their criminal objective rapidly. This can be impacted by the PCs behaviour, the Trademark flaw, and other choices at character creation that make the PCs stand out.
2. NPCs are expected to make rolls for everything that a PC would, and operate on the same time scale. If they’re inventing a super-weapon that can defeat the PCs easily, the NPC will use the invention rules. The PCs’ attempt to stop them is a “race against the clock,” and has a deadline determined by dice rolls, not GM Fiat.
3. PCs can act on this time scale also, using the same rules. They can do this both to meet their own objectives, or to hamper their opponents. A player could manipulate police bureaucracy to hamper the enemies investigation, or they could build their own super weapon over a long period of time.

Pacing of Zoomed Play

A quick look at the set of possible consequences for zoomed-out play will show that the rules for these benefits sometimes require a specific amount of time. For example, players recover 1 HP per day of rest. Other consequences do not require a specified amount of time, such as if a character uses administration to gain a bonus when dealing with some officials they will be dealing with later. These kind of skills can be fit between zoomed-in scenes, regardless of time. It’s a GM’s decision how much time these actions should take. I want my players to focus on what they aim to achieve with their skill, not on time management. I will therefore contrive the amount of time required to perform actions so that all the players and the NPCs take the same amount of time to accomplish precisely one goal, and that goal is decided by precisely one check.

These goals must meet one of the following criteria: it provides some kind of improvement for the player to use during zoomed-in scenes, or it must only impact zoomed-out play. Further, it must not replace whatever kind of action is typical for zoomed-in scenes in the campaign’s genre. This will typically include anything that puts a character physically at risk, but may vary.

There are two factors to consider when establishing the range for in-game time between checks: healing and invention. So long as the players are aware of how in-universe time impacts these, and build their characters accordingly, the game remains fair.

At TL6 and up, plenty of HP can be acquired in a very short time (just 20 minutes) from first aid. However, if there are at least 3 days of time, physician is better for healing. A character who wants to be “the healer” will need to know both to be able to serve their function regardless of the specifics of how long the time is. At a lower TL, magic is necessary to be a healer. Worrying about magic is too much for me right now.

Invention, on the other hand, is a specific type of complex task. The skills that are used for invention can normally be used in more zoomed in scenes as well, although often at a penalty. Often, the same type of gear can be modified with a different skill. A character who wants to design super-guns will need some kind of engineering, and if they have armoury they can also modify bullets. A player who wants to contribute with cool gear in a zoomed-out fashion should be prepared to both invent and modify existing pieces.

Invention is a complex process. Since it will require multiple checks, the time-scale of invention can be adjusted. Instead of determining the length of time by the complexity of the invention, the player gets to make checks just as frequently as anyone else. It doesn’t matter specifically how much time it takes. When they have accumulated the required successes, they are done.

Complex Tasks, Framing, and Party Objectives

A complex task is an objective that will require multiple different skills to be used, and they can’t all be used at the same time. A good example is invention. Each step along a complex task could be interrupted by a zoomed-in scene. This creates an easy narrative device: the bulk of each session could be about resolving one complex check. One player makes the complex check, the other ones are assisting. An antagonist is either trying to finish first (making it a race) or sabotage them (meaning the PCs are on the defensive). The party’s objective might need to be done in a zoomed-in scene after the complex check. For example, if the PCs are hunting a monster, and the complex task is to discover and acquire the monster’s one and only weakness, then the session would presumably end after they’ve researched the weakness, acquired whatever they need, and then confronted the monster. The complex task ends in a zoomed-in scene: combat. Alternately, the PC’s main objective could be to succeed at the complex skill check. For example, if the PCs are trying to rig underground gambling, like in the film “the Sting,” the success of their objective will be determined by the zoomed-out results. Zoomed-in scenes are used to overcome hiccups along the way. Note that an antagonist who is attempting to finish first does not need to be attempting to do the same thing. If the PCs are detectives, they could be racing against someone trying to plan the heist of the century.

What constitutes a complex task is a substantial decision to be made (usually) by the GM. The needs of the plot determine what is a complex task and what is not. If an action would result in the PCs “winning” it will need to be either a complex task or a zoomed-in scene. Sometimes, the professional thief will, with a single zoomed-out action, steal a building’s blueprints. Sometimes stealing a building’s blueprints is a complex task. If the blueprints will be useful for a later action, and are only for assisting in solving the problem, it is a single task. If getting the blueprints is a major plot point, the main objective for the session, or represents a lasting victory against a villain, then it ought to be a complex task.

Zoomed-Out Play and Balance

Two concerns strike me immediately when using zoomed-out and zoomed-in play. A climatic scene in a session is normally the last and most exciting potential turning point for the session’s plot (or it usually should be). This will sometimes occur with zoomed in action, and sometimes occur during zoomed out action. If the campaign continuously only uses one type of action for the climax, that kind of action will appear to be the most important. Players will want to design their characters to be most effective at that scene. This is the first concern for game balance, and the easiest. A GM just needs to design their adventure arcs accordingly.

The second concern for game balance is the strength of general buffs from zoomed-out play needs to be strong enough to be relevant to PCs during zoomed-in play, and vice versa, without being so strong as to make one a worthless investment of character points.

The cost for skills differ based on their difficulty. For skills of equal level, a cost difference can be as high as 12 points. Most easy or average skills are for zoomed-in scenes. Most hard or very hard skills are for zoomed-out play. 12 points is worth as much as 3 more level in an easy skill. I am balancing these bonuses for point cost to effective skill level, so the bonus from zoomed-out actions should not exceed an average of +3 at the optimum effective skill level (ie. 11). Since 11 succeeds 62.5% of the time, the bonus (if it is a flat bonus) should be 4.8. However, normally these kind of skills are adjusted to have different benefits with two margins of success: -2 and -5.




So, the following is the maximum bonus zoomed-out skills should give:

success(0)= +2

success(-2)= +5

Success (-5)= +8

Zoomed-Out skills could also award temporary advantages in zoomed in scenes, worth about the same as 12 points. For example, if using forgery to fake rank, it would be worth rank 2, because rank costs 5 points each. If drawbacks come in degrees, they could be reduced temporarily by 12 points. For example, a vampire might use some knowledge of biology to reduce their dependency on human blood from daily to weekly for one sesssion.

Specifically what the benefits of a skill should be is a decision mostly made by narrative and common sense. Strategy might be used for a bonus on attack rolls. Politics might give 2 points of status. Philosophy might give a bonus to will checks for resisting mental effects.

If it turns out that the bonuses are too useful, an option is to ensure that these bonuses are always from quick contests. This can be added during a campaign simply by adding some new rivals or adversaries.

Roleplaying Zoomed-Out Play

There are two ways to roleplay zoomed-out play. One is a montage, where the PC describes themselves doing the various parts of their current work. The goal is to create a sense of time passing, while still describing what they are doing. The other is to have an explanatory dialogue, either somewhere in the middle of the work or at the very start. In an action movie, sometimes a character will walk in on a tech working on some kind of gadget and ask “what are you doing?” The result is an explanatory dialogue. Sometimes an explanatory dialogue begins in a meeting, and then the character tells everyone their plan, and their description of the plan turns into a voice over while the camera shows them acting out the plan. If used in a roleplaying scene, this will be mostly indistinguishable from an explanatory dialogue.

Tactics and Transparency in Zoomed-Out Play

To add tactical elements to zoomed-out play, the game needs to create opportunities for players and NPCs to respond to each others’ choices. This requires that everyone knows at least a little bit about what their opponent has done. It also requires that NPCs and PCs have opportunities to sabotage their opponents in some way. The easiest way to do the former is for the GM to simply state allowed what the PCs opponents are doing, and roll publicly. Justifying in-character access to this information is the hard part. I suggest that the GM present roleplayed scenes where a neutral NPC or a scene obviously informs the PCs about either what their opponents accomplished or how they did it, but not both. Whichever one the GM doesn’t give the PCs for free can be discovered by the PCs using contacts, investigation, magic, or some other way of getting information. If one player uses their zoomed-out action to get information, I suggest that the GM allow the rest of the party to go after the extra information is acquired. This will make the information useful right away.

The PCs opponents will need to behave consistently. They’ll need to continuously be working towards a goal, have a set of resources and abilities they prefer to use, and prefer to solve their problems in particular ways. This will be the most useful information for PCs to acquire, but it will normally only be implied by the behaviour of the NPCs. NPCs shouldn’t do things like tell strangers “I’m going to commit stock piracy to bankrupt your nation, because I want to see western democracy fall!” Instead, the PCs need to find evidence of white collar crime, evidence of being allied with a group that opposes western democracy, and evidence of being a skilled financier.

So long as the PCs get this information, they have the option of going “on the offensive” and sabotaging their opponents. This will often use the rules for quick contests, and set the PCs opponent back one skill use in their complex task. This will often be easy to handle, and intuitive to the players and the GM. However, it is important to remember that this option needs to be available. Otherwise, a few lucky rolls can set the villain so far ahead there’s nothing left for the players to do. The strategy comes in recognizing the villain is ahead, figuring out their weakness, and then exploiting it to buy time. This is easier than it sounds, if the information is made available to them.

Finally, whatever the PCs can do, their antagonists can also do. This is used to force reactions from players, and to create opportunities for the players. If the villain is ahead on the complex task, it forces the players to do something to either slow down the villain or speed themselves up. If the villain is behind, it gives the players time to look after their own tasks, and try to get farther ahead. If their opponent is aggressive, it forces the PCs to defend against sabotage attempts. If their opponent is highly defensive, it forces the players to try and make faster progress than their opponent. This where tactical variety can come in. On a related note, the NPCs might need to get to take at least 2 zoomed out actions each time. The PCs will get as many actions as there are players, after all.

Trial and Error

I figured this out by trial and error in a game that only used zoomed out action. There were some severe balance issues between different characters. I had to come up with house rules on the fly quite often. Actions that yielded bonuses were too weak, and I didn’t present enough opportunities for players to respond to their opponents. By the time I figured it out, the campaign was almost over. I intend to use this guide for my next attempt at a game that has players in positions of importance and prestige. The zoomed-out action lends itself well to sweeping plans, clever conspiracies, brilliant innovations, and charismatic leadership. Campaigns I want to run using this include a rip off of Red Mars and a rip off of the 2nd and 3rd books in A Song of Ice and Fire. Crime dramas like Boardwalk Empire could also be played by using lots of zoomed-out action. You might be able to think of books or movies that you’d like to rip off yourself, that you won’t fit into a lot of RPG systems because the rules system only

GURPS: Posture and Hit Locations

I wanted to determine how effective posture is. Unfortunately; I can’t yet. I need to evaluate the effectiveness of hit locations before I evaluate the effectiveness of posture, because the main benefit to different posture seems to be not getting shot in the legs. After examining shooting out the legs, I’ll look at the benefit of posture.

Shooting the Legs

Hit Location: Legs: -2 to effective skill level. Damage done from a single hit cannot exceed the targets total HP/2, however, if a character takes HP/2 or more their leg is crippled.

Technically a character with a crippled leg can still fight, but it’s really hard. I’m going to consider that effectively a victory.

Going by the rules for basic abilities, it is immediately visibly apparent if a person’s strength is 13 or higher. Hit points can vary by up to 30% of strength, for a human who is considered “realistic.” I will therefore plan for a human with 12 strength and 4 additional hit points (for a total of 16), because anything better will be immediately apparent and therefore I will know I can’t use this plan.

The maximum amount of injury required to cripple a limb (that I will plan for) is 8. Using .40 auto pistol, 8 and higher occurs about 42% of the time. In order for this to happen reliably, two hits are required. The probability, in such a case, of neither roll being less than 8 is 41%. Regardless, any hits still do normal injury to the character’s HP.

To determine if it’s a good idea to target the legs, lets compare the likelihood of crippling a leg at different effective ability scores with the amount of damage that would likely be done if the torso was targeted instead.

Effective score of 11 targeting the torso: 8.2 damage.

Effective score of 9 targeting the legs: 1 hit with crippling injury: 0.21(0.42), 2 hits, at least 1 crippling injury 0.069(0. 59), 3 hits and at least one crippling injury. 0.038(0.80). Total: 15% chance of crippling injury.

Effective score of 13 targeting the torso: 12.3 damage.

Effective score of 11 targeting the legs: 1 hit with crippling injury: 0.25(0.42), 2 hits, at least 1 crippling injury 0.21(0. 59), 3 hits and at least one crippling injury. 0.16(0.80). Total: 36% chance of crippling injury.

At an effective score of 11, targeting the leg seems to more or less “break even.” It will usually take 2 attacks with an effective score of 13 while shooting at the torso. If two attacks are made against the legs, there’s a 60% chance of crippling the leg with one of the shots. There is, however, a worse chance of doing no damage at all with the leg shots. Since the marginal increase in damage with effective skills above 13 becomes progressively more limited the higher the effective skill is raised, characters with high ability scores benefit from lowering their effective scores by targetting body parts. That way, if they are lucky with a damage roll, they can win the battle outright. The increased risk of missing is not very high so long as the effective skill isn’t reduced below 11.

However, since the damage needs to be done with a single hit, high RoF and low Rcl are not as valuable to a character who will be targeting body parts. A “one shot, one kill” style is needed, using weapons like revolvers. A .357 revolver will accomplish this very nicely, since with only one hit the leg of the target has a 62% of crippling. Degree of success doesn’t matter as much, since the odds of getting a crippling hit with a revolver are so much better.

Another point to consider is that shooting someone in the chest is useless if they are wearing a bulletproof vest. Every dice of damage can be thought of as only 0.35 points of damage if they have effective armour. A revolver or assault rifle can muster up enough force to get through the armour, but even a powerful assault rifle will usually do only half as much damage to someone in a tactical vest (but that will still usually be 12 or higher, per hit).

From this I have learned two things:

  1. I want my tough guy mathematician to have a .357 revolver, not a .40 auto pistol.
  2. So long as the effective skill level isn’t reduced below 11 and the target is not wearing armour, the choice of whether or not to shoot the legs is a matter of preference. Shooting the legs is more likely to end the fight in the first round, and shooting the torso is more likely to end the fight in the second round.
  3. If the target has an armoured vest on, shoot them in the legs.

Shooting at other body parts is a lot harder, except for arms. However, since someone who has a crippled arm can still stand up and fight with one hand, I wouldn’t consider crippling an opponent’s arm to be as close to victory as crippling a leg is.



When either kneeling or crouching, there is a -2 to effective skill levels to shoot the legs. This appears to be significant, at least in so far as preventing injury is concerned. First, lets remember that wearing armour at best eliminates damage to the torso, and at worse cuts it in half. Assuming the damage is from firearms, of course. The legs are not protected, but the reduction to a shooter’s effective score is significant. Shooting the legs causes a -2 penalty, and kneeling or crouching causes an additional -2 penalty. If this reduces the effective score from 13 to 9, and the opponent is using a .40 auto pistol, the damage per attack will drop from 13.43 to 3.52. A character only takes 28% of the damage they otherwise would. This ratio holds true for any weapon with Rcl 2, so long as it drops the skill from 9 to 13. Higher Rcl ratings result in more reducee damage. Generally speaking, higher Rcl weapons do more damage with a single hit, however, thus making the risk of being crippled worse. If an opponent’s effective score is higher than 13 before applying posture and targetting modifiers, there isn’t that much that can be done to avoid getting hit in the legs. Note that rifles tend to have really high Acc bonuses.

My conclusions about posture and defense are as follows:

  1. Always wear armour, at least on the torso.
  2. If an opponent has a rifle and takes an action to aim, get behind cover. Neither Posture nor armour will be enough.
  3. If an opponent has a less accurate weapon than a rifle, and takes an action to aim, crouch or kneel.
  4. If an opponent has visibly high dexterity (ie. a score of 13 or higher), or there is another reason to expect a very high effective Gun skill, use cover to protect against leg shots.