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.”

Technician

Physicist

Actions

1

1

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

1

2

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.

2

1

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

2

2

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.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightcraft

 

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Dragons and Detectives: Thrillers

Psychological thrillers are a lot like mysteries. They both engage the reasoning ability of their audience, and have plots that are principally about uncovering “the truth.” The key difference, however, is that thrillers aim to create a mood of doubt and paranoia. This is accomplished by making the characters and audience question the integrity of the investigation. Questioning the integrity of the investigation changes the mystery of the story substantially: instead of discovering “who committed this crime?” the question becomes “what is wrong with this investigation?”

This post assumes familiarity with the other “Dragons and Detectives” posts.

Integrity of the Investigation

By the “integrity of the investigation” I mean the phenomena where all people and institutions supporting the investigation are acting in good faith and aim to help uncover the truth. Thrillers challenge this notion, and in so doing create a sense of paranoia. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of ways to challenge the integrity of the investigation:

  1. A detective is either highly immoral or has a tenuous grasp on reality.

  2. The organization that supports the detective (the police department, a P.I.’s network, etc.) contains some traitors, saboteurs, or otherwise corrupt individuals.

  3. The moral or legal authority of the organization that supports the detectives is drawn into question, or they withdraw their support.

The first and second one are the most commonly used in psychological thriller movies. Think of any thriller you’ve seen where a friendly secondary character becomes progressively more sinister as the movie goes on. Meanwhile, the main character’s behaviour becomes increasingly more erratic and bizarre.

Events for Psychological Thrillers: Sabotage and Lies

The events in a psychological thriller involve clues changing or going missing, initially for no readily apparent reason. The evidence is misplaced, or an interviewee denies that they ever spoke to the players. This sabotage of the investigation rapidly escalates to threats and “indirect” attempts on a person’s life (like lighting their house on fire). Only near the end will there be a “direct” violent engagement.

This changes the way the players will re-examine their theories, because they need to start thinking about who has the opportunity to sabotage their investigation. This will usually seem beyond any of their suspects, and will result in all kinds of paranoid speculation. It is possible, of course, that the person sabotaging the crime has a motive that is completely removed from the original investigation. In psychological thrillers, however, this does not happen because there are no coincidences. In a psychological thriller everything is connected.

PvP and Sabotage

What will make the players feel a lot more secure in their theories is that they principally interact with each other. When an interviewee says “I never spoke to those guys” all the PCs say “yes you did; we we’re all there!” The way around this is to make the PCs distrust each other.

Here is what I suggest: at the end of the first socratic session in a mystery, have each player write the GM a secret note. In it, the player writes down how their character could manipulate the investigation in a manner that benefits them. Examples could include framing a professional rival, rushing through the investigation irresponsibly to “juke the stats,” or turning the investigation into a propaganda campaign for the local police department. The GM puts a check mark on each proposal that seems plausible, and an x on each proposal that is not. If the player gets a check mark, they may choose to pursue the investigation honestly or they may choose to sabotage it. A player who got an x must investigate honestly.

I would suggest letting each player take one action secretly between each socratic seminar and event. Honest investigators can use this action to try and track down the saboteur. Manipulators can use this to fabricate evidence.

Now the game could go in a few possible directions. It could be an honest investigation if everyone chooses to solve the mystery. It could be an intrigue game if everyone is sabotaging the investigation. It’s a thriller if some are manipulating the investigation, and some are pursuing it honestly.

The manipulators would need to get the biggest reward if they can manipulate the investigation just enough to get their objectives met, the honest investigators still catch the right criminal. Of course, if the manipulator gets caught and must be punished, odds are good the character will wind up in jail or dead.

In order for the honest investigators to be able to secretly investigate their colleagues, I would want to have each player identify at least one skill or ability that they keep secret, and one part of their background that they keep secret. Presumably, this part of their background is related to how they plan to benefit from corruption. By clearly identifying these to the GM at the beginning of a campaign, the GM knows what to reveal to PCs when they investigate each other. The background provides psycho-social clues, and the skills provide opportune clues.

Doing this does break the genre convention of making everything connected. However, it allows a group to run multiple mysteries that are very close to psychological thrillers without everything becoming overly predictable.

Surprise Endings

For movies, the benefit of a constant mood of doubt and paranoia is that it keeps the “feeling” of mystery alive in the absence of reasoning. It can stimulate emotional responses from the audience in place of rational responses. Thriller movies tend to aim for a surprise-ending, so they rely on the audience not having any time to reason about the films except at the very beginning and the very end. The very beginning sets up the detectives initial, non-paranoid expectations. Then everyone gets paranoid for 1.5 hours. Then there’s a dialogue wherein the detective and the audience are walked through all the reasoning needed to discover “The Truth.” It’s a big surprise ending and everyone is awed.

To pull this off in an RPG, the GM will need to keep interrupting the players socratic seminars with threatening action scenes, distracting rp scenes, and dangerous threats best avoided with neat puzzles. They get one socratic seminar at the beginning, then the GM interrupts them until they have all the clues they need, and then the GM lets them have a socratic seminar again. They put it all together, and it’s a big surprise ending.

The group would probably need to finish this whole plot in one session, because if the players have free time in the middle of the plot they might just put it all together too soon.

The Inquistion: a Campaign I Would Want to Run

If I was to run a thriller campaign, I’d want to set it in a low-fantasy version of europe and make the players work for that world’s version of the inquisition. This makes the players into investigators, of a sort, but instead of looking for breaches of the law they are looking for breaches of morality. They aren’t even looking for breaches of public morality; they are ferreting out “corruption” in people’s private lives. They are certainly allowed to enforce public morality if they want, and it is through enforcing public morality that the players end up dealing with high-profile murder mysteries.

This means, right from the beginning, the integrity of the organization that supports the PCs is cast in doubt. The inquisition will obviously abuse its power. Some of it’s more ruthless agents will punish people for “moral crimes” that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. Others (like the PCs, I hope) use the scope of their authority to try and benefit people by removing corrupting influences, and supporting nurturing ones.

In the course of removing “corrupting influences,” the players (and other inquisitors), would have the authority to be as fascistic, xenophobic, arbitrary, and generally evil as they want to be. This enables, but does not require, the players to threaten the integrity of the detectives (themselves). When some of the clues take the form of forced confessions, and some of the reasoning involves obvious bigotry (“if he’s a heretic, he must be a murderer too!”), the players may begin to doubt their own ability to find the real criminal.

Finally, if bishops and nobles are frequently prideful, conceited, and deceitful, the PCs will almost certainly not trust the integrity of the people “above” them. Other inquisitors can be prone to obvious bigotry and corruption, and political clout can be used to shield the powerful from investigation. Paranoia will natural ensue.

Depending on players experience with bigotry in real life, this game could be very upsetting for them. I’ve had some unpleasant encounters with neo-nazis in my lifetime, but they were few and far between. Many people have had it much, much worse. Also, if people have been abused by police in any way this game might be really unpleasant. This could also be a really heavy game for people because of how concepts of public and private morality can be severely impacted by gender or sexual orientation. If you want to use this idea, be careful; it could make a lot of people really uncomfortable.