Sunday, March 1, 2015

Card-Driven Morale

I was thinking about morale systems (particularly Domains at War's) in the shower this evening and it occurred to me that the primary culprits in terms of lag and friction from morale are table lookups and adding situational modifiers.  I don't have a solution to situational modifiers yet, but one solution to the table lookups problem would be to use a deck of cards with the same probability distribution as 2d6.  Each card, in addition to its face value, has a small, basically pre-calculated table, to the effect of "if the checking unit's morale is +3 or better, it rallies.  0-+2, stands firm..." and on down the list.  This removes the table lookup.  Depending on how often you reshuffle drawn morale cards back into the deck, it could speed things up with multiple draws per turn.  This would drive the result towards the mean (in that once you've drawn one extreme, your odds of that extreme again are low or nil until reshuffle), but that might be acceptable.  You could do the same thing for shock, too - this would remove all uses of the d6 from DaW (I think?) and then it could be run on pure d20+cards.

I do not yet have a solution to the conditional modifiers problem.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Schismatrix Plus

Is a pretty damn good book.

I had heard of Sterling's Shapers and Mechanists secondhand, and even borrowed the Shapers (necessarily inaccurately) for a Traveller came at one point, but hadn't realized the original source.  I'm glad I stumbled across this, though somewhat sad at the number of years elapsed in the interim.  The main Schismatrix story is something of a travellogue, with a main character (who reminds me a lot of one of my favorite old PCs) perpetually cooking up schemes to stay alive in a chaotic world.  Some reviews complain at the lack of a single, coherent mainplot, but I think when you write at this near-dynastic scale, that makes a lot of sense; it is hard to devote all of one's energies to any single task over an unnaturally-extended lifetime (as is considered late in the story), be it world dominance or hunting down an enemy or rescuing a loved one.  Time grinds down everyone's resolve, and everything changes eventually; there's always an economic bubble somewhere, but when it bursts it pays to have a contingency plan.  I liked that about Schismatrix.

Sterling does a lot of evocative and imaginitive worldbuilding.  The Shaper/Mechanist universe is overflowing with factions and organizations; the Preservationists, the Geisha Bank, the Nephrine Black Medicals, the Fortuna Miners' Democracy, the Blood Bathers, the Cataclysts, the Lobsters (I really liked the Lobsters), the Polycarbon Clique, the Lifesiders Clique, the various Shaper genelines, the big Mechanist cartels and zaibatsus, and probably a bunch more that I'm forgetting, each with an ideology that may or may not make any sense, and which might be clarified to the reader only long after that faction is destroyed or driven from power (or not at all).  It's a beautiful mess of philosophies and I love it.  It begs for use in an RPG; forget monster of the week, have a lunatic philosophical faction of the week.  Maybe that's why Planescape was popular...

The rest of the worldbuilding, in terms of physical and social setting descriptions, was also very well-done.  There was a lot of it, but I didn't get bored of it, because everything was strange and interesting.  Contrast: I also read Old Man's War recently, and a conclusion I was forced to draw was that I have no interest in reading mundane worldbuilding, as embodied in the (long, dragging) description of the various standard earthling breakfast foods served to new trainees (waffles, donut, bacon, &c) and other normalcies during the first part of the book.  Sterling avoids this trap; even when the mundane, like a housecat, does appear, it is seen through 'alien' eyes and described from that perspective in an amusing fashion, in juxtaposition with an oddity a page (cockroaches as pets?) described as completely ordinary from that same perspective.

I also liked the single-solar-system scope.  It's a bit more to my tastes than romping across the stars these days, but not an easy niche to find in science fiction.  No psi/magic/what-have-you; everything is kept fairly plausible to casual examination, except for that one thing which comes in a bit late and is not totally unreasonable.  Some of the characters are genetically engineered to be badasses, but those characters operate on a fairly even playing field against clever and postnatally-augmented folks.  The movers and shakers may be of high birth, but that's never why they're in charge; Brin's aristocratic concerns are strongly averted.  Falling in with a philosophy and working cleverly to achieve a shared worldview seems more important than lucky birth, and no manner of predestination is present.  Pre-singularity posthumanity is also a very workable premise; you get to do all sorts of body modification and philosophical diaspora without having to deal too much with the exponential growth and rapid obsolescence.  Sort of a nice balance between cyberpunk pessimism and transhumanist optimism; posthumans and their factions can be as cruel as any cyberpunk corporation, but the reign of any single power never lasts.

Anyway, 5/5 will probably read again, would steal from this book for Traveller without hesitation.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Inside the Soviet Army

From Suvorov's Inside the Soviet Army:
Only three forces are active in the Soviet political arena-the Party, the Army and the KGB. Each of these possesses enormous power, but this is exceeded by the combined strength of the other two. Each has its own secret organisation, which is capable of reaching into hostile countries and monitoring developments there. The Party has its Control Commission-a secret organisation which has almost as much influence inside the country as the KGB. The KGB is a grouping of many different secret departments, some of which keep an eye on the Party. The Army has its own secret service-the GRU-the most effective military intelligence service in the world.
Each of these three forces is hostile to the others and has certain, not unreasonable pretensions to absolute power but its initiatives will always fail in the face of the combined opposition of the other two.
Of the three, the Party has the smallest resources for self-defence in open conflict. But it has a strong lever at its disposal-the appointment and posting of all officials. Every general in the Army and every colonel in the KGB takes up his post and is promoted or demoted only with the approval of the Administrative Department of the Central Committee of the Party. In addition, the Party controls all propaganda and ideological work and it is always the Party which decides what constitutes true Marxism and what represents a deviation from its general line. Marxism can be used as an additional weapon when it becomes necessary to dismiss an unwanted official from the KGB, the Army or even the Party. The Party's right to nominate and promote individuals is supported by both the Army and the KGB. If the Party were to lose this privilege to the KGB, the Army would be in mortal danger. If the Army took it over, the KGB would be in an equally dangerous situation. For this reason, neither of them objects to the Party's privilege-and it is this privilege which makes the Party the most influential member of the triumvirate.
The KGB is the craftiest member of this troika. It is able, whenever it wishes, to recruit a party or a military leader as its agent: if the official refuses he can be destroyed by a compromise operation devised by the KGB. The Party remembers, only too clearly, how the KGB's predecessor was able to destroy the entire Central Committee during the course of a single year. The Army, for its part, remembers how, within the space of two months, the same organisation was able to annihilate all its generals. However, the secret power of the KGB and its cunning are its weakness as well as its strength. Both the Party and the Army have a deep fear of the KGB and for this reason they keep a very close eye on the behaviour of its leaders, changing them quickly and decisively, if this becomes necessary.
The Army is potentially the most powerful of the three and therefore it has the fewest rights. The Party and the KGB know very well that, if Communism should collapse, they will be shot by their own countrymen, but that this will not happen to the Army. The Party and the KGB acknowledge the might of the Army. Without it their policies could not be carried out, either at home or abroad. The Party and the KGB keep the Army at a careful distance, rather as two hunters might control a captured leopard with chains, from two different sides. The tautness of this chain is felt even at regimental and battalion level. The Party has a political Commissar in every detachment and the KGB a Special Department.

Sounds pretty gameable to me...  There were a lot of other interesting tidbits as well, though I'm nowhere near finished with the book.  Soviet doctrine on the deployment of nuclear weapons was sensible but unsettling ("strike first, because you never know when the enemy will go for his nukes...").  Doctrine on the allocation of brigade resources was remarkably pragmatic (if you have three battalions, one of whose advance is stopped, one which is advancing slowly, and one which is broken and retreating, you throw all of your higher-level reserves and artillery in support of the one battalion which is advancing, however slowly, because offense is king and you want a strategic breakthrough).  Anti-tank guns were intentionally almost never self-propelled, both for simplicity of construction and so that their crews could not retreat.  Optimism about the future of the tank in the pre-drone / ATGM era (though it also makes sense here, since one of the postulates of Soviet doctrine was that advanced manufacturing was going to get wrecked harder than it did in World War II via nukes, so neither side was going to be able to continue producing advanced guided weapons in any volume).  Doctrine regarding rifled vs smoothbore mortars and volume of fire was simple but sensible:
But what about accuracy? you will ask. It is of no significance. Soviet commanders have chosen a different way of approaching the problem. If you have to pay for accuracy with complexity of design, you are following the wrong path. Quantity is the better way to exert pressure. Since two simple, smoothbore mortars can do the work of one rifled one we will use the two simple ones, which will have the additional advantage of producing a lot more noise, dust and fire than one. And this is by no means unimportant in war. The more noise you produce, the higher the morale of your troops and the lower that of the enemy. What is more, two mortars are harder to destroy than one.
Helicopters viewed as lightly armored flying tanks instead of as aircraft, vehicle crews don't have Need To Know regarding the specifications or type designations of their vehicles, weird variations in shell calibre so that it's hard to confuse different types of ammunition in writing or speech, troops not provided rations or bedrolls but to spend no more than five days at the front at a time, and all kinds of just foreign concepts.  Promotion among officers was determined both by time in grade, but each command had a maximum rank that could command it - if at n years in service you hadn't acquired command of a larger force by impressing your superiors and being given command of a force above your rank, you were stuck at your current rank (a surprisingly meritocratic and very gameable arrangement).  I'm fairly impressed by the degree of focus on combined arms, with both air and land armies under the command of a single Front Commander, and necessarily cooperating. In any case, a very interesting read.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The High-Low Mix

I've been reading some criticism recently about US aircraft acquisition policy which is sort of interesting from a wargaming perspective.  The opposition allege that the Air Force has a problem where it tries to construct a fleet solely of maximum-capability airframes with stealth and mach 3 and all the bells and whistles required to fight an adversary with advanced air defense capabilities while making cuts to areas like close air support and aerial reconnaissance that don't require the same degree of technological sophisitication and are much more useful against technologically inferior opponents.  As it turns out, these sort of high-tech aircraft are really expensive and hard to manufacture and maintain in large numbers, leading to numerical inferiority and either reliance on old models for pedestrian missions like bombing guerillas (for which all the bells and whistles are not required), or extreme maintenance costs for those missions if advanced aircraft are employed.

The opposition further argues that the Air Force should strive for a "high-low" force mix, with 20% of the force consisting of highest-end specialist hardware designed to punch holes in technologically advanced adversaries at any expense, and the other 80% consisting of less-expensive, less-specialized, general-purpose aircraft capable of performing a wide variety of missions at lower costs.

This reminds me of a time when someone tried to build an all-cataphract army - it was very strong on paper, but availability was low and they weren't good at going in and digging lizardmen out of caves.

This discussion is also interesting in light of our Starmada games.  I think part of the reason we didn't really see mission-specialized ships was that basically all of the Starmada victory conditions boiled down to "destroy the enemy fleet".  It probably didn't help that some scenarios banned Cloaking, Hyperdrive, and other options which would permit the construction of specialist ships for those missions.

...  and now I have the itch to build a better (less complex) BattleTech on top of Starmada's chassis while avoiding Wardogs' mistakes.  Bother.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Board Game Tuesday

Playing new boardgames with a different group on a weeknight?  Scandalous!

Manhattan Project - This struck me as a well-designed game.  Uranium and plutonium seem balanced against each other (uranium is faster but more money-expensive both for production and loading bombers and lower-yield, but the plutonium path is slower).  A number of rules prevent the game from deadlocking (mandatory placement or retrieval, bribe pool).  Was fun, would play again now that I have a better understanding of the mechanics and tactics. A little bit on the long side (about 2.5 hours I think?), but that was with some stalling plays and lots of inexperience.  Overall I feel the game was well-worth the time.

Coup - I was hesitant as I expected this to be a Mafia / Werewolf / Bang style deception game, but was pleasantly surprised.  Maybe I was thinking of the larger variant with Monarchist / Rebel cards.  I enjoyed this game more than I expected; it is very satisfying to pull off a bold-faced bluff.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Computer Wizards of the Present-Future

Credit where credit is due for the form of the phrase.

I was thinking more on the trouble I have with psionics in science-fiction games, and realized the solution was staring me in the face.  In science fiction, the role of magic in fantasy is best filled by gear, equipment, applied technology.  By analogy, the wizard-equivalent character ought to be the technologist who works magic.

I nominate the hacker.

The hacker-wizard is very much a live hypothesis (to use Peircian language), a live symbol, in current media.  For the hacker to 'work magic' feels much more plausible than for a psion, who strains suspension of disbelief.  Killing a man with just your brain is patently ridiculous, but killing a man by remotely hacking his pacemaker?  Not merely plausible; totally doable.  You don't need the Force to lift an X-Wing out of the swamp, just remote control.

The flip side is that hacking takes a lot of prep and intel.  Psionics is very fixed; you have this set of things you can do with your brain and they're not changing, but they're also very generally applicable.  Hacking is not like that.  You need to know your objective and your target before the mission.  If you're lucky, they have misconfigured their software or have a straightforward injection bug that you can exploit easily, typically in minutes to tens of minutes.  If you're less lucky, you can find a publicly-known exploit against some software your target is running and a payload that accomplishes your objectives and will run on your target (could take anywhere from a couple minutes to an hour, faster if Metasploit has what you need).  On the minus side, publicly-known exploits might be patched or the target's intrusion detection system (IDS) might recognize them, or they might just be buggy, and then you're SOL.  If you're particularly unlucky, you may need to get a copy of the correct version of the software running on the target and go find and exploit a bug yourself, then write and test your own payload.  This can take closer to days or weeks for most "real" software, or even longer for hard targets or targets running on weird hardware.  This generates something much like ACKS' mage repertoire mechanics; if you know of other hackers, and you know they have access to exploit you don't, they're targets for bargaining, treachery, and hackery themselves.

This reliance on preparation does put the hacker firmly on the wizard side of the Fighter-Wizard Axis.  On the plus side, once you've got your exploit+payload working, you can throw it over the network pretty indiscriminately.  Putting together a little smartphone app with a big red GO button which when hit spams your exploit to everything on the same wireless network is not a difficult task.  We already have better.  Hell, you could even give your Big Red Button app to the party's muscle and stay in the comfort of a sketchy van with too many antennas (in near future settings) or the starship (in far future settings), safely removed from the action but still able to provide remote support.

The general consensus from the Shadowrun crowd is that the distant hacker is sort of a problem because they go off and do "decker things" in their own little subsystem while the rest of the party is rolling hot through hostile territory.  Switching to prep-focused hacking might help alleviate this somewhat; once the run is underway, you can only work the magic you prepped.  You also need to be careful to not attract too much heat - if you get hackbacked and the adversary can determine your location from your machine, or you otherwise give away your identity or location, you could end up with a black helo full of goons inbound on your position while the party's heavies are away (or a hunter-killer drone or an orbital strike...).  And if you're doing RF (radio frequency) hacking, it doesn't even take that much to fix a location for the local spectrum allocation authority to come visit (as long as anyone's listening).  In less serious consequences, you might get kicked off the network or blacklisted and effectively cut out of the action until you can find a different way on.  I honestly feel like heat/noise is the hacker's limiting resource in play - once you've prepped your exploits, you can use them as much as you want, but eventually someone will catch on, and they will come for you with overwhelming force.  This too lends itself to wizardly caution, to restraint, to risk-management.  You're playing with fire; if you use your capabilities too much, you're not just going to run out of psi points for the day and have to stop -  you're going to get the whole party into some deep trouble.  It's an interesting dynamic though because the more technically sophisticated the target, the higher the risk of being caught yet also the greater the reward for success.  The hacker lets a party punch above their weight at targets like cyborgs in TL14 powered armor, but doesn't bring much at all to dealing with random wildlife.

I guess one good reason to go on the run yourself is if the target uses an air-gapped network or is hardened against RF communications.  On the other hand, those sound like the sort of targets you really don't want to be attacking if you can avoid it...

So...  what sort of capabilities are we looking at, realistically?  Intelligence gathering from vulnerable remote servers is fairly obvious; break in, get data, get out.  There's also lots of good intel-gathering to be done in the radio frequency domain.  There is much to-do about disabling or misusing "internet of things" targets these days; pacemakers, cars, printers, nuclear centrifuges, factories...  pretty easy to extrapolate out to smartguns, powered armor, combat stimulant autoinjectors, guided missiles, and combat drones.  Likewise spoofing GPS can cause all manner of mayhem via RF.  At a lower level, convincing the badge reader at the megacorp office that you're supposed to be there should be about as difficult as getting free bus fare, and feeding info to the faceman about the person he's talking to from their internet footprint is straightforward too.

In conclusion: hackers > psions.  Less suspension of disbelief, more cautious / preparatory focus, more playing with fire (except for 40k-style psions, in which case it's a pretty comparable amount of playing with fire really).  Maybe I ought to roll a cyberpunk MongTrav variant after all...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Starship Geometry

So...  what would combat vessels in the starry sea actually look and be shaped like?  I think most science fiction does a lousy job of this.

It seems to me important to ignore two things: first, atmospheric reentry capability, and second, any manner of warp drive.  Building major warships with atmospheric capability seems unlikely to me because putting large ships into space is ridiculously expensive in terms of rocket fuel.  I think space elevators and assembly in orbit are plausible within the next 200 years, at which point you never really need atmospheric capability.  If you need to put something on the ground from orbit, use a dedicated small reentry vehicle (dropship) with the knowledge that it's probably a one-way trip unless you're willing to drop a ton of fuel to go with it or unless you've captured an elevator.

(There are probably some good thoughts to be had on the strategic importance of space elevators in orbital war if they're an assumption you're willing to make.  I think, though, of all the possible means to make achieving orbit common enough for most science fiction, the space elevator is the most plausible / scalable)

On the flip side, if you prefer to assume Traveller-style "free" multi-g reactionmassless acceleration in any direction, then you still don't really need to take aerodynamics into account - just strap more antigrav plates onto a hull built in a configuration actually reasonable for use in space, disregard lifting surfaces, and vector your thrust however you like.  This does get harder on planets with higher gravity, though.  Maybe an aerodynamic 'spaceship sabot', like a pair of droppable wings... ?

Second, warpdrive.  Alcubierre drive nonwithstanding, if you're willing to assume warpdrive, you can use that as a justifying assumption for pretty much any starship geometry you like.  "Oh, warp drive only works on ships shaped like donuts because technobabble."  But if that's the case, optimal starship geometry without warpdrive will still be a worthwhile question, because you can build your interstellar carriers as toroids and then launch ships of more practical configurations on your arrival.

So!  Assuming rocket propulsion, orbital assembly / no atmospheric operation, and no weird warpdrive constraints, what's a reasonable combat starship look like?

I think the two main things to consider are moment of rotational inertia and target profile.  Assuming uniform density, a sphere minimizes rotational inertia and presents a uniform target profile from all incoming vectors.  If you're willing to put maneuvering thrusters out on extended arms or booms, you could get a lot of extra torque and a sphere could be very maneuverable (such booms do present exposed targets, though, and it's true that you could put boomed maneuvering thrusters on most any shape).  A sphere also gives you potentially pretty broad traverses on turreted weapons, and turrets on half your surface area can aim at any single point.  As you reduce your target profile in any single dimension by flattening / smushing the sphere, your moment of inertia starts going up if you want to maintain the same volume.  The classical "flying saucer" pattern presents a small target from two sides and a large target from the third, and has tolerable rotational inertia depending on how flattened it is.  Bringing weapons to bear from a large portion of your hull is tricky, though.  The cone deserves mention, because while it has a pretty bad moment of inertia, a narrow cone presents a small target from the wherever it's pointing at and also provides a nice sloped area where one could mount forward-facing weapons that do not block each other's lines of fire.  Conical ships are also susceptible to raking fire from the direction they face, though (depending on your assumptions about penetration capabilities of weapons).  Cylindrical ships have slightly better moments of inertia than conical ones and smaller target profiles in their favored direction, but lose out on usable surface area for mounting terraced turrets and remain susceptible to raking fire. 

Uniform density is a silly assumption, of course.  Armor is probably dense, so you're likely to have sort of "worst-case" moments of inertia.  Spheres still win, though.  There's also an interesting conundrum in terms of reaction mass, ammunition, and other expendables - if you put them near the outside of the hull, then as you burn through them your moment of inertia falls more rapidly than if they were closer to the center of mass, so you gain more maneuverability as you burn through them.  On the other hand, if your fuel is kept near the exterior of your hull, it's more likely to be hit and then you will be sad and/or dead.

Anyway.  Once aerodynamics are out of the way, spheres make a lot of sense for low-orbital environments, where orbital period is low and the horizon is relatively close so an enemy can approach from a wider variety of vectors with less warning, and therefore maneuverability and uniformly small target profile are useful.  Ships designed for intercepting in interplanetary space, on the other hand, might make more sense as cones - if the enemy is on a long trajectory that they can't really alter (or they'll miss their target planet), then you can reasonably make an intercept, but you'll spend a lot of time closing while both sides know where the other is, at which point having a small target profile in one direction is useful and maneuverability is less important.  Cylinders continue to make sense for missiles and other impactors intended for large, less-maneuverable targets.