Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jedi Ruin Everything

I was reading a Stars Without Number supplement the other day, and there was a martial arts fighting style that basically let you do jedi things, like block lasers with swords.  Granted, it was explained as precognition, which is a hell of a lot better than Star Wars tends to explain it, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.  Why, oh why, do science fiction games feel the need to have space-wizards?

What I want to see in a science fiction game is this: people doing sort-of-plausible-with-years-of-training things with their brains.  Dune's mentat are a good example, with perfect calculation and exceptional ability to process and correlate data, to infer, to draw conclusions.  Stranger in a Strange Land's perfect witnesses are another, with perfect recall and ability to observe things as they are.  One of my favorites is Zygmunt Molotch, a villain from Abnett's Ravenor trilogy.  Molotch is not a sorcerer, or a cyborg, or a space marine; he is a normal man, deeply schooled in observing and manipulating people, with a lot of knowledge and devotion to back it up.  The sort of man who, when he comes into possession of one dose of deadly poison, can find just the right target and set of circumstances in which to apply it in order to destability an entire planetary economy.  On that basis, by cunning alone, he gives a strong-psychic inquisitor's warband a run for their money for three books.

So!  Where are our mentalists, our cold-readers, our lucid dreamers, our mathematical savants, our Sherlock Holmeses, our perfect-recallers, our lunatics who can read machine code like english and reach fluency in new natural languages in a week of immersion?  Don't give me that "nobody wants those skills because they're not useful while adventuring" line.  It's a lie, at least in most Travelleresque games.

The real reason, the embarrassing truth, is that telekinetic wizards (of either the space or garden variety) are easier to deal with as a DM than divination specialists.  I don't have a solution to that yet, other than to provide very clear-cut guidelines on what your braintalents can and cannot do; a perfect recaller can obviously only work with things he or she has seen.  A mentat can only infer given sufficient data, the acquisition of which might be an adventure in and of itself.  A cold-reader needs body language and tone of voice cues, and those are going to vary across species and possibly language.  A dreamer can only sleep on one problem at a time, and only for so long, and maybe doesn't get a choice of what problem his subconscious is working on (dreaming was how I made it through discrete math in college...).  And yeah you're probably right that nobody wants to play that guy whose superpower is knowing ten million digits of pi, but I could see something closer to a bayesian inferest, where you can figure the odds of things instantly, being workable and meshing nicely with game structures that already exist. Factoring really really large numbers in your head for cryptographic applications would be a neat trick, and I've met people who can do other similarly-'impossible' things like approximate really large factorials mentally, so it's not in the realm of the patently ridiculous.

So I dunno.  It seems workable.  Thoughts?


  1. It has to do with the contextual density of the game and the amount of consistency-tracking the GM is willing to deal with. The classic mentat-tropes work only in the sense that they're manipulating facts and realities that exist but that go unnoticed by others, or are too complex for others to successfully manipulate. A super-detective who pieces together a complex plot from six pieces of lint and a haunted look on Tuesday is a standard trope, but it's virtually impossible to create in a sense organic to the game experience. To do so, a GM would actually have to plant these facts in the world, even if they then handed the analysis to the player as a result of their ability. This requires a density of facts and creation far too great for most GMs to handle, which is why such savant-powers usually end up handwaved as brute insertions of fact into the game. The super-detective taps their power, and the GM creates fiction to explain why they're so brilliant. Everyone knows that the fiction and the clues didn't exist before that moment, so it tends to be rather unsatisfying to a lot of players.

    There's a fundamental difference between abilities that _create_ facts within the game world, and abilities that _exploit_ facts within the game world. The former are always going to be easier to handle, because the GM needs no prep- they just acknowledge the reality that has been created, and keep going. The latter are always going to require far more work from the GM, so much so that most of them end up transformed into reskinned versions of the former, just because it's easier to deal with them that way.

    1. I think I'm OK with them being brute DM-to-player knowledge-transfer capabilities. Part of this is due to self-knowledge that I am a very closed DM; most of my descriptions are purely functional, so a description of unclear import would be an immediate tell. I actually rather like divinations in fantasy games, as they permit me to give the players data that they wouldn't otherwise know, without tipping my hand. I don't really see these as functionally different, except that they're plausible within harder-science universes and operate under somewhat different restrictions.

      Regarding player dissatisfaction, I suspect that this will depend on one's particular player-group. The folks I game with have traditionally shown very little interest in or aptitude for investigation, puzzles, &c; I'm looking at this more as a way to get them actionable intelligence for their ever-pressing "Who are we lasering next?" and "Where's the thing we're trying to steal?" questions.