Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thoughts about Super Science

As I mentioned in another post, one of the little projects that I'm working on is to design a Super Scientist class for DCC.  My objective here is twofold.  First, I want the class to play very differently from all the base DCC classes, to not merely be a Wizard re-skinned with gonzo science-fiction trappings.  That sort of thing is lazy, and represents an excessive blurring of lines between literary magic and literary science.

My other objective may seem to be at odds with my first: I want the Super Scientist class to be "arcane" enough that it could easily be a stand-in for a more fantasy-oriented magician like an alchemist, or something even less defined.  It is enough that one called "wizard" has access to weird powers and strange trinkets.  We want to find a place between magic and science fiction, whereas the DCC Wizard is (mechanically) firmly rooted in fantasy.

There are a lot of settings and concepts that could accommodate the class, as I envision it.  Consider the bizarre "wizards" of The Land of One Thousand Towers, in Patrick Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Environment.  These power-mad tyrants each control fragments of a ancient technologies, technologies so advanced as to accomplish wondrous things.  One has learned how to produce armies of obedient dog-men, while another is able to build powerful firearms that bind their wielders to his will and gets around in a giant flying metal head the shoots lasers from its eyes (of course).

There are examples closer to home, like the Venture Bros., Hannibal from the A-Team and even that 80's TV classic, MacGuyver.  The point is that we can conceive of this class as something that straddles the divide between art and science.  The Super Scientist is able to do extraordinary things, and the outcome of his endeavors is always affected by chance.

How, then, is the Super Scientist different from the standard DCC Wizard?

One primary difference is that the powers of the Super Scientist (or Alchemist, or whatever) are mediated more through physical artifacts than mystical rituals.  Super Scientists don't do anything like spellburn, because they don't directly interact with the powers that they are manipulating.

It takes time to build these artifacts, although less reliable versions can be produced on rush order.  Some are single-shot, like potions and explosives, while others are reusable, like guns and robo-dinosaurs.  Unlike with spells, the Super Scientist who designs an artifact chooses its precise features.

Of course, there are resources that must be provided for experiments and operation of the artifact, like proper tools and equipment, raw materials and fuel.  In addition, a given character can only maintain so many devices at once, and non-maintained artifacts will tend to fall apart.

There are two things that a Super Scientist can't control.  First of all, he doesn't select the quirks that affect the day-to-day use of the technology.  These are rolled, the character accepting greater risk in return for greater potential performance.

Quirks are a big part of what makes it all interesting and random.  Quirks vary in severity, like corruption; minor quirks can even have an upside.  Minor quirks will mostly add character and, well, quirks.  Major and greater quirks, however, can create "interesting" limitations, like a machine powered by human hearts, or a radioactive robot that causes long term sickness and death to those in close proximity.  

The other thing that the Super Scientist can't control is when his devices will fail him.  Those projects which are carefully executed over months will tend to run smoothly, but anything that one of these characters whips up on the spur of the moment is going to be unreliable.  Unfortunately, many Super Scientists positively specialize in coming up with last minute solutions.

Mechanically, I conceive of Super Scientists having a few important metrics for their abilities.  First, a Super Scientist has a pool of Gadget Points, which are spent to keep his creations well-maintained.  When he doesn't have enough Gadget Points to cover a particular device, that device will become highly prone to breakdown, especially if it was an ad hoc gadget.

Super Scientists can also invest levels in different Sciences and Arts.  A Science skill represents a kind of science and technology; this can vary across a spectrum from real-world science like Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering, all the way to straight-up supernatural stuff like Alchemy or Necromancy.  A vast middle ground is populated by pulpier Sciences like Rockets!, Gene-crafting, Mesmerism, Energy Fields, etc.

Arts represent the different kinds of things that can be done with Sciences, like Transport, Attack, Protect, Enhance/Impair, Heal, Control, Automate, Transform, Deceive, Perceive, etc.  Each Art can be learned by those possessing certain Sciences, and it would typically manifest distinctly for each.  For instance, Vivimancy and Robotics would produce functionally similar servants with the Art of Automation, but they would look very different!

A given device can incorporate one or more Arts to provide a multi-faceted creation.  For instance, a Super Scientist using Vivimancy to create war-slave flesh constructs would probably rely on the Arts of Automate, Attack and Protect, at least.

What else?  Super Scientists roll a die, plus Intelligence modifier and character level, to determine the overall number of "levels" that can be allocated to effects, as well as improvements to various default parameters.  The Super Scientist makes two choices at this point: which die to roll, and whether or not to spend extra Gadget Points to improve this roll.

The downside to picking a large die is that the same die is rolled to determine quirks!  The quirk roll is also increased according to how many Arts and Sciences were used to create the device.  And, oh yeah, fumbles on a lot of the player rolls will cause some sort of mishap, which is a nice way of saying a minor disaster.  Explosions are a pretty common occurrence, here, but there are all kinds of ways that gadgeteering can go wrong.

Arts and Sciences often have their own tables for quirks and mishaps, so sometimes the general table will tell you to roll on the Art or Science table, if you have one.  Otherwise, roll again.  This gives a lot of opportunities for the color and happy accidents that come with lots of random tables.

That's about it, for device creation and use.  There are also going to be some rules for tinkering with other devices, including jury rigging them for unintended uses (which will usually damage the device enough to disable it).

So that's the rough shape of what I have so far.  I have most of the rules in place, but now I have to start creating some of the specifics, like actual Arts and Sciences, and the various tables.  That's the hard part, actually, so I'm procrastinating.  Once that's in place, hopefully I can get a chance to playtest it.  We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

So how does that sound?  Ultimately, I want the Super Scientist to be fun, and I don't want it to be ridiculously under- or overpowered.  I also want to capture a vibe which is very Appendix N, where technology is mysterious and wondrous, but the supernatural (such as it is) has some of the trappings of technology. And I want it to have distinct mechanics, as compared to Wizards in DCC, or any OSR for that matter.

Even so, it should be possible to use "Sciences" like Demonology, Divination and Alchemy in a fantasy game to simulate a "slow" magician whose spells can't be used in the midst of combat.  Obviously, a character like this is still a viable adventurer for his ability to create, use and maintain arcane tools that can be used on the spur of the moment.

These rules probably demand a bit more of a player than the rules for magic, but DCC has never shied away from a certain amount of complexity; can you explain, without a handy rulebook, the mechanics for spell duels?  Maybe it's a class for more advanced players.  It also works as an NPC class, in case the GM wants rules for that (sometimes it's fun to surrender to the dice).

That's all I have for now.  I'll post specifics when I start nailing them down.

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