Saturday, 18 July 2015

Near Future Sci Fi - Robots & AI

Tomorrow's War takes the view all future combat will be humanoid combat, and act similarly to modern combat with some trimmings.   Basically, they state "all weapons act the same"  i.e. a plasma rifle will in practice act like a pulse rifle or a shard launcher coilgun, and a personal shield will have the same effect as a power armour suit.  You can rename it, but it has the same end effect.  The philosophy might be accurate, but the gameplay is boring.  

Take robots.  You can say they are simply humans who are merely slightly tougher with perhaps different morale rules.  Electronic warfare might simply give a +1 buff to dice rolls.  But that's kinda missing the point of sci fi, in my opinion.  Why have all the cool toys and simply re-fight Afghanistan 2003?  Why have all this diversity and then simply decide they all have to act the same?

I think the real answer is to address one aspect of technology, and focus the game around it (for example, teleportation, so game revolves around blocking/teleporting and perhaps involves more close-range weapons).   But I've already covered this topic.  Twice.  The horse is well and truly flogged.

Ok, I'll try not to repeat myself.  What was my point again?

On a broader front, I was thinking about robots and AI. 
What would I enjoy playing around with? How might a robotics/AI revolution make the tabletop more interesting?

Human + Machine - the new "combined arms." You can play it almost on two levels - human soldiers who are less powerful, and have morale/suppression weakness, but are immune to hacking and technical wizardry.  Then you have robots and drones - who may be immune to suppression and morale, and can carry more firepower, but are vulnerable to EMP weapons and hacking.  Each has distinct strengths and weaknesses.  You might need a combined-arms approach - an all-robot force is similar to an all-mechanized modern force - it's powerful but also very vulnerable in certain situations - perhaps to EW more than heavy weapons.   

Sleeves (thanks, Richard Morgan)
Vat-grown clones or synthetic bodies which are fitted with cortical stacks which into which the users' consciousness uploaded.  Sleeves can be DNA-customised for speed, power, agility, pain/wound resistance, given redundant organs etc and many other special rules.   Synthetic sleeves are more unnatural and "awkward" to use (-1 to stats?) but can can be completely pain-resistant, radiation-resistant etc.  They are unhackable as their cortical stack only records experiences and has no "input."

Game Effects:
-Can allow a wide range of abilities within a human-centric setting - i.e. you can use your generic 15mm sci fi troops but give them a wide range of fantasy-esque stats, or even special abilities like super jump, climbing, extra damage resistance, double speed, +1 to reactions etc
-Winners of a game keep the losers cortical stacks and can trade them, as a kind of currency.
-Characters who "die" can be re-sleeved, but may risk a stat loss (i.e. dying would give PTSD)
-Invulnerable to cyber attack

TL:DR - Instead of all wacky alien minis acting like humans in rubber suits, minis of humans in rubber suits can act like wacky aliens. 

RANT:  I sometimes hear "we can only play/make hard sci fi mini games cos that's what most of the minis are."  Rubbish.  It's sci fi.  Make things act the way you want.  It's what handwavium was invented for.  People play Vietnam-in-space/Aliens because that's all they're used to/get offered. Designers then treat this as an excuse to recycle their WW2/modern ruleset.
"Avatar"-style - a robotic drone is controlled by a human operator.  This could be normal humanoids, tiny nanobot drones or giant mechs or even vehicles like tanks.  These could even be wasp-sized flying munitions which can be flown into enemies and detonated. 

Game Effects:
-Utterly immune to all morale effects.
-Susceptible to "jamming"and "EMPs"
-Allows "wrongscale" minis and mechs that can't fit a 15mm operator like Heavy Gear mechs and 10mm
-Slower "reactions" due to lag
-Maybe drone operators have to be on the battlefield to break through jamming - creating a vulnerable target that must be protected (like a HQ unit of sorts); assassinate the operator to take out the powerful heavy chain-gun wielding mech

These could be devices wired into the hackers skulls, some sort of implant.  They would act like "mages" of sorts with a range of spells/attacks.  They have most of the same skills as "telepaths" in my pyschic powers post. 

 Game Effects:
-Steer smart weapons/deactivate or redirect enemy smart weapons in midair
-Control/retask nanite swarms within AoE radius
-Can overpower AI and retask
-Can detect and cyber-attack other hackers to cause direct damage to them
-Jam remotes and drones
-Non-human units have a "encryption" stat which gives their resistance to cybernetic attacks
-Can be "stealthy" to cyber units by confusing their detection systems

AI Nanite Swarms
Maybe nanites are a resource that can be reconfigured to do many roles - i..e. healing, attack, shielding.  Hackers can retask them in battle. They have very simple AI.  They are very vulnerable to EMP weapons as they have no shielding.  Perhaps they can even "join up" to form simple small robots if they come in enough numbers? 

Game Effects:
-Vulnerable to EMP
-Maybe comes in "modes" (different colour token) i.e.
"Travel mode" - can fly quickly, long distances
"Attack" mode - expendable, self-guided munition 
"Heal" - expends self to heal any robot/machine 
"Shield" - deflects projectiles, acts as a CAP to intercept enemy nanites

Nanite swarms would be the most game-altering in terms of tactics. Basically, nanite swarms are a resource that can be expanded (or retasked) in-game, adding a layer of decision-making to gameplay. In fantasy terms, they act like the mana to power the spell and the spell itself.

EMP Weapons 
These would be useless against conventional human troops but powerful against mechs; perhaps giving an Achilles heel to powerful mechs and vehicles who are well-armoured against conventional weapons, and act as AoE area denial weapons.  Maybe regular human troops carry them as backup weapons like grenades or underbarrel launchers. So rather than bazookas and ATGWs troops might carry EMP weapons for dealing with power armour, mechs and vehicles.
 Game Effect:
-Powerful against nano-swarms/bots/mechs, weak vs humans
-AoE area denial weapons

SMART Munitions & Weapons
 Weapons can be launched to fire around corners or over walls/buildings out of LoS.  Perhaps fired from larger weapons like grenade launchers/bazookas.  They can be hacked in-flight and redirected.  Maybe limited-use. This could include smart mines.
A standard rifle could have an ammuntion block of self-assembling "SMART" ammo which can be fired as std, explosive, fletchette, and AP.   You can elect how you intend to use a rifle every time you fire - adding an in-game choice. I'm actually a bit against this as it reduces weapon variety when creating your force.
Electronic Decoys/Personal Jammer Shields
Decoys that are effective against electronic sensors but not the Mk1 human eyeball....

A personal "shield" might not be a classic forcefield , but rather a jammer to defeat electronic targeting.  So instead of blocking fire it would be -1/-2 or similar modifier to fire - making it harder to hit rather than offering a "save" or similar.

Not really robot-related but I'll toss it in anyway. Classsic forcefield. An AoE "grenade" that can be tossed as a semi-circular template on the table to provide instant, but temporary "cover". Instant terrain - thats why I like AoE.  Shields are rated to a certain level (usually small arms only) and are collapsed by heavier weapons.

-Genetic engineering/synthetic humans can mean you can give your generic 15mm humanoids unique stats and special abilities. 

-In an EW-dominated battlefield, an unhackable human (with a gun aimed via a Mk.1 eyeball which can't be fooled by EW chicanery) still has an important place

-Remotes are powerful, but can be jammed and have vulnerable operators. Vulnerable to EMP.

-AI robots can't be jammed, but can be hacked and taken over. Also vulnerable to EMP. 

-Nanite swarms are a "resource" that can be expanded or reconfigured; this could add a complete extra level of tactics, resource management and gameplay

-Hackers act like "wizards" who can hack both robots and smart munitions, and reconfigure and control nanite swarms

-Combined arms might be a balance of robotic and conventional humans, rather than the armour-infantry meaning it has today

This is a bit of a random ramble, but hey, it's a blog.  I think I'm trying to get the point across that robots don't have to be a human with a +1 save, and electronic warfare should go beyond a +1 die buff/debuff.  

Even if you're stuck with "humans in suits" as the main 15mm sci fi lines, it doesn't mean you're stuck with treating them as human.  Even if sci fi is rather "hard" and "gritty" as seems the fashion, you can still have an element of fantasy. Hacking and advanced tech is space magic.  A human-robot combined arms approach might replace the armour-infantry of modern warfare; with powerful mechs being vulnerable to magic hacking rather than needing heavy weapons to counter them.  And I think nanites/nanobots are a rather ignored but potentially gamechanging future tech which (given current modern trends towards drones and miniaturization) seems surprising it isn't used in many (if any?) sci fi games. 

I'd like to see more games that look for potential points of difference between sci fi and modern warfare and emphasize them, rather than making excuses why they should act the same.


  1. Why would sleeve need to be humanoid? As long as the cortical stacks as compatible (and they could be grown to be), they could be on ape, dolphin, octopod, avian or dino bodies. The possibilities are endless

    1. I was thinking primarily of a way to make the generic 15mm not-Halo troops every freaking company makes more interesting.

      An argument as a game designer you could make is "I have make everyone generic human modern troops because that's all thats available" - I kinda wanted to shake that argument and see if it holds water.

      In the Richard Morgan books I borrowed the idea from, the sleeve has to be humanoid or the "operator" who is uploaded into it might have trouble operating it or even lose their sanity (e.g. as a punishment, some bad guys were uploaded into panthers and made fight in the arena). Synthetic sleeves were much tougher, for example, but disliked as being more awkward etc.

      That said, I'm considering repurposing dinosaurs from my daughters toy box...

  2. I've been thinking of what a game where all the troops are robotic drones, guided by an AI would look like.

    1. Has a lot of potental. Again, you can use generic 15mm sci fi humans and treat them as "Surrogates" style bots.

      You could have spawning facilities, and the AI could form another "gameplay" resource management layer i.e AI can assign processing power to different tasks i.e generic jamming, boosting specific soldiers, hacking foes or countering hacking. You could place "repeaters" that boost your wifi coverage which would make objectives to fight over. A bit like my "demon wars" example in a recent post.

    2. Give a whole new meaning to "electronic warfare" :-)

    3. This perfectly encapsulates what I mean by "pick one sci fi concept and really emphasize it".

      Tacking on a whole bunch of whacky special rules does not make a game unique. It just makes a WW2/fantasy/modern game with a lots of whacky "sci fi" rules.

      Building a game completely around a particular concept (AI warfare, with robotic soldiers) has the potential for completely different (even unique?) gameplay.

    4. Nomads vs ALEPH. So much in this post exists in Infinity but I know you are already familiar with that game. I just thought it worth a mention that you can field whole armies of robotic drones in that game along with hacking countermeasures, EM, smart ammo & shields.

  3. I have been reading the now defunked Sedition Wars from Studio McVey. It actually has a few aspects to it even if the rules aren't as slick as they might be.

    Human forces have their TacNet to allocate Tac tokens to troopers that let the use special abilities and shooting options.

    The Swarm on the other hand have special Nano Swarm rules, that allow the to convert the different troopers, force evolving them to better adapt to the tactical needs of the swarm.

  4. The old GW Epic 2nd edition rules had Imperial Robots in there. The Player had to write simple orders and then thats exactly what they did regardless (e.g. advance to Hill 304, destroy any enemy occupying it, hold and defend). While that downplays AI aspects, it would be interesting if thats what was required with all the robotic forces, and then players played the Human controllers, allocating command point and EW points to run their own TacNet and attack the enemies respectively. It then becomes a game about who can direct their forces and change orders, and block the enemy from doing the same, while more free spirited but potentially fragile 'biobods' exploits the seams.

    1. I really like the idea of humans and bots complementing each other.

      I.e. humans are squishier, and easily suppressed, but immune to electronic trickery.

      Bots can bring the big guns, but have weaknesses to EMP and hacking.

      Perhaps humans can even "hard reset" friendly mechs that are being hacked, making it advantageous to work together.

      An AI commander that used resources to "manage" its troops would add interesting depth for sure. Perhaps units are limited to simple moves, and the AI can boost them a la Warcasters boosting steam Warjacks in warmachine, or rather like an invisible TFL "Big Man" which can be allocated where needed.

    2. There weren't just robots in 2nd Ed Epic 40K - I used to like the rules in original 1st edition 40K, first published as an add-on in White Dwarf, then as part of the Warhammer 40,000 Compendium. Robots could be designed from scratch, working out how many weapon hard points they would have, how fast, how large, special equipment eg organic camouflage (ie. terminator style, to hide in your infantry squad until revealed) etc. On top of this, you had a page of "program counters" which could be used to determine what your robot would do on the battlefield, including instructions ("shoot weapon at target") and questions ("Is target an enemy? - Y/N" - don't leave this one out!).The more advanced the programme, the more flexible your robot, but because each programme counter had a points cost, the more expensive it would be. This made an important difference so that robots weren't simply dreadnoughts by another name.

    3. You could do that with the 2nd edition Space Marine orders in general. My brother and I tried a game with the orders written down in advance and it was pretty interesting to see what happened when the orders were sub-optimal for the specific conditions, like when you'd prefer to Advance rather than First Fire or Charge.

  5. I'd like to see the WW II/ modern fight AGAINST this type of sci-fi enemy. I play Force on Force, but have no plans to get into Tomorrow's War because it's not fantastic enough (and the minis are all in 15mm, and I prefer 20mm/ 1/72). But I'd love to play a Battle of Los Angeles scenario where the aliens have armor and some of the abilities you've listed, and the humans have some near sci-fi buffs developed to offset alien tech. Very cool post.

    1. Presuming you use 20mm moderns/WW2, do aliens have to be that scale? I.e. small 28mm aliens or power armour 15mm would be about right. After all they'e aliens - their facial features/hands etc don't have to be precisely human sized...

    2. Yes, should have been more clear. With 20mm humans for the home team, the aliens could be anything from Battletech to 15mm Ground Zero to small anime mecha.
      Modern development of tactical wi-fi tracks closely with this blog post, which I would incorporate in alien troops such that it's a Warmachine/Hordes style enemy. Each alien is in an armored exoskeleton, with augmenting bots and nanos that communicate via tactical wi-fi. Hacking/jamming alien comms is valuable. Just need to figure out what minis to use...

  6. I like the idea of a combined human / robot fireteam. Imagine a sing human leader with a squad of 4 robots, that move with him targeting the same thing he shoots at.

    Alternatively remote drones that benefit from off table pilots and situational analysis.

    1. Quite a few existing rules - Tomorrow's War and Gruntz, for example - already do this. Dig in!

  7. Inspired by your post and can't sleep! So I wrote my own thought on a drone-centric games... Seemed a bit long to cram in a comment to your post so I made it a post on my own blog, I hope you don't mind.

    1. And my spelling is even worse than usual, sorry.

    2. Nice! It cheers me up that my random rants/comments might actually inspire something creative...

    3. If you have any thoughts, they're more than welcome... Reading it back after a couple hours sleep, I particularly like the different activation mechanisms (pooled orders for drones, individual for humans) and the hackable terrain features...

  8. @TheEvilleMonkeigh; I visited after your forum post. You are on point with my own concerns with sci-fi, robots, and the idea of a central disruptive technology for theme. Very insightful.