Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 6: martial stuff

This is obviously a sequel to this post, this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game, and this third, fourth and fifth post about distribution of tech amongst the general population.

Martial equipment

I can't entirely avoid talking about this stuff again, but it's a different angle.


What kind of weapons are commonly available to civilians is a huge deal. There's a complex mixture of legality, opportunity and culture here, but I don't claim to understand that.

One factor is the typical discrepancy between a civilian and a ne'erdowell. If armed civilians tend to carry the same level of weaponry as a criminal, it's more likely civilians will tackle criminals. This also makes it harder to pick out a likely threat from a crowd, be they would-be assassins or the police you're trying to avoid; you can't simply scan to see who's armed and focus on them.

How often people carry weapons is another factor. If everyone's armed, you need to bear in mind that nobody is a negligible threat, especially once firearms come into the picture. Any crowd of civilians might be a serious problem, either under the sinister influence of psychic aliens, or because they think you're a criminal. Moreover, there's a good chance that anyone who discovers you doing something weird will confront you, rather than cowering or fleeing. Of course, if civilians carry knives while you have a flamethrower, this is less likely (see above).

A sort-of-separate point is that the salience of a weapon depends on the weapon culture. Can you determine anything about a person based on what they carry? If weapons are outlawed, an armed person is either law enforcement, military or a criminal. Some weapons may be restricted by social class, or licence - the fact that this person can afford the extortionate null-weapon licence is significant, especially if they look like a nobody.

In our case, a lot of this stuff is going to vary by planetary culture, but the broad level of technology is still important. Some important weapon technologies are: firearms, computerised weaponry, stunners, radiation weaponry, indirect weaponry like gas or seeking ammo.

Firearms are important because their power is largely independent of the wielder. The overall threat they pose is still very variable, but they simply aren't wielder-dependent in the same way as a club or bow. A competent fighter has little to fear from a novice with a sword, and a child with a bow is irrelevant - probably can't even loose the arrow properly. A toddler with a handgun can do exactly as much damage to a veteran special forces operative as another VSFO could, and is far more unpredictable. At short range, even marksmanship doesn't matter much.

So, if firearms are widespread, a character in a dangerous situation must beware of anyone who gets close to them. Automatic weapons, and similar things, simply offer massive damage output far beyond what any individual could do otherwise. This allows one wielder to pose a serious threat to a far greater number, without setting up an elaborate scheme to gain advantage. Suppressive fire and similar effects are also relevant. Intelligent weaponry that can work or aim by itself is essentially the same issue as software, discussed above: a person gains capabilities far beyond what their body offers.

Stun technology is important because it has low consequences, and so is used more freely. Police forces around the world are cheerfully tasering people they would (at least in Britain) have never got away with shooting. Stun technology that was genuinely non-lethal would be even more freely used. Criminals would use them to safely rob people: muggers, housebreakers, bank robbers, just walk in and stun away. Civilians would use them on suspicious persons, because you have much less to be concerned about in terms of guilt or legal consequence if you make a mistake. Troublemakers would use it to wreak havoc, just like they drop binbags off road bridges, or push bikers into rivers.

If you start thinking about what portable stunner technology as depicted in sci-fi could lead to, it's a bit terrifying. For example: it doesn't matter how non-lethal your weapon is if your target is driving a petrol tanker on the motorway.

Radiation weaponry, or whatever other technobabble you like, allows weapons to affect a target through solid objects. This is a game-changer in terms of line of effect, especially as it's probably paired with technology to partly see through said objects. Diving for cover is ineffective. A guard outside a building remains a threat even once you're safely inside. A character with a rad weapon can sit inside a bunker or vehicle and safely take down large numbers of targets, if they don't have such equipment. This sort of technology should affect the approaches taken by military or law enforcement, the equipment they carry, and the protection they need.

Indirect weaponry is very similar so I'll shut up.


Armour is generally a distant second to weaponry because it's inconvenient, but the availability of armour is important. The biggest reason is that it affects low-level antagonists.

You can generally expect that a military droid, or the leader of an armed rebellion, will have some armour. Law enforcement typically have some level of armour too - even ordinary bobbies wear stab vests. But the tech level of armour is important. If tough, comfortable armour is easy to manufacture, then the bobby could easily shrug off bullets (apart from that awkward head region). This makes a police officer or security guard a bigger potential threat to a PC, but also changes their role. Often ordinary law enforcement can seem little better than hapless civilians, in need of protection by the big tough PCs, and it's practically murder to call them in when an antagonist arrives. Once they're armoured up, though, they are better able to take care of themselves. The officer confronting the villain becomes a mild asset rather than a liability (or distraction), and calling in the scuffers to handle a situation isn't inviting a massacre.

Taking that further, forget capability and think about availability. How easy is it to get your hands on that bonded polycarbide armour? Two of the reasons criminals tend not to wear armour are, it's difficult to get hold of, and it's really uncomfortable and obvious. Once bulletsilk undershirts are readily available, every two-bit thug might as well wear one and cut down the risk of buying the farm if something kicks off. You can certainly bet that anyone who planned a crime is likely to wear armour, once it gets to the point that you can do so unobtrusively. The bank heist or break-in will be a lot safer if you're nearly bulletproof.

This step elevates the difficulty of defeating, oh, civilian threats, if you like. I feel like this will somewhat change the balance (mechanical and narrative) of the game. A thug isn't just a thug, they're a thug who shrugs off blaster fire: suddenly just pointing a gun at them isn't enough. A bank heist looks increasingly like a special forces raid and is similarly difficult to defeat. Even if guns are hard to come by, making civilians tougher will tend to make them bolder and more confident.

Actually, you can look at this quite mechanically: really good ubiquitous armour arguably makes the hitpoint model make more sense, since you can view it as chipping away at someone's armour until they actually take a hit.

Why does this matter?

This mostly seems like setting material, which matters for Monitors but isn't really relevant to a general discussion of equipment in games. The reason I'm bringing it up is... okay, it's partly sheer completionism. But I do think it affects games in general, because the availability of martial equipment will affect the tone of a game.

A game where everyone carries weaponry tends to have an edge to it. You don't need guns in a techno-utopia where everyone is happy and there's no crime; even if you want sport shooting, there is literally no reason to carry them around. It would just be really inconvenient; nobody walks around with a gas mask for the sheer heck of it.* If you carry guns, there should be a reasonable chance that you need them.** You may need them to defend against external threats, like alien invasion, in which case your society as a whole is threatened. Or you may need them to defend against internal threats, like criminals. Some problems, like armed insurrection or terrorism, combine aspects of both. In any case, these will come across as troubled places where everyone keeps an eye out for danger. You might play that darkly, you might play it for laughs - a game where every pensioner on the street whips out blasters to fend off the Martians is fun too.

Of course, a second possibility is that the population is under an elaborate deception by governments or some other agency, and no real threat exists. Again, hardly the stuff of utopia, and a game in such a setting is likely to have an edge to it.

Another point is that it will affect the relationship between PCs and NPCs. If NPCs are routinely armed, then carrying weapons isn't a distinguishing feature of PCs. You can also probably assume that PCs aren't the only ones willing to intervene when trouble occurs.*** PCs may expect to be confronted by well-meaning or alarmed NPCs, as well as by actual antagonists, and have to identify and handle these situations appropriately (in some genres, killing both). NPCs are less likely to be hapless bystanders; any armed citizen can (and, potentially, should) respond to a crisis. The emotional reaction to NPC behaviour may be different, and the ways they're expected to behave too.

Of course, if PCs are not do-gooders, then they'll be confronted by armed civilians during their crimes, and will have to defeat them; killing innocents generally means a darker tone than simply robbing them.

Consider the Generic Western setting, where Colts and rifles are commonplace. Respect is often won through displays of skill with a gun, and refusal to draw is cowardly - or shows level-headed heroism, or maturity. Unassuming lawyers, doctors or bartenders display heroism by taking up guns in the face of the Brady Gang, often acting as allies or examples to a protagonist. Apparent strong men refuse to fight and show their true nature; weaklings confront villains and are ennobled, even though they often die for it. The protagonist might be the Mysterious Nameless Hero, but they aren't the only one with a gun, and often the way others try and fail to overcome a threat highlights its severity.

Shipboard Space Opera is another potential example. Quite often every crew member carries a gun, and is trained to use it. The protagonists can't distinguish themselves by being the ones who confront a threat facing their civilian protectees. They rely on other traits instead: they may be the commanders responsible for important decisions, they may make political moves, they may possess extraordinary abilities that still distinguish them qualitatively from their comrades, or they may simply outclass them. Even in the latter case, the relationship is not "knight and helpless peasants" or "shepherd and sheep", but "ace and plucky comrades".

* Okay, certain steampunk enthusiasts aside.

** Note, "should"... assume the game reality makes more sense than, say, large swathes of the United States.

*** Obviously, PCs other than classic adventurer tropes are available. If you are playing voices in the mind of a hedgehog coming to grips with the death of its father, or any game where physical confrontation plays a minimal part and PCs don't intervene when trouble occurs, this isn't very relevant.


  1. ** Note, "should"... assume the game reality makes more sense than, say, large swathes of the United States.

    Actually that highlights another interesting issue regarding gun ownership/carrying/use. It's true that you should only carry a gun if there is a realistic chance that you will need it, but what constitutes a "realistic chance" depends a lot on a kind of cost/benefit analysis.

    Anybody living in a modern, urban society has a realistic chance of being a victim of street crime. Now depending on where you happen to live, that chance might be very low (particularly per-journey), but the question of whether that chance makes carrying a gun worthwhile depends on the cost involved in carrying it.

    In a society where going armed is legal and acceptable, the cost of carrying a gun is actually very small - it's no higher than the cost of carrying any other small personal item, so the risk of needing it doesn't need to be very large for it to be worthwhile.

    In a society where going armed is actually considered culturally *desirable* carrying a gun provides a net benefit even if you know you will never have to use it (you can think about certain parts of the US here, or about feudal courts in which the right to bear arms was an honour and carrying a weapon is a sign of status).

    In a society with a taboo against carrying weapons, carrying a gun in the face of social convention carries a social cost that would require a more-than-theoretical risk of victimisation to make worth it. If carrying guns is actively illegal then the cost increases dramatically, and you need to have an actual *expectation* that you will need a weapon for it to be a sensible decision to carry one.

    It's interesting to look at the distinction between weapons and armour here. Wearing armour everywhere you go is massively inconvenient, so even though (as far as I know) there's nothing stopping people wearing full suits of kevlar everywhere in most places where firearms are legal, most people don't - even in parts of the world where carrying a handgun is reasonably common.

    1. Good analysis. I hadn’t really thought about the social environment around it.

      I’d argue the cost/benefit is more complicated than that, though. Off the top of my head:
      * I believe guns are pretty heavy. A handgun seems to typically be 1-3lb. Doable, but it’s not trivial, a lot more than most personal items. People usually want to minimise what they carry, especially if you’re not taking a backpack or something.
      * They’re pretty bulky too. As with a big camera, that’s inconvenient. Holsters presumably get in the way somewhat. People sometimes complain about full pockets ruining their look, and something similar might (or might not) apply here.
      * Guns are mostly dangerous to their owners and their immediate circle. Fairly regularly, I see reports of someone in America accidentally shooting a family member, or blowing their own kneecap off because they’re wandering around with a gun in their trousers. People get killed by random bullets fired into the air during parties, or frustrated people letting off a few rounds at a rock and getting a ricochet. People vary a lot in attitude here, but some will factor in their own wariness of guns – even if they own one, it’s locked in a cabinet most of the time, not in their waistband. Most other weapons are far safer to own and carry around.
      * Situation is a big factor. You might happily walk around unarmed when walking two miles into town down the main road in full daylight, but take a gun if you’re making the trip after dark. Similarly, maybe you don’t carry weapons in the city, but do in the countryside. That seems to be a historically common one.
      * Weapons can give prestige, but also mark you out. Someone with a weapon might be seen as a challenge, rival or target by other violent types. Not having a gun might make you a pleb, but equally you might get away from tough spots with mockery or a kick, rather than being shot at. You might even be completely ignored when someone tougher-looking might attract a challenge. This depends a lot on how that society works, like whether it’s beneath a gun-toting warrior to quarrel with a common citizen.

      On armour, I wonder whether another factor is the difference in psychology. A weapon is attractive because it allows you to exert power, whether that’s to actively defend yourself, control someone’s actions through threats, kill or defeat an enemy, or impress people with the fact that you’re a tough person not to be trifled with. This is both practically useful and confidence-boosting. Armour is passive. It doesn’t give you any active control over other people, except perhaps to discourage them from attacking you physically. It’s useful, but it doesn’t make you invulnerable, so it protects you but doesn’t mean you can laugh off an armed attacker and do whatever you want. It’s not going to make you look powerful or boost your confidence in the same way. Even in the same situation of being attacked by a mugger, just drawing a gun could let you take control; armour will increase your changes of escaping injury in a fight, but unless you can actually win the fight or hold them off until the cops arrive, you can still be mugged or killed. So I think that’s a lot less attractive all round.