Sunday, February 6, 2011

More Space Opera Amusement

Before moving on to the point of this entry, let me clarify something about yesterday's "Strange Dream" entry. The skill system I recounted in that entry, the one I finally "understood" in my dream isn't the one from Space Opera nor is it a system I'm suggesting anyone use for playing Space Opera or any other game. I posted it only because it's so rare that I remember any mechanical details from game-related dreams that I wanted to preserve it for posterity. Now, if anyone found it helpful, great, but my intention was not to present a workable skill system, let alone an ideal one, for use with any RPG.

Anyway, one to the real point of this post.

In Space Opera, one your character's 14 randomly generated personal characteristics is Empathy, which is described thusly:
Empathy represents the unconscious and largely uncontrolled broadcast of a character's personality aura and its interaction on the auras of those around him. In this context, Empathy has little to do with one's intentions toward a particular being. Rather, it is a quantification of the character's 'openness' to contact and will be sensed by those he meets. Generally, the more a character is empathic, the more others will be prepared to reserve final judgment and 'hear him out.' The ability is especially valuable to Contacts personnel charged with opening new relations with new races, but virtually every type of character will find the ability useful, whatever their calling.
Note the part I italicized above, because it'll be important shortly.

There's a chart accompanying this description that divided Empathy scores into seven categories by its numerical value, with 1-6 being one category, 7-8 another, and 9-13, 14-16, 17, 18, and 19 rounding out the chart. Only the lowest and highest category say much of any value and, even then, what they say is mostly "fluff" with few game mechanics attached to it. The lowest category (1-6) is interesting, though, because it notes that such a character
is a 'loner' who keeps very much to himself. Players should regard such a character as ranging from 'anti-social' to outright psychopathic. The lower the score, the 'colder' and more 'withdrawn' the character should be in his impact upon others -- which influences the general role-play of such a personality by the player. An Empathy score of 01 to 02 means a character with psychopathic and anti-social tendencies, the man with the true 'killer instinct.' Such a character will never check morale and may prove to be a berserker in combat. He simply does not relate to anyone not 'useful' to him (comrades tend to be 'useful' and so come under his area of concern; his loyalties are based upon personal survival and a code of conduct uniquely his own.) In summation, he chooses his 'friends' very carefully, stands by them to the death because he takes threat to them as a personal affront, and could care less about everybody else. He is a man without a conscience in search of a personal, living 'god' to give his troubled life security and purpose, a sword looking for a strong hand to wield it.
That's actually a very evocative description, if one a bit rough around the edges. You'd think, given what it says here and in the previously quoted section, that it'd be a very bad thing to have a low Empathy score.

But you'd be wrong. As it turns out, a character who works for the Bureau of State Security (or BOSS), which is "a paramilitary organization which combines the duties of such services as MI5, the FBI, the KGB, and similar security institutions," doesn't need a low Empathy to join this service, but it sure helps with advancing within it. There are 15 ranks within BOSS, beginning with Agent/5 (Rank Grade 0) and going all the way up to Minister of Security (Rank Grade 14).
Ranks below grade/3 require a maximum Empathy of 13 to qualify. Ranks above grade/3 require -1 per Empathy per rank above grade/3, and also minimum Leadership/12. PCs with Empathy/1-6 obtain a +1 DM on promotion rolls.
Consider what this means. Each rank above grade/3 has a maximum Empathy associated with it, which is -1 per rank above grade/3. Therefore, to become Minister of Security, a character must have, at most, an Empathy of 2! This makes me wonder what the authors of Space Opera had against intelligence agencies.

I like quirkiness like this, even if there are lots of problems with it from both a game mechanical and meta-game standpoint. Still, there's something rather charming about a game where having a low score in a particular characteristic is actually a benefit rather than a drawback.


  1. Of course, any game has to impose certain simplifications in order to make the game playable. I like this mechanic quite a lot. It communicates interesting information about how the designers see the world. I don't know that the designers were against intelligence agencies: they simply saw them as amoral.

  2. Isn't that riffing on the James bond books where it says the agency looks for anti social youths who have a fierce sense of nationalism or there abouts?

  3. "Therefore, to become Minister of Security, a character must have, at most, an Empathy of 2! This makes me wonder what the authors of Space Opera had against intelligence agencies."

    That's hilarious. It's an obvious play on the Cold War image of the amorality of espionage services. A chief who could order the assassination of one of his own men (Thinking a scene from the Sandbaggers, for example)for the greater good could easily be seen as sociopathic by others.

  4. The important bit about BOSS is the remaining line of the quote which details what it does, namely "conducting counter-espionage and anti-sabotage investigations, suppressing revolutionary and terrorist organisations, and maintaining the security of the state in general." It then goes on to explain how they are utter bastards, especially in a state of emergency (especially when the requirement of due process is removed).

    I always took BOSS as being much more akin to it's real-world namesake* than anything else. The important distinction to remember that it is overtly a security service, rather than an intelligence service. [This is confused by the fact that the aforementioned agencies often had multiple arms,** some who dealt with intelligence operations,*** some who dealt with counter-intelligence operations, and some who dealt with internal security operations. Within each bureau these divisions were often quite separate.]

    The driving force of an intelligence operative is insatiable curiosity, whilst that of a counter-intelligence operative is often rampant paranoia. And for a security operative, add a certain ruthlessness (and intrinsic hopelessness) to the paranoia.

    [* The internal security apparatus of South Africa. I was always tickled pink that any English speaking country would use the acronym BOSS for their security apparatus, but if anyone was going to it would be the South Africans responsible for securing the state against a black uprising. NOT nice people!]

    [** Of the 16 or so directorates of the KGB, only the First was dedicated to foreign intelligence operations. The remaining ones were either totally focused on internal security or it made a substantial portion of their remit.]

    [*** The intelligence division in Space Opera is BRINT (Bureau of Intelligence), which is "the implacable foe of BOSS."]

  5. There's a lot of research that says that sociopathic tendencies are useful in getting promotions in large companies. So I don't see this as unrealistic at all. If Coke executives are psychopaths, what are CIA 'executives' going to be?

  6. I've been living with Antisocial Personality Disorder for years. One of the reason I was a good sniper; unlike most soldiers I had no qualms about seeing the faces of the people I killed.

    But that same "quality" would have made me a terrible BOSS agent. You want spies in this job, people who can infiltrate the enemies of the state and (depending on how repressive the state is) do everything from gather hard intelligence to set up groups for elimination.

    During my time in the service I worked with CIA assets. Nicest guys in the world. Really could put you at ease. You wanted to help them.

    Now BOSS would have wet work teams and torturers and other roles for nice little monsters like me, but I think the scariest security type is somebody like Vladimir Putin.. loves his family, smiles, sings and dances when called on, then calmly orders 12 people to vanish.

  7. That seems like an odd take on psychopathy/ sociopathy, from what amateur bit I've come to understand. Space Opera: "the 'colder' and more 'withdrawn' the character...". Wikipedia (Psychopathy): " abnormal lack of empathy combined with strongly amoral conduct but masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal." The top diagnostic checklist item is actually: "Superficial charm"!

    So I would tend to connote psychopathy more like D&D Chaos: the ability to be effectively charming or lash out viciously, and to switch between the two quickly and unpredictably. But Space Opera sort of hamstrings itself by defining empathy as a physics-like "broadcast... aura", such that it's incapable of distinguishing between "real" empathy and "fake" empathy in this sense.

    (That said, I don't have any problem with top intelligence guys being portrayed with sociopathic traits/low "real" empathy. It's just the Space Opera description of such that seems to have painted itself into a corner.)

  8. As somebody already pointed out above, BOSS is a security service, not an intelligence agency. BRINT was intel. Spys, BRINT, needed to be empathic to do their jobs. BOSS types were secret police thugs basically. In a democratic society they were controlled by rules / regs and were analogous to the FBI (and somewhat less "thugish"), in a despotic one they were the Gestapo / KGB / your worst nightmare. Oddly although I'm quite familiar with it I never played Space Opera much (played Traveller mostly for SFRPGs). It made interesting reading and a good source of ideas though.

  9. It's worth noting that in many, many places there is no distinction between intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies. Fictional spymaster George Smiley defintely could not have done his job if he'd had a shred of empathy, however we imagine it operates.

    I'm interested in this aura business. Of those things you just sense, or just know, reliably, about characters. Many game systems either assume it (alignment operates as an aura, usually) or include specific characteristics to quantify it (not just CHA and POW but also detect lies, spot hidden, even credit rating), yet a lot of roleplaying is lying: spoofing the aura system. So it seems often to be unclear, what a PC can possibly know.

    Maybe this idea that you are prepared to read the world and its people is one of the things that make d&d "medieval."

  10. Seems very silly to me, given that most field intelligence work involves developing human contacts! Low empathy as described might be useful for an Assassinations sub-bureau, even then the trigger-man will often need high-empathy comrades to eg set up a honeytrap.

  11. gridlore:
    "Now BOSS would have wet work teams and torturers and other roles for nice little monsters like me, but I think the scariest security type is somebody like Vladimir Putin.. loves his family, smiles, sings and dances when called on, then calmly orders 12 people to vanish."

    Exactly. Putin is well able to be a nice guy and generate trust, especially in the weak-minded (*cough*). Or take IRA/Sinn Fein terrorist leader Martin McGuinness, a family man who gained the trust of female British govt minister Mo Mowlam. I think these men are not lacking in natural empathy, even though they both have killer eyes and can easily compartmentalise - I'm guessing they are the sort SO would class as very low empathy?

  12. Even counter-intelligence often involves infiltration, which needs high-empathy operatives. This can go wrong; recently here in the UK the news covered an undercover policeman who switched sides to the anti-nuclear group he had infiltrated. Successful inflitrators *like* the people they are infiltrating. Psychopaths with superficial charm can be effective in short-term assignments, eg the IRA girls who seduced off-duty British soldiers for putative one night stands to kill them. The best infiltrators are usually not psycopathic, though.

  13. It would be interesting to play around with some of the implied mechanical ideas more generally, not unlike the moral/spiritual attributes of Pendragon. For instance, perhaps a D&D-like where Strength and Dexterity are both replaced by Stature, high values of which give bonuses to damage and penalties to AC, and vice-versa for low values.

  14. "The best infiltrators are usually not psycopathic, though."

    I think that's at least debatable. I would fall on the other side of that argument. The example of "Putin is well able to be a nice guy and generate trust, especially in the weak-minded..." definitely sounds sociopathic and low-empathy to me ("empathy" and "charm" not being the same thing).

    Obviously we won't settle the issue here. :)

  15. This can go wrong... undercover policeman who switched sides to the anti-nuclear group he had infiltrated

    cf. Hitler's investigation of the German Workers' Party. I think part of the problem here is that, although empathy (and charisma, for that matter) is a popular term, we still have no decent theory of it. If one can be charming without it (and uncountable true crime narratives suggest that one can), if one can listen and make appropriate responses and gain trust, then what is the it that's missing? cf. House, Blade Runner, the Hannibal Lector series... It's very interesting that SO offers a definition, even more so that the definition doesn't match our world experience, helping to define a separate SO world.

    And because I have no OSR credentials to destroy, I can confess here that I once experimented with a system that had (IIRC) 24 attributes including stuff that's normally considered to be in the player's remit: morale, gullibility, inventiveness. The game was a fiasco, but I still think there's value in similar exercises.

  16. ...point of that last anecdote: Empathy seems like an attribute that should be left to the player's discretion. Arguably also Int & Wis (which I might collapse into Pow, next time I D&D), Cha.

  17. Delta:
    "The example of "Putin is well able to be a nice guy and generate trust, especially in the weak-minded..." definitely sounds sociopathic and low-empathy to me"

    Sociopathic means something like "has no internal sense of societal morality, but can comply through observation". Maybe that fits Putin, and maybe he's low-empathy. If so, it's clearly not in a way that fits the SO attribute, though. Likewise those charming CIA guys.