Robotics in the Frontier

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by Tom Verreault

A New Look at an Old Skill

It occurred to me the other day that if a robot was painted in a camouflage paint scheme and had the business ends of weapons sticking out all over the place that the robotics subskill: Identification became pretty much obsolete. This subskill allows the robotics expert to look at a robot and determine its type and level.  In the case of the above described robot, no player will fail to realize that the robot in question is bad news and that they need to consider setting their laser rifles to setting 20.

The robotics skill in the Alpha Dawn rules had a progression of activity that started with the identification subskill. First you would identify the robot, remove its security lock, deactivate it, and then begin listing its mission, functions, and programs with a view to modifying it for your purposes. Clearly the game designers thought that identifying a robot was important and that failure to do so could or should lead to surprises for the players. Yet if the robot is obviously armed then why bother with any robotics skill at all when the simplest and safest course might be to blow it away with the maximum amount of fire power in the shortest period of time?

I think the answer lies in the equipment list: the standard robot body. I’ve come to believe that the original designers may have intended for robots to be worrisome for the player. That they were mass produced standard bodies and one looked pretty much like the next and that you had better be able to identify the dangerous ones from the harmless ones. In our society vehicles come with standard equipment installed at the manufacturer. In the Frontier, the society is made up of primarily four distinct species, each with different anatomies, philosophies, and values. It may be that the simplest most cost effective design strategy was to make basic standard models of equipment and let each buyer configure it for himself. If this design philosophy carried over to robotics, then the Pan-Galactic Corporation would have developed and marketed exactly what the equipment list reveals:  three standardized robotic chassis for which you must add programs, optional equipment, altered movement modes, and extra limbs.

I would propose that in the early Frontier and until the intense competition of the corporate wars, that the PGC business model ruled the robotics market. It may even be so prevalent that after new mega corps emerged and staked out market share in robotics that the new corporations found it necessary to follow the same business and manufacturing models. Thus any new wrinkles at these latter periods in the time line would simply be that a robot body is either a PGC model or a Tachton Instruments model but is essentially still a standard robot body.

In a society where all robots look alike suddenly the Identification subskill becomes crucial to an adventuring party. A referee can sprinkle the adventure with a liberal dose of service and maintenance robots and a few security or combat robots. The players will have to stay on their toes and identify the true threats. Naturally there are consequences for destroying private property and indiscriminately shooting up robots should lead to angry property owners having a beef with the player characters in game. Also just like some modern day store owners have put up fake video cameras some robot owners may have outfitted their cleaning robot with fake weapons as a bluff and the identification subskill will reveal this.

I would also propose that referees should not have robots carry equipment. A robot carrying a rifle pretty much tells you that it’s dangerous. Allow combat robots to simply attack with their hands, any robot level 2 and higher has a 50% or better chance to hit in combat. This makes them very capable. The element of surprise can more than make up for lack of a standard weapon.

If a party has a player character that is a robotics expert then every adventure a referee should consider ways to include robotics. Possibilities would include: one that is a straight forward obstacle, one that is not an obstacle, and one that is not exactly what it looks like at first glance.

It’s the surprise factor that makes robotic identification a crucial skill. For example the humble looking butler robot serving drinks might actually be a body guard and can launch an independent attack to protect its master. The cleaning robot with fake weapons could cause the party to waste ammo and attract attention. The mute cleaning robot could actually be a level 6 robot brain that is hiding in plain sight.

The bottom line is that with a little forethought and preparation a referee can ensure that forgotten skills and sub-skills become crucial tools in the party’s toolbox.