How to train your Warjack: Reader Comments!

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Cortexes are really nothing like computers… They are simulated brains, not calculating machines executing lines of code. They are more trained than programmed.” – Doug Seacat

One of the things I like about this series is that it basically lets me play at sci-fi with my science. One of the things I love about running RPGs is the ability to put my own spin on a fantasy world and collaborate with others in doing so. Because of that, I want to repsond to some comments on the first article and think over what was said in them.

From Josh Simpson

“Worth noting is that as far as I’ve been able to tell in the fluff, there is no difference in the fluff between a cortex used in a warjack and a cortex used in a laborjack. The difference seems to be in the cortex grades, with the higher grades having a better learning curve, higher ability to learn complex behaviors, better coordination (higher MAT/RAT, 2-weapon fighting, ambidexterity), and the ability to better connect with their controller. Assuming that, it seems likely that the aggression of warjacks is more likely a learned behavior than an innate characteristic (I suspect Doug’s comment about boats and trains attempting to throw and slam each other was a joke rather than a behavioral observation, I always took it to mean cortexes have “instincts” for humanoid shapes), which would make sense if doing new things and doing things in general were both reinforcers, since combat would tend to be a constantly shifting experience which they would engage in frequently.”

That’s a really interesting point to explore – the difference between labourjacks and warjacks. As Josh said, there doesn’t look to be any explicit difference in the cortexes between the two ‘jack types.

I do like the idea that a warjack’s aggression is learned, rather than being a fundamental part of a warjack-specific cortex. It leaves room for a labourjack to learn to love battle, which is definitely cool. It also made me think more about the nature of the ‘jack’s body and how it would shape its learning- warjacks are built to be faster and stronger, and in bodies that allow a wider range of aggression. Body shape constrains the possible actions of an organism, and as such nudges learning in particular directions by defining what you can and can’t do easily. Labourjacks don’t get to experience the heady rush of charging into combat as readily as warjacks, since they’re not built with that level of mobility. Would body type result in different personalities for different chassis? Are Hammersmiths less impulsive than Stormclads because their reaction times are slower and their limbs heavier?

One interesting thing to note is that warjacks tend to have higher grade cortices. In relation to “novelty as a reinforcer”, this would also drive warjacks to be more curious. The complexity of an organisms brain is correlated with the amount of exploratory behaviour the organism engages in – animals that learn well are more driven to try new things, because that affords new learning.

Josh also said this:

“I’m also curious what your take is on the training of ‘jacks used by Jack Marshalls. It seems like the difference between training a dog that you have to command with hand gestures and voice commands (admittedly, it only obeys YOUR hand gestures and voice commands) would be rather different from training a dog that reacts based on your mental impulses.”

I think you’re right on the money there. My take is that training a warjack as a warcaster involves training its actual personality. A warcaster can reinforce or punish its actual impulses and instincts, and suppress or shape them as needed. With a subtle hand, you could perhaps train a warjack to act how you want even when you’re not in it’s head. That kind of option isn’t open to a jack marshal, and I think the dog training analogy is perfect – you can get to know it well, and train how it behaves, but you can’t get at Who It Is and change it on that level.

Sheldon said:

“Nice series Anthony. Particularly enjoyed these last two on cortex learning. As I am reading I am getting the sense that you are approaching the learning from a human perspective. I have re-read and you regularly refer to organism but it hints towards human for me (but that could easily just be my reading).

I agree that operant conditioning is the best model to look to for making sense of warjack learning but think that considering the capabilities of the cortex to be more in line with canine intelligence than human intelligence might get you closer. A warjack is never going to have the problem solving capabilities of a person but they appear to achieve a level slightly above the brightest of dogs. One of the oldest cortex’s kicking around would be Drago (there’s your anger issues) but he still isn’t going to be able to play checkers on his calmest of days.”

Certainly, I don’t think of Warjacks as having human level language or thinking abilities. They do have the ability to use tools (and not just ones built into them), so that does suggest a higher level of intelligence than dogs. I haven’t seen much one way or the other about their problem solving abilities – could they learn to fill a well with stones to get at the water? I think they’d have that level of reasoning – maybe as much as a Gorilla or a Crow. (At least for Scavenger bonejacks…)

That said, with regard to learning processes, the basic rules are pretty much the same for any animal with a decent nervous system – even pigeons and fish have been shown to be reinforced by novelty and control. The difference largely comes about with complexity of the brain – how much does the organism explore, and how much does it notice when it does?

“I also wonder with warcasters in particular if a punishment could be simply clamping down hard on the cortex and taking away the ‘jacks freedom of choice.

The canine approach also more easily (for me at least) allows for investigation of what happens when you get a neglectful or abusive controller. Junkyard dog mentality on a warjack. Nasty business. Do you try and rehabilitate it or do you put it out of its misery?”

This is an interesting discussion. I love the idea of simply enforcing control being a punisher for warjacks. It gives a great way of looking at the different styles a warcaster could have, particularly in light of Josh’s comment about casters earlier – a subtle hand, encouraging certain impulses and actions, versus a brute force warjcaster who trains his jacks by battering them into submission and grabbing them hard by the mental collar and shaking them.

The effects of using punishment as a training method are many and unpleasant, whether it happens to a rat, a dog, or a human ( I’d love to refer you all to Sidman’s great book “Coercion and its Fallout”, but it’s out of print and costs a fortune to get second hand. But if you can find a copy, it’s excellent and fascinating and ranges far further than simple behaviour shaping into society and justice. But I digress.) I touched on them earlier this week, but I was thinking more about learned helplessness and warcaster/warjack sharing a depression. Far more scary, however, is the junkyard dog mentality that comes about from counter-control.

When punishment is used as the main way of shaping an organism’s behaviour, the controller’s mere presence becomes aversive and punishing. Organisms generally try escape first, but a warjack can’t escape its ‘caster (Maybe it can escape a marshall to some extent, but a marshall can also do far less to punish a ‘jack), and despite being bigger and stronger, a ‘jack can’t kill its caster either. But when you’re trapped in an aversive, punishment heavy system, learned helplessness isn’t the only end point – frequently punished creatures will work to get the opportunity to aggress against something. Aggression is the escape valve which stops us getting to learned helplessness.

Second, punishment only suppresses behaviour. As such, when the punishing consequences go away, the old behaviours return… with all that aggression heaped on top. Would you want to Marshall a warjack trained by The Butcher? Just a thought…

Te Nosce,



3 thoughts on “How to train your Warjack: Reader Comments!

  1. You could hypothesize that the “junkyard dog” mentality partially contributes to the innate aggression and viciousness of the Cryx jacks (especially the Slayer chassis). While I think it has been stated somewhere in the fluff that the Cryxian cortexes are innately violent and hostile purely due to their construction process, I can also see Cryxian warcasters being as casually cruel to their mechanical servants as they are to everyone else!

    It’s also worth noting that some of the personalities present in character jacks are a result of the cortex equivalent of brain damage – Ol’ Rowdy and Drago both spring to mind as examples. Their fluff notes that the age of their cortexes and “glitches” in their construction have shaped their personality towards aggression, though they are still loyal. Perhaps like a particularly vicious animal that still loyal and fairly well-behaved to its owner – though it wants to eat the face of any stranger, especially a hostile one. In my game, I rolled a random quirk for a high-grade cortex the players got on the cheap, and ended up with a light laborjack that really enjoys violence, perhaps too much.

    I think the various cortex grades probably vary the intelligence of a ‘jack between mid-level canine intelligence (with a much higher tolerance repetitive behavior than dogs in the low-grade cortexes, likely by design to make for better Marshalled laborjacks) up to the more intelligent primates (the higher-grade cortexes have been shown to enable some ‘jacks to make their own decisions, even contrary to orders though perhaps not intent).

    Like the thoughts on Jack Marshalled ‘jacks and learning, and especially the insight on how physical capabilities could shape personality. I wonder how a jack with a high-grade cortex but a limited body would end up?

    Anyway, keep up the good work, loving your articles! ‘Jacks are a great part of the game that I think don’t get enough attention in the IKRPG book. Me and one of my players have been working on a system for upgrading and modifying a ‘jack chassis, primarily because I think the game benefits more from a ‘jack the players can invest time and personality into rather than upgrading constantly, so all of this is very interesting to me.

  2. ” I wonder how a jack with a high-grade cortex but a limited body would end up?”

    This very question is at the heart of my IKRPG game:

    “The contract involves moving a warjack from Korsk to Ceryl via Five Fingers (with some segments by sea on a Steamship) for some upgrades that can only be acquired there at the hands of a Cygnaran Arcane Mechanik.

    Aksana and Sechenka were the twin bodyguards of Kazazy Boss Fyodor Barshai. Aksana died, and in the same battle Sechenka was revealed to have the warcaster talent. Her warjack is named “Aksana” and Sechenka has been trying to model her to match her sister. But Aksana has reached the limits of personality for her cortex, but with an appropriate upgrade she can continue to learn and develop, and perhaps fill the lack in Sechenka’s life. More, Aksana is unhappy in her clunky Khadoran warjack chassis, and yearns for a more graceful body. Most people think Sechenka and Barshai to be somewhat mad, but he is very, very rich, and will spare no expense to make his girls happy.”

    Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

    Love the feedback, its really helping to drive my thinking deeper, thanks Josh!

    • Glad to help! I really like that plot outline, I love the idea of a warjack yearning to be better in order to please its master.

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