Don’t Admit Your Ignorance

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I’ve been enjoying The Wrong Mans, and this is a Don’t Rest Your Head hack to try to generate that kind of play: a handful of morally decent working schlubs stumble on a deadly conspiracy and decide to further involve themselves, somehow not dying due to hilarious luck and perceived lack of threat despite being way out of their depth.

The Questionnaire

  • Why aren’t you determined to stay out of this altogether? What’s the reason you’d even entertain getting involved in this? Recent breakup? Tense home life? Stuck in a dead-end job? Just bored?
  • Why are you hesitant to call the cops? Seriously, though, there has to be some reason you don’t just involve the police, yeah? Afraid of racial profiling? Known local pothead or crackpot with credibility issues? Nasty breakup with the police chief’s kid? Maybe you just live alone and spent last week playing video games every night, and are pretty sure you don’t have much of an alibi?
  • Who do you want to keep out of this? Everyone has somebody they care about, even if they’re basically losers, don’t they? Do you have an invalid parent? Ex that you’re still trying to get back together with? Younger sibling? Surely not a spouse and/or child to take care of, or you’d run screaming the other way, right? Right?
  • What’s your job like? You didn’t think you were just going to take a few days off to solve crimes, did you? What do you do for work? Who’s the rival who’s going to tattle on you if you keep skipping out? Why is this a risky time for you to start being absent?
  • What just happened? How’d you get involved, anyway? Case of mistaken identity? Murder right in front of you? A man staggered out of an alley with a dagger in his back and pressed a USB drive into your hands? Unlike normal for DRYH, it’s okay if two or more of you have the same event (you were friends and acquaintances beforehand, and you were either together at the event or heard about it shortly after from the guy it happened to). If you all have a different event and don’t know each other, though, it just means that the GM gets to create a conspiracy so insane that it accidentally rolled in multiple unrelated bystanders.

Rules Changes

Player Dice

  • Discipline remains unaltered, but is colored by the fact that you’re not at all skilled in violence or espionage and are mostly getting lucky mimicking things you’ve seen on TV. As usual, when Discipline dominates, you reduce Chaos by one as you actually get a chance to dial things down.
  • Exhaustion becomes Chaos; it represents the growing inability of the agents of the conspiracy to adapt to the spanner that you, personally, have thrown into the works (and a little bit that you’re becoming a little unhinged and willing to go all gonzo). Unlike normal, it goes up by one only when Luck dominates, but, like normal, you add it to all your rolls. When it gets to 4 or higher, the agents are starting to think of you as a real threat, and any losses in a violent confrontation may actually kill you. When it gets above 6, you die the next time you go up against the conspiracy, even if you win; best try to make Discipline dominate before then. When Chaos dominates, the conspiracy adds a layer of complexity that gets involved by the next scene: new opponents, new macguffins, and new investigations into you by the authorities.
  • Madness becomes Luck; you’re probably only going to get out of this by having lucky breaks, and somehow you keep having them. As usual, you can always add up to six Luck dice. Successes on them result in improbable coincidences, stupid ideas that actually work, and the like. When Luck dominates, the opposition starts to think maybe you’re not getting lucky after all; increase your Chaos by one.

Talents

  • Exhaustion talents become Professions, and represent the one thing you’re actually good at (and this is not allowed to be anything that should be directly useful in the world of murder and espionage). When you’re using your Profession, all failed Discipline dice count as 6s, increasing the chance that it will Dominate. That’s all it does; you’re not an action hero.
  • Madness talents, speaking of which, are not used in the normal implementation of this idea. If you’re in a fantasy, sci-fi, or supers setting, you may wind up with a Power of the GM’s choice at an applicable point in the story. Like normal for Madness Talents, you have to roll one or more Luck dice to activate it (it’s probably unreliable and hard to control).

GM Dice

  • Pain becomes Conspiracy, but is essentially unchanged. The GM does not roll any Conspiracy dice when you’re in trouble not related to the conspiracy (dealing with work, cops, or family); you still have to roll to see if you fail (and get stuck in some mundane problem) or if something else dominates; but if Discipline dominates, you still get to reduce Chaos. When the opposition is someone involved with the conspiracy, the GM should roll up to 12 dice, as normal for Pain, with higher dice pools representing digging deeper into the onion layers of the conspiracy. Rolling any dice at all, therefore, is a nice clue to the players that what they thought was mundane is actually involved in the conspiracy. When Conspiracy dominates, gain a Mistake coin: even if the character succeeded, he or she did something stupid that will haunt the group later (like leaving behind evidence).

Crashing and Snapping

  • You don’t crash or snap directly. As noted above, when Chaos is over 3, any failures in a violent situation can result in the character getting killed (or at least seriously injured), and when it goes over 6, the next violent confrontation is pretty much automatically deadly. Of course, by the time Chaos starts getting that high, you’ve probably got so many people coming after you that you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to.

Coins

  • Coins of Despair become Mistake Coins. They represent, well, mistakes the player characters made catching up to them. They work the same as despair, and generate coins of Hope when used.
  • Coins of Hope are unchanged.

Time as Value, Grind as Virtue

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This ramble starts off with some general theory and goes onto some vague implications for game design (mostly video game design) at the end.

Sipping from the Firehose

Humans have a natural and obvious tendency to value more of something. Most of us will accept a moderate decrease in quality for a large increase in quantity (up to a certain point and relative to the circumstances). This makes a lot of sense in most cases, but it’s a little weird for media, where “quantity” equates to “requires more time to consume.”

Really since the advent of the public library, but especially since the internet, we live in a world of media post-scarcity. If you could backup the internet as it exists right now and lock someone in a room with nothing to do but access that backup through a terminal, that person would take lifetimes to consume all the media online worth consuming, even without adding access to anything behind a paywall.

In many cases, decision paralysis is a worse cause of boredom: you just have so much you could read, watch, or play that it’s hard to settle on one thing. I have a whole stack of Steam sale games and shows and movies in my Netflix queue that are simply daunting, especially when I look over at my growing stack of unread novels and RPG books.

Which is all to say that it’s kind of weird that we put so much stock in things that take longer to consume, when a story or game that was shorter but still packed in all the fun and emotions would allow you to more easily move on to the next thing in your list. TV has been gradually learning this lesson: more and more really good shows are moving to the BBC model of 6-12 episode seasons with a more concentrated story and without filler.

Extra length does have a benefit: it allows you to add a lot more things that create immersion, making the consumer feel like the fictional world and characters are real and full of texture, like you would like to escape there. But while it allows that, too often what it does is present creators with more space to fill and not enough creativity or money to fully utilize all that space.

All Payment Options Lead to Grind

Video games, in particular, have a bad version of this problem. There’s a lot of commentary on how going from a “pay for it once then own it” model to an “all you can eat subscription” model drastically increased grind, and “free to play but with lots of options to buy things” model made it worse, but all three have their problems:

  • Box Only: Games that are less than 10 hours have a really hard time convincing consumers to purchase them at full price. Even though a matinee of an hour and a half movie has crept up to $9, and you’d thus easily be paying $60 to spend ten hours in the theater, paying $60 for a ten hour game is a very hard sell. So rather than giving you a game that’s a few hours long and packed with unique art and story, designers need to turn the money that would pay for a certain amount of amazing content into a lot more less amazing content. Frequently, since it’s very easy to repeat combat encounters and make them take time, you wind up with fights that are time fillers struggling to change just enough that they continue to be fun.
  • Subscription: Subscription games have it worse, particularly for “content heavy” games. The longer you can make a game take to complete, the longer the player keeps giving you $15 a month, and you have to somehow create enough stuff to do for players that are in game hours every day while not making players that can only play an hour or two a week feel like they’d never get anywhere. A Kill Ten Rats quest is drastically easier and cheaper to build than something heavily scripted and unique that would take the same amount of time to play, and an “end game” gear grind lets you make the casuals feel like they’re making progress while still having a much more time-intensive option for your hard cores.
  • Freemium: Freemium games, no matter the marketing speak, exist for one reason: in a subscription game, you’re leaving money on the table for both hard cores that would give you more than $15 a month and casuals that might not give you $15 but would give you something. The model essentially demands that designers create situations where you can progress through the game in a way that’s not particularly fun but is free or one that is fun and costs money. Sometimes that “fun” is just “getting access to cosmetic things to make you not look like one of the boring free players” but quite a lot of the time it’s “getting to skip some of the grind.”

And all of these issues flow from a perception that longer is better, intensified by the need for a persistent multiplayer environment.

Virtuous Grinders, Sinning Payers

But the weirdest thing, the thing that inspired the whole article, is how that mindset has resulted in weird behaviors regarding the transition to Freemium that most MMOs are making. Most players seem to hate the idea of “Pay to Win” with a righteous fire: the concept that you could buy something with cash that they spend game time achieving is enraging and that you might buy something better than they can get from playing is anathema. Because, deep down, players recognize that they’re being forced through a skinner box to try to get the thing that is actually “fun” and being able to skip that process doesn’t seem fair. It’s often couched as “earning through skill,” and how it’s not fair for someone to get to skip that learning and earning process, but there’s relatively little in most MMOs (except possibly at the bleeding edge of the endgame) that can’t be obtained by just slogging through whatever obstacles are in place. Designers simply can’t make a large-scale, content-heavy MMO that prevents less skilled players from progressing, so the only real “skill” is perseverance.

What this winds up meaning is that having free time to play the game becomes the only virtuous way to play; if you have less free time, it’s seen as sinful to pay real money to catch up to those with more free time. Even though, from the business side, the players that are paying you more money to see less content are exactly what you want. Developers would love to make more money while only producing their best ideas as content. But the norm for games is that players would rather have padded content for less money and actively stigmatize players that want to pay more for less padding.

I don’t actually have a solution for this. It’s just a trend I’ve noticed recently, and I’m curious whether anyone else has solutions, and whether players that hate the idea of Pay to Win feel that I’m mischaracterizing their motivations.

Supers: Secret Identity Rights

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And here’s some more of my world building that’s hopefully useful to someone running a supers game.

Secret Identity Rights, also referred to as Mask Rights, are a legal precedent that prevent police and other legal authorities in the United States from publicly unmasking any individual, and provide stiff rules of secrecy for authorities that discover a masked individual’s identity. They are part of a larger culture of legal vigilantism.

In essence, unless an individual in a mask and operating under a code name voluntarily and publicly reveals his or her real identity, or gives the authorities explicit permission to do so, anyone involved in revealing the identity can be subjected to lawsuits, and may even be criminally implicated if the revelation of identity led directly to violent retaliation against the previously masked individual or friends and family.

The rights were set as precedent when the Supreme Court ruled against the state in Roger Rose vs. New York (usually referred to as Red Blade vs. New York). Additional clarifications for the protection of masked criminals were established in Elizabeth Ardry vs. Illinois (usually referred to as The Dragoness vs. Illinois).

Background

The United States has always had a larger population of declared powered individuals than the average for the rest of the world. Experts believe that this is a combination of the country being a high priority immigration target even for supers and a history of comics and other tales of masked crimefighters from before the beginning of Rosen-Tesla Events.[1] By 1952, there were over twenty masked vigilantes active in the the country, most of them operating out of New York City.[2]

One of the vigilantes, Red Blade, was frequently at odds with the city police. He used a sword, and would frequently maim or injure criminals, particularly those that were (allegedly) part of the Mafia. After several warnings, and two deaths which he claimed were self defense, the police arrested him and unmasked him as Roger Rose prior to trial. While he was in custody, his family members were murdered, and most agree that it was payback for his crusade on organized crime.

He sued the city for their deaths, declaring that their revelation of his identity had led directly to the murders. The case reached the Supreme Court and was decided in his favor, establishing several precedents.[3]

In 1955, a similar challenge (by an assassin that styled herself The Dragoness but who was revealed to be Elizabeth Ardry when finally captured) made it through the courts and established that these rights extended to those that had never presented themselves as crimefighters.[4] Like Roger Rose, Elizabeth Ardry’s friends and family members had been killed as payback for her actions, a situation that might have been avoided if her identity had been kept secret after her incarceration.[citation needed]

Acceptance of and Restrictions on Vigilantism

In addition to the effects on protection of identities, the initial ruling required states to come up with solid laws on vigilantism that took into account the use of super powers, with the encouragement to not drive those that would use their powers for the good of the public to be forced to be seen as criminals.[5] The states complied, and most came up with some variation on the following rules:

  • Powered individuals may follow the normal hiring processes and requirements to join local police forces or similar state and federal agencies (e.g., FBI, marshals, etc.). They may then work as masked members of these forces when employing their powers. Most require an unmasked partner for the hero, to prevent accusations of a secret police.
  • Masked vigilantes may make citizen’s arrests, and may use powers in the pursuit of these arrests and to prevent crimes. As with all citizen’s arrests, wrongfully accused individuals can issue lawsuits or request criminal charges be filed, particularly if they were injured by the vigilante. In these cases, the masked individual has a right to face the accuser without revealing his or her identity. In all cases, vigilantes are expected to follow directions given by actual police officers in regards to a suspect or operation, and are often arrested if refusal to follow these instructions leads to harm or failure of the police action.
  • Masked vigilantes suspected of criminal acts may reveal their identity to the authorities in order to establish an alibi or otherwise prove that they are being framed. Most jurisdictions have strong regulations for this, often having a small set of individuals that have gone through specific training courses on how to keep this identity secret. Sometimes, the members of the department allowed to know this information are, themselves, kept secret to prevent blackmail for a hero’s identity.

These rules do vary from state to state and city to city, with some being even more permissive (e.g., Texas is famous for its citizen superheroes) or less (e.g., Los Angeles, California expects all powered crimefighting to be done by police officers).[6]

Implications of the Rule

Masked individuals frequently come under scrutiny when believed to have committed crimes or when interfering with police investigations or operations. Known vigilantes are often asked to come in for interrogation willingly, and accorded privileges if they comply, including being given the benefit of the doubt. They are often interrogated with their mask still on, and only divulge their identity to trustworthy officers to establish an alibi. Conversely, known criminals are not given such benefits, and are interrogated unmasked. The number of individuals that know their identities is kept small, though, to reduce the chance of later lawsuits if the identity is leaked. When and if either type of individual comes to trial, masks are left on during the trial.[citation needed]

If convicted, powered individuals must often be kept in specially designed penitentiaries anyway, so their identities are kept secret even after conviction. Most are kept in solitary confinement, and allowed to wear a mask when situations require interaction with anyone other than trusted guards.[7]

Other Countries

Main Article: Vigilantism Worldwide

Variations on the United States methods are common in many countries, particularly members of the European Union. Notable exceptions are Russia, China, and Japan, where all powered crimefighters are required to operate under the aegis of government agencies, and masked vigilantes are treated the same as masked criminals.[8] This tendency of Communist states to require supers to register was integral in convincing the United States of the 1950s to allow vigilantes.[citation needed]

Recent History

After the end of the Cold War and the climactic battle between Liberty and The Hammer, public opinion began to disfavor masked vigilantes. In the 1990s and early 2000s, most jurisdictions began to announce that any vigilantism, particularly by powered individuals, would be considered interference with the police.[8] However, with the recent resurgence of powered criminals and post-9/11, many jurisdictions are considering reopening the door to masked heroes.[citation needed]

Supers: Creation Events

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I’m dabbling with NaNoWriMo this year, so for this month you may get some of the more gamable setting ideas I’m working with. Because what the world really needed was more superhero serialized web fiction 🙂 .

A Rosen-Tesla Event (also known as a Superpower Event or just Event) is a spontaneous release of explosive energy that always grants one or more individuals superpowers and leaves behind deposits of Cohenite (more commonly called The Substance).

The occurrence and effects of Events remain unpredictable, though several competing hypotheses await sufficient testing. Typically, a seemingly random place and time becomes ground zero for an explosion that grants nearby individuals powers. They can appear anywhere on Earth and at any time or date, with an almost-perfect distribution across the calendar year and inhabited geography.

Events became common knowledge after World War II, and it is unclear exactly when they began. Though they are a global phenomenon and many governments consider them a state secret, it is believed that up to half a dozen of them occur each year, and the frequency has not changed since they began.

Discovery

An initial theory about the Events was forwarded by Nathan Rosen in 1946, with Nikola Tesla posthumously credited due to the use of many of his broadcast power equations in the research. These facts were not declassified until 1976.[1] Rosen always believed, but could never prove, that Events were initiated by deployment of atomic energy and bombs, but could never prove any correlation, particularly due to the frequency remaining constant despite changes in the use of atomic energy.[2]

The first non-classified Event, which introduced them to the world, was in 1949 near Salvador, Brazil.[3] Declassified documents indicate that the governments of previous Event sites had been able to cover them up previously, though no details are included, so it is uncertain how many events happened before the Salvador Event.[4] This did finally explain the masked heroes that had been poorly-kept secrets for the past several years, as the Salvador Five did not conceal their identities and were quite forthcoming about the source of their powers to the news media. Enough other powered individuals have come forward since 1949 that the general theory is understood, though individuals and governments are still believed to conceal most Events.[citation needed]

Frequency and Effects

Unless certain governments are concealing a greater than expected concentration of Events within their borders, each calendar year sees from zero to six Events across the entire Earth. These events are loosely correlated in frequency with population centers, and always include at least one human individual within an approximately five meter radius.[5]

Rosen’s research suggested that potential Events were totally random and far greater in number than observed Events. Due to some peculiarity of the phenomenon, they would only catalyze from potential to actual Event when at least one human being would be included within the blast radius. Since so much of the Earth’s surface is unpopulated, there could be thousands of Events each year that are never actualized, and potentially millions if Events are not limited to the surface of the planet and can, instead, occur in the air or underground. What appears to be a random occurrence might display predictable patterns with sufficient data about exact Event locations and times.[6]

Witnesses of Events, forensics, and the rare video recording detail a standard pattern to the phenomenon. All individuals within five meters of ground zero feel a buildup of static electricity, which some have compared to the sensation of being near a lightning strike. Those outside of the radius have provided less standardized impressions; it’s possible that those that noticed anything were simply reacting to the genuine stimulus evinced by those within the radius. Approximately three seconds later, a wave of heat erupts from ground zero; a shockwave of sufficient force to fling most individuals within the area away precedes a burst of hot air of nearly a thousand degrees at ground zero. The heat rapidly tapers off, but is sufficient to ignite or melt nearby objects. Individuals in between a solid object and ground zero have received serious burns and explosion trauma in addition to their superpowers as they are not able to be flung free of the blast. While the heat and shockwave drop dramatically past five meters, an Event in an enclosed location frequently blows out windows, doors, or even weak walls. The effect is in many ways similar to a small fuel-air bomb.[5]

Any human within the five meter radius seems to inevitably develop superpowers, usually quite soon after the Event. Anyone outside the radius, even only shortly outside, does not develop powers. No animals have been documented to have developed powers, despite a few high-profile fraud “wonder-dogs.”[7] Individuals that enter the radius of the event during the three seconds between static and explosion do not reliably develop powers, despite insistences from seminars purporting to train people to react quickly enough to run into the radius of a nearby Event.[8]

Superpowers from Events

Main Article: Superpowers

All individuals within the radius of an Event gain superpowers. Unless classified Events provide disputing information, all individuals receive powers within a related “theme” or “flavor” of application. For example, the Stars, the USA’s premier superhero team in the 1970s and 1980s, are believed to have all received their powers in the same Event and have different applications of telekinesis: Liberty gained a personal telekinetic field that allows her to perform extreme feats of strength and durability, Patriot gained an ability to fly and shield himself while flying, and Banner gained a more “traditional” telekinetic ability to lift several tons of objects within several yards of herself.[9] A more recent group, the vigilantes known as the Nitro Grade and assumed to be part of the same Event seem to display various flavors of energy emission: two can fling plasma, one wreathes himself in fire, another can generate intense sound, and the fifth can create lasers and other forms of light.[citation needed]

Most individuals that have gone on record about their powers describe an immediate intuitive understanding of them within moments of the Event, though there is frequently a period of training required to make full use of the powers. These powers remain with the individuals for the rest of their lives, can be inherited by offspring, and cannot currently be detected by genetic science (though certain individuals that cannot turn off aspects of their powers might be detected by such symptoms). The science behind powers is currently poorly understood.[10]

While an Event that hit a tightly-packed crowd could theoretically empower dozens of individuals at once, the largest known group Event is currently the Kuala Lumpur Event of 1987, which empowered twenty individuals in an apartment building.[11] Averages extrapolated from known data suggest that an average of only a dozen individuals per year have received powers from an Event since 1945: from one to twenty individuals per event and from zero to six Events per year. This would result in less than a thousand “first generation” supers worldwide. Based on expected birthrates (due to inheritance) and mortality, most authorities expect that the incidence of superpowers is close to one in three million individuals.[12]

Cohenite

Main Article: Cohenite

In addition to granting powers, the ground around an Event is laced with the metallic substance officially termed Cohenite (but more commonly referred to as Hyperium, Philosopher’s Stone, or just The Substance). First researched and named by Morris Cohen while Nathan Rosen researched the physics of the Events, the transmutation or insertion of Cohenite into the area around an Event is suspected to be the main reason for the heat wave: an extremely powerful chemical reaction.[13] Most Events are quickly harvested by concerns that don’t want to reveal exact numbers, but it’s believed that around 100 kilograms of Cohenite are produced by each Event.[14]

While not an element and not thoroughly understood by modern chemistry, Cohenite has several extremely valuable properties. It alloys very easily with most metals while retaining desirable properties, with up to 50% of the weight of the alloy being comprised of the substance before it becomes brittle or otherwise unstable. Since Cohenite is extremely light (2.1 g/cm3), this means that alloys become extremely light while retaining their strength and conductivity. While the chemistry is poorly understood, evidence suggests that simple alloying procedures with Cohenite naturally produce carbon nanotubes within the metal.[15]

Cohenite is, thus, extremely desirable in many industrial applications. Due to its rarity, a kilogram can easily go for $1,000,000 US.[16] There is a fierce competition between governments and private concerns to secure the site of an Event for the financial bounty of its Cohenite.[citation needed]

Alternate Theory

While it is commonly understood that Nikola Tesla’s experiments in Colorado Springs centered around broadcast power, certain interviews have often been read as indicating a deeper involvement with Events than simply a posthumous use of his notes. Particularly due to rumors that the Allies had small cadres of supers that were integral to willing World War II and in place years before atomic testing, many believe that Events began much earlier than reported.[17] The estates of several friends of Tesla have produced correspondence that might allude to his quest to empower individuals for the US government.[18] Under this theory, Tesla invented a method to produce controlled Events that was reliable but too expensive for general use. However, this method opened a door, and some unexpected interaction with atomic energy, radio waves, or even the Age of a Aquarius (sources differ) led to an ongoing recurrence of the Events out of anyone’s control. Documentation, should any remain, remains highly classified.[citation needed]