Science Fiction

Transmissions From The End #17 – Alien Predators

Back with the logical continuation of my Aliens content for the Singularity System. My thoughts on the Predator films, the crossover films, the extended universe, and then all the content you need to include the Yautja and their toys in your Singularity System game.

The Predator Franchise

As a general note, I don’t have the same passion for the Predator films, mythos, or universe that I do for everything Aliens. The exceptions are the original Predator film, which is a superlative piece of cinema, and all situations where Predators are, as I might have said when I was ten years old, “versing” Aliens.

  • Predator (1987): My God this movie stands up well over time. It’s genre slight-of-hand at its finest, and midway through the film a great dumb action movie suddenly becomes a damn fine smart horror movie, in a way that must have left audiences bamboozled on the order of 1996’s “holy shit now there’s vampires!” From Dusk Till Dawn. Dutch and his entire “squad of ultimate badasses” (yes that’s an Aliens quote, shut up, it also applies here) are charismatic and memorable: former wrestler and future Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s Blain certainly has a memorable moment at the center of what has to be the most continuous barrage of gunfire being discharged into foliage in cinematic history, but my favorite character was and continues to be Bill Duke’s Mac, who I refused to believe was really for sure dead until the most explicit cut of the movie made it the most explicit it could possibly be. Arnold Schwarzenegger is at his absolute prime here, contractually mandated cheesy one-liners and all. The film is full of memorable moments, killer quotes, and macho banter, and there’s a lot to watch, from the general unhinging of the special forces’ team’s sanity (“gonna have me some fun, gonna have me some fun, gonna have me some fun”) to Billy’s incredibly brave, incredibly honorable, incredibly ill-advised decision to engage the jungle hunter in single combat, to the unforgettable finale when it’s down to just Arnold and the Predator…this is unquestionably one of the best action/sci-fi/horror films of all time.
  • Predator II (1990): Okay, I know “in the near future, the year 1997” dates this movie horribly, right alongside The Terminator, but that said, this is a solid sequel and an overall underrated film, and whatever time frame you imagine it in, Los Angeles being a violence-ridden hell hole is not that much of a stretch. Danny Glover delivers a capable performance as Lt. Mike Harrigan, and while it’s not his fault he’s not a larger than life 80s/90s action icon like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s almost certainly better at acting in the technical sense of the word. Solid performances from an interesting supporting cast, including my man Bill Paxton (plus an actress who until today I thought was Aliens’ Vasquez, Jenette Goldstein, but turns out to actually be an actress named Maria Conchita Alonzo) round out a movie that expand the Predator lore and mythos and most importantly teases us with this shot, leading to a fan-base drooling for an Aliens vs. Predator picture that finally comes to the big screen 14 years later.
  • BaP5b
  • Predators (2010): I only saw this film once, when it came out in 2010, and it neither offended me nor made a lasting impression of delight. I am not sure if the world in general has largely forgotten it exists, or just me.

Crossover Films

  • Alien vs. Predator (2004): Whoever wins, we lose indeed. Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson whose career peeked around one of his first films, the Alien meets Hellraiser pastiche Event Horizon and has largely been a downhill slide ever since, this was a movie that I loved in theaters and have just found stupider and stupider with every subsequent viewing. Understand that when this movie came out I was 18, young, dumb, and full of, y’know, acid blood or whatever. I was so excited coming out of the theater about how “freaking awesome” this movie was that I managed to shatter a ceiling lamp with a music stand in my spastic enthusiasm (don’t ask, I couldn’t do it again if I tried). My major issues with the movie after my first theatrical viewing were that, based on my headcanon, deeply entrenched in the extended universe (see below), no way in hell should one Alien be able to take down that many Predators. On each subsequent viewing of the film, my concerns with it have turned more and more to how overall dumb and disappointing it was. It good have been worse, I guess, but it’s hard to imagine it being MUCH worse. Of course, AvP didn’t come out as a movie until it had been released/published/played/sequelized in virtually every other commercial medium known to man, so I was measuring it against the exceptional totality of the extended universe which preceded it, so again, see below.
  • Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2008): I both own this movie on DVD (or blu-ray, or whatever) and have frequently caught it on television. In spite of that, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to force myself to watch even a full consecutive half-hour of it. It just looks so dumb and so bad, like someone took the most generic teen horror movie setup ever and dumped xenomorphs and Yautja without any thought. I’m going to try to force myself to watch it soon…if I can. Does it have any redeeming value? You let me know.

The Extended Universe

Long before the turn of the millenium, and in fact–I’m just learning now–even before theatrical audiences could have seen that xenomorph skull on that Predator space ship, Dark Horse Comics got the rights to AliensPredator, and yes to Aliens vs. Predator. I don’t have time to get into all of the AvP videogames and what nots, so I’m just going to mention the Dark Horse Comics which I never got a chance to read and actually talk about the novelizations of them which I did. And actually, considering this is stuff I read like 20 years ago when I was like 11, rather than trust 11 year old me’s judgement, I’m only really going to talk about one of them.

  • Aliens vs. Predator: Prey was the 1994 novelization by Steve Perry and Stephani Perry (published by Bantam Spectra) of the first Aliens vs. Predator comic series published by Dark Horse, and if there was an AvP movie to be made, it should have been made using this book as a basis (and there were for one brief golden moment in the 1990s plans for exactly that), not whatever fatuous bullshit Paul W. S. Anderson’s screenwriters sprang on him in the early 2000s. Clearly set in the world of Aliens, it introduces protagonist Machiko Noguchi as the supervisor of the ranching colony of Ryushi as it is beset (unsurprisingly considering the general premise) with aliens and rogue Predators at the same time. What I thought this novel did best was its handling of the interiority of the yautja, namely I thought it very deftly walked a very fine line, making them both just relatable enough that you could see that there were stand up guys and bastards among yaujta just as there were among humans, and just alien enough as to still be really frightening. The novel ends with nearly everyone dead but Machiko who is Blooded by the Predator she had been forced to team up with, Dachande or Broken Tusk, who sacrifices himself saving her. As she is Blooded, she is now effectively a Yautja, which means from this point forward, the Predator race recognizes her as one of them. She now runs as a hunter among Hunters. Pretty cool, right? Virtually all of my headcanon in terms of Predator lore comes from this novel, and if my brain has embraced it, it must be right!

Races

Maybe you thought it would only be race because well…Predator. Ha! Did you forget about Ash from Alien and Bishop from Aliens?

Please note that in term of game balance, these races are roughly balanced with each other, and each approximately twice as powerful as a human starting character.

Synthetics

bishop-main

“Actually, I prefer the term ‘artificial person’…”

Advent Adjustment: Max Advent of 2, and -5 to starting AP Pool (23 instead of 28 in an average game).

Attribute Adjustments: +4 Strength, +4 Fortitude, +4 Quickness, +2 Intelligence, +2 Cyber. Their starting caps are 10 for Strength, Fortitude, and Quickness and 8 for Intelligence and Cyber.

Artificial Person: Synthetics have Armor 3. This is cumulative with worn armor, making Weyland-Yutani “combat sythetics” a real force to be reckoned with. Synthetics cannot be poisoned and have the Durability and Toughness traits automatically, along with the First Strike and Ambidextrous traits. They cannot take the Charisma, Juicer, or Will to Live Perks. They cannot take the Addiction, Addictive Personality, Allergic Reaction, Missing Limb, Missing Sensory Organ, Obesity, Space Sickness, weak Immune System, Weap Pain Threshold, or Venerable Weaknesses. Synthetics built to obey the classical prime directives (see Aasimov, Isaac) must take the Mercy Weakness.

Built Tough: Synthetics are immune to all drugs and toxins and to all standard means of first aid. A Synthetic reduced to 0 Health is broken. A Hard Engineering (2) and Hard Electronics (2) test can restore them to 1 Health, but if only one success is achieved on either test, the machine is hardly functional. It is so badly damaged that it will “never be top of the line again”, but it can still provide a brief audience and share anything it chooses to with the characters that repaired it. The first (Fortitude) points of damage that a Synthetic takes can be repaired with an Armorer (15 Minutes) Test: each success restores 1 Health. Additional damage beyond Fortitude can be repaired in a similar way, but using the Electronics skill instead.

Eidetic Memory and More: Synthetics of course have eidetic memory. They also benefit from all of the benefits that can be installed in Artificial Eyes, from the Biotech sourcebook. They are damaged by Pulse weapons, and as usual, Pulse damage ignores all of their Armor.

Morally Inflexible: A synthetic must follow its programming. A synthetic programmed to follow the classic Asimovian prime directives, cannot “by action or omission of action allow a living being to be harmed”. Robocop must 1) Defend the public trust, 2) Protect the innocent, 3) Uphold the law (4, classified: not harm or arrest any employee of OCP). The Terminator only has to Terminate Sarah Conner. (Understand these are just examples: neither Robocop nor a T-800 would necessarily use the same “race) described here.) Ash, on the other hand, was programmed to serve the interests of Weyland-Yutani’s exosciences division. In any case, a synthetic must follow its programming. If one welcomes the canonicity of Alien: Resurrection, the exception would be Aut-Auts, synthetics built by synthetics who have free will.

Yautja (Predators)

“When I was little, we found a man. He looked like – like, butchered. The old woman in the village crossed themselves… and whispered crazy things, strange things. “El Diablo cazador de hombres.” Only in the hottest years this happens. And this year, it grows hot. We begin finding our men. We found them sometimes without their skins… and sometimes much, much worse. “El cazador trofeo de los hombres” means the demon who makes trophies of men.”

Anytime.”

Honor Instead of Advent: Instead of an Advent stat, Yautja have an Honor stat that starts at 2 and works the same as Advent except for how it increases (AP cannot be spent on it). Honor represents the pride the Yautja and its status in its community. A Yautja first gains an Honor for successfully killing one of the “hard meat”, an alien drone. Such a Yautja is considered Blooded and is permitted to hunt the “soft meat” although might not wind up actually doing so until they have Honor 4. The increase from 3 to 4 Honor comes when a Yautja survives an ordeal such as escaping alone from a xenorph hive or single ritualized combat with another Yautja. The increase from 4 to 5 Honor occurs when a Yautja hunts and kills a suitably badass warrior of the “soft meat” (human beings). This hunt cannot be begun with the blessing of the community until a Yautja has Honor of at least 4. No less than taking the skull of an Alien Queen increases a Yautja‘s Honor from 5 to 6, making a Yautja an elder or tribal chief. Only the GM can determine what feat of honor could increase a Yautja’s Honor from 6 to 7.

Note that Honor can be lost for dishonorable actions: the loss of and failure to recover Yautja technology (the Yautja guide their technology jealously), or the killing of helpless prey (not befitting of the galaxy’s greatest hunters) or pregnant female prey (depriving the hunting ground of a potentially suitable prey animal in years to come).

Attribute Adjustments: A Yautja has only 20 AP to spend on its attributes, but receives the following bonuses to them: +8 Strength, +5 Fortitude, +3 Quickness, and +1 Cyber. Their starting attribute caps are 14 for Strength, 11 for Fortitude, 10 for Quickness, and 7 for Cyber. While Yautja are more technologically advanced than humans, they are not necessarily more intelligent. They may simply be benefitting from a head start.

El Diablo Cazador Los Hombres: Instead of getting to pick two free perks, Yautja instead start with all of the following specific free perks: Catlike, First Strike, Outdoorsman, and Toughness. They can take up to two weaknesses to gain up to two additional perks.

Hunter’s Training: All Yautja begin with the Dismemberment and Trick Shooter Combat Maneuvers from Firefight. Additionally, when attacking a xenomorph with a melee weapon, a Yautja can use the Pick Target action specifically to avoid the xenomorph’s acid blood backsplash.

Thick Hide: A Yautja‘s hide is much tougher than human skin. They have a natural Armor rating of 1, cumulative with worn armor.

Deadly Reflexes: A Predator with Honor 4 or higher automatically has ReAct -30. A Predator with Honor 6 or higher automatically has that upgraded to ReAct -20.

Predator (Yautja) Technology

I’d like to give a shout-out to the helpful fan-site Xenopedia with helping me remember the details of some of these and reconciling it with my own headcanon.

Instead of being purchased with credits, these items are acquired based on a Yautja’s Honor level. Any human (or non-Yautja) attempting to use any Yautja weapon does so at a +1 Difficulty Stage penalty until they have successfully hit with that weapon ten times, at which point they are considered to have gained familiarity with it.

Bio-Mask: Requires Honor 2 or higher. The Bio-Mask allows the predator to see in the Infrared, Ultra-Violet, and EM-Field spectrums, along with numerous others. The EM-Field spectrum is specifically designed to spot Xenomorphs, while the Infrared Spectrum is specifically designed to spot humans (although being infrared, it can be tricked, such as by a human masking his thermal signature). Switching modes is a free action. The mask provides +2 to Perception tests (to spot creatures when in the correct mode; the rest of the time it amplifies sounds and allows for digital zoom, providing a bonus to Perception tests in general). The mask also provides access through a series of dreadlock-like tubes to the Predator’s supply of oxygen mix from its home-world. It is a fair assumption that this oxygen mix is not very different than that of Earth, because Predators remove their masks in the presence of worthy opponents on Earth and seem able to breathe well enough to function.

Wrist Blade: Requires Honor 2 or higher. Free action to extend or retract. Uses the low-tech weapons skill. Size 0, Damage 4, Piercing 6. Harder than a diamond and sharp enough to cut through bone, or the hardened carapace of a xenomorph drone.

Plate Armor: Requires Honor 2 or higher. This plate armor notably does not cover a Predator’s lower torso or thighs, which are instead wrapped in a black wire mesh. It does cover the predator’s upper torso, sometimes asymmetrically, and also includes gorgets, spaulders, tassets, and greaves, as well as foot armor. Armor Rating 3, with two points of special resistance to Piercing. The plate armor is very strong, but ultimately is inferior to some human combat armor in that it does not provide full body protection. As a final special quality, a Yautja‘s plate armor does not have its rating reduced by the backsplash of xenomorph blood.

Medicomp: Requires Honor 3 or higher. The Medicomp is a small case that contains various medical supplies should the Predator ever be injured. This healing kit contains enough tools to perform minor surgery and repair superficial wounds. Among the medical supplies are vials of liquid which, when mixed with heated minerals, creates a regenerative sludge that can be used to cauterize wounds. Also contained are a shrapnel extractor, wound staplers, one stimulant shot, and one antiseptic tube. If the Predator has the First Aid skill, the Medicomp provides a +4 bonus to First Aid tests. The stimulant shot automatically restores Health equal to the Predator’s Fortitude, but once it’s used, it’s gone. If the Predator does not have the First Aid skill, the Medicomp is semi-intelligent, using its own First Aid skill of 5.

Combistick: Requires Honor 3 or higher. This is a spear-like combination weapon made from an ultra-light, ultra-dense, ultra-sharp alloy completely unknown on Earth. It has a length of less than one meter when retracted, but can be telescoped outwards as a free action, and is more than two meters long at its full length. It has several modes of attack, and when used in melee or thrown as a spear,  it uses the Low Tech Weapons skill, has Size/Accuracy of +2, does 6 Damage, and has Piercing 4.  The other end of the Combistick can launch a net to restrain prey before the final kill. The net has an Accuracy of +2, an accurate range of 30 meters, and does 2 Damage, Piercing 4. More importantly, a target hit by it is entangled in it and most likely pinned to a wall behind them: the net has more than enough velocity to drag a man sized target backwards until they hit a wall. Even attempting to wrestle free of the net is potentially fatal, because the net is made of sharp metallic wire and responds to all outward pressure by tightening further. To escape the net, a victim may attempt an Opposed Strength test versus the net’s Strength, which is equal to their own Strength times one and a half, rounded up. If they fail to achieve a net success and break free, they suffer damage equal to the successes the net achieved; this damage is Piercing 4. The netgun loads only one net; collapsing and reloading the net

Cloak: Requires Honor 3 or higher. A Predator’s cloaking system is controlled by its wrist computer and activated as a Minor Action. When activated, all Perception tests to see the Predator are Hard, and all Stealth tests the Predator makes are easy. If the Predator becomes even partially submerged in water (more than a foot deep) the cloaking device shorts out until it is repaired with an Electronics (10 Minutes) Test. If the Predator is wounded (i.e. loses Fortitude points of Health) the cloaking device becomes effectively useless due to the vivid green of the Predator’s bright green blood.

Sat-Comp: Requires Honor 3 or higher. This device, also located in the wrist computer, serves as a local GPS and through millimeter wave scanning, allows a Predator to map out the area surrounding it in moderate detail, including the positions of prey. This requires a Comms/Sensors test. One success maps out a 0.5 Km radius, and each additional success increases the radius mapped by 0.5 Km.

Plasmacaster: Requires Honor 4 or greater. A shoulder mounted plasma-cannon with a fusion power pack laser guided by the signature triangle laser sight and linked to the bio-mask for greater accuracy. Some of the oldest predators, with Honor 5 and higher, disdain the use of ranged weapons such as this, preferring the challenge of going in for the kill with just melee weapons. The plasma caster uses the Energy Weapons skill. It has Accuracy +3, Damage 6, a maximum Rate of Fire of Single, and Piercing 3. One shot can easily kill either an elite human soldier or a xenomorph if a Predator uses the Aim action while Cloaked and the Pick Target action (from Firefight) before taking the shot. The plasmacaster has effectively infinite ammunition, so it can keep firing continuously unless it is damaged (it is not completely waterproof) or discarded by a Predator seeking a fairer final confrontation with worthy prey.

Self Destruct Device: Requires Honor 4 or greater. Built into the Predator’s wrist computer, this is a weapon of last resort designed not to kill the Predator’s enemies, but to destroy it, all of its equipment, and its ship so none of them can be recovered by “lesser” civilizations. The only thing more shameful than being forced to use a Self Destruct Device (which renders a Predator’s Honor irrelevant as that predator is vaporized) is failing to for some reason at a time when its use would be appropriate (causing the immediate loss of 1 point of Honor). A self destruct device takes 2d6 Full Turn actions to set. It then goes off anywhere from 60 seconds to 300 seconds after the Predator sets it (it’s the Predator’s choice). As implied by the name, a self destruct device cannot be survived: not only would this be extremely dishonorable, but it is built into the Predator’s wrist computer which is effectively impossible to remove from the Predator’s wrist short of hacking it off at the elbow. When it finally goes off, a self destruct device creates an enormous nuclear fireball that deals 500 Damage, Blast -2/1 Meter, eradicating the Predator, its equipment, its ship, and approximately half a mile in radius of whatever else happens to be around.

Smart Disc: Requires Honor 5 or greater. Combining the Yautja‘s futuristic technology with the deadliest qualities of boomerang and chakrum, the smart disc is a programmable, mono-filament sharp, throwing weapon that rotates at extraordinarily high RPMs like a circular saw. Thrown on its own, the Smart Disc uses the Low Tech Weapons skill to attack one target, has an Accuracy of +1, deals 10 Damage, has Piercing 10, and returns to the Predator at the end of the phase. Alternatively, the wrist computer can be used to program the disc with targets. A Predator can take a Minor Action to make a Computers (2) Test to program one target into the disc’s memory. The disc can have a total number of targets programmed equal to the Predator’s Cyber. When the disc is finally thrown (a Major Action like most attacks, using the low tech weapons skill), it calculates a path through the room to hit each target before returning to the Predator at the end of the turn. Its accuracy for each of these attacks is equal to the Predator’s Computers skill + 1, with the damage the same as if throwing an unprogrammed disc at a single target.

Finally, in a pinch, the Smart Disc can be used as a melee weapon (Low Tech Weapons), with Size -1, 10 Damage, and Piercing 10.

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Transmissions From The End #16: Bug Hunt (Contains Free Stuff!)

My science fiction roleplaying game, the Singularity System, actually rose from the ashes (well, that’s a little dramatic but let’s go with it) of an intended-to-be-free* Aliens/Alien vs. Predator** fan-game I was making called Bug Hunt. I left the project alone for a while, lost interest, and when I returned to it (or returned to the idea of making a science fiction RPG set in the “future of space“, whatever) I realized that a lot of the specifics of the Aliens setting also described my default assumptions about what a sci-fi future should be like.  No surprise there. Aliens (1986) is (at least tied for) my literal favorite movie of all time***, and is one of the subtler influences on my beloved Systems Malfunction setting (mainly the lived-in, believable, functional aesthetic of the world, going back to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) , but also in a more in-your-face sense the FUCKING PRAXAR) which Singularity would grow up to support.

So, the Singularity System was built off of the skeleton of the never published Bug Hunt, and there’s even some copy-pasta in there from the Aliens: Colonial Marines technical manual where the Dropship, APC, and space suit are described! (There’s some obscure End Transmission Games Trivia for you.)  When I published Singularity, the intention was always to publish a bunch of settings for it, from Aliens vs. Predator to Halo to Mass Effect, either for free as fan-made material or commercially licensed material depending on how successful the setting and the very-new company publishing it were.

* In hindsight, because of the background I come from–RPG Maker, specifically, where releasing your product for free is the exception, not the rule–when I started out, I released a lot of TTRPGs for free–like Phantasm(2010)–with the thinking that I could never possibly get the license, because licenses must cost a gajillion dollars and licensors must protect them like their balls. And here you’ve caught me releasing more free fan-made content now! I don’t think it was until this year at GenCon 50 that I really understood just how many successful board games and TTRPGs are licensed properties from other media–NEARLY ALL OF THEM!

So either every other company out there is Monopoly Man rich and always has been (a lot of these companies have held the licenses in question for a LONG TIME) or licenses to make games based off of media properties is not as ASTRONOMICALLY EXPENSIVE as I assumed back in 2010-2012, and since. Of course, companies are cagey. When I, as a random Joe Nobody, approaches the company making the Dark Souls board game and ask if they can tell me what the ballpark figure was for that license, of course they can’t give me an answer. But these guys aren’t wearing diamond-encrusted top-hats and gold monocles, so that’s a limited form of answer in and of itself.  I wish I had reasoned this out a lot earlier, say back in 2011? I have a feeling that the brilliant, eccentric, presumably approachable Don Coscarelli would have been a much softer target than 20th Century Fox!

** Initially, this post was going to include stats for Predators (the Yautja, as my extended universe reading has told me, but I’ll save the extended universe rant for another day) and my thoughts on the Predator franchise and the crossover, but I burned a lot of time and word-count talking about the Alien movies, so that will all have to be in a later iteration of “Transmissions From The End”.

*** My feelings on the films in the Alien franchise, to be (as) brief (as I can manage). Considering the overall pH spectrum of nerd rage on the internet, these are surprisingly positive overall.

  • Alien (1979) – The first truly successful attempt to make a horror movie set in space by brilliant auteur Ridley Scott featuring the genuinely disturbing designs of Swiss Painter H.R. Geiger. I know that older readers might be able to point me to earlier–truly old, even–sci-fi horror films, and I’ll give them a watch and see if they cut the mustard for me. But I will credit Alien as pants-shittingly scary to first time viewers even now, nearly four decades after its release, which is an incredible accomplishment considering how desensitized we’ve become to just about everything in the intervening time. This is my second favorite movie in the franchise, and only because the extremely supporting characters of the sequel
  • Aliens (1986) – Add a drop of action to the seat-of-your-pants terror and suspense of the original and you get my favorite movie of all time. (Actually, it is a three way tie with Ghostbusters (1984) and Reservoir Dogs (1992).) Ripley is the strongest heroine in the history of so-called genre fiction and this might be the most feminist genre movie ever made. The entire heart of the film is about the tetrad of Ripley, the daughter that grew up, lived her entire life and died of cancer while Ripley was in cryostasis for sixty years after the events of the first film (you don’t get that bit without the director’s cut), the daughter-surrogate of Newt, and of course the unforgettable Alien Queen. I’ve never particularly given a toot about Feminism, but this movie duct-tapes a flamethrower to an M4A1 pulse rifle and blows the fucking Bechdel Test to pieces with it. All of this movie’s main characters are female and all of its central drama follows them. This is why I am frankly bamboozled to see people’s collective “finally, a female cinematic role model” bullshit over this year’s (reasonably decent) Wonder Woman movie when Ellen Ripley is a stronger female character in every way and carried an entire franchise going back to 1979. But I must confess it was the supporting cast of Aliens that really cements it as my favorite film in the franchise. Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton (RIP brother, you will always be the “state of the badass art” in my heart), Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Al Matthews, William Hope, Mark Rolston and Jenette Goldstein deliver unforgettable performances as Corporal Hicks, Private Hudson, the heroic “artificial person” Bishop, Newt, the unforgettable Sgt. Apone, the ever-so-bitch-slappable Lieutenant Gorman, Private Drake and Private Vasquez (another seriously bad bitch), respectively. And Paul Reiser is perfectly cast as ruthless corporate douchebag Carter Burke, cementing for me I think the movie’s most chilling message: that the human monsters are even worse than the xenomorphs.
  • Alien 3 (1992) – I am positive that I saw Aliens at least a dozen times before I was six years old, which I attribute to (I’m not being ironic here) fucking great parenting on the part of my dad. I remember eagerly awaiting this film as a child for what seemed like forever and I remember hating it for years after it came out. I hated it for childish reasons–the callous off-screen killing off of the surviving supporting characters from Aliens–and as I grew up, I eventually forgave the movie and came to appreciate its excellence in its own right. It is my third favorite film in the franchise.  It also has a fantastic supporting cast (look out for a great performance from Charles Dance (pre-Tywin Lannister) as a disgraced doctor who is the closest thing Ripley gets to a love interest before he gets perforated by the alien, and seeing Lance Henriksen re-cast as the Weyland-Yutani admin) and is  tautly directed by David Fincher (Seven). Ripley’s final sacrifice at the end of the movie was bitter to me to swallow as a kid, but as an adult I greatly preferred it as the end of her character arc to the ill-advised abortion of a sequel that followed.
  • Alien: Resurrection (1997) – The weakest movie in the franchise, but not wholly without merit, directed by a very young Joss Whedon, who imported some interesting supporting characters from what I’m presuming is an unrelated project he was working on that later become Firefly (I’m guessing here). The most entertaining supporting performances in the film comes not from featured deuteragonist Annalee Call (Winona Ryder) or her weird and kind of forced-feeling homoerotic relationship with clone Ripley, but from Dan Hedaya’s doomed general and Brad Douriff’s increasingly mad scientist, Gediman.  Ultimately, the cloning of Ripley makes her sacrifice at the end of the third film pointless, and makes the way that movie disposed of the supporting characters from the second that much more galling. The movie’s backstory/director’s cut dismissal of Weyland-Yutani (the ominous, ruthless, and mysterious corporation responsible for the events of the first three films who any viewer must desperately desire to see get their on-screen comeuppance) as having been “bought out by Wal-Mart” centuries ago while good black comedy is badly anti-climactic cinema, almost anti-climactic as the movie’s goofy looking antagonist, the alien-human hybrid. In short, Resurrection is the worst film in the franchise because it throws away everything about Alien 3 that I came to realize made it a good movie as an adult in the interest of…what, exactly? 
  • Prometheus (2012) – I don’t know if this even makes sense, but Prometheus is definitely not an Alien movie, yet is inseparable from the continuity of the Aliens Franchise. I’ll keep my commentary on it brief because it’s recent and contentious. I thought it was a good, possibly great science fiction movie. If you were expecting it to be a great horror movie, like Alien, to which it is a prequel, I could see why you might conclude it was a bad movie overall, but I strongly disagree. It doesn’t quite make the connection to Alien I wanted, but it sets up symbiosis with the most recent (and hopefully final) movie in the Alien franchise which does. I think Prometheus was a very smart movie that probably went over the heads of general audiences in a lot of ways, but I think it did have a couple of dumb moments which unfortunately went memetic in the age of the internet.
  • Alien: Covenant (2017) – It’s probably controversial to say this,  but: I think this was a good science fiction film, a great horror film, and a very good Alien movie: I’d rank it above Resurrection and Prometheus (if you count that as an Alien film at all) certainly and almost as certainly as an equal to Alien 3. The performance(s?) from Michael Fassbender were incredibly strong, even riveting. Covenant wasn’t as well received critically as I think it deserved to be. Probably most controversial was its ending (no major spoilers here if you haven’t seen it yet), which word of mouth described to me as “predictable”. The ending disappointed me a little, but on the basis that I found it a touch cruel and pessimistic, for a movie that had not been kind to its cast throughout. I understand that Ridley Scott–80 years old at the time of this film’s release!–has probably grown more cynical with age, not less, as is typically the case. But to me, a happier ending, a drop of sweetness and mercy, would have better seasoned and served the horror that came before. I need to re-watch it and see how my opinion changes over time, of course. As the first new Alien film in 20 years, it’s pretty monumental.

And Now, With No Further Adieu, All Of The Ingredients For Aliens In The Singularity System

The Xenomorph’s Lifecycle

Facehugger

The “facehugger” is the second stage of the alien life-cycle, following the egg from which it is hatched (eggs are stationary and relatively helpless, with 12 Health and Armor 1; destroying an egg in one hit destroys the facehugger inside it, while failure to do so means the facehugger begins to hatch, and finishes hatching by the end of the next turn after the egg was damaged). Facehuggers are more of a vector or a gamete, depending on your perspective, than a full-fledged organism. They are incredibly fast, surprisingly strong, have the xenomorph’s concentrated acid blood, and are utterly single-minded. The purpose of its short life–it withers and dies within 6d6 + 6 hours if it cannot find a host–is to wrap itself around an organic host’s face, ram its ovipositor down their throat, and lay an egg in their chest.

Fortitude Strength 8  Quickness 8
Intelligence PerceptionCyber 1
Initiative 14d6 Health 7

SKILLS: Athletics 6, Low Tech Weapons 6, Stealth 6

Impregnate: The facehugger launches itself at an adjacent target’s well…face. It doesn’t need to make an attack roll, nor does the victim get an evasion roll. It is just too fast. The victim must make a Hard Quickness Test just to react at all. If the victim fails that roll, they are unable to react and are impregnated. See the Chestburster’s Bloodbath of Birth ability, below.  If the victim succeeds, they can struggle to pry the creature off. They make an Opposed Strength roll versus the facehugger. If they achieve a net success, they throw the creature off. If the creature achieves a net success, it impregnates them. If there is a tie, they struggle with the creature for the rest of the turn. A character adjacent to the victim can also try to pry the facehugger off with their own opposed Strength roll.

If the victim is wearing a protective face-plate (like the kind that often comes with a spacesuit) it buys them exactly one turn as the facehugger excretes a weak acid that boils through the face plate.

If a facehugger is pried off, it is thrown to the ground. To attempt to leap onto a character’s face again, it must hit with an Unarmed Combat roll vs. Normal Evasion: if it does, Opposed Strength tests happen as described above.

Once a facehugger has attached itself firmly to its host, there is no safe way to remove it. Cutting it will kill the host with a facefull of acid blood. Any attempts to pry it lose with force will just cause it to tighten its grip around the host’s throat, potentially crushing the host’s trachea or asphyxiating the host.

Acid Blood: Whenever a facehugger takes damage from anything other than fire, characters it is grappling with, “hugging”, or on top of suffer the same amount of damage the facehugger takes, reduced by their Armor as normal. The rating of their Armor is also reduced by 1 point.

Chestburster

A chestburster is a relatively helpless alien embryo. It is cannily aware of its helplessness and will immediately, instinctively seek to flee via a small aperture where it cannot be pursued after its birth. It has a bite attack, but only makes use of it in the direst of emergencies. Its survival prerogative is flight, not fight.

Fortitude Strength 4  Quickness 6
Intelligence PerceptionCyber 2
Initiative 11d6 Health 7

SKILLS: Athletics 6, Stealth 6, Survival 4, Unarmed Combat 6

Bloodbath of Birth: Twelve to twenty four hours after a facehugger attaches itself to a host, it falls off, seemingly dead, its payload delivered, and its host seems to recover to normal health (chest X-Rays will reveal otherwise). A suitably appropriate dramatic interval–no more than a few days–after a facehugger has impregnated a host (or 6d6 + 6 Hours after detachment) if the GM is feeling arbitrary) at a suitably appropriate dramatic moment when everyone is least expecting it, the chestburster punches its way free from the host’s torso in a shower of gore. The host is killed instantly. Every human who witnesses this hideous birth must succeed a Hard Intelligence Test or be unable to act for two turns. Humans that were particularly close to the host or cared for them should not be allowed an Intelligence Test at all: they automatically spend two turns gaping in horror.

Fast Movement +4: A Chestburster can move 15 meters as a Minor Action instead of the 11 meters that would normally be calculated from its Quickness.

Bite: At 6 Dice for 2 Damage, Piercing 1.

Acid Blood: Whenever a chestburster takes damage from anything other than fire, characters it is right on top of or that are right on top of it suffer the same amount of damage, reduced by their Armor as normal. The rating of their Armor is also reduced by 1 point.

Xenomorph (Adult)

In just 6d6 + 6 hours after its birth, a xenomorph has grown to its full adult size, molting and shedding its skin several times during the process. This is exceptionally rapid growth, and it is unknown if it requires the xenomorph to consume biological material (rats, cats, dogs) or simply happens inevitably over time. An adult xenomorph is a terrifying, nigh-perfect killing machine, and could easily wipe out a group of PCs on its own by hunting and stalking them intelligently, using its affinity for stealth and its deadly natural weapons. Note that the following stats represent a xenomorph born from a human host. A xenomorph born from a dog, a cow, or a manatee might have slightly different statistics and abilities.

Fortitude Strength 7  Quickness 7
Intelligence 2* PerceptionCyber 3
Initiative 13d6 Health 12 Armor 4
Optional: ReAct -20 (adult xenomorphs should only have a ReAct value in a campaign where most PCs have a ReAct value in personal combat, which is not the default assumption of an Aliens campaign, since cyberware augmentation of humans is not featured or mentioned in the series.)

SKILLS: Athletics 6, Electronics 3 (“What do you mean they cut the power, man, they’re animals, man!”), Low Tech Weapons 6, Stealth 6, Survival 6.

TRAITSCatlike, Toughness.

“What If They Don’t Show Up On Infrared At All??”: An Alien that is flush with, stationary against, or crawling amongst pipework, industrial machinery, or its own resin (see below) is like a chameleon, almost impossible to spot because of the way it blends in with its surroundings. Perception tests to see it (even with Vauggles or the like) are Hard, and Stealth Tests made by it are Easy.

Hive Mind: Individual alien drones act primarily on Instinct, as indicated by their Intelligence of 2. If a queen is within 100 km, the drones can operate as a hive mind instead, using the queen’s Intelligence of 5 instead.

Natural Weapons: Note, the Evasion roll made against any of an Alien’s Natural Weapons is Normal, not Easy, due to their deadly speed.

Claw Rake: Attack at 7 Dice for 5 Damage, Piercing 1.

Impale With Tail: Attack at 10 Dice for 4 Damage, Piercing 4.

Grab and Bite: With one net success on a Low Tech Weapons vs. Normal Evasion test, an alien can grab a victim as a Major Action. Unless that victim can somehow thrash his way free (beating the alien on an opposed Strength test), on the following turn, the Alien can ram its proboscis and pharyngeal jaws through the victim’s brain, an instant and automatic kill in a campaign setting based in the Aliens universe (if importing the Xenomorph to a different universe or crossing over into the territory of equally badass monsters like the Predator, assume the attack inflicts 12 Damage with Piercing 6 and requires no roll beyond the initial grapple).

Acid Blood: Whenever a xenomorph takes damage from anything other than fire, characters within two meters of it suffer the same amount of damage, reduced by their Armor as normal. The rating of their Armor is also reduced by 1 point. If more than one character is within two meters of the xenomorph when it is damaged, the acid damage is divided evenly between them.

Metamorphosis: A solitary alien drone (male) that is not already part of a colony or hive can attempt a metamorphic process that transforms it into an alien queen. Doing so requires an ample supply of biological material–several corpses or live victims–and ample time to encase the victims and itself in a resin cocoon, from which the drone can emerge as a queen. This process a Survival (60, 1 Hour) Extended Test.

Alien Warriors

Larger and stronger than the other male drones, alien warriors are specialized to protect the queen. There are usually between four and six of them guarding the queen and the royal egg chamber at any given time.

Fortitude Strength 8  Quickness 6
Intelligence 2* PerceptionCyber 3
Initiative 11d6 Health 16 Armor 5
Optional: ReAct -20 (Alien warriors should only have a ReAct value in a campaign where most PCs have a ReAct value in personal combat, which is not the default assumption of an Aliens campaign, since cyberware augmentation of humans is not featured or mentioned in the series.)

SKILLS: Athletics 5, Electronics 3 (“What do you mean they cut the power, man, they’re animals, man!”), Low Tech Weapons 8, Stealth 5, Survival 5.

TRAITSDurability, Toughness.

“What If They Don’t Show Up On Infrared At All??”: An Alien Warrior that is flush with, stationary against, or crawling amongst pipework, industrial machinery, or its own resin (see below) is like a chameleon, almost impossible to spot because of the way it blends in with its surroundings. Perception tests to see it (even with Vauggles or the like) are Hard, and Stealth Tests made by it are Easy.

Hive Mind: Individual alien warriors act primarily on Instinct, as indicated by their Intelligence of 2. If a queen is within 100 km, the drones can operate as a hive mind instead, using the queen’s Intelligence of 5 instead.

Natural Weapons: Note, the Evasion roll made against any of an Alien’s Natural Weapons is Normal, not Easy, due to their deadly speed.

Claw Rake: Attack at 8 Dice for 6 Damage, Piercing 2.

Impale With Tail: Attack at 11 Dice for 5 Damage, Piercing 5.

Grab and Bite: With one net success on a Low Tech Weapons vs. Normal Evasion test, an alien can grab a victim as a Major Action. Unless that victim can somehow thrash his way free (beating the alien on an opposed Strength test), on the following turn, the Alien can ram its proboscis and pharyngeal jaws through the victim’s brain, an instant and automatic kill in a campaign setting based in the Aliens universe (if importing the Xenomorph to a different universe or crossing over into the territory of equally badass monsters like the Predator, assume the attack inflicts 12 Damage with Piercing 6 and requires no roll).

Acid Blood: Whenever a xenomorph takes damage from anything other than fire, characters within two meters of it suffer the same amount of damage, reduced by their Armor as normal. The rating of their Armor is also reduced by 1 point. If more than one character is within two meters of the xenomorph when it is damaged, the acid damage is divided evenly between them.

Alien Queen

The sole female and arguably the start of the alien life cycle, it is the queen that lays the eggs that give birth to the facehuggers that then forcibly impregnate their victims, creating chestbursters which grow into alien drones. The queen does not ordinarily fight, her job in the alien’s life cycle is to produce eggs and to guide her hive through their telepathic communication. But if her eggs are threatened or the enormous egg sack she uses to lay eggs destroyed, then she becomes a deadly enemy, nearly the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but much smarter, and way more pissed off. If the queen is destroyed and the colony is reduced down to a single male drone, that drone can metamorphose into a queen under the right conditions, see Metamorphosis above.

Fortitude 12  Strength 9  Quickness 5
Intelligence PerceptionCyber 4
Initiative 13d6 Health 20 Armor 6
ReAct -30

SKILLS: Athletics 3, Coercion 6,  Low Tech Weapons 9,  Survival 6.

TRAITS: Durability, Toughness

Egg Sack: While attached to her egg sack, the queen cannot make Evasion rolls. The Egg Sack has a separate Health of 20 and no Armor. The queen lays eggs with an Extended Fortitude (6, 15 Minutes) Extended Test, creating on average one new egg every 45 minutes, although the overall size of the colony is limited by the number of human hosts available. If a threat begins attacking the queen directly rather than the egg sack, she begins to detach herself from it, a process which takes two full turns.

Natural Weapons: Note, the Evasion roll made against any of an Alien’s Natural Weapons is Normal, not Easy, due to their deadly speed.

Claw Rake: Attack at 10 Dice for 6 Damage, Piercing 2.

Impale With Tail: Attack at 12 Dice for 7 Damage, Piercing 6.

Bite: At 9 Dice for 9 Damage, Piercing 6.

Acid Blood: Whenever an alien queen takes damage from anything other than fire, characters within two meters of it suffer the same amount of damage, reduced by their Armor as normal. The rating of their Armor is also reduced by 1 point. If more than one character is within two meters of the queen when it is damaged, the acid damage is divided evenly between them. Attacks that only deal 1 damage to the queen due to her Armor do not cause any acid backsplash.

Hive Mind: The Queen is smart, and can see through the…eyeless heads of all of her drones and warriors, and adapt her strategy and tactics accordingly via this telepathic link.

“We Got Nukes, We Got Knives, We Got Sharp Sticks”

The Smartgun and Flamethrower first described on page 50 of The Singularity System core rulebook accurately depict the M56A2 Smartgun and M240 Incinerator Unit from Aliens respectively.

Armat M4A1 Pulse Rifle (Firearms Skill)
Accuracy: +0
Damage: 5
Ammo: 99
Maximum Rate of Fire: Full Auto
Notes: Piercing 2, 4-Round Burst
Minimum Strength: 4
Cost (Game Balance Benchmark Only; Marines Are Issued Their Rifles): 8,000 Credits

With Underslung U1 Grenade Launcher (Heavy Weapons Skill)
Accuracy: +0
Damage: 10
Ammo: 4
Maximum Rate of Fire: Single
Notes: Blast -1/2 Meters

The Armored Personnel Carrier first appearing on page 65 of the Singularity System and the Dropship first appearing on page 66 of The Singularity System accurately represent the M577 Armored Personnel Carrier and the UD4L Cheyenne Dropship from Aliens respectively.

M-5000 Powered Work Loader (Power Loader)

Handling: +0
Mobility: 1
Tactical Speed: 20
Hull: 25/12/12/15
Armor: 10
Weapon Systems: Pincer (Accuracy +0, Damage 12, Ammo NA, Range Close)
Welding Torch (Accuracy +0, Damage 18, Piercing 8, Ammo 10, Range Close)
Systems:  None.
ReAct: -30

[last lines]

Ripley: Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo, third officer reporting. The other members of the crew – Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash, and Captain Dallas – are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.

[to Jonesy the cat]

Ripley: Come on, cat.

<End Transmission>

 

Transmissions From The End #15: The Sounds That Remain In Question

Enjoy this blast from the futurepast…

The Sounds That Remain In Question

January 4th, 501 R.T. 0700 Hours {Local Time}
Deck 12 Situation Room of the Vitrix Carrier RAS Lancelot
0.01 Parsecs Spinward of PH-087 “Hong Kong Station”

>>>>ONI Net Log Active
>>>>Ordo Seclorum Est 8.0 Encryption Active
>>>>Remote Satellite Comms Vetted. Vocap active.
>>>>Voice Prints Verified: President Dave Carter (DC), Commander Jesse Kilgannon (JK), Major Gloria Kilgannon (GK), Captain Michael Kilgannon (MK), Governor Akira Yuzaki [Hong Kong Station] (AY), General Andrew Kirin (AK), Rear Admiral Jane Deftinwolf {by remote} (JD), Director Connor Fagan (CF).
>>>>Level 9 Firewall Engaged; Suborbital Uplink Secured

//BEGIN MEETING TRANSCRIPT

DC: Thank you all for coming so early in the morning and on such short notice.

CF: Mr. President, before you say anything else, are you sure that this meeting site is secure. I understand that these “Redeemers” are quite advanced.

DC: Jane?

JD: All possible precautions have been taken. However if I.W.D. (R.I.A. Information Warfare Division) would like to sweep the room for bugs or triple-check my encryption, I won’t be insulted. I can’t make any guarantees, Director. But I don’t think you can ever.

CF: Perhaps this meeting should be delayed until such a time as we can have guarantees of operational security?

AK: All due respect, but this has been delayed too long as it is. We need to come up with a gameplan here.

DC: I agree, General. Ace, tell us the story so far.

JK: October 4th, 499 R.T. Avalon Standard time. Communications Tower Delta-462 on Hong Kong Station goes dark.

JD: Most locals notice only a small period of downtime on their Commlinks before another relay carrier picks up their signals.

JK: Remote access to comms systems on D-462 is locked out. Manual access is cut off. Infiltration teams who enter through the ventilation system do not leave alive. Drone reconnaissance gets jammed or otherwise taken offline.

JD: Simultaneously, an entity calling itself MONAD—and occasionally referring to itself as The Demiurge or The Demogorgon—makes contact with numerous gray databases throughout the Galaxy, including Cydonia, which is—

CF: Obviously, we’re familiar with it.

JD: The messages that it transmits are badly fragmented and barely coherent.

AK: Wait a second. Stupid question. Is this thing a hoax or not? Because according to the memos that I’ve gotten—

MK: It ain’t no hoax, General. You pulled our asses out of the fire on Salem. The hostiles there were these Redeemers. Working for the MONAD intelligence.

GK: You’re jumping ahead a little, don’t you think?

AK: I see.

JD: Welcome to the circle of trust, General. As I was saying, the MONAD entity claimed omnipotence and omniscience, but did not seem capable of coherent communication. Or perhaps, it simply enjoyed being cryptic. In any case, a link between it and the GAIA was established almost immediately.

DC: A link we can’t confirm or deny.

CF: And to prevent a panic, we issued a press blackout.

JD: At the very least, we can confirm that by all indications MONAD is a self-aware neural network, the most advanced AI since the GAIA, even if it has no link to that entity.

AK: If it’s not the GAIA, who made it? Why?

JK: We don’t know. Either.

AY: Excuse me, at this point could I ask the purpose of this meeting?

DC: The purpose of this meeting is to create a plan of action for dealing with the MONAD entity and the potential threat that it poses to Hong Kong Station and the Galaxy.

AY: Inasmuch as the threat is contained within Hong Kong Station, this is an internal matter for House Yamamoto to decide. Yet, I am the only House Yamamoto representative here. This is an obvious violation of my interests and our economic security. I must ask for a private—

DC: This is bigger than House Yamamoto. Bigger than any of the Great Houses. This has the potential of impacting the lives of every Republic Citizen. We have done you the courtesy of not inviting House Dallas or House Dresden to the discussion table—yet. In turn, we ask that you participate in this discussion. Deru kui wa utareru.

AY: I see.

JD: Ace, continue.

JK: On October 16th 499 R.T. the MONAD entity goes silent. It stops communicating with the galaxy. Attempts to physically access Delta-462 remain unsuccessful.

AY: We do not have access to remote climate control for that tower or to the explosive bolts that would be used to safely jettison it.

AK: Well, that answers my next question.

JK: No further developments until May of 500 R.T..

CF: Actually, that’s not entirely true.

JD: Go ahead, director.

CF: We continued to monitor transmissions to and from Delta-462 during this time. MONAD made a handful of “outgoing calls” to various places around the Galaxy Net. Communicated with some of its Redeemers. It invited several other individuals to make a “pilgrimage” to Hong Kong station to commune with it. We have no way of knowing if any of them made it. We intercepted and decrypted all of them. Mostly philosophical discussions. And some logistics. The organization of M0TES—social mixers of random individuals for experimental purposes. A lot of that chatter was disinformation but…

JD: Did you detect any hint of what it was planning for May?

CF:

JD: Then clearly, we do not have access to its high security communications.

CF: Nonetheless, we are certain that MONAD had no ties to the Christmas 499 massacre. That was a Collective Automata action. Verifiably.

JK: May 1st, 500 R.T.. Dallas and Yamamoto are engaged in open warfare on Salem. They and Republic observers are engaged and destroyed by unknown forces. These “Redeemers” are augmented Celestials, robots, and drones answering to MONAD. They force fighting to a standstill on the planet. Republic reinforcements arrive to assess the situation. Including me and my team.

GK: The Collective Automata were also on-hand to secure a neural network—crucial to their operations—that had been captured by House Yamamoto. We’re not sure if that was a Redeemer objective or not.

MK: Our target was this truly gassed up Kapsilus Arms Troll Drone that was apparently acting as some kind of a remote signal hub for the Demiurge. It was being run directly by the Demiurge, and was acting as a signal bridge to other Redeemer units in the area. Code name: Wrath of God.

JK: Not an exaggeration. The three of us working together with close air support were barely able to take it down.

JD: It was at this point that it became clear to us that one Steven Wherner, C.E.O. of Tiberius Arms, a House Dallas subsidiary, had been a sleeper agent of the Demiurge for some time. He was killed in action on Salem, of course, and later on Arcadia—after defecting to House Yamamoto.

CF: Is it your policy to harbor terrorists, Ms. Yuzaki?

AY: I am sure I cannot say.

JD: Are you aware of any additional clones that Dr. Wherner may have made?

AY: Again, I am sure I cannot say. I will make inquiries.

DC: Thank you.

CF: After the Redeemer force on Salem was beaten, we used the presence of the Collective Automata to mask the fact they were ever there. We maintained press containment as best we could.

AK: Is it me, or have the Redeemers done basically nothing since then?

JD: It is true they have been primarily on the defensive—

JK: Or biding their time.

AY: Until the September riots.

JK: This is where my firsthand narrative is limited. Jane, you’ll take it from here.

JD: Of course. I was just getting to that. On September 26th, 500 R.T. shortly after Nippon Sector quarantined itself from the riots, Hong Kong station entire went dark. Perhaps, Governor you could shed some light on the events there.

AY: I am afraid I cannot. I was trapped at my home in Osaka for the duration of the riots.

JD: Well, here is what we do know. Someone—and we have no suspects except MONAD—released some kind of weaponized nanites on Hong Kong station at the height of the House Wars fighting. Possibly multiple strains of weaponized nanites. A large subset of the population was killed outright. Still others retained their mobility and functionality but experienced severe hallucinations. Chemical and biological weapons—unlike anything we’ve seen before—were used also. Others were merely “switched off” but unharmed.

AK: Alright, now I’m getting ahead of myself, but doesn’t it occur to you that that was the ideal time to nuke the station from orbit? We’d have had plausible deniability, and no more MONAD to worry about.

AY: How can you even suggest that! You are talking about killing over a million of my citizens! Of your citizens!

DC: The Governor is right, General. Taking the shot on Hong Kong station is an absolute last resort.

JD: Things on the station seem to be “back to normal” now, so to speak. The survivors are moving on with their lives. But we don’t know what the Demiurge did during the comms blackout. And besides the hundred thousand or so casualties, there are hundreds of people who simply cannot be accounted for. And I think that about brings us up to speed.

AY: Well what are you proposing.

AK: Admiral Deftinwolf, do you speak for the regular Armada here as well as ONI?

JD: I do.

AK: Well, excuse me if my first question is overly obvious, but why not just hit Delta-462 with a mass driver or something. No more Delta-462, no more Demiurge, correct?

Hell, we could nuke it from here.

AY: Are you serious!?

JK: Good question, General. Two reasons.

AY: Is one of them that there is no way to destroy Delta-462 without depressurizing the entirety of Hong Kong Station? Even if the Republic citizens there could be evacuated, you would be looking at a monetary loss to House Yamamamto in the vicinity of 2.1 Trillion credits. Would the Republic be willing to foot the bill for that?

AK: Listen here, little lady—

JD: That is in fact one of the reasons. Here is another. Any preliminary action we take runs the risk of preempting the Demiurge.

AK: You’re going to have to break that one down for me.

GK: In your “Shoot Delta-462 with a mass driver” scenario, you’d want to evacuate the civilians first, correct General?

AK: Of course. I’m not a butcher.

JK: Well if you do that, you risk tipping our hat to the Demiurge. Which could then kill those civilians or trap them there as hostages—human shields. …It’s what I’d do.

CF: He’s right. We have to assume that the Redeemers have operational control of Hong Kong station security now.

AY: What? You’re saying that thing controls my station security?

JD: It’s true. The Redeemers had weeks “alone” with Hong Kong station during the riots. There’s no way to tell what countermeasures they’ve set up.

AK: So it’s a Mexican standoff, then.

JD: It gets worse. Director, please tell them about Operation Armistice.

CF: The greatest danger, as far as our involvement is concerned, is the idea of the Demiurge making one or more copies of itself and storing them as off-site backups or worse, running them concurrently on other servers.

JD: Although psychological profiles—inasmuch as the term applies—indicates the Demiurge won’t do the latter.

AK: Why not?

JD: In layman’s terms?

DC: It likes being special. … Seriously. God-Complex and all.

CF: As I was saying. The Demiurge being able to back itself up would take the nuclear option right off of the table.

AK: What is being done to stop this?

CF: Well, if the Demiurge could be called a mere program, it is an enormously large and complex one. Even by modern standards of data storage and bandwidth. Also, one that could only be run on a very limited subset of hardware.

JD: As a matter of fact our understanding is that it has had to upgrade the hardware on Delta-462 as it has continued to evolve.

AY: Really?

CF: We are constantly—as in as we speak—monitoring all outgoing communications from Hong Kong station via a direct ansible tap.

AY: Isn’t that illegal?

CF: Under normal circumstances? Sure. Anyway, if we detect any file transfer that seems even remotely long enough or large enough to be Demiurge uploading its source code elsewhere, we will jam or intercept it. Same thing for multiple short burst transmissions to the same source.

JD: What about a Torrent style transfer protocol? Breaking the file into millions of pieces and compiling it later.

CF: Something like that would require, approximately, the processing power of every Commlink in the Galaxy as a subscribed node, to transmit and compile the pieces. It’s not viable. We hope.

DC: What about couriers?

CF: Well, anyone wanting to transfer the entire—hypothetical–backup would need a data storage unit the size of a starship to move it. That we’re scanning for, at customs and more importantly at the warpgate.

DC: What about multiple couriers with pieces of the source code.

CF: They’d need hundreds to transfer the file with standard storage devices. That is the biggest threat right now. We’re checking every outgoing individual. And we’ve made sure that Gatrlore adepts can’t access the station. But short of a full Quarantine—

AK: If it’s not too late, I’m sure that Admiral Deftinwolf and I can have one up within 72 hours.

AY: A quarantine? That’s preposterous. Do you have any idea how much material and trade goes in and out of Hong Kong Station every day? You’d be killing us as sure as—

AK: Listen lady.

JD: Enough. Please. Anyway, Operation Armistice is a contingency. If Director Fagan detects the Demiurge transferring a backup—and we cannot stop it—I have a Vitrix carrier in place ready to nuke Delta-462.

AY: And kill a million Republic citizens?

DC: If it is our only shot at the Demiurge, we are going to take it.

CF: This seems like a good time to remind you, Governor, that this meeting is Classified. Code Black.

JK: That means…

AY: Yes, I’m familiar with it. Don’t try to intimidate me.

AK: So it sounds to me like Operation Armistice isn’t really a battle plan at all. It’s a last resort.

JD: Correct.

AK: What about sending a commando team to manually blow the explosive bolts and jettison Delta-462?

JK: We’ve run simulations on that. They haven’t come out favorably. Oh, my team can get inside and blow the bolts…but the Demiurge will have at least a seven minute window to react.

JD: That’s enough time for the Demiurge to sterilize everyone on the station, to mass-transmit its source code, to order suicide bombers to—

AK: Alright, I get it. What about using a nanoforge to create a new airlock? So that we can shoot Delta-462 off the station without killing everyone on board.

AY: That actually sounds like a good idea, General.

JD: The trick is doing it in a minute or less, so that the Demiurge has no time to react, and having the shot lined up. I have my technicians working on a nano-forge that could create a reliable seal fast enough.

AY: And?

JD: And they’re working on it.

DC: Alright people. I’m not hearing any perfect options. What else do we have?

CF: We’re working on engineering a virus, naturally, but as Jane has probably told you their Net security is…well, it puts ours to shame. Delivering is a problem. If we hand deliver it, we run into the same problems as with sending a team in to blow the bolts.

JD: Right now, the Demiurge seems dormant. It seems extremely wise NOT to poke it with a sharp stick until we’re absolutely sure we’re going to kill it with the first poke. We need a very, very sharp stick.

JK: Hopefully, that is where Operation Schoolhouse comes in.

JD: Hang on a second. I just detected a tap. Impossible—

AY: My God.

CF: Purge this channel. Now. We’ll go to analogue comms. Never should have been online in the first place.

END OF LOG//

Transmissions From The End #12: Sneak Preview – Just Say Yes To Space Drugs

This is the third sneak peak from the Systems Malfunction manuscript, and it would probably be the last, except I inherited my father’s irrational hatred of the number three, so instead this is most likely the penultimate preview, with one more to come. The topic this time around is the section from the end of the Personal Equipment chapter called “Something No Pill Could Ever Kill” which includes revised and expanded rules and roleplaying cues for drugs, plus new and improved answers to questions about how drugs effect Xel, how Replicants can do drugs, and how characters can become addicted, and then (theoretically at least) get clean.

Shout out to Rachid Yahya, wherever he is, for originating one or two of these drugs and doing the original writeup on them for the now out-of-print Systems Malfunction sourcebook.

As usual, sorry for the janky formatting of the tables.

Something No Pill Could Ever Kill

Drugs

Most of these drugs are of the “performance enhancing”, not “recreational” bent and are often “prescribed” to appropriate troops by Great Houses or the Republic Military (a dose of Zip2 is standard issue for Colonial Marines going into battle: Red Mist is technically prohibited by the Red Army, but its prohibition is commonly violated). Most of these drugs are illegal for most civilian citizens of most systems most of the time. Of them, Prophecy and Skye are the most likely to be legal or unregulated in more liberal systems. Red Mist, Stardust, and Zip2 are all criminalized on the federal level.

Drug Duration Effects Per Dose Crash* Addictive? Street Cost

(One Dose)

Synthetica 1d6 + 1 Hours per dose Special: see text. 4 Fatigue plus 1 Fatigue per extra dose, and -1 to all tests for 2d6 hours. Yes. 1000 Credits
Prophecy 3d6 Hours Special: see text. 3 Fatigue, -2 Perception and Intelligence for 2d6 hours. No. 1000 Credits
Red Mist 5d6 Minutes +1 Strength, +1 Fortitude, and +1 Damage with all attacks. 5 Lethal Damage plus loss of all temporary Health: note that temporary extra Health gained from taking Red Mist is not lost ‘first’. Very 500 Credits
Skye 2d6 Hours Cost of sustaining Psi Talents is reduced by 1, to a minimum of 1. -1 Perception and Intelligence per dose, lasting 2d6 hours. No. 1500 Credits
Stardust 5d6x10 Minutes Special: see text. 6 Fatigue plus 1 Lethal damage per extra dose. Very. 750 Credits
Zip2 1d6x10 Minutes +1 Quickness; +1 Dice Pool Bonus To Hit With All Weapons. 6 Lethal Damage Yes. 750 Credits

* The minimum that a drug’s Crash effects can reduce any attribute to is 1.

Mechanical Effects of Synthetica: Whenever you take a dose of Synthetica, roll a die. If the result is even, you receive +2 Perception and -1 Cyber (Minimum 1). If the result is odd, you receive +2 Cyber and -1 Perception (Minimum 1). As you take additional doses, keep track of the size of the bonus and the size of the penalty, but keep in mind that each additional dose makes the trip “switch”: the bonuses and penalties do not “level out”. For example: if you take two doses of Synthetica, rolling an odd number for each dose, you are at +4 Cyber and -2 Perception. If you later take a third dose and roll an even number, you are now at +6 Perception, -3 Cyber, not +3 Cyber and +/- 0 Perception as you would be if you were simply summing the bonuses and penalties. Each dose adds 1d6 + 1 hours to the drug’s effect duration.

Finally, for every two points of Cyber bonus you have from Synthetica, you receive +1 die to all skill tests with skills that have Cyber as a governing attribute. For every two points of Perception bonus you have from Synthetica, you receive +1 die to all skill tests with skills that have Perception as a governing attribute.

Roleplaying Notes on Synthetica: Synthetica (other street names include Cynerium and Answer7) is usually ingested in the form of a silver and/or gold capsule that is swallowed. As indicated by its mechanics, the effects of Synthetica are more than a little unpredictable. We’ve waxed poetic about what it’s like to be on Synthetica more than a little, in the braided Systems Malfunction fiction anthology Angels In Jersey City. The shorter version is that when it’s enhancing Perception, Synthetica blurs the barriers between yourself and other people, creating a kind of euphoric, genuine empathy. It blurs the walls between dreams and reality and turns personal boundaries porous. When it’s enhancing Cyber, Synthetica causes a less euphoric, more dissociative, and more contemplative high. The user feels like they have drifted outside of their own body, and they view it from a detached and clinical perspective that allows for a more complete understanding of systems of all kinds and how they intersect and interact.

Mechanical Effects of Prophecy: One hour after using Prophecy, you are tripping balls. All Tests become Hard for the duration of the effect. At some point during the trip, the GM should call for a Hard Perception Test. If you get two successes, you receive a (highly surreal) vision of your future: if you receive the vision, your Advent pool, if any Advent was spent this session, is refreshed. Additionally, you temporarily receive +2 bonus Advent that can only be spent this session. Unlike all other drugs, there are no bonuses or penalties to taking additional doses of Prophecy beyond the first.

Roleplaying Notes on Prophecy: Prophecy is made from naturally occurring, Aetherially active space flora. Sometimes it is consumed by swallowing translucent capsules full of seeds, sometimes by brewing tea, sometimes by inhaling smoke. Because prophecy is a strong hallucinogen, users experience vivid and strange visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as hallucinations that can’t be ascribed to any one sense or combination of senses. Stationary objects may seem to move, static patterns may seem to writhe, mundane objects may suddenly appear scintillatingly beautiful or indescribably sinister, and so on. Characters on Prophecy should not handle or have access to weapons, let alone go into combat.

Mechanical Effects of Red Mist: See table.

Roleplaying Notes on Red Mist: Red Mist comes in a hypo-sprayer and is applied (sprayed) directly into the eyes: the pupils dilate sharply and the whites of the eyes go almost completely blood red. You are an unstoppable killing machine, a humanoid thresher, your enemies but rows of grain before you. Manic rage fills you and it is difficult to stop yourself from giggling and/or screaming in sheer, violent joy. You have the killing fever. Characters on Red Mist suffer from delusions of indestructibility, but are of course unaware that these are delusions.

Mechanical Effects of Skye: See table.

Roleplaying Notes on Skye: Skye is ingested as brightly colored, triangle shaped tablets which are swallowed or crushed and insufflated.  Of all the drugs described here, Skye is the most subtle and perhaps the only one that a character might use unnoticed even by those who know the signs. Characters on Skye feel more alert and intelligent, are better at abstract thinking, act somewhat detached, and feel philosophical and calm about even imminently dangerous situations. It is difficult for them to comprehend the urgency of any given scenario unless they specifically focus on it.

Mechanical Effects of Stardust: Stardust has no mechanical effects except when you are in combat. While you are in combat, you receive +1 Die to all Macrokinetics tests, and you lose 1 Health but regain 4d6 Psi Points at the end of every combat turn.

Roleplaying Notes on Stardust: Stardust is a silvery golden powder which is snorted like cocaine. Its effects are not unlike Red Mist, but for Xel. The first few minutes yield a euphoric rush, after which feelings of manic rage and a sense of invincibility are often reported. Xel on Stardust often testify that they can see and/or feel the psionic energy of the universe coalescing and collecting and flooding into their bodies and minds, causing them to feel sensations of godlike and/or limitless power.

Mechanical Effects of Zip2: See table.

Roleplaying Notes On Zip2: Zip2 is distributed in spring loaded epi-pen style syringes, and injected subcutaneously. The fluid inside is a rather caustic looking shade of green. Like Red Mist, Zip2 creates a state of manic fury in the user. Uncontrollable twitching and tics are a common side effect, as is a total lack of patience and the need for ACTION RIGHT NOW. Zip2 is issued to Armada Colonial Marines for use in combat. While on Zip2, users experience a sensation of time dilation, as though everyone else is moving in slow motion while they are moving and fighting at normal speed, or faster. While Zip2 does in fact make you faster on your feet and faster on the trigger, the adrenaline rush it releases can lead to (sometimes fatal) overconfidence.   Rumor has it that Zip2 is made from processed, fermented Xel organs, but this is widely disregarded as an urban legend.

>>>BEGIN SIDEBAR

Just Say No To (Human) Drugs

Most of the drugs listed here are specifically designed for (meta)humans. Accordingly, some of them have different effects on the alien physiology of Xel.

  • Zip2 provides no benefits to Xel, and causes them to feel extremely sick. While on Zip2, Xel receive a -2 dice penalty to all actions. They suffer the Crash effects of the drug as normal. On the bright side, Xel cannot get addicted to Zip2.
  • Crimson Fever is horribly poisonous for Xel. Any Xel who takes Crimson Fever must make a Hard Fortitude roll. If they fail, they automatically fall to 0 Health and begin bleeding out. While on Crimson Fever, Xel lose 1 Health per minute from poison. They suffer the Crash effects of the drug as normal. On the bright side, Xel cannot get addicted to Crimson Fever.
  • Conversely, Stardust has the same effect on humans that Crimson Fever has on Xel.
  • Synthetica largely has no effect on Xel. They must take four doses to receive the effects of one dose.
  • Prophecy affects Xel normally.

>>>END SIDEBAR

>>>BEGIN SIDEBAR

Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Smack? (Hooked On A Feeling)

 Obviously, none of the biological drugs described above have any effect on Replicants, since Replicants do not have the same internal anatomy as organics. However, there are digital equivalents for some of the drugs above that do effect Replicants, as well as some drugs that are for Replicants only. Replicant drugs—called chips—come in single use chips programmed to burn themselves out after running one.

  • Synth2 or Synthetica Squared (i.e. Synthetica for Synthetics) has the same cost and effects for Replicants as Synthetica does for organics.
  • Scramble (aka Radio Bye Bye) has the same cost as Prophecy for the most part the same effects for Replicants as Prophecy does for organics, except it doesn’t refresh the Advent pool or provide an Advent bonus.
  • Touchy-Feelies (a variety of street names exist for different “flavors”) cost anywhere between 200 and 1,000 Credits depending on the flavor and the fluctuations of the gray market. Their only effect is allowing a Replicant to feel, for 2d6 hours, an emotion the Replicant is normally incapable of feeling (see p. XX). Actually, ‘forcing’ would be a better word than ‘allowing’. A Replicant normally incapable of experiencing Joy that jacked in a “happy chip” will be happy for 2-12 hours, regardless of how wildly inappropriate that might be. Touchy-Feelies are in the mentally addictive (“habit forming”) category (see below). Their addictiveness varies based on “flavor”, common sense, and GM ruling. For instance the aforementioned Joy chip would be Very Addictive, while a Sorrow chip would likely not be addictive at all.

>>>END SIDEBAR

Addiction and Getting Clean

“I can think for myself, I’ve got something no pill could ever kill
Hey, I’m not Synthetica, oh
I’ll keep the life that I’ve got, oh
So hard, hard to resist Synthetica, oh
No drug is stronger than me, Synthetica”

– Metric, “Synthetica”

If you use drugs, the potential exists to become addicted during gameplay. PCs with the Addiction problem (p. XX) start the game addicted.

Red Mist and Zip2 are physically addictive. Stardust is mentally addictive (“habit-forming”). Synthetica is both physically and mentally addictive. Physical addiction is resisted with Fortitude. Mental addiction is resisted with Intelligence. Synthetica addiction is resisted with whichever attribute is worse.

Each time an addictive drug wears off, the user must make a test to resist addiction using the attribute indicated above: the number of successes needed is the number of times the user has taken the drug in the past. The test is Easy for drugs that are addictive, and Normal for drugs that are Very addictive. Advent can be spent as normal on rolls to avoid addiction.

If the user fails, he becomes addicted to the drug.

Penalties of Addiction: These penalties set in the “morning after” the character became addicted, or at the GM’s discretion. An addict must take the drug they are addicted to every day. If they are unable to do so, all tests are Hard until the character takes the drug (in which case the character is able to function normally for 24 hours before they must take the drug again) or beats the addiction (see below). A character who is addicted can still spend Advent to make a particular test Easy (see p. XX), but all characters addicted to drugs receive -1 Advent for each drug they are addicted to.

Getting Clean: To shake an addiction, first the character must go a full week without using the drug they are addicted to. That means a full week with all tests set to Hard and -1 Advent: withdrawal is no fun for the character going through it, who is virtually crippled by those penalties.

The character then can make a Fortitude or Intelligence test as appropriate (see above). The test’s difficulty is Normal and the character can spend Advent to add dice to the test before rolling it, or to reroll failures, but not to make the test Easy before rolling. Three successes gets the character clean of an addictive drug, while a very addictive drug needs five successes. If the character fails the roll to get clean, they can try again in one week (assuming that they don’t relapse by using the drug again). The character receives +1 die to the roll to get clean for every previous week in which they’ve gone without the drug but failed to get clean.

Note that if a character successfully gets clean of an Addiction that was one of their starting Problems (see p. XX), they must either choose another Problem that the GM agrees can logically replace the addiction, or lose the corresponding Edge and its benefits (see p. XX).

Thus endeth the excerpt…

Check back in a week or so for one last sneak preview, and don’t forget that Origins Game Fair is right around the corner!

 

“Unpersons” (Raw Cut)

I am able to give you this standing on the shoulders of giants: a tower of them, first Matthew Woodring Stover, next Ray Bradbury (link NSFW unless you work in an English department or library), who in turn is standing on the shoulders of George Orwell, and so on. I’m pretty sure it’s turtles, er, I mean…authors…all the way down.

Still, here, is a pretty cool little story by Devon Oratz. Take it. It’s free.

(more…)

UPDATE (Crosspost from ETG Tumblr)

Why did we pick Tumblr? I literally can’t remember.

Systems Malfunction: The LARP: The Resurrection: If we get six more preregistrations today, and have an attendance of 20+ on July 8th, there will be a game. If not, this dream goes back in its coffin indefinitely, but maybe not forever. Here’s hoping.

SPLINTER: Surprising Things: ATTN Backers, assuming our printer doesn’t poo the bed, we should be mailing out books starting next week.

Also, Glory and Gore, the SPLINTER Living Campaign, got off to a rocky start because of a SNAFU in Origins’ preregistration system. I’m hoping for a more robust launch at GenCon.

DicePunk: The Pleasantville Project by Richard Kelly, the first Psionics adventure, is out! First of how many? Depends entirely on how it sells. So, you know. Buy it! (Apparently, as I type this it’s on sale? Kick ass, who knew!) It’s awesome. It’s the first thing we’ve published that I didn’t write even close to a majority of, and so I feel less iffy about saying that it’s awesome.

Singularity: MOD04 – Infowar, the book of the hackings for The Singularity System, is tentatively slated for a GenCon Release.

GenCon: We’ll FINALLY be at GENEVA CONVENTION (that’s what GenCon actually stands for, if ya didn’t know) in a booth of our very own: #2853 (mother of God that dealer’s hall is BIG)! Stop by and say hi. Get some books! Get your books signed! Etcetera. I should repeat this announcement several times before the show is upon us.

Leet Haxorz

This is an early draft of the Words (introduction) chapter  from the upcoming Singularity System sourcebook “Infowar”:

Hacking is cool! It’s one of the cornerstones of science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Console cowboys jacking their brains into the matrix to ride the electron high, otaku in basements lit only by the green glow of screens, fingers flying over the keys as they crack through encryption, cyber-commandoes spoofing the camera sensors of enemy robots and the cyber-eyes of enemy soldiers to become invisible, and so on, and so on.

Why is hacking in roleplaying games so rarely cool? Why are hacking rules in games so often, in fact, a complete nightmare to interact with?

Let’s look at one case study that I’m intimately familiar with: Shadowrun. The game has a setting that is universally beloved, yet through three decades and five editions, its hacking rules have been almost universally described as impenetrable, incomprehensible, over-complicated, nonsensical, and just not very fun. For the first three editions of the game, hacking was a very complicated minigame that dedicated hacker-archetype characters (“Deckers”) could play for hours with the GM while the rest of the gaming group went out for pizza or played Super Smash Brothers or something. Or sat around the table bored and increasingly disengaged.

For these reasons—the unapproachable complexity of the rules and the “let’s all go get pizza while the Decker does whatever it is he does factor—most players at most tables simply did not play Deckers. The hacking rules were hand-waved entirely, or Decking was something that the PCs hired NPCs to do, and could therefore be handled smoothly off-camera without engaging with the rules. Decker became synonymous with NPC at most tables. And this attitude—people don’t actually play Deckers—would later become an insurmountable handicap to actually making hacking in the game fun.

The fourth edition of the game took a few steps in the right direction by making everything wireless, meaning that hackers could roll with the team and hack everything within line of sight. This encouraged Deckers to be with the team rather than waiting in a van somewhere. There were a few basic problems with this.

Let’s say that you had a Decker who wanted to hack an enemy’s gun or an enemy’s cyberware to deactivate them, in the middle of a firefight.

This was possible, but it took at least four times as long and was at least four times as complicated as a street samurai shooting someone in the face or a mage blasting someone with a manabolt. The net result of this was that the enemy whose gun you were thirty percent of the way done hacking usually had already had his head blown off by the street samurai or was incinerated by the mage’s fireball.

To make matters worse, it was always possible to set “wireless” on your gear to “off”, making you immune to hackers. Early supplements introduced the “skinlink”, which let you do the above, but explicitly without any of the drawbacks of not having an active wireless connection. In other words, every character had the cheap option to just “set hacking to no” and be immune to hacking. So of course every player character took that option.

The fifth edition of this game tried to address these issues in a way that more or less universally failed to fix anything, and in some cases actively made things worse. One interesting thing was, at the time, I was lobbying for hackers to be able to hack enemies’ guns or cyberware as quickly and as simply as the street samurai could shoot someone or the shaman sling a spell. In other words, I wanted to make hacking simpler and more streamlined, and I wanted to remove the concept of “set hackable to off”. The fan base did not want any of this, because they all seemed to view hacking as something that would happen to their character, not something their character could do to others. The idea of deckers being able to hack someone’s cyberware or weapons in a single combat turn was offensive to them, because, subconsciously, PCs weren’t Deckers—no one actually plays deckers. This, of course, went back to the fundamental problem of the first three editions of the game: that hacking was so painfully complicated that no one wanted to engage with it. Therefore, it became an NPC activity.

That’s more than enough about Shadowrun. I don’t have nearly as much experience with other games where hacking is possible, but I’ve never heard of an RPG in which the hacking rules are especially fun and approachable.

Right now, my favorite hacking rules are the ones which amount to “make one (contested) roll, and if you succeed, you get the target system to do what you want it to”.

This is how I handle hacking in HERO System: if you want to hack a system, you make a Computer Programming roll. If the system’s security countermeasures were set up beforehand, then a retroactive Computer Programming roll is made for the character that set them up. If the system has some kind of active security monitoring—a dedicated wage slave white hat hacker or even an AI—then it makes a Computer Programming roll right now instead. If the hacker’s Computer Programming roll beats the system’s, they have access and get to do whatever they want. Dirt simple, right?

The other hacking “system” I liked was the way that I had a GM run Eclipse Phase for me once. Basically, if you wanted to hack something, you rolled Infosec and if you succeeded, you had hacked the target system and gotten it to do what you want. Pretty simple, right? Those Eclipse Phase guys must be some smart game designers. Except, actually cracking open the Eclipse Phase rulebook, and found an entire chapter full of hacking rules, The Mesh, which was no less than a whopping, very dense 35 pages long. It included literally over a hundred multi-level headings and sub-headings. Now I’ve never actually played with the Eclipse Phase hacking rules: for all I know they might be very good. But what I do know is that the way that the Eclipse Phase GM chose to handle hacking was not representative of them, and that this doesn’t necessarily speak to their accessibility and ease of use.

So again, we come to our question. Why is hacking in roleplaying games so rarely cool? Why are hacking rules in games so often, in fact, a complete nightmare to interact with? Why are hacking systems in most games so complicated than a hand-wavy stopgap of “to hack a thing, roll hacking, and if you succeed, you hacked the thing” can actually be more fun to play with than the rules that were written?

I think that the problems with hacking in games can be traced back to the problems with hacking in movies. Think back to any movie you have ever seen with “Hollywood Hacking” in it. Real hacking is cool, but it is boring to watch. Boring is anathema to Hollywood, so instead we get “Hollywood Hacking”, scenes and portrayals of hacking created by people that obviously know fuck-all about computers. And this can quickly become very, very silly:

 

217521921_7gxmh-2100x20000

Hacking in real life mostly involves hours and hours of cautious, exacting, and tedious “sitting at a computer, entering commands into a text prompt”. At a minimum, Hollywood hacking requires a hacker who is typing as fast as humanly possible, as though the speed at which he types is directly related to his chance to penetrate computer security. But Hollywood also likes really excessively flashy graphical interfaces—the exact thing that real hackers don’t use because they are an unnecessary distraction and a waste of bandwidth. But usually a flashy GUI isn’t enough and the hacker is manipulating three dimensional holographic polygons or navigating through a three dimensional digital maze or some shit. It has fuck-all to do with real hacking, but it looks cool.

Anyone who knows anything about how computers and hacking in real life, tends to have a negative reaction to this portrayal. Uproarious laughter at the dumbness on display is probably the most common reaction, but actual annoyance is a close second.

brain's like 'peace'

“Oh My God. This is…this is brain poison.”
– Penny Arcade, “Brains With Urgent Appointments”

Sometimes the stupidity of Hollywood Hacking with its “rule of cool” departures from reality is even played up to the point of parity. Meet Kung Fury’s Hackerman:

hackerman

“It means that with the right computer algorithms, I can hack you back in time.”

On average, people who make (roleplaying) games know and care a lot more about how computers work in real life than people who make movies. When I look at the hacking rules designed for the roleplaying games I talk about, what I see is a desire to make the rules for penetrating computer security realistic, and not silly, stupid, and dumb like the Hollywood Hacking described above. In and of itself, this is a noble goal, but realism (as opposed to genre­-realism, which is essential), except when used in very carefully restricted doses, is poison to game design. Because reality is not inherently fun, and games must be. Realism is like any spice used in cooking—use too much and you ruin the dish.

Compared to the smart people that made the Matrix rules for Shadowrun and the Mesh rules for Eclipse Phase, I know very little about computer science. In fact, almost nothing. Oh, I know enough to give a flavor of verisimilitude, and I know enough to ask someone smarter if I think knowing a bit about “how things really work” would help inform fun gameplay. But I have no investment in real computer science, and no loyalty to portraying it overly accurately when it comes to creating fun and playable rules for information warfare.

Hacking is cool, and for hacking to be cool in games, it cannot be strictly speaking “realistic”. Because games must be fun, and real life hacking is not fun to do—at least not in a way that is compatible with playing a game. Hacking also must be streamlined enough that the dedicated hacker character can resolve their hacking quickly in real time, without everyone else getting bored and going out for pizza.

It is with these design goals in mind that I set out to design hacking and information warfare rules for the Singularity System—compatible with any science fiction setting—that are both easy to use and fun.