Shadowrun

Transmissions From The End #008

What’s up End Transmission fans, he said by way of greeting, unsure if he was addressing an actual group of people that actually exist or a figment of his fevered imagination.

This episode is a sneak preview of what we’ve got coming up for the year 2017. Because we’re still early in the year, be aware of all of the following: there are some things we want to keep under wraps for now, some things we haven’t figured out yet, and some things we haven’t even thought of yet. With all of those caveats at the way, let’s talk about some stuff. Here’s an update on almost everything.

Systems Malfunction

For over 10 years it was an amazing, awesome, experimental boffer LARP. Then it was a gigantic, bullet-stopping setting book for the Singularity System. Then last year in October you guys funded us so we could make Systems Malfunction–still powered by the Singularity System–a standalone RPG. Again, thanks!

But I really, really, really want the book to be full color because well…just look at all of this full color art we produced during the Kickstarter. It’s AMAZING! But we ran out of time on our KS more than $10,000 short of our Full Color stretch goal. We thought more about what an injustice it would be to have to grayscale down those images from glorious CMYK,  So we tightened our belts and crunched the numbers a bit and now we’ve got an IndieGoGo set up. If we can get $3,500 in the next 59 days or so, we can make the book full color, which would be so great. For those of you who already gave generously to the KS and are already getting SysMal, if you have any ideas for additional rewards we could offer you through the IndieGoGo, shoot ’em over to me.

As for production on the actual book, here’s a quick look behind the scenes. The manuscript is currently just a hair under 50,000 words. Probably about 10,000 of those words are boilerplate and need to be rewritten. As a point of reference, Psionics weighed in at 78,000 words and change, and that was before about 30,000 words of fictions. I anticipate needing to write approximately another 20-30k words before the manuscript is complete, not counting a 10,000 word piece of introductory fiction. The latter I won’t be writing myself, at least plant A is that I want to hire a famous writer to write it. Someone whose name you will have heard of. But you know, make plans and hear God laugh, all that stuff. Anyway, I don’t anticipate having much trouble finishing the text portion of the game that remains to be finished at the rate which I write/design games, but art and layout often take longer, and we won’t know if the remaining art we’re commissioning will be color or B&W for 60 days. Still, we should be in position to deliver on our promise of a GenCon 50 release date, barring any (further) unforeseen personal disasters. Backers will receive their books first where at all possible.

S.P.L.I.N.T.E.R.

Last year I tried to launch the SPLINTER “living campaign” and didn’t get anywhere with it so I’m really hoping to make it work this year. If you don’t know what a “living campaign” is, the idea that diverse groups of gamers are playing the same adventures in the same setting at different game tables at various conventions across the country. It’s synonymous with ordinary play. D&D, Pathfinder, and Shadowrun: Missions have all run successful living campaigns at some point in their lifecycles. I know that we won’t be able to orchestrate on that scale any time soon, but we’re also doing things a little bit differently in that it is a literal, cohesive campaign: players can play it from the beginning or jump in wherever, experiencing an epic story where their choices really matter (my plan is, like what many established living campaigns did to one degree or another, to gather data on the choices made by players and think about how those can effect the writing of future adventures).

The living campaign is called Glory & Gore.

We have three episodes already written, and I had planned on writing the fourth, fifth, and sixth episode some time this year before Origins. Whether we have three episodes or six for 2017 players, it should be hard for the living campaign to do worse than the sad story of 2016, where we only ultimately ran two four hour instances of the living campaign. I am hoping to have a GM team that can run at least 25 instances of Glory & Gore, or 100 hours of organized SPLINTER gameplay, over the course of 2017. Wish me luck.

In other SPLINTER news, we have a terrific (and terrifying) adventure coming out hopefully at this year’s I-CON called Return To The Dread Abyss Of The Digitarchs from Oubliette co-creator Richard Kelly who also lead the charge on the (free) SPLINTER QSR. Art direction on it is almost three weeks behind, so it maybe delayed to a Lunacon or Origins release. Having not written it myself, I can say it is one of the greatest published adventures I’ve ever seen, for any game system.

Finally, I have a vision of a SPLINTER box set which will include the most current printings of SPLINTER Core, Sometimes Little Wondrous Things, and Ugly Things, perhaps also the SPLINTER Quick Start Rules, and pamphlets with things like three new playable Bloodlines (!) and rules for Martial Arts in the Realm (both ones Players train in Earthside, and ones passed down by Bloodlines for Aeons).

Psionics

Only two major pieces of news on the Psionics front (although there is some more Dicepunk news in the following and final heading). The first is that we want to take steps towards mass-producing the Psionics comic in a normal comic book size/format and try to get it in the hands of brick & mortar and digital comics retailers. Quite simply, we feel it’s too good a comic to be restricted to the cozy niche of tabletop gaming. We want to get it out there in the world.

And I also want to write a sequel, which is…daunting. But I want a comic book series, and it was never meant to be a one-off. I’m going to have to nut up and do it eventually, but thinking on the fact that I procrastinated writing “Tomorrow’s Starlight” longer than I procrastinated writing anything in my adult life, it may be later rather than sooner.

Speaking of sequels, sales of The Pleasantville Project have been decent enough that we are seriously considering beginning work on its sequel, continuing the Eternal Storm Campaign that will walk Psionics players from the awakening of their gifts to the end of the world as they know it.

No Country For Great Old Ones

(First off, a DicePunk adventure I believe I mentioned on here last year, Escape From Cleveland is officially cancelled before entering production. It stopped being fun around the same time that Trump was elected, making the possibility of Trump’s presidency 100% terrifying and 0% funny. However, since Psionics is firmly set “now”,  Psionics fans deserve an update on how the Trump presidency has effected the secret factions of the Psionics universe, much as it’s shaken up everything in the real world. This update will be short, free, and most likely delivered through this blog.)

No Country For Old Men is an adventure we have in the works that will feature officially licensed game statistics for Delta Green, Savage Worlds, and HERO System, Fifth Edition, Revised (or FRED) in addition to our own Dicepunk system.

No Country For Great Old Ones will be an intense, southern fried crime drama with subtle elements of supernatural horror. It’s deeply inspired by the excellent film “Hell or High Water”: my basic thought process, having been playing a lot of Delta Green at the time was, wow, what if we threw some Mythos into this mix.

The Delta Green and HERO System rules deal directly with the Lovecraft mythos, while the Savage Worlds and DicePunk rules keep the same basic structure of the adventure, but use elements of the mythos that we developed for Phantasm(2010) in place of the Lovecraftian stuff (I finally saw Phantasm RaVager, and my feelings are mixed). No Country will be unique in a few ways besides having full stats for four different game systems. Namely, it is a “two sided” adventure (think of an old record, with an A side and a B side) where the PCs can be either the “cops” or the “robbers”. Once you’ve played through it from one side, you can play through it as the other side, and see how the other half lives, and see what formidable enemies your former characters make.

We could probably rush No Country into production in time for Origins of this year without a problem, but we’re also considering doing a Kickstarter for the adventure to raise awareness. That would delay its release until well, well after GenCon, however, since as a company rule we don’t launch a Kickstarter until we’ve delivered on the previous one.

That’s it for the fourth week of February and the first time I’ve managed to force myself to make a proper update this year. Tune in next Thursday or the following Thursday  (hopefully) for more Transmissions From The End.

<End Transmission>

 

 

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Song For The Dumped (Take This Job And Shove It)

“While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice:
TALK LESS. Smile more.
Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.
You wanna get ahead?
Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.

If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?
– “Aaron Burr, Sir”

(more…)

The Cyborg Manifesto Explained

Of Most Interest To Those Who Have Followed Me And My Work Obsessively For Years and Years

You know, like, there are maybe 4-6 of you? When I’m drunk enough to have double vision, I mean. : P

Also, in the off off off off off off off off off chance that you’re Kevin Siembieda and you’re currently on shrooms and reading this in a good mood, I’m sure this all makes perfect sense to you.

I’m aware that without context all of the following sounds super duper crazy, like time cube crazy. But if you don’t have the context of knowing that, for instance, Earthdawn and Shadowrun exist canonically on the same timeline and that in my own head-canon my alternate RIFTS setting (nee stand-alone experimental LARP) “The Last Day” follows Shadowrun, then this probably isn’t for you. That’s okay, you can still look at it, and it’s still kind of neat looking.

Multiversal Map 2016

For what it’s worth, this isn’t SOLELY my being a creative monomaniac. The text and subtext of RIFTS explicitly says that it contains every other possible world. So does the text and subtext of The Dark Tower. So does the subtext, at least, of The Magician’s Nephew. Therefore it blatantly refutes the text of these works to say that they don’t contain and connect to each other, and to all others (like, even to fucking Star Trek or whatever), even if you personally think “The Dark Tower is the shit and RIFTS is stupid and no they’re NOT set in the same universe I can’t hear you lalalala”.

It also helps if you have recently read either The Magicians or The Chronicles of Narnia, and therefore understand what the “Neitherlands” or “The Wood Between The Worlds” is. If you’ve ever talked to me seriously off-camera about SPLINTER, you understand that the SPLINTER is a manifestation of the same exact concept. If you raced up the Tower of Heaven pursued by the Pulsarians/demons during the end of Systems Malfunction Third Edition, then you probably understood the Tower of Heaven as a manifestation of the same multiversal “axle”.

This infographic shows how the “worlds” of my different game campaigns, published and unpublished game universes, and (unfinished) novels intersect (and who can move freely between worlds) in the form of a multiversal or metaversal Venn Diagram. In very fannish terms, it is the closest you are going to get to a CAT scan of my head-canon.

In the upper circle–“THE CYBORG MANIFESTO”, the creative mega-meta-narrative I have been working on since I discovered the creativity-enhancing properties of cannabis circa 2008 (ah, there’s the rub!) contains a large number of recognizable logos for other peoples’ intellectual properties.

I am not claiming ownership of these by placing them in my multiversal map. That would be rude and stupid.

Even though the text and subtext of several of these works–RIFTS and arguably Dungeons & Dragons and certainly The Dark Tower explicitly state that they contain and transcend all possible fictive worlds–I am talking solely about my own campaigns using these game systems/IPs, not the IPs themselves.

The lower circle is simpler, coming from a time when I was younger and smoked less pot. The isolated circles to the lower left and lower right are self-contained universes that are not connected to anything.

But the middle sliver of the Venn Diagram still connects it to all of the others, by virtue of the pesky buggers that can “walk between worlds”. Many of whom are names to run away from really fast. Of course, you can neither run, nor hide, because they can follow you from one universe to another as easily as you could go from your bedroom to your bathroom.

Final note: no, I will not EVER explain who “geraldine” is. That one is just for Mikaela.

My brain is experiencing a literal storm,
– D. T. O.

P.S. No relation to this, except the name. If you want to know why the more recent “multiverse” is and always has been called that, I’ve finally figured it out. However, your best chance to learn this secret is if I get hired by Palladium, write published things for RIFTS, and Kevin give me PLENTY of rope by which to hang myself from the crazy tree.

P.P.S. If for some bizarre reason you want to see the hideous mess that was my conceptualization of this same thing circa 2011, I’ll show you that infographic. But only in private. It’s really confusing and ugly.

Geneva Convention 2016 – Making History

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At GenCon 2016, End Transmission Games, a company that no one had ever heard of (unless you are very, very, very cool, that is) sponsored the convention as an Event Partner.This was the same sponsorship level chosen by Fantasy Flight Games, makers of a full suite of board and miniatures games licensed for the Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, Arkham Horror, and Lord of the Rings IPs, plus the current license-holder for the Android (Infiltration and Netrunner) universe, two of my favorite games.

Now, our reasons for making the decision to give GenCon such an absurd amount of money are very, very, very “inside baseball”and I’m not going to get into them here. HOWEVER…

Having paid the same sponsorship tier and therefore gotten the same market visibility at the con, we tried our best to have a physical presence at the con that was even remotely in the same league. We tried to do this with three and a half people (Richard Kelly, who’s my favorite writer for 2016 if anyone was wondering, was there from Friday Evening through Sunday Afternoon). If you understand anything about anything in the industry, you know that such an undertaking is fully insane, bordering on suicidal. (As a frame of reference, Catalyst Game Labs brings a battalion of booth monkeys and demo agents over 100 strong.) I don’t think it’s something any company has ever done before.

And I think in the history of being too big for your britches, we made motherfucking history.

As I told anyone who was even slightly willing to listen: “If we’re going to die, we’re going to die historic on the Fury Road.”

Now, the post-game recap while it’s fresh in my mind.

  • We grossed more in booth sales than we have at any other con ever, by a factor of nearly double. I’m not gonna say the number, but the amount of money people paid for books full of crap I made up leaves me floored and humbled.
  • I strongly suspect that we grossed more in booth sales than a company or two that I really love and respect. Companies that are older, bigger, and more established. Was the sponsorship a factor in this? Certainly. But I think that the extreme level of hustle and chutzpah that my crew brought to the show was an even bigger factor. We were there to move product or die trying.
  • We came far closer to selling out of everything we brought than we ever, ever have before.
  • Obviously, counting the sponsorship, we were deeply, deeply in the red, and it was literally impossible for us to break even. We knew this going in.
  • If you count just the Entrepreneur’s Alley booth fee, we actually MADE MONEY at a convention for the first time ever. If you count hotel and airfare, we’re back to losing money, but less than usual.
  • We did not win an ENnie award for Epic Space Battles. I actually thought we had a chance until I realized we were up against Paizo.
  • Attendance at the events that didn’t go up until a month before the con was very,very, very, thin on the ground. I think something to the tune of two no-shows and two-or-three events where only two people showed up.  This was no great surprise. The exception was the Psionic Phantasms that I ran on Friday, where Mikaela sent me fully eight people, and I did my best to handle a packed table. All PCs but one died and I sold several copies of Psionics on the strength of that, so that’s kind of becoming my signature.
  • Attendance at the handful of events that went up months in advance was packed, and this too was unsurprising. It is…unfortunate that the credit for those event tickets goes to IGDN, which doesn’t help End Transmission get better event placement at future GenCons.
  • In general, our event logistics game needs a lot of work. We’ve been trying to make Stormwatch happen for a year now. We need to try harder. And we need to go hardcore to recruit booth sentinels and GMs.
  • Big ups to Kelly’s Heroes for being awesome and making our shit look good. Let’s do it again, gentlemen!
  • We are never, ever, ever doing anything like this again: bodying the con this hard with this few people is ruled out for all of future time. The best news of all is that we literally, physically survived GenCon 2016. Because dying historic on the Fury Road is still dying.

Now, some general impressions of the Con (these are more feels than business) in no particular order:

  • I finally made it to the Diana Jones awards and I finally got what they are (I could not stay for the show, the Cadillac Ranch was horribly loud, and I admit that it gave me a panic attack, so I bolted almost as soon as I arrived). I wrote a pretty nifty poem about the experience (first poetry I’ve written since 2011, actually). I’ll post it Thursday.
  • My actual literal favorite moment of the convention was obviously watching Zak S win ENnie award after ENnie award as his victory speeches gradually escalated from just the expected trolling of SJWs to increasingly drunken, belligerent, and incoherent. Flawless victory, Zak. Three thumbs up!
  • Made a lot of industry connections as usual. What follows are some of the best memories, and a lot of them happened on Sunday:
  • Collecting signatures from John Helfers, Jason Hardy, Phillip Lee, Rob…shit, was it Rob Thomas or Rob Wieland? I can literally NEVER keep those two apart…, Loren Coleman, and ECHO CHERNIK (gawd she is da bomb) on my comp copy of Drawing Destiny. I also signed quite a few of their books, just like I was real famous, and not fake famous. I also also made Echo sign the Sixth World Tarot itself and the Page of Blades card, and naturally I made Loren Coleman sign the CEO card.
  • Speaking of Jason Hardy, I said something incredibly tactless to him while claiming my comp, and he responded with arch good humor. Jason (not that you’re reading this), your story is very good, my man, almost as good as your bio. It raised some questions that I’m gonna e-mail you about when I’m done with this post.
  •  Speaking of Echo Chernik, I gave her a free copy of Psionics #1: Tomorrow’s Starlight and a free Psychokinesis t-shirt, and asked her why she likes to draw hot babes so darn much.
  • Speaking of Loren Coleman, he is now firmly in my good books. On Sunday I swapped him a copy of Psionics (MSRP: $39.99) for a copy of Court of Shadows (MSRP: $49.99) and a second copy of Drawing Destiny (MSRP: $12.95) (I wanted a clean copy, since I turned my comp into essentially a high school yearbook). I was more than willing to pay the difference in cash, but Loren just shrugged and made it so. Mighty, mighty decent of you, boss.
  • Stopped in to chat with Kevin Siembieda, maestro of Palladium Books, who I found looking well recovered on Sunday. Picked up two new RIFTS titles (Chaos Earth: Resurrected and Coalition States: TOTALLY THE GOOD GUYS), both of which I’m stoked to read. Kevin, you looked almost as tired as I felt. I enjoyed the big belly laugh I got when I cracked wise about the unambiguously heroic nature of the Coalition States. And when I saw you hauling your own stanchions and whatnot to your truck during teardown, well, I’ve never respected you more. As a co-owner and CEO who does his own lifting and hauling, I respect anyone that does the same.
  • I got Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame (I know her company publishes some pretty major RPGs too) to sign copies of the Twins’ trilogy (which I haven’t read) for me, which was mighty decent of her. I got her to sign a copy of Dragons of Winter Night (which he hasn’t read) for my friend John, too.
  • I collected signatures from Scott Glancy, Greg Stolze, and the elusive, pokeman-like Dennis Detwiler on my copy of the Delta Green Agent’s Handbook. Dennis assured me that my poor, poor PCs always will have touched the antenna: they’re fated to, and doomed by fate. And of course, having written the adventure, he’s right. SHANE “WILD TALENTS” IVEY YOU STILL OWE US A FREAKING BEER AND EVERY YEAR THAT PASSES, THE POST-GENCON BEER INTEREST ACCRUES.
  • I finally met John Wick. The game designer, not the hitman played by Keanu Reeves.

And that’s all for now folks. We’re back from GenCon, and we made it back alive. More on Thursday!

apxo9

SO ABOUT THAT (SIXTH WORLD) TAROT!

So, this site’s called Tarot American. That’s a World Inferno song, you know. I’m…kind of obsessed by them. (Working grammatical theory: “obsessed with” is correct in American English, but “obsessed by” is what you’d go with in British English. Correct me if I’m wrong.) ANYWAY, I’ve been blogging about five years now. I’ve been an American for all of them, but I ain’t said nuffin about the Tarot. Past time I do so!

I love the Tarot (I used to be able to perform simple readings, but those skills have atrophied over time: I still have the basic meanings of a solid two dozen cards memorized, mostly in the Major Arcana; I use references to the Tarot in my game design and my GMingall the damn time). I love Shadowrun. So naturally I am very excited about the Sixth World Tarot. Am I gonna be buying that shizzle? Try and stop me!

I’m even more excited because I’ve got a story coming out in the accompanying anthology: Drawing Destiny. As you can imagine, every story  in the anthology is tied (more-or-less) directly to a tarot card. The one that inspired my story, a street banger anthem called “Djoto” (that’s Or’zet, ya heard?, is the Page of Swords.

Meet Devil. She's on Kamikaze right now, so watch your yap, breeder.

Meet Devil. She’s on Kamikaze right now, so watch your yap, breeder.

The Page of Swords means a lot of different things, depending who you ask, but is generally considered to be a courier with big news to deliver (a common kind of Shadowrun, actually). Some of my favorite meanings for the card are: speaking truth to power, bravery, cleverness, passion, energy, youthful exuberance and courage untempered by an excess of caution, striving to prove yourself, and  handling shit on your own. Overall, I find the Page of Swords to be pretty punk. I am the Hermit, by birth (i.e. my date of) and by disposition, but I wish I could be the Page of Swords.

But none of that informs my story as much as the amazing art by Echo Chernik. Look at what a bad mamajama this young ork is. She’s a strong ork babe who don’t need no man!  She’s cutting some motherfucker in half. She’s got style and attitude that’s exploding off the page (okay, the screen), check out those piercings, those goggles, those bootie shorts, dat katana and that hair, like cotton candy set on fire! But what’s the story here? What’s with that hot blonde vamp posing coyly in the background in her suite corset? Why’s there a pig’s head there dripping blood? What is with that awesome graffiti of the cherub with an AR? What in the ever loving frag is going on here?

Well, that got my brain to spinning and a hoop-kicking story flowed out of me, easy as soy-pie: Devil is an ork razorgirl that runs with the Bot’Kham, a loosely affiliated network of smugglers, gangs, and runners that spans the Ork Underground and the Puyallup Barrens. When “Grampa Kham” gets black-bagged by the Yakuza, it’s going to take all of her street smarts, contacts, and attitude to get him back. Rescuing the old man will take Devil and her crew on a Kamikaze-fueled, blood-spattered, gritty adventure through the meanest streets and the darkest shadows. Find out what happens in Drawing Destiny, available exclusively at GenCon!

Which is in like three days! YIKES!

There Are Bad Things And Then There Are Bad Things

A few minutes ago, I was having a discussion on the Shadowrun freelancer group’s secret internal e-mail. In the course of firing off a grumpy e-mail, I accidentally wrote a mini-essay that I was quite proud of and decided to publish here. While it began as a conversation “inside the secret circle”, nothing I have to say here violates my NDA by even the broadest definition.

***

Anyway, to provide context for this mini-essay, I was talking about the character Haze in Shadowrun, a character whose existence predates me working on Shadowrun but who I wrote up in Street Legends. The TL;DR of my comment can be summed up in Haze’s little section here where this trope is invoked and I argue that trope involves a certain degree of hypocrisy (we’re completely inured to murder, but rape is so bad many people screech that it can’t even BE IN FICTION).

In return, I was linked to a four year old Jimquisition video. The TL;DR of the video is that rape is a “special” evil that is always worse than any other atrocity a character could commit in fiction. Then around seven minutes he takes a shit on the entire medium of videogames by suggesting it’s not mature enough to handle rape. Thanks Jim, way to advance the cause of vidya as a legitimate art form you fat sanctimonious bastard.

I was also linked to where this trope (my least favorite trope for reasons I get into below) is cross referenced with Shadowrun.

Anyway, here’s the essay!

***

Jim Sterling says some over-the-top, just wrong-on-the-face-of-it things like “Rape is not privy to the same moral respect [as murder]”. What??? Maybe in the most barbarous parts of the Middle East under Sharia Law this might hold true, but certainly not in the vast majority of the English speaking world. In Western civilization, rape is and long has been considered the most morally reprehensible act a person could commit. As a matter of fact, even other criminals hold in special contempt, because it gives them someone they can feel better than (see below).

If a player at my table was playing a PC that was a rapist or god-forbid trying to commit rape in game, I would be extremely uncomfortable with that and shut it down. Because it might well make other players uncomfortable, and even worse, I would be strongly suspicious that it was intended to make other players uncomfortable. But to acknowledge that rape happens in the world of Shadowrun is nothing short of necessary for the same reason that it’s necessary to acknowledge that racism and drug addiction and genocide exist in Shadowrun.

The statement some troper made that “Haze is canonically a serial rapist” is not one that I think I would ultimately agree with. I would say that Haze is a real piece of shit, someone who frequently uses seduction and mind-influencing spells and has a sketchy and worrisome (at best) respect for consent.

Jim Sterling says that rape is “not a gray area” but in a universe where we have Control Thoughts and Control Emotions that becomes much less true: unlike actual rape, you can totally cast those spells on someone who would might have consented anyway. And the area can get even more gray than that. What if a character casts Increase Charisma and that magical boost enables them to seduce someone they otherwise wouldn’t be able to? Is that definitely rape? Is it definitely not rape? Or does it just fall into a gray area that is “kind of rapey”?

But more profoundly, I have some profound issues with the idea of “darkness induced audience apathy” in general. To be blunt, I think that if the preponderance of bad people and dark deeds in a work of fiction you were otherwise invested in makes you disengage from that fiction, then you should probably stop consuming adult fiction and go back to nursery school. By that same logic, you should have given up on the real world a long time ago: it is far more full of senseless tragedy and awfulness than Warhammer 40k to the tenth power.

Of course, I am also deeply invested in creating and promoting games and fictional settings that are dark, dark, dark.

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:

 

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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.