Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Monitors: cornerstones 3

Not being sure where to go next with Monitors, I'm going to do a bit more looking at the "cornerstones" I brought up earlier. I've previously discussed being a lizard (and gone into some detail about possible body temperature mechanics), and archetypes that I'd like to try and support.

I think the next thing up for consideration is being part of an intergalactic organisation. This is going to involve a bit of actual worldbuilding, which is typically something I enjoy, but rarely has to support the weight of an entire game system. Fingers crossed.

I think what I need here is to outline some basic principles of how the Monitors work, while trying to leave space for other interpretations. It's not like I'm working with licensed property here and trying to meticulously recreate the experience of the Monitors film franchise. I know I'm only making this thing for a bit of fun, but nevertheless I feel like tying anything mechanical too firmly to a very specific setting is probably not the best idea, because it limits what people can do with it. Franchise games are typically adaptations of existing products tailored to that game, which seems relevant. Basically, allowing flexibility with the basic parameters is good, so I don't want potential games to be irrevocably tied to particular NPCs, worlds or even playstyles.

Before I get onto the Monitor Network, I'm going to have to think a bit about the universe it's set in. Cue copy-pasting.

The Universe

In a vast universe of squabbling galaxies, trouble can erupt at any moment: calamities, rebellions, coups, trade disputes, accidental hyperevolution, accidental necromancy, dimensional fluxes, awakening the sleeping armies of the lost Ghkrat, dreams becoming real, enthusiastic postgraduate researchers carelessly building an unstoppable army of invincible robot armchairs – the possibilities are endless. No conventional task force can be assembled in time.

In this unimaginably distant future, heroic teams of spacefaring reptiles maintain the tenuous peace between squabbling mammalian empires. No drifting wreck is too sinister, no jungle world too unexplored, no asteroid belt too pirate-infested for these fearless trouble-shooters. With modern technology and ancient wizardry, they preserve the fragile web of intergalactic civilisation. Only their hardy poikilothermic bodies can survive nanotech implants, arcane infusions and the harshness of intergalactic deepjumps. They are the Monitors.

Our intrepid bands of anthropomorphic armoured cyborg warlock lizards will confront a wide range of troubles, many of them violent. They may have to battle anything from a million-strong sea of rock-grubs, through entire ships full of parasite-possessed parrotfolk, down to a gang of vicious pirate jellyfish or a single giant robot.

This tells me a few things right off the bat.

This is a wide universe, with many galaxies and many inhabited systems among them, populated with a whole swathe of species and cultures. There is plenty of room for whatever oddity I want to incorporate, plenty of distance to put between things, and plenty of excuse for massive differences between locations. While rapid travel does exist, the Monitors are amongst the few creatures with both the technology and the physiology to handle full-blown intergalactic transit, which means minimal worrying about technological transmission, communication and so on. Planet-hopping is entirely feasible, space-piracy a cause for concern. There are many political powers in the universe, and they frequently clash.

Reality is fantastical, and not entirely serious. Science is both commonplace and a constant source of wonder and danger. Mad scientists and bungling boffins are as much a concern as natural disasters or outright war. Bionics, nanotech and reliable high-speed wireless networking are all available. Experiments are regular, and no more tightly regulated than is entertaining. At the same time, the universe is ancient and mystical. Powerful ancient magic gives the Monitors an edge, at least against things that don't also have powerful ancient magic. Long-buried civilisations have left ruins, secrets and relics scattered throughout the galaxies, and are both a source of marvel and a lurking threat to wanderers and explorers. Alternate dimensions, dreamworlds, necromancers, runes, glowy magic swords, hypnotism, temporary transmutation, love potions and that sort of thing are perfectly reasonable elements for a Monitors game. Because knowledge is both immense and partial, very little of this needs detailed in-game explanations as long as it's self-consistent and doesn't wildly contradict the rest of the game.

More about the Universe

Monitors takes place in a universe of amazing technology, where myriad species have spread sprawling empires across countless galaxies. Pre-galactic history is largely forgotten, the origins of most spacefaring races a matter of guesswork and myth. While many planets are peaceful places, in a boundless universe there is always someone looking for trouble, from ambitious politicians to criminal geniuses and the simply insane. When sabre-rattling and piracy aren't in the offing, then an ion storm, wandering black hole or long-buried piece of technology is sure to burst onto the scene.

While interstellar travel is relatively simple, intergalactic travel is difficult, expensive and dangerous. Deepships can be fast, safe or not cripplingly extortionate, but not all three. The more resilient the travellers, the cheaper the ship can be. Reptiles' flexible metabolisms make them perfect for space travel: they can handle significant temperature swings, so insulation and life support can be far less sophisticated than other species require. For long journeys, they can be dopped into torpor, needing minimal food or oxygen, but avoiding the technical risks of cryogenics. When emergency strikes, they can survive long periods in escape pods with minimal injury. Reptiles, and other poikilotherms, are therefore the perfect first response teams, able to reach a danger zone at incredible speed, long before less hardy creatures can arrive.

As with any group of allies, rivals and outright enemies, there's need for neutral and more-or-less trusted parties to keep matters civil, investigate problems and intergalactic crimes, keep tabs on remote or extra-territorial sites, and deal with anything that's too bizarre, too much or too sensitive for the local agencies, or simply so vague and improbable that they don't want to know. These are the job of the Monitors, a spacewide network of researchers, emergency stores and special agents. They may not be universally liked, but when push comes to shove even the most paranoid government knows they can be relied on.

The Monitor Network

The Monitor network (which you can, if you like, think of as some improbable acronym) is well-established and widely dispersed. It's hierarchical, but loosely so: while efficiency and communication are crucial to running an organisation like this, the last thing they want is blind conformity. Galactic headquarters assign missions and run teams, but given the weirdness they often deal with, the reins are light and the mission parameters broad. In some sparsely-populated sectors, local brigades are more or less their own bosses.

The popular image of the Monitors is a hulking, armoured reptile battling crazed robots, or a trenchcoated reptile taking over investigations with an array of gadgets. In truth, not all members of the Monitors are reptiles, or even poikilotherms, but certainly the majority of field agents are, due to the rigours of constant space travel. However, they have agents of all species on many worlds, and research centres and bureaux care only for talent. Their missions are far more varied than the stereotypes would imply: tracking down driftships, exploring uncharted territory, investigating ruins and artefacts, and trying to cope with natural, magical and technological disasters. Some teams specialise in disaster relief, others in anti-piracy patrols.


Monitor candidates come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but most are reptiles, amphibians, or other poikilothermic species. They undergo rigorous psychological testing and background checks to make sure only trustworthy, reliable individuals with no hidden motives are recruited, both to preserve their reputation and to maintain the network's operational integrity. Political impartiality is crucial, and while the network doesn't care much about its agents' views, they must not be compromised by competing loyalties.

Training for field agents is tough and wide-ranging. Monitors are expected to have a broad scientific education, basic mechanical and computing skills, to pilot vehicles of all kinds, perform first aid and field medicine, make initial surveys of unexplored planets, negotiate with locals and avoid bureaucratic disasters. They need to survive unaided in the wilderness, handle a blaster and a spear with equal competence, scale mountains and ford raging rivers. They learn to decipher ancient runes, break or reinforce wards, wield spells and bind supernatural entities. Those who pass through basic training are, if not necessarily the best of the best, certainly never amongst the worst. No matter what challenge may arise, they can at least make a creditable attempt to handle it. Even a single Monitor is a force to be reckoned with.


While the Monitors are a fairly standardised intergalactic organisation, the setting ought to allow plenty of room for varying amounts of shininess, resources, local acceptance, status, initiative and general tone or genre. Assume that some regions tend to be underfunded, slightly shambolically managed and understaffed, with frontier-type attitudes or run-down planets who don’t have much time for the League, so Monitors have to make do, mend and improvise, as well as doing more sandboxing in terms of patrolling, exploring and so on. Other regions are well-funded and established, with populations very much bought into the intergalactic civilisation business and eager to support their protectors, nice shiny spaceships, and good communications. Some teams may end up in the field for long periods, and have to resort to funding themselves and scavenging gear.

Things like the usedness of future can be up for negotiation - tech can be as shiny or as cobbled together as you like, though my basic assumption is that this is an optimistic tech-ridden society and things will be pretty darned shiny. Also, it helps reinforce the division between shiny new technology and sinister ancient magic.

To some extent, this could be extended to further vary the tone with optional rule tweaks; for example, you could vary things between Turtles, Dan Dare and Firefly by allowing some varying amount of deadliness or injury into the game.

The approach to bureaucracy is also likely to vary. Some teams may be confronted with Byzantine complexity when dealing with HQ, as well as in dealings with other organisations, and their commanders expect everything in triplicate with hard evidence of what happened. Other regions may take a hardline bolshie approach, making only a token effort at record-keeping and only caring that the job gets done; these are also likely to be laxer with regulations, so suit players who want to rough up the occasional witness, or nick the odd tank. Most are probably pragmatically in between.

Modelling Monitors

So, how do we go about making it feel as though you're part of a universe-spanning organisation of special agents responsible for keeping civilisation ticking along from day to day? Quick brainstorm follows.


This idea seems to work well in Deathwatch, which is another very organisational and mission-based game. Start off most missions with some kind of briefing that formally lays out parameters for them, even if these are vague. Have characters report to their superiors at the end of missions (or when a point in more open-ended adventuring seems appropriate). This might be tied into advancement, if there's advancement. Perhaps there's a one-mission temporary bonus based on what happened in the last mission.

The formal assignment of missions seems like a very sensible way to give an impression of being part of a greater whole. Now there are of course some consequences to this choice: on the one hand it gives players a relatively clear indication of what sort of thing they should be doing, and how success can be measured; on the other it ties the players down to the intended mission to at least some extent. That's a sort of philosophical issue where I think different people will have different opinions, but as long as nobody insists on absolute sandboxing at all times, and the GM is relatively sensible, it doesn't inevitably produce railroading. Arthur runs very successful Deathwatch games. A lot of it will come down to the tightness of mission parameters, which can easily vary from "Go and check why the relay station on Archis VIII isn't responding to signals" to minute-by-minute instructions that leave very little room for manoeuvre.

Hierarchies and bureaucracy

If you're part of a massive organisation, there are hierarchies and departmentalisation at play. These don't necessarily have to be linear, and for Monitors a lot of them won't be; you'd be looking at talking to another department, typically a more specialised one like Archives, Arcane Services, Cybernetics, Legal or whoever else has the resources and expertise you need. However, there's also some actual structural hierarchy in place, with senior officers assigning missions and expecting results. This gives a bit of structure to the characters' actions, and makes them answerable to the organisation. It may also help to guide the way they handle problems and deal with situations (hopefully in a "providing useful structure" way rather than a constricting way). To help reinforce this part of the setting, we need to explicitly allow the characters to call on the resources of their organisation, while hopefully not leading them to just sit around and wait for the cavalry.

Dealing with bureaucracy is a constant thorn in the side. I suspect this is something where we want to try and give an impression of bureaucracy, without subjecting the players to much of it. Also, the appropriate levels will vary somewhat with how people want to play the game - is it a constant battle against paperwork, or does their ability to ride roughshod over the bureaucracy mark out the PCs? However, this may come more to the fore when dealing with other organisations, like local governments. While individuals are often pretty free to do as they please, the PCs will have to present credentials, work with agreed parameters, avoid treading on toes unnecessarily, and uphold the good name of the Monitors. This means it's harder to break laws (unnecessarily), be careless with suspects' rights, and escape the consequences of actions, because they can't simply hop on a shuttle and assume a new identity when they're answerable to their bosses. Opponents may use this to their advantage, tying up the Monitors in red tape, especially if the bureaucrats themselves are compromised. On the other hand, Monitors with a good grasp of the regulations can use this to gain an advantage.

The power structure also offers a couple of interesting options. One is sanction of PCs who compromise their missions, whether as straight-out rebukes, or redeployment to less interesting duties. This is a potentially useful tool for stirring up the plot, and of course it can be used as part of a scheme by the hierarchy to get Monitors where they need to be under the guise of punishment. It also allows for anyone interested to work their way up into the network, and take on duties other than straight fieldwork.

Bureaucracy is also likely to lead to standardisation: standard equipment for particular mission types, standard operating protocols, and so on. That doesn't mean things can't vary in the game, but it does help add a bit of structure, and means PCs should have some idea how to act in most situations.

Organisational attitudes

Another important aspect of being part of an organisation is that it brings along attitudes and opinions, in both directions. A large organisation tends to have an official corporate view of many other groups (and individuals), as well as its members' internal and unofficial views, which may not match. In some cases the organisation itself has two views: a public relations view and a private view, which shapes its members' actions. For example, the Monitors may publicly recognise the Pseudonis Corporation as a perfectly legal corporation with an excellent charitable record, while internal policies forbid any cooperation with the group on the grounds that they know damn well Pseudonis are a bunch of thugs up to their elbows in slavery and possible sedition.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, being a Monitor will shape people's reactions to the PCs. Some will admire the PCs and want to help them out of hero-worship, or because they view them as noble and selfless. Some will be eager to help the Monitor network because they're law-abiding citizens keen to do their duty and keep the universe safe. Some want an easy life and won't fuss one way or the other. Some may have a deep distrust of the Monitors specifically, or of external authorities in general, or of any uniformed services. Some may have no problem with badged and known Monitors, but object to any kind of subterfuge. Some resent outside intrusion into their culture, politics or business affairs, without any specific objection to Monitors, and may get on perfectly well with Monitors in a personal capacity. Some may be criminals, corrupt or otherwise have good reason to fear the Monitors, while others may be oppressed and fear authority figures. In some cases, past failures or mistakes will give people distrust of the organisation; in others, past achievements will open doors and hearts.

This is really a matter of scenario design and general GMing. I suppose I could build in some kind of relations system, but honestly any mechanics can be handled perfectly well by adjusting the difficulty of any tasks. I don't see much need for crunch here, or anything that I could actually do, barring some kind of big table of organisations and their views. Yeah, that sounds like a riot.

In terms of play, I'd expect this to be an influence on whether and when PCs choose to reveal their affiliation, versus keeping it quiet, versus actively concealing it.


Belonging to a large organisation is a double-edged sword: it brings the promise of support and resources, and the likelihood that they won't be easy to obtain. A large organisation with a role in galactic politics may well be better-supplied than a small one, but it's all the more likely that formalities, legal restrictions or political burdens will restrict its ability to use those resources. There's also the important consideration that at any time, many Monitor teams are calling for support, and resources must be directed where they seem most crucial. As such, there's scope to play this at either end of the spectrum.

The Monitor network is well-placed to offer certain resources. Training is perhaps the most obvious, and the least problematic for a GM. If the PCs need to acquire some particular skill, they can be summoned for training, or sent a manual, or however else you want to deliver the information. This can also help with any levelling mechanism that we end up with, as experienced Monitors can reasonably be more skillful that novices because they've not only handled more missions, but also undergone more training and learned specialist techniques that even experienced civilians may not know. And of course the bionics and magical training don't hurt.

Gen is another handy possibility, and field agents contacting headquarters for files on NPCs, organisations or regions are staples of the genre. They can be introduced to moles in suspect organisation (who may or may not be moles), or even alerted to worrying developments - "We've just detected fifteen speeders approaching your location", or "someone's tried to hack into the records of your cover identity" and all that jazz.

Similarly, going undercover is likely to come with support from HQ, with false IDs or disguises issued to help them. Of course, there's plenty of scope for on-the-fly impersonation too.

Central control of resources is a handy option for differences between different missions. Last time you had a tank and fifteen servobots, but they got reassigned after the dimensional intrusion in the next system, so you're on your own. On the plus side, they can also explain why PCs pick up new gear: try this experimental laser watch! In general, the PCs shouldn't have to worry about things like maintenance, ammo and everyday supplies unless they're under deep cover or off on an expedition. Daily expenditure is not really an issue, though personal cash and luxuries are a different story. In some ways this might help, because PCs can have small amounts of personal cash and use it for luxuries, without much impact on their mechanical resources.

A combination of these ideas and the general tone of the game should (I hope) also discourage the looting that tends to crop up in RPGs, and the wildly improbable economics that are usually needed to alleviate it. There's no point taking a load of laser pistols, because you get equipment from HQ. Selling them is a problem because looting for profit is against regs, and you don't need the money for gear because again, you get gear from HQ. If you upgrade to a better bionic arm, you can't sell the old one, because it belongs to the Monitors and they're issuing it to someone else. You can't get a Class IV thaumocannon as a novice character, not because of your personal finances, but because there's no way HQ are issuing you one (because of their finances, if nothing else).

Final thoughts

Obviously there's quite a bit more work needed here on the actual organisation, fleshing out things like what the Monitor network is actually like in structure and approach, as well as its political position. Which means more work on the universe so I can tell how it slots in. But this is a really long post already.

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