Saturday, 27 December 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 4 (stuff people have, part 2)

This is obviously a sequel to this post, this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game, and more immediately, this third post about distribution of tech amongst the general population.

As a reminder, we're looking more or less at this list:

  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?

We're still looking at types of technology that the population and the PCs have available.


In my view, one of the biggest technologies humanity has is communication tools. We can do things with these that would be staggering to ancestors only a few measly thousand years ago. We can preserve information accurately for long periods (writing). We can convey information to other people without actually contacting them (also writing). We can give information to other people in secret (encryption), and even do so while appearing not to (hidden encryption). We can talk to members of other groups who have their own languages (translation). We can communicate with people increasingly great distances away, increasingly fast, with increasingly complex information (writing, telegraph, telephone, the internet). These have offered enormous advantages. Knowledge is disseminated quickly, trade is facilitated, safety increased, cultural understanding improved, personal life enhanced, and perhaps it even makes the world more peaceful.

Reach and speed

The speed and range of communication - alongside travel - is probably going to be one of the keys in defining what sorts of problems your PCs face.

1954 telegram Cable & Wireless

Many plots depend on isolation: someone is in trouble, and the PCs are the only ones able to help in time. Either no message can be sent, or it'll take too long for anyone else to respond. Similarly, PCs (and protagonists in general) often end up dealing with things that really should be the authorities' problem, because it works out faster to run across the continent wiping out increasingly powerful villains, rather than turn aside to negotiate with each respective government.

Other scenarios (in the narrative sense) depend on shortage of information. Horror, adventure and mystery stories very often assume that nobody can call for help or do any research. This means that modern phones and computers pose a real problem, especially combined with the wealth of knowledge now online. This is often got around with mysterious power failures or mobile dead spots. Of course, not all such stories are affected by these; it depends on the source and nature of the obstacles protagonists face.

If you can readily communicate while your group is scattered, you can coordinate activity, warn each other of dangers, or pass on advice. You can order in supplies while you get on with something else, have complex problems solved by experts on another planet, information looked up in libraries leagues away, even dial up an interpreters to ease communication. Whole plans can be built around getting NPCs to do things, either by command or by deception - it's usually easier to fake a phone call or letter than a personal visit. Maybe you can even dial in an orbital bombardment. Essentially, the GM needs to look at everything and consider: what happens if they phone each other, a friend, the authorities, and a helpful world-famous expert? Just in case this will knock the bottom out of the whole shebang.

Of course, you still need to deal with: security clearance, expense, bureaucracy, disbelief, interception, ignorance, laziness, bad luck, the laws of physics, and the many other problems that mean wi-fi doesn't solve everything.

In contrast, if your communications are limited, your capabilities are limited to the group you're currently in. You can't assume that all communications arrive safely or on time; messages may even create a vulnerability if they can be easily intercepted, as letters may be. You can't easily pass on information, which can leave people vulnerable. You have to rely on your own knowledge and what's immediately to hand, rather than calling up experts, which makes characters more vulnerable to unlucky rolls. It's generally simpler for a GM to concoct scenarios in which the PCs have to rely on their own resources, but which aren't just ambushes.

Of course, it goes both ways. Poor communications make it a lot easier for PCs much of the time, because they are typically the spanner in the works of a criminal conspiracy. If communication is slow, the PCs can take apart an enemy one cadre at a time without the whole weight of the conspiracy coming down on them. It's also easier for them to work covertly in enemy territory, bluff past guards and bureaucrats, and work out what's going on - letters are much more convenient evidence than phone calls. They're less likely to appear on Most Wanted lists and be caught the second they hit a new town.

It's unlikely that the PCs have below-average communications technology, though possible. It's likely that PCs have above-average capabilities here, due to possessing telepathy, scrying powers, interstellar transponders, portal-communicators or some other technobabble.

Broadly speaking, it's very likely that there's a discrepancy between official and unofficial communication capabilities. There are many reasons for these discrepancies, but primarily, cutting-edge technologies are often first acquired by the military due to their purchasing and research power, while governments often limit civilians' access. In other cases, though, it's business that first grasps the value of a technology, or even a group of amateurs who work out a technique that does something they want but a government doesn't need.


What kind of information is, or can be, recorded? There's a huge range of technologies here from portable spy video cameras right down to plain old writing. These allow transmission of information between people who aren't in the same location or actively in contact.


Surveillance equipment, and its prevalence, is likely to be important whenever you're solving mysteries, tracking suspects, acting covertly, breaking the law or trying to surprise someone, which is about 90% of RPG sessions ever. Bugs make it dangerous to hold important conversations anywhere you haven't proofed, but also allow you to easily collect vital evidence. CCTV makes it harder to sneak up on people or work uninterrupted, and allows review of events after they occur - this is great for setting up plot. It can also be a nice OOC/IC way to review what the characters know without too much GM heavy-handedness. If this equipment exists, then there's gameplay in deploying, using and foiling it. If it's very common, avoiding surveillance entirely is almost impossible, but the needle-in-the-haystack problem creates new challenges.

There's a significant difference between live surveillance and recordings. The second must be collected and reviewed, which makes it and the user vulnerable. Collecting a bug without being detected or destroying the CCTV tapes are interesting missions. Live tech allows instant response, and can be adjusted on the fly for maximum quality, but this benefit is very dependent on attentive operators.

A society that shuns writing is really difficult if you want historical information or any kind of mass data. Number-crunching lets you spot trends or anomalies, but oral records don't tend to preserve that kind of information and are more subject to change. It may seem unlikely in a shiny sci-fi setting, but actually they often feature 'primitive' cultures, aliens with very different approaches to such things, or strange social setups that make writing redundant (The Overbrain knows everything, why would I write stuff down? I can just ask it. It died, you say..?). However, these are virtually always counterpoint cultures rather than the dominant one the protagonists belong to. This allows for counterpoint challenges, where PCs are suddenly deprived of many of their usual advantages, but as a natural outcome of the situation rather than because the GM takes their toys away.

Following naturally from this, data is itself an important technology. How much data is a) available to the PCs, and b) crunchable? If PCs can easily obtain and process vast amounts of data, it should be simple to detect patterns, locate people or things, pattern-match, or search for quotes or answers. Investigating fairly ordinary people or places is unlikely to offer much gameplay, since they should be simple to research and track down. If processing power is limited, information can be hidden and require expertise, rather than brute force, to track down.

A corridor of files at The National Archives UK


The security or otherwise of means of communication will influence their value and how they are used. I suppose the two main things to consider here are the widely-available security techniques (what everyone has) and the professional techniques (what the government has).


Does common encryption outstrip decryption? Then the themes will tend to be privacy, security and crime. The upper hand is with the information owner, usually an NPC. Information is as private as you want it to be, so other techniques must be used to get it. Rather than simply hacking or stealing, both PCs and NPCs will need to use physical interception, steal decryption keys or compel owners to reveal their secrets. This may build a kind of tension, as it's more difficult to subtly gather information and build up a plan. Rather, it may be necessary to first find an excuse to take these more drastic measures: authorities may need approval to bug an apartment or arrest someone, while criminals or free agents can't so readily use distant discreet methods to get what they need. This may lead to a more action-heavy game, increasing the importance of infiltration. If the PCs are themselves up to no good, then they may be safer from official attention.

Alternatively, does widely-available decryption outstrip encryption? Then the themes will tend to be surveillance and evasion. You can't assume that anything is confidential, so you're likely to turn to alternatives. Private information will be concealed using allusions, codewords or by passing it on in person. This is much like things were in the days of telegraphs, when all information was handled by an intermediary - you don't want them sniggering over your family affairs, let alone learning crucial commercial information.

In these cases, PCs may easily obtain information, but that won't necessarily help them. It's far more straightforward (not easy, straightforward) to decode a cipher than to interpret an allusive message. This may emphasise an investigative tone, with PCs and players working to get enough information to understand what they already have, rather than simply obtaining the message. Use of other languages is another common technique.

Obviously, authorities and important figures (like most PCs) often have far superior encryption and decryption available. In such cases, it may be simple to understand anything send by civilians, while criminals or major businesses are more opaque. In fact, use of complex encryption technology may itself be a sign that someone is up to mischief. In either case, the contrast between the two may create a varied set of scenarios, with PCs sometimes working to obtain information, and other times working to understand it. There are also legal issues in play, since the PCs may need authorisation to decrypt people's communications, and getting enough evidence to apply for a warrant may provide an interesting premise.


The third big aspect of communication technology is translation. What capabilities do you have to switch between languages? Of course, this is only relevant in games where more than one language exists.


Flawless translation is relativately common, partly because it's really convenient, and partly because it's mechanically simple. Such technology, if easily available to PCs, allows for some flavour-text cultural difference while handwaving the linguistic issues. If the technology is relatively exclusive, this provides another reason why PCs would be getting their hands dirty - as the ones with the technology, they are best placed to do so. It also becomes a source of suspicion, both of PC and NPCs. NPCs may be suspicious of these people who talk to Martians and orcs, and their likely motives. For PCs, the fact that an NPC possesses rare translation technology becomes a notable feature, and may indicate that they're in cahoots with some outside influence. In particular, discovering a hidden translator is highly suspicious; the equivalent of finding a hidden transmitter in a WW2 game.

If the technology is near-universal (Google Translate, but better) then PCs are no longer special in this regard. Different species and nations can easily communicate. This makes it easier for NPCs to collaborate, or indeed scheme, without being detected. The dynamic between different language groups may shift, offering different types of plot, and in particular it may be more complex: rather than being either rivals or allies, it's easier for the groups to interact at the individual level rather than the official. Tensions between groups may be reduced because it's so easy for them to communicate, so ghettos don't develop as easily. On the other hand, the technology may simply plaster over differences, allowing groups that are radically different to coexist by allowing superficial communication very easily, without much need for them to get to know each other's culture and mindset. This may be very important as a tool of governments to minimise conflict, but at the social level it may result in more subtle conflicts and prejudices emerging. Perfect fodder for scenarios in which community tensions are high, and PCs must deal with suspicion and infighting.

Bear in mind also that some things just aren't translatable, from pop-culture references to what is and isn't said. If Martian considers it extreme disrespect not to preface all meetings with four rounds of considerate questions about the family, while Plutonian culture considers family to be extremely private and indirectness to imply you think someone is over-sensitive, a translator really can't compensate. Very few people want a translation device that will actually make up stuff you didn't say, or ignore some stuff, even if it's trying to help.

Obviously, if excellent and instantaneous translation is available, then games won't tend to feature much in the way of researching such things. Ancient inscriptions or Martian communications can be dealt with as they come. It's a basic assumption now that any software-based technology is going to fit on your phone, and hard to change that even if you wanted to. So if you're sneaking through someone's room, and have insta-translate, you can probably immediately understand any documents or books you find. Rather than thinking "gosh, Professor Treacherous is very suspicious with all these Martian documents", you immediately know he's a traitor. You don't need to decide whether to try and borrow the documents and hope to return them unnoticed, or painstakingly photograph each page and hope nobody walks in. Well, not for translation, only as evidence.

Similarly, depending on just how thorough the software is, things like mysterious alien ruins or drifting spaceships may be a lot less mysterious.

Broadly, what translation tech is likely to do is change the type of challenges. Working out what something says is less of a challenge, and doesn't involve complex intermediate steps. This essentially negates the existence of other languages, at least from a plot viewpoint.

Of course, one alternative is tech that works, but isn't instantaneous. This is featured in a lot of older sci-fi. It takes an hour or more for the transmissions to be decoded, and that time leaves long enough for misunderstanding, tension and rash decisions. It may mean there isn't time to communicate with someone before taking action, which means less consultation and more chance of doing something unexpected.

More than enough for now!

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