Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Kitting Monitors, decision time

Okay, I've done more than enough procrastinating on the subject of equipment. Time for some decisions. How do I want to model equipment in this game?

Basic guiding points here:

  • premise: sorcerous spacefaring bionic secret agent lizards
  • tone: Saturday morning cartoons meet Dan Dare
  • tech level: high-tech, not ultratech
  • crunch: moderate

What have I got in my pockets?

I think for a game like Monitors, I probably should be aiming for a fairly abstract non-mechanical system. It's supposed to be a sort of campy, fun, enthusiastic game. You don't want to have to go through a list at the start and worry about whether you take a Transdimensional Aggrandizer Node, you want to attempt to disrupt a dimensional vortex and invent the Transdimensional Aggrandizer Node on the spot as something in your utility belt that will let you do that, just as flavour text.

Essentially, a Monitors character should be assumed to have access to the equipment they routinely need to use their skillset. Since they are sorcerous spacefaring bionic secret agents, this means that any Monitor should be assumed to have a fairly substantial arsenal of stuff for dealing with magic, space travel, mundane technology and Secret Agent Stuff, plus whatever an ordinary citizen in a professional job would generally have, plus equipment and supplies needed for the routine requirements of their specific role. No mechanical attention is needed on this point.

It's also assumed that Monitors are carrying whatever equipment they might reasonably expect to carry around for what they're up to now, packed slightly bigger stuff in whatever transport they are using or somewhere convenient, and have the bulky supplies in their current base of operations. If they thought they were investigating demonic intrusions in the royal botanical gardens, and find themselves dealing with a robot uprising controlled through the internet, it's reasonable to assume they might need to go back to the hotel and get the other backpack. If they're undercover, they make sensible decisions about when to carry incriminating gear, but genre gives them a lot of margin for implausible secret pockets and wiretaps disguised as coffee cups.

Of course, this is still a bit hazy, but I think it has to be, because you have to draw a subjective line somewhere between "everything you generally need" and "everything you might conceivably use in the most extreme circumstances possible", especially in a sci-fi game of implausible technology.

Very specialist stuff will still require some effort to get, but this should make narrative sense. Some things are closer to hand than others. A troubleshooting engineer should have an extensive toolkit, a workshop full of tools and machines, and a big library. However, they still need to make a few calls before they can use an electron microscope to examine samples, because that's not the sort of thing you have at home. A medical Monitor has everything they need for everyday examination, sampling, first aid or field surgery; but they don't have a fridge full of blood in their rucksack, and they can't do major tests or brain scans without access to a clinic.

Often, therefore, the exact resources available should depend on the mission setup. This should be established at the start. If you're going in openly to a friendly planet, you probably have your own kit on hand, easy access to most things, and very expensive or restricted equipment will require authorisation. If you're going in undercover, your resources are limited to what you personally bring, or what you can wangle through other methods. You might need to spend some time setting up a secret lab, or hacking a system to authorise you a timeslot on the electron microscope under a false ID.

In either case, you shouldn't be worrying about mechanical impact of most stuff. Either you have what you need to do something, or you don't. If you've made a special effort to be prepared, that abstract preparedness might give you a bonus if it makes sense: deciding to take tissue samples back to the university hospital for analysis, rather than do it in a damp cave, is probably going to make things easier.

Plus and minus

Insofar as modifiers exist (and the system is no longer modifier-heavy), these should be bonuses. Equipment is pretty hazy. If you really don't have what you need - say, a machine to bore a tunnel under the ocean - then you just can't do it that way. I suppose the exception here is if you are deprived of what would normally be standard equipment, like you've been thrown in prison. I think mostly I'd like to handle this with awesome: if your doctor wants to perform heart surgery in prison, then provided they can improvise something roughly suitable, they can do it. Monitors are badass. You want to perform heart surgery using a couple of toothpicks, the little key off a tin of corned beef, a bottle of gin and a box of tissues, you can, and you roll your dicepool plus your skill. Your ordinary equipment isn't a bonus, it's a narrative tool.

Actual bonuses should be fairly rare, and essentially boil down to situational bonuses where You Are Prepared. Having equipment that gives a regular modifier to your attributes tends to be a bit fiddly, and I'd rather avoid it.


As mentioned previously, equipment in the game doesn't require mechanical maintenance. Stuff should only break or run out as part of narrative, and this shouldn't happen very often. Equipment is reliable and not liable to break, malfunction or whatever.


Because equipment is handwavey, you don't need to worry much about the logistics. Monitors are assumed to get most of their stuff either from the Monitor organization, or professional backgrounds, or make it themselves. Some may be requisitioned or bought in-situ. Very specialised equipment will be obtained or accessed as necessary by negotiation with locals or through devious means, as discussed above.

Transport and travel

This sort of thing is going to vary an awful lot by planet, because it helps define them.

However, as I've outlined a terrifyingly long time ago, the Monitors are distinguished by their ability to use Deepjumps to travel vast distances very fast, making them intergalactic troubleshooters. Even in high-tech regions where people can readily hop on a ferry to the next habitable world for a long weekend, the Monitors are far and away more travelled. Being equipped with tech that's in the upper few percent of what the whole galaxy offers, they have things like shuttles and hovercars that make them elite on lower-tech worlds. Compared to ordinary people, they are mobile and well-travelled, exotic outsiders who could tell many tales.

I will think about the baseline default worlds when I'm working more on setting.


Teleportation is out. While not unthinkable, this is not a stable or PC-usable technology. It appears only as a plot device, most likely in experimental prototypes or weird unpredictable alien warp gates.


As a bouncy sort of game, Monitors medical technology is at what you might call Adventurous Future. Most diseases and almost any injury can be healed with minimal long-term effects, though some take longer than others. However, this technology isn't necessarily available everywhere, since it requires infrastructure: trained professionals, well-maintained equipment, good hospitals, supplies of specialist chemicals. In some societies, it will be restricted to particular people. Essentially, characters can expect to recover from whatever they survive.

By the same token, adventure requires challenge. Lives may be extended, but nobody's immortal - except, of course, immortal beings who are not playable races, or robots who perpetually improve themselves, or people affected by strange temporal anomalies. NPCs and PCs alike can die according to the setting; the crux here is that for the adventure cartoon tone, they could die, they just don't. On the rare occasions they do, it's NPCs dying for plot reasons.

Regeneration is on the scars-and-transplants level. You could get a limb regrown, but equally you might get a bionic instead. Bionics are about as good as your original limbs; they have upsides and downsides. You can't regenerate someone from a tissue sample, and there is no widespread or stable tech for doing brain uploading and suchlike.


It's assumed that Monitors can communicate with each other about as reliably as a mobile phone allows. This is partly for genre, and partly simplicity, because the game is also supposed to support party-splitting and it's nice when players can have conversations. Genrewise, adventure sci-fi is usually a mixture of comming info between protagonists, and people being unable to talk because: they're in a dead zone; they're staying quiet because of aliens; their comm has been damaged; they're preoccupied; they're in warp space; they're out of range. Portable communication tech is both already here, and an obvious candidate for improvement.

Essentially, assume that Monitors can talk to each other easily, and explicitly note exceptions. Because communications usually rely on infrastructure, it's quite easy to make sensible exceptions to add interest to the game. As in real life, some remote locations might not have relays to pass the signal, cutting range to just a few metres. Some planets may expressly block, tap, or track signals for political or cultural reasons, making it hard to use them. It's easy to understand that heavy machinery, deep tunnels or certain buildings might interfere with signals.

We'll assume that local communication is instant, planetary communication near-instant, and offworld communication is subject to increasingly heavy lag, but still possible. However, it's so fiddly and costly to call other planets that very few people bother: governments, large corporations, the very wealthy, perhaps research institutes or hospitals needing advice. Ordinary citizens and small corporations rely on the equivalent of email, with gaps of minutes to hours between messages.

For simplicity, assume that Monitors communications are highly secure, likewise planetary authorities, and everything else is up for grabs. Comming your party members is safe unless someone has specifically got at you, but contacting an ally may not be. This will, of course, vary by planet.

Finally, let's assume that most people aren't always online. You can come up with various excuses for this: companies are increasingly strict about wasting time on personal calls and internet faffery; privacy concerns make people disconnect to avoid tracking or hacking; constant spam makes it unbearable; culture has changed and people don't want the stress of being always-on; infrastructure is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that goes around, so governments discourage it and it's not very convenient anyway. Whatever the case, PCs can attempt to contact people, but shouldn't expect to always get them immediately. This helps leave the PCs to handle things themselves without too much outside influence, and allows the GM some control over the speed of plot developments.

Surveillance and data

Surveillance culture is setting and location-based, but obviously surveillance tech exists. Because we're sticking with high-tech, we're basically looking at: CCTV, coin-sized bugs (not nanobugs), RFID chips, disableable GPS in everyday tech. Facial recognition is possible, but you aren't pestered by personalised billboards and doors that look you up on Facebook. DNA can be scraped and tested, but that sort of thing requires active effort (no airborne DNA sniffers here) and countertactics have been developed.

Data storage and crunching has roughly kept pace with data expansion, which means it still takes about as long as it does right now. You can rapidly search a dedicated database or analyse very specific data, because the computers are great, but googling and brute-force searching is slow and painful. Mechanically what this means is, it takes a few seconds to google the city mayor, and a few minutes to get a filtered dataset from a government database, but speculative searching goes at the speed of plot. You can't expect to say "computer, find the connection between these four things", feed it every single piece of information on the planet, and immediately find out the answer to your mystery.


Having invented a slew of languages for Monitors, I've already thought about this, and obviously I don't want brilliant translation technology. That would sort of lose the point.

The Monitors are distinguished in several ways. As educated members of an (but not the) elite, they understand all the major language groups of the galaxy. Their particular job also means they have vocaliser implants that allow them to actually articulate these languages, which is far less common.

Transliteration technology is widespread. It's easy to convert sound waves into light pulses, mesoglyphs into thermal patterns, or whatever else allows you to communicate across species barriers. Speech-to-text and text-to-speech are pretty much flawless; so is text-to-scent.

On the other hand, translation technology has got as good as it can, and run into a brick wall. The problem is that a very significant part of language is the social and cultural context: expectations, shared points of reference, systems of formality and politeness... How do you indicate sympathy, dominance, amiability, agreement, qualms, piety, intimacy, affection? How is business done? Directness or indirectness, being personal or impersonal, passive or active, quiet or talkative, modest or fulsome or confident, there's a lot of points where languages wildly disagree. Now imagine how that works when the conversation is between a worker drone in an incestuous bee matriarchy, a police robot built by wolves, a giant psychic clam brought up in a communist collective, and another giant psychic clam raised as a noble warrior-priest in a sprawling empire full of Byzantine hierarchies with a strong taboo against using names.

Essentially, translation tech is more or less stuck at the Google Translate level. It can conveniently translate the words used; it can make fairly sensible decisions about how to handle inflections, tenses, phrases, idioms. What it can't do is handle any of the social stuff, references to pop culture or quotes from the classics, or convey any kind of nuance. It's probably also hopeless with any kind of proper nouns (placenames, personal names and so on). This means tourists can use it to get directions or buy meals, audiences can get the gist of a film or a website, and low-budget businesses can make simple deals. For anything complicated or important, you hire an actual translator.

Maker tech

Making stuff on demand is fun, but I don't want it to disrupt what should be a relatively familiar setting. 3D printing and similar technologies can certainly exist, and the Monitors would have access to a lot of designs and materials that others wouldn't. However, since equipment is already pretty abstract, that isn't a big deal. I'm also going to rule that maker tech is still not able to synthesise subtances (no lead-into-gold), and is too crude to make sophisticated devices (no printing personal electronics).

The main restriction here will be practicality: you need supplies to make stuff, those take space and money, so you can't make unlimited quantities of stuff. And you can't make anything big unless you can assemble it from small, simple parts. An expert can make some fairly complicated things, but these will universally be bigger, cruder and usually more expensive than just buying the real thing. In the same way, you could assemble a working computer from mechanical parts, but there's almost certainly no point.

Where public maker machines are available, they're programmed with a range of permitted designs that people can buy. Small businesses can make other stuff for you more or less as conveniently as you could buy it, but a bit more customised. In most societies, they'll have built-in limiters to stop you making stuff the authorities don't want you to have, and these will be sophisticated enough to mostly work.

Essentially, this stuff exists, but it's mostly flavour.

Weapons and stuff

As I've mentioned before, Monitors was invented originally to play around with theories about attacks that don't inflict damage. As such, it absolutely needs an array of non-lethal weaponry. Moreover, this fits the source material, the genre of cheerful adventure sci-fi, and the optimistic tone I'm going for. Stunners, flash bombs and knockout gas that has no lasting effects are powerful tools for that sort of thing. While I've talked about the real-life problems with this sort of thing, in a game we can handwave these possibilities; it's part of the general tone-setting. You establish that it's not a dystopia but a cheery adventure game, so where this stuff does get used, it's used in ways that fit that tone.

Weird stuff

For simplicity, I'm saying mind-probing is not a widespread, safe or acceptable technology. It is, in fact, the sort of thing that crops up only as experimental devices which provide plot (and malfunction), and usually in the hands of sadistic antagonists. This is essentially a plot-fodder technology.

Invisibility is likewise not a reliable technology. Experimental devices with many drawbacks are available (as plot fodder), and weird alien relics, strange potions or dimension-hopping demons might have invisibility powers. It is sufficiently uncommon that it has no effect whatsoever on general behaviour.

Done? I think we're done here. Okay, time to get back to that list.

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