Dystopias and Johnny Dollar

So, thanks to Bundle of Holding, once the download finishes over my “I am too cheap to pay for cable and FIOS doesn’t serve my area” DSL connection, I will be the proud owner of Shadowrun 4th Edition. I’m familiar with the third edition, which I found required too many of the wrong kinds of dice at the wrong times, but was otherwise okay.

However, as I look over the rules, I feel that, like Eclipse Phase recently, I want to do a “freelance insurance investigator” campaign, as in the old radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or the anime Master Keaton. I like Johnny Dollar for the theme better, because he had the “action packed expense account” which makes justifying the expenses to your client at the end half the fun (“N¥3505 for one hundred HEAP 7.62mm rifle rounds, because Renraku’s private security attempted to actively dissuade a witness from discussing the events surrounding the loss”).

I think part of this is that I’m not a teenager playing RPGs anymore, and roleplaying a street samurai (the unaffiliated mercenaries of Shadowrun) who is living in a crappy apartment scraping together odd jobs to pay the bills has lost its luster. It’s somewhat like my immediate post-college career, but with the ability to shoot people. Don’t really want to go back to that. At least have a regular idea where your clients come from and a veneer of respectability, as opposed to, “some guy will pay you next month’s rent, half upfront, to transport this mysteriously squirming duffel bag across town; don’t open it and especially don’t fall in love with the red-haired elf inside.” Which of course you do and do, and then the next adventure is failing some other super-sketch job to pay the bills but at least you can fence the machine guns you stole off those dead security guards for rent money. Repeat every four weeks. And the elf girl left you because you sleep on an inflatable mattress that smells like industrial cleaner and random people keep kicking in your door and spraying the place with automatic weapons fire every couple of weeks, the latter she might have tolerated if you just had enough cash to invest in some real cotton sheets and a new mattress.

The other thing that appeals to me about insurance investigation is that I find a lot of Shadowrun’s backstory to cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief right there at the gaming table (e.g., breaking into uncontrollable laughter upon hearing about the parts of America ruled by elves). In order to run a “sandbox” style of campaign, for example dealing with social justice in Seattle, getting to know all the different communities and their melange of species and religious beliefs, etc., you have to be able to reconcile the setting with your imagination. As I’ve posted about Eclipse Phase and its use of terrorism and hypercorporations, for me this requires a lot of “patching” holes in the fiction where I say, “hey, I read news about law and international relations all day, and things just don’t work like that, even if cybernetic elves and nature spirits are involved.

Directing the campaign to a specific type of story — in this case, detective style insurance investigation — allows me to just gloss over it with a layer of noir. Something went wrong. Someone else stands to benefit. Should they?

With that level of understandable, real world focus, it doesn’t matter if you’re investigating the supposedly accidental breakage of a dragon’s psychic crystal throne or the murder of an orc who knew too much at a corporation named after a word picked out of a Japanese 101 textbook.

An aside: seriously, RPG designers of the late 1980’s: could you not have noticed that basically all real-life zaibatsu have family names with some form of industry attached or Anglicized names (e.g. Panasonic, formerly Matsushita Electric Industrial Company)? It’s way more likely to have Japanese bad guy companies named “Fujida Heavy Industries” or “Takeda Consumer Biochemicals” or “Futuro” than “Shiawase” (“good fortune”).

The dragons and orcs and plugging into the Matrix is how the story gets done, but isn’t the story itself. It’s a story I want to tell more than the one the setting wants me to tell.

Eclipse Phase – Barsoomian Liberation

I was on the Eclipse Phase forum when I realized I was A) trying to start a flame war and failing, and B) woefully off topic, so I thought I’d bring my thoughts here.

Basically, the argument was over how the Eclipse Phase setting writers egregiously pick sides regarding politico-economic organization to a nearly Randian extent (hey, I loved Atlas Shrugged as a work of science fiction); if you are with the anarcho-capitalist program, you’re good, but if you’re not, you’re likely either a bigot or a slave-owner or both.

There’s a big debate about this regarding the hypercorporation-controlled states and some similar entities, but more interesting to me was the failure of the books to be clear as to how unsympathetic the “Barsoomian Movement” is.

To recap, in Eclipse Phase, Mars is about 1/3 terraformed. There’s a nominally democratic government, but power devolved to a series of more or less corrupt city-states, several of which are wholly or partially controlled by hypercorporation interests or other minority factions.

In response, there is a popular movement of farmers, nomads, lower-class workers, and idealists that fights for a laundry list of grievances; it’s called the “Barsoomian Movement” (after the Burroughs novels), or just “the Movement.” There’s a political wing that participates in Tharsis League (Martian government) politics, and then…well, the books hint at terrorism, but they don’t say how much.

The degree to which the Movement uses terror to achieve its goals is, I think, a really important detail if you have a campaign on Mars. Depending on which group you take historical examples from, Mars can be a more or less tumultuous place.

For example, if the Movement’s militant wing is, at worst, the Weathermen, then characters can wander around the nice parts of Mars not really worrying about the Movement; bombs are likely going to destroy property, not people, with warnings often before they go off.

However, if the Movement has a militant wing more like the IRA, as a gamemaster you’re wholly justified interrupting a scene in hypercorporate-controlled Mars with, “that cafe just exploded.” Furthermore, contacts characters have might “disappear” if they get on the wrong side of the Movement.

If the players are working for Firewall to locate and destroy a particularly apocalyptic piece of technology, the Movement’s militant wing might find out and demand that the players surrender whatever nuclear weapon-level danger thing the players got their hands on for the cause of Martian independence.

And there are examples of other liberation movements that can really add to the “random messed up”-ness of a Martian campaign. The ANC’s militant wing spent some time leaving anti-tank mines under rural roads in South Africa before they realized they were blowing up more poor people than government convoys; Eclipse Phase has a Mars with a lot of long, mostly unpoliced stretches of road. Speaking of roads, ETA assassinated the Spanish Prime Minister with a bomb built in a tunnel under a major Madrid thoroughfare.

The limit placed on this by the material is that the Movement is not described as FARC, Shining Path, or the Viet Cong: it’s not a guerrilla army which holds territory outside the rule of the governments of Mars. So there aren’t going to be running gunfights on a regular basis between government troops and Movement forces, and there will be some limits on the violence as the Movement also does (according to the books) seek political legitimacy. But it can be pretty nasty.

Eclipse Phase – on “hypercorporations”

Eclipse Phase is a fun setting, especially if the players have enough moxie points to overcome their frequent failures with the dice. However, there are a couple places where the setting is open to wildly different interpretations.

The Planetary Consortium is one. From what the books say, it’s a conglomerate of “hypercorporations” that form a politically-autonomous unit. It’s also one of the go-to “bad guys” of the setting; if someone with a lot of money sent a super-cyborg to kill you and steal your MacGuffin, it’s likely the Planetary Consortium or one of its constituent hypercorporations (if the assassin isn’t genetically-modified, it would be the other baddie, the Jovian Republic).

What Eclipse Phase doesn’t explain, though, is what it means to be a corporation after an apocalypse where explicitly all the old national governments died. There is, as per the setting, no equivalent of the “Free French” in WWII where the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources and a bunch of displaced bureaucrats pretends that Canada still exists on a tiny patch of the moon or Mars. I believe it’s in the Sunward sourcebook that it’s intimated that the Planetary Consortium actually killed those folks off during the “Fall” (the great apocalypse) to ensure that didn’t happen.

“Corporations,” as we understand them, are creatures of law as defined by a government. Limited liability, corporate personhood, and the vagaries of agency law are all defined by a government that exists separate from (although perhaps suffering from regulatory capture by) the corporations themselves.

In my mind, this leaves three major options for playing the Planetary Consortium:

1) “Hypercorporation” as feudal government run by MBAs

After the Fall, the businesses acted like their corporate rules still held, but this is a lie. While the labeling is modern corporate-speak, the lived experience is no different than in the middle ages. Ownership of a certain percentage of a firm is basically like the old acreage of a Japanese daimyo; it’s how much you can tax, and how much influence you have over your subordinates. In a feudal hypercorporation, C-level executives might be able openly order the death of non-management employees at will, because the corporation itself has power over life and death.

Similarly, in each corporation power flows downward from the shareholders in a feudal manner. “Vice presidents” are like dukes, middle managers landholding knights, down to the peasantry that toils in the offices and factories. The Consortium itself is like the Holy Roman Empire; unified only to the extent that the different counties’ interests are aligned.

An important thing to note here is that feudal hypercorporations won’t act like economic actors; they’ll act for their owners’ political or idiosyncratic interests first, then for the bottom line. As a result they will be more externally aggressive.

Pop culture example: The Genom Corporation from Bubblegum Crisis. It did whatever Quincy wanted it to do, even if it was crazy, criminal, or money-losing, and suffered no repercussions when, for an example from the original series, a rogue android took out its vengeance on Genom by firing space-based particle weapons into various major world cities. No one then said, “huh, maybe we should investigate Genom.” Nope. Business as usual.

2) “Hypercorporation” as Gilded Age robber baron

In this view, there is an overarching Planetary Consortium government nominally independent from the hypercorporations, but it is quite weak and corruptible. So, in theory, you could buy stock in a hypercorporation, but the corporation can dilute it. Direct Action might have made a “wrong airlock” mistake when it machine-gunned the living tar out of your habitat, but no judge will hear your case against them.

That said, as bad as things are, the nominal government creates principles so that any hypercorporation has to at least pretend that it’s not too corrupt or cruel or destructive. While it’s acceptable for a hypercorporation to have its security folks shoot someone in “self defense,” there will be political repercussions for sending a squad to level an orphanage.

Example from pop culture: the remake of Robocop with Michael Keaton as the head of OCP. In this movie, OCP is so closely tied with the government that it basically takes not only the head of the company holding an innocent woman hostage on the top of a building for the government to disavow its connection to OCP, but the death of that executive as well. Otherwise, OCP employees can murder and conduct questionable activities to their hearts’ content.

3) “Hypercorporations” as modern deregulation taken to an insane extreme

In this situation, the Planetary Consortium has an independent, semi-representative government with actually not that horrible rule of law; you have rights against the government suppressing your speech or jailing you indefinitely.

The difference here is that “the government” is maybe ten people who, apart from deciding foreign policy, mostly issue business licenses and arbitrate inter-corporate commercial disputes. Everything else, from food to national defense, is subcontracted to one of the hypercorps. Your police are Direct Action mercenaries. Your mail is Planetary Express. Your continued existence depends on being able to conduct commercial affairs with most of the major companies, and if they turn on you, you may not have the time or resources to get what a judge would eventually award you.

Here, the hypercorporations act most like businesses first, and less based on their owners’ personalities. Evil things that happen tend to be the result of lazy thinking, corner-cutting, or hiding mistakes from supervisors or the public rather than an overarching intention to do evil by the head of the company.

Example from pop culture: the original Robocop. Remember how the CEO of OCP had no idea that the head of the ED-209 project was killing people and making deals with street criminals? But then, when he found out, he fired the guy responsible instead of standing behind all that criminality as the cost of doing business?

Eclipse Phase – Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

In the middle of November, I ran another one-shot adventure for Eclipse Phase using the game’s pre-generated characters, which – word to the wise – do not print out on your home printer, because they will use all of your color ink.

Eclipse Phase bills itself as a “roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror,” which I would describe as follows:

  1. Your mind, for all important purposes, is backed up on a hard drive at the bottom of your head, and probably elsewhere. So, generally, death is more inconvenient than permanent.
  2. Earth was destroyed in a cataclysm involving rogue military artificial intelligences and their many war machines, from destructive nanobots to giant war robots. We live on or around all the other solar system’s bodies now. Some of those weapons still remain to ruin your day.
  3. Every major organization not run by libertarians is deeply corrupt and/or incompetent. Corrupt but competent organizations are also actively malevolent. If you work for Heritage Action or Organizing for America you will find this game’s politics implausibly Randian.
  4. The supplement Sunward has rules for you to play a cyborg space whale powered by swimming in the electromagnetic field around the sun. My entire gaming group will mock you forever if you do this.

This session’s adventure (linked if you want to try it yourself) was based on three things which I love:

  1. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the radio show of insurance investigation on WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast,”
  2. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, and
  3. The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service.

So, I had the players be “backup insurance” investigators – they were going to investigate whether the insurance company storing copies of some folks’ minds would have to pay to upload them into new bodies due to a covered incident. In this case, the seeming death of all crew members on the bulk freighter Edmund Fitzgerald. Investigating this would reveal something truly horrible in the engine room.

Using the pregenerated characters was okay, although I should have emphasized the need for people to have the “Free Fall” skill for microgravity movement more; there was a lot of wasted time with characters slowly crawling along the outside of a spaceship because they couldn’t make efficient rolls.

This is one of the issues with Eclipse Phase‘s percentile roll skill system; if you are not good or only kind of good at something, you roll poorly quite often. The poor rolling problem was also true with spacecraft maneuvering rolls, which made it tough to be a gamemaster. There’s always a risk of true, dangerous failure, but if the situation just requires a little bit of skill, it’s just not dramatically appropriate to screw the player over for repeated bad rolls. So there were a lot of rolls just to determine how much time was being wasted not succeeding.

Another issue I discovered with the Eclipse Phase system on this go-round was that a large number of knowledge skills (the skill category for areas of study or trivia) are remarkably needed for things the books encourage you to take not very many and have in super-niche areas such as “Profession: Art Restorer” and “Interest: Octopus Pornography.” If you don’t have any spaceship knowledge skills, despite your Pilot: Spacecraft, a fair reading of the rules says that you don’t know anything that isn’t directly related to flying a spacecraft; example – reading a transponder code to know that the ship designated on the code is way too large to be the ship indicated on the radar. And then, you’ll need a cluster of other knowledge skills – most of which you probably never even considered taking – to figure out who the ship belongs to. A lot of the session was folks asking each other if they had appropriate knowledge skills. Sometimes no one did.

One of the players was playing an artificial intelligence uploaded into the ship’s computer; because the setting allowed for constant networked communication between all players through cybernetic implants, not having a body wasn’t much of a hindrance except when physical force needed to be applied (e.g., opening an airlock), and even then, there were robot drones for that. This was especially helpful when the cybernetic octopus who was the pilot confronted the nameless horror (okay, it was named “Tabitha”) in the engine room and ended up fried; the AI could both know what happened and still more or less fly the ship home.

Despite the wonky skill system, Eclipse Phase remains fun; would run again, although next time on Mars or in the clouds of Venus.