You are Control.

September 18, 2008 at 11:02 am
filed under Roleplaying

I’ll confess that I used to think that the Technocratic Union from Mage: the Ascension was well on its way to irrelevance. The Syndicate will always be relevant, and likewise Iteration X. It’s the New World Order that always puzzled me a bit— the Internet and various bits of citizen journalism seemed to put to rest the notion that government could exert so much control over the media. I was much more afraid of corporations as a bunch of Little Brothers rather than any one Big Brother.

The fact is, though, that some governments have gotten pretty good at that. You see echoes of this in the UK as well, with an increase in surveillance. China’s crackdown on journalism and filtering of the Internet is another example. And last but not least, the United States has gotten in on this, with such as TALON and the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

The latest bit that brings Control to mind is this: the NSA and the Chinese government are teaming up to limit anonymity on the Internet.

In the US, I feel like there’s a kind of “can’t happen here” attitude, where if you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear. And ordinarily, I try to keep politics out of my roleplaying. But I think it might be all the more interesting to run a game that includes some of these themes. Sometimes exploring something through fiction can provide a kind of insight you just don’t get from reading newspaper articles.

A justifiable fear is that this would too real, in a sense. Some people might not appreciate it for other reasons. Without making too much of a value judgment, some people actually think this kind of behavior in a government isn’t such a bad idea, at least when the US does it.

This is more the germ or the framework for a game. There’d still be a bunch of work as you’d have to come up with a plot. It’s somewhat experimental. And also it might be a lousy idea.

The Game

One set of PCs that play normals, or at least most of them seem like normals. At your option, one or more of them could be involved with one or another illegal activity.

The other set of PCs plays the spooks, for lack of a better term. These are the guys who are tasked with investigating crimes and providing surveillance. Think of an amalgam, here, or an ensemble cast like the people in Law & Order SVU.

The important thing about the spooks is that they are regular people. They aren’t cackling mad or faceless machines. They have loved ones and they collect a paycheck. However misguided we might think they are, they feel what they’re doing is right. That’s part of what’s meant to be scary about the spooks.

One thing you should avoid is a 24-like aesthetic, where the villains are simple and things like torture have no impact on the torturer. Law & Order is a decent example, as the way those characters exploit loopholes in the laws can be very questionable.

The overall goal here is to give the players a look at what it’s like to be on both sides. The normals may, for the most part, be going about their business. Or maybe, in a crisis, they do things that look questionable, and maybe even outside of this context, some of them are questionable. Use your imagination.

For the normals, emphasize paranoia. They see strange cars parked down the street. After the spooks interview them, their friends recoil, afraid to talk much to the PCs. The normals notice neighbors snooping or staring.

For the spooks, emphasize ambiguity, uncertainty, and an undercurrent of urgency. Is this enough for probable cause? Is this harmless, or is it a neighbor settling a score? Do they have time to wait? Don’t let the spooks run roughshod over the law; a disincentive might be excess media attention or superiors who take a dim view of squandering precious time and resources on such a trivial case.

Conversely, planting evidence or entrapment shouldn’t be forbidden out-right. You should just be sure to emphasize the risk and play up that what the PCs are doing is illegal and could jeopardize their case should it come to light.

Ending? What ending?

How could this end? I dunno. This is the part where my idea is weakest.

From here, this could morph into a cat-and-mouse game, a shoot-out, a tragedy, or whatever else you have in mind. I imagine scenes where the spooks are face to face with normals, trying to feel one another out, or where the normals force the spooks into a manhunt. The spooks have to avoid scrutiny while the normals have to avoid getting caught. The normals try to gin up support in the media or on the Internet, trying to find a safe place to stay while the spooks have to sift through all of the clues to track the normals down.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. Lousy idea? Great idea? Dunno.

  • I like the idea although I feel (probably like you?) that it’s more fitted to a time controlled situation rather than a regular or more “open ended” style of gaming. Since the setup relies on a situational push rather than motivational threads, I believe it could work very well if emulating a movie-like (or series) experience.

    The thing I would look out for is the fact that the leads (the characters) are going to have different threads (narrative arcs/goals/dreams/whatever) that go beyond this situation (both the normals and the spooks.) So you can either have a group enforced thematic focus, or build the situation in a way that slowly undermines any room for alternatives (the normals-spooks situation get’s in the way of anything else.) Probably a mixture of the two can work even better.

    What am I missing?

    PS: Made me want to pick the newest edition of Mage up. Do you know if it’s any good?

%d bloggers like this: