Decompiling Deckers: Information Gathering

I recently watched Searching and it is a great movie, would recommend it to anyone looking for a good dramatic thriller movie. The trailer is below, and it all essentially tells its story from a computer screen. We get webcam footage of the actors, like when using Facetime to talk to each other, and other times its video clips or websites that we are seeing on screen to help add to the information as the father searches for his missing daughter.

I have been looking at doing a breakdown on the Computer User character types for modern and futuristic roleplaying games for a long while. Being a Computer Programmer and working Technical Support, I have an understanding of how the machines work and can see when things in TV shows and movies and games are doing things that are essentially the ‘Rule Of Cool’ with this technology, because it makes for a good story. I love a good Techno-Thiller, and I like playing the Hacker character in a lot of games but find that there are problems with some people and understanding how to make them work in games with other players.

The biggest example of how computer users don’t fit in games that I know of started with the Cyberpunk 2020 game in the early 90’s. There was the Netrunner and they would be a character who would hack dataforts which were laid out like crossword puzzle grids. It was like the scene in Johnny Mnemonic where he goes online to find information about the fax that was sent and who wants him dead, which I included a clip of below. As only the Netrunner is interfacing with this world, they are the only ones doing anything and thus usually became the time when players would do a food break. Shadowrun had a similar character, the Decker, who would be connecting remotely to systems. In both, it runs at the speed of thought so actions would be done in seconds but the whole thing could take a long time in the real world.

Now as this is going to be a lot of detail to cover to show how to make this character work in games, I will break this down into a few pieces and do posts on each, trying to build off the concepts and techniques to make them useful in a system neutral way. The first I wanted to focus on is information gathering since that is one thing we see the Computer Guy doing a lot in works. They have the resources to gather information for the characters who need it. Criminal procedurals will usually have one of these characters at the office where they look up records for the field agents, such as address of suspects, checking their financials and any priors and the like, with Garcia from Criminal Minds being a great example. It gets even worse when you get into Heist or other action works. The Computer User there will have to deal with finding out information on people like where they work, their car, the money they make and so forth, as well as listening to police radio, helping keep the team of cameras, cracking security, laying false information for identities to keep the team from being found out.

To give you an example of the sort of information that is out there, let me direct you to a song by Stupendium. Stupendium made a CP2077 song Data Stream that talks about how much control the corporations have going so far as to have a Bridge which is just a list breakdown of some of the things that are already being collected, inspired by a list of data collection Facebook did from what I heard.

Name, age, qualifications
Race, faith, career aspirations
Political leaning, daily commute
Marital status, favorite fruit
Family, browser, medical history
Hobbies, interests, brand affinity
Fashion, style, your occupation
Gender identity, orientation
Lifestyle choices, dietary needs
The marketing contact you choose to receive
Posts, likes, employers, friends
Social bias, exploitable trends
Tastes, culture, phone of choice
Facial structure, the tone of your voice

Stupendium- Data Stream

Before getting into the real meat of things, I want to just to define what it is made up of and why it is so important, your digital footprint is illustrated by these two older images from the video game series Watch_Dogs and then a 2020 infographic of data produced daily.

Watch_Dogs Infographic to show what your data footprint can consist of.
Watch_Dogs infographic showing what your data footprint is used for.

So, with all this information out there, trying to find a specific piece of information is going to be hard. Based on the data estimates, there is 2,500,000 Terabytes being generated daily by the world. So, when you hear people talking about search engine optimization, there is a lot to that to make sure your data turns up first in people’s searches or else it could get lost in a sea of random data. Over 50% of clicks go to the first five search results, and around 95% of searches never leave the first page meaning all that other data is hidden. What sort of things can be hidden there? If you search by a person’s name, you may find a lot of thing about them or you may find things about someone with a similar name or even the same name. Try finding about ‘John Smith’ without any other filters and you could be there for a while trying to find the specific one.

After we start limiting our search information to things like age, region, ethnicity, we can find results starting to drop off, eliminating false positives from the information. There’s still a large number of data to go through. If we assume you have access to all data with nothing hidden behind paywalls that you don’t already have access to, you can get all sorts of things. That list of Stupendium’s shows a great amount of data but you can also have access to stuff like school yearbooks that can give a lot of information about who someone was, company newsletters that are usually published to the corporate site to let people have an inside look at the company, hospital records to see if they have any medical issues that can be exploited, do they do any volunteer service that you might be able to catch them at? Basically, if there’s a piece of information about a person that can be tracked, it likely is somewhere.

As a GM, I find myself asking players to specify exactly what they’re looking for and then using that to go through a mental checklist of the sort of information it would turn up before presenting them with any relevant information their search turned up and a lot of other information they might have come up with but otherwise are just fluff. There is many games which will have some information searching rules for computers and the ones I have seen usually just have ‘Players find or don’t find what they want’. So, I started making up a lot of fluff information and then handing it to the players for information that they can use to help build the universe of the characters and also have some information they can use for leads.

Orwell is a good game series for this, as the idea of it puts you as a profile diver gathering intel on people to prove their guilt or innocence of a crime. This means that any sort of intel you find can help shape your opinion of the person or persons and you need to decide on your take of what you find. Sometimes the information conflicts so you need to decide on which is more important for the case you are trying to make for the suspect. If you want to see more of this sort of style done, check out the movie ‘Enemy of the State’ starring Will Smith, a thriller as he is hunted for having evidence of a crime and it becomes a story of surveillance, secrecy and the shadowy agencies out there.

So, there’s a lot of information out there and it takes a lot of filtering to go through if you’re looking at the footprint that we leave behind. This footprint, however, can sometimes be the start to further investigating. Neil Stephenson is a fine example of this, such as in the short story SPEW, where the character is a Profile Auditor and talks about a previous Auditor’s success:

I am thinking of Adderson. Every one of us, sitting in our cubicles, is always thinking of Adderson, who started out as a Profile Auditor 1 just like us and is now Vice President for Dynamic Programming at Dynastic Communications Inc. and making eight to nine digits a year depending on whether he gets around to exercising his stock options. One day young Adderson was checking out a Profile that didn’t fit in with established norms, and by tracing the subject’s social telephony web, noticed a trend: Post-Graduate Existentialists who started going to church. You heard me: Adderson single-handedly discovered the New Complacency.

It was an unexploited market niche of cavernous proportions: upwards of one-hundredth of one percent of the population. Within six hours, Adderson had descended upon the subject’s moho with a Rapid Deployment Team of entertainment lawyers and development assistants and launched the fastest-growing new channel ever to wend its way into the thick braid of the Spew.

Spew by Neil Stephenson

Of course, as Gamemasters we have all the players at the table to think about, so in my next post in this topic I am going to talk about Asymmetric Information Gathering, or in other words, how to incorporate the whole table in on information gathering instead of just one guy sitting in a room doing work and then coming back with the next location for the players to kick the door in at.

Playing Outside The Box: Controversial Character Types

As a big Cyberpunk fan, I like looking for different angles to tell the stories in, different ways to play the game because the common view of Cyberpunk is playing a gun toting warrior who goes through ripping up the world in some quest. You see it in movies like John Wick, Blade Runner, Dredd, Ghost In The Shell, The Matrix series, Robocop, Terminator, Total Recall, Hardwired, Ultraviolet… basically the Cyberpunk genre becomes an action movie way too easily, both because the genre plays a lot of Man Versus World (in the form of corporations or gangs) and because the high-tech genre gives us a lot of options for epic fight scenes. You can have a chase scene with hovercars like in the Phantom 2040 video game, like this picture from GPuronen

or this anti-grav gunfight from the Total Recall remake

or even the ‘low budget but still cool’ doorslide into slash cut gunfight from Equilibrium

So it’s very pretty and full of cool ideas to turn into set pieces the likes we have not seen before. However, what I begin to see with this when talking to people about making a cyberpunk character for a game becomes a lot of people making mercenary types.

CP2020’s Core Roles

Using that above list of core roles, let’s look at the bonuses each gets as their ‘class skill’.

  • Rockerboy Special Ability: Charismatic Leadership.
    This skill allows the Rocker to sway crowds equal to his ability level squared times 200.
  • Solo Special Ability: Combat Sense.
    Added to all Initiative and Awareness checks, this makes the Solo the fastest reacting person in a situation.
  • Netrunner Special Ability: Interface.
    This Skill reflects the Netrunner’s ability to manipulate Interface programs, and is the skill used when operating Menu functions such as Locate remote, Run Software, Control Remote, LDL Link, Load, Create and Delete. Other players can enter the Net, but can’t use the Menu.
  • Techie Special Ability: Jury Rig.
    This general repair skill allows the Techie to temporarily repair or alter anything for 1D6 turns per level of skill.
  • Medtech Special Ability: Medical Tech.
    This is the skill used to perform major surgery and medical repairs.
  • Media Special Ability: Credibility.
    The ability to have people believe what you are saying while in your on-air persona.
  • Cop Special Ability: Authority.
    The ability to intimidate or control others through your position as a lawman.
  • Corporate Special Ability: Resources.
    This represents the Corporate’s ability to command corporation resources. It is used as a persuasion skill, based on scale of resources requested.
  • Fixer Special Ability: Streetdeal.
    The ability to locate people, information, etc. This is a higher form of making a connection; instead of knowing only one person, you have connections everywhere. In game play, a successful use of Streetdeal allows you to locate and acquire a desired person, place or thing.
  • Nomad Special Ability: Family.
    This allows the Nomad to call in as many Family members to aid him as his current Family Ability level x 2.

You can see the Solo gets a combat boost, and while some players could probably justify a Cop special ability in their missions trying to work some of the others into missions in class alone because of utility. Usually the ones I hear of are Rockers and Media, as the others have at least some sort of usefulness outside of the fights enough to justify playing them.

It is my belief that in Cyberpunk games, the idea of combat should be treated as if it could be fatal or at least seriously wounding. The Matrix gunfight in the lobby is not how a Cyberpunk firefight would be, as in a lot of the sort of ‘foundation’ of Cyberpunk genre the idea was the protagonists were the little guy and there enemies were the endless masses from their rivals of corporations they were rebelling against. It’s like the endless Hand soldiers get sent after Matt Murdock (or the Foot soldiers sent after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) as they seemly are always able to send more. Thus, if combat breaks out you want to end it quick so you don’t catch a stray bullet or more as some SMG just sprays your way. Don’t forget that Case, the main character and hacker from the novel Neuromancer, didn’t even know how to fight in any form.

Even if we cut out the bloodthirsty sort of combat hungry characters that seem popular in portrayals for Heroic Fantasy D&D, you’ll still likely have some combat scenes. I’m not saying get rid of them all, as there are times you’ll want some sort of direct confrontation. Just don’t pre-suppose they are going to end in a conflict as that takes the roleplay out of it if you’re looking for a reason to go to violence. Also, you can have some great games without any combat like this list of 8 video games with no combat or this list of 43 games that do not revolve around killing people or these show but some people may say these games are specifically crafted to allow non-violence like Portal, Journey and Stardew Valley so then there’s 10 games you can beat without killing anyone which shows some big budget games that can be beat with no violence.

Once you take out the idea of using combat as the main ‘let’s get the players involved in things’ focus that I’ve encountered in other games, you can come up with some interesting angles of how to use classes. For example, Counter Strike a 1990’s TV Show had a Corporate assemble a team of a Cop to lead the team in the field, a Fixer they blackmailed in due to criminal connections and a Solo for muscle. Then there’s the 1992 film Sneakers which had Bishop as a Netrunner, Donald Crease the Cop (a former CIA officer), Darren “Mother” Roskow, the team Techie; Carl Arbogast, a new Netrunner; and Irwin “Whistler” Emery, a blind Techie specialized in Phones. I like to reference the Amanda Hades webseries as it’s trio was Amanda Hades the Media, Troubleshooter the Decker, and Stinger their Techie, out to spread the real true news. There are other examples, like the ensemble group in Leverage of Mastermind (ex-Corp), Hacker (Decker), Hitter (Solo), Grifter (Fixer), Thief (Techie)

Some people may say that most of those examples are not Cyberpunk. I say that its all in what you focus on and how you run it. Just look at the quote from Game Designer Mike Pondsmith in CP2020 core book:

Life in 2020 isn’t just all guns and drugs. If it was, we woulda named the game Dungeons & Drug Dealers.

The best Cyberpunk games are a combination of doomed romance, fast action, glittering parties, mean streets and quixotic quests to do the right thing against all odds. It’s a little like Casablanca with cyberware…”

So, let’s look at a few creative ways to use the roles. Rockerboys are Bards from D&D or Toreadors from Vampire, the creative sort that use their artistic skill to rebel. Perhaps they’re a musician like The Ramones, a painter like Banksy getting resistance out with spreading a visual message, a writer like Ayn Rand or Aldus Huxley, or perhaps as a DJ on a pirate radio station using it to spread their message a la Pump Up The Volume. I have seen some say that acts against the ‘Charismatic Leadership’ to do something that doesn’t have an immediate audience like a musician or politician. My response to that is flash mobs like in this intro to an episode of CSI: Miami which helped reveal a body. A writer could write a rousing work that draws people into a protest, for example. To include the Rockerboy into the game is to have them going on the team for ‘street cred’, ‘inspiration’, ‘the rush’, or some other addiction, as much as it might be about money. Their focus is they need to be able to reach their audience and their time with the group is helping them do that.

CP2077 gives us a great example of this with Johnny Silverhand. So full of fire and rage inside of him, wanting to change the world. If you read into the CP2020 character, there’s a lot of that “destroy the Man” punk resistance there too.

Medias also cross path with the Rockerboys as those Pirate Radio DJs or other independant journalists out to tell the story as we saw with Amanda Hades, or they could be like Peter Parker selling their work to the Daily Bugle or a staff investigative reporter like Lois Lane and Clark Kent for the Daily Planet. I could even just take the easy way out and direct you to the Transmetropolitan comic series which chronicles the battles of Spider Jerusalem, infamous renegade gonzo journalist of the future. The core of the Media is they want to get the truth out there for people. It might be a muckraking tabloid style or it might be hard hitting expose stuff, the idea is while Rockerboys have a message they want to spread, you want to get the truth out there. So, you’re looking for that truth while you go around with the team, some sort of story you can tell and it even could be upbeat.

Another example is with the Nomads, who are not the Mad Max loner as they are the class to be able to call in family members to aid. However, this aid could be less of a call to arms for combat as it is a call to aid in their own way. Comic series Global Frequency is about 1,000 people around the world crowdsourced into this group to help save the world and different stories about their experiences. Issue 8 is titled .001 where the head of the organization is taken and different people use their skills to help get her back. They call out tech specialist Mark Tran, (mostly reformed) criminal and professional bodyguard Alice April and retired detective Winston Croft to investigate while Aleph, the ‘operator’ of the Global Frequency, uses outsourcing photo editing and video analysis to get it done quickly. I can see using family members like that. Check out Wisom of the Crowd TV series which uses Crowdsourcing to solve crimes, using people’s different skills to be useful ina group.

All tables approach this problem in one of two ways based on what best fits their group; either the GM will adapt the story to the characters or the players can adapt the story with their character. By this I mean the GM can specifically write in moments for the Rockerboy to design a rebellion and spell out a juicy story thread to the Media to work with, or they can create a world where the Media rakes events and creates a story (perhaps even inventing facts you hadn’t locked into the narrative yet) and the Rockerboy decides to incite a rebellion to help their cause.

You can see Cyberpunk media taking chances with things outside the ‘Action movie” when you have things like Gattaca the crime drama movie from the role of the criminal, Total Recall 2077 and Altered Carbon as different examples of investigative drama, the Incorporated TV series giving a vantage point of life for the Corporate making them the key focus for a lot of the story, with cuts to the Solo and Strange Days main character is a ex-Cop Fixer. You could take a noir film like Maltese Falcon and dress it up with a cyberpunk set like the ‘Tech-Noir” genre did with the Film-Noir genre, perhaps referencing something like the Liquid Cool novel series which is a sci-fi detective thriller.

The Domino Effect

When people talk about challenging the players, a lot of what I tend to see is people building one object to challenge them. It is a big boss creature with special counters to the PCs general modus operandi. Essentially, they are creating a tank or a hammer to use to pound in the problem player(s) for whatever infraction they see, whether it be ‘This player is making challenges extremely simple’ to ‘This player is exploiting a rule’ or whatever.

However, if you want to challenge them on a consistent basis, you can do it in a different way, by using Interdependence Risk. In business, interdependence risk comes from the fact that since everything is now connected, a small event like a trader improperly covering derivatives trades, a rogue computer hacker, a fire in a supplier’s factory can spiral into a much larger company-threatening crisis. There are many ways to apply this to an RPG, but in the end, everything is connected and needs to be working to make the whole work. Look at your traditional team in a D&D setting; fighter, healer, magic-user and thief. They all must work together or there is some problems, as is illustrated by this Order of the Stick comic:


When Belkar decides to walk away from his duties for kills he is causing an Interdependance Risk as the enemies then go after the spell casters, something Belkar references how it should be an easy thing to do.

So, to challenge players you want to develop situations where you can then have your players challenged in small ways that can then build into bigger challenges. An old module was White Plume Mountain which had a section with platforms suspended above geysers that would go off and spray the people on the platforms. Some people would also add other things, like monsters that would attack the first across the chasm, meaning it can be quite deadly for the players since it would be a surprise attack.

In that example, it took a few small bits and combined them together to create a possibility for a dangerous scenario. A tunnel collapse splitting the players is another example of a small thing causing larger problems since now the party is split, and if done right could mean things like healers on one side and fighters on the other, or maybe light source on one and people who need it in the dark. Add some traps or Tucker’s Kobolds guerrilla hit and run tactics to make the game even more challenging.

Terrain can hamper movement speed, range of motion, cover/visibility, height differences, as well as being it’s own inconveniences like traps, loose items that can be thrown or set ablaze as examples. A statue gets knocked over could be an obstacle to move past or it could do damage to whoever’s in its path. Meanwhile, while the players are dealing with the statue, the enemies are getting further away or otherwise furthering their plans.

Environment, NPC actions or inactions, monsters, simple passage of time, all of the smaller elements can be used to increase a challenge as they make things harder. Does the guard stop the players from going somewhere? The villain could be using that time to further their goal, be it killing, cleaning up the evidence, or something else. Perhaps the PCs need to have a key witness get to court by a certain time but a traffic accident makes them late, well there goes their court case and if you have double jeopardy laws they cannot be tried for the same crime, so a simple delaying tactic caused the villain to essentially be vindicated, so now something else needs to be done to stop them.

The World As A Living Place


Your city isn’t a wasteland of nightclubs and office buildings; your story
shouldn’t be either. Look for opportunities to showcase the insanely wealthy and the desperately impoverished, the highest highs and the lowest lows. And don’t forget the supernatural elements either. Werewolf bars, vampiric blood banks, wizard movie theaters, ghostly cemeteries. All of them are opportunities to present new facets of the city, new political elements and groups that are plotting and scheming for their piece of the pie.
Push the characters out of their natural environments as well. Give Father Davis a reason to leave his low-income parish and journey uptown for information; find a justification to demand that Volund head out to the docks to complete a deal before time runs out. At every opportunity, narrate the city in grim and vivid detail and remind the players that there’s no way to take it all in, no way to say, “Yes, I’ve seen the whole fucking city and there’s nothing left to see.”

Urban Shadows

The above was taken from Urban Shadows, a Political Urban Fantasy Powered by The Apocalypse engine from Apocalypse Word and in reading through the chapter on the MC, their version of the Gamemater, I just love the idea of finding ways to expand and flesh out on the city, give it angles and elements that add to the story and keep the players on their toes, as there is always more out there.

Cow Tools is a perfect example of this from the Far Side comics. It was an item thrown in the background of one scene in a TV show as set dressing and now people are pouring over it trying to figure out exactly what it is and what it does. This is the world version of that, in so much that you only need to give the players a hint of something and they will start fleshing the idea out into a great story element you can use.

Of course, don’t forget to change elements from time to time. After having vampire hunter Blade finding and destroying their hangouts, the vampires had to change tactics. They started putting infra-red markings out instead of normal ones to mark safe spots for the vampires, in an effort to make things harder on Blade. It shows the city as an evolving thing, something which you don’t get to see a lot, especially in video games as events tend to happen at “the speed of plot”.

There are a number of books that can help you build ideas to go with. The Vornheim City Kit inspired a lot of other books, like Augmented Reality, The Holistic City Kit For Cyberpunk Games where they focus less on designing a city and more it would give you interesting bits and pieces you can add to your city. Think of yourself like a set designer in a movie or TV show, having to find or create interesting items to make your scene look like the inside of a starship or the catacombs under a city or wherever your scene is taking place. Even something you only see for a few seconds can add to the reality of the scene in the minds of the players.

Block by Bloody Block and Damnation City are two World of Darkness books that talk about integration of the city with the stories you are telling. In Night’s Black Agents, an RPG when you are play as Vampire Hunters in an organization like the CIA, has two methods in detail they go into with examples ‘Find an element of the city and figure why the vampires would be there or figure out the vampires plan and look until you find a part of the city that meshes well with it’. That design allows you to either pick a city for some great element, which in the movie business is a set piece. The term comes from when movies would use a lot of generic locations but would need to build this specific set for its big moments, which you can see a visual essay on some here. It’s now seen in movies as the ‘big events’ that are essential to the movie. Sounds like key points in a game, doesn’t it? You don’t even have to worry about a budget, so go as insane as you want.

However, when looking at these large elements, do not forget the smaller things, those everyday moments. Warren Spector talks about how common game design is ‘mile wide, inch deep’ with sprawling cities and worlds but so little you can actually act with in the world. He prefers ‘inch wide, mile deep’ as you can see in his works since he focuses on closed off areas but builds it so that there’s so much for the player to do in it. This article does a lot of examination on the idea of Warren Spector’s dream of a game taking place in one city block: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly. ” Just look at the work that has been used with this philosophy in Deus Ex games in this video.

Using Warren Spector’s ideas can help develop a way to turn a city into a challenging environment in ways you may not have considered. This article is his commandments of game design and I believe they should work in any game even Tabletop RPGs. For example, Problems not Puzzles: It’s an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer’s mind.

Game Maker’s Tool Kit is a Youtube series that talks about different elements of game design and has done a few videos on Puzzles and Problems, I like this video and then later built on in this video and by knowing the core elements of how to challenge people, you can then build it in more advanced ways. This may sound strange to talk about problem creation for a city, but the idea for a roleplaying game is we want to be able to give our players a slew of challenges and have them have to figure out how they want to approach them. The terrain is important both for traversal through the city, but can also become a challenge in a puzzle you throw your players into. This article in Gamasutra is about Payday 2 level design to build stealth to it, because you can throw the challenges in anywhere you want in and out of the city.

This brings up the idea of the people that occupy the city. A core element of great stories is conflict, which comes into play when a character’s desires are challenged by another character’s. Either they want opposing goals or maybe they want to achieve it a different way or the person is just an obstacle to achieving their goal. Figuring ways to have conflict get generated can be hard, but stories are about people at the core. Focus on elements of the human condition, connect with people on the emotional level with your NPCs and they will buy in. You don’t even need to make everything be huge complicated personas and stories, I personally like this story told by Gamemaster about how they found Soap Opera Digest a great addition to their games:

Long lost twins turn into long lost triplets… forbidden affairs of every possible combination… false priests… fake marriages… nefarious plots to cheat orphans out of inheritances… and enough back-stabbing underhanded stock characters to raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded PCs.

Confessions of a DM

To add to the core elements of the plot lines, take a tip from The Angry GM in this article (part 1 of 8 on NPCs) where he mentions don’t play the scene, play the NPC. Put yourself in the role of the NPC they are dealing with and they have their goals they are trying to achieve, and this way it can help add a lot more realism to the scenes than if you approach them as a distant GM.

Role-play everything. Don’t run scenes, run characters. And run them with the assumption that you have to win. If you run enough scenes like that in your world, eventually, the players will realize the world is about people. And they will start to care. And all it takes is just imagining yourself as a player and the NPC is your character and you have to win. Oh sure, when you’re being the villain, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose a lot.

Doing that forces you to think about the NPCs as characters with motivations and then to behave in ways consistent with those motivations. And when an NPC has motivations that are clear and consistent in their actions and choices, that makes them seem like they are alive. And that makes your game about people. And then the players will start to get invested.

What Even Is an NPC

I always find myself looking at a city with the idea of that quote from The Naked City: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.” The idea being that you could easily just grab any one person and get a story from following them around. Is that not essentially the idea of SimCity and Sims games? That every character out there is living a life, doing things, all we need to do is be able to follow them to see it.

Psychology of the PC

I saw a comment somewhere about why all heroes seem to have such dark and gritty backstories and with watching the Titans series it got me thinking, looking at this gritty re-imagining of characters that a lot of non-comic book fans got in a more bright and colorful on the Teen Titans cartoon and Teen Titans Go cartoon.

There is quite an in-depth study into human psyche here, looking at exactly what motivates a hero, what drives them to do what it is they do. To quote Robin Rosenberg from the Smithsonian,

…[S]uperheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to.

The first is trauma, which lies at the heart of Batman’s origin story, in which Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to fighting crime after seeing his parents murdered. In real life, many people experience “stress-induced growth” after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists.

The second life-altering force is destiny. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a normal teenager who discovers she’s the “Chosen One”—endowed with supernatural powers to fight demons. Buffy is reluctant to accept her destiny, yet she throws herself into her new job. Many of us identify with Buffy’s challenge (minus the vampires) of assuming a great responsibility that compels her to grow up sooner than she wants to.

Lastly, there’s sheer chance, which transformed a young Spider-Man, who was using his power for selfish purposes until his beloved uncle was murdered by a street thug. Spider-Man’s heroism is an example of how random adverse events cause many of us to take stock of our lives and choose a different path.


Part of it is the idea of the Hero’s Journey, the Call to Adventure step, where the Hero’s adventure begins. This is because of an event that inspires them to act, such as a direct threat to his safety, way of life or that of his loved ones or community. It could be the trauma of seeing the loved one die, but it could be something more like that moment where the power awakens inside of you like Buffy or it could be Frodo finding the ring and learning of its history and what needs to be done. Whether it is a physical object, a mystical feeling, or an event or something else, that call will shake the hero out of their routine and on the way to the adventure that awaits them.

Regardless of how they got their powers, the heroes will have that desire that gets them out of bed and tells them that they need to keep going, that they haven’t done enough yet. You look at any normal person and you’ll usually find the reason they get out of bed is they need to get the things to survive. Once they have food, they have money for shelter and for clothing and everything else, they will be happy to just walk away from their job and do other things like spending time with family and friends, but for those with a purpose, they need to spend as much time as they can fulfilling that purpose. you can’t sit back and have a beer if there’s a chance someone might be in danger and you could have saved them.

It is the same with Player Characters, as they’ll usually have a similar sort of story that something happened in their life. Some sort of drive or desire they seek to accomplish or achieve. Maybe they want to prevent other people from suffering or they want everyone to suffer, they want to find the ultimate tale to tell or they want to amass gold to get their family out of debt.

The reason this sort of thing happens in the first place is that from desire comes conflict and conflict is at the heart of good drama. Will this character get what they want, and what happens to that character who wants something else? Of course, once the character achieves their desire, that is pretty much it. After all, look at Darkest Dungeon, who would want to go exploring into areas where it will take tolls on your sanity, your wellbeing both physically and mentally. Granted, a nice dramatic trick is to give a few weaknesses to your character (at least two or three) and something the character will die for. Think of the Indiana Jones fear of snakes as an example, it is a minor point but it can be thrown in to spice up a scene that may have little to no tension to it otherwise.

Just make sure to leave them a normal, mundane touchstone to a real life as well. Batman had Alfred, Indiana Jones had his teaching and his family and friends, every hero needs that ability to keep connection to the mundane, the things that tie them down to earth and keep them from losing themselves in their adventures. This is the vent for all the pressure that builds up in this whole dark and depressing side and without that light, that beacon to keep their head.

Punking the Cyberpunk

I am a big cyberpunk fan for so many reasons, but there is a trend in Cyberpunk games that I have been noticing, the empowerment fantasy. Now, people like being heroes, they like being powerful, it is why FPS games give you all sorts of weapons and now have regenerating health, and ability to take beatings that are quite unrealistic, because having a character folding like a piece of paper in a light breeze isn’t really making players feel empowered.

Why is this a disturbing trend in my eyes? Well, because Cyberpunk is about the dichotomy of high-tech and low-life, featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. Think about some of the characters in what is considered original cyberpunk fiction, like Neuromancer or Snow Crash, where the cyberpunk protagonists are manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice, and although they might see things through, they do not necessarily come out any further ahead than they previously were. To quote from an interview with Mike Pondsmith, the creator of Cyberpunk 2020 RPG:

True cyberpunk also needs an adult feel (and that means more than just the sex). Unlike other genres, cyberpunk characters should have vices to go with their virtues. How they deal with those vices is a big part of their complexity. When we looked at the Witcher series, we saw a world where gambling, drinking, hookers and other vices were a big part of character development, but were also handled as part of the general adult character of the world. But in addition, relationships were treated as actual relationships, with the fights, negotiations, regrets and reconciliations that are part of the way real adults handle real situations.

Last, doomed, Romantic quests are another part of the cyberpunk mythology. You’re not just fighting an evil mega corp because  it will get you money. You’re doing it to save a friend, settle a personal score, win a lover, champion a cause. Most of the time, you’re a solo gunslinger riding a dirty, dangerous path, depending on your wits and skills as your follow your lonely quest to do what you know you must. You don’t stride in like a superhero, triumphantly defeating all enemies; you win by the skin of your teeth, and it means more because it’s PERSONAL.

And when talking about the tech angle, he explains why so many get that element wrong:

Cyberpunk isn’t just about high tech. It has to be the RIGHT LEVEL of high tech. Most “cyberpunk” games miss this important element, larding up the process with superpowers, spaceships, blasters and other overblown technologies. But the devices, vehicles, weapons and gadgets of a truly cyberpunk world have to be things that are only a few seconds ahead of where we are right now. They should be things that will spring from the real world we live in; direct extensions of trends currently in play. You can’t have ray guns in a cyberpunk setting—but you can have advanced sub-machine guns. Perfect example: in a Cyberpunk® project  written several years ago, I created the “agent”; a hand held super cell-phone that used small micro-programs that could tailor the device to the users needs. At the time, it was a logical extension of what cellphones should be able to do in the near future. Ten years later, I’m writing this on my tablet smart-phone. See what I mean?

Now, look at some of the big Cyberpunk video games recently, like Deus Ex, movies like Dredd or Elysium or Chappie or even as far back as Robocop and Escape from New York. The protagonists are powerful characters with access to all sorts of ways to dole out punishment to their enemies, and usually there will be a large amount of fight scenes, usually with a high body count left in the wake. There will be a lot of new technology, be it cybernetic enhancements, new weapons or vehicles or some other sort of high tech, but we don’t get to see much of the low-life element in a lot of the situations. Usually, they are the color, the background in scenes, or they are a cut to that is used to show how much better the other people have it., like this cut in the opening of the second Robocop movie to show life on the street and the violence before bringing in Robocop to the scene.

I am not opposed to Cyberpunk characters becoming powerful in any way. It’s to be expected that you gain power and become stronger and get harder enemies, for sure. However, at the same time, pretty much every Cyberpunk game starts you out already powerful when you play them. Adam Jensen may not have asked for it but he certainly got a lot of great upgrades before the game begins, to the point he can take on groups of bad guys without trouble. Blade Runner shows us a detective who can’t compare with the robots physically but still manages to do his job. CP2020 the RPG has character roles as Rockerboy, Solo, Netrunner, Corporate, Techie, Cops, Fixer, Media, and Nomad, showing that not everything has to be about combat if you can tell the story right.

Indie games have given us some mundane style events with games like Cart Life playing a salesperson trying to make ends meet, Papers Please where you play as a border guard, Orwell where you play as a surveillance operative. Some of these lead into much larger stories, as the character gets into situations where they have limited control over the way the events unfold, much like those characters from the original stories. Sure, it may not be very powerful as you try to find your way to survive within the system because you can’t kick ass of the people keeping you down.  There are many other indie Cyberpunk based games here from a themed Ludum Dare and some like VA-11 Hall-A and Ronin have gone on to become some greatly reviewed games on Steam, and Va-11-Hall-A has you as a bartender, listening to people’s stories rather than being the big focus of your own.

What would I like to see as a character for a cyberpunk game? That would depend on the story being told and the type of game. In Cyberpunk 2020, the core rulebook even directly stated there were four main rules to being a Cyberpunk:

1) Style over substance

“It doesn’t matter how well you do something, as long as you look good doing it. If you’re going to blow it, make sure you look like you planned it that way. Normally clothes and looks don’t matter in an adventure — In this world, having a leather armor jacket and mirrorshades is a serious consideration.”

2) Attitude is everything

It’s truth. Think dangerous; be dangerous. Think weak; be weak. Remember, everyone in the 2000’s is carrying lots of lethal hardware and high-tech enhancements. They won’t be impressed by your new H&K smartgun unless your swagger into the club looking like you know how to use it — and are just itching for an excuse.

Never walk into a room when you can stride in. Never look at someone unless you can make it your best “killer” look. Use your best “I’m bad and you aren’t.” smile. Don’t sit around the flat or cube waiting for the next job. Get on out and hit the clubs and hangouts. make sure you’re where the party starts.

3) Always take it to the edge

The Edge is that nebulous zone where risk takers and highriders go. On the Edge, you’ll risk your cash, your rep, even your life on something as vague as a principle or a big score. As a cyberpunk, you want to be the action, start the rebellion, light the fire. Join great causes and fight for big issues. Never drive slow when you can drive fast. Throw yourself up against danger and take it head on. Never play it too safe. Stay committed to the Edge.

4) Break the rules

So, let’s take a look at some games and see how we could convert that into something that fits with those Cyberpunk rules and operates closer to the streets.

  • In This War of Mine you play as civilians in a war-torn country just trying to survive. That could be reskinned as a poor or jobless person trying to find ways to survive in the building they are squatting in, and the soldiers become police officers or gangers. The idea of how much of a bite they are willing to give in the face of authority before running for safety.
  • While in Beholder, you play as the landlord of a building in a totalitarian regime and spy and snoop on everyone, take the concept and put the player in the role of an ordinary citizen living in the oppressive surveillance society trying to find a way to survive or get out without getting detected doing anything illegal.
  • Beyond Good and Evil is a great example of what I’m talking about, as the key protagonist started out as watching over orphaned children and then pulls together a ragtag band of characters to help rebel against the government by bringing conspiracy to light with the help of a resistance movement. They never got overly powerful to be able to charge all enemies with ease like in Alpha Protocol, leading to scenes like this rooftop chase instead of a fight.
  • The opening area of Final Fantasy 7, the bits in Midgar where Avalanche fights against Shin-ra’s destruction of the environment, is very Cyberpunk both in the design and the story being told. However, it quickly veers from the ‘Rage against the Machine’ story to a typical ‘Save the Entire World’ story seen in many fantasy RPGs. And if you want to discuss the idea of eco-terrorism in Cyberpunk, even Marvel 2099 had Ravage, a champion of the environment.
  • Games like Mirror’s Edge or Smuggler’s Run put us in the role of couriers delivering things, with the first being navigating through a city and uncovering a conspiracy while the second is picking up packages in vehicles and driving them to locations, both don’t give us much of a way to take out the oppressive and endless forces coming after us. Sort of like the Transporter movies but without all the fight scenes.
  • Marc Eckō’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure gives us a graffiti tagger who is brought into a larger conspiracy that he then works to bring to the forefront of things as he fights against the oppressive system. Just take a look at the trailer for an idea of how in the face of the establishment this is.
  • Watch_Dogs and Watch_Dogs 2 could be considered quite Cyberpunk already, and does show some great examples of the technological integration, so maybe a street level Decker story?
  • Any number of survival games, specifically ones that are post-apocalyptic or zombie based could fit in this category as a style of Cyberpunk play. Replace the zombies with gangers or police or security drones, perhaps. Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead and Project Zomboid are two such games, where you need to focus on getting food and shelter to stay alive and scavenging supplies to make the things you need.

All of these are examples of people with what could be considered relatively simple and straightforward lives. They usually live simply, sometimes with not even a home of their own. They may have no job, or just a basic job to help make ends meet, or they might find their own way by improvising. William Gibson did write ‘the street finds its own uses for things‘ in Burning Chrome, after all. These are the people on the fringe of society, the edge that we normally never see much of in TV and movies unless the idea is to point at it.

Another way to show the idea of the underclass of society, besides making our character from there or the entire story focused towards that area, would be to have the elements of that side of the world be portrayed in more than hushed tones. To quote an article about the show APB and how it misunderstood Robocop’s elements,

But the plot is only half the story of RoboCop. More important are the tone and stylistic flourishes, which are astoundingly good ventures in pitch-black comedy. Newscasters announce nuclear armageddon and accidental presidential assassinations with ignorant cheer; folks use comically oversize guns to shoot at their victims for 20-second stretches, unrealistic blood squibs firing left and right; everyone watches a TV show in which buxom ladies hit on a hideous old man who incongruously shouts, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” at random; an elementary school is named after Lee Iacocca; and so on. It depicts a fallen world where tragedy long ago faded into farce and were supposed to ridicule virtually everything that goes on. If you’re not laughing, you’re not paying attention.

You want to bring the idea that society that is great for those who have the money and isn’t to those who don’t, then you play up the elements  that help show that distinction. Sure, you’ll have the NPCs on the street like in any other game, perhaps a beggar asking for money or someone pushing everything they own in a shopping cart like in Hollow Man where a homeless man dumps a mattress in an alleyway as the invisible man heads past, likely leaving the man thinking he is crazy as things happen around him with no indication. However, beyond the NPCs, we have other elements like the music playing on the radio (or the talk stations and news shows like in GTA or even VtM:Bloodlines), various ads plastered everywhere and graffiti on them or the walls in general, maybe play up the the audio whirring of a camera as the lens focuses on the last person to walk in the door to play up the idea that everywhere someone is watching them, refer to the fact that the cop car that drives down the street is the same one that’s been around three times before in the last fifteen minutes or  that there is a group of random people just hanging about in the player’s view and that they are wearing the same colors as others that the player has seen around thus making it look like a gang is watching him. The Genesis Shadowrun game even had some random events where people would take pictures of you and melt back into the crowd, or another where gangers walk out of the crowd, giving the following interaction:

A sudden disturbance is up ahead.
Impressive figures pass through the parting crowd.
Your first impression is that they are veteran shadowrunners.
Then you see they are wearing gang colors.
They continue on down the street in an air of confidence, not bothering to harass those they pass.
Gangs going pro? You doubt it!!
Shrugging, you continue your way.

There are other events in the game that have choices, but some are just there to add the theme. People observing you or signals that there are other groups with power, these help to show rivals and opposition without making everything a direct confrontation. This is the idea of horror games, building up the tension, making you get to the edge of your seat as they add little things that hype you up. Check out this video by Extra Credits talking about this idea of horror cycles, which would be great for oppressive environments as a FPS would be full of enemies, while a horror game would have a few around while other areas would be so empty and alone of oppression. You become more worried of did they spot you, can you get away, are you going to be caught? After all, isn’t that what we expect in a Big Brother 1984 style world, we are being watched, we are observed, so were we able to find a crack in the system where they cannot monitor us?

Along with that horror mentality aspect is understanding the living on the street aspect. At one point, I started reading Survival Guides, Bug Out Bag kit designs, and other such books as I wanted some character design ideas. I was interested in the sort of skills and equipment people say would be required for survival if you were suddenly cut off entirely from society. This led me to some sites talking about homeless people and tips they had taught to people about survival and in general. A couple are great for when it comes to talking about building on the idea of oppression and control over the people in your environment. For example, from this site, we have some really great safety rules that I think Cyberpunk characters could live by, like ‘if you fight you put your survival at risk’ and ‘When you are noticed, hostile people might come at you’. Of course, to give a fair perspective on the idea of homelessness, I recommend taking a look at free browser games like Invisible and Spent or the board game Outside or actual video games like Hobo: Tough Life showing how homelessness and poverty are problematic and very easy to have happen, but as the trailer to Hobo: Tough Life says, ‘You are Homeless, not Hopeless, Yet’. Could be a mantra for some Cyberpunks, I think.

There is quite a lot one could say about what exactly makes something Cyberpunk and so many people have what could be considered conflicting opinions, just like with anything these days. In the end, the elements of the story you want to tell are the ones you are going to focus on, I just think, much like in horror games, we can play on the disempowerment. Extra Credits talks about creating Scary Settings and disempowerment and has some ideas we could build off of, and this Gamasutra article talks about other ways to make games scary. It might be harder to do in tabletop, since it is all in their head. However, as they say at the end of the Gamasutra article:

Effective execution requires the synergy of every department: game designcreature designanimationworld designsound, and lighting.

All of these different components are critically important to the complete whole. To neglect any single one diminishes the effectiveness of them all.

So, build on every element of the game, play on the paranoia using these elements and you may have characters wondering about the effects of their actions and the outcomes of their choices, as they may not see an immediate impact. They may steal something or kill someone and get away with it, but as a GM, make a note of it and perhaps it might come back to haunt them, like that courtroom scene in Chrono Trigger.

Improving Problem Gamers

I might be signing my blog’s death warrant by some #Critters out there, but after watching this video clip from Orion about his experiences and how they impacted his life and how he mentioned about wanting to come back to Critical Role. There were a slew of comments about how his play style was detrimental to the show and the other players and things like that, thus why he should not be allowed back on the show. This is the exact same show that allowed voice actors that have never played the game before come on the show and play, so they should at least be understanding of people screwing up in game.

i don’t know the behind the scenes drama, so there could be many burned bridges with his friends that would cause issues there. However, assuming they are all still great friends, I would hope they would be willing to have him at least guest star as some new character  and see how things go. Some people say playstyle doesn’t change over time, I know that it can. You need to want it to change because you understand that the people you play with don’t like it and these are your friends who you want to play with again. So long as the other players were okay with it, I’d be willing to let someone like that come back to my table, as long as they understand that they need to play differently, play more like the rest of the people.

Now, to go back to the things Orion did that really seemed to stand out as issues with his playing as I noticed was he was brash and impulsive, which could be said to be his character due to stats and personality. Without seeing his sheet and Matt’s house rules, I cannot say for certain about the issues with how many sorcerer points he had at any time (though there was at least one where I remember him saying he was out and then using more in the same combat; could have sacrificed a spell slot or something according to comments, but the player did not account it). There were some concerns with him putting his personal story above others, which in-game may fit the character, but out of game he should work with people to give them all moments to shine. A big one is the ending note where Tiberius poofed to go get a dragonborn army for the reclamation of Percy’s home. I don’t even know if he tried to run that past the GM first, just ‘Here, handle this new turn of events’, which would have thrown any encounters out of whack as well due to shifting Average Party Level and such.

I understand that people may not always change from their core much, but I think they can change their play style if given time and encouragement. So, I think we give the players that encouragement and keep working with those who have a desire to be better. Show them that there are different ways to play, let them see that the game is more than just powering through on Godmode and who knows what you’re going to end up with.

Growing Plots from Newspapers

I have talked about an ability I have to be able to read a newspaper and from the articles come up with at least five different plot seeds. I decided to give it a try using April 3rd, 2017th online edition of the New York Times to show the thought process I come up with for it. I will show it as close to a step by step process as I can put into words.

Step 1: Find an interesting article title.

One that jumped out to me immediately as I skimmed the opening articles on the site was “Explosion on St. Petersburg Metro Kills 11 as Putin Visits City“. Now, without even having read the article yet, I see possibility for this being an assassination attempt gone wrong. We don’t have a reason why or a group who will be responsible, but we know that they were planning to make this assassination when the leader was coming to the city.  (more…)

Assassin’s Creed: Paladin Edition

With the release of the Assassin’s Creed movie to DVD, I got thinking about the game series. One thing that immediately jumped to my mind was the maxim “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted”.

In the movie, it is brought up  in the ceremony of becoming an assassin as “Where other men blindly follow the truth, remember, Nothing is True. Where other men are limited by morality or law, remember, Everything is Permitted. We work in the dark to serve the light. We are Assassins.”  The saying has been interpreted differently by the various assassins that we see throughout the series, as they can find ways to justify their actions through it in some way or another. One of the best in universe explanations of it was in Revelations in a speech given by Ezio:

“To say that nothing is true, is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.

The ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is referenced in the games with the key tenets being ‘Don’t Harm Innocents”, “Hide in Plain Sight” and “Never Compromise the Brotherhood”, the rules they must follow while they work to make the world a better place. We see that reflected in the idea of Ezio’s speech, saying that they need to be careful in the way they go about creating the new world with their actions.

Bringing this to the RPG table, my first thoughts upon reviewing this is does this not sound like a Paladin? I know there are going to be some people whose immediate answer is no, and their arguments will be about how in early editions of D&D, they would spell out a Paladin’s code including ‘Never perform an Evil Act’, ‘Respect Legitimate Authority’, ‘Don’t Lie’, ‘Don’t Cheat’, ‘Don’t Use Poison’. Also, alignment issues with being a Paladin is Lawful Good and Assassin classes were generally Evil alignments, so you can’t be a Paladin Assassin.

To rebut those objections, here are my reasons in point form to make them easier to read:

  • I would start with the fact that the class system in D&D is about the abilities one has access to, not a statement of guild membership specifically. An example is that you could be a member of the Thieves’ Guild and be a fighter, you just beat people up and take their money rather than picking their pockets for it. So, if a ruffian thug could be a thief with no levels of the Rogue class, then that same fighter could probably join the Assassin’s guild if they could meet the guild requirements.
  • As for the Paladin’s code, it has entries like ‘Punish those that harm or threaten innocents’ and the ‘Respecting Legitimate Authority’ with emphasis on the Legitimate, since they are working to build a better future by eliminating those who would stand in the way of their fight for ‘Peace in All Things’ since the Assassins are fighting on behalf of those who do not possess the abilities, resources and knowledge to speak out against those who abuse their power.
  • Regarding using poisons and such, assuming the blade of the assassin is just a blade and not treated in any way, then they might only be compromising by ‘Hide in Plain Sight’,  but that could be gotten around by the idea they would be guilty of that if they were asked to identify themselves in some way and they did not come forward. Using the original game as an example, if you walk with a bunch of scholars, the guards just assume you are a scholar and leave you be.

So, the assassin is a champion for the downtrodden, working behind the scenes to help rally Law and Order back to its rightful place by eliminating those who would stand in its way. A great comparison to this is the Dark Brotherhood from The Elder Scrolls series, who were Assassins for hire and would kill anyone that they would be called to by those who performed the Black Sacrament. That group of Assassins did have a code they followed, which was basically just ‘Do what you’re told and don’t go against your Guild’, since the Dark Brotherhood did not stand for much more than killing.

Of course, the code of the Paladin is going to be important here as is the actions that the assassin takes in performing their duties, but a skilled Gamemaster should be able to roll with this and give interesting encounters and roleplay opportunities to any player who wants to try stretching themselves in unique ways. Much like the fighter thug as a member of the Thieves Guild or the Paladin Assassin, there could be many such examples of how to put characters in spots where their classes may not seem like they might be up to the task in question. Again, the idea is to make the game interesting and fun for the characters and I hope the sort of thinking past what the name of classes and the stats say they can do and focus on the roleplaying and what they actually do.

Believable Battles

Before getting into today’s topic, I want to apologize about my absence, Life got really hectic with losing work and having to move and a whole bunch of other things, but it has settled and thus I am back and ready to resume posting. Also, an announcement that I have also been providing weekly content at Aboard the Airship‘s blog. There is a lot of material here, so check it out and let them what you think.

We all know the old days of RPGs on the computer and consoles where NPCs only had one thing to say, as parodied with Times are Tough guy from RPG World. Things have grown since then, where we now have NPCs who grow to take on lives of their own like Knights of the old Republic had with HK-47 or Planescape: Torment had Morte, but that is because those NPCs have complex dialogue systems that allow them to get multiple lines of dialogue. Granted, even with limitations as far back as the SNES days, Final Fantasy let NPCs have multiple lines of dialogue if they were important enough as Final Fantasy showed us.. But what about those one off types you encounter in the towns? They still only usually say one or two things, in some cases still to this day.

Imagine that in a tabletop game and your players will look at you like you’re crazy, as it destroys pretty much any level of immersion into the game. However, we still do this in other ways with our NPCs, such as the way they fight. Enemy behaviour in video games is similar, where they will be scripted to execute one of a selection of attacks based on however many variables like their health, their magic points, the amount of enemies and their positions (if we’re dealing with tactical combat games like FF:Tactics).  In a lot of tabletop games, NPCs fight like they have nothing to lose because to the Gamemaster they are little more than cardboard cutouts with no real backstory. They will gladly fight to the death instead of running away to fight another time, though some game systems tried to remedy this by adding morale checks. Other times, you’ll have situations like in the Counter Monkey tale of the Leaping Wizards where you can see just how stupid some adventures are written to create encounters that players can win.

There are different levels of awareness in opposition. In D&D type games, this could be represented by an intelligence stat, however you could even just abstract it to the type of enemy it is. Is it an animal? They would generally have limited capabilities for tactics, focusing on things like smacking the person who did the most recent damage to them or the closest person or whatever sort of criteria you may want to choose for them to be focused on in their limited minds. Same way they would probably do things like avoid fires and any intentional damage that they might do to themselves. They may run at the first sign of resistance, unless there is a reason to stay like protecting their young. These are creatures operating on pure instinct using what is essentially the ‘lizard brain ideology of psychology, which is the human limbic system that controls basic elements like fight or flight, feeding, fear and freezing-up, and fornication.

A smarter creature might be able to start with an ambush or even use hit and run tactics. Dart out of a bush, move into attack and back into the bushes. They might be able to use traps or terrain advantages such as leading characters to bottlenecked areas or having them go over compromised ground.

As we get into smarter enemies, you begin to factor in ideas like waiting and planning rather than just reacting to a situation that falls into their lap. Their sort of tactics could include building fortifications or ways to bypass your fortifications, as well as picking the moments to attack when you’ld be at your weakest such as sleeping or even doing things stealthily. These are where I’d say Tucker’s Kobolds could fit in, for example.

You could probably add a level above that, where you look at creatures that can make full use of the terrain and other groups of enemies. Those who can delay their own self-interests and make use of the tools around them to eliminate their enemies. I personally would see this being like people who would realize that by weakening this wall, you could cause lava to flood the area and burn the opposition alive. They could also be the ones who might supply information to goad another group into attacking and then coming in to clinch the battle afterwards.

After figuring out what battle strategies they are capable of coming up with, you can then decide how they will use those skills to implement them. I would also suggest once you start getting into the higher levels of awareness, you also begin to think about how the elements outside of the creature, such as family and friends and the desire to live and see them again, will factor into the decisions that will be made. Some people may choose a heroic last stand where they go down in a blaze of glory to protect their loved ones from a really bad thing, but the majority will think about the fact they want to live because of those close to them and will use that desire in their planning. To quote from Blackjack’s Guide to Bitter Gamemastering,

I decided one session to try GMing without NPC sheets and instead use NPC descriptions. With this change I also made the conversion from plot driven runs to personality driven LIVES. Many interesting things began to happen. First off, my NPCs fought to the death a lot less often. When I thought of a security guard as a B:4 Q:5 S:5 C: 3 I:4 W:3 piece of paper it was a lot easier to let him get wasted. When I thought as him a Jim from Renton with two kids, a dog named Sammy, and a bracelet for his wife’s birthday in his locker, things changed. The Yakuza soldier who normally would have stood in the middle of the street blazing away at the runner’s van before getting run over suddenly started hiding behind stuff and taking more reserved shots. I really liked the feeling of depth and character I got from GMing this way.

Now, he does go on to say that if you have players who don’t have a full set of morals and enjoy killing anyone who gets in their way like they were in an action movie, then you’re going to  have to come up with a way to trick them into seeing your  NPCs as more than just cardboard cutouts. This is his version of a solution for that problem.

[O]ne day, they hooked up with an NPC who went by the street name of Kill Em’ All McKay. McKay needed assistance with a hit on a small gang living in an old apartment complex. As the runners walked up the staircase they encountered a teenage boy who, upon seeing them, turned and ran. One of the runners reacted by mowing the kid down with an SMG. And then, with great drama, Kill Em All McKay, he who is feared by God himself, responded to the action with complete horror and revulsion. “You shot a kid! A goddamn kid!!!”. The boy, who was not entirely dead, proceeded to drag himself with one arm, crying, screaming, and trailing blood, into his mother’s apartment. And, to top it off, his little sister, aged seven years, boldly waddled into the hallway holding onto her blankie and, thorough a river of tears, screamed at the runners for hurting her big brother. The runners mellowed a bit after this.

And, another of Blackjack’s articles gives us another example of why thinking about those who matter to the NPC is important, beyond just how the NPC themselves will act in the face of danger.

The runners have just succeeded in extracting a scientist from a random megacorp and are now leaving via a stolen helicopter on the roof. As they leave a detachment of fifteen corporate soldiers pour onto the roof, weapons deployed, yet hold they their fire because they have been ordered not to harm the scientist. The runner piloting the helicopter decides to react to the sudden appearance of troops by launching a salvo of APMs at the roof. Fifteen killed, no survivors.

Now let’s review the scenario. Granted, the runners had no idea the guards were not going to open fire so the response was at least partially reasonable. Had the guards opened fire the helicopter probably would have been destroyed. The runner eliminated the enemy, thus removing the threat. Or did he? Let’s do some math: 15 guards. I’ll assume five had no family or friends. That leaves 10. I’ll give half of them a spouse, a kid and two friends. The remaining five I’ll give two friends as well. That leaves behind 30 people who are going to be very upset at what the runners did. Odds are at least a few of them are going to want to get even…. …Some may hire runners, some may charge at them with a knife, some may try to blow up their cars, etc. Through the runner’s action he has unleashed a pandora’s box of threat. If the runners did this on a regular basis, the whole world would soon be after them.

So what should the runners have done? I don’t know. Fire one missile and take out a sacrifice guard. Maybe just point the missile tubes at them, that alone would make most of them seek cover. The point is that the runners must realize that every action they take is not without consequence. Some consequences are petty..some are down right deadly.

Using these above tactics will help you build some richer and more realistic combat encounters, varied by the sort of opposition you choose to have your characters face. The little critters who may not do much beyond attack or avoid all the way up to NPCs with various sob stories to go on like:

I was eleven years old. When I was strong enough, I dedicated my life to the study of fencing. So the next time we meet, I will not fail. I will go up to the sixfingered man and say, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”