Principles of the Renraku Barrier

   Over the past few weeks quite a bit of investigation has been directed at the Renraku Arcology Barrier.

   It was pretty obvious: The arcology rather abruptly sealed itself off – although it continued to supply power to the city grid – and erected an astral barrier of unprecedented size and power. Said barrier took the form of a sphere centered on the arcology itself, with a radius of 1.2 miles – covering a sizable chunk of the city center. A closer inspection showed that it was slowly forcing its way through the astral barrier of the earth, and could be expected to seal completely within a week or so – and that it was of a considerable higher force (somewhere around 50) than should even be possible at the current level of magic. It did not reveal a recognizable astral signature. It did not seem to be associated with any physical component. It showed no sign of wavering, and seemed – judging from the actions of the drones cultivating astral ivy – to be intended to remain up for months. It was far larger than any single mage could be expected to support – and coordinating a sufficiently large number of mages to do so seemed virtually impossible.

   This provoked a good deal of curiosity. A sizable number of people – including several dragons – wanted to know how it was being done. Some of the more thoughtful ones who wanted to know why.

   A visit to the inside of the arcology via the Ork Underground revealed that the magic level within the structure was notably elevated – and possibly continuing to climb – although not aspected. It also revealed some fairly hefty security precautions – but the group did manage to get an astral peak at a portion of the physical component. It seemed that the physical basis was a variant on the conventional hermetric circle, albeit made up of both hermetric symbols and what eventually turned out to be logic-gate symbols, laid out in a three-dimensional helix around the inside of the synchrotron tube that ran around the perimeter of the high-energy laboratories on the eighth floor. The symbols seemed oddly sharp in astral space – an effect as yet unexplained – and they only got a look at a few dozen of what might be millions of symbols, but it was a clue. It also revealed that something like an inverted lightning-generation spell was apparently involved.

   A great deal of guesswork and experimentation with circles (much of it available over at the Virtual Crypt) eventually revealed that the secret lay in the combination of several minor – and in some cases already well-known – advances, rather than any single breakthrough.

  1. A “hermetic” circle could, in fact, be attuned to many different magical styles or operations: you simply had to use the appropriate type of symbols. This had generally been ignored since circles powered by Enchantment or Enhancement tended to be too weak to bother with, those powered by Witchcraft tended to be both weak and unstable, Thaumaturgy – channeling external powers – was blocked off as soon as the circle it was powering went into effect (causing the circle to collapse again), Astral Access channeled the power into astral space, where it could not interact with the circle to power it, and Conjuration – while it works – was of an even more inherently limited duration than Sorcery was.
  2. The size of a circle was limited by the total magic ratings of those participating. Unfortunately, they had to be participating in a coordinated operation. The Renraku trick was simply to use lots of the one type of mage who could be readily and precisely coordinated in a specific magical operation – Otaku, using their magical computer emulation to running a specific program.
  3. The circumference of the barrier created by a magical circle was always equal to the circumference of the physical diagram. Creating the circle in the form of a three-dimensional helix thus placed the barrier itself well outside the physical circle.
  4. A two-dimensional layout generated a simple spherical astral barrier. A three-dimensional one generates a barrier which seals off the metaplanes as well.
  5. The reverse lightning spell starts showing a – detectable – positive magical output at an input voltage of approximately 53 megavolts. It’s not too surprising that the effect has been pretty much missed up until now – or that Renraku would have noticed once they started running experiments in the interaction of magic and high-energy particles. The maximum force rating to which this effect can be used to pump a spell or construct is the upper design limit of the spell or construct in question or approximately twice the natural logarithm of the input voltage, whichever is lower. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the only known magical constructs that do not have a (known) design limit are Circles and Lodges. The power of the Renraku Barrier is due to it being fed by the 5.3 Teravolt output of the 3.6-mile synchrotron.
  6. When coupled to a barrier-construct the power-feed effect will start raising the magic level within the physical basis of the barrier.
  7. Circles are basically resonant-chamber standing-wave effects, driven by the waste energy from the specific magical operation to which they are attuned. A two-dimensional circle can use any integer number of resonant sequences – most commonly, one. A three-dimensional helix can only use even numbers; the sequence may be repeated twice, four times, six times, or any even number of times – the more times, the finer the structure of the barrier generated. Similarly, while the outer radius may be varied continuously by varying the pitch of the helix, circles with radii other than a prime-number multiple of the base radius waste energy on internal nodes and distortions.

   As a note, while it is believed that the magic cycle has a sinusoidal waveform with a cycle of approximately 10,800 years, it is not known exactly when it crossed the 0-point during it’s latest rise. While the first dragon to put in an appearance awoke in 2011, occasional animals with minor paranatural adaptions – “spike babies” – appeared a good deal earlier. Most current models put the “zero point” around the year 1992-2000 on the presumption that transient or permanent magical nexi – or “spikes” – are meaningless until there is some magic available to concentrate. That suggests that the current magic level should be 3-4% of it’s ultimate peak value – although “magic level” apparently expresses a complex mixture of available potential energy (and thus “force”), available total energy, available structural complexity (how difficult or complex an effect can be produced), the ease of movement between the planes, what magical effects are possible, the amount of impact on the physical environment, and various other factors.

   For some benchmarks, experimental evidence suggests that the current limit on “Force” is approximately 23. Most theoreticians believe that Dragonflight – and possibly their existence in an active state – requires effects of at least “Force” 8, which would provide a value for 2011. Unfortunately, while a wide variety of “benchmarks” can be listed, they’re all of the “first reported on this date” category, and have yet to be linked by any underlying theory.

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Shadowrun 4: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

   Here we have one of the current players current opinion of Fourth Edition Shadowrun – although it’s worth noting that it includes some of the gripes that the rest of the group has brought up, since it is a current opinion and not an initial reaction.

   It behooves an honest man to laud even his enemies, or those he dislikes, when they do right. And it is equally his duty to honorably criticize them, without rancor, for their faults. Therefore, I have tried to remain objective, and this is difficult, because I had high hopes for Shadowrun 4, hopes I felt were dashed by the actual product.

   The major and greatest issue with Shadowrun 4 is that they threw away years of development in favor of a not-so-radical new design. A radical design might be forgivable – great risks can become great results. This is neither a great risk nor a great result. It tosses most of what made Shadowrun a great and long-lived system away.

   And I find it incredibly amusing that the design is the very definition of Ironic. The original Shadowrun system was adapted by White Wolf for Vampire: The Masquerade. Then White Wolf’s new system was adapted into the Shadowrun 4 system! The original swap worked; the second… not so much.

   The reasons are pretty simple. The new White-Wolf/Shadowrun system relies on rolling against an even target. In Shadowrun, a result of 5 or better on a d6 is always a success. Not everyone likes this system in White Wolf’s World of Darkness (based on 7+ on a d10), but it works reasonably well because there’s a large difference in dice pools between humans and magical creatures.

   In Shadowrun 4, this isn’t the case. A starting Shadowrunner has very little edge over a normal person, and the nature of the system makes it hard to build on it. Even a difference of three total attribute and skill points is only one average success difference. One success isn’t a whole lot of improvement, either. And every improvement costs more and more experience. At the absolute most, a Shadowrunner can expect perhaps 3 more successes than a normal man-about-town unless they are absurdly specialized.

   Shadowrunners need a lot more of an edge than normal people. They are expected to take on many enemies, and defeat them. In Shadowrun 4, they simply can’t plausibly do this.

   Another seemingly change which enforces this was the alteration of the cyberware system. Simply put, it’s so incredibly cheap that no Shadowrunner can actually beat the system. There’s no edge for non-magical characters (and as we’ll get to later, precious little for magical ones).

   Let’s look at it this way. A security guard, even a cheap one, costs thousands and thousands of dollars (or nuyen, as the game uses). And cheap security guards are rarely even armed, much less willing to fight off armed invaders. Loyal fighters will cost a lot more, even in a rough-edged world like Shadowrun.

   What does this mean? It means that criminal organizations and corporations will invest in those loyal to them. Even the Evil-lest Corporation doesn’t just go out and hire a dozen goons to guard their high-security areas. The idea fails to even be ridiculous.

   In earlier Shadowrun editions, security guards might have a smartgun link and an implanted communication system, or maybe some Boosted Reflexes. A tougher security team probably had some more serious cyberware, even (*gasp*) Wired Reflexes I! And while they’d fight at a disadvantage compared to player characters, teamwork and weaponry and armor could definitely even the odds. Only the elite were equal to player characters, and fighting one was a major threat.

   That isn’t the case anymore. Here’s a question for you. Which is cheaper: Taking a security guard, train him in physical development, firearms us and repair and care, small-unit tactics and riot control and zone defense, and proper security practices and protocols… or simply get some loyal people and implant some skillwires, wired reflexes, and a smartlink, and send them out?

   That’s not meant to be facetious. In Shadowrun 1-3, giving people really useful cybernetics was extremely expensive. Low-grade stuff might be affordable, but advanced cybernetics was the domain of the well-funded and well-supported elite. In Shadowrun 4, it’s actually cheaper to hand out cyberware than train people.

   So, where do player character come into this? If cyber if so cheap (yet still a huge expense for a new player character) how can they compete? Someone within skillwires isn’t just decent, they’re omni-competent: good at everything! Simply put, the only reason to even practice is to have skills above, say, rating 3. It’s actually cheaper to just install skillwires in children once they turn age 18 or so than to educate them! (They can go to college and specialize later, if at all.)

   And even an entire security team can easily outfit itself with top-grade cybernetics with a small expenditure – compared to the training they’d need otherwise. Even specialized player characters simply cannot match that.

   As a note here, Shadowrun 4 does lend itself to play on a less-heroic, and somewhat easier-to-manage scale than earlier editions – it’s just that most players like to have their characters be considerably larger-than-life. The old-style “Robin Hood” and “Undercover Reporter” concepts won’t work – and neither will any character concept calling for being an ex-special operative or otherwise starting off with an impressive record. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a radical departure from the older editions. Of course – as shown in the Gang Wars campaign log – older editions didn’t do well with more down-to-earth campaign styles.

   I’ve got to admit, I tend to prefer the high end. I can be a competent, but relatively normal, human being in real life. Why should I need a game for that?

   OK, but enough about Street Samurai, right? Maybe Hackers make sense.

   First off, I won’t even go into the bandwidth issues they present. Suffice it to say it makes no sense, at all, on any level. Simply put, wireless signals can’t carry the kind of signal as the authors seem to think. It works for simple computer browsing, but full-on decking is a wholly different beast. There’s just not enough bandwidth to run programs.

   Second, the level of connectivity they envision is not only ludicrous, it’s downright stupid. Given hackers running about fiddling with wireless signals, who’d be crazy enough to wirelessly link their doors, or even worse, cybernetic limbs? There’s literally nothing to be gained, and that creates a point of failure. Signals can be disrupted, but wires must be cut.

   The final problem (and it’s a whopper) is that the level of computing they envision cuts out a major and fun aspect of the game and has major implications they don’t acknowledge. Computers are virtually free in Shadowrun 4, and you don’t upgrade them. They’re simply that good. This cuts out the fun of upgrading, of gradually getting better components until you create a really powerful custom deck.

   But alright, so you’ve lost that. But doesn’t it makes the game fun? Doesn’t it let you focus on gameplay? Well, no, because they didn’t consider the consequences of the change. Computers are virtually free… and corporations have a lot more resources than Shadowrunners anyhow. They can simply plop down fifty computers, or a hundred. Heck, why not just install a thousand computers running security. Any hacker has to take on every last one of them.

   Of course, game-masters don’t have to do this. But you have to come up with a pretty crazy reason not to.

   Next, let’s look at magic. Mostly, the magic section survived reasonably well. However, they introduced a number of questionable ideas, most notably the redistribution of spell effects. The problem with this is that Shadowrun’s magic system, and the spells developed for it, were never designed to fit into a results-based magic system.

   What does that mean? Shadowrun was originally (editions 1-3) an effect-based magic system. An Attack spell, no matter what the actual results were, pumped magical energy into the structure of whatever it hit. This disrupted the target. A Divination spell probed the target with magical energy, a Health spell reconstructed or even temporarily enhanced the target’s structure, and Manipulation spells simply changed one thing into another. This does not happen in Shadowrun 4.

   Originally, a spell which popped acid into existence was a manipulation spell. There were many things you could do with it. You could use it hurt someone, but it was less efficient than an Attack spell. You could slowly etch an engraving, or eat a tire, or destroy a door. You could use the acid in chemical tests. In Shadowrun 4, the spell system became consequence based, so if you use to attack someone, that acid creation is… an Attack spell.

   This falls under the Does Not Work category. If you have a spell which creates acid, you can use it as Attack spell. What happens if you want to use it for chemical tests? That’s a divination effect now, so it doesn’t work. What if you want to use it to etch things? That’s a Manipulation effect, so you can’t use it now. The effects on one spell in Shadowrun 1-3 now requires four or more. Even worse, the entire idea of an Acid-based Attack spell is meaningless in Shadowrun 4. It’s only words on a page; the “acid element” doesn’t add any utility to the spell or even make it more effective in combat.

   And this is repeated for all the fire spells, ice spells, and so on. Had they really wanted this right, they ought to have gone down a different road. The idea is defensible, even in Shadowrun. They’d have done better to go back to source and present a new Shadowrun universe in that case, with slightly different magic, technology, and world design.

   The character build system presents another irritating anomaly. Character design makes it grossly obvious that there is an absolute best build mechanic. And it’s blatantly obvious. The reason is that everything comes from the same pool of points, and money doesn’t matter much. You spend cash only to get what you absolutely, desperately need, buy magic if you like, and then pump as many attributes as you can up to 5 (costs rise exponentially at 6). Any attribute you don’t immediately need is left at 1, where it can be upgraded with experience later on the cheap. Skillwires make up the difference anyhow.

   Then there’s the humans. Problem is that every human gets a karma pool bonus. Which can be burnt off to save your hide from anything (the old Hand of God rule). But so what, right? We can expect under this system to see that almost all the humans in a plane crash survive happy and healthy, while orcs and trolls are splattered. Oops, fire a cruise missile at some poor human? Naw – he’s fine. And in another game, in another game world, I might accept this. Edition 4 of one single game is definitely *not* the time to be introducing that rule, however.

   Possibly worst of all is that is makes conversion hard. You just can’t do it; converting a character over is impossible and nonsensical. The new edition breaks almost every connection with its predecessor, and worse yet, doesn’t really explain or show that this is a better way. Compare this to the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons or Fourth Edition World of Darkness. Both of those were fundamentally new systems, but they made an effort to appeal to old-timers. The important aspects of the game were easy to understand and adapt.

   Indeed, there’s the larger question of why anyone would want to play this game. It’s not terrible, but it’s decidedly mediocre in all areas. There are faster and more cinematic games. There are more technical and expansion games. There are more popular games with more book support (new Shadowrun 4 releases are rare and sporadic). For whatever reason, the Shadowrun 4 team decided to simply chuck the baby, the bathwater, the tub, and then burn down the house the bathroom was in.