RPG’s, Shadowrun, and New Technologies

   Since Shadowrun has been coming up again, it’s reminded me to post this bit from my old notes…

   It’s always wise to be cautious when throwing bits of new technology into a game system. As an example, here’s something from Shadowrun Four – a quick rundown of the thoughts that went through my head on looking at a couple of pieces of new equipment, starting with the “Nanopaste Trodes”.

   This particular item consists of a collection of microscopic devices distributed through some sort of (hopefully) non-toxic gel with a thick, adhesive composition and optional coloring. The gel probably contains microscopic grains or threads of conductive material for reasons shown below. It comes in some sort of container, and is used by opening that container and applying some unspecified part of the contents to the outside of the user’s head.

   First, and most obviously, since their internal power supply is necessarily finite, the nanites in the unopened tube need to remain as powered-down as possible. Ergo something must activate them and bring them into full operation when they’re applied. Further, such activation must propagate through the gel to activate machines which were not exposed to the initial stimulus. Unfortunately, to avoid premature activation of the remaining material in source container, a catalytic chemical reaction or other exposure-based reaction (whether triggered by atmospheric exposure, skin contact, bioelectricity, or anything else except a specifically tailored secondary catalyst) can be ruled out. No secondary catalyst is listed.

   These nanites thus must have a sufficiently sophisticated sensory system and computer system active to determine when they are applied to a creature and to either come into full operation then or to shut down if it turns out to be a false alarm. This requires a fairly sophisticated environmental-interpretation expert program, some sensors, and an internal power supply sufficient to maintain sensor and logic operation for the shelf-life of the cream – for some weeks at a minimum.

   Secondarily, in operation, the nanites set up a wireless network connection, translate that signal into a simsense signal, and get it into the brain. Simsense signals – from what information on them has been supplied in the books – apparently involve some combination of ultrasound, electrical signals, and/or electromagnetic signals. Since external electrical signals will spread through the brain, they cannot be limited to specific brain centers to impart a meaningful pattern of information – and implanted electrodes are not apparently involved. Ultrasound is definitely involved according to the information on “Trodes” on the same page, but will also tend to affect larger-than-desired areas. Evidently some combination of transmitted ultrasonic and electromagnetic frequencies can simulate neurons with high precision. Two or more intersecting tight beams are probably required; otherwise you will wind up stimulating a column of neurons rather than specific targets, and that won’t produce an information feed. Rapidly and automatically calibrating this to a specific brain’s neural pattern starting from whatever semi-random point the stuff has been applied to is an astounding feat, but apparently it’s common enough in Shadowrun.

   In any case, this requires that the nanites hook up into a large enough structure to function as an effective directional electromagnetic antenna – something that requires multiple lines of conductive material in a nonconductive medium (a conductive medium will function as a Faraday cage) with a length of a sizable fraction of the wavelength involved, the ability to move and/or manipulate materials (the two are difficult to distinguish at this scale), and the ability to communicate with each other (probably through fine tendrils and electrical signals since a broadcast connection between the nanites is insupportable due to the antenna problem and a laser system would have trouble with gel coloring agents). They also require another set of control and organizational programs to line up their signals with the proper brain centers, evaluate the resulting neural activity, and calibrate the signal. They must also be able to distinguish on the fly between the owner’s personal network and those around him or her (presumably using yet another expert program). A portion of the organizational program may be distributed to reduce the load, but they still need the capacity to assemble and run their programs from a randomly sized, selected, and distributed, group of nanites. A similar set of requirements, along with the ability to move and produce mechanical effects, is required to produce directed ultrasound beams.

   Finally this once again ups their power storage requirements. Some power can be derived from the body they’re on, but it’s an extremely limited amount. The usable energy available from waste heat is strictly limited by thermodynamics. Bioelectrical energy may or may not be available; a troll’s bony plating won’t provide much if any usable power. The gel itself may provide some energy, but this can’t be counted on since it’s applied manually.

   This requires nanites with 1) a sufficient internal power supply to operate for some weeks, 2) environmental sensors, 3) sufficient memory and computing power to run multiple complex expert programs, 4) the ability to generate, direct, modulate, and interpret electrical signals, 5) the ability to remotely stimulate neurons, 6) the ability to detect and analyze brain activity, 7) the ability to move, organize themselves, and push materials around, 8) sufficient mechanical functions in a small group to generate ultrasound, and 9) the ability (as a group) to receive and transmit radio signals – actually a basic consequence of (4) and (7),

   Some of the most obvious applications involve nothing more than tweaking the program; setting them to move slightly beneath the skin and saturate the brains sensory centers with random stimuli will incapacitate the target until the nanites run down. Since they, unlike standard Simsense trodes, can redirect their transmissions, it is almost as simple to either defocus them – thus sparking random neural stimuli throughout the brain, inducing an artificial grand mal epileptic seizure of any desired length – or focus on other brain centers. This could be used to either simply disrupt the medulla oblongata and kill the victim or to hijack control of their body.

   On the helpful level, these nanites can effectively replicate the functions of nerve cells; this can replace or enhance various brain functions, bridge gaps in the spinal cord, keep someone who’s been affected by some types of nerve gas alive long enough for the affected cells to resume transmitting signals, or (given an appropriate interpretation program) act as carriers to implant or extract memories. If magical essence limitations do not forbid it, they should be able to gradually replace brain cells and transfer the user’s/victim’s consciousness into a computer system.

   Depending on their power supply and manipulative abilities they may also be able to replace muscle tissue or close and seal wounds. If not, a minor variant can; their basic functions require a more elaborate and versatile structure than most cells have anyway. This opens up the possibilities for “cyberlimbs” with freely re-programable forms and high-order redundant computational abilities, replacing or augmenting malfunctioning internal organs, and splitting off chunks of material to create tiny, mobile robots.

   Given their self-organizing abilities if you can get someone to contact them, inhale some dust containing them, or otherwise contaminate their body with them they can act as a mobile, quasi-intelligent, bug, monitor, or control device either inside or outside of the victim’s body.

   For those who want a security system, simply dust an area with them and have them form a self-checking network that reports back via a direct connection. It’s not wireless and there’s no external access to hack unless you add new nanites to the network. If you do try to add new nanites and they don’t have the proper passcode and communications protocol on their first attempt to connect – which there’s no technological way of telling in advance – the alarm goes off anyway. Touching anything, making a noise or electromagnetic disturbance (such as by, say, having a heartbeat, breathing, or brain activity, carrying metal, or having an organic body mass) in the protected area will set off the alarm unless it fits a pre-authorized pattern – such as that of an authorized employee who has no new cyberware or implants, shows no signs of stress, and is carrying no unusual devices. Once something triggers the alarm, some of the nanites which have gotten onto the offender can simply either incapacitate them, kill them, extract information from their memories, or actively evade attempts to detect them while they wait to either act as a tracer or to ride with them and report back. So much for shadowrunners.

   In fact, in practical terms, these nanites make all conventional electronic and many electrical and mechanical devices redundant. If they have chemical manipulation abilities or can be modified to have them, there isn’t much in the way of technology that they can’t replace.

   The nanites aren’t actually the most technically problematic single device in the book; that honor is probably reserved for the Holoprojector – a device which projects something that creates a “quite realistic” image at range, which characters must roll to distinguish from a real object, and which therefore cannot be either glowing or see-through.

   So whatever-it-is that’s being projected can selectively refract and redirect light at a distance, including altering its frequency to create colors and blocking the transmission of light through its area of effect. That isn’t something you can do with the electromagnetic, strong nuclear, or weak nuclear forces; field effects simply do not work that way. You might be able to hold an array of free electrons – effectively simulating the surface of an object – in a structured gravitational field, but it would require generating, stabilizing, and controlling, one micro-wormhole per electron required. It would probably be easier to just rebuild the universe so that the item was really there in the first place.

   You could probably – or at least plausibly – make it work using the Superforce, but if you can control the energy levels of the big bang what do you need with an image projector? You’re already God.

   In a game of technology and magic you want them to remain clearly distinct. That was always what gave Shadowrun it’s special flavor and made it something more than “just another game”. Technology operates in logically comprehensible ways according to the limitations of natural laws. It can’t magically bypass those laws by invoking words like “Nanite”, “Wireless”, “Holographic”, “Cyberware”, “Quantum”, “Hyperspace” and “Bioware” without becoming just another branch of magic.

   At least as importantly, Shadowrun often draws – or drew – players with technical backgrounds as well as the fantasy role-players, and they tend to see the implications of things. They expect to be able to plan on the basis of what is and isn’t possible and become rightfully upset when the game system ignores it or when the opposition fails to competently exploit their resources and technologies. It’s fun for a while, but it amounts to an unearned – and ultimately unsatisfying – victory.

   Personally I expect the players to examine the implications of any technologies or techniques I allow into the game, to apply them, and to develop their own ideas. Similarly, I expect anyone writing on a topic to have done a little basic research on it and to invest some thought in what they write. If you expect anyone to really explore your world and play a character with depth, the world needs depths of its own. You can have quick fun with almost any system or setting – but most game masters and players would prefer one that can sustain a long and memorable campaign.

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