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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Glass Room Interfaces - Getting Hacker Characters Back In the Action

by Dan Pond
July 12, 2001  

The Problem

Any setting that includes a virtual reality Net of any kind eventually sends its hacker characters off into their own little, virtual worlds. While everyone else is running around in meat space, blasting the bad guys or sweet-talking leads, the hacker is cracking codes and evading hostile AIs. The end result is the same as any other time the party splits up: You have to either run the hacker and the other characters separately or keep "cutting" back and forth between to different scenes. Even if the hacker is crashing security in the very same building the other PCs are in, the action can get cut in half. The narrative thread for everyone in the game, the players and the GM, hangs loose on both ends.

Yes, there are tricks in the GM's magic top hat to handle split parties. However, such things are usually meta-game techniques that help smooth over the rough edges between what remains two separate scenes. As long as the two environments (meat space and virtual reality) are different, it will be quite difficult to get the same gestalt feeling of a rough-and-tumble fight sequence, or the same tension of a nail-biting investigation scene, as when the group sticks together.

So, I proudly present, for your enjoyment and edification, an in-setting method for bringing the virtual and actual spaces together.

The Solution: Glass Room Interfaces

The modus operandi of most security systems is to simply monitor the sensitive location and all those who move through it. A Glass Room interface takes input from all the usual monitoring devices (cameras, "scanners," motion sensors, or whatever else works in your setting) and compiles it into an exact, life size, virtual model that users can move around in. The system gets its name from the way it renders furniture, walls, objects, and even people: It makes them semi-transparent. This allows users to walk around the model in real-time without loosing line of sight to anyone or anything.

But wait... there's more! False color imaging and floating data read-outs are used to convey information not normally available to the human senses. Any weapons detected by the system show up with brilliant, red auras that are impossible to miss. Personal ID codes and security clearance codes appear to hover above the heads of personnel and visitors. Even other building systems (ventilation, fire suppression, electricity, etc.) can be watched through the glass walls and color-coded to alert guards to suspicious disruptions.

Of course, all of this surveillance would be pretty useless without the ability to do anything, so security guards using a Glass Room can be outfitted with controls for countless counter-intrusion measures. For example, mounted guns in meat space can be linked to virtual guns that guards carry and use like normal firearms. When they fire at someone, the interface translates their shot into a trajectory that a mounted gun, shooting from a totally different location in meat space, can use to hit the desired target. (Voice commands work just as well for those with less of a need for theatrics.)

Remote-controlled automatons in meat space (that I like to call "meat puppets") can also be hooked into a Glass Room. Guards in the VR can manifest as holograms, drones, androids, or anything else the buyer can afford. These are sometimes used offensively, either via mounted weapons systems or the user's own martial arts skills, but most places just use them as glorified PA systems. "Sir, please step away from the velvet rope. No flash photography," sounds just a bit more threatening coming from a 7-foot-tall hologram than it does from a disembodied voice.

The payoff for serious world builders is that all of this makes perfect sense in-character. A virtual interface that mimics the real world this closely allows users who were trained in the real world to transfer all their existing skills to the virtual world. There's almost nothing new to learn; the glass room just makes using your existing skills easier. This means that you don't have to train your personnel in both VR and security... and that saves you money. (Ah, money. The universal justification for anything.)

The payoff for GMs is that you don't have to split up the party when your hacker wants to cover security. It's more like having an invisible character: The hacker can see everyone (and everything) from the Glass Room, and even communicate with the other PCs if they set it up beforehand, but no one in meat space can see the hacker. Depending on the sophistication of the interface, you may have to give the hacker additional details when describing things, but adding details to a established scene is a far cry easier than describing a second one from the ground up!

The Glass Room users, on the other hand, can see the hacker. These folks can either be real security guards jacked into the system or automated security AIs who exist only inside the Glass Room. Either way, the hacker will have to make themselves invisible to them, disguise themselves as someone who works in the Glass Room, or pull some other sufficiently hacker-ish stunt. Otherwise, the legitimate authorities will fry them on the spot. In other words, you get all the fun of regular hacking runs while still keeping the hacker immersed in the same scene as the other PCs. It's the best of both the virtual and actual worlds.

Two great tastes that taste great together.

A Note on LARPs

The principle behind Glass Rooms can be used to make live-action hacking a breeze, too. Obviously, the walls and people won't be transparent, but that's not too big of a loss. The gain is that you don't need to create a separate environment for the hacker. Their Virtual Room is the same as everyone else's Meat Room. Again, you can run it like an invisible character: give the hacker something to wear that tells other to ignore them. Alternatively, you could let the meat characters see a "hologram" of the hacker, which merges them seamlessly into the game. This affords the hacker some protection from injury and access to the Room's virtual security systems, but it also means they can't touch or move anything (they're a hologram). Finally, you can simulate security meta-data (weapons, ID codes, etc.) by having all the players wear color-coded tags... and only giving the hacker character the key to the code.

Next Time: Nifties for making characters immortal... and tricks for dealing with them afterwards!

All Worldz: A Game of Interdimensional Civilization by ImEG Games

--Dan Pond

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond