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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Telepathy as Brain Hacking (or Nifty Psychology Tricks)

by Dan Pond
Jun 13,2002


Telepathy as Brain Hacking (or Nifty Psychology Tricks)

The Problem

You've got telepaths in your game and they're too powerful, too boring, or (saints preserve us) both. They read, delete, and edit memories without breaking a sweat. They can control other people's actions as easily as pulling marionette strings. They can reduce enemies to drooling vegetables with a flick of the mental wrist. And all it takes is a thought, an exertion of will.

This can do a real number on your play balance, but it's even more of a disservice to anyone playing a telepath. The warrior gets to describe his own fight choreography, the diplomat gets tons of air time with NPCs, the thief gets to out-smart the best traps the GM can set... and the telepath just declares his actions.

Fortunately, there's hope. Most people underestimate the sheer complexity of the human mind, and therefore they also underestimate the challenge of use telepathic powers. If we liken telepathic actions to hacking a computer system, we can see paths to both better game balance and more interesting characters.

The Solution: Brain Hacking

The brain contains a virtually limitless number of neural pathways, and each one forms the core of a thought or behavior. Brain hackers interface with these networks by causing other people's neurons to fire (via whatever mechanism makes sense in your game world). Passive telepaths experience a sympathetic "echo" of this activity in their own brains, allowing them to "read" the target's thoughts. Active telepaths fire those neurons to produce behavioral results. In either case, they have to find the desired pathways first, which is like looking for a haystack in a pile of haystacks.

The good news is that you can do a lot of entertaining and useful things by working with large, easy-to-find groups of neurons. Most of the time, these effects mimic the symptoms of people with brain damage, because blunt trauma also tends to affect large groups of neurons. Brain hackers can still do all the fun memory and marionette tricks, but they should be set up in advance. Precision takes time and skill. Hack-n-Slash just takes skill. (See the many examples below for fun and functional brain hacks, and do an internet search for mental disorders for even more ideas.)

The brain hacking system imposes one very important limitation on telepathy: It's really hard to screw with autonomic brain functions (heart beat, respiration, etc). Otherwise, telepaths can become rolling death machines who send every adversary they encounter into cardiac arrest! Consider these "primitive" brain functions as high security areas; they may be easy to find, but nearly impossible to alter. Brain hackers must content themselves with the conscious mind. <Insert tiny violin music here.>

Blindsight - This is a funny one, trust me. If you shut down the striate cortex in your target's occipital lobe (the back part of the brain), you can cut their sense of sight off from conscious awareness. They'll think they're blind, but they'll still be able to walk around furniture, pick up objects, and even dodge attacks. They just won't know how they did it!

Why is it useful, you ask? You can use it as a new and improved blindfold! The subject won't be able to ID anyone or remember how to get to your secret hideout, and you won't have to lead them by the hand or protect them during a fight. It's a whole new world of convenience! Oh, and I suppose the bleeding hearts can use it to effectively disable an enemy without leaving them totally helpless. Whatever floats yer boat.

Motor Cortex Shutdown - For a quick and dirty combat hack, nothing beats dampening the primary motor cortex. This blocks the conscious mind from initiating movement anywhere in the body. Involuntary movements are not affected (since they are considered "high security" functions), so a standing person will continue to stand and adjust their balance, but that's all they can do. They are still fully awake and aware, they just can't move a muscle. With a little more finesse (ie. by taking a penalty to the roll), specific body parts can be shutdown one at a time.

Just as they retain their sense of balance, paralyzed targets also retain their reflex actions. If you poke them with a fire brand, they'll pull away. If you throw sand in their eyes, they'll blink. Extremely well-trained fighters might even retain their "kill reflexes," combat behaviors that happen automatically. Usually, this means blocking and dodging, but could also include limited counter-attacking. (In other words, give your combat specs a hefty penalty, but don't paralyze them completely.)

Of course, you can always overload the motor cortex and send your adversaries into painful seizures. In effect, all their muscles tense at the same time, forcing them to contort violently. Be careful with the gunbunnies, though. They may end up pulling their triggers on their way to the floor!

Amnesia - First of all, this isn't Hollywood Amnesia where you forget who you are. It's real amnesia, where you lose the ability to form new memories. (Like in the decidedly non-Hollywood movie, "Memento.") The telepath locates their target's medial temporal lobes and shuts them down. As soon as they stop focusing their attention on something, they forget it.

This hack has many applications. Since any events that happened shortly before the hack haven't been encoded into long term memory yet, the hack can be used like the infamous Neuralizer from "Men in Black." It can get you out of otherwise sticky situations like armed stand-offs, security checks, and speeding tickets. If you can distract an amnesiac enemy, they'll become confused and easily misdirected. The confusion ends when the effect wears off, but the lost memories can never be regains. They simply aren't there to begin with.

Aphasia - Disabling the power of speech is a time-honored tactic for screwing over military officers, con artists, and spellcasters. The two areas of the brain to hack are major landmarks in the left hemisphere: Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area. Hacking Broca's Area will disable your victim's grammar. They'll say the right words (mostly) but not in the right order, making them pretty much incomprehensible. It'd be like if Yoda had a severe stuttering problem.

Hack Wernicke's Area to steal your target's vocabulary. The specifics vary, but each subject will be left unable to speak or understand certain words, usually nouns. Whenever they try to use one of the "missing" words, they'll trip over their tongue and eventually force out some kind of nonsense word instead. Their grammar is fine, unless you also hacked Broca's Area, but they'll still come across as a babbling lunatic.

Frontal Lobe Shutdown - Inhibiting activity in the frontal lobes can have some interesting results, since it's primarily responsible for planning and "higher" brain functions. This hack causes people to lose their ability to actively control their behavior. For example, they have difficulty adjusting their behavior in the middle of a task; once they point a gun at someone and tell them to freeze, it'll be hard to let them go without pulling the trigger.

They also lose control over habitual responses; if you offer them a cigarette and a lighter, they'll probably take one out and light it... even if they don't smoke. That's just what you're supposed to do with cigarettes and a lighter! This kind of behavior happens even in inappropriate contexts, because they can't tailor their actions to fit the situation. It also makes them suggestible, since they'll instinctively engage in the expected behavior for any situation you present them with. The prank potential speaks for itself!

Neglect - Hacking the parietal lobes can cause subjects to ignore things in their field of vision. They're not blind or anything, they just don't think anything they see is important. This is a great way to sneak past sentries. With a little more effort, you can hack just a part of the visual field, allowing you to carry weapons or other contraband right in front of them... as long as they don't turn their head too fast. If you just hack one hemisphere, they'll ignore the left or right side of objects as well as areas.

The Etch-A-Sketch Maneuver - This little number was pioneered by a Canadian "psychiatrist" during the Cold War. Basically, you cause every neuron in the target's brain to fire at once, then shut them all down for a while. (The "psychiatrist" used electro-shock and 6 weeks of heavy barbiturates, but your brain hackers should only have to take a difficulty penalty to their action and maintain the effect for a while.) When the target wakes up, their memories and personality will be effectively erased. They'll still remember how to speak, write, and use any other skills they possess, but their conscious mind will be like a blank slate. Very harsh.

A Note on Cerebral Networking

The ideas in this article came from a time-travel setting I'm working on called Tempus. One of the factions will be a group of "information communists" who implant billions of nanites in their brains to monitor their neurological activity. In effect, the nanites act like a second brain, but a second brain with a wireless network connection! They can share their senses, thoughts, memories, and even skills with other members of the group.

The down side is that, like any computer network, they can be hacked from the outside. Some of the faction's enemies have learned to slip into the system and program the commies' nano-brains to shut down parts of their flesh brains, with all the results listed above. It's telepathy without the mumbo jumbo, and even provides a plausible reason for keeping autonomic functions off-limits.

Next Time: Self-Balancing Talents & Flaws!

Bayn.org - Blur, Nameless, Erebus, and other weird-ass games & settings.

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond