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Fantasy League Round 6: The Masquerade

We’ve talked about how many different fictional universes would be dramatically different if whatever characters or technology they have in them were to be publicly known in real life, with a particular focus on economics and sociology.  This obviously poses a problem for an author: how can you write a straight-forward detective story featuring a vampire detective when the readers will be focused on the incongruity of nobody using magic to make a million dollars?

If any of you are hiding super-natural powers, this is why you should confess. The Randi Foundation doesn’t actually keep a million USD in cash. They have something closer to 1.5 million accumulating interest in a third-party investment portfolio.

One way to do this is to establish a convention that while the world may look like the real world, that is just the outward appearance.  There is a Masquerade – an organized effort to hide the flying saucers / vampires / wizards / witches / parallel dimensions / alien space bats from the muggles.  But this has its own problems.

Why is there a Masquerade?

Why are characters with fantastic skills hiding from the world?  There have been many different in-story reasons for this, ranging from the all-too-realistic to the entirely absurd.

The reason many mutants have secret identities in the X-Men comics is all-too-realistic.  Society sets up the Masquerade, forcing the mutants to either hide their skills or be discriminated against for not being ‘normal’.  In real life, society has forced masquerades into existence for no good reason at allThis analogy is not lost on the Marvel comics staff.  But this form of masquerade only goes so far.  It only works as long as the population has some idea, however distorted and mistaken, of who they are forcing into hiding: the world has already been partially unmasqued.  In the Marvel comic universe, everyone knows that mutants exist, even if they don’t know who the mutants are.  Why would a group hide from the world so well that nobody believes or even knows to not believe that they exist?  And why would someone discovering something extraordinary not tell others about it?

Perhaps the default version is “but they wouldn’t believe me if I told them”.  That one might work for the first time Lucy Pevensie goes to Narnia, with the portal to the other world opening and closing at the whim of a not-particularly-kind deity.  But it’s absurd when the group with the supernatural skill can prove what they have.  We need another motivation for people to stay silent.

The term Masquerade as we’re using it here comes from Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children”, where it is used by the Howard Families, a small group of people selectively bred for longer lifespans, to refer to their hiding from the ephemerals around them.  There the motivation was to avoid attention and people trying to steal the secrets of their immortality.  In that story, the Masquerade is eventually broken and society is angry at the immortals, not believing that they were simply selected for long lifespans – although there is no good reason for that, since the Howards’ lives are well documented.  Here the Masquerade came from fear.  But if someone had been public about living longer in the past, then the Masquerade would not have been necessary.  So the fear was misplaced, and doesn’t work as a motivation.

In Harry Potter, we’re told the wizards hide because otherwise “people would want magical solutions to their problems”.  That’s not a good reason either.  People wanting magical solutions to their problems is a great opportunity to make a lot of money.  In order for the Masquerade to make sense, it has to be in the self-interest of the groups that are hiding to stay hidden.

Slayer with rockt launcher

This is why the vampires are hiding.  (Yes, the slayer is not tactically dressed.  But that doesn’t matter much when she has a rocket launcher).

In Buffy The Vampire SlayerVampire: The Masquerade and some other vampire settings, the Masquerade is justified by the various groups of vampires agreeing to hide from humans because otherwise we’d all gang up on them and kill them until they died from it.  That’s a pretty good reason, and it’s enforced in Vampire by a group of vampire enforcers taking down anyone who does try to go public and in Buffy by stakes, scythes, and rocket launchers.  A similar reason is invoked in The Dresden Files.  And in Mage: The Ascension, there are non-sympathetic Men In Black hunting down anyone who is doing unsanctioned magic.

But even these self-interested Masquerades tend not to work out, because while it may be in the interest of the group to remain unknown to the world, there is always a million-dollar incentive for each individual to be the one who goes public.  We’ll come back to this at the end, after we show that even the best-maintained Masquerade couldn’t survive anyway.

How is there a Masquerade?

How do you prevent Muggles from walking into Hogwarts?  Sure, it may be impossible to label on a map and loaded up with nothing-to-see-here, but why doesn’t it and all the other wizard enclaves show up on airplane and satellite imagery?  A Wizard Did It only works so well.  If high concentrations of unspecified “magical energy” fry electronics, then people will notice the bizarre dead spot on the train platform where their cell phones suddenly crash and start tapping on the wall.  Dragons flying around will set off air-traffic control radar, to say nothing of people’s reaction to a flying car.  Actually, Harry Potter’s masquerade has more holes than the Menger sponge.  It’s as bad as how almost everybody misses that Superman is obviously Clark Kent and Batman is almost as obviously Bruce Wayne.  Let’s try something else.

In The Dresden Files, the masquerade is maintained by the “Unseelie Accords”, a set of agreements between various magical groups to not reveal their presence to the world.  The different groups all hate each others’ guts, but aren’t willing to risk total destruction by angry normals (or by vampires or faerie who are angry at being revealed).  This is an okay setup, but somehow it survives vampire bodies showing up in a Chicago morgue, a wizard fighting horror-movie monsters in a hotel convention center, and a horde of zombies being hunted through a city by a resurrected T. Rex.  That’s bad enough.  Then Jim Butcher turns it up to eleven.

Harry Dresden (listed in the Chicago yellow pages as “wizard”) and a group of his friends are fighting an army of vampires at Chichen Itza.  Near the beginning of the fight, Dresden briefly negates gravity over a large area and focuses the force into a very small area, smashing a field of vampires into the ground.  It produces a minor earthquake.  Cool story, isn’t it?  The problem for the Masquerade is that there are several different global seismic monitoring networks specifically looking for small near-surface earthquakes emanating from point sources well away from established faults – because that’s what a nuclear detonation looks like.  Everyone with a seismometer now thinks that a nuke went off in the Yucatan.

From there, the Masquerade would fail quickly.  30 minutes or less will put blurry spy-satellite imagery of Dresden’s team fighting vampires on a large number of computer monitors.  If I read the US-Mexico airspace and joint defense agreements and approximate aircraft base positions correctly, within an hour there would be high-speed jets from US Air Force bases along the Gulf over Chichen Itza doing close recon, closely followed by Mexican aircraft and probably some curious private planes and helicopters from Cancun.  And then neither the vampires nor the wizards could hide from the world, even if they all teleported away immediately.  The Masquerade may have been set up by the Wizard Who Did It, but Muggles Do It Better.

Why Isn’t The Masquerade Brought Down?

If Masquerades are so easily broken and there are such large rewards for being a whistleblower, how can a Masquerade last in a story for any length of time?  This one is actually easy to answer: if the Masquerade fails, the story changes too much and the author(s) can’t write a sequel.

There may be in-story reasons why nobody has brought down the Masquerade, especially if there is an organization dedicated to maintaining it.  If showing the world that aliens exist will summon the MIB and lead to you and everybody else in the world being immediately mind-wiped then perhaps fame and wealth isn’t as much of an incentive.  But where is the supernatural equivalent of Wikileaks or radical open-source?  And if there isn’t a penalty for going public, the Masquerade doesn’t make any sense at all.

Even if there is a penalty for going public, you just need to do so untraceably.  Gather compelling evidence of whatever The Masquerade is hiding.  Use dummy email accounts and free wifi to get copies of it printed and mailed to hundreds of different groups at once.  University science departments may be deluged with crackpot manuscripts, but most get looked at for a few minutes, so you have a chance of being taken seriously.  Once again, Wikileaks is the model.  For physical evidence, shuffle it through mail forwarding services a couple of times and not even you will know exactly where it has been before it gets where it needs to go.  A few pebbles from Narnia would be enough for the geochemists; a dragon egg makes the biologists go wild;  vampire skulls sent to an anthropologist shows that they exist.

How to prove you were in Narnia / Ferryth / any other non-Earth world: bring back a pocketful of pebbles (Chassigny meteorite fragment, originally from Mars, with a 1 cm cube for scale).

Granted, it’s not quite that simple.  It would be a huge leap from “you found a place with isotope ratios that don’t match anything in the solar system” to “you were in a land of talking animals ruled over by C.S. Lewis’ version of Jesus personified as a lion”.  And “there are humanoids with large retractable canines and strange bones that disintegrate in sunlight” isn’t the same as “we need to find the vampire leaders and convince them that they and their followers should drink pig’s blood rather than human”.  But as soon as the basic supernatural element of whatever Masquerade you are bringing down is illustrated, everyone would be willing to listen and to invest considerable effort in what you say.

So it is very hard to have a convincing Masquerade in a story.  I suppose you could specify some sort of universal law that the Masquerade cannot be broken, but that would be an arbitrary law enforced by a trickster god.  It’s probably best to simply go with authorial fiat and acknowledge the inconsistency.

Fantasy League Round 4: Economics and Fantasy Role-Playing Games

I keep talking about the importance of considering what technologies (in the broadest sense of the word ‘technique’) can do to a society when writing a story.  In many stories, the technology itself isn’t the purpose of the story that was being written.  Inception is a heist film – in some sense, the dreaming technology is less relevant than the interactions between Cobb and his memories of his wife, and his quest to return to his children and home even if that means assaulting Fischer.  This is the second of Asimov’s three kinds of science fiction: the technology is incidental to the adventure.
But what about role-playing and strategy games, where the techniques concerned are the main way that the players’ characters interact with the game world?  Here it is essential to consider how the technologies interact with one another, in the form of possible combinations of the rules.  Otherwise the game may end up essentially unplayable.  Most good games don’t have that severe of a problem, but considering all of the possible combinations of rules becomes very difficult for complicated games where the full description of the rules may be hundreds of pages long.  In particular, economics is very hard to do right.

Game Breaking

If the game developers and beta testers haven’t found and fixed all possible problematic combinations of rules, there will be exploits to take advantage of.  And given a large enough base of players, they will be found.  There are very long lists of such game-breaking techniques, but here I’ll focus on economic ones.

The economics of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. Notice that a 10-foot ladder costs 5 copper pieces and a 10-foot pole costs 2 silver pieces = 20 copper pieces. So, buy ladders, take them apart, and quadruple your money. That works until the demand for ladders and poles changes and the prices adjust; but price elasticity isn’t included in the rules for the game.

In all of the versions of Dungeons and Dragons, there are exploits that allow relatively low-level characters to defeat any opponent.  The most notorious example is Pun-Pun, a level-1 starting character in DnD 3.5 that has arbitrarily high power.  But the exploits in DnD are easier than that.  The purchase price of a ten-foot ladder is less than the sale price of the two ten-foot poles and shorter rungs that it is made of.  A player can in theory drain all of the cash out of the local economy.

In the Dresden Files RPG, there is another simple exploit.  A lot of the competitive balancing in the game relies on high-powered magical characters being unable to use complicated technology, particularly computers and other electronics.  This is justified by the characters ‘magical energy’ damaging the electronics.  They are walking techbane.  But moving water is also established to block magical energy.  You can still use a cell phone, a GPS, a computer terminal, and all of the fancy gadgets in a modern hospital as long as either they or you are encased in a thin layer of circulating water.  Time to go shopping at a fire-fighter uniform supplier.

In Mage: The Ascension, some characters can magic the laws of probability and win the lottery.  That may get a certain amount of unwanted attention, but you only need to do it once.  To deal with this sort of thing, all of these games have one basic rule: the moderator is always right.

Competitive Balance

Things get a bit more problematic in games without a moderator constantly adjusting the rules to avoid or limit game-breaking.  It doesn’t even have to require a large player base – AI programs can do the same thing.  In 1981 and 1982, a challenge using the rules from the sci-fi RPG Traveller was twice won by an early learning program.  It found that thousands of kamikaze ships would defeat any other solution.
A more recent example:  Starcraft is very close to competitive balance, but in scenarios with nearly-infinite resources and equally-skilled players, the Protoss game race has a slight advantage over the others.  They can assimilate enemy units and potentially have three times the army of anyone else (if the game lasts that long).

Game software can be updated.  This is easier for online games.  In World of Warcraft, there have been both positive and negative game-breaks.  On the positive side, there was a bug that could be exploited to allow a single paladin character to do death by a thousand cuts to the hardest-to-defeat enemies in the game in one move (as opposed to the usual method of two dozen characters taking several minutes to bring it down).  On the negative side, a programming bug caused the Corrupted Blood debuff to turn into a pandemic inside the game, killing off or wounding almost all characters.  Those were all fixed by obvious rule patches in short order.

The Limits of Rule Patching

But rule patching can only go so far.  The most complicated game breaks arise from interactions between many player characters, in effect a large synthetic economy.  The World Of Warcraft internal auction markets are nowhere close to equilibrium, and arbitrageurs can make lots of in-game money.  In some cases, trading bot programs have accumulated up to several times the total amount of money in circulation on any one game server.  Blizzard deals with that by shutting down bot accounts whenever they are detected.  But  Matt Fisher at Stanford tells me that bot programs can be programmed to appear almost identical to a human player who obsessively trades on the market, so there is no way to fix that.

Perhaps the limits of rule patching can be excused.  When game systems are so complicated that no-one can predict their outcomes, and when they involve the interactions of thousands of separate agents, fixing problems with them is as hard as fixing problems with the real-life economy.  Doing significantly better than random chance would be impressive.