Sunday, 23 March 2014

Alienation: the Thingification!

Last week's Alienation post - an alternative cyberware "humanity" system for Cyberpunk 2020 - has received some great feedback which I'd like to answer here. I'm going to save questions about the maths in the Rejection guidelines for a different post, but otherwise i'll try to cover the big stuff here...

The big things in this post:
  • Should INT be the main attribute in the Alienation roll?
  • Expanding the table - including sense/memory loss and more...
  • Different tables for different cyberware. EDIT: forgot to do that. Will deal with it in another post...
For those who missed it, the original rules googledoc is here. 

To recap:
  • The aim of the rules is to replace cyberpsychosis with a more setting neutral system. "Metal turns people into inhuman monsters" is such a defining idea that it becomes central to a cyberpunk setting. It doesn't fit a game based on Neuromancer or Ghost in the Shell or Deus Ex, let alone a more optimistic "transhuman" game. 
  • These rules give cyberware a Rejection rating. When a character installs new cyberware - or has heart bypass surgery, or suffers a serious malfunction, or or - s/he makes an Alienation check. If the check is "failed" s/he rolls against a table to determine the negative effects of the installation.
  • "Alienation" effects represent adaptation problems caused by the discrepancy between the user's new capabilities and physical form and her existing mental architecture/social relationships, etc. A person who dedicates time and energy to adapting - to being "mindful" of his new cyberware - can use the Transhumanism skill to mitigate the risk of Alienation tests.
  • As a side note, these rules don't apply any kind of value judgement to cyberware installation or "metal." A metal robot installing fleshy parts a la The Bicentennial Man would take Alienation tests just like a cyborg...
I'd like to thank a variety of people for looking these rules over, particularly VFTE types Mort, Senior Officer Mikael Van Atta and Malek77, along with Nathan Hawks on G+. Classic artwork in this post from Cyberpunk 2013 owned by R Talsorian Games, used without permission.

So, to get down to responding to and applying feedback:

Dealing with Alienation

Firstly, a quick thing: Mort pointed out that I'd forgotten to limit the amount of Alienation points you can remove by uninstalling cyberware and so "a character could reduce his alienation to zero by installing and uninstalling interface plugs". I've fixed that. However - I'd argue that if your character is trying to reduce his alienation through that method, he's already displaying alienated tendencies!

Why is the Alienation Test based on INT?

Van Atta brings up a big, important question which I find I can't adequately answer. He suggests COOL - already linked to Resist Torture/Drugs as a substitute - and its true that I thought about COOL as the other option. 

I chose to link the Alienation test to INT for a few reasons.
  • I wanted to separate cyberware from EMP. I'll come back to this.
  • Its been my experience in both research and IRL that mental health issues can't be dealt with using sheer willpower alone - attempting that method almost always results in failure (which is why male suicide rates are so much higher...). It requires thought and analysis and research and an active search for self-awareness That's a point against COOL and maybe for INT (or EMP!).
  • At the same time, the Alienation table reflects adaptation issues. Dedicating the time and intelligence to thinking through the potential problems and being mindful of your new bodily reality should ameliorate the potential problems. That said, using TECH or EMP could reflect that just as well.
  • I didn't want to overemphasise a single attribute for cyberware users. Everyone reading this has played games where every murderous cyborg began the game with EMP 10 (maybe they were so sensitive that they had to build themselves a metal shield to protect themselves from emotional hurt...). Any character creation strategy should involve at least three core attributes, in my opinion.
  • Knowing that Transhumanism was going to be an EMP skill and that Resist Torture/Drugs is linked to COOL, INT seemed like a likely choice. Except for two things: 1) neither of those linked attributes actually apply to the Alienation test 2) INT is already one of the most important attributes...
  • In my games COOL has traditionally been one of the most important Attributes. Moreso than INT, except...
...I'd also forgotten something important.

I abandoned "roles" about three sessions into playing CP2020 (when I was, like14). One of the reasons for that was that I hated the way every character seemed to start with INT 9 in order to get more pick-up skills. The problem is this: despite my strongest efforts, not every group has abandoned the role system, and anyone still using it will find INT even more important. Gruddamnit...

What I'm saying is this: using INT makes lots of sense in my local "metagame" and much less sense everywhere else. 

So if INT doesn't make much sense what are the other options? TECH and EMP spring to mind. TECH already seems like a "dump stat" for many characters - I like the idea of making it more important for solos who want to keep their cyberware working. It would reflect the time taken to understand exactly what your PC is putting into his body.

EMP also makes a lot of sense - Empathy is as much about self knowledge and understanding as social awareness. I understand why it was linked to Humanity Cost in the original system. I think i'm biased against it because of the EMP 10 cyborg thing from the original rules system, but I shouldn't be. 

I'm really not sure what to do. I'm leaning towards EMP, but I'd hope that, having laid out my thought process above, people can give me some suggestions about how to deal with this question!

The Transhumanism Skill

Transhumanism fits into the Alienation test like so:
INT + Resist Torture/Drugs + Transhumanism + D10 vs Alienation Rating

It isn't the most elegant thing I've ever written, but I think it works. It wouldn't be CP2020 if you didn't have to add out eight different modifiers...

Transhumanism is linked to EMP because all skills have a linked attribute, even if - in this case - you aren't using it to make actual skill checks. That said, I'd like to make that skill more useful. Something to do with designing new cyberware? Something to do with helping other characters mitigate alienation effects? I'm not sure. See "rules bloat" below.

Rules Bloat - a Manifesto

I want to keep these rules as simple as possible. To this end I've made two decisions:

1) to limit the ways characters can remove or reduce their Alienation total. This is partly because I want the decision to install cyberware to have major consequences and partly to keep things neat. I don't want four pages of rules about how to remove Alienation. This effects the Transhumanism skill - part of me wants to allow people to use it help themselves and others come to terms with their new forms. The other part knows that introducing those rules will require lots of exceptions and dilute the power of the alienation test.
2) To keep the table short and simple and relatively based on luck.

Nathan sez: "I'm seeing a missed opportunity for a Cool Save mechanic as a (highly touch-and-go) stopgap to these effects."

While i'm definitely curious to know what he has in mind, I'm not entirely sure if I agree the system needs one. Firstly, the Alienation test is already a save mechanic. This would just add a second one. 

Secondly, a save mechanic could conceivably reduce the amount of effects a character piles on, for better or worse. 

Although, actually, now I think about it, the Alienation attribute problem above might be solved with something like this:

Alienation test = COOL + Resist Torture/Drugs + D10 vs Alienation 
followed by 
Adaptation save = EMP + Transhumanism + D10 vs Alienation

Or something. That would spread out the necessary attributes a bit - a solo aiming to be a combat monster now needs REF, COOL, BOD, TECH (to keep it maintained) and EMP to really load up.*

It's something to think about (even if I'm basically happy with the system as it stands now). While I'm going to save the Rejection maths post for another day, Van Atta already pointed something out - under the existing numbers, normal humans start taking Alienation tests very fast. The outcomes of "failure" aren't nearly as high as cyberpsychosis, but they do matter. A second test would change the nature of the roll dramatically, and provide even more tension.

*my favourite quote from Nathan's post (even if it is in defence of the original HL system): "Chrome is apex flash noir in 20's Night City, and the transhuman element at play was that of being an early adopter who has no business being an early adopter. If you weren't street trash, you'd get all your Humanity back via post-op braindance treatments. You are street trash and probably too young, dumb and full of fun to think any side-effects could ever happen to you."  If that isn't the best character manifesto for taking EMP as a dump stat and shouting "fuck the alienation table!" I don't know what is!

It's actually what I'd like to reflect, really. Unprepared characters loading up with cyberware without taking the time to adapt to it, and piling on adaptation issues - maybe spiraling, like Case in the beginning of Neuromancer, towards something catastrophic, or maybe transcending it and becoming something post human...

Random Rejection Values

This is really a matter for the maths post, but I think it informs talk about the Expanding the Table below so I'm going to quickly quote Van Atta and make some return comments.

"#6: having random Rejection Value for most major cybersystems and the Alienation Test you get two variables. This makes the system pretty random, and likely to start taking it's toll on a character pretty early. I'm not saying it is a bad thing, but are you sure it is what you want?"

Yes. Yes it is what I want. 

Perhaps not quite as quickly, but that's a maths question. The randomness of the table is actually fairly intentional - I want there to be an element of real risk to the roll. It also reflects the adaptation issue idea. You might be able to load up a dozen pieces of ware with no problem, only to suffer a major health issue brought on by the discrepancy between your existing mental architecture and all the new input from your cyberears.

Van Atta wants an open-ended list based on degrees of failure:

#2: I'd suggest an open-ended list of negative results, based on the degree of failure in Alienation Test, rather than the current fully random table. Say, if you failed the test by 1-2 points, it results in Adaptation Issue. If you failed by 3-5, it is a Body Dissociation, and so on.
Naturally, it would require to:
1. Prepare for failure score of 10+.
2. Consider what happens in case of a botched roll (natural 1).

It's an interesting idea. Part of me thinks it might take away from the simple "purity" of the roll test/roll for alienation two step system. I'd like to know what other people think! I'll come back to the botch idea in a second. And I want each roll to reflect the specific effects of the cyberware being installed - a brain which dealt with a chainsaw arm might have serious problems with nasal filters or a "playback system" allowing them to access stored memories.

Expanding the Table

There's a consensus that I should expand the table. I'm not entirely sure I want to do that, except maybe to add a botch consequence. I think the two "disassociation" issues cover a lot of ground.

However, there's an obvious additional one that VFTE's own Malek77 pointed out. I don't claim to understand this stuff at all, but my understanding is that memory - particularly "procedural memory" is often linked to certain physical actions or sensory cues. Removing the body parts associated with those cues might remove those memories.

Or something. I hate to say it, but right now the basic wikipedia articles on physical memory are making me glaze over. Later today I'm going to have to brew a cup of tea and sit down to really grapple with it!

At any rate, I think there's a case for "unexpected, permanent memory loss" as a botch roll. Not "all your memory" but "something important." Asking a player to define something important to their character and then to lose it would be massively, viscerally impactful, I think!

Secondly, i'm not sure that simply replacing a limb with metal would remove the psychological effects of amputating a limb in the first place. This seems like a good source of inspiration for additional complications - although body disassociation covers most of them.

Social effects of cyberware: a cop out 

This post is already massive. So I think I'm going to cover questions about the social effects of cyberware in another post - maybe a more general one, less related to these rules. I'm not sure. At any rate, that can wait for another day! 

I'd love people's feedback on this. It might be easier if that happens in the comments to this post, rather than four different threads scattered across three different social networks! Not that I mind that! It was useful to have to go through and collate everything...


  1. Re: Rules Bloat item 1: There's no way to summarize those? I am (for better or worse) usually happy to encourage a mechanic and explain its function without feeling I have to make a non-mechanical statement. I know when these passages appear in rulebooks they are varyingly skipped, specified by house, fodder for advanced sourcebooks, or read as elastic. Explicitly describing one or two suggested mechanics and the spirit of why, all as such, and moving on, might take far less space than tabling everything out with even better effect than a crunchy-/lawyerism-perfect extension.

    About the stats debate on which stat to use... consider that every person copes with the world differently, and that one stat, is never a person. A person's INT does not deal with that person's mental illness for them, nor does their COOL, nor EMP, etc. The person deals with it. A person with very high INT will use what COOL and EMP they have, and will hack it out as best they can. A person with high COOL will suffer through their INT and EMP failures and always seek to recover lost moments immediately and make the best of it. A person with high EMP will forgive themselves and attach themselves to people who will augment their own lacking COOL and INT.

    I think, if the goal is to represent actual humans coping with mental illness, you might want to be very careful about where brevity cuts.

    I'd suggest thinking along lines of:
    EMP-led = More couched; Less self-assured, less decisive
    COOL-led = More fluid; Less consistent, less directed
    INT-led = More sure; Less socially-graceful, less socially-observant

    At this point I need to at least admit that I haven't read the actual rule-as-written that you are constructing. I've never been a person who can read 100 words to glean the 1 variable and its position in a fomula described therein. Where is the "it works exactly like this" version? Without that, all I can do is comment on the bits that I (perhaps wrongly) believe I understand.

    1. Err... I misstated: "without feeling I have to make a non-mechanical statement" should have been "with a non-mechanical statement"

      As in, I'm comfortable at least parameterizing edge cases I feel are important to the rule. FWIW.

  2. Oh yeah, I definitely could summarize those rules quickly and efficiently. Having them as optional rules would work. I guess I just don't want to create a lot of exceptions.

    The current Alienation check is: INT + Resist Torture/Drugs + D10 vs Alienation Rating. "Failure" means rolling on the alienation table.

    That's a really neat paragraph comparing the different attribute responses for dealing with a mental health problem, btw. I guess you could let the player pick the highest - or force them to pick the lowest - of the three options as their methodology for dealing with Alienation.

    1. Well, INT is pretty often a buffed-up stat in CP2020 as well... nobody likes to perceive himself as a dummie ;)

      Hmm, I think I have a simple and nasty way to deal with the INT / COOL / EMP problem:
      The character uses the lowest of them! If you aren't very smart, you will have Alienation problems because of it. And analogically with being not very empathic or psychically resilient.

      A more elegant solution would be to use an average of these three (this way drugs or cybernetic enhancements would be more beneficial - in case of "choose the lowest" method, they're good only for patching up the biggest gaping hole).

      As for botch idea - "forgetting something important" isn't a thing that works [u]within game mechanics[/u]. I'd make it into losing skill points. Though losing one point on all skills would be a bit too harsh, losing a point in general would be hardly noticeable, and rolling a save against every skill (you have Driving at +5, on a roll of 5 or less you lose 1 level) to check if you've lost a point in it, while feeling balanced, would be taking a lot of gaming time.

  3. One more thing - I don't think I understeand why and what for there are two separate tests:
    1. Alienation roll,
    2. Adaptation roll.

    Also, including two skills (Resist Torture / Drugs and Transhumanism) into one roll allows to build really high on them.
    Given that, I'd suggest dropping the Resist Torture / Drug from the Alienation rules and sticking solely to Transhumanism, making it essentially an one-trick pony (as compared to Resist Torture / Drug, which makes for a pretty do-it-all skill).
    I.e. only appropriate psychic training (Transhumanism skill) allows you to deal with side-effects of modifying your body.

    It would also allow to limit its effectiveness depending on setting - this skill might be alltogether unavailable, or work at half, full, double (and so on) value depending on how adept is the society in dealing with cybernetics / bionics - or straightly, how transhumanist it is.
    Transhumanism could be an INT skill then (i.e. knowledge type), but it would provide a modifier (x1/2, x1, x2, x-some-crazy-value) to the Alienation/Adaptation roll, being made on the character's lowest attribute (choosen form among Int, Cool and Emp).

  4. I can't vouch for the site, but this is a list of the stories I've 'heard' about the effect of transplants on memories :

    People have reported transplanted artistic desires, tastes in food, or gaining dreams of riding at speed on a motorbike...which seems to have come from the donor.

    It's not just muscle memory skills, the implication is that there are deeply personal things 'stored' in our nervous tissue.

    (...It'd be a terrible thing if an Edgerunner got his Handgun stat nerfed because he lost his right arm, and with it, his muscle memory... :P )

    The first 'pass' suggestion is that going metal would cause desires & tastes to be lost.

    The 2nd pass - perhaps the artificial nerves of the implant might introduce a new kind of signal traffic to the wearer. 'Machine memories' might be a stretch, but a sense of rhythm driven by a processor clock maybe.

    A 3rd pass - if the process of memory transplant is well understood, they could be engineered. A craving for a product, perhaps. Or more implants from the same manufacturer. A sense that you were incomplete...

  5. ...and on further consideration, the 'skill loss' due to replacement seems like an excellent balancing mechanic that doesn't insist implants cause insanity! Replace a right arm, right arm REF and BOD skills are nerfed until you refamiliarise, by training and experience.
    - It makes 'metalling up' a costly process of retraining, so best left for emergencies.
    - You may lose memories or desires.
    - 'Munchkin Borgs' will lack skill at first, making them dangerous but clumsy opponents.

    1. I'm cool with skill point loss, as we have game mechanics for skillpoints.
      I'm not cool with "memory or desire" loss, as we have no game mechanics for these... which would make it arbitrary and pretty likely meaningless in a gameplay.