Thursday, 12 June 2014

Archetypal Adventures: Corporates

Welcome to the second Archetypal Adventures post, covering the most maligned character role in the science fiction gaming universe: the Corporate. The last post in this series covered Limo Drivers; now we're going to explore the people they carry around!

The first part of this post covers the Corporate character's place in the game setting. Corporate Courtiers provides an idiosyncratic take on the Corporate's entourage (player group?) to inspire campaigns and PC ideas. Finally, there are five mini-adventures to round it all out.


It's difficult to think of many hero-hero corporates in science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Julia in Peter Hamilton's Greg Mandel trilogy and...? We need to make an important distinction between corporates and protagonist heroic entrepreneurs. The narrative gives representatives of that character archetype the agency to define themselves and even redefine the world. Whereas the corporate archetype is entirely defined by their relationship to The Company:
  • Corporates work for large corporations, the kind of organisations with giant hierarchies, paramilitary organisation and efficiency measures that stifle innovation
  • in order to rise through the company they've had to adopt the inhuman values of the company, which can lead them to make decisions which can appear unethical or even downright psychopathic (see Charlie Stross' alien invasion theory)
  • in order to survive performance reviews, business failure and management infighting, they always have to appear to be producing more value than their peers. Everyone IRL has experienced an incompetent manager covering up. Statistically everyone has been one, at some point!
It's already common practice for giant companies to use lobbying and lawfare to drive their innovative competitors out of the market, and everyone has been subjected to horrid workplace politics at some point. What differentiates this archetype in gaming from any real white collar professional is that these common events have become suffused with a ridiculous degree of ambient violence. Assassination, corporate espionage, sabotage... 

It'll start with proxy soldiers disguising themselves as local insurgents, gangsters and terrorists, striking at rivals under the cover of social chaos brought about by economic or environmental events. By succeeding in those attacks, they will have lent credibility to the people they were pretending to be. This undermines the rule of law and makes it easier for corporations to attack each other, in an explosive cycle. Once there's a pool of trained operators embedded in the company structure, it's almost inevitable they'll become involved in internal struggles...

These adventures are going to be about those internal struggles. Corporate warfare is a whole other subject, for another day!

THE CORPORATE COURTIER

Associate VP of Human Resources
The first three decades of the 21st century were not a great time to be a white collar middle management type in the corporate world. Half of them were made obsolete by simple software apps, the other half saw the same thing happen to the divisions they led. "Lean" management principles and stretched budgets demanded the destruction of entire layers of management.

You could take this process to a logical conclusion and make the argument that "Megacorporations" are like soooo 1980s. Microcorporations and individual economic actors might very well be the future of capitalism, if capitalism has a future. But given that IRL (as of 2011) four companies effectively control the 145 companies that own everything, there's plenty of inspirational material for Big Bad Transnationals in a game set one or two whole decades from now. Also BBTs make super fun villains in a cyberpunk game, which is the main thing by far.

So - we have megacorporations. In some ways, they are much leaner than ever before. They've skimped on labour wherever possible, replaced the blue collar workers with hardware and the white collar workers with software, and driven the survivors to new heights of drugged up productivity. Most of the efficiency savings have gone into funding the private security forces necessary in the age of corporate warfare and hollow states.

Only a few executives survived the purges, and those who did are dangerous as fuck. They survived by convincing the company they were necessary by achieving results (in actual or perceived fact). They need political instincts as honed as any lawmaker, and tracking the movements of their rivals inside and outside the company requires enormous amounts of intel. The executive becomes a target for dozens of different groups - rival megacorporations, infiltrators and kidnappers, anti-corporate terrorists, insurgents trying to break the economy, 'runners hired to defend start-up concerns and (worst of all) internal enemies: ambitious lieutenants and paranoid bosses. It becomes impossible to trust the company's own security department. 

For this reason, executives have increasingly come to follow in the grand tradition of feudal lords: they recruit entourages of loyal consultants operatives, often from outside the corporation, to defend themselves and further their ambitions. We'll call this entourage a "court". The original courtier is the simple PA. Beyond that will be media personnel and image consultants, specialist intelligence personnel (everything from signal set analysts to meme gurus) and a couple of trusted "special advisers." Coolhunters search for new business opportunities but also seek out potential disruptive innovations at street level, hoping to identify, destroy or co-opt successful start-ups before they can threaten the company's market hegemony. Hackers are also common, if they can survive - courtier netrunners get fragged by their supposed in-company allies all the time. A corporate's court is a perfect player group.

By far the most dangerous and respected position in the executive's court is the Independent Security Consultant. These hardbitten mercenary soldiers have three roles:
  • officially, to protect the executive and her court, and to advise the company's security forces in that role
  • unofficially, to liaise with "deniable assets" and provide connections with the mercenary community that could aid the company (and the executive)
  • even more unofficially, to fight the exec's internal battles and defend her from the company's own security department
ISC's tend to be recruited out of the "deniable" community, particularly if the corporate intrigued her way to her current position. A surprising number of executives and ISCs have known each other since childhood - when rising execs with no street connections begin their climb they often reach out to trusted friends, recruiting former soldiers, policemen and even criminals of their younger acquaintance to fight their battles. Thus execs and 'runners rise together, forming bonds of trust that confound those expecting a completely mercenary enemy. ISCs often put their own trusted street contacts onto the payroll, giving court security forces an alarming degree of criminal talent.

Outside of a boardroom coup or activist shareholder action, the bloodiest period in a corporation's internal politics is the appointment of a new ISC. The Security Division always panics when it sees the kind of neuro-atypical urban terrorist the Chief Financial Officer just handed an access pass to. More to the point, it's an opportunity for their backers in the company to assert more direct control over the executive by humiliating or simply destroying her unproven security staff. Rival executives have the same thought: it's a moment of vulnerability to be exploited. 











Every executive has a court, a majordomo and a private, loyal paramilitary cadre of some kind (even if it's hidden inside the mainstream security force). The rest of the courtiers - from drivers through fashion designers through cool hunters through hackers - form an entourage whose size is determined by the exec's success, personal wealth and access to the consultancy budget. In small research divisions there may actually be more courtiers than company professionals. Characters in an executive's court might include, among others:

  • an image and networking consultant, to keep the executive's profile where it needs to be (a "face")
  • an business intelligence analyst (a hacker with high skills in economics and a lot of contacts)
  • a "wine taster" - an elite medic who defends the court from biological, chemical and poison attacks
  • a "griefer" - a thief/prowler type specifically equipped for blackmail, sabotage and false flag operations, disguised as some other more legitimate operative
  • a "lifestyle co-ordinator" who liaises with the hotels and corporate retreats the court moves through, finding local supplies and contacts along the way (fixer)

If all this seems like bloat, that's because it is. It's the price megacorporations pay for an insanely competitive, totally amoral management culture. Most AAA corporations set aside a "consultancy" budget for this very purpose (people have died defending that money!). Besides, life is cheap in the post industrial era. In a period of economic chaos, these people sign on for salaries that seem pathetically small to beneficiaries of 20th century labour struggles. Exiting the court means falling from a world of glittering towers back into the streets of brutalised cities.

Some courts locate themselves in corporate HQs. But many executives, particularly those with far flung operations, prefer not to live in close physical proximity to their rivals. Instead they and their entourage circle the globe in private aircraft and armoured 4x4s, rolling from one city to the next like the procession of a medieval king. This progress, marked by the arrival of shiny modern vehicles, shiny modern troops and shiny modern products, appears confident and assured. In truth it might be a retreat, running from fading light to fading light as the lights go out across the fractured world.

ADVENTURE HOOKS

In my efforts to make this blog more of a fanzine, I've lately been trying to convince people to do my work for me. In that spirit, each of these adventures emerged out a short koan-like hook given to me by VFTE's Malek77. I merely took those perfect skeletons and hung ugly flesh over them before giving them each a hyperbolic title, as is my wont. Thanks!

Might I recommend this as a soundtrack?

THE RAPTURE


A major corporation with global reach and a large paramilitary force is falling out of profit, and has ordered an intensely charismatic Triage Specialist to turn things around. Every executive and department head has been racing to prove their worth before they are cast out.

What few people in the corporation realise is that the Triage Specialist has an apocalyptic vision of the future. The end of civilisation is coming, and the only viable means of survival is an army of loyalists. Which is exactly what he's building.

He's using the mandate given to him by the distant board and shareholders to remove disloyal employees, placing his own cadre in positions of power across the company. He's assumed control of most of the security forces. Only a couple of divisions, too important to be easily taken apart, are still controlled by people outside his influence.

The 'runners may be hired by one of these division heads when they come to realise they have been targeted for destruction. He'll use deniable forces to attack those rivals he can't remove directly. The sharks are circling the company anyway; all he has to do is pass on security data to a few rival corporations and let them do the work for him. Meanwhile, our antagonist continues working towards a full blown palace coup.

IMPIETY

A corporation has made an error - it might be anything from an internal accountancy issue to dumping pollutants into the water table - and a noble fool sets out to correct it. This fool may or may not be a PC.

What s/he doesn't realise is that fixing the error will require casting blame for said error, which nobody else in the company is willing to accept. The error wasn't intentional, but it doesn't matter. If the company can't cover it up they'll find a way to blame it on the person trying to correct it.

The people responsible will use their image consultants and hired hackers in an attempt to discredit the protagonist. If they succeed, the team will be out of pocket (especially if they were courtiers!). Our fool may decide to do the same thing as part of a plan to reveal the duplicity of her new opponents. This is a mission for a team comfortable with deceit, intrigue and foul play.

THE TICKET

A corporate contact of the players is ordered to hire mercenaries for the newly formed military wing of his corporation. He doesn't know much about paramilitary affairs, so he subcontracts to a trusted team - the PCs.

This is a great chance for the team to help out their contacts (and boost their resources and loyalty) by getting them cushy jobs. Neither the corporate nor his bosses know much about the market or the hiring process; as such they will probably accept anyone the team offers. This would also be a great opportunity to insert some kind of infiltrator into the company.

The thing is, the team aren't the only people with that idea. Various extremist groups and rival corporate mercenaries will take the opportunity to try it themselves. If the players aren't careful in their background checks, they could be fucked. Because if someone they recruited turns out to be a violent terrorist who co-opts the company's resources to her own explosive ends, the players will look very complicit...

FAMILY TIES

A manager is making her play for the next rung of the corporate ladder, in the face of some downright murderous opposition from her workmates.

The problem is, she has a weakness they don't - a family. 

The team are hired into her court to defend her family while she makes her bid for power. This means bodyguard work and pre-emptive intelligence gathering. It also means defending people with very little capacity for self defence from people as trained and psychopathic as themselves. A kidnapping attempt seems almost inevitable.

LEVERAGE

The company has hired a consultant to deal with a major failing project. Once he arrives he realises the truth - there's no saving the account. He's simply been hired to take the blame. After a few months he'll be thrown off the contract and publicly excoriated by the director of the division.

He isn't prepared to accept this. The PC team is hired to gain leverage to cover his resignation/exist. This means finding something to hold over the division chief, which means going up against her court of experienced political animals. Everyone in this game is a veteran of corporate intrigue - they learnt how to cover themselves years ago.

Secrets will be mined, datastores hacked, reputations destroyed...