Designer's Notes: Tranhuman Space: Broken Dreams

by Jamais Cascio

There are, for me, few more appealing tasks than coming up with plausible and interesting scenarios of the future. It's something I do professionally as well as in my gaming life. Since the mid-1990s, I have worked as a scenario designer, a kind of strategic planner that focuses on future environments for present-day organizations (ranging from tiny non-profits and start-ups to global corporations and governments). Part of this work entails talking with very smart people about where they think the future is headed, paying close attention to emerging ideas and technologies, and thinking about the implications of all of these potential changes.

I'm also a long time roleplaying gamer. A few years ago, I started running a GURPS game set in a near future populated by technological and social changes that, through my work, I had come to believe would shape the 21st century and beyond. It was a world of sentient computers, radical biotechnologies, and nanomachines. It was fairly dark, and definitely not traditional sci-fi. When I first heard about Transhuman Space, I had a moment of deja vu; while the scenario was clearly original and new, it had significant parallels to what I had been working on. Although I had never done professional game design, I started looking for ways that I could contribute to the development of the series.

I couldn't imagine a better first game book for me than Broken Dreams.

The theme of the book -- the darker side of the Transhuman Space future -- was immediately intriguing. While many readers find the main Transhuman Space scenario somewhat disturbing, it is a far more optimistic vision of the next 100 years than many futurists would describe. The climate is bad, but not devastatingly out-of-kilter; terrorists have access to more dangerous technologies, but the world has avoided significant attacks; machines are intelligent, but in a way that (by and large) enhances human capabilities rather than completely replacing them. Moreover, the traditional future dystopias of the cyberpunk genre are out of place here.

The immersive cyberspace of that genre is missing, as well. In most respects, the information technology in Transhuman Space is fairly prosaic, with plausible improvements over current systems. One area of development is the realm of intellectual property. Broken Dreams includes rules for accessing, controlling, and hacking the intellectual property rights systems commonplace in 2100, as well as a discussion of pervasive advertising (and adviruses). One section, dropped for space but included below, provided some options for GMs wishing to add complexity or detail to the means by which the adventurers access the global web.

Getting Online

Web service providers, or WSPs, are the gateways through which a user's virtual interface implant, wearable augmented reality system, or hand-held cybershell gains access to the web. In most of the developed world, this access is uniform, inexpensive (or free), and easy. For the most part, typical web users need not worry about their WSPs, which tend to function as reliably as any other utility service. Adventurers tend not to be typical web users, however, and may wish to take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative service providers. They are also likely to travel to more exotic locales, some of which use non-standard web access technologies.

Most computer systems are designed to have constant wireless access to the web. Cybershells need to be authenticated and identified, however, and this is where WSPs come in. In their most basic form, web service providers supply a unique web identification for the digital system and a rudimentary check to make sure that the computer is who it says it is. Other forms of authentication may be required for access to other systems (see Fifth Wave, p. 124-130).

In parts of the world with a single (usually official) WSP, basic authentication is typically the only level of service available. In areas with competing WSPs, however, providers will often have additional features beyond simple identification. Some may provide free virtuality node services (see p. FW30), virus filtering, or remote data storage facilities; the more expensive services often tout security and (relative) anonymity as key selling points. Larger corporations will sometimes offer private WSP access for employees. Entirely private webs (with or without connections to the broader global web) are commonplace, usually requiring specialized hardware for connection.

With few exceptions (most notably Kazakhstan and Iran), commercially-available cybershells and other web access hardware use global standards, and will have no problem contacting the web wherever wireless networks are available. Global web service providers can be reached across all Fourth and Fifth Wave nations (except the Transpacific Socialist Alliance, where access is usually blocked by other nations). Third Wave countries (particularly those referred to as "transition states" in Broken Dreams) may not have the necessary cross-connection agreements in place; in these cases, the visitor's infomorph will automatically negotiate a temporary web access connection using the country's free service.

Most Earth governments provide very basic service at no cost to citizens, and at very low prices to visitors. These free WSPs usually have little intrinsic security, no virus or advertising filters, and no added features. Users of these services must acquire appropriate security software on their own. Computer Hacking attempts against systems connecting to the web via a free WSP will be at +2 in addition to any other modifiers. Access fees for non-citizens are usually fairly low, averaging about $5/month.

There are a number of competing global WSPs available to citizens of Fourth and Fifth Wave nations; many of these also provide service in the more populous off-world locations. All can handle the usual web functions, but each provides its own unique additions to the standard package. Subscription fees are generally reasonable. It is possible for a single user to subscribe to multiple services, although most computer systems may only connect via one WSP at a time. The ability to connect to multiple WSPs adds 10% to the cost of digital hardware for each added channel.

The top five global WSPs in January, 2100 are:

On additional WSP of note is Mainliner. Not well known, it is nonetheless popular in certain circles. Its security features give a -1 to any Computer Hacking attempts against Mainliner-connected systems, but its real attraction is the built-in advertising filter. Those who connect to the web via Mainliner rarely see any advertisements; the effect is the equivalent of running ad-filter software. Advirus filters are also standard. Aimed at technology and information professionals, Mainliner also claims to have one of the fastest networking systems available. There are persistent rumors that Mainliner is a front for the Transpacific Socialist Alliance; there are also persistent rumors (usually not among the same people) that it's actually run by the CIA. $200/month.

Article publication date: December 5, 2003

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