This article originally appeared in Pyramid #7

Brain Hacking

A Diabolical New Skill for GURPS Cyberpunk

by Sean Barrett

"Oh? And how much more will this, ah, information cost me?"

This was it. The moment. From now on, he would be in with privs. Deep breath; just say it. "One million marks."

One excited heartbeat thudded past.

Mr. Johnson burst into gales of laughter. Sickening realization twisted Ether Oar's guts: he had just revealed far too much.

"For a minute there," Johnson gasped out, "I thought you were ready for the big time, kid. Skorzy, pay the kid."

The one that Ether Oar had mentally dubbed Goon #3 stepped forward, his hand going into his coat. Ether Oar thought about telling him to move slowly, but decided that was useless. He had no weapon himself. His mind was his weapon. His mind and his cyberdeck. Skorzy's hand came out holding a wallet, anyway. A wallet? For a million marks? Then Skorzy's other hand slammed into his solar plexus, and Ether Oar's priorities were rearranged. Breathing was at the top of the list. He could not resist as they bundled him into the van.

They didn't take him anywhere; Skorzy just bound him quickly with duct tape. Then things got weird. Taking him in a head-lock, Skorzy attached a jack to Ether Oar's interface plug and carefully taped the cord to his head. Through the familiar vertigo of plugged-in-but-not-connected, his mind raced. Were they actually going to let him log in? Then he noticed that the cord was connected to the deck through a crudely drilled hole in the top. What had they done to their cyberdeck? Another interface cord ran from the usual port on the front to a figure in the darkness.

"Dump him," Johnson ordered. Their netrunner giggled in the shadows, a high, frightening sound, and poked the deck's keypad once.

Ether Oar screamed!

Anyone with a high-bandwidth data port, designed for the direct input of artificial signals to his consciousness - a netrunner, for example - is uniquely vulnerable to the horror of brain hacking. "Cyberspace" is a full-sensory illusion transmitted directly into the brain's perception centers. As long as that illusion is created and controlled by a cyberdeck tuned to an individual's psyche, with interlocks and safety features, it remains benign. But with any technology involving direct input to the brain, the potential for accidental harm cannot be eliminated.

And if the illusion was designed to injure . . .

Brain Hacking (Mental/Very Hard) Defaults to Will-6
Prerequiste: Psychology

Brain hacking uses specialized hardware. Any computer or cyberdeck with a neural interface can be modified by installing an altered "piggyback" board (originally intended to allow one netrunner to accompany another on a run through cyberspace). Preparing the card takes $5,000 and one week, and knowledge that is not easily available. The number of brain hacking cards that can be installed is equal to the Complexity of the computer.

The most basic form of brain hacking is based on a Contest of Brain Hacking Skill between the hacker and the victim. Each round of the Contest takes one-tenth of a second. Each time the hacker wins the Contest, he learns the answer to one yes/no question.

If ten Contests are won in a row, and the hacker has been asking about a single subject (GM's discretion as to what constitutes a single subject), the victim's defenses have completely collapsed concerning that subject, and the hacker learns everything the victim knows about it.

Knowledge gained in this way consists of raw facts, unconnected by reasoning ability. Hacking a molecular biologist gives no skill in Biology (Molecular). The hacker would learn the names of several good reference texts.

The hacker obviously has a tremendous advantage: even if the victim wins the Contest of Skills, he has only temporarily held off the assault - he can neither damage the hacker nor learn anything. He is in serious trouble; it is only a matter of time before he slips.

Computer-Aided Interrogation

Programs designed to assist interrogations have no need of great Complexity; they need only to painfully overload the victim's senses. Add the complexity of each program assisting the attempt to the hacker's skill. A Complexity 3 minicomputer running its full capacity of 100 Complexity 1 programs would add 100 to a brain hacker's effective skill! Naked human minds are helpless before the onslaught of multiple, high-speed dedicated attack programs.

Compilers, Editors, Debuggers

The mind of a victim can be permanently altered. (Some may recognize the following techniques of the Men In Black. A complete discussion of brainwashing is found in the book GURPS Illuminati. Fnord.) All the following programs attack by a Contest of the program's skill against the victim's Brain Hacking skill (which defaults to Will-6). Prices are not given for the programs since it is very unlikely that they will be found for sale at any price. Their very existence is almost certainly a secret worth many lives.

After a computer program succeeds in any mental altering operations except simple trashing (below), the GM should roll against the hacker's Brain Hacking skill to determine the thoroughness of the success. On a critical success, the victim's mind is exactly the way the hacker wants it. On a critical failure, the victim's mind is badly damaged - he now has another -20 points of mental disadvantages, chosen by the GM - but nothing like the desired effect has been achieved. On anything in between, an alteration has taken place, but the victim will eventually notice discrepancies, ranging from very minor and easily explained away for successes, to glaringly obvious for failures. There is no way for the hacker to learn the exact result of his skill roll.

It is easy to simply trash a victim's mind - to drive him raving mad. A Complexity 1 "Bedlam" program is used; every time its attack succeeds, the victim's IQ drops one point. Each attack takes ten seconds. Whether this damage can be repaired is left to the GM's discretion.

It is also possible, and considerably more subtle, to only unbalance the victim. This can take the form of virtually any mental disadvantage, from Absent-Mindedness, through Delusion or Paranoia, to Weak Will. Each disadvantage requires a different program and a number of successful attacks equal to the point-value of the disadvantage. Each attack takes one minute. A 5-point disadvantage or a quirk is a Complexity 1 program, a 10- or 15-point disadvantage is a Complexity 2 program, and anything worse a Complexity 3 program. It is possible for these disadvantages to be cured (and bought off) by advanced psychotherapy.

DELETE/ERASE file-spec
Frequently the victim knows something that he - in the opinion of the hacker - shouldn't. The Complexity 2 "Lethe" program can alter memories, although not as reliably as files are altered on a computer. Slip-ups are common, and it is usually safer to simply kill the victim

The hacker player must detail to the GM the changes he wishes to make, while his character sets the controlling parameters on his computer. Each attempt takes ten minutes. A separate run is required for each distinct set of memories. Unless the hacker makes a critical success on his skill roll, the memories will eventually begin to return. If the roll succeeds, the memories will come back in twenty months minus the number rolled. If the roll fails, the time-period is twenty weeks minus the roll. However, attention can be called to any gaps in the victim's memory at any time. He will not think about it on his own, but if he is questioned about it, it will be noticed. ("Whadja do last night?" "Why, I don't remember!" "Good party, huh?")

A victim can be programmed to exhibit a specific behavior when he perceives a "key" - a signal of any sort, defined by the hacker. He may be sent forth as an assassin, to kill on sight any of the targets on his list, or he may just leave the front door unlocked after he hears a particular phrase over the phone. Once the program behavior is triggered, the subject can be either fully aware of his actions, or a totally oblivious automaton.

If the subject is to remain aware, the programming must include justification of the behavior. This rationalization will be internally consistent, but not necessarily consistent with reality. It may sound ridiculous to anyone else, but the subject thinks his behavior is totally appropriate. The main advantage of conscious operation is that the subject will be in sufficient control that his manner won't be wildly strange. The major drawback is that the subject could conceivably be talked out of his mission. The programming takes much longer, too.

If the subject is to be oblivious during the behavior, there is no need for explanations. As soon as he receives the stimulus, the subject's conscious mind shuts down and the psychovirus takes over. The character's robot-like manner is obvious, but in this state, he cannot be dissuaded from his task. The programming process is also much faster than for conscious action.

A psychovirus is a very sophisticated program, specifically written for one subject and one behavior. The GM should make both a Computer Programming and a Psychology roll for the hacker when he writes it, noting success or failure but not telling the player. The Complexity is assigned by the GM based on the hacker's description of the actions to be programmed, but should not be less than 3. Then a roll is made against the program's skill once an hour (for oblivious action) or every eight hours (for conscious action) until it successfully programs the victim's mind.

The final Brain Hacking roll will indicate whether the victim will become aware of the programming before it is too late. Generally, programming will last for 20 weeks minus the number rolled for successful rolls, and 20 days minus the roll for failures. There is no way to test a virus short of triggering it. If either roll to write the psychovirus failed, the actions of the subject will be extremely inappropriate.

A Psychology failure will result in strange impulses that will make no sense even to the victim, while Programming errors will most likely cause seizures and mental damage.

Hidden Files
A brain hacker can put raw data in the mind of a subject so that the subject cannot access it and is unaware of its existence. The effect is like implanting a memory chip for later playback, but this data is stored in the subject's mind, undetectable by any physical search (or an autopsy). Like the artificial memories discussed above, this technique isn't foolproof, and the subject may accidentally get access to the data.

The implanted material must have a "key" as above, which may or may not be perceptible. If the key is perceptible and the subject encounters it, the hidden memories surface. More commonly, the key is not outwardly perceptible. The character performing the "playback" simply jacks into the subject, transmits the key electronically, and downloads the data. The subject may or may not be aware of what is going on. With this arrangement, the subject never has conscious access to the stored information.

Installation is quite simple, requiring ten minutes per megabyte and a successful run of the Complexity 1 "Classified" program. If the key is to be imperceptible, the operation is perfect if the hacker's skill roll succeeds. If the key is external, only critical success is flawless, and the hidden data will begin "leaking" at a rate proportional to the success of the roll. Rather than give a specific time period, the GM should actually leak the information to the player at a rate he feels is appropriate. On failures, the subject quickly becomes aware that "something is in his head" and becomes obsessed with things similar to the key.

A computer running several coordinated programs can assault a victim so rapidly, untiringly, responsively and on so many levels that there is little a human mind can do to resist its attacks. Defensive programs can be slotted, but it is unlikely that a brain hacker will allow anything to remain in his captive's chip slots when he attaches the interface cable - a brain hacker that sloppy isn't much to worry about anyway.

Two methods of improving resistance have been developed, however, which will extend the length of time a captive can hold out against the brain hacking. Time is still on the side of the hacker, though, and even the best defense will eventually slip.

A computer-aided attack uses a full-spectrum assault on all perception centers of the victim's brain. If those senses are dulled, the attack is less effective. For $15,000 (10 points), a Fader Chip can be installed which can, at will, reduce all sensory input to the merest whisper. This has the effect of multiplying Will by 10 for any resistance rolls, but it also cuts DX in half.

A more specific defense is to use a brain hacker's trick against him. If a character has knowledge that must be kept from the enemy at nearly any cost, it is possible to program him to forget it if a hacking attempt begins. This technique uses a Complexity 3 psychovirus as described above. In this case, record the Brain Hacking skill used to run the psychovirus (not the program's skill level - that only affects how long it takes to program the subject). Then every time an enemy brain hacker wins the Contest of Skills and would get an answer, re-roll that initial Brain Hacking skill.

On a success, no answer is given. On a critical success, that answer and everything related to it are permanently forgotten, and no amount of hacking will ever recover those memories. On a failure, the correct answer is given, and on critical failure, the victim also acquires -20 points of mental disadvantages as above.

Article publication date: June 1, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to