The Pentacle Processor
by Jeff Rahn
It starts small. A misplaced file here, a few mystery crashes there. Nothing that goes beyond the usual rigmarole that computer users endure the world over. But it gets worse, and worse. Pretty soon you have friends and family members calling you up to ask you to please stop sending them pornography links, and you know you haven't been. Your files start mysteriously disappearing. And you're pretty sure you didn't initiate a low-level reformat of your hard drive while you were on vacation.
Art by andi jones
Your local computer repair shop switches out memory chips, updates drivers, and suggests that you get an anti-virus. Your techie friends think you're overreacting. But one night you opened that devil-machine up and looked inside . . . is that big chip there supposed to have a five-pointed star in a circle on it?
The Pentacle Processor can be installed in any modern computer, from TL7 on up. It always looks just like the standard, middle of the line powerhouse chip that everyone wants in their system, but with one little difference. Each one has a little metal plate with a pentagram on it, stamped onto the processor's housing. This metal plate is a very important component. It's what keeps the demon inside.
That's right. Each and every Pentacle chip has a real-deal minor demon bound into it to further the cause of misery and frustration throughout the computer-using world. Depending on campaign tone, they can be sources of anything from frustration, to silliness, to terror. Any computer can have a Pentacle; they aren't a separate line or advertised as such. The only way to be sure you're safe is to open it up and look. Of course, the chip is ensorcelled with a variant of the Avoid enchantment, so chances are you'll open up the computer, look inside, then close it again thinking everything looks fine . . . when in fact you never even looked at the CPU. Ironically, the more someone knows about computers in general, the more effective this enchantment is. Computer servicers and gurus will all stalwartly insist that nothing is wrong with the CPU, give mind-bogglingly abstruse reasons why, and casually point out that the user's inexperience is showing. A total newbie who opens the box will often be able to see the telltale sigil, though whether or not he grasps its significance is another question.
The demon is constantly aware, even when the computer is off. Anything said in earshot of the computer can be heard by it, although it cannot see or smell. It can "read" keystrokes, and thus knows your passwords and personal ID numbers. It has full access to all files while the computer is on, can read personal documents and e-mail and such, and alter or delete them at will. At first it will try to be subtle, but as the user's frustration increases it will become more and more daring. If the system is brought into a shop, the demon will often lay low until the diagnostics are complete, then erase or alter files afterward so the user will blame the tech support. In all cases, an attempted servicing will escalate the demon's interference. Otherwise it just takes time. The demon will progress one level on the following chart every 1d6 weeks. Subtract one from this if the user remains very calm in spite of the difficulties, add one if the subject is particularly enraged.
What the Demon Does
Level 1The demon will induce errors at inopportune moments, load inappropriate drivers, switch files into different directories and otherwise be a nuisance. It doesn't yet delete or alter files, though it will be listening to what is said in its presence for later use. It will cause random interruptions in any attempted Internet dialup, but not otherwise intervene.
Level 2At this point the demon will alter important user files to include typos and grammatical errors, frequently of a scatological or embarrassing sort. It will delete relatively obscure files, like drivers and such. In addition to causing periodical random disconnects to online services, if it is left online and unattended it can download . . . questionable material and place it in a hidden directory. Subjects are usually those that would be mortifying or embarrassing to the user. So far they just take up hard drive space, though. So far.
Level 3This is when it gets interactive. The demon will delete key user files at exactly the wrong moments. It will un-hide the directory of embarrassments whenever anyone other than the owner is using the machine. It will alter documents in destructive or embarrassing ways that make it look like the owner did it (i.e., rewriting letters, changing spreadsheets to show embezzling, etc). When online it will not only add to its hidden directory of embarrassments, but actively send things as well. The owner will find his e-mail address submitted to countless spam mailing lists. If the user leaves the computer unattended for long while connected to the Internet, he will soon find e-mail from strangers claiming they met in a chatroom, etc.
Level 4This is usually the final level. Most users get thoroughly fed up before this point and return the machine (which, of course, checks out fine and is usually resold). The demon composes thousands of tiny files in a hidden directory (usually text files with a single derogatory sentence in each), to eat up hard-drive space and mess up drive clusters. No file is safe, and it will sometimes delete vital operating system components, requiring a total reinstall of the OS to repair. On the Internet it will compose insulting e-mails (in the style of the owner) and send them to friends and family. It will go to chatrooms that the owner wouldn't be caught dead in, and post his phone number. It will order things with the user's credit card. At this stage, if the computer is left on and unattended, the demon can initiate the dialup to the Internet itself (often using long-distance numbers). If any online messaging programs are being used, it will freely indulge in such activities as: breaking up with significant others, soliciting, spamming, flaming, and just about any other repugnant online behavior.
Level 5I leave this to the imagination of the GM. If someone shows the degree of patience to keep the machine this long, the sky's the limit. Maybe the demon reveals itself. Or maybe it evolves into a Pentacle II (see below).
What Can Be Done?In no event will tech support or servicing be effective. This is mainly because of the Avoid spell that convinces computer-literate people that, whatever the problem is, it's not the CPU. In theory, replacing the processor will cease the problems, but even assuming the owner can convince a techie to do it in spite of the Avoid spell, the Pentacle is soldered (or otherwise permanently affixed) to the motherboard. Replacing both the motherboard and the CPU will solve the problem.
The Avoid spell is actually a variant that specifically targets people with computer skills. Rather than a standard resistance roll, people must make an IQ roll to actually see and be aware of the CPU and the pentacle. This roll is at -1 for every 10 levels of computer-related skills (Computer Operations, Programming, Electronic Operations -- Computer, or Hacking), rounded down. If the roll is failed, the observer does not actually see the chip, but is convinced that he did, and that any action (up to and including replacing the CPU) that was to be done to it was either not necessary or was actually done. If the IQ roll is successful, that person may see the processor normally. A critical failure means that person will never see the pentagram, no matter what (though they may see the processor). A critical success means that, at the GM's option, the person gets a vague feeling of unease upon seeing it, or is otherwise warned as to the supernatural nature of the true problem.
If the plate with the pentagram on it is removed or broken (a cut or tear is required, simply covering the lines won't work) the demon is released. Assuming the processor isn't damaged in the process, it will still work fine once its supernatural occupant is expunged. Using electricity or an EMP to "wipe" the CPU will destroy it as a computer, but not free the demon unless the pentacle was damaged in the process. The demon will be helpless, even if installed into another computer, until the chip or pentacle is broken.
The CPU may also be exorcised by a holy man, or the demon Banished with the spell. Magic spells like Sense Spirit and Mage Sense can be used to detect the demon normally, although in settings where magic is commonplace alongside computers (like GURPS Technomancer, for example) the chip is likely to have Conceal Magic and Scryguard spells on it as well. Spells that animate or grant intelligence to computers will not work on a system with a Pentacle chip. However, because the demon is only inhabiting the processor, spells that attempt to take control of the computer's components (memory and hard drive count as components, as do printers and peripherals) may still work. The demon may oppose each action attempted with its own IQ. This also applies to psychic abilities like Cyberpsi. In these cases the mage or psi will be aware that something is interfering with their control.
Symptoms of Evil in the MachineClearly, the sooner you can detect the demon, the better off you are. This is made more difficult by the nature of the "possession." Because it's a minor demon, the aura of evil associated with such things is comparatively small. Psychic sensitives and those with Empathy might feel vaguely uneasy around it, but not much more unless they touch it, in which case the feelings become clearly malignant and unnatural. The demon does have an aura for those who can see them, but it's around the chip, not the entire machine. A mage who overcomes the Avoid can detect the enchantment on the CPU as normal.
There are a few warning signs. Animals will avoid the computer. Cats will uncharacteristically not curl up on the keyboard while the owner is typing. They will, in fact, avoid the room it's in altogether, even when hungry. Dogs will bark and growl at it, though though they will not attack it, nor even get too close. Small plants will wither and die if kept within a foot or two of the main unit. Tiny animals like insects will also die, and the user may have to clear off the bodies of flies and other bugs occasionally. At the GM's option other symptoms like milk souring when nearby, or gold and silver tarnishing, may also occur. As a rule, such things must be very close to the main unit of the computer, or actually in contact with it, for a symptom to manifest.
The DemonIf it is released, the PCs may come face to face with the possessing entity. A black and noxious oozing fog will well up from the unwarded processor chip, quickly coalescing into a smallish demon. The demon will not usually strike to kill, but will instead try to escape, especially if competent adventurers are about. It will attack if cornered, or if someone tries to stop it from getting away. Where does it go? That's a good question . . .
Create the demon using the charts in GURPS Magic or Grimoire, but apply a -6 penalty to all rolls and note that any special abilities apply only after the demon manifests, not while still in the chip. These are strictly bush-league demons. That is, of course, unless you have a . . .
Pentacle II -- The Next Generation of EvilThis is a physically identical chip, but it houses a much more powerful demonic entity. It has all the powers of the other variety, and a great deal more. The most terrifying thing about Pentacle II's is that they seem to work fine. Better than fine. These don't simply cause trouble; these seduce and gradually subvert their owners.
Unlike the minor demons in the first generation chips, these demons can use magic to affect the world around them. Generally speaking they will use Suggestions and Persuasion to cause the user to want to spend more time on the computer. Once the computer is on and connected to the net, it will often pacify the human with a Daze or similar spell while it does its mischief. However, unlike the other variety, it will focus more on troubling other people than its owner. It will also be smart enough to try to cover its tracks (mask IP or otherwise try to avoid being traced to that system), though its skill in doing so is only equal to its IQ. When it does pick on its owner, it does so very subtly. It might use Enthrall while a person is playing a game for example, letting hours go by while the owner thinks only minutes have elapsed.
For the purposes of magic only, the demon has Fatigue equal to its ST rolled on the chart. It recovers at 1 point per 20 minutes in low-mana zones, and twice as fast in normal mana or higher. It can sense local mana, and may have its owner move it to an area of higher mana if one is available.
Over time, the repeated use of mind-altering magics will make the owner obsessed with the computer. He will make sure that it has all the latest upgrades. He will leave it on at all times. His best friends will all be online (and frequently one or more will be the demon, masquerading by directly inputting text to the screen). Eventually he will become mentally unbalanced . . . a perfect pawn for the demon in the machine.
These demons especially love being in servers for large intranets or ISP services, where they can plague the clients while keeping a tight psychological grip on the administrator(s).
The Pentacle II's demon is harder to hide. The aura, while centering on the chip, permeates the system and can be seen from outside it. Animals will usually leave home unless the house is very large, in which case they'll cower in the farthest wing. Plants and bugs in the room the computer is in will die rapidly, and any other effects (souring milk, etc) will also take place anywhere in that room. Empaths and sensitives will feel uneasy in the house, and the hate and power of the demon will become almost tangible as one approaches the system. For these reasons, the demon will usually manipulate its human "partner" into keeping it in a remote (possibly secret) room and heavily restricting access to it.
Mentally accessing a computer with a Pentacle II is not recommended. If one uses a neural interface or an ability like Cyberpsi on this possessed system, the demon has the option of casting its spells directly into the intruder's mind, with a penalty of -5 to resist. In futuristic settings where neural interfaces are common, a Pentacle II is extremely dangerous.
If released, these demons are considerably more powerful than those in the Pentacle. They will also eventually seek to escape back to whatever powers locked it into the CPU, but will put up more of a fight first. Roll on the Magic or Grimoire tables, with a bonus of +6 to be divided between the rolls as the GM sees fit. In addition, they should be outfitted with some magic abilities to aid them in seducing and entrapping mortals. Some spell ideas were previously mentioned, but anything short of Loyalty and Charm from Mind Control or Communication/Empathy should be fine. As a rule, spells that create physical effects (element spells for example) are probably inappropriate.
BackgroundThe originators of these chips are unknown. It could be a satanic coven, a corporation with infernal interests, a plot by the Secret Masters or anything else the GM can devise. They have an uncanny knack of finding their way into any and all brands of computers. Regular Pentacles are most common in low-end systems targeted at first-time buyers. Pentacle IIs most often are in more expensive high-end systems, especially those that are not bought out of a showroom, but shipped to the customer. Trying to track down how the chips get into the computers would be pretty challenging. Was the chip installed by someone at the computer store? Someone at the factory? If it was the latter, investigating would require one to have physical access to the assembly lines and the employees that work there...and if it gets around what they're doing and why, they could find themselves the target of supernatural opposition.
Bastiche Operator from HellThings have gone from okay to awful at the local university network. The workstations display an almost human maliciousness about when they suffer lock-ups and what data they corrupt. To top it all off, the system administrator and help staff have become almost completely inaccessible, even for the most elementary of problems or questions. The few that have gone to see them in person have not been heard from since.
The PCs, whether for their own reasons, or perhaps at the behest of friends or the Dean, investigate this state of affairs. As they prowl the computer science building, they eventually discover the desiccated bodies of the students that disappeared recently stacked like cordwood in some out of the way place. Crazed helpdesk workers come at them from out of the shadows with weapons improvised from office supplies. And in the main computer room, his body soaked with the blood of his victims, is the SysAdmin. Apparently the leader of a computer death cult (actually under the sway of the Pentacle). Snarling obscenities, he attacks with a ritual dagger and seems to use magic spells, though in reality it is the computer casting them.
If the PC's do manage to eliminate him, everything will go back to normal. For a while.
Inside SinntelFor reasons possibly connected to the above scenarios, the PC's are checking out the local branch office of Sinntel, a successful manufacturer of microprocessors. As they take the tour (all of which looks perfectly legit) they may start to notice the odd, glazed expressions of many of the employees. The mystically inclined may get occasional whiffs of magic use and supernatural evil nearby.
Further investigation will reveal nightmarish scenes of assembly lines run by human "automatons" enslaved by magic, bizarre necromantic and technomagic rituals and devices, and of course . . . in the sub-basement underlying it all, the grotesque, Giger-esque Pentacle III, evil demonic mastermind of it all.
Article publication date: June 18, 1999
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