Shell Games

Revised Rules for Digital Intelligences in Transhuman Space

by Phil Masters

One of the most interesting features of the Transhuman Space setting is the presence of digital intelligences as characters -- and hence the possibility of having sapient computer programs in play as PCs or major NPCs. Unfortunately, some of the rules presented in the line's core book to handle this act to make things harder than they should be. This article offers some optional fixes for these problems.

The first issue involves the rules for taking AIs as "programmed allies" -- characters closely associated with a PC, who happen to be faithful to him because they're software and have been programmed that way. Unfortunately, the rules contrive to suggest that 2100 vintage computers are implausibly unreliable.

Consider; the highest level of availability for an Ally, programmed or otherwise, is on a 3d roll of 15-. A quick calculation shows that this gives a chance that the Ally will be present during any given session of marginally better than 95%. Or, to put it another way, there's a roughly 5% chance that one's most faithful computer sidekick will be out of action at any time.

The book justifies this by suggesting that even an implant or wearable computer may be "tied up dealing with invading viruses, downloading something, doing the PCs' taxes, or whatever." But look at this from a contemporary point of view; in 2003, computers do crash or hang, or suffer virus attacks, to be sure. But they can usually be rebooted or cleared within a few minutes, while routine jobs such as tax calculations can be saved for attention at a later time. If most people's personal computers were unavailable to let them access the Internet, write letters, or play games nearly 5% of the time, they'd want the darned things either fixed or replaced.

The second problem concerns the possibility that a digital intelligence PC could operate more than one body. Even with laws against intelligent software duplicating ("xoxing") itself, it can always transfer between systems, using, say, one static cybershell with a fast Web connection as its "home," a mobile work unit for adventuring, and a humanoid "cyberdoll" for social interactions. Unfortunately, the rule designed to support this -- the Vessel advantage -- makes it prohibitively expensive on points; merely having access to emergency space on a mainframe somewhere costs 21 points, and that cyberdoll would cost 200. This is not a very good deal in GURPS terms, considering the practical limitations involved in transferring and the benefits granted.

The Solution

Fortunately, these problems can both be resolved by a pair of simple rules adjustments. First, introduce a new category of availability for Allies and Ally Groups; "Infallibly Present," with a ×4 cost multiplier. This might be limited to Transhuman Space- style Programmed Allies; organic sidekicks have more complicated lives and concerns of their own, and do sometimes have to chase off on personal business, or go down with illnesses. On the other hand, the utterly faithful associate is a recognized feature of many kinds of story, so GMs who want to borrow this for other games are welcome to do so.

And second, scrap the Vessel advantage. Replace it with a simple rule; digital intelligences can freely transfer themselves to any cybershell to which they have full access codes -- which will certainly include all of their programmed allies. The only limits are processor capacity and storage, which GMs should monitor. Note that, logically, it's perfectly possible for digital minds to use this trick already -- making Vessel a bit of a white elephant -- although most people would probably accept that it is abusive to do so regularly so long as Vessel is theoretically the standard rules mechanism for the purpose.

In general, digital intelligences who want to maintain a "stable" of reserve bodies will install cheap non-sapient AIs (usually NAI-4 programs) on them to handle routine diagnostics and housekeeping functions. These changes bring the cost of "vessels" down to something more reasonable. A cyberdoll with a simple NAI-4 installed, with 5 points in skills to enable it to look after itself in routine situations, costs 40 points as an Infallibly Present Programmed Ally. A mainframe with similar software costs just 8 points.

As an optional refinement, to prevent one minor possible abuse, a character who wants a Programmed Ally cybershell to have a more powerful computer or more storage capacity than its usual resident AI actually needs (as may well be necessary if it is to be used as a "vessel") should pay the cash cost difference between the minimum (appropriate) computer that can be installed on this type of cybershell and the system actually installed. For example, a cyberdoll running a NAI-4 doesn't need more than a complexity 5 cheap small computer (the minimum processor standard for cyberdolls). If its owner chooses to fit it with, say, a complexity 7 compact microframe, the difference in cash cost to pay is ($20,000 minus $100) $19,900.

There is just one drawback with all this; a player might select a cheap cybershell as his character's "primary body," and then take more powerful shells as Programmed Allies to use as "vessels." However, this is actually possible at present -- merely obscured by the presence of the Vessel advantage. To prevent this abuse, any AI character who wishes to have use of multiple cybershells must treat the one with the highest points value to which it could transfer as its "primary body." If players wish to have Programmed Allies more powerful than that, they must find excuses why their characters can't download to them -- such as, say, fundamental hardware/software incompatibilities.

Example: HEUROS-EPSILON is a digital intelligence PC -- a Citizen SAI-7 who is normally resident on a microframe in secure rented storage in Strasbourg, working as a consultant engineer. She (her self-image and preferred digital avatars are female) also owns a Volkspider to perform occasional hands-on tasks, and a cyberdoll to wear to parties and to deal with some less psychologically flexible potential clients. She controls a LAI-7 secretary/assistant, and a simple NAI-4 to manage any unused hardware that needs to be looked after.

Because the cyberdoll is the most expensive of these cybershells (170 vs. -44 or 71 points), the player must treat that as HEUROS's body when statting up the character. For convenience, the LAI-7 is defined to run on the microframe; it has 15 points in skills, giving it a character value of 21 points, and a cost as an Infallibly Present Programmed Ally of 8 points. The NAI-4 is defined to look after the Volkspider by default; it has 7 points of skills, making it a 53-point character when in that cybershell, so its cost as an Infallibly Present Programmed Ally is 16 points. In addition, HEUROS must pay $39,900 to have a complexity 7 computer on a Volkspider which would otherwise only need a cheap system.

Note also that, under the present rules, HEUROS could pay 106 points for the Volkspider and microframe as Vessels, and lose the LAI and NAI -- or take them as Programmed Allies, leading to the question of whether or not HEUROS herself could download into the other shells.

Article publication date: October 17, 2003

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