Project 2050: Visualizing The Net

One of the key questions or decisions that Project 2050 has to make is what we’re going to do – or recommend – about the Net. How does it look? How does the interface work? What happens there? Our first clues lie in our inspirational materials. In Neuromancer, Gibson describes a dark three-dimensional cyberspace populated with glowing shapes representing corporations, data storage, and information channels. Stephenson’s Snowcrash describes an MMORPG-styled metaverse which was the inspiration for ‘Second Life’. Cline’s Ready Player One is even more immersive, generating an entire existence within which most of the world’s commerce and entertainment are contained.

And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3d chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach. (Gibson, Neuromancer)

In Neuromancer, Gibson dedicates a lot of words to describing Case’s actions in cyberspace during the Straylight run: his observation of the corporate computer architecture and landscape, the infiltration of a corporate mainframe using the cracking program, Case’s use of the program to navigate to the point he needed, and later to escape from the collapse of the corporate network. Yet, these were only a small part of a much larger adventure. The same is true of Snowcrash: the computer-based action takes up very little of the story, but significant sections of the narrative. Of course, in Ready Play One, the virtual world of the OASIS is the entire point of the story and comprises the bulk of the action.

The look and feel Gibson gave to what he called cyberspace described a place of adventure, rather than one of business and information. Stephenson added business into the metaverse, but it was still essentially a place for recreation with a business layer tacked on. Cline’s OASIS is the most recent envisioning of a future internet, where your office, your school, your recreation are all enclosed in a single virtual environment.

And here we are in 2017, using the 2017 version of the net, and we know that the immersive interface that was envisioned back in the formative days of cyberpunk hasn’t emerged. At least, not yet. While there seems to be a huge gap between the internet of today and that of cyberpunk’s near future, that really isn’t that case. And it isn’t that the computers aren’t capable. Really, the problem is: why go through all that trouble to just want to look at some cat videos?

“Hi Nathan! Allow me to waste your screen real estate, cause you many extra clicks, and just generally get in your goddamn way! Arf!”

How much of a pain in the ass would it be to navigate the internet like you were running your toon around in World of Warcraft? Run here to check your bank balance, run there to bid on a Pez dispenser, run over there to order a bag of dog food by mail, run over here to check your email… No thanks! A few clicks in your browser and you’re there: the auction house, the bank, various provisions; all at your fingertips. And that’s the essential difference between an ‘adventuring’ net interface and a practical net interface: Despite the appeal of the poetic coolness of the Gibson’s cyberspace, it just isn’t practical for day-to-day use by ordinary folks, even in the setting of Project 2050. Not if they want to get anything done, anyway.

However, we’re visual creatures and a lot of network information is better communicated visually, and we talked about that at length during early iterations of the 2050 project, including going so far as to generate very specific rules and methods for visualizing and navigating on that version of 2050’s net. But, it quickly became unwieldy and, while trying to streamline it, we realized that putting so much effort and detail into something that was such a small piece of an overall party adventure was foolish. So, while Project 2050 will provide provide guidance for creating a fully-fleshed and immersive net, we don’t expect that DMs will normally produce such a thing. Think of the net as any other 5e plane: Sure, there’s a lot going on there, but that’s just a brief sideline one character uses to get something done; it’s not where the adventure is happening.

Project 2050 will have a net comprised of several components:

  1. An infrastructure layer, equivalent to Gibson’s cyberspace or the setting of Tron, where the devices and data channels of the net exist. This is the domain of hackers and their rigs.
  2. An infotainment layer, equivalent to today’s world wide web, called flatspace. This is where flat-panel terminals access text, data, and image web sites, and where music and video are delivered to homes.
  3. A virtual reality layer called V-space, equivalent to Stephenson’s metaverse or Cline’s OASIS. This is fully-realized and immersive 3D that requires a virtual reality rig to properly experience.

The infrastructure layer is the heart of the action for Project 2050. Everything connected to this layer has a location and a graphical symbol that is visible to net terminals and hacker rigs. The size and complexity of the device or smaller network is usually reflected by the size and complexity of the graphical symbol. A large corporate network will have a unique shape or color scheme, or have a corporate logo. A net terminal or a hacker’s rig will appear as something small and simple. “You see several data channels leading away from your location. Three of those go to data silos, one leads to an external network portal, the other…” And It’s important to remember that ‘cyberspace’ is the shared 3d visualization of that infrastructure, but it isn’t required to perform tasks there. A hacker using a 2d representation of the infrastructure layer will still be able to do anything that a hacker jacked in with a rig and a set of trodes can do, but the hacker using the cyberspace representation will have advantages.

The level of description is, as it always has been in D&D, up to the GM and his players. Gygax provided effusive and detailed descriptions in his modules, including a lot of mood-setting. The equivalent of the slow pan at the beginning of a scene in a movie, what Hollywood calls an ‘establishing shot’. While 2050 will provide guidance for a GM to give this level of detail to for his net adventurers, it certainly isn’t required to move the action forward.

Hack Version 1: The Zipless F*

GM – Okay, you see a terminal.
Jim – I cast Suggestion to get access.
DM – You’re in.
Jim – I want to get on the network and get what I need.
DM – Okay, you plug your rig into a jack on the terminal. Give me three Intelligence(Computers) checks with your rig’s bonus and an investigate check.
Jim – 16, 10, 15, 14
DM – Okay, you look through the data silos and think you see what you’re looking for. You can download it in 3 minutes, but you see a network alert and it looks like security will be here in 2 minutes.
Jim – Okay, while the data downloads, I’m going out into the hall with the group to fend off security. Let’s rock and roll!

Hack Version 2: Moderate Floweriness

DM – Ok, you’re in an office. There’s a flat-panel terminal on a cluttered desk. It’s on, and there’s a password prompt.
Jim – Okay, guys, can you cover the hallway while I work this?
Party – Right-o!
Jim – Okay, I cast Suggestion on the terminal, telling it to give me access to all of its systems.
DM – Do you have a BizOS language proficiency?
Jim – Yup!
DM – Okay, it fails its save, and lets you in. This terminal is allowing you access, but it’s just a typical business terminal with office programs on it.
Jim – Yeah, no network tools. No problem. I’m going to jack my rig into it and get the terminal’s network access codes.
DM – Okay, your rig jacks in and the terminal gives you its codes because of your Suggestion, but to get the network access you need, you’ll need to make an Intelligence(Computers) roll.
Jim – 17.
DM – Okay, that works. Your rig fudges credentials and you manage to get onto the network. However, as you log in, a security alert pings back. You still have access, but you think they may know you’re in there.
Jim – Well shit, gotta work fast. I’m going to try to find the data we need, can I get the lay of the network? My computers roll for that one is 15.
DM – So, the network seems to be a standard corporate architecture consisting of a mainframe, some big central devices, and a large number of access terminals like the one you’re using.
Jim – Okay, I want to check some of those big devices, any large data silos? Computers roll is 15 again.
DM – The first device you come to seems to be several servers in a rack linked together. They are servicing this office’s intranet and other internally hosted services, such as the video conferencing between offices and the building infrastructure and security.
Jim – Security, eh? Ok, I want to break into those servers and lock all of the doors in the building to slow down the guards. Computers roll is…10, ugh.
DM – You fail to break in and a security purge is trying to flush you out of the network. Roll Dexterity(Computers) to see if you can quickly rattle off the commands necessary to evade the purge.
Jim – Nice, 18!
DM – Okay, you manage to stay connected, but the alert level of the network went up. As you were backing out, you saw a security alert broadcast your position as well as an automated command instructing your terminal to shut you out. Your Suggestion spell is still affecting it, so it is ignoring that request and letting you stay connected. However, because of the legwork you did, you know that it’ll take security forces about two minutes to get to your position.
Jim – Double shit! Guys, we’re going to have company in a couple minutes. I’ll try to get the data first, but get ready for a fight!
Party – Right-o!
Jim – Next silo, looking for data! Roll was 16.
DM – The next big clump of devices on the network seem to be several network-attached-storage devices. Give me an Investigate roll.
Jim – 14
DM – Okay, you manage to figure out how the data is organized, and can guess which exact device the data you need is on. However, finding the specific files will take several minutes of scanning and searching.
Jim – Can I just copy all of the data to my rig and scan it later?
DM – Sure! That’ll take about 3 minutes.
Jim – Okay, I start that up, then grab my pistol and get ready to fend off security while we’re waiting.

Hack Version 3: Full-on Romance

GM – The suggestion succeeds and you jack in your rig, slip on the trodes, and slap the power switch. The room disappears, you feel a brief disorientation and then, as your rig orients itself to the network, you find yourself standing on a small box that represents your terminal. Stretching into the distance are dozens of identical boxes. They’re connected to each other by a pathway of light that eventually connects to a wider path. Nearby are several shapes and in the distance you see a city of light, with the enormous shapes of the megacorps data structures along the skyline.
Jim – I punch forward on my deck and head toward the nearby structures. What are they?
GM – As you get closer, you recognize several medium-sized data silos. There’s a flash of light to one side and you realize that you’re triggering a security bot. Roll Intelligence(Computers) with your rig’s bonus.
Jim – 10.
GM – You furiously work, launching countermeasure macros, but despite your best efforts, the network security isn’t spoofed. You see a pulse of light emerge and shoot down a data channel into an ominous black cube. The edges of the cube light up red, and you estimate you have only a few minutes before security arrives.
Jim – I’ll yell, “Company coming! Tacticals!”
Party – Right-O!
GM – The network security node launches a purge bot. It rifles upward, locks onto you, and dives straight at you. Roll Dexterity(Computers) if you want to evade.
Jim – 18!
GM – You punch out a macro and launch a countermeasure that intercepts the bot in a flash of light, shutting it down completely and saving yourself from being ejected from the system.
Jim – Okay. I’ll move forward to the nearest silo and Investigate. 14 for that roll.
GM – You launch a script which merges seamlessly with the structure of the silo, then forms a display on the surface. Studying the panel, you can see that there is nothing interesting here.
Jim – I’ll move to the next one.

This is perhaps the newest and riskiest area for Project 2050. Computers, the net, and the myriad devices that are connected to it are completely fresh concepts in D&D. They’ve been done before in other RPGs, but often so poorly that the resulting game was unplayable. Project 2050 is trying to walk a fine line between practicality and cool-factor, and the simple fact is that we may not have it exactly right. But, that’s why we’re talking about this here and now: To generate thought and elicit feedback.

As always, your thoughts and ideas are appreciated and – we cannot stress this enough – they really do make a difference!