Deathist propaganda, or how easy is it to kill a man

Not many roleplaying games have realistic damage  mechanics. Most use hit points – when you get hit, you lose points. Lose all of them, die. The end.

Where did hit points (so ubiquitous in role-playing games) originate? The first RPG, Dungeons & Dragons has used hit points, an abstract resource representing loss of life, copied by Dave Arneson from a set of American Civil War naval game. It prevented players from losing their characters every time they lost a roll and was simple and easy.

And completely wrong. It reflects neither reality nor conventions from heroic literature and action movies. It is self-referential – it describes the reality of games, which use hit points, health bars and so on, all under the influence of previous games which use the same concept.

Unfortunately, the understanding of issues of survivability of injuries typical for role-playing games, that is, cuts and stabs and gunshot wounds is not common, so hit points or wounds which add up seem a sensible solution. And since role-playing games do not have to reflect reality, we should at first take a look at action movies – maybe hit point systems will be justified there?

In the movies mooks and background characters usually die or are incapacitated instantly when hit, whereas the main heroes (both the protagonists and the antagonists) will ignore hits, which are purely cosmetic. The main hero will survive until the end, his mentor will die, but his death will take long enough to say a few words of wisdom, the hero’s sidekick or romantic interest may either die to make the hero internally conflicted, or open their eyes after a dramatic pause, unbutton their jacket and show a bulletproof vest, whereas the main villain is allowed to die only at the end of a long final fight at the movie’s climax, no earlier. No hit points here (well, except for the boss-fight, perhaps).

Do roleplaying games need to behave in the same manner? The answer is, of course, “it depends”. If the game in question is, say, Hong Kong Action Theater, then of course yes – after all, HKAT is supposed to recreate the “reality” of Hongong action movies, and not real life. If we play D&D 3e, then not really, because we’re not looking for realism nor cinematic drama, but an increase of hit points, better magic items and fame and power (but mainly power), like in Baldur’s Gate. However, an RPG in a realistic convention, like CP2020 or Delta Green, requires something more researched. So how is it with killing people in reality?

Humans are simultaneously very fragile and very resistant. It is hard to kill them, and at the same time it is very simple. There is only one final and ultimate reason for death. It is the destruction of most cells of the central nervous system (to be exact, death of the brain cortex and brain stem). But it is necessary to kill most brain cells. Let’s take a widely known example of Phineas Gage, a railway employee in the United States, whose skull and brain was impaled by a steel rod in an accident while tamping explosive material. The rod has transfixed Gage′s head, passing through the frontal lobe, but after pulling it out Phineas was still able to act as normal (although supposedly his personality changed for the worse; this may or may not be true). There are many other examples of people who have survived brain damage and returned to full functionality. As it turns out, human brain is a very flexible device and functions of the damaged area may sometimes be taken over by another area.

Physical destruction of most of brain cells is not simple, because it is protected by a rather hard skull and by an impact-absorbing system of meninges. Yet there is a much simpler method of killing nerve cells. To kill a human, it is sufficient to stop his blood from circulating. Lack of oxygen kills brain cells very efficiently and rapidly – neurons are record-holders in oxygen and sugar consumption. Stopping the heart (or cutting off the brain’s blood supply in another manner, by cutting the throat, tearing the aorta etc.) causes rapid loss of consciousness and clinical death, and after three to five minutes, the beginning of necrosis of the cerebral cortex (cerebral decortication). Lack of supply of oxygen to brain cells for five to twenty minutes results in irreversible changes in the brain, and then cerebral decortication (more information may be found in an encyclopaedia or a forensic pathology manual). The only exception to this rule which may occur sometimes is the situation where the brain is placed in a very low temperature. For example, people fished out from under ice after a long time – something similar to hibernation occurs then. However, without advanced (technological or magical) medical aid biological death will occur within five to ten minutes after clinical death, and cardiopulmonary failure is sufficient to cause clinical death.

And it is rather simple to switch off a man’s circulation – shock may stop the heart even after being shot with a small .22 LR bullet. In the leg. The person who’s been shot may lose consciousness right away (for psychological reasons), or maybe only after a minute or two (due to blood loss), but if her heart stops, the brain will die.

This leads to the conclusion that in a roleplaying game there are three possible effects of being hit. The least frequent is instant death, which in practice occurs only in the situations where brain is severely damaged (either by a bullet or by a sword blade, troll’s fist etc.). The remaining options are either an immediate loss of consciousness (due to pain or psychological reasons) or, in case of people hopped up on amphetamine, PCP, cocaine or plain, old, natural adrenaline (usually present in large quantities in the body during a fight), ignoring the damage until the blood loss becomes large enough to result in loss of consciousness. It is of course completely possible that until that time the fight will end, and the injured person (or his teammate) will be able to stop the blood loss, either using a mundane bandage, or an automatic nanomedical pack/′Cure Light Wounds′ wand. One can notice that the “bullet kills instantly, unless the character is important, then it has only a cosmetic effect” from Hollywood is much more realistic than hit points (“Rambo may ignore the first fifteen bullets, and the sixteenth will kill him”).

It is time to interrupt our deliberations on RPGs and their rulesets. Time for a short lecture on trauma medicine. There is something called “Abbreviated Injury Scale” (AIS). It is a medical system to assess the hazard caused by a wound. The AIS scale was created in 1969 and since then was updated many times and compared to the survivability data in order to provide accurate assessment of a given injury.

In AIS wounds are assessed on a scale of 1 to 6, where 1 covers small injuries (like cut skin, zero chance of death), 2 covers moderate injuries (e.g. fractured sternum, probability of death for AIS 2 is 1-2%), 3 covers serious injuries (open arm fracture, 8-10%) chance of death, 4-5 includes severe to critical injuries (punctured throat or ruptured liver, 5-50% chance of death), and 6 is a lethal injury. This scale demonstrates in a simplified manner the threat to survival presented by the injury, and is logarithmic.

What happens to a person who has suffered multiple injuries, a situation which hit points are supposed to represent in theory? Another system was created to assess the impact of multiple injuries, called ISS – Injury Severity Score. It is the only system used in medicine which correlates linearly with mortality, morbidity, hospital stay etc. In other words, it can be used to assess the impact of wounds suffered by characters to their chances of survival and healing time.

The ISS assessment has values of 0 to 75. If any injury is assigned an AIS of 6 (unsurvivable), then ISS will automatically become equal to 75. Unfortunately, even such a simple statistical tool as ISS can’t be used directly in an RPG system’s mechanics, because it’s overly complicated.

The ISS is calculated in the following manner: each wound receives an AIS level, and is assigned to one of six body areas: head and neck, face, chest, abdomen, extremities (including pelvis) and external (skin). For each area only the highest AIS is used. Then, take the AIS levels for three most severely injured areas, square them, and then add them to each other to obtain an ISS score. An example:

Head and neck: Concussion, AIS 3 (square: 9)
Face: no injury, AIS 0
Chest: flail chest, AIS 4 (square: 16)
Chest: minor contusion of liver, AIS 2
Chest: complex rupture of spleen, AIS 5 (square: 25)
Extremity: fractured femur, AIS 3
External: no injury, AIS 0
The total Injury Severity Score is 50, so the chances of death are quite high.

There is also another scale, which tells a lot about immediate survival chances, Revised Trauma Score. It does not take into account injuries of individual organs, only the condition of the patient at the moment of first contact with medical personnel, in three aspects: neurological damage described by the Glasgow Coma Score (most important element of the RTS, obtained by the test of “please open your eyes, please say something, a knock to the knee with a small hammer”), systolic blood pressure (second in importance, establishing whether the patient has bled out significantly and whether his heart is working correctly) and respiratory rate (the least significant element of RTS, since respiratory action is easiest to restore). As one can see, neurological damage is most dangerous, and bleeding out or having one’s heart stop is the second most important danger.

So what can gamers learn from medicine?

First, hit points from Dungeons & Dragons, or any other system where damage adds up (like wounds in World of Darkness or Shadowrun) are completely unrealistic. Chances of dying after fifteen shallow cuts are much lower than after one deep slash (which is rather intuitive: someone with his skin cut in fifteen places is in a lot of pain, whereas someone with a deep cut to the stomach is someone trying to keep his intestines from spilling out). Wounds do not add linearly. If each gunshot wound has, for example, a 15% chance of causing a significant bleeding and 2% chance for mortally damaging the spine (say, we’re shooting someone in the back with .22 LR), then putting 10 bullets in someone significantly increases the chance that one of them hits the spine or cuts through an important artery. But if not one of the bullets does it, then the person shot will not feel ten times worse than after being hit by one bullet. Similarly, after breaking an arm, a second break five centimetres along will not cause the arm to hurt twice as strong and it will not become two times less effective, nor will it take two times as long to heal.

Second, the only moment when the wound effects add up is when establishing the general condition and strength of the victim, and time needed to heal (and his can be done after he fight is over, when there is some free time). And even then the wounds do not add linearly – wounds to different parts of the body are most important.

Third, people usually don’t die at the moment of being stabbed with a sword, cut with a knife or being shot with a gun (or laser). Even with a cut throat you can live for a few seconds. In role-playing games characters either die instantly (because they received seven damage points or another severe wound, and they only had four hit points remaining or only one remaining moderate wound to mark off), or you can be certain they will survive. In reality, a disembowelled person will be dying for some time and modern medicine should have a chance save her, not to mention supertech or magical healing, while at the same time, a “moderately wounded” person can die of complications two weeks later, even though in an RPG a character who lost 4 hit points out of 10 is guaranteed to survive.

Four, some mechanism is necessary to reflect blood loss. This is a very important element. Although some wounds (shallow knife cuts) result in a very slow blood loss, there are many types of wounds which can cause rapid blood loss and loss of consciousness. They include both significant, extensive trauma which destroys multiple blood vessels (a sword cut pretty much guarantees high blood loss) and small, narrow wounds which have cut open an artery (a gunshot wound or a stab with a rapier, if the attacker is highly skilled or lucky). Blood loss or destroying the central nervous system are the only guaranteed methods of stopping a human assailant.

This means that studies which show “stopping power” of 90% and more for handguns are pure marketing, without a connection to reality. For interested reader: at http://www.firearmstactical.com/pdf/fbi-hwfe.pdf one can find an FBI report on efficiency of handgun bullets in stopping people. Summarising: most people hit by bullets are incapacitated, but a determined person can act effectively even after multiple hits, and the only way to stop a determined attacker is a hit to the brain or upper spinal cord.

Over large distances, damage caused by firearms is highly random, whereas at short distances it depends significantly on the shooter’s skill – a precise hit to the head from a small calibre .22 LR handgun is much more effective than breaking someone’s rib by .45 ACP slug. The definition of “short distance” depends on the weapon used, of course. For an M-16 it may be up to 80 or 90 metres in good conditions, and for a sniper equipped with a high quality rifle, match grade ammunition and good optics a quarter of a kilometre may be a “short distance”. This is the main advantage of long guns over handguns – much higher accuracy, which provides real stopping power.

We have many studies and analyses on the mortality of gunshot wounds. Generally, statistics indicate that GSW mortality is around 20%, with headshots having double that chance and shots placed elsewhere on the body having approx. 16% mortality. What about melee weapons?

This is somewhat more problematic. Modern medicine, autopsies in order to establish the precise cause of death, statistical analysis – this all came into being a long after blades were replaced by firearms. So there is a lack of an appropriately large sample for statistical studies, which in case of firearms was provided by criminals, law enforcement and the military.

However, there is one source of data on the effectiveness of melee weapons used on a mass scale in times before the firearm. This is paleopathology, the study of causes of death and general medical history conducted on skeletons dug out by archaeologists.

What does it tell us? For example, that swords used in the Middle Ages could easily cut someone’s arm or leg, but they didn’t always. The skeletons dug up and tested included warriors with cuts to the legs and the head slashed with a sword (combination of attacking under the shield and then killing the wounded enemy when he lowers the shield), people whose both legs were cut off with a single sword strike, and skeletons with remodelled injuries on skulls, tibia, ribs or arm bones, indicating healed injuries caused by swords or knives. This last item shows that people who were wounded, but not killed had a chance to survive, depending mainly on the strength of their immune system (and on whether the cut was clean, or did dirt get into the wound).

Of course, there was always the possibility of dying of infection. A stab wound to the stomach, or a deep cut to this area were almost a guaranteed death sentence, caused by the bacteria from the intestines getting out into the body. Richard the Third died of an infection from an arrow wound. However, in sword fights arms and legs are easier to hit than the body and the head, and wounding them is not as dangerous.

This means that although melee weapons may destroy much larger amounts of tissue than firearms, but the basic reactions of the organism on being wounded are the same. Only being hit in the heart, spine or head guarantees immediate death. Well, almost immediate – the brain will survive a minute or more, which should be taken into amount. This means that in a fantasy world effective healing magic, whether in the form of Last Chance Amulets or Bloodstones, effective prayers of good priests or a healing tub of a skilled watercrafter can save most victims, if provided fast enough.

If you think about it, a dead character in a fantasy system could be saved by a priest or a wizard even a few minutes after “dying”. Magical medicine in most fantasy world seems much more effective than modern medicine in healing wounds. Why shouldn’t it have prayers or spells of Transfuse Blood, Oxygenate, Resuscitate or Protect Mind at it disposal, to preserve the brain against brain death until other spells of Cure Severe Wounds knit back severed tissues, repair punctured heart and return the almost-dead victim back to normal life? And of course a Restore Health spell, which exorcises the invisible demons of pestilence (microbes) from the wound, removing the risk of infection.

In science fiction games saving critically wounded characters can also be much simpler than in modern times. Oxygen-transporting nanoparticles in the blood may increase oxygen contents of blood multiple times, nanobots or implants which automatically release smart clotting agents may protect against bleeding, and as a last resort the head with an undamaged brain (protected by a carbon nanofibre reinforced skull) may be placed in a box which will automatically find the blood vessels and will pump synthetic, oxygenated blood-substitute into the brain, preserving it.

As this example shows, realistic approach to damage is better even in completely unrealistic heroic fantasy systems. A powerful barbarian or experienced warrior will be truly hard to defeat, since small wounds don’t add up, especially if the character has a magical item for stopping blood loss. And at the same time it avoids the problem of D&D 3e, where characters are alive, alive, alive, alive, and then fall down and within at most 10 rounds (so, one minute), or frequently even shorter are completely absolutely dead and require resurrection. The remaining characters from the group can stand guard over the fallen body of their comrade, while the group’s clerics or mages can save him with their spells. And if we ignore or significantly slow the bleeding-out process we get real fantasy badasses, which in combination with great dodging or parrying ability (and appropriate reserve of Destiny Points or other Ass Saver Points) reflects the “reality” of heroic fantasy much better than slow scraping of heroes to death in D&D.

And in a system with realistic damage mechanics creatures which do not bleed, such as zombies, skeletons or other cyborgs turn out to be much more dangerous in a natural manner, without requiring artificial rules like “zombies have additional armour against damage other than slashing”.

To summarise: good damage tracking mechanics in an RPG should take into account five factors. First, psychology: an average human who is wounded will fall down or even lose consciousness, but people with extraordinary training and/or determination (which is usually true for Player Characters) may fight even with multiple wounds, until they are incapacitated by blood loss, or until they receive a wound that is instantly incapacitating (destruction of brain or spine). Second, wounds do not add up linearly – multiple small wounds are less hazardous to health and will heal faster than a single severe wound. Third, wounds have little impact on ability to fight (mainly impairing a wounded limb and causing general fatigue from loss of blood) until adrenaline and endorphins wear off, at which point pain becomes rather distracting (however, pain thresholds are highly individual and depend on psychological factors). Fourth, the bigger the gun or sword and the higher advantage of attacker’s skill against defender’s skill, the higher the chance of instant incapacitation regardless of the defender’s determination and pain threshold (or used drugs). A stab with a rapier through the eye socket, a decapitation with a sword or a headshot into the brainstem from a handgun will instantly kill the toughest guy alive. And finally, fifth is that death occurs at the moment of killing blow only for most lethal wounds, hits to the head and spine. A character does not die when stabbed with a sword for 8 damage points when it only has 6 points remaining. A character stabbed with a sword for 8 out of 10 possible damage points will most probably die in the nearest future, but advanced medicine or magic can still save them.

Are there RPG systems with realistic damage mechanics? Of course, for example HarnMaster for fantasy, Blue Planet for SF, Millenium′s End for a contemporary gun-oriented mechanics, and CORPS from universal systems. (GURPS, unfortunately, fails completely here, because it is a very old system with Hit Points, and regardless of the amount of optional rules grafted on the linear, additive HPs still lurk underneath)

Unfortunately, they’re rare, because it’s much easier to copy hit points from one set of mechanics to another. Thanks for nothing, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. 🙂

On being dead

I was, unfortunately, quite dead on the day my love killed himself to become immortal. It wasn’t my first time being dead, and the reason was depressingly identical to previous ones. Multiple GSWs to the chest. An occupational hazard for a cop in modern America.

Getting temporarily killed in the line of duty is fully comped, but the insurance payout is wholly inadequate to cover the loss of over a month of life spent in recovery. Granted, after they bring you back from cold sleep, replacing the superoxygenated cooling solution back with blood you get to wake up and access VR environments, but then you have a choice – hazy pink fog of painkillers, or being alert on pain dullers.

Although in this case my state of mind wouldn’t matter much, as I was still in cold sleep when Jonathan decided he had enough close encounters with death, even by proxy, to stand the thought of dying permanently, and absconded to Canada with most of our money, in order to get destructively scanned. The bastard.

Cycling for beginners

Two weeks after I’ve left the City for the wilderness of Central Poland my bike’s front suspension seized with a shudder. I was riding over the remains of an old tarmac road, and suddenly I felt it become rather bumpy, so I almost fell off trying to stop.

“I am sorry, Jake,” the bicycle spoke softly inside my head. “The right actuator burned out and I had to lock the left one. I was not designed to carry heavy loads, and if we keep riding on such disastrous surfaces the other actuator will burn out, too.”

“How soon?” I whispered.

“A week or two. And the front wheel hub is approaching its limits, too, we’re already three weeks past the second required maintenance overhaul. When the front wheel burns out, you lose one third the motive force and two thirds of the braking capability. I’m breaking down. You will have to find another means of transport.”

I knew I couldn’t walk with all the stuff I had in my panniers, backpack and the bag strapped to the handlebars, and yet in the wilderness I needed it desperately. All my life’s savings, as well as my parents’ apartment went into the stuff I now carried.

Some of it was so illegal I’d get my second strike and my third strike at the same time, which is why I met the guy who sold the stuff just outside of the administrative borders of the Warsaw enclave, fifty kilometres outside of the city proper.

There was no law enforcement outside the enclaves. That is why criminals like me could escape the all-seeing eyes of the City’s surveillance and compliance enforcement network. And that is also why I needed a weapon, to hunt for food and to protect myself against other people hiding in the wilderness. They wouldn’t be law-abiding citizens either.
The Commonwealth didn’t care what people did outside of the areas of City enclaves, as long as they didn’t violate any environmental laws. If they did, the first time skies cleared the killsats would find them, and invisible ultraviolet death would descend from orbit.
Still, small groups of hunters and gatherers could easily survive in the forests covering most of Europe, as long as they stayed away from the radioactive fields where the Russian Empire’s area denial swarms managed to get through the defences of the late European Union.

Unfortunately, I had a week or two to find a new bike, and that meant I had to turn towards the radioactive ruins of Poznań. More abandoned buildings meant a higher chance for finding something. Or meeting someone.

Two days later, in an abandoned village I’ve finally found a bicycle. It was weird. It was made completely of metal, and thus surprisingly heavy. Instead of modern wheels it had multiple metal wires leading from the hub to the rim. The pedals were connected to multiple spiky discs, with more of the same on the rear wheel, and there was a weird metal rope-like thingy leading from the pedals to the rear wheel. Chain, it was called, I thought, even though the word evoked images of medieval ages and slavery instead of bicycles. There were also some weird mechanical switches and cables running all over the frame, which I tried flicking, with no results whatsoever. And it was completely dumb. No cameras, no mind, no self-diagnostics. It was probably older than my late parents. Well, I would have to read up on maintenance of prehistoric bicycles, I decided, and set out to search the nearest building for some tools.

Which is when I found the body.

Realism in tabletop role-playing games

What exactly is “realism” in RPGs, and is there any need for it? After all, no game mechanics can achieve a hundred percent of realism, and attempting to achieve it result in gigantic, complicated, unusable mechanics, such as Phoenix Command. At least, this is the general point of view of an average gamer – but turns out not to be true when analysed closely.

Realism in role-playing games is not the same as realism in art. In literature realism meant the lack of supernatural or fantastic elements, showing the life of ordinary people in a plausible manner. Such an assumption in RPGs would significantly restrict the available settings. However, the possibility of playing a fantasy thief, a science-fictional cyborg mercenary, or a former spy fighting secret cults of unholy gods does not change the fact that each of these examples may be played both in a realistic and in a cinematic manner.

One might play a thief in a fantasy world, that is realistically based on history with a small addition of magic or other supernatural elements (a world similar to the ones of the Joe Abercombie’s First Law trilogy or in GRR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice), or one might play an eighteenth-level thief capable of single-handedly defeating an average-sized group of mercenaries (in any D&D editon). One might be an FBI agent surveilling unspeakable cults in the convention of The Wire TV series (in Delta Green), or one might play cinematic Jason Bourne fighting the minions of a vampire conspiracy (in Night’s Black Agents). It is important not to mix the conventions – trying to play a James Bond type character in a realistic convention would end badly for the player characters, whereas attempting a realistic approach to an adventure created with car chases and shootouts with hordes of nameless cultists in mind will end with a frustrated Game Master and players.

But is it possible to create a realistic ruleset? The answer is yes, although it is not easy, due to the accumulated conventions of role-playing games. Realistic RPG mechanics are not the same as complicated mechanics, realistic rules are ones which do not generate unrealistic results. A good analogy for realism of game mechanics is the realism of drawings. One could illustrate the “warrior woman” entry with a realistically shaded drawing of an anatomically correct Viking shieldmaiden wearing mail, with a shield and sword, one might provide a photo of an Israeli infantry soldier, or with an exaggerated comic of a long-legged woman wearing a chainmail bikini and wielding a shovel-sized sword. The mechanics of D&D would be equivalent to a violet-skinned, chained-spike wielding busty gal drawn in an 8-bit style, with tile-sized pixels making it hard to recognize her as human (but fashionable due to retro-nostalgia).

No mechanics (or drawing) will be a completely faithful representation of reality. Game mechanics are an abstract representation of reality and, like every abstraction, will lose some details, just like drawing loses such information as smell, sound or mass, and reduces an object from three dimensions to two. There is a multitude of drawing and painting styles, just like there are many kinds of game mechanics.

Four-color superheroes requires Superman to be square-jawed and barrel-chested, not drawn in a realistic manner, and similarly, a superhero RPG should not have rules which reflect the reality of our world, but enable the reproduction of a world of comics, where punches which crush bricks and pierce steel just throw back the people they hit, even when the person being hit is not a “brick”, like the X-Men Colossus or Fantastic Four Grimm, but a physically normal human, such as Cyclops or Invisible Woman, when a strike with an armoured fist will not crush his or her ribs and punch out through the back with fragments of the spine, killing him or her instantly.

Whereas a comic book in the convention of a modern techno-thriller requires realistic drawings of men, guns and vehicles. Mechanics of the games in a realistic convention, inspired by Tom Clancy’s books requires correct modelling of firearms – D20 by Hasbro will certainly fail here.

Heroic fantasy is yet another matter – in such a comic book the knight wears a shining armour and has white teeth, whereas the dirt and stench of daily existence in Middle Ages may solely be used only as a bit of local colour. And a chainmail-bikini wearing warrior chick is of course required. Heroic fantasy mechanics should enable players to play epic characters, such as Beowulf, who in full armour and with a sword in his hand swam in the sea for seven years and fought with monsters. There is no place for realism here.

And so on. Various types of mechanics may be deemed realistic or unrealistic, depending on the setting and convention. A rules which reflect the world of Star Wars or Star Trek are not suitable to play in a realistic convention, whereas a set of realistic mechanics will fail for Star Wars or Conan.

We should thus distinguish two concepts: realistic rules and faithful rules. Realistic game mechanics enable playing in a realistic convention, whereas faithful mechanics model the conventions of the setting well.

Do role-playing games need realistic mechanics? Well, some people like to play in a realistic convention, and some don’t. The answer is thus: of course, they are needed, but not by everyone.

How to recognize realistic game mechanics? And can they be created? Of course, but one must forget many standard elements of RPGs, which have “always been there” only because they were introduced by the first RPG ever, Dungeons & Dragons – hit points, classes and levels must go. There have been realistic RPGs for a long time, even though they are few in number: the classic examples include HarnMaster for fantasy role-playing, Blue Planet for science-fiction, CORPS for systems which attempt to be universal ones, or Conspiracy X for modern-times gaming.

Minimum population

To this day, paleovirologists (all five or six of them) disagree whether the Superflu was a natural mutation or an engineered virus. It had a very nasty combination of a long onset and high virulence which meant that before medical services caught sight of it, cases were already popping up all over the globe. And it attacked the pulmonary system quite viciously. It wasn’t really a problem when you had good medical care – in an intensive care ward, healthy adults had ninety five percent survival ratios, only the weak, elderly and children had mortality rates approaching thirty percent. But the cost-optimized health services of pretty much all civilized nations didn’t have enough doctors, nurses and equipment for even one percent of the sick, and without oxygen and intravenous feeding, almost one in two adults died.

Still, looked for a moment it seemed possible that the economy of industrial nations could survive, barely, this incredible shrinking of the global population.

But Ivan Vladimirovitch Putin had a paranoiac streak a mile wide, and decided that the Superflu was an attack on the Russian Empire that got out of hand. And the European Union, full of militaristic vigour only a decade after the spectacular, completely one sided victory of its military robots against the Chinese Volunteer African Militia wouldn’t back down. After all, the proxy war with China proved that things wouldn’t escalate to nukes, and even if they would, the US and EU would have complete space superiority and laser-based defences would protect against nuclear missiles.

The ensuing Third World war proven everyone wrong. Space superiority kept most of US safe from submarine-launched missiles, but ground-based lasers couldn’t defend Europe’s cities from swarms of high-velocity, low-altitude drones with five to ten kiloton warheads, coming through the defences in a rolling wave of tactical nuclear explosions. The losses were appalling. And then India and Pakistan went at each other with their stockpiles of nukes, while China and Russia blasted away at each other from submarines. Most missiles were intercepted, but some weren’t.

Which is how the world found out that there is a minimum population requirement to maintaining an operating technological civilisation of law and order.

Phi Phi Island, Thailand

Well, winter is coming here in Europe, so I guess it’s time to write up some more of my travels in South-East Asia and bask in remembered warmth.

From Cambodia, we flew to Thailand, taking a Bangkok Air plane from Siem Reap to Bangkok, where we were treated to quite an amusing flight safety awareness video:

Unfortunately, later on during the flight the monitors stayed on, and were showing (without sound) some kind of a local “practical jokes played on unsuspecting audience” TV programme. I could feel my IQ dropping with each minute, and yet my eyes were drawn to the screen, eerily fascinated.

Strucja w Krakowia

A weird Polish accent at the Bankgok airport – on of the pieces of art on display was entitled “Strucja w Krakowia”.

Due to good relations between Thailand and Poland you actually don’t need a visa to enter Thailand, which is nice, but we still got fingerprinted and had to fill out forms. On Phuket, we’ve stayed at an excellent motel with a very nice owner, but really had no time to do anything – our flight from Bangkok was delayed about an hour, and we had a ferry to catch the next morning.

Travelling by ferry from Phuket to the Phi Phi island was, well, leisurely, and the views when we approached the island were breathtaking. Steep rocks climbing out of azure water, and everything covered by lush green vegetation. Colours dialed up to 11.

Koh Phi Phi from afar 3.6_Approach_2 3.7_Approach_3 3.8_Approach

The Phi Phi harbour and the village were definitively another tourist trap, but we were staying at a resort on the other side of the mountain range, at Rantee Bay, and hoped there would be fewer people there.

Food! Onna stick!

Food! Onna stick!

There were fewer people indeed, although calling the place “a resort” was a bit of an exaggeration – the toilet and shower facilities were rather crude, there was only cold water (which is quite normal in Asia, as it turns out), and electricity was only available when the local generator was turned on, that is, during the evenings, when the bar was working.

The accomodations were spartan

The accomodations were spartan

When using the bathroom, one had to watch out for giant bugs and/or frogs

When using the bathroom, one had to watch out for giant bugs and/or frogs

One thing that struck me in Thailand was the plenitude of cats.

Local cat guarding our bungalow

Local cat guarding our bungalow



Felines were everywhere, and they were obviously cared for and liked, because they had no qualms about approaching strangers and demanding attention. In a restaurant in Phi Phi Village the menu included pictures of the restaurant’s three cats, and in the Rantee Bay resort there were at least three cats that vied for our attention (including one grizzled veteran of many battles, with only one working eye, who always tried to get into the beach hut and then onto a bed) and for scraps from our table (unsurprisingly, cats like shrimp tails very much).

A great little place with excellent food and lots of cats

A great little place with excellent food and lots of cats

As I've said, plenty of felines.

As I’ve said, plenty of felines.

Demon Hare guarding the cat :-)

Demon Hare guarding the cat :-)

We lazied about, did some snorkeling, some sunbathing and drank pina coladas on the beach while playing Gloom, and I started getting restless, with nothing to do except read. I’ve read four books in two days, and getting an e-reader for the trip turned out to be an excellent decision.

My demon hare had a good time, reading ebooks and sunbathing :-)

My demon hare had a good time, reading ebooks and sunbathing :-)

Obligatory cute drink - although not a pina colada

Obligatory cute drink – although not a pina colada



Then we went to do some climbing.

To get to the village we had to trek back through a mountain and a jungle, full of cute critters like that one

To get to the village we had to trek back through a mountain and a jungle, full of cute critters like that one

The view from the mountain was pretty spectacular, I have to admit

The view from the mountain was pretty spectacular, I have to admit

On our way down to the village we encoutered a biologaical waste treatment plant - basically a giant garden :-)

On our way down to the village we encountered a biological waste treatment plant – basically a giant garden :-)

First we tried Ibex Climbing and Spider Monkey, two climbing franchises most popular on the island, but both told us that “fun climbing” (a guide, equipment and just top-roping, with the guide leading the route to place the top-rope) is 1000 baht per person and there’s no discount for having our own gear, which really made no sense. And then a nice lady in one of Ibex climbing shops told us that she can just lend us a book with a map of climbing routes on the Tonsai Tower so we can make a photocopy of the map, and we can rent a rope and some quickdraws in a climbing shop nearby, Deaf Gecko, which we did.

Base of the Tonsai Tower - quite a few nice routes

Base of the Tonsai Tower – quite a few nice routes

Climbing on Phi Phi was phenomenal. Thai limestone provides nice grip and the routes well well bolted, and at the top of the route one could wait for a while and soak in the view – the azure water of the bay with moored boats, the jungle and the mountains. There were also some nice, long multi-pitch routes up to the top of the Tower, but the far-reaching plans we’ve made to climb one of them had to be shelved due to our complete lack of stamina. The fact that route maps used French difficulty grading, different to the one we use didn’t help. We’ve also planned on trying some deep water solo, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. Maybe next time. 🙂

Before top-roping someone had to lead the route. Me, in this case :-)

Before top-roping someone had to lead the route. Me, in this case :-)



... the climbing was pretty easy, but it did tax my almost non-existent endurance

… the climbing was pretty easy, but it did tax my almost non-existent endurance

Unfortunately, we couldn't really get a good photo of the sunset, because of the second mountain directly to the West

Unfortunately, we couldn’t really get a good photo of the sunset, because of the second mountain directly to the West

We’ve spent the New Year’s Eve on the beach, drinking pina coladas and sharing some champagne with some people from Ukraine, who also stayed at our resort, and then we had to get to Phi Phi Village before 9, when our ferry left, so that we’d make the flight to Thakhek, from where we planned to ride to Vientiane in Laos. The trouble was that the weather was getting worse, wind was getting faster and thus waves were higher and there was no guarantee that the boat would make it in the morning, against the tide.

There were a lot of signs showing the tsunami escape routes. This is an area that was devastated in the 2004 tsunami

There were a lot of signs showing the tsunami escape routes. This is an area that was devastated in the 2004 tsunami

So we had to hike up the mountain, through the jungle, and then down the stairs to the town, with all our luggage. This was slightly strenuous, but we’ve made it with half an hour to spare, and were easily able to make it to our flight. Next stop – Laos.

And one more view of the island.

And one more view of the island.

When we were leaving on a ferry, a helicopter hovered for some time above the local hospital, then flew away, without landing there.

When we were leaving on a ferry, a helicopter hovered for some time above the local hospital, then flew away, without landing there.

Last glance on the island. Tonsai Tower is on the left.

Last glance at the island. Tonsai Tower is on the left.

Ares watching

Putting a god under surveillance isn’t that difficult, if you have a good team. There’s just one catch – you have to use mundanes. Us supernaturals tend to concentrate on defending against other supernatural threats, using a few simple measures to throw off any mere human off our trail, which is why a well trained team of mundanes with appropriate knowledge and tools can easily keep a god under constant surveillance.

Which is why when Anthony Reese left his suite at the Regent Berlin hotel, I was five kilometres away, sitting in a dark-panelled van in front of a suite of radios and monitors, safely out of the reach of his warning spells, and all around him, twenty three of my people were waiting to see where would he go and whom would we meet. Twenty three, a lucky number.

They carried no amulets, they had no spells, and they carried no guns. Mundane weapons wouldn’t help them against the god of war, and they could get them in trouble with German authorities. What they had in plenty was mirrors, silver, salt, digital cameras and encrypted cell phones set in full duplex conference mode. That, and years and years of experience.

Jane Nguyen, the designated eyeball sitting in a car parked in front of the Regent was observing the entrance through the rear-view mirror. In addition to being good tradecraft, this was a good way to pierce most common veils and charms, the ones that could be thrown up with almost no effort by powerful supernaturals.

“The bunny has left the rabbit hole, southbound on Charlottenstrasse. I repeat, southbound on Charlottenstrasse. The bunny is wearing a beige suit and somehow still pulls it off.”
“This is Martin, I have the eyeball, I repeat, I have the eyeball.”

The main screen was showing a large map of Berlin, with the positions of all my people marked, and video feeds. Kathy and Janusz logged in as Bravo and Charlie with one press of a button on their GPS units, without having to talk and interrupt the eyeball, while Martin continued speaking.

“The bunny is now past the Konzerthaus, and moving at a fast clip. He seems to be in a hurry, and is not looking around. Wait, he is blurring, I repeat, he is blurring.”

I looked at the map. The nearest mobile observation van was located near the intersection with Leipziger Strasse, so I pressed their icon on the screen.

“Do you have the target?”
“Sure thing,” I heard Ursula say, “eyes on, I repeat, eyes on. The bunny is now shifting to a more Mediterranean aspect, a tall, olive-skinned man in a leather jacket and jeans.”

The eyes of people around Anthony would just refuse to focus on him while he was weaving a spell that said “disregard me”, but Ursula, in the rear of the observation van was watching him through high-powered binoculars with a silver-coated prism inside. The image of Ares was reflected multiple times off silver surfaces, stripping the glamour and enabling the watcher to view the shifting performed by the target.

Glamours and shapeshifting were the state of the art anti-surveillance measures of the supernatural world, and sure enough, they worked well against unaware watchers. Detection spells Ares had certainly woven around himself would notify him if he was followed by some vampire hopping about on the roofs, or other similar garishness, but my team had years of experience in the following of hard targets.

“This is eyeball, I still have the target, he didn’t stop walking. He is now past Kronnenstrasse, I repeat, past Kronnenstrasse, still southbound.”

I rapidly clicked through the icons on the map, redeploying the northern part of the team southwards, hoping to place them in advance of the moving god. Good surveillance does not follow the target, good surveillance is imposed on it.

“The target is turning right onto Leipzigerstrasse,” reported Martin. “Eyeball handover to Bravo, handover to Bravo.”

The trio following Ares was about to execute a typical eyeball handover drill on a turning target, when suddenly Ursula came live on the net.

“Abort, abort handover. Bravo and Charlie stop, Alpha continue straight, I have eyes on target and he is stopped and lighting a cigarette, glancing backwards.”

It looked like the god of war started conducting traditional anti-surveillance drills. That was bad news.

“Team, the target is semi-aware, I repeat, target semi-aware. Watch out.”

Siem Reap and Angkor

We have planned to spend Christmas in Cambodia, visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex around Siem Reap and generally relaxing in the sun. We flew to Siem Reap (the city named “We really kicked some Thai asses”) with Cambodia Angkor Air. At first, it was quite fun, they had a dancing and singing Plane Safety Awareness video but then we were treated to almost an hour of “reality TV” with no sound on. Luckily, the flight was a bit under an hour long, but when I went out of the plane, I had a distinct impression my IQ dropped by at least 10 points.
And then we rode to our hotel by a tuk-tuk, a scooter with an attached trailer for the transport of passengers. Not very safe and not very fast, but convenient – passengers have effective air-cooling and can look around freely. Taxis in Asia usually have overactive and not well maintained air-conditioning, so riding in an auto rickshaw is simply nicer. The hotel was nothing to write home about, but it had WiFi (and, occasionally, you could access the Internet through it, although that was by no means guaranteed – a typical problem of SE Asia, in my experience) and a pool.
There's nothing like lounging by the pool with a laptop, and going for a swim after work is finished.

There’s nothing like lounging by the pool with a laptop, and going for a swim after work is finished.

On the first day, we went to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex, buying a three day ticket. The tourist industry is evidently a cash cow for Cambodia and is rather well organised. We were directed to a booth selling three-day tickets, where our photos were taken (tickets contain photos of their owners, to prevent second hand sales of tickets and other such shenanigans). The three day ticket can be used during any three days of a seven day period, which is nice, because after some time, walking among various temple ruins can get a bit tiring. I only uploaded a few of the countless photos of ruins, reliefs and such that we’ve taken, to give a general idea of how it felt like. The smaller temples were nice, because there wasn’t a lot of people, but visiting the main Angkor Wat temple I felt like I was caught in a tourist trap.
My first encounter with Angor temples.

My first encounter with Angor temples.

This is a Buddha lying on his side, not a elephant.

This is a Buddha lying on his side, not a elephant.

Lingam. A giant stone penis that blesses water flowing over it.

Lingam. A giant stone penis that blesses water flowing over it.

Little bastards have it good, shaking down tourists for fruit and other food.

Little bastards have it good, shaking down tourists for fruit and other food.

This temple was dismantled for renovation. Then Khmer Rouge came and burned all the plans, so now it's the world's biggest 3D puzzle, painstakingly being assembled back by archeologists.

This temple was dismantled for renovation. Then Khmer Rouge came and burned all the plans, so now it’s the world’s biggest 3D puzzle, painstakingly being assembled back by archeologists.

Hello, tiny spider pretending to be big.

Hello, tiny spider pretending to be big.

For the evening, we’ve went to Pub Street, which as the name implies is the street where most of Siem Reap pubs are located. Local fish massage was an interesting experience, definitively not for the ticklish. Local pub with a live band doing covers of various pop songs was also, khm, interesting. Generally, Siem Reap isn’t something to write home about unless you’re into cheap drinks and loud music.
Pub Street. The name is rather clear.

Pub Street. The name is rather clear.

I should have thought about being ticklish before deciding I'll stick my feet in there.

I should have thought about being ticklish before deciding I’ll stick my feet in there.

Probably not a good idea to actually connect any computer or tablet to their systems.

Probably not a good idea to actually connect any computer or tablet to their systems.

On the second day, we’ve hired a bus and went to the Phnom Kulen mountain and it’s temple and waterfalls. This is a trip that takes an entire day, because it takes about an hour to reach the base of the mountain, and then more than an hour to reach the temple, on a narrow, unpaved and rather steep road. It also wasn’t covered by the Angkor Wat temple complex ticket and we had to buy special tickets the day before. However, the trip itself was interesting, since we had many good views of the Cambodian countryside on the way to the mountain, and riding up the mountain through dense jungle was a great experience. We’ve visited the temple and then went to the river, where we were shown the industrial sanctification devices – stone lingams carved into the river floor. Since Buddhists believed that water flowing around a lingam became sacred, the entire river was sanctified, efficiently ridding the entire area supplied by water flowing down from Phnom Kulen mountain from vampire infestation. 🙂 I also saw quicksand for the first time in my life, and then we went for a swim in the waterfalls.
Stone penises galore. Rather worn down by time and water, but still blessing on!

Stone penises galore. Rather worn down by time and water, but still blessing on!

Underwater quicksand is weird. And dangerous.

Underwater quicksand is weird. And dangerous.

The top level of Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Some people bathe there.

The top level of Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Some people bathe there.

... but most people prefer to swim at the bottom.

… but most people prefer to swim at the bottom.

And then I did something that was not very smart – I drowned my waterproof smartphone. My diving casing for the HD camera worked just fine, because it can be submerged up to 5 meters. However, the casing only allows starting and stopping filming, when the camera is protected against water I couldn’t use it to make still photos, so I’ve decided to take my waterproof Motorola Defy and make some photos from directly under the falling water. The Defy can only be submerged down to 1 meter, and I simply held it in my hand and swam to the waterfall, using crawl instead of breaststroke. Well, the hydrodynamic pressure acting on the phone definitively exceeded 1 atmosphere and water got inside, which I only noticed after swimming up to the falls. After I swum back, took out the battery and left the phone open to dry out I decided to leave it for a few days, to check whether it will start again.
It didn’t. 🙂
Still, at the time I didn’t know that. We still had 2 days of visiting temples, so we visited the Ta Prohm temple, known from the Tomb Rider film, and Banteay Srey, excellently preserved with amazing level of detail on the reliefs, as well as viewing the sunset from a temple, an event that drew crowds of tourists the closer it was to sundown. And in the evenings, instead of relaxing and taking advantage of cheap drinks, I took out my laptop and prayed to His Noodliness that the Internet connection at the hotel would work, because I had a translation I had to finish before the end of the year, and I knew that in Thailand we would be staying at a beach resort where there was no Internet and where even electricity was provided only when the generator was on, so only in the evenings.
Banteay Srei temple.

Banteay Srei temple.

Sun worshippers come out.

Sun worshippers come out.

Most schools in Cambodia are funded by charities from other countries.

Most schools in Cambodia are funded by charities from other countries.

It was time to leave Cambodia and fly to Bangkok, then to Phuket and from there go to Koh Phi Phi, Thailand.

Gun Safety

I have managed to ignore my house for the last week or so, wallowing in despair after Claire left me, but it finally got to me when it locked me out of my gun safe.

“Wake up, Dave. I have now established that you meet DSM-VII criteria for Major Depressive Disorder and I am legally obligated to notify the state police, which has temporarily suspended your gun license.”

This woke me up somewhat.

“Your gun safe is now locked. I have made you an appointment at a nearby clinic in three hours, go see a psychiatrist and get a mood regulation implant, and you’ll get your permit back.”

Great. Just great. I had to wake up more. I had to get up, and I had to go to a doctor, or I would be out of a job and soon out of a house.

 

But I had no energy, so I went back to sleep.

Operational safety for dummies

[This is a short text written for the Delta Green RPG mailing list; DG is one of the best roleplaying game setting’s I’ve ever played in and I highly recommend it]

If you come from FBI or CIA, you know this all already, but there are many valuable Delta Green operatives who come from different backgrounds and don’t have extensive tradecraft training. This primer is intended form them.

Remember again, cell phones are your enemy. If you don’t have your Delta Green issued phone, you may use burner phones for emergency, but isolated burner phone networks stand out in traffic analysis, and they can be used to locate you. And remember, if you use a burner phone, use a separate phone, when you change a SIM into your normal phone, it will read your IMEI number and voila, your burner phone is now associated with you and your normal phone from the point of view of an intelligence agency. Also, it’s better to talk than to send text messages, because if you’re not under surveillance yet, but a government agency will later on decide to look at your activities, they will have the list of phone conversations you’ve made and the list of all text messages with their contents.

Remember to remove the battery from the phone when not using it. When travelling to a sensitive area, turn off your phone and take out the battery 3-5 km before reaching it in an urban area, and 20-30 km before your destination in a rural area.

No computer connected to a network is safe. You should encrypt your computer with TrueCrypt whole disk encryption with a dummy operating system, which provides you with plausible deniability. Anything less is a waste of time against a government agency. When your computer is connected to a network, use the decoy system. When working on DG-related information, disconnect your computer from any networks, boot into the hidden operating system and work. If you need to send something from a network, boot into a disposable secure system from a pendrive. E-mail should be encrypted with PGP and instant messages should use OTR messaging encryption for less sensitive information.

Important information can have only one form of encryption – one time pads. Distributing OTP key material requires a physical meeting (for verification – never leave an OTP key unguarded in a dead drop, a third party could surreptitiously copy it), but you can have a few dozen gigabytes of true randomness stored on a pendrive and thus a truly secure information channel. PGP/OTR and other asymmetric ciphers should be secure against mundane attacks, but Majestic 12 or PISCES may have arcane means of discovering your encryption keys, so one time pads are the only way to go.

Enlist the help of your friends from the FBI and CIA and learn basic covert anti-surveillance drills. Don’t have a routine schedule of the day and change your routes on a regular basis. Get a bicycle, and sweep it regularly for bugs and GPS locators, or start roller skating. Use public transportation whenever possible. For cover, you may talk with your friends and co-workers about the hazards of greenhouse effect and CO2 emissions, even though you know doom is much closer at hand. This will provide a plausible reason for eschewing cars, which are much more difficult to sweep for bugs and locators and much easier to follow.

When at home, observe its vicinity from upper story windows, looking for trigger positions (cars with one or more persons inside or vans parked for a long period of time, with tinted windows or curtains). Scan possible trigger positions further away from your home with binoculars.

When returning home, walk around the block (with a cover story, e.g. going to a kiosk to buy a newspaper or cigarettes or chewing gum or whatever) and observe if someone is setting up a trigger position near your home.

Leave a garage in a vehicle driven by someone else, while you hide at the rear under a blanket.

Talk with friendly neighbours and security. Don’t challenge any suspect persons, but you may call the police (preferably from a burner cell) and observe the encounter through binoculars (the trigger may identify itself to the police, if they’re LEOs themselves)

When driving, pretend to be lost (in an unfamiliar area of the town – pretending to be lost near your home is not covert), do a U turn and observe passing vehicles. Drive around a roundabout a few times (if you’re riding a motorcycle, you can do it just for fun).

Alter your speed frequently. Speeding may not be a good idea, because it may attract the attention of legitimate law enforcement, but it helps to ferret out the follow team.

Stop immediately after turning right (left in UK) and note the vehicles that pass you.

When in traffic, note drivers of vehicles near you and check out their behaviour (although in this age of hands-free sets and cellphone yakkers it’s not a very reliable indicator).

Enter a cul-de-sac (you can pretend to be lost).

Check who’s stopping with you when stopping at a gas station.

Indicate turning one way and go another, at the same time observing for watchers who do the same – just don’t cause an accident and don’t kill a biker.

To lose the follow team, drive onto a car park with multiple exits and leave through one of them, or park somewhere and exit on foot, observing for trigger vehicles setting up near the car park exit. You may also jump a red light, but make sure it’s safe and there are no red light cameras.

When on foot, enter a phone box and pretend to talk, then observe whether a surveillance operator enters into the booth and checks it for dead letter boxes.

Use large shopping centres with multiple exits and with escalators that switch back (excellent surveillance traps), although when surveilled by LEOs they may decide to use the CCTV system to track you, so be aware of the CCTV cameras and wear a hat or a hoodie.

When running a surveillance detection route, you should use street furniture (bus stops, large panes of glass) to look back, as well as frequently cross the street (this gives you a pretext to look back). Walk both through quiet areas with little pedestrian activity and through bustling areas, where you can observe the route behind you for people who seem to be nervous and look around a lot (it’s hard to locate someone in a crowd). You can try to lose the watchers there by changing elements of clothing (hat, jacket) before heading to one of the exits.

Drop a piece of paper near a trash can, then covertly observe if someone picks it up.

Get a public transport pass and use buses, underground and trams, whenever available; hang around at the platform and try to be the last person who enters, or don’t get onto a bus, or get onto a bus and leave at the last moment (this last action is rather overt, though).

In an unfamiliar territory, you can pretend to be lost and change directions a lot. If you identify a member of the surveillance team, you can look directly at him/her, and approach them and ask for directions, this will reinforce your cover of being lost while at the same time burning them, decreasing the size of the surveillance team.

You may also confront them directly (“why are you following me?!”, take a photo of the suspected operator), but only in public places and preferably close to police or security; or, in case of a small, amateurish surveillance team, in a deserted place with backup provided by rest of the Cell with heavy armament.

A rather overt anti-surveillance move is “squaring the box”, that is, instead of going straight, going right, then left, and then right back onto the same street you began on (this works both on foot and in a car or motorcycle). Normally, people take shortest route, so anyone following you during squaring of the box is highly suspect. However, for the same reason you become suspect, unless you successfully pretend you’re lost.

If you notice the same person or car three times during your SDR, you should assume you are being followed. The mnemonic is TEDD: if you see someone repeatedly over Time, in different Environments and over Distance, or one who displays poor Demeanor you can assume you’re under surveillance. It’s easy to spot bad surveillance, if you are looking. Civilians are easy to follow, which is why terrorist groups were able to get away with bad tradecraft. Unaware targets walk blindly through life. Most cultists will not have intelligence even private investigator level training and resources, but might try to follow you anyway. They will be easy to spot.

However, if you suspect you might be under Majestic-12 or PISCES surveillance, you should operate under “Moscow rules”, that is, assume you’re under surveillance all the time. In Russia, MI6 assumes their officers require about 6 months to get competent enough to spot the local watchers, and MI6 officers have far more training in surveillance than you can get from your tradecraft-trained friends from the cell. Under Moscow rules, you should perform SDRs for at least an hour or two before meeting, and all meetings with fellow conspirators should be done using the “dry cleaning” procedure. This means that you shouldn’t agree on a specific meeting place, just a general public location, and have a covert signal for recognizing each other – moving a newspaper from left hand to right hand, checking the hour on a wristwatch, something that can be done naturally and does not attract suspicion. When you have noticed the person you are meeting, go on a surveillance detection route, but do not perform active anti-surveillance to lose any surveillance team. The person you are meeting will also follow you and will perform counter-surveillance, trying to see if anyone is following you. Then, after some time, if they don’t find any surveillance, they will use a predetermined signal again, and you switch roles – the other party walks away and you follow them, checking them for a tail. Only when you are satisfied that the other party is also clean signal them and go to final meeting place. If at any time surveillance is detected, abort the meeting and go to a backup location and time, this time performing more anti-surveillance before arriving at the first meeting place.

When the meeting does occur, the first thing you should establish is the next meeting point and two fallback plans. Emergency plans and signals should always be established and memorized, don’t write anything down.