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.

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Realizm w RPG

Czym jest realizm w grach RPG i czy jest w ogóle potrzebny? Przecież żadna mechanika nie może uzyskać stuprocentowego realizmu, a próby jego uzyskania owocują gigantycznymi, skomplikowanymi mechanikami, które nie nadają się do używania, takimi jak na przykład Phoenix Command. Takie jest przynajmniej typowe podejście przeciętnego erpegowca – tylko że po bliższej analizie okazuje się to nieprawdą.

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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.

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.”

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.

Some Assembly Required

“I hereby move to open the general assembly of shareholders in the Jonathan Maindel personal company. For administrative purposes, please state your name, provenance and share percentage, along with the function.”

“Jonathan Maindel, biological founder of the PC, date of birth 21st of May 2021, fourty one percent of the vote, chairman.”

“Jay-Em Prime, nee Jonathan X2051, uploaded consciousness based on the gamma-grade model of Jonathan Maindel’s mind created in February of 2051, twenty two point five percent of the vote, treasurer.”

“Morality Eigenvector, nee Jonathan X2071, uploaded consciousness based on delta-grade snapshot of Jonathan Maindel’s mind created on 21st of October 2077, twenty nine percent of the vote.”

“Eyrie Jane, an emancipated copy of a mindmeld between Jay-Em Prime and Varied&Quirky, an independent epsilon-grade Artificial Intelligence, seven point five percent of the vote.”


I woke up happy. It still felt weird, even after almost two years. Next to me, Martin was snoring. He had some stubble on his chin, and his hair still smelled faintly of acid rain. The air was oppressively hot, despite the best effort of the building’s “energy-efficient” air conditioning system. But I was happy. He was there, and I could press my body to his and feel his warmth and his heartbeat. He yawned, opened one eye and smiled faintly, and one of his hands slid over my breast, cupping it. I leaned in to kiss him.

And then I woke up, this time for real. I woke up alone and hurting. I was in a perfunctorily personalised coffin, full of hot, stale air endlessly recirculated by the life support of the colonist transport vessel. Bound for Mars.

Those dreams were the worst, the ones where everything was all right, where Martin was still alive. I took drugs to take the worst edge out of grief, but their effect was limited. I needed to be able to live my life somehow, and as long as I was able to think and remember, I would grieve.

I hoped Mars would help. The Mars project was over sixty years old and still in its infancy, but it would provide a change. And a chance of death. It’s really, really hard to effectively commit suicide in a modern hive city. The city AI sees all, there is a medical drone minutes away and no weapons of any kind available to an average citizen. I could always hope for some catastrophic weather event to kill me, like it did Martin, but Earth weather was highly random and chaotic and I had no guarantees.

On Mars, there was no weather, but its lifeless environment was consistently, permanently lethal. It took me two tries to get past psychological screening, but the Mars Program had only basic level shrink AIs, so I managed to convince them that the I have recovered from the death of my husband within a year.

A hundred years will not be enough.

Carrying a torch

I carried a torch for someone for over fifty seven years. You might consider this excessive, but I never had any doubts. It burned somewhere in my chest cavity with an intensity only a plasma flame could achieve, washing out the candleflames of all other loves, flings and affairs of the one hundred and twenty years of my adult life with a deluge of white-bluish light that would border on ultraviolet and give anyone second degree burns, were it real.

It wasn’t, of course, but I liked to think about it that way, lying awake at night next to my sleeping wife, remembering him and our times together.

And now a single coded message from a dead-drop account told me my current life was over. I had a meeting in Shanghai in two months, and in that time, I had to abandon my wife and friends, leave Caracas, retrieve my backup identity from a safehouse in Algiers, change my biometrics, switch back to female, recover all my gear and money and reconnect with my support network, and all this while conducting careful counter-surveillance drills. But it didn’t matter, because I was suddenly awash with joy.

I would get to see my handler again. Which meant that he was alive, and that was something. Enacting social changes through mass violence was not conducive to a long lifespan. But then, he was always exceptional.

Medusa, Inc.

She ripped my heart out with a smile.


Forewarned is forearmed, though, so I managed to snatch my wayward heart out of the air. Barely, since it was really slippery. And, oh yeah, it hurt like hell. I could feel the pain stabbing out of my chest even through the layers of mental spells preventing me from fainting.

I already had my badge out in my right hand and I raised it, pointing at the woman. Then I snarled and let her have it.

The succubus exploded in a purplish-white incandescence, and when my eyes adjusted, there was a blackened, charred statue where she stood before. An expression of surprise was frozen on her beautiful face. The walls of the room were all blackened by the heat. My heart pulsed in my grip, and I quickly pushed it back into my chest, managing not to fall down to my knees. The world was turning black, but the enchantments of duty woven into my bones knitted the still-beating muscle back in its rightful place, and a few seconds later I decided I could actually walk.

I strode towards the entrance to the restricted section of Medusa Inc. with a purpose, my badge still pulsing with magic. I held in my breath and punched the black statue right in the face, and it disintegrated, falling to the floor in a cascade of larger and smaller pieces of embers. Still holding my breath, since inhaling radioactive carbon dust wasn’t really smart, I reached the glass doors, took out my warrant and pressed it to the lock. The judge’s seal burst with red light and then all the locks opened.

I looked back. There was a man-shaped anti-shadow on the wall, in the place where my body shielded it from the blast of light, and the charred remains of the female succubus were still glowing slightly in some places. Serves her right, the bitch, for assaulting an officer on duty.

And the worst part was that when I came home to my husband he’d never let me hear the end of it. After all, if I were truly and totally gay she wouldn’t be able to do that, or at least Michael would claim it was so, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary.