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Why Spies?

March 7, 2007

 When Fourth Millennium was originally conceived, I intended it to be a very “broad” science fiction game, which is to say, a game that didn’t put any constraints on the kinds of characters players could create. If they wanted to play traveling merchants, they could do so. If they wanted to play mercenary soldiers, they could do so. If they wanted to play explorers, they could do that too. I felt that the setting I’d created was big enough to allow for a wide variety of adventures and campaign styles and didn’t want to limit the ways it could be used by creative players and Game Masters.

The problem is that Fourth Millennium is not a generic science fiction setting. While it draws on a lot of previous SF, both literary and cinematic, for inspiration, it’s not a setting where any science fiction character or situation comfortably fits. In part, that’s because Fourth Millennium has a central conceit, a “law,” if you will, that drove a lot of creative decisions and that necessarily places limits on its elasticity, namely that sufficiently advanced technology is dehumanizing. The primary antagonists of the setting are “parahumans,” human beings who have allowed themselves, wittingly or not, to become less (or more, from their perspective) than human through the use and assimilation of technologies like genetic engineering, cybernetics, and nanotechnology. Thus, the struggle to define what it is to be — and to stay — human is central to Fourth Millennium. Consequently, certain types of science fiction stories simply don’t fit very well and that prevents the setting from being the broad one I’d originally imagined.

This is a good thing. In my opinion, all roleplaying games need a central conceit or focus, something that makes it clear to players and GMs alike what the game is about and what they can do with it. That said, the central conceit shouldn’t be so narrow that it turns the game into a one-trick pony, with only a single approach to playing it. That’s why Fourth Millennium in fact has a lot of room for customization, for making the setting your own. Yes, there’s a core idea that animates the entire setting and that prevents certain possibilities — there are no non-human aliens or artificial intelligences, for example — but within that conceit, a great deal is left for each gaming group to decide. The central conceit raises a lot of questions; it provides no answers, however, and I am committed to its never doing so.

All this serves as a preamble to the title of this entry. As I developed the setting more, it became clear that the game needed to provide a concrete example of how to use the central conceit in a fun and exciting way. I could think of no better way to do this than to make the initial release Future Imperfect about spies. For me, espionage agents struggle with the very same questions that form the central conceit of Fourth Millennium. Certainly spies don’t struggle with the dehumanizing effects of technology, but they do struggle with dehumanization. To succeed, spies must often lie, deceive, and hurt their fellow human beings, in the belief that what might otherwise be deemed immoral is in fact the only means to achieve their objectives. Espionage agents deal firsthand with the age-old issue of ends and means. Taken dramatically, spies must sometimes decide if giving up a little of their humanity is a price they’re willing to pay to succeed.

This struck me as a wonderful counterpoint to the central conceit of the game. The parahumans, after all, have used high technology to alleviate many problems inherent in the human condition. There is no greed or violence on their worlds, to name but two unpleasant characteristics of our species. In some ways, the parahumans have achieved a utopia through technology. Yet, they have also bargained away another essential characteristic of humanity — free will. Through biochemistry, nano-viruses, and other means, they compel “virtue” and make vice next to impossible. And many parahumans and their sympathizers seek nothing less than ensuring that the utopia they have achieved is foisted on all of humanity, whether they wish it or not.

Against them stand the officers of the Security and Intelligence Service of the Svobodan League. It’s these men and women who fight a shadow war against the parahumans and do whatever it takes to preserve “un-emergent” humanity from an enforced “paradise.” The choices they make, for good and for ill, are what make Fourth Millennium: Future Imperfect the game it’s become. It’s not the broad science fiction I’d originally imagined, but, as I stated above, that’s a good thing. With the increased focus on the importance of free will and how certain choices lead to dehumanization, the game is now stronger and more enjoyable. I am very proud of what it has become.

Next time, I’ll discuss Conviction, the means by which SIS officers fuel their actions, as well as the means by which they attempt to maintain their humanity in the face of the desperate choices they must sometimes make.

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