Sunday, January 23, 2022

The World of Ø2\\'3||: Engineered Social Behaviour in Dystopias (also talking Player Agency)

I will make it a thing to post once a month about Ø2\\'3|| (read ORWELL, because Leet Speak), that dystopian cyberpunk rpg I wrote. In this series I'll explore the setting a bit, give advice about how to play or prepare the game, might even talk a bit about aspects about the design here and there. I'll try and keep it general enough to be useful for other (cyberpunk) games, though. This one will be about THE GAME VS. PLAYER AGENCY, or what characters might be willing to do that would not necessarily in the best interest of the players, and why that's a good thing (for the challenges the game wants to present). I'll go as deep as I dare here ...


Player Agency is about the limits players are willing to impose on themselves while playing a specific game with a specific gamemaster. Challenging those limits continiously through playing the game will map an EVENT HORIZON for all involved to a degree that it creates a space in which free expression for players is possible as the results of their actions are proven predictable within that space. Those limitations might be about social interaction, rules of the game as well as narrative control and its interpretation by the gamemaster. If all involved can agree upon and maintain the established limits, then Player Agency is not impaired or threatened.
Agency in a World of Slaves

Ø2\\'3|| plays in a dystopian Europe in the year 2081, a not so distant future (as in, people are already born that will see that future). It is a satire on what could go wrong with our society and culture and a game about how to face those (fictive) dangers. A huge part of that world is about control.

As a matter of fact, the powers that be (a political party called The Family is ruling the United States of Europe, USE for short) excise control over their subjects from as early on as conception (all artificial, of course, natural birth has been outlawed long ago). With chips in their brain and AI-powered augmentation of the "real world", hardly any citizen knows more than they are allowed to know. The population is controlled with hard-, wet- and software, with drugs and through media and corporate social engineering with a brutal (and injust) social credit system as the icing of the cake.

When they are done with creating and teaching their citizens, there's hardly any free thought left in them. They are completely subdued, their illusion of agency an elaborated ruse full of games and sweets and energy drinks and rainbows.

See, it's not a bad world to live in if you know nothing else. Entertainment is cheap, the gamified surroundings keep you playing all the time and the only hardship a citizen will encounter, is their own while everyone else is a-okay, like, all the time (or so their feed tells them through the chip in their brain).

Naturally, controll like that will summon resistance, so some citizens are forced to see reality and once the spell is broken ... you got a game going. And yet, resistrance is difficult and dirty and hungry and opposing a high tech state with only very few dark corners left to hide in.

One of many great illustrations in the book ...
 It'll seem like an impossible challenge. And it should. It's a dystopia, after all. To maintain this within the rules, there are some aspects of the game the players will never have any control over. For instance, if a roll of the dice comes up with an 8 and an 1, the situation will escalate for the worse (the so-called "Rule of 81").

The DM is also playing a game on their own where they earn points they can use against the players, but the rules might force them to do so as well, and while the players have some control over how many of those points a DM has, it's almost always connected with a decision to make the DM stronger for an advantage (by "paying" for the advantage) or accepting a disadvantage to keep the DM weak.

There is more. A character's social status will affect how much advertisement they are exposed to (among various other things), with hard disadvantages to being low in status. Characters will not be able to concentrate properly because of the constant media input, and might even make impulse purchases with credits they don't have, ending up in debt, starting to spiral into worse.

Of course, characters will not have to endure those limitations if they find ways around it OR play by the rules the fictional society of Ø2\\'3|| implores (which are cruel, naturally).

A final example how the game simulates character restrictions is how Anger works. The Family prefers their citizens to be docile, of course, and it is a natural state for citizens living in the USE to be just that. Which is why Anger is something a character must collect over time. Actually, characters need to be angry enough to use force to begin with.

Just like a character with very low hit points won't be able to do much of anything (as most systems will have most activities of badly injured characters penalized), characters with low Anger will only support in a fight, but not fight themselves. On the other hand, characters might be so angry that everything they do will seem like some form of aggression or provocation.

The players are able to control that by controlling the Anger score of a character, but once a character is Angry, the surroundings will react to them accordingly, regardless of how the player wants it to appear. Players with an angry character would feel the limits of their agency like a drunk trying to convince cops that he's are able to drive on ...

Challenging Player Agency in Ø2\\'3||

A first impulse would be to think that it's a bad idea to constrain player agency as described above. Alas, if players can have their characters do whatever they want, what need would there be to do anything? And, far more importantly: how would characters grow without having their constraints?

Isn't that how learning works? Restraining your agency to achieve a goal that needs that kind of discipline? You don't just get into a car and drive, for instance, it's a set of skills you learn. Languages would be another good example.

Of course people are free to obstain from learning skills like that, but it also comes with the consequence of never obtaining them, in which "agency" will lead to other restrictions (like not being able to drive a car or watching a movie in a foreign language). See, it's not that easy to make free decisions AND stay free or autonomous the whole time. Decisions limit to a degree. Your free decision to use the rules of a specific game will have you submit to those rules, to give another example.

And that's the kind of psychological realism that is woven into the game. Players are encouraged (or "nudged", if you will) into playing a certain way, but also need to challenge that to overcome the system OR go along to see where that leads to ... Ø2\\'3|| is open to that. If you play along with the dystopia, your character might end up being rich and famous, but you'll have to experience (decide, even) what it takes to get there in a system like that.

In a sense the game is at odds with the definition offered above, in that the norms this fictional society adhers to are in opposition to good values still prevalent in our (western) civilization. So playing a "good citizen" might be considered playing an "evil and degenerated" character by today's standards (the game is for adults, after all, and there are some dark topics possible that need consent, so to say, from all involved).

Sometimes just a question of cultural shifts ... [source]
One way to give players agency within those limitations, is by giving them total control over their characater's development. Players can decide on the spot that their character can either do or have something or know someone that could help in a certain situation. There is limits how often they can do that, but they are free to fill these slots within reason.

To a degree, this is where the satire comes in. Here's an excerpt from the DM Section of the game to give you an idea how all of that comes together:

Satire in Ø

According to Wikipedia, satire is about shaming society into improvement by using humor. However, the means of that shaming are of utmost importance. This game is not, for instance, about shaming the players or the DM in any form or capacity.

Instead it is designed to make the players into observers of certain mechanisms while offering the means to alter their characters in a way that potentially helps them to overcome those mechanisms through their actions. For that, the system needs to produce results that provoke ridicule and danger in equal measure while leaving a DM enough wiggle room to frame all that in an engaging narrative.

This means that in Ø satire manifests as the interplay of all those elements, not one single element itself. It is, if you will, the music all of the elements produce in concert.

This also is why satire can successfully make light of taboo issues. If the game summons any provocative issues, the DM will frame it towards what is already established, and the players find ways to deal with it. Since the system produces grotesque scenarios, DM and players are basically forced to act as corrective instances while reflecting the consequences of the scenario and their decisions.

Processing taboo (or tough) subjects like this will make them approachable. It opens them for dialogue and exploration from a safe distance. While this is already somewhat true in narrative spaces, it is the additional layer of satire that positions those topics in a way that invites a mature interaction with them, often through the lense of humor (albeit of a more dark variety).


That said, we can dig a little deeper than that. The game's limits allow insight into reality, to the extent a game can do that. For that, however, we need to know what is possible (which, incidentally leads to the reason to write this post).

Break the Spell for the Player!

Best way to show the discrepancy is revealing the "magic tricks" the characters are manipualted with. Knowing how it works goes a long way in understanding why their characters act without free will in certain situations. It also helps in developing counter-measures, of course, which should be part of a game that is about characters living in a dystopian future. Challenging those very limits on every conceivable level is at the very core of the rules of this game, as you might have guessed already.

But how is it done? The manipulation-thing, that is. Three big terms that keep coming up are Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), "Nudging" and the acronym MINDSPACE (courtesy of UK tax payer money, no less*). There sure are other programs like this all over the world, be it corporate or by some other government (I know Germany has the very thing, also on public record). Advertisement is using this (or variants thereof) ever since WW2 to sell us stuff we don't want ...

There are other usefull areas, of course. Psychological Warfare (or PsyOps, as the hip kids say) would be one such area, Propaganda another. There is no question that all of those things easily work on huge parts of a population, even without all the fine technologies a dystopian future state would have at their disposal. The knowledge how that works (although public, check out the MINDSPACE link above), is less mainstream.

Which is tragic, actually, as those psychological tools are only working when the population is unaware of them, and they are abused constantly.

Anyway, we are talking here about how future dystopian states as you would encounter in a cyberpunk rpg would abuse that, for instance. So here are the basic ideas:

NLP - The basic idea would be that we understand our reality through the words we use and the meaning we interpret into those words. Thoses values describe a map of our understanding, and (1) they are not fixed, but fluid while (2) allowing short-cuts for easy processing. This is, obviously, wide open for manipulation, as the map can be rewritten and those shortcuts can be abused without our consent, as both operate within the "automatic" side of our decision making. Thinking is, basically, circumvented by appearing, for instance, true or well intended or from a trusted source or even a source of authority.

Rewriting or short-cutting are achieved by creating complex threatening scenarios (for instance that doing something is a punishable crime or harmful) without being concrete about the circumstances and THEN offering easy solutions that are nothing else but the intended policy. The irritated and confused mind looks for an easy out and takes the advice under whatever pretext it was done (say, authority, for instance). Imagine a beaurocrat citing several laws to get you off balance just to offer you that with a little fee it can all be gone ... In a bigger context, say, state-wide, a message needs to be repeated non-stop through all channels to rewrite mind maps like that. A famous (and fitting) example in this context would be from 1984, no less:


NUDGING - This takes the whole concept a bit further by basically reducing the whole short-cutting to symbols. Perfect example for nudging would be the fly you'll find in some public urinals. Men aim for that automatically. You are basically manipulated to piss on a certain spot. This is useful as it seems to reduce cleaning costs by up to 80%!

MINDSPACE - The next step (and not the last or only step) is easy described by taking the acronym apart (from the repot itself):

See p. 14 [source]

And that's the gist of it. A DM that makes themselves familiar with the ideas here and takes a careful look around will find many exsamples for this in real life. What you see when waiting in line at the supermarket? Not at all accidental. Framing? Look at the mainstream media news on almost every topic. They tell you the part they think you should know, always. The intentions are not always as clear, however.

Cancel Culture will give you examples a plenty, too. Look at how people are framed emotionally instead of proof and how others react to that. You will find a lot in the patterns of such an attack described above, same goes for the reactions.

And then think about how all of that is AI-driven in that dark future, how technologies that think million-times faster than we do control us effortlessly to the point that we don't even care and even though we wouldn't necessarily agree with the reasoning behind the control. In general, all of the above can be useful for therapy, of course, and that's a good thing. It's just not what we are talking about here.

What we are talking about here is manipulating a fictive population in a dystopian game into, for instance, docile obedience and how a DM can use those ideas to make their games more realistic.

And that's it.

You have been played ...

Or have you not? Just kidding, you haven't. But now you are thinking about it ... And that's the important part: immunity from manipulation comes from conscious questioning of the impulses our surroundings give us. Not all the time, but if you are more relaxed about something, it should be the result of some form of thought process before that. Don't let anybody tell you that everything is alright, come to that conclusion yourself and act on that.

The advice above can be used or abused. I'd strongly urge you to only use it to exemplify abuse by those in power in the narratives of your games. But make no mistake, those things are all around us right now and should be main tropes for every cyberpunk game (actually, how media and states, for instance, manipulate us should be part of every curriculum, imo).

I hope I managed to lay out the basics of it, as far as I understand them and it'll be useful for our games. This really is a deep hole to dig into.

And the fun part is: players that get it will get a kick out of their characters being manipulated like this, to some extent. Especially when the game is about finding ways to either get away from being used against characters (or even with them using it).

The potential is always there ... [source]


If you are interested in finding out if I actually try to do what I'm talking about above, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3||  right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm still doing a sale on it ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


* This is about using ideas for your games. Interestingly enough, however, Wikipedia will inform you about NLP being "pseudoscience". Which is a rhetological fallacy, of course, as just the claim doesn't make it so ... Actually, it's a good example for NLP called "framing". Once something is painted a certain way, we more often than not take the easy road, believing someone will have done the work. It is using our wiring to irritate or even exclude close review. Not saying they are trying to manipulate here (as they quote research after that), but look at that MINDSPACE report, which has some very renomated scientists not only telling you the exact opposite, but even keep building on those ideas formulated through NLP! Interesting, isn't it?


  1. This is an awesome post. It goes much deeper than just RPGs, which I enjoy.

    I think there is something to be said about player agency x character agency; and how it is okay to limit PA if CA is limited (e.g., PC is drunk or imprisoned), especially if the rules of the game say so.

    1. Thanks, Eric! And yes, drunk or imprisoned are great examples where agency is limited ... I also think the distinction you make has merit. I should have said more about that!


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