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Ashes to Ashes
“Good evening, Flamenco,” spoke an intimidating, growling voice from the other end.
Flamenco cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to be rude, but this isn’t exactly a great time to be calling right now.”
“Ah, right, yes. I am aware. I’ve simply been wondering about the status of my subordinate. Has he succeeded in his mission?”
What mission!? That was what was most important right now? “Of course. Of infiltrating Shimonoji? It was easy for him. He should be on the move now. Some...things are happening now. I have to get this done in time, so we can lay waste to those meddlesome pirates! Oooohohohohoho!”
“Excellent,” replied the voice, paying Flamenco no heed. “That will be all...For now. Things better not be up in flames when I arrive to see them. I’m entrusting this operation into your hands. You already failed once. Try not to make this a repeat of your previous...incompetence.”
The Carthel, too, had joined in on the sabotage. As if the Marines weren’t in enough of a pickle with one Warlord missing, here went another with betrayal. Luckily for them, the Carthel were picking a rather risky and dangerous fight with the Empyreans, who were mostly concentrated on diverting their force to Kaibun, which they intended to overwhelm and overtake. Combined with the thermal weapons and fire along the battlefield, red hot lasers also soared through the skies, bathing the area in intense heat.
Around the battlefield, there was chaos. Ideo of the Conquering Pirates disabling a thermal cannon and fighting his way through a league of Marines as the evil Manami murdered puppies. Many crews accumulated to attack Kaibun, consisting of the pirates of the New Generation. Many Marines employed for the base were taken on, usually soundly defeated: Kamlin at the hands of Captain Abaddon of the Devil Horns, Kakura at the hands of the Carthel. The battle looked to be heavily in favor of the pirates.
Boarden lifted himself gradually from his chair and ambled forward, hands outstretched. Many projectiles were directed his way immediately, with some realizing what he was about to do. “Alright,” he growled. “Fun’s over.”
Seconds later, a series of fireworks, emitted from Boarden’s palms, streaked toward the fleets, bombarding them with immense power. The sails of ships were riddled with tears, ashened, and lit aflame. It was followed by an intense cannonade, most aimed at Boarden, who either shrugged it off or eluded most objects hurled at him. That was, until he prepared to unleash another devastating barrage to decimate a ship or two of the advancing pirates, when a shimmering gold fox curling with fire landed with grace in front of him, and blasted the ever-living-hell out of him with a continuous inferno.
“Woo!” shouted Kojin, returning to his human form, grinning. “That’s what I call a blast. Hehe. That’ll put him out for a while.”
Kojin was disproven quickly as a hand emerged from the rocks, and Boarden clambered out, barely scathed. He brushed soot from his ivory Marine cloak, glaring down at Kojin, who unsheathed an ordinary but exquisitely adorned katana and struck at his neck. Boarden clasped the sword in mid-air, and twisted, kicking Kojin in the stomach and sending him soaring into Akemi, who vaulted out of the way and allowed his comrade to tumble into the ground with a whine. He looked up with betrayal to Akemi, who turned a cold shoulder to him.
Akemi, for the first time, was exhibiting anger, clearly visible on his facial features. “Those of you who fight dirty like this dog will get no satisfaction. What a pitiful soul! Fight honorably or succumb to my blade!” With that display, truly unlike Akemi, the Commander slashed at Boarden, who easily dodged, and sprinted at Akemi. But Kojin, now in his mystical, four-legged form, was much too fast for Boarden. A spiral, golden blaze enveloped Boarden, who gritted his teeth. These nuisances were going to be tougher than he thought…
Suddenly, their duel was interrupted as a luminous, searing beam of energy aimed between them, cylindrical and red, exploded right in the midst of it all, targeted from the base of Kaibun! All three were blasted back, and turned to see the last of the thermal cannons being disabled. Kojin smirked, as did Akemi. Boarden let out a gruff snarl and barked orders at the Marines, who instantly were on the move. This was bad. Kaibun’s defenses were falling easier than he had ever anticipated! But he, Voakes, and others were still up. They could beat back the pirates once and for all, and ensure they would never set a foot near this island again!
“Marines, drop your weapons and raise your arms to the heavens! Your reign of terror has ended tonight!”
The new voice startled many of the fighters, especially with how it overtook even the sound of clashing, and brutish screaming and yelling all over the battlefield. The sounds of combat, drowned out by a mere voice. When they turned to see who it was, their eyes widened, as the unexpected became true. The Emperor of Shimonoji, clothed in samurai armor and equipped with a sword, marched through the battlefield, accompanied by his Commanders. Voakes, who was caught up in choking out some pirates who posed him a challenge, cursed upon laying his eyes on the inhabitants of Shimonoji. “Dammit! Did they really have to get involved? When the stakes were so high already?”
It seemed to be a losing battle for the Marines. Their confidence was rapidly dwindling… Many of their numbers faltered as more and more were cut down or simply lost the will to continue. But then…
A horrid, metallic screeching noise reverberated from the volcanic Marine base as a massive shadow was suddenly cast over the combatants. Kojin’s eyes widened as he looked up, mesmerized by the sheer scale of what he was seeing. Glowing red with the molten heat of the volcano, magma dripping off of its shiny, silvery surface, was a gargantuan figure, humanoid, but robotic. Nobody was quite sure what it was, but it brought memories of the androids that “Sea Dog” Rick had built, enough to destroy nations. This one towered forty feet into the obsidian sky, and seemed to possess unprecedented endurance and physical strength. After all, it was being bombarded by thousands of projectiles now. And it barely budged.
The robot raised a lumbering fist and slammed it into the ground, spraying volcanic rock and earth everywhere, a crater left from the impact and several pirates crushed beneath its mass. Kojin began to sweat slightly at the prospect of engaging that type of thing, but Akemi was quick on the draw. He swung his sword in an arc, releasing a multicolored flying slash that tore through the air, aimed at the robot! However, upon impacting the surface…
“Not even I can damage it,” Akemi spoke quietly, addressing Kojin. “And fire is out of the question. If it can resist the burn of magma, my guess is that it will resist all types of heat. We have no choice but to stay cautious…”
Kojin didn’t respond, but instead turned to his crew, raising his voice high above the clouds.
“EMPYREANS! What you see may be breathtaking, even fearful, but we are the greatest pirate crew the Grand Line has seen and ever will see! This is undeniable. If we falter here, that reality will cease to exist! Don’t fight for your honor, and don’t fight for your freedom! Fight for your lives!”
The speech was met by cheers, as the crew pushed forth. It was time to put the Marines’ technology to the test.
“Ah! So I see you’ve met the Moemasu Mech!”
Flamenco stepped out from the volcano and could not contain his devilish smile.
“My latest invention! Oooohohohoho! Isn’t it a beauty?” he declared proudly. “It’s a shame its one purpose is to destroy meddling pirate crews, like yourselves! You won’t last long against it. I’ve built the thing flawlessly, and it’s programmed to go on until the end of its rope. Good luck getting to that point. Ooooohohohohoho!” He was laughing hysterically, apparently rejoicing in the impending doom of the pirates. He, however, continued to walk forward, seemingly joining the fighting himself! Some strange sort of armor clothed him now, and strange weapons were mounted all over him.
“So what if they’ve got some pathetic man-made tool working for ‘em?” Kojin sneered, charging right at it. The mech pulled back its fist and released the power like a piston. “How strong can this possibly b-” Kojin was interrupted as the seastone plated fist plowed right into him, launching the man backward as he received quite the number of scars from his connection with the ground. He coughed and sputtered, feeling warm blood in his mouth. Ouch.
“Boy, fisting has never been this rough for me.”
On the other hand, Emperor Timur of Shimonoji, and his two guard Commanders, were bringing down Marines like nobody’s business. Their help was proving to be an asset in the battle after all. It wasn’t exactly a tide-turner, but it was something. At the same time, the naval battle raged in the background, though most of the Marine ships had been decimated after putting up a powerful resistance. It seemed like things were evening out. Of course, with the help of the allied pirate crews, the Marines had the disadvantage, but if they could eliminate them one by one...It would be no issue after all. It would take sacrifice, but with their new weapon they could do it.
The Emperor had just finished disposing of three Marines along with the Second Imperial Guard Commander, Aimaru, when a familiar face blocked his path. Toride Wanai, spreading large, dull blue falcon wings as his feet morphed into the claws of a bird, stood in their way, particularly eyeing his former superior with the air of challenge. His wings flapped once, and he whipped out a staff that split into three sections at different intervals. He brandished the weapon threateningly before those to whom he had been labeled a traitor.
“You!” Aimaru snarled, readying his gauntlet to pummel Toride into the ground. The bird simply smiled, before giving his own remark. “What? Cahahawhawhaw! Didn’t expect to see me here with my actual superiors! Haha! That’s a funny one! Cahahawhawhaw!”
“What a despicable little worm!” shouted the Emperor, enraged. Toride had to act quickly to dodge the sword that nearly cut through his wing. Instead, he willed the rest of his body to morph into its animalistic form, and aimed to dig his claws into Aimaru. However, he was blocked by Ymir, who showed up just in time to bat away Toride! The bird cursed, and reverted to his human form behind them, wings fading into normal limbs. “Cahawhawhawhaw! I’m gonna have loads of entertainment with the three of you! Cahawhawhawhaw!” He laughed on and on, evading yet another blow, this time from Ymir.
While that ordeal went down, some of the inexperienced rookies pushed onward. Most of the strongest pirates were already engaging, taking on Marines of similar or greater level, or simply dispatching fodder en masse. The weaker ones were only now moving forward and adding to the force of the other pirates. Unfortunately, a Captain and her second-in-command, along with two subordinates, were tasked with repelling them. And they were doing a hell of a job at it; many more than anticipated joined the slain. Many of them had burn marks simultaneous with gashes, glowing red and charred. Captain Sienna, wielding a burning blade, beckoned the two Lieutenants forth as her Commander discharged a barrage of shots into the rookies, bringing even more down.
“This is easy, dealing with these sad excuses for pirates,” she lamented, though clearly not sad at all. In fact, she seemed to revel in the deaths of these greenhorns! One of the Lieutenants, a quiet man with a thermal rifle in hand, was hesitant to attack, but once he did, even more started falling. The other was eager to join in, but unfortunately, her advantage was mostly against fruit users. Of which there weren’t all too many of; at least not on the weak side.
“Lydon! Watch it!” she shouted, as a bullet whizzed past her ear. The quiet Lieutenant seemed to ignore her as he continued helping them lay waste to the attackers. The other, Carris, joined the fray, hoping to bring down a number of pirates. Hopefully it could earn her a promotion…
“Where’s that Gin when you need him? Or that Fishman…Why’s his name slipped my mind?” Valian, on the other side of the battlefield, remarked, sucker-punching Voakes to no avail. Ennet was back on the ships, but she would be leaping into the battle soon. In fact, he could have sworn he saw her earlier disembarking and tearing apart some of the Marine forces at the shores. He shook his head, getting these thoughts out of his mind. Unfortunately, Voakes was more than a match for him. He found himself outplayed in almost every way. He leaped back, using some maneuvers learned from Akemi. Their training wasn’t a waste of time, at least. His fists were aflame, and he was deep into the combat already. But he wasn’t stupid enough to continue fighting someone as strong as Voakes. Maybe some of the Shichibukai applicants would be worth a try? He cracked his knuckles in anticipation, and dodged Voakes’ next strike. He used the moment to dash, and retreat back into the crowds of the battle.
It was up to them, to decide their course of action this time. The battle was rapidly becoming a bloodbath; that was something they were all powerless to stop. Regardless of the outcome, this day would forever be remembered. Whether as a day the Marines would come to rue, or as one they would revel in, the pirates did not yet know.
The "Netrunner Problem" and how SCUMM can solve it
It is the dreaded “dishwasher dwelling Netrunner who plays their own mini-game while the rest of the party hangs out in the kitchen and talks about whichever latest flavor of kibble is fire before getting bored and yeeting out the door to knock over the corner liquor, vape, & brainstim kiosk, without them” problem.
Effectively, any time the topic of computers or cyberspace comes up in a tabletop RPG the hackenetrunnedeckeconsole cowboy/codemonkey has to play their own, often overly detailed, sub-system mini-game in order to resolve whatever so called "complex" computer related problem, task, trial, or issue is at hand while the rest of the table sits around and waits for them to finish their software engineering nerdgasm.
This, however, can quickly devolve into player spotlight issues and game pacing problems as the rest of the party begins to grumble about the dork plugged into the home appliance.
Then there is also the related issue of the Netrunner just staying home on their couch and providing “remote assistance” from there (read: I am totally not just sitting here surfing porn) because that is the smart, prudent, and seemingly safest course of action (It is not. They are the Telco’s. They own the 'Net and they know where you live. Not to mention the Alphabet soup. At least go get in the van and buy a burner…) This tends to create a split in the party though and now we're back to bumping into the pacing and spotlight issues, and does anyone have any good homebrews, and maybe it is just easier to hand-wave away that whole ‘Netrunner chapter, and fuck it I'll just make the Netrunner an NPC and be done with all this time consuming specialized cyberspace bullshit!!!
Wait!! Wait! Please, wait. Please. Don't go. There is some great stuff buried in all that cyberspace bullshit. Not to mention it is traditionally a huge part of the genre that deserves better than to be simply relegated to mere background fluff. Even if it was most often just background fluff in a lot of the founding fiction… Look, it’s fluffy and I’m going to play with it, okay?! Seriously, who doesn’t love fluff…
So, from my point of view, the crux of the problem appears to rest on the fact that 2020’s Netrunners present themselves as operating under a Neuromancerian Paradigm of Cyberspace, or NPC, wherein a singular highly skilled computer operator navigates an inscrutable world wide web of interconnected information systems and then surreptitiously gains access to remote computers to perform covert acts of theft, espionage, and sabotage. Most games with cyberpunk elements seem to follow this paradigm, and it was relatively true of the cyberspace presented by the 2013 version of the game.
However, that is not the only paradigm available from the genre. And that is not necessarily the paradigm that the cyberspace of 2020 actually reveals itself to be. There is also Snow Crash's Universal Metaverse Model, or SCUMM, posited by Neal Stephenson.
What the frak is the diff I hear you groan indifferently, they all look like the cast of Reboot bukkakied all over Tron while Money For Nothing wails in midi under a sky tuned to a dead channel full of flying toasters…
The difference, dear reader, is in 2020's introduction of the fictional Ihara-Grubb transformation algorithm that attempts to map virtual space onto real space under a single unified protocol to make network navigation, data transfer, computer control, and virtual construct creation easier and more accessible for the masses! Also fuck yo personal data, we know where you is. And by we, I mean the AI’s living in Wilderspace who work for the Corporate Illuminati.
This change, however, makes the cyberspace of 2020 appear to behave more like SCUMM than a traditional NPC of discreet independent network computer connections; aka we're movin' to the cloud!
If one looks closely at the fictional world that 2020 actually presents us with, it is one in which anyone can go buy an off the shelf, or even *used*, cybermodem for as little as 500 eddies that they can then use to jack in and experience the consensual virtual reality of the ‘Net. As well as do their online banking. There is even a lick and stick to your fat fuckin’ melon ‘trodes option for the non-interface link enabled. This is mass produced, consumer grade, disposable tech with an active resale market, and not the custom, high end, specialized tech, usable only by the elite few, that it tries to pass itself off as. You hear that Apple!?
However, per the rules, the actual cybermodem computer Menu to use the functions of the ‘Net is gated behind an Interface ability requirement so that non-Netrunners can’t actually do anything in this virtual space other than maybe look at it and wave awkwardly at one another... And really, despite the manual telling us otherwise, possibly not even that! From a strict reading of the rules the Log On/Off command is a Menu command and you can't utilize Menu commands unless you have the Interface ability! O.o
So which is it? Is everyone supposed to be able to use the ‘Net of the future or is it just for those hard core geeky types who have to make it their entire shtick?
I know, I know, the typical Luser is moron, but they can’t figure out a fucking drop down menu literally floating right in front of their face that all they have to do is simply think about pointing at?!
Nay, I say! Even the greatest ID10T eventually realized that wasn't supposed to be a cup holder...
Furthermore, if you look at the actual task resolution system presented by 2020 for cyberspace, it suffers from a problem pretty unique to it from among its siblings; it presents to us a virtual world primarily dominated by “script kiddies”.
You see, most usage of the ‘Net of 2020 requires no actual skill to use since the Interface ability does not actually add anything of value to most of the checks performed while in cyberspace! Even though the Interface skill repeatedly emphasizes that it gets added to Menu usage and virtual reality control, it really only adds to Anti-Personal and Anti-IC checks executed via the Run command.
So what happens if instead of trying to fix this so called “skiddy” issue we instead turn around and embrace it? What if we bring them into the fold?
What happens if we just remove the Interface ability requirement and let everyone at the table use the Menu?
That’s right. We go full Eternal September. No one is spared. Not even the women and children.
Suddenly anyone can run around the ‘Net and hack and crash systems and boot people offline and steal data, no ‘leet skills required. All you need to do is find a Khajit who has warez.
Now the group doesn’t need a Netrunner to play in cyberspace and the entire team, regardless of class, can log in and participate in the ‘Netrun data heist and digital mayhem irrespective of their individual characters skill level. A few grand out of pocket gets you outfitted with all the hardware console kit and illegal toolbox software you need to hop on the ‘Net and get crackin’. Now the whole family can log in and play cyberspace the Vidya Game! And apparently it’s pay to win. Plus ça change, choombatta. Plus ça change.
That said, the Interface ability is still added to the heavy stuff; like derezzing programs and melting other runners brains; so a trained Netrunner is still a dangerous opponent. A Hiro to the users, as it were.
Though, if one were to do this, it would probably be prudent to allow Interface to add to Int+Programing when, uh, Programming. This gives Netrunners back their edge by simply allowing them to write better source code, and have cooler custom apps, like the true programming wizards that they are! Not to mention it’s easier to coax the Netrunner out of their room if they can save and put down their work; though god forbid should something happen to all that code... Plus this does a better job of emulating the source material wherein all the true heavy lifting is always performed by caffeine fueled crunch time all-nighter binges in which some otherworldly entity descends from beyond the veil to take possession of one's body and then in a blacked out haze vomit forth an entirely indecipherable yet fully functional block of code that everyone is too scared to touch because changing even a single comment crashes the whole damn thing... Why did no one tell me that cOrn3d.b33f was a hashing function?!
Additionally, given that that program storage and selection is often a dilemma during a ‘Netrun, having more people plugged in and running more rigs means the group can support a wider array and stronger arsenal of programs simply by letting the scrubs carry the Hammers, Worms, and DeKrashes and leaving the professional Netrunner free to carry the Killers, Brainwipes and Hellhounds that require real skill and ability to use properly. This also has the effect of blunting the computer’s superior speed and action advantage; fuck you Hal, I brought friends! And maybe, just maybe, god forbid, a sysadmin’s pager goes off.
Suddenly this whole cyberspace virtual reality romp affair has changed from a torturous single player drag into a wild team effort to crack open the toughest of black systems just by allowing everyone at the table to run around and play on the virtual jungle gym. Plus you only need to buy or write the software once and then it’s just Menu/Copy.
Thus, by SCUMMing the ‘Net we have allowed the entire party to crawl into the dishwasher with the Netrunner and have solved a big part of the problem by simply opening up that virtual design space to the entire table and effectively bringing the 'Net to the masses.
Woot! Go us!
What’s that? That’s all well and good you say but I thought a big part of the problem was also getting the Cheeto dust covered Netrunner up off the couch, into their good anime thrash metal graphic armored tee, and at least tagging along with the rest of the team in the van…?
Ah, yes… good point.
And a point that may actually be diametrically opposed to our solution of convincing the whole team to hop on the ‘Net; cause now they’re all just zoned out on the couch stealing people’s personal data and swapping dank virtual Keanu memes.
First, if you really want to get the hacker up off the couch, you simply isolate the target system from the wider network and make them have to travel on-site to jack in. Air gap that motherfucker. Problem solved. Are you happy now, Rache?! You blew it all up, you damn dirty ape… This sort of defeats the purpose though of having a global information superhighway of highly interconnected computers all speaking the same language; but for the really important stuff is probably a worthwhile trick and just the smart, if not entirely practical, thing to do. People aren’t always smart though, they’re actually rather lazy, so the bulk of crap is just left plugged in, turned on, and overall poorly patched and defended… Plus ça change, choombatta...
That said, the original 2020 has our back here, though it feels like it is often overlooked despite the manual outright stating that they are some of the most important Menu functions of a cybermodem.
Locate and Control Remote are two functions that enable Controller software to Locate and then take Control of any applicable device within 400 meters through the Augmented Reality of the 2020 Metaverse and... let’s say... Bluetooth...
It would probably be wise for a Referee to re-gate these 2 Menu commands back behind the Interface skill requirement, but actual Controller program usage is a simple skiddy check and requires no significant Interface ability to actually be successful with. Any Netrunner, regardless of their skill level, can help provide overwatch and assistance to their team by operating cameras, locking and unlocking doors, seizing coms, and manipulating all sorts of other cool remote equipment like industrial grade kitchen blenders and combat roombas, all by simply having the right software, fucking tagging along in van, and rolling like a 4 or less on a god damn d10. No system hacking. No time consuming mini games. No chance of having a your brain accidentally melted by military grade black ice or a grumpy sysop who just wants to go back to redditing, surfing for tg milf tentacle porn, and grinding their 27th level Pally alt. Just roll 1 die below a simple TN and you too can seize control of that camera, open that door, or crash that autotaxi. Go wild, h-h-h-ha-hacker!
Now, if a Referee wanted to bring the Interface skill into play for local device hacking but still keep it basic at the table, they could always just give a runner a pool of points equal to their Interface skill that they can spend from to temporarily increase the Controller program strength until it succeeds, and then let them spend an action and make a difficulty 20 Int+Interface+d10 check (or spend a few minutes downtime) to refresh the pool. Keeps things simple and moving. If it feels like a device should be super hard to control cause it’s a sweet piece of sota that just hit the streets or if it's some of that high end corpo milspec alien tech shit, knock a point or two off the program strength. If it’s cheap and shitty and riddled with Chinese backdoors, then add a point or two to the program strength. Hell, let them p0wn the device for 1d6 rounds. Maybe 1d10 if they paid for the premium version or have an active monthly patreon subscription… plus ça ah never mind.
And now that the whole team is done shitposting on the ‘Net, go get up off the damn couch, get in the fucking van, and go knock over that convenience kiosk choombatta!!
EDIT: TLDR: Scratch out the the line in the book that says you need the Interface Special Ability to use a Cybermodem's Menu and then scribble in "You only need Interface to use Locate & Control Remote". Now everyone can play in cyberspace!