The Representation of Computer Systems in RPGS


From the earliest science fiction roleplaying games, there has been a representation of computers according to what the game designers considered to be appropriate to their setting, and what their actual knowledge of computer systems were. The combination of the two sometimes was quite illustrative of popular speculation, conventional wisdoms, and experience. From this initial period consideration can be given to the representation of computers in Metamorphosis Alpha, Star Frontiers, Traveller, and Space Opera. A second generation representation with the personal computer is evident in games like Cyberspace, GURPS Cyberpunk, Cyberpunk, early editions of Shadowrun, Alternity, and with a special mentions of Paranoia. In most contemporary times a direction which follows incorporates computers with everything. Examples of this approach can be found in GURPS Transhuman Space, the most recent editions of Shadowrun, and Eclipse Phase.

Early Attempts

Metamorphosis Alpha (1976), the first science fiction roleplaying game, was set on a massive colony ship that was struck by mutating space radiation. With massive losses among the crew and colonists and dangerous mutant plants and animals now abound, eventually proper knowledge of maintenance was lost. The ship's computer went into minimal operations mode. Whilst there is virtual no rules as such to represent the computer, however of more significant importance is the variety of robots available in Metamorphosis Alpha, which obey the verbal commands of character's wearing appropriate command bracers. These include General Purpose Robots, Ecology Robots, Engineering Robots, Medical Robots, and Security Robots, each of which come with a short list of capabilities and features. It is typical of the time which provided a utopia (although oft-flawed) of helpful robots and computer systems as single mainframes. One can also mention in passing The Morrow Project (1980) where a computer, whilst central to the overall plot of the game (awakening cyrogenic teams 150 years after a war), isn't actually provided any statistics.

In a much more sophisticated manner, the computers in Space Opera (1980) were evaluated according to their capabilities in a systematic manner. Computers were evaluated according to CPU (by which they meant RAM) and storage, in terms of kdpu, thousands of data processing units, with each unit representing 100 000 bits, or 12.5kb. Even with this somewhat accurate method of measurement, the game seriously underestimate the capability of computer and communications technology. The cheapest computer, at a mere 100 000 credits and weighing in at 500 kg, comes with a 6 gigabyte hard disk and just over a 1 gig of RAM, and of course, software costs tens of thousands of credits. The skill for the design and operation of such systems (Computer Engineering) was considered a "highly specialised form of electronic engineering" with some steep prerequisites, including several levels of physics.

This general format was picked up in Traveller. It is notable in the original ruleset (1977) they are only mentioned in passing as an optional component in starships. In The Traveller Book (1982) however a representation of computers is provided to enhance starship controls. They are measured in Model numbers, from 1 to 7 combining their CPU (processors and memory) and storage. The CPU capacity determines the number of simultaneous running programs whereas the Storage capacity of how many additional programs can be kept in holding capacity. Of particular note was the rather modest capacity of the computer programs (e.g., +1 bonus to a skill) and their extraordinary price and weight (typically between 1 and 45 million credits and weighing 1-5 tonnes). Software prices also cost up to several million credits, although a successful programming roll (in two week increments) could write such programs.

In a more simplified manner, Star Frontiers (1982) provided three basic related technical skills, Computer, Robotics, and Technician. Within the computer skill there were eight separate subskills, covering operations, programming, security, information display, program manipulation, networking and repair. Programs were rated in levels (from 1 to 6) which determined the "function points" of the computer (i.e., no separation between processing and storage). The total function points determined the weight of the computer (from 3 to 800 or more kilograms) and the cost, calculated from the total number of function points multiplied by 1,000. The interesting innovation from Star Frontiers is that it truly allowed for functional personal computers.

By this stage, it is fair to say that the representation of computers was beginning to be systematic, but not particularly realistic, least of all in consideration of future possibilities of computer systems. Lest such extrapolations be considered unfair, it is worth considering the Moore's Law (and elaborations to other metrics) were well known even by this stage.

The Cyberpunk Era

Paranoia's (published in 1984, how appropriate) special mention occurs because it represents the computer as a multi-layered text. On one level there is the official narrative that the player characters receive; that Alpha Complex is under threat from "Commies" and is protected by an apparently well-meaning but computer whose scope is totalitarian and authoritarian, and whose decrees often seem absurd and insane. As the second edition back cover suggests, "imagine a world designed by Kafka, Stalin, Orwell, Huxley, Sartre, and the Marx brothers". At first glance this seems very similar to the first generation representation of computer systems in roleplaying games; a massive all-encompassing computer system with some flaws (very significant flaws in this case), that is not given much in terms of statistical information or even in terms of specific capabilities.

But without giving too much away (after all, it's been almost thirty years since publication) this is not the full story. The Computer (proper noun capitalisation required, friend Computer) is part of a network in conflict with other computer systems in other complexes, each of whom thinks the other has been taken over by "Commies". Within each complex itself, The Computer is not necessarily aware of what its subsystems are doing - in other words, it has an internal network as well. Finally, the computer is in a state of constant change as High Programmers (security clearance Ultraviolet) maintain and alter the system - each with their competing personal interests, secret society affiliations, and mutant powers. The Computer started insane, and as a result of manipulations, has become crazier since. The opportunity is also noted here to mention that a great number of FTP servers have the message "150-The computer is your friend. Trust the computer" flash past when using that application - what is fascinating is reading message boards with people being (a) concerned about such a message and (b) not knowing the origins.

Deriving from the representation of a global computer network in Neuromancer (1984), Cyberpunk (1988), provided an icon-driven "Net", a virtual world with characters having interface plugs or 'trodes and cyberdecks, whose key characteristics are memory, speed, and defensive "data walls", and the programs they carry. Programs themselves are rated by their strength, cost and memory units used, which on a typical deck means that the netrunner is limited to 3-5 programs. Although the general layout on the international scale is realistic, within systems a dungeon-like grid-layout is illustrated, poorly mimicking computer architecture, and used for dungeon-crawl virtual combats. A note is given to supplement Hardwired (1989), written by the science fiction author Walter John Williams who had a novel of the same name, who provided a more realistic computer network and even a basic pseudo-code programming language which encouraged players to develop for their characters.

Somewhat neglected, ICE's Cyberspace (1989) measures computers in terms of processing power, operating system and applications and input/output devices, measured in Mark #s, which each mark representing a "unit" of "CPU space" (read RAM), and ten times those units for storage. An example unit consists ranging from 1 hour of high fidelity audio (music) to 1000 pages of text. Computers also have an overall speed based on processor core technology. The game also provides an interesting cyberspace environment complete with physical feedback counter-programs. There is some detail on the user environment, intrusion and combat programs, utilities etc.

Famous for being raided by the U.S. Secret Service as the author was an active member of a computer security fraternal group, GURPS Cyberpunk (1990) provides a cinematic 'cyberspace' environment and 'realistic networks', with a similar elaboration in skills from the realistic Computer Operations, Computer Programming skills, and with recognition that the realistic version of the Computer Hacking skill is primarily about social engineering. Computers are described in levels of complexity representing ten times the processing power and speed of the proceeding level. Software, along with a financial cost, are also rated in terms of complexity; a computer can run two programs of it's own complexity simultaneously and ten programs of a preceding complexity level. System access was primarily differentiated between users and superusers, with optional further detail. For a more cinematic flavour, a cyberspace environ is also offered where increasingly expensive neural and graphic environmental interfaces, very unrealistically, provide heightened speed of interaction.

As a crossover between fantasy and science fiction, Shadowrun (1989) of course has run into its own temporal claim of the return of magic with the end of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar. With a cyberpunk milieu, Shadowrun's representation was as "the Matrix" (this was prior to the films) with cyberdecks and neural interfaces. With a game system based around dice pools and successes, game-system representation was often quite abstract with computer systems represented by their "Master Persona Control Programs", a sort of processor and operating system as a chip., memory and storage, measured in the peculiar metric of megapulses., load speed, representing how long it would take a system to load from storage to to memory., and I/O speed for uploading and downloading data, the network not being represented as such.

In Alternity (1998), a working level of computer realism is reached. Computers are assigned with processor complexity, active and stored memory, operating systems with specified, and interface devices (including, cyberpunk-style, neural interfaces) with more realistic prices and weights compared to many previous systems. Disappointingly, most of these are presented in a descriptive, rather than systematic manner. Computers are often connected through a world-wide network known as "the Grid" which, as is common for the era, is represented as a graphic environment where "shadow avatars" engage in a virtual combat. A distinction is made between the more general Computer Operations skill, and the specialist Computer Science skill and the subskills of Programming, Repair, and Hacking.

From the mid-late eighties a number of roleplaying games were significantly affected by the literary fiction of cyberpunk and attempted to integrate notions of a rich graphic-user interface and direct neural interfaces into their games. In most cases this was conducted with little attention to realism, not just in the literary representation (which is fair enough, it is fiction after all), but also in computer design in a more general sense. An important component however which the literary fiction did bring as a realistic matter to popular culture, was the recognition that computer systems were increasingly networked, of which Paranoia must stand as the first major contributor.

Ubiquitous Computing

As the non-realistic literary elements of cyberpunk science fiction became more evident, and the relentless march of Moore's Law continued with the development of multi-processor and multi-core systems and the advances in parallel programming, especially in the biosciences, the representation of computing and indeed humanity, was changed in science fictional representations. The post-cyberpunk roleplaying and literary review emphasised the post-human transformation along with ubiquitous computing, of which GURPS Transhuman Space (2002), Shadowrun 4th edition (2005), and Eclipse Phase (2009).

Deriving from previous designs, computers in Transhuman Space (2002) are still measured in Complexity levels, ranging from a minimum of 4 (tiny and cheap) to perhaps 10 (macro-frame with best possible processor). Each level represents a tenfold increase in processing capability to the previous level, and can run two programs equal to its own complexity level. The base Complexity of a system also determines the weight (1,000 kg max), the cost ($250000 max), and storage in terabytes. Programs have their own level of complexity and storage requirements. The setting describes a widespread network and various interfaces with a special development of AI software and default public key encryption for all communications with realistic network equipment based data transfer rates.

Also in an attempt to be reasonably close to real-world technological developments, Shadowrun 4th edition (2005) moves away from wired networks to ubiquitous wireless technology, both in terms of coverage and also with the connectivity of electronic devices on a person with a Personal Area Network (PAN). Characters access their PAN via a Commlink which can provide either a sensory enhancement, or a total immersive experience similar to previous fictional expressions. The game system has also been modified with threshold target numbers being achieved by successes based on a dice pool, with each 5 or 6 representing a success.

In Eclipse Phase (2009) the "ego" (mind and personality) and "morph" (the temporary physical body) reaches a stage of being highly distinct, with characters able (with some difficulty) to swap their morph bodies irregularly. The "ego" component may exist as backups, delta-forks, and so forth - as pure data, thus every character is, in a sense, an augmented computer. In Eclipse Phase a variant of the 'net exists with three main protocols used to access and manipulate data. These are augmented reality (AR), an overlay to the user's sensory systems, a virtual reality where physical senses are overridden by a computer-generated environment, or an experience playback, a recording of activities. The Mesh itself is a highly decentralised network where there is very high levels of data storage and bandwidth. The game pays attention to the issue of communications limited to light-speed and slower, although there is the expensive option of quantum-entanglement communicators.

Representation and Simulation

From the examples provided, roleplaying systems are typically not very good are providing a simulation of computational capabilities and computing systems, although there are some modest attempts in that direction, perhaps somewhat strangely in games like Paranoia which recognised networked systems and subsystems being semi-autonomous, and conflicting commands that can result from competitive programming on a system, and with some attempts of measurement metrics in GURPS Transhuman Space. In contrast however RPGs have provided an excellent review and expression of various literary expressions and fictional tropes according to the generation in which they were written. Indeed, in some cases they are truly the equal of the best literature available at the time; The Morrow Project, Cyberspace, and Eclipse Phase are certainly examples of this.

Finding a game system that combines this literary exactness, a worthwhile endeavour in its own right, with a game system that provides both accurate representation of computer architecture and capabilities, along with the active encouragement to develop computer network maps and pseudo-code design (e.g., Cyberpunk Hardwired) remains a worthwhile challenge that would contribute to both enjoyment and education. The future awaits such a development. Until then, it is fair to say that the computers are mainly and best represented in roleplaying games as fictional representational constructs rather than a simulation or model of capacity, real or possible.