How the NSA Saved Modern Role-Playing Games

It is the 21st Century, and over half the population is hooked on portable technology. Digital communications networks have become a necessity of life. But a clandestine government agency monitors all of its citizens in secret: what they read, who they talk to, and even their location. The Agency infiltrates powerful corporations, hacks private networks and plants backdoors in computer security standards. The citizens know, but they’re powerless to do anything about it.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s now literally the world we live in.

This is bad news for privacy, but it finally solves the biggest problem in modern-era roleplaying: characters fearlessly solving all their problems with computers and the Internet.

Set your D20 Modern scenario in the current day, and any character with a $100 smartphone has the sum total of the world’s knowledge at his fingertips. This forces the GM to come up with a lot more answers than a mediaeval Dungeons & Dragons game, and that gets tiring.

It’s for this reason that many D20 Modern GMs set their game in the 1990s, before computer use was ubiquitous. But what if you want to explore the current day? Isn’t up-to-date realism kind of the point of a modern-era RPG?

Solution: throw in ubiquitous surveillance as a plot tool, and make your protagonists people who the government are going to have a problem with: hackers, private investigators, foreign secret agents, UFO truth-seekers, journalists or the like.

Now, every computer, smartphone and internet connection the protagonists use is a liability, because you never know when someone’s watching. That creates interesting decisions. For example, dare you use Google to find the suspect’s address, knowing that investigators could use that to link you to the case? Can you risk switching on your phone to use its GPS, when any agents following you could use it to pinpoint your location?

21st Century technology becomes a superpower that you can’t use without risking detection. Old-fashioned skills, knowledge and detective work become relevant again. You have to do everything personally, because you can never fully trust the machines. For the first time since 2007 you can actually play D20 Modern set in the current year without overpowering the original core gameplay, and that’s amazing.

Not only that, but it gives a new and different landscape for authors and roleplayers to explore. The 2010s are defined by pervasive advanced technology, and government surveillance of that technology. What makes this different from near-future RPGs like Shadowrun is that it’s more than just realistic, it’s real.

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