Monday, April 7, 2014

The SUE Files: How the World Doesn't Work

We keep talking about Immersion, but I don't think we've ever even approached an understanding of it. So here's the Theory of Absolutely Everything, so to speak.

Readers accustomed to trawling wikipedia may be familiar with the idea of the brain in a vat; that is, a mind artificially stimulated by a supercomputer into believing it is experiencing reality when it's really just floating in a little vat of nutrient solution. As a philosophical tool, it commonly assumes a perfect simulation. We must assume a thoroughly imperfect simulation – which, indeed, is far more likely. We have people intervening in worlds all the time as a fundamental part of their operation, let alone all the ideological leakage seeping around. To avoid minds fouling themselves up on problems with the sim, then, we need some way to letting them deal with errors without rejecting it entirely. That is Immersion when used according to package directions: a universal coping mechanism to let imperfect operators run imperfect simulations without them eventually breaking.

In keeping with the theme of people being awesome, we've been assuming that people are both aware of a huge amount of information and capable of processing it in real time at a nearly unconscious level. This, in turn, feeds pattern recognition of things they don't even realize they're sensing. That's what Immersion is intended to protect: the sense that those patterns, be they laws of physics or the whims of some divine agency, are persistent. In a perfectly deterministic universe, that sense would never erode even slightly, but naturally universes have people and random elements and so forth. Immersion lets people ride out the bad function calls and the rounding errors and the divine intervention.

Indeed, it serves several useful purposes even without universal cross-contamination. With sufficient pageantry, it's a sense of the miraculous. In small doses it can stimulate curiosity like nothing else: it empowers people to conquer the nonsensical, the fantastic, and the bizarre until nothing is completely beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make Immersion so useful also make it difficult to manipulate. On a functional level, it is a network of independently controlled redundant processors and exception-handling heuristics all integrated at a fundamental level into the core cognitive patterning engines called upon to instantiate self-aware entities, minds included; in other words, it's everywhere, so it can't be thrown out or shut off, but it also can't be replaced or refilled. (The numerical representations of Immersion are, of course, purely for convenience; one “point” of Immersion could mean any number of things in neural space.)

As I said above, Immersion as a function of time is normally noisy but functionally flat; it is constantly depleted by random errors in computing but constantly restored by everything else. Every second they're experiencing anything, the natives experience most of the world working as they've come to expect, and moreover informing them implicitly that they are existing correctly, if only in a physical sense. This acts to smooth out all the little bumps, and the big bumps, and generally drag the world back to accepting itself as real.

Non-natives, on the other hand, experience just the opposite: not only does nothing work quite right, but it keeps querying them in strange ways, so their Immersion slowly erodes as the nagging feeling they aren't what they think they are slowly colors their awareness. Even the most perfect of them have to stop and translate their sensory input and construct their output, and this leads to a thousand little glitches too small to individually matter but collectively big enough to require them to find another source of Immersion or suffer a break.

For dreamjackers and SUEs alike, then, Immersion works fundamentally differently than it does for natives: it's the assertion that they are what they think they are despite the constant protestations of local reality that what they think they are does not exist. In more poetic terms, they're the only reality they have left, and so they become literally realer than they've ever been to compensate. (Incidentally, this is also why neither of them dream. They're essentially dreaming of themselves constantly just to exist.)

With that in mind:

Immersion is not purely rational; the more something impresses itself on a given observer the more resources they devote to it and the harder it is to isolate before something snaps, which means a bigger bump on the aforesaid graph. To refer to an overused example, this means that a laser pistol hurts the medieval peasant's Immersion less than a laser cannon, even though they work on exactly the same locally nonsensical physical principles. Moreover, people being the emotional creatures they are, particularly emotionally impactful uses hurt more as well; seeing the aforementioned cannon vaporize a random rock hurts less than seeing it vaporize his house. Emotional depth also sucks up cognitive resources, magnifying the response that has to be swept under the cognitive rug. Smart non-natives use weird stuff at one remove from anything huge or important.

Furthermore, that magnitude is significantly affected by the observer's current emotional state. Properly prepared, most minds can swallow a lot more than they can by surprise. This is why gods can enact sweeping changes with relative ease; the pageantry and lights and choirs and so forth act to prep the minds in attendance that something weird is happening, thereby providing an easily rationalized explanation. The same is true of technobabble, making it an extremely valuable skill in sneaking nonsense under the audience's collective noses without anything breaking. Gimmicks take second place behind making sure no one sees anything, but it's a close second.

On the subject of making sure no one sees anything, logical people might assume that simply being out of sight of everyone might work – that is to say, simply popping off to the core of the planet or depths of space is sufficient to allow them unlimited operational freedom. Unfortunately, the simulation itself is always watching, albeit through slightly different eyes. It sees non-determinism, at least on whatever crazy terms it's been told constitute deterministic physics, which means that empty space is positively the worst place to hide from it; with no one doing anything there, logically everything should go where the laws of nature dictate it should, and errors can be swiftly identified and corrected. However, where people are concerned, suddenly errors are constant and logic at best a very strong suggestion. People generate a sort of groundscatter of exceptions, and under cover of that it's harder to detect that non-natives are there, let alone active. This means that, paradoxically, dreamjackers are safest in populated places or when embroiled in major events, particularly those central to the story the dreamer itself is telling – the general confusion of so many active minds can hide nearly anything, so long as it's hidden from the more mundane observers. It's generally easier to hide things from non-omniscient observers anyway.

So what all of this means is that Agency dreamjackers are playing two games at the same time. The first is a simple numbers game: they need to act in their own way often enough to keep themselves from breaking, but present those actions in such a way that no one else snaps from witnessing them. At the same time, they need to weave their actions into the larger story to hide the inevitable errors from the simulation itself, or else the sim will break – which breaks everyone as time itself grinds to a shrieking and asynchronous halt, causality just gives up and physics starts randomly guessing until Lovecraftian horrors arrive. They also need to keep the far less limited SUEs from doing either of these things and avoid a messy death at their hands in the process.

We'll get into the specifics of the mechanics later, once I've ironed out the massive mechanical problems inherent to a system that needs to encompass so much, but for now: every potentially weird event has some kind of base Immersion cost to make it happen based on the magnitude of the effect, like Endurance in HERO6. This is then multiplied, per observer, by some number from 1 to 10 based on the emotional and rational impact. Event-native observers have their Immersion increased by that much; everyone else gets it decreased by that much.

In practice, everyone but the DM has only one multiplier to keep track of, while the DM has at most maybe three; since everyone but the SUEs and the PCs is a native, the multipliers should be identical unless an exceptionally impactful event bumps it up by one or two. It's very wingable, so to speak; the last thing I want is for this to drag down an otherwise eventful scene.

So, in conclusion, the kind of thing we're saying works well is meeting the setting's problems (to wit, the SUEs) with solutions that bear the hallmarks of each agent's background, then carefully picking when to employ the more fantastic elements of their arsenal to maximize effect while minimizing Immersion loss. It's entirely possible to go out of (in-character) character, but that severely drains their ability to keep dealing with the weirdness they're constantly experiencing, so in general you want what your character does to restore Immersion so that what others do can drain it without breaking. If you're a pulp fiction strongman, solve problems by punching; if you're a master physician, go heal some folks. It's very much a case of everything looking like a nail when all one has is a hammer, except the people you're working with only have a saw, a screwdriver, a duck and solipsism, respectively, and the nail hammers back, and there's every chance of a noise complaint delivered via reality breaking.

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