Friday, April 18, 2014

The SUE Files: Morphean Operandi

Now that we've kind of defined what everyone else does, it might be helpful to identify what exactly the Agency does. At their core, the Agency is a glorified cult, albeit not one revering a deity. Their central belief goes something like this:

Worlds are stories that flesh themselves out in the telling. Like stories, they have their own internal logic, operating above the mechanical cut and thrust of physics: narrative causality bridges the gap between what logic would suggest happens and what the story wants to happen. It does this subtly, manipulating the fundamental nondeterminism of the world in a thousand tiny ways, but it does so in certain recognizable patterns. When reality continues to obey these patterns, all observers are satisfied; when it diverges from them, defense mechanisms snap into place to deal with the narrative non sequitur. Like a cellular response to oncogenic mutation, these mechanisms operate in (rough) ascending order of severity, the final one being self-destruction.

In theory, the Agency operates to supplement these responses with more a more intelligently managed antigenic response; in practice, the only thing at all likely to resist until the world snaps is sustained, deliberate meddling to disregard causality in favor of rearranging the world to accommodate a new state, and so they fight SUEs. Their job is to find and isolate the pattern-breaking elements while guiding the integration of the broken patterns into the larger causal flow. In short, neutralize the SUEs, then cover everything up until no one's sure you've done anything at all.

This is a damned hard job. Agents are outnumbered a thousand to one by their potential enemies and a billion to one by the people they're supposed to guard, if not more. They have to listen to a brand-new symphony, identify the off-key player, and silently haul them off the stage before the song's over while said player is beating them over the head with their chosen instrument and the conductor will reflexively shoot them on sight. They have to do it almost totally without support, too.

They do have some help. To start with, they're as immortal as anyone who exists as a projection of their own self-image, aging being fairly subtle from moment to moment, so at least they never have to retire. They've also got forward observers in the form of all the natives, since the Agency briefs them through extremely informative dreams.

Cryptic dreams and symbolism, while classic, don't lend themselves to efficient internal communication. The Agency simply relays huge amounts of sense data to its operatives, having filtered it out of the natives' dreams, and lets them process it however they feel is most informative; the same adaptability that allows them to exist also allows them a certain facility with informatics. Most agents can pull full-dimensional pan-sensory records of the incidents; more adept ones can correlate out ever more remotely connected data to get a broader sense of their destination. These dreams are semi-lucid, as the agent cannot control the data itself but can readily impose their chosen reality filter on it, focus on some parts over others, and so on. Commonly chosen filters include a spy-style briefing, a conversation with a hooded stranger in a tavern, looking into a crystal hypersphere, or listening to a bunch of people tell stories at a party. Either way, enough information is available to avoid a completely blind jump, but only rarely enough to avoid surprises; likewise, the agent can talk across all senses with his teammates during the planning phase, but isn't actually capable of sensing them directly.

They then pick where in the destination world they're going to wake up (and as what) and there they wake. This does have to be a definite destination, not “right behind the SUE.” Thus the mission begins; at its end, whenever they next sleep, they will be informed of such, at which point they're on vacation until they are next needed.

Now, there are times when a team needs to be updated on the fly, or wants to request additional information when unable to sleep. That's why some enterprising agent invented calling cards: little objects designed to act randomly until an agent with a question uses them, at which point they nonrandomly display an answer. These have been magic 8 balls or ouija boards or knucklebones, but for some reason they somewhat tenaciously decide to be tarot decks in a lot of worlds, which accounts for the name. Whatever their form, they share a common weakness. Since they can't reveal their seemingly random results are actually messages, they also can't indicate when they're not: using it when there's no response just gives a random result that looks totally valid. Clever agents use them on definite questions with a small, discrete number of possible answers.

It's probably obvious that the Agency doesn't micromanage. They tend to keep together whatever groups naturally form, flinging them as one unit from world to world. Agents can reject missions by consensus, they quit by not wanting to keep going, and they're given so much running room some factions believe the Agency doesn't even exist except in the minds of its members. Indeed, most of the services the Agency provides are provided member-to-member; about the only thing binding everyone together on the operational level is a shared short-range telepathic “frequency.” As long as two Agency members are near each other, when one speaks, the other will understand and recognize the Agency “metadata” woven into it. With practice this can be expanded into pan-sensory speed-of-thought hivemind communication without actual speech, or even written down into a sort of augmented-reality tag, but everyone can at least manage to understand what their associates mean.

The archetypal Agency unit, the 2-6 member Ops team, tends to stick together and go where the missions are. Members come and go, yes, but it's an event; it's generally assumed that anyone joining a team is doing so indefinitely. Conversely, consultants move around a lot more. They might live in just one world to guide teams through its more abstruse elements, or they might offer occasionally useful services. They make the calling cards, for example, and send messages between worlds when the Agency's normal network will not suffice. Some of this is free to Ops teams; in the Agency service economy, saving the world is a pretty big service, and most consultants who contact the team will be prepared to help gratis. More involved favors generally involve some agreement to help make the same resources available to the next team.

Naturally, there isn't always a consultant available for whatever service a team might need; they're hired on an ad hoc basis whenever a prospective Agent isn't suitable for Ops work but has useful talents, so the resources to set up more than a skeleton network just aren't there. Thankfully there are others capable of picking up the slack. The grey market is big, diverse, and good at hiding; it winds like mycorrhizae through the less tightly controlled portions of the multiverse, in dark tavern corners and well after normal business hours and generally out of the way. Like the Agency, they haven't much use for conventional currency except as a prop, being generally able to short-circuit the economy whenever they really need to. Some take payment in data to sell on to in-world brokers; others take “curiosities”, unique and generally inconsequential bits of world valuable mainly as art. Many want seemingly minor changes in the world, especially from the ever-subtle Agency. While they have no commitment to Agency ethos – and in some cases enjoy pushing their moral boundaries a hair at a time – the grey marketeers tend to reject SUEs out of concern for their own safety. The enemy of their enemy is a relatively reliable client.

From here, I'm guessing people can assume the level of sects and violence they'd like, within and around the Agency, so I thought I'd end on an even more meta note and try to explain what I'm going for with them. The ambiguity surrounding their existence is intentional, of course, and it's intended to avoid giving the PCs a boss. They're their own boss....maybe. Everything else is really just there to give them choices; easily controllable options, in the case of consultants, and moral choices in the case of the grey market, which is also a way of fitting the Agency into a larger undercurrent of interesting folks, giving more places to pull PCs from, and so forth. Beyond that, it's mostly intended to get out of the PCs way and let them do fun stuff without necessarily reassuring them that they're doing the right thing. Remember, the only thing promising that the Agency is the only thing between the worlds and oblivion is...the Agency. Which might just be their own agency giving itself a capital letter. Maybe. Finding out directly is a bit of a job, though.

I don't know. Am I completely nuts here? Once I work out a system, going back in and expanding these powers is going to help elucidate the nuts and bolts; probably at the very least the really complex ones are going to require going to sleep to use so they can't be used in combat.

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