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game mechanics for hiring spies

One of the player characters in Tapestry, Kenbash Nergul, a ghoul woman, has decided to put part of the profits from the recently completed voyage into recruiting a group of spies. So I've started looking at how to represent this. GURPS has published rules for describing and setting up organizations (in GURPS Boardroom and Curia), but I think I'm not going to use them, both because they're optimized for creating big organizations, from a platoon or a high school up to a multinational corporation or a research institute, and because they treat the organization a bit impersonally: the founder owns the organization and the organization is the focus of the loyalty of its personnel. I think this may be more like Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars or Charles Xavier and the (original) X-men, which seems to call for a less arm's-length model.

So first off I'm going to want to look at how big an organization Nergul wants, and what rate of pay it's going to offer. If she hires nixies (much less conspicuous in a nixie city!), typical pay is $650/month for a professional, $325/month for a tradesman, $162.50/month for a laborer or a common servant, and down to $65/month for an irregular laborer or petty criminal (a true "Baker Street Irregular"). Ghouls will work for less—they're a race of scavengers who can eat food a prison kitchen would throw away, and enjoy it, and food is the biggest part of cost of living, about 75%, so ghouls can get by on half of normal pay—but they'd typically be better suited to a different mission profile, so that would have to be taken into account.

Finding suitable employees would call for a Search roll. In GURPS terms, this will be a Search for hirelings. The standard roll would be Nergul's IQ, +1 for city size, -2 if (as seems likely) this is a dangerous job. Nergul can substitute Leadership, Streetwise, or Savoir-Faire (High Society) for IQ. If she's using IQ or Leadership, there's an additional -5 penalty for looking for hirelings who need to keep their jobs and professions secret. She can't substitute Administration (there's no Thieves' or Assassins' Guild!), Current Affairs (anyone in those professions who gets into the news is automatically disqualified), or Propaganda (Nergul certainly doesn't want to advertise). She can get bonuses to the search for offering unusually high pay, but I'm going to ask the player to roll vs. Nergul's Miserliness if she wants to do that.

Another option would be for Nergul to find a go-between, and pay finders' fees, but that would cost money (Miserliness again) and also give away information Nergul may not want to reveal.

Presumably this is going to be a continuing relationship, which raises the question of loyalty. For an employer-employee relationship, this is determined by a reaction roll (three dice, with higher rolls being better). Nergul will get a modest bonus for Status, a modest penalty for Odious Personal Habit (she chronically smells bad, largely from her overt professional as a tanner and furrier), and possibly a large bonus for Social Regard (Feared) if she chooses to approach the relationship that way. She can get a bonus for paying more than the standard rate (again, see Miserliness!) and she can get +3 if she can make a Body Language roll to assess the attitudes of her prospective employees. A typical result would be Good loyalty. She can substitute an Influence roll based on Leadership, or possibly Savoir-Faire or Streetwise, with success meaning Good loyalty; this would indicate relying on management skill. She might want to cultivate a persona with a Quick Contest of Leadership+3 against the average IQ of her employees, to play a suitable role in front of them; that would give +1 to reaction or Influence rolls.

Addendum: A further option would be for her to make a "cultivating a persona" role to get into the mental space of being a spymaster, probably with a Quick Contest of Leadership+3 versus average IQ of her spies. If she wins, she gets +1 to the reaction roll, or to an Influence roll as long as it doesn't also use the Leadership skill (no double counting!).

In any case, her employees are going to function as a Contact Group, defined by the class of skills they provide. How good those skills are will reflect her pay scale; how trustworthy the employees are as a group will reflect the loyalty roll, from Bad (unreliable) to Good (completely reliable). If she hires them full time, they'll be available on a 12 or less; otherwise, on a 9 or less. At this point, Nergul will have to spend character points. Perhaps she can talk her associate Gansukh (a male ghoul with impressive stealth and survival skills, whose player left the campaign a year or so ago) into sharing the point cost with her. In any case, the Contact Group advantage gets us back to the heart of the organizational definition rules, so I can work out some suitable organizational statistics indirectly.

making sense

A week or so ago, I took a look at Charles Stross's blog, and found a guest post by Graydon Saunders that mentioned his new book, Under One Banner, the fourth volume of his Commonweal series. It took me a couple of days to track it down, but eventually I remembered that I bought the first three volumes through the Apple Store, and took a look—and there was volume four. Since then, I've been reading it, a chapter or two at a time, partly because of time pressure, and partly because I need time to think about what's happened in each chapter.

While this is classified as a fantasy series, it has one very science fictional feature, at least: The kind of indirect exposition that John W. Campbell pushed for in Astounding Science Fiction. The classic example of this is Robert Heinlein writing, "The door dilated," not given you a lecture on how his future society has irising doors, but just expected you to see it and envision what it implies. This has been a standard device for conveying setting for a long time, but it looks to me as if Saunders also uses it for the foreground story quite a lot; if what's happening doesn't spring right into your mind you will have to think about it for a while. I'm sure I didn't get everything on the first readings of these books.

In a different scheme of classification, the one proposed by Northrop Frye for prose narrative, what sort of "fiction" are these? I think I would say that while there is characterization and biography, the primary emphasis is on ideas and themes and intellectual problems (another way these books are science fictional), which in Frye's terms is characteristic of the anatomy and the confession, as opposed to the romance and the novel. And the ideas are projected out into the fictional world, more than inward into the characters, which I think makes this an anatomy, or Menippean satire (note that Frye's analysis of these categories isn't quite the same as mine). Theoretically this is the genre of Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and Alice in Wonderland, and of Stranger in a Strange Land, but none of these is that much like the Commonweal books, which makes me think that maybe "anatomy" isn't the right category after all.

As for Saunders's ideas, I'm pretty confident that he would not call himself a libertarian. However, I see several themes that are of interest to libertarians. First, he's portraying a society that is intensely concerned with consent and with preserving the possibility of consent, after emerging from a span far longer than human history in which the world was dominated by a succession of Saurons who did what they liked with the less powerful. Second, he establishes that this society's military policy is one of defense and excludes conquest as a goal, which is akin to the idea that "force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use"—even if the level of force is very high, close to the "nuke 'em from orbit" level. Third, this volume has one passage that very lucidly presents the Austrian economists' concept of "cost" as the most valuable thing you have to give up to get the thing you want, and that makes it clear that the characters are aware that everything has a cost. Finally, there's a running contrast between the industrial society (or aspect of society), which focuses on gaining wealth through producing it, and the military society (or aspect of society), which focuses on gaining wealth through fighting for it—an idea put forth by Herbert Spencer, one of the nineteenth century's main libertarian theorists—and the Commonweal clearly is an industrial society and regards force and battle as unproductive expenditures that need to be minimized, but can't be set to zero if the Commonweal is to survive. So these books have a lot of intellectual interest to me. (At a simpler level, they're in that comparatively rare category of fantasy with democracies, republics, or anarchies, rather than monarchies or aristocracies, and I find this interesting and would like to see more of it.)

These themes also resonate with an idea I've played with in past campaigns: The political implications of superbeings. One of my GURPS campaigns, Sovereignty, envisioned a world where the high-end supers, the analogs of Superman or Doctor Doom or the Hulk, were legally sovereign states, because they were powerful enough to fight with territorial sovereign states and win; so, for example, Superman might live in apartment that was legally the Kryptonian Embassy. Saunders's highest-level sorcerers, the twelve on the first page of the short list, might just as well be called superbeings; for one thing, they can only exist by transforming themselves from biological into metaphysical entities, which is a lot like a superheroic origin, though under more conscious control, and for another, they really are powerful enough so that only an army can meaningfully threaten them. Perhaps the most optimistic thing about the Commonweal is that it's a world where armies CAN threaten such being; the early days of the Commonweal involved its forces either killing the surrounding dark lords, or inducing them to make peace, becoming what are called Independents. A lot of the major characters are Independents, and their portrayal is interesting and complex.

I have less urge than I used to to read science fiction and fantasy. But the Commonweal books are doing interesting and different things, and I'm getting a lot out of them.

you better shop around

In Tapestry, the fantasy campaign I run sessions of in Poway every month or two, the adventurers have returned from a long overseas voyage, bearing exotic cargo, and made huge amounts of money off it—their total sales came to just over 20 times the original investment. One of the players decided that her character was going to look for a wife, so that he'd have someone to look after his business while he was away on his next voyage.

This looked like an opportunity for some serious roleplaying, so I wrote up three women with different backgrounds and qualities, and had Hanno's mother take him to meet all three of them. And I invited three of the other players to take the roles of the three women, figuring this would be less dull than having Hanno's player and me monopolize the game time. Happily, all three players brought their characters to life.

Hanno himself is Wealthy (5x the average city dweller's assets) and Status 1 (usually associated with having 2x the average city dweller's assets; Hanno has spent so much time away on trade ventures that he hasn't gained any standing at home, other than "you can see he's well off"). Both are likely to increase as a result of the next session, when we figure the impact of the recent earnings.

His first meeting was with Iltani, a young woman, just old enough to be courted, who has the opposite pattern: Status 2 (a good family name) but only Comfortable Wealth. Her father inherited his business and has not been as successful at running it as his own father was, and Iltani is a bit desperate to find a suitable husband—even one of lower standing, like Hanno, so long as he can support her current Status properly. She's conservative and strongly focused on practical skills, from Housekeeping to Merchant and Finance. Hanno and his mother called formally on her and her mother and had a very polite conversation, in which Hanno made a good impression on her, enough so that she brought out her heirloom game board for the Game of Twenty Squares (a game about boat racing) and played a round against Hanno, narrowly beating him; her play was slow and thoughtful. She didn't talk about any of the more intellectual subjects that Hanno was also interested in.

Next he met Belessunu, also Status 2, but in her case it's a descent from her family's Status, as they're Filthy Rich and can support her at Very Wealthy (20x average); she's artistic and bohemian, associates with entertaining people of lower standing, and has travelled to a foreign country to buy silks and other exotic goods. She came to visit Hanno at his home, wanting to size him up before inviting him to be her guest, and found him very entertaining, as they had lots of common enthusiasms; in fact she ended up staying to dinner and meeting his apprentice, Onofrio, from a family in a different foreign country. It came out that what she really would like would be to go along on Hanno's next voyage and see new lands for herself, rather than staying behind and keeping his business going.

Finally, his mother took him to dinner at the house of the scribe, Tabnit, who helped manage her rental properties, where another guest was Tabnit's client, Ettu. She had originally been a servant in his house, but when she showed that she had learned to read, he started teaching her, and eventually helped her get into the Guild of Scribes. She's actually at the low end of her profession, having Average Wealth and Status 0, but she's making her way up, partly through being good at figuring out whether and how an employee was diverting a business's funds. She and Hanno talked enthusiastically about linguistics (his hobby) and cryptology (hers) and got along really well.

So now Hanno has three women to look at, each not quite what he wants: Iltani is a little young and he wouldn't have much to talk about with her; Belessunu is eager to travel; Ettu is ambitious for her own career and actually didn't realize that she was being looked at as a possible wife till Tabnit clued her in privately. And at this point it's up to Hanno's player. I offered her the option of having Hanno do his own search, and if he does, I have three candidates for him: one a really bad choice, one a little less suited than the other three but possibly acceptable, and one really good, if he gets a really good dice roll. I'll be interested to see where this goes. . . .


I got back not long ago from my second day in a courthouse, as part of a jury selection pool from which I was eventually excused.

During the selection process, the judge explained to juror candidates, over and over, that they were there to decide on the facts of the case, but not on the validity of the law; that it was their duty to make their decisions based on the law and on the judge's interpretation of the law, and not on their own views of what the law was or should be or what was right. And of course that's completely orthodox; nearly every jury is told the same thing. But as I listened to it, repeatedly, it kept sounding worse to me every time.

In the first place, if the goal is to evaluate the facts, I don't see that jurors are especially good at that. I remember when I served on a jury, and we were told the four elements of "assault with a deadly weapon," and all the other jurors were convinced that find evidence for ANY ONE of those elements was enough to convict. (Lunchtime was approaching, and I think they all wanted to get done quickly—as the poem says, "Wretches hang that jurymen may dine.") The other juror candidates in the current pool didn't seem any better are making distinctions or reasoning carefully. And I've heard similar things from friends who've been on juries. If I were to be tried, I think I would rather waive a jury and have the judge evaluate the facts.

But in the second place, I don't think that limited role is why juries were built into the American constitutional system as a safeguard for freedom. Historically, juries refusing to convict was part of the struggle over laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts; and often those refusals to convict were a reflection of political and legal dissent.

In fact, it seems to me that the judge's instructions reflected a basic misunderstanding of the constitutional role of the jury. She was treating jurors as if they were functionaries within the judicial branch, unskilled draftees recruited to carry out a specific, narrow task. But I think the jurors are meant to be there as citizens. And citizens, as Hamilton explained, stand above all three branches of government; it's their consent that empowered any agency of government to act. It seems to me that a jury is a sample of the citizenry, for the purpose of giving the citizenry the chance to disavow, and even stop, judicial acts done in their name; to say, in effect, "Now hold on, that's not right!" That's akin to the origins of equity, which grew out of kings saying, "I don't care what the law says—that's not right and you can't do it," but adapted to a republic where the people and not the king are sovereign; and it's akin to the Roman institution of the tribune, a magistrate who had the power, not to command action, but to stop other actions, veto laws, and even shut down government. It's a way to bring the people into the judicial process directly, and to let them disavow a law. And I can see a point to that function. But it's a function that the standard admonition is designed to thwart.

On the other hand, a jury that can do this can also do it for bad purposes. It can refuse, for example, to convict a gay-basher, or the leader of a lynch mob, or a man who shoots his wife's lover. So it's not a safe power to allow, and the risks have to be thought about.

Still, when I listened to that instruction, explained over and over, I kept imagining myself being called to account for a verdict I had voted for, and saying, "I vass only followink orrders!" I really have doubts about whether a juror who accepts those orders from a judge is worth having, let along worth giving a constitutionally protected role to.

a metaphor

This one just came into my head: Specie is fixed point money. Banknotes are floating point money.

a new scam, I think

Just now, I received a phone call from a man with a South Asian accent, and with "boiler room" noises in the background. He verified my name, asked if I had received a new Medicare card, and then said, "We need to validate it in the system." So I said, "No, you don't," and hung up. I had actually visited the local Social Security office yesterday, and while I was there they confirmed that I was signed up for Medicare; but in any case this had all the earmarks of an ID theft attempt.

I have to say it really impresses me how enterprising phishers are about coming up with new lines of bullshit to talk people out of confidential information.

Heinlein again

In the aftermath of reading Heinlein's letters, I took another look at several of his books, including the two late novels I can endure to read, Job and Friday. The latter is about a young woman who's been damaged in all kinds of ways, and is rebelling against it: Her society doesn't consider her to be human, a number of countries would kill her if they identified her, the churches believe she has no soul, and most people like her ("artificial persons") are subject to indentures imposed without their consent—that is, slavery. This is not something Heinlein is advocating; his entire oeuvre is filled with hatred of slavery and its excuses, and Friday in particular makes it clear that Friday has been deeply injured. And yet . . . we learn about Friday's indoctrination regarding sexual conduct, including the things that were "not tolerated" in her attitudes toward it; and, disturbingly, they're an almost exact fit to the attitudes Heinlein himself portrayed a lot of women characters in his other novels as holding.

It also bothers me that we see Friday approached sexually by several other women, and accepting it, and in one case becoming part of a couple with another woman for several weeks; and yet the action mostly evades any consummation of those approaches, and in the one case where it doesn't, the sexual activity is kept offstage. It gives me the impression that Heinlein wasn't comfortable with lesbianism, and I really wish he had not tried to write about it.

it is accomplished

A few minutes ago, I made one last pass through my current GURPS project, trimming out a few more words here and there, and concluded that I had done as much revising as I could productively do. Now it's a case of waiting for the "playtest" (actually a peer review) to start. My book is one of several in the queue, so I don't know when that will be. . . .

I triumph!

During this weekend's visit to Poway (I was there to run a session of Tapestry, my GURPS Fantasy campaign), I played a round of Settlers of Catan with my hosts. This started out with her repeatedly rolling numbers that gave him and me resources, but not her, and both of us were pulling ahead of her. I kept getting such large hands that I was worried about having the Robber played on me and losing half of the current hand; more than once, I traded in four cards of one resource for the one card of another resource I needed to do a particular build. He was doing particularly well with building the longest road..

Then she was able to play the Robber first on him (by rolling it randomly) and then on me (by playing a knight) in the same turn! This pulled her ahead and slowed him down. I did a lot of road building and took longest road away from him—in fact, when I connected my two roads I got a length of 14, which was only one less than the maximum possible—so I built one more road to get the bragging rights. In the meantime, she was building a lot of towns and cities, and scoring largest army. So I was at 8 points, and she was at 9, with 10 needed to win.

Then I came up with another really huge hand, and figures I had better play it. I built a city with some of my resources; then I offered to trade for brick, and he took my up on it, accepting my stone card, which really surprised me. And that gave me enough to build one more town in an empty stretch of my amazingly long road, going from 8 to 10 in one turn, which gave me the win.

That was gratifying, but what really pleased me was having things work out so that I got a 15-segment road, something I've never seen before. . . .

(Earlier in the weekend we played several sessions of Sparkle Kitty, a much lighter game, but one I find a surprising amount of fun.)


In Stranger in a Strange Land, the titular character, Valentine Michael Smith, travels to Washington, DC. We're told that the city is 3^4+3^3, or 108, Martian years old. A Martian year is 687 days, so that's 203 years.

The surveying on Washington started in 1791; the federal government moved there in 1800. That gives the current year in Stranger as somewhere between 1994 and 2003.

A very early chapter says that the second human expedition to Mars, which found Smith as the sole survivor of the first expedition (born there and raised by Martians), departed a quarter century after the first. That puts the first human expedition at sometime between 1969 and 1978, or between 8 and 17 years after the novel was published. Since the first expedition was four married couples, Heinlein is envisioning really rapid advances in space technology, much more rapid than the real world attained. Not to mention a third world war sometime not long after the first expedition, and the creation of a world government with its own police and military after that. By now the main events of the novel are more than a decade in the past.