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The Net

The ‘Net

Originally developed well over 100 years ago as a means to connect military and educational institu- tions around the world, the ‘Net is now an all-inclusive, global phenomenon. Though it has changed much in the last century, many of the key elements and ideals behind the ‘Net remain the same, and that is why, no matter how many new names for it people have come up with over the years, the word we use to discuss it remains the same.

The ‘Net (or Internet, as it is formally known) is a truly worldwide communications network. No longer confined just to computers, the ‘Net connects nearly every piece of electronic equipment to any number of mainframes around the globe and it is omnipresent. Though it took the better part of a century to reach every inch of the planet, the ‘Net is now accessible from literally everywhere on Earth (and even into parts of near space, like the moon).

Though certain Luddite groups exist which oppose the invasive omnipresence of the ‘Net, none were successful in sparing any part of the planet from its reach. Still, there are certain “dead spots” within the boundaries of their private properties in which ‘Net signals are jammed, but these are a result of signal-blocking technology (provided by the world’s leading computer supplier) and not a lapse of the ‘Net’s overall reach. Removing or disabling one of these signal-blocking devices would instantly un- jam the signal.

In years past, the ‘Net was a jumble of different technologies, both wired and wireless, which allowed computers and eventually other devices to communicate with one another. The wireless movement began in the second decade of the 21st century, in which a push to make all ‘Net connections wireless was made.

The capacity of wireless signals had previously been too insignificant to handle the amount of communication traffic that would be required for a global-scale network, but various technological advancements made it possible to handle all of the world’s communications at a near-instant pace. Today, all ‘Net traffic is wireless—save for a few corporate intranets (local networks) which still use wired networks for highly secure communications.

Connecting to the ‘Net

Long ago, users were required to actively initiate a signal between a computer and the ‘Net in order to access it. Only by “dialing up” to the network could a computer access the information that was available. When the user was finished with his session, he would disconnect from the ‘Net and his computer would no longer be able to access it.

Later came the invention of always-on, “broadband” internet access. Users were no longer required to “dial up” to reach the ‘Net; all they had to do was turn on their computer or other ‘Net-enabled device and they were able to constantly access it. This premise remains true today, over 100 years since the invention of broadband technology, but in a slightly different form.

All computers, televisions, phones, and other electronic devices are now built with the capacity to access the ‘Net as long as they have power. Previously it was possible to unplug the connecting cable to a computer to disconnect from the ‘Net. Nowadays, every device is connected wirelessly and there are no built-in disconnect methods (though a few clever hackers have found ways to disable their own connections at will).

This constant “awareness” allows users to seamlessly blend their everyday experiences with the connected lifestyle that the ‘Net allows; people communicate, learn, entertain, advertise, shop, and do nearly every conceivable daily activity while connected to the ‘Net.

The Connected Life

While everyone is aware that the ‘Net exists, most people take it for granted. It has simply been there throughout the entirety of their lives, and will continue to be there long after they are dead. Every- thing they do from work to play is somehow enhanced by the ‘Net. Many of these enhancements come in the form of “augmented reality”, or the ability to receive enhanced information made possible only with the aid of computers.

Augmented reality is not the same as the now-defunct idea of “virtual reality”. Virtual reality (or VR for short) was first introduced in science fiction and later became a very realistic—or veritably realistic—notion.

In the 2040s, the world’s population by and large decided to no longer support VR when it was discovered that people who were experiencing life in a “virtual world” were often susceptible to negative effects in the real world. Basically, in order to be “plugged in” to virtual reality, the user must completely disconnect from ordinary reality—and that was not only a scary thought for many, it had deadly consequences.

Augmented reality (or AR) overlays virtual aspects of the information-heavy computer world without requiring total immersion. This sort of information augmentation was popularized in science fiction and spy movies of the 20th century, in which characters with special sunglasses or cyborgs with robotic eyes could gain information about their surroundings, such as the exact height or weight of an object, the heat signature of a person, or the distance between two points.

These concepts have grown to include a practically endless variety of information that can be transmitted to a user, either via special AR sunglasses or simply to their handheld computers. Users can find nearly any piece of information they desire (or any information that an advertiser desires them to see) simply by interacting with it. To some, this feels like a constant bombardment of media. To others, it is simply the way the world is and, without it, they would feel lost.

Entering the ‘Net: AKA Ghosting

Most people never actually enter the ‘Net as a plane of existence. Instead, they interact with it through their tablets and other electronics. The ‘Net comes to them, and they manipulate certain aspects of it, but never truly engage it. This is, of course, by design; to literally enter the ‘Net is to cross the line between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality and it has been made clear that the public does not want VR.

However, certain individuals are both able and willing to fully project themselves into the ‘Net, through a process known as “ghosting.” Ghosting requires the use of electrokinesis, which can be performed psionically or magically, and can be done from virtually anywhere on the planet (and even parts of sub-space).

The Ghosting Check

Any character with the electrokinesis power, and its cyberpsi Gift, can attempt to ghost. Likewise, characters with access to a cyberpsi magic device can attempt to ghost, though these devices can be expensive and hard to come by. One can attempt to ghost from any location where they can access the ‘Net, which includes the whole of Earth and its moon, except in places which have specifically been denied a ‘Net signal.

Though a ghost check can be attempted from any location, it does leave the ghost’s physical body vulnerable and, therefore, it is best to find a safe or well-guarded place before making the attempt.

To make a successful ghosting check, you must succeed at an electrokinesis check of Great difficulty. Once a successful check has been made, you leave your physical body behind and project a portion of your mind in to the ‘Net.

It is possible to bring others with you. For every degree of success you may bring one additional passenger. Passengers must physically exist in a space directly next to you; one common practice is for circles of people to hold hands as they travel in this way. These passengers need not possess the electrokinesis Gift, but if the character that made the check is disconnected for any reason all passengers disconnect as well.

What’s Inside

Many science fiction movies of the 20th century attempted to depict what being inside a computer might look like, but every one of them got it wrong; the ‘Net was never designed with conscious thoughts and direct human interaction in mind. There is no user interface because it is not technically a human-created Virtual Reality. Zeroes and ones do not float about in the sky and there are no circuitous highways.

Ghosts alter their own electromagnetic fields in such a way as to join the wireless spectrum around them, enabling themselves to move with and through it as easily as a computer broadcasts data. They are able to sense nearby access points—literally any piece of connected technology—due to the large volume of data being passed through them. By zeroing in on an access point, a ghost can use his cyberpsi power to communicate with the system on a deeper level and gain entry to it, allowing him to further use or control the system.

While inside a system, ghosts and their passengers spoof the device into treating them like any other program. In effect, each ghost (including passengers) is a separate program that interacts individually with the environment. These programs must be appropriate for the type of device a ghost is in; electronic billboards are only capable of running programs related to audio and video, for example, while a mainframe computer server can run virtually any program imaginable.

Ghosts can use a device’s cameras (if available) to view the outside world from the machine’s perspective. When not looking through the lens of the machine, the world appears very different; in fact, ghosts cannot actually see their physical surroundings without using this technique. It may be wise to have a passenger keep watch while a ghost interacts with the computer on a deeper level.

Moving About

The ‘Net is a global wireless mesh network, meaning it is comprised of billions of electronic devices the world over, each constantly transmitting data to and from one another. Every electronic device constantly routes data and boosts signals to enhance the reach of the network, though when moving over extremely long distances the data may be collected by a major hub and then passed back out into the wider network.

Put simply, a file begins at its source system and is passed through hundreds of devices along its route to a regional hub. The file is then passed from one hub to another until it reaches the destination region, where it is split up once more and passed through various access points until it reaches its end destination.

It is virtually impossible to sniff files as they are passed along their route because an individual file may be split up into millions of tiny pieces while it moves toward its destination. Ghosts must capture files either at their source or their end point, meaning they must know where the files are coming from or where they are going.

Because data transfers so quickly from one place to another, ghosts can move their virtual selves, their “ghosts”, from any single point on Earth to another in milliseconds. Their physical body stays behind in the real world, but their ghost can move about freely.

Extremely experienced ghosts (those who can make a Wonderful Technical check) are even capable of duplicating themselves, gaining the ability to be in multiple places at once. One common tactic is to leave one ghost with the physical body and monitor it using the cameras on a personal comm tablet in an effort to watch out for one’s own safety.

While inside the ‘Net, a ghost can visit any place he wishes simply by jumping to a device. Because it is easy to triangulate a device’s location with its built-in GPS, ghosts are capable of very quickly jumping to specific regions and even cities of the world. It may require a bit more time and effort (in the form of another Technical check, with a difficulty depending on how precise he wishes to be) in order to pinpoint a specific building or device. Passengers always travel with the ghost.

While inside a device, ghosts can access its programming, data, security features and cameras. Ghosting is one of the most efficient methods of bypassing security, stealing information, and performing reconnaissance that is available in the world today, though it is not without its challenges. Many computers are highly secure and difficult to penetrate and some corporations even employ security personnel who are capable of ghosting and protecting a system from within.

Ghosting Challenges

Ghosts often enter places where they are not wanted. To protect against unwanted (and illegal) intrusion, system administrators often ensure that their networks are locked down and heavily guarded against entrance by ghosts.

Protecting a network can be costly, but no government, megacorp, or wealthy individual would dare leave himself unsecured against a ghost. The measures these entities take to prevent unwanted entry can pose severe challenges to even the most skilled ghosts (making it that much more important for them to bring friends).

Ghosting into a system is far more insidious than a traditional hacking attempt. Though hackers still exist and attempt to breech high-level systems every day, the majority of a company’s security dollars go in to preventing attacks from ghosts. New, high-power, low-level security software has been developed specifically to thwart ghosting attempts and some of that software can cause real injuries to anyone trying to bypass it.

These special security programs have a semblance of sentience to them that is difficult to comprehend. Two powerful megacorps teamed up to develop a new form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) capable of using magic, generally electrokinesis. For all intents and purposes these programs have real, physical manifestations in the ‘Net and are one of the entities which ghosts can encounter.

Ghosting Combat

When a ghost enters a computer, he may need to contend with its security software. This can be far more difficult than simply making a Technical (Computer Security) check to bypass the machine’s Security Level, since corporations and governments go to great lengths to prevent ghosting.

Following is an example list of security software that has been developed to thwart ghosting attempts. In most cases, these programs are only employed on high-level corporate and government machines due to their complexity and cost. However, many independent computer hackers and programmers also employ these programs and often run custom versions of them to suit their individual needs.

When a ghost enters a system with a Security Level of Superb or higher, GMs should consider employing any of the following security measures. These programs act as combatants and will attack the ghost as if it were a real person (because, after all, ghosts are the real projection of an individual’s consciousness). Use the standard rules for Combat (see Playing the Game) when dealing with security software in this way, with the following exceptions.

Do not add bonuses granted by equipment (weapons, armor, etc.) unless that equipment specifically deals with computer systems.

Unless otherwise noted, use the character’s Mind attribute as a defense, not their Body attribute. Players may opt to use their Technical (Computer Security) skill in place of other combat skills to determine their Offensive Damage Factors when dealing with security software. This skill is opposed by the program’s Security attribute, which replaces the Mind attribute of a human.

When making Combat (Melee, Non-physical, or Ranged) checks against a security program, the ghost is essentially making a brute force attack against its security defenses. No special Technical skill is required to combat these programs and a few of them are even susceptible to other forms of trickery.

Each program has a special Wound Track known as its Threat Level track. When a ghost “damages” the software he is effectively reducing the machine’s understanding of him as a threat. Once the Threat Level reaches Green, the program sees the ghost as a valid user and allows him entry into the system.

Likewise, individual programs have their own Technical (Computer Security) skills to use against ghosts. Usually, the software’s Technical skill level is equal to its Security Level, though certain subroutines may alter this depending upon the nature of the program. The software will essentially “attack” a character with its own Technical (Computer Security) skill opposed by the character’s Mind attribute.

Any damage the character takes is considered Mental damage. A character who reaches Incapacitated or Near Death status on his Mental wound track is automatically shunted from the system and back into his corporeal body in a suitably injured state.

Remember if a ghost exits the system, all of his passengers go with him. Passengers other than the ghost who are Incapacitated return to their bodies but do not drag others with them.

Some particularly high-level systems employ multiple security programs to safeguard different areas. Ghosts attempting to infiltrate a system may need to contend with more than one security program before they can reach whatever area they are trying to access. Usually only one program must be contended with at a single time, but highly secure systems may employ multiple security programs at once.

Unless the ghost somehow gains access to the appropriate usernames, passwords, and other security credentials of a system, he will need to contend with the same security programs each time he attempts to enter it.

Finally, a ghost can use his Technical (Computer Security) skill to try to determine the type of program he encounters. To do so, the player simply makes a Computer Security check and the GM secretly compares it to the program’s Security attribute. If the player succeeds, he may identify the program, plus one piece of additional information about it for each degree of success. If he fails, he either cannot identify the program or he interprets it as a different program altogether.

For example, a ghost makes a Computer Security check to identify a program with a Security level of Superb (+3). The ghost rolls 4dF and adds his Computer Security skill and gets a result of Wonderful (a Good success). He manages to identify that the program is a Ghost Hunter and that Ghost Hunters have the electrokinesis power. If he had rolled a Phenomenal result (a Great success), he may also have uncovered that the Ghost Hunter is vulnerable to mind control.

Conversely, if the ghost had rolled a result of Great he would have failed the check by a degree of one (a Mediocre failure). The GM would tell him that he failed to identify the nature of the program.

However, if the ghost had rolled a result of Fair he would have failed by a degree of three—an Abysmal result. The GM might instead tell the ghost that the program is a Spectral Firewall instead of a Ghost Hunter.

Security Programs

Though the statistics that follow are similar to those found on a traditional character sheet, security programs lack nearly all human attributes. Each is given a Computer Security skill and a Security attribute.

The program’s Computer Security skill is its primary combat trait and is used to determine the Offensive Damage Factors of its attacks. Conversely, the Security level is its primary defensive attribute and will serve as its Defensive Damage Factors when trying to avoid damage.

Each program also has its own Gifts and Faults which help define its capabilities beyond simply acting as a locked door between the ghost and the system it protects.

Editor’s Note: The list of security programs has been moved to its own page: Security Programs.

 

Taking Control

After a system’s security programs have been defeated, it is possible to take control of the system. This is the primary purpose of nearly all ghosting excursions and the reason megacorps spend so much money to prevent them.

Each ghost, including passengers, are treated as separate computer programs when inside a system. They may perform any action the system would typically be capable of, such as displaying ads on a billboard, withdrawing funds from an ATM, hijacking a vehicle (even if its owner is trying to operate it), or executing complex commands on a mainframe.

Characters who are inside a system and are not being faced by security software have free access to initiate commands. Those skilled at Manipulation might attempt to reprogram a billboard to display a specific ad or message, while characters skilled with Vehicles may attempt to operate infiltrated equipment. Any variety of skills may be useful when ghosting in a system; the ‘Net isn’t just the realm of characters with great Technical skills.

The difficulty to successfully employ a skill is still based upon the system’s Security Level, which also represents the complexity of its code. To successfully operate a truck with a Security Level of Superb, for example, a character must first succeed at a Superb Vehicle check.

Stealing Data

Gaining access to the wealth of knowledge a system contains is the other big draw for ghosts. Once a system’s security protocols have been bypassed, ghosts may make a Technical check with a +2 bonus to download data. The difficulty is based upon the system’s Security Level. For each degree of success, a ghost may download one additional piece of information.

Note: Some data is highly secured and protected. If a ghost is seeking specific information about a highly sensitive subject, he may have to contend with a new Security Program dedicated to protecting that specific piece of information. Generally speaking, the Technical skill allows a ghost to gather general information while security programs are employed to protect specific, top-secret files.

Disconnecting

Once a ghost has discovered the information he was looking for, or if he feels he is outmatched by the system’s security software, he may disconnect from the system by simply choosing to leave. He may attempt to connect to another system or leave the ‘Net entirely and return to his physical body.

In any case, certain programs may attempt to prevent the ghost from exiting. At times, his only op- tion may be to fight the program until he either defeats its security or becomes Incapacitated and is dumped back into his body. Programs which prevent egress can be found in the example list of security software above.