This page contains the introductory material for the “Mage: Beyond the Fields We Know” game that is still waiting to be run at some point. It was originally posted on the Southampton University Games Society forums.

About the Game

For those of you new to the society, or absent during my Pimms-fuelled rants towards the end of last academic year, here’s some info about the game.

This game is going to be at least a little novel, I hope, in that it’s going to push the boundaries of in- and out-of character further together than most other games (with the inevitable exception of Dreaming Awake). The characters will be Virtual Adepts in White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” setting (Mage: The Ascension). Rather than just playing face-to-face, players are encouraged to invent as much of a seperate identity for their character as they feel comfortable with. The game will mostly be run over IRC, so characters are encouraged to have at least a handle – blogs, proxies, shell accounts and so on are encouraged for players who want to delve deeply into the world.

The game is set around the end of the year 1999, as Millennium Bug fever tightens its grip on techies and conspiracy theorists alike. As Virtual Adepts, the internet is in equal parts home and playground to you – and you know not only about its technical side, but also its more esoteric side.

And you know that the Millennium Bug is more than just programmers’ lack of foresight. Much more.

My scene-setting story fragment, “Catching the Bug”, is here: /fiction/short-stories/catching-the-bug.

When and How?

This is where it gets a little trickier. This started off as merely an interesting idea – how far can I blur the boundaries between the activities of the Virtual Adept and of their player – and it remains to be seen whether the idea will translate well into practice.

I’ll do my best to run this game well, but please remember it’s as weird for me as it is for you!

Firstly, the game will not run face-to-face. It’ll be run online, but I don’t mean over MSN or IRC saying “My character does this, I say that”.

I will set up one of my machines as a server, which players – in the guise of their characters – will be able to interact with. It’ll host an IRC channel, all the players will have user accounts and shell access to them, and so on.

Furthermore, it’ll be run in real time. The game starts on 1st December at midnight, and continues until the plot resolves or until about 4th January.

FAQ

Will I need real-life hacking skills to play in this game?
No.
Real-life skill imbalance is a problem I’ve thought long and hard about, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there will be fairly little actual hacking involved – instead, this will be roleplayed in a more normal manner.
However, the ability to log in to your account, run things, move files around and so on will be required. I’ll post an out-of-character manual for how to do things, and teach people basic Linuxy things myself if necessary.
While real-life skills should not give any player’s character an advantage or disadvantage, the more you know – and the more you play around with the system – the more fun it’ll be. Hopefully.

How many people can play?
Lots. I’m not setting a limit at this stage. If your character’s background doesn’t suggest some goals, motivations, and so on, we can work some out. The aim is for there to be enough characters with conflicting goals that I don’t have to shepherd around a “party”, but that the game virtually plays itself while I play the NPCs and hideously abuse my root priviledges in the cause of keeping things interesting.

Will I need to be online permanently?
No. Your character, like you, will doubtless have jobs, studies and things to do. So long as you can get online enough to keep abreast of developments and play the game for at least a while every few days, you shouldn’t fall behind.

What’s this server of yours?
Actually, the machine I’ll use belongs to the lovely and wonderful aefariden, The Artist Formerly Known As Areku. The machine I intended to use decided to ritually incinerate itself, so I’m eternally grateful to Alex for the loan of a machine.
It’ll be running a pretty heavily cut-down Gentoo Linux.
This machine will be on my home network, so I do ask that should any of the players manage to hack their way into acquiring interesting priviledges on the game machine, please don’t try to do nasty things to my other boxes.

Background Info

Late October, 1999.

The information age has arrived. What began all those years ago as merely a way for universities to share data has become so much more. Universities, companies, the government, every man and his dog is getting online. Everyone can dial up and click-click-click through web pages.

But so few of them, just a tiny precious few, truly see the internet for what it is.

You are one of those lucky few. Whether you grew up with the ‘net, got involved with it as an adult, or even helped develop it in the early days, you see beyond hypertext and TCP/IP. As you sit trance-like in front of your blazing monitor, as you pull on the goggles and load up the latest VR experiment, even as you make a call on your mobile phone, you can feel it all around you.

Information. The new reality.

No longer is the world constrained by such an abhorrent concept as a singular reality – now, we can pick and choose our realities, and make new ones for ourselves. Any fool can make a web page these days, but we can make something more. Worlds within worlds, the next realities, the shining path down which we will lead humanity away from their dying world.

Anything is possible for us. Already, information is beginning to supercede reality. More and more, people trust the machines, they trust the information. We manipulate information, create it and destroy it, and in so doing we rework reality.

We are Virtual Adepts.

We are the gods of cyberspace.

We are the future.

Early November, 1999

Of course, we are all human and all fallible – at least for now. Even Alan Turing, perhaps the most respected of all Adepts, had his moments. So did the inventors of the early microprocessors and operating systems. They underestimated how important computers would become, nor how long they’d last.

It’s a silly thing, really. Two digits instead of four. So simple. So dumb. Of course, to us it never would have mattered. Such a simple thing, far below the level at which we perceive the information plane. But of course it worried the mundane lot, and to their credit they’ve been working long and hard to fix it. The problem is, the public got hold of the idea and ran with it.

Our world, the internet, is not just our playground. It is defined by the data within it, and everyone can influence that. While we have the most far-reaching and powerful ways of manipulating data, the meme is a mighty tool – especially in the hands of those who do not understand it well.

Nightmare conspiracies and apocalyptic prophecies spread like wildfire once the public got hold of the Millennium Bug meme. Word of it passed not only across message boards and chat channels, but around the office watercoolers and in the newspapers. Everyone knows, everyone’s talking about it, and they’re making it real in ways they don’t understand.

Try as we might, and believe me we are trying to fight its effects, we are under siege. Everyone on the ‘net is talking about how computers and the web are going to come to an end, and these beliefs are filling up the information sphere. Filling up our reality.

That apocalyptic meme is making itself come true.

Whilst I violently reject the Technocratic Union’s desire to control the minds of the people, it is the minds of the people that are destroying the future.

I do not know what can be done.

Mid November, 1999

Already our world is growing flaky. As companies and governments across the globe take their servers offline for “pre-emptive measures” against the Bug, our reality is getting less and less reliable.

Word of the Millennium Bug has spread so far and wide that so many people know about it without understanding it. A lot of them don’t even realise that no real effect of the bug could happen until January 1st, and attribute their connection problems to the Bug already. More than once today I’ve seen people come out with lines like “It’s starting already”.

There’s a lot of pessimists in the world today; a lot of people that only see the worst in a situation. So that thought spreads like wildfire. The “it’s starting early” meme latches on to its greater parent and spreads with it, and thus makes itself more true.

No longer can we say that nothing can happen until the New Year. It is happening already.

Late November, 1999

The internet is falling apart, and it seems as if there’s nothing we can do.

But there is.

I have an idea, and I have made an arrangement that not many of you will like. Should we fail to save the net, maybe I will be forever judged as the one who put the final nail in its coffin. But if we succeed, I hope that history is kind and forgives this transgression.

I can say no more here, as I am afraid of what might happen if the information reaches the wrong ears.

All I will say is this. I cannot do this alone; I need volunteers. Each of us has a stake in the internet’s survival. Though many of us are no doubt trying to prevent the net’s downfall in their own ways, I hope that enough of you will trust me enough to join my crusade.

If you are willing, head over to the Zephyr node. Welcome to Project December. And… thank you.

Benjamin Frost

Virtual Adept

So what can I play?

You are one of the gods of the internet. Whatever your background, whether your skills developed with your intention or not, you see information and cyberspace for what it truly is – a new reality based on information alone. Whether you regard your abilities as magical or not, you have them and they set you apart from normal people. You may just do this in your spare time while holding down a proper job, or you may have sunk so deep into cyberspace that you can hardly bear mundane reality anymore.

The majority of characters will be Virtual Adepts, visionaries of the information age, people for whom the internet is an exciting opportunity to further human development.

A few characters may, if they like, be members of a parallel group within the Technocracy. For the technocrats, the internet is one of many tools to monitor and control the people for their own good. Just like the Virtual Adepts, though, they have a vested interest in keeping the net running.

Despite their common goal, these two factions are at what amounts to an ideological war with each other. Therefore, I’d ask that whatever side you pick, you do not mention both your character’s handle and their ideology in any out-of-character discussion. I want the characters finding out about each other and their goals and mindsets to be entirely in-character.

I will enforce > 80% Virtual Adept characters, so if you create a Technocrat character please don’t be offended if I ask you to change your character to a VA.

Your character can be anywhere in the world, any nationality, any age or sex, any social standing and wield any amount of real-world power. The internet is the great leveller – online, you are nothing but your handle and your ideas.

Your powers may have developed gradually with heavy net use, they might have been taught to you by a VA (although you wouldn’t have realised it at the time), or you – rarely – might even have been born with them.

It is hard – but not impossible – to find out about the Virtual Adepts (or the Technocracy) by mundane means. After your powers came to you, though, it would have been significantly easier, and it would be quite likely that one or other (or both) of the groups found you before you had a chance to find them.

Who is Benjamin Frost?

Whether by e-mail, a post on a secret BBS or by some more esoteric means, you’ve come across this information that Ben Frost is setting up something called “Project December”, an attempt to combat the Millennium Bug meme and save the internet and the information it contains from an uncertain future.

Although Virtual Adepts do not have a formal hierarchy, Ben is a renowned expert on virtual reality environments and network security. He is percieved by most as trustworthy although a little distant, mostly too wrapped up in his own miniature VR worlds to interact with the other Virtual Adepts much. He seems an unlikely wannabe saviour of the internet, but perhaps the instability of the entire network has affected even his own personal playgrounds.

These days he prefers to be known by his real name, although he does on occasion go by one of his old handles, ‘EmptySky’. He is 34 years old, and is a professor of Virtual Interfaces at Cornell University, New York.