I Remember Now...
It's 1984, and the Cold War is in full swing. In America, it's a time of greed, paranoia and murder, awash in neon lights. Big Business, Big Government, Big Media, Big Religion - monolithic organizations are everywhere, and the distinction between them blurs more and more each day. Urban desperation grows as domestic spending plummets, the money being funneled into foreign wars to protect interests that seem to have less and less to do with the common man. The rich sit in their towers of steel and glass, their cocaine-fueled orgies keeping them blissfully unaware of apathetic to the plight of those below. Crack is just starting to hit the streets, hollowing out the ghettos. The AIDS virus is spreading like wildfire but few know and even fewer care, terrorism is still something that happens in other parts of the world, and the threat of nuclear annihilation hangs over the country like a palpable shadow. Marvin Gaye and John Lennon are dead, while Reagan and Thacher live, despite the best efforts of would-be assassins. Smoking is allowed in public buildings, but if someone offers you drugs, you Just Say No.
You're a good citizen, you believe in the American Dream, but when you look around, all you see are people and organizations perverting that dream, taking advantage of the weaknesses of others. It's gotten to the point where even someone like you can see that something is wrong, that the system is broken, that there needs to be Change.
But what kind of an impact can one person have on an entire system? The thought haunts your dreams at night. Who are you? Are you perpetuating the system by participating in it? Even if you chose not to participate, what could you realistically do? Do you even have any choice at all, or are you just playing out the part you were destined to perform from the day you were born?
Doctor X has the answer. The figurehead for a mysterious organization known as the Underground, he preaches a gospel of change. All he needs are some dedicated operatives, and he can bring an end to the insanity. He can make you certain of things again, make the world make sense again. All you need to do is join the cause. Through a series of injections and indoctrination techniques, you're able to leave the questions behind. You can rest at night again. Things make sense for the first time in a long time, and you leave your life, your job, your friends and your family behind to join the cause.
Doctor X's treatments have turned you into something more than human. You're an Operative now, one of many, a part of a Movement, dedicated to a single purpose: Change. You have been Chosen, and you have a duty - carry out the orders passed along from high above in the Underground, no questions asked. Deliver a package, kill a man, it's all the same. They call, you answer.
As time passes, though, the doubts are starting to creep back in, the edges of your certainty curling before the flame of your misgivings. You can't help but think that you've lost something along the way. Days, weeks spent in a chair by the window in your run down apartment, waiting for the phone call that will activate you, give you purpose again. Is this the best you could have done?
Then the phone rings, the voice whispers, "Mindcrime", and all the questions are washed away.
Breaking the Silence
Regardless, you feel a void within yourself, where once you were filled, and you seek out something, anything to make the hurt go away.
Waiting for 22
As the Fallen continue to multiply, the Underground realizes that they must change their ways of doing things. Lone Wolves can only be kept on leashes for so long before they turn on their masters, and so they shift to a cell-based system. One day there was a knock at the door, and an unfamiliar face shuffled inside. Then another, and another after that. You recognized them immediately, not because you'd met them before, but rather because of the Look - the same Look that you see in the mirror every single day.
Now you spend your nights, all of you, staring at the same phone. It has a speaker attached to it now, but its purpose is the same. When They call, you answer, and you're given your Mission.
Eyes of a Stranger
You're starting to feel uneasy. It's getting harder and harder for you to make it through the day. The doubts are multiplying, and you're asking questions not only about yourself, but about the Underground. You ask, but silently, to yourself, always to yourself. You wonder - who is Doctor X? What is the Underground, and whose interests do you serve, really? Are you creating Change? And if so, what is that change creating? You think that maybe, some of the others might be thinking the same thing, but you don't dare ask them, because what if it's just you? Have you Fallen? Are the haunted looks in their eyes signs that they're just as desperate as you, or are they waiting for someone to reveal themselves? What if they're only here to root out the Fallen before they Fall?
Every morning, you see yourself in the mirror, and you recognize less and less of yourself, and you wonder - how long until I'm gone completely? How long until the Me that I remember is gone?
From a system perspective, to make things easier, I'm thinking of running it using Sine Nomine's Stars Without Numbers ruleset. Obviously, no psychics, you're either a warrior or a specialist, and no Tech above Level 3. Further, some of the Background packages won't make sense in this setting either, but I think there's enough in there to make this work. I may write up a few new backgrounds to fit the game more solidly into the setting, but for now the only things I'm adding are two Attributes and a Skill.
Attribute - Purpose. This represents your level of indoctrination. The higher your score, the greater your devotion to the Underground, and the more willing you are to do what is asked of you, without question. Your Purpose is what gets you up in the morning, keeps you going during the day and allows you and your party to work together. Your natural inclination is to be alone, to work alone, but your Purpose unites you.
Attribute - Sanity. Doctor X's treatment works, but at the cost of the mental health of the subject. The treatments are sandpaper, working the wood of the subject's mind to get it to conform. Every time a subject is forced to do something that runs counter to their nature, they lose a bit of who they were. The Sanity attribute is rolled with 1d12+2, rather than 3d6 - the Underground doesn't pick people they can't control - only those who are already unstable are chosen.
These attribute scores should never be shared by the players with each other, nor should the results of any rolls associated with these attributes - these should be between the player and the GM. None of the party should ever be truly sure of where the loyalties of their compatriots lie.
Mechanically, the Purpose attribute should always be rolled before Sanity, and the Purpose modifier subtracted from the Sanity Score. So if you have a -1 modifier to your Purpose attribute, add it to your Sanity Score. Conversely, your Sanity modifier is always applied to Purpose checks.
Skill - Relationship - Yeah, I know it's not technically a skill, but it fits within the context of what I'm going for. Your relationship is the grasping hands and last few breaths of a drowning man. It's what you use to remind yourself that you're human. A friend, a family member or a lover, your relationships act as a bulwark between you and Doctor X's treatment, a tenuous link between who you are and who you were. Your skill level reflects the intensity of this relationship, for good or for ill (not all relationships are necessarily good ones). Your score in the relationship can be used to modify a Sanity or Purpose check once per hour. This skill cannot be chosen as an initial skill for any character, it must be developed as progress. Further, the skill can be lost, and the loss of that relationship can be deadly. A loss of access to a relationship results in a permanent loss of 1d3 Sanity points.
"Mindcrime" is the keyword, implanted in every member of the Underground. When the PC is activated, they should make a Purpose check. Again, to reiterate, the result of the check should not be shared with other PCs. How you proceed on your mission should be determined by how you roll. If you pass the check, your goal is the success of the mission. If you fail the check, the choice is yours - do you carry on with the mission, or do you try and undermine it, somehow? Either way, you must keep up appearances, for fear that the other members of your party will turn you in to your superiors.
Any Purpose check that succeeds by 5 or more points results in a loss of 1 Sanity point. This is permanent. For example, if the difficulty of the Purpose check is 10, and a 3 is rolled, the character loses 1 point of Sanity.
If a character's Sanity level reaches zero, they snap. How that happens is up to the player, but it should be consistent with the character's background, and how they have been played up until that point. It need not be an instantaneous action, they may continue to try and hide within the group, but it should be increasingly obvious to the rest of the party that something is wrong.
Murder, infiltration, robbery, assassination, you do what you're told, in the name of a better tomorrow. But who's better tomorrow will end up being shaped? That should always be ambiguous. You don't know your superiors, you can't trust the members of your cell, you can't even trust yourself.
The main themes of the game are Identity and Change. Here is a list of questions that should be asked as the game progresses:
- What is the nature of the organization you're working for?
- It promises Change, but what type of change?
- Can it accomplish that Change?
- As bad as things are, is change inherently good?
- Who are you?
- Are you the master of your own destiny, or have you turned it over to the Underground?
- Will you ever break free of your conditioning, and even if you do, will there be anything left of your old self?
- At the end of it all, will you be sane enough for anyone to believe what you've got to say?
Why Am I Here, and For How Long?
The Underground recruits all types of people, from all walks of life. Police Officers, ex-military, office managers, receptionists, artists, doctors, scientists, accountants, priests, the homeless, there is room for everyone in the Underground, and they all serve a purpose.
Nikki - A heroin addict and would-be political radical frustrated with contemporary society, he was manipulated into joining a supposed secret organization dedicated to revolution. He will beat, rob or kill anyone, if they only ask nicely, and promise him a full needle when he's done..
Sister Mary - At the age of 16, she ran away from home, and ended up working live S&M shows in Times Square, until she was taken in by Father William, an associate of Doctor X. A member of the Our Lady of Pain Cloister, she does the bidding of the Underground. She's quick with a knife, but she knows that violence isn't the only way to get a job done - sometimes a caress can wound just as deeply as a blade.
Joe Palumbo - Until recently, he was Officer Palumbo, but he had a temper, and a bad habit of beating the suspects. Folks looked the other way when it was junkies that he was smacking around, but when he put the hurt on a suspected child murderer who also happened to be the heir apparent to the Lockwood fortune, he was kicked off the force, and Lockwood went free. It didn't take much convincing to get him to sign up.
Dogman - Nobody ever pays attention to Dogman. Dogman lives on a heating grate at the foot of the Billings Building. Every day, he watches the rich and powerful go in and out, laughing and clapping each other on the back as they celebrate their success. Nobody knows that Dogman has a photographic memory. Nobody except the Underground. Now he collects license plate numbers and faces, and every once in awhile, he does a little more for them. If the cops ever found his stash of trophies, he'd be in big trouble.
But nobody ever pays attention to Dogman.
Having nothing to lose makes him a perfect candidate for the Underground.
Spreading the Disease
Further resources to aid in getting the "feel" of the setting:
Music Videos from Operation: Mindcrime - straight from the source
Suite Sister Mary
I Don't Believe In Love
Eyes of a Stranger
Pink Floyd's the Wall - Ever wondered what a descent into madness looks like? I think it's safe to say that Operation: Mindcrime owes quite a bit to the Wall. It's thematically similar, and there are passages from the album that seem to be lifted almost whole cloth. You can't have one without the other, so if you're not familiar with both, familiarize yourself.
Wall Street - the greed and excess of the 80s, encapsulated in two hours.
Cobra - pure Stallone cheese, but it's got the gritty 80s vibe down pat, and the cult is pretty creepy, what with the axes and all.
Falling Down - Not 80s, but a good look at how a normal, average citizen becomes fed up with society
Basic Instinct - Another one technically not in the 80s, but close enough
Just about anything by Bret Easton Ellis - yes yes, American Psycho, but there are other works that are more relevant here - Less Than Zero and the Rules of Attraction in particular. If you're the tl;dr type, there have been movies made of all three, but I'd recommend the books over the movies.
The Punisher MAX - an adults only version of the Punisher, written by Garth Ennis. Not the Marvel Knights version (although that is great, just not relevant), the series after that. Two story arcs in particular stand out - In the Beginning is a tale of obsession and murder, while The Slavers shows the depths of depravity capable of those with power.
The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon - The 1962 movie is worth watching, if only to see sweet old Angela Lansbury portray one of the most terrifying female villains of all time, but I'm putting it here because the book is much more of a psychological thriller. Sergeant Shaw is a bit of a jerk even before he's turned, and never fights too hard against his programming, but it's an interesting look at brainwashing from the inside.
The Atrocity Exhibition, by JG Ballard - Years ahead of its time, if you don't know, now you know.
Queensryche - Operation: Mindcrime - obviously.
Pink Floyd - The Wall - Yep, again. The album is different from the movie, and they're both more than worthy.
Joy Division - Closer - released two months after Ian Curtis' suicide, the album was influenced by the Atrocity Exhibition, listed above, and is every bit as nihilistic as you might imagine.
Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables - it has a little more sardonic humor than I'm shooting for here, but the message is there, and it's potent.