Monday, January 15, 2018

Could Ingress Be A Decent RPG Setting?

Ingress is an interesting beast. It's a mobile game and has some MMO features. It's capture the flag using your smartphone, and is the direct predecessor to Pokemon Go and the inspiration for efforts by other companies, such as the game Delta-T.

There's potential for a decent RPG buried in the Ingress backstory. The premise is that there is "Exotic Matter" (or XM) that when certain people ("sensitives") are exposed to it they can do awesome stuff. XM is the catalyst for inspiring artists, scientists, thinkers, innovators, etc. throughout history. But there are some extra-dimensional entities that have an interest in the stuff, who have been meddling with humanity's affairs for a very long time. Once the knowledge of XM leaked out of the original lab researching it, two factions arose to battle over how the XM was used - one trying to help the extra-dimensional entities and the other trying to stop them. Beyond that, various research companies have started privately experimenting with XM to create new technologies. The macguffin is the "scanner", a mobile app that was leaked out to the world that allows regular people to interact with XM on their smartphones.

In the end, it's psionic secret agents allied for or against extra dimensional beings, corporations, and each other, for the fate of mankind. Or something.

These agents often look something like this
The enormously obtuse and disjointed storyline behind the game is played out largely through G+ posts from "characters" in the game - most of whom are paid actors who also show up at the Ingress events - and people who are just interested in pontificating on the clues and other bits that are revealed. It has little impact on day-to-day gameplay, with only occasional short term changes that tweak the rules for a week or two. Most players ignore the unfolding storyline, with only a handful of dedicated G+ communities and chats discussing it. A small subset of the people who follow the storyline have put together and hosted Remote Participation Exercises (or RPEs) to further play out events in the game. While these RPEs are tied into setting-specific things within the Ingress fiction, out of game they amount to roleplaying sessions.

So now we have a mobile ARG that is using tabletop games to play out stuff that would happen in the ARG.



When I first heard of the rpg sessions, I admit thinking it was kind of a neat idea. A lot of the action that happens in the backstory isn't expressed in the game itself - for all of the cool spy-stuff-with-powers that goes on, the actual players are just nerds staring at their smartphones. So I tracked down the rules for the rpg sessions, at least what there are of them.

They're pretty incomplete, which is to be expected (this isn't published or anything). It's basically a d20 clone with some tweaks here and there. It's not balanced in any way - just looking at the stat bonuses for various character choices I see the min-maxing potential. It has a couple novel things such as an option to generate stats based on your Ingress game profile. Likewise, advancement for the characters is tied to Ingress game advancement. Unfortunately, Ingress itself has no roleplaying element (unless you count trolling) - and advancement boils down to how much time you put into the game versus any kind of skill. So that retiree who spends eight hours a day running around town playing Ingress? They could totally have a kickass character in this.

And for you non-Ingressers out there who are surprised someone would spend hours and hours every day playing, it happens more often than you think. I went through a phase myself where I was playing 3-4 hours at a time, nearly every day. Fortunately, I got better.

Oh yeah, and apparently characters don't die, they "recurse" and come back. This is likely tied to some backstory thing within the RPEs that isn't explained in the document (again, I play Ingress but don't follow the meta stuff). It seems that at least a few of the sessions involved some kind of remote viewing into the past so the recursion kind of makes sense. There are also hints throughout that actions from the mobile game - capturing portals, building them, hacking for gear - are directly represented in the game sessions. While this is a big part of the mobile game, in an rpg.....meh. This would be the equivalent of roleplaying gold farming in WoW or something.

So Smartass, How Would You Do it?

My intention here isn't to dog on the efforts to put this together, or the people who are obviously enjoying these sessions. Well, there is one thing - using the word "mundanes" to describe ordinary people. I've always had a huge problem with the usage of that word, it reeks of nerd pretentiousness. But from the OGL implementation to the kind of oddball things in the rules, I'd definitely do it differently.

There's a huge dichotomy between the NPCs embodied by the ARG characters and the schmuck on the street playing the game. The hordes of Ingress players, in setting, are just gathering data for the researchers, with the added bonus of throwing in with one side or the other to try to control portals - but with no established endgame they don't do anything important. So, as a basis for PCs, they're subsequently boring (besides, I don't think any rpg where you're supposed to start out playing yourself has ever turned out well. You remember Immortal: The Invisible War, right?).

So a high-tech thriller, corporate espionage angle seems like the way to go, with the PCs being  XM sensitives - either agents of one of the factions/corporations/etc. or on the run from them (or the government, because who knows where the fuck the government is in the official storyline). System-wise, Fate Core or FAE would seem to be good fits (because to me they're always good fits). The XM and Dark XM from the existing RPG adaptation look a lot like stress tracks to me; the Archetypes/Anti-Archetypes look like good candidates for Aspects, which give permission to stunts based on the already described abilities.

From a mechanical perspective, I'd ditch the direct correlations between mobile game actions and how they're represented in the fiction. The routine of capture portals, upgrade portals, hack portals, link portals, create control fields is mindlessly repetitive and great for when you're commuting to work or standing in line at Disneyland. And if you don't get what any of those things means that's okay - just imagine doing the same thing every day, day in and day out. So, kind of like life. Doing that in an rpg isn't exciting.

The first step there would be to make sure that those actions are important. Reducing the size of the "portal network" is a first step - hanging out at Jamba Juice or a memorial bench isn't particularly thrilling. These are supposed to be places of power. Similarly, linking or upgrading the portal (again, if this makes no sense to you just think of an  RTS or something where you can improve on towers or whatever) should be meaningful. Occasionally Ingress has special events where objects called shards manifest at certain portals, and they have to be moved on to target portals so that the shards can be brought together into a complete set. That kind of thing should be the focus of the portals in an rpg setting. Now you get globe-hopping psionic secret agents fighting for control of places of power in fantastic locations. That tagline has potential.

The whole thing would obviously require some fleshing out, but that's the beginning of how I'd do it for an Ingress rpg. At some point in the future I might take a more complete crack at it.