Redux: Headspace

Originally posted on Google+ in May 2016:

Ran a one-shot game of Headspace with my “Playing Games for Girls” crew last night. Character creation took longer than I would have liked, but we wound up with some very cool characters with some nice tangled up backstories.

My wife played *Brooklyn, the Runner*. When *Hieronimus, the Infiltrator* went on the run from Trauma-One, Brooklyn is the one who gave her a place to hide out. Once, when the group had busted into a 3H black site to crack their servers for vital intel, *Jaxie, the Tech* took too long while hacking the system… and Brooklyn made the call to leave her behind and save the rest of the Cell — she has no guilt about this decision. On a previous operation, her problem with “self-medication” had her off her game, and Pacific Security shot up her car and left her in a flaming wreck — that *Curie, the Whitecoat* pulled her from.

My friend K played *Hieronimus, the Infiltrator*. She’s a showboat and  egotistical, and its always *Brooklyn* telling her to calm the fuck down: like that time she backed down from some Pacific Securities goons, (those same goons hurt some civilians pretty bad not long after, though). Early on, when *Curie, the Whitecoat* was only just beginning to leave her masters at Aesculapian Labs, Hieronimus forged the papers that got her family out and away from Vancouver to safety. To prove that she could help the team, the newcomer *Jaxie, the Tech* set out to expunge all traces of Hieronimus’ old life from the wetspace: no work history for Trauma-One, no warrants for arrest, no bounties on the side, no corporate kill orders… but Hieronimus witnessed Jaxie go too far when she dug into the life of the T1 supervisor responsible for all this and tormented him, ruined his life, threatened his family, and doxxed him. Hieronimus fears Jaxie.

My friend B played *Curie, the Whitecoat*. When *Jaxie, the Tech* joined the group, she dug up some dirt on the hacker and discovered that she once worked for multimedia/news powerhouse Applied Optimism… where she was central to more than one long-term project where public figures were terrorized into suicide. She provides *Brooklyn* with her drug fix, whatever it might be; Brooklyn likes to keep total control of her body, whether its painkillers for her artificial legs, uppers for that runner’s high, downers to even her out on a mission, and everything in between. Curie takes solace in the fact that Brooklyn is coming to _her_ for drugs, and isn’t getting this stuff out on the street. Once, out of a petty need to antagonize her former Aesculapian Lab’s superior, Curie convinced *Hieronimus* to break into his highrise penthouse and steal a priceless treasure the supervisor prided himself on; in the end, Hieronimus returned with it and several gunshot wounds from the security force she encountered… Curie still regrets doing this.

My friend C played *Jaxie, the Tech*. On an operation the Cell pulled out in the deep Devastation Zone of Vancouver, she rigged up a pirate-band GPS that piggypacked off Corporate satellites for *Brooklyn* to ensure she wouldn’t get lost; it didn’t fucking work, and Brooklyn was left stranded and blindsided with no backup. She got out, but it means she doesn’t trust Jaxie’s tech. When she worked for Applied Optimism in the past, one of her assignments involved monitoring *Curie, the Whitecoat*’s family and keeping tabs on them; AO had a vested interest in the Aesculapian Labs employee, and were learning everything they could before making move — Curie has no idea Jaxie once did this. When she finally ditched out on AO, Jaxie turned to the rest of our protagonists — but *Hieronimus* didn’t trust her chops, so she proved her usefulness by Hieronimus’ criminal records from wetspace and defusing a number of high-profile bounties out for her head.

The group wanted to lay the smackdown on Pacific Security Solutions, so we set up to run an operation against them. The “current project” listed for PSS in the Quickstart is to remove civilian authority from Vancouver’s police force and takeover as the de facto law officers. As per “It All Went Sideways…” in the Quickstart, I gave the Corporation total victory on one of their Milestone Clocks and chose the Cost Clock — I figured, money-wise, they had successfully penned some kind of deal with the powers-that-be and now were properly licensed contractors working with the police force. Rather than working only in the Devastation Zone, they now had a presence in the Reclaimed Zones, giving them notoriety and publicity and the chance to showcase their abilities to the public.

Also as per “Sideways…” I chose what Milestone the Cell would be tackling for the one shot, and picked the Quality Milestone. Pacific Security needs to make themselves look great while simultaneously making the Vancouver police look inept, to subtly push for a shift in policing oversight. Tapped the players to break down three objectives that, if completed, could derail their effort to make the police look incompetent.  We came up with:

1) PSS, using their new positions inside the police, have opted to intentionally leave gaps in the security between the devastation zone and the reclaimed zone of Surrey so that the poverty-stricken and angry can exercise their tempers on the general populace. If they can stop this gang violence from expanding into and endangering lives in Surrey, it will help.

2) PSS has instituted harsh rationing this month, and everyone is on edge… however, there’s no _need_ for this rationing. There is enough food to calm tempers (if not to meet everyone’s needs), but it has all been stockpiled in an out-of-the-way Vancouver police lock-up by Pacific Security. They’ve pulled out all the stops to make it look like the VPD is hoarding goods, and they’ve leaked just enough info to the public that protestors are _going_ to find it, and when they do? Oof. Trust in the city officials is already at an all-time low. If the Cell can find the lock-up, get the food, and distribute it, they can calm the populace.

3) PSS has been orchestrating all of this, and there’s got to be a paper trail out there somewhere. If the Cell can get hard evidence that PSS organized the gang attacks, hid the food, is framing the police, and has an agenda here, that will put a huge nail in their coffin… as long as the rest of their plan doesn’t succeed.

We started things off at their most immediately concerning. The Cell had arrived at the security checkpoint between Surrey and Whiterock, and found it abandoned by PSS and a stream of local criminal Have-Nots taking advantage of the scenario to come wreck the Haves. What might have been a moderately dangerous conversation or thrashing became something else when PSS revealed themselves in the buildings on either side of checkpoint and opened fire on the Cell and gangs, setting off a conflict the group had no chance of surviving.

They fled in a van that their Handler, Stacker, had prepped for them — but she was killed by gunfire while evacuating the rest of the crew. The Cell’s Ronin, Callahan, was the one hanging out of the van as Brooklyn drove, firing after the PSS bastards who killed her lover. Sadly, Callahan was taken out in a hail of machine gun fire following the sudden appearance of a PSS Predator drone.

This was our “Everything Went Sideways…” initiating moment; the way the whole plan fell apart. This is also how we justified our four person Cell: the Handler and the Ronin dying when it all went to shit, leaving the rest of the group without a leader and without their muscle. As Stacker and Callahan died, though, some piece of them hung on in the Headspace — continuing on as a Ghost Operator, and leaving their Contingency Skill and Firearms Skill for the rest of the Cell to use.

So we ran with it from there: piled into this van, blood everywhere, driving like lunatics through one of the only civilized parts of dystopian Vancouver, being pursued by this machine gun/missile-laden predator drone. Hieronimus, cradling Callahan’s body in her lap and arms, takes the Ronin’s assault rifle picks up where she left off: opening up on the fucker, and does some serious damage to it, but in the process is so consumed with rage that she expends the entire clip and is left fumbling to reload when the drone lines up its next shot.

Brooklyn deftly maneuvers the van, snapping around a corner and sending the thing ploughing down some stairs and through this plaza — people fleeing left and right and staying clear of the high speed pursuit. The drone’s bullets go wide, shredding through local scenery, but the vehicle doesn’t take any (more) damage (than it already has). Brooklyn is shouting for someone in the van to DO something please.

Jaxie has her micro-drone in the air, giving herself a bird’s eye view of the pursuit because her drone is jacked into the wetspace computer embedded in her brain. Because of the Headspace that connects all their minds simultaneously, this lets Brooklyn keep her eyes on the road while her mind is watching the Cell’s back. Jaxie starts multitasking, and tries to hijack the Drone’s wireless controls to get it off their asses. She makes some progress, getting into a cyber arm-wrestling match with whoever is flying the thing… and she realizes that if she follows the control signal back to its source, she _knows_ there will be PSS dirt on the other end.

Brooklyn wants to get the hell out of here, regroup elsewhere, but Jaxie insists they stay within range of the drone so she can do this digging. This causes some strife in the group, bumping up some of the emotions in the headspace, and making things more difficult for the Cell. Hieronimus is reloading with the last clip that Callahan had on her body.

The Headspace is nearly overwhelmed with Grief, threatening to hit all of them with complications, so Curie activates the cybernetics in her body and doses them all with an upper: the Grief they’re all feeling over the murder of their two Cellmates evaporates from their minds… Hieronimus loses her shit on Curie for doing that to them, and Curie tells her that they can grieve later if they survive.

Brooklyn uses her knowledge of Vancouver to juke the drone pursuing them; she charges down this alley, skids into a hairpin turn, guns it back the direction they were coming from, and cuts across an industrial yard before slamming on the breaks in this outdoor market beneath an overhanging tin roof. The crowd parts in a panic when the van comes flying through, but they begin to press in on the vehicle again: curiosity about the battle-damaged ride overwhelming their better sense. Tapped into their minidrone’s feed, they can see the predator making loops around the area, getting lower and lower as it tries to find them again.

Jaxie follows the ‘thread’ connecting the Drone to its master, meanwhile, and it leads her to a local police precinct in Surrey. In a wetspace scene, we follow her net Avatar as it slinks into the police mainframe (characterized as looking like a large police station, where different computer functions mirror different departments). She finds the drone operator in the drone garage, alone — no one else around to keep tabs on what he’s using their systems for — and she finds he’s also plugged into the precincts internal messaging and archives (which looks like a mail room). She finds that this guy is running a program with his brain to doctor police records and plant false documents, setting up the evidence for the rest of PSS’s plan to discredit the police. Jaxie gets her hands on the change log on the system before the PSS goon can go in and scrub his tracks.

I rule that this gives them 1 Check in their “Get Evidence” Objective. They already chose to have 1 Check there when they started, as part of the “It All Went Sideways…” scenario set-up. That made the objective 2/0 in their favor. When an Objective gets three Checks, it is considered resolved in favor of whoever has the majority.

So the van is stopped, Jaxie is brain hacking, and Curie is looking out the windows, scoping out the market stalls and the two big buildings that they’re wedged between and she notes this pair of big roll-up doors on one of them. They give a clear shot through the warehouse out onto the street on the other side of the block, and if the Cell moves now, they’ll buy themselves more time when the drone inevitably finds their junker of a car.

Curie makes the call, and opens the door up — and the crowd starts freaking out as they see Callahan’s bloody body and all of these operators covered in gore. Brooklyn joins Curie and takes point, followed by Jaxie who is now hacking with a small hardspace terminal in her hands while running using Brooklyn’s mental guidance. Taking up the rear is Hieronimus, hanging onto Callahan’s assault rifle but leaving the body behind. It’s a little upsetting to the Cell, but it’s what needs to be done. They cross the work floor of the warehouse, darting between forklifts and foreman, and as they come out the far side onto the street they hear — and feel — the explosion behind them when the drone finds and immediately blows up their van with missile fire.

Brooklyn knows where they are, and she guides the Cell to a carpark that will give them cover and give them the chance to grab a new set of wheels. Unfortunately, the place is bit of a hike and in the process — with Brooklyn giving directions to Jaxie’s brain without telling her where they were going — they go out of range on her microdrone and it shuts down, tumbling to the ground somewhere in the neighborhood. On the bright side, Jaxie also feels the predator drone go out of range, its operator thinking its job is done.

Into the car park they all go, except Hieronimus who catches sight — looking down to the end of the street — of the criminal gangs expanding throughout the neighborhood. The Cell has been on the defensive, and the gangs have had plenty of time to get around and start sowing chaos. She can hear their gunfire, and can see them lobbing molotov cocktails, and generally creating chaos. She breaks off from the Cell, and drawing on Stacker’s Contingency skill she remembers a back-up plan that Stacker had already put in place.

She finds a dumpster where Stacker had stashed a bandolier of knock-out gas, and she rushes the tide of rioters at the far end of the street. Charging into the intersection, she starts pulling pins and chucking these smoking canisters up and down the length to try and tag as many of them as possible — but finds herself in danger when one of the criminals tackles her and wraps his arms around her and begins squeezing. Unable to bring the rifle to bear, she falls back on her Martial Arts and gets loose, throwing the giant oaf into one of his accomplices with ease and grace. She takes off, running back towards the cell. I went ahead and counted this as making progress towards stopping the gangland incursion objective, and gave them 1 Check there.

Back at the parking deck, Jaxie has busted the window on an anti-grav spinner car and hotwired the thing despite Brooklyn’s insistence on getting a nice plain down-to-earth, not-flashy car. Fuck that shit, Jaxie says. It’s on the sixth level, they all pile in, and the waist-high barrier facing the outside world flips down like the back of a truck and Brooklyn takes the spinner out, its turbines whirring loudly as it goes. She swings it around, and — knowing where Hieronimus is because of the Headspace implant, heads down the street to pick her up. Using the turbines to blow the spinner’s exhaust in the faces of the rioters still pursuing Hieronimus, Brooklyn provides cover and opens the wing-style door for the Infiltrator to jump into the vehicle as it hovers. And away they go!

As they’re getting altitude and planning their next move, Curie sets her eyes on the situation developing below: from up here, she can see the rioters spreading out further into the neighborhood from where they breached the checkpoint. She also sees the cordons the police have set up a few blocks out from the rioters to contain and control the flow of civilian traffic… but she realizes that these police checkpoints are directing civilians _towards_ the gang violence, the gunshots, and the fires. While processing this, she also spots a fully decked out PSS riot team on one of the taller buildings in the area, using radios to coordinate the police activity below. It’s all PSS, manipulating the situation to increase the violence and make the VPD look inept!

The Cell decides to act, tackling two problems at once: Hieronimus and Curie are dropped street level to try and turn back a crowd of civilians before they charge, panicking, headlong into a swarm of criminals with a bone to pick. Then, Brooklyn and Jaxie take the spinner back up and try to recover the Tech’s microdrone from wherever it crashed, pinging it with her brain until a connection is reestablished.

Hieronimus and Curie stand in the middle of this deserted street, with the rioters moments from pouring down the avenue with their assault rifles and firebombs, and the civilians escorted by PSS posing as VPD (thinking they’re on their way to safety) rounding the corner at this very moment. The pair of them are unsure of what to do; how can they defuse this situation before it turns into violence.

Then Curie remembers that she and Hieronimus are still covered in blood and gore. They immediately start putting on this act that they were just attacked by the rioters, telling the civilians to turn around and run away; to get out of here before they get hurt… and damn, that Psychological trick is right up Curie’s alley, so it works perfectly. Of course, at that point the PSS military guys lose their shit and see through the facade: they’ve seen plenty of wartime action to know the two Operators are faking. Out come the guns, and the street becomes a shooting gallery. On the plus side, getting the civilians clear also did wonders for stopping the gang violence, so they got a second Check in that objective.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn and Jaxie located the downed microdrone and were pleased to discover it was — while scuffed and a little damaged — still functional. They brought the spinner around, getting close enough to where the PSS riot team was holding position, and released the drone to spy on them. With its integrated microphone and cameras, they got evidence of the PSS team intentionally driving Vancouver civilians into danger zones where the rioting gangs could harm them.

Though they got all this juicy dirt, it required them to stand idly by while all of these orders were given, trying to get something incriminating — in the end, some people got hurt and some property damage was done, so I gave the Corporation 1 Check on the “promote gang violence” project. That meant the project had 3 Checks: 1 Corporate/2 Operators, so the PCs got what they wanted but I got to give a concession to the corporate plot. They went with “There was no major loss of life in the gang riots,” and I appended “but the criminal elements of the Devastation Zone have seized the neighborhood by the checkpoint and added it to their territory.”

Meanwhile, back at the shoot out.

Hieronimus, ducking gunfire, pulls her hood up and engages her thermoptic cloak, vanishing from sight and moving stealthily enough that Pacific Security loses track of her. Sadly, Curie doesn’t have this benefit and tries to Parkour her way to safety with the skills borrowed from Brooklyn’s mind — but flubs the roll. I describe this wall of gunfire coming for her from these crooked military assholes, and Curie’s mind suddenly dredges up these blocked off memories for the entire Cell to see. She thinks she’s going to die, and she lets the Cell in on why she does this.

In Headspace, you can turn a failed roll into a full success by revealing your character’s secret regret, the dark secret that has motivated you to change sides; to turn your back on your corporate cyberpunk masters and try to make a world worth living in. That’s what Curie’s player did here. You narrate your dark regret, you get a full success, and you build up Sync — a currency that the party can hold onto to negate emotional stress, or spend to go above and beyond and buy further successes.

Curie’s dark secret, playing out in everyone’s mind, is that when she worked for Aesculapian Laboratories, she was on the team responsible for creating a cure for the Vancouver Tsunami plague that is ravaging the population. She knew that the work they were doing was going nowhere, that they didn’t have a viable cure, and she told her supervisor… and he threatened her employment, her credentials, and the preferential treatment Curie’s family was getting in the city. So, Curie backed down. She let the “cure” that she knew was a failure enter production, and let it be distributed to the populace. All of the plague deaths since are on her conscience.

Snapping back to the present, the Cell is suddenly in Sync. They understand each other better than before; they all understand why Curie is doing what she’s doing. They’ve all had to do the sorts of things Curie has done, and feeling that moment from her point of view, feeling her pain, their empathy is absolute. And that drives and pushes Curie, and with a dive over a parking bench and a swing off of a fire escape, she is able to evade the corporate gunfire and put distance between them and her.

With Curie on the run from the Pacific Security forces now gunning for her, Jaxie wraps up what she’s doing. She hacks her way into the Pacific Security radios, hijacking their frequency — simultaneously, she dumps all of the dirt she has found today (the videos, the files) onto her personal blog, which is a hotspot for hacker chats. It takes no time for her circle of friends to start spamming every number in the area with links to what she’s uploaded. And then, Jaxie uses that newfound radio connection and announces herself to all of the civilians being “escorted” by PSS posing as police: “Hello, Vancouver. This is the Jackal.”

With the Cell in perfect Sync, Jaxie is buoyed by confidence and has no problem Coaxing the civilian crowds into clicking the links and videos and files now blowing up their phones and their computer-brains. Appropriately, I give them their 3rd and final Check in the “find evidence of PSS’ conspiracy” objective. With unmitigated victory, the players get to declare exactly what they want out of it and they decide they want “widespread, deep civilian distrust of Pacific Security Solutions.”

In minutes, everything that PSS has been setting up for for weeks is _torn down._ The civilians surrounding them start turning and running the other way, they start heckling them, they start recording them on their cybereyes and cell phones. In no time “Fuck da P.S.!” is a motto circulating among the people.

And that was where we called it for the night. The Operators accomplished two of their three objectives, meaning there is no way that Pacific Security Solutions is going to take control of the police force in Vancouver — however, with one Objective left to go (“find and distribute the hoarded food before PSS can frame the police”) it is possible for the Corporation to come from behind and secure a concession and get _something_ that they want out of this mess.

The Operators have no idea where the food is being stored, but with the files they have they can probably find a starting point… but with public distrust of the PSS so pervasive, there’s no way they’re going to be out on the streets. They’re going to pull back and cover what’s important. The Cell is going to have a hell of a fight on their hands.

Here’s hoping that maybe we’ll play again!

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