Thursday, August 06, 2009

No One Ever Looks Up

The first adventure for my free roleplaying game RealTime, the first roleplaying game played in real time, was originally going to be an adventure titled No One Ever Looks Up, and while my group heard the title no one ever knew what it referred to. It's become a very rare but recurring joke of sorts: if you're in an adventure and you don't know what else to do, look up.

I put the adventure development on hold but never told anyone about it since I thought one day I might go back to finish it, but only if I hadn't spoiled it. But it's been eight years now and I still don't think I could, so I suppose I should bury the idea. When I say what it is, you'll see why. But first, you have to keep in mind, I was first developing the idea in late 2000 and early 2001.

RealTime requires the adventure to happen in a contained amount of time, and given the lack of teleportation, a correspondingly contained amount of space. And since it's often set in the present, there can be an issue of expecting the outside world to get involved. To provide a simple setting for a first-time adventure in RealTime, I thought the perfect setting would be a four-hour plane flight. The characters can neither leave the scene of the action nor expect anyone else to arrive on it, and even the time of the adventure is sharply constrained.

Trying to figure out what interesting adventure could happen on a plane, it occurred to me (again, remember this is early 2001) that while everyone assumes a hijacked plane is a means to get somewhere, it would actually make a very good terrorist weapon, simply because no one would be expecting it. Hence, the title: it's a running joke that in action/adventure stories you can evade pursuit or carry out ambushes by hiding against the ceiling, if you're suitably acrobatic, but I was punning on a much bigger version, in which a plane flying overhead, the most innocuous thing ever, was actually the unseen source of a threat.

My fictional terrorists had a much subtler and less terrifying plan in mind, though, mostly because I wanted the adventure to be not quite so desperate in tone and to also fill out the entire four hours of flight time. Their plan involved some handwaved reason why an airplane flying over certain business centers could hack into financial networks by taking advantage of the fact that earth-to-satellite communications don't usually worry much about being intercepted, being as you'd have to be in just the right place up in the air to do it. They had the pilot cornered with blackmail and had booked the entire flight so they could divert it slightly here and there to be able to wreak terrible havoc on the financial system, siphoning off billions to themselves while crashing the economy, and all without being martyred; they could land and disembark in Atlanta as if nothing had happened other than a small delay due to headwinds, and tie up the loose end of the pilot later.

The one thing that was to go wrong with their plan was that, due to some seats being bumped from earlier flights, a sparse handful of everyday people (the PCs) would end up being assigned seats on their plane despite their efforts to have bought every seat. Thus, they'd have to figure out what to do with these interlopers, hoping to avoid leaving a pile of bodies (and thus drawing police attention) while still having free reign to carry out their plan.

So the players would find themselves on a fully-booked but almost-empty plane, with the other passengers trying to keep them all in one place without revealing anything odd was going on, and without pulling weapons or doing anything else that would make them get reported to the police. Their goal would be to get the PCs to disembark in Atlanta none the wiser. But their activities would be increasingly suspicious as they set up lots of equipment, showed obvious signs of knowing one another, possibly revealed weapons hidden on their persons, etc. The PCs would have to figure out what was going on and then decide what to do about it so that these plans were stopped, or at least revealed.

So while the plan is not really very similar at all to 9/11, I don't think the adventure could ever work. The idea that a hijacking can be much, much worse than "we just want to go somewhere else" is now not only possible but the first thing you'd think of. And even nine years later, the tone of the adventure wouldn't quite feel right. Even the tone of me writing it doesn't feel right. I suppose I could try to adapt it to being on a train or ship, but really, my heart's not in it. So this post is my outing of the idea.

The other RealTime adventure I planned, Hermit Crab, is still possible. Just a matter of putting the time into it. Heck, I hardly remember what that one was about now.


drscorpio said...

That's a very interesting idea for an adventure, but I agree with your analysis. It wouldn't work in the post-9/11 world.

It's interesting that there was window of opportunity for exploring the possibilities of hijackers with a non-obvious motive. D.B. Cooper opened it in 1971, and 9/11 slammed it shut 30 years later.

litlfrog said...

Ah, THAT'S why you never ran this. I agree that it's a good premise, though.