Emerging Threats Unit: Unnatural Sciences

It’s been too long since I posted up an Emerging Threats Unit bit. Today, I’ll share what is one of the more horrific elements of the setting: what the ETU calls “Unnatural Sciences.”

In brief: if you survive being in the ETU long enough, you cannot resist the pull of supernatural forces, and those forces will shove spells into your mind through unimaginable nightmares. The more stoic operatives call this “suiting up.”  It’s this phenomena that eventually drives operations away from family and friends who are in the dark.

[TW: I have no idea if anything here is triggery, but, uh, it might be? ETU is about fucked-up magic, and though I'm not looking to pull punches, I do want to warn people. Later, post-development, I'll be asking some people to tell me what sort of warnings they think I should have. In any case, I'm pretty sure the last two spells are going to be unsettling to some people.]

The standard ETU parlance is that someone who has this affliction is “carrying a memetic parasite,” but colloquially most new people just call these “loopholes” or “exploits.” (References to “spells” and “magic” are against regulation, as overusing such language leads to acceptance of unnatural reality.[1]) When an operative has an exploit in her mind, she knows exactly how to perform it and will do so flawlessly. There is no die roll for success.

I’m still working on what that means mechanically against other ETU operatives. There could be a roll for unintended consequences, controlling the effect, and whether the exploit stays in the mind, but I’m still working on all of that.

Speaking of the exploit staying in the mind, here’s where I think the Vancian magic idea that spells leave the mind after you cast them really works: if they’re truly alien, they are psychologically painful, and they want to be cast so they’re leave your mind (even if briefly) when you do. (Huh. Writing that just made me wonder about putting mechanics toward this “feeling better” element of casting an exploit. That would reinforce the fiction of people casting horrible spells because it’s maddening to just keep it in the mind, and would give a horrible situation to ETU operations to consider that “safely” in order to gain an edge — not unlike taking a dangerous drug to gain an edge, which they already do.)

Learning Exploits

When someone is psychologically damaged in the line of duty, and has had a significantly high exposure to unnatural forces, he will one night soon wake up screaming or chanting, and find an exploit has been shoved into his mind. It’s a stark and horrific violation of sanity, and it only when that happens that ETU veterans truly welcome someone in.

(There’s a grim tradition that started a couple decades ago, called the “birthday party.” After the first time that this happens to an operative, the oldest of the guard will come up to him, hand him a bottle of alcohol that he’s known to like, and tell him “happy birthday.” They then find a quiet place, and everyone who has “had a birthday” is welcome to comfort and be there. Rumor has it that this came from it actually happening on someone’s birthday once, though there’s no official records to back this tradition.)

Due to how ETU operations work, and that they aren’t intentionally “researching spells” — note that such acts are grounds for automatic termination — the exploit they learn is entirely random. If they’re very, very lucky, they get an exploit that is kind and gentle.

Some Exploits

I wrote some exploits a few years back. The idea’s that these are just some samples, and that the effects and color should vary and be made up by the GM or written about online or whatever, rather than a codified spell list. Codification is the exact opposite of what I want with ETU, though a degree of that is needed as examples and easy-to-use components.

Exploits are generally named after the strange chanting that can be recorded during one’s nightmare or phrase shouted upon waking up. The dreams themselves are very hazy, with the exploit being the only truly memorable part. Exploits also have a curious secondary ability: extrasensory perception. That doesn’t require “casting” the exploit to use.

Fire is the Only Soul

Ritual: Draw a pentagram from gasoline, lighter fluid, or other flammable liquid. Put dried leaves in the center, away enough from the pentagram’s fire lines that they won’t burn. Light the pentagram. Chant. Wait.

Effect: A fire sprite — malevolent spirit that claims to be a herald of powers beyond — will appear.

Extrasensory Perception: You can communicate with fire. Fire is not intelligent, has a short memory, and cannot generally be reasoned with, though bribery tends to work.

Note: ETU operatives have never been able to use this to control such an entity or successfully interrogate one.

Earth is All-Mother

Ritual: Eat a handful of local soil — rocks, bugs, and all.

Effect: Until the next sunrise, your skin becomes rock-like: not only hardened, but literally changes texture and appearance to as if you were a creature made of stone. This makes you nigh-impervious, as all attacks treat you like you’re make solidly of stone. You can move around and see normally, though your tactile senses are numbed, and you cannot eat anything else. Curiously, you also don’t breathe (or need to breathe) during this time.

Extrasensory Perception: You can see through a bit of soil, maybe three inches, as though it wants you to find things underneath. This doesn’t work for wet earth, sand, or stone, and you have to part or cut grass to see the earth underneath.

Treat the Meat as Yours

Ritual: Look at someone with intent. Imagine them dead, on a slab in front of you, the top of their skull removed. You can now shove anything you want inside their dead brain-flesh. Imagine you smiling at that.

Effect: You implant an idea in someone else’s mind.

Extrasensory Perception: You can see the scars in another’s mind from unnatural psychic manipulation (including your own effects).

Note: This spell disturbs the shit out of me. Nothing about this is pleasant to write. I once had a playtester use it, and was horrified — which cemented that it was valid, because that showed what sort of person he was.

I am the True Physician

Ritual: Touch a wounded person, and speak these words aloud: “I accept cancer into my body with love.” Know that your words will be heard by vast powers. (Whether you get cancer is an entirely different deal, the ritual only requires you to speak those words.)

Effect: The wounded person you’re touching is completely healed, and if dying is entirely stabilized. If they’re already dead, then their body is healed from whatever wounds it took, but is still dead. You cannot heal yourself. You may get cancer.

Extrasensory Perception: When you touch someone, you know of any terminal illness they have. You can speak with those illnesses, but ETU reports show that they are uncaring, hostile, and claim to be ancient spirits of the “true world.”[2]

Note: In the same playtest mentioned above, I had a dying person at the feet of a character with this exploit. I said “You could heal him. You know you can.” The person was a random civilian who was savaged by a monster. The player looked at me and said “No.” Again, shows you the sort of person they are.


That’s it for now. My good friend David Gallo has given me a list of topics to chew on, which I will as I have time. It’s crunch season, so time is going to be weird.

- Ryan

[1] Only after posting did I come up with a term for this: the Memetic Containment Mandate.

[2] I’ve been listening to Welcome to Night Vale lately, so I’m reading this not in my own voice, but in Cecil’s.


6 Responses to Emerging Threats Unit: Unnatural Sciences

  1. blackcoat says:

    I like the implication that the only way to reason with fire is to let it burn things.

    I would not want to talk to the Centralia fire under any circumstances.

    In fact, I’m pretty sure that the Centralia fire is a failed ETU mission.

  2. David Gallo says:

    There are some great ideas here, and I can see exploits being a way to convey a lot of background and setting information.

    One way to mitigate the concerns with triggery language might be to go out of your way to adopt medical jargon and terminology? The idea of unnatural sciences being a “disease vector” for the bad stuff might mitigate the concept for some. It would also be on point as far as the source material.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Perhaps. I mean, there’s still grievous subject matter to deal with, and making sure that it has a very uncaring feel to it. Like, “Treat the Meat as Yours” is horrific and disturbing to me, and that’s how I want to present it. But I should still eyeball for proper terminology to help it feel in-world, and that’ll likely smooth some (but not all) issues over.

      - Ryan

  3. David Gallo says:

    One relevant example that I like bringing up:

    The toxoplasmosis parasite that lives in a cats digestive tract alters the brain chemistry of infected rodents so that they engage in behaviors that cause them to come into contact with more cats. Rodents would typically avoid cats and their territory, but when infected they ignore what is hard-wired into them. Then more cats eat the infected rodents and the infection can spread.

    So if you bring ideas like this in, these exploits allow agents some special abilities – but it also leads them to come into contact more often.

    Exploitation, indeed.

  4. Shai Norton says:

    For this, I blame my morning coffee. Also Mr. Gallo’s comment about toxoplasmosis.

    Water Is The Memory of Life

    Ritual: Cut both ring fingers, left first, then right, and stick them — right first, then left — into standing water. “Standing water” can also be liquid that was already at a scene (see notes).

    Effect: You’ll go deaf, blind, mute and numb for the entire time your fingers are in the water. You won’t feel heat. You won’t feel cold. You won’t feel vibrations, or pain, or whatever senses that ordinarily clue you toward Bad Things About To Happen. Performing this ritual without having someone to watch your back is Not Recommended.

    The voices that you’ll be able to hear while you’re in this state may not just be memories. They might want to crawl inside your brain and stick with you, perhaps even want to catch you in an unguarded moment and hijack your body (or worse, persuade you to hand over the keys).

    Extrasensory Perception: You’ll be able to “hear” whatever sounds happened in the area of the water since the past sunset, and will have the ability to isolate and focus in on individual sounds (see Notes). Human and animal sounds might be receptive to your thinking questions at them — the more receptive ones, of course, being more likely to be something other than just memories.

    Notes: The difficulty in isolating and focusing on individual sounds increases with the amount of water. The larger the standing body of water, the more memories it will contain: sticking one’s fingers into the ocean or a large enough lake is pretty much asking for your brain to melt out your nose.

    Water that came from taps may contain memories from the city water (or sewage) system. If bottled water was recently purchased, it may contain memories from a store.

    Pollution levels, dilution levels (you’ll get less out of a cup of coffee than you will a glass of plain water) can all impact the quality and nature of the results.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That is creepy!

      So far, my rule for exploits is that the action part affects the world, rather than is investigative in nature. In that way, the compulsion to enact the exploit has the chance to inflict the supernatural on others.

      Not that I’m solid on that concept. I hadn’t thought about it concretely until you posted. But man, that is some creepy stuff there, Shai. :D

      - Ryan