Revising the Emerging Threats Unit Setting

One of the great things about having game designer friends being able to call one up and talk out a problem. And typically, that becomes a conversation involving games you’re all working on, trying to unpack parallel problems and propose solutions to individual ones. So when Kit La Touche tells me that my Emerging Threats Unit issues seem to touch on some conceptual hang-ups he’s having on his Regency Era game, I’m very much all ears.

The result of that conversation was two-fold, from the perspective of ETU: a new angle for the setting and a new stab at core mechanics. In this post, I’ll focus on the setting question; I think it’s more important than the mechanics element right now, because answering the setting will flow into mechanics decisions.

The setting as I wrote earlier this year can be broken down to these bullet points:

  • There’s a secret group in the Centers for Disease Control called the Emerging Threats Unit.
  • ETU tackles unnatural dangers.
  • Unnatural dangers are effectively contagions in the mass consciousness; the more knowledge of them spreads, the more susceptible the world is to dangers.
  • That means having contact with the unnatural makes you a potential memetic disease vector.
  • Contact with the unnatural comes with side-effects, typically of having weird spell-like things.
  • The world at-large doesn’t know about the unnatural.
  • All ETU agents have been directly exposed to the unnatural before joining; the CDC doesn’t invite “civilians” to join.
  • Because ETU agents are already exposed to the unnatural, they have a sort of resistance to further contamination. This means they can benefit from unnatural technologies—drugs that transfer someone’s expertise into your mind for a short time (while also risking experiencing that person’s memories), facilities that can regrow limbs for wounded agents[1], etc.

That last bullet point exists not just to be weird, but to explore certain situations. I want losing a limb to be a possibility in the story without it meaning utter character retirement, so I have this idea that if you survive the mission, you can choose between exposing yourself to a nightmarish process of genetic reconstruction or to retire from fieldwork. The mind drugs are there as a way to solve the “this really weird expertise is covered by, like, three people in the world, and none of us are them” situations that could happen in this sort of story, with a little bit of danger and bizarre flavor. These could be played gonzo, but I intend them to mix in earnestly.

As I mentioned last week, the utter secrecy of this CDC team poking around in rather non-CDC situations creates a question of authority. I and others like the weirder parts of the setting, though I want them to feel like they’re dangerous rather than silly, which I’ve done a good job of in playtests. Adding it “and you can pose as an FBI agent” if you want is another layer of potential gonzo, and many of us know from experience that too many layers of potential gonzo will kill attempts at grounded games.

That means putting these revisions into the setting, in order to smooth over some confusion and bumps while attempting to leave in what I want:

  • There was some sort of unnatural incident a couple years ago that is more or less public knowledge—it was impossible to cover up, thanks to how information works on the Internet.
  • Perhaps there was a second incident.
  • ETU is founded; an argument is made for the CDC handling it as unnatural memetic contagion rather than attempting to use law enforcement for something law enforcement wasn’t designed to handle.
  • Legislation & DHS directives exists that gives the CDC certain authority (in that they have access and can make certain jurisdiction calls), though not unilateral or unchecked authority.
  • ETU agents may carry guns, but they can’t exactly arrest people. They’re like park rangers or animal control more than cops, in certain regards.
  • There is a necessary mandate of secrecy in what ETU does, because containing memetic contagion is a directive.
  • FEMA is somehow involved, which makes sense given what FEMA’s role would have been in those incidents. (This was true in the beginning of ETU’s development, but fell by the wayside.)
  • Unfortunately, because the populace knows that the unnatural is possible, civilians are willing to jump to conclusions and do horrible things when they suspect the unnatural. This puts ETU in the position to be able to clear people as much as being a containment force.
  • This also means that people would apply to be in ETU, because it’s a known entity that deals with the unnatural, but the CDC still has its “only those directly exposed” requirement. Naturally, that requirement isn’t publicized, lest young people get the idea that exposure would lead to an exciting job.

So the world knows about agencies like the ETU[2]. They don’t have to inherently pretend that they’re some other agency to get authority and access. And I think it’s even more important that players can directly inhabit the role of ETU agents, rather than being forced to play roles of characters faking as FBI agents or whatever while secretly being weird CDC field agents. ETU agents can roll up onto a scene of a weird human mutilation without having to invent some pretext as to why they’re there.

This prompts the questions: Do all mysteries need to be supernatural in nature? What triggers ETU agents to show up? (For this question, I’m thinking there are two triggers: local hospital or law enforcement makes a request, or desk agents happen upon a possible unnatural event and send a team to investigate.)

It also creates some interesting problems by no longer being a truly secret organization. The trick is in the dial: I want to make it so that ETU is known, but isn’t the sort of thing that tabloid journalists constantly cover or has a weird Twitter stalking or whatever. I’m not sure how that circle will square, but that’s what playtesting a setting is for.

That’s all for now. We’ll see what comes of this. Maybe people who were excited about the setting before will hate this change. Maybe people who yawned at “yet another secret government agency dealing with the unnatural” will find this direction exciting. Only one way to know: try.

– Ryan

[1] Project T.A.H.I.T.I. in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a possible example of ETU unnatural technology.

[2] Making ETU a multinational agency doesn’t feel right to me, but surely other countries would create similar groups and there would be cooperation.


13 Responses to Revising the Emerging Threats Unit Setting

  1. blackcoat says:

    Just a thought, but what about rolling that incident back ~150 years? Then the ETU becomes a thing in the mythology of federal law enforcement, like the secret service (which is actually part of the Treasury department) or the US Marshall service, (which is actually not under the executive branch). Sort of the enforcement arm of the CDC.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hmm. That’s interesting. On one hand, it means that the 9-11-esque vibes don’t exist. It’s not a new paranoia. On the other hand, that’s a large alternate history ripple effect to deal with.

      Very interesting.

      – Ryan

    • Stras says:

      This works much better with your 2-events scenario. There could have been one event a long time ago (potentially not so bad) which is when the ETU was created. Over time as new Events didn’t happen, they shrunk down, became less of a thing, but kept researching and preparing in the background. Folks don’t take the Event too seriously anymore (the area may have been re-habited).

      The new event triggered recently. It brings them to the forefront (they are the only ones prepared to deal with this locally), and keeps your vibes.

  2. Kit says:

    Re: the international angle, there are, I’m sure, umbrella organizations like the WHO trying to coordinate the various ETU-alikes to the best of their ability, but, man, you know how hard it is for the UN to make things happen.

  3. > surely other countries would create similar groups and there would be cooperation.

    …and rivalries, and intelligence-community involvement.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right. And I wonder if that makes the setting spiral out of control.

      Although, with a bunch of those questions, I can always religate that to parts of ETU that the PCs don’t interface with as part of the premise.

      – Ryan

  4. Ryan Macklin says:

    Michael Richards makes some comments on the G+ crosspost:

  5. John Powell says:

    Regarding the CDC not having much authority in the real world. Who cares? Obviously your world has more dangerous things in it that the real world. In your setting CDC could have the same powers as US Marshals in carrying out their duties. Basically if the characters think they can justify their actions to a federal judge, then they can do it.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Kevin Veale says:

    A possible bridge between the two options proposed is that there was a recent 9/11-analagous event that caught global attention. The public know what happened in broad strokes, so that they know that an event happened, a bit of the scope, and enough context to get good and scared. There’s elements that have been kept quiet – because the investigators only figured it out afterwards.

    That means that when someone encounters Weird Shit, there’s no confusion about Who Ya Gonna Call from the perspective of a baffled and paranoid public.

    Essentially, the ETU becomes a name that everyone’s heard, and everyone associates with Certain Things, but hardly anybody knows what they’re actually *doing.*

    If you want to ratchet up the confusion and paranoia, the government could seem to have been forced to create the ETU in response to the groundswell of public demand… and also communicated that it was all things to all people, rather than the reality of what would eventuate in practice. That could lead to… problems of expectation from all sorts of directions.

    I’ve heard all sorts of stories about how people respond to the CDC in different parts of the world, including the US, because it’s a name many people have heard in a vague way. As such, they get reactions ranging from “Oh god if a single person from the CDC is here then the entire town must be being quarantined WE’RE ALL DOOMED,” to “Oh good, the CDC’s here. When can we expect a cure? …what do you mean you don’t have one? You’re the CDC! YOU’RE HORDING IT FOR THE GOVERNMENT.”

    Apply similar confusion to the ETU and there’s a lot of flexibility for them to have measured authority but also static in applying it, at the same time as ETU members are immediately recognisable but where the public is still at least partially in the dark.

  7. Scum of Dunwall says:

    Widely known on the internet doesn’t nessessary translates into “widely believed in” or “commonly accepted”. And with modern day special effects and technologies of hyperreality stuff, it should be a lot of people, who will throw any “unnatural nonsense” out of their heads and will be happy. Occam’s Razor to the resque! When there’s a reason to blame money, blame greed instead of “mumbo-jumbo black ops”. ))

    Others, maybe, will form conspiracy theorist forums, sorcery clubs, ‘Ghost buster squads’ and so on, and that will be enough to discredit whole movement.
    Unless, one day ETU operatives will show up on your doorstep, of course…

  8. Alan De Smet says:

    It occurs to me that given a serious enough medical threat, you might get people panicked enough to grant the CDC sweeping emergency powers. Maybe bioterrorism, but it could just be methicillin-resistant prion bird-flu super-ebola. Maybe not “can carry guns and arrest people,” but potentially, “local law enforcement must support you.” If some sort of incredibly infectious disease is out there, it could justify the CDC quarantining entire towns and sadly announcing that everyone inside has died and everything had to be burned to the ground. And if the government is ends-justifies-the-means enough, who says that the disease existed in the first place?

  9. Svend Andersen says:

    Sorry, old thread — but have you looked at the Peter Grant books by Ben Aaronovitch? A police constable recruited to “The Folly”, which is the branch of the Met tasked with dealing with the supernatural… which was down to one person, due to the apparent fading of the threat after WWII (and the slaughter of the flower of British wizardry during it).

    In that set up, senior members of the force (and other groups they liase with) know that they exist (though not necessarily with any fondness, since they make a mess and may not contribute to the case closure rate…), and the rank and file have heard rumors, and may have odd ideas about what they actually do.

    Plus, I think they’re pretty fun reads. :)