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, 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. 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.
 Project T.A.H.I.T.I. in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a possible example of ETU unnatural technology.
 Making ETU a multinational agency doesn’t feel right to me, but surely other countries would create similar groups and there would be cooperation.