Nonstate A Near-Future Campaign Framework for Wild Talents
Written by Patrick Hume, © 2014
Nonstate is a setting for your next Wild Talents game that takes the grounded ethos of Arc Dream’s great alternate-history settings and applies it to today, presenting a vision of our contemporary world transformed by the advent of superhuman beings called primes.
A game of Nonstate should ideally draw on themes of alienation, political upheaval, individual sovereignty, and celebrity culture, and suitable inspiration might be found in works of fiction such as Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, Warren Ellis’ Black Summer and No Hero, and White Wolf’s seminal RPG Aberrant, as well as films and television like Akira, Chronicle, Push, and Alphas.
Rather than develop Nonstate as a full-scale, book-length campaign setting, I thought it might be more useful to present a framework – some elements essential to the premise as I have conceived it, around which you can wrap your own NPCs, events, and scenarios. When dealing with an alternate future instead of an alternate past, building out an elaborate timeline like those in Godlike or Progenitor might prove counterproductive. Instead, consider Nonstate‘s default chronological setting to be ten years from the time you’re reading this. Below, I outline several important moments that shape this near-future world, but leave them vague enough that you can modify them (or not) to take into account any major happenings between the time of this writing (January 2014) and your present.
Primes have a straightforward Archetype, built with the existing Intrinsics from Wild Talents.
Archetype: Prime (5 points) Source: Genetic Permission: Power Theme (5 points) Intrinsic: Mandatory Powers Mandatory Powers: Hyperendurance 2HD (4 points) Prime Physiology 2HD (D U; 5 points per die; 20 points) Defends: Armored Defense -2, Endless +3 Useful (fast healing): Delayed Effect -2, Endless +3, Engulf +2, Self Only -3
Primes possess enormous stamina and resistance to disease and toxins. They resist injury as if their entire body had LAR 2, and when they are injured, they heal twice as quickly as a normal human (all Shock damage recovered after a night of bed rest, two points of Killing converted to Shock per week of bed rest.)
Character Creation: For a standard 250-point Wild Talents character, my suggested build would start with 15d in Stats and 25d in Skills; even without their powers, a prime possesses above-average mundane capabilities. With the 5 points for the Prime archetype, that leaves 120 points to spend on powers, Base Will, Willpower, and any additional native Stat or Skill dice for a 250-point build. Outside of the Power Theme Permission, there are no setting restrictions on the types of powers characters can purchase, subject to GM discretion.
The Nature and Demographics of Primes
The exact origin of primes’ superhuman abilities has not yielded to a decade’s worth of stringent scientific inquiry, much of it spearheaded by Hyperminds. Primes do seem to share certain common genetic markers, but these only appear after an individual has manifested their powers for the first time; there is no way to test someone before the fact to see if they have the potential to go prime. Going prime does appear to have at least some hereditary basis, however, as the incidence of prime abilities among adolescent and adult children of primes is much higher than in the general population.
The mechanism by which primes’ powers operate is likewise obscure, not least due to the fact that most primes defy what were formerly considered immutable laws of physics. Primes often do have observable changes in their anatomies, from increased muscular density to complete transformation into sentient energy, but these changes lack any precedent or explanation within previous medical understanding. Primes with more purely mental abilities, meanwhile, often do not show any change in their biometrics, even when levitating a 10-ton tractor or teleporting across a room.
About 40% of new primes develop a growing consciousness of their condition over a period of days or weeks, experiencing increased feelings of good health and energy, and a gradual awareness that they are capable of things others are not. The majority of primes, however, manifest their abilities all at once, during incidents of singular stress – anything from a car accident to a drug overdose to a severe domestic dispute. These incidents often, but not always, involve a direct threat to the prime’s physical safety. Less frequently, the prime manifests in response to witnessing someone else in danger, or a purely emotional stressor.
Going prime is typically accompanied by physical and cosmetic improvements – chronic conditions from acne to diabetes disappear, body fat diminishes sharply, and the prime generally appears to be in the peak of physical health. Aside from this, many primes do not have any outward sign of their manifestation, making it possible to conceal their true nature if they so choose. In some cases, however, there are permanent physical changes that make this impossible, ranging from the relatively minor – unusual skin color or total loss of body hair – to atavism, additional limbs or sensory organs, and even more drastic features.
In Year Ten of the Nonstate framework, most estimates of the global population of primes fall between 30,000 and 35,000 individuals – approximately 1 in every 250,000 people. Distribution seems more or less even across the globe, with no particular regard for ethnicity, geography, or other variables, except for age. Prime abilities tend not to manifest before the onset of adolescence or in the elderly, although there have been exceptions to both limits.
As discussed in the next section, the introduction of primes has caused drastic shifts in the geopolitical balance. The approximate number of primes in the world’s 10 most populous nations, the remainder of the G8, and other prominent nations are as follows:
the United States: 1400
the Russian Federation: 550
the United Kingdom: 270
South Korea: 205
Republic of Arabia (see below): 135
North Korea: 105
Paradigm Lost: The World of Nonstate
Wild Talents Color Metrics:
- Red 2: Primes are not all-powerful, but even specific, limited superhuman capabilities have shot them to prominence in almost every field of endeavor. Existing power blocs have scrambled to co-opt primes to their various agendas and causes, but there’s a growing concern among the human elite that their carefully engineered economic and political dominance has come to an end, and that primes will be shaping the course of history from now on.
- Gold 2: If a prime so chooses, fame, notoriety, or both are theirs for the taking; many do make that choice, while others prefer a lower profile. Whatever path they take, primes can be found in all kinds of social and professional roles, from the mundane to the outre. They are all the subjects of fascination and fear in equal measure, but the specifics of their lives are as varied as those of any group of otherwise unrelated people.
- Blue 1: As far as anybody knows, primes are the only extant example of paranormal entities or phenomena. Primes with extrasensory capabilities have been trying to contact extraterrestrials, other dimensions, and God for ten years, and haven’t come up with anything yet – at least, not that they’ve told anyone. Then again, it took primes themselves this long to show up – who knows what else might be out there?
- Black 2: Basic human ethics remain intact, for the most part, but there’s no denying that the existence of primes has shaken mankind’s sense of law and reason to its core.
The Nonstate framework begins in Year One – the year you’re reading this, or perhaps the year following. The first few months of Year One brought with them a series of unsubstantiated reports circulating on social media and news sites – stories of strange phenomena, all involving men and women performing impossible feats. These accounts soon hit the mainstream press, culminating in the events of May 15th, now remembered as 5/15, when a domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol was stopped by Grant Ramos, a Congressional aide and the first publicly identified prime.
Following this confirmation of their existence, more and more primes – derived from “primary manifester”, a term of art used by scientists and politicians in early discussions of the phenomenon – went public with their abilities. Based on their accounts, the first primes accessed their abilities sometime in the first quarter of Year One. Reports of actions ascribable to primes months and even years earlier were discounted by all but fringe theorists, but by that same token, no Year One-specific catalyst for the sudden manifestation of superhuman powers on a global scale has been found.
The emergence of superhumans had drastic consequences for almost every facet of human discourse – politics, science, economics, philosophy, culture – and the overriding tone of that discourse was one of fear. No one understood what primes were, what they might be capable of, or what their ultimate scientific and religious implications might be. More damaging, however, was that no one, from politicians to priests, managed to give a convincing impression that they understood.
As the days and weeks wore on, and it became clear that the potential scope of prime abilities was essentially limitless, panic swept the globe. Men and women were walking the earth with the firepower of an infantry regiment behind their eyes, or even worse, with capacities unprecedented in history. Telepathy, mind control, shapeshifting – suddenly, privacy and self-determination seemed like relics of the past.
The global economy, still on shaky ground, bottomed out once more, as international trade froze in uncertainty. Mass riots and looting were widespread, even in the developed world. Spiritual revivalism surged, with various churches and sects convinced the advent of primes signaled a new phase of God’s plan for mankind – some praising the superhumans as harbingers of grace, others damning them as abominations. The world’s major militaries remained at a heightened state of readiness for months.
As time passed, however, a new equilibrium appeared to be on the horizon; as Dostoevsky put it, “man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.” The fact of primes’ existence became a given, a simple fact that everyone on the planet had to incorporate into their worldview. With the attentions of prime economic prodigies, the financial crisis was ameliorated and even reversed, while prime scientists opened up new lines of research and accelerated once-theoretical technologies onto the market. Novelty wears thin in the Information Age, and while primes might have given rise to a whole new raft of issues for diplomats, activists, and the clergy, the day-to-day lives of most people stayed unaffected, or even improved. Many in the public and the press began to treat primes as if they were just more fodder for the news cycle.
Everyone should have known it was too easy. The true impact of 5/15 would not be felt until Year Four, when disaster struck in the form of a new conflict in the Middle East: the Arabian War.
By then, increased energy independence in the West due to prime-developed technologies had led to significant contractions in the petroleum market, and commensurate damage to the economies of the OPEC nations. Conditions in the Middle East had only continued to deteriorate after 5/15, and this slowdown pushed the region over the edge. Radical elements in Saudi Arabia, with the aid of military sympathizers, several primes, and the tacit support of Iran, took advantage of the instability to stage a revolt and overthrew the House of Saud. The initial uprising a success, Iran deployed troops in support of the revolutionaries, prompting an immediate NATO response.
The ensuing conflict lasted for two years, as a U.S.-led coalition joined Saudi royalists to clash with insurgents, Saudi troops loyal to the new regime, and Iranian forces. Primes were utilized by both sides, demolishing the nation’s infrastructure and contributing to hundreds of thousands of deaths via collateral damage and malnourishment.
By Year Six, with the war showing no signs of slowing and spawning brushfire conflicts throughout the region, public opinion in the West turned sharply against the conflict. Under considerable domestic pressure to withdraw, the United States and other members of the coalition signed a peace agreement with the Republic of Arabia, and the surviving members of the Saudi royal family went into exile, mostly in Europe and the United States.
In the years following, the world at large moved on from the conflict, but everyone knew that something had changed. Primes have fundamentally altered the dynamics of global power, putting capabilities that were once the sole province of entire countries into the hands of corporations, NGOs, and individuals. Authority is no longer concentrated in the hands of one nation, but diffused across the globe, waiting to be seized and wielded by any who are capable. Opportunities abound, but so do chaos and danger.
Year Ten acts as the default start of a Nonstate campaign, and offers a world much altered by the advent of primes. Some trends that we see in the present have been accelerated, while others have been slowed or turned in a new direction. The United States, no longer the economic force it once was and its international political capital all but exhausted, has withdrawn from its role as global policeman. The European Union has had its influence similarly curtailed, while nations on the rise such as India, China, and Brazil have had their development greatly advanced by their large prime populations. Even those countries without large numbers of primes have benefitted, with new affordable technologies on the market to address food and water crises, environmental damage, and disease.
While many problems may have been solved or are on their way to it, others remain. The continuing advance of globalization has only widened the gap between the world’s wealthiest citizens and its poorest, and while many fewer people are in danger of starving to death or succumbing to cholera, this has only given more opportunity for resentments to build. Terrorism and civil unrest are a daily fact of life in many regions, and even the Western world has been subjected to an increase in such incidents. These strikes are not always physical in nature; the now-universal reliance on digital networks has left infrastructure and institutions just as vulnerable to cyberattacks. The decline of American hegemony has also led to an uptick in traditional international crime, and parts of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia are perpetual war zones, home only to failed states and regional dictators.
As a consequence and despite the rise in quality of life, the world of Nonstate is a far more fearful and suspicious place than ever before. Broad government surveillance is an open secret and, coupled with the prevalence of cyberterrorism, has led to the increased popularity of private “darknets”, many of them powered by prime-designed software. The Internet remains a powerful resource, but even casual users are aware that their correspondence is not secure, and behave accordingly. Out in actual space, civil liberties have been significantly curtailed. Domestic drone overflights, armed military presence on street corners and in transit stations, random ID checks, temporary detainments, curfews – all have become commonplace.
While these measures have had some impact, none of them have proven effective in preventing primes from doing more or less whatever they want, whenever they want. It is only custom, complacency, or a sense of responsibility that stops a given prime from ignoring the rule of law, and for more than a few, that’s not enough. An individual prime can be neutralized if necessary, even if only by such drastic measures as threatening their loved ones or deploying military-grade weaponry, but primes working in concert and/or with the backing of a powerful employer are quite capable of taking over a city, destabilizing a government, or simply becoming unassailably wealthy.
Primes now hold positions on the boards of multinational corporations, high-ranking government office, and celebrity status far outstripping the stars of today. Others keep a lower profile, working behind the scenes but no less influential for it. Some freelance, selling their services to the highest bidder, while others put their might behind ideology, turning fringe causes into mass movements. If you want to get something done, getting a prime on your side is the surest way to do it – as long as you can keep them there.
The United States in Year Ten
On the assumption that many readers will be setting their games in the United States, this section will expand somewhat on the state of the country in Year Ten. This should in no way be taken to imply that there’s not plenty going on in the rest of the world, of course.
As mentioned above, the United States has turned its gaze inward. Its population burned by too many overseas wars in the early years of the 21st century and still unsettled by the appearance of primes, isolationism has become the tacit policy of the federal government. This is not to say that there is no American presence abroad; instead of leading the way, the United States has become just another member of the pack.
Despite this step back from global oversight, the United States remains a major driver of both the world economy and popular culture, largely due to its prime population. Many of the world’s leading employers of primes – defense contractors, software developers, biotech companies, and the American government itself – are based in the States, and prime-developed advances in technology, medicine, and business have benefitted the country and the world enormously. Entertainment, meanwhile, has remained one of the United States’ most reliable exports, and the industry has adapted quite well to prime-centric celebrity culture. New York City in particular is a locus of the global prime social scene, rivaled only by Mumbai, and many primes maintain residences there.
At the same time, the U.S. has been a primary target of the increase in terrorist activity. Religious extremists have struck dozens of domestic targets, taking advantage of the increased mobility and potency granted by their prime members. Domestic terrorists have taken their toll as well, incensed by what they perceive as kowtowing to the other world powers. The United States is also a hotbed of anti-prime hate groups, as well as prime-supremacist movement the Manifest Front. As a result, the draconian approaches to law enforcement and incident prevention discussed above are in full effect, further fanning the flames of discontent.
Americans as a whole remain unsure how they feel about the prime phenomenon. While many primes – businesspeople, performers, athletes, and yes, the occasional costumed vigilante – enjoy enormous popularity, and the benefits of a robust prime population are clear, primes as a group are still too strange, too different, for the public to be fully comfortable with their existence.
Many municipalities and a few states, red and blue alike, have passed laws banning or heavily regulating the use of prime abilities in public, some going so far as requiring licensing for any resident prime. Several efforts to pass licensing or registration legislation at the federal level have never even made it out of committee, but are representative of a larger turn in American sentiment against primes, exacerbated by the increasing frequency of prime-related incidents of terrorism.
Year Ten has seen a surge in the number of violent incidents involving primes, both as the victims and the aggressors. Pro- and anti-prime rhetoric is flying fast and furious, and there has been a notable downturn in prime immigration, along with other indicators that primes may be looking to take their abilities elsewhere. Some quarters fear that the rise of xenophobia may be taking away one of the last advantages that the United States possesses, and panic has begun to set in even in the halls of power. Meanwhile, word in the prime community has it that a major change is on its way, and those in the know are bracing themselves for a storm – and positioning themselves to rebuild a world in their image.
Notable Groups and Organizations
Joint Task Force Anthem – A multi-service task force of American military primes, drawing personnel from all five uniform branches. While the exact make-up of Anthem is highly classified, they are thought to field 10 to 12 prime operators, along with several hundred support troops and staff. Anthem was formed following the Arabian War, after a lack of communication between the services hampered the effectiveness of American primes during the conflict. Anthem operators are typically masked for security reasons, but have still been deployed domestically for disaster relief and emergency response. Similar units are maintained by many other nations.
The Manifest Front – A loose movement of prime supremacists, subscribing to an ideology of evolutionary superiority and dominance. Some primes claim membership or affiliation with the Front as a means of appearing edgy or dangerous, but the true core of the group is thought to number several dozen. All seem to see primes as the successors to homo sapiens, but beyond that, their goals run from taking their rightful place as mankind’s masters to global genocide. The group has taken responsibility for numerous acts of terrorism, and several of its members are the subject of an ongoing international manhunt.
Sons of Isaac – A movement of Christian fundamentalists who see primes as the spawn of the Devil, and who have taken it upon themselves to wipe them from the face of the Earth. Most of their membership can be found in North America, although they are growing in Europe and Latin America as well. They are thought to have killed or assaulted upwards of twenty primes in carefully coordinated strikes, but various attempts to flush them out have been foiled by their ties to powerful political interests. It seems like only a matter of time until the wrong prime’s friend gets killed and members of the Sons start turning up dead; depending on which way it turns, the resulting backlash could see primes become more universal targets of fear and hatred, or a government overthrown.
Tabula Rasa – An outgrowth of the Anonymous collective, Tabula Rasa is a global alliance of primes and normal humans operating through darknets and other backchannels who feel that the appearance of primes should be seen as a “reset” for the world. They don’t see primes as superior, but simply as an opportunity to dismantle the institutions and customs that have held mankind back and to advance together into the future. Naturally, they are viewed with distaste by almost every politician and plutocrat on the planet, but they are becoming increasingly popular among the disenfranchised and disillusioned.
This article presents the pieces, but putting the puzzle together is up to you. Your game of Nonstate can jump off from any of the elements I laid out, but where it goes from here is up to you. The scenario laid out above should be flexible enough to allow for everything from tales of jet-setting superpowered espionage, to desperate combat against the Manifest Front or prime fundamentalists, to simply trying to protect a city from crime and corruption while the world comes apart around you. Please feel free to ignore anything I’ve said and do what you want with the rest. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about further development of Nonstate; please leave your comments and questions below.