C-4 Chapter 3: Who's your user?

What is Cyberspace? The most common definition is Gibson's own:

...Cyberspace... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding... transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity.

But before Case met Neuromancer, before Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack burned Chrome, before anyone at all had fleshed out the concept of Cyberspace, there were a couple of hackers named Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley, and a security program named Tron.

Tron is one of those films you either love or hate, a cult classic that you either embrace as groundbreaking and visually stunning, or pass off as cartoon silliness. In either case, Tron is decidedly a cyberpunk film; while on the surface it seems bright and optimistic, underneath the glowing leotards there lies a veritable mountain of anti-corporate sentiment, hacker mystique and heaps of Black ICE. Tron, you see, is not about video games and colored lights. It's all about Hackers and Netrunners cracking a system; it's just a matter of perspective.

The script lets us know where we stand right from jump street:

The Electronic World is a mirror of our own, consisting of the electronic information in our computers, television sets and telecommunications network. It is peopled by computer programs, data, and the characters from countless video games. For the first time, we are seeing their world as it really is, rather than through the window of television screens.

We're first introduced to Sark, an evil red program who delights in being brutal and sadistic towards other programs. He's the sycophant to the true man in power, the MCP, or Master Control Program. As we soon learn, Sark and the MCP are not simply little sprites in a video game; Sark is a program being run by Ed Dillinger, CEO of Icom, and the MCP is an AI that Mr. Dillinger has protecting his system... an AI who used to be a chess program, but has now evolved into a true monster with the intention of taking over the world. Move aside, Wintermute--now there's something meatier.

MCP I've gotten 2,415 times smarter since then.

DILLINGER What do you want with the Pentagon?

MCP The same thing I want with the Kremlin. I'm bored with corporations. With the information I can access, I can run things 900 to 1200 times better than any human.

All three are, essentially, the same person, the MCP and Sark being programs run by Ed Dillinger, and thus it's appropriate that all three are played by the same actor--David Warner, best known for his role as "Evil" in Time Bandits.

Enter a series of programs, Crom, Ram and Tron, all representations of other users in the system. Tron, of course, is legendary enough to have an entire movie named after him, and smart enough to have let himself be "captured" in order to infiltrate deeper into the system, at the direction of his user, Alan Bradley. Alan (played by TV's "Scarecrow" from Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Bruce Boxleitner), and his friend Kevin Flynn (played by a very young Jeff Bridges, at that time best known for his roles in 1976's King Kong and 1980's Heaven's Gate), will be familiar to any fan of William Gibson. Compare:

ALAN BAILEY blearily looking at the screen... a serious-looking man in his early thirties, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, and he looks like he hasn't slept for a week.

...and our first look at Kevin Flynn...

He's a young, blonde guy in his mid-twenties. Very attractive, charming, innocent looking, but with a devilish gleam in his eye.

...with Gibson's glimpse at the hackers who burned Chrome...

Bobby was another one of those young-old faces you see drinking in the Gentleman Loser, the chic bar for computer cowboys, rustlers, cybernetic second-story men. We were partners... Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack. Bobby's the thin, pale dude with the dark glasses, and Jack's the mean-looking guy with the myoelectric arm.

Alan and Kevin are doing a bit too much snooping around in the system, using various attack programs like Light Tanks to slide around and find out what's really going on, and almost as soon as we see how they're doing it, Flynn's Clu program is de-rezzed and Flynn's Tron program is taken captive, all as a result of everyone with Group 7 access being shut off as a security precaution.

Alan toddles down to Laser Research and chats with Lora and Dr. Gibbs (better known as Barnard Hughes, TV's "Mr. Merlin"), who are working on way to digitize physical objects to store them in a computer (ie. subplot). After dickering over an ancient relationship Lora had with Flynn, Alan and she decide to head out to make sure Flynn's OK. (And if this all sounds familiar, and you haven't ever seen Tron, try reading Burning Chrome again, and check out Bobby and Jack's relationship with Rikki.)

As Flynn explains, he has, indeed, been hacking into the Icom system... albeit for his own reasons. While Alan is a legitimate Sysop for the company, running security traces, Flynn is an ex-employee, fired after his boss (Dillinger) stole his game ideas and passed them off as his own. Flynn is hacking around the system looking for proof so he can bring legal action against the company. But he can no longer get in from the outside... so Lora lets him and Alan back inside the building, where Flynn proceeds to hack what they cannot (Bobby's software and Jack's hard, after all):

(Flynn) gestures Alan and Lora out of the way, takes out a small black box, with several buttons, a -digital counter- with LED numerals and a small calculator keyboard. He leans over the security lock, his BACK TO THE CAMERA and PLAYS a couple of notes. There's a distinct CLICK, an the door starts to swing open...

Lora and Alan head up to Alan's office to try to get Tron running. Flynn goes down to the Laser Lab, to use Lora's terminal to run his Clu program. While hacking away, Flynn is confronted by the Master Control Program, and, predictably, zaps Flynn with the laser.

If you go with the intent of the script, what happens is that Flynn gets physically scanned into the computer. But if we pull back a little bit and take a little creative license, all we really have here is a hacker jacking into the system...

Flynn jacks into the Icom system:

The pattern changes, dissolving into another image and we are rushing forward at great speed. We see the circuits rushing by and getting larger and then the picture dissolves into darkness with a glowing, spinning globe beneath us, like the globe from AIC's logo, covered with circuits. We are rushing at it, circling it, diving closer and closer, so that the detail on the globe becomes clearer with every second and we realize that the circuits are structures, angular towers and buildings, huge mechanical looking mountains and deserts covered with a glowing grid pattern. Everything glows with an internal energy.

Case jacks into Cyberspace:

And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information. Please, he prayed, now--
A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding-- And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distance less home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

Flynn's now running in the guise of his Clu program, and the MCP sends Sark to do away with him. Flynn/Clu is trained along with the other programs, first forced to battle Crom to the death in a sort of Jai-Alai game, and then put into a Lightcycle arena with Ram and Tron in combat against several warriors. Already plotting their run against the MCP, the three manage to escape the grid after a dazzling light show. Sark immediately sends a whole armada of Anti-IC programs after the trio, in the guise of Recognizers and Tanks. Combat ensues, with Tron narrowly escaping as Ram and Flynn have their cycles de-rezzed.

Tron heads for the nearest I/O port to communicate with Alan, along the way finding another program, Yori (Lora's demon). They reach the tower, where Dumont (a program run by Dr. Gibbs) helps stall the system's programs while Alan downloads some new subroutines to Tron. As Tron and Yori escape on a Solar Sailor simulation (after a brief scuffle with some guards), Sark breaks through Dumont's code wall with a logic probe.

In the meantime, Flynn has not been de-rezzed, and in fact recovers quickly and acquires a Recognizer program after Ram sacrifices himself in order to give his energy to Flynn. Calling up a Bit subroutine, he cracks the code on the Recognizer and gets it moving. Landing near the I/O tower, he assaults an enemy program and disguises himself by adopting that program's color, allowing him to move about freely within the system (akin to Cyberpunk's Stealth program).

The trio meet again on the Solar Sailor, and head off towards the CPU, helped along by a bit of hacker magic from Flynn as they jump along transmission beams. But it's not going to be that easy for our little programs, because Sark's carrier catches up with them and captures Flynn and Yori. His intent is to de-rez them, but Flynn's smarter and faster than the system, and he manages to escape.

The final showdown between the heroes and the villains wraps up pretty neatly. Tron kills Sark with his disc, then goes up against the MCP, only to discover that the MCP calls up a bigger, stronger version of the Sark program. It's only with a distraction from Flynn, infiltrating the MCP program's data stream, that Tron can hurl his disc program into the beam and truly destroy the system.

We see something materializing in the apex of the energy cones. It is dressed like Dumont was at the I/0 Tower, an old man in the padded altar costume, spinning, slowly, finally stopping. We see the wizened, wrinkled face of the true MCP for just a few seconds, and see that he is furiously TYPING on an old Remington portable. Then he too dissolves into liquid energy, and disappears.

As the system's access is restored to all the programs inside it, Flynn's body is reconstructed by the laser (ie. he jacks out of Cyberspace) and he runs up to Lora and Alan to share the good news: they've successfully retrieved the data they were looking for. In their own way, they've "burned Chrome."

It's blindingly obvious how to incorporate this storyline into your own Cyberpunk campaign. In fact, if you've played with Netrunners, you've been using this storyline already, probably without knowing it. It's really as simple as this: a group of Netrunners decides to hack a corporate computer system to gain access to some hidden data, and in the process they face an evil AI and a bunch of killer counter-intrusion programs.

Here are the key things to remember:

1. Tron is all about Intelligence, about knowing the ins and outs of a computer system, about knowing how the programs work and how to defeat them. 90% of the action takes place inside the computer, all the main characters are hackers and scientists, and there's not a single gun, knife or even fist raised anywhere in the real world. It's all about the power of the mind.

2. The virtual incarnations of the real world humans look like them for a reason: they're nothing more than demon programs (avatars, if you're a Snow Crash fan), the Cyberspace representations of the humans sitting at the keyboards (or jacked into the system more directly). The "demon" designation is key here; there are times when Alan and Flynn lose track of their demons (Tron and Clu), and yet the self-aware programs continue to function on their own inside the system, running the essential subroutines until they can once again communicate with their Users.

3. The real "Bad Guy" here is the most popular Cyberpunk villain of all--the rogue AI, the runaway program bent on world domination. If the Netrunners can't stop the AI while it's still only in control of the Icom system, then they won't be able to stop it once it gets loose in the real world. There's a lot at stake here.

4. Nobody has to die for it to be Cyberpunk! Sure, programs get de-rezzed, but you just reload the program and push on. Even when dealing with Netrunners, there's no need to bring in deck-burning, nerve-frying technology--you can keep it all in Cyberspace and still have a great time with it. And if you've got Solos or Corporates hanging around bored out of their skulls, they can keep busy with the Security guards and Police while the Netrunners do the real dirty work inside the machines.

There's really nothing special about the people in this movie; it's nothing more than a couple of Netrunners battling a Corporate, really. What makes it so special and interesting are the programs they run, and how easily the happenings in the Icom computer adapt to Netrunning in Cyberpunk. While there are a whole slew of ways to interpret what you see on the screen, here's one way of adapting the main "programs" in the movie:


Tron                  10000eb
Class:Demon (carries 4 programs)
Strength:5            MU:2
Written by Alan Bradley, Tron is an example of hyperefficient code;
the Tron demon is as strong as a Balron, but only takes up a fraction
of the memory, leaving much more room for larger, more powerful
subroutines inside.

ICON: A male figure, wearing glowing blue armor. Various programs
he uses materialize out of thin air as he calls on them. The
brightness of his armor dims as he uses programs and suffers
damage from attacks.
Clu                   15000eb
Class:Demon (carries 5 programs)
Strength:4            MU:2
Written by Kevin Flynn, Clu is a hacked Demon which through a quirk
of code allows the Demon to call subroutines at their full strength,
rather than being limited to the strength of the Demon (ie. 4).

ICON: A male figure, wearing glowing blue armor. Various programs
he uses materialize out of thin air as he calls on them. The
brightness of his armor dims as he uses programs and suffers
damage from attacks.
Sark                   12000eb
Class:Demon (carries 4 programs)
Strength:6             MU:3
Written by Ed Dillinger, Sark is a brute force Demon, boasting more
Strength than a Balron stuffed into less space.

ICON: A male figure, wearing glowing red armor. Various programs
he uses materialize out of thin air as he calls on them. The
brightness of his armor dims as he uses programs and suffers
damage from attacks.
Bit                    1000eb
Strength:See below     MU:1
Written by Kevin Flynn, Bit is an evolving Decryption program which
grows steadily stronger with each progressive turn it is used in.
Used alone, it has a Strength of 1 on the first turn; for each
additional turn, it gains 1, with no maximum strength. When called as
a subroutine by a Demon, it begins with a Strength equal to 1/2 the
Demon's Strength, rounded down, and gains 1 per turn of use until
reaching a maximum Strength equal to the Demon's own.

ICON: A glowing blue ball, turning green with an audible "Yes" with
each "1" it encounters, and turning red with an audible "No" with
each "0". As it gains strength, and can decrypt faster and faster,
the flickering color changes come faster as well.
Discus                 5000eb
Strength:as Demon      MU:3
Written by Alan Bradley, Discus is a multi-class program designed
to offer multi-function capability while conserving memory space.
It is limited in several ways; it can only be run by a Demon program
as a subroutine, it can only be used for one function at a time,
and if lost or destroyed, all functions are lost simultaneously.
Multiple copies can be carried, however.

As an Intrusion program, the Discus can be used to break down data
walls as a Hammer or Jackhammer, doing damage equal to the Demon's
strength per attack. As a Protection program, the Discus can be
used as a Shield. And as an Anti-IC program, the Discus can be used
as an offensive weapon, destroying other programs like a Killer
program does.

ICON: A glowing discus of the same color as the Demon using it,
proportionally as large as a frisbee when compared to the size of
the Demon holding it. It is thrown when wielded as an Intrusion and
Anti-IC program, in which case it leaves a slight trail of light
behind it as it flies towards a target, returning to the Demon's
hand after doing its damage.
Lightcycle             10000eb
Class:Evasion/Protection (and one-time Intrusion)
Strength:as Demon      MU:4
Written by Kevin Flynn, Lightcycle is a multi-class program designed
to offer multi-function capability while conserving memory space.
It is limited in several ways; it can only be run by a Demon program
as a subroutine, and if lost or destroyed, all functions are lost
simultaneously. When called, all benefits are gained at the same
time, but the Netrunner cannot use any other programs (save for the
Demon using the subroutine) while this one is running.

Lightcycle does not make the Demon or his user invisible to other
programs; in fact, it does quite the opposite, leaving a blazing trail
of light behind it that will set off every alert it touches. This
trail of light acts as a Data Wall of Strength 1 against all programs
except for other incarnations of Lightcycle; due to an undocumented
bug in the program, any Lightcycle touching a Light Trail (including
its own) will be instantly destroyed, along with the Demon inside.

At the same time, however, the Lightcycle makes it much it harder
for enemy programs to catch the Demon by allowing the Demon, and
his user, to break "The rule" of cyberspace: when using Lightcycle,
you can move ten spaces per one second turn, instead of the usual
five. While using Lightcycle, the Demon (and, hence, his user) are
also protected by a shield otherwise identical in all aspects to
the normal Force Shield program. This is in addition to the long
and ugly Data Wall the Lightcycle leaves behind it; even though it
is weak, it is still an obstacle to be overcome.

An undocumented feature of the Lightcycle is its use as a one-time
Intrusion program; by crashing into any data wall, the Lightcycle will
deal 1 die of damage per unit of Strength of the Demon calling it;
thus, if the Demon using Lightcycle has a strength of 5, the Lightcycle
will deal 5d6 damage to a data wall. This is decidedly for one-use
only; in the process of dealing the damage, the Lightcycle program and
the Demon program inside are destroyed.

ICON: When called, a glowing rod of the same color as the Demon using
it appears in midair before the Demon. If not grasped within 1 turn,
it disappears. If grasped, the rod becomes a sheath of energy around
the Demon, spouting wheels and an armored carapace and otherwise
appearing as a high-tech motorcycle. The cycle leaves behind a trail
of energy in the 'Net which only disappears when the Lightcycle
program is destroyed or deactivated for any reason (including the
Netrunner jacking out). Obviously, this persistent trail of light
makes it extremely easy to track down the Netrunner, meaning that
this is decidedly a program of last resort.
Recognizer             15000eb
Class:Anti-IC (plus Detection/Intrusion/Protection)
Strength:6            MU:5
Written by Ed Dillinger, Recognizer is a powerful Anti-IC program
with additional multi-function capabilities which can be accessed
only if the program is run as a subroutine (although when called by
a Demon, the Recognizer's Strength is limited to that of the Demon).

A Demon calling a Recognizer gains access to other subroutines buried
inside the code, including SeeYa, Hidden Virtue, Armor and NetMap.
These sub-subroutines may only be called one at a time.

The not-so-friendly rivalry between Dillinger and Flynn has also led
to an undocumented feature being added to this and other programs
written by Dillinger; any Flynn-written program's Strength is
reduced by 1 against a Recognizer (although this is not the case
if a Flynn-written demon is calling a Recognizer as a subroutine

ICON: An immense block-like robotic bluish black form, U-shaped,
with a small head and a glowing yellow bar for eyes. It hovers above
the ground. A glowing static field appears between the two legs of
the Recognizer when it destroys other programs.


The software's obviously expensive, especially if the Netrunners in your little gang do not include the big guns like Alan Bradley and Kevin Flynn and Rache Bartmoss. But perhaps the characters are given the software on load in order to do the job, or perhaps they're tampering with a system one day and stumble across it, or perhaps they simple encounter Tron and Clu inside the system... and are asked by Alan and Flynn to give them a hand. The more Netrunners attacking the system, the better.

Next on the list is 1983, and once again there are a couple of possibilities: Videodrome and Wargames. Since we just got through with a Netrunner-oriented film, I'm inclined to lead towards Videodrome, but I'm certainly open to suggestions from the peanut gallery (that's you). Drop me an email and let me know what you think.