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Postby Kappa » Thu Aug 02, 2018 6:29 am

Downside is probably my oldest setting, unless I someday decide to revive the Starmasters. It's gone through a few metamorphoses over the years, and it's been gearing up for another one.

It started with a dream I had when I was twelve or so, in which there was an afterlife where the size of your house depended on how much you had been mourned while alive. I attempted to flesh out this concept into something deep enough to write in. I was actually trying to come up with a paradise, believe it or not, but because I was a fucked-up child the only "paradise" I could imagine myself actually experiencing was one where I could belong to an organization of people who volunteered to be tortured on behalf of other people who were unjustly sentenced by the celestial judiciary.

So that was the basic seed of the idea.

Other foundational aspects of my twelve-year-old worldview crept in. I abhorred the thought of anything ever being truly destroyed, so in the Downside cosmology that's impossible: all of the information that describes any object or entity that has ever existed, in any state it has ever occupied, is permanently recorded and available to use to reconstruct the thing. I also really hated dust collecting on surfaces, so the cosmic administrator banned that.

The first iteration of Downside was kind of silly and had a lot of poorly-thought-out aspects. The version you may be familiar with from Effulgence is what I'd call Downside 2.0, revised to get rid of some of the more egregious inconsistencies and gratuitous extra superpowers. Then I started playing the admin as a character in her own right, and now she's having opinions at me about what her afterlife would be like if I designed it properly from the ground up with her in mind, and eventually there will probably be a Downside 3.0 once she's figured it all out.

For now, though, I can describe the Effulgence version.

The afterlife takes the form of an infinite flat plane, with air above the surface and rock below it. Its centerpoint is an extremely tall tower, where the admin lives. Bisecting the plane is an extremely tall cliff, more or less impossible to climb unaided; the tower stands in the middle of the cliff.

The whole business is divided into six districts, three above and three below, in pie-slice fashion. The districts are numbered 0-5, in counterclockwise order with the three lower districts first and the three upper districts last, like so:

Code: Select all
    \ 4 /
   5 \ / 3
   0 / \ 2
    / 1 \

I never bothered to think very hard about the 3-5 end of things. That half of the afterlife is nicknamed Upside, and it's where people go if the judges determine that they're not going to make any trouble and don't need to be punished for anything, and I could hardly imagine what that sort of person might be like.

The other half is nicknamed Downside, and it's where all the interesting people end up.

When a person connected to this afterlife dies, they appear standing upright in a sort of suspended animation inside one of an infinite number of small featureless rooms laid out in a fractal snowflake pattern in underground catacombs stacked infinitely deep beneath the ground. Then they stay there until a judge has time to deal with them.

Judges are employees/dictators of the system. The admin hates having to take actions, so she set the place up so that it runs without her input unless something catastrophic happens; the judges therefore hold unwise amounts of unchecked power. They can read a person's entire history from their perspective just by looking at them: every thought they've ever had, everything they've ever done or experienced. They use this power to decide where new arrivals ought to go and what ought to happen to them when they get there.

Unfortunately, they're kind of, well... judgmental. The original judges were the people who suggested this system in the first place and volunteered to run it; they were not especially merciful folks, and the people they selected to join their ranks tended to be kindred spirits, and even now that nicer people are occasionally applying for the job, the culture tends to push them in a harsher direction; and it doesn't exactly help that they spend all day finding out what upsetting things this person has done in their life and unable to address this knowledge except by deciding whether this person goes to Nice Person Land or Bad Person Land and, if the latter, whether and how much they should be tortured immediately after arriving.

So - while technically you do have to commit some sort of crime, as defined by the judges' guidelines, in order to be sent Downside and optionally sentenced to some amount of torture on top of that - they have complete freedom to decide what the punishment should be for any given offense, and they are frequently wildly disproportionate just because someone happens to annoy them or they're having a bad day or this person has the same name as their ex and it was a messy breakup. No one is watching to make sure they don't do that sort of thing except, rarely, other judges, and the most senior judges are also the most corrupt.

This got to be a big problem. But somebody Downside found a loophole: the rules say that any sentence given must be served, but they don't technically say that the person serving the sentence has to be the person it was assigned to. Someone else, hopefully with a higher pain tolerance, can volunteer in their place. It does have to be a volunteer; if it could be just anybody, the torturers would have no reason at all not to pick their least favourite person every time a new sentence came down, and the whole system would collapse.

So these days, new arrivals are encouraged to visit the contractors, who will decide if their sentence seems totally unreasonable - and it nearly always is - and, if so, take it off their hands.

Does this solve all of the problems and turn Downside into the paradise twelve-year-old Kappa was hoping for? It absolutely does not!

See, the torturers kind of have a little too much power themselves. To facilitate doing their job without having to chase their victims around too much, they're given a single-target body-puppeting power called torturer's control, with which they can ensure that their assigned sentences don't run away until their time is up; but it works the rest of the time too, so if a torturer happens to feel like picking up some random person because they're annoying or attractive or look like they'd make funny noises, they can do that and no one but another torturer can stop them.

(Lest you think the torturers don't have problems of their own, though: once you sign up as a torturer, you can never quit. If you stop carrying out your assigned sentences, the judges will give one to you, and they will keep doing that until you go back to work.)

The control power has a single transferable target: you aim it at someone, and if you get it attached, it stays attached until you voluntarily detach it.

Its main functions are direct puppetry of the motor nerves and forbidding specific classes of action: for example, most torturers will constrain their victims not to attack them, and most will also constrain their victims not to leave a particular room or building. It works by direct mental effort, but some torturers like to give orders out loud, either to remind themselves what they're doing or to let the victim know what's going on. You can't use control to compel any non-puppeted action: if you want your victim to keep trying to climb a barbed wire fence for an hour, you have to spend your own personal attention on moving their body appropriately.

Under most circumstances, torturer's control will work on anyone. There are two exceptions.

Although contractors didn't begin as part of the system, somebody managed to get the attention of the admin early on, and she approved enough to carve out an exception for them. A contractor - any person who has volunteered to accept another's sentence in their place, and stayed through the whole thing - is completely immune to torturer's control by default, and although they can voluntarily let it through, it's pretty hard to convince one to do that.

And if one torturer tries to get control on another torturer, this begins a contest called a control challenge, a silent battle of wills that always ends in one of them having control on the other but not necessarily in the direction that was first attempted.

(If the target torturer already has control on a third party, their power isn't available to push back, so whoever was trying to get control on them automatically succeeds, and you get a control chain: Torturer A can control Torturer B who can control Poor Fucker C, and A can reach C by proxy through B. There is theoretically no limit to how long such a chain can get, but three or four is the most you'll see in practice, and even that is pretty rare.)

The universal exception to the exceptions is when someone is assigned a sentence. That overrides all other considerations: a torturer can always get control on someone who they are currently supposed to be torturing, and they can lift and restore it as many times as they like until the sentence is complete, at which point that person goes back to being no different from any other as far as that torturer's power is concerned.

So torturers can in general pretty much do whatever they want to whoever they want to do it to, as long as that person isn't a contractor. And between any two torturers, the one who's better at winning control challenges - which for most purposes cashes out as some combination of better-motivated and more stubborn - can more or less do what they want to the other one, although a torturer who makes a habit of causing other torturers to miss a lot of work might eventually earn a reprimand for it.

This is a recipe for a situation in which the torturers arrange themselves into a vicious hierarchy based on comparative ability to win control challenges, and maintain a stable place in that hierarchy by making it a very bad idea to attempt to control-challenge someone if you're not very sure you're going to win; and indeed they have done exactly that. The hierarchy also has a skill element: even if someone is very good at winning challenges, it might be worth testing them if they're not also capable of making you regret it, so the person on top of the heap tends to be really good at torture in addition to really good at stubbornly clinging to their autonomic autonomy.

Torturers are formally ranked, for the convenience of judges assigning sentences; there are nine numbered ranks, and then a handful of torturers good enough to be individually assigned sentences that the judges feel the numbered ranks would be insufficiently skilled to carry out. The person on top of the control hierarchy is usually one of those individually listed torturers.

Ruling the control hierarchy comes with a sort of celebrity status. People know your name and face, and that they should be terrified of you and do whatever you say if they don't want to disappear into your basement and come out too traumatized to talk.

Speaking of names, it's customary to pick a new one after arriving Downside. People tend to go by words - Chainsaw, Jasmine, Dice, Chickpea. Using a normal human name, like the sort of thing a living person might go by, is considered gauche and uncool and like you're unable to let go of your past.

When I was designing this afterlife I kept coming back to the problem of how to let culture drift and history be forgotten when no one present is capable of dying. The solution I eventually came up with was a "reincarnation queue", which it's possible to apply to join if you don't want to be the way that you are anymore; but then I couldn't figure out whether I wanted people to retain their memories after being reincarnated and dying again, so I eventually reluctantly settled on "there is a reincarnation queue, but a negligible-possibly-zero number of people have ever made it to the end and been reincarnated and then come back and gone through processing again, possibly because the processing queue orders things such that everyone who has only died once gets priority over anyone who is on their second round".

The other way for people to fade from public awareness is if they disappear into a torturer's basement and come out too traumatized to talk, but I've tended to by on the assumption that those people eventually manage to get into the reincarnation queue and live less-traumatized lives elsewhere. This is generally the trajectory that awaits the top torturer when another top torturer comes up to displace them.

Every person in this afterlife system has a unique identifier called a residence code. Your res code is a 9-digit (or longer) decimal number, with a suffix denoting your assigned district: for example, 858331604^2. In Downside, the districts are assigned as follows: someone who goes down with a sentence starts in ^1, someone who goes down without a sentence starts in ^2, and when a person becomes a torturer or contractor they move to ^0.

Your res code is your user ID, your link to the system. Identity verification is accomplished by magic, but you have to have the number on hand in order to even try to access your account. And what does the account do? Mostly, it holds your allotted residence size and the location of your current home. You put your res code into the transit system (more on that later) to go home; if you want to transfer some of your allotted square footage to someone else, the transfer requires the res codes of both parties and their magically verified consent. (The contractors also need your res code in order to look up your sentence after you arrive, if you didn't bring your sentence papers with you.)

The residence system allows you to move to any unoccupied home within your size allowance. If you trade away enough of your size allowance that you're no longer allowed to live in your current place, the system will move you somewhere else. This mostly isn't enforced, except that homes with an official resident have food and miscellaneous useful items appear in them regularly, whereas unoccupied homes do not, and many people prefer to have consistent access to food and toiletries. Also most people don't know the transit system well enough to continue accessing their old house even after their res code no longer points at it.

Technically, if you forget your res code, you can go back to the tower to ask for it again; any judge or guide will be able to find it for you without much trouble. But if you're a Downsider, a judge might decide to have you tortured for wasting their time, so you are best advised to make really sure you don't forget that number.

The transit system consists of a densely placed network of teleportation stations, usually appearing every few city blocks in urban areas. The station has a touchscreen on one wall facing a row of elevator-like booths. You input your destination on the touchscreen, and as soon as there's a free booth at a nearby station, one of the local booths will display your destination and open up to let you through; you get in, the doors close, you're teleported to a booth at the other station, and the doors open again.

You cannot access the Upside transit network from a Downside station or vice versa. Transferring between the two halves of the afterlife requires you to use the elevators in the tower. There is a Downside transit station in the base of the tower, and an Upside transit station near the point where it begins to rise past the top of the cliff.

There is no internal transit network in the catacombs, but as the judges clear out the tunnels nearest the tower, new individuals are teleported into the empty cells to replace the awakened ones; so you usually don't have to walk that far in order to get to the tower and reach your appropriate transit station. There will be a guide there to show you how the transit system works and take you to your assigned residence for the first time. The guides are generally much nicer people than the judges, but individual personalities may vary.

Downside does not have plants or animals by default. If you want to bring a nonhuman lifeform below the cliffs, you need a personal special dispensation from a judge, which needless to say is both difficult and dangerous to obtain. A Downsider with a lawn would be displaying incredible, obscene wealth; even a potted plant is impressive.

I've mentioned the admin a few times by now, but haven't quite gone into explaining her. Her personality developed organically over the course of successive revisions to the setting, but it's stabilized pretty well by now.

The two central personality traits of the admin are: she has a very strong sense of aesthetics which abhors information loss and disdains untidiness, and she is incredibly, astonishingly, unrepentantly lazy.

She wants there to be some system by which all of the people who can be instantiated in her afterlife will be, at least eventually. But she really, really doesn't want that system to require any ongoing input from her at all. She would like to spend 99.99% of her time sitting in a comfy armchair in her room at the very top of the tower, watching the sky and contemplating aesthetically pleasing things like libraries and large flat surfaces with no dust on them, and maybe once every few centuries have a calm and pleasant conversation or get up and take a short walk.

So of course she took an initial stab at figuring out how to make the afterlife run itself tidily, and of course this did not work out super well, and a lot of people wanted her attention very frequently, and she listened to the ones who promised that after they had enough power they could handle everything without having to run to her every five minutes with another problem.

And that's how the judgment system began: they wanted to divide the afterlife into Good Neighbours and Bad Neighbours, and live upstairs with the Good Neighbours while the Bad Neighbours pestered each other and left them in peace. Of course, people being people, they also wanted to have a way of punishing any Neighbour who was especially, egregiously Bad, and that's how torture entered the mix.

The admin prefers not to be known by any name or title; she tends to introduce herself as 'an administrator' and will accept 'the admin' or 'the Downside admin' or 'her, you know' as descriptors. She has no particular desire to be regarded with awe or reverence or any such thing, and finds formal status signifiers actively distasteful, but she also strongly prefers that people listen to her when she says things and not waste her time.

She has approximately arbitrary power, but if she wants to change something about how the world works - e.g. implement the transit and residence systems, or forbid dust from settling on surfaces - she needs to essentially design a new law of physics from scratch in a system whose only abstraction over raw physical reality is an acknowledgment of minds and an ability to interface with decisions made by those minds. She actually likes it this way, more or less, but it does mean that doing things is even more tedious for her than it would've been if she'd had a slightly nicer magic system to work with.

She also has direct access to the entire contents of her afterlife's information archive at all times; she essentially is that archive. Sometimes she spends a while going through her data and categorizing physical objects; houses and other buildings get added to the edges of the habitable areas of the afterlife, and small portable/consumable items get sorted into the queue to appear in occupied homes.

Since the inhabitants of the afterlife are not dead, it would not make sense for them to die again. So instead, when a Downsider (or Upsider)'s body is damaged to the point where a living person would die or be in serious danger of dying, they 'torch' - reset to a healthy state on the spot, with the damaged body being consumed by flames that are harmless to objects in the environment, and a new undamaged body being created in its place. Very phoenix-aesthetic. The process usually takes no more than a few seconds, and will refuse to appear the new body outright intersecting any solid matter, but might push local solids out of the way to make room.

Torching is very convenient a lot of the time, but it has its drawbacks. Most particularly: if you're in a destructive enough environment that you keep dying over and over without a chance to regroup and escape somehow, you're gonna... keep doing that. For a while. Until something changes such that you are capable of leaving.

The nature of Downsiders (again, or Upsiders, but I never write about those if I can help it) is... well, very suited to the admin's aesthetics: they can't be permanently destroyed. If you kill them, they torch; if you erase them utterly from your local reality, the admin still has access to her logs of their prior existence and can reinstantiate them whenever she gets around to it. This is a useful way to be, if you're the sort of person who wants to be really really sure you're going to make it all the way to eternity.

What with the infinite flatness of the afterlife's land surface, it would be untidy and impractical to light it with glowing balls of very excited matter. So the admin doesn't do that. There are stars, but they're mostly decorative. The main source of illumination is the sky itself: on a twelve-hour repeating cycle, the sky above Upside and the sky above Downside swap between being bright sunny blue without any evidence of a sun, and being moonless midnight black with lots of lovely stars showing. One is always in day mode while the other is in night mode, and then they switch.

Switch time is very pretty, and you can see it from quite a ways away, although as you get out into the fringes of the inhabited areas it gets less visible; and of course eventually the inhabited areas will grow so big that only a tiny fraction of their surface area will be close enough to the cliffs to see it. Unless the admin decides to prioritize adding new housing along the length of the cliffs over adding it out in the far zones, which she might, because she's moderately proud of her lighting decisions and wouldn't want them to become something that only a comparative handful of people ever see.

So that's Downside! I'm probably forgetting something. Actually I'm probably forgetting quite a lot of things. And as soon as the admin finishes telling me how she really would've designed the place, I'll have a Downside 3.0 to write about. But she's been muttering about it for years at this point, so who knows how long that'll take.

As a side note: early on, the admin was adamant that she definitely couldn't have any alts anywhere. I forget what changed her mind - it might have been Exalted? - but now she's willing to show up in any place where she can have incredible power and then sit in a corner being a weird nerd who just wants to completely eliminate the possibility of anything ever being irretrievably destroyed.
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Re: Downside

Postby pedromvilar » Thu Aug 02, 2018 8:42 am

Do you have a few tidbits of things the admin would change about this system available for sharing?
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Re: Downside

Postby Kappa » Thu Aug 02, 2018 8:45 am

She just keeps telling me that if I actually went through the process of her instantiating the first bunch of people and trying to figure out how to deal with them and then dealing with the fallout from that etc, the result would not be Downside as it is.
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