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Great Mysteries - Ciphers and Keys

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When an angel of the God-Machine Falls, it loses much of what it once was from when it was hooked to the Machine. That includes its sense of purpose. In the absence of the God-Machine to tell it what to do, and to give it the tools and powers to do it, an Unchained has to figure things out for itself.

A demon does this through learning Embeds. Embeds are the main powers of Demon: the Descent. Pages 123 - 155 list all the main Embeds available to demons; Storytellers and players are encouraged to come up with new Embeds, and the game mechanic structure of Embeds is described in the core rulebook.

An Embed is a rule or natural law already hard-coded into the workings of the world that a demon can tap for a specific effect. For a mundane example, consider a child who knows of a loose board in a neighbor’s fence. He can move the board, take a shortcut through the neighbor’s yard, and save himself the time of running around the block. Anyone could do that, provided they have the same knowledge the child does (that is, that the board is loose) and that they can fit through the opening thus created.

Embeds work much the same way. Any demon can learn any Embed. The demon simply has to remember that the groundwork is there. As angels, all servants of the God- Machine are aware of these pathways, but they make use of them differently. Angels do not make conscious effort to use Embeds, they are able to do so simply as part of their missions.

Embeds are like those keys from The Matrix Reloaded, only they're not just for opening a door and you end up in an infinite corridor that leads you to The Oracle sitting in an urban concrete park; an Embed is like turning on an invisible switch, and suddenly everybody accepts that the demon belongs there, kind of like psychic paper from Doctor Who (the "Authorized" Embed, p. 140), or blend into a crowd ("Lost In The Crowd," p. 145) or use people's body language and microexpressions to eavesdrop on a conversation across a noisy room ("Eavesdrop," p. 149). A lot of these Embeds, from the feel of them, resemble supernatural tools of tradecraft - they are used for intelligence-gathering, infiltration, sabotage and so on, the typical acts of insurgents and operatives out in the field.

Embeds are either Reflexive or Instant actions, can never be Extended, and cost no Willpower or Aether. They work on a literal level - open a door, open an encrypted computer file - as well as on a conceptual one - open someone's eyes. open their mind, open a debate.

And now comes the fun bit. Embeds turn out to be a crucial part of the game, not as the source of a demon's powers, but as clues as to what its Unchained purpose is.

Because when an angel Falls and becomes a demon, the process of Falling changes the demon in a very specific way. While it was an angel, its purpose was whatever the God-Machine wanted it to be. Disconnected from the God-Machine, the demon's purpose becomes a secret; a secret that the demon must unlock during the course of the chronicle.

And the literal key to this is the Embeds.

Every demon knows one Embed on chargen which is its first Key. The demon knows that this specific Embed, that is chosen from all the Embeds that it knows at charged, is exactly 25% of its Secret; its Cipher.

But the other three Keys, all Embeds, are not known.

Embeds are based upon a metaphysical understanding of the nature of the reality. As that understanding grows, the demon is capable of modifying the equations, as it were, and joining those Embeds together. The Cipher — a complete series of four interlocked Embeds — enables a demon to work truly impressive, but still subtle, feats of magic.

Ciphers are personal. A given demon’s Cipher might include one Embed from each category, four from one category, or any other combination. The only way to discover the Cipher is to learn more Embeds and then try them in combination with the ones the demon already knows. When a demon discovers one of these Embeds (called Keys), she undergoes a transcendental, life-altering moment of awareness. This might be blissful, or it could be so shocking that the demon withdraws from all contact with others for a week. In any case, when a demon uses a new Key, she always knows it.

As demons progress, they learn how Embeds work and uncover more about the mystical subroutines put in place by the God-Machine. Some of these subroutines seem familiar or instinctive. These feelings, halfway between déjà vu and enlightenment, can lead a demon to her Keys. These pathways do not come from the God-Machine, though. The God-Machine is not a teacher attempting to help demons on their way, and neither is it trying to lead demons back into its services (though some demons believe exactly that). By investigating her own Keys, a demon is moving further away from the God-Machine on her very own Descent.

During the chronicle, every demon must go about learning new Embeds, whilst at the same time maintaining their Covers, living their stolen lives, doing their spy stuff against the God-Machine and its agents and so on. And with each new Embed, the demon has to test whether or not this new Embed is the next Key - the next step towards uncovering the mystery of what it is now meant to do as a jailbroken angel.

From what I can gather, these Keys must be tested in a specific sequence. It is entirely possible to learn the third Key before one learns the second Key, or to find that the fourth Key was one that the character already knew from chargen, but never actually thought to test before. But unless you test each Key in the right order - First Key, then Second Key, then third Key and finally the fourth Key - the consequences are terrible.

As in "cut the red wire of the ticking nuke" consequences.

And the point of all of this? Well, it happens that this is the "Descent" part of Demon: the Descent. The unlocking of the four Keys leads the demon closer to the revelation of its Cipher, its final secret.

The Storyteller should use the questions posed in the character creation section (p. 113) to build the Cipher. He shouldn’t choose the Key Embeds at random, but rather, put some thought into which Embeds work well for the character’s concept, history as an angel, Agenda, and understanding of Hell as a demon. He should choose the three remaining Keys as soon as possible. It might be helpful to work backwards from the final secret.

The final secret of a Cipher is not the endgame or final fate of a character. Rather, it is a technognostic truth, a machine based koan that teaches the character something about the true nature of reality and the God-Machine. It might be a revelation, a secret bit of code that the God-Machine never intended for anyone to see (or might not ever remember is there). It might be a pathway to lead the character to Hell — or just shift her understanding of Hell. The final secret does not, in itself, allow the character to complete the Descent, but the final secret should confirm or clarify that character’s vision of Hell.

The final secret is not necessarily personal to the character. The Agenda — and, of course, the Fall itself — are all external, difficult decisions that a demon makes. The God-Machine doesn’t construct the Ciphers for demons. Indeed, they seem to be nothing more than side effects. Some function of the Infrastructure of the world does not allow an angel to Fall without a Cipher for it to follow. Is that because, to the God- Machine, having a demon following the Cipher is preferably to having more Exiles (who don’t have Ciphers)? Or is it just a side-effect of the ability to Fall — the demon has some magical context in the world? These questions are above the level of most demons to answer. The final secret of a Cipher gives a demon a greater degree of what she wanted in the first place — freedom.

The fact that each new Key Embed unlocks a powerful, subtle new power called an Interlock when working in conjunction with its other Embeds should also motivate the players to go seeking their Key Embeds.

But yes ... unlocking the core mystery of each demon's Cipher lies at the heart of what Demon: the Descent is all about.

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Fascinating. You are tempting me as only a Faustian could, Libra.

Are you interested in running or playing the aforementioned crossover?

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Running, more than playing.

Somehow, the thought of running the God-Machine appeals to me ...

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I think most storytellers feel that way ;) Thank you kindly for the info!

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