How to roleplay a hacker

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There are no big changes to report this week as we continue to work on several technical improvements. As there is not much to report on that just yet, I wanted to instead take a look at something completely random that I recently talked about with a friend who was looking to roleplay a hacker in a near-future cyberpunk game. Since he was not very tech-savvy himself, he was hoping to get some pointers and I figured I’d share some of what we discussed.

It might at a quick glance seem like a weird question because basic hacker stereotypes are well known: smart, socially awkward and using “tech-magic” to break into computer systems and do computer things. Often part of the underworld, they use their knowledge for profit or to fight the great evil corporations / government — or instead work for said government as a special agent of sorts. Some mix the two up with working for the government to pay off a debt to society they might otherwise be serving in prison.

With that stereotype out of the way, lets look a bit deeper at the hackers motivations beyond the obvious goals of self-preservation, earning a living and fighting for some cause they support. More specifically, why did the hacker become a hacker in the first place?

The first clue lies in the “tech-magic” that hackers seem to wield. Hackers do not wield their power by virtue of their birth or some conjunction of stars or genes, but have to learn their art through study. This doesn’t just mean reading some books, but it means investing time and effort into figuring out how things work and why they work that way, exploring different systems, recognizing patterns and applying those skills again and again until they are mastered. In short, the hacker earned their powers through hard work and sacrifice.

This echo’s not just in the stereotype of social awkwardness – they were too busy learning their craft to work on their social skills – but also in hacker culture. Hackers respect one another even if they are on opposing sides because they know first-hand the efforts and sacrifices required to gain the skills to make an elegant or difficult hack. This shared experience creates some level of brotherhood even between enemies.

This also brings up a question: how exactly did your hacker PC or NPC learn their skills? Hackers don’t just start hacking one day and it isn’t sufficient to say they were ‘self-taught’, no matter how curious they are about computers.

That isn’t to say they cannot have taught themselves a lot by experimentation, but hackers need to learn the fundamentals before they are ready to experiment, and to become the best in the world, they need to talk to other hackers to learn from their experiences. No man is an island, and that goes for socially awkward hackers just as much.

Thus, while your hacker need not have any formal training, they likely have friends — or at least contacts — who are hackers and it is not unlikely one of those is a teacher of some sort. If they are older, they likely taught other hackers a thing or two, as is customary in hacker culture: you share what you know so others will tell you what they know in turn.

This sharing again reiterates the point about hackers respecting one another, and it also provides the greatest sin a hacker can commit: betraying his peers. Such a betrayal is not just a betrayal of the people affected, but of the very ecosystem that allows hackers to exist in the first place. Emotions can run very high on such subjects.

Also consider how your character may deviate from the stereotype: if your hacker is not socially awkward, they are likely a key linchpin in the hacker community. When a group of people forms with many socially awkward members, it tends to elevate those who do have the skills to manage such a group, making them figures of great importance in the community even if they aren’t the best in the group, by virtue of everyone liking them.

Finally, don’t forget that tech-magic is just a term to explain away a lack of understanding of what the hacker is actually doing. They know details about specific things, but their magic is not usable everywhere. Hackers don’t necessarily know a lot about technology outside their expertise, so just because your hacker can do anything with a computer does not mean they know how to hotwire a car, or how to break into a safe — even a computer controlled one. In fact, they likely won’t know how every computer system works either.

This is amplified with the teenage hackers that are a popular trope: as a teenager, they won’t have had time to learn all the different systems. How smart they are doesn’t matter, there are only so many hours in a day. However, if they are successful in their quests, such hackers can gain the experience to master more and more systems, and generalize their skills to apply to a wider and wider variety of technology.

That is the last tip right there too: don’t start off with the all-powerful hacker god who is revered by his peers and can hack any system no matter what. Just as the hacker has to earn his powers through hard work, take the time to grow the character’s skill during play, and earn their reputation rather than declaring it a priori at the start of the campaign. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

Have you ever roleplayed a hacker? How did it go? Let us know in the Community Forum, where you can also find this weeks (empty) changelog!