Thursday, July 17, 2014

Discovering a hero's secret identity

Some of you wrote in about my comment on Illumina and "the usual people" trying to discover her identity. This is as important for villains as heroes, so let's talk about what sort of information people use to discover a super's identity.

Face recognition software

This is a pretty new option for me, though kids these days are familiar with it. When I was growing up, computers were a toy for academics and big companies and the military. These days you can keep one in your pocket. Similar oldie villains should really wise up to what's going on in this space.

Basically, there's face recognition software developed by people like Facebook and Google. And there's dedicated groups of super-hunters who do nothing but snap up old high school yearbooks and so forth, scan the photos, and upload them to a central server to be analyzed by this software. They compare pictures of known supers to the database, hoping for a match. This has gotten a lot easier with Google's image search feature, where you can just Photoshop a mask onto someone's yearbook picture and see if you get any hits.

Since everything you put online tends to stay there in some form, you can probably be found if you've ever had a civilian Facebook or something similar. Just let this be a warning if you were thinking of starting a page: never put your real face up there, ever.

Activity Triangulation

As I wrote in my guide on Lair placement and size, a supervillain's lair can be traced back to them if it's at the center of their sphere of activity. The same goes for superheroes. I talked a little about this on my article on Stage 2, but it holds true to a lesser extent for more powerful supers.

The general rule is that the more powerful your movement abilities, the harder it is to triangulate you. There's an adrenaline junkie named Exodus who's doing time in Riverbend maximum security. He can go anywhere in the world, because he's a teleporter. The only reason he's in jail is to impress the mundane prisoners with his exploits, and score points with prison gangs by smuggling things in for them. Supposedly he's got a whole stockpile of stuff buried in an abandoned mine - odds are good that they will never, ever find his real base.

You can start by getting a map of the city your hero is in, and getting a supply of pins and note cards. Start tracking sightings on the map. Put a pin onto each sighting's location, along with the date and two times - as accurately as you have them - for when there was an incident there, and when the hero responded to it. Once you have about three dozen data points, look at the data you have. Start drawing connecting boundaries on your map - "always takes at least 30 minutes to reach these spots", for example - and try to draw narrower and narrower circles as your data collection gets better.

If necessary, create incidents of your own. The ideal incident will be one which the hero feels compelled to respond to, and at times when the hero is likely to be in a familiar place - i.e. the place you want to track down. Only you know your own hero enough to determine these things, but in general, a couple hours after a major disaster or combat is the most ideal time to rouse a hero from their lair. You can set up an incident on the boundaries you drew earlier, to test the validity of your assumptions about travel time.

Tracking devices

These aren't useful for a lot of reasons, so don't rely on them unless you already have the expertise to use them professionally. Here's the problems:
  1. Like clothes, a tracking device is usually a lot less durable than the super you attach it to. If he's got flame powers or something, it's going to be trashed well before you ever get a line on his home base.
  2. Most villains don't know how to follow a radio signal properly.
  3. Of those that do, many can't keep up with a fast-flying super.
Some villains have better luck with burst-transmission tracking devices, of the sort used to track animal migration patterns. Companies like Telonics make devices that use GPS and the Iridium satellite network which could be used to track someone almost anywhere in the world. Finding a way to attach one of these to your superheroic nemesis without alerting him is left as an exercise for the reader.

Military groups like the Grasscutters are fully equipped to utilize these methods. They have tiny transmitters that they shoot onto their targets, along with a topical anesthetic mixed with DMSO to neutralize the sensation of the transmitter after the initial hit. If the super is busy fighting, he may never notice it.