A book on the structures and natures of different governments within our world got me to thinking anew about perhaps the most seminal creation within the background of the Hero System – U.N.T.I.L.
Specifically, thinking about who the organization is; how they fit into the policies, principles and charter of the United Nations; what’s wrong with the “official” version of the organization; how the organization is depicted in the Zenith-3 campaign and the Hero Systems campaigns – and a new take on the answers to some of these questions.
The Official Position
When I first read the Champions sourcebooks, I was still relatively naive as a writer and GM. Conceptually, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the idea, and the acronym is excellent – but I shuddered then, and still do, at the organization’s actual name.
The Name Problem
Brace yourself: “The United Nations Tribunal on International Law”.
Where does one begin? “The United Nations” part of the name is fine. But then it starts to fall apart.
A “Tribunal”? Isn’t that what you convene when you want to hold an enquiry into something – sort of like Congressional Hearings? Well, that’s close – it actually means a “Court Of Justice, or a local board hearing claims for exemption from military service during World War I” according to the Pocket Oxford Dictionary. The name, applied in this context, makes U.N.T.I.L. closer in concept to Judge Dredd than to the organization described in sourcebooks such as “Champions Universe”. Nothing wrong with that as a concept, but it is not what is described.
Second Problem: “International Law”. It isn’t what most people think it is. And it certainly isn’t what U.N.T.I.L. concern themselves with. International Law has nothing to do with criminal acts by individuals or even rogue/terrorist organizations, it concerns relations between nations. Even International Criminal Law deals with things like war crimes, acts of genocide, and ‘crimes against humanity’. Anti-piracy measures and the law of the sea are as close as International Law comes to acts by individuals and they are covered by a completely separate field within International Law.
Which leaves a Champions GM with three choices:
- Reinvent the organization;
- Rename the organization;
- or have an organization whose actions are at odds with their mandate and mission, and which are actually just as illegal as the criminals they pursue.
That’s right – since adherence to International Law is voluntary, and not an obligation, even if International Law was far more encompassing than it actually is, U.N.T.I.L. would have no authority to enforce it. Their every act is therefore just as criminal as the acts of an organization like VIPER, or S.P.E.C.T.R.E.
Renaming The Organization
The easiest option, on the face of it, is to rename the organization, and keep right on trucking with them as an established campaign element, fighting villainous organizations and supervillains. But this proves a little trickier in practice than it appears.
My reasoning, back in the early 80s when my campaign was just getting started, carried me that far; but in-game events modified the central concept way beyond the standard, so I won’t go into that just now. Instead, here’s a brand new meaning for the acronym that solves the problem for those looking for the simplest solution: the United Nations Terrorism, Intervention, and Law-enforcement Agency.
This title gives U.N.T.I.L. three responsibilities or doctrines:
- Terrorism – mandates opposition to villainous and terrorist organizations such as Viper and Genocide;
- Law-enforcement – mandates assisting the national and/or local authorities in enforcing local laws when the criminals have superpowers or supertech or some other ability that puts them beyond the capabilities of ordinary police forces; and,
- Intervention – mandates prevention of attempted invasions from beyond the earth (aliens and/or other dimensions) as well as operations relevant under International Law such as the pursuit and capture of those wanted for trial on charges of War Crimes, acts of Genocide, etc.
Between them, this gives U.N.T.I.L. the authority and the mandate to do everything that they do in most Champions campaigns, but it also throws some interesting ramifications into the mix.
International Law doesn’t even get a direct mention in the title, though it does get mentioned indirectly under the heading of Intervention, simply because there are some fun plotlines (chasing Nazis, helping against alien invaders, etc) that otherwise would fall outside the range of what U.N.T.I.L. is permitted to do. (I have sudden visions of U.N.T.I.L. trying to prosecute Dormammu for Crimes Against Humanity…)
Since International Law has an extremely limited criminal code, it becomes necessary to use some other criminal code to sanction U.N.T.I.L. operations against Supervillains. The obvious choice is the domestic law of the country in which they are operating – having been authorized to do so by the nation in question either as a blanket permission or on a case-by-case basis. That means that they may be forced to persue ‘super-criminals’ for activities that the agents don’t consider crimes – or look the other way because the things the criminals are doing aren’t actually crimes under local laws. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and this throws a whole new internal conflict onto the pile for the PCs to explore.
There’s still scope for operational fine-tuning; for example, how proactive are U.N.T.I.L. permitted to be? Does the doctrine of ‘hot pursuit’ apply? Must U.N.T.I.L. apply formally for permission to operate in a country on a case-by-case basis, or are there specific organizations they have a blanket authorization to pursue? Are U.N.T.I.L. agents required to respect procedures and authorization requirements for specific activities – ie do they have to read miranda rights while operating in the US, do they have to go to court for permission to wiretap a phone, etc? Subordinating U.N.T.I.L. to local laws can have a number of repercussions!
The Law-enforcement responsibility also authorizes U.N.T.I.L. to operate Stronghold (or some equivalent) for those criminals that the local penal institutions cannot hold. But that also brings into view the question of the proper treatment of criminals – as anyone who has read ‘Catch Me If You Can‘ knows that different countries have very different attitudes to criminal rehabilitation and punishment (it’s not made quite as clear in the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks).
Finally, notice that drugs are not mentioned anywhere directly. Unless they are locally illegal, or are being used to fund terrorist activities, they are none of U.N.T.I.L.’s business.
Reinventing The Organization
The second solution is to reinvent the organization to fit within the parameters of what International Law actually covers. Like any large organization with a chain-of-command whose commander-in-chief changes periodically, what is permitted – both officially and unofficially – will change from time-to-time, anyway. Put some proactive go-getter in charge and it is likely to exceed its mandate regularly and egregiously – and until they actually tick somebody off, he will probably get away with it. But International Relations is a prickly subject, and delicacy is often required to prevent extreme positions from producing extreme reactions to events – and that means that a go-getter is likely to be viewed, at best, as a “loose cannon”.
Leaving the name “as it is, officially,” and remaking the organization to suit, leaves each individual nation to come up with its own solutions – something that would undoubtedly suit the USA in the Champions game universe, but would leave many smaller nations relatively helpless. But that’s where the new thoughts that I mentioned come in.
These days, the growing trend is termed supranationalism. The difference between a supranational union or confederation such as the European Union and the United Nations is the agreement to confer on the supranational union authority within and – to a strictly limited extent – over, the member nations. If each of the “continental divisions” of U.N.T.I.L. was in fact a locally-authorized organization answering to such a union, with a general administration coordinating relations between them, you end up with a quasi-UN organization that can collectively be referred to as U.N.T.I.L. but which is actually six separate organizations, with the authority to act within their divisional jurisdiction. Each would thus fall into a middle ground between an independent supranational law-enforcement operation and a full UN operation.
Does this seem like it’s splitting hairs? It isn’t, and the difference lies in one key word: sovereignty. Nations routinely delegate and authorize supranational organizations to act on behalf of the collective, yielding a little of their sovereignty; they yield no such authority to the United Nations. At the same time, the UN quite happily functions as a coordinating and administrative body between individual nations and hence between supranational organizations, so this “umbrella” role is in keeping with their usual practices and policies.
This is very much a case of being able to have your cake and eating it, too – a perfect solution. What’s more, the quasi-autonomy of the resulting supranational organizations leaves room for disagreements and conflicts between them, which U.N.T.I.L. Command can mediate in the medium or long-term but which provide additional plot potentials in the meantime.
U.N.T.I.L. as the enforcement arm of a nascent world government
If that sounds very specific, it’s because that is the niche that U.N.T.I.L. – The United Nations Tactical / Intelligence / Legal Corps – occupies in my game world. This is a quite different take on the organization from that of the “Official” mould due to behind-the-scenes manipulation and intervention in the creation of the organization by an alien from a completely different culture, in my game world.
Ullar came from a world with a strict meritocratic caste system. It was not only possible but routine for qualified individuals to move from one caste or sub-caste to another. Mapping of genetic potentials at birth and evaluations during the educational period of how much of that potential had been actualized by the individual determined what caste(s) and sub-castes were open to the individual, and free choice was restricted to those options the state adjudged as suitable for the individual. In many ways, it drew elements from a dystopian view of our future, but it remapped them into a functional – if fragile – utopia. At the very pinnacle of that society, above even the administrative powers of the planetary governments, was a group of troubleshooters called The Order, who were freed of all restraints of law – but were enjoined to obey the maxim of “The Greatest Good For All,” and mentally restructured to enforce compliance. That was the key to this society: something very akin to utopia was achieved by the sacrifice of virtually all personal liberty, but that utopia was inherently unstable; it was the constant corrective actions of the Order that kept it all from falling apart. Although it predates the publication of Magician by some months, there are few organizations more reminiscent of this society than that of Kelewan under the Great Ones, shorn of the Oriental societal influences and recast as a high-tech society rather than a fantasy one. When the Csoltaran Federation finally fell – and the details are not especially relevant to this analysis – he escaped in suspended animation while his ship’s computer searched for a planet inhabited by suitable life forms. After 1900 million years – or so – it found Earth.
Ullar’s initial thoughts were to remake the society of the world to what he “knew” was a better system, but his arrival coincided with the first nuclear weapons test in 1945, and his compassion forced him to assist in relief efforts following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which set him on the path to becoming Earth’s first hero instead of it’s first supervillain. He parlayed the gratitude of a pair of Japanese officials and his analytic resources into an even more rapid Japanese resurgence following the conclusion to World War II, in the process elevating those allies to key positions within the new government; then used that influence to have Japan join the United Nations years earlier than would have been the case. Along the way, he carefully recruited a few others. Step by step, he bootstrapped his supporters into key positions and had them subtly nuance the opinions of political leaders and the general public. In particular, he persuaded the United Nations of three key ‘facts’:
- that League Of Nations failed to prevent World War because they granted certain states unlimited sovereignty without reserving the collective right to intervene before a sovereign state threatened others;
- that without a multinational enforcement arm to carry out such interventions, their decrees were toothless and irrelevant;
- and that without a guaranteed autonomy from political shackles, such an authority’s purpose could too easily be perverted.
Ultimately, Ullar’s true goal was to create an organization of “political troubleshooters” to deal with problems that were too big for any one nation to deal with. U.N.T.I.L.’s task was not to fight wars, but to intervene strategically to confine wars and to target the causes of war – an earth equivalent of The Order. Its commander was to advise the UN in the deliberations, and was answerable directly to the security council – but after the fact. One of the terms of membership in the United Nations was acceptance of the authority of U.N.T.I.L. – but with it came a clean slate, and full pardon for past ‘misdeeds’. In due course, he announced his presence to the world, and became the first individual to petition the UN for global citizenship. The question of life beyond earth was immediately resolved, and the intentions of that life was clearly a subject beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation – exactly as he had intended, U.N.T.I.L. was placed under the jurisdiction of the agency that he had helped to create.
Superheroes breed supervillains
Ullar’s reform agenda had barely gotten started when he was required to set it aside when the world’s first supervillain arose. The conflict between the two was to reshape U.N.T.I.L.’s mandate forever, so much so that the public largely forgot that it had any other function. Supervillains, by their nature, were deemed to be squarely within U.N.T.I.L.’s mandate, but they went further and claimed jurisdiction over dealing with the causes of supervillain creation. Aliens, super-tech, so-called “sorcery”, psionics, superheroes and villains of all sorts became their province. This didn’t happen overnight; it was a gradual process. In game terms, it is now about 40 years since Ullar first arrived (he’s been killed twice in the line of duty and resurrected once), and U.N.T.I.L. has become an umbrella with fingers in a great many pies. At the same time, they have accelerated the technological profile of the world by 10-15 years – personal computers are now common-place (in 1986!) and the internet is about to explode.
U.N.T.I.L. has 10 divisions in my game world:
- Command Division – Admin & Policy setting
- Security Division – Responsible for the security of U.N.T.I.L. bases, UN Facilities, Missions & Envoys, for counter-intelligence activities and for the confinement of supervillains.
- Legal & Economic Division – Super-tech can produce economic disruptions on a massive scale; aside from legal reforms and legal analyses, and handling U.N.T.I.L.’s overall budget, this division forecasts and attempts to keep control of these disruptions, keeping them to a manageable level. A particular challenge to this group are the legal ramifications of superheroes.
- Science & Technology Division – At the same time, U.N.T.I.L. has some of the most brilliant research scientists on the planet working for it, analyzing both captured goodies and conducting pure research.
- Intelligence Division – Before you can intervene, you need to know where intervention is necessary. This division not only analyzes the inner workings of organizations like Viper and Demon, it plants double-agents, keeps an eye on the intelligence apparatus of key national governments and organizations, and in general tries to be the first to know everything that happens.
- Resources Division – Bases, vehicles, field equipment, etc.
- Training Division – Trains, recruits, and vets new agents – the latter in consultation with the Security Division.
- Political Division – The intelligence division is about knowing, the political division is about doing. Their mandate is to settle disputes equitably and peacefully by providing a third, neutral party. Also known as the diplomatic wing of U.N.T.I.L.. They are also responsible for speaking on behalf of the planet to representatives from other worlds.
- Operations Division – Chase after supervillains and terrorists and rogue aliens and so on. The division that most people think of when they think of U.N.T.I.L..
- Superhero Liaison Division – In recent times, it has become fashionable to provide a liaison to superhero teams operating in U.N.T.I.L. jurisdiction and under the auspices of U.N.T.I.L.. The Liaison Division grants superhero teams a mandate to operate as independent field units within U.N.T.I.L., and pays the members accordingly, and even helps fund the team’s activities – but insists on hands-on oversight. The difference between a Sanctioned Team and a group of Vigilantes. Originally constituted as part of the Operations Division.
U.N.T.I.L. has continued to evolve within the campaign world. They get some things right and some things wrong; they are sometimes slow and occasionally hamstrung by UN regulations and motions. When the US left the UN in my campaign, it deprived U.N.T.I.L. of about 55% of its operating budget and several of its key operatives and bases. Political developments such as the rise of the 4th Reich in Central Europe and the 5th Reich in South America have further hampered their effectiveness.
An organization like U.N.T.I.L. can never be completely ineffective or helpless within a campaign, or it might as well not exist; and won’t be worth the trouble it poses for the PCs – but it also can’t be the solution to every problem, or the PCs become unnecessary instead of in the spotlight. This metagame conflict is a juggling act that every GM has to cope with.
In general, from a metagame perspective, things are unlikely to get better in the short-term; I want problems to be solved by the PCs, not some ubiquitous superagency. At the same time, U.N.T.I.L. is working slowly but doggedly to minimize the impact of those problems until the PCs discover the solution to the problems – once the critical problem is solved, U.N.T.I.L. will handle the cleanup, leaving the PCs to move on to the next problem on their plates. And that’s the real purpose of U.N.T.I.L. within my campaign.
The Measure of Progress
U.N.T.I.L. has one further function – because it will always prioritize the most urgent problems at hand, no matter how insoluble they might appear, a quick glance at the problems they are dealing with provides an effective yardstick for the PCs to measure their success and the impact they are having on the game world. But, in general, they are just a part of the general background. They pop up when the plot is something they would have knowledge and jurisdiction over, and stay out of the way the rest of the time. That’s why it is so important to know who and what they – or any equivalent global or national organization – are – so that you know when they should be involved and when they should not. You want organizations like U.N.T.I.L. to be exactly what it says on the tin.
Right now, in-game, the era of Japanese Management Techniques is beginning, with the economic and bureaucratic convolutions that comes with it. This is going to have the effect of saddling the PCs with a number of bureaucratic hurdles to overcome that are humorous (at a player level) while annoying at a character level. In particular, there’s a Field Marshall Tomkins who the PCs will come to loathe, because he’s fighting the change by insisting on every administrative ‘i’ being dotted and every bureaucratic ‘t’ being crossed. Over time, it means that important policy decisions that might once have been made from On High will get handed to the grassroots level – including the PCs. And neither that, nor the likelyhood of trouble from the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, are coincidence (insert evil laugh here).
What will U.N.T.I.L. ultimately become? I have no idea, that will be directly up to the players – but it will be fun to watch!