Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Running Kuro: J-Horror with a Cyberpunk Edge

Recently I ran two sessions of Kuro, a cyberpunk/J-horror rpg set in near future, blockaded Japan. I talk about in this week’s Gauntlet Podcast. I think Kuro’s a great and overlooked setting. I’ve always preferred cyberpunk that embraces decay and captures tech starting to disrupt society. This isn’t the only horror c-punk combos (Grimm’s Cybertales, Dark Conspiracy). But I think Kuro’s the best.

If you’re curious, we recorded our plays. (Session One, Session Two)

The Event: The year is 2046. Tensions over resources, ideologies and geopolitics led to global brushfire conflicts. On May 4th, amid a realignment of interests between China, India, Japan, and others, an 8.5 Earthquake shook the Eastern Chinese border. On high alert, a Chinese automated defense station launched two nuclear weapons: one at India, the other at Japan. The first malfunctioned, detonating over North Korea. The second reached its target.

Kuro: And vanished in a sudden electromagnetic storm, throwing Japan into chaos. No trace of the missile remained. The blinding flash and its fallout is known as the Kuro Incident. It disrupted info storage, infrastructure, and political alignments coming as it did mid-election. That was six months ago.

Blockade: Foreign forces demanded Japan release details of what appeared to be a prohibited anti-ballistic missile shield. Japanese protestations that they knew nothing fell on deaf ears. An international blockade encircled the island. In the following months Japan has been cut off from trade and resources, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty.

High and Low: Japanese society, already divided, has split even further. The poor have been pushed down, the middle hangs on to old statuses, and those at the top hoard resources. A new aristocracy, called the Genocracy, lives in the skyscrapers of the city. They spend their wealth on clones, bio-enhancements, and life-extending treatments. They pay others to keep the riff-raff on the lower floors.

Shin-Edo: The game is set in Shin-Edo, once called Tokyo. It is broken into multiple wards and quarters. Subways and high-speed rails continue to move people from place to place. But accident, incidents, and decay have begun to eat away at the infrastructure. Think Blade Runner, decayed Ghost in the Shell, Ergo Proxy, and Un-Go.

Hardware: Japan is a mix of high technologies and old systems desperately kept running. Augmented reality, mechanical prosthetics, ocular targeted advertisements, cyber-implants, microphotoinc processors. Intelligent appliances, robotic servants, military weapon suits, magnetic weapons. It’s there but if you want it to be reliable and uncorrupted, you’ll pay a pretty penny. Everything has begun to break down: networks, communication systems, recycling operations. The same applies to bio and nanotech advances in the country. As well, many high-tech items are also illegal. For example, the “Squid” biocomputer able to store and replay sensations and memories.

Fearful: No one knows exactly what happened on May 4th. But there have been whispers. Tales of strange things at the edges. How can this population, frightened by the current news, the economic chaos, the layoffs and personal bankruptcies be blamed for turning from the truth? In an atmosphere of intimidation and deprivation, everyone is just trying to live their lives. They keep shopping at Shibuya like they have always done or clubbing by night to forget everyday worries. In such an oppressive environment, people have better things to do than to analyze a murder, a disappearance or an unexplained phenomenon in a housing block in Roppongi. In fact, some primal instinct tells them to make a point of turning away, in case the shadows begin to notice them.

Hybrid Sciences: Those that do worry have begun to turn to new technologies and means of protecting themselves: Occultech. This combines old traditions with more modern approaches. Hell cricket-based detectors, holographic pentacles, consecrated salt grenades, etc.

I mention Kuro’s mechanics our podcast discussion. It leans trad, with a couple hundred skill specialties, combat maneuvers, multiple actions, damage thresholds, detailed weapon & equipment lists, and more. But the resolution system falls somewhere in the middle. We talked about in at the end of each session, trying to figure out our reaction.

In Kuro you make rolls using a pool of d6s. You’ll make most tests with Characteristic + Skill. Characteristics usually range from 1 to 3. You have both skills & specialties, but they serve the same purpose. A skill defines a broad group like Archaic Missile Weapons, Popular Culture, or Microphotonics. A specialty fits under that like Crossbow, Celebrity, or Holography. Specialties build on the skill’s rating. For purposes of this I’ll call them both skills.
  1. Your characteristic determines the # of dice rolled.
  2. You add your skill’s value to total after rolling.
But when you roll, any 4’s on a d6 count as zero. These are unlucky. If you roll all 4’s, that’s bad. Any 6’s rolled “explode.” You add this to the total, then reroll. 6’s can explode more than once. If you get a 4, it doesn’t cancel the previous adds. Then keep in mind that specialties can have “Gimikku” which I’ll translate as “stupid dice tricks intended to make this basic system more interesting.” If you have a rating of 5 in a specialty, you get one of these. At 11, you get a second, and so on.
  • Accuracy: If your check succeeds, add 4 points to the Success Margin.
  • Boost: Roll an extra die.
  • Expertise: You may reroll the lowest die in the dice pool. If the reroll is a 4, add that value. If the reroll is a 6, it explodes.
  • Focus: Add +2 to your roll.
  • Mastery: One of your rolled 5s may explode.
In the end, you compare results to a target number. Most difficulties will fall somewhere between 12 and 20. Usually when you’re attacking someone, you roll against their Defense number (10 to 12 on the sample characters)

Unskilled tests just use characteristic dice. Straight characteristic tests roll #d6 = characteristic and then add double the characteristic value. In some cases (combat), you also need to track the margin of success or failure. We roll initiative and some characters get more than one action. They take their second action after everyone’s taken their first.

The combat resolution introduces some more complications. For a base melee attack, you roll Dex + Skill. Target # is your opponent’s defense. If someone decides to spend their action parrying or dodging and has an action left, they test against the attacker’s roll. They declare this after the attack check. You can also “Power Attack,” opting for brute force. In this case, roll Str + Skill. You may “invest” Strength. Each point raises the difficulty by 1 but increases the damage by 2. Alternately, you may opt for accuracy with a “Fast Attack.” Roll Reflexes + Skill. You may “invest” Reflexes. Each point reduces the difficulty by 1 and the damage by 2.

There are rules for modifiers, non-lethal damage and grappling. Ranged combat has target numbers and their own version of these special maneuvers.

Despite all of that weirdness, the players enjoyed the goofiness of the dice, combined with the Gimikku. It added an element of uncertainty. As I say in the podcast, you could easily strip things down, keep that basic resolution, and make everything easier. The game doesn’t have a lot of dependencies, powers and abilities based on other things. So maybe cut specialties entirely and go just with skill groups? Limit the gimikku; players assign X number of them. Don’t worry about extra actions, etc. I think it’s doable.

I’m dwelling on these mechanics because they say something about the game. If you’re putting in crunchier options, you’re imagining a heavier, more granular game. In contrast to these details, some areas get light treatment. There’s only a single sentence devoted to defining each of the eight characteristics. There’s a giant list of tech, equipment, and enhancements but characters aren’t going to be able to afford any but the most low-level of these. There’s no general system for shock, sanity, or fear. Instead monsters have powers like “Horror.” The game seems to not want a subtle approach. The adventure presented in the core book isn’t. It leads into a campaign and plot point that I can only compare to the Midichlorians from Star Wars.

Let’s leave that aside, because Kuro’s a great setting. There’s a ton of detail and inspiration in this core book. The history’s well laid out, Shin-Edo’s well described, the technology’s interesting, and even the fiction works to evoke the setting. The horror and the weird tech fit together. You can see how elements would deepen over a campaign. GMs can easily tune this to be more or less cyberpunk. Bring in more of the androids and military tech if you want it to feel like Ghost in the Shell. Focus on the Genocrats and civil authorities if you want the feel PsychoPass. Go for a school setting if you want Boogiepop Phantom. There’s a ton of imaginative space here.

My online game leaned to the J-Horror side of things. The decaying tech landscape supported that flavor. Kuro has some advice on Japanese Horror and it isn’t bad. Even better is this piece The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction (h/t to Sarah Perry-Shipp). Combine that with viewings of some of the J-Horror classics and you’ll be ready to run. I’d recommend:
  • Pulse (Kairo)
  • Ju-On (The Grudge)
  • Uzamaki
  • Ringu
  • Infection
Then One Missed Call, Ju-On 2, The Vanishing, Tomie, Boogiepop Phantom the Movie, House, Cure.

Kuro’s currently out of print in English. You can still get the pdf from Cubicle7 for $20. That’s a steep price point, but it was worth it to me. I ended up printing and binding my copy. It’s something I’ll be re-reading for years.

One more note worth calling out: the translation’s quite good. It can feel rulesbooky in places, but overall it stays strong. That’s especially tricky job: translating something from another language that’s dealing with a hybrid real/imaginary culture.