Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Islands in The Veil: Cyberpunk PbtA

They say as you get older, your taste in music ossifies. That it’s harder for something new and novel to break through and grab your attention, create joy for you. I wonder if that’s true for rpgs? In the last year I’ve read a bunch I thought would grab me. I thought they’d hit the sweet spot of excitement I got when I first read the Ghostbusters or James Bond 007 rpg. Most didn’t.

The Veil did.

The Veil’s an amazing rpg which embraces modern cyberpunk-esque themes and ideas. I don’t know how else to explain it. I ran two sessions of it online for The Gauntlet Hangouts. I dug it and it left me wanting more. More than a formal review, I have some thoughts on it and why it works for me.

I’m struck by the differences in The Veil’s approach to cyberpunk and my own experiences with that in games. I first encountered Cyberpunk 2013 in ’88 while at a shop in Chicago. Within a couple of years, it’d become a major rpg and trail blazed a whole series of like games (GURPS Cyberpunk, Cyberspace, CyberHERO, and of course Shadowrun. Cyberpunk 2020 became a go-to game for our local group up through the late 1990’s, with my late friend Barry in particular running many campaigns of it. Working at the local game store, I also got to peek in on other gamers’ approach to these games.

One thing divided me from many of the players and GMs: I’d read a lot of cyberpunk fiction: Gibson, Walter Jon Williams, Pat Cadigan, K.W. Jeter, George Alec Effinger. I wasn’t an expert or even that deeply into it, but I’d read these authors. That wasn’t true for many in our group. Some picked up bits and pieces. But for the most part, their vision of cyberpunk came from the RPGs rather than any novel or short story source material.

On the other hand they knew some sources I didn’t. Looking back it’s pretty clear that three anime heavily shaped their imagination: Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and most importantly Appleseed. I wouldn’t see those until much later; GitS not until this year. I hadn’t read the associated manga either. Appleseed leaned heavily into the chrome and military side of things. That complemented the typical games we encountered: we always played Edgerunners carrying merc missions of questionable ethics. We’d shift that formula from time to time, for example we got vampires in our cyberpunk once Ianus released their Grimm’s Cybertales and related products.

The Veil comes from another place. It’s the product of someone who has absorbed and synthesized the divergent streams of cyberpunk media: books, films, rpgs, etc. In doing so he’s made a game that has the anime feels and themes without being a caricature. The Veil’s cyberpunk without being entirely about murder, chrome, and loadout. It also manages to handle transhumanist themes while remaining comprehensible and connected to humanity. That’s something Transhuman Space, Eclipse Phase, and Mindjammer don’t do for me. It doesn’t feel like a regurgitation of older cyberpunk games, religiously sticking to the same play style and only redressing the setting.

My disclaimer: I know Fraser Simons from online gaming; I’ve gotten to play with him several times. We even played The Sprawl together. That’s how I originally heard about The Veil. Honestly I only backed it because he seemed like a smart and earnest dude. I was prepared to be pleasantly bland about the game, probably praising its awesome look. But after getting The Veil to the table for two sessions I want more. It’s clicks for me. Years of gunbunny, amoral, and nihilistic cyberpunk had turned me off. The Veil flips that for me. It aligns with what I want out of a game.

The Veil’s a PbtA cyberpunk game, so it has system approach drawn from Apocalypse World and like games. It has a looser setting than other rpgs in the genre. Here player/MC collaboration creates the world. We’ve seen that before with The Sprawl, but it has a strong story structure. The Sprawl deliberately echoes classic burning chrome and grimy operator cyberpunk games, with a mission approach focusing play. The Veil has one key setting conceit, the Veil itself. The setting, however you create it, has a level of augmented reality everyone’s plugged into. Several actions in the game tie to the Veil literally and metaphorically. At first I wasn’t sure about that, but in play the device has brought cool moments to the table. Only after playing a couple of sessions did I realize how much you could shape the concept of the Veil itself: how it works, what it does, how potent it is, who has control.

Like most PbtA games, players have a set of basic moves. These tie in some of the cool concepts of the setting (the Veil as an info source, honor debts implied by giri). Fraser’s structured these moves smartly. More than other PbtA adaptations he keeps autonomy and choice in the players’ hands. There’s less of the “pick things that eliminate bad stuff hitting you” choices within the moves. The same smart approach carries over to the playbooks.

The Veil has twelve of playbooks. They’re all striking and distinct, carving out their own niche in the fiction. Each has a small, but evocative set of unique moves. These support the playbook’s theme but offer enough difference that picking a particular one at the start makes a statement about how you see the character. But as important as the moves, each playbook contains background questions and decisions. These aren’t just the usual relationship and backstory questions. They ask you to define fundamental aspects of the world and your role in it.

For example, The Veil includes the concept of Giri, an honor debt. It takes the place of debts, strings, bonds, from other PbtA games. The choice of terminology plays into some anime tropes. Characters who act as “Street Samurai” don’t have to be just killers, they tie into a moral code. Giri’s a global system with some supplemental moves. It serves as a mechanic for all characters.

But you also have the Honorbound playbook. This character builds on and changes the concept of giri within the setting. They enforce giri. The Honorbound player decides their “workplace” for & its relation to giri. They can define it as traditional, commercial, ritualistic, legalist, hidden. They also select circumstances which generate giri, a hugely important point. Whether you incur an obligation when you offend someone’s honor or breaking commercial contracts speaks volumes about your world. The kinds of penalties available to an Honorbound say something as well.

Sherri and I spent a long car ride talking about what the different formulations could mean. What if giri’s recorded and public? If it is transferrable and even sold on a market? You could also read/build a HB character just as a cop or a sheriff. Maybe it’s about wergild and keeping the peace through a balance of enforcers. What if the Honorbound acts behinds the scenes? There’s no officially accepted system for giri, but the HB’s order believes in one. They might be terrorists trying to shape society. If persons can incur giri, can an institution? an artificial intelligence?

Each playbook has something that it buys into and changes within the world. The Catabolist deals with cybernetics and inplants. The Apparatus about artificial life. The Architect about the metaverse & Veil. The Wayward about what lies about of the urban world. What the players choose as playbooks has dramatic impact on the game you’re going to play. That’s compounded by the background choices players make to flesh those elements out. That’s true in the best PbtA games, and the The Veil embraces that more than most. The combination and interactions of the playbooks within a group creates a distinct play universe.

I haven’t talked much about the actual mechanics of play. If you’re familiar with PbtA, everything within The Veil should be easy to pick up. You may not get the implications of everything at first glance, though. It really builds emergent play. For example, characters don’t have “stats” like other games. Instead, they have states which represent emotions: Mad, Sad, Scared, Peaceful, Joyful, Powerful. So while rolls represent proficiency in the abstract, they’re more about characterization. The Veil has a “Feeling Wheel,” something I thought was dumb at first glance. It breaks down those emotional states into subtypes. It comes from therapy for emotional express.

My experience with tracking emotions in Headspace has made me doubly shy. But once we got the system to the table, I saw the beauty of it. Choosing your feelings helps explicate your character to yourself, the MC, and the other players. The wheel offers a non-intrusive vocabulary for that. As important, it almost always puts the choice and power in your hand when you go to make a roll. You don’t have to remember that X move uses Y stat. That’s gone. Instead you decide how this affects you. That’s smartly combined with an emotional spiking mechanic that makes spamming a particular stat dangerous. I dig it very much.

Sherri used to use the term “machine-love” for games, movies, and anime, that love The Tech. Gun lists, mecha suits, sweet bikes, hot chick robots—any media with a fascination with chrome and weapons. There’s a lot of old school cyberpunk where that’s your first impression. Characters are archetypes; they’re not fully fleshed beings. They’re iconic rather than evolving. The characters might have a unique spin or background, but they remain objects: dead, metal tools just as much as the equipment they carry.

The Veil doesn’t feel that way to me. It isn’t just that it uses the tag approach to cyberwear and guns. Its more about how it connects the characters’ lives to their place in the world. That makes it an open game. The Veil takes to heart the “play to see what happens” PbtA admonition. Each PC ends up with a ton of interesting material to play from. You can wrestled with the questions of place and identity we’ve seen in media like Ex Machina, Witch Hunter Robin, Accelerando, and beyond.

But that may itself be something of a weakness- or at least make it more challenging to bring The Veil to the table and get everything out of it. Character creation’s a deep part of the process. Players have many decisions, not just picks. They’ll begin to weave a tapestry in that first session. I knew that’d be a challenge in about five hours, split in two. I thought establishing setting details ahead of time would cut that cognitive load. That helped but we still put a long time into the CC process. We engaged with some of those elements in play, but we had many more directions we could have gone in.

Because of that we came away from those two sessions wanting more. Honestly as soon as I can figure out how to schedule it in, I’m going to run a longer term campaign of The Veil, either online or f2f. I think you’d need at least six, probably more like 10-12 sessions to get at the depth offered here. That makes scheduling challenging. The structure of the game and that richness also means I’m uncertain about offering this to my 6 player face-to-face group. I think The Veil benefits from a tighter PC party.

To be fair, I made a conscious choice to play from the book and engage the cc rules. Fraser has a quick-start, called Glitch City. That has a crafted setting and pre-gen characters. As well, the supplement he’s currently Kickstarting, The Veil: Cascade, has more material on how to scale this. I’ve backed that.

Any things that bother me? Yes, The Veil follows Masks in not actually putting the playbooks in the book itself. That really bugs me. We have sections discussing the elements of those playbooks, but not the questions and set up elements of those characters. We do get one page with images of the two pages of the playbooks, but they’re so small as to be unreadable. It frustrated me in Masks and I hope to god this isn’t the trend going forward for PbtA games.

I need to wrap up and I haven’t even gotten to the form factor of The Veil. It’s gorgeous, with clean layout and great artwork. The pdf uses a white text background (yeah!). The softcover’s a-effing-mazing. It’s solid, larger than trade size. The glossy paper—something I often don’t dig—works here. I cannot believe this is Fraser’s first release. It’s one of the nicest rpg products I’ve bought.

Overall, Sherri and I love The Veil. It’s jumped to the top of my “must play more” list. As I mentioned above, at the time of this writing there’s a Kickstarter going on for the supplement. You can buy that alone or with the core book there. You can also just buy the core book via that campaign or from Indie Press Revolution. Highly recommended.

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