Saturday, July 22, 2017

Age of Ravens: A What the What? Overview

AGE OF RAVENS???
If you’ve come here from the ENnies voting page, you may think “what’s the deal with this graphically lame blog?” Rich Rogers put together a smart Episode Zero for his +1 Forward podcast (also nominated and awesome). So this is my “Episode Zero,” providing organized lists for the blog. With a few exceptions, I’ve focused on content from 2016 & 2017. I’ve shown admirable restraint and kept my lists to 12 items or less…

This is Age of Ravens’ ninth year. I started this one-person show January ‘09; I’m just shy of 1200 posts today. I cringe at some of my early, bloviating pieces. There’s good stuff there, but I want to mercilessly slash & burn it. The first couple hundred posts need a good edit and sharper focus. I’m much happier with the last several years: histories, hacks, at-table resources, talking about games from actual play, general overviews of whole systems.

I (usually) post twice a week and cover games from trad (Mutants & Masterminds) to trad-indie (Mutant: Year Zero) to story game (The Veil) to OSR (Silent Legions). I’m part of The Gauntlet Podcast. Right now I’m on the round-up episodes and do a monthly interview show. I’m also part of the irregularly scheduled Play on Target podcast. As part of the The Gauntlet Hangouts, I run two online sessions per week. Each Thursday I run oddball two-shots (REH Conan, Godbound, Coriolis, etc). On Sundays I run four-part mini-campaigns (Mutant: Year Zero, Changeling the Lost, World Wide Wrestling, etc.). That gives me a lot to talk about. You can also find actual play videos for many of these sessions on my YouTube channel.

If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or send me a private message. I hope you’ll consider voting for me in this year’s ENnies.

HISTORY OF RPGS
For the last several years, I’ve examined the publication timelines of role-playing games in different genres. I started with Horror games, and right now I’m in the middle of both my Cyberpunk and Universal rpg lists. I have a Patreon to support that work.

SYSTEM GUIDES
Sometimes you want to get into a big game, but don’t know where to start. I’ve put together guides to help new players—going over the basics and the major supplements available.

ODDBALL RESOURCES
My collection of things you could use for your campaign. Some fit very specific situations (supernatural business offices), while others have more general utility (names).

GAME REVIEWS AND THOUGHTS
I rarely do in-depth reviews, but I have put together play impressions for many games. I run at least three new-to-me rpgs a month. That’s broadened my horizons and I’ve discovered several new favs.

ADVENTURES AND CAMPAIGNS
These posts come from longer campaigns. They’re a mix of game frames, overviews, and post-mortems. It includes an original AD&D module from 1985 (spoiler: a not very good one…).

HACKS, TECHNIQUES & IDEAS
This includes my general thoughts about gaming, crazy new rpg projects I’ve tooled around with, and ideas I’ve never gotten off the ground.

Thanks for reading through. I hope you’ve found something interesting, useful, and/or entertaining. If you’ve dug this, consider voting for me in this year’s ENnies (voting ends July 21st).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Breaking Vegas: Godbound, OSR & Scion

GODS & MONSTERS
I’ve always dug Scion’s premise—modern day children of gods fighting corruption and monsters. It has signature magic items, fate-binding, and cool powers that ramp that up. But I’ve never been happy with Scion as a system. I ran an extended campaign of it, but the “battle wheel,” dice pool fatigue, and tracking so many abilities & rules wore me down. I had fun, but felt like the system and I fought one another.

Later I tried a Fate adaption (pre-Fate Core). I borrowed from Strange Fate to manage scaling. It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t that great. I went too literal with my conversion. I included everything rather than stepping back to think about changing the mechanics to make them smoother. If I re-wrote that hack I’d do it differently, armed with new game tech like DFAE’s mantles.

All of that was in my head as I played Godbound, a high-level OSR game from Kevin Crawford. In it, youre fantasy character empowered by the divine bleed off from gods destroyed when humanity stormed heaven. Your world may vary. The bottom line is you roll a fairly standard OSR character and then pick from awesome and devastating powers (Alacrity, Night, Sword, etc). The rules scale your abilities—you do damage not in HP but Hit Dice. To represent your lethality, you get a free strike each round (called the Fray die) against lesser or equal level foes. Squads of minions will fall before you.

Godbound has an interesting sales pitch. You can go get it now, free and pretty complete. That version’s artless and lacks some of the advanced options from the full version, but it’s robust and playable. Seriously—if you’re at all intrigued by the concept or mechanics, you should go and pick it up. I ordered the full hardcover after one play—I dug it that much. The actual physical product’s gorgeous: great art, solid page design, and a ton of resources.

I’ve looked at several Kevin Crawford rpgs and dug all of them so. Each of the core books (Stars Without Number, Other Dust, etc) contains OSR-inspired rules, setting/campaign material, and some of the best random game generators. I talked about this in my earlier Silent Legions review. These books are amazing toolboxes. I especially love some Star Without Number supplements (like the alien ruins and espionage campaign ones). Other Dust has dynamite tools for any post-apocalyptic campaign. Godbound includes awesome tables for creating different kinds of fantasy courts, ruins, challenges, and foes. Great stuff.

In short a game worth picking up. There’s so much here. When I went to reskin Godbound to Scion, I ended up seriously cutting. Or maybe I should say I left things out—like the great Influence system. Since I knew I’d only be running two sessions I tried to keep things light.

You can see the Actual Play of these sessions here (Session One, Session Two)

HACK STEPS
I figured I could run Godbound as Scion with few rules changes, just trimming. I’d stick with basic systems and mechanics. Doing pre-gens would make the task easier. Secondary mechanics, like Dominion, Influence, and Worship, I’d leave out. To keep things grounded, I decided that while the characters would be second level (giving them a few more resources), I would limit their divine gifts. Usually at Level 2, PCs would have eight points to buy gifts. I gave them five. I thought that would help them absorb what they had. If I went back, I might even cut it down to 4 points.

Additionally to keep things simple, I gave each character just two unique Purviews (Words in GB). In Godbound you begin with three distinct areas. In Scion you can have a bunch, depending on your divine parent. Those gifts can be stat foci (divine its, manipulation, strength) or purviews (animal, fertility, prophecy). There’s also sorcery. Godbound has a parallel system for, but I left that out since it added complexity.

I knew I had four players and I wanted to give a broad range of pre-gens. I decided on eight, which is probably too many. I opted to give each pre-gen a choice of three divine parents, so the players could select a pantheon or concept they dug. That meant going through the list of all the gods from Scion to find overlaps. I also wanted to represent each pantheon a couple of times. All that took a spreadsheet to work out. It ate up a lot of time and was probably a dumb spend. I ended up with the following options; the first four are the ones the players picked for their characters. 

ALACRITY & HEALTH
  • Artemis (Greek, Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt)
  • Dian Cecht (Celtic, God of Healing)
  • Hachiman (Japanese, Lord of war, fishing nets, and fertile fields)

Gifts
  • Alacrity Base
  • Health Base
  • Faster Than Thought (Alacrity, Smite, Instant)
  • All Directions as One (Alacrity, Constant)
  • Merciful Gaze (Health, Action)
  • Vital Furnace (Health, On Turn)

DECEPTION & NIGHT
  • Tezcatlipoca (Aztec, God of Fate)
  • Izanami (Japanese, The first woman and Queen of the Underworld)
  • Hades (Greek, God of death and Lord of the Underworld)

Gifts
  • Night Base
  • The Darkling Stairs (Night, Constant)
  • A Familiar Face (Deception, Action)
  • Impenetrable Deceit (Deception, Action)
  • Knives of Night (Night, On Turn)

ENDURANCE  & MIGHT
  • Ares (Greek, God of War)
  • Sun Wukong (Chinese, The Monkey King)
  • Tyr (Norse, God of Victory)

Gifts
  • Endurance Base
  • Might Base
  • Defy the Iron (Endurance, Instant)
  • Amaranth Vitality (Endurance, Constant)
  • Fists of Black Iron (Might, Constant)
  • Loosening God's Teeth (Might, Action)

LUCK & FIRE
  • Shennong (Chinese, Second Sovereign)
  • Loki (Norse, Trickster God)
  • Shiva (Hindu, The Destroyer)

Gifts
  • Fire Base
  • Luck Base
  • Consuming Gaze (Fire, Action)
  • Nimbus of Flame (Fire, On Turn)
  • Salting Away the Luck (Luck, Instant)
  • Spun Fortune (Luck, Instant)
  • Unmarred Beneficence (Luck, Constant).

COMMAND & SWORD
  • Guan Yu (Chinese, Current Jade Emperor)
  • Isis (Egypt, Goddess of Magic)
  • Parvati (Hindu,The Incarnation of Shakti or feminine energy).

Gifts
  • Command Base
  • Sword Base
  • Contempt of Distance (Sword, Constant)
  • Know the Inner Truth (Command, On Turn)
  • Shattering Hand (Sword, On Turn)
  • A Thousand Loyal Troops (Command, Action)

EARTH & DEATH
  • Izanami (Japanese,The First Woman and Queen of the Underworld)
  • Osiris (Egypt, Lord of the Underworld)
  • Baron Samedi (Voudon, God of Death)

Gifts
  • Death Base
  • Earthwalker (Earth, On Turn)
  • Mantle of Quietus (Death, Instant)
  • Obduracy of Stone (Earth, Constant)
  • Rebellion of the Soil (Earth, Action)
  • Scythe Hand (Death, On Turn)

KNOWLEDGE & SKY
  • Frigg (Norse, Queen of the Gods)
  • Quetzalcotl (Aztec, God of Beauty and Art)
  • Susano-O (Japanese, Lord of Storms and Sea)

Gifts
  • Sky Base
  • Disclose the Flaw (Knowledge, Instant)
  • Sapphire Wings (Sky, On Turn)
  • Stormsword (Sky, On Turn)
  • The Best Course (Knowledge, Action)

PASSION & SUN
  • Apollo (Greek, God of the Sun and Art)
  • Atum-Re (Egyptian, God of the Sun)
  • Baldur (Norse, God of Light, Beauty, Love and Happiness)

Gifts
  • Sun Base
  • Body of Burning Light (Sun, On Turn)
  • Follow the Threads (Passion, Action)
  • Snuff the Heart's Candle (Passion, Action)
  • Sunstrike (Sun, Smite, Action)

In Scion, each pantheon has a unique purview representing its approach or special purpose. That meant that the choice of parent could affect a character’s gifts. They’re important flavor so I adapted them. Four of these purviews have gifts that are new to or modified from Godbound:
  • Arete (Greek): Commit Effort for Scene. You gain an “Escalation Die” for yourself. Each round after this you gain a cumulative +1 to your attack rolls (up to a +6). This goes away at the end of the conflict.
  • Itztli (Aztec): Once per day you may roll 1d12 damage on yourself to immediately regain Effort committed for the scene or day.
  • Cheval (Voudon): Commit Effort. You can communicate from afar with any person whose location you know to within a mile. You can borrow their senses if they permit it. Persons who have spent at least a week in your presence or have been Fate-Bound can be reached wherever they are.
  • Tsukumo-Gami (Japanese): Commit Effort for Scene. You can communicate with an inanimate object, seeing and perceiving everything it has witnessed at a certain time of your choice. The spirits of these objects do not think as humans, but they can perfectly relay all the sounds and sights that took place in their presence. You must specify a particular time to focus on, however.

For the others, I simply used existing Godbound gifts. For Enech (Celtic) I used Deceiver’s Unblinking Eye from the Deception word. For Taiyi (Chinese) I used A Second Spring from Fertility. Heku (Egyptian) I used Heart of the Lion from Passion. For Samsara (Hindu) I used Nine Lives from Luck. Finally, for Jotunblut (Norse) I used Link of Unity from Beast.

TEN GENERAL THOUGHTS
ORIGINAL FLAVOR: My experience with Godbound isn’t just these two sessions. I played in two online games and I’m running it f2f for our Sunday night group. We’d just wrapped a year+ Middle Earth game with our Action Cards homebrew. It’s a striking shift to move from that limited scale to epic actions. And I haven’t yet introduced the concept of Dominion and Influence, ways in which the PCs can spend to change the world. They’ve hit level three so I’ll introduce that next time.

OVERSIGHT: In those sessions, I spotted a couple places where players get lost. First—Effort. That’s the energy the Godbound use to fuel their gifts. It takes a bit to understand that unless a gift says to commit energy for a certain period (a scene, a day), you regain that Effort after using it. It’s a limit on how many things you can have going rather than a mana system. Second, most Godbound Words have a default benefit which players can miss. Third, players sometimes disbelieve what the powers can do. They’re deliberately powerful, but they’re also a sledgehammer when sometimes you need a scalpel. Show them the awesome.

BRING THE BOOM: On the flip side—as a GM you may be shocked at how potent the Godbound powers are. Remember that just gives you license to throw more awesome shit at them. The book has some conversion guidelines for existing monsters and foes. I’ve dug out all my ld Monster Manuals and bestiaries to look at what I can unleash.

IT'S A MIRACLE: Make sure to spell out the mechanics for Miracles, improvised divine powers. They open up choices and push players to commit effort for the day. I like those kinds of resource-drain options. It’s easy to overlook these mechanics in the book.

HOLY SHEET: For the Scion game, ran online with Roll20 and Hangouts. I’m still having audio/video issues with Roll20, despite being a fully paid high level subscriber. I have to use alternate tools for that. There’s a Godbound character sheet—however be warned that it calculates and rolls some things incorrectly. You’ll want to check that if you opt to use it.

NEW GOD CITY: I ran the game in Las Vegas. The core Scion: Hero book has an adventure set there, but I’ve always ignored it. I have a gimmick that the gods can’t go to Vegas because of all the chaos of fate and chance there. They have to send in Scions and other supernatural agents to do their work. It means that Vegas has been a gathering ground for all kinds of forces trying to evade divine attention. I really love that backdrop for this. I might not dig Vegas in person, but it’s probably my favorite modern campaign city. Other folks loooove New Orleans, I dig Vegas.

SUCCESS? Does Godbound work for Scion? Yes and no. It did a good job in the constrained version I put forward. But I did trimmed and refocused. Doing a full scale conversion would be a ton of work. I’m not sure how you’d handle some of the most cool elements (merits and fatebinding for example). Scion itself has a weird power creep. You’re potent, but still kind of low-powered in the Hero range. Godbound bundles together abilities that individually would be equivalent of Scion’s gifts and knacks. But there’s a jump in power and complexity when you move to Scion’s Demi-God and God level. I think that’s probably closer to Godbound.

OR NOT? But Hero’s what I’m most interested in. Empowered characters, armed with strange powers, but still vulnerable and connected to the mortal world. Get too powerful and those things start to matter less. So the Godbound reskin I did wouldn’t—in the long run—create the campaign I want to run. It might work for people wanting a more potent campaign. I had a great time with the sessions, but the power scale wasn’t too high.

MORE STUFF: That being said, my reskin is a rough, quick patch job. Kevin Crawford’s provided an insane amount of additional material at the back of the Godbound book covering different campaigns: mortals, martial arts, Exalted-style themed PCs, fantastic war machines, cybernetics. But I haven’t really sat down to explore those since I’ve been more worried about getting the base game under my belt. I suspect if I go through there I’ll find ways to rescale Godbound to the level I’m looking for.

MORE ROOM: One thing I do want to mention about the online sessions if you watch them. At the end of session two we do a short assessment of the game. Jump there if you want to know the players’ reactions. In looking back, I realize I made a big mistake with the final fight. In it, the group assists a member caught by a bunch of Titan-empowered baddies. This takes place in the basement of an abandoned medical clinic. I absolutely should have blown that fight open and widened the terrain. As it is they fought in a large room and at the top of a staircase. An epic fight like this needs space and elaborate sets. I could have had the floor collapse into an underground cavern. More smartly, the powers being throw around should have destroyed the ceiling. Then they could have fought inside the whole of the abandoned clinic—with walls being smashed, movement, verticality, improvised weapons, and so on. Missed opportunity. I thought too small screen.

OVERALL
Godbound’s fantastic fun. It’s more than a little niche—you have to want to explore potent characters and high level play. For that it does a great job. It’s well-written, has great artwork, and delivers great campaign tools. Even if you’re not usually a trad or OSR player, it’s worth checking out if that concept grabs you. If you want to hack something like Exalted, Scion, or even Rifts, you’ll find ideas you can use. I backed the Scion Kickstarter, so I’m curious about what that brings to the table and if it’s more or less adaptable.


I should  mention the Godbound core book contains a fully-realized fantasy setting. While you can use the rules for generic fantasy (as we’re doing f2f), there’s a whole world presented. Crawford provides strong sketches and ideas rather than over-elaborating the material. He’s released a region sourcebook for that, Ancalia, about a country overrun by undead. More interesting to me, he’s released two “modules”: Ten Buried Blades & The Storms of Yizhao. These offer great sandbox plots, but more importantly they’re some of the best Wuxia adventures I’ve ever read. Their backdrop’s a riff on Imperial China and they feel like ‘80s-‘90s high fantasy martial arts films (Storm Riders, The Bride with White Hair, The Duel). It makes me want to run that kind of campaign again. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Fall of Summer: 36 Freehold Threats for Changeling the Lost

The “Threat Generator” from Mutant: Year Zero is one of my recent fav pieces of game tech. It’s an old technique, but they nicely repackage it. It doesn’t hurt that MYZ has a cool card deck version. I dig pulling a threat just before a session and quickly brainstorming ideas. It’s a good way to keep myself from over-prepping or throwing too many incidents at the players.

So I’m creating these for other games. I’m in the middle of running my Changeling the Lost PbtA hack, so I started with that. Below I offer 36 short threats facing the Freehold. Though I don’t say it, these should connect to the PCs, putting them in harm’s way, endangering something they love, or giving them a chance to solve the problem. They contain a few questions, but not much detail. Some are obvious, but I think I have a few novel ones. If you want to check out videos from my current CtL game, check here (Session 1, Session 2).

1. Sabotage
Someone or something ruins the resources of the Freehold. Vindictive Hobs? A traitor within? The Gentry? Things disrupted or stolen could be things, places, or people. Can the motley protect their own resources—allies, tokens, hedge-fruits?

2. Hobs on the Warpath
The Hobs trade with the Changelings but they don’t like them. They’re tricky and nasty, living for a chance to get over something on the Lost. Now the Hob community is enraged. They shutter the Markets and begin attacking those who enter the Hedge. What happened and how can they stop it?

3. Goblin Market Changes
The Goblin Market moves, imposes new laws, adds strange new shops, offers a sale on ‘special’ merchandise they need to move, bans certain changelings, splits, or “re-brands” itself in some way. This occurs suddenly and without warning.

4. Hob Takeover
Someone takes over and begins to direct the Hobs: a strangely potent goblin, a rogue changeling, something from the Hedge, or a figure behind the scenes. What are they making the Hobs do and why? Alternately, a split and internal struggle among the Hobs reveals factions.

5. Season Comes Early
Mysteriously the changing of the seasonal Courts comes early. Omens and portents appear. Everyone feels it in their bones. Why is this happening? What does it mean for the local politics? Who gains and loses? Consider connecting it to strange shifts in weather, changes at court, or new arrivals.

6. The Exile’s Return
Changelings rarely impose imprisonment or death as punishment. Instead exile clears away severe transgressions. An exile returns, having served their lengthy sentence. They may upset the local power balance, dredge up old animosities, or present opportunities for revenge. Where have they been? How have they survived? Is the exile’s crime known or secret? Were they justly punished? What unfinished business do they have?

7. Exiled Illegally Returns
An exile somehow manages to pass through the wards and return. They’re spotted, there’s no proof of their location, only rumors. Why have they come back early? Did someone collude to gain them entry? If this is someone know to the motley do they owe debts to one another?

8. Strange Changeling(s) Seen
Rumors fly of one (or more) unknown changelings seen in the Freehold. Often new escapees from the Hedge run wild for a time before being met and brought in. But these strangers have deliberately evaded contact. Are they Loyalists? Refugees from another Freehold? Bridge-burners? Someone has to track them down and find out.

9. Changelings Go Missing
Known members of the Freehold have not been heard from. These person(s) should connect to motley members. Does the motley know their den or hollow is? If the vanished are courtless who might they have contacted or confided in? If they’re from a court, why hasn’t anyone followed up? Perhaps this signals the coming of a new supernatural threat.

10. Fetches Vanish
The Freehold tracks fetches within its borders. They’re strange and dangerous things. If a fetch is tied to a member of the Freehold, then final judgement remains in that person’s hand. If they’re not, they indicate a stolen and unreturned life. Now several fetches have suddenly disappeared, leaving their pseudo-families and lives disrupted. Is a changeling doing this? Is there some conspiracy among the fetches? Is there a mortal hunter after them? Is one of the fetches that of a PC?

11. Treasure of the Freehold Stolen
A prized token or relic has been stolen from the Freehold or one of the Courts. What strange details have emerged about the thief’s methods? What perils await if the object is not returned? Has the finger already been pointed at someone, perhaps the motley or one of their allies?

12. Supernatural Monster
A mysterious monster appears, striking humans and changelings alike. Is it completely new or are there legends surrounding it? If it hasn’t emerged from the Hedge, where has it come from? Does it point to other supernatural sources and agents? Does a member of the Freehold know more than they’re saying?

13. Occult Investigators
A group of paranormal investigators arrives in the city and begin poking around. If they’re mundane, they stir up attention making life difficult. Changelings already have a hard time blending in. Will someone direct the researchers towards them? Is there an opportunity there? Alternately these might be serious Hunters, pursuing supernatural creatures to capture or eliminate them. Perhaps one identity’s a cover for the other.

14. Maddened Family Member
A close family member, related to someone from the motley or an ally, cracks. They’ve encountered their changeling loved one. Now experience of that seems to have snapped them. Their actions threaten do harm to themselves or even threaten the Freehold. How can the PCs fix this? Is there something more sinister behind this breakdown?

15. Hedge Fruit Bounty Found
Someone discovers a massive hedge fruit garden and now factions compete to learn the location, seize control, or simply steal what’s there. The fruit rush threatens existing relationships and debts within the Freehold.

16. Resources Run Out
Something vital to the Freehold or the motley runs out: money sources are cut, ID forgers get arrested, hedge fruit supplies dry up, or potent places of glamour run dry. Is this a natural occurrence or enemy action? Can these sources be restored or will something new have to be discovered?

17. Changeling Jailed
The police catch someone from the Freehold and jail them. What are they accused of? What did they actually do? Why can’t they escape from jail—is something stopping them or do they want to be there? What obligation does the Freehold have and what debts might the motley have to the incarcerated changeling? Will something happen if this person isn’t freed?

18. Changeling on the Run
An ally of the motely falls under a judgement: accused of a crime, convicted of an offense, threatened with a debt. The circumstances are murky and mysterious. Who is in the wrong? Should they stick their necks out for them?

19. Another Freehold Destroyed
News comes that the closest Freehold has been destroyed. Was it a subtle vanishing or did something oud and obvious happen? Was anyone warned? Were there any survivors? Does this threat still remain, and if so, will their Freehold be next?

20. Old Secrets Uncovered
Documents, testimony, relics, images—something from the past-- rises back. It could concern a particular court or the Freehold as a whole. That might be evidence of a crime, questions of succession, ties to a changeling’s kidnapping, a treasure map, or an ancient ritual. Now several factions seek to control the secrets—to reveal, destroy, or change them.

21. Illness or Curse
Something begins to take a toll on the Freehold- a magical malady. It could be a bout of fever dreams, a sleepless malaise, or a curse to lost items. Was this deliberate, accidental, or something released through sheer stupidity? It is contagious and is there a patient zero? Alternately, the illness strikes the mundane world and the fallout impacts changelings.

22. Location Threated
The commons for the Freehold or a particular court comes under fire. Alternately it could target the motley’s hollow, den, or gathering space. The authorities or neighbors could examine it too closely or the owners have gone broke. If the structure’s abandoned, perhaps developers consider renovation or demolition. If the location has some supernatural power, a group seek to control it for their own ends. Maybe something dangerous has made its nest there. If stopping the threat isn’t possible, then the group may have to deal with evacuation or just finding a new place.
23. Supernatural Cabal No Good
Non-changeling supernaturals arrive in the Freehold city and set up shop. Consider a workshop of Prometheans, Mummies on the run, an Orpheus franchise, Demon surveillance operatives, or a Hedge Mage chantry. Even if they don’t cross paths with the Freehold, they bring their own problems and foes. They also complete for magical resources and sites. Can a beneficial agreement be made or are these to be unrelenting rivals?

24. False ID’s Compromised
Individual courts or the Freehold as a whole usually provide false identities, cards, and paperwork. They do this via magic and mundane techniques. Now that process has been compromised and all of those identities have been blown or are threatened. Can the motley reverse this? Can they find their own sources to cover their ass? What are the consequences of this loss? Will foes take advantage of this?

25. Murdered Courtier
A titled courtier has been killed. Old schisms and tensions flare up. An open conflict may erupt if the murder’s not found. Or perhaps there’s a quiet cover-up suggesting more sinister forces at work. Maybe someone’s already been chosen as a patsy-- a member of the motley or a close friend.

26. Loyalist Revealed
Someone uncovers evidence suggesting a changeling has strongly colluded with a Keeper for some time. How is this discovered? How badly did they damage the Freehold? Are the accusations true? Changelings have a difficult time with punishments, given their own experience. How does the Freehold deal with this? Who are the competing voices about responses?

27. Bounty of Hot Goods
An ally or associate drops off a bundle of “hot goods” on the motley’s doorstep. Will they keep or return them? If they try to return them, will they drag their friend into in? What if some of these items belong to enemies? Consider if the loot consists of magical, mundane, or mixed items.

28. Overthrow
Someone overthrows a Prince. Was it a long time coming or a sudden shock? How do other members of the court react? How does the new Prince solidify their power: contracts, debts, kindness, force? How do the other Princes react—do they accept happily or look for potential usurpers in their own houses? What has happened to the former prince?

29. Schism Between Courts
Tensions burn hot between two courts. Does it come from the top or rank & file? Does this divide the motley? How will they take sides? What claims does each side make? How openly does this conflict break out? Is someone manipulating things behind the scenes or is this simply the way of things? How will this affect the Freehold’s protections?

30. Romance Gone Sour
The Freehold is a web of social interactions which can be rent asunder by the smallest things. Two well-regarded and well-connected changelings have been a passionate couple. Now they’re bitter social foes. How did the break up start? What does each say about the other? What’s the truth? Ideally the two figures should both be connected to the Motley. Both persons involved want others to take sides. Third party changelings may sucked into this whirlpool.

31. Virtue/Vice Overwhelms
The Changeling core suggests GMs assign Freeholds a virtue and vice. . The “default” has been the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues, but these can be mixed up. For this threat one of those elements begins to overwhelm or run amok. Perhaps they’re seen small signs, but now it is out of control. If tied to emotion it may impact glamour for the Freehold.

32. Horde of New Arrivals
From somewhere, a large number of changelings arrive: escapees from the Hedge, refugees from a tyrannical Freehold, wanderers coming in from the wilds. The Freehold can take in one or two at a time, even a small motley taxes resources, cover, and patience. How can the courts cope? Will they send them on? What dangers might be hidden by these numbers?

33. Hedge Weirdness
Something shifts massive in the Hedge. Well established trods, hollows, or other sites vanish or transform. Is this a natural phenomenon or someone’s working? What does it herald? What has been lost and how can it be replaced? Alternately could this be an open or hidden assault by Bridge Burners?

34. Motley Vanishes into Hedge
Motelys happen rarely. To truly bind a group must escape the Hedge together or arrive in the Freehold at nearly the same time. They provide a community of trust most changelings can’t experience. Now one of the few motleys besides the PCs goes missing. They walk into the Hedge on a secret quest and none hear from them. Why did they go? Did someone sabotage their preparations? Will they be rescued? Can they be rescued?

35. Revelation to Mortal
Truly revealing yourself to a mortal runs great risks. You can tear away the Mask, but many will deny your Mien s to preserve their sanity. They retreat to the commonplace world and label incidents as madness. Some seem to hold it together but then snap from the strain. Now someone seems have to come through stable and reconciled to this new reality. But how long will they stay that way? Who is it? What would move a changeling to take this gamble? How did they prepare?

36. New Holidays
Someone establishes a new ritual for the Freehold: games, a celebration, and grand party. What’s new and novel about this? What’s the motivation behind it? If a contest, what prizes might they offer? Perhaps the motley has to help with preparations or planning. For some more thoughts on Changelings and holidays, see this post

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part Three: 1995-2003)

SHOW CRASH
If the last list covered the boom times, this one covers the crash. In this period we see a massive drop-off in new cyberpunk rpgs. Of the existing ones, only Shadowrun, NeoTech, and Cyberpunk 2020 kept up with new releases. Shadowrun itself moved from FASA to WizKids as the former shut down. They in turn licensed it to Fantasy Productions who in turn got bought by Topps who then licensed it to Catalyst Game Labs. The only thing WizKids actually did with the license appears to be the bizarre 1:12 scale collectible miniatures game, Shadowrun Duels.

R Talsorian underwent its own shake up. In 1998 Mike Pondsmith moved to close out the company’s operations, making it a part-time endeavor. The game industry had begun to contract, “The previous few years had been terrible for the industry, and this was something that Mike Pondsmith as president of GAMA was very aware of. GDW shut down in 1996 and TSR and Mayfair Games both died in 1997. West End Games was destined to enter bankruptcy a few months later, while FASA would shut down in 1999, the same year ICE would enter bankruptcy.” Designers & Dragons Vol. II (p. 297). R Talsorian would return in another form in 2004, but for the moment the company that set the standard for cyberpunk had been shuttered.

Despite that we do see new cyberpunk products over these years. It overlaps with the d20 boom so a few of those books pop up here. But we see fewer new conventional cyberpunk rpgs. Many of the items on this list hybridize cyberpunk with something else or have fragments of that genre in a larger whole. Some listings may be controversial, many reflect my continued struggle defining this genre.


THE DIAMOND AGENT
While I’m focusing on core books, I include a few notable sourcebooks and supplements (by my reckoning). Ironically, I only list books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some, so if you spot an absent cyberpunk rpg from 1995-2003, leave a note in the comments


Not a core book, but a strange beast I had to comment on. GURPS Cthulhupunk's officially licensed from Call of Cthulhu, so it has a lot of the CoC elements in play. That works for and against it. On the one hand if you know the original rpg’s material, you'll find all the expected bits: books, specific monsters, particular cults. On the other, if you're not familiar with it, that might confuse you. The odd order of presentation doesn’t help. 

GURPS CthulhuPunk presents a specific future. A world-shaking virus and the '06 global stock-market crash light the fuse on this detailed timeline. That leads up to an extensive overview 2045’s world. Like the Cthulhu side of things, the cyberworld on display assumes players know the cyberpunk tropes already. It feels like a fan mashup. We know you dig both of these things, so we're going to give you a toolbox to run these campaigns. Want some more obscure details, we have you covered. There's a lot of world-building here, making this very much a GM's book. Like many GURPS sourcebooks there's an emphasis on information and setting. It's up to you to pull out bits and figure out how to use that at the table.

It isn't bad, definitely better than I recalled. It has a couple of weaknesses, the first being the lack strong synthesis between the two halves. We get a couple pages of Lovecraftian tech hybrids, but otherwise it’s just classic CoC concepts reskinned. It also has a truly ugly cover. On the other hand, the interior art's fine. In that period Steve Jackson had Dan Smith drawing everything. I had an artist friend freelanced for SJG. Every set of notes he got back boiled down to "make it look more like Dan Smith."

Cthulhupunk won’t be the last time we'd see Lovecraftian cyberpunk. We’ll get Yellow Dawn in 2006 and in CthulhuTech in 2007. More on those next time.

Some people in my group loved Bubblegum Crisis. As can happen, their overweening enthusiasm drove me off. I’ve had to start from scratch with this. Bubblegum Crisis has a group of armored vigilantes and private eyes, called Knight Sabres, battling a conspiracy of mad robots and cyborgs (called Boomers). It's a near-future anime world. The cyberpunk elements take a backseat to drama and tech. Like Patlabor, AD Tank Police and even Ghost in the Shell this anime takes its cues from Blade Runner. Createda fully fleshed world, explore a slice of it, but don't waste time explaining all the other bits. Just run with it.

The Bubblegum Crisis rpg is a love-letter to the series with tons of illustrations, plot speculation, background, gear write ups, and NPCs to satisfy any fan. This material begins on page 51 and runs through the rest of the 168-page volume. We have drawings of every vehicle, robot, gun, suit, and tech-y thing from the series. It’s a little overwhelming for someone coming in from the outside. Still I appreciate this new take on near-future superheroes: it's more Spider-Man 2099 than Legion of Superheroes.

I sometimes get R Talsorian and Dream Pod 9 mixed up. They both worked heavily with cyberpunk and anime influenced material. But R Tal has a distinct style in these anime games: dense, boxy, and full of crunch. Bubblegum Crisis uses Fuzion- an engine closer to the abstraction of Savage Worlds than the tighter balance of HERO or even GURPS. As crunchy as this system can be; it is densely and quickly presented. The headings make it easy to find things and the order's logical, but the text size and design makes it hard to read. Or I’m just old. Or both.

This got two sequel releases: Bubblegum Crisis: Before and After and Bubblegum Crisis EX. The choice of game system used signal a major change for the company. Interlock had powered Cyberpunk 2020, but now we saw on emphasis on R Talsorian’s semi-crowdsourced Fuzion engine. Eventually that would lead to the Cyberpunk 3.0...but that's a tale for the future.

Rifts trips me up on these lists. It's the ultimate kitchen-sink rpg, eclipsing even TORG. It's a single setting with many disparate elements. That includes cyberpunk bits, mostly in the form of cyberware (the Dragon cyborgs of Japan, the sinister experiments of Mindwerks). While those elements appear throughout the line, I've chosen Juicer Uprising as a good representative. The Juicers of the title have augmented their talents with chemical infusions. Originally developed as a super-soldier serum, in the Rifts world that process has expanded to enhance a variety of roles. The Juicers embody the idea of humanity trade-off for tech enhancements. As in Cyberpunk, these can lead to a variety of physical and mental problems. 

Juicer Uprising has some interesting ideas about the culture and role of these characters. That's overshadowed by the mechanical material, but it offers food for thought. Getting at that requires going through a ton of gonzo crazy from Psi-Stalker Juicers to Atlantaen Juicers to Undead Juicers. The book’s title refers to an meta-plot event, an organized attack by Juicers on Coalition cities. That uprising comes following the revelation that government and corporate agents had been tricking innocents into becoming Juicers.

Cyberpunk through the Rifts lens shows it can become a kind of techno-fetish, uncritical, style-based element for games. It takes the anime over the Gibsonian route. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s several stages removed from the source ideas.

4. Taiga (1996)
Taiga's mostly a post-apocalyptic game. However their third edition included more cyberpunk elements. Outside the cities, the wilds have a Mad Max look. Inside, corporations and high-tech firms rule a dystopia. That society isn't the focus of the game, but enough is there that several sites list it as cyberpunk. That clearly didn't sit well with the designers. As mentioned on RPG Geek, the next edition changed things up,
"However, one of the most obvious changes for players of earlier versions is the removal of cybertech from the game. In Vuorela's words "Taiga is not a cyberpunk game. Earlier versions did include rules for using and implanting cybernetics into characters, but they have been removed from this version because they attracted too much attention and disrupted the lotek-atmosphere of the game."
nice.

5. Waste World (1997)
This is another one of those cases where a fragment of the game contains cyberpunk material. As I described it on my post-apocalyptic list…
METAL. METAAAAAAL.

...was the voice screaming in the back of my head as I read through the game blurbs. Descriptions and reviews suggest Waste World’s a combination of Heavy Metal and WH40K, set on a single war-torn world in the future. It reminds me of Mutant Chronicles, with its crazy array of character types, war as the only future, and competing national battle forces (including another Shogunate). WW’s designer Bill King worked on that game as well. Waste World also feels like a more controlled version of Rifts. It embraces a high-tech post-apocalypse where decadent and decaying technologies desperately battle it out. Cyborgs? Check. Symbiotic Armor? Check. Mecha-Ninja? Check.

It is those tech-dominated megacities and their corporate overlords that just edge this on to the list. Despite looking like a kitchen-sink, over-the-top game, many reviews love it. In part they enjoy how much the game buys into its own craziness. But most also point out how the game replaces "c" & "ck" with "k" throughout ala Mortal Kombat. Waste World did well enough to support a starter pack, GM screen, and two substantial splat books the same year.

6. Zaibatsu (1998)
“Roleplaying the Corporate Wars of the Future.” I'd planned to skip this since RPG Geek ID'd it as electronic only. However French site Le Grog mentioned a physical edition. I wasn’t sure if that's true. But I then I found a complete copy online-- at an old Angelfire page. So I had to include it for that web-retro element.

It's then appropriate that Zaibatsu acknowledges and addresses one of the core limitations of cyberpunk gaming: being outpaced by the real world. "Forget cybernetics in the traditional roleplaying game sense; with tech out of date as soon as it leaves the production line, no sucker is going to trade meat for metal if his new arm, say, will be redundant in two months. Now, updating the meat, that's something else... By the time we build a "stronger, faster" cybernetic arm or leg to replace the real limb, we will undoubtedly be able to regenerate a limb with clone technology. It's not too far away. The next step is to augment the DNA to grow a stronger limb, and after that use DNA viruses to alter existing limbs." 

Zaibatsu's all about street samurai. While you might come from various walks of life, you're caught up in the wars between powerful corporate entities on the streets of 2030 Tokyo. It has a fairly light resolution system married to a long list of skills, backgrounds, and other chrome. It includes extensive setting material on the corporations, Yakuza, and Tokyo itself.

7. Aberrant (1999)
Ok, ok, I know. I’m crazy.

Bear with me. Many games on this list seem cyberpunk tangential. They borrow elements and ideas, rather than offering a full cyberpunk package. That holds true with Aberrant. But I'd argue the presentation of future tech and culture in this game's more cyberpunk than many other self-described cyberpunk games. It's also eerily prescient in its take on the media, internet culture, and things like having to rent TV programs individually. If you want to see cutting-edge, near-future world-building check this one out.

Aberrant looks and feels different from earlier superhero games, except maybe Underground. It brings the setting- deep, rich, and complicated. It tailors the superpowers to that world, leaving out anything which doesn't fit. It wants to be high-octane, furious, and over-the-top. But it may go too far in that direction. Aberrant suffers from some of the problems facing other high-powers WW products (Scion, Exalted). The mechanics spin wildly out of control when you hit higher power levels. Many people ran successful campaigns using this system, but balance and rules density kept me away.

Despite that I love the Aberrant's setting. It presents consistent and smart near-future world-building. More than nearly any other supers game, it considers the implications of powers and new technologies on the world. While Underground goes for parody through excess, Aberrant explores consequences. It makes uncannily accurate predictions about near-future tech- like streaming TV programs requiring individual purchases. It explores new areas for supers games- including religion, wrestling, and even celebritydom. However that richness actually works against Aberrant as a campaign setting. For one thing, there's a strong and heavy metaplot running through the material. In other rpg lines (like Vampire or Mage) you could easily work around that. But the smaller size of this line makes that stick out like a sore thumb. It potentially pushes the PCs out. I would read an Aberrant novel or comic series. Critics suggest Story Gamers are frustrated novelists and Aberrant feels like an example of that.

The density works against the game in another way: player buy-in. Players have to read all of the setting material to really get the concept and tone. There's almost too much, especially with a genre usually given over to lighter settings and themes. Aberrant's dark and paranoid- reflecting White Wolf's approach but also reflecting a shift in comic books. White Wolf published many supplements for Abberant and they were among the earliest games sold as pdf.

My brain lumps this together with SLA Industries and A|State. Perhaps it’s the dystopian atmosphere, the infernal overtones, and the singular city. But at the same time, I associates Obsidian with other games of similar look and design- WW products, Armageddon, and a host of literally & figuratively darker games. A cover by Christopher Shy closes the deal. Overall Obsidian gives an impression of nihilism, but different from something like Kult..

Obsidian takes place in the year 2299. For many reasons, Hell has cracked open and spilled onto the Earth. That has blasted and destroyed the world and overrun it with demons. The survivors managed to build a massive single city housing all of Earth's remaining population. The city itself is a Dredd MegaCity-like dystopia: stacked, packed, and crime ridden. Somehow this city possesses high technology (cybernetics, for example), but lacks science. Instead it relies on various forms of mysticism. It has many cyberpunk trappings: cyberware, corporate PC types, security hacking, etc.

Beyond the walls infernal forces haunt the wastelands. But they're also contacted and interacted with inside the city. So pretty much everything's dark, decaying, and despondent. I know I'm not doing justice to the material, but part of the problem lies in not having a great sense of what the players actually do. That's usually my entry point for grokking rpgs.

Obsidian did well, with a striking product that small publisher Apothis Consortium got into major distribution. Part of what's interesting about this game is the diversity of opinion about it. It’s hard to get a real picture from the reviews. For example some praise the presentation while at the same time talking about how hard it can be to read. In 2001 Apothis Consortium released a revised second edition. They supported the line loosely, with four substantial setting sourcebooks. However the last of these came out in 2007.

Part of Guardians of Order's "Ultimate Fan Guides." These books offered Big Eyes, Small Mouth system mechanics alongside an anime series’ reference guide. Most of these lean towards the latter, offering not that much in the way of rules beyond some adjustments and statted out characters. They're more interested in being fully-fleshed episode sourcebooks. That material takes up the first 80 full-color glossy pages. The last 40+ are the rules in black and white. 

Serial Experiments Lain isn't a series I've watched, though now I'm intrigued. I remember seeing it at Media Play in an overpriced DVD set, back when that was the only way you could get anime mainstream. I’ve reading enough to know I had to stop to avoid spoilers. It's on Crunchyroll, so I'm going to have to watch it. Serial Experiment Lain's clearly a rich and layered series. I hadn't realized it comes from one of my favorite creators Yoshitoshi ABe. The Google summary states "An adolescent girl develops a unique connection to a virtual reality network known as The Wired." It categorizes the series as Cyberpunk, Psychological horror, Science Fiction, Drama, Mystery. 

GOO went a little overboard with some of these fan guides. For years you could find them in discount bins. That being said, they're a good resource for BESM fans and gamers who like the source series.

10. Digital Burn (2002)
As far as I can tell, Digital Burn leads the d20 cyberpunk pack. It came from Living Room Games who also worked on a lot of Earthdawn 2e. DB looks classic cyberpunk, complete with a digitally altered photo for the cover. This uses the d20 Modern SRD. It actually comes out a couple of years before d20 Future or even d20 Future Tech. Neither of those went full cyberpunk (the closest being a short biopunk campaign seed), so you had to turn to these kinds of supplements. 

Digital Burn offers the expected material for a d20 book: some setting development, nine advanced classes, many prestige classes, new feats, and updated skills. That's complemented by 33 pages of cyberwear for characters. The Netrunning section follows the usual approach, with a direct neural interface being the fastest and most dangerous way to hack. This isn't a particularly deep sub-system, instead using the base mechanics to simulate battling into a system. A dead product, Digital Burn isn't available in pdf form currently. For a deeper review, see here.

11. Transhuman Space (2002)
Transhuman Space has always seemed like cyberpunk’s know-it-all big brother. It gently pushes Little CP aside and says, "Yes, that's all fun and good, but let me show how real sci-fi would do it." That isn't true, but it’s a dumb impression left with me. Some of that comes from GURPS’ mechanical stiffness. But more of it comes from the presentation. Transhuman Space aims to look more like hard science-fiction. The cover suggests old school, while the interior illustrations have a weirder look to them. They're more Dune than Neuromancer. Yet it still feels grounded. I'm reminded of the Planetes manga, about low-orbit debris collection. 

Set in 2100 Transhuman Space blends radical tech developments (biotech, nanosystems, conciousnes transfer) with a focus on more "realistic" worldbuilding. It's still radical and fantastic, but has fewer of those 'wait, what?' moments. YRMV. There's an extensive timeline, gazetteer of earth, and a look at in-system space development and exploration. It's dense and while it contains a lot of mechanics, there's also a wealth of ideas about cultural change and posthumanity.

Steve Jackson released many supplements in this series: Broken Dreams (politics), Fifth Wave (a deeper gazeteeer), High Frontier (all about space) and more. I particularly dig the Toxic Memes sourcebook. This covers methods of social engineering. I recommend that to any cyberpunk GM thinking about media and information control. In fact, I'd recommend Transhuman Space as a whole. I don't run GURPS and I wouldn't run this setting, but every book has amazing hooks, tech, and details you can steal for any cyberpunk game. 

Transhuman Space has a coherent and complete vision of the future. It's amazing in that. But it’s also a little offputting. The setting's so developed and info-rich that I haven't found a good entry point. I'm not sure what players would do in this game or if they’d have room in anything but a niche campaign. That's not a bad thing and may reflect a failure of imagination on my part. Transhuman Space remains a valuable resource for me.

Based on a comic book and Sci-Fi channel web series I'd never heard of. It's a chaotic, kitchen-sink set up that mashes Tank Girl, Aeon Flux, and 21st century Metal Hurlant. I turn to the publisher blurb for clarification, 
“Set in a fantastic 31st Century New York City, where giant worms offer a clean form of public transportation, and New Jersey has become an armed and deadly enemy, players explore the political and spiritual tensions among the City's dwellers– or simply kick some righteous ass. Undo the evils of those corrupt religious creeps, the Patahn Pahrr; explore life with sentient insects like the cultured Cockroaches and the nefarious Caterpillars; hobnob with outsiders like teddybear scientist Dr. Yoshimoto and Chi-Chian herself. “
That wasn’t that helpful. The game itself is appropriately gonzo, with a host of skills and powers in multiple categories. To quote Dan Davenport's RPGNet review, "Overall, the setting has the feel of goth-tinged cyberpunk by way of a really bad acid trip, complete with talking bugs and weirdo spirituality." The game comes from the same publisher as Continuum: Roleplayingin The Yet. Chi-Chian's weird and if you're looking for a Burroughs-ian anime-esque cyberpunk-tinged game, this might be for you.

13. C.O.P.S. (2003)
Police and Law Enforcement have always been a niche but important part of cyberpunk roleplaying. It makes sense given genre sources like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. Cyberpunk 2020's Serve and Protect set the bar for cop supplements. Shadowrun had their parallel with the Lone Star Sourcebook, detailing that private security corporation. Our group never played police; they never fit with the dominant “ragged mercenary” campaign  theme.

I've left a couple of other future police-themed rpgs off this list. The most obvious omission is Judge Dredd. While I think Dredd itself influenced cyberpunk aesthetic, the rpgs themselves never felt cyberpunk. On the other hand, there's Berlin XVIII, a French game first released in 1988. That takes place in the post-war 2070 Berlin Metroplex. Everything I read about that made it seem like Dredd, with inspiration drawn from Blade Runner and Hill Street Blues. Now I'm less sure that it's not cyberpunk. The same for Los Angeles 2035, a flash in the pan game from 7th Circle. That seems more like a near-future 87th Precinct game. Again, as these lists roll on the lines become blurrier. 

C.O.P.S. comes from the same publisher as Berlin XVIII. It is set in 2030 Los Angeles. Like Cyberpunk 2020, the world’s in crappy shape but not exactly post-apocalyptic. California has seceded from the Union in the face of a rising US conservative movement. You play members of C.O.P.S., the Central Organization for Public Security, the elite unit of the Los Angeles Police Department. The game presents Los Angeles Night City style, breaking down districts and peppering descriptions with alt-media marginalia. 

Being only slightly in the future gives C.O.P.S. its cyberpunk feel. It's a recognizable, decayed tomorrow through a European lens. It's also a game which burned brightly and fast. In two years, they released more than a dozen supplements, most of them 128 pages or more. These included equipment books (Hitek Lotek), criminal sourcebooks (Gangsta Paradise), and weirdness (Helter Skelter). Each contained linked adventures, broken into two seasons. Those seem to connect to a metaplot. It’s amazing to see a massive, well produced rpg which came and went in just under two years.

Vajra Enterprises. Of course this game comes from them. They revel in the strange and unusual, making rpg settings unlike any other. Consider KidWorld, post-apocalyptic children; Hoodoo Blues, magical-realist American south, or Tibet, a historical-political semi-fantasy rpg. They have a vision and they carry through with dense, well-developed games. Their base system, ORC or Organic Rules Components, isn't exactly my bag, but it doesn't get in the way of the ideas. 

Fates Worse tThan Death is a love-letter to cyberpunk and a reaction to the way it had been treated in games and other media. Designer Brian St. Claire-King says, 
“My goals with Fates Worse Than Death were lofty: to describe one city in such detail that countless game sessions could be spent exploring it, to create a street level urban adventure game where the city’s underdogs are its heroes, and to create a game which keeps alive everything I love about cyberpunk while avoiding both kitschy nostalgia for the genre as well as some of its more dated themes and concepts. “
Fates Worse Than Death gives us a detailed look at Manhattan 2080, an massive inner-city ghetto in a technologically advanced world. Those who have fallen out or want to escape from society have come here. Despite that players can play one of three classes: Indies, those with wealth; Wells, those living on public assistance; and Street People, who may be homeless and/or criminals. This is a dark but different world. Early on in the book we get a full-page table comparing Fates to standard cyberpunk. It's an interesting cross-section, showing how the setting remixes the concepts. For players of The Veil, I recommend checking this out for ideas about themes and beliefs. The game clocks in at 465 pages and more than half of that's world building and GM tools. 

Fates isn't for everyone. Cyberpunk purists may be put off by the psychic powers and mention of aliens. But these are minor bits than can easily be cut or ignored. More offputting may be the questions of class the game raises. Issues of wealth and poverty often get ignored in rpgs. Beyond taking some limiting disads or having to run jobs to get cool equipment, we don't deal with the gritty awfulness of the destitute. I can only think of a few other games that include these issues (Kingdom of Nothing for example). 

The core book’s massive and worth picking up. On DriveThru, they promise to donate a book with every purchase. You can also opt to pick up the Fates Worse Than Death "Spare Change" edition. This cuts out much of the material, leaving only the rules for playing street people. Fate can be ugly in places; you can tell it’s an older game by the graphic design. The designer acknowledges that age. In his forward to the pdf version St. Claire-King suggests options if players find the game a little too crunchy. It's a nice touch and a peek behind the curtain of game design (and regrets).

15. OGL Cybernet (2003)
Mongoose Publishing released a series of complete genre-focused games using the Open Game License. These included Ancients, Horror, Steampunk, Wild West, and Cyberpunk. Cybernet's a dense book, it has a lot of ground to cover including the d20 basics. Characters have occupations in addition to classes. These can give extra skills, feats, and wealth. Five of the classes are: the Connection (Fixer), the Corporate (Corp), the Soldier (Solo), the Webcrawler (Netrunner), and the Professional (Cop, Media, Rockerboy). A sixth, the unfortunately-named “Jacker,” doesn't have a Cyberpunk 2020 parallel. It's a rogue-thief type class covering all kinds of criminals from Yaks to Robin Hoods. As always with d20, you also get Prestige Advanced classes.

Most of the book's given over to character creation and its associated systems. That includes the obligatory equipment section complete with full page lists of guns and weapons. The actual mechanics are d20 heavy- with maneuvers, grappling, object & vehicle rules, tracked rep and allegiances. A few sub-systems get extra attention including eight pages on future drugs. Cyberwear's covered in 19 pages, which seems short compared to the attention given other elements. Hacking gets the same space. The rules don't seem bad. They're closer to Cyberpunk 2020, with decks, loadout programs, and abstracted challenges as the stages in a run. 

Cybernet's decent if you're looking for a d20 based system to do cyberpunk. But it lacks much in the way of GM support or setting. It assumes a generic, plug-in-your-own world. That's fine. The class choices set some of the default setting assumptions. But there's almost nothing to assist the GM in coming up with cyberpunk play. No adversaries, plot hooks, strong genre discussion, etc. While I found some flaws with OGL Wild West, at least it had some of those tools.

16. Virtual (2003)
I'd be oversimplifying by calling this Tron or ReBoot: the RPG, but not by much. Virtual's part of Fantasy Flight's Horizon line of d20 setting books (alongside Grimm, Redline, and others). In Virtual there's a war inside the data world, with intelligent programs as combatants. A small portion of these have awoken, given them independent sentience. I like that other programs may have a limited sentience, able to interact, but operating under constraints without an awareness of them. 

So...meta-NPCs.

Characters have a heritage (Absorber, Controller, Destroyer, Hider, Infecter, Resister) reflecting their original purpose. These affect attribute bonuses, special abilities, and personality. That's combined with a form: their set avatar in the online world- which also gives bonuses and limitations. Finally each has a class (Antiviral, Battle AI, Messenger, Programmer, Thinker, or Webcrawler). It's a smart set of easily grokked options. The rules offer revised skills, feats, and gear. I dig that equipment can be modified by adding subroutines. Programs can also use "rewrites" which are effectively spells. The rules include some new spells as well as conversion notes for existing PHB magics. 


You get a lot of the background detail through the rules, but the final thirteen pages covers the setting on its own. Players can battle against program overlords and dangerous viruses. It's clever, fun, and not overdone. Virtual could be offer an interesting parallel game for an AI-rich cyberpunk. The actions of one reality could have an effect on the other. While Virtual is only tangentially cyberpunk it offers new ideas for interacting with the online world.