Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Punk AND Cyber in Always Never Now by Will Hindmarch

Always Never Now by Will Hindmarch successfully fuses cyber and punk, augmenting Lady Blackbird's system and adding twists. Split into player's handbook and scenario for the GM, it's deep, familiar and exceptionally well thought through. Good writing draws you into the dark world of mega-corporations that - worryingly - is starting to look like our own. Like it's inspiration, Always Never Now is billed as a single scenario but I think that plays down the huge amount of gaming it will spawn.

Choose a character

Always Never Now comes with six pre-made character that build a refreshingly interesting cyberpunk team: ex corporate security, counter-intelligence ninja, inter-corporation operative, spy infiltrator, engineer tank and paramedic surgeon. The balance is excellent between them; each are handy in a fight and there is enough separation and overlap to make a subset selection work as well as a whole team. Having spent years cajoling the misanthropes around my table to build a coherent team, I bow to the masterful balance.

The descriptions are excellent and character imagery (funded by successful Kickstarter) are apt and excellent. Players will have these character sheets on the table during the whole game, so making them evocatively beautiful is very important.

System of words

Always Never Now takes Lady Blackbird's rules and performs back street bionic augmentation. For those unacquainted with Lady Blackbird, it combines the semantics of words that describe your character and die rolls. Your character has a number of traits, broad descriptions of a skill area. Each trait has a number of tags, which are more specific things that character can do.

For example, the Trait Infiltrator has the tags Stealthy, Perceptive, Quick, Subtle, Agile etc. It is up to the player to negotiate for as many dice as possible.

When a player needs to perform an action, they begin with a single die (any will do) and add one extra die for the appropriate trait and then another for each appropriate tag. Each die has a 50/50 of being a success (use 4+ on a D6, or odds/evens or your choice!). Difficulty is set by the number of successes you need.

When you fail an action, the GM will assign you a condition, one of: Angry, Exhausted, Impaired, Hunted, Trapped, Recognized. These drive the narrative, adding flavour to the story. Each Character also has a Key, which is a facet that is particular to that character. When you use that Key during play, then you pick up experience points to spend later. An example key is Key of the Comedian, the character makes jokes and when they're funny - they get an XP. Finally, each character gets an Edge that they can use once per session to help die rolls in certain situations or steer the narrative.

The rules are well explained and the examples are both informative and setting-flavoured.

A story game, with a story

Story games that fail to incite story trigger an allergic reaction in me. Always Never Now requires no anti-histamine. The scenario file that accompanies the player file is a complete adventure that you can pick up and run straight away. This is the crux of Always Never Now - there is a lot to read but it's so well written that it is a joy. There is a little fat to trim in the player file but it never gets in the way.

The scenario is formalised and organised into a series of scenes. After each scene, the players can choose from a number of new scenes depending on the clues they uncover. They can also have a recovery scene where they plot, plan, rearm and get ready to punk it up some more. Coupled with a neat diagram that acts as an in-game aide-mémoire, it's a neat way of presenting a scenario to a GM. A simplified Choose Your Own Adventure.

The setting is luscious. Twisting and embellishing the familiar, regressing some aspects and progressing others (the secret of good cyberpunk). Technocracy are a ruling elite, driven by complex whims and power thirst. Megacorps and subsidiaries sprawl over a broken earth and a good balance of available technologies. The opening paragraph in the introduction is one of the best I've ever read.

Fine tuning

The cover of Always Never Now does not adequately represent the high quality of the insides and for me, that's a problem. After click download, it's the first thing that the a prospective GM is going to see and they really should be more WOW'd by it. I'd make a montage of the character art at the very least. The long form of writing is difficult to use as a reference; a contents/index would help, as would more sub headings and better marked examples. I wonder if some might not get the movie references, so I would hyperlink those to Wikipedia. There's a neat description of roleplay for newbies but as I imagine that 90% of the readers will have played before, a quick jump link to the story game specific stuff would be handy.

I like the descriptions of Details, Beats and Moments as a description of building a successful scene but the writing gets a little fluffy round there and I think tightening it up would make it easier to understand. On first read through, it feels like rules bloat when it isn't at all - just putting definitions on techniques to help those people who have not had much control over the narrative before.

Always Now, not Never

One-shots might put you off but Always Never Now is no ordinary one-shot. It's a self-contained cyberpunk campaign that is ready to print-and-run. The standard of writing is high, which is vital for a good story game and although it might need a little boiling down in places, the depth and breadth of setting is a delight. If you have a bubbling interest in running a story game, then Always Never Now is an excellent choice.

Thank you to Will for sharing.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Rewired Revised by R.E. Davis is tasty Cyberpunk. OM NOM.

Rewired Revised by R. E. Davis is not the "Quick and Dirty Cyberpunk RPG", it is "The Free Cyberpunk RPG of perfect proportion". A solid system, well written, well presented and lots of support. Join me in a punk voyage from brain-jacked cortex static to Irish Stew. Yes, Irish Stew...

The taste of character

Before jacking your punk up to the retinas, you need slam down 13 points across your Chrome (strength), Wires (reflexes), Signal (influence) and Data (intelligence). They're attribute carrion to Awareness, Initiative, Toughness, Defense, Firewall (cyberspace rating), Carry Capacity and Edge. Not yet washed out by cortex static? Slap down mad skills, pick some perks; they'll turn you from forgettable Joe to gutter celebrity in a heartbeat.

Perks can be things you are, mental powers or upgrades to your festering carcass. That's all preamble to your gear. Guns, armour, vehicles and drones; mods and hacks aplenty. Get tooled or fall - and fall fast.

The feel of system

This ain't no 8-bit hash, this is a salted 256 SHA. Its genes are spliced from the rain soaked streets (WyRM, RAG) and glimmering corporate enclaves (FATE). Cut and shut by a backstreet game hacker street preacher called Rev. Lazaro. Don't ask where he got the parts, just be happy that it all works together.

Snatch your cubes and chuck three D6, add skill, add mods and best a target number, or some other gutter lunatic rolling against you. Best wins. The bigger your diff, the more it hurts. And it will hurt bad. Death is easy. Stun will make your fall over, wounds mean you don't get up again. It's passionate combat scrawled in charcoal across virgin paper.

If lady luck elopes with your best friend, burn your Edge to chuck another cube, absorb some hurt or demand your own story. The toxic consumerist eagle is fed with wealth and the law is laid down for hot car chases.

The look of punk

Rewired is a looker. Easy on tired eyes; lifted with enough glyphs to remind you tired post-modern middle aged spread what punk is. The GM (who's a corporate sararīman) gets drugs, NPC generation, hacking and help with awarding those poor player suckers with points they crave. The book? Neat. Navigable. Paged. Cover. Credits. No contents, no index, not needed. His cyberspace site has tonnes of content.

The scream of data

Ever heard a 56K modem? That's data in pain. Rewired's system is solid. You could hack it into any setting and for me, that's its Achilles. Renaming attributes isn't Cyberpunk enough. When I need a hit of Cyberpunk, I need the system to feel like the grim, gritty, high-tech dystopic nightmare. It's ragged in places but only in typography, not in heart. I want my Cyberpunk to be further into my future, not Gibson's; I'm already in his future. I prop up gin soaked bars cursing Cyberpunk 2020's identical entropic fate.

The smell of success

Rewired is the Irish Stew of Cyberpunk roleplaying games. Enjoyed all over the world under a million different names. Filling, familiar, dependable. Call it Scouse, Goulash or Burgoo it's still a meat stew. You recognise all the ingredients, so you can get on with just stuffing your face. OM NOM NOM.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Simplicity by Dave Zajac isn't simple but it is resplendent

Simplicity by Dave Zajac (aka Swordfin Games) is a fantasy roleplaying game system for those who have an inner wrestle between modern fantasy roleplaying games an old school ones.

In the 70s corner is your flared corduroy self with huge mutton chops, tight rainbow jumper and CND medallion. In the modern corner is you in neon Lycra and electric blue Anime hair. You want both. You want the comfortable feel of the stripey sweater your wife burnt and you want the Lycra catsuit you should have stopped wearing years ago. Can Simplicity give you that? Old school but modern? Like retaking high school when you're 40?

It's not

Simplicity isn't. Great name but not true. It's not a monolith but it's not simple. That's OK, I like my RPGs like I like my salad: with some crunch. I'll explain as I go through but let's get that out of the way. If you want simple, pick up Risus or Warrior, Rogue and Mage.

No races, No classes

The first old school trope to be jettisoned are classes and races. Your avatar is built old school style from Body (dancing, carrying, punching), Mind (thinking, arguing, magicking) and Spirit (cajoling, cavorting, commanding). Each is a number between 8 and 23, which gives a modifier and other side-effects such as how much you can carry. From there, you calculate speed, damage reduction, health, equipment and abilities. Abilities (skills) use a skill tree system and each ability changes the rules of play in some way (more on this).

No wishy-washy story-driven life generation or other such modernity here. It's stock old-school.

Die!

Performing actions in Simplicty is simple: roll d20, add modifiers larger than 10. If you're hitting something, your weapon will have a die to roll, subtract the enemy's damage reduction (based on armour) and they take that many hits to their health. The old school is booted again with levels being the decision of the GM, not through hacking monsters.

So, where is the complexity then?

I harp on all the time about crunch entering through the back door. A resolution mechanic can look innocuous (this certainly is) but once you add the skills/abilities to the game, the number of ruling combinations explodes! I like this sort of crunch. It works for me.

This does make the system more complicated because the folks around the table have to keep track of all the effects on the rules of the different abilities. Complexity has also crept in with book keeping (weights for everything, including coinage).

Things that curl my nose

The rulebook feels scattergunned with rules. I would prefer a more ordered layout, particularly extracting all the inline rules (actions, combat, magic) out of character generation and into another chapter. I'd much rather refer to the combat chapter during character generation than have to root through character generation during a combat. I'd also like examples made obvious, perhaps by boxing them out. I'd like some more pictures too. Dave drew the cover, which is lovely! Let's have more of that.

Charming Terroir

Not terror, you heathen; terroir. The book grows out of excellent writing, a neat and not-fussy layout, a GM section that tells you how to build monsters and balance a game. There's even a map. Dave goes further on the website, where you can download a starting adventure, character sheet and optional rules. There's even a back page. If you fancy buying a hardcopy (which I view very much as a time saver for cash-to-burn hobbyists like me) then he provides that too.

Simple is not always good

It is a laudable goal to create a simple roleplaying game. However to create a playable game with just the right level of crunch is no less worthy. Simplicity isn't and that's OK. That's more than OK. This is a well written RPG that has the crunchy elements of the old school while chucking out other tropes with cavalier freedom. It sets out to modernise the old school without washing out any flavour and I feel it succeeds that tricky goal with aplomb.

Dave, thank you for sharing!