Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ascend into the upper reaches of hyperbole with Sufficiently Advanced by Colin Fredericks

Sufficiently Advanced by Colin Frederick is a free Science Fiction RPG set in the distant future where possessions are cheap and wealth is derived from intellectual property. Dive into a narrative driven system of wildly imaginative Civilisations, intrigue and the very pinacle of technology. A great work, plastered with passion and inventiveness. You'd be foolish not to download it.

The genius is in the setting

Imagine a future where physical objects are so cheap to produce that they cost virtually nothing. You want for nothing. Travel is free and there is an infinite galaxy to inhabit and explore. What holds value in a place where physical things have no worth? Ideas and intellectual property. That is the nub of Sufficiently Advanced: the premise that ideas are worth money. It's novel and bloody clever to boot. If you're scared by that idea, then I recommend averting your eyes as the rest of this review might just send you into a cardiac arrest. The logical flow of thought from this strong initial condition is palpable... Patent offices act as treasuries, as ideas replace gold as the base of currency.

Your character is an agent of the patent office, a daring mix of roles from law enforcer to diplomat via assassin and bastard. Essentially, anything you can turn your hand to, which gives loads of scope for the game. As Colin points out: you're not a patent clerk. So, no need to come up with your own theory of space and time, then.

The Patent Office is run by a series of Artificial Intelligences called Transcendentals that receive messages from themselves in the future. This is where the characters get their marching orders from. Fantastic! This allows the GM to justify just about anything. Cue evil laughing around the GM fraternity. Ally that with planet-vaporising technology that comes with a handle-with-care sticker emblazoned upon it and you have the ingredients for some tense situations. Obviously, I'd never hand that sort of power over to my players, they'd abuse it within the flash of an eyelash and the universe would be sucked into a galaxy-sized black hole before you could say "Don't point that at me..."

In the course of play, Characters will visit a civilisation, ascertain the elements of the dispute and then try and "fix it", through a variety of means; limited only by the player's cunning or love of planet-busting nukes. The cultures are most likely to be one of the fourteen Civilisations or a subsidiary group:

Civilisations

Colin has raised two rigid and proud digits to "Earth" and the tediously cliched area around it (bravo!) and settled on the limits of the Universe as his boundaries. Plenty of scope there, then. To make life more manageable (how do you manage infinity? infinitely badly!), there are 14 core Civilisations for you to play in, around and with. Each one is distinct, with conflicting principles and some are a little wacky. Frivolity is well represented as you might hope from a universe where survival is free. Some of the Civilisation are sheer genius, such as "The Association of Stored Humans". Brilliant.

Your mind might be boggling at all the possibilities of interaction between the 14 disparate Civilisations and a series of other organisations but Colin has provided a handy diagram to represent them all and their relationships. A relief to see that some Civilisations just don't have much to do with each other. Even the soap opera addled mind of a couch potato could rustle enough starch driven brain power to conjure a campaign from it.

Societies and Aliens

The are organisations that stretch across the different civilisations. They are simply described but can be affective in finding common goals with characters from different civilisations. I was reminded feintly of secret societies from Paranoia but without the necessary secrecy. There are also four alien species, each with their own facets. I'd imagine that you could play without them if you felt so inclined. Colin doesn't dwell upon them so neither shall I.

Character Creation

After such an incredible setting, Colin could have defecated onto papyrus and it would not have mattered. But no! There's a complete system and Character creation too. You begin with choosing a Civilisation. This sets up the sort of person you are. You then choose four Core Values (such as Worship or Humanity), which are hinted at by your Civilisation. You then assign how strong these are to you on a simple 0 to 10 scale. Core Values aren't fixed, so there is a list provided covering everything I could think of. You then pick a name, which you have some help with too. Next, you choose your Society Membership, which will give you some more in-game benefits.

Rather than statistics, you get six Themes: Plot Immunity, Intrigue, Empathy, Magnetism, Comprehension and Romance. You get a score in each of these. As you can tell from the names, they are less about doing physical things (jumping, carrying, thinking) and more about putting influence on the story of the game. That would put a story telling lilt to the game. Each Theme influences the game through things called Twists, which more tightly define an action, such as persuading someone not to shoot you in the face.

You then choose the Capabilities of the character, which describe the inherited abilities - such as training, implants or genetic enhancements. No skill lists are needed either, you pick a profession that generally covers a load of skills. There is little Character advancement in this game but there is plenty of character modification for those who want that. At first glance, this is a worrying trait but then it does make sense: your characters can't be first-level freshmen to do their job.

Mechanics

When you want to do end diplomatic stalemates, end wars, start diplomatic stalemates or start wars then you need to choose which Profession and Capability are most applicable. Roll a d10 for each, multiply the roll by the skill and then take the highest. Colin's example is the best, so if you want to play football well you roll a D10 for each: Athletics skill level 3 (Profession) and Biotech level 4 (Capability), you roll 4 and 7 respectively, you end up with 12 and 28. 28 is higher. You then modify this number and compare against a difficulty table.

You can spend 'Reserve' to re-roll. Reserve is gleaned from the facet you know is weaker. In the example above, Athletics is weaker, so you can use that as reserve instead of rolling for it. Conflicting rolls are highest-wins with some extra methods for dealing with reserve.

This simple system is somewhat undermined by listing a whole load of different conflicts that might occur. I have come across this problem with the rewrite of Icar, you have to end up specifying so much. Close combat, weapon combat, vehicle combat, ship combat, etc etc. If you have a system that acts upon the narrative, you have even more conflicts to resolve. How do I resolve an Advertising Campaign? What about a Manhunt? There is so much here that you would have to put considerable effort into resolving any issues. Add onto this your Themes acting upon these actions (in the form of Twists and story Triggers) and I'd imagine the game slowing. Having examples of the sorts of Conflicts that might arise - as an example of play - is fine but to specify so many is somewhat bewelidering. The way my group likes to play is to resolve conflicts at the table, in open play, arguing, shouting, throttling each other and sacrificing quadrapeds in a candle-lit vigil to some evil filth messiah who's secretly terrified of his roleplayer followers and wished they would stop cremating farm animals on the new carpet.

Other sections and the Book

As you might hope, there is a huge list of technology to salivate over. I'd recommend dipping the whole lot into acrylic. Every far future technology available to common man is described and has game effect. As obsessed as I am with high tech, I felt that there needed to be more organisation here and some careful pruning. A few more images in this section for the more outlandish devices would help too. The GM section has some tips and tricks and relies heavily on suggesting the GM improvises. There are some example hints at adventures but not an end-to-end example of play. The Contents page is well ordered and the Index is simply breathtaking. The graphics are of a high quality and spattered throughout (with a bias toward the first half). The bordering is a little large (as is the text) but it does give the book a grand feel to it, so fits beautifully.

You can't have everything

Sufficiently Advanced is a rich setting, which might put some off. The Quick Start is anything but. It won't get you playing in an hour but acts as more of a series of sign posts to help you through the background. I was rather saddened by this because I read "Quick Start" only to spend three hours reading! I also wanted to see how Colin had managed to quick start a Sci Fi game so I could crib for my own devious and filthy ends! It's a fearfully tricky task to achieve.

Sufficiently Advanced is crying out for a full adventure and lots of examples of play. I like novel systems. When reading 2 or 3 games a week, seeing something very different is a blessing. However, the burden is then on the game to provide more examples of play - you simply can't rely on the reader's previous experience. Having said that, the principles are well explained and the writing is consistently good. Colin has an obsession with abbreviations. Core Values jump from their full title to CVs, which can be jarring. I'd recommend avoiding abbreviations altogether. There is also no character sheet, which is a shame as I imagine it would be rather good with gold bordering and such. No doubt the reason is that no two characters are Sufficiently similar to warrant a standard format.

Sufficiently concluded

Sufficiently Advanced is just that. It is a step forward on the RPG evolution track. Some may like that, some may not. The system has its foibles that very well may evaporate in play. The setting is so strong that the system could very well be replaced by the Fate system with no detriment to play. I'd go further: you could replace the mechanics with a block of mature cheddar cheese and a claw hammer without ruining this sublime setting. Sufficiently Advanced has successfully married together every single possible piece of Sci Fi technology I can think of into a single, cohesive setting. A remarkable achievement. One hundred and Eighty Six pages of golden charm, wrapped in high-tech delight and pregnant with imagination.

Many thanks for sharing, Colin.

P.S. Why isn't this for sale? Are you barking mad? ;-)

9 comments:

Zachary The First said...

Downloaded. *hat tip*

Rob Lang said...

*incline of head*

Steve said...

Sounds perfect for a game set in the Iain M. Banks culture novels...

Colin said...

To Steve: Many people have suggested as much. I've only read A Player of Games, and that after writing the book, but it does seem like it could work well.

To Rob: It used to be for sale, but I realized that a) it wasn't getting bought, and thus wasn't getting played, and b) I cared more about people being able to use what I made than I cared about making money from it. I love it when people get interested and excited about my games.

For examples of play, character sheet, plot generators, forums, etc., check out the game's wiki site at http://suffadv.wikidot.com/. The character sheet is in with the Demo section.

Rob Lang said...

@Steve - definitely! I think that the Culture novels are somewhat drier than SA suggests. I'd hate to lose th implicit humour found in the Civilisations by imposing culture principles.

@Colin - thanks for stopping by. The character sheet is a shiney delight! Fits absolutely into the golden age setting. If you ever feel like updating the main book, it would be super to put that in.

I'm glad you love it when others get excited: I frothed at the horizontal face gash while reading through the Civilisations. Even for those who won't ever run Sci Fi, let alone SA, I think there is plenty of thoroughly thought out ideas to draw from.

I'm glad you made it free, we're all the richer for it!

Daniel Yokomizo said...

Isn't the game called Sufficiently (instead of Significantly) Advanced?

Rob Lang said...

@daniel: Arg! How did I not spot that? many thanks. I'll edit.

Martin said...

I remember giving this game's quickstart a try some time ago and skimming through it. Thanks to your enthusiastic review, I decided to give it another try (this time downloading the full thing) and I must say I don't regret.

The setting a is a bit too weird for me but the mood and the rules more than make up for it. I'm still a little ambivalent on certain abstractions in conflict resolution and have been chasing for more examples but overall, there are some brilliant features.

Rob, gracias for this review!

Colin, Sufficiantly Advanced has several brilliant features and I hope you are working on more games!

Rob Lang said...

Martin, many thanks for your feedback. The setting is monolithic but I love that sort! Colin has indeed done a superb job.