The 1990s, Cranked Up To 11

For about as long as I’ve been into tabletop RPGs, SLA Industries (“SLA” pronounced “Slay” for comedy reasons) has kind of been lurking about there in the background. There was the original 1993 release that Nightfall Games helmed themselves; there was the brief period when Wizards of the Coast held the IP before they bought the wreckage of TSR and canned all their RPG properties that weren’t Dungeons & Dragons; there was the blink-and-you’d-miss-it period when Hogshead Publishing had the rights and put out “Edition 1.1” (basically the first edition with new cover art and a sprinkling of corrections and clarifications) before James Wallis pulled the plug on Hogshead; there was that fairly extensive period when Cubicle 7 were keeping the core book and some supplements in print but didn’t seem to be doing very much to promote it.

These days Nightfall Games have gone their own way again rather than relying on third party publishers. At the moment they are putting out a trickle of material with the hope of building up interest and reserves before ploughing ahead with a 2nd Edition of the game. In the meantime, Edition 1.1 is available for download via DrivethruRPG on a pay-what-you-want basis. That’s handy for me, because one of the members of my Monday evening group is going to be running some SLA after my current Ars Magica block wraps up, so now’s the perfect time for me to pick the thing up and see what it’s like.

My God, it’s full of 90s.

This is most obvious from SLA‘s very distinctive aesthetic, presenting a world in which every gothic, metal and industrial album cover has come to life and had a party in a single rain-slicked city, and is equally evident from the structure of the rulebook – in a White Wolf-tastic move, this is yet another 1990s RPG where there’s about 100 pages of setting blurb before you get a single game mechanic. To give them their due, however, this amount of explanation is largely justified on two grounds. The first reason this much explanation is required is that SLA Industries is, to say the least, a bit of an odd game. For some reason Scottish RPG publishers tend to put out games with highly unusual settings which demand an awful lot of reading to really get your head around – Contested Ground’s A|State was one, as was Sanctuary’s Tales of Gargentihr, and SLA may be the strangest bird of them all.

The SLA setting can best be described as “post-cyberpunk”, in that it has an attitude and aesthetic inspired by 1980s cyberpunk but, unlike cyberpunk, doesn’t limit itself to near-future settings with comparatively modest technological advances – instead, it allows its imagination to run absolutely wild in its depiction of a deranged universe. This universe is the World of Progress – that expanse of space ruled with an iron fist by the megacorporation SLA Industries, managed by the mysterious Mr Slayer. Along with a few close colleagues, Mr Slayer emerged some 900 years ago in a galaxy wracked by warfare and chaos in order to impose his own vision of order – the Big Picture – exerting all the violence, economic might, corruption, psychic force and super-technology available to him and his minions. Along with a psychic offshoot of the human race (the Ebons, who are all goths, and their violent cousins the Brain Wasters, who all look like corpsepainted-up black metal musicians) and allied alien species, humanity has come under the subjugation of SLA, at the mercy of the corporation’s callousness, irresponsibility, and occasional outright incompetence but powerless to do anything about it.

The planet-city of Mort (think Coruscant after several centuries of urban decline) epitomises the culture of the World of Progress. The corporate elite live in Uptown; in Downtown, the dregs of society spend their days watching TV and engaging in various forms of petty crime to get by (since it actually isn’t possible to survive on the meagre corporate welfare SLA doles out). Beyond Downtown lies the Cannibal Sectors, home to various varieties of aliens and people out for human flesh, the local infrastructure having entirely gone to ruin through SLA’s mismanagement and apathy.

The struggle against infiltrating monsters from the Cannibal Sectors is as constant as the rain that perpetually falls in Mort, and isn’t even the only struggle the security forces have – as well as agents of rival corporations like DarkNight and Thresher Incorporated, there’s the plague of serial killers (often selecting garish disguises and pseudonyms) that the deprivation and absurdity of the World of Progress seems to foster.

PCs in SLA Industries are cast as operatives – highly armed troubleshooters working for SLA Industries by taking on those jobs the individual departments don’t have the manpower, callousness, or taste for violence for. Particularly skilled operatives can rise in security clearance to get assigned more rewarding (and correspondingly more dangerous) job assignments, gain corporate sponsorship, and even get their work featured on TV as part of SLA’s all-pervasive propaganda efforts. They are also at ever-increasing risk of stumbling across dark truths SLA – and indeed Mr Slayer himself – might prefer stayed quiet…

The over-the-top grimdark nature of this universe – a flavour adjacent to but distinct from Warhammer 40,000 (not least because of its distinct lack of skulls) – is rather ridiculous on the face of it, and given the TLA title I do wonder whether the 1994 parody RPG HoL: Human Occupied Landfill wasn’t drawing a little inspiration from SLA. If that is so, it’s a classic case of dry humour going over the audience’s head, because this is a setting taken to such extremes that it can only be taken as satire. The world of SLA is a world of media-driven consumerism, or at least consumerism as it existed in the early 1990s – although computer networks exist in this universe a consumer-accessible Internet doesn’t seem to be a thing. This is kind of a shame, because not only does this rather severely date the game, but it also represents a huge missed opportunity in the development of the setting – the Internet would not only provide a useful platform for the various subversive pirate TV stations that other corporations are constantly trying to break into SLA’s propaganda feed with, but would also be a brilliant breeding ground for Mort’s deranged serial killer subcultures.

Still, other criticisms could be levied at the setting, a major one being the second reason why I am glad there’s 100 pages of blurb before you get any setting stuff here: frankly, the setting isn’t very well-introduced or explained. The setting chapters meander a lot, to the extent that they can feel like a stream of consciousness sometimes, and also put a lot of effort into detailing minor setting information that won’t come up in most games. On top of that, even in this “Edition 1.1” there’s still several outright typos and clunkily constructed sentences which look an awful lot like typos but might be deliberate puns, I’m not sure. The only advantage to this presentation is that there’s a decent amount of redundancy in the really important information: this is good, because it’s only through being introduced to this stuff repeatedly that it began to make sense and I was able to put together a picture of what is going on with this wacky setting. Though the game does provide a succinct one-page quickstart introduction, there’s plenty of significant details that you’d kind of need to know in the game that this quickstart doesn’t cover, and whilst you could probably come up with a more concise and compact way to present the information in the setting chapter, you’d want to give it a really thorough rewrite to improve its clarity as well in the process.

Actually, if we’re talking revisions to SLA, you’d probably want to give a good look to the system. It’s 2D10, add shit, get over a target number, but for a system that simple they slip in all sorts of fiddly little complications here and there. Still, it’s functional enough for random action and violence and gunplay, which seems to be the intended focus of the game – for instance, it’s specified that SLA operatives can command the civilian police to go do all the boring forensic and crime scene investigation work that more sedate, investigative-focused games might put under the spotlight so the PCs can spend their time chasing up leads and interrogating people and blowing stuff up.

I may come back and do a follow-up article once we’ve had a chance to test-drive the system and setting, but on the face of it SLA Industries seems to be the platonic form of early 1990s post-cyberpunk ultraviolence. These days it’s kind of infamous for the writers’ setting guide which got leaked and implied that the whole setting was the creation of a drug addict’s imagination (though if you read The Truth it isn’t quite the “it’s all a dream” cop-out it sounds like at first if you hear about it second-hand – in particular, the metaphysic has it that the universes created by people’s imaginations using the science-fictional drug in question are just as real as the waking world), but apparently Nightfall aren’t even using that iteration of the “truth” any more anyway. That’s kind of a shame, because there’s the kernel of a really cutting satire here, provided you can get past the absurd aesthetic. And if you can’t, you can just have fun blowing up serial killers for sponsorship money.

7 thoughts on “The 1990s, Cranked Up To 11

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