A Second Chance To SLA

SLA Industries 2nd Edition has now shipped to backers of the Kickstarter project, and as one of those backers I’ve had a chance to look over it and the various add-ons I obtained. I’m not going to do a full Kickstopper article on the project, because in terms of the management of a crowdfunding project I think Nightfall Games have done an entirely uncontroversial and smooth job.

Sure, I got my books six months after the estimated arrival date, but pandemic-related delays are going to do that, and more importantly at every stage along the way Nightfall were keeping backers appraised of where the project was, with a regularly-updated table of tasks to complete giving a good sense both of how much was left to do, and what had been accomplished since the previous update was sent out. In short, I have no real complaints there: Nightfall provided an object lesson in how to do Kickstarter right as far as I’m concerned.

Still, reading over the materials has left me with a lot of, shall we say, quite developed opinions about SLA Industries. Having thought I’d got my thoughts out in my review of the 1st Edition, it turns out I have more to say about it after all. So, strap in, I’m going to try and say it all here. What I’m not going to do here is give a general introduction to the game’s concept, however, since my 1st Edition review more or less covers it. Aesthetically and conceptually, the game is still a big silly 1990s mess, the sort of material which HoL was making fun of (to the extent that I half-suspect that the designers of HoL were primarily making fun of SLA Industries when they wrote it).

A Game That The Market Couldn’t SLA

SLA Industries is kind of like a cockroach. It’s got this creepy, disgusting, horrific aesthetic and reputation which means that, though a small game, it’s still very recognisable. It tends to generate a reaction when it comes into sight, but it’s rather small and not very influential and few people would call it their favourite.

And, most of all, the damn thing won’t die. The game has had a bumpy old life, with Dave Allsop and the Nightfall Games crew becoming picked up by no less than four publishers over the years, only for Nightfall to reclaim the licence each time – twice because the publishers in question simply were no longer interested in the game (either specifically or in RPGs in general, in one case), twice because the publishers in question were shuttering. For this new edition, Nightfall are now putting the products out all by themselves once again (they put a few things out in between Cubicle 7 and Daruma), after spending almost a quarter of a century trying to make variations on a “we do the development, you publish the books” arrangement work.

First the game came out through Nightfall themselves in 1993; then it got picked up by Wizards of the Coast in late 1994. However, Wizards would not keep their RPG lines open for very long, shutting down their RPG lines in late 1995. (A year and a half later they’d get right back into the RPG business by buying out TSR.) Nightfall then reached a publication agreement with Hogshead Publishing, with a reprint of the core book and a trickle of new products emerging in 2000-2001, but then when James Wallis decided to shutter Hogshead he surrendered all rights back to Nightfall.

Cubicle 7 would then take on the game, but only a small trickle of material would actually be released by them. It is actually rather surprising that this is the case, since Cubicle 7 was actually co-founded by Dave Allsop, head honcho of Nightfall, who was also scheduled to act as the Line Developer on SLA Industries as of November 2003, according to the first Station Analysis Report by Cubicle 7’s Angus Abranson, the first of an intended monthly series of posts about the game.

Things seemed to go swimmingly early on, with the second Station Analysis Report coming out in a timely fashion. Then there was radio silence, and the third Station Analysis report came out in late 2004. (If there were any further reports, I have not been able to find them.) This showed signs of trouble – the cancellation of the White Earth project, which would have both been a supplement about the titular locale and a standalone RPG set there, mutually compatible with SLA Industries, was one thing. Perhaps a larger matter was the departure of Dave Allsop from his role as a director of Nightfall and Cubicle 7; though he would continue to engage with Cubicle 7 as a freelancer, Allsop’s departure would see James Desborough installed (with Allsop’s blessing) as the new line editor (a matter I will come back to in a bit).

Within these Sector Analysis Reports, some seven new products for it were announced – the aforementioned White EarthHunter Sheets Issue 1Cannibal Sector 1World Guide 1 – JacintoWorld Guide 2 – XaimeSoft Companies, and a second edition of the game, all scheduled for 2004-2006. In the end, only two of these saw the light of day – and they would be the only new products for the game that Cubicle 7 would release in hard copy. Both were late, creaking out in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

In 2011, a revived Nightfall – with Dave Allsop back in the saddle – started releasing PDF snippets of Hunter Sheets Issue 2, which they were hoping to be able to put out in hard copy via Cubicle 7, bot for whatever reason that never happened and Cubicle 7 surrendered the rights. Until recently, Nightfall’s latest partners have been Daruma Productions, who helped run a Kickstarter for a skirmish miniatures game based on the setting, Cannibal Sector 1, but in 2018 Daruma went belly-up and Nightfall bit the bullet and decided to just publish their dang game themselves again, taking on the fulfillment of the Cannibal Sector 1 project and also running the Kickstarter for 2nd Edition in late 2019.

Without seeing the bottom line on SLA Industries sales and how profitable it’s been for the various companies who have published it over the years, it’s hard to say just how successful the game is from a business perspective, but to my eyes it feels like the game hovers in a weird liminal state which is rarely seen in the industry. Some games are just shit out of luck – they get published, they sink like a stone, it stops being worth anyone’s while to keep working on them and everyone moves on. Other games gain a cult status which means that occasional attempts to revive them flare up now and again, and still other games are able to establish and keep a really significant amount of momentum.

Conversely, it feels to me like for most of its existence SLA Industries has done just barely well enough not to go extinct entirely, but not quite well enough to ever become a major pillar of any publisher’s portfolio – the obvious exception there being Nightfall Games, a company which basically came into existence to publish and support SLA Industries. (More recently they have landed the licence to do a Terminator RPG, which I think will be the first time in 30 years of existence they’ve done a non-SLA project.)

SLA Industries was good enough to allow Nightfall to spring onto the scene with a bang and get the interest of Wizards of the Coast, and good enough to enable them to shop the game around various other publishers and get the IP optioned by Romark Entertainment for a movie/TV deal (announced in 2013, after which sweet fuck all has happened). This, if nothing else, is surely a sign that there’s a kernel of viability in the concept.

And yet whilst the game has survived, I don’t think it can ever really be said to have thrived. It wasn’t enough to keep Daruma alive, for one thing (though in that instance Mark Rapson of Nightfall informs me that Daruma was sunk by “financial mismanagement on the part of the managing and finance (executive) directors”.) It didn’t convince Wizards to keep a hand in the RPG game. It didn’t do well enough for Hogshead to prompt James Wallis to look at the income from it and think “Well, maybe I don’t need a break from the industry that badly.” No matter how much enthusiasm publishers claimed to have about it, they rarely seem to have actually thrown their weight behind it wholeheartedly. Any particular publisher aside from Nightfall themselves has only produced a small trickle of new products for the game.

Granted, in many of these cases SLA Industries wasn’t with the publishers for an especially long period of time – but it was at Cubicle 7 for eight years. It was a part of that company’s initial portfolio, and had a dedicated line developer (first Dave Allsop, then James Desborough), and the company was co-founded in part to provide a home for the game, and Angus Abranson showed every sign of being just as enthusiastic about the game as any of the Nightfall folk were.

And yet, despite holding onto the publishing rights of the game for the better part of a decade, Cubicle 7 did almost nothing with it, at least in terms of actual completed projects. Sure, they reprinted some books, but that was the easy part of managing the line; when it came to producing new product, their efforts were outright tepid. It’s very hard to look at the range of products that Cubicle 7 released from 2003 to 2011 and come away thinking that SLA Industries was a major priority for them; maybe it was at first, but it clearly hadn’t been for quite some time when they finally dropped the licence.

(More evidence that Cubicle 7 just didn’t care has been offered by Nightfall’s Mark Rapson, who informed me that although Cubicle 7 gave Dave Allsop and then James Desborough the notional title of “SLA Industries line developer”, they didn’t actually provide them with any budget to do the work. Cubicle 7 might have talked a good talk about SLA – but based on Mark’s information, it sounds like they didn’t actually want to put their money where their mouth was.)

Again, though: if SLA Industries were a significant hit for Cubicle 7, either through the new products they released for it or through reprints of the core book and other early supplements, I feel like it’d have been bumped up the priority list a bit further. None of this is necessarily the game’s fault – it’s more plausible to blame the publishers or the market for all that – but it does mean that Nightfall have faced persistent challenges when it comes to really getting momentum behind the game, and this second edition is their big chance to do that. So there’s a lot riding on this.

The Shrinking Range of Canon For Sale

In the lead-up to the new edition, Nightfall have taken to declaring chunks of the past product line to be non-canon or redundant, going so far as to stop selling the products in question. First, in early 2019, they declared an initial tranche of products to be consigned to unhistory, but their determination to impose a new version of canon on the game has not stopped there: they’ve declared their intent to yank a number of products from DriveThruRPG as of 1st February 2021 – Karma, one of the earliest supplements, being the most significant one of these.

By my reckoning (and with corrections from Mark Rapson), the SLA Industries canon of officially-purchasable products now looks like this:

  • The 2nd Edition core rulebook.
  • The 2nd Edition quickstart.
  • Cannibal Sector 1 – the one released in 2019, specifically. (Yes, there’s two totally different supplements in the game line with the same title, one canonical and one non-canonical.)
  • Hunter Sheets Issue 1.
  • Hunter Sheets Issue 2.
  • Data Packet: Klick’s End.
  • The 2nd Edition GM Screen and the booklet that comes with it.
  • The 1st edition core book (though some parts of it have been retconned).
  • Progress Report issues 0-3.

And here is the list of products which have been declared uncanonical and/or been yanked from sale:

  • The original Cannibal Sector 1 sourcebook from when Cubicle 7 was selling the game (uncanonical).
  • Karma (removed from sale).
  • Mort Sourcebook (uncanonical).
  • The Key of Delhyread (uncanonical).
  • The Contract Directory (uncanonical).
  • Data Packet: Ursa Carrien (uncanonical).
  • Data Packet: Momic. (removed from sale).
  • Data Packet: The Dream (removed from sale).
  • Data Packet: Hominid (removed from sale).
  • Data Packet: Boomer (removed from sale).
  • Data Packet: Titter (removed from sale).
  • Data Packet: Puddle Hermit (removed from sale).
  • Data Packet: Croak (removed from sale).
  • Hunter Sheets: Red Alert (removed from sale).
  • The old GM screen pack (removed from sale).

In short, a clear majority of the major products that have been put out for SLA Industries at this point (not counting brief little releases like Progress Report) are now either outright uncanonical, or simply not available for sale (unless you count the second hand market, which I don’t because this is about products that Nightfall have ceased supporting even via PDF sales, not about stuff you can scrape up if you dig around for it).

Admittedly, some of those products were produced with little to no input from the Nightfall team and so don’t really reflect their intentions for the game line, so you can put that in the same category as Chaosium deciding that Mongoose-era RuneQuest material isn’t canon. On the other hand, that isn’t the case with all the material in question; in particular, all the Data Packet supplements and Hunter Sheets: Red Alert were put out by Nightfall Games themselves, and Karma was written entirely by Nightfall personnel, so they can’t distance themselves from those so easily.

It is less clear why products written by Nightfall’s principals themselves would have been declared uncanonical or removed from sale in this fashion. To be fair, some of the removals seem to arise from the supplements in question having become obsolete or redundant, or the state of the setting moving forwards – for instance, Karma might be noncanon now due to some of the new character types, like the Chagrrin, no longer being supported as player character options in the core game and the setting being adjusted to account for this. For instance, in 2nd Edition the Chagrrin have all been shipped off to War Worlds to fight the good fight and aren’t around on Mort any more.

Mark Rapson has clarified to me that Karma got yanked from sale simply because the PDF was a bit rubbish and it wasn’t really worth Nightfall’s time to actually get a nice scan done. Still, this does mean that there’s currently no officially-purchasable way to get the skinny on Chagrrins. Taking away a player character option in a new edition and nuking the supplement it was introduced in feels like overkill. Certainly, if I were playing a Chagrrin character it’d feel like a big fat “fuck you, you’re playing it wrong” from Nightfall.

It seems like Nightfall very much want players to be using the current version of the setting, at the current point of the timeline that they have advanced the World of Progress to, and really don’t want to support players or referees who want to turn the clock back and play in a version of the setting where (for example) Chagrrin are still present on Mort – and they would rather cut off a small income stream in the form of Karma PDF sales than keep that option on the table. It always bugs me when I feel like game designers or publishers are trying to exert an undue influence over what I’m doing at my game table, and I sometimes get that impression when I look at Nightfall’s pulling of products.

To be honest, I think Nightfall are missing a trick here: it’s surely better to slap a big fat caveat in bold on the relevant product’s page saying that it’s old canon that is no longer applicable to the current version of the setting, or that all the fluff in a particular mini-supplement is now incorporated into the 2nd Edition core book, than it is to pull the product entirely, since so far as I am aware there are no costs associated with keeping the product available on PDF storefronts like DriveThruRPG but there is a cost involved in depriving yourself of the “long tail” sales, modest though they may be.

Of course, they may feel that some of their older products are very significantly flawed in ways beyond simply not matching current canon – that they now regret some design choices as being simply unworkable in play, or that they think some edgy thing written in the edgy edgy edgelord days of the 1990s is either too silly even for the SLA Industries setting, or is pointlessly offensive in a way which detracts from the game, or represents an unfortunate incidence of “punching down”, or whatever.

There are hints that this may be the case. In their January 2019 announcement about canon, as archived here, Nightfall have stated that “a number of these books were produced with little or no input from the creators of SLA Industries and as such do not represent the image, ideals, nor stories of The World of Progress”.

“This doesn’t represent our ideals” strikes me as the sort of phrasing people use when they want to say “this had really offensive implications and we don’t really stand by it any more” without directly saying that (possibly sensibly, if they don’t want to get into a detailed public autopsy of what the problems were), though Mark Rapson assures me that is not the case here and that the reasons for the releases being pulled are that Key of Delhyread and Ursa Carrien really didn’t fit the vision for the setting any more, whilst the original Cannibal Sector 1, the Contract Directory, and the Mort sourcebook had all been superseded by the more recent Cannibal Sector 1 book and subsequent releases (though I feel like this is still kind of a shame for anyone who preferred the older aesthetic).

As it happens, there would actually only be a very limited number of SLA Industries books that could be described as “produced with little or no input from the creators”. Obviously, any products released directly by Nightfall Games themselves, or primarily written by the Nightfall team, can’t fall into that category; Nightfall is still owned and operated by the creators of the game, if they didn’t think something was a good fit for the game at the time of publication they surely wouldn’t have released it.

I think the only products we need to look at in this category are those which came out during the publishing deal with via Wizards of the Coast, Hogshead, or Cubicle 7 – Daruma never having put anything out which wasn’t very much under the control of Nightfall in terms of content.

In fact, there’s really only four examples that a) weren’t primarily written by the games’ creators and b) weren’t released by Nightfall Games themselves, and two of those are kind of edge cases by those criteria.

  • Maybe the Mort Sourcebook, the final product of the Wizards of the Coast run. Morton Smith is credited as a co-author, and Smith had been onboard from the start of the game line, but he was one of many hands contributing to that project and all the others don’t seem to have written for the line before. As mentioned above, Nightfall now considers this to have been superseded by the newer Cannibal Sector 1 book and subsequent releases.
  • The Key of Delhyread, an adventure released under Hogshead. Not only was its author, Liam Wickham, new to writing for SLA Industries, but in addition it’s the only SLA product which doesn’t include artwork by Dave Allsop. As such it may well be it’s uncanonical as much for its image and aesthetics as for the actual content. Mark Rapson informs me that it does indeed no longer reflect Nightfall’s intentions for the setting.
  • Maybe The Contract Directory, a supplement released under Hogshead. Three of the four co-authors of the original game have writing credits on this, but a truly absurd number of people contributed writing to it – 21, to be precise. Apparently Nightfall also regard this as superseded by the newer version of Cannibal Sector 1 and subsequent releases.
  • The Cubicle 7 version of Cannibal Sector 1, which had none of the original creators of the game writing for it at all and which obviously is rendered pretty much redundant by the newer book of the same title.

Of the above four, Cubicle 7’s Cannibal Sector 1 fits the bill of being “produced with little or no input from the creators of SLA Industries” best – not only do none of the SLA creators have writing credits on it, but crucially it came out after Dave Allsop’s exit from Cubicle 7, during a time when he was acting as a freelancer for them and for Nightfall rather than being in the driving seat.

Indeed, that Cannibal Sector 1 book was co-written by John Dodd and James Desborough, who you’ll remember is the individual that Cubicle 7 made the line editor of SLA Industries for a time. In the intervening time, Desborough has made himself very much a controversial figure in the RPG scene to the point of being a pariah in some quarters, largely for such things as becoming a GamerGate advocate, expressing views about the use of rape in RPGs which didn’t go down particularly well, taking the lead on designing an honest to goodness Gor RPG, and other such blowups.

I’m not going to relitigate all that here – the point is that regardless of whether or not you think the controversy around Desborough is justified, you can’t very well deny that the controversy exists in the first place. And since it exists, you can see why Nightfall may have wanted to distance themselves from products he was primarily involved in writing, especially if the products themselves include subject matter which Nightfall are no longer keen on. Mark Rapson assures me that Desborough’s involvement is not the reason for the supplement being de-canonised, though Nightfall no longer work with him.

On his own blog, Desborough has mentioned that whilst he got on well with Dave Allsop, there was a falling-out between him and one of the other people involved in the game, and also seems to have been unhappy about what he refers to as the “semi-butchering of the main book I did for them”; that main book pretty much has to be the Cubicle 7 take on Cannibal Sector 1. So it seems like the Cubicle 7 Cannibal Sector 1 book may have ultimately been a product that satisfied nobody: Desborough isn’t satisfied with the product as it was released in the wild, someone at Nightfall or Cubicle 7 must have been unhappy with it at the time in order to make those editorial changes in the first place, and Nightfall aren’t happy with it now – after all, they made a completely different Cannibal Sector 1 supplement to replace it.

This is all speculation and informed guesses, of course. But in the absence of a detailed breakdown of why Nightfall have decanonised all these products, speculation is all we have. Nightfall are completely within their rights to pull the products and discourage people from using them. However, by being so oblique about what the perceived problems with these products are, Nightfall aren’t levelling with their customers.

A good swathe of the books that have been decanonised simply can’t be disavowed as not really reflecting the creators’ intentions – Nightfall themselves wrote and published them! Apparently, in their view the Karma book is now so broken that it isn’t worth selling to people any more – but they haven’t provided an exact explanation of why that is the case. (Update: Mark Rapson assures me that it’s just that the PDF was “not of a quality we are happy to offer”.)

Why am I going into all this? Simply to substantiate that, whilst there is a tranche of older SLA Industries material that could be described as not really reflecting Nightfall’s intentions for the setting, that’s actually a fairly limited set of materials, around which specific circumstances may be associated, and that there’s a good range of products which Nightfall clearly thought were good enough at the time they released them which aren’t good enough now.

This is strong evidence that Nightfall’s vision of the setting – their idea of what its images, ideals, and stories actually are – has genuinely changed over time; if it hadn’t, those character options from Karma would still be on the table. Pointing to a subset of products made under the auspices of others doesn’t explain it all – the only conclusion is that the 2nd Edition of the game expresses a similar but different vision from the 1st Edition. Part of the task in front of the 2nd Edition is to sell gamers on this new, different take.

The Truth That Nightfall Couldn’t SLA

The memory holing of selected products – both products written by other hands and some which were undeniably crafted by Nightfall themselves – is not the only issue in SLA Industries canon; there is another matter which has sparked far more controversy over the past couple of decades or so. That is The Truth.

The Truth is a long section that consists of most of the last two thirds of the SLA Industries RPG Writer’s Bible/Style Guide, which was a document Nightfall Games produced and maintained for the benefit of freelancers writing for the product line. An important thing to remember, which is often forgotten in discussions of The Truth, is that this was a living document – as the Nightfall team kept tweaking and working on the setting, they would update the Writer’s Bible/Style Guide accordingly. The Truth was the segment which dealt with the big secrets of the setting – mysteries about the origin and motivations of Mr. Slayer, Bitterness, Halloween Jack, and other major NPCs and factions which freelancers might need to take into account when writing on those subjects.

By the late 1990s or early 2000s, a version of the document leaked online; it is not too difficult to find copies if you poke about. The cleanest and most readable versions floating around out there consist of a 29 page PDF with the SLA Industries RPG Writer’s Bible/Style Guide title and a copyright message dating to 2002 at the top of the first page. The most delightfully retro-web 1.0 version I’m aware of is on this Geocities page, though note that the page owner has hacked about the order of the text somewhat, and added their own snarky comments in bold text.

Usefully, though, it includes at the end some of the preamble provided by Nightfall luminary Tim Dedopulos (a company director and shareholder of the studi0’s) when he posted the Writer’s Bible/Style Guide to Station Analysis, a SLA Industries fan mailing list, somewhat naively exhorting readers not to distribute it beyond the list. There’s a big question mark over whether this was the original leak – I’ve seen suggestions that Tim only posted it after it had already leaked elsewhere. Either way, the Internet did what the Internet does and a lesson was learned: don’t assume that an entire mailing list that anyone can sign up to for the sake of discussing your RPG is a confidential forum, because if anyone with an e-mail address can stroll in and take a look at the archives it ain’t confidential.

Taking up about 20 pages of a 29-page document, The Truth touches on a whole swathe of subjects, but the bit which gets all the attention and caused controversy when it first came out was the discussion of the deep background of the setting. To summarise: the World of Progress was created from an experiment in our world, in which the unethical Dr. Crantham used the mysterious drug Reathanol to cause the troubled mind of Brent Walker to shape a brand new universe. This universe finally came to fruition after a battle royale-esque ordeal in which the other potential universe-makers and Brent/Tide ended up destroying each other, and when Brent – freed from Crantham’s terrible Institute – drifted away to commit suicide.

Mr. Slayer is “Tide”, the alternate personality/imaginary friend who lived in Brent’s head and who hijacked this process; Brent himself was trapped on the far-off world of White Earth, where he would take on the new identity of Bitterness and create The Black Stump. Just as Slayer/Tide would shape the World of Progress as his section of this conjoined universe, Bitterness would shape the Black Stump.

The World of Progress, though it appears to be as old as any universe which has had a chance to have planets and intelligent life to form, is only 900 years old; everything from prior to the entry of Brent and Mr. Slayer into the universe and the establishment of SLA Industries is basically a cardboard history dreamed up to give the universe a context. Many of the problems within the setting are of Slayer’s own making, partly because he’s just kind of a sadistic dickhead, partly for the sake of controlled opposition, and partly because he’s doing a Social Darwinism thing; he wants to create a mean, lean, violent universe which will be hard for Bitterness to take over when Bitterness makes his move. That said, these things often have a way of running out of control, so just because Slayer caused something to happen doesn’t mean he always likes the results.

These revelations, while they do make a sense of a lot of the setting’s mysteries, were not universally welcomed by the game’s fans – some of whom felt The Truth was kind of risible. I’m aware of other folk who were never really into SLA Industries who, on hearing about The Truth, either went “Well, that’s silly, I’m glad I never got invested in that” or “Hmm, that’s sort of interesting, shame they buried it in the writer’s bible rather than putting it out there in the product line.”

To an extent, some of the backlash was based on an oversimplification and a misreading of the document – in particular, an interpretation that The Truth boiled down to “nothing is real, the World of Progress is just a hallucination in the mind of a dying drug user”. This is not the case – in the context of the document (particularly with the clarification added by Tim at the end of that Geocities page I linked earlier), it is quite clear that within the metaphysics of the game, the World of Progress is real – it’s just that universes are born in a quite different way from how we assume and all worlds are spawned from consciousnesses born in other worlds.

Likewise, The Truth was a rough internal document intended for reference, not something which was meant to go public; Nightfall have said that it’s in a much rougher state than anything they’d feel comfortable putting in front of the general public. It is possible that with further polish that it might come across better.

That said, it’s wholly possible for both sides to be partially correct here: sure, The Truth is in no way as simple as “it’s all a dream”, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t kind of daft – it just means it isn’t one specific flavour of daft. Likewise, The Truth might be rather roughly presented, but it’s entirely possible that at least some people who disliked it in that presentation would also dislike it as a fully-developed concept: they’re not objecting to the presentation, they’re rejecting the core idea itself, and wouldn’t like it regardless of how much polish was put on it.

Perhaps the really frustrating thing about the Writer’s Bible/Style Guide isn’t the deep backstory itself so much as a weird sense of priorities on the part of Nightfall in terms of what to keep secret and what aspects of that backstory they wanted to spend time developing. Away from the whole Brent Walker weirdness, there’s a bunch of things in The Truth and in the wider style guide which would have been very useful for SLA Industries referees to know and which would have greatly clarified how the game was intended to be played.

There’s also, both in the form of the Brent Walker stuff and more generally, a load of guff which doesn’t really matter, with no clear way how it could ever matter in a game. For instance, Nightfall spend time penning descriptions of a bunch of different factions vying for control in the Black Stump – which, I will remind you, is a conjoined universe beyond White Earth, in a game where most campaigns take place on Mort, where going to White Earth and exploring the Black Stump is way out of the scope of what the game supports, and is deeply unlikely to be directly important to the work of wasting monsters and serial killers and getting good media ratings on the mean streets of Mort. Beyond it, there’s a lot of waffle about the real world and what might happen if people from the World of Progress went there, which is similarly way outside the scope of an actual campaign.

Nightfall have made it very clear that The Truth which was leaked is not the current version of the canon which the 2nd Edition of the game will be based on – which means that the 2nd Edition is their big chance to definitively move past this whole “It’s just a dream in the mind of a dying drug addict” thing once and for all.

The Products Themselves

Through the Kickstarter I obtained the 2nd edition core book, GM screen, and quickstart guide, as well as the two still-canonical 1st edition supplements that got released in hard copy recently – Hunter Sheets Issue 2 and the new version of Cannibal Sector 1. This package more or less summarises SLA Industries the way Nightfall want us to think of it, after their revisions to the canon, so let’s see what we’ve got here.

SLA Industries 2nd Edition

2nd Edition SLA Industries wants to update the game to modern-style RPG production values, and that means all full-colour artwork all the time and a generally glossy presentation. With Dave Allsop taking the lead on the art once again one would expect a certain level of aesthetic continuity with the original game, but the art here seems more homogenised and therefore less flavourful.

Whether it was in the deliriously goth-psychedelic colours of stuff like the old Mort sourcebook cover or the original GM screen or the haunting black and white artwork of the interior of the 1st edition rulebook, the art of early SLA Industries was a big part of the draw. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily of a high professional standard 100% of the time, but it was never less than striking.

Here, the artwork seems to be a few notches more professionalised. Like so much RPG artwork out there these days, it’s drifted towards a more homogenous style, an industry-wide standard of what constitutes “good art” which takes away a lot of flavour. Perhaps this arises from the demand for large amounts of full-colour art, requiring a more streamlined approach that inevitably would take an unreasonable amount of time in done in a highly stylised, personality-packed manner.

So much for first impressions. Whilst the full colour art does look more professional, and the layout of the book is reasonable, once you scratch the surface the book is just a little bit less impressive than it is when you first pick it up. The text includes some rather alarming proofreading botches which undermine the updated presentation and make the whole thing feel a little amateur hour. In particular, there’s some weird stylistic quirks that Dave Allsop and his team seem fond of, quirks which the proofreaders – three individuals plus the Kickstarter backers – seem to have outright missed, or if they picked them up the corrections weren’t correctly implemented.

One example comes down to the use of the humble em-dash. A lot of the time the text either uses an em-dash where it would make more sense to use a comma (and, occasionally, the reverse). In other cases, the writers will present a parenthetical statement – like this one – bookended not by two em-dashes, as is conventional if the parenthetical statement does not conclude the sentence, but by an em-dash at the start and a comma at the end. Who taught them to do this? It is simply incorrect; if you’re doing this sort of mid-sentence parenthetical, you use the same punctuation mark at the start and at the end, otherwise you lose clarity.

This may seem like a quibble, but once you start to notice this stylistic weirdness, it really throws you out of it – you start seeing it everywhere, rearing its head time and time again in the book, and once that happens it prompts you to notice other instances where the grammar could be polished up or the phrasing is clunky. It has become accepted practice when publishing games funded via Kickstarter to get the backers to do proofreading, but I feel like you can’t skimp here on having a professional proofreader, or for that matter an editor (there is no editor credited here) to work on your text. Saying “We made the beta text available to you to check” doesn’t absolve publishers of the responsibility to make the text as correct as possible, particularly since many backers simply won’t want to read the beta text because they’ll want to come to the final product fresh.

Still, matters of presentation aside I will say that this new edition of the game carries on the spirit of the old in one important sense. The previous edition of SLA Industries was steeped in 1990s principles of game design; this feels like a throwback to 1990s game design with modern production values tacked on and a very few system ideas that throw a bone to providing more cinematic game mechanics. The original core book followed 1990s fashions in how you present a core book, this edition is similarly organised. The previous edition provided a setting which was undeniably original and very, very odd, but gave us a lot of details which wasn’t really that germane to the assumed focus of play, and this one does too.

This is largely to be expected – it’s essentially the same game, designed by a team including setting creator Dave Allsop and 1st edition co-designer Jared Earle, and Nightfall have always given the impression of having strongly-held views on what the game should be like. A polished-up restatement was always more likely than a radical rethink. That said, I think the original SLA Industries was always going to be limited by the constraints its very uncompromising approach imposed on itself, and I think the same is true of this edition.

One of the things which 1990s RPGs in particular often tended to do was to dump stacks and stacks of fluff on the reader before they start explaining the rules of the game or the principles of character generation. Of course, RPG manuals aren’t necessarily intended to be read in a linear fashion from start to finish – but absent a clear statement of “you can skip this, this, and that chapter the first time you play the game”, there’s going to be an implicit assumption that you’ll be wanting to look at page 1 of a book before you hit page 135, because most books – including RPG books – tend to take an approach where the later material in the book builds on the earlier material, and you need to appreciate the earlier material to follow the later material.

Now, to be fair there is a certain justification to this approach. A lot of 1990s RPGs, especially in the industry-transforming wake of the original Vampire: the Masquerade rulebook, were rather high concept (or at least had pretensions of being high concept), and placed a lot of importance on the players creating characters rooted in the setting. The players therefore need a certain amount of setting knowledge in order to make meaningful choices in character generation.

To use Vampire as an example, in that game it’s really hard to approach the character generation process without having a handle on how vampires in this setting work, what sort of stuff you might expect your vampire to be doing on a regular basis in the game, how vampiric society is structured, and who the various Clans are. (A handle on the system would also be handy for being able to actually design a character who is good at what you want your character to be good at.)

On the other hand, the more of this stuff you put in front of the rules, the more inaccessible you make your game look; there’s a balance to be struck between giving players enough to start building their characters whilst not giving them so much to digest that coming up with a character concept is daunting to them. The 1st edition Vampire: the Masquerade rulebook understood this: it gave some 20-odd pages of introductory material (10 pages of intro fiction, 10 pages of a setting overview) before it explained the basics of its resolution mechanic and introduced the character generation process.

If you wanted to look deeper prior to making a character, the rest of the book was right there for you to leaf through; if you already had an idea of what you wanted to do, you could try to put it together in the character generation chapter. And while some detail-oriented players might find they get a feel for a game by reading its player-facing setting details thoroughly before making a character, other participants may find that the best way for them to get to grips with a setting is to make a character and read up on aspects of the setting as they go through the process of doing so.

However, neither White Wolf nor the wider industry would heed this example. Over 50 pages of fluff would precede any discussion of character generation or rules in the first editions of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Awakening, or Wraith: the Oblivion. The original rulebooks for Changeling: the Dreaming and Demon: the Fallen dumped over 100 pages of material for readers to wade through before offering any rules or character generation information. The first edition of Tribe 8 would also put 100 pages of setting before any rules stuff, as would Tales of Gargentihr.

And the 1st edition of SLA Industries would be a fellow member of the “here’s 100 pages of homework before you make your character” club. In my review of that edition I was fairly lenient about this, feeling that a large amount of explanation was necessary to grasp the setting (and that some of the prose in the core book was, frankly, not that great, so redundant repetition of information was useful for clarificatory purposes).

In retrospect, I’ve changed my mind on this: I think 100 pages of fluff is an absurd amount to put before the character generation rules in your game, particularly in a game where PCs aren’t really expected to care about a lot of the material in that fluff. I also am also increasingly of the opinion that it’s just plain bad design to expect players to read a large amount of setting material, or to assume that anyone aside from the referee has necessarily bought the core rulebook for your game. Game designers should design for RPGs as they are actually played, not for some ideal version of the RPG subculture which is often unattainable, and it’s rare that every single player in a gaming group will both have their own copy of the core book and have the time or inclination to actually read 100 pages of background material for a game.

The second edition reduces the mountains-of-fluff-at-the-start quota significantly – character generation is the first system-focused chapter and starts on page 62. However, I still think there’s a lot of material front-loaded in there which players simply don’t need to worry about that much before they start making their characters, and which might sit better in a referee-facing chapter as an aid to presenting the game world or devising scenarios. Let’s do a little audit of what’s in those 62 pages, huh?

  • There’s a bit of flavour fiction in the inside front cover which I shall skip for the time being. I am going to drill down a lot on this little text later, but suffice to say there is absolutely no reason why players in a typical SLA Industries campaign would need to pay attention to a single word of it and it will be wholly irrelevant to almost all games played in the setting. Intro fiction with much more universal relevance to SLA Industries games would be preferable.
  • You have credits, legal bumpf, a table of contents. Fine, whatever, no avoiding that.
  • You have a one-page introduction to the setting and a two-page spread profiling the four major categories of threats facing SLA Industries. This includes about a third of a page spent wittering about the Whistling Bridge Protocol, a much hinted-at bit of metaplot which so far as I can tell has never been explained to referees, and so can’t meaningfully be used in anyone’s games unless Nightfall decide to actually explain it or referees make up their own explanation for what it is; either way, it doesn’t deserve this amount of space dedicated to it in pages that are supposed to give a high-level basic overview of the setting. Other than that, giving this sort of quick rundown prior to character generation is a good idea.
  • You’ve got a 2-page spread giving a basic “here’s what’s an RPG is/here’s what SLA Industries is/here’s what you need to play/here’s a quick glossary” rundown. Cool, makes sense. I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone’s buying this book who doesn’t already know what RPGs are, but you never know.
  • You have a 22 page history section. That is way, way more detail on the setting’s history than players need prior to making their character. (Players particularly don’t need to read about setting features which used to be a big deal in yesteryear – sometimes centuries ago! – but aren’t any more before they start character generation.)
  • You have 24 pages of setting description, most of which involves stuff that players really don’t need to know in that much detail for character generation, some of which entails stuff which most SLA Industries campaigns won’t touch. (The majority of SLA games, in my experience, focus on stuff going on in the city of Mort itself, so multiple pages about the wider universe and sample planets are basically wasted verbage here.)
  • You have an 8 page rundown of what being a SLA Operative is like, how Operatives get their missions, the types of missions they tend to go on and so on. This is actually a very good thing for players to read before character generation because it’s directly relevant to the bread and butter of most campaigns. It’s all stuff that is worth drawing attention to – a great way to draw attention to it would be to not drown it in less-essential cruft.

I can see the impulse to put all the setting stuff together and have a tight fluff/rules separation, except it isn’t really followed through on, since the Threat Analysis section includes a bunch of setting information in addition to the stats on the various threats it profiles. More broadly, even within bits like the history section the game is rather bad at highlighting what parts are expected to be used regularly in actual play and which parts are deep background minutiae. For a game where the designers have such a clear idea of what the regular flow of gameplay should be about, SLA Industries in both editions has always had an extraordinary tendency to waste a lot of energy on stuff which the regular flow of gameplay isn’t about – see, for instance, much of The Truth.

Aaah yes… The Truth. How does 2nd Edition intersect with it?

For what it’s worth, in discussion of SLA there’s two meanings given to the term “the Truth”. In some contexts it refers to a specific document. In other contexts, people use “the Truth” as a shorthand for “major secrets of the setting, set out in a section of that document”. I’ll use the term interchangeably to refer to either.

Let me directly quote the Kickstarter page’s FAQ for Nightfall’s statement there on the matter, which should be about as definitive a mission statement for how 2nd Edition relates to The Truth as any.

So, on the basis of the above, the answer to “How important is The Truth to 2nd Edition?” should be “not at all, it isn’t canon any more and never was and much of the information in it is now incorrect”.

The actual answer is more complicated than that. In fact, even if some of the specific details of the document are no longer canonical, in broad brushstrokes the Brent Walker story is still highly relevant to this edition of the game, because it is directly alluded to in the text – but, like the Whispering Bridge Protocol, it is alluded to without being properly explained to referees in a way which would allow them to make meaningful use of the material in a game, or even understand what these references are talking about. This is much, much more annoying than any Truth itself, original or revised, could ever be.

For instance, that bit of intro fiction I mentioned earlier? The one which occupies the inside front cover of the book, and is so the very first bit of text you encounter when you crack open the book? It doesn’t take place in the World of Progress. It unambiguously takes place in the real world – the location is given as Scotland – and follows Dr. Crantham as he prepares to go into a self-imposed exile following the collapse of his grand project and has a conversation with a mysterious Elder about it all, during which a number of the secondary characters in the Brent Walker story are named directly.

Likewise, there’s a final bit of fiction on the inside back cover of the book – specifically, an in-character document, Iteration 20 by Wave Lindsay. This is mentioned in The Truth as a terrible document revealing the terrible truth to those who read it, and indeed it does – it concludes “We are all Dream Entities”. The Truth further explains that to suppress Iteration 20, SLA Industries destroyed Wave’s paper and left him for dead – but he was transformed through Bitterness’ intervention into Halloween Jack, the most infamous serial killer in Mort, to act as a bloody agent of vengeance against SLA Industries and Mr. Slayer. (Halloween Jack is the delightful pumpkin-headed chap who graces the front cover of the 2nd edition book, and indeed all but the earliest iterations of the 1st Edition book.)

There’s another bit of fiction in the timeline section in which “Tyde” (yes, apparently the tweaks to the canon for this edition include some minor spelling changes) is being briefed by someone (I think it’s Crantham) on ways to contain and manipulate and terrify Brent Walker – who is mentioned by name there (and elsewhere is named in the timeline as having some sort of relationship with White Earth).

Here’s the thing: the precise relevance of Iteration 20 and the true identity of Halloween Jack and why this one document is given the importance it is will not be fully appreciated by anyone who has not read The Truth. The identity of Tyde/Tide and their relationship with Brent Walker will not be understood by someone who has not read The Truth. Dr. Crantham, the people named in his conversation with the Elder, and the relevance of 20th Century Scotland to the bizarre gothic-futuristic-cyberpunk universe of the World of Progress will make absolutely no sense to anyone who isn’t aware of the broad outlines of The Truth – without that crucial context, the entire introductory fiction to this edition of the game is nothing more than a bizarre non-sequitur.

Why is this the case? Well, it’s because none of it is explained by this edition of the game. The core book introduces all these concepts but then simply doesn’t bother to explain them. At most, you can figure out that Brent Walker is Bitterness and has some sort of past relationship with Mr. Slayer and so on, but you aren’t actually provided with a lowdown on who Brent Walker is or what happened to him.

It’s particularly weird when they’re also being coy about stuff like the importance of Halloween Jack – yes, there’s a reason he’s the cover star of both this edition of the game and the previous one, and it’s not just that he’s the most famous serial killer of the age. Furthermore, that status means that player characters might expect to run into him in the course of a campaign much more readily than they might run into, say, Bitterness or Mr. Slayer, since “go hunt this serial killer” is a fairly standard Operative job and “take down Halloween Jack” is a plausible motivation for any PC or group of PCs. It’d make a lot of sense to give some sort of details on him in the book, right? Unfortunately that’s not the case.

Now, it’s possible that Nightfall have their own plans for how to release this information – in its updated, recalibrated, Tide-spelled-with-a-y form – through the 2nd Edition support line. I am going to be frank here: given the struggles they’ve had to maintain a small, small trickle of new SLA Industries products issuing forth over the quarter century of the game’s existence, I think any approach which says “We’ll save that until the next product” represents astonishing hubris. They are practically begging the Gods to strike them down with lightning and bankruptcy by doing this.

I’m not saying this to be a dick; I’m saying this because the RPG field is a meat grinder as far as it comes to publishers and developers and few can count on having any significant level of longevity. This is not a forgiving industry; especially as a smaller publisher, you can never be sure you’ll even get a chance to release that next product. If there is a story you are bursting to tell, you had better tell it now or risk never deploying that story at all – and the last thing you want to do is dangle that story out there as Nightfall do with the introductory fiction to this edition and then just leave it dangling.

All this makes Nightfall’s past disavowals of The Truth fall rather flat. Sure, sure, some things are clearly different this go around – Tide is spelled “Tyde”, after all! – but when it comes to that Reathanol story the broad outline is clearly still in place. Other setting aspects, like the origins of the Carrien, have clearly been revised more significantly, so it’s not untrue that the old version of The Truth no longer reflects canon – the canon’s changed since then.

At the same time, there’s clearly great swathes of backstory which the old version of The Truth offers the only real explanation of, and which would be near-impossible to excise from the game now without ripping raw, bloody chunks out of this edition (since “Brent Walker” is now not just referenced in background fiction but mentioned in the timeline). If Nightfall wanted the fanbase to get over The Truth, producing a book which can only be fully understood and appreciated by reading The Truth is a seriously fucking odd way to do that.

What about the changes to the canon? Well, comparing the two editions of the game, it’s clear that Nightfall decided to make some setting changes (either as the result of moving the timeline forwards or revising and changing The Truth), and they greatly prefer their revised worldbuilding over the old. However, precisely because they choose to keep so much secret even from referees it’s not apparent what the logic behind these changes are, or why they think the new version is so much better than the old version that it’s worth leaving money on the table for the sake of pushing the new vision of the game over the old.

To be fair, a lot of the changes are for the better. The introduction of Dream Entities and the way they work and associated setting features like the Deep Construct help make the constructed nature of the World of Progress more relevant to player characters than it was in 1st Edition. Having the Shi’an Cult out there actively summoning nasties from White Earth helps make Bitterness and his agenda more relevant. Having the Conflict Races from the ancient wars return to the universe to get brutal revenge for a war which didn’t happen but they vividly remember happening is a fun twist and helps make them more relevant, because now they aren’t hanging out in the Black Stump, an entire universe away from anywhere 99% of all SLA Industries games will ever visit in actual play.

But, again, the book doesn’t quite level with the referee about a whole ton of this stuff – it’ll describe some of those things in sufficient detail that you can include it in games, but it skips the high-level explanation of what it all means or the actual root causes of all this. It really feels like Nightfall Games consider SLA Industries to be a story they are telling players and referees alike, rather than a setting in which referees and players tell their own stories at their own table, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the tabletop RPG format.

Setting aside massive, monumental, backstory-shattering alterations like “Tide” now being spelled “Tyde”, the changes to the setting reflected in the 2nd edition rulebook seem to fall into two categories: working in bits of metaplot that have cropped up in supplements over time that reflect the passage of time in the setting, and making odd little changes for no apparent purpose whatsoever.

When it comes to the latter category, few of the changes feel more pointless or counterproductive than the tweaks in the terminology. “Wraithen” has replaced the much cooler “Wraith Raider”, for instance, whilst the absolutely badass term “Brain Waster” has been replaced with with the drably generic “Eban”, making talking about the two branches of the Ebonite species (the Ebon and Eban) astonishingly confusing. (Mark Rapson clarifies that “Brain Waster” was only meant to be a common slang term and “Eban” is the species name, but even so: still confusing!)

When it comes to setting tweaks that reflect the passage of time and progress of metaplot, some setting features have been removed as a result of this – Rust Alley, where people who got too keen on 1980s-style cyberware corrode in poverty, is apparently near-extinct, a dilapidated shadow of its former self, and the process which makes new Necanthropes has stopped working; as a consequence, the option for an Ebonite player character to ascend to that status is now gone. In both these cases in-setting developments are cited as being the causes of this (the species from which the Necanthropes were derived returned from exile in the latter case, and seem to have done something to cause SLA to lose access to the White, the strange anomaly in which Necanthropes are formed, and in the former case the passage of time meant that the relevant subculture died out).

Other omissions are more difficult to understand. In the original game, for instance, the history and setting chapters made much mention of Senti, a mysterious individual closely connected to Mr. Slayer who was closely involved in some major setting details. (She’s a bit of a big deal in The Truth too.) Here she isn’t mentioned.

Has she been retconned away, or is she still out there but not mentioned in this book? In the former case that’s another instance of the specifics of The Truth changing whilst the general outline remains the same. (Senti isn’t so central to the concept that removing her would break the “universe born from Brent Walker’s mind” idea.) In the latter case, it feels like a damn weird thing to leave out given the Senti-connected subject matter that the book discusses at length.

However, internal consistency really doesn’t seem to be the emphasis here – the history requires us to accept much bigger nonsenses (like the inhabitants of the Cannibal Sectors not simply dying out due to the absurdly cartoonish levels of violence in there over the past 600 years), so taking cool, flavourful things out of the game rather than finding an in-setting reason for them to stick around seems to be a retrograde step. Other changes to the way the psionic system of Ebb manipulation work are attributed to the return of the Conflict Races, but really they seem to be figleaves on changes to the rules that are meant to explain why your old 1st edition PCs aren’t legal under the new system. I feel like this is a waste of effort: if your system is changing significantly enough that you can’t use the new edition’s system to create an exact equivalent of your character under the old system, I feel like it’s better to just own it and say “These are different versions of the game, they are not going to be wholly consistent, if they were wholly consistent there’d be no point to making a new edition.”

Some of the excisions and omissions from the book may come down to Nightfall deliberately deciding to cap the book’s size; reading between the lines from their statements on their website, I think the big chunky size of the 2019 Cannibal Sector 1 supplement ended up being a problem for them and they’ve taken on a new policy to stop feature bloat going forwards, setting a maximum length on any product they produce. That’s sensible, though it does mean that my criticisms of what they have chosen to include is heightened; with the page budget they had, did they really need to spend that long on the history of the setting? I can see several points where the history could have happily been condensed to allow for more important or immediately game-useful material to be included.

In addition, taking out stuff like player character Necanthropes seems to close off a possibility for a future supplement building that feature back into the game. Since it’s something which in the original game would only happen late in an Ebon character’s development, I don’t think anyone would begrudge them saying “for space considerations we kept this out of the core book, we’ll deliver it in a supplement looking at higher-level play later on”.

In general, though, the changes to the setting feel comparatively slight. Most of them seem intended to reflect changes made in past supplements. The majority of past supplements have been tossed down the memory hole, of course, which makes this a bit awkward, but looking at the core book, summaries of the memory holed supplements, and the supplements I got with this Kickstarter, I get the overall impression that there’s been an attempt to develop the setting through a gradually unfolding metaplot – a metaplot which, suffice to say, has not exactly been advancing by grand leaps and bounds over the past 25 years or so.

Metaplots – defined as storylines which unfold bit by bit as a product line progresses – are an archetypally 1990s feature of RPG publishing, of course. They are also a huge pain, not least because they have a bad habit of resolving aspects of the setting better left for players to resolve at their own tables, or otherwise messing with canon in such a way that later supplements become increasingly less useful for participants in campaigns which elected not to follow the metaplot. The odds of anyone following the SLA Industries metaplot over the years, given the frequent droughts of new material, are close to nil.

I also think that metaplots are of little utility in selling people on a game. Thought experiment: how many people do you know who refused to get into the old World of Darkness lines because they found metaplot off-putting? How many people do you know who’d refuse to get into a hypothetical RPG line which otherwise appealed to their sensibilities but didn’t happen to include a metaplot? If a magical fairy waved their wand over the old World of Darkness game lines and removed the metaplots entirely, would there really be an appreciable number of people who suddenly decided they didn’t like those games any more? And if there were, would they outnumber the people who were now more interested in those game lines in their new state?

Metaplots become a barrier to entry for newcomers to a game, a burden for later developers, are off-putting to a section of the market, and are of doubtful utility unless you are putting out such a large number of products that it becomes helpful to cultivate a “gotta buy ’em all!” attitude among your fanbase. In short, metaplots are not useful goals to pursue for the vast majority of game designers, and are a luxury that small press RPG publishers simply can’t afford. White Wolf was only able to do them in the 1990s because they were what passes for a juggernaut in the industry at that time; for anyone who isn’t churning out products at a similar pace, it is sheer hubris to attempt one at the best of times. If one has a story one feels anxious to tell, better to tell it in one product you can be sure of releasing rather than laying out a trail of breadcrumbs over a series of products you can’t be sure of seeing to completion.

What about the system? Well, it’s based on Nightfall’s new “S5S” system, which is based around a weird hybrid system which combines qualities of dice pools on the one hand and “roll a die, add bonuses, and see if you hit a target number” on the other hand. Here’s how it works:

  • All rolls are made with D10s.
  • Whenever you roll, you simultaneously roll a Success Die and a bunch of Skill Dice equal to your rating in a relevant skill plus 1. You add the stat and skill rating relevant to your roll to each die – so if your total bonus from stat plus skill comes to 5 (because you have a stat of 3 and a skill of 2, say), you’re adding 5 to each die that comes up.
  • You have a target number based on the difficulty of the task at hand.
  • For most purposes, you will only succeed at a roll if your Success Die roll (once you add skill and stat) hits the target number or above. If you don’t hit it, you fail. So success/failure there will come down to an essentially linear probability.
  • The results on your Skill Dice determine how good of a success it is – or how bad of a failure it is. If you failed on your Success Die and all of your Skill Dice, then that’s a “serious failure” – essentially a botch. If you succeed on your Success Die, any successes on your Skill Dice will improve the quality of your success – one success on a Skill Dice makes it an Excellent Success, two an Exceptional Success, three an Incredible Success, and four an Unbelievable Success.
  • If you failed on your Success Die but you got four successes on your Skill Dice, the Success Through Experience rule allows you to count that as a basic success. However, in practical terms I think this is going to be a very rare outcome unless the task at hand is fairly easy or you are rolling with a very chunky pool of Success Dice – and, of course, if your Success Dice pool is large, the bonus you are adding to each die is going to be large, so your Skill Die is correspondingly less likely to fail to begin with!

I have to admit, I don’t quite get the point of doing the system like this, rather than going with a straight dice pool system. Sure, it means you can more quickly assess the odds of straight success/failure, but I think the disadvantages of this system stack up quickly.

For one thing, I think it is likely to be incredibly frustrating to play. Imagine: you just rolled a pool of four dice, and three of them hit the target number – but your Success Die didn’t so it’s all for naught. Sure, the Success Through Experience rule can alleviate this once you hit four successes on the Skill Dice, but as I outline above I suspect that’s going to be a fairly rare occurrence, and the characters who benefit from it most are the ones who will need it the least. It just feels like it would bug a lot of players to get an otherwise-great roll but not be able to do anything to turn it into a success. (There is the possibility of spending Luck points to get rerolls – or add to the score on the Success Die – but they’re a pretty limited resource, and of course if your reroll is also a failure then you just spent the point for nothing.)

For another, the different flavours of success all sound like synonyms for “critical” success. Do you really need four different flavours of critical success? Can you remember which order the different terms go in? Sure, “Unbelievable” makes sense as the most outrageously good one, but can you remember which order “Exceptional”, “Incredible”, and “Excellent” went in without looking?

Let’s take a look at the description of the differences between these types of critical success, because those introduce more problems.

Excellent – An excellent success will often herald no additional benefits, though a particularly generous GM may grant some additional information, allow players to notice additional clues or provide a small discount when haggling.

OK, so an Excellent Success does nothing, except when the GM decides it does something, and what that thing is will usually be a slight improvement over and above what the player was going for. But wait – what if the player’s declared action already was “I haggle for a small discount”? If they rolled a basic success you’d give them that anyway because you already decided how hard it would be to get the discount, set a difficulty, and they hit that difficulty with their Success Die (or four Skill Dice). So that’s a bonus which isn’t really a bonus because it’s the exact thing that a baseline success would have got them. Ouch, I’m getting a headache.

Exceptional – Results of this level will stand out, revealing small details that lead to great reward, making new contacts or achieving something that would earn you some reputation.

This description is almost entirely useless because it says a bunch of things which are true of the other categories. (And again, what if “make a new contact” was the intended result of the skill roll in the first place? Shouldn’t the player get that if they got a baseline success?)

Incredible – Incredible results may get noticed by the cameras and almost certainly by those around you. Successes of this level may save lives that hang in the balance, notice traps designed to kill other characters or allow the interrogation of even the coolest of DarkNight agents.

Again they are doing this absurd, miserable thing where they describe the results of a success level as though it reflected the difficulty of the task accomplished – when this has nothing to do with task difficulty! Task difficulty was already factored in when the referee chose the target number for the roll! That’s when it was established what a player needed to do if they needed to save that life hanging in the balance, spot that trap, or interrogate that DarkNight agent – the number of successes has nothing to do with it, except now this paragraph is telling us it does! Argh!

It really feels to me like this is an artifact of some earlier iteration of the S5S system, where task difficulty was not based on a variable target number, but on how many dice in a pool went over a static target number. In that context, saying “It needs 3 successes to accomplish this task” makes perfect sense. Otherwise, describing critical success results in terms of the difficulty of the task to be achieved is totally incoherent; again, the difficulty is based on the target number, and if you pass the target number with the Success Die, then you did the thing, regardless of how good the success is. That is how this system works. It is a shame that the authors of the system do not seem to understand this.

Unbelievable – Results of this magnitude will save lives, earn sponsorship deals and get you noticed. Unbelievable success should be rewarded accordingly, either with a Ratings Point or through information that makes a real difference to the character and their squad.

OK, let me take a deep breath here and calm down. I can see how a very good success could win a character a sponsorship deal or otherwise get them noticed by high-ups as a nice side-effect of them doing something else in a very badass way – though, again, what if the character were directly trying to do that? As for saving lives, this is literally something that an Incredible Success already did, so which is it?

As for “information that makes a real difference to the character and their squad”, this is a totally useless expression. Is the additional information or clues uncovered by an Excellent Success not information that makes a real difference? If it isn’t, why are you wasting game time on it? If it is, how is this different from an Unbelievable Success? What about the small details that lead to great rewards spotted via an Exceptional Success: surely if the reward is great, that by definition makes a real difference to the PCs, and so is equivalent to an Unbelievable Success? What about that DarkNight agent interrogated with an Incredible Success: do they not give the players information that makes a real difference? If they don’t, again, why are you wasting game time on this?

Saying “give the player a Ratings Point for an Unbelievable Success” – Ratings Points being a resource which allow you to pull off suitably cinematic stunts – is the sole good bit of design in this section because it’s actually game mechanically meaningful, unlike more or less all the other details of these critical successes. In all other respects these different flavours of success seem basically indistinguishable, all the more so because they keep reverting to “Let the player do the thing they were trying to do” a lot of the time, which is also what you are meant to do if the player gets a baseline vanilla success.

It only underscores the idea that having four different flavours of critical success is near-pointless. Additional successes on Skill Dice end up feeding into damage modifiers in the combat system, for instance, and in that context the whole thing comes across like a slightly cack-handed way of implementing Dark Heresy-style degrees of success – as though Nightfall realised that Dark Heresy was working in a similar “agents of investigation and destruction in a parodic nightmare dystopia straight out of the most grimdark parts of the 1990s” realm and wanted to draw on it for ideas.

Still, it feels like outside of combat there is no damn reason to bother with even including the Skill Dice in a roll unless you have at least four of them in the pool (allowing the earning of Ratings Points via Unbelievable Successes or the turning of failure into success via the Success Through Experience rule), since the difference between a regular success and an Excellent, Exceptional, or Incredible Success seems to be pretty fucking meaningless.

For the most part the rest of the system seems serviceable but unremarkable. But at the root of it is this dice system which really feels like it’s being different for the sake of being different, for extremely dubious benefits. It honestly makes me wonder what the thought process behind it was. Did someone at Nightfall become convinced that there was some amazing advantage to this system? If so, I wish they’d bothered to explain the benefits of it here, because I don’t see the point of not just using a normal dice pool system. Or did two designers at Nightfall get into a knock-down, hair-pulling, eye-scratching fight over whether dice pools are an awesome idea or a terrible bit of design, and this was the compromise system the others landed on to stop them killing each other? We may never know.

Like I said: the 2nd Edition SLA Industries is basically true to the 1990s design principles of the first edition: like so many 1990s RPGs, it combines a setting filled with secrets which the designers refuse to just directly explain to referees so they can meaningfully use them in their home games, a somewhat needless metaplot, and a rather underbaked system which doesn’t seem to understand some of its own implications, all of which poorly described in a book with too much RPG fiction (too little of which is relevant to actual play) and a bad index.

But it’s not the 1990s any more, and there is no need to design a game like this any more – and yet, here it is. I will say that the new edition does seem to broadly do a good job of conveying the overall intended feel of the setting and approach of the game with more clarity than the original – but in this case, clarity breeds contempt. Beyond all the smoke and mirrors, it feels like SLA Industries is a tawdry and depressing game, and not even in an interesting way – more in a 1990s edgelord sort of way – and I preferred it better when I didn’t know what was going on. More fool me for reading The Truth, perhaps, but since the silliest part of The Truth seems to still be hardwired into the game, more fool Nightfall Games for not dropping it like a hot potato when they had a golden opportunity to do so.

Cannibal Sector 1

Confusingly enough, this is the second Cannibal Sector 1 supplement released for the game. This is the chonky hardback that came out in 2019, and is still canon; the other one, as I described above, trickled out in 2006 and was the chunkier of the two new products released in hard copy for the game when it was under the custodianship of Cubicle 7. It has now been punted down the memory hole, along with more or less everything released for the game pre-2007 – Hunter Sheets Issue 1 now being the most elderly bit of canon left. (The earlier book is also sometimes known as CS1, since it displays that abbreviated form of its title on the front cover.)

This 352 page monster is the longest supplement ever released for the first edition of SLA Industries, as well as being the last. Some of the bulk is explained by the fact that it isn’t just a supplement for the RPG; it’s also the core rulebook for the Kickstarter-funded skirmish wargame rules, for which Nightfall sell a modest line of miniatures after taking over the project from their previous publishers, Daruma Productions. I have no idea why Daruma thought there was room in the miniatures wargame market for another extremely 1990s grimdark game set in a parodic, dystopian future where the main viewpoint faction is astonishingly oppressive and fascistic and portrayed in a gleefully contradictory way as being utterly all-powerful and, at the same time, constantly on the verge of collapse. Warhammer 40,000 already exists, the Kill Team variant of that exists for skirmish-level play, angling for the same audience seems to be quixotic at best. Daruma entering liquidation in 2018 feels like it isn’t all that unexpected an outcome.

Much of the supplement is given over to an exhaustive description of the layout of Cannibal Sector 1, the factions found therein, its history, and so on. Frankly, some aspects of the setting feel far-fetched, even taking into account the fantastical and bizarre nature of the SLA Industries universe – not least the existence of cannibal tribes who have been stuck in the sector ever since the urban disaster which brought the Cannibal Sectors into being. There’s no agriculture in there; how do they get enough to eat to sustain themselves in such numbers that they are still around and a threat to any force entering the Sectors some 600 years later? It is apparent here that the Dream-forces that are a side effect of the weird origins of the SLA Industries universe may well be involved in keeping the cannibals alive, but even so it feels like they should have by rights starved to death ages ago.

This is kind of a constant in the SLA Industries universe: half the time we are told how powerful and massive and badass SLA Industries is, whilst the other half we’re told about weird persistent problems that SLA Industries can’t seem to finish off despite clearly massively outgunning the individuals in question. The organisation is simultaneously all-powerful and utterly powerless, right in the heart of its home territory. Sure, Warhammer 40,000 seems to have this going on with the Imperium too, but within its universe most of the threats the Imperium faces are pretty damn powerful in their own right. SLA Industries has no true peers in the World of Progress beyond Bitterness and White Earth, but there seem to be a ton of other non-Bitterness threats which they seem perennially unable to deal with.

It means there’s a lot of work for PCs to do, of course, but it feels like PCs spend a lot of time going up against people who were 100% always doomed to just get killed off by SLA Industries sooner or later anyway, it’s just that the PCs happened to be the people who took them down. Rarely does it feel like the PCs are up against someone who might make a real difference to the world if their plans come to fruition.

A good chunk of the crunch side of this book, once you brush away the skirmish rules, come down to rules for running games where PCs are not the media darling SLA Operatives of the base game, but Shivers – members of the SLA military units trying to reconquer the Sector. It seems functional but lacks flavour, a real twist like the reality TV satire of the core game. There’s also a fairly extensive gear chapter, which when compared to the equipment chapter in the 2nd edition core rulebook reveals the extent to which a lot of recycling of art has taken place in the new release. Of course, to an extent this is understandable – the art in the equipment section in both cases is decidedly functional in nature, giving no-frills illustrations of what the various items look like – but once you start spotting recycled art in the core book it becomes hard to overlook the rest of it.

On the whole, I rather bounced off Cannibal Sector 1. On the one hand, it does provide a lot of detail and focus on a place which player characters in a standard SLA Industries games might actually go, rather than offering waffle about high-level SLA internal politics or far-off White Earth weirdness which the PCs will never wholly be able to explore. On the other hand, I find the place in question to be kind of dull. It’s just a lot of drab ruins with people fighting in it, and I don’t find the factions fighting in there all that interesting. It feels like life in the city itself would be more vibrant, more interesting, more full of possibility – but for that, I guess I’ll have to resort to the comprehensively uncanonical Mort Sourcebook if I want more than what the core rulebook gives me.

Hnnter Sheets Issue 2

Hunter Sheets is an occasional series of short supplements for SLA IndustriesIssue 1 was the other, shorter product that actually made it to press under Cubicle 7’s watch back in 2007, whilst Issue 2 didn’t come out in hard copy until 2017 (though it did enjoy a PDF release in 2011). The format is pretty simple: the front half of the supplement is largely dedicated to player-facing briefings on individuals of interest to SLA Industries, the back half consists of a referee-facing rundown on who they are and their stats; a small amount of fiction and other articles fill the thing out.

It’s a good concept, especially in a game where referees will need to cook up a constant stream of targets to send PCs after. However, it’s let down somewhat in the execution and presentation. The proofreading here is particularly sloppy; some sort of error has occurred which means that a lot of the instances of “fi” seem to have been deleted, so “official” becomes “of  icial” and so on.

It also seems to be the case that the material here is a bit uneven. Much of it seems to be leftover material from the Cubicle 7 era – unsurprising, since the PDF release came at the end of that. There’s even a Jim Desborough credit, though I don’t think he was actively working with Nightfall at the time; a post on Jim’s blog from 2011 noting the release of Data Packet: Ursa Carrien, which is credited to him, was consisted of material he wrote “back in the day”, and so presumably he’d turned in his freelancer work at Cubicle 7 for SLA Industries at some point between CS1 coming out in 2006 and 2011, probably closer to the earlier part of that timeline.

There is little clarity on the interior as to who wrote what, and I’m not going to speculate on that, but I raise the point because it illustrates what a stopgap product Hunter Sheets Issue 2 was. For whatever reason – I don’t think we’ve been told why – Cubicle 7 just kind of stopped putting out new SLA Industries products for the last four years they held onto the rights, having squirted out a tiny trickle of new material. Lashing some stuff together and putting out a new issue of Hunter Sheets was probably a smart way for Nightfall to herald the return of the game – but damn, six years to do hard copies when DriveThruRPG or Lulu’s print-on-demand facilities are right there? That’s a head-scratcher.

There’s a vague gesture towards a theme here, in that both the opening fiction and an article at the back of the book relate to the return to the World of Progress of the Root Dogs, one of the Conflict Races defeated in SLA Industries’ conquest of the universe 900 years ago. This includes some needless edgelordery when the opening fiction drops references to the Root Dogs using terrible weapons known as “Rape Bombs”. The Rape Bombs don’t actually rape anyone, or even cause rape: they just transform the people they hit into Root Dog slave creatures and provoke them to go kill everyone who didn’t get transformed.

This makes their name a complete non sequitur, and I suspect either they were originally something way nastier (and the explanation of what they are is an amendment after the fact) or the name was deliberately chosen for cheap shock value; either way, it doesn’t exactly make SLA Industries seem like the dark, mature game it wants to be – instead, it nudges it more towards the sniggering, juvenile 13 year old’s vision of what “dark and mature” is that the game constantly threatens to devolve into.

The Root Dog theme isn’t really followed through on either. The vast majority of the cases in here are not even Root Dog related, and the two that are don’t meaningfully offer inroads into this wider plot; PCs are expected to just keep on hunting serial killers, corporate criminals, rogue aliens, escaped pigs and so on ad infinitum. The hit targets compiled here are alright, I suppose, but none of them really jumped out and grabbed me; the main impression I got from the book was “gosh, SLA Industries mission concepts get really samey after a while”.

GM Screen and Booklet, and Quickstart Rules

I have little to add on these. The GM Screen booklet contains a bunch of pocket mission ideas, the Quickstart rules have pregenerated characters and a little mission, simple enough.

One thing which stood out to me, however, was that the same illustration is used as the portrait of one of the player characters in the quickstart rules, and as the portrait of one of the targets in the mission concepts in the GM pack. This means that you can’t use the player-facing side of the “hunter sheet” for that character if your group is using the pregens to play. It’s another little instance of corners being cut – perhaps less blatant than the horrible misprints in Hunter Sheets Issue 2, but with more potential effect on gameplay.

Oh, and the panels on the GM screen are portrait orientation, not landscape, which is the incorrect way to do it and always annoying.

A Time to SLA, and a Time To Refrain From SLA-ing

I dunno, gang. It feels like SLA Industries is kind of significant to the British RPG scene – a notable homegrown success in the wake of Games Workshop pulling out of the field, which kept almost dying but still survived, and which is part of a crop of RPGs with really bizarre settings that emerged from Scotland in the 1990s and 2000s along with Tales of Gargentihr and a/state.

But perhaps it was a once-in-a-lifetime instance of catching lightning in a bottle, born of emerging at the right place at the right time with the right presentation. As I keep saying, the first edition of the game was very, very 1990s in its execution – but it can be forgiven for that because it’s from the 1990s, and the setting just happened to capture the zeitgeist well enough that a clunky presentation and not that great system still wasn’t enough to stop people being fascinated with it.

SLA Industries 2nd Edition is also a very 1990s game. But it’s 2021. Though in outward appearances – the easiest thing to mimic – it seems to have tried to bring itself up to date, in substance it really doesn’t seem all that fresh any more.

Of course, revolutionary change in a new edition of a game is not only optional, it’s often undesirable. A polished-up revision can work just as well, provided that it’s a clear and obvious improvement over the original. In some respects, 2nd Edition is a clear improvement – but there’s too many ways in which it’s just repeating old issues with the game, in particular Nightfall not wanting to just level with referees about a lot of the setting mysteries and the game being tied to a rather lackadaisical, nothing-to-write-home-about system, to make me feel like the improvement is sufficient.

And the small improvements are not quite enough to compensate for the loss of distinctiveness, of personality. Cheesy though it sometimes was, there was this raw punk energy to the original game which seems to have wound down into middle-aged lethargy this time around. The reunited Nightfall are basically following the pattern of a reunited band – get the group back together, substitute someone else in for the bassist who won’t return your calls any more, and play your hits. But they’ve succumbed to the temptation to tinker with those hits just enough to make them sound a little different, but not enough to persuade me that the difference is worth it.

I would love it if this game succeeded in the market. But I don’t see it attracting many people who are not already hooked on SLA, and I suspect many who remember the first edition will find reasons to quibble with this second edition.

Like I said: this is a cruel industry. Nightfall needed to really knock this one out of the park if they were going to break the SLA Industries curse. I am not convinced that they have. The 1281 backers for the Kickstarter might be enough to keep the game on life support, and there seems to be some anticipation for the new edition out there, but like so many RPGs I think it will have its flavour-of-the-month time in the sun before fading away into hibernation again – its metaplot still a story half-told.

(UPDATE: 27th April 2021: Mark Rapson of Nightfall Games engaged with an RPGPub thread on SLA industries and offered a number of corrections, which I have tried to implement.)

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