Like Dice In Rain

The first releases in Free League’s Blade Runner RPG – the core rules and the starter set – are now out, and what’s immediately obvious when you look at the material is that they’ve really hit a high bar when it comes to the production values here. I’d been favourably impressed with their execution of the second edition of The One Ring, I’ve heard good stuff about their other games, and they’ve kept up the high standards here. The core rulebook and the starter set look gorgeous, fit the aesthetic of the movies nicely without being reliant on screenshots from the films (indeed, the illustrations all look to be original, bespoke art made for the game), and are also laid out very nicely and usefully for the purposes of actual play.

The concept of the game is simple: it’s an investigative RPG, you are either a human or a replicant working the Blade Runner beat in 2037 LA, your official task is to track down and “retire” renegade replicants and investigate other replicant-connected crimes, but of course the investigations you get into will throw up ethical quandaries and emotional entanglements which might force you to choose between the departmental rulebook and your personal morality.

This is the sort of thing which if executed thoughtlessly could end up being kind of distasteful – the sort of copaganda we really need less of. Both the original movie and Blade Runner 2049, however, avoided that fate by taking a specifically dystopian route, making it clear that the work of the bounty hunters is a dehumanising process, and the bounty hunters exist in a grim and corrupt system, and the violence unleashed by the replicants is a matter of self-defence against a world intent on destroying them.

Hell, Philip K. Dick’s original novel was inspired by him reading the diaries of Gestapo officers when he was contemplating writing a sequel to his if-Hitler-won alternate history The Man In the High Castle – a sequel he never wrote because he found trying to inhabit the mindset of actual Nazi secret police officers too distressing. If being a Blade Runner felt comfortable or rewarding in this game, it’d be just as wrong as if Deckard’s defeat of Roy Baty were depicted as a big feelgood victory in the original movie.

In keeping with this, two of the in-game currencies used are Promotion Points and Humanity Points. Promotion Points are rewards for doing what the LAPD Rep Detec unit wants you to do – in other words, for being a loyal Blade Runner and doing your job. Humanity Points are rewards for acts of compassion or empathy – not only do these not necessarily have to be things the LAPD would approve of, but protecting people from your police colleagues by withholding evidence and similar is explicitly one of the things you can do to obtain more Humanity.

Promotion Points can be used for mild character improvements, and to get things done within police department official channels, like requesting a particularly snacky bit of equipment. On the other hand, Humanity Points can be used to improve your skills – which is a big deal. So whilst you will get some benefit from knuckling down and submitting to the system in the game – as you would expect to be the case – you undeniably get more benefit from heeding the call of your empathy. The competing demands on your character are therefore both modelled, but not equally; the call of empathy is just a little bit louder, making it that much more likely that at some point your character will decide to break ranks with the LAPD, and of course where you decide to toe the line and where you choose to rebel is by far the most narratively interesting aspect of the game.

The basic underpinning of the system uses a variant of the Year Zero Engine, which made its debut in Mutant: Year Zero, Free League’s reboot of the classic Swedish RPG Mutant which helped put them on the map. There’s been several variations on the system over the years – another one runs the Alien RPG which Free League put out (and which I am now more interested in thanks to the self-evident quality this one shows) – but the version here works like this: stats and skills are ranked from A to D, with the four ranks corresponding to different dice; A is D12s, B is D10s, C is D8s, and D is D6.

When you are called on to make a roll, you take a die corresponding to the relevant stat, and a die corresponding to the appropriate skill, so you could be rolling anything from a couple of D6 to a couple of D12 to any potential combination in between. Any die rolling 6-up is a success, any die rolling 10-up is a double success. So long as you got at least one success on the dice, you accomplish the thing you were rolling for; if you get two or more, that’s a critical success and you get a little bonus. (Three successes or more are only really relevant in combat, where you get bonuses.) If you roll a 1, you get a little setback.

There are various other quirks here – ways to get advantage or disadvantage, or to “push” a roll when you badly want to succeed – but those are the basics. It’s got a lot of the simple intuitiveness of dice pool systems without having to deal with large pools of dice, and it’s a system which means that anyone might be able to get a critical success with a little luck (since the worst possible roll, if you aren’t facing disadvantage, is two D6, and you might roll two 6s), but you get significant advantages and will likely get appreciably more crits in your areas of expertise. (Indeed, if you have an A in a stat or skill then any time you roll on it without disadvantage you’ll get a crit over a quarter of the time, because that D12 will yield a crit 25% of the time and a single success over 58% of the time, and the other die you’re rolling boosts the odds even further.) Failure is still very possible, so the system strongly suggests being sparing about rolls rather than making people roll very frequently, but unless you are extremely unlucky you are not going to fail so often at your areas of expertise that you end up looking silly.

Though mostly fairly traditional in its presentation, the game also suggests some interesting departures from standard RPG gameplay which the system nicely supports. For one thing, it encourages you to not be afraid of conflict between player characters – ultimately, Blade Runner investigations are going to go deep into sticky ethical territory, and if your PCs fall out over that, that’s kind of an acceptable outcome because that means each player has made a different decision about the crucial questions thrown up by the scenario.

The rulebook does warn you that there’s a point of no return here – once PCs stop arguing and start shooting at each other, it’s unlikely that there’ll be any coming back from that and odds are that one or more PCs are going to exit the campaign one way or another once that happens, but it doesn’t forbid you from crossing that line – it just encourages you not to do so flippantly. (After all, this ain’t Paranoia.) Any individual group may well have their own feelings about this – some many choose to rule out violent PvP entirely, some may even elect to avoid IC arguments between characters – but merely by raising the possibility that it might happen, the rulebook puts the concept out there and therefore prompts you to at least think about it in a way many other RPGs would outright reject out of hand.

An even bigger departure is the way the game outright encourages the players to split the party. All PCs are assumed to be carrying a communicator device, which will allow them to converse with other PCs even when they’re physically separated – and so provides avenues for all the players to be involved in any scene which is happening, provided at at least one PC physically present in the scene still has their comms device. The referee is also encouraged to rapidly cut between scenes and interweave them, further ensuring no player is left waiting for too long.

Why encourage this splitting of the party in the first place? Well, on the first level it helps replicate the action of the movies. The big problem with making a Blade Runner RPG feel like the Blade Runner movie is that the Blade Runners in the films don’t work in squads – they spend most of their time investigating on their own, because the films are borrowing a load of film noir detective tropes. If the players are always bunching up as a single party, they’re robbing themselves of that experience.

The bigger reason, though, is that it ties into the game’s interesting ideas about structuring an investigative scenario. As well as providing solid suggestions like “make sure you have lots of redundant ways for the PCs to discover crucial information or advance the investigation, so you aren’t overly reliant on them finding a single clue”, it specifically directs the referee to construct investigations based around locations, which then ties into how the game handles timekeeping.

Going to a location and undertaking substantive investigative work there is, for simplicity’s sake, assumed to take one Shift, and each in-game day is taken up with four Shifts. Sure, going to one locale and talking to someone might not take six hours, doing a full forensic investigation of a locale may take that long or longer, but one can assume efficient, quick work in relation to the latter and a bunch of additional faff dealt with off-screen in the former case and go with that.

The timekeeping aspect of the game in turn has two functions. The first is to prompt PCs to take occasional downtime; after you’ve done three Shifts of investigation, you start taking stress if you spend additional Shifts working; you really want to be doing three Shifts of work and one shift of downtime. This downtime gives an opportunity to put spotlights on personal stories and the PCs’ emotional states; its your players’ chance to moodily drink whiskey on the balcony of their apartment buildings or chat to their holographic waifus like Deckard or K do in the movies.

The other function of the timekeeping, and the one which brings this back to splitting the party, is to incorporate time pressure. Scenario design in Blade Runner encourages the referee to set up Countdowns – events which will happen, independent of the PCs, if a particular point in time is reached without the player characters taking any action to throw it off course. Because investigating a location takes one Shift, then actually splitting the party can – for once – be strategically useful, rather than the net negative it usually is: if you have 3 PCs investigating 3 locations simultaneously, you can gather information up to three times as fast as if you have the three PCs all investigating those three locations together one at a time, and that means you’re more likely to be able to beat those Countdowns.

This does mean that you need to adjust the Countdowns based on the number of PCs you have, since a smaller party won’t be able to do as many locations in parallel as a larger one can – the starter set scenario provides a worked example of this which is quite nice. Interestingly, it’s designed with the assumption that player groups of above four are going to be rare (and are in fact advised against, probably because if the party is divided in five ways things can bog down), and allows for player groups as 1-2 PCs, which feels like a rarity but a refreshing change from RPGs which needlessly assume a PC party around the size of the typical D&D party.

The Countdown-based design ethos is a really nice example of something I have talked about with respect to investigative RPGs on here before – namely, that most of the time it’s better to design investigative scenarios around a dynamic situation, rather than a static one. The most frequently-cited problem with investigative scenarios is the situation where the action crawls to a stop because the PCs failed to obtain sufficient clues to progress; this is the problem which the entire GUMSHOE system is designed around avoiding, to the point where it kind of resembles using a resolution system sledgehammer to crack a scenario design nut. What this criticism misses is that the problem here isn’t the PCs failing to find the clues, it’s the PCs failing to find the clues and the consequence of that being the scenario stops.

To my mind, the clever way to get out of that isn’t to short-circuit the investigative process by simply never having the players fail to find clues – it’s to make sure the scenario is a dynamic one, where there are forces acting independently of the player characters (typically NPCs) who will advance their agenda and cause an escalation of the situation (thereby creating new things for the PCs to investigate). That way the PCs’ failure not only does not prevent the scenario from progressing, but it also has consequences just as significant as their successes. Blade Runner‘s Countdowns concept, and the game mechanical linkages made between locations, Shifts, and Countdowns, is a neat way of encouraging precisely this sort of approach to scenario design – and I think a far more artful one than the GUMSHOE approach, and one it pleases me greatly to see someone deploying in a game.

So much for the system and the scenario design tools; what of the setting stuff? By and large, what you get here is aesthetically and thematically true to the movies, and also shows a certain level of respect for Philip K. Dick’s writing too; without getting into spoilers, there’s a certain plot element towards the end of Electric Dreams, the scenario in the starter set, which feels like a riff on a plot element from Time Out of Joint, and the basic conceit of the scenario is at once nicely original and yet at the same time feels like a logical extrapolation from what we already know about the Blade Runner setting.

The starter set follows the precedent set by superior recent efforts like the WFRP, RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu starter sets of providing stuff which will be useful even to experienced gamers who don’t need a starter scenario. The condensed rulebook more or less entirely consists of extracts from the core rules – making it a handy reference to have to hand in play – and it also comes with a nice poster-sized version of the LA map from the book and a range of useful cards for stuff like determining initiative or throwing out random obstacles in chase scenes and the like. None of this is essential, but all of it is useful.

Supposedly, Free League are going to do an episodic campaign for this – where for the most part each episode can stand alone (bar for the last one) – with Electric Dreams from the starter set being the first part. Odds are they are going to take the same approach as they have with the Alien product line – with “cinematic modules” which, in their hard copy versions, come as lavish boxed sets full of high-quality maps and handouts and whatnot, which is a bit of a departure from the usual approach to module design but perhaps makes more sense in the current market than doing a hard copy print run of a thin adventure booklet, which are the sort of product where people are much more likely to be just satisfied with the PDF and forego the physical product altogether.

On the whole, I’m very pleased with this first wave of releases for the game. It’s about as good a stab at a Blade Runner RPG as I can imagine, and even if Free League don’t put out much of an extensive support line, the core book by itself provides ample tools and support to keep you playing for ages. It’s a neat combination of modern RPG design principles (tightly defined core experience, universal resolution mechanic, etc.) and traditional RPG tools (random generators, location-oriented scenario design, etc.), each carefully chosen to support the overall experience.

2 thoughts on “Like Dice In Rain

  1. I think you’ve sold me on this. I held off on backing the Kickstarter because (a) I’ve already got a pile of Free League games, and (b) I wasn’t sure whether they were going to keep the setting’s tight focus. It sounds as though they’ve addressed (b), so I might give a bit on (a). Ta!

  2. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #186

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