One More RED Nightmare

Cyberpunk Red has managed to hit the streets, an RPG with about as long a development time as the videogame adaptation it was married to. With both Cybergeneration and (probably more justifiably) Cyberpunk V3.0 both punted down the memory hole, this is the third attempt by Mike Pondsmith and the team at R. Talsorian games to produce a followup to Cyberpunk 2020, the edition of the Cyberpunk RPG which they’d rolled back to as a result of the commercial failure of V3.0.

Set in the “Time of the Red” – so called because of a haze of pollution mingled with nuclear fallout from the nuke which took out the core of Night City at the end of the Cyberpunk 2020 timeline – the game advances the timeline to 2045, a midway point between the first two editions of the game (set in 2013 and 2020 respectively) and the CD Projekt Red videogame.

In some respects, significant changes have occurred to the setting; the balkanisation of the global network into local airgapped VPNs as a result of rampaging AIs making the old Net absurdly dangerous to explore is the big one. That doesn’t mean there’s any less daring hacking exploits – but it does mean that netrunning works a little differently in this iteration of the setting.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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The Mistakes of Mekton II

Though it was Cyberpunk 2020 which really shot R. Talsorian Games and Mike Pondsmith to the stratosphere, they originally made their mark on the gaming industry with the Mekton series. Inspired by classic mecha anime like Mobile Suit Gundam, the original Mekton from 1984 was a wargame based around designing mecha and having them fight. A revised version of the original boxed set incorporated a mediocre percentile-based system for character-level interactions for roleplaying purposes, but the earliest game in the sequence that still gets much fan love is Mekton II, where the previous roleplaying system was junked and the Interlock system that later powered Cyberpunk got its big debut. (The system would later be spruced up, with more complex mech-generation rules, as Mekton Zeta, as recently reviewed by System Mastery.)

Of course, because this was Interlock’s debut you also get the major bugs in it showing up here. Most particularly, the die-rolling mechanic includes within it a serious screwup: rather than rolling 1D10 plus stat plus skill against a static difficulty number, as in Cyberpunk and other subsequent implementations of the system, you roll that against the referee’s roll of 1D10 plus a difficulty number. The big problem was that the difficulty numbers are on a similar scale here as in Cyberpunk – which means that even someone who has heavily invested in a skill could fail at the easiest rolls associated with it more than half the time.

The other thing about Mekton II is that it still seems to be struggling with its identity. Although it tries to put its roleplaying aspects front and centre, the fact is that it is a fairly thin and shallow RPG joined at the hip with a mecha-based wargame, but the two halves of this chimera are not wholly reconciled to each other. In particular, it feels like a Mekton campaign will inevitably involve a fair amount of mech battles, but it doesn’t really do much to ensure that all the PCs will have something useful to do during said battles. The character creation system doesn’t lock you into generating a mech pilot at all, and indeed in principle it seems fine with you generating such a supporting cast member – but then how are you supposed to remain involved during a battle? You could help the referee by playing some of the enemy units, of course, but there’s still the lasting issue that if the decisive moments of the campaign tend to be mech battles, then your PC is going to feel a little second-rate if they don’t make contributions to those.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the prepackaged setting of the Aldol system doesn’t feel like a fleshed-out, breathing world so much as it is a backdrop for military conflict resolved via mecha fights. You could, of course, solve this issue reasonably easily by just having the PCs all play mech pilots, but then you end up with the problem of what they do when they aren’t fighting. One of the reasons Mobile Suit Gundam is so good is that it takes place in a vividly imagined future which feels like an actual society where people live, and the characters have deep and involved lives outside of their piloting.

The lifepath system is very good at providing that level of character depth, but the game drops the ball when it comes to providing a similar level of setting depth – and indeed since the lifepath system seems designed to be setting-agnostic, the thinness of the setting is shown up all the more when you put them next to each other – and the lifepath results seem less satisfying as a result. (Compare this to Cyberpunk, where the lifepath system shows up practically unaltered, but where it gives rise to a much more vivid picture of your character because whilst the Cyberpunk setting is quite generic when it comes to concrete details, it is extremely rich when it comes to atmosphere and attitude).

The last major issue I have with Mekton is the mecha themselves. It is natural that for the purpose of a mecha-duelling game that your mecha-building system is going to be somewhat detailed. However, by putting at least as much (and arguably more) system emphasis on mecha creation and customisation as they do on character creation, and because your capability at operating your mech depends in part on your character’s abilities, in practice the result is substantially more complex than a mecha wargame with no roleplaying element or an RPG with no mecha-designing aspect would be. It’s fine if you want a campaign which just strings together a bunch of mecha fights with everything else as having a decidedly secondary priority – but that’s not how the better mecha anime series work.

Subsequent releases would double down on the depth and complexity, pandering to the gearhead tendency of the fanbase but making subsequent supplements more inaccessible since they tended to assume you were using the advanced mech creation system in the Mekton Techbook. This included products like the Mekton Mecha Manual, which provided a bunch of pregenerated Mektons and would have been most useful to folk who don’t fancy generating their own except it requires the Techbook to make full use of it – and that’s the supplement that people who don’t want to design their own mecha are least likely to own. The subsequent edition, Mekton Zeta, kept on a more complex course; the Kickstarted new edition, Mekton Zero, supposedly is going to steer the game back in a less rules-heavy direction, but it’s four years late and whilst Pondsmith claims to be continuing to do development, the fact that he’s been fiddling at it fruitlessly for nearly half a decade like a kid moving food about on the plate in the hope that it will somehow look more appetising from a different angle doesn’t give me enormous confidence in the project.

With Cyberpunk being the monster hit it was, Mekton didn’t get an enormous amount of support. R. Talsorian put out Operation Rimfire, a campaign based in the Algol setting which is perhaps the most interesting supplement for it, since it seems to give some insight into how R. Talsorian envisioned the game would actually be used. The end result is highly railroady and seems to be joined at the hip with a decidedly misguided attempt to construct the campaign like an anime series, right down to having the same number of “episodes” as an anime would have. The episode breakdowns are simultaneously extremely linear and very sparse, to the point where it’s really not clear how you are meant to fill the time until you remember that all of this is meant to be a backdrop for a bunch of mecha battles.

Dream Pod 9 of Tribe 8 fame actually got their start producing third party supplements for a Mekton fanbase hungry for additional support; before they spun it out under its own system, their Jovian Chronicles line was originally a campaign setting for Mekton II. The core book is like a take on Operation Rimfire with much more emphasis on setting and the episode writeups for the campaign being more like brief adventure seeds, though still very railroady. The general concept seems to have been aimed at producing a more grounded, realistic take on the genre, which is also its downfall – the political and economic situation it sets up in the solar system of centuries in the future just doesn’t ring true for me on a bunch of levels. (In particular, how does it make sense that one single planet would become the centre of all banking for the entire Solar System? Considering data transmission times, you’d really expect each planet to have its own banking consortium.)

On the whole, I am kind of left feeling that – as with Cyberpunk – Mekton was a success for R. Talsorian primarily because of their “first mover advantage”. Like CyberpunkMekton was the first attempt to make an RPG focusing on this particular genre, and people bought into that idea first and them wrangled the system to try and make it work for them (or just ignored it). Unlike Cyberpunk, however, Mekton has not had many competitors over the years – there was the Robotech RPG from Palladium Games, and that’s it in terms of things which have caught on. Possibly that’s because mecha anime has ended up being more niche and less influential than cyberpunk, or possibly because the mecha issue incorporates serious issues for RPG gameplay which neither Mekton nor Robotech nor any other game has managed to adequately solve as yet.

Ghost In the Interlocked Shell

You have to give it to Mike Pondsmith. Yes, recent designs of his have included serious misfires like Cyberpunk v3, a terrible mess of doll-based artwork and paper-eating viruses and continued flogging of the dead horse that was the Fuzion system that resulted in a game that nobody actually wanted. Sure, that game was so poorly received that Pondsmith’s R. Talsorian Games has effectively disowned it, reverting to promoting the previous edition of Cyberpunk instead.

But when Pondsmith does get a grip on the zeitgeist – as he did with Cyberpunk 2020 – he’s a real master at getting you fired up for what he’s offering. One of the things I respect most about the game – and something which makes it still a viable choice for cyberpunk-themed gaming despite many of its baseline assumptions either no longer being science fiction or clearly having been rendered nonsensical by the passage of time – is that in the first chapter, when it’s laying out the baseline axioms of life in the cyberpunk future, it declares that number one is “Style over substance”, and for the rest of the book it takes that attitude to heart, making what would have been a point of criticism a badge of pride.

There’s a place for games with a sense of, if not realism, at least a rigorously thought-out setting with a strong sense of verisimilitude – that was the dominant mode when the first edition of Cyberpunk came out, after all – but Cyberpunk really blazed a trail for games where you don’t sweat the setting details so long as they arrive at the aesthetic you want. Shadowrun thrived on this, Vampire and its successors work much better if you take this approach to them, and numerous other games (especially during the 1990s) also took this route, and it’s largely thanks to Cyberpunk.

Which isn’t to say that the book is insubstantial – in fact you get a heck of a lot in here. You get character generation, combat, netrunning and all the other rules you’d expect from a cyberpunk game, plus a sample setting (Night City) with sufficient detail to get you rolling straight away. You also have some fairly reasonable advice for running the game – like “choose a concept for the PC team and have the players make characters with an eye to that rather than going full sandbox” – though this is also mixed in with a somewhat adversarial GM-vs.-players attitude.

(Though it’s actually more reasonable if you dig into the details than some of the adversarial advice in currency during the era; in particular, in the character generation section the game points out that it’s not going to bother writing in any safeguards against min-maxing and doesn’t suggest that the GM overrule such character builds, because the GM can always just kill off a PC who’s becoming a game-wrecking issue anyway. I’d prefer that the referee talk to the player whose character is becoming an issue rather than using GM fiat to punish them for their success, but it’s at least nice that the game doesn’t arbitrarily limit character builds just because some of them can end up quite good.)

Cyberpunk runs off the Interlock system, first aired by R. Talsorian in the Mekton II mecha anime-inspired RPG. This largely means you are dealing with skill plus stat plus 1D10 against a difficulty number (or the other fellow’s roll), along with a fun lifepath system which gives your character a bit of a genre-appropriate backstory. The two major things people cite as issues in cyberpunk games of this vintage definitely exist, but at the same time aren’t actually as big of problems in this context as they are made out to be.

The first is the whole cyberpsychosis thing, where the more cyberware you install the more your Empathy stat goes down. Yes, this is transparently a brake to stop you installing every bit of cyberware you can and becoming a flat-out superhuman. However, each item in question doesn’t yield a direct Empathy loss, but gives you a certain number of humanity loss points – and your Empathy only goes down when you get ten of those. The actual costings of items are actually quite modest by comparison, especially when it comes to things which realistically speaking shouldn’t mess with your sense of who you are and what your personal capabilities are like prosthetic limbs.

You only get the really serious hits when you start installing a bunch of stuff which puts your capabilities well beyond the human norm, which realistically speaking you should expect would put you at risk of a certain amount of hubris. And because you can install up to 9 points’ worth of cyberware before your Empathy even drops by a single, solitary point, that can actually account for a fair bit of cyberware – and if you buy up Empathy specifically to allow for more purchases, you can really go to town. When you combine this with a reminder that this is meant to be a very stylised game, which only goes to the realism well when doing so makes sense for the aesthetic it’s going for, and this really isn’t that much of a problem.

The other major problem people run into with cyberpunk gaming is the whole netrunning thing, which can devolve into the referee running a one-on-one side game for the party’s netrunner. That can totally happen here for when you are going deep into a hacking session, but actually the party’s netrunner has ample reason to stay awake and not jack into the matrix when the party is on an actual mission – if they stay present they can use their deck to detect nearby devices and attempt to take them over, giving them something solid they can do during the thick of the action and allowing you to save the netrunning process so it’s not taking up the game time of the other players. (Of course, the netrunning process also involves the netrunner invoking various autonomous programs, and you could have the other players play those for netrunning purposes to give them a reason to be invested in those.)

Really, the only major thumbs down I have with the core Cyberpunk 2020 book is the art. Partly this is because whenever a woman is depicted she is usually in a skimpy and/or figure-hugging costume and is doing a boobbutt pose, which is tiresome. But mostly, it’s because the artwork isn’t anime enough.

This is the hidden secret of R. Talsorian Games: as far as their major in-house projects go, they’re the original anime RPG company. Not in the Big Eyes, Small Mouth sense, because they’re smart enough to realise that anime is a medium and not a genre and there’s distinct genres within that field, but think about it: the Mekton games are overtly based on mecha anime. Whilst Cyberpunk pushes the various cyberpunk novels of the era as inspirations, there was also a strong cyberpunk strand in 1980s anime. Even Castle Falkenstein feels in some ways reminiscent of the not-really-Europe that anime sometimes resorts to as the settings of material like Howl’s Moving Castle or The Castle of Cagiostro.

We know from history that major leaps forward happen in the RPG field when people find useful ways to tap into other fandoms. Playing At the World makes a very convincing case that whilst Dungeons & Dragons emerged from the wargaming community, its rapid early spread came about because of it being adopted by the science fiction and fantasy fan community. (This was a factor in the early RPG scene having a much healthier gender balance than the extremely male-dominated wargaming community of the day.) Vampire famously spearheaded a boom by bridging gamers and goths.

Pondsmith, for his part, got his start in the RPG publishing field effectively by standing with one foot in anime and one foot in gaming, and whilst this isn’t commonly declared as being a moment when substantial numbers of new people came into the hobby, a case can be made that Pondsmith’s particular take on RPG design, which would be so influential for much of the 1990s, would in part be inspired by that mix of interests.

(And really, don’t Shadowrun and Vampire feel like they’d make so much more sense if they were animes?)