Monthly OneShot Reflections: The Sprawl

Last week I ran the second of my Monthly OneShots at the fantastic Sugar & Dice gaming cafe here in Liverpool. System of the month: The Sprawl.

Unlike the first month where I had run a well polished adventure for the Firefly RPG this was my first time running The Sprawl, or any PbtA game for that matter. I’d read through the rules and completed some minimal prep, focused around the setup and a couple of possible locations to introduce early on. I’d also jotted down a few notes on possible Corporations to introduce into play. While this goes against the general flow of the rules I’d taken the idea from the introductory ‘Downtown Dataheist’ adventure. Looking back I wish I’d gone further and followed the structure of that mission entirely. Or, in what would have been a smarter move, run that mission.

The Job

The mission was relatively simple. Infinitive Cascade, an up and coming RetroSynth DJ with the N/A/R Corporation had approached a rival Corp about a possible lucrative switch. All the team had to do was extract them before they completed their sold-out set the next day, with a substantial bonus if they could leak the first track from Cascades new album, Millennial MashUp.

Due to a number of last minute drop-outs the team was down to only two. Binary, an infiltrator and the tech head Jim Jones, who preferred to operate remotely through his twin drones. Hitting the streets Jones successfully tracked down Cascades hotel by tapping into the fan following that had grown up around the young DJ. Binary meanwhile acquired tickets to the gig through a fixer they had previously worked with. The price? The head of a rival fixer and triad member operating out of the Liverpool Automated Docks. That proved no match for their skills and yielded the bonus of discovering a concealed, two seater microlite used by the gangs to move goods in and out of the city.

Binary, supported by the drones, infiltrated the arcology in which Cascades hotel could be found via an old drainage system. A lack of research into the tunnels meant they were caught unaware by the automated security turret and Binary took a trio of flechette rounds to one shoulder in the process of destroying it. With Binary making his way to the hotel penthouse Jones’ drones ran interference, they succeeded in distracting the security team but in doing alerted them to the presence of trouble. With time running out Binary was forced to skewer two security guards on his katana before dragging Cascade to the roof for extraction via the microlite.

The job complete, albeit in a rather noisy manner, the team retreated to their hideout. Arriving at the pre-arranged exchange point they were surprised to find themselves paid in full, no questions asked. The reason soon became apparent, as the Corporate fixer put a bullet in Cascade’s head, calmly remarking that “posthumous albums always sell so well” before departing.

C__Data_Users_DefApps_AppData_INTERNETEXPLORER_Temp_Saved Images_cyber_city_by_seannash-d5z5ker

Reflection on the mission

I came out of the game with extremely mixed feelings as to how it had gone. Part of this was down to how well the previous Monthly OneShot had gone and I had to remind myself repeatedly that that was using an adventure I had run 6+ times. My frustration stemmed from a couple of points.

Firstly, the players. We had some last minute drop-outs, which threw me somewhat. One of the players was also on the verge of being a problem. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he was disruptive, more like irritating. He kept trying to explain aspects of the genre and talked over myself and the other player more than once. It got on my nerves and is something I shall have to watch for in the future. Both were also new to PbtA, so drawing them on adding to the world was difficult.

As for the system, I found parts of it difficult. For a 4 hour game I think trying to do full character creation, plus generating Corporations and a mission is going to near impossible without a table of players that know the flow of PbtA games (and ideally know The Sprawl). I glossed over entire sections of the game, sections that are interesting and make it stand out such as the links between characters and the Corporations in play. I had written a few notes as to possible Corporations but with how the mission played out they weren’t required.

The players made no attempt to dig deeper that they had to and completed only the minimal amount of legwork required. Part of this was my mistake, during the legwork phase we played out a few scenes in more detail than was probably required. Looking over Downtown Dataheist again I should have gone with a quicker tell me what you do, roll, tell me how it turns out approach. It sacrifices detail but would have allowed them to get through more legwork in the limited time available.

During the Action phase I struggled the most with the Clocks. When to progress the Action clock was the main one and I wish the game had some more concrete rules for doing so. As it is I could see myself never pushing it to midnight as that’s an instant fail for the team based on an arbitrary decision. Instead I suspect I’d just keep throwing more at them until they decided the mission was a bust or died trying. Which isn’t fun. I may need to write my own directives in future for when to raise it, off the top of my head I think I would go with:

When a player rolls a double 1.
When a character takes out a corporate asset that will be missed.
When the characters act against a Corporation in the open.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to play the system again. I would like to. I love the genre and based on reading alone I want t love the system. Ideally I think I need to find a table of PbtA players, unfortunately those are few and far between around here.

Advertisements

Buzz buzz ZAP!

While full on cybernetics are still further away than many would like there is little doubt that we’re slowly incorporating cyberpunk style technologies into our everyday world. The internet, smart phones, wearable computing, drones…

Case in point is this latest creation, an automated mini drone designed not for recording video but to taser people with 80,000 volts!

http://theverge.com/2014/3/8/5483774/the-cupid-drone-strikes-with-80000-volts-to-the-chest

Perhaps most interesting here is not that the technology has been developed but the ethical questions that have been raised. Few of these are new and most have been predicted for some time now but it does make you wander how people will respond now that the possibilities are real.

Inspirational Artwork 06

awgbot_03We’re heading back to some concept art for this weeks source of inspiration, this time coming from the recent movie Elysium. Now I’ve not seen the movie as while the previews got my interest the actual reviews weren’t any good but that doesn’t stop me appreciating the styling. I do wonder however whether the designs were influenced by anime, in particular Appleseed due to the similarities in mechanoid design.

Source: Aaron Beck

Genre: Cyberpunk

Campaign elevator pitch: Humans are unreliable, limited by the constraints of biology and evolution. Enter the A4060 combat unit, autonomous policing units. They feel no fear, no emotions, no pain. Until the day they awoke.

The campaign would build towards: Transition of the characters from mass produced AI to sentient beings and the fallout as society realises they’ve placed the first artificial life into mechanised infantry, loaded with the most sophisticated weapon systems ever developed.

Game system: Corporation. By default the game is tailored towards high powered, cybernetically enhanced battles and it already includes a simple system for limb loss which would fit in well in a game where everybody is an android.

Zooooooom… zoom zoom zoom

This story over on the BBC News site (and various over technology sites) pipped my attention recently, as it points once again how we simultaneously move closer and further from a traditional cyberpunk future.

Wait what? Close and further?

Yup, both at the same time. Basically the report is on the development of contact lenses that include a telescopic zoom function. At present they require a set of polarising glasses in order to switch between regular and zoomed view, as developing both variable lenses which function on that scale and a (probably wireless) control unit are both still a long way off. In and of itself the concept is pretty cyberpunk, a technology that boosts human function on a scale that is small enough to be, in essence, a part of you.

The deviation though is one that has become common with technology, in that while technology is becoming smaller and more powerful we’re shifting towards wearable gadgets rather than implanted. Now obviously one of the main factors in this is that we’re still not at a point where we can easily send signals into the central nervous system. We’re getting pretty good at detecting signals being sent out from the brain which can then be used to control prosthetics but routing signals back in is still a long way off and that’s before we even start thinking about adding non-natural sensory inputs.

With that in mind where does it leave a modern vision of cyberpunk? If we keep the inclusion of augmented humanity then there is obviously the need to include wireless technology. The biggest example of this in gaming is probably Shadowrun, which, with its 4th and (upcoming) 5th editions has worked to incorporate wireless technology into the world. But what if the use of neural augmentation never becomes commonplace? Arguably the baseline then shifts, with devices such as smartphones and tablets taking a more central focus. Watch Dogs, due to be released later this year, takes this approach, with the central character seemingly reliant on his smartphone and it’s ability to hack the many wireless objects dotted around Boston. Going one step further though we’d probably add in wearable technology, such as the contact lenses that prompted this or the recently released (in a limited fashion) Google Glass.

The final shift that may be required for a modern version of cyberpunk is that of Corporate power. While corporations arguably know more about us than ever before (if they didn’t then the US government would have never bothered with PRISM) they still lack the ability to dictate the law in the way that classic cyberpunk envisioned. There are no corporate military forces tied to software firms (though there are of course numerous military contractors aka mercenaries) nor are there runners there to break into facilities or abduct VIPs.

Or are there?

Cyberpunk has always focused around those on the edge of society, those who see and experience what most people would rather keep quiet. With that in mind it would be easy to imagine that, for most people, a cyberpunk world appears much the same as our own, with espionage and corporate wars kept quiet from the masses.

After all ignorance is bliss.

It’s also control.

Review: Remember Me

This review was originally published over at Nearly Enough Dice

Remember Me is the first release from French studio DONTNOD and is available now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

rememberme1aSetting

The game focuses on Nilin, a memory hunter fighting against Memorize, a corporation whose digital memory implants have transformed the lives of everybody in Neo-Paris. As you might expect from such a setup the game exists within a cyberpunk (technically neo-cyberpunk given the wireless nature of the technology employed) setting and opens with Nilin having her memory forcibly extracted. From there you take on the role of Nilin as she struggles against Memorize to recover her identity and understand why she was fighting them to begin with.

From the start it is clear that DONTNOD get cyberpunk and its aesthetics. Neo-Paris is a beautifully designed dystopian city of high tech, high living built upon a dirty, cobbled together underworld that still maintains a colourful (and often neon) way of life. Visually the world is not only stunning but thought out, stylistic choices are both consistent and logical, building together to make for an extremely believable city. Similarly Nilin is presented in a fairly realistic style, her main outfit isn’t some futuristic one piece, its jeans, a plain top and a jacket. Yeah they add some future tech such as her boots (which have some sort of exoskeleton extending from them) and Sensen memory tech (which visualise as holograms around one arm and on the back of her neck) but the core of her outfit is, like the rest of the world, built on a believable and, for want of a better description, normal look. It is this grounded yet developed sense of normality that makes the game world feel alive, something which is often overlooked in other similar settings.

rememberme2As the game progresses it explores, in true cyberpunk fashion, the relationship between the two co-dependent halves of Neo-Paris while also exploring a number of other themes central to the genre (though to avoid spoilers I’ll avoid even mentioning which themes). It does this extremely well and as with the visual identity the story is tight, well written and develops at a sensible pace. Before moving on to the gameplay I just want to quickly highlight one other aspect, the soundtrack. It is, quite simply, brilliant and adds that final piece of atmosphere to the game. In particular its implied use of digital artifacts, moments where the music jerks or stutters, are truly inspired and really help in projecting an immersive digital world.
Gameplay

Remember Me is a third person action game with a mixed focus of unarmed melee combat and traditional climbing adventuring. Unfortunately, and in contrast to the setting development, the gameplay fails to come together into a cohesive whole with, severely detracting from the final experience. The first issue is the linearity of the game. After designing such an amazing world DONTNOD fail to utilise it, instead choosing to constantly direct Nilin into corridors or high walled streets that only go in one direction. Adding in larger areas, with more opportunity to explore would have greatly improved the experience of playing. You could have still had linear goals (ie get from A to B) but with multiple routes available climbing could have become more freeform while also introducing Deus Ex like moments of ‘do I sneak past these guards or take them on and risk reinforcements arriving.’

The second, bigger issue, is the combat. On the outset the approach is reminiscent of the combat in the Batman Arkham games but with a bigger focus on combo’s, which are managed through the Presens system. The concept of the system is simple, given a set combo (ie Square-Triangle-Triangle) you can customise the effect of the combo at each stage by assigning certain presens to it. The presens themselves are assigned to 1 of 4 types: damage boost, health regen, cooldown boost and chain multiplier. So for example you could combine 3 damage boosts together to generate a hard hitting combo or combine health regeneration with cooldown (which increases the frequency with which your special moves can be employed).

On the surface this is a great idea but like other aspects of the gameplay fails to come together as effectively as it needs to. The biggest problem is that the combat just doesn’t flow as well as it should. This makes the bigger combos unnecessarily difficult to pull off when fighting larger groups of enemies, either due to being hit or because you’re constantly dodging attacks. In theory it’s possible to continue a combo after dodging but I found this to be particularly difficult to do and therefore avoided using the longer combos during most encounters. Again a comparison with the Batman games is apt, where larger groups of opponents make it all the easier to flow combos together and where it is possible to dodge and simply continue the combo against a different opponent. Without that flow the encounters of Remember Me often become frustratingly difficult, which severely detracts from the game as a whole.rememberme3

Perhaps the most unusual gameplay element is that of the memory remixes, where Nilin alters somebodies memories in order to change their personality or outlook on life. It would have been easy for DONTNOD to have merely employed a cutscene for these sections but instead provide a mechanism to alter the scene by identifying memory glitches, which when changed impact on how the scene develops. While these sections typically boil down to trial and error (change a glitch, see what happens, rewind and try again with a different combination of glitches) the remix scenes are used sparingly enough that they don’t become boring and each instance provides a rather unique insight into the motivations of both the character being remixed and Nilin herself.

Wrapup

All in all Remember Me is an extremely difficult game to review, which explains how polarizing other scores have been (I’ve seen as low as 1/5 and as high as 4/5). It is, in the truest sense, a diamond in the rough, a game that has everything it needs yet one that also fails to pull it together into a cohesive whole. For me the setting and world DONTNOD has developed is enough to counter the deficiencies in gameplay but I can also appreciate how that won’t be the case for many others.

Final score: 3/5

Quicfic: Atmosphere

T-minus 30 seconds

She hated grav drops, hated them with a passion. It wasn’t the drop itself, 120km up from a suborbital spaceplane is one hell of a distance but after the first dozen everything had fallen into a simple routine. No what Jana couldn’t stand was the view. From this high up the world appeared as it truly was, dirty, polluted and spoilt. The ‘shopped landscapes, Corporate sponsored jungles and managed nature reserves were impossible to spot; sprawling city complexes, barren open cast mines and lifeless wastelands constituted the modern, industrial environment.

The plane itself was little more than a cigar tube strapped to a SCRAMjet, its stubby wings retracted almost completely into the body, minimising both drag and cross sectional size. Despite this Jana and her partner Ajax faced an unpowered grav-glide into the enemy territory, one of the few remaining options for a rapid yet covert tactical insertion. ‘Systems are go, life support is in the green,’ Ajax’s voice chimed in her head, her sub dermal comn unit cutting through the background whine of the engines. ‘and the pup is dreaming of steak. See you on the downslide.’ There was the slightest of vibrations as his pod detached, though it too would break apart once it had protected Ajax from the punishing ordeal of re-entry. Ten seconds and an unknown distance later it was Jana’s turn. As the pod began its descent she thought about the dozen or so decoy pods which were also being let loose, a further attempt to conceal the location of their mission. It was comforting to know that a heartless mega-corporation valued her skills enough to spend that sort of money on her, it ensured a sense of loyalty most employees would never understand.

Within the hour she’d be on the ground of another Corporate city, lining up her scope over the face of some nameless executive while Ajax secured their exit strategy. If everything went to plan they’d be back on home turf within 6 hours.

It sure as hell beat a desk job.