Saturday, 8 November 2014

Review: Psipunk


When people talk about the antecedents of the Cyberpunk genre, there's another science fictional sub-genre that comes to prominence: the psychic detective story. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, PKD's Minority Report, Larry Niven's The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton... all important precursors of cyberpunk, and all books I've somehow managed not to read. The genre had a brief revival in the 1990s with Katherine Kerr's Polar City Blues and Peter Hamilton's Greg Mandel trilogy. That latter example is something I have read; in fact those stories were my introduction to cyberpunk.

So psychic-cyberpunk (psiberpunk?) story has precedent, but a surprisingly limited history in games - perhaps when faced with Shadowrun, genre purists simply decided to put aside anything that stank of magic. So Jacob Wood's Psi-Punk, successfully crowd-funded last year, is somewhat unusual. It completely escaped my notice, proving that I don't have the encyclopaedic knowledge of every cyberpunk game ever published that I like to claim (if anyone would like to send me a copy of Underground or that French game about underwater colonies, I haven't read them either...). Accessible Games was kind enough to send me a PDF copy for review.

Psi-Punk is based on Fudge, an open system best known these days as the basis of Fate. Fudge already has at least one well regarded cyberpunk conversion, and a DIY ethos which appealed to a certain sort of open-culture advocate cyberpunk fan back in the day. Back in the days when I would bore the Cyberpunk 2020 forum community complaining about complex the rules were, Fudge was the most commonly raised suggestion. As a system, it's very easy to, uh, hack (pun both unintended and unavoidable...).

It's a kinda magic
I kid, I kid...

The electronic edition of Psi-Punk comes in a neatly laid out, bookmarked PDF, complete with an electric blue-white cover. In the grand tradition of every cyberpunk game written since the Matrix, the covers and page borders are full of endearing little grey 1s and 0s. The B&W artwork is fun, "pink mohawk" and not trying to be too serious. I can't tell if the piece on PDF page 124 is the stupidest or the absolute best piece of artwork ever to grace an RPG title; I encourage all of you to buy Psi-Punk just to see it. The whole vibe is very classic "late 1980s" with giant metal cyberware, Matrix icons like superheroes and cyberpunks dressed like '77 trad punks.  

I don't have many layout issues with the PDF. I do feel like more care, bold text and (especially!) paragraph breaks could have been used to help reading comprehension, especially in the places where the book presents long lists of example gifts and faults. That's a small, nit-picky issue: in general the book is attractively arranged. More annoyingly, some of the bookmarks are out of order.

Fudge revolves around a simple system based on "Fudge Dice," marked with + and - signs. What makes Fudge different from many systems is the emphasis placed on degrees of success. This becomes very important for psi-powers, where each power comes with a list of results based on degrees of success or failure. I do like the way this models the differences between different levels of conditioning, training and natural ability that effect each power better than a list of spells that always work in the same manner, even if it does make each power entry rather long. Psi-Punk has a (relatively) short list of wide, detailed powers.


Character creation is based on a system of build points, used to buy skills. If the phrase "build points" brings on a Shadowrun induced migraine, you needn't worry, this is much simpler. The system seems weighted towards creating characters with one or two specialisms, and the character creation section includes a useful set of archetypes to start with.

Interestingly, attributes are determined by the amount of time and effort a person has put into training associated skills - something that (IMO) reflects reality but I don't recall seeing before in an RPG. A system of "gifts" allow players to buy psionics and other in game advantages. Wealth is abstracted (you know whether you love or hate that way of doing things, I'm not going to comment either way!).

The equipment section provides broad archetypes and then customises those archetypes with lots of traits and faults. Psi-Punk has some really imaginative "magical" weapons and equipment, and helpfully puts the "AntiPsi" gear in one place where the GM can easily find it (more on this later...). 

A defining feature of Psi-Punk's setting - really, the most memorable and characterful thing about it - is the distinction between psionics and "magic." Psi is what psychic characters do; Magic is what "Magicorp" - yes, it's actually called that - and other big corporations call their attempts at replicating psychic effects via unreliable and unpredictable technology. These magic items - which really do feel a lot like D&D magic items in how they work - can have radical effects; the vehicle section in particular is full of magic modules that can turn cars into a sort of street-level Bond car. 

The Cyberware section contains all the expected replacement limbs and a couple of new ideas. The main thing that sets it apart is the focus on the quality and provenance of the 'ware, along with the long list of faults cheap cyberware might develop...

Soul Jacking

One of my favourite things about this game is the variety of different "hacking" games it envisages. Psi is woven into the fabric of the Psi-Punk's computer systems, and hackers can use their psi-powers to "psi-jack" computers and people in various ways. Most of this is handled in just a few rolls, with the usual Fudge focus on the degrees of success and failure. "Soul Jacking" allows for insidious Ghost in the Shell style memory alteration. "Ghosting" is the traditional Tron style VR hacking, with hackers fighting electrokinesis wielding AI systems. The Astral Plane is a realm of mystery (also fantasy creatures).

Psi-Punk's psi powers are as varied and interesting as you might hope. As usual, there are a few overarching types - Psychokinesis, ESP, and so on - with specialisms within (sonarkinesis, photokinesis, Etc.). As mentioned before, the list of powers is relatively short but each one receives almost a page of focus. Fudge isn't an especially crunchy game - there's a lot of space for improvising the specific effects of each power. For example, Cyrokinesis allows you to create an amount of ice determined by the degrees of success; it doesn't determine whether you choose to launch it at people, use it to shield yourself, or whatever. The rules easily handle both those choices. All of the classic psychic archetypes seem present and correct, from psychometry (determine events in the past) to pyrokinesis (set stuff on fire) to psychometabolism (alter the form of objects and creatures). It scores lots of points for being as broad as it is simple. If I were going to run a game about focused on psionics I suspect I'd use these rules.

"Enter Magicorp"

So Psi-Punk's (largely America-centric) setting is the North American Union, a continental superstate dominated by a group of gigantic corporate monopolies. It formed for various reasons and has lately lost territory to a secessionist group of states led by Wyoming (probably the same communists who overran the state in Cyberpunk 2020: Home of the Brave, those bastards). Psi began as a Nazi experiment carried on by various factions in other governments, and was revealed to the world by an escapee/prophet called Nathan Hunter (who at one point assassinates the President and then becomes President himself...). In the meantime, various anti-Psi factions came together to found Magicorp, a corporation devoted to preventing the domination of "mentals" by replicating psychics effects through technology. They have largely succeeded, and psychic technology is becoming widespread.

The setting is the real disappointment of Psi-Punk. It completely fails to live up to the imagination displayed in the rest of the book. It creates a history that feels divorced from the present setting - no entries on the timeline for 15 years before the adventure starts! - and fails to really speculate about what life might be like in a world with all this interesting "magic" technology. It commits the great and common crime of a thousand RPG settings - spending too much time on the setting history and not enough time on the actual setting.

Worst of all, it fails to imagine a world dominated by the "mentals." You could take out all the psionics and have a world with most of the same institutions and corporations. All of these corporations are gigantic monoliths that utterly dominate their economic sectors, leaving little space for rivals (or adventurers, frankly). 

Reading Psi-Punk is what prompted my "Balkanize North America Now!" post rant a couple of days ago. A balkanized setting with lots of different actors and agencies would have provided space for a dozen different takes on potential psychic futures. You could have a state dominated by virulent, magic enhanced anti-psi cops. A state controlled by Zhodani-esque mind-readers and soul jackers. An elitist, eugenicist state pursuing the original Nazi plans for psions. Anything other than a generic, characterless corporate dystopia. Yes, you could put any of this into the largely unexplored world outside of North America, but it's real sad that the book largely fails to explore the implications of its own rules in any way.

Adventures in Inner Space
Psi-Punk has a long GM section which emphasises the GM's role as a storyteller, then takes the time to discuss adjudication of skill checks and other aspects of Fudge. I like that it devotes time to "Fudging it" and mucking around with the game's rules and systems. While Psi-Punk could do with more NPC stats, the GM section has comprehensive guidelines for creating them on the fly...


...actually, /RANT BEGINS/


Every game in a setting with magic and psionics needs a section (a paragraph, even!) in the corebook's GM section explaining the sort of counter-measures intelligent or well resourced opponents might take against common magical "intrusion" methods like telepathy and mind control. In my experience, these sorts of powers can make it difficult for GMs to run long term villains or the sort of investigation plots cyberpunk thrives on, so some advice is always helpful. It's not that I want to be able to neuter them entirely; just prevent them turning into an boring "point-and-win" system.

Psi-Punk doesn't suffer as much as some other games as a result  of lacking this section: "Antipsi" powers and technology are listed in their own, easy to find sections of the book. I doubt I'd be reduced - Shadowrun style... - to running to the game forums for help or inspiration. Still, it was the first thing I went looking for when I opened the PDF and I'm disappointed by its absence. Psi-Punk has detailed guidelines for generating challenging physical combat attributes for NPCs of various levels, but provides little guidance when considering how they might protect themselves from the variety of different oblique methods imaginative Psi-Punk players might use to steal their secrets or jack their souls. 

You know what? Interface Zero: Zeeks doesn't do this either. In fact, it's even less helpful. Why is it that when I want help creating a challenging environment for PC telepaths I have to go back to the Shadowrun: Corporate Security Handbook, written in 1995? 

It isn't just a matter of putting a few anti-psi items in the equipment list. I shouldn't have to go searching through the book in-game for counter-measures a large corporation might reasonably be expected to take against whatever common, low level spell the PC wizard just cast. Just a few paragraphs summarising the most common NPC responses would be fine.

If the next person to publish a game about magic cyberpunks doesn't include a few paragraphs about psychic security I'm going to devote the rest of my life to staring at goats until one of them dies, then use my newly found powers to hunt that person through the astral plane. Don't think I won't do it!

/RANT ENDS/

The most interesting and unusual part of the GM section concerns player death and the psychic methods by which it can be circumvented. A certain sort of "make a mistake and DIE" genre purist is probably spitting out a drink right now. The game provides optional guidelines making it possible - difficult, but possible - for PCs to raise a dead comrade using the control animate power, in the spirit of keeping the story going.

Psi-Punk comes with a short adventure, featuring a setting spanning plot based on an unusual form of computing (I won't spoil it). It has some interesting hooks, although it does insist on setting part of the adventure in a "generic manufacturing plant." It's fine. I'd love to see a published adventure for Psi-Punk which focuses more on the Psi. You could run the adventure as written in Cyberpunk 2020

One other thing: Accessible Games' blog is full of interesting material for the game. What really caught my eye was a PsiPunk setting produced by ASH LAW called The Flooded City of Downhang. Firstly, I've always been obsessed with flooded cities as a cyberpunk setting. More importantly, I remember the all too brief time when he was Cyberpunk V3's most imaginative, gonzo booster on VFTE, turning that divisive setting into something strange and wonderful. True to form, Downhang makes best use of Psi-Punk's various setting elements and ASH LAW's gift for naming stuff. 

Another document available through the blog is the preview of World's Edge, a supplement that infuriates me because I've been planning something similar for years and never gotten around to it! Luckily, it turns out that Jacob's vision for Psi-Punk's bread and circuses gladiatorial arena is both very different from mine and full of fun detail. It makes me believe that the problems with the setting might be solved in the supplements.

Psiberpunk!


Psi-Punk is great at the Psi, but doesn't provide a playground for the Punks. It comes with a simple, elegant and versatile set of psychic rules, with considered antipsi and psi-hacking technologies to go with it. Unfortunately, to get to those rules you have to read through the useless setting notes, which leave you with no actual setting, let alone any inspiration for how the psychic characters might actually fit into it.

Right now, the world of Psi-Punk is a bad caricature of a cyberpunk setting with psychic powers tacked on: it needs to become a world of psychics with the setting constructed around them. ASH LAW has already done this; I hope future supplements build on The Floating City of Downhang's model. Based on some of what I've seen on the game's blog, I've got every reason to be hopeful.

Psi-Punk is available in PDF right now.