Monday, 27 January 2014

Review: The Gaean Reach (Pelgrane Press)

Years ago, someone named Quandos Vorn did something terrible to you, and you've sworn to destroy him. Since that dark day, you've prepared yourself to hunt and confront this dread individual. Now you're finally ready. 

Pelgrane Press has a new RPG out, set in Jack Vance's Gaean Reach universe. I couldn't be more invested in a game, so it was difficult to write an objective review of the pre-order PDF! Luckily, I found a lot to like with only a few reservations. 

Notably, i'm judging this game by how well it reflects the original stories, since they're among my favourite novels. That said: given the violent, mannered atmosphere and the simple rules, I'd be tempted to use this for a game set in 1840s Santa Fe...

Most of the potential readership of this blog probably know Jack Vance as the writer of the Dying Earth series, an enormously influential fantasy short story sequence which had a huge influence on the early development of Dungeons and Dragons.

I'm afraid to say I've never gotten around to reading the Dying Earth, although I intend to as soon as possible. For me Jack Vance means science fiction: Araminta Station, the Demon Princes sequence, Ports of Call, Showboat World, the Alastor Cluster sequence. These books bear little comparison with other fiction (maybe Fritz Leiber's dry wit, maybe Ursula Le Guin's strange cultures, maybe Cordwainer Smith's wild re-imagining of the human condition...). In the Gaean Reach, characters devote themselves to politesse, artistry and mordant wit, along with one final motivator: revengeRevenge comes in all shapes and sizes in Vance: from Kirth Gersen's sociopathic quest against the crime lords who destroyed his village in the Demon Princes through the very personal collision between family members in Trullion: Alastor 2262, right up until Myron Tany's frankly laughable vendetta against his great aunt in Ports of Call

In Vance's novels, to quote the RPG: "heroism unfolds within a spare, and unsparing, moral vision."

For myself, I have a vendetta against Pelgrane Press. Specifically, they keep taking my money. Night's Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu and Ashen Stars are all fine games - i'm an unashamed fan of the GUMSHOE system. I've never actually read or played the Dying Earth RPG, so this is my first experience with the Skulduggery system (this game combines the two).

After completing this review i'm going to locate Robin D. Laws by searching through an intricate archive of punch cards. I'll pursue him all the way to the interstellar masquerade down by Sailmaker Beach... where I'll probably die, because he's considerably more erudite than I.

EDIT: So a few times in the review I brought up formatting and proofreading errors. Chris Huth got in touch with me a few hours after I posted this and I quickly established that 80% of those problems were only happening in Nitro Pro 7 and not, say, Adobe. I didn't think to check because I've never had that kind of problem before. However! I feel I ought to state that those formatting errors might be unique to the 8 people reading this game on a weird piece of business document formatting software, and I've changed the review below to reflect that.

Cyberpunk Appendix N Part 2: Spooks!

"The Intersection of Paranoia and Technology"

(This series is all about cyberpunk literature and how it can inspire games. The last post covered Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy and 1950s noir. This one is all about espionage!)

The difference between a cyberpunk novel and a technothriller is the social dimension - the awareness of how technology filters down to the streets and is re purposed and reinvented by the society that uses it.

Or to put it another way, imagine the story after Dale Brown's superbombers have landed, been stripped for spare parts, their ECM systems reused in videogame software, the copper wiring ripped out and used to string illegal power connections between slum houses in the bomb craters...

Many - most, even - of the most famous cyberpunk stories are essentially espionage thrillers where the state-funded Bonds and Ryans have been retired or replaced by freelancers. Inspired both by the wave of corporate espionage stories in the 1970s and noir archetypes, these characters possess a very similar skill set to earlier spy characters, but drop the patriotism and jingoism in favour of punk cynicism (in the earlier stories) or a damaged idealism.  

William Gibson's Blue Ant Trilogy starts with a literary game: Pattern Recognition. A character with a name pronounced "Case" pursues Marly's subplot from Count Zero using a version of Colin Laney's nodal sense seen in All Tomorrow's Parties.  The major elements of 1980s science fiction fit seamlessly into a present day narrative. Gibson wasn't the first cyberpunk writer to write an almost doctrinaire genre story outside the science fiction genre, just the most prominent. 

Pattern Recognition also introduced the coolhunter into common parlance, and was one of the first books to really deal with viral marketing. The coolhunter relates to the modern pop culture landscape like an adventurer in a dungeon. One day I would love to run a game around the concept, although i'm not sure how it would work in practice. Certainly the GM shouldn't be the arbiter of "cool!"

Spook Country follows a group of spies and journalists through a dangerous search for a maguffin of deep political significance. The characters in Spook Country are older and wiser than Neuromancer, or else more conditioned. The centrepiece of the novel is an intricately described collision between underground factions, where rival ideologies express their differences through tradecraft. I've always been attracted to fanatical or highly trained characters, and Tito's group of interstitial "illegal facilitators" provides wonderful inspiration.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Ruralpunk 5: even more antagonists!

Low born smugglers and fast living privateers

Any place with borders or commerce restrictions will have smugglers, whether they run international boundaries or bringing narcotics to the masses. Often, they move quietly between production centres in the hills and the big cities. In real life, Canadian marijuana smugglers go out into isolated, desolate regions and dig underground bunkers made of steel shipping containers to use as aquaculture centres growing cannabis - similar outfits become more and more common. Organisations looking to dodge patent laws, sales tax and chemical prohibitions all have these hidden manufacturing facilities out in the bush. 'Runners are often hired to find and destroy these organisations, or draw off the hunters. 

There are various kinds of smuggler. Quiet smugglers hide in plain sight, using mules or hidden compartments to avoid detection. Either that, or they use hidden routes through inhospitable territory. Surveillance drones have complicated things for that kind of smuggler, so many spend a lot of money acquiring hunting license IFFs or similar credentials to dodge border rangers. Still other groups use tunnels to move covertly past barriers. Quiet smuggling methods could fill an entire article, and frankly they aren't often antagonists

There's a second sort of smuggler who will exchange fire with 'runners, from the safety of a flying tank.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Ruralpunk Part 4: the Opposition

The Opposition
Part 4 of the Ruralpunk series concerns itself with the Opposition. I almost said "bad guys" before I remembered the genre.

A big theme of ruralpunk is abandonment. The world revolves around the cities. The countryside is left to the agricorps or the rebels or the poor - left out in the suburbs and fading exurbs after the oil crashes. Flooded towns wash away or are torn apart by heavy weather. The rule of law fades away. Let the first Mad Max film be your guide! (but perhaps ignore the second one - the post-apocalypse is a whole different thing)


Oligarchs, oil-men and railway barons were stock enemies in Westerns, and work just as well here. All represent large scale corporate forces rolling over individualistic country folk - one of the reasons American crime fiction used to idealise bank robbers is because many rural people lionized them for fighting the banks that took their homes during the Great Depression.

A cyberpunk campaign can add frackers to that list. Games aping the neo-noir tradition might also choose a specifically Californian antagonist, old families in control of the water supply. (I rather like the idea of a setting in which a post-USA Californian nation is ruled by an aristocracy that combines the money of the hydrocracy with the style of Hollywood). 

Big Agriculture might be driving independent farmers off the land or dumping chemicals in the rivers. They might be using the deep countryside for hidden bases. PMC training camps are a definite possibility. Out here, there isn't much oversight to restrain their actions. 

Big cyberpunk corporations are big cyberpunk corporations. I'd prefer to spend this post talking about other enemies!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Actual Play Report: Dark Angel (1993)

More wizards should wear cravats.
Three weeks ago a group of Shadowrunners embarked on a ludicrous, metaplot spanning journey through published adventures, that began with the 4th edition iteration of Food Fight and will hopefully end with the Twilight Horizon or whatever the team's story arc seems to be heading for. I've decided to call the campaign Decades in Shadow, at least for tagging purposes (for the record, it took three sessions to cover two game days, so at the current rate I expect to be done in 21,900 weeks - or when the party gets bored of either Shadowrun or my GMing, in both cases long before that).

Last night we effectively completed Dark Angel, the first adventure in the campaign. There are a few plot threads hanging - more than the book assumes, really! - but the main story arc is complete. It took about three sessions. I think the book assumed that, or one more.

(I'd normally post the cover of the book here, but it's so inutterably hideous - the worst in Shadowrun history, I think - that you'll have to deal with some interior art...)

The following post is one giant spoiler.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Ruralpunk 3: 10 more locations

I was going to write a long article about the Ruralpunk opposition, but I don't have the time. Instead, here are some more locations!

1. Animal Pharm

A farm devoted to genetically engineered animals - spidergoats, phatcows, narcollamas... probably has heavier fencing and more cameras than the average farm, to prevent theft and propagation of GMO creatures into the wider environment.

People: Pharmer, ecoterrorist, animal uplifted by a rogue doolittle virus/experiment and out for revenge

2. Rectenna Forest

A forest of alloy trees, miles wide, receives a low energy microwave transmitted from solar power collectiors in orbit. GEV smugglers love to hurtle through these at high speed, as the microwaves confuse all sorts of sensors...

People: mechanic, automated guard, high-tech smuggler (for about a minute and a half)

Monday, 20 January 2014

Santa Fe, New Mexico: the Hall of Final Ruin

The city at the end of everything

For all the posturing in earlier posts about cyberpunk, I do still love D&D - especially in its lower level, human versus weird monster, sword and sorcery incarnations. So lately I've been reading Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder history of New Mexico (a book I brought purely because of a Michael Moorcock quote on the cover) and the 1840s Santa Fe vibe was so intensely Weird Fantasy that I just had to tell you about it. I can't think of a better place to set a Lamentations of the Flame Princess style game!

This post will cover the city of Santa Fe, the Navajo, Penitentes and Mountain Men, and end with some adventure locations. A campaign set here would probably revolve around American mountain men and explorers, who became prominent in the region during the 1840s, and possess the drive and skills (and real historical precedent) to act like adventurers. They might instead by representatives of the Mexican government or a Catholic outfit investigating the Penitentes. They might even be Navajo - in that case, i'd suggest further research into the spiritual background of that people; the lattice of superstitions surrounding death and raiding would make the game a unique D&D experience.

Navajo ceremonial mask, picture by Edward S. Curtis 1904
At the end of the Camino Real, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, at the northern end of the desert, at the southern extreme of the Rockies, where New Spain gives way to "existential wilderness," there sits the city - town, really - of Santa Fe. Founded in 1607, by the 1840s it was a town of maybe 7000 inhabitants whose wealth - never high - had been squandered in continual warfare with the Navajo tribe who lived in the surrounding region. It was a city of narrow mud streets, low muddy houses and a muddy swollen river, looking like "an extensive brickyard" according to one American soldier. The most arresting feature of the city were the bells, ringing incessantly from six churches - each of them old and cracked, some of them having been forged in Seville, shipped across an ocean, and then dragged up the Camino Real ("Royal Road") from Mexico City. Each of them had endured bullets, brine and several centuries of desert heat.

The surrounding countryside had its own individual atmosphere. I can't possibly describe this better than Hampton Sides:
Navajo country has moved modern geologists, ordinarily a reserved lot, to adopt a vocabulary of doom: Paradox Basin, Defiance Uplift, the Great Unconformity. Geological maps of the Navajo lands are ominously annotated with "upwarps" and "cinder cones" and "structural disarrays." Not far from [Navajo war leader] Narbona's home lay enormous forests of petrified wood, which the Navajo believed were the bones of Yeitso, a terrible beast slain by the war god Monster Slayer and left to rot on the plains, the creature's blood congealing into lava flows. Throughout Navajo country could be found canyon walls embedded with the fossils of sea organisms--corals, bryozoa, trilobites--that had lived in the ocean more than 300 milion years ago.

And Shoggoths, no doubt.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Ruralpunk 2: 10 Locations

This post is all about futuristic rural locations that can be dropped into cyberpunk (or Traveller, for that matter!) games. The two black and white images are both from the 1968 edition of Kansas Farmer. Together with the image on the cover of Keith Roberts' Grain Kings short story anthology, they provide wildly inappropriate illustrations for this post - too Big Science, too Hugo Gernsback by far. I like them. Fuck it - It's my blog, I'll be as inconsistent as I like (and as needlessly sweary and belligerent). 

(My friend Kasper, when told I was writing "10 ruralpunk locations", asked "Is one of them a small town at this point replaced entirely with spies? [...] It's a cold war in miniature, hidden beneath smiling folksey farmer types." I'm getting too predictable!)

It's bandit country. A local PMC has a fortified caravansarai with repair facilities, high walls, a greasy cafe. A discrete, cheap brothel hides nearby. Guides and hired guards wait with light vehicles and motorcycles to head out with passing convoys. 

People: harassed waitress, meth-head pimp, farmboy looking to hitchhike his way to the rebel base, trucker, robot truck saboteur in disguise.

A small but important business out in the sticks, the drone maintenance dock services dozens of autonomous vehicles from crop-dusters to trucks. A small team of techies drive out to find malfunctioning vehicles and bring them in.

So the important thing for 'runners to remember about these places is that they have equipment capable of fixing vehicle sized drones, which are functionally pretty similar to vehicles. They have metal 3d printers and tools onsite. People don't question strange robots rolling in and out of them, particularly in regions where self-made people are in the habit of designing their own robots. 

This is also where the local militia prints their fleet of recon drones.

People: yokel outlaw tech, farming drone programmer, militia rigger

Saturday, 18 January 2014


Cyberpunk is an urban tradition, concerned with cities in all their cosmopolitan, progressive chaos. Cities have people, giant corporations, fashion. They attract the young characters who dominate mid-1980s science fiction. Cyberpunk exists in a world of identikit airport hotels, clubs and office towers. More than half the world's population lives in the Metroplex, rising far higher than that in the developed world.

All of which makes the rural environment a more compelling as an alternate setting to plunge jaded 'runners into, even if they aren't Cyberpunk 2020 nomads. Based on my mantra of trying to make the familiar strange by adding ten years and a little advancing tech, this series will contain lots of notes towards running a science fiction rural setting.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Super Tuesday!

In which we run a deranged Shadowrun campaign

So I used to have this fantasy about a campaign that could never actually be run. I'd take every single official adventure ever published for every cyberpunk game and work them into the Shadowrun metaplot, starting in 2050 and going right through to the 2080s. The characters - or several generations of the characters - would fight and struggle through the Universal Brotherhood, the Arasaka-Militech CorpWar, the Year of the Comet and the Arcology Shutdown... the universe would evolve and shift, technology would race forward in real time, corporations would rise and fall...

Do you have any idea how many extractions I would have had to run? Or how many Cyberpunk 2020 campaigns feature the son of a corporate exec who happens to be a big haired rock star on the run? MORE THAN YOU CAN COUNT

Also, I've never run a published adventure in my life. 

Also, the quality of some of the older adventures isn't, like, inspiring.

Also, Shadowrun's rules make my head hurt.

So I put that idea aside for years, until Shadowrun released the Horizon AdventuresSeriously, I've been running and reading this stuff for years and there's ideas in Anarchy Subsidized which I'd have never come up with. That's what I want from an adventure. I wanted to run the three Horizon adventures. I wanted to run the separate Twilight Horizon, which seems to demand a veteran team with ideals to burn. I wanted to run Elven Blood, because it goes to wild places. Then the idea of running Elven Fire as a prequel emerged. And if I was doing that, I might as well bridge the gap with the election scenarios in Super Tuesday and Shadows of the Underworld...

The lunatic plan was back.

A Cyberpunk Appendix N (Part 1)

Appendix N was the suggested reading list in the back of the original D&D rule book, and my inner (and outer) obsessive book nerd is demanding I write something similar for cyberpunk gaming. This isn't going to be a list of cyberpunk genre novels - you can find that anywhere - but a list of novels which provide specific inspiration for the kind of games I've tried to run: urban, international, criminal... drenched in style and sweat.

The Vircades Project

Vircades Project is a blog devoted to role-playing games, especially in the science fiction genre. It’s about stories where hard-bitten criminals and revolutionaries plan corporate theft and violent heists, where freelance spies dodge surveillance drones and genemod animals, where every bullet fired from a pistol could drop a character. It’s about games where cunning and tradecraft and sheer cool overpowers brute force. Mainly, it’s about cyberpunk.

(But because I play RPGs, there’ll probably be some D&D stuff in here from time to time…)

What this blog is about

I love writing adventures and I love writing NPCs. So this blog will be full of both.

For me, obsessed with the neo-noir aesthetic, the cyberpunk genre has always – and weirdly – lacked good heist adventures. So I’m going to post some here (I’m not saying they’re going to be good, but they will be heists!). It’ll be fun to experiment with formats after discovering Savage Worlds adventure paths, the OSR movement and the recent line of Shadowrun plot point adventures!

The idea that Cyberpunk games are too close to reality to be escapist or fun is a totally valid one (for the novel and film genre as much as the games!). Part of what I love about the genre is how it makes the mundane world strange by extrapolating current trends just a little further. This really manifests itself in the city where the characters find themselves, and so I want to start writing about locations and architecture for games. The city of tomorrow doesn’t have to look like New York in the 1970s (as evocative a place as that was!).

At the time of writing this I’m running my first ever Shadowrun campaign, along with irregular Star Wars, Day after Ragnarok, and DnD Next games. I want/need to run some GUMSHOE as soon as possible. Both the Star Wars and DaR games went in (wonderful) directions I didn’t expect, so I’ve got lots of unused material for both those games to post here.

One final narcissistic thing. For years I’ve been posting on the Views from the Edge Cyberpunk 2020 forum under the name Companero. With the CP2020 community slowly falling away I don’t want all of that writing to disappear, so I’m probably going to repost a few things I wrote there, like, seven years ago. Because I can!

Cyberpunk 2020

Sometime over a decade ago I completed Deus Ex and Planescape Torment and went looking for some other deep story game fix. Inspired by Datafortress 2020*, I sought out a game store and asked the guy to recommend me a cyberpunk roleplaying game. He showed me Spycraft, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020. At first glance Spycraft was too dense, full of tables, and lacking in character (I still think that, to be honest!). Shadowrun was better – straight away there was a clear setting, a clear aesthetic and idea to get behind. It looked like a great game.

Cyberpunk 2020 looked like a cultural artefact. I was a teenager and discovering all of pop culture in a rush, and the punk zine visuals of that book (however laughably 1980s it was) hooked me straight away. CP2020 was written with a clear narrative voice so drenched in the genre conventions that I could practically hear a Michael Mann/Tangerine Dream soundtrack playing the background.

Also it was eight pounds cheaper than Shadowrun.

And seventeen pounds cheaper than Spycraft.

It doesn’t really matter that the rules-as-written were barely functional or actively missing in large parts, or that the hacking rules needed a total rewrite to fit into the game at all. It didn’t matter that the sourcebooks (with a couple of brilliant exceptions) were largely disappointing and that the setting as written was so boring that I’ve never actually used it. It doesn’t matter that ten years on I use a version of the game so hacked that it doesn’t much resemble the original. CP2020 remains my favourite game of any sort.

I’ve since gleefully (obsessively) mined Shadowrun, Kromosome, Transhuman Space, Ex Machina, ICE Cyberspace, Traveller 2300, Interface Zero, Night’s Black Agents, Stars Without Number, Jovian Chronicles and half a dozen other games for ideas and inspiration. And almost always run the resulting cyberpunk mash-up using a hacked version of CP2020.

* Datafortess 2020 is a massive project that now compiles virtually every piece of CP2020 fan material ever posted online. It is also frequently down, so i'll post a link the accompanying blog instead.

"The Vircades Project"

The name of this blog comes from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the thousand page unfinished draft of a book that aimed to explicate the Urgeschichte (“primal history”) of the city of Paris by collating virtually every aspect of geography, pop culture and revolutionary folklore available. The book is dense, confusing and largely impenetrable to anyone who (like me!) doesn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of French art and culture in the late 19th century.

I adore it. It appeals to the part of me that loves abstract pattern recognition, convoluted social sandbox games, espionage histories, punk zines and walking enormous distances across the city of London in no particular direction. Cyberpunk fiction inspired half those fascinations – hence vircades. Like the worlds conjured up in roleplaying games, vircades are ephemeral, ludic places that will only ever exist in fiction, purely for the entertainment of the players.