Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Review: THE VEIL

I was a teenager when I got my first taste of cyberpunk: Mike Pondsmith's CYBERPUNK, to be precise, a "Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future" that sunk its hooks into me deep. I was at exactly the right age for Mike's heady mix of violence, loud music, black leather, and style over substance, and we played the hell out of that game for a few years. I sought out Neuromancer to get a sense of the source material, and I loved it profoundly, but felt a little cheated. There was so much more to cyberpunk than CYBERPUNK actually brought to the table.

Later games like SHADOWRUN also got a lot of play, but the problem was always the same. Cyberpunk roleplaying games always seemed to get the trappings of the genre, but not the ideas that were its beating heart. Style over substance was the ethos, but it had become a kind of trap, leading us to game after game that was basically a dungeon crawl with guns and grenades.

Almost thirty years later, I've finally found a cyberpunk game that wants more than that.

Fraser Simons's THE VEIL will please a lot of people like myself who wanted a more thoughtful cyberpunk RPG. This is a game that embraces the literary and filmic foundations of cyberpunk, a game about the complicated relationship of humanity to technology, a game about big ideas instead of people in black leather shooting corporate goons in the face. At almost 400 pages, it's a weighty tome, but that includes very detailed examinations of most of the game's core elements and plenty of large, beautiful full-colour illustrations.

If you've played a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game, you already know the basics of how it works: Players create characters based on Playbooks, and actions their characters take in the fiction trigger structured Moves that push the drama forward. The MC (the GM) never rolls the dice, and is usually only able to make a Move on the players when they fail a roll -- and has very specific principles to guide them in what Move they make. The spirit of the game style is Playing to Find Out What Happens, and the MC is explicitly forbidden from planning too much.

Playbooks are the meat-and-potatoes of any PbtA game, because in a player-driven RPG, the tools you give to the players shape their choices. Build a game that's entirely scaffolded around guns and armour, you're going to get a lot of gunfights. THE VEIL has very unusual Playbooks, and that was where I knew we were in fresh gaming territory with this game. There is a Playbook that is especially good at hacking the eponymous artificial reality of the game setting, which is pretty standard for this genre, but most of the Playbooks are things we've never seen before. They do a great job of structuring a game around the meatiest and most interesting themes of cyberpunk, including some fare that's pretty ambitious for a RPG, even a modern indie game.

A glimpse: "The Apparatus is a synthetic being struggling to find their place in the world and unravel the mystery of their own existence... The Catabolist believes that humanity, and by extension they themselves, must integrate with technology as much as possible... The Seeker's strength is their faith. Their search for the answers humanity has always searched for and their quest for enlightenment defines them."

Mechanically, the Playbooks have similar features to other PbtA Playbooks, but instead of basing rolls on static attributes, they have emotional States which are in constant flux. This is intended as a guide to playing the character, and I think that's a really, really interesting idea that could lead some players into new and fruitful territory. It shifts your perspective from What does my character think about this? to the more crucial (for us drama-centric players) What does my character feel about this? Each Move you make causes an emotional "spike", and when you spike one emotion too much, you lose control of yourself for a bit, making every other emotion less accessible. So playing a character that's one-note, emotionally, is going to cause you problems mechanically down the line.

Another important ingredient in the Playbooks is Giri (a Japanese word that means duty or obligation). This functions in a similar way to Strings in MONSTERHEARTS, creating a web of connections between the player and non-player characters that can drive relationships and motivate in-game actions. This seems especially important in cyberpunk's two signature locations: the street, where who you know can keep you alive, and in the world of corporate intrigue, where the question of what master you serve and what you will do for them is always paramount.

I have one small quibble with this game, and I suspect that it may be a matter of personal taste. THE VEIL is strongly intended to emphasize emergent play, something that has always been an important part of the PbtA experience. The setting of the game is intended to be defined through choices that the characters make and answers that they give to questions from the MC as play unfolds. Since the Playbooks have some very esoteric and unusual elements, and strong ties to core cyberpunk themes, that's a fine strategy. My only issue is with the eponymous Veil that is, by definition, meant to be an important part of all of those worlds. For my liking, the Veil itself is not defined in enough concrete detail. There is a great deal of discussion about what it could be, but setting the details in place is left up to individual groups. I think that for some players -- me included -- this could be confusing, on a basic level of picturing the world and imagining the action unfolding. For other players, it could be a source of dissonance if their expectations of what the Veil is/can do are in conflict with what other players think. I feel like any setting element that important needs a few concrete details, even if you let the players stretch the boundaries and redefine things as play unfolds.

Overall, this is an impressive, thoughtful game, one that promises the kinds of cyberpunk roleplaying experiences I could only dream of years ago. Substance and style. Now that's a dark future I can get into.

Footnote: I had a chance to play THE VEIL with Fraser Simons at Breakout 2017, last March. I especially wanted to review his cyberpunk Magnum Opus right now to give him a bit of signal boost, because he's just about to bring the first supplement for THE VEIL to Kickstarter: CASCADE. It's got some new Playbooks, which are always fun, but also provides tools to help develop your setting,  (including a specific futuristic Taipei setting based on Altered Carbon to let you jump right into a game of THE VEIL), new mechanics, more genre discussion, and more of that sweet artwork. Fraser's a very nice man who makes very interesting games, so check it out!

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