Saturday, 19 July 2014
RPGPundit Reviews: Corporia
This is a review of the Corporia RPG, written by Mark Plemmons, published by Brabblemark Press after a successful Kickstarter project. This is a review of the print edition, which is presented as a hardcover, with color cover and color interiors (featuring a number of photographs, rather than art). It's 205 pages long. I should note for the interest of disclosure that I am credited in this book as a "Contributing Editor", largely for some review and consulting advice I gave Mark in the early stages of his project.
Mark Plemmons is an Origins and ENnie award-winning game designer, known particularly for his work on the truly excellent western RPG, Aces & Eights; as well as Hackmaster and Kingdoms of Kalamar. I would think Corporia would be quite worthy of some award of it's own; perhaps "Best RPG of 1998"...
Now, I'm not trying to be insulting when I say that; Corporia is a fairly high-quality production. It's just that the overall style of it, the theme, even elements of the production of it strike me as kind of anachronistic. Even elements of the mechanics: there's something "Feng Shui-esque" about it, with a dose of Shadowrun, and elements of other games from the late 90s/early 2000s. It feels to me like had Corporia come out 15 years ago, it would have been a really big deal. Or, theoretically, maybe 15 years from now, if there's a "new school renaissance" or some other kind of nostalgia movement for 90s RPGs, Corporia would have fit right in. Evil megacoporations, office-workers-turned-fantasy-heros, rockstars + hackers + corporate security + wizards + company men as character archetypes; all of it feels like themes that were bigger a decade or two ago than they are now.
I mentioned this to Mark when he was writing the game; his response was that he thinks the world we live in today is more 'cyberpunk' than it was back then, and the themes of corporate-nihilism versus anti-capitalist rebellion are if anything more relevant to the post-"Occupy-Wall-Street"/99% world we live in today. Maybe so, but I wonder if that's not part of why this sort of thing hasn't come up much lately in RPGs; it's all gotten a bit too real to be good escapism.
So the basic premise of Corporia is this: it's the "near future" and corporations rule the world. Personal freedom has gone out the window while people are placated with distracting new technologies. In the shadows, the barriers of reality have weakened and horrors from "the dimensions of Chaos" have been loosed onto the world, corrupting people, bringing forth monsters, and even infesting technology. But at the same time, the Knights of the Round Table have also been reborn, only in modern bodies and in many cases with their memories fragmented. The PCs are of course the heroes in this situation, working for the "Knightwatch", a special operations team created by the reborn Sir Lancelot (in the form of a Megacorp CEO), working to fight back against both corrupt corporations and supernatural evil. Oh yeah, and Merlin is an AI now called M.E.R.L.I.N., and the setting of the game is a generic North-American-Megacity called "the City" (well, it worked for Transmetropolitan).
The basic system mechanic for Corporia involves adding attribute + skill value, then rolling 2d6 and keeping only the higher roll to add to the total. There are opposed rolls, unskilled rolls are possible too; if one of your die rolls is a 6, you get to re-roll that die and keep adding it, and getting boxcars allows you to re-roll and add both dice. In comparison, fumbles are fairly insignificant, you simply don't get to add your die roll at all (which means that the difference between the lowest possible regular roll, a 2, and a fumble is only 2 points). There are degrees of success (anytime you beat your difficulty number by an increment of 5).
Combat works along similar lines, with opposed checks. There are hit locations, which are random by default but anyone can try to aim to hit a specific location (which they do successfully if they get at least one increment of success). There are also some mild and slightly wishy-washy social conflict rules (which treat the PCs differently than NPCs, while not leaving them completely immune to potential social manipulation). The combat mechanics are very tight, the core of them being only about 5 pages long.
The rules for character creation (called "Human Resources"... get it?) are provided only after the basic mechanics and combat rules. Sample character archetypes can be chosen for quick character creation; archetypes include "Badge" (private corporate security), Hacker, Headhunter (an assassin), "Journo" (journalist), Knight-Errant (a reincarnated Camelot Knight), Lister (a rockstar or celebrity), Radical (an anti-corporate rebel; the sample quote here is hilarious, and sums up both what's great and what the basic problem is with trying to do an RPG with this theme in this day and age: "I have a trust fund, a stock portfolio, and a doctorate in modern art. And I know a dozen ways to kick your ass"), Runner (a parkour-style urban messenger/smuggler), Sorcerer (a techno-wizard), Suit (a corporate manager), Thinker (a scholar), Witcher (an old-school magician who eschews tech), and "Zero" (a lower class worker).
Assuming you don't want to choose a completely pre-built archetype, the only alternative is to create a character from scratch using a point-buy method. Long time readers already know my feelings about point-buy character creation (I'm against it!), and it would have been good if there could have been some kind of half-way mark between creating a character with a complex point-buy process on the one hand or choosing a totally pre-made archetype on the other.
Character stats are purchased by selecting a set of priorities, which then allot points to spend on "core values" (attributes), skills, general assets (advantages) and supernatural assets (magic powers). Not bought with points but rather selected, are the Personality traits, which are descriptive qualities that help to define the character (e.g., things like "Aggressive", "energetic", "adapts to change", "craves attention", etc; one trait selection must also be a "private trait", a kind of secret or negative quality, things like like "orphan", "Wary of ...", "multiple personalities", or "blackmailed"). Traits are used to obtain "flux points" (points for special bonuses). Although in theory a player could select these in any way, they are listed in the game according to "astrological traits", which could optionally be selected through a D12 roll.
There aren't that many attributes as to be unwieldy, nor are there the plethora of skills one often finds in point-buy systems; but the character creation mechanic still suffers from a standard problem of point-buy: you can make a guy who is very talented, but not very skilled or powerful, or a guy who's very skilled but not very talented or powerful, or a guy who's moderately talented and powerful but not skilled, etc.; but you can't have someone with great talents and great advantages and great skills, or someone who sucks at everything. Some people like to think of this as an advantage, though.
General Assets include a wide variety of things, from feat-like bonuses like "fortitude", to funding levels, social influence, networks, safehouses, fame, etc.
Supernatural assets include spellcasting, virtual-reality hacking, or quasi-psionic powers.
The section on magical disciplines is, amusingly, presented in the form of a corporate report. Magicians, be they of the modern 'sorcerer' variety or the hippie nature-worshiping 'witcher' style, can cast a number of spells per day equal to their Magic score, and then beyond that can continue to try casting with a cumulative penalty to their checks. Failure to successfully cast a spell at that point causes a mental feedback that will leave them unable to spellcast for a couple of turns. Spells can be modified (in things like range, duration, targets, etc.) by adding to the difficulty number of the casting. The list of skills is said to be by way of example; GMs (and players, in theory) can create their own (that said, the list is fairly detailed).
The equipment chapter is very thorough, and similarly couched in the form of advertisements and reports; it includes all the cyberpunk standards: weapons, armor, performance-enhancing drugs of various sorts, and magical objects; and of course, cyberwear.
The chapter on the default campaign location, "the City" is largely done in the form of a tourist guide; there is thus information on transportation, hotels, rents, medical care, security, and a map of various neighbourhoods with details of the particular qualities of each. There's the trendy liberal neighbourhood, the shopping hub, the Chinatown, the downtown core, the business hub, the Hispanic area, the hipster university area, the lower-class neighbourhood, etc. etc. Each area gets a one page writeup, which details the size, corporations headquartered there, notable locales and other items of interest, and local government. The material is pretty straightforward and most of it is not very surprising at all (except for the one neighbourhood suffering from a kind of zombie outbreak).
The setting wouldn't be complete without some evil Megacorps, and 18 of them are detailed in the subsequent chapter. These are detailed very "straight", without any really significant blatant adventuring hooks; instead we get the entertainment conglomerate, the financial services conglomerate, the medical/pharmaceutical corp, etc. The closest we get to anything really noteworthy is how one entertainment company is producing adult-themed "companion robots", and the mining conglomerate has opened a division dedicated to mining for alchemical compounds. But since this chapter is theoretically set up to be player-friendly, it makes some sense that perhaps the dark secrets of the corps would not be mentioned here.
The GM chapter establishes that the "Big bad" of the setting are the extradimensional entities of Chaos, who are using the "flux" of the magical rebirth to try to invade and settle the Earth. Ruthless corporations are accelerating the problem with their ruthless experiments with magic; Morgan Le Fay is plotting to try to bring the Chaos Entities through in exchange for immortality and power, and the "Church of Transcendence" are unwitting pawns of Le Fay, convinced that the Chaos forces coming through the Flux are actually "Gaea", who will bring down the corporate world and bring forth a green hippie utopia (note that the book makes it explicitly clear that this is NOT the case). I thought the latter was a nice touch, to counteract the simplicity of what could otherwise end up being a pretty one-sided view of "capitalism bad, hippie lovefest good".
There's also a lot of guidelines on how to structure and adventure (with a step-by-step formula using the acronym "G.R.A.I.L."), and rules for creating NPCs and "Cryptids" (mutations from the flux). You also get special combat rules and guidelines for handling Mooks, surveillance, healing, "wildflux" (places where chaotic energy is more intense); and guidelines for how to use the Megacorps in your campaign. In this latter section, you get some of the dirt on the corporations that was not in the earlier (for player's) section. Even so, here most of these "corporate challenges" are more about general malfeasance than any dark supernatural secrets. There's also very broad random tables for generating your own Corporate NPC encounter, and also (more complete) random tables for generating your own City area. There's also a half-dozen adventures, outlined in the "GRAIL" format, only described in very general terms (each adventure outline is only one or two pages long); these adventures range from an introductory "first adventure" that involves finding a killer, to the apocalyptic campaign-ending final battle with Morgan Le Fay.
The Knightwatch, the central organization that is assumed to be the group the PC party belongs to or works for, is only explained on p.184 of the book; which is a bit of a tactical error on the author's part, I think. In short, Sir Lancelot has reincarnated as the wheelchair-bound CEO of a megacorp, which he now uses to try to fight the forces of Chaos and with the hope of eventually overthrowing the entire current world system and replacing it with a benevolent monarchy under a reborn King Arthur (who is apparently also known as Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-RPG). There's also a MERLIN, but it's a supercomputer AI, which organizes and co-ordinates the Knightwatch. The corporate secretary of Lancelot's is Nimue, former lady of the lake; she's the one who issues the mission orders. And the chief operations officer is the reborn Percival. There's also a rival version of Knightwatch led by a reborn Mordred, who also opposes the forces of Chaos but for his own purposes of eventual world domination. NPC stats are provided for all of these, as well as for Morgan Le Fay, security forces, gang members, and cultists.
There's also statblocks for a few sample "Cryptids", which are accompanied with pictures, made all the creepier for being photoshopped photographs rather than drawings or digital art. Among others, there's chimera (human-animal mutations), dopplegangers, horde (zombies), artificial intelligences, morlocks, vampires, some weird thing with an eye in its mouth, succubi, and invisible men.
Finally, there is a two-page list of magic items, most drawn directly from Arthurian myth.
So what can we conclude about Corporia? Certainly, if you're into Cyberpunk + Fantasy, then this is well worth checking out. Rules-wise, it's way less insane than Shadowrun. Setting-wise, making the "fantasy" element specifically Arthurian Fantasy gives it a new spin.
But still, even though the quality is really there, something about the whole production just strikes me as out-of-place. It's like if you had some band you really loved back in the late 90s, hit songs, etc.; then they come out with a new album. Sometimes, when that happens, the band tries to totally reinvent themselves, for good or ill; a few do it brilliantly, most crash and burn. At other times, they're a decade older but still producing the same style of music; only the rest of the world has moved on, and songs that would have rocked your world and topped the chart ten years ago now just seem sort of quaint.
Still, if in another ten years or so there's some kind of "New School Renaissance", people will be all over this game. And for now, if the setting is your kind of deal, you should totally check it out. Especially since, as of the time of this writing, the Corporia PDF is "Pay what you like"!
Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Egg + Gawith's Navy Flake