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Friday, 15 January 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Daytrippers (core rules & gamemaster guide) PART I

This is a review of the RPG "Daytrippers: A Surreal Science Fiction Reality-Hopping RPG", which comes in two books (the core rules, and the gamemasters guide).  Both are written by Tod Foley, and published by "As If Productions". The books are both softcover, the Core Rules being about 44 pages long, and the GM guide about 120 pages. The covers of each show a space scene (the GM Guide featuring a planetoid that looks like a giant head).  There is only a very light scattering of interior art, which is black and white and consists of small images that could be considered generic sci-fi.

The back of the core book describes Daytrippers as "a roleplaying game set in a surrealistic near-future science-fiction multiverse" where characters "pilot unique machines into dream worlds and pocket universes to retrieve items of unearthly value".  The author also lists his influences as Moebius, Michael Moorcock, Rudy Rucker, Stanley Weinbaum, Jack Vance and "other masters of weirdness".

The Core Book, as you can imagine from its size, is relatively very light on setting, focusing just on providing the basic premise and then mechanics to cover that premise.

The core rulebook does start, however, with some pseudo-fiction, in the form of a kind of historical retelling of the key setup of the game setting. Like I've found with most in-game fiction, it's not particularly good (but that's nothing new), though it is perhaps slightly mitigated that its in a kind of mockumentary format rather than a short-story format. Thank goodness for that!

The game is set almost a century from now, with a scientist (with the questionable name of "Zayim Diaspora"; every single NPC in both books has a funny name, as far as I can tell) discovering a technology that allows people to 'slip' out of this reality and into other realities. There are several kinds of these slips possible: you can travel to other planets in this universe, slip into alternate earths, go backward or forward in time, go into dreams, or do a 'compound slip' into more than one of these categories at once.  That's the fundamental conceit of the setting, and where the action is meant to take place: PCs are travelers able to visit other worlds, alternate earths, other times, or even non-realities (like "dream worlds"), leaving a very open range of adventuring possibilities for the game.  The term "daytrippers" comes out of the major qualifier of the setting: you can only travel for 24 hours at a time, and failing to get back before your 24 hours are up could have disastrous consequences for you.

(Beatles Cover Band? Or Alternate Universe Beatles??)

We are also told a little bit about the homeworld of the setting. It's pretty standard cyberpunk fare: there's lots of megacorporations and it's what I guess we'd call semi-dystopian. Not godawful, but "dull, stupid, and ridiculous" (in the author's own words).  There's a note too that all the major world religions have united into a single "Church of OMG" (one miraculous god), which I frankly find unbelievable to a point of stupidity. Technology (aside from the slip-ships that are central to the setting) is extremely advanced: robots, stem cell banks, fusion, mecha suits, limb regrowth, cybernetics, colonies on mars, cities in Antarctica, mining on Titan.

After this very brief (6 page) introduction, we get right to character creation. Sadly, it's point-buy. One of the worst sorts of point-buy: you get 100 points and have to decide from this to buy your stats, skills, gear, crew, ranks, fame, and a ship to go reality-hopping with.  Point costs vary wildly. So you're more or less stuck with a lengthy and irritating character creation accountancy process. The only saving grace is a little sidebar that lets you just make some "short form" characters (that is to say, a selection of how to assign stats and skills), though even there you need to decide what value goes where, pick the skills yourself, and you still have extra points left over; so at best you just get a slightly faster system.
There are "classes", but these are really more of a 'profession', they do not determine what skills or abilities you have (instead, I presume you're meant to pick from the list of 20+ skills whatever might make sense for your class to have).  Classes are at least colorful; the suggested list includes things like "gonzo writer", "celebrity", and "tourist", alongside more standard options like "soldier" or "scientist".  There is an optional rule that lets you gain a 'class advance', a specific bonus based on what class you choose.

Some of the more unusual things you can spend your points on are 'crew' (staffers or crewmembers for your ship, NPC retainers, in essence), rank (if you have official rank in the military, political office, or some kind of secret/spy organization), or fame (how well known you are). You are allowed to spend more points than you have, but this translates into a debt (money debt) that you owe to some megacorporation or character. If you don't pay your debt you will end up losing fame and could end up being arrested.

Skills are treated in a very loose kind of framework; which is not to say that the skills aren't specific (with things like acting, drug tolerance, fighting, firearm, mnemonics, prestidigitation, programming, stealth, etc.), but the rules explicitly state that if you can find creative ways to apply them, you can get the rule bonus. The interpretation is meant to be very fast and loose; for example, if your character is trained in fighting he can obviously use it to fight, but he could theoretically use it for keeping his balance, or for self-control in a non-combat situation.

Worse still, we're told that the reason for this "Fiction-driven approach" is that "the purpose of this game is to tell amazing stories". Which from the point of view of a regular RPG is hogwash, of course; and yet while clearly loosey-goosey in terms of application, the rules thus far are not in any way a storygame.  It's rather an RPG that has let itself be muddled by the author's infection of story-game thinking.

There's some further suggestions: progressive character generation, where you don't spend all your points at once, and instead can spend points during play (or in between play) to claim abilities or skills retroactively by inventing some background detail.  There's also "lifeshaping", which is a set of dramatic tags that define your character's roleplaying qualities. Examples are things like "taught to always hide my feelings", "sieze the throne or die trying", or "must take good care of my red barchetta". If you invoke these, it gives you extra dice on your resolution roll.

A couple of sample characters and generic characters are provided.

The system is also a dice pool, adding insult to injury, but at least its not a 'counting successes' or 'adding a shitload of dice' type of pool. It's one of those involving rolling various dice but only registering the highest value. You roll a number of dice equal to your attribute, take the highest value, and then add bonuses for skills, items, character development, etc.; and subtract penalties for things like being wounded or attempting multiple actions.

The resolution is not a straightforward pass/fail, but rather involves the whole "no, and", "no, but", "yes, but", "yes", "yes, and" method so beloved of Storygamers.  Some people love these sort of things, but in my experience they tend to require the GM adding complications in a way that feels utterly artificial. It's not enough to just say "you fail", you have to say "you fail BUT suddenly this other thing happens" or "you succeed but then this asshole shows up out of nowhere" or whatever. Irritating.

The combat system largely follows the same lines and is pretty simple. There's also rules for how to handle characters trying to assist another character at some task (depending on the result they can help or hinder the efforts).
In combat, damage can be taken to any of your attributes; depending on where the GM judges damage to be directed. There's rules for toxins, diseases and drugs (I think sample poisons might be statted a little bit on the weak side); and healing can take a short or long time depending on your access to medical assistance and technology.
There's various pages dedicated to vehicular combat. It feels to me a little bit at odds with the otherwise more rules-light tone of the rules. There are likewise several pages of rules on slip-ship creation and sample ships provided; again, more rules-heavy than one might expect from other parts of the game.

There are also significant rules for 'vector slipping'; the mechanics of traveling to these various places you can get to in the game setting.  Naturally, the presence of these are more understandable. Particular information is given to Dream Worlds, because they have different rules for obvious reasons. There's also rules for the special Automated Survival Suits that daytrippers need to use when they travel. These suits allow you to survive the hazardous conditions of slipping; they also enhance your strength, have automated medical systems to heal you, can absorb some damage, and have scanners and jets.  Suits can take damage and special rules cover this; this is a good thing to include given the significance of the suits (and armor damage being something that is often overlooked in these types of games).

Experience points function very similarly to the character creation points, though depending on what you're buying the cost of xp for 'cp' varies. You get experience points for a variety of reasons: by missing a roll, by doing well in a roll, for vising new slipnodes, for returning home from a slipnode, for getting close to dying, for saving someone's life, for defeating an enemy, for bringing back artifacts or discoveries, for doing retcon character-development scenes, and other stuff as the GM wants.  The designer suggests that a typical mission will give 10-20XP, I think that this might be a conservative estimate depending on how literally the GM intereprets these guidelines.  Again, it may be hard to tell from a straight reading of the book, but I suspect that character points are gained a bit too quickly for what you'd want for a longer-term campaign.

The last section of the Core Rule Book describes an optional system for creating "collaborative missions"; a way for the whole group to create (through a set of abstract methods) a mission, which pushes the game right out of RPG territory and into full-blown Storygaming. It's only about four pages long.

I'll refrain on judgment until the end of Part II of this review, where I will be tackling the Gamemaster's guide.


Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown Cutty + C&D's Crowley's Best

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your time and attention, Pundit! I am aware that genre-sim isn't your favorite pony, and I appreciate the detail of your critique. As you imply right near the end, DayTrippers is a toolkit which can be approached in a number of different ways, from a strongly-GMd "75% OSR" experience to a pretty storygamey one. I leave that decision up to the individual GM and their playgroup.
    - Tod Foley
    Currently Smoking: Nat Sherman's