Wednesday, January 27, 2021


Several months ago, Argentinian game designer Gavriel Quiroga asked if I would take a look at his then-new RPG, NEUROCITY. Now that I have a spot of time and he has a new Kickstarter called WARPLAND (already funded with forty days remaining!), it seems like as good a time as any to dig into it.

What you get: One hundred twenty-six pages of post-cyberpunk dystopia. Gavriel clearly loves the genre, and puts loving detail into making a tech-noir mélange in the way that D&D provides components for a fantasy kitchen sink or World of Darkness makes an urban fantasy/horror kitchen sink. The best way to describe it is with the genres it emulates: you get shades of 1984, Brave New WorldDark CityJudge DreddMemoirs Found in a Bathtub, Robocop, The Prisoner, and THX 1183. In terms of the game's "feel," it has similarities to Black Sun Deathcrawl, Cell Gamma from The No Press RPG Anthology, and Paranoia. (Longtime readers will recall my love for Black Sun Deathcrawl, and so should be unsurprised to learn that I similarly enjoyed NEUROCITY.)

Gavriel's writing is terse and clinical without being overly cumbersome, and despite the lack of fancy layout, I found it easy to read. (By way of example, I read the whole book in an hour or so.) Art and white space are used as effective pacing, the art largely comprising '80s-style cyberpunk comics and collages done by Sol Olweder. The overall style looks like a mimeographed zine from the '80s, something someone would shove into your hand at a political meeting or a punk show. Whether that's a style of art you enjoy, it's a stylistic choice that works well and fits the game's tone.

The Setting: I'll let the author himself give you the gist:

In order to delineate the setting it could be said that we are in a Post-Cyberpunk era where we can find configurations that refer us to aesthetic (Tech-Noir) and functional conceptions of the 80s. This is mainly due to the technological involution society has been forced in order to maintain its functionality in a closed environment.

Due to rigidity in administration and the constant fear of reprisals for evading protocol procedures Neurocity is slowly sinking into a bureaucratic swamp. Behind an apparent efficiency that satisfied I.S.A.C's gaze we find the vicissitudes of a technocracy deprived of the freedom to act according to common sense.

He describes a world that was once ours until we developed an AI called the Intelligent Singular and Artificial Consciousness (I.S.A.C.) re-ordered the world, developing a class system and a physiological regimen to keep the population docile. (As in Brave New World, the population medicates with soma, and has been rendered sterile; sex is frowned upon, but is still a common form of recreation, especially among the lower classes.)

There is only one settlement remaining and it is Neurocity, an enclosed mega-structure with artificial sky and weather. The outside world is dangerous, the boundary of the city marked by increasingly-abandoned and dangerous districts until giving way to the wastes beyond. The city itself is a retro-futuristic dystopia, where the common folk increasingly use old-school technology while only the upper crust has access to the truly futuristic stuff. (For example: mobile phones and flying cars are practically nonexistent, as both might inspire humanity to something approaching freedom.) As with most post-cyberpunk settings, cybernetics are rare, but genetic engineering is exceedingly common. Nobody ever dies in Neurocity; clones are regrown and imprinted with the previous person's memories. The population in Neurocity is completely static.

Zero population growth.

Rounding out the setting is a collection of tables for random encounters for the city's districts. I'm a sucker for random tables, and could see culling entries from some of these for other cyberpunk or science-fiction games. Even though they are specific to Neurocity, you could still mine them for inspiration in adjacent genres.

The System: The rules are pretty straightforward. Characters determine their role in society and their motivations, and also determine five stats ranging from 5-10. To perform an action when the outcome is in doubt, the goal is to roll 2d6 under the relevant statistic. There are a handful of complications and modifiers to this base rule — situational modifiers of -3 to +3 can be applied to the base statistic, successful rolls above 8 are critical successes, double 6s are critical failures, snake eyes or single ones are successful but might cause complications — but they're relatively straightforward.

(I'm personally not a big fan of overly fiddly modifiers, although the author recommends to just make sure they feel right. I would imagine in play the modifiers are rather like the shifts in Unknown Armies, and are meant to be applied with common sense rather than a strict tally of bonuses and penalties.)

Characters also have two derived scores, Tension and Wounds, which determine their capacity for mental stress and injury, respectively. Even though this is a game where violence happens, Tension is the true meat of the system, as PCs constantly have to balance the egregious psychological harm caused by this soulless system against the need to medicate or discuss their troubles. Tension also acts as narrative currency, as characters can choose to gain tension to reroll dice. If a character goes over their maximum Tension, they have some manner of psychosis as they lash out (and will probably be disciplined in some manner for acting in an unmutual fashion).

However, characters who are currently at maximum Tension and roll snake-eyes develop psychic powers, granting them superhuman attributes and an additional use for Tension.

As noted by the author, NEUROCITY is designed for short campaigns of roughly three to four sessions in length. (Before I read that note, I was going to guess five or six.) Although you could deviate from this basic formula, the basic gameplay loop seems to involve receiving a job from a superior (probably to do something about a terrorist cell comprising unmutual elements of the underclass), and in the process, ranging farther and farther out before learning the dark secrets of Neurocity.

The secret origin of Neurocity and the nature of I.S.A.C. provide the game's replay value, as these are designed to be randomized or altered every campaign such that no two versions of the city will be alike. (So while a campaign might only last four sessions, you could easily run a couple of campaigns in sequence to see if things turn out differently.) These secret backstory options also form the meat of the game and its central philosophical tension: how does one live in an absurd, dysfunctional future society where life is mandatory? How does one find meaning when life is meaningless? And is it possible to escape this prison, or is the prison preferable to what lies beyond?

The Verdict: We'll start with the bad: I found the rules a little fiddly and there are a few glaring typos that could have used another editing pass. (I don't speak Spanish and haven't read the Spanish version, so I don't know if that one is better edited.) Likewise, the book ends with some sample characters and other notes, but I might have liked a summary of some of the charts, like the example modifiers and the wound tables.

Beyond those minor complaints, I would recommend it. It has a neat setting and poses some interesting existential questions about finding meaning amidst the absurdity and existential dread of endless drudgery. (Contrast with Black Sun Deathcrawl, that offers no such philosophical musing, only the catharsis of nihilism.) The style of the book really fits the tone, and although the concepts are dense, Gavriel handles them fairly well. Even if the post-cyberpunk tech-noir setting or the rules don't interest you, you could probably use the random encounter tables and setting bits in your own cyberpunk or science-fiction games.

Given the game's replay value, either over multiple campaigns or as a source of random encounters for other games, I'd say the pdf price of $6 is more than justified. (The print-on-demand book is $30, and while I'm usually a physical copy sort of person, I don't imagine this will hit the table often enough to justify the price. On the other hand, if you planned on playing it multiple times, using the random tables, and taking it to conventions and such to run repeatedly, it would totally be worth getting a physical copy.)

And if NEUROCITY interests you, check out Gavriel's WARPLAND if you have the chance! It looks to be roughly the same price point with similar rules and philosophical attitude, this time in a fantasy setting.

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