Saturday, 11 December 2010

Interface Zero: bringing Cyberpunk to Savage Worlds

I always felt Savage Worlds was lacking a decent cyberpunk treatment. I know that Triple Ace has attempted this with its Tales of the Sprawl, but what was really required was a larger and more ambitious setting that really does the genre justice.

I've always loved cyberpunk, having really first got into the genre by reading William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive and Count Zero way back in 1995 when I was down with severe flu in only my second week in my new job at the Financial Times. We had a decent public library round the corner, and I managed to borrow the books before the virus struck me down. I found them very impressive, and got my flatmate reading them too.

Ultimately, I spent the Nineties running Call of Cthulhu, but I also played in two epic, epic campaigns. One was my brother's sprawling Shadowrun campaign, and the other my flatmate's even more spectacularly epic SLA Industries campaign. We were living in East London at the time, so it was easy for the GM's to pick up ideas for the dystopian urban decay of 2053 Seattle and SLA's Mort from the environment we were living in.

I'll never forget the search for one serial killer in SLA which took the best part of three years to locate and kill. Every time we thought we were on to him, it turned out to be another copycat killer. It was probably the toughest investigative campaign I've ever played in, punctuated by other unrelated missions we picked up as a team to pay the bills. It was more like a TV series today, with an episodic format, but a major plot thread running through the whole thing, ending in a final showdown in a lab at a hospital, where the elusive serial killer was finally slain by my character in a knife fight.

I've continued to have a nostaligic soft spot for those campaigns, which were sadly wound up around 2002-03. Being a big fan of Savage Worlds, I've always hoped someone would introduce a decent cyberpunk setting, just for the sake of completeness. Along comes Interface Zero this month from Cubicle 7 and Gun Metal Games, and an interesting beast it is too.

Interface Zero originally started life as a non-SW setting, but has since jumped onto the SW bandwagon as it gathers speed. It is what I hoped it would be: a 'regular' cyberpunk setting in that there are no elves or magic or other twists in the tale that might irritate me. I loved Shadowrun, but I know the idea of the Awakened and the Sixth World gets up some people's noses in a big way.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge in the world of cyberpunk gaming since Cyberpunk 2020 was originally published by R. Talsorian in the late 1980s. For starters, a lot of the technology used by our characters in our early Shadowrun games is now a reality. On top of that, there have been a lot of very influential additions to the genre by others, including movies like The Matrix and Strange Days, and the TV series Dark Angel, as well as manga contributions like Akira and Ghost In The Shell. All these are acknowledged in Interface Zero. There's also the introduction of virtual worlds like MMOs to consider; these exist in Interface Zero, but on a much larger scale, and it is nice to see other Savage Worlds settings like Deadlands and Hellfrost existing as popular virtual gaming worlds in Interface Zero.

IZ as I shall refer to it uses the world in 2088 as its start point. It suggests a range of different play styles, from manga to the more gritty street campaign and all points in between (there is scope for Mad Max-style badlands play, or more prosaic mercenary campaigns). We have the obligatory chapters on cyberware, hacking, and gear (a cyberpunk game must have gear). I felt Shadowrun ended up going too far down this line with its massive range of gear - it really was quite mind boggling how much kit you could buy by the time 3rd edition Shadowrun was launched. IZ keeps its equipment list more conservative, but it is good to see a broad range of interesting 'tools' for runners to use, from drugs to micro transceivers, from titanium razor nails to golem mechs. Plenty of really cool hardware that could be easily transposed to other sci fi SW campaigns.

I also like the chapter on street cred, which governs the PCs' ability to access resources, rely on contacts, call on favours, indeed to function effectively on their home patch. This can also affect things like Intimidation and Persuasion rolls in game, as well as your ability to Taunt.

You also don't have to play human characters anymore: there are animal hybrids, androids (inspired by Bladerunner) and even simulacra on offer as PC races. It is a little bit more exotic without going all the way down to the elves and dwarves and pixies of Shadowrun fame.

There is no plot point campaign as such, but there are some suggested adventures attached to particular regions within the IZ world. There is also an adventure generator, which I always like to see in Savage Worlds setting books. I've often considered running a Cthulhupunk game, inspired by the GURPS supplement of the same name, and combining IZ with the Realms of Cthulhu hardback really does begin to make this look like a real possibility. Very exciting.

IZ has a rich setting which encourages play beyond the bread and butter guns for hire campaign: I particularly like the private detective agency campaign seed, and being a fan of the 2000AD Simping Detective series, I feel quite intrigued by the idea of an undercover cops campaign in a 2088 environment (I also really enjoyed The Departed, which probably explains a lot).

Anyway, I feel a major gap in the Savage Worlds pantheon has now been filled, and really can't say there's much that could be added beyond what IZ has achieved already.


  1. I spent much of my youth playing Shadowrun and we loved it, although it did indeed become increasingly bloated, until I put my foot down and scaled it back to just the core rules. I still have fond memories of that game, although I don't know if I could play in that setting again.

    (My Shadowrun campaign crossed over into the Cthulhu Mythos, which should come as no surprise.)

    We also played a bit of SLA, but couldn't get it to become a long-term campaign. Again I liked the setting and it is one I'd like to visit again, I think.

    There's a question over how relevant the cyberpunk genre is in the modern era, as its classic imagery is very much of a future 1980's, but since the 80's are back in fashion, perhaps it's time to take another look, or if not, to take some inspiration from the cyberpunk fictions of more recent times, like Altered Carbon or the Carlucci trilogy.

    I know Ben's not keen on it as a genre, but if you ever get a cyberpunk game up and running, let me know!

    One flaw of pretty much every cyberpunk game I've ever played is the hacking, which tends to introduce a sub-game that has the effect of isolating the hacker player from the rest of the group. What ends up happening is that either the group has to sit out while the hacking sequence is played through, or that part is reduced to a minor mechanic, which strips the archetype of some of its value.

    I solved it in Shadowrun by making all deckers NPCs, but this is a less than ideal solution, so I wonder how Interface Zero handles it?

  2. aha!

    my chief problem with all sci-fi rpgs is that they either/ or:
    1) in an alien setting
    2)using alien technology
    both of which you have to invest tons of time reading them to get your head around what is what...

    Fading Suns helps get round (2)the tech part - dark age setting and (1) weird setting since they use world national groupings / cultures, as well as familiar dune-esque setting devices.... somehow I like that. But I guess that's because it is a passion play, not a dystopian rpg.... weird, since I can enjoy reading cyberpunk, and my favourite film is Blade Runner.....

    Even WRFP in space can give me headaches - all the tech, as well as background which I don't have a handle on at all!!

    Cyberpunk can solve problem of (1) setting, since it is set on our earth but then with (2) can have lots of gear, and for me, rather like Spycraft, is too tech-heady for me. I don't mind one-off spy dramas, but I have never had the energy for very complex plots which you tap into at the end of a busy week.... My primary problem though is that I seek escapism - and my day job is about trying to get students to see my dystopian interpretations of reality as opposed to the lovely world corporations and advertisers would like us to believe exists for everyone.

    I have played 2 incarnations of cyberpunk games. SLA industries was very depressing, playing a member of a kick-murder squad.....working for corporations. Not me at all. Cyberpunk RPG for me, likewise, was depressing. Industrial espionage, complex back-stabbing politics of a world/ society I couldn't relate to/ give a damn about.... I really find it all far too depressing.

    BUT by all means, play some at some point, and I'll sit out and play more boardgames for those weeks instead - I often find myself not boardgaming (on Tues) and only rpging on Fridays, so I can always swap gaming priorities for a bit so you can get your cyberpunk out of your system!

    Just finished watching 'once upon a time in the west' - fantatsic!

  3. Then again....maybe it was the way those games were run. I never want to play SLA industries for example.

    BUT if we were to play a NOIR-esque game of private eyes, a non-mysogynistic version of SIN CITY but in 2088 I could cope with that. ;) In terms of crooked cops, greedy bosses, corporate crime, with the pcs on a losing wicket, and ultimately all doomed to die. I could do that for 3- 5 sessions. So long as I get to roll dice and fight something every session and don't have to watch/ listen to net-running at all in the game! (That is SO DULL!)

    Blade runner meets SIN CITY. Sounds fine to me. :)

  4. One of the great things about SLA was that, while you were technically working for this massive corporation that ran the world - and much of the universe - it got a lot more interesting as you ended up having to cover things up, for example going off-mission and doing things your bosses might not approve of. We ended up with a sub-conspiracy, keeping quiet a mistaken assassination of another SLA operative called The Imp. That was one of the most entertaining dimensions of the whole thing, and a stick the GM could poke us with any time he liked! Heck, even the Mob had dirt on us! The paranoia got intense after a while...

  5. Yes, SLA is a little different, because there are no competing corporations with SLA running everything, so it almost feels like Paranoia, with the player-characters superficially furthering the goals of SLA while at the same time pursuing their own personal, secret and likely treasonous interests.

    It's different in that it's not 80's America projected into a dark future, as most bog-standard cyberpunk is, but rather a grubby Glasgow housing estate.

    I've always liked the setting, but the rules are a mess. There is a Savage Worlds conversion out there, but it's a big book, and requires both the SW rules and the SLA book, so it strikes me as being unwieldy in play.

  6. I understand there may be a new version of the game coming out, but then again, I feel that in many respects I've moved on from SLA.