Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Milestones in gaming #6: SLA Industries

In the mid-1990s I was living in London and working for the Financial Times. I wasn't then part of a regular gaming group and probably would not have had time for one anyway, as I was too busy getting myself established as a journalist and learning the ropes, so to speak.

However, I did have an irregular gaming group, and we did meet up two or three times a year, usually for an entire weekend of RPGing that often also involved large quantities of beer and a pub crawl on the Saturday night. It was a great time to be 25 and in London.

At this point in time we had been playing a lot of Shadowrun with a side order of Call of Cthulhu when it suited. And it was Shadowrun that got us onto SLA Industries. One member of our group decided he wanted to spend some time behind the GM's screen, and while he loved the cyberpunk milieu of Shadowrun, he didn't feel there was room for a second campaign in the same world. Somewhere he stumbled across SLA Industries, and cobbled together a campaign in the dark and twisted super city of Mort.

Boy, what a campaign that was. In this dystopian vision of a decaying urban jungle, the default party is a freelance team of heavily armed operatives ("Slops" in game terminology) who bid for and are awarded contracts by SLA Industries, the massive corporation that dominates Mort. These can range from going into the sewers to hunt aliens to tracking down one of the many serial killers that haunt the city. It is a particularly dark and twisted vision which mixes elements from Alien, Bladerunner, Escape From New York and The Crow, spiced up with a slice of 'magic'. Drugs and violence were a regular component. Given the GM was a qualified pharmacologist who also worked in a specialist poisons unit advising casualty doctors, you can imagine how graphic the in-game crime reports were!

At the time, the idea of systemically dangerous terrorist groups, private armies, and companies bigger than countries, seemed edgy and dangerous. Living now in the world of Al Qaeda and Blackwater, it feels more tame. The future of the 1990s is increasingly our present.

The characters were similarly twisted. There were some bizarre racial backgrounds, like Frothers, warped echoes of Scottish highland clan warriors fuelled by combat drugs and wielding power claymores, or Stormers, genetically engineered super soldiers that were good for fighting but little else (PC Stormers ended up sitting in the back of our armoured personnel carrier until needed).

Why was this a gaming milestone (and why does it qualify for this series of posts)? I guess because this ended up being the biggest, longest, most sprawling RPG campaign I've ever played in. It probably started around 1994, and reached its bloody conclusion in 2003. In between, I got married, left journalism (for the first time - I returned in 2004), left London, and started a family. Most of the key player characters survived, although there were a number of close shaves, and at least one fatality.

The core plot was the hunt for an elusive serial killer, who turned out to be three killers, the real one and two copy cats. But there were plenty of other missions happening at the same time, while the team relentlessly pursued a better media profile and advertising opportunities.

Organised crime was a big element, and we were never sure whether we were working for the Mob or against it, from one week to the next. The fire power also became more absurd, as the game's designers added more equipment to the mix. Yet somehow poignantly, when we finally cornered our killer in 2003, he turned out to be an ordinary Joe, working in a hospital, who had nothing but a scalpel to defend himself with against a battle-hardened, seven foot tall alien Shaktar, a member of a warrior cult with state of the art armour, automatic weapons and laser targeting. The killer's greatest defence was his ability to stay anonymous and pass unnoticed under the eyes of a security state. Once that was gone, the rest was easy.

My brother, who played the team's Ebon (a psychic elf), sat back at the end of it all and said: "I am never, ever going to play in such a beard-grayingly long campaign again."

Perhaps everyone ends up playing in a campaign like this once in a gaming lifetime. It is not defined by the game itself, or the setting. It is defined by where you happen to be in time and place, the niche it occupies in your life's story, and the way it reflects who you were at that time. It can never be replicated. The people who take part are also critical to the whole experience and inevitably, gaming groups will drift apart as members' priorities shift or they move further away (even abroad).

Somewhere I still have my players' pack, literally a mound of crime reports, character sheets, maps, calendars, tables, background briefings, the in-game newsletter which appeared every six months or so...it was a massive exercise, truly a labour of love that I fear will never be repeated. It was a monster campaign, a veritable white whale of gaming goodness, and I loved every minute.

1 comment:

  1. The metaplot was awful, the rules were wonky and clunky, and the books would fall apart when you looked at them but I've always had a fondness for SLA because the setting is great. I like how the player-characters gain corporate sponsorships as they advance, and how camera crews follow them around on missions, and I love how instead of Future Seattle or Future LA or Future Tokyo, SLA gives us what is more or less Future Glasgow.