Back to living-together play at Spelens Hus! We’re playing Zero. Briefly, it’s about a few “biomechs” (cyber-augmented humans) who lose their telepathic contact with the hive-mind which has nurtured and controlled them for their entire lives thus far.
The first session of play for a given group generally includes this moment of sudden dis-connection, in which the player-characters may only contact one another. It typicallyresults in more immediate character investment and sense of real personal involvement in play than I see in nearly any other game.
The publishing history is a little complicated. My copy, which we’re using for play, is the original 1997 publication from Archangel Entertainment. This is no longer available to publish due to complicated IP issues, so the text author and game designer, Lester Smith, has reworked it into one of the settings for his game D6xD6, available here. I think the new system is a little different but follows a lot of the same principles.
Lester is one of the seminal designers in RPG history whose work, in my opinion, has often been buried under publisher priorities. So I feel pretty strongly about playing his games for their own sake and not due to some franchise principle with tons of alleged support which turns out to be bloat. This one in particular is in my top billing for the best RPGs of the 1990s and is one of the best I have ever played.
The video embedded below goes to the second video in the playlist, which is the start of play, because I’m not sure how many of you want to see the 40+ minutes of preparation. If you do, the playlist includes that video to click on. Unfortunately, session 2 was not successfully recorded, but I’ve provided a summary and we’ve gone on to session 3, in editing as this is typed and soon to be included. [done! -RE]
The current technological and social circumstances are provided in the text, including the situation that the community is some kind of corridor and/or tunnel complex, but all the backstory and history are specifically given to the individual GM to develop. So I dug up some fun maps and gave some thought to what I think the Hive really is or was, to the problems it might collectively be facing, and what on earth (or wherever) might be going on regarding the titular Zero, the mind at its center.
To understand the game, here are some important numbers and rules:
- The single number on the character sheet is Focus, which is also the number of skills you have designated as Focus status (usually 2 through 9). Other skills are designated as Prior, and any other un-designated skills are called Untrained.
- You have all the skills and may attempt any, but you must roll equal to or above the number for a Focus skill, equal to or below the number for a Prior skill, and below the number for an Untrained skill. Note that you multiply the 2d6 together, thus the result ranges from 1 to 36.
- Certain other rules intersect such that maximizing your Focus build leads to a highly specialized individual capable of superhuman acts in very few ways and bad at everything else, and going the other way will get you a more “human” type person but with less chance and less maximal effects overall.
- As your character develops, you find that strategizing your Focus value isn’t very interesting, as there’s no “sweet spot” and you’re better off thinking in terms of the above thematic point. But there’s another aspect of character development which matters a lot more: the capacity to learn new skills invented by the player.
In other words, this is all about choosing and learning what sort of person your biomech becomes, once detached and now subject to the travails of such things as disagreement, biological urges, alienation, and a sense of individual risk.
As a final point, through sheer coincidence, this game is played concurrently with the final arc of the SF Pool game which focuses on the Hiver species. Given the similarity in names and motifs (insectoid cybernetics and sociality), I decided to use this simultaneity as a creative spark by determining that they should resemble one another as little as possible. Now, three sessions into each, I decided to summarize the comparison to keep my head on straight, as follows:
In other words, the Hivers (Galactic Peace) are not in any sort of overwhelming social crisis or dysfunction, nor are they facing a deliberate foe or subverting influence – it’s just this batch of individuals in a very dangerous environmental situation, deprived of most of the technology they planned to use, but biologically on-task and functional. Whereas the Hive (Zero) is an over-institutionalized community in considerable external danger overall, as well as experiencing some degree of breakdown in the telepathic unity which had been its salvation in the past. Furthermore, the individuals in play are subject to their own biological functions and needs emerging in forms they’re not used to, let alone their own danger from the immediate environment and from the Hive which now perceives them as intruders.