I ran across Synthicide and happened to meet Dustin at GenCon 2017. He intrigued me by commenting that it wasn’t “my kind” of game, whereas my quick skim had shown me it probably was, and I suggested we follow up on that thought after I’d had a chance to look at it more carefully. By the time we had a conversation about it over Skype, I’d been pleased to find that it was full of playable techniques and general positions I was familiar with. When I learned that one of the inner circle who’d developed the game had a long Forge history, it was no surprise at all. I already really wanted to play it and we started scheduling, finally getting to it a couple weeks ago.
We could talk some more about the genre, especially the mash-up of Dune, Neuromancer (more Hardwired now that I think about it), and Blade Runner that has been assayed so many times in role-playing with slightly different spins. Here it’s a bit more brutal, more like the Dumarest novels and less like, e.g., Fading Suns.
So, at our game, I have to mark yet another score on the “wow, there are lots of really nice and fun people to role-play with in this world.” Here's us having a great time! A lot of the little laughs or chuckles were accompanied by eye contact and expressions like this.
The ordering on the screen is a little misleading especially with Brady set at the right. They were all sitting together in real space, and the others were to Brady’s left, so a lot of his body language looks weird in the video, as if he kept looking away. If you flip him mirror-wise in your mind, then a lot of the interaction becomes eloquent – he’s a very “we’re here together” player, and reinforced a lot of the warmth that developed among us. So a glance from him gets a lot of response that you won’t see unless you do that.
A bit about the character-and-ship pack we chose, called the Knife’s Edge: they’re mostly a reskin of some of the Serenity crew, with personalities and skill-sets rearranged just a bit, and all tuned more cyber and dark (Dark Space Age) as befits the game. One might even think that that’s the game, grimdark Firefly, but even before playing, I’d been thinking the most useful reference lies back in the roots of that whole family of TV shows: Blakes 7, which I love to pieces and which all the rapscallious-crew, rogue or at least marginal single-ship, pointed-political, dubious empire/society shows have mined at length, e.g. Lexx, Farscape, Cowboy Bebop, and the one I’ve just mentioned. Dustin didn’t intend it as he wasn’t familiar with the show, but Synthicide feels more Blake-ish than anything else to me, in its many non-compromising features.
A few disconnected points intended to accompany watching …
Choosing characters: two of the five available had some sort of recent spell of amnesia, and those are the ones we didn’t choose. You can see we were willing to take it seriously as a plot element, but dropped it partly through character choices and partly through the way we played through. However, I am kind of wondering if that was a factor in Kulgari’s surprisingly lackluster performance during the fight at the end, rather than just a couple of bad rolls.
The discussion after the ship chase, figuring out what to do next, offers an interesting mix of our proactivity and Dustin’s proffer of direction. You’ll even see a joke about going off prep which was not all that joking. That section of play was a lot meatier than a summary could show; it included lots of orientation and set up a number of plot elements like Bale’s background.
I also want to call attention to how we talked during play. You can see that I chatter away while my character’s not there, providing pure table-talk. The others do it too, and then there’s a significant point when Brady and I do not do it, when Nick makes an important choice concerning which game mechanic he’s going to employ. It’s a very good case of what I’m trying to discuss over in the Tales of Entropy consulting play post: absolutely yes, to table-talk as a practice, concerning rules to use, what their character “would” know, et cetera … until it’s time for the person with that job to do it, and then, you talk only when invited to do so by them.
I’m not enamored of mission-based play, and it’s instructive how we all addressed “the mission,” with our characters being completely cynical about any of the parameters and willing to jump any which way. The neat thing is that our characters’ various interaction abilities played directly into the decisions we made, as each character is as socially as nuanced as they are with combat, or perhaps more so.
Speaking of combat, we got really cut up by some of the oddest foes I’ve run into lately. But learning the system through experience was instructive: fighting in this game is all about the dirty. You counter-strike, you set them up, you generally do anything except stand there and trade blows, and characters are very different in their profiles of options. Everyone fights nasty in his or her own special way.
I will fess up to getting confused about one rule and clipping that section out of the presentation, not to save face, but because there was some extra annoying sound-interference at that point too. So here’s my official confession to being a dolt about the phrase “back up” during the fight.
Pay attention to the role-playing after about a round into the fight. First, there’s the ripple through us as we realized how outgunned we are, including some piss-taking toward Dustin to let him know we get it. Then, the tactics all become about how we act when we think it’s the day we die. I definitely do not just try to fight my way into the ship and escape, and Nick and I subtly decide to sacrifice the NPC we’re trying to save (although we don’t as it turns out, but we were about to do it). By the time we got to the airlock, you can see that all three of us are playing right into the tense dynamic among Kira as protagonist, Mirin as somewhat negative mother figure, and Bale as dubious boyfriend. We retro’d the finalized actions just a tiny bit based on who had enough action points to do what, but if that hadn’t been available, Brady was very clear about who took precedence, Mirin (me) or Tchek. When he says “story standpoint,” he’s not talking about overriding the point-constraints and dice rolls.
Final point – that whole “trad game” concept is bullshit. Every RPG is different, even if it’s by accident, and good design can be found throughout the various families or trajectories of construction, both historically and right now. There’s a lot more Sorcerer in Synthicide than you may think, and the parts that look like GURPS are much more consequential and contingent-upon-the-moment than one may think. I can role-play the bejeezus out of you with GURPS; I did it a lot about thirty years ago. But with Synthicide, I can satisfy a lot of the same structural and creative parameters but also see that every little decision about which gun or which personality trait gets easily folded into play, and once there, it counts.