Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Predation (Cypher System)

My siblings greatly enjoyed jumping out and scaring me at various points in time, because apparently I’m at my most hilarious when I’m worked into a panicked frenzy. At no time did they enjoy this more than when they could jump out and scare me when the dinosaur roared at the end of the intro to Land of the Lost. Despite their dedicated work at trying to make me terrified of all things dinosaur, I fell in love with the poor, extinct things, and in 3rd grade I was reprimanded for being able to name various dinosaurs and which ones existed at the same time as the others, but neglecting actual, useful information--thus establishing a pattern in my life of being really dedicated to knowledge that has no immediate practical use to me.

I will freely admit that my dinosaur-lore is nowhere near as developed as it was in those halcyon days of 3rd grade, but I still have a weakness for the formerly existing beasts of yore. So when I see RPG products that have dinosaurs as a theme, it’s hard for me not to take notice.

While Tomb of Annihilation is coming later this year, and seems to be filled with dinosaur goodness, it appears that the Year of the Dinosaur is getting started early with the release of Predation, a setting book for the Cypher System RPG.

How It Looks, Feathers and All
My review is based both on the PDF and the physical version of the book, since both arrived before I finished my read through of the book. The book is 192 pages, including an index, glossary, a standard character sheet, and companion character sheets in the back of the book.

Cypher System books tend to have nice, high-gloss art throughout. This book is no exception, but in this case, the setting has a specific look. That look is a mix of post-apocalyptic remnants, high tech gear, savage trappings, and cybernetic dinosaurs. Because of this distinct look, there is very little artwork in this book that has appeared elsewhere in the Cypher System line, and because it does such a good job capturing this specific look, you will probably want your players to see this as an aid to help visualize the setting.

In addition to the many evocative art pieces in the book, there are a few continental maps and city maps for the major locations. There are the usual sidebars with quick stats and page references both in the book and in the main Cypher System rulebook. While the entire line of Cypher System books has high production values, this has to be one of the nicest looking of the line.

Part One: Getting Started
This section includes two chapters, From the Far Future to the Distant Past, and Predation Basics. The first chapter gives the zoomed out, broad strokes synopsis of the setting, while the second chapter explains what rules from the Cypher System rulebook are utilized and what special rules apply to the setting.

The elevator pitch for the game is that you are living in the era of the dinosaurs, sometime close to the arrival of the big asteroid event that caused them to go extinct. Your character is the second or third generation to live in this time, as the corporation that developed time travel and established a colony is no longer in communication with the settlements. There is high tech stuff around, but it’s not always reliable, and you probably have a genetically modified or cybernetically advanced dinosaur as a buddy.

In the Predation Basics chapter, we find out that the setting uses the flavor rules from the Cypher System rules. What this means is that while the character types from the core rules are (kinda) used (but renamed), some of their abilities at each of the tiers is replaced to give the character type a special feel unique to the setting. Essentially, you have big bruisers (Karn), mad scientists (Tec), explorers (Pteryx), and shamanistic types (Osteon) who have an affinity for the temporal anomalies and storms that pop up.

Companions are mentioned in this section, but they are detailed in another chapter. The teaser you get here is that you make them for your character, and another player runs them. You can chose not to have one, and you get extra abilities if you do not have one, but the assumption is that you will have your own dino (or early mammal) buddy.

Cyphers work as they do in many settings, i.e. they are one use items, and you have a limited number of them that you can carry. The twist for this setting is that cyphers get encoded directly into your DNA, rather than being a separate object. That DNA programming comes from code swirling around in the temporal anomalies you can find, so you have incentive to seek them out (of course, they also spew remnants and artifacts as well).

Part Two: Characters
This section is composed of the following chapters: Character Creation, Character Type, Character Descriptor and Focus, Companions, and Equipment.

These chapters walk you through making a character in the setting. To a point, it’s very similar to making character in other Cypher System games. The Character Types have some abilities swapped out in each tier using the flavor rules, as mentioned above. Thankfully, there are charts that detail exactly what each character type has available at each tier, and which book (Predation or the core rulebook) has the details. In addition, there are Cretaceous Abilities that are new to this rulebook.

There are the usual things you might expect in a Cypher System book like new foci and descriptors, but I have to admit, that section is probably the least exciting aspect of this section. That’s not an entirely fair assessment, since there are some nice twists on the regular Cypher System rules in this section, overall.

Speaking of those twists--companions! While you can play without a companion (and you get extra abilities to compensate if you don’t have one), the assumed style of play is that you create your character, and your companion. The twist is, on your turn, you run your character, and another player at the table runs your companion, so that on each turn, there is usually a pair of players acting. Often companions don’t do what their partner tells them to do, and whether they do or not, it is up to the other player to determine how those orders are ignored or followed. It’s a nice twist on the idea of a player character companion that makes it much more interesting. You build your companion by picking a base type, adding a disposition, and then layering on special abilities that might do things like passively help you or boost their stats or abilities.

The rules governing equipment in the Cypher System are fairly simple, but there are some evocative descriptions that go along with those simple mechanical effects that do a good job of portraying the themes of the setting.

Part Three: The Setting
The chapters in this section include Welcome to Grevakc, Laramidia, Appalachia, and Groups and Organizations.

Welcome to Grevakc goes into more detail on the timeline of the setting. It explains what the first generation was like, and the differences between life before and after time travel failed.

Laramidia details one of the two continental bodies in the setting, and takes up a lot of the pages in this section. Laramidia has the most settlements, locations, and plot hooks detailing the setting wide and local power groups.

Appalachia has fewer settlements--both land masses are largely untamed, but Appalachia is exceptionally wild, compared to the other continental mass.

Groups and Organizations goes into the setting wide power groups that lurk behind the scenes or jump up and scream “here we are!” There are people attempting to keep the old corporate structure going from before time travel broke, an organization looking to prove the literal existence of the Garden of Eden, and a group that wants the humans trapped in the past to die out in order to minimize their potential to destroy the timeline.

In addition to the implied plot hooks that the setting details provide, each region has a sidebar that explicitly spells out some adventure starters. There are simple character stats in various sidebars, and each region usually has an NPC or three for the PCs to interact with, who are given their own personalities and goals in relatively quick summaries.

In particular, there is a town that is revisited in the sample adventure that is a good starting point for new adventurers. It is both a crossroads and a place where the sport of dinosaur wrestling is very popular. The section on genetically modified spiders raised for their silk, and the environment created for them, is also especially memorable.

Part Four: Creatures and NPCs
This section is split into Using Creatures, and Creatures and NPCs.

The Using Creatures chapter details what creatures from the Cypher System rules are appropriate for use in the setting, and how to describe them to tailor them to the setting and its themes. There are some unique creature abilities, which can also be used for companions if the GM is okay with them. There is a two page spread that gives a size comparison of the various dinosaurs and other creatures in comparison to a human.

Creatures and NPCs gives the specific stats for creatures native to this setting, as well as giving some interesting background information on them, such as what place they might have in society or in their ecosystem. There is a note in this section that all of the dinosaur artwork shows modified versions of the creatures, since the “standard” version of various dinosaurs can usually be found fairly easily, but finding a picture of a stegosaurus genetically modified to throw lightning bolts is harder to find. I can’t fault their logic.

Part Five: GM’s Toolbox
This section contains the following chapters: Running Predation, Cyphers, Artifacts, and Remnants, and Promised Land.

Running Predation specifically discusses some of the potential issues with mentioning time travel in an RPG, and then discusses the “grey areas” of the setting. Specifically, while some aspects of the setting are presented as “fact,”, things like exactly why time travel stopped working are a mystery, and there isn’t an actual answer. This section has multiple potential answers for various setting mysteries and how those might influence campaign development.

There are also some adventure hooks not tied to a given region, and some setting specific example intrusions a GM might want to use.

Cyphers, Artifacts, and Remnants details some setting specific versions of those game items. I’m not sure that any of them jump out at me as especially radical departures from what we’ve seen in other Cypher System books, but the random tables are nice for funneling towards items that are appropriate to the setting.

Promised Land is the sample adventure in the book. It is a fairly straightforward introduction to the town mentioned back in the Larimidia section, which leads to a simple investigation, and an interaction with one of the organizations detailed in the Groups and Organizations chapter. It is a solid introduction to the setting that walks the PCs through some elements that they should get familiar with, but the adventure does one thing that really bugs me in starting adventures.

There are two NPCs that hire the starting NPCs to do a specific thing, but one of them “pays” by offering a discount on their goods. It’s an old RPG trope, which essentially reinforces that new characters equal “people that can’t be treated like competent adventurers yet.” Doing work for favors or discounts in a starting adventure is the RPG equivalent of adventurers doing a job “for exposure.”

Part Six: Back Matter
This section is divided up into References and Resources, Questions and Answers with Dino-Scientists, Kickstarter Playtesters and Contributors, Glossary, Character Sheets, Companion Sheets, and Index.

Most of these are useful, but serve a fairly obvious function. The Questions and Answers were especially entertaining to read.

Back to the Future
The setting could have been a by the numbers example of how to use flavor substitutions in a dinosaur setting, but it offers a lot more than that. The unique spin on the companion rules is a wonderful departure from just giving PCs a second set of stats to use in play. There is a great balance of setting facts, and open ended mysteries that the GM can determine on their own. The setting introduces lots of personality with elements like dino wrestling and how genetically engineered spiders are raised.

Temporal Paradox
If you read my Expanded Worlds review, you already read my thoughts on levels as they relate to companion characters or allies. In play, especially as they are described in this setting, they work fine, but assigning them levels, which is usually a GM side mechanic, and then making them player facing, feels like its mixing rules elements in a confusing way. The descriptors, foci, and cyphers introduced are good, but not really exciting enough to port to another setting. Then there is that minor quibble I had with the payment of young, up and coming adventurers.

Downloading some Cyphers to the DNA
This is a great setting book for the Cypher System. The setting is imaginative and evocative, and the artwork reinforces everything that gets described. The way cyphers and companions are handled are wonderful, and make this setting unique compared to the rest of the line. If you love dinosaurs and over the top settings, this setting has so much to offer.

If you aren’t really into dinosaurs, or you want your dinosaur, post-apocalyptic, or time travel settings a bit more grounded, this may not be for you. The book mentions that you can run the setting with a more realistic, hard-science bent, but it still assumes cyborg dinosaurs with lasers on their fricking heads, so that advice only goes so far.

If you like dinosaurs, wild adventure settings, and the Cypher System, you definitely need to pick up this book. If you aren’t really into the Cypher System, you may still find a gonzo time-travel, dinosaur, post-apocalyptic (kind of) setting that you can use elsewhere. I don’t imagine too many people that would be disappointed in this purchase.

**** (out of five)

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