Metatopia 2014 Recap: Part 5, Novapunk

The last game I played at Metatopia was Novapunk, a forthcoming dystopian cyberpunk fantasy game from Legendsmiths. Shane Harsch, whom you may remember from my write up of How to Make Hacking Interesting in RPGs from my Friday Metatopia panels, is the designer and was our GM.

I was probably the most unlikely playtester imaginable for Novapunk. It’s very much a new take on the Shadowrun style of of cyberpunk-meets-fantasy and I have never played Shadowrun. It’s not even in the lengthy list of games I’ve read and never played. The first I’d heard of Shadowrun was in 2010 or so and I know just enough to have a basic concept of what the setting is. Oh, and it uses a lot of d6 dice.

Unlike other play test sessions I forgot to write down the names of everyone involved. Rob Donoghue and Brennan Taylor were present, as were two other players whose names I didn’t catch. Sorry about that.

Putting the Punk Back in Cyberpunk

Shane’s avowed goal with Novapunk was to put the punk vibe back into cyberpunk: position the PCs as anti-authoritarian, independent rebels fighting The Man in a bleak world controlled by corporations. This play test didn’t convey much of that as the PCs were agents of a large corporation but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt without reading the setting. I’d really like to see an update in cyberpunk to reflect not only technological advances since the dawn of the genre in the 80s but also the changes that have come through punk ideologies in the last thirty-five years.

What does DIY look like in a post-crash society? How does the emergence of magic affect an anti-establishment ethos? In a world of augmented humanity, where is the straight edge? These are the questions I think of when I hear “putting the punk back in cyberpunk.” I’m hopeful that these will be addressed because I didn’t see them in the play test. Shane mentioned that he has a setting outline set up but he’s looking for a writer to tackle the setting portions of the Novapunk book. If you think you’ve got the chops to tackle it, get in touch with Legendsmiths.

System Mashup of… well, pretty much everything.

Novapunk uses the Nova6 system, which is described as a derivation of Fate Core. I can see that. It’s got the Aspects and skills you would expect from a Fate Core product but the dice system has enough additional bits and bobs that it’s pretty far removed.

The core mechanic involves rolling 3d6 and adding your skill to the total. Various mechanics will add extra dice to the roll, though you only ever keep three. There is an advantage/disadvantage system that adds dice and forces you to keep the best or worst three. Using a linked weapon with some cyber augmentation, for instance, nets you +2 dice to a roll and you keep the best three. Advantage and disadvantage cancel out so you will only roll one or the other but unlike D&D 5e, it’s possible to have multiple instances of advantage and disadvantage.

Another goal with Novapunk is to streamline the rules for hacking and magic from other games in the genre. Hacking involved making Knowledge checks with the narrative requirements of having a computer, software, etc. Different hacks allowed the hacker to make attacks with specific effects using Knowledge and the appropriate gear. It was pretty clever and sort of felt like the hacker was a spellcaster in a lot of ways. Magic was handled with Will checks and involved a spirit world for much of it. Our wizard did a lot of astral projecting and communed with at least one fire elemental on the psychic plane. Similar to hacking scripts, spells had specific effects when successfully cast. Both worked smoothly in play and helped drive the narrative forward.

Shane told us the game definitely has some gearporn elements to it, with lists of guns and augs and all sorts of things you can spend your hard earned creds on. There are also upgrade and customization options for your gear. This scratches a weird itch I have in games so I’m happy to see it in there.

Let’s steal some cyberpunk

The pregen characters available were straight out of Leverage if Leverage were a cyberpunk fantasy. Each character was labeled with a role: mastermind, grifter, hacker, fighter, and wizard. Rob took the mastermind off the bat, Brennan snapped up the hacker quickly, and I grabbed the fighter. The grifter and wizard were left for the nameless gents at the table.

My character portrait was of a blonde woman in military fatigues with a cybernetic arm and a katana (cyberpunk, remember?) so I named her Marta. Looking over the character sheet, she was augmented all to hell and had a relatively low humanity or essence score. I decided to play her as a hitter version of Parker from Leverage. The gear list included a pistol, SMG, katana, and motorcycle. Her peak skill was Shoot, followed by Physique and Fight. The aspects were amusing, particularly I Punch People, Not Keys. One aspect specifically called out Marta’s debt with whomever had paid for her cybernetics.

Play started and we caught a job from a corporate contact. The characters are ronin and not technically affiliated with any particular company though each of us is in hock with one corp or another. Anyway, we were brought in to find a corporate asset that has dropped off the grid and not checked in for a few days. He was last seen in St. Louis and possibly headed west into the wasteland. We were based in Chicago. Our job was to find him and bring him back if possible.

Rob took control as the mastermind and headed up the investigation. In addition to handing out assignments for legwork, he himself checked out the missing guy’s work area. His is a mix of computer skulduggery and social engineering as he talked to other people about the guy and lifted the hard drive out of his workstation.

Our grifter headed down to the mailroom and asked questions about how much mail the guy received, his last known address, etc. There were a few skill checks and he was able to get the info he wanted as well as the manager’s user name and password. All signs point to the missing guy being an alias of some highly placed deep cover agent.

The hacker started poking around in the corporate network but didn’t get far. The fake ID was good, and while it didn’t hold up to much scrutiny neither did it point us at the real ID.

Marta was sent to investigate the last known address and, being a blunt instrument, just ripped the doorknob off and went in with her pistol drawn. She heard the familiar beep of a countdown and bugged out before an incendiary device consumed the place. The mastermind told her to grab a big list of computer equipment from the building and meet the rest of the party at the airfield.

The wizard did some astral projection and found that whoever set the bomb also bound a fire elemental into service to devour the evidence. There were some tests of the magic system but those rolls don’t go particularly well and the wizard took some mental damage.

We all met up for a flight to St. Louis, Marta carrying a jumble of boxes and wires that she handed off to the hacker. En route the hacker informs us that there are three ways across the Mississippi and into the wasteland: across a U.S. government controlled highway, across an old, gang-controlled railway, and by boat. The team split up to do recon and the boat path was quickly eliminated as an option. The grifter was sent to negotiate with the gang controlling the railway and that was a neat scene. In the end, he negotiated safe passage for the crew. Rob decided to use a corporate requisition to get a vehicle and cross at the government controlled highway. The hacker rode with him, leaving the wizard, grifter, and Marta crossing by foot at the railway to be picked up later.

I would like to point out that Marta did get to make a social roll in this scene, at the suggestion of the grifter. He pointed her in the direction of a guy with a really big machine gun and suggested Marta flirt with him, talk about guns, and ask if our mark had passed through recently. She did just that and Shane had me spend a Fate point in order to use my Shoot as a social skill. It was hilarious and not just a little creepy. Rob had a great time playing up the incredulous mastermind over the comms the whole game but particularly when the sexual innuendo started over the machine gun. “I don’t want to know,” was uttered several times. Marta parlayed the talk over the gun into a question about our mark and I said, “Marta holds up a picture of the guy and asks, ‘Have you seen this son of a bitch?'” I rolled well and Marta got the galoot to admit that our guy had passed through and promise to shoot the guy if he came back without Marta.

We headed into the wasteland and found a town. There was a quick montage of how we rigged a poker game in order to get leverage on the proprietor of the casino and get the information we were looking for. From there it was a wrap up and a firefight as we killed the lady trying to set us up for a bushwhack. Turned out the guy we were looking for had gotten rowdy in her casino and she had him put down. We obligingly returned the favor.

Brennan hacked a multitude of drones over the course of the game, most amusingly to bribe a kid into watching the van while we explored a town. He took over an Amazon delivery drone to steal a videogame and battery backup for the kid so he could play when his house wasn’t connected to the generator.

Wrap Up

It was a fun and interesting session but I was left with the feeling that most of that was because of Shane’s skill as a GM and not necessarily the system. We didn’t engage much with the system and I don’t feel like I have a good handle of how it works, unlike the other games I played at Metatopia. As a play test, I don’t know if I feel that I tested the system so much as went along for the ride. And it could be that the testing wasn’t for the system but for the setting. Shane was specifically looking for the right writer to tackle writing the setting in the book.

I would definitely play Novapunk again and I’ll keep my eyes on it. There are enough interesting little fiddly bits going on that could apply to other Fate or Savage Worlds games that it’s got my attention.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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