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This is a fun and original sort-of post-apocalyptic sci-fi RPG that has an easy-to-understand core rule-set. Players are people who live on the outskirts of a destroyed galactic civilization which is rising from the ashes. They go around in their space ship doing things…good deeds… bad things…investigation and piracy… or just scavenging ancient technology. Mechanically, it feels like a dash of OSR with Traveller + old Champions system. Thematically, it’s dark sci-fi. It may need some more polish here and there (and hopefully will have more artwork sometime too). Synthicide Beta 2.0 is a 150+ pg PDF…it is a currently a late-stage beta game, hence this is more of a preview than a review.
This review is meant to be friendly and promotional in order to support a fellow community member. I will be honest but also focus on the “good” more than the “bad”, recognizing that different people enjoy different types of games. When I research new RPGs, the first thing I want to understand is the core mechanics. I want to know if the mechanics are going to be good for my tastes and if I can adopt them to my own settings. I’m very picky about mechanics, but I try to be open-minded in my reviews. After mechanics, I look to the settings. I’m more picky about settings… most don’t interest me. Again though, some people like to eat cereal in the morning, some eat rice porridge, and some like bagels. Lastly, I will mention art, organization, and extras.
Synthicide uses an original system which the author calls the Action Rule Codex (ARC). In brief… You got 7 Attributes (Awareness, Combat, Toughness, Influence, Operation, Nerve, Speed). No Skills. I like these attributes because they describe more about what characters can do as opposed to abstracted concept about innate abilities. When you face a challenge, roll 1d10 (that’s right… is a 1d10 game) and add the appropriate attribute. Pass the target number, you succeed. There are levels of success.
Combat uses a simple Action Point system based on a character’s speed. That looks complicated because it’s not “main action / secondary action”, but it’s not complicated at all. Move and Attack have just 1 AP cost each… Second Attack requires more concentration so needs two points, etc. It’s made for grid combat, which I think is relevant for the sci-fi setting.
In combat, your Combat attribute is added to to-hit and damage. You roll that d10 only once in combat… the same roll is used for damage. Armor adds to the target number to surpass. Weapon damage is static. Of course, this means that highly armored targets can only take high-damage hits, while low armored targets can take smaller and larger hits. That’s… a little weird. But it is simple and fast. Damage goes against HP. This I don’t really like because I don’t like the accounting of Hit Points. Furthermore, there are levels in this game and HP goes up with level, so I’m afraid that at higher levels combat becomes “death by papercut” like in D&D. But as I said, it’s simple and understandable. And fast. A lot of action in this game may be doing something like dungeon delving into technology waste-lands and mutant-bandit bases… so having HP for this type of game is the right thing.
There is a semi-narrative “Bennies” type of mechanic called Resolve & Cynicism. Basically you get Resolve by following your character’s motivation as well as doing good things. You use Resolve for getting auto-10 on a dice roll, avoiding death, and reducing “Cynicism.” Cynicism is basically being a dick. This mechanic is used to discourage recurrent murder-hobo behavior in games that involve dungeon-delving. That’s probably a good thing… evil characters will probably come to evil ends. The rules mention you get Cynicism for wiping out settlements. Do you know how easy it would be to wipe out settlements when you have a spaceship? Granted, in these settings no one is supposed to have an armed space ship. But all you got to do is accelerate a little and drop a broken refrigerator out the airlock and… bye-bye settlement. (that’s not in the game BTW… just my own fantasies about what I would do with a space-ship).
Up till now, everything I mentioned about the game takes up about 5 pages. So… pretty easy. Where it get’s complex is in all the “Talents” players can have.
Players select a race (basically whether you are human, mutant, have computers in your head, or have an android body + computers in your head ), and a general class which defines some of your Talents (which say what you can and cannot do). Then there are Traits. Which include special weapon proficiencies, special attacks, special skills, psychic powers, etc. It’s massive. There is a lot to choose from. Multiple levels to choose from as your character levels. Which means… this is going to be heaven for people who like this sort of thing. Most of the book contains descriptions of various Traits. I would compare this to another popular sci-fi game, Eclipse Phase. I believe running this game and understanding it is easier than Eclipse Phase, although these powers / traits could be used to run an Eclipse Phase game, pretty much out of the box. (OK… would maybe put a few extra traits for dolphin /monkey / whatever ) Understanding all the different combinations of tech and mutations and what-not… is somewhat easier than Eclipse Phase, but not as easy as, say, Savage Worlds, which has a more generic list of powers.
There are rules of space-ship combat, optional narrative rules for adding complications in to things that happen, and other support rules systems as well.
Overall, this is a very usable system. I don’t know how it would scale to say, a fantasy game. But for playing this settig, it looks quick and easy. Creating characters, on the other hand, will take some time if players want to explore all their Traits (powers) options.
This is a game where players and the GM are encouraged to work out the details. What is here … maybe 6 pages of story settings and 20 or so pages of planetary descriptions… seems influenced by Alastair Reynold’s “Revelation Space” series, depicting a dark, “Darwinistic” future of cyborgs and altered humans who do dickish things, try to find redemption, all while they escape a civilization destroying alien super-weapon.
In short, there was a human galactic civilization. Sentient robots were created. Somehow, a super virus which causes people to become psychotic – when not controlled by some unseen leadership – go established. Who / What about that virus is up for the GM & players to discover. Long war between humanity and the infected. Finally humans just started destroying infected worlds with “Meta-Nukes” (I love that name BTW… I’m going to use it when people get too meta in reddit forums). Civilization falls apart. Thousand years later, some places civilization is coming back. There are immortal, powerful robots, some of which are cool and some of which sometimes kill humans for the lolz. There are mutants… descendants or leftovers from the super virus. There is a galaxy spanning “church” which is the only real super-power left. They worship the sentient robots and like to replace their organic bodies with artificial bodies as much as possible.
I like what is here. It’s about 1 quarter cyberpunk, 1 quarter Warhammer, 1 quarter Revelation Space, and 1 quarter Traveller. Myself, I’m not in favor of the “fill in the blanks” think when it comes to new games. Synthicide settings is about 70% fill-in the blanks, and I would like that dialed down to 30%. Yeah… Dungeon World can do that… that’s because Dungeon World is generic fantasy. This game is not generic . The setting interested me so I would like to see more of it. If the game was just “OK this is a cyber punk universe, corporations are bad because they are corporationy, Space-Isis is threatening your peaceful homeword, and you are a space ninja”, then I would not need more settings.
There are a lot of random tables for establishing worlds and random-generated settings in the worlds and dungeons. I quite like this but for me, I feel it’s a little out-of-place… if you are going to spend the time to create detailed character abilities for a very mechanically specific type of character, then the GM can do the same with aspects of the setting. But that’s me… I would like to create the campaign and run it in a traditional way. Others play different from me and that’s OK too.
The book has nice layout. However, it’s still BETA-ish in some places. The PDF does not have bookmarks, which is a hassle. It does need more art. The art it has is good. I think it would be better to go with color art. Either way, this game needs more of it.