Blade Runner RPG review Part I

Hello Dear Readers! Well, just when I thought I needed to come up with something to write about, I got not only one but two advanced pdfs from Free League for a few Kickstarters I participated in. The first is for the Book of Beasts for Forbidden Lands and the Second is for the Blade Runner RPG. So, you are going to get a few more reviews and first impressions from me folks!

I can’t get over the amazing artwork in this book.

The Book of Beasts comes with solo play rules which I will be using as part of an added feature to this blog. Stay tuned! But the book is beautiful. I will talk about it another time. What I really want to talk about is Blade Runner.

I am probably going to take a few blog posts to fully digest this little gem. I want to give it a proper analysis. To start, it is beautiful. The art and layout are just stunning. The art is evocative and reminiscent of the contrasting darks and lights from the movies. The book really conveys the gritty feel of the original 1983 movie. I’m not much of an art critic so that is all I will say about that.

The layout is reminiscent of Alien RPG: It begins with a brief introduction to the universe the players will be gaming in with the typical explanation of what an RPG is. My only hope at this point is that finding rules will be easier than in the Alien RPG book: that book’s biggest flaw is the layout. It is difficult to find various rules needed to adjudicate certain game situations. It is really fucking annoying…but I digress.

Before I get into specifics, I must state that, like Alien RPG and some of the other offerings from Free League, this is a game that focuses on narrative. Where Alien RPG is sci-fi horror, Blade Runner is a dystopian sci-fi drama. The game’s opening content explains the thematic elements one must focus on to make a good Blade Runner game. This game focuses on Sci-Fi Action, Character Drama, Corporate Intrigue, Moral Conflict, and Soul Searching—not your typical RPG game with the boys on a Saturday night. This is standard fare for Free League, however. Alien RPG’s thematic elements are distinct and well defined, as are The Forbidden Lands and Tales from the Loop’s key themes. You are encouraged to stay within the lanes created by the themes of these games for a truly authentic experience. Blade Runner is no different.

Blade Runner RPG is not OSR, this is a story game for sure. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you. Knowing this was Free League and knowing it was an established intellectual property, I was expecting this. What I wasn’t expecting was the game mechanics.

Alien RPG, The Forbidden Lands, Tales from the Loop/Things from the Flood, use the Year Zero dice pool game engine, albeit the system is tweaked to fit the milieu and tone of the games. I have said this before and I will say it again, I think this system is brilliant for its adaptability to the genre of a particular product. I think it is a system with some staying power and—God Willing—challenges the bullshit peddled by Wizards of the Coast.

Basically, to succeed at a task, you add up the number of ranks in the appropriate attribute and skill; then roll that amount of d6s. If you roll a 6 on any single die, you succeed. Additional sixes allow the player to perform a stunt. It’s a simple but elegant system. Blade Runner deviates from this, which I did not expect at all.

Blade Runner has opted to use a system similar to the Second Edition of the One Ring: a smaller dice pool, but with larger-sized dice to increase the chance of rolling a 6 for success. In Blade Runner, you have 4 attributes: Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Empathy. They are ranked from A (the best) to D (the worst). Each rank is associated with a die type: A = d12, B = d10, C= d8, and D= d6.

Your ranks in a skill are measured the same way. Thus, if you have average agility (rank C) and better than average training in firearms (Rank B), you will roll a 1d8 and a 1d10. If you roll a 6 or better on either die, you succeed. If you roll a 10+ on a given die, that counts as two successes.

Of course, as with every Free League game I’ve looked at, you can push the rolls to improve your chance at success (or multiple successes). However, when you push a roll, you suffer a point of damage for physical skills (strength or agility), or a point of stress for mental-type skills (Intelligence or Empathy). What is interesting is that Replicants can push rolls twice, unlike humans who can only push rolls once. However, they never suffer physical damage. They always suffer stress.

Of course, as a story game, Blade Runner RPG urges you to fail forward. Some people find this controversial. I don’t because this is part of telling a story.

Let’s talk about character generation. Every character works for the LAPD. At first blush, I was a bit annoyed by this but after thinking about it, I’ve concluded that this design decision makes absolute sense and I fully endorse it. Basically, it gives the player-group a cohesive reason to work together and it is consistent with the movies. Conflict will come with the relationships the players have with each other and NPCs.

You can play either a human or a replicant, which is cool. Replicants get additional rank increases in agility and strength that humans do not get. There is also a secret replicant option whereby the GM rolls secretly to determine who is a replicant. I think this option alone has a lot of potential for gaming.

Essentially, you make a human and when you discover you’re a replicant, your abilities are fully unlocked. You get the bonuses and the penalties that you would get at character creation.

The players select or roll for how much time they have working for the LAPD. The younger they are the more points they can spend on attributes. The older they are the more points they can spend on skills. The older the character, the more starting specialties they gain as well. Replicants have to start young. This is fairly standard. The Forbidden Lands provides this option as well.

Health and Resolve are derivative stats that can be lost due to physical damage or stress. Replicants are physically more durable and starts play with an additional 2 to add to their health score. However, they are less mentally stable than humans and starts play with a -2 penalty to their resolve score. I will address the effects of stress and health loss in another blog post.

As is typical with Free League’s offerings is that the game has a Role-playing aspect built into the system, with Blade Runner it is called a Key Memory. It is the “focal point of your character’s personality” and it can be a source of inspiration and perseverance. Once per session, you can use your key memory in a skill roll to improve your chance to succeed. The game provides random tables to help the player design the key memory.

Similarly, there is a key relationship that is generated. This is an NPC that can and will play a role in the game. With both Key Memory and Key Relationship, if they come into play, your character may earn humanity points at the end of the session.

Chinyen is the currency of LA. You begin play with Chinyen and can earn additional Chinyen via spending a promotion point at the end of completing a case file because you “pushed for a pay raise.” The Chinyen is used to purchase larger items. It is a basic resource mechanic that I will address in a later blog post. The older you are when you start the game, the more you will have in starting Chinyen. Replicants will start with one less. Starting Chinyen is determined by the profession your character has chosen. See below.

What I find interesting is that, like The One Ring 2e, there are two ways of improving your character. You can get humanity points or promotion points. Promotion points can be gained or lost depending on your character’s actions. Earning three or more promotion points in a single session gets the character a distinction by the Deputy Chief of the LAPD. Promotion points can be used to learn a new specialty, gain special gear from the LAPD and, once per case file, seek an increase of Chinyen.

Humanity points come into play when the player performs acts of compassion or humanity. You gain humanity points by interacting with your key memory or key relationship or, if you are a replicant, fail a baseline test. You spend humanity to increase skill ranks.

Interestingly, should a replicant reach 0 promotion points, they must take a baseline test to check their mental stability. If the replicant succeeds, they get a promotion point. If they fail, they get a humanity point. I will go into more detail about the baseline test in another blog post.

So, what kind of profession can you play? There are a bunch. I’m going to list them here, with limited commentary. The professions are more archetypes than they are character classes. In the end, the players are playing various roles within the LAPD. There is a random archetype chart that you can roll on for both replicant and human; or, you can just choose.

The Analyst: This is the tech guy whose focus is on intelligence, tech, medical aid, and scientific observation.

The City Speaker: This is an undercover type agent who excels at making connections with NPCs and knowing how to read people.

Not gonna lie…I had a crush on Pris back in the day.

The Doxie: This is an interesting character option. It looks as though the character focus is interrogator but you have some combat capabilities as well. This is Pris. This is reserved for replicants only.

Rutger Hauer is the man!

The Enforcer: This is a combat class. It is Roy Batty. You have seen things most people wouldn’t believe.

The Fixer: This is an empathy-based class that is a manipulator. My reading of the description is that you are the “internal affairs” of the LAPD, or maybe you are a political crusader type. This may be Edward James Olmos’s character…you know, the dude that’s into origami?

Harrison Ford is also the man…but I think Rutger Hauer stole the show.

The Inspector: You are Harrison Ford. Observation and firearms are your specialties.

The Skimmer: This is another interesting character option. My reading is that you are, essentially, a corrupt cop, or at least, you used to be. This is reserved for human characters only.

I think there is a lot of overlap with each of these archetypes…so much so that I don’t know why they are here. I think the authors would’ve been better served by providing no character classes and only a pool of skill points and attribute points to build a character. I think it would’ve been more useful to provide a breakdown of how the LAPD command structure works, and how promotions work and give the players a bit of background to design a character however they want within the context of the Future LAPD. Compared to Alien RPG, I don’t see as much distinction here with the character classes. In Alien RPG, the Roughneck is very different from the Medic or the Investigator, etc.

This is a minor gripe. Free League provides these archetypes in their games partly because we, as gamers, are familiar with classes; and partly because this is a story game that has archetypes. Indeed, even Alien RPG has a “kid” character archetype because of the character Newt from the second Alien movie.

There are a lot of options presented for the players, which players tend to like. However, the options in character creation aren’t so crunchy and numerous that a Game Master is going to struggle to keep up with the players. So far, I like what I see. The question becomes, however, can this game support a campaign?

I will be looking into the rules of the game and character talents in my next blog post, Dear Reader. Stay tuned.

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