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Close to the Edit

Ex

by Ross Winn
Jan 10,2005

 

Ex

Please note that, as of this writing, Guardians of Order have announced some pretty bad news. The falling US Dollar has kneecapped their cash flow and the entire operation is in danger of imploding. I urge you to go and buy a copy of this book from GoO, direct if possible, if you do not have it. No, I implore you. I beg of you. Guardians of Order has published some frickin' amazing games. Heaven & Earth, Hong Kong Action Theatre 2, Big Eyes Small Mouth, and some awesome projects are 'in the pipe' as it were. If you have ever been a fan of any of their games, please support Guardians of Order.

Ex Machina is the late coming but much lauded cyberpunk-themed offering from Guardians of Order. It is late coming in the scope of the cyberpunk gaming timeline, and a few months late according to plan, or so says the introduction. Princeton calls a Deus ex Machina "any active agent who appears unexpectedly to solve and insoluble difficulty". All I can say is, it must be nice. Ex Machina may solve many of the difficulties inherent in running a Tri-Stat cyberpunk game, but it strays away from cyberpunk often and sometimes significantly.

Ex Machina is brilliant work on many different levels. While the mechanics of Tri-Stat do not excite me personally, they are robust and flexible. The systems are innovative and the book looks good.

The presentation of the book is very good; definitely up to Guardians of Order's standards and easy to read and use. The art itself is even somewhat inspired, and while the elitist in me wanted that art used in inspiring ways, this is a game book and it needs to be a standard format to avoid being unusable. The binding also seems very good, as I have spent a lot of time with mine and all is well.

The book is a joy to read. The overview of cyberpunk as a literary trend is one of the most complete I have ever encountered, and may well rival overviews written by Bruce Sterling and others actively involved in the movement at the time. I was completely blown away by this, so much so that I was moved to put the book down and do research to confirm that I was, in fact, wrong; and that the overview before me was better than my memory of the events as they happened. That is pretty embarrassing, but my thirty-ninth birthday is in a few days and so I plead senility.

As I said before, the Tri-Stat system never really excited me. David Pulver's technology system for Ex Machina came pretty close. While it allows construction of some pretty abusive gadgets and modifications, it does so in the most straightforward way possible. The same kind of beauty and craftsmanship goes into the creation of a weapon to be honest, which is somehow apropos.

Yet if you focus too much on the rules and the well-made book, you really miss the point of Ex Machina. The point of Ex Machina is the settings. Guardians of Order went out and got the best they could find (with the exception of me) to write them. Bruce Baugh is one of the most prolific guys I know. Aside from the setting Heaven Under Mountain in Ex Machina he is best known recently for his work on Gamma World for White Wolf. I think his best work has been on Adventure, again for White Wolf, but there is more. Aside from some pretty amazing essays rattled 'off-the-cuff' in the < a href=>20x20 room he is also an additional contributor on Nobilis, like another contributor, Rebecca (known in other credits as 'R. Sean') Bergstrom. Rebecca first appeared as a freelancer for Steve Jackson Game's In Nomine. She has also been a frequent contributor to the critically acclaimed Exalted for White Wolf. However both of these achievements pale in comparison to Nobilis. So much has been written about Nobilis that I will not belabor the point here; suffice it to say that I hold her work in the highest regard. Rebecca contributed "IOSHI" to Ex Machina. Michelle Lyons is also an experienced writer. She worked on several releases for Shadowrun, a few for Mage, and a bit of work on Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Michelle gets kudos as well as contributing "Daedalus". Rounding out the cast of contributors are Chris Gossett and Brad Kayl who have authored "Underworld" as a duo. Brad Kayl has several credits in Game Trade Magazine, but no one remembers that, they only remember his work in the comic "Red Star". Red Star even got its own RPG from Green Ronin, check it out. Chris Gossett has several artist credits in various Star Wars RPG, and to many he is "Tales of the Jedi" but this is the first instance as a contributor that I was able to locate. He is also much better known for "Red Star", but I digress.

I think the settings are amazing, and as good as the rules are, they pale in comparison - so let's look at them one by one.

Heaven Over Mountain (Bruce Baugh)

The beanstalk is a very 'new wave' SF idea. However many new wave SF books have a lot in common with cyberpunk. Phillip C. Jennings wrote a very nice crossover of new wave and cyberpunk in 1988. The book, Tower to the Sky, takes the good parts from both and creates a future where cyberpunk has happened, and we see that the new wave may be the next step after the revolution. Heaven Over Mountain strikes me as that same kind of balance. While there are cyberpunk themes here, there are also other things that you may realize are more related than you once thought. Those familiar with cyberpunk literature as a whole may also remember K.W. Jeter's Farewell Horizontal, the first novel of an unfinished trilogy where all of the action takes place on the sides of a beanstalk.

Heaven Over Mountain is a very complex and very huge setting. So large I don't think that the thirty-eight pages (including art) that it is presented in do it complete justice. While the ideas of over-arching corporate power, artificial intelligence in virtual reality, and character focus are pillars of the cyberpunk story-form, what is not present is a real feeling of despair. There is no dystopic future here, though there are several alluded to. I would have preferred less information on the building of the structure, and more on the struggles of the people and pressures they face. I also would have preferred to see more in the way of violence. Guns are nearly invisible, and only the most tertiary mention is given. Violence, for all it may be unwelcome in our current reality, is very common in the cyberpunk future, and should be here somewhat more than it is.

It is a brilliant setting, and could be the starting point for some pretty amazing cyberpunk adventures. I do not see the inherent conflict in the setting, but it does allow a lot of possibilities. It is firmly set across both the new wave and the transhuman experiences that we discussed in part one of this series.

Cyberpunk -- 2
Overall -- 5

Underworld (Chris Gossett & Brad Kayl)

America as a fascist imperialist state is not too hard for those of us who live here to imagine. Underworld is harsh. Visions of Fritz Lang's Metropolis do not begin to compare to the desolation of the spirit that unfold there. By far the most cyberpunk setting included in Ex Machina, Underworld represents everything that cyberpunk RPGs are. It is a dirty place, a hopeless place, where a corporation rules without shame or artifice. Metal and meat typify the struggle between man and machine on a personal level. Violence is the rule of the day where might is right, and survival only goes to the fittest. In the popular vernacular it is part Blade Runner, part Escape from New York; not the best setting in the book, but the most cyberpunk in the 'classic sense' (for lack of a better term).

Cyberpunk -- 5
Overall -- 3

IOSHI (Rebecca Borgstrom)

IOSHI reminds me a lot of John Brunner's Shockwave Rider for some reason. Of course there are also shades of Pat Cadigan's Synners, and Gibson's 'Bridge Trilogy' running pell mell through the mind of one of the more fertile imaginations in gaming. Dehumanization seems to be one of the main themes here. It isn't easy to imagine with teenage girls selling sexuality for toys and cash on the internet, and GSM units nearly able to superimpose your virtual location one your field of view as it stands now that soon Wikipedia may wake up and become, in all reality, the source of all knowledge.

The h4t of the net on the RPG.net fora are everywhere, but like IOSHI this is a double edged sword. Complaining about the lack of reasoned discourse on the internet while on the internet itself is the soul of appropriationist technology. This sort of spirit seems to run through IOSHI as players may be forced to use the machine to free themselves from the machine, and if they do, will they still want to leave when all is said and done? Coupled with this is the possibility that this is all a big marketing ploy, that institutionalized subcultures (and alternative cultures) that are made things, and all of this is some elaborate facade for 'the powers that be. The hacker culture seems to permeate all of IOSHI, with modification placed upon modification until the subject becomes the art. I think IOSHI is indicative of the 'second wave' cyberpunk works that came between 1992 and 2000, those works inspired by Gibson, Sterling, and Rucker once removed.

Cyberpunk -- 4
Overall -- 5

Daedelus

Last is Michelle Lyon's Daedelus. Set in a world not so different than the one we could be living in the day after tomorrow, Daedelus is the as much a work of art as any of the settings in Ex Machina. As much as I want to give the setting props, and deservedly so, it is not cyberpunk.

Daedelus is a world gone slightly awry. While in the surface the world appears normal, even idyllic, something is rotten in Denmark. The personal horror of living suddenly in your perfect world and then being ripped out of it and thrust into a painful reality is real. Like the Stepford Wives and many other stories like it, freewill has given way to expedience, and choice has given way to security.

It is a world so much like the one we live in that it simply cannot be cyberpunk. As better said by Benjamin Wright, my friend and co-writer on many cyberpunk projects, the so-called 'new' cyberpunk re-imaginings are a future of the now, and cyberpunk is a future of the past. The persistence of memes to the contrary there is no modern cyberpunk. It is a retro future for an almost unimaginable past. I am raising two children who simply do not understand the cold war, the dominance of the Japanese business model, the Soviet Union. For them the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction is as alien as the Divine Right of Kings. The mindset that was necessary to make cyberpunk viable is unknown to them.

Cyberpunk -- 2
Overall - 4

In summary, Ex Machina is great set of settings, and all have strong cyberpunk themes. These settings all have some of what is cyberpunk. Still, only two of them have the three things I feel are necessary for a cyberpunk game; style over substance, attitude is everything, and living on the edge.


GenCon SoCal

I really hadn't planned on rambling on for two thousand words on just Ex Machina, maybe next month we can talk about more than a single game, and maybe even add some more stuff as well. In the mean time, I spent a little time in Southern California this month at GenCon SoCal. What an awesome show.

Anaheim is situated in the southern end of the greater LA metroplex; about thirty-five miles from LAX and twelve miles from John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The reason the rest of the world goes to Anaheim is to visit the "happiest place on Earth" which is Disneyland. Living in Florida this did not at first have as much of an effect on me as it would if I lived in, say South Dakota, and here is why.

When we in Florida say near Disney World, we mean kind-of-but-not-really near. We mean less that thirty-five minutes, maybe less than twenty minutes, but never less than 15 minutes. That is near. When they say the Anaheim Convention Center is near Disney, they mean near. A fat, out-of-shape gamer jackass; like for instance me, can throw a baseball and hit Disney from the hotel we stayed in. I could see the monorail, I could see the "Hollywood Hotel" Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride. I could almost hear "A Small World". I mean we were close. This was a very different thing from near, which was the source of the misunderstanding.

This is the second year for GenCon SoCal, and it is a great idea for a show. Much has been made about Indy as the new site for GenCon's signature show. Indianapolis is only an eight-hour drive for something like two-thirds of the populations of the US. GenCon SoCal is an Eight-hour drive from most of the rest of them. With the exception of Seattle and the Northwest, which is oddly the headquarters of GenCon LLC, everyone in America can get to one of these two shows in one day of travel by car. I had a couple of amazing gaming experiences at this year's show. So in case you miss the message implied here: GO TO GENCON SOCAL 2005!

The Queen of Spades

Live roleplaying is kind of like the strung out little brother that no one in the RPG industry family talks about. He shows up at family gatherings, but most of the family acts like he isn't there. Shifting Forest Storyworks would love to change that, and they are doing it one little game at a time.

I played The Queen of Spades at SoCal, and color me impressed. So much of what live roleplaying does is compared to Minds Eye Theatre and their World of Darkness LARPs that it is hard not to make the comparison with any new LARP product. Yet I consider the Queen of Spades to be both new and different, and I consider the market that is shared by only two product lines to be all but completely vacant in the hobby game business. Shifting Forest Storyworks is a group of like-minded individuals with a great deal of talent and no small amount of drive. I think that we will be hearing a lot more from them, and well we should.

Five to eight friends, two to four hours, and a whole lot of fun. While some may not appreciate the fact that ongoing character development is limited and there are only eight scenarios at this time, I think that the quality of what I have seen makes those minor issues at best, and issues that I am sure they are trying to change.

Battlestations

Gorilla Games is the creation of Jeff and Jason Siadek, and Battlestations is the creation of Gorilla Games. I loved this game and loved getting to play it three times at the show. Battlestations has three distinct levels. It has the ship to ship level which takes place on one map, the crew level that takes place on each individual ship, and the character level that takes place person to person. The first time I saw the game I ventured a guess that it would be fun, but I wasn't even close to the entertainment I got from the game. We have all see Star Wars and a million other bad SF movies where we can't simply push a button and fire the wave-motion gun. There have to be a lot of crew toiling away to make that gun fire. The ship to ship game is pretty straightforward for the genre. One each individual ship you have characters running pell mell through the corridors trying to reach the turrets, missile bays, science bays, bridges, and engineering. While doing that all of the characters are interacting in (at least in our case) very funny ways.

This game has obviously been playtested to the hilt, is well balanced, and is a great 'gateway drug' for new roleplayers. I have always thought that a good boardgame could draw players into roleplaying, and this game has that in spades. Get your players interested in character development and scenario building and you have a roleplaying group before you can shake a stick. This is what I think makes the better boardgames stick. There is a lot of roleplaying when friends get together for Settlers or Risk, and now Battestations.

Vs. System

Vs. System is the newest card game from Upper Deck. Like many of the board games we see like Battlestations, Vs. has a great deal of roleplaying potential as well as being a cool card game. Finally we can see if Superman is tougher than anyone, and if Batman can take down Green Goblin. There are a lot of cards and a lot of differing strategies available for each player. There are few card games that interest me, but I bought Vs. card sets for a half a dozen people on my Christmas list.

So to reiterate this, GenCon SoCal is a great show. I heard a lot of manufacturers stomping around complaining about last years show and how it wasn't lucrative. However I think they are forgetting that starting a new show is not something that builds overnight. GenCon LLC is spending a lot of time and money to make the show a going concern, and I think they can do it. They will of course need our help. Go to GenCon SoCal 2005, sell your product, and spend a few days meeting a few thousand fans that you will never see anywhere else. If we all do this we will shortly have two big shows every year and reach a much larger segment of the gaming populations.

Until next time.

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