Welcome to System Split! Today, our very own Level One Wonk will examine
two three very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Today we’re looking at a game that exists in three different systems, and is one of the first to jump on the Pathfinder train! Let’s get Cyberpunk with Interface Zero.
Cyberpunk gamers had it tough in the 2000s. The third edition of R. Talsorian’s celebrated Cyberpunk landed with an unceremonious thud, and Guardian’s of Order’s promising Ex Machina couldn’t save the company from the steamroller of the d20 boom. Now, the genre has shown signs of life. Shadowrun published a fifth edition after an eight year hiatus, R. Talsorian has licensed their system for a PC game, and Interface Zero exists.
Interface Zero is a cyberpunk role-playing game from Gun Metal Games which takes strong cues from the style of Cyberpunk games of the 80s and 90s, while bringing the technology and geopolitical assumptions into the modern age. The game takes place in 2090 after the world’s borders have been rewritten by both sea level rise and the work of a malignant AI, CHARON. The centerpiece technology of the game is the Tendril Access Processor, or TAP, which gives users direct access to vast amounts of data using only their brain. The proliferation of TAPs to nearly every person on Earth has changed the baseline for human perception into what is now called Hyper Reality.
Interface Zero is currently in its second edition, and the multi-system strategy being used for this edition is a refinement of how the game was released originally. While the first edition was made as both a d20 product and for Savage Worlds, the second edition has rolled out for Savage Worlds, Fate and, most recently, for Pathfinder. While Pathfinder still uses the OGL, Gun Metal Games went the extra mile and licensed specifically for Pathfinder compatibility, as evidenced by Paizo’s Pathfinder logo on the front cover. I’ve been a fan of the game and setting since I first discovered the first edition, so I pledged to all three of the different Kickstarters which supported the different system versions of the game. As of last week, I have at least a PDF of all three in my possession.
The basic mechanical extensions and fluff are the same in all three systems. Players choose a species and career from which to build their characters. In Pathfinder and Savage Worlds, the species gives unique mechanical bonuses, while in Fate the species both gives access to special stunts and is part of the character’s high concept. The career makes up the other part of the high concept in Fate, in Savage Worlds it acts as a special edge and determines starting money and inventory, and in Pathfinder it is very much a class, with all the class abilities and level progression information that entails. There are special rules for cybernetics, which are built around deriving a special trait, Strain. Strain determines how much cyberware you can implant before your body begins to reject it; most other mechanics around cyberware are simply interpreting the abilities conferred by certain implants in the different systems. Other rules systems like vehicles are integrated at different levels: Fate has no need for additional rules and just fleshes out some stunts and vehicle aspects, Savage Worlds already has robust vehicle rules and just gets some clarifications and genre-appropriate expansions, while Pathfinder gets an entire bolt-on subsystem as the original fantasy game had no vehicle combat rules.
From what I’ve seen, all three versions of the game were written with particular care to be internally consistent. That said, they are all quite different. The Fate version in particular stands out as having had a very different approach taken, and there are rules implemented here which both show a great deal of thought as to how Fate plays, and also would be either impossible or remarkably labor intensive to pull off in the other games. For instance, the Fate version has rules for how to give corporations stats using the Fate Fractal assumptions. As someone who likes intrigue and conspiracy plots, this is an amazing boon, and it also fits the genre very well. The Fate version also includes guidance on how to use the brands of different equipment as aspects that can be invoked, which is both brilliant and also gives more deliberate flavor for the corporations in that particular version.
The Pathfinder version of the game stands out in a way that I’m uncertain about. There are several parts of the game which, in the Pathfinder version, are fleshed out to a more significant degree than the other two versions. This includes a much more detailed and solidified hacking system, with dozens of programs called “engrams” laid out like spells for hackers to use. The Pathfinder version also fleshes out the abilities of medics in more detail than in previous versions. While the Fate version of the game wouldn’t necessarily benefit from this sort of delineation (same reason why not all Fate magic systems have spells), the Savage Worlds version would…possibly significantly. The hacking system in particular feels like it got continually refined between releases; the Pathfinder version reads to me like it better supports the notion of “Hyper Reality” and hacking bleeding over into augmented reality. The Savage Worlds version isn’t missing anything (there are engrams rules in all three versions), but with the amount of tweaking that has occurred between the first version and third version of the game, it may already be time for a revision to the Savage Worlds version. Speaking of omissions, there are a couple things the Pathfinder version does leave out. The world section has been cut and replaced with a broad setting guide and appendix on Chicago; the author did this for page count reasons and the material will be released in a second book. Also missing are psionics rules. I am assuming there may also be a plan to release those in a supplement (they exist in the Savage Worlds and Fate versions), but for right now it’s not entirely clear.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite out of these three. I’ve run a campaign in the Savage Worlds version of Interface Zero and found it both user-friendly and stylish in the way that a Cyberpunk game should be. I played in a game using the playtest version of the Fate rules, and seeing the final version only increased my appreciation for the conversion. I also think a class-and-level approach to Cyberpunk may be very interesting, though I’m reserving judgment on integration of non-combat classes until I try the game. In the end, I’d likely lean towards the Fate version for some of the neat extensions of aspects that are only part of that version. That said, the Pathfinder version intrigues me and I’m now looking for a copy of Pathfinder core so I’d be able to run it. If you have a favorite system out of the three, go for that version without fear. Otherwise, I’d say pick between Pathfinder and Fate depending on whether you want a more narrative or traditional experience. The Savage Worlds version is good, but the two later versions have added refinements that will improve the game. On the other hand, if you want both a traditional experience and a deep dive into the setting, you may want to go Savage Worlds if you’re impatient since the Pathfinder world book will be released later. Same goes for psionics.
Interface Zero is an excellent example of a literal System Split: trying to recreate the exact same game with three sets of mechanics presents unique challenges and opportunities. I think the team at Gun Metal Games has pulled it off, and look forward to continued support and refinement of Interface Zero.
Interface Zero in all three iterations is available on DriveThruRPG.