Any sort of interstellar community or shining future died in a tide of plague and mutant bodies. The galaxy suffers under the metal boots of a crazed machine cult, and the best that can be hoped for is usually just surviving for another week. For a crew of sharpers like yourself there’s a ship, whatever job is in front of them, and a powerful need to eat sometime this week. It’s been two days since you have, after all. Unfortunately the only job you’ve got in front of you involves killing a robot. Homicide? Not a problem. But you’re going to have all kinds of heat on your tail after committing Synthicide.
Synthicide is a dystopian science fiction roleplaying game published by Will Power Games, and created by Dustin DePenning and Zackery Robinson. It takes place in a galaxy that has fallen into a dark age, with the interstellar empire than once united humanity having long since fallen to a mutant plague and the horrible weapons used to keep the slavering hordes at bay. Now humanity scrapes out an existence on the edge of the galaxy under the watchful eye of the Tharnaxist Church, a fanatical machine cult that views synthetic life as holy. Human life is cheap, food is hard to come by even on good days, and may the stars have mercy on your soul if you harm a single bolt on a synthetic’s head because the Tharnaxists won’t.
The setting of Synthicide is thus a pretty bleak one, with a unique spin on the dystopian genre of roleplaying games, and when I got to send Dustin some questions one of the first was about how it came to be and what sort of themes Will Power Games wanted to explore.
“Synthicide’s world came from my interest in cyberpunk like Shadowrun, grimdark futures like Warhammer 40K, and the dynamics between humans and robots described in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. I decided to blend all three into my own twisted universe where the Galaxy falls apart, and the only people who can hold it together worship robots and disregard the rest of humanity. This really drove home the theme of desperation and oppression, which I explored through describing the messed up, antisocial behavior of various factions and gangs.”
The game uses its own rule set, referred to as the Actions Rules Codex, or ARC. The ARC is a skill-less system, meaning that everything is rolled off of your attributes: Awareness, Combat, Toughness, Influence, Operation, Nerve, and Speed. For any given action you’re rolling 1d10 plus the relevant attribute, attempting to match or beat an Action Difficulty number dictated by the GM.
“ARC was designed to be a very light, basic, streamlined system that still had tactical grid combat natively supported. I wanted something much simpler than other Sci Fi games, but still involve rich combat that isn’t supported by lighter story games.
I went skill-less because of streamlining the system. If there are only seven attributes, and every action is supported by one of them, it makes adjudicating at the table and improvising new moves much easier. You don’t have to worry about a situation where a player wants to do something there isn’t a named skill for, and you don’t have complicated character management where you have to divide skill points among all the things you want to be able to do.”
There’s one particular curiousity: Operation is the ‘technical’ attribute but is not a common attribute across various types of player characters, and just having an Operation rating above 0 doesn’t mean you’re universally capable with it. Without training to use Operation for a given ‘skill’, the attribute just doesn’t get used.
“The one thing that is always a little strange in a skill-less system is technical knowledge. A person who is smart doesn’t necessarily know how to do everything a smart person could do. As such, it made more sense to put a wall between players and technical actions. They would have to purchase powers that explicitly state they know how to do a thing. But an attribute was needed to describe how well a character does something they’re educated in. That’s where Operation comes in. This attribute describes your aptitude and education level, so when you know how to do something, you can do it well.”
The player characters are referred to as ‘Sharpers’, analogous to the shadowrunners of the Sixth World or the edgerunners of the Cyberpunk games: mercenaries, of one stripe or another, struggling to get by in a galaxy that genuinely doesn’t care about them. Character creation is relatively straightforward, consisting of a series of building blocks. You pick an Origin Story, a Motivation such as Prove Your Strength or Know the Universe (which has some mechanical benefits), a Bioclass, an Aspect, and a Natural Talent. Bioclasses are the local equivalent of race or species, determine your attributes, and range from the purely organic to so full of cybernetics that they fall just short of being synthetic. Aspects are the local equivalent of classes, like the Brainiac or Scoundrel, and determine what sort of talents, powers, and abilities the sharper will possess. What’s interesting to see is that for several of these building blocks you have the ability to either pick an option from the list or roll for your result, making character creation as nitpicky or as random as you wish.
Aside from things like picking an equipment package or the group-wide choice of kitting out your ship, every character starts the game with 2 points worth of something called Resolve, and 0 points of Cynicism. Resolve points are something akin to points of Edge in the Shadowrun games or Fate Points from, well, Fate. They can be spent to treat a 1d10 roll as a 10, automatically hit with an attack for maximum damage, come back from the brink of death, or reduce Cynicism. Cynicism points are gained through selfish, immoral, cruel, and otherwise bad actions and decisions, and the more Cynicism you have the more difficult it is to gain Resolve (unless you take a very specific character build). The Resolve-Cynicism system struck me as similar in intent to the version of karma in older versions of Shadowrun: a reward you don’t receive unless you’re trying to do the right thing in a tough world. I asked Dustin to elaborate a little bit on this, because the mechanic stood out in an otherwise dark setting and system.
“Resolve and Cynicism are meant to model why people choose to do good things even when the social pressure to be good is absent. It’s about simulating the emotional journey people go through in the darkest of times, and how they try to take care of each other or spare innocent lives, even in the middle of a war zone. My perspective of why people choose to be good in dark times is emotional reward. They want to feel like good people, and it gives them a reason to fight and continue on. And when they start doing bad things to get by, their hearts harden and they might lose their drive. There are ways to play completely antisocial/sociopathic characters in Synthicide, but it requires investment and conscious choice to play a character that way. There is no casual “be evil when it suits me” in my game.”
Right up front is something that really caught my eye: rules for starvation. If characters don’t eat they quickly gain penalties to everything they do, and although they can find medicine to let them ignore those penalties for a time, they won’t stay alive for much longer. In the in-universe story included at the end of the book, which does a pretty good job of conveying what an average sharper’s life is like, no small amount of time is spent pondering where the next meal is coming from. There have been rules for starvation before, sure, but aside from Dark Sun I’m not sure I’ve seen another game that has them placed so prominently. So why have your player characters counting the number of space peas they have on their plate?
“One of the ways I accentuated the desperation theme was by making food so important for low-level characters. Bullets are literally free according to the game book, but food is not. And if you go even a few days without eating, your character starves to death! This puts survival motivations behind why your character would take up a gun and work dangerous jobs – they might starve otherwise!”
“Some optional rules were made from the start, like Artifacts, while others were added later. They are rules systems that I think add value and fun to the game, but they complicate things beyond what a beginner’s experience to be. I’d say try a few sessions just using the basic rules, and then work a few optional rules that appeal to your group, especially the Twist system.”
As to the actual book itself: Dustin actually sent us a review copy, hardcover, and I have to say it’s pretty darn good. The layout is easy to navigate, there’s a handy index, color is used to draw the eye throughout the book, and the black and white art is fun to look at and does a really good job of giving a feeling for the setting. Sturdy book, too. My only complaint is that there are some artistic little boxes of text here and there that are a little hard to read; some are easier to make out than others, and they seem to provide some more flavor text, but I did find it easy to let my eyes glaze over and not be able to decipher them. That could just be me, though.
For newcomers to Synthicide, on either side of the screen, Dustin had some words of wisdom.
“My advice to newcomer players and GMs is don’t be afraid to make stuff up! To keep the reading light, many things in the book aren’t fully described. The interior of a delivery truck isn’t laid out, describing all its automated systems, doors, and windows. The way computer networks can control a spaceship or spaceport aren’t described, only hinted at. Instead, players and GMs should just assume that something works the way that makes sense to them. Fill in the details and use the existing ARC 1d10 system to resolve it!”
“I’m currently working on an equipment and story focused expansion. When enough content is ready, I plan to kickstart it along with the graphic novel that was never completed.”
“Don’t forget the power of “yes, and!” This is advice that works for almost any RPG. If the players or GM want to insert an idea or detail in the game, go for it! Just make it interesting, and set the stakes. If there are no meaningful stakes for success and failure – is what’s happening really that interesting?”