Welcome back to Level One Wonk, where it’s time to go back to the Dark Future! We’re substituting the interface plugs and cyberarms for a whole new Slack as we check out The Veil: Cascade. This supplement not only advances the timeline on PbtA Cyberpunk game The Veil, but also adds a whole slew of new settings, playbooks, and rules tweaks for upload. After reading, it appears that Fraser Simons and his contributing authors were not only thinking outside the box, but have gone so far as to delete the box with no chance of data recovery.
When it came out towards the end of 2016, The Veil put a new spin on cyberpunk by building off of some neat trends in drama-driven and emotional roleplaying that were occurring with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system. Games like Monsterhearts had shown that the PbtA system was well suited towards producing drama and character-driven, rather than story-driven, gaming. The Veil turned up the gain on this idea by not only making the most important character attributes emotional states, but decoupling those attributes from moves and instead depending on the player’s sense of what emotion was most driving their character for any given move. This stood in contrast to other PbtA Cyberpunk games like The Sprawl, which used PbtA rules structures to put a new spin on stories from existing Cyberpunk RPGs like Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun.
One of the strengths and weaknesses of The Veil was that the Playbooks, Moves and implied setting brought in so many different Cyberpunk touchstones that trying to build a campaign required either a clear vision or enough genre savvy within nearly 40 years of Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk-adjacent media to tease out what the world should look like. This was intentional, as The Veil was always more interested in broader questions within Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk postmodernism. By broader questions, I mean questions about the nature of reality, the nature of truth…and ultimately, the nature of life itself. Cascade builds on the cerebral palette of Cyberpunk provided in The Veil and, among the settings and game expansion, adds in the one thing that the game was lacking: a strong, defined campaign structure.
Cascade builds upon the world of The Veil: here, digital and real commingle in the form of a persistent digital overlay that exists almost everywhere (“The Veil” which the game is named after). Things have gotten a bit more complicated, though, as technology has advanced yet further. In Cascade, each character is a Glitch: you have been downloaded into a new body (a Slack), but because your neurochip (the implant which saved your brainscan) is old and out-of-date, the download is corrupted or partially complete. The result provides both a) an immediate plot hook and b) an immediate source of party cohesion: all of the characters are in a foreign future they don’t recognize, with memories missing, and beholden to whatever organization decided to decant them. Using that as a baseline, the book then provides guidance on how to either port an existing Veil campaign into Cascade, or how to write a new campaign using both the core book and Cascade.
Beyond the implied setting built out of The Veil and the new information from Cascade, the book comes with seven settings, each completely crazy in its own way:
- First there is Holistic Blame, a setting centered around the eco-friendly city of Prudence. In Prudence, cleantech is, as well as something to aspire to, a tool of socioeconomic stratification and control.
- Next is Day Traders. Here, the neurochip tech that enables Slacks also enables you to “take a ride” in someone else’s body. While it’s not quite possible to hijack a body, per se, there are lots of other things that can be done that still make this tech fraught with potential complications (to say the least). How can you hold others accountable for things done in your body? What happens the one time a Day Trader returns your body to you holding a murder weapon, with the cops on the way?
- Swim Baby Swim is a setting about trendsetters…and here, the trend is physically modifying your body like aquatic animals. In this world, the club kids are taking drugs and getting augments to see and be seen around the underwater playground of the sub-subway.
- Upcycle is a post-apocalyptic setting with a twist: with humans no longer around, the digital minds of the Cache instead upload themselves into cats. You may be a digital mind, but when you’re sharing space with a feral mind things can get interesting.
- Mirror posits an interesting concept: an advanced social network, where users can share touch, taste, sight, and even emotion. Like all social networks eventually do, this one went under, the office building abandoned in the center of the city. But suddenly, the echoes of old posts have, within The Veil, come to life. They’re replaying. They’re building dens filled with objects that remind them of the life they had at that point in the past. And if they ever see the person who originally made them, they will try to kill them.
- The City that Feels takes the emotion-centric characters of The Veil to the logical extreme: Emotions can be extracted from other people using advanced cybertech. People desire emotions, to the point where they’re used as currency. And emotions can be stolen. What happens when it is financially beneficial to have strong emotions on call at any moment?
- Rage.EXE recasts The Veil as a Homeric myth, with six different emotions and new moves. This Epic has one key twist, though…it appears to be an MMORPG.
In addition to these seven settings, the book contains six new playbooks to use alongside the originals. The Aesthetic is an artist, speaking truth to power with their works. The Percipient is a human weapon, called upon to do the bidding of the organization that downloaded them. The Denotation is a physical hacker, altering The Veil by interacting in meatspace instead of cyberspace. The Mnemologist is a memory trafficker, literally buying and selling people’s memories. The Telepresence is a reporter, someone constantly broadcasting information and experiences. The Futurist is a strategic forecaster to the extreme, constantly absorbing and assessing events from the past and present to determine what will happen in the future.
Cascade did the same thing to me that The Veil did when I first read it. After absorbing the ideas within these books, my mind was abuzz with both game ideas as well as a kind of mental warp as I tried to fit my brain around some of these concepts. What I realized after reading The Veil was that this is what made the game Cyberpunk more than anything else. Instead of imagining characters in a world where technology is moving too fast for them to comprehend (though The Veil does this too), the game does its best to present a world with technology that the players don’t necessarily comprehend. Cascade drives this home with its setting creation advice, which is short but accomplishes exactly what it needs to. While the advice for setting-first writing and facilitating convention games was useful, the advice for playbook-first writing was what made me realize how I could actually run a game of The Veil. First, you have your players choose playbooks. Then, after everyone has a playbook but before anyone creates characters, you begin creating your setting, informed by the tropes and concepts within each playbook. This directly addresses my one hangup I’ve had with The Veil: all the playbooks (and all the playbooks in Cascade for that matter) are built around a fairly narrow character trope, usually from a work where that character is primary. The Architect comes from Inception and The Matrix, and in both cases is represented through a character that doesn’t necessarily play well with others. The Percipient is directly based on the Richard K. Morgan character Takeshi Kovacs, who most definitely runs solo. Cascade presents two avenues by which to resolve these conflicts and form a party: first, having everyone play a Glitch gives the group a shared plot hook. Second, starting with Playbooks and then creating the setting ensures that the group goes through the exercise of understanding the sort of world in which these character types coexist. As crazy as the canned settings in the book are, I anticipate that my group would likely come up with even crazier ones.
Cascade also makes some rules changes to accommodate the shift in setting and campaign design. The most important of these is swapping Beliefs for Questions. Beliefs in The Veil worked somewhat similarly to Beliefs in Burning Wheel, and had some of the same limitations. Beliefs in Burning Wheel are very important to the character but also difficult to write, especially at the beginning of a campaign where you may only have a vague idea of what’s driving your character. In shorter games, there often isn’t enough time for Beliefs to truly be challenged and addressed, which both limits character growth as well as the ability to earn XP from Beliefs. To counter this, Cascade switches Beliefs for Questions. When you start the campaign and are put into a new Slack, you’re immediately faced with lost memories, a society you don’t recognize, and quite possibly an organization telling you what to do. As part of character creation, you write questions that your character needs to find out the answer to, things that you don’t know the answer to as a result of your Glitch status. These questions provide more urgency to what drives your character, and work nicely for a fast-paced genre like Cyberpunk (like how Beliefs work well for a genre like epic fantasy where the action builds over longer spans of time). The XP mechanics have been updated to incorporate questions as well, providing a mechanical incentive for characters to dig into their mysterious pasts.
Even before I had a copy of Cascade in my hands, I wanted to run a Cyberpunk campaign using The Veil. Not only do I still want to do that (and perhaps want to even more), but now I think I know how to do that. Cascade manages the difficult task of bringing all the themes and concepts in The Veil into narrower focus, while still ultimately increasing the number of options available to players and GMs. With the addition of Glitches, Slacks, and Caches, The Veil goes from an exploration of Cyberpunk in game form into a game that immediately drops characters into a charged situation and pushes them to action. With this structure and momentum, now players will have to engage with the hairy questions that The Veil was designed to raise. If you’re a GM who enjoyed reading The Veil but was never entirely sure what to do with it, I think Cascade will help you. If you’ve already run The Veil, Cascade will provide new options and a new perspective on both The Veil specifically and on contemporary Cyberpunk as a whole. Either way, this one is a strong recommend from me.