The Independents: Hack the Planet

Forged in the Dark is out of the starting gates. Where Apocalypse World spawned ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ (PbtA), Blades in the Dark spawned Forged in the Dark, a similar moniker to describe new games which hack and adapt the original game’s ruleset. Now, three years after Blades was first available digitally, there are three Forged in the Dark games at various stages of completion: Scum and Villainy, Band of Blades, and Hack the Planet. Of these, Hack the Planet is the second one released and the one I’ve personally been waiting for. Designed by Fraser Simons, best known for his work on PbtA cyberpunk game The Veil, Hack the Planet means its title literally, and takes place in a dark future where climate change has wrought havoc on the planet. Characters are Glitches, those who eschew the protection (and surveillance) of the corporations from the refugee city Shelter 1 and instead try to make their own way, adapting technology, modifying their bodies, and even fighting the weather to do so. Storm-chasing cyberpunk sound interesting? Read on.

Mechanics

Hack the Planet doesn’t stray far from the core of Blades in the Dark, but very few changes are needed to maintain the right feel for its cyberpunk setting. Blades in the Dark takes some core principles from PbtA and adapts them, using different mechanics to achieve similar ends. In Apocalypse World, characters act via a list of Moves which each use the same core roll, 2d6. This roll is modified by the value of the appropriate attribute. A roll has three potential results: a 10+ means a complete hit and the character achieves their goal, a 7-9 means that the character achieves their goal but there’s either a limitation or a catch, and a 6- means that the character misses and the GM gets to make a move and have complete say in what happens. In Blades in the Dark (and Hack the Planet), characters act via a list of actions, which are given ratings based on points distributed at character creation. Characters also have attributes, which have values determined by the number of actions under the attribute which the character has a rating in. Action ratings are used for, well, actions, while attribute ratings are used for resistance rolls, which allow characters to resist the consequences of rolls. These ratings are more significant than the equivalent in Apocalypse World because the action or attribute rating in Blades or Hack the Planet is equal to the number of dice you roll. Needless to say the dice mechanic is different, in essence it’s a “roll and keep” mechanic where only the highest value counts. If your highest showing die is a 6, you have a complete hit and the character achieves their goal. If the highest showing die is a 4 or 5, the character achieves their goal but there’s either a catch or a reduced effect, here called consequences. If the highest showing die is a 1,2, or 3, the roll is a miss and the GM gets to introduce further complications (more severe consequences). While in Apocalypse World the GM is left to adjudicate how ‘hard’ their move is in the event of a miss (or even a partial success), in Blades/Hack the Planet, the stakes are set beforehand. The positions characters can be in are Controlled (the character has an opportunity or an advantage they can exploit), Risky (the default position, the character is taking a chance by making a move), and Desperate (the character is overreaching or in serious danger). These positions define just how badly things will go if the character screws up. The GM also must specify the effect of the roll beforehand, which is based on a combination of fictional positioning and the perceived appropriateness of the action being used.

Playbooks in Blades and Hack the Planet are largely analogous to Playbooks in Apocalypse World; instead of defining attribute spreads there are options for ratings to take, and Playbook moves tend to be narrower as the verb-based Actions are intended to cover a broader swathe of potential rolls. There are seven playbooks in Hack the Planet, ranging from the combat-oriented Edge to the Quirk which is focused on Acts of God, massive natural disasters. You’ve got your face (Faint), your tech (Torque), and your hacker (Haunt); the range of playbooks covers the basic cyberpunk character tropes well. Beyond the Playbook, players will select a Root (where the character came from in terms of the refugee communities in the setting) and a Background (your character’s upbringing in terms of education and career).

The additional mechanics defined in Blades in the Dark are present in Hack the Planet: the party is a Crew which, depending on which Crew is chosen, provides different equipment and special abilities. There is also a fair amount of structure to the passage of time in both games, with play split between Scores (the heists and operations your Crew undertakes) and Downtime (time spent recovering Stress by indulging in Vices, training, undertaking long-term projects, and installing new Cyberware). Factions and Turf, Vices, and Stash all work fairly similarly in both games, so one coming from Blades in the Dark is going to be pretty familiar with what’s going on here mechanically. The one significant addition to the mechanics is Cyberware. Cyberware is a bit more effective here than in other Cyberpunk games, directly upping the rating of an action (and the associated attribute if applicable) and also increasing the maximum rating in that given action from 4 to 5. Also, continuing a trend that was started in Fraser’s earlier game, The Veil, cyberware is supposed to be ubiquitous among player characters, a welcome change from the ambivalent mechanical positioning in games like Cyberpunk 2020.

Setting

Setting is where Hack the Planet sets itself apart, first from Blades in the Dark and then from Cyberpunk in general. Blades in the Dark takes place in the city of Doskvol, an industrial-era city shrouded in darkness and fueled by oil refined from the blood of demonic whales. Hack the Planet, in contrast, takes place in the city of Shelter 1, a corporate bastion intended to protect refugees of disastrous climate change. Where Blades has ghosts and other supernatural creatures, Hack the Planet has Acts of God, massive natural disasters which not even Shelter 1 can fully repel.

In terms of how these settings are presented in the text, Doskvol is simply more detailed. The Blades in the Dark core book charts out the city by regions, going into a fair amount of detail as to who and what is found in each area, and presenting the entire thing as the legend to a finely detailed map. Hack the Planet doesn’t have regions of the city in the same way. There’s the Corporate Zone, the Green Zone, and The Forged, which is everything outside the walls of Shelter 1. Now, there are just as many factions, and the factions have just as much information about them, including some nice and juicy clocks to make sure that a story starts moving when they come into play. But the physicality of the geography isn’t present in Hack the Planet the same way it is in Blades in the Dark. I get why, to some degree: between wireless communication and the presence of quick ground and air transport, movement simply isn’t as difficult as it is in the setting of Blades in the Dark. Mechanically, the detailed map isn’t necessary (and I don’t mean to discount the map of Shelter 1 which is in the book, it’s gorgeous). That said, for a game going for the same broadly sandbox-driven experience as Blades in the Dark, Hack the Planet would benefit from a more detailed map, if only to provide more of a scaffold on which to hang the Crew and Claim mechanics.

To move away from the game comparisons a little more, Hack the Planet provides a vision of the future which, honestly, provides more vitality and urgency than most other science fiction today. Climate change is the most pressing technical problem facing humanity today, and the examination of how its been addressed in Hack the Planet is a cautionary one that sits in a disturbingly realistic vein of possibilities. While works like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife envision humanity fighting over dwindling resources as the planet changes, Hack the Planet sees climate change mitigation as successful, but provided by corporations who use its necessity as leverage to solidify their wealth and hegemony. It is depressingly plausible that society will continue along an unsustainable path until their mistakes become clear, at which point the only entities who can afford to save us will insist on our freedom as collateral.

One criticism of the game I’ve seen (amazing how fast criticism starts…this was about three months before release) was that it’s not cyberpunk, that calling it cyberpunk is inaccurate. I disagree. First, just on a practical note, even if it didn’t come across in the setting, the game is truly about people on the outside of society (‘punk’) who will make use of technology and their circumstances in ingenious and sometimes risky ways (‘cyber’) to make their way and resist the powers that be. It’s still a cyberpunk story, even if there is a strong thematic core around climate change and climate mitigation. That said…’cli-fi’ or ‘climatepunk’ or whatever you want to call it is absolutely a genre which fits under the cyberpunk banner. William Gibson wrote about the economic anxieties of the 1980s…Cyberpunk is science fiction extrapolated from the present and to do so honestly in 2019 includes climate change. Fraser provides a setting which fits well into both that tradition and the tradition of Blades in the Dark, and in doing so has written a game where fighting the power means both corporations and the weather.


Forged in the Dark is still a fairly young concept, and Scum and Villainy was really the ‘Dungeon World’ of Forged in the Dark, adding genre mechanics to show what the concept can do. Hack the Planet shows the flexibility of the core mechanics while also illustrating how much can be done within the narrower paradigm of Blades in the Dark specifically: one city, many factions, many scores to be had. Hack the Planet is a solid Cyberpunk offering, which shines brighter because of the setting and its relevance to the world of today.

Hack the Planet is available at DriveThruRPG.

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