Welcome to another Review In-Depth! Here I explore and attempt to critique a game using not just a reading or even a mere one-shot, but rather a full short campaign of play. While reading may tell you about rules and ease of use, and a one-shot may demonstrate game balance and fun factor, it takes several sessions to really tease out how well a game accomplishes its stated goals. And because rules aren’t everything, I cast an equally critical eye to the content of the story the group ended up telling.
Today’s game tells a sadly real story about the gap that exists between enthusiasm and actually finding time to play something. Cannibal Halfling’s first breakout article was written in March of 2017, about four months after the site was founded, and it was about two Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) Cyberpunk games, The Veil and The Sprawl. This recent campaign was the first time I successfully ran The Veil, in fact the first time I successfully played it at all…it was over two years after I first read it.
Did it live up to my expectations? The answer is yes, but that yes must be tempered with some broader reality. All the mechanics I was intrigued by when I first read the game worked as I imagined, but had much further reaching consequences on play than I could anticipate. Additionally, I broke the rules…or at least the Agendas and Principles.
The Veil, designed by Fraser Simons, is a game of explicitly postmodern Cyberpunk. Postmodernism is, at its heart, a movement which rejects the notion of universal truths. The Veil, like other postmodern Cyberpunk works before it, uses the perceived objectivity of human sensory experience as the allegorical device with which to interrogate truth. In The Veil, the eponymous “Veil” is a digital overlay which completely envelops all human senses. “Lifting the Veil”, a move in the game, is the one thing which allows characters to attempt to get at the truth behind the digital mask, and of course it’s a roll you can fail. The Veil: Cascade, an expansion to the game, takes this a step further by placing player characters in roles as “Glitches”, people who have been revived from a digital copy of their brain, but imperfectly. As such, the fallibility of the senses is extended to fallibility of memory. The upcoming expansion Inheritance incorporates biopunk in an extensive way, so now it’s your senses, your memories, and your very instincts and thought processes which lose their inherent truth. Heavy stuff.
But how does it play? In many ways, The Veil is fairly by-the-book PbtA. Each playbook is defined primarily by Moves which help cement that playbook’s particular set of skills. Much like Apocalypse World, you can generally assume that you are the one character of importance with that playbook. There is PC-PC linking, though it’s light. This is done via the Obligation mechanic, built out through Obligation questions at character creation; unlike the Hx mechanic of Apocalypse World the players need only look at Obligation when it comes up, there’s no reconvening to see how everyone feels about each other every session.
The attributes are where the entire “by-the-book” thing shatters. Each attribute is an emotional state, and in a dramatic departure from typical PbtA, they aren’t explicitly linked to moves. Instead, a player must figure out how their character is feeling in the moment and use that stat. As a combination fatigue/anti-spam mechanic, emotions can “spike out” if used too many times in a row.
So how does this all work? Well, the playbooks are of a massive breadth, especially if you do what I did. It is entirely possible to use the run of playbooks from The Veil or from The Veil: Cascade alone; both have enough playbooks for a typical sized group. Alternatively, you could do what I did and open the whole line. The issue, as I found out, is that the amount of story space here is massive. Consider: Cyberpunk as a genre can be a bit protagonist-heavy. There are some good ensemble stories, but for every Case, Molly, and Armitage, you have Cowboy. More often, you have Hiro and YT or Rickenharp and Hard-Eyes off doing their own things as the book winds on. The Veil wants to capture this energy but…PbtA is the best of a terrible set of options for doing disconnected cast stories like that. Making these disparate playbooks into a party was simply hard, and it was harder because I used both sets, which only really touch at the edges. So what did that give me? A party with The Attached, a character who develops an unnatural bond with a machine, The Apparatus, an AI in a robotic chassis they don’t understand, The Architect, a virtual modder and designer…and The Futurist, a cyber-powered strategic forecaster who can basically tell the future, and The Aesthetic, who in this campaign was going to bring about societal change through the power of dance. The latter two were from Cascade and you can see immediately that the vibe is a bit different. Even without that separation, though, these aren’t very party-driven characters. Imagine a game of Apocalypse World where every playbook is as independent-minded as The Driver…I’m exaggerating slightly but not as much as I’d prefer.
Once we got everyone pointed in the same direction, though, it was time to play. My group is now fairly well-versed with PbtA, having played reasonably long games of Apocalypse World and Masks. They’re also fairly well-versed with Cyberpunk; some of them I introduced to the genre over 13 years ago. The twist, therefore, in this game focused on the emotionally-driven attributes. I must admit, I often underestimate my group and their willingness to buy into the spirit of mechanics rather than try to break them. We got into a rhythm in this game, where before every roll I would ask the player, in-character, “how are you feeling?” The answers I got were consistently thoughtful and real, and not once do I believe that a player tried to go for their strong emotion to get an edge on the die roll. In fact, this scenario played out more than once:
“How are you feeling?”
“This is something I feel passionate about that’s just been violated. I’m Mad. No doubt about it.”
“Sounds perfect. What’s your Mad stat?”
In the game’s postmortem, one of my players said the emotional attributes were both one of his favorite roleplaying prompts and least favorite mechanics. I get that, especially coming from years of traditional games like we all did. One of the things we really liked about Masks was how the attributes, in moving as frequently as they did, both made us think about how the characters thought about themselves but also put some very strategic thinking around shifting attributes and, later in the game, locking attributes. In my mind, both The Veil and Masks accomplish something important and tactile with their attributes. In Masks, the attributes represent your teenage self-perception, something that is volatile in the moment but that you have control over in the long run. In The Veil, emotions are one of the only things that are absolutely true…but that doesn’t mean you can rely on them. Having your main roll modifiers be something you can’t plan against feels very different, and not necessarily in a good way, from how most RPGs work.
So how did this all play out? Well, I built out a game using the core conceits and mechanics from Cascade: The characters were all Glitches, spun up in an unknown future with missing memories. Then I messed with the formula a bit. One of the most important agendas in most PbtA games, The Veil included, is “Play to Find Out What Happens”. I…fudged that slightly. While I had no end or even story in mind, there was a twist, and a reveal, and I planned it from the start. That’s not traditionally how you’re supposed to do PbtA, and let me tell you, some of the mechanics fought me aggressively on it. I managed it through two things: first, I let literally every other aspect of the setting fall to the players, and second, the player who played The Futurist was in on the ruse, which helped cement it into the fiction earlier than I otherwise would have been able to. Now that I’ve done it, I can say that, broadly speaking, I don’t recommend it. That said, I also believe that my twist was worth it.
The characters were spun up in a remote compound deep in the forests of Maine. Here, brought up slowly under gentle, natural light, each character was informed that it was roughly 250 years since they last got their brain scanned. In fact, there had been a cataclysmic societal collapse somewhere between three days and three weeks since they had been scanned, so it was roughly 250 years since their original bodies died as well. Each of them was part of the last cohort, the last group of volunteers from before the cataclysm to be spun up. That cohort included some colorful characters. There was Kess, the software developer and virtual architect who had the voice of his ex-girlfriend stuck in his head, literally. There was Sebastian, last known living connection to an honorbound group of vigilantes called the Oathkeepers. There was Tango, former member of an illustrious dancing troupe and devoted practitioner of the kinetic arts. There was Geoff, a seemingly normal former researcher who couldn’t understand why some of his memories were in the third person. Also, he was in a robot body. There was Griffin, a former privacy advocate who now had a literal Amazon delivery drone following him wherever he went. And finally there was Walter. Not quite part of the cohort, Walter was the son of the founder of the group who spun all these people up, the Institute for Human Studies. Walter also had a high-powered strategic forecasting software package implanted directly into his brain.
The Institute for Human Studies, more typically called just The Institute, sent this group of people down south into the Eastern Seaboard Metroplex, putting them up in a downtrodden region of the megacity near real-world Harrisburg, PA. They started engaging with other ‘revivals’, people who had been spun back up like them, to start following a trail of evidence that revealed what had been going on when they had each gotten their brain scanned. Everyone had a different motivation: Tango had been hired to work a party near what may have been the actual epicenter of the cataclysm, giving him personal stakes to the Institute’s line of questioning. Griffin couldn’t help but think that the actions he took, both signing up for whatever Amazon service sent this drone after him and even getting his brain scanned at all, were immensely out of character. And Walter had bought in to his father’s vision that understanding the Cataclysm would be the way to avoid having another one happen again.
After investigating a few leads, the group ventured out of the city limits into the ruins of Pittsburgh to check out sites that were relevant to their pasts. With the bustle of the city removed, it was now more clear that the Institute had been monitoring them very closely. The final stop on the trip was the club where Tango had performed, and by the time the group got there there was already a group of mercenaries closing in on the building. Whether the mercs and the group were working for or against each other caused some confusion, which was employed to good effect as the group stole a device out of the wreckage of the building. This device was later determined to be a digital weapon which may have started the whole cataclysm; it’s importance to the Institute illustrated when the confusion about sides disappeared and the mercs started shooting.
The group didn’t know what to do with the device they grabbed, and the Institute was closing the net. The group’s original handler from their first days in the city had decided to flee, and convinced the group to come with him under the guise of protecting him. Walter had other plans, though, and once the group had gotten down into the Capital District he absconded with the device and returned it to the Institute. This would not be the last time Walter’s split loyalties would get him in trouble, though it was likely the biggest. The Institute was not forthcoming with information about the device after they retrieved it, though Walter was able to find out that there was some copyright commenting in there pointing to Amazon.
Amazon. The massive corporation had gone under in the cataclysm, like many…only the Institute was successful at waiting out the storm in their compound in Maine. But beyond Griffin’s drone friend, the corporation kept coming up. It was strange, especially if the corporation was in fact dissolved. But it also provided a new lead, and one they could explore with a little more freedom now that the Institute had shifted resources from tracking them to studying the device. Further investigations of Amazon facilities led to an unsettling conclusion: there was software and infrastructure still running, still tracking people, and still sending out drones. When the group did some investigation into why this was, though, what they discovered was significantly more disturbing. Deep in the bowels of Amazon’s pre-Cataclysm East Coast headquarters was a customer database which included records for most of the members of the group. These records, though, which should have matched one-for-one with a user’s neurochip brain patterns, were oddly fragmented. More investigation revealed that the Institute had not in fact spun up their brainscans…they had taken three or more scans and patched them together, using machine learning to turn these chimeras into reasonable wholes. Tango was several members of his troupe. Griffin was both a privacy advocate and an Amazon super-user, explaining the drone pursuit. Kess’s ex-girlfriend actually was in his brain. And Geoff was not even completely human…formerly an AI researcher, he was melded with one of his projects.
The Institute wanted a copy of the Amazon Recommendation Engine, the ancient machine learning algorithm which was slowly but surely bootstrapping itself. They also had the means and technology to edit human brainscans, and already had software for attempting to predict the future. The group tried to reason with Walter, but his loyalty to the Institute was strong. He had acceded to extreme orders and requests to betray his friends, but he believed it was all for the greater good. Seeing the evidence mount, though, he turned his forecasting software on the Institute itself and the situation at hand. The results did not look good.
With the group unified in purpose, they headed up to Maine, to face the Institute and its founder once and for all. Making their way into the facility, the discoveries continued right until the end: They found evidence that confirmed that the Institute was using machine learning to write humans, using just scraps of old brain scans as starting points. And Walter was able to confirm that he was not the son of the Institute’s founder, at least not in the literal sense: Walter was modified from the founder’s own scan to support the Futurist program in his brain…he was purpose-built. While their wits and teamwork saw the group having the upper hand, at the end of the day they did not destroy the technology the Institute had developed, as disturbing as it was. As the long Maine winter began to break, the group, having assumed control of the company thanks to Walter, was stuck wondering how long it would be before another cataclysm shook human society.
This campaign played out well, with the players coming along on a fairly cerebral journey. The debates over privacy and identity were punctuated with moments of silliness and yes, moments of violence. But overall, the game succeeded at making the players think, and I appreciate that they took what I presented at face value and played their characters thoughtfully. My choice to decide at the very beginning that the characters were not actually single brain scans was one I had to work hard at keeping both relevant and under wraps, but it made for some great roleplaying and a great reveal.
If I were to play The Veil again, I’d strongly consider playing a three-pronged campaign using The Veil, Cascade, and Inheritance. Unlike this game, I wouldn’t inject a high concept, instead using the setting creation and first session mechanics to let the players tell me where they want to go. If I could figure out the handoffs between each segment, I think it would be a nice way to drive a campaign of typical length for our group (~20 sessions or so) while still using PbtA.
It’s hard to explain how much The Veil departs from typical Cyberpunk RPGs until you play it. I end up using “postmodern” in every description, but I truly feel the need to emphasize how well the game is structured to make your players feel like the reality you present them is not reality. This is cerebral Cyberpunk, where you first present the setting as it is perceived and then let the players see what happens when they “lift the veil”. It might be a little time before I can get my group invested in something as cerebral as The Veil was for us, but I’m looking forward to another opportunity to try.
The Veil and Cascade are available on DriveThruRPG. Header Image is copyright Samjoko Publishing.
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