Are you not satisfied with the dystopia in your life? Is Paranoia too tongue-in-cheek? Is Dark Heresy not tongue-in-cheek enough? Is Cyberpunk just too grounded for what you had in mind? Well, loyal readers, there is another dystopia out there. Combine Paranoia’s sense of humor, Dark Heresy’s grim and dark setting, and Cyberpunk 2020’s love of guns, and you get something altogether different but still, well, ‘British Isles’ in its sensibilities. It’s time to freshen up your resume and go work for SLA Industries.
SLA (pronounced ‘slay’) Industries was originally published in 1993 by Scottish outfit Nightfall Games. Players found themselves in the shoes of SLA Operatives, hardened mercenaries performing missions all throughout the World of Progress and ensuring that the corporation’s bottom line is kept safe. Last month the second edition of SLA Industries was released after a successful Kickstarter campaign, bringing the World Of Progress into the twenty-first century. Sort of. There are a lot of things to like about this new edition, and some elements like the GM-facing material are worthy examples for any game to emulate. For a lot of the core mechanics, though, the World of Progress seems very much stuck in 1993.
Setting and Premise
SLA Industries is a multistellar corporation and it’s evil. Undoubtedly, fairly incontrovertibly evil. However, as evil as SLA Industries is (the head of the company is literally named Mr. Slayer), there are lots of forces out there in and among the star systems that make up the ‘World of Progress’ that are, if not more evil, at least a lot more dangerous. The protection SLA Industries offers provides the mental rationalization for letting your planet be turned into a gigantic burger franchise, or for using explosives to demolish the bakery where a group of rebels dared to make donuts that competed with SLA’s brand. The whole thing smacks of satire, and in that way I think it drives right down the middle of the ‘hyperbolic dystopia’ genre fairly well; on one side Paranoia is literally a punchline in the RPG world (though not a bad one), and on the other Warhammer 40k in both its RPG and wargame varieties has, through Poe’s Law, gotten thousands of dumb teenagers to root for the fascists in a way that makes me and many other people very uncomfortable. Being both goofy enough to broadcast satirical intent while also self-serious enough to be interesting is a balancing act that SLA Industries does very well.
When it comes to the setting of SLA Industries, ‘a lot’ is a severe understatement. At the top level, the World of Progress spans thousands of star systems, many exploited by SLA Industries over its more than 900 years of history. For the game, though, the focus quickly narrows until the reader is looking at the planet of Mort, and specifically at Mort City. Mort City, in addition to being huge, dirty, and dangerous, is the location of the SLA Industries Head Office, where all SLA Operatives start their career. It’s a fair observation to make that the setting of SLA Industries expands as your characters are more able to survive it; the closer you are to Home Office the more pedestrian tasks are available for your entry-level operatives. In the city center you may be blasting particularly aggressive rats, clearing drunks out of a food court, or maybe solving a slow-paced murder spree. Once you start heading outward, things get more interesting. Even before you leave the city you can find yourself in the reality-bending Deep Construct, which seems to go down forever, and as soon as you head out of the city limits you’re immediately in one of the Cannibal Sectors, large areas around the city which were lost hundreds of years before and whose denizens became, well, cannibals.
Even if you never left Mort City, your life as an Operative would be complicated enough. There are ten major departments giving out Operative jobs, not to mention any number of smaller divisions and subsidiaries. Among these larger departments is Third Eye News, who may also send a news crew out to follow your team as they perform missions. The media is a constant theme in SLA Industries, with news coverage playing a major role in how Operatives are perceived and promoted. Operatives can even win endorsement deals if they look good for the camera. This does of course mean that when you get a mission which has no cameras, you’re going to get suspicious.
SLA Industries provides a setting which is utterly full of two things: Creatures to shoot, and people to distrust. The SLA Operative campaign premise works well here, striking a balance between letting players see the corporate dysfunction and not actually forcing them to worry about it. The mechanics follow the setting by offering a whole lot to think about and choose from, but even within the relatively narrow ‘Operative’ concept, the focus needs a bit of work.
The character creation chapter starts by listing the ten easy steps it takes to get your Operative detailed out. The first edition of Eclipse Phase, a game which even some favorable reviews called unplayable, has nine steps in its character creation process. Now, to be fair, SLA Industries isn’t as convoluted as Eclipse Phase could be, and definitely doesn’t involve the allocation of potentially thousands of character points. That said, it is still, in this year 2021, representative of a much older, fairly overburdened mode of character creation. Honestly, a lot of this has to do with presentation. Take Skills for instance. If the Skills section had led with ‘take these skills based on species, then take a skill package, then get 30 points’, it would be a lot easier to read and understand than the current format, which involves listing all of the skills prior to explaining how a character actually gets skills assigned to them. Editing aside, you still have to assign 30 skill points, with each skill rank costing a different amount. Then you go into Traits, which is a merits/flaws system. The ‘flaw’ this game took was having a merits/flaws system, an outdated mechanic only GURPS gets away with these days (and even then only because it’s grandfathered in from the 1980s). These choices, though, illustrate my real issue with these character creation rules, and that’s, well, choices. These rules get halfway to understanding what an effective character creation system should do, and then fail to seal the deal. While I understand the desire to give players more choices in how they play, it’s mostly false choice anyway; the premise is all about SLA Operatives, so why do you need to allocate points three times to make one overarching character concept? Pick a species, assign your stat points, pick your skill package, maybe one trait. Speaking of species…so these species are all way cooler than the D&D races, but I don’t exactly understand why we need all of them. Why do we need both kinds of Stormers and also the Wraithen and the Shaktar? It gives us two muscle/melee species and two dexterity/stealth species. They’re not exactly the same but they are fulfilling the same character build role, and the other abilities like Stormer 313’s ‘Physical Favorite’ (basically the cameras love them, which is a really cool idea) are too subtle to differentiate a character with. It also means that only one species out of nine, the Ebonites, get the supernatural ‘Ebb’ abilities, which seems like a wasted opportunity. Character creation could have been greatly improved if a lot of the mental load of small differences like skill allocation and trait selection were reduced in favor of making bigger choices like training packages and species more impactful.
After character creation we get into the actual rules, and the core mechanic is almost simple. SLA Industries uses d10s for its core mechanic, and roll results are determined by 1d10+stat+skill, much like in Cyberpunk. Here’s where it gets a little weirder. In addition to that main die (called the Success Die), each skill roll would require you to roll a number of ‘Skill Dice’ equal to your rank in the skill plus one. So, if you had two ranks in Melee Weapons, you would roll four dice, three Skill Dice and one Success Die. If the Success Die beats the difficulty number, you succeed at the roll. Your margin of success is determined by how many Skill Dice also beat the roll; the more dice, the better a result you get. Combat is of course a plethora of more strictly defined actions, but the core of it uses a mechanic I rather like. After rolling initiative, all participants must declare their actions, lowest initiative to highest, and then resolving actions highest initiative to lowest (you may have seen me discuss this system before, using the name ‘Reign Initiative’ after the first game I knew of that used it). Characters are not forced to choose defend as one of their actions, they instead get one defense against an incoming attack per round. Hit points are refreshingly simple, for the most part: if you’re reduced to zero hit points, you’re dead. There is a ‘critical’ threshold and some rules for taking severe wounds, but this is the first game in a while that just says you’re dead when you run out of hit points. No negatives, no recovery rolls, just dead at zero.
Much like the older philosophy of character creation, the presentation of the mechanics is also very much based in the 90s, building up a relatively simple core mechanic with tons of different exceptions and specifications, especially in combat. The difference between combat and character creation is that I never found myself wondering why all the additional detail existed in combat. This is a game that describes itself as ‘splatterpunk’, we all knew you’d need to provide rules for dual-wielding and a drug called “Ultra Violence”. The Ratings Points effects are surprisingly fun, and add a bit more mechanical oomph to the idea of being on camera ingame. There could have been yet more, though! If there’s something this new edition needed, it was courage. SLA Industries has a fun setting and that setting provides a lot of neat ideas which can really define how the game is played and how it’s unique. The mechanics, though, are not unique. There’s nothing wrong with the mechanics, even if their presentation could be cleaned up a bit. But, with the exception of a few places that shine through like Ratings Points, they don’t make SLA Industries feel unique. They look and feel like any number of games that originated in the mid-90s and built safe, plodding point-buy systems to propel settings which usually deserved a lot better. The question here, as it was with all these other games, is if the setting and high concept is fun enough to get you to forgive the forgettable mechanics when you’re playing.
Playing the Game
The structure of the game and how the GM is supposed to present challenges is easily the best part of the rules. Operatives receive missions in a default ‘Blueprint News’ format, which details the mission, the rewards, and any specialized skills necessary. Beyond this, the missions are divided into eleven different ‘colors’ which broadly represent what the mission entails and its level of importance. Also included in the short GMing section in the back of the book is a section on ‘Hunter Sheets’, which are more detailed mission sheets structured around finding and apprehending a specific target and serve as a solid starting point for one-shots. These play structures fit nicely within the ten page ‘Web Of Lies’ chapter on running the game, and represent places where the game’s mechanics do stand out. Even so, I notice issues here when it comes to relating the rules as stated with the game as implied. The mission structures are very good, but why only allusions to “things going on behind the scenes” and “something more sinister”? There is clearly a ton of material for running hundreds of different conspiracies in the setting material, so why not some structures for running them, a la Night’s Black Agents? I do know plot superstructure mechanics such as the ‘conspyramid’ aren’t necessary, and indeed SLA Industries provides more than enough material to get the players into a ton of messes without needing additional rules. That said, looking at all the setting material, all the stat blocks, the roughly nine centuries of timeline, I feel like there could be something more to pull it all together. Campaigns are somewhat of a secondary notion even in the text of the chapter on running the game, and I think that’s a mistake. As much as SLA Industries made its name on ‘Splatterpunk’, conspiracies are part of the game’s bread and butter and a part that could have been better served with some more support for the GM.
SLA Industries is a wild setting with, save for a few bright spots, mild mechanics. That said, it’s hard to judge the quality of the game on this. I’ve made harsh criticisms of games and supplements in the past and their target audience simply did not care. Mechanics which are derivative, maybe even ill-suited for the game conceit they’re matched to, are still better than the mechanics of some higher-volume RPGs out there which are simply bad, which aren’t fun to play. And while SLA Industries isn’t a game that took many chances with its mechanics, it still provides the depth you need for some fun splatterpunk game nights without much difficulty. I see a lot of places where I wish this game would have been more ambitious. That said, if you loved SLA Industries the first time around, you’ll probably love it this time too. And if you’re looking for a more game-able dystopian setting than the usual suspects, this is still one of the best out there, just like in 1993. If you survive, say hi to Mr. Slayer for me.
SLA Industries is available from DriveThruRPG.
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