Hard Wired Island Review – Hard Luck Cyberpunks at Lagrange 5

“In the distant future of 2020, humanity has spread to space. A meteorite struck Earth’s northern hemisphere in 1996. The Impact caused widespread environmental damage that humanity has yet to fully recover from, but it supercharged public interest in space exploration. Around the world, new political unions began pouring money into space programs. The result is Grand Cross, an O’Neill cylinder in the Earth–Moon L5 point. It’s Earth’s gateway to the stars, a launching point for missions to Mars and beyond, and a beacon of hope for its people — but it’s in crisis.

An alliance of space-based corporations known as the Offworld Cartel has moved in. While they sell space exploration as a shared dream they strive for along with everyone else, their true aim is control of Grand Cross and, through it, the future of space settlement. As their influence spreads, so does inequality and crime. The Cartel has convinced the current government to privatize many of the systems that keep Grand Cross running, and the station is slowly falling apart. Behind the scenes, they have even more underhanded schemes running in secret. If the next election favors the Cartel, they’ll be on their way to becoming the landlords of human space.”

This is the retrofuture cyberpunk game of people fighting the unchecked greed of corporations, technocrats, and worse to save their orbital communities, Hard Wired Island by Paul “Ettin” Matijevic and Freyja Katra Erlingsdóttir!

Welcome to Grand Cross

Here’s the thing: Grand Cross used to be a pretty decent place. It’s the crown jewel in humanity’s efforts to make sure they don’t have all their eggs in one basket if another Impact happens, the next stepping stone for living on other worlds, and building it was a global effort. The first generation of ‘Crossers’ moved up the gravity well to a colony that was fully accessible, with plenty of food from the agricultural ring and guaranteed housing. Then the corporations decided they wanted their piece, and politicians decided they like getting donations. Public services like transportation got privatized and started to fall apart and become less accessible, new buildings were sold to landlords instead of the people living there and the folks clinging to the original housing started to get utility-fee’d out, food deserts started cropping up, workers were pressured to augment themselves to increase productivity and then kicked to the curb when they got too old, cops went on the take and private security got set up, and more and more ways for the haves to keep draining the have-nots dry. To make things worse, corporate corner-cutting on what was supposed to be the second colony at L4 led to a Disaster that saw refugees dumped into Grand Cross with nothing and nowhere else to go.

While they don’t pull a White Wolf and give you an infodump before explaining how to actually play the game, you don’t really get Hard Wired Island without the setting – you learn more about it throughout the text, but there are three chapters to the tune of 200+ pages that are nothing but setting and characters and plot hooks, with a fourth chapter delivering ready-to-play scenarios and characters. There’s no shortage of sights to see and things to do, although there are still plenty of blank spaces for you to fill in as you want.

Amal Ward is best known for its greenery and parks, and it was originally supposed to be a middle class area, but as inequality continues to deepen on Grand Cross the middle class is vanishing; the rich have full gardens of tropical flowers, the poor are fortunate if they don’t have a torn up lot thanks to a landlord trying to maximize their use of real estate. Love Machines might look like it’s just an android brothel, but it’s also a front for the android rights movement, gathering dirt on the ruling political party ahead of the next election. Central District law is split between SPD on the streets and corporate security in the buildings, and the corporate security aren’t shy about dragging protesters and the homeless inside so they can be arrested on ‘trespassing’ charges.

Good settings give you plenty to do and help tell you what kind of stories you’re going to be best able to play through, and Hard Wired Island provides plenty of both (provided in part by a staggering number of Additional Writers). So how do you actually play them?

The Basic Mechanics

Roll a number of d6s (usually 2) and add up the results, maybe adding a bonus like +3, against a target number: if you match/exceed it you succeed. Otherwise you fail outright, get offered a bargain by the GM that you can take or leave, or succeed with an explicit or hidden cost.

There, the Tweet-length summary of how to play Hard Wired Island.

Alright, so there are a few more bells and whistles than that. If you have Advantage, you roll an extra die and discard the lowest result. If you have disadvantage, same but you’re discarding the highest. If a roll receives a Boost, you’re adding a d6 that you get to keep. Provided these effects come from separate sources, they actually stack. So, if you’re rolling what would be a 2d6 with double Advantage and a Boost you end up rolling 5d6 and discarding the two lowest results.

Advantage and Disadvantage cancel one another out on a one-for-one basis (one Advantage and double Disadvantage leaves you with one Disadvantage on the roll). Certain actions (more on those in just a sec) are going to have Critical effects either inherently or added by items/abilities, and trigger when you succeed and have the same result on at least two dice; if Advantage or Disadvantage are in play, do your discarding before checking for Criticals. Finally, getting banged up hampers you – if you’ve suffered Harm you reduce the result of your dice rolls by -1 per Harm, and if you’ve suffered Serious Harm then you roll one fewer die than normal on everything.

The Crossers and Their Actions

Player characters have four Abilities: Cool (charisma, confidence, and slick attitude), Clever (logic, intuition, reasoning, and perceptiveness), Tough (physical power, strength, health, and ability to stay on your feet), and Quick (agility, reaction speed, and swiftness). When starting to make the character the player will assign values of +0, +1, +2, and +3 to each of the abilities. If an action says to roll+Cool, then you’re adding your value of Cool to the result of your d6s. Specialties are HWI’s version of skills, ranging from +1 to +3; simply put, if whatever you’re trying to do involves a Specialty you have a value for, you add that value to the result. Beyond those characters are defined by their Origin, Traits, Occupation, and Talents.

An Origin is where the character came from, and in addition to granting them their first two Specialties grants a special ability. A Disaster Refugee gets +1 to their choice of Defense and a Generic Specialty of their choice, and once per mission can Boost a single Defense roll. The Ex-Cop has Advantage when dealing with cops and other ex-cops, with a +1 each to Law and Investigation. A Builder can gain an Augment at no cost, and their experience as someone who helped put Grand Cross together nets them +1 to a Social Action of their choice and +1 to Engineering or Obscure Places.

Traits are mixed into the bunch, helping to define the character better but also providing benefits – and downsides. You get two during character creation, the first saying something about the lessons and/or damage life has given you, the second describing what your personal approach to problem solving has brought you. A character with the Activist Trait can Boost a roll when they push themselves to act for the sake of social causes or others, but lose a die on their next roll afterwards. Student Loans get you more Specialties from your schooling, but drop a financial cost on your head. If you’re Speedy, good news is that you get +1 to Quick Defense, but if that still isn’t enough you get Disadvantage for your next roll as you get put on the back foot.

A character’s Occupation might not be what they do for a living to the letter, but in short they define how a character solves problems. Your first Occupation provides you with Assets (gear, basically), more Specialties, and access to a unique pool of Talents – in fact, while there are some Talents that everyone can take, you’re probably going to get most of them from your Occupation over the course of a campaign, especially because some Talents become stronger based on how many of an Occupation’s Talents you have.

A Fixer with Criminal Network will gain +1 to all social rolls dealing with criminal acts/people/things, while I Know A Guy would let them decrease an Asset’s price with a Critical when they’re trying to get it, and make illegal Assets easier to get; if they have 5+ Fixer Talents, then IKAG’s Criticals also allows another acquisition action without needing to spend more time. A Hacker with Laughing Gal can’t be recognized or identified by electronic sensors unless they want to be, and Don’t Be Evil gives them +1 to all Hacking and Social rolls so long as they’re taking on Cartel corporations and +1 to Attacks against Dreamers, a kind of rogue robot. A Soldier fighting For The Cause – that cause being larger than themself – gains +1 Tough Defense, and with 7+ Soldier Talents so do all the Soldier’s allies; speaking of which, a Soldier who is a Protest Coordinator can make sure a useful ally is around for missions, rallies, protests, and riots.

So, what actions will these characters be taking?

“Hard Wired Island is a game of social interaction first and foremost”, says the book as it starts off the first section on actions, Social Matters and Other Bloodshed. Most of the time players can probably just talk things out, but here we have rules for when the dice need to get involved. Social scenes all have a Mood, defined by the GM: Friendly, Indifferent, Formal, Hostile, and Sexy (how this last one works is up to the group, but “a step beyond Friendly that requires consent” is a good guideline). The Mood of the scene determines what tack you can take and what you can expect to get away with. The actual actions are Bullshit, Charm, Interrogate, Placate, Embarrass, and Threaten. You can also Lower the Mood towards Hostile without rolling any dice just by “acting like an ass deliberately.” Charm is exactly what it sounds like, and can be used to improve the Mood of a scene, but you can’t try it if the Mood is already Hostile. Placate is how you get a Mood to stop being Hostile. Threaten can only be used overtly if the mood is already Hostile, but more subtle threats work just fine when things are Friendly. 2d6 + Clever, Cool, or Clever OR Cool are the Abilities of the day for these Actions.

Next up is Stealth and Security, favored ground for Clever and/or Quick characters. The rule for here is that a place has a Security Level which helps to create the difficulty for Stealth and Security Actions; a 2 or 3 is a group of simple thugs or a bored cop, while if you’re sneaking into a corporate executive suite with a cool laser grid it’s 8-9. The actual Stealth action goes up against 5 + Security Level, only one person has to roll for a group, and once you’re stealthy you’re stealthy. You don’t have to reroll Stealth all the time, you just have to maintain it. You get three chances; every time you have to roll dice while under Stealth and fail, you lose one chance. Run out of chances, and it’s alarms and security bots and the whole lot. Disable Security is the action for lowering the Security Level, whether disabling cameras or stuffing sedated guards into the nearest closet. Cover Your Tracks is how you regain chances, although it becomes more difficult the more times you have to do it.

Hacking the Cylinder works like being social with computers, but with a bit of stealth mixed in. Network Level acts just like Security Level, and a network will have a Mood from among Friendly, Indifferent, Hostile, or Basic (a Mood that covers Networks that are simple enough to not need the full suite of hacking rules). Ghosting, a hacker’s ability to remain undetected, functions exactly like Stealth, chances and all. Clever is king among the Hacking Actions: Simple Hack (dealing with Basic networks), Spoof (Bullshit but for Computers), Charm, Interrogate, and Operate (controlling objects like cameras and turrets that are connected to a network). The sole exception is Social Engineering, which is dealing with a person to get a password or something and runs off of Cool (and can actually be done by another character on the hacker’s behalf). You’ll note that there’s no equivalent to Embarrass, Placate, or Threaten, but if someone catches you in the act you can try and use the actual Social Actions against them.

For the last of the ‘get stuff done in the moment’ rules, we have a section about Getting Into Fights. Before I take a look at the crunchy bits, I really need to pull a bit of sidebar out and show it to you.

“Ultimately, rules for getting into fights are also rules for attempting murder. Even if you don’t intend to yet, it’s possible that somewhere in your future is a guy with hopes and dreams and a chance to turn his life around whose decades-long story will come to an end on your blade. The option is on the table.

The rules for combat actions are placed after the other actions because they’re meant to be a tool of last resort. They’re what you use when you can’t talk to, hack, or avoid your problems. People who try violence first tend to be messed up or, worse, policemen.”

This is another way Hard Wired Island is very up front about what it’s about. Like Doh: Fate of the Flying Temple, violence is a part of your tool kit, but actually using it is another thing. Now, the consequences for using violence on Grand Cross aren’t going to be cosmic in nature to the point that you’re narratively forbidden from using it, but looking at the rules that the book put front and center it’s easy to see that going for a weapon as your first choice is likely to make sure a person or group’s Mood towards you turns Hostile and stays that way, which greatly limits your options.

But, once you get into it, there are pretty robust rules – just because starting every conversation with gunfire is a bad idea doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it once you have no other choice. First of all combat “Arenas”, basically wherever it is you’re having the fight, have Tags that are going to influence the fight and maybe even the dice rolls: Conspicuous means you’ll have cops or security forces on you if guns get used, Distracting Disadvantages ranged attacks and makes stealth and escape easier, and Hazardous may grant Advantage to attempts to use the environment against an enemy. The actual Actions, all of which run off of Quick or Tough, are: Take Cover, Distract, Flush Out, Grab, Hunker Down, Pin Down, Run Away, and Rush. You might look at this list and wonder where making a plain attack is; the truth is that there isn’t one, because attacking is baked in. Most of those Actions are two-parters, starting off with an attack and then having an additional effect. Take Cover starts by making a ranged attack and then ends with diving into cover, giving Disadvantage to ranged attacks against you for a round. Grab lets you do just that, forcing the target to use melee attacks against you and inflicting Disadvantage if they try to shoot anyone else, after making a melee attack against them. Rush starts off with your choice of a melee or ranged attack, then you charge your target to force them to make a Tough save, pushing them back, knocking them over, or grabbing them. Now, if part of the action is impossible – for instance, if there’s no cover for you to Take Cover behind – then the rest of the action still goes off.

To me this reads like a system that will lend itself to very dynamic combat, with constantly changing positions, fighting over cover, and manipulating both the arena and the opponents. That’s before any of a character’s unique abilities get involved, like the Street Fighter’s Gun Safety Bear that lets them disarm enemies who miss them with point-blank ranged attacks.

The last set of Actions has to do with Running Missions, missions being an ‘organized activity where the group works together to achieve a major goal”; note that not everything has to be a mission. Anyway, the real point of this set is actually getting ready for a mission ahead of time through acquiring Prep and Assets. Prep is a resource that can represent everything from gear, research, allies, sheer personal focus, or anything else that might prove helpful. There are two Actions, and two ‘pools’ of Prep, to match: Personal Prep and Group Prep. Only you can use your Personal Prep, while anyone can use the points of Group Prep; gathering Personal Prep takes a day, while Group Prep takes a week, and in either case involves whatever Ability best fits whatever you describe as your character’s preparation efforts. Once you’re on the mission, you can spend Prep in a number of ways: Activate Items, Boost Defense, Boost A Roll, Ignore Damage, Negate Disadvantage, Reduce Damage, and Flashback (Forged in the Dark players will know what to do with this one). Smoke ‘em while you got ‘em, because any Prep not spent by the end of the mission goes away anyway. Acquiring Assets is straightforward enough, trying to find and reduce the price of an Asset; if you can buy it outright you have it permanently, and if you can’t you could always try renting.

Cash and Communities

On Grand Cross the system is designed to keep everyone who isn’t already on top down, grinding them up in capitalism’s gears. How well you’re managing to do and how screwed you are are measured using two abstract stats: Cash and Burden. Burden is your overall socio-economic status, rated 0-4; at 0 you’re comfortable (not wealthy, mind), and at 4 you’re destitute and can barely afford food. A character’s Burden is always going to start at 1, getting by. Now, it’s not all bad – characters can share their Burden by supporting one another, typically by sharing an apartment, which can let them treat their Burden as lower than it is. However, before every mission each character with a Burden above 0 rolls 2d6+Burden, and if you get a 13 or more you suffer a potentially devastating Economic Shock from a delayed paycheck, theft, rising prices, or something else. You might lose your living space, lose an Asset, take damage from skipping meals, have cybernetics fail from lack of maintenance, or have Abilities and Traits hampered from having to spend more time just trying to survive. Get a 15 or higher and you get hit with two such effects. Worse, Grand Cross’s overall future is uncertain; if some sort of social upheaval or disaster strikes as a story event, everyone’s Burden might go up.

When it comes to cybernetic Augments, you don’t have to worry about losing Essence or Empathy, or Humanity or anything like that – you just need to worry about the cost. Employers pressure their employees into getting Augmented in the first place to keep up, and then when the employee gets fired anyway, well now you’re stuck dealing with the maintenance costs. There are some ways to deal with this, like the Builder Origin getting one for free, but otherwise every Augment you have increases your Burden by 1. Luckily this doesn’t apply to strictly medical or cosmetic Augments, but overall it’s just another way to keep you economically crushed just because you’re trying to survive.

Cash is a temporary resource – it’s a payout from a job, loot, a favor someone owes you, money that’s not already tied up in things like food and shelter. You can use it for Boosting rolls outside of a mission, to acquire Assets, to lower your roll for Economic Shock, and even permanently reduce your Burden (to a minimum of 0, remember, no getting rich here). You can also give your Cash to other characters, who have to spend it immediately. However, it’s temporary – you lose 1d6 Cash at the end of every session, so you’ll never have a lot for very long. You can tap into the gig economy to try and make a quick buck when you need it, but there’s usually a downside – higher costs to reduce your Burden, better chance of losing Cash at the end of the session, or having to choose between making Cash or helping with Group Prep.

Your characters might be part of a community like the #zerocool hacker collective that’s facing off with the pro-Earth New Barons, or the LGBTQ+ enclave of The Marsha Stretch that’s struggling against gentrification. Whether it’s a group, an organization, or a neighborhood a community gets filled with residents defined by the players (a bonus dash of cooperative worldbuilding) who can provide support via bonuses for Prep and acquiring assets. Communities each have a Burden just like a player character however, making the residents vulnerable to economic shocks, and if the characters don’t do enough to help things might get so bad as to have residents leave and the community fall apart.

To me, it’s these mechanics of financial hardship, mutual support, and embattled communities that really do the crunchy work of driving home what Hard Wired Island is and what it’s about, which is reinforced narratively in the setting information, the tone of the writing, and even the footnotes.

If you tried to look at this game and say games can’t or shouldn’t be political, I’d half expect the PDF to achieve sentience for the express purposes of laughing at you. “Cyberpunk should be relevant” says the book, as part of its pillars of cyberpunk on Pg. 8, and while holding HWI next to reality doesn’t get you a 1:1 comparison – at least we don’t have to worry about literally running out of air – it’s not hard to see how the issues of today are going to be the problems facing down your Crossers. Civil rights, wealth, food, housing, healthcare, freedom, all of these are things that the Cartel wants to squeeze Grand Cross for. There is a cynicism that runs through the entire book – everything in Grand Cross is getting worse, the window to change anything seems to be closing, there are no good cops and landlords are ruining communities and every corporation would gladly see you dead just for an extra buck.

But there is also, importantly, a thin strand of hope. The Cartel doesn’t own Grand Cross outright, not quite yet. Things were better once, in recent memory, not so long ago that getting back there seems unachievable. There are unions holding the line, rogue doctors helping those in need, communities seizing abandoned residences to build gardens, protesters taking a stand, rights groups laying in political capital for the next election. Then, of course, there are your characters. Yes, they’ll have to worry about putting food on the table, rent is due, and life is hard – but the point of going out on missions is that there’s a chance to make things better. You don’t have to just let the bastards win.

If that’s not the ‘punk’ part of cyberpunk, then I don’t know what is.

You can check out a preview originally made for Kickstarter backers for the lovely price of $0.00 here, and PDFs of the full (very pretty) game are available at DriveThruRPG and itch.io. A print run was achieved as part of the Kickstarter and is upcoming. For a fun bit of Soft Prep, there’s actually a Hard Wired Island OST that you can listen to and/or buy here.

With firm pillars grounding it in the genre it wants to embody, easy to understand rules, and a vibrant setting, Hard Wired Island is worth any cyberpunk’s time to check out.

If the Cartel gets their way, Grand Cross as you know it will end as unchecked greed bleeds your community dry. But if you fight, you might be able to save it.

Good luck, Crosser.

Art is by Peyton Gee, Luis Melo, Beedrops, Bernardo Curvello, and Deborah ”Boaillustration” Hauber from Hard Wired Island’s core book.

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