Blade Runner Review

Cyberpunk is having its second wind. The genre of postmodern science fiction best defined as ‘high-tech, low-life” was born in the 1980s, first in film, then literature, then game. Though declared dead in 1991 after Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash seemed to parody the genre as much as embody it, Cyberpunk came roaring back in the 2010s in the wake of Citizens United, Facebook, and the second tech boom. By the time Cyberpunk 2077 was released in 2020, the setting year of its RPG predecessor, the combination of 80s aesthetic being cool again and the continued specter of corporate overlords made the children of Gibson, Sterling, and Shiner seem all too relevant. Tabletop RPGs were no exception to the trend; in addition to Cyberpunk Red becoming the best-selling non-D&D RPG of the decade so far, many imitators cropped up from all over the game design map, some adhering well to Cyberpunk themes and others not so much.

Free League, a Swedish publisher of ever increasing significance in the last few years, has stepped into the Cyberpunk ring with a licensed title. This isn’t Free League’s first go at a licensed game, with Alien receiving broadly positive reviews, but like Alien Blade Runner is a property with a lot of history and high expectations attached. Based originally on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner basically started the Cyberpunk genre when it was released in 1982. While William Gibson had started writing in what would become Cyberpunk a little earlier (Johnny Mnemonic was published in 1981), so influential was Blade Runner that he feared Neuromancer would be dismissed as a coattail-grab.

Beyond the obvious importance, Blade Runner also exists firmly in the original incarnation of Cyberpunk: postmodern science fiction. Blade Runner, like Philip K Dick before it, is most concerned with questions of reality and unreality; the themes of humanity and what makes us human (or not) are obvious in both the film and its more recent sequel Blade Runner 2049, and the setpieces of giant megacorporations controlling cities are more about raising questions around the systems of control that exist in and moderate our reality. Cyberpunk’s continuing popularity is rooted in the continuing relevance of these questions, and they continue to be relevant because society has steadfastly continued to have difficulty answering them.

The biggest triumph and failing, then, of the Blade Runner RPG is that it is built around emulating the setting and trappings of Blade Runner. Blade Runner the RPG is about Blade Runners, highly skilled police detectives who are responsible for the complicated and politically sensitive issues of crimes involving replicants. The RPG attempts to integrate material across the two movies, which firmly entrenches the game in a setting much closer to the sequel. Beyond that, the game is specifically an investigation game, building out procedures to more specifically examine the type of stories told through the two Blade Runner movies’ two protagonists: Rick Deckard and K. This is absolutely not a run of the mill Cyberpunk game, but this narrower theming is what allows it to work as well as it does; Free League has taken a lot of the superstructure from Vaesen and twisted it from fairy tale Sweden to dystopian Los Angeles. The result is a solid game, but a game which requires you to want, fairly specifically, a detective story.

Mechanics

Blade Runner the RPG uses Free League’s Year Zero Engine, specifically building off of the version developed for Twilight:2000. While earlier Year Zero Engine games had players build a dice pool of d6s, Blade Runner uses incrementing dice for skills and attributes just like Twilight:2000; players roll one die for their skill and one for their attribute, and which die they roll (d6, d8, d10, or d12) depends on the rating in the skill and attribute. To reflect the game’s lesser emphasis on combat, though, many of the more detailed mechanics have been simplified. Weapon stat blocks have been abridged, and the resolution mechanics no longer include ‘ammo dice’ or use dice incrementation for modifiers. Instead, all situational modifiers are covered by either ‘advantage’ (adding a third die) or ‘disadvantage’ (taking one die away). One detail I particularly like is in the recasting of the critical injury rules: Twilight:2000 gave each weapon a ‘critical’ stat which determined how much damage it needed to do in order to inflict a critical injury, while in Blade Runner this is replaced with a simple double success. Instead, each weapon gets a different ‘crit die’. As the critical injuries are listed in their respective tables from least to most severe, larger crit dies mean, on average, more severe criticals.

Blade Runner keeps the time tracking from Twilight:2000 and uses it for something completely different. In Twilight:2000, the day was broken up into four ‘shifts’, primarily used to track travel and long actions. There are no detailed travel rules per se in Blade Runner, instead the shifts track investigations. Characters can visit one location per shift as part of their investigation, which places a cap on how much can be done in a day (and in many cases encourages splitting the party). Additionally, each character should spend one shift out of every four on downtime. The downtime mechanics are relatively sparse, certainly nothing like Blades in the Dark or its ilk, but still provide enough to break up the game and throw in some interesting random encounters.

Another Year Zero Engine mainstay is the base building; here it’s removed, which I think is a good idea given the focus of the game. What works in its stead (replaces it isn’t quite right) is a set of mechanics around the LAPD, the organization you’re a part of. Much of this is handled in fiction, but the advancement mechanics are tied to the police and split up in an interesting way. Promotion points are given for doing your job, conducting investigations the way the department wants them to be done, and as such these points can buy gear, specialty training, and pay raises. There are also Humanity points, which are used to actually raise your skills. These are earned more through acts of ‘compassion or humanity’, and it’s not coincidental that the things that earn you Humanity points are often the exact opposite of the things that earn you Promotion points. In fact, getting caught when you, for example, let a replicant go could actually lose you Promotion points. Beyond the advancement, the police department stands in for where the base and survival elements would come in for other YZE games. Ammo is not tracked, housing is not scrabbled over.

Even character creation is pared down; there are seven archetypes for you to choose from, though in reality it’s six if you’re human and five if you’re a replicant; Doxie is unique to replicants while Skimmer and Cityspeaker are unique to humans. The archetypes only provide a key attribute and key skills, somewhat like archetypes in Vaesen, so it is fairly easy to do without them should you desire. Key Memory and Key Relationship are somewhat similar to Traumas and Dark Secrets in Vaesen, in that each provides one compact and well-described hook. Unlike Vaesen, these aren’t tied to archetype in any way, so they can lead the character all over the place should you be willing to lean in.

While the mechanics are nothing new, they also aren’t, say, Twilight:2000 with a coat of paint. This is clearly Year Zero, yes, but everything’s been recast to align with Blade Runner as a setting. Indeed, there is a whole lot of setting material in here, though constraining it to just LA gives everything some focus and gameability. The setting stuff is placed after the rules (good!), though the GM section which includes some mechanics is after the setting stuff (less good!). It’s hard not to compare the organization to something like Avatar Legends, and strikingly the saving grace of Blade Runner more than anything else is that it has 20% fewer pages than Avatar does. Yes, it’s slightly better laid out (though with the seemingly unavoidable lore dump), but the shorter length does wonders for making it more usable. Blade Runner being usable as a game, though, has a lot more to do with the sort of game one would run with this system.

The Game In Context

Blade Runner the RPG is an investigation RPG, following in the footsteps more of something like Call of Cthulhu than Cyberpunk 2020. And procedure-wise, it’s not a bad investigation RPG by any means; the case file generation system is smart, and the detail around the police department and the unique remit of the Blade Runners within the setting makes it easy to tell their story. That’s the thing I keep coming back to, though…although the rules are standard breadth for a trad game (including probably more of a combat system than strictly necessary), the procedures and fictional support around everything are aimed laser-sharp at one specific type of story. 

There’s two things here to deconstruct. One is simply if this is the game that Blade Runner fans would want. It does exactly the sort of stories the two movies are built around…exactly. It’s about the eponymous Blade Runners and them specifically being faced with the thorny questions about the nature of humanity that the existence of replicants necessarily brings about. Although I thought the setting material provided for LA was well-done, I was a little surprised at how little it pushed outside of the material and vibes of the movies. This is not an exploration or expansion of Blade Runner’s setting, it’s a companion piece, and heavily built around specifically what the movie is. It’s not bad design, don’t get me wrong, it’s just not what I have come to expect from licensed games. Realistically, Star Wars is at least partially to blame for this. WEG’s Star Wars RPG was both an early success in licensed RPG design as well as a case where the designers not only had to but were encouraged to expand the setting for their own purposes. This has become the norm among licensed RPGs (especially when those licenses are narrow, like Blade Runner), but that doesn’t mean it needs to be.

The second element worth talking about is simply about the fact that this is a cop game. I’m not questioning if playing the cops can be Cyberpunk (it obviously can, this is still Blade Runner), or even the moral positioning (given both how the department is described as well as the advancement mechanics it’s pretty clear that Free League aren’t writing blank checks to the police here), but simply the appeal at this point. Noir has always been about creating justice where you can, and Cyberpunk is heavily influenced by noir, to the point where it was essentially a subgenre at least at first. One thing that works well in noir though (and Cyberpunk for that matter) is when the characters are free agents, even if they are stand-ins for some version of justice or authority. The fact that Rick Deckard is a police officer doesn’t make Blade Runner less Cyberpunk but it does narrow the appeal of a game where you have to be a follow-on to Rick Deckard. To be honest this would be true for any game that aimed to so narrowly emulate its source material, but the juxtaposition in Blade Runner specifically is noticeable. The game is, in many ways, demanding that you look at the setting and the setting conceits through the same lens that the movie protagonists do. I’m surprised and honestly a little impressed that Free League were able to tune this game so narrowly, especially when building it upon their house system.


Blade Runner is not going to compete with other Cyberpunk games. No edgerunners here, no street samurai, just police tracking replicants. And in that way, Blade Runner the RPG presents the same fundamental questions as Blade Runner the movie. What does it mean to be human? If we can make a human facsimile, at what point is that facsimile human? If we can add, delete, and edit memories, what then do they mean? It’s all heady stuff, and it makes a lot of sense as fodder for an RPG. And while Blade Runner is a well-executed RPG, it is exactly Blade Runner the RPG and not one thing more. I think that narrowness helped the game; it allowed existing mechanics to be recast in a way that was useful for the stories intended to be told. But for a trad game from a top-selling publisher, it’s a bit surprising. Honestly, though, I could stand to be surprised a little more often.

Blade Runner the RPG is available from DriveThruRPG, and the Free League webstore.

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4 thoughts on “Blade Runner Review”

  1. Very thoughtful and well-written review. I have played a couple of sessions with my friend GMing (a newbie to both the game and GMing), and I was looking for a little background and analysis to make sure I was in the right headspace as a player. Your article was exactly what I needed.
    Thanks for your work.
    Corey

    Like

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