Psi-Punk review

Recently I saw a post on Google+ from Jacob Wood on the Pen & Paper Bloggers community asking whether anyone would be interested in reviewing a cyberpunk FUDGE RPG; I contacted Jacob and expressed interest and was , as a fan of dark/dystopian settings, soon eagerly flipping through a PDF copy of the Psi-Punk game.
Review

Front Cover and Blurb
Front Cover

The front cover is very visually striking and yet not over complicated, showing two people battling infront of a matrix-esque background of 1s and 0s whilst a blurred face overlooks the scene; on the back of the book is a fairly standard blurb that sums up very well what type of game Psi-Punk is, it reminded me of some of the similar material on the various editions of Shadowrun (hardly surprising since the two games both cover a similar mix of futuristic and more fantastic elements).
Layout
The PDF seemed a trifle slow to load new pages on the version I looked at, although whether this is due to the way that the PDF is put together or my slightly aging computer I can’t say, it didn’t greatly impact my enjoyment of the book though. Using a twin column scheme, the book has a nice, clear layout making it very easy on the eye without some of the odd/barely readable heading fonts that I have seen used in some other RP products recently.
Contents

Game Background
Right, now to the actual meat of the book, the contents; the book begins with the usual introduction of the concept of roleplaying games, a brief run down of what is contained in the other chapters and an explanation of the FUDGE system used by the game; I have a certain fondness for FUDGE given that it was one of the precursors to the FATE system that I currently favour and was the first roleplaying games that introduced me to the idea of using words to represent difficulty levels rather than solely numbers.
This chapter is followed with a brief history chapter, detailing the events that lead to the game world differing from our own; there will be nothing particularly surprising in this chapter to anyone who has playing cyberpunk or occult style games. The game takes place in 2096, 80 years after a psychic called Nathan Hunter escaped from a covert North Dakota research facility and revealed the existence of psychics to the world; psychics were created as a result of military experimentation begun by the Nazis, continued by the Soviets and later by the Americans in the wake of WWII. Although initially outraged by the indignaties heaped on the psychic by the military, the public who once called for their release now find themselves marginalised by those members of society possessing strange powers that they cannot possibly compete with; into this arena steps the company MagiCorp who deal in items and technologies designed to even the playing field. I enjoyed reading this chapter, although there is nothing startlingly original in it and there are some well worn tropes used (nazi experimentation for one example), they were handled well and were written up in a straight-forward way without any unnecessarily flowery language; the brief history tells you what you need to know in the space of a few pages.
There follows a more lengthy description of the world history, seeming to take a fairly Americocentric view of the fture world (although there are smaller sections hinting at activities outside of the National American Union (a future state covering America, Canada and Mexico); this section is a little more stodgy and difficult to digest in my opinion, but persevering with it does give some interesting ideas for games set either during the fictional history or for events influenced by it. The history as a whole is fairly normal cyberpunk fare with the additions of psychics (known as “mentals” within the setting) and technology that blurs the line between tech and magic, huge megacorporations dominate the future society hoarding wealth and resources, keeping them away from the common man; there is a very interesting write-up of how the inevitable world food shortage was dealt with as populations rise, leading to real food becoming a prize commodity and most people subsisting on a nanotech produced Soylent Green styled substance called “nano-food” (thankfully without the main Soylent Green ingredient).
Psi-Punk paints a word where the current social/economic gulf has become vast indeed, the rich and corporate minded are able to afford the luxury of real food and elevate themselves using magical technology from MagiCorp whereas the multitudinous poor are forced to live in squalor often turning to crime as the only real means of supporting themselves; this has given rise to a powerful criminal underclass of gangs, mobsters and ghost cartels (high organised data-thieves) who are occasionally cracked down upon by a corrupt police system. The description of the class divide and the criminal elements of society is very well written and interesting, the only slight flaw IMO is that a number of concepts are introduced before they are explained (for example the concept of ‘Wraith Butchers’, people who murder astral travellers are introduced before any real mention of astral travel is made), however this is a minor niggle at most. The last part of this section focusses on ‘Street Runners’, independent mercenaries for hire, the game suggests that the default party of players would be made up of Street Runners.
Character Creation
The character creation section begins with an interesting discussion of Archetypes, with each one listed receiving a brief write-up and suggestions of how they fit in society; a very interesting diversion from the norm in these sort of games is in some of the titles used to refer to the archetypes (for example: Brenner, the german word for ‘burner’ is used to refer to pyrokinetics), this helps give the game a slightly different feel, hinting at the game slang and language usage without being too intrusive or obvious.
Characters in the system are determined by three primary attributes (body, mind and persona), each of which is then divided into two seperate sub-attributes (ie. strength & dexterity for body); primary attributes are determined by totalling the modifiers of the secondary atttributes – this reminds me somewhat of one of the suggestions for handling attributes in the old AD&D Skills & Powers book; the primary attributes seem a bit unnecessary to me and the book itself even says “On their own, attributes are rarely checked against,” I would argue that the game could have potentially been streamlined a little by removing these primary attributes, although TBH since they are rarely used and are derived from the secondaries it’s not really a massive problem and should have little impact on the actual enjoyment of the game.
The character creation chapter is quite dense with numerous modifiers being used, build points to determine skills and luck point dice being modified by skills; IMO this may prove quite daunting for players or GMs not used to a lot of number crunching and figuring out modifiers, although anyone used to some of the more crunchy systems like D&D3.5 or Pathfinder shouldn’t have a great deal of trouble adapting to it, personally I prefer a slightly more narrative approach, but I can appreciate that there are RPers who enjoy the “crunch” of game rules a lot more than myself.
After this there is a discussion of Gifts and Faults; this should be familiar territory to anyone who plays systems that allow merits and flaws (World of Darkness or Savage Worlds for instance) and allows players to tweak their characters a little using a provided list of merits (that cost build points) and flaws (that gain a person additional build points) whilst personally not a fan of flaws that allow you to get extra points to spend on your character (since I think it can be open to abuse) this part of the section is very clear and well written, I am sure that any sensible GM running the game (ie. one who doesn’t allow overuse/abuse of the Faults) will find this is a useful addition to their game. The book itself very pointedly mentions several times that the GM should be careful not to allow abuse of the Faults system.
Luck points allow the players to either accomplish an unopposed action automatically and with panache, reroll a skill check, reduce the level of injury taken in a combat, to cause a favourable coincidence (with GM approval) or (if they roll a high enough success) to cause a truly extraordinary/astonishing result. I’m a big fan of anything that allows the players to also have a degree of narrative control within a game and take control of their players destinies so I think that Luck points are a welcome addition to the game.
At the end of the chapter there is a very useful character questionnaire that provide 30 questions a player may want to consider when making their character and a summary of the creation process.
Equipment
Chapter three is basically a big list of equipment, vehicles and weaponry for you to tool your character up with, it is fairly comprehensive without being ludicrously detailed and provides additional interest by introducing Gifts, characteristics that can be applied to weapons in order to customise them. There is also a discussion of how magic (items that emulate psionic powers) can be created and how much they cost.
Playing the Game
Psi-Punk uses the standard 4 fudge/fate dice roll (4DF) common in FUDGE, FATE and the various systems that use similar rulesets; a player takes their 4DF (each dice containing two sides marked ‘+’, two sides marked ‘-‘ and two that are blank) roll thems and adds the resulting modifier to their skill or attribute, the final score can be references on the games Trait Ladder to determine whether or not that have succeeded.
In Psi-Punk the Trait Ladder looks like this:
Astonishing +7
Extraordinary +6
Phenomenal +5
Wonderful +4
Superb +3
Great +2
Good +1
Fair 0
Mediocre -1
Poor -2
Abysmal -3
So if you had a skill of Good (+1) and rolled -, +, +, blank then your final score would be Great (+2). I’m a great fan of this system and think that it has an elegant simplicity to it as well as the visual element of the Trait Ladder.
Details of how wealth works in the game (basically an addition to the Trait Ladder) and how to run a combat follow, these sections are well written (if a little dry) and fairly clear.
Psionics and Magic
Chapter five of the books contains a more detailed look at the psionic and magic systems present in the game; in game terms psionics are the ability to control and manipulate your surroundings using nothing more than the power of your mind, whilst magic is a term referring to electronic devices that manipulate energy to produce similar effects to psionics. Psionics are only available at character generation although magic devices can be acquired/purchased in game; psionic powers are linked into attributes and are rolled using 4DF like any other ability, on a successful roll they can generate a number of effets as discussed in the book; a large list of psionic powers and magic devices follows this, there aren’t really any surprises in here but the lists are comprehensive and would certainly allow most players to create the psionic or magic user of their dreams.
Hacking
Always a potentially troublesome element I find in cyberpunk or sci-fi games, chapter six deals with hacking; i’ve always seen this (along with space combat) as a potential problem area in a game because it can result in the exclusion of players not involved with the main action and, although it is possible for a decent GM to jump between two groups, it does result in a somewhat choppier/more disjointed gaming experience. Psi-Punk seems to reduce haxcking to a series of Computer Use and Technical skill rolls which can be modified by equipment used and research performed before hand; it then diverges into explanations of how to psionically hack computer systems and how to manipulate people via social engineering. Psi-jacking functions very similarly to normal hacking, however social engineering switches the various technical rolls for social based skills as the player character attempts to manipulate the target into doing whatever they want; there is also a lengthy explanation of how to control (“jack”) people using psionics.
Whilst I think some of this section is a bit lengthy, it does do a good job of reducing the various strains of hacking down to a manageable level that could be completed without the rest of the player party being forced to sit on the sidelines during a lengthy hacking session (as has happened with some other similar RP games)- this is to be applauded, although I think the number of rolls required could have been reduced even more.

When Worlds Diverge
The seventh chapter of the book deals with the online world of the Net and the mystical world of the Astral Plane that both exist alongside what we know as our world; the net is omnipresent in the form of Augmented Reality (AR) overlays of the real world, this is a concept that I first encountered in RP during reading one of the more recent versions of Cyberpunk and is a great way of bringing elements of this realm into a game session without excluding people who aren’t playing hackers. Psi-Punk does allow people to project themselves into the Net however it does provide for people bringing along passengers, thus very neatly sidestepping the exclusion problem mentioned above, I think this should be applauded and is IMO a great decision by the authors. The discussions of hwo the Net appears, can be used and the various challenges that a player party might face in this realm are very interesting, with security programs being treated as cutdown versions of characters who can attack or otherwise attempt to disable an invading Ghost (hacker).
The Astral Plane appears to be a mystical alternate realm that suitably calm and focussed people can project their consciousnesses into, mechanically it functions much the same as the Net realm save that the unwary traveller may find themselves assailed by magical creatures rather than intruder counter measure programs. I found the inclusion of an Astral Plane a little odd given that, by and large, magic in the rest of the book has been referred to as machinery.
Game Mastering
For me the star of the book is the Game mastering chapter, that contains some great advice on how to plan and run a game, also containing advice for tweaking or excluding the various rules sub-systems throughout the book; it also provides advice and tips on bringing the players into the creation process of the setting and the various adventures something that, as I said earlier, I am a big fan of. The chapter includes some no-nonsense and useful advice on adjudicating difficulty levels, handling the GMs pot of Luck Points and creating NPCs to challenge the player party.
Sample Adventure Brain.Net
The sample adventure that comes with the main book is an interesting one; it deals with an attempt to recapture lost sensations of the past and the cost that people pay when corporate greed and the need to meet deadlines overwhelms the public good. Brain dot net begins with a fairly standard pub brawl style opening that does have a certain nostalgic feel if you’re an old school roleplayer and I feel the adventure is a good introduction to the world of Psi-Punk drawing on selected elements from its history.
Overall Verdict
If you’re looking for a cyberpunk style game setting that combines the numerous different types of dystopian future settings into one and binds them all together with the FUDGE rules system then you can’t go far wrong with Psi-Punk; the rules may be a bit crunchy and unnecessarily bloated in places but the setting of the game is genuinely quite interesting, containing enough oddities and little flashes of originality to make it worthy of consideration against some of the larger RP games of a similar genre. The writing style of the book is clean and concise in the majority and the art, whilst only black and white, is very appropriate to the setting.
Personally i’m quite likely to take the background of the system and convert it to use with the much simpler FATE or FAE systems from Evil Hat productions which, given they are both based on FUDGE, should be quite easy to do; however for just over £10 you can’t really grumble with the sheer amount of material that is crammed into Psi-Punk.

Psi-Punk is available from RPGnow priced at $19.99:
http://www.rpgnow.com/product/114830/Psi-punk

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