Ex Machina: cyberpunk tabletop RPG

Ex Machina (from Guardians of Order) is a tabletop RPG based on cyberpunk science fiction, and it looks hella fun. The game is part of the dX system, which, like Steve Jackson Games's GURPS, is a generic set of rules for tabletop role-playing, intended to be supplemented with thematic rule-books that allow players to game in any kind of world, from high fantasy to wild west to underwear-and-tights superheros.

Cyberpunk is one of the older staples of role-playing (indeed, it was GURPS Cyberpunk that was just to justify the Secret Service's raid on Steve Jackson Games and the subsequent seizure of SJG's BBS and all its emails — which led to the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which provided legal assistance to argue for the privacy of the SJG customers whose emails the Secret Service wanted introduced into evidence), but for all my engagement with the genre as a literary form, I've never played any of the cyberpunk RPGs. My RPGing days are long behind me, leaving me with nothing more than good memories and a lingering fondness for polyhedral dice and painted lead miniatures.

If Ex Machina is anything to judge by, this is an RPG genre with major potential for engrossing play. Of course, net.heads have been writing collaborative cyberpunk fiction for years, at least as far back as alt.cyberpunk.chatsubo. As a genre, cyberpunk has the kind of potential for wish-fulfillment and adventure that appeals to a lot of us, and it's a short step from daydreaming about embedded neural interfaces, reflex augmentation, and dystopian gang-wars to playing them out in collaborative gaming experiences.

Ex Machina starts with a surprisingly erudite and comprehensive — yet very accessible — essay on the literary history of cyberpunk, a kind of annotated bibliography of the genre's roots from Brunner to Gibson to Stephenson to Vinge to the new generation — me, Stross, others. The authors run down the major thematic trends in the field and the way that the stories that we've told can be turned into gaming fodder.

Following that is an adapted version of the rules, which seem perfectly serviceable to my (admittedly out-of-practice) eye. Most interesting to me here are the essays of advice for players and game-masters about how to behave like cyberpunk antiheroes and how to guide players through this process. The authors touch on some of the ways that a game master (GM) can use contemporary technology (WiFi laptops around the gaming table; email, SMS and IM between games) to enhance the game.

The rules then take apart all the themes in every flavor of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, SIngularity and what-have-you fiction and expose their formulaic roots, literally reducing them to numerical expressions of, for example, the comparative bad-assness of Hiro Protagonist's Metaverse bike and Molly Mirrorshades's retracting claws. It made me a little squeamish, seeing it all turned into quantities and formulae like that, but then I got to the meat of the book: the scenarios.

The last 200 pages of this 350-page book are taken up with four incredibly, fetishistically detailed scenarios for cyberpunk worlds that GMs can take their players through. These scenarios read like the bibles for collaboratively written TV series (incredibly good collaboratively written TV series, miles better than any of the sf I've seen on TV, by and large). In a sense, they are: they are intended to provide GMs with all the background they need to constrict a series of episodic adventures that they engage their players' imaginations in gritty, dystopian shenanigans.

The scenarios include rich background material, character biographies of the major powers in each world, science and technology notes, some timelines, gadgets, sociopolitical notes, and all manner of sidebars that will doubtless serve as invaluable aid to GMs who are setting up campaigns.

The authors may have reduced cyberpunk to numeric formulae, but they've also shown how those formulae can be used to generate original, compelling, surprising sf.

I hung up my dice a long time ago — the world just got too busy for me to commit to trying to intersect with others' schedules and availability. This game looks fun enough to tempt me out of retirement.


Update: Clint sez, "The entire dX rules system used in the Ex Machina book (Tri-Stat) is being offered in PDF form for free by the publisher in an attempt to build awareness. The free pdf link appears in the right column. You can also buy the book, nicely printed and bound, for the relatively cheap price of $10 (Amazon for $9)."

Update 2: Nelson sez, "Those who are interested in purchasing Ex Machina in either its dead-tree or PDF forms, should be aware that there is also a D20 version (as well as a dX version). D20 is a more baroque system than dX (or even GURPS). I wouldn't recommend it to beginners. Saying that, the D20 book has all the same essay material that the dX book does." Neslon sez, "Oops, looks like I jumped the gun: the D20 version is still in production (it takes time to recrunch the numbers from one system to another). But it will have the same essay material, 'cos that's how GoO do their crossover books."