Saturday, November 21, 2020

About Neurocity

 Neurocity is a roleplaying game by designer Gavriel Quiroga, who recently gifted me a copy.

The game surprised me quite a bit (think Orwell's 1984 meets The Matrix meets Paranoia!), so here I am to share my impressions.

But first, some facts.

  • Neurocity was funded in August with a successful Kickstarter with more than 200 backers.
  • It is a 105 pages book, available now on drivethrurpg both as a pdf and as Print on Demand softcover book.
  • The pages are black & white (or rather: grey scale), with an occasional splash of red in the text, and (nice, in my opinion) b/w art.
  • The game features a unique game system (2d6, roll under), strictly tied to the setting.
  • As stated in the book, the game is meant for short campaign play of 3 or 4 sessions.

So what is Neurocity about? In the author's words:

Neurocity is a subterranean city complex crowned by a glitched digital sun ruled by an ever watchful supercomputer named I.S.A.C.
A closed society on the brink of collapse suffering an involution from digital to analog technology due to the scarcity of materials and constant recycling of components.
Neurocity is a tech-noir roleplaying game with an emphasis on psychology and existentialism.

Characters are citizens of a dystopian, closed society, where the individual has value only if he is "functional", i.e. obedient to the hierarchy, bureaucracy and technocracy of the city, and the A.I.'s teachings known as Vitalogy, which form a sort of philosophy of unquestioning obedience for the "greater good... and ultimately a powerful means of propaganda.
The technology level can be defined as "post-cyberpunk", as it features a super A.I. governing the life of the city (and deciding the life or death of "dysfunctional" citizens) and advanced bioengineering and cloning (which brings back to life "functional" citizens!) but, as components are continuously recycled, much of the daily life resembles the '80s.
It's Orwell's 1984, with an A.I. governing it all, and not even death can set you free from the dystopian nightmare, because you'll get cloned or repaired forever... unless your behavior proves dysfunctional. This, so far, is the Orwell + Paranoia, in a way. The Matrix inspirations? Keep reading...

What do players do in such a world and game? The characters can be from any of the different social castes and "careers" allowed by the A. I. governing the city, and their job, for the most part, will determine the type of stories you play.
The first twist in the setting is that (of course!) you have individuals and groups who have come to realize most of their life is a meaningless slavery, and suspect reality, history, and life itself is or should be different. They end up actively questioning authority and are therefore automatically considered dysfunctional terrorists. The second twist is the Trancers: people who experience bizarre perceptions (and occasionally display extraordinary abilities a la Matrix). Some of them choose to ignore the meaning and possible cause of their "trancing" and keep on with their functional lives, while others choose to question everything around them and usually join the "terrorist" groups mentioned above.
The A. I. of course tasks specialist groups to eradicate (and usually destroy) such people: both the rebel "terrorists" and the Trancers. The general assumption of the game is that you do not play such dangerous individuals... not from the start, at least: players begin as functional, obedient people, who are tasked with more or less common jobs, or specifically investigating and destroying rebels.

But the game offers plenty of opportunities for player characters to change sides (or point of view, at least): it is specifically designed to make it happen.

This is where I liked the game the most: first of all, it offers lots of tables with adventure seeds and random encounters and events (associated to specific areas or activities of the city, for example), meaning you can set the game going easily, AND as easily you have the themes and features of the setting come into play, including experiences which may push the characters (and players) to question the true meaning, value and purpose of the "Vitalogy" propaganda...  and their lives.
Moreover, the resolution system includes the possibility for player characters to become Trancers during play, in dramatic, stressful situations. Again, this is meant to open the possibility for the characters to change their point of view, and change the direction fo the campaign accordingly.

All in all it is a very neat game. The resolution system, more focused on narrative outcomes than "realism" or "simulation", is simple but effective, and wonderfully integrated with virtually all the elements of the setting. In this respect, Neurocity is a wonderful model of coherence of mechanics, setting and themes, (which I realize I've barely hinted at, as the game world really has a LOT going on, including the foundation of the city which is one of the mysteries the players may or may not unravel).

The coherence of game tools, mechanics, system, setting, and themes surely makes the game easier to run, and thankfully so, because it certainly is a game which offers a simple system, and a setting that can lend itself for action-oriented stories, but it can also become an opportunity for a deeper experience, as it can lead the players to question several facets of our society.

You can check it out on drivethru!

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