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Author Topic: Carbon 2185  (Read 731 times)

Spike

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Carbon 2185
« on: June 29, 2020, 01:20:51 pm »
I saw this game mentioned in a thread on Cyberpunk, and as I'm an unrepentant fan of the genre, I decided to check it out, without knowing anything else about it.  So you get a review.

To begin with, it seems it is only available from the company's website, with prices listed in Euros, so I'm going to guess that they are European?  The book was reasonably pricey, but not obnoxiously so, but it did arrive fairly quickly, I'd say just over a week.  Pleasantly, the artwork on the website is very much in line with the artwork in the book, so no false advertising. I was going to avoid any social commentary, especially involving 'behind the scenes speculation', but I did note that in the credits that someone with a familial name (wife? Daughter? Trans-son?) of the designer/lead writer, was given an art credit, and there is a single piece of stand-out art, in the worst possible way, in the book... like napkin-sketch bad, tucked in behind a much more professional bit of artwork in the character chapter.  Just say no, man...

But I'm already drifting.

Credit to Dragon Turtle Games, the book is beautiful and well put together, with solid artwork that mostly fits a specific theme and style, creating a solid visual cohesion to the work, though there are a few pieces that don't quite fit quite as well thematically, I can only recall the single background piece that doesn't fit qualitatively.  I suspect a couple of pieces are 3d Render art, but done well enough that their only real flaw is that the don't fit with the graphic theme of the rest of the art.  

Carbon 2185 is also well organized as a book, better organized, for example, than the 5E D&D PHB. It starts a basic rundown of the rules, flows into character creation, then into a deeper rules chapter before a clean break to talk about the setting in detail, all while giving you lots of little morsels of setting in an organic and easily digestible format.  

Before I begin delving into the chapters, I should start by explaining that Carbon 2185 is, from a rule standpoint, very little other than a mild variant of 5E D&D.  In fact, I'd say that its greatest flaw is that it doesn't adapt enough, given the conceptual distance between its setting conceits and those of D&D, but that said it does provide some interesting takes on the 5E formula that are worth a deeper look, which we'll get to as we go.  At a skim, however, the basic mechanics of the game are fundamentally unchanged from 5E.

After a brief gloss of the setting (Put a pin in that), and another brief gloss over the rule conceits, we jump right into character creation.  I'll note here that Carbon 2185 does change the names of two of the stats (wisdom and Charisma to Technology and People... and that some adjustments to skills does occur (Perception is now an Intelligence skill)), and that levels are capped at 10 instead of 20, so its not a exact port, but for all that we start with 'Races', and since this isn't Cyber-Fantasy, almost all of the races are actually cultural groups of humans, from Badlanders to Korporate Kids, to Gutterpunks and so forth, the only exception being 'Synths', which are also called Replicants', in a clear nod to Blade Runner, despite otherwise being a very poor representation of Blade Runner Replicants in every other respect... and with this chapter I can't help but think that the core conceits of D&D simply do not mesh well the grittier style of a 'realistic' Cyberpunk setting... I can't help thinking of the general failure of Cyber-Generation, which also pigeon-holed characters into these sort of odd tribal/racial groups based on subcultures.    Further, in 'current gaming' where mechanical balance rules supreme, the very idea of Replicant/Synths as a playable race makes something of a mockery of the concept.   Synths cannot be in any meaningful way more powerful/capable than ordinary humans, and so they also cannot have meaningful flaws as that would unbalance them in the other direction.  Being a Synth is little more than a colorful 'tag' on your sheet rather than a meaningful marker of who and what you are.

After races we move naturally to classes, which as noted above are limited to ten levels, and presumably thus limits the game to ten levels.  The classes are... interesting... in that most are thin reskins of fantasy classes given 'cyberpunk names', though any truly fantastic elements are stripped out.  For example, the Daimyo (the first class presented) is and, admittedly interesting, reskin of the barbarian class. Mechanically it has a Rage Mechanic, which otherwise makes no good god-damn sense, as fluff wise the Daimyo is distinct from the Enforcer (the Fighter Reskin), in that it makes leadership a core feature of the class.  The absurdity of the rage mechanic is driven home with a bit of fluff text involving a Daimyo sniper tapping into their 'rage' to... snipe.  That's just silly.

To clarify, we have six classes: Daimyo (Barbarians with miniguns and leadership), Docs (medics with nano-implants so they can have healing class abilities), Enforcers (Fighters, just... fighters), Hackers (they... hack. They are the 'pet monger' class, as well, having a robot minion class ability), Investigators (more shades of Blade Runner), and Scoundrels (Reskinned Rogues/Thieves, with hints of Han Solo for good measure).  The shorted classes and sometime crude hack job to turn fantasy tropes into Cyberpunk tropes means that the already shallow 5E D&D classes are made even shallower, since there is less room for tinkering in your class.

However, from here we take a very interesting left turn.  One of the more innovative ideas in 5E was their implementation of Backgrounds, something I've seen bleeding into Pathfinder (or rather in Starfinder, but that is an essay for the main forums...).  Carbon 2185 takes a significant departure here, into what I can only call 'Traveller Territory'.   I'm not even kidding, if you've ever seen an iteration of Traveller's character generation, the influence is unmistakable.  In 'background' generation you have a choice of ten very broadly defined 'careers', the first one being 'corporate drone', you take a five year term (put a pin in that), gain a skill proficiency, make a survival check, get some loot, and if you make it long enough, even have a retirement.  Honestly its both shockingly naked theft, and brilliant and seamless innovation all in one. I rather like it, even as I weary of age=competence game design (which is shockingly inappropriate for Cyberpunk, which has always been a 'young' genre. Old punks are sad punks.)

Actually, starting here, inappropriate as it might be for the genre, Carbon 2185 actually starts to shine, as Dragon Turtle (or Marriner-Dodds), struts there stuff, flexing their creative muscles rather than just chopping up D&D to make it fit.  Right after the cheeky steal from Traveller, we get a d100 table of random vices, which doesn't seem to do anything mechanical, but does provide a lot of inspiration for Roleplaying and building character.  While I'm not quite the 'random table' fan that many old school grognards seem to be, I heartily approve of these sort of non-mechanic fillips of characterization.

We take a break from creativity to handle gear, which is painfully generic, and yet manages to squeeze in (barely, to be fair) the 'one item to rule them' sort of weapon design I despise.  To whit: If you want a pistol, you'll always want the one branded pistol, rather than the nameless generic.  Its not massively better, but it is better. Ditto the SMGs, ditto the combat shotguns, ditto the... well you get the idea.  Mostly this is painfully generic, and shockingly thin on specifics.  As a note, while Armor does work pretty much in D&D fashion (making you harder to hit), they do have little bits of innovation in the use of Damage resistances (the modern armors provide either some specific DR against ballistics, or actually provide resistance), which, while modest, is an appreciated touch, and one that could have been used in prior iterations of D&D, making slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damages actually mean something, as well as providing more meaningful distinctions to the various armor choices than simply scaling the numbers...).   As a bit of world building, the vehicles do include three sizes of Mecha, ranging from Power Armor to... abstractly bigger, I assume 10-12 feet tall at the largest simply due to the scale of weapons and vehicle hit points, but we are given no clue or context anywhere in the book.  So this is anime cyberpunk then?

Next we get to augementation, which aren't really gear but exist in a nebulous sort of space between mundane gear and some sort of character power.  I am again reminded that the conceits of D&D do not seem to mesh well with the genre conceits of Cyberpunk, not least of which is that technology is replicable, and the 'cutting edge' of yesterday is commonplace today and is out-dated tomorrow, but since we're working with what we've got, how does Carbon 2185 handle the cyber in cyberpunk?  Badly, but in a new and exciting way, I guess.

So to start with the vast majority of cyberware doesn't actually exist mechanically. Much like being a Synth, its a minor cosmetic detail, so the only cyberware that seems to be in the book is that which has a mechanical effect (Rules that is...). This creates a bit of conflict in the world building due to the balancing mechanic.  You see to keep high cyber characters from dominating, there has to be a limit to how much cyber you can cram into a person (logically we've failed by starting from a flawed, or rather unproven, premise, but its traditional in Cyberpunk games, so we'll roll with it for now.), in this case, it seems that the technology of Carbon 2185 has taken a giant step backwards, in that all their batteries and power-generation technologies are horribly leaky and toxic, so despite advanced medical technology giving people longer, healthier lives, they actually don't live much longer than real world people because they are being poisoned constantly. And every piece of cyberware increases the amount of poison you have to live with. Rules wise you add up the value of your augmentations and compare it to double your Constituition modifier (see here why abstracting away non-mechanical cyberware, like cyber-arms that work like real arms, fails?).  Interestingly, you can go higher, but then you have to take drugs that either raise your con mod by 1 or 2, and do so for short, moderate or long times (1 hour, to one day), making many people addicted to their anti-cyber-toxin meds the default way of life, very Cyberpunkish, actually.)... and since you get your first cybernetics at birth...

Rather than giving a comprehensive list of cybernetic augments, each with their own cost, benefit and penalty (blood toxicity in this case), Carbon 2185 abstracts things down to tiers of Augments, ranging from 0 to 5 (the Tier 0 augments do not raise Blood Toxicity...but also have virtually no rules attached to them).  So, for example, instead of buying a cyberarm, you can get a Tier 0 Augment 'replacement', which allows you to say 'My right arm is cybernetic', but otherwise has no rules attached to it whatsoever.  There are no 'Tier 1 Replacements', but there are higher tier augements that are listed as being arm or leg specific (or eye specific) that are really just set dressing for their specific rule.  For example the Tier 1 'Jager Legs' give you +5 to your movement speed, while the Tier 2 Runner Legs give you +10 to your move and a bonus to your dash action.  

I find this depressingly unevocative.  It is functional, yes, but then so is telling a story of the Hero's Journey by nakedly referencing the mechanical underpinnings of the Hero's Journey. The set dressing is not just for show, its almost the entire point.   None of these Augments has a specific cost, as the key to getting them is to raise something called Influence, which is tied to your level, but I am skipping ahead. In short, if you want Tier 5 Augments (which are explicitely illegal, cutting edge experimental cybernetics, and also would radically transform your character (literally. One is 'extra set of arms', another is 'giant mechanical wings'... which I'll point out is a lot more fantasy than cyberpunk usually allows...), you pretty much have to be level 10. Again, and again, we see the conceits of D&D do not mesh well with the genre expectations of Cyberpunk (one of which is often some ordinary person getting something way out of their league, which either allows them to punch up (to borrow a phrase), or hoists them on their own petard...  technology is ruthless and pitiless, it cares not how deserving its user is, nor how unfair its victims may find its tender mercies...  That is, fundamentally, the paradigm shift embodied in the quote "God man Man, Sam Colt made them Equal".).

From here the game shifts into overdrive, providing a series of micro-rules to alter D&D to Cyberpunk, with Addiction (the bulk of the rules are, of course, actual drugs), and then Influence, divided into Corporate and Street, and would be quite interesting if only it wasn't inextricably tied to one's level.... then on through variations on downtime, resting, travel and so forth.  Some is better than others, and all of it is on some level necessary to alter the setting from a fantasy setting to a near(ish) future cyberpunk one.

This, combined with the combat and rules chapters (weird but understandable division), takes us almost literally halfway through the book. The whole second half is, counting the three part sample adventure, worldbuilding. this is a very generous amount of space, and I wish I could say it was well spent and well done.   I'll save my overview for the end in this case.

So we start with a basic timeline of how we got from today to 2185.  This is VERY thin on details, focusing largely on the megacorporations dealings with eachother, and to drive home just how shallow it is, its divided into roughly 50 year blocks of time.  It... isn't very good, to be honest, and it seems highly misdirected. Does anyone care at all that 100 years prior to the setting that Corporation X bought out the assets of Corporation Z?  I hope so, because that is pretty much the entire focus of the history.   This leads to a common, and here quite a bit more blatant, problem with corporate focused Cyberpunk Settings, the utter failure to understand the relationships between Governments and Corporations.  Here we have no discussion at all of Governments or Nations, as the Corporations apparently rendered them so weak and powerless that they no longer exist.  Great, nothing wrong with that, but it fails to make the conceptual leap that this means the Corporations are no longer beholden to any rules, and more importantly, as Soveriegn Entities, are now effectively Goverments in their own rights.  In, say, CP2020, (which ironically doesn't make this mistake, having real governments with real teeth... weakened and in the background but still present), you can excuse corporations acting as parasitic economic entities rather than the Governments they've become simply because it is a time of flux, a transition period from one soveriegn paradigm to another, but Carbon 2185 presupposes that this state of affairs has been on-going for more than a century.   Eh... this has become a minor hobby horse of mine, and frankly I'm sure many of the classics would equally offend if looked at by my more wisened and jaded eyes.

Anyway, from here we do move into better territory, a fairly extensive list and description of the 19 or so Mega-corporations, giving enough detail to let the setting breath without so much as to smother you with irrelvancies. Each Corp gets a half page (Columnar), but weirdly only 4 get some sort of iconography indicating what their branding looks like.  Then we get a similar treatment of the 'gangs' (more like organized crime groups), and then groups of interest, which as we dial down starts to bring up a real issue with the 'setting', which as we drop into the next 'chapter', brings it home.

You see: Carbon 2185, while giving us a sort of global world building monoculture (including vaguely referenced off world colonies... again, shades of Blade Runner), drops us solidly into a sort of 'bottle setting' of... San Francisco.  Now, I know there is a long tradition of focusing your cyberpunk setting on one, usually west coast (american) city, from Seattle of Shadowrun, to Night City of Cyberpunk 2020, to San Francisco of CyberSpace... but usually it was just that, a focus. You knew, and had details, to move out of the provided city if you wanted. Night City in particular was just an 'example', a generic urban enclave to give you a feel for Cyberpunk cities, with enough details on the rest of the world (particularly america) that you could set the show closer to 'home' quite easily, and in Shadowrun's case, they actually did move on to give you other, wildly distinct, cities quite rapidly.

Carbon 2185 doesn't really do any of that. Sure, the rest of the world... exists. I mean, it sort of has to, what with Mega-corporations having origins in places like South Korea or South Africa and whatnot, but make no mistake, nothing outside San Francisco actually exists beyond its nominal placement.  Yet despite that, the treatment of San Fran is remarkably... shallow.   It is divided into five districts of increasing wealth and safety (again, tie the district your players can operate in to the character level/Influnce/tiers of augments...). Each District gets a one page description, the only map is flat black with white borders of the districts and a very very few street marks barely visible in greyscale, there is no artwork of the city itself. You have the gangs, the corporations, and the local brands, and a general idea of what each district is like... now go find an actual streetmap of the real city to overlay with the district if you want to make it real (In other words, do it yourself), despite having lots of pages dedicated to the setting, and narrowing the setting down to a single city, Carbon 2185 just.... fails to deliver the goods. There is no there, there.

What they do deliver is about three pages of random NPCs, apparently a reward to their kickstarters, followed by some twenty pages of random tables of events and encounters and such.  Sure, I can appreciate the random tables, some of which seem quite evocative, but I'd much rather have twenty more pages of actual... you know... world?  

Now, earlier I did praise the layout, but I will say that there is a minor failure right about here, as crammed between the random tables that replace proper world building and the 'monster/badguy manual' portion is a small bit on traps and starting wealth that belong in the first half of the book.

I won't spend any time on the Monster Manual portion... its D&D 5E rules, and its a single fat-ish chapter in a single book rather than a book in itself, so that pretty much tells you the whole story, good bad or indifferent. I will say that a three part introductory adventure seems positively generous, though I wouldn't exactly call it deep or complex, it is a bit more than Shadowrun's "Food Fight", just to name one relevant game example.

Overall:

Carbon 2185 is a perfectly servicable re-interpretation of 5E D&D for a sci-fi setting with cyberpunk aspects. Its cyberpunk elements will not shift the paradigm, and with a little tinkering it could be a more generic near-future D&D just fine.  If 5E is a bit shallow, gameplay wise, this is probably a bit worse, though it isn't without some interesting ideas, and, as noted, the book is quite professional and generally attractive.

Where it fails miserably, and taking half its page-count to do so, is in the world building, which is flat, generic and lack-luster in almost every way. There are good bits that can be ported to other, better, cyberpunk settings, but that is only a further condemnation of the lack of setting here, as there is almost nothing that needs to be trimmed away to reduce or eliminate the distinctly Carbon 2185 portions of them (as there isn't really anything about Carbon 2185's setting that is, in fact, distinct...).  

For someone like me, the lack of a good setting isn't really the issue. I'm just as happy to buy games without settings as I am to buy games with settings, but I find the wasted space mildly offensive.  Still, random tables galore, and I'm... pleased?... that the backers got to fluff their egos a bit with NPCs for the setting, if in the least creative execution of that Idea I've ever seen.

At the end of the day, if you were to ask me if I'd recommend Carbon 2185, my answer would have to be a question: Do you enjoy 5e D&D?   That is the make or break point of Carbon 2185.
For you the day you found a minor error in a Post by Spike and forced him to admit it, it was the greatest day of your internet life.  For me it was... Tuesday.

For the curious: Apparently, in person, I sound exactly like the Youtube Character The Nostalgia Critic.   I have no words.

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Carbon 2185
« Reply #1 on: July 18, 2020, 01:49:33 am »
I was looking at purchasing this on DriveThruRPG (it is there now) but it is a bit pricey so I held off.  Sounds like a well polished decent game...again, if you are into 5E.  Thanks for the review.