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Author Topic: The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Dark Times (superheroes + cyberpunk)  (Read 268 times)

Dan Davenport

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The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day a superhero flies through the window into my office. Cape, boots, underwear on the outside, the works. The fella even had a logo on his chest: "CP".

"Hey," he says, "You Davenport?"

"Uh, yeah?" I says, kinda expecting him to call me "Citizen" or some-such.

"Review copy for ya," he says, dropping a book on my desk. "http://www.thepolyhedralknights.com/dark-times.html">Dark Times," says the cover.

"Thanks, pal," I says. "Say, what's the 'CP' for? 'Captain Power'?"

"Chimera Pharmaceuticals," he says.

"Lousy superhero name," I says.

"It's a megacorporation, wise guy," he says. "Got my powers from'em."

"Megacorps makin' supers?" I says. "What kinda superhero game is this, anyway?"

"The cyberpunk kinda superhero game," he says. "Hence, the 'dark times' bit."

"Cyberpunk superheroes?" I says. "Now that's a heckuva mashup. This I gotta see."

"Good," he says. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to fly. People out there have to know how great Chimera Pharmaceuticals is!"

"But what do they call you?" I says.

"They call me... Spokesman."

Substance


Setting


At first glance, the world of Dark Times is a typical cyberpunk setting, insofar as there is such a thing: A near-future setting, a national government with little real power compared to the omnipresent megacorporations, a huge wealth gap between rich and poor, massive, bleak cityscapes, and, of course, cybernetics.

The big difference is the presence of the Enhanced.

In 2023, the physician founder of Prometheus Medical attempted to create genetically-altered superhumans. The subjects failed to manifest any superpowers, so the company went on to great success using nanotechnology instead. Then, a surprise: The children of the initial test subjects did manifest superpowers at the age of 16. Prometheus Medical scrambled to round up their "property", as did rival megacorps who had swiped the superhuman formula and had created superhumans of their own. So, you have some of these superhumans -- called the Enhanced -- working for megacorps, and some on the run or in hiding as "illegal" Enhanced. Some illegal Enhanced resist the status quo as part of the violent Evolved Liberation Army or the peace-focused Unity Coalition. Meanwhile, victims of failed superhuman experiments have become sewer-dwelling Mutants who are officially classified as non-humans and are treated accordingly, and nanotech-powered "Peacekeepers" mercilessly enforce the will of their megacorporate masters. And in the darkest (relatively speaking) regions of the sewers wait the Sewer Zombies, feral Mutants hungry for human flesh...

Adversaries

As anyone who's been paying attention can tell you, I love a good bestiary. Dark Times offers a relatively modest one that makes the most of the few entries in several key ways.

First, Adversaries come in three power levels: Thugs, Lieutenants, and Masterminds. Adversaries have their own selection of special abilities to use against the PCs. Some of these, like Automatic Hit, are usable by Adversaries of any power level. Others are available to specific power levels, like Strength in Numbers (Thugs) or Unnerving (Lieutenants and Masterminds).

And second, the book offers templates of various types of Adversaries, each with multiple variations. For example, given the availability of the Animal Control Hereditary Power, the section includes stats for animal swarms of four sizes -- 5, 20, 100, and 1,000 pounds -- each with four variations depending upon swarm composition: avian, aquatic, insects, or strays. Likewise, the section features both a "basic" Sewer Zombie as well as versions with variable attributes, skills, and mutations.

Of course, this being in part a superhero game, the section also presents several pre-generated Enhanced individuals as well.

One minor point: I'm a bit surprised that there aren't any robots described, since the tech level surely would support them. I'm told by the author that they'll be showing up soon, however.

Adventure

A group of Titan Security "Peacekeepers" backed up by some superhuman muscle raid a tenement building either occupied or visited by one of the PCs. They're dragging people off to test them for powers in the process of searching for a killer Mutant, holding hostages until the Mutant turns up. This will keep happening unless the PCs can catch the killer and turn him over to the "Peacekeepers".

As you might expect, the adventure involves plenty of investigation and interaction, but there are more than enough opportunities for violence. In fact, during the initial encounter, that could be a problem, not a feature: If the PCs present during the initial raid resist and are victorious, they'll be wanted, and if they lose, they'll be taken into custody, thereby derailing the adventure from the get-go. And at the other end of the adventure, a multi-sided fray may break out that could tax the skill and patience of the GM.

That aside, it's a nice, workmanlike adventure that should prove challenging to new PCs and introduce them to some of the moral conundrums they will face in the setting.

System


The game uses the same system featured in Wicked Pacts. I refer you to https://gmshoe.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/review-wicked-pacts/">my review of that game for my thoughts on the core mechanics. Suffice it to say that the system has proved to be very simple, fast, and transparent in my experience.

Character Creation

One of the more unusual aspects of Dark Times character creation is the selection of a corporate DNA Strand -- the sign of corporate tampering with the character's genetic structure. Not all characters will have a corporate DNA Strand, and not all characters with a corporate DNA Strand will have powers, but all characters with powers will have a corporate DNA Strand.* Each DNA Strand confers certain benefits; for example, those with the Prometheus Medical DNA Strand gain +1 to either Willpower or Health and automatically have the Fine Looks General Talent.

Furthermore, characters may be of three generations:

       
  • Generation 0: No genetic tampering. No powers.

  •    
  • Generation 1: The first generation to be genetically altered. Possibly a Mutant but not a superhuman with Hereditary Powers.

  •    
  • Generation 2: The offspring of Generation 1. May be a Mutant or have Hereditary Powers.


Players then make a series of rolls to develop their characters' backgrounds. I found this step to be handy in fleshing out my character, but it ended up making my initial character concept difficult -- I'd set out to create an Enhanced who was hiding out working as a lowly auto mechanic and ended up with him being the filthy rich son of corporate executives.

Eighteen points go into the six attributes of Strength, Health, Reflexes, Willpower, Charisma, and Intelligence, after which the player calculates the derived attributes.

Then we start getting to the really fun part -- the Archetypes. These cover most of the traditional superhero archetypes rather well

       
  • Blaster

  •    
  • Brick

  •    
  • Gun Bunny

  •    
  • Martial Artist

  •    
  • Mentalist

  •    
  • Mover (a.k.a "Speedster)

  •    
  • Mutant

  •    
  • Non-Powered

  •    
  • Odd Ball

  •    
  • Skulker


The only common superhero types not represented are the Gadgeteer and the Magician, neither of which would be a good fit for this setting, in my opinion.

Note that "Non-Powered" in this context simply means no Hereditary Powers or Mutations. Such a character can "super-up" with nanotech and/or cybernetics just fine. (Strangely, the text says in one place that Non-Powered can't take nanotech but in another place suggests that they can.) The "Odd Ball" is simply a powered hero who doesn't fit neatly into any other category.

Each Archetype comes with a selection of advantages called Talents, and players may pick from a list of General Talents as well. PCs get two Talents for free, with up to two more in exchange for taking Complications. The line between Talents and superpowers is a tad vague; for example, a Mover can take Accelerated Healing, and the General Talents include such abilities as Night Vision. Even the Non-Powered archetype gets some nigh-superhuman Talents; for example, Action Hero adds to Hit Points, improves accuracy in combat, and allows the player to declare any incoming attack a miss once per session.

One thing that struck me as odd: Some archetype Talents have prerequisites of Hereditary Powers or appropriate nanotech. This seems strange because it means that a character can be designed using an Enhanced Archetype without actually possessing Hereditary Powers, and it also means that, for example, a Non-Powered character and a Brick could possess identical nanotech-spawned strength but that only the Brick would have access to Brick Talents.

As in Wicked Pacts, PCs in Dark Times get a sizable number of points to spend on skills that pretty much hit my sweet spot in terms of specificity. For example, hand-to-hand combat is broken down into Blades, Brawling, Clubs, and Improvised Weapons. The only problem I experienced in play wasd that the appropriate Attribute to use with a given Skill wasn't always clear, and when the GM/author did specify which to use, it created some odd results. For example, I was told to use Reflexes for Brawling but Strength for Improvised Weapon, which meant my maxed-out Brick was far better off hitting his opponents with everything but the kitchen sink rather than simply punching them. This is, of course, trivial to fix if you consider it a problem.

The powers section, as you might imagine, is where the game really shines. I would go so far as to say that the game could work as a highly-passable generic superhero game of roughly the X-Men power level, so long as the aforementioned lack of gadgets and magic doesn't bother you.

Now, I really, really like the way that Hereditary Powers relate to Archetypes. You see, individual Hereditary Powers aren't limited to one Archetype. Instead, Hereditary Powers are available to a range of Archetypes, but at different maximum levels. For example, Martial Artists, Blasters, and Oddballs can all have Super Strength, but none of them will come close to the maximum Super Strength of a Brick. (And for the record, the strongest Brick can lift 25 tons, which, if my Marvel Universe knowledge doesn't fail me, makes such a Brick stronger than Spider-Man but weaker than Iron Man or Captain Marvel.)

The design of the Hereditary Powers is also right up my alley. Essentially, rather than using an effects-based system (e.g., Champions) and building powers from the ground up, the game takes more of the "cafeteria" approach (e.g., TSR's Marvel Superheroes). In practice, this generally means that you purchase a power like Weather Control whole-cloth rather than building it up by purchasing its (rather exhausting) range of effects. However, in Dark Times, taking Weather Control doesn't give a PC all of the permutations of the power as displayed by Storm of the X-Men. Instead, Weather Control simply lets a PC control the local weather conditions. Attacking a specific target with hail, lightning, or wind, or using a whirlwind for defense or flight, are all separate powers with a prerequisite of basic Weather Control.

Overall, I found dealing with Hereditary Powers to be a breeze. I knew I wanted a Hulk type, so I grabbed Armor, Super Leap, and Super Strength, and I was good to go. My PC may not have been nearly in the Hulk's league, but he was as close as I could get in this system.

The only Hereditary Power that I feel is missing is Super Reflexes. I spoke to the author about this, and he said that he had included it initially but had found it to be too powerful in playtesting. I can see that, I suppose, but with its absence, I don't think the game can do a very good job of simulating Spider-Man-like super-acrobats.

Now, Mutations are a different animal. They tend to be much more specific than Hereditary Powers and fall into Minor and Major categories. They are a grab-bag of psychic and physical abilities, many of which aren't visually apparent. Even many of the Minor and Major Negative Mutations that a PC may take to earn more points for beneficial abilities will be generally problematic without damning the character as a Mutant.

But such things as Armored Skin, Extra Limbs, Major Deformation, or (God help you) Conjoined Twin obviously will mark the character as a Mutant, and therefore not human in the eyes of the Powers That Be. I almost took the huge, brightly-colored pregen Mutant character in the book for the game in which I participated... until I realized that he'd basically be unable to show his face in public, thereby limiting the activities of the entire group by his presence. (Of course, he'd give the group an "in" with the sewer-dwelling Mutant community, but that will only get you so far.) For that reason, I would only recommend obvious Mutant characters for those who are after a real roleplaying challenge. If you prefer a more subtle X-Men type, you should be golden.

As was touched on previously, the powers section includes a wide variety of nanotech and cybertech. Most of these abilities are what you'd expect such technology to provide -- enhanced strength, speed, and healing, etc. -- although there are some more outlandish powers as well, such as the Hardlight Emitters (which project a physical barrier of light) and the COBRA Nanite Spray (which creepily fires a predatory nano-colony from the individual's wrist).

Hacking

Helping to illustrate the fact that this is just as much of a cyberpunk game as it is a superhero game, Dark Times features full rules for hacking computer networks. In fact, it features two versions of hacking.

The first is pretty much like "real world" hacking: Sitting at a computer trying to crack passwords, crash websites, raid databases, and so on. Safe but slow, and without the benefits of the other version...

...That other version being "Full-Dive" hacking: The "jacking in" to a full-sensory virtual reality that cyberpunk fans have come to know and love. In a Full-Dive, the hacker gains the benefits of greater speed and of bringing along helpful programs for everything from foiling intrusion countermeasures to protecting you in virtual combat. The bad news is that Full-Dive hacking puts the hacker in physical danger, as virtual combat can literally cook your brain.

I appreciate having both options. The only drawback I see is the same one I see with most cyberpunk hacking systems, and that is the fact that such hacking sends one character off on a mini-adventure, leaving the other characters with nothing to do. (Well, not unless the GM wishes to run action in two locations simultaneously.)

Style


This 310-page full-color rulebook uses artwork sparingly, but the art used is of excellent quality. The page borders with their light blue circuit board motif are also quite nice.

The writing is pleasantly accessible and generally clear, if not especially thematic. I noticed no major typos aside from an NPC's missing skill level, but I did find that one aforementioned confusing statement about Non-Powered heroes and nanotech.

The book is fairly well-organized. Regrettably, it lacks an index, but it does feature an extremely detailed table of contents.

Conclusion


I'm not a big fan of "pure" cyberpunk, but I do enjoy cyberpunk with a twist -- I always enjoyed Shadowrun's setting, if not the system, for example.

These days, I find myself feeling much the same way regarding superhero games: The standard sorts bore me, but add an interesting twist, and I'm all in.

So as you might imagine, this is an almost ideal game for me. It takes all the elements of cyberpunk and mixes them with most of the elements of superheroes to create something unique and fun. That wouldn't mean much if I didn't also enjoy the system, but I do, very much. It's easily understood, transparent, and, most importantly, fun.

Now, who would not like this game? Well, if you hate cyberpunk or superheroes of any sort, this probably isn't the game for you.

If you're a fan of one or the other, though, you should at least give this game a look. You might even find it usable for "normal" cyberpunk or supers.

And if you like both? This, my friend, is your game.
« Last Edit: July 26, 2020, 12:17:56 am by Dan Davenport »
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