Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Future Belongs To Us Review

Full disclosure: the author approached me to do a review and I agreed, on the condition that I would make the review fair but there was no guarantee it would be favorable. I’ll try, but as Nick Lowe said, “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.” EDIT: the author has requested I clarify that this is not a playtest review. More on this subject tomorrow.

A couple days ago I received a package containing The Future Belongs To Us Player’s Guide (hereafter TFBTU) from Ataraxy Publishing. It is 192 pages long, soft-bound book with a full color cover that could do with less deformed-breasted porn-star. The back cover blurb says:
“After the Dragons...
 After the Wolf...
 The next generation of role-playing excitement”
And claims:
“The DiceLight system brings many new innovations to the RPG hobby”
That is...not encouraging, because those pronouncements in back cover blurbs are almost a guarantee that none of those things are happening inside the book.

Layout and Art

The book’s layout is very simple and no frills, without any decorative borders or other embellishments. The text is large and easy to read - it may be a tad too large. The book is divided into sections covering the setting, rules, character creation, skills, etc. The organization is a little scattered, causing some page flipping. It does get points for having clear writing with very few spelling or grammatical errors.

But the art...you just have to see it because I can’t describe it. It’s not bad, it’s “LOL WTF”. Every piece lacks perspective and proportion, and many are weird or have nonsensical subjects. When I showed one of the pieces to a coworker he just stared at it for a few seconds - his mind couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing. What’s worse is the art doesn’t seem to match up to anything in the setting.

If I ever play this game, I am demanding a hover gorilla


I'm still trying to parse this one...

Setting

The setting is basically this: the UN has taken over all of the things, there’s one world currency, firearms are illegal everywhere so only criminals have guns, violent crime is on the rise, there isn’t any privacy, and a single gang called the Hardbodies has somehow taken over all organized crime. Somehow the Hardbodies managed to massacre 10,000 police officers in New York. Business charge entry fees and run background checks before customers can enter. Just like  the art, if this were tongue in cheek like Underground or something along the lines of John Shirley’s Eclipse Trilogy I could suspend disbelief. This makes me feel like I’m reading my Facebook friends feed (how did so many of my friends become survivalist-types, anyway?), or a Left Behind book crossed with one of those alarmist speculative fiction books written by a survivalist to scare people into buying ammo and gold.

The System

The attributes in TFBTU are a typical spread: Dexterity, Agility, Strength, Perception, Build, Ego, Stamina. Ego and Stamina are “Determining Attributes” that set the value for two derived...I mean “Dynamic”...attributes: Passion and Energy. Aside from attributes you have Knowledges, Skills and Proficiencies. The delineation is a little hazy, but Knowledges do not have ratings and are things the character has, well, a knowledge of. Skills are areas of expertise and Proficiencies are kind of narrow areas of Attribute focus. There is also a martial arts system, technically making four areas for players to purchase abilities.

The die mechanic is roll d20 + attribute + bonuses from proficiencies or other modifiers versus a target number. Skills have different automatic effects per level, such as being able to write a specific complexity of software. As such, skills are not rolled for. There's very little in the book on adjudicating how skills and proficiencies tie together when rolling.

Passion seems to be part of the game’s claim of innovation. Every day the Passion attribute resets itself, and points can be spent from it to increase rolls, reroll extraordinary failures, or revive from being knocked unconscious. When things happen, like something good or bad happens to the character, Passion can be increased or decreased. Along with Extropic Points this gives two pools that can be used to get bonuses or effects on die rolls.

One issue with the skill/knowledge/proficiency arrangement can be seen in how firearms are handled. There is a Firearms Knowledge that means the character knows which end to point at the target and not shoot their own face off. Then there is a Weaponry skill that means the character has...knowledge of weapons. Finally there is a Ranged Weapon proficiency that provides a bonus to attacks. Whether all of it makes sense is arguable, so I’ll leave it alone because system-wise there’s bigger fish to fry.

There are also some odd choices in terms of how things are categorized. Telecommunications inexplicably encompasses hacking and bypassing computer/network security. The proficiency to get a bonus for piloting a rotary wing aircraft, submarine or spacecraft is called Free Motion Vehicles. There is a skilled called Rearrangement for switching weapons and proficiencies for Leg Strength and Upper Body Strength. I’ve never once asked myself why these things aren’t present in other games...and probably for good reason.

But the bigger fish I mentioned is attributes, skills, and proficiencies all have different ranges. Not just between types, but between one another. The attributes are on one of five different ranges ranging from 1-3 to 2-30 (in case you’re keeping score at home, that means only two attributes have the same range). Likewise, the ranges for the skills and proficiencies can range from just a couple to ten or more. Each has customized benefits or modifiers for each level, meaning each one is its own little self-contained rules packet. It makes it very fiddly and more complicated than it needs to be.


The points that are used to buy all of this stuff are called Extropic Points, and a starting character not using a template has 4000 of them. Just like each attribute, knowledge or skill has its own rating ranges, each one has its own costs per level. Stamina is 3 per level, but Perception is 5, Strength is 30 and Dexterity is 160. Climbing is 3 per level, while Surface Vehicles are 23, Running is 11 and Leg Strength is 23. Meanwhile, skills are 1 per level and knowledges just cost 1 each. Starting wealth can be purchased with Extropic points as well, plus various character enhancements. Extropic Points are also given out as experience points and can be spent on character improvement, as well as various character enhancements. What those enhancements are is mentioned but not details, because they are actually going to be in a separate book (the equipment section is 27 pages of gun porn, followed by some vehicles, some robots and some miscellaneous equipment).

There are a number of character templates provided so the player doesn’t have to try to distribute 4000 points in increments from 1 to a 1000. How the templates work with one another would require a playthrough, so I’ll trust they work well with one another. 

Now, aside from the Extropic Points being oddball amounts, there’s the question of whether or not the relative differences are really equal. Is having a point of Strength really 10 times more useful/expensive/whatever than a point of Stamina? It’s an extension of the same problem I have with systems like GURPs. Is there really any need to measure the skill levels in hundreds of points? It comes off as overcomplicated and (more) arbitrary than a game needs to be.

Conclusion

As a player's guide, the book fulfills its mission - it describes how to create a character and seems to cover all of the bases. Undoubtedly the GM's Guide will cover adjudicating the rules, so aside from the basic mechanics covered in the Player's Guide it's hard to judge how good the system is. It definitely fulfills the "DiceLight" moniker by only using one die and having a single resolution mechanic. The over complicated system of having each attribute, skill, proficiency, etc. essentially have its own rules does a lot to turn me off from the system - I'm not fond of "exception-based systems", such as Exalted's Charms or the proliferation of stunts in Spirit of the Century.

However, TFBTU is a freshman effort and it shows. It’s obvious a lot of work went into the product, the writing, and the rules. But the system isn’t really anything new or innovative, and could probably fall through a wormhole into 1988 and nobody would look twice. It has some of the hallmarks of a heartbreaker: enthusiasm from the author that the game contains stunningly new concepts, a little bit of naivety regarding marketing their games (what first brought the game to my attention was a "press release" on Tabletop Gaming News). The Passion attribute has promise, but there are plenty of other systems out there that offer similar mechanics - and a number (such as Fate) that go even further to give narrative control to the players. Finally, in a perfect world, artwork wouldn’t be important - but no art is better than poor art. The Future Belongs To Us just isn’t quite ready to live up to its own hype.