Friday, December 13, 2013

Nova Praxis Review

I’m going to kick off a new cycle of reviews with a game that I finally finished reading (it’s only be the better part of a year): Nova Praxis. With that, I’m also trying to get a rhythm and structure down to how I approach reviews so they’re informative without just rattling off a bunch of facts about the product (like how many pages are devoted to this or that, or dry chapter breakdowns). Most importantly, I’m eschewing any kind of rating scale at all.



Overview


Nova Praxis is the latest game from Voidstar Studios. It features a transhumanist-style, post-cyberpunk setting. Earth was pretty much rendered uninhabitable by a grey-goo type scenario, and mankind has since populated the stars. Society has changed, ideologies have changed, but ultimately people remain the same. The player characters are presumed to be edgerunner/troubleshooter types, either living on the edges of or beholden to a tarnished utopia. There are cybernetics, sleeves (the ability to download a consciousness into a new body), virtual reality, drones, and minds that exist only as software.

Nova Praxis’ Fate Pedigree

Before going any further, some comment on Nova Praxis’ flavor of Fate is probably useful. Nova Praxis uses a variant of Strands of Fate, which is itself a Fate variant. The game was apparently developed somewhat before and concurrently with Fate Core, but it sits firmly on the Strands side of the divide. Mostly this means the system tends to be a little more “crunchy” than Fate Core in terms of modifiers and extra systems...yet at its heart it’s still Fate (4DF, aspects, stress tracks, etc.). Overall, Nova Praxis is not as dense with subsystems as, say, Starblazer Adventures but still features a number of them. There are some departures from Strands that slide Nova Praxis a little closer to Fate Core. It eschews abilities for skills, and goes back to using stunts instead of advantages. It also reduces the number of character aspects to start with to 5. These changes bode well for Fate Core fans wanting a science fiction game, as it makes adapting it all the easier, but the game is solid on its own.

The Book

Well, in this case, the "enhanced PDF". Hands down this is one of the best looking and most feature-packed PDFs of any game I’ve read. The experience on a tablet is likely even better, but I only have a PC. Every page has a side menu on the left for accessing chapters and buttons on the right for moving from page to page. Chapter headers have menu buttons to go to specific subjects that seamlessly take you to the text. Every other PDF I have looks primitive in comparison. Plus, it’s fully bookmarked. There’s an appendix with a variety of NPC templates, glossary and the aforementioned character sheet. The artwork, as seen in the screen captures scattered throughout this review, is full-color, evocative and very high quality.

My copy has a slight problem with the back and forth arrows turning weird colors when I click on them. I may have an outdated PDF, or it could be my version of Acrobat or even my PC. If the case it is an outdated PDF that’s no fault of Voidstar’s, who have been on-the-ball with updating the PDF and getting it out to customers. I probably just haven’t downloaded an up-to-date version. My only real complaint is that the borders seem kind of busy, but not in a “ZOMG, why’d they layer the text over an image of Donald Rumsfeld?!” way. They don’t really detract from reading.

The Setting





The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to the setting’s history, locations, culture and politics. The setting is compelling, given that the Singularity kind of came and went with the birth and unexplained shutdown of the first true AI, named Mimir. Prior to shutting down it essentially spit out a ton of technological advancements (called Mimir-tech) - so many, and so advanced, that there are entire disciplines dedicated to decoding its archives. This technology is where pretty much everything comes from in Nova Praxis. This leads to humanity taking to the stars, but even in the wake of the end of scarcity and unparalleled technological advancement, doesn’t do anything to end conflict - it just makes it worse.

The end of a bitter war between two superpowers results in one side releasing the technophage - nanites that reconstruct matter into war machines. The technophage spirals out of control, and mankind is forced to try to fight it, then try to stop it, and eventually run from it. Earth is abandoned, leaving billions to die. The governments of the two superpowers become all but insolvent, forcing the largest corporations to have to step up and take charge. This leads to the formation of the Coalition, and the establishment of the current house system.

Coalition society is post-scarcity, at least in terms of ensuring that what is left of humanity has a baseline standard of living. The result is a society where the citizens have all of their basic needs provided for and have the freedom to do absolutely nothing - in exchange for near constant monitoring of every aspect of their lives. The Coalition economy runs almost solely on reputation, with those who contribute the most having access to more wealth. Predictably, there are those who who are unwilling or unable to live under the aegis of the Coalition and the Houses - they are called Apostates. Some hold-outs even try to continue a guerrilla war against the Coalition. Obviously, the Apostates, Houses and others exploit as many loopholes in the system that they can - otherwise it would be a pretty boring place to tell stories in.

Overall, I find the setting to be perfectly serviceable but not “Wow, that’s really awesome!” inspired. The aesthetics are good, and there are good justifications for why there would be groups of troublemakers running around stirring shit up. The structure of the Coalition with the Houses falls a little flat for me, but that’s mostly a taste preference. What the setting has in spades is a good mix of general tropes, ranging from a cyberpunk dystopia to Mass Effect-style space opera. It’s easy to drop things in that match any number of themes. I could see doing something in the vein of the Unincorporated Man, or even Blindsight, just as easily as a simple cyberpunk-style run with a Mr. Johnston and a double-cross and everything.

The Rules



Nova Praxis is basically Fate with a few differences. In case you’re not familiar with Fate, here’s the general rundown I included in my Fate Core review:

  • Uses Fate (or Fudge, same thing) dice, specifically four (notated as 4DF). Two sides are marked with a +, two sides with a -, and two sides are blank. They are read by adding up the results, so ++ - is a +1.
  • Skills are rated from 0 to 6 or higher. They add to the die roll. There are no attributes.
  • Most importantly, uses descriptive "tags" called aspects. Aspects represent things that are important - to the character, to the scene, even to the campaign - and can be used to justify influencing the story or results such as getting bonuses to die rolls, rerolling bad rolls, creating a special effect or merely being used as a justification for an action. Aspects can be used by (called invoking) and against (called compelling) characters, and characters can take actions that will add new aspects into play.
  • It uses a currency called Fate Points that players spend to use their character's aspects (called invoking). Players receive Fate Points when their aspects are used against them (called a compel).

The differences in Strands of Fate mostly revolve around nomenclature, the use of aspects and some specific cases regarding die rolls. Rolls that succeed over the difficulty can generate Spin, which follows the standard pattern of allowing the player to create a short-lived aspect. Rolls that fail to generate enough shifts generate Stall, which can result in a negative penalty or just something bad happening - a short-lived, negative aspect. Likewise, situational modifiers can be positive or negative, and compels can be used to impose a penalty on rolls. The game also multiple scopes for aspects, and doesn't allow more than one aspect from any one scope to be used on rolls. The system also keeps the concept of Persistent Aspects from Strands of Fate.

Since the game sits on a balance (and a rather nice one) between more traditional role-playing systems and Fate Core (which I’m taking as the “standard” to compare it to), there are a number of subsystems and specialized rules. For example, there are rules for sweeping beam weapons, falling, poisons and diseases, etc. Personally I’ve kind of moved away from needing or wanting these types of rules, but they are definitely useful as baseline examples for how to handle various situations that can come up in play.

There are two subsystems stand out: Rep-Ratings and Sleeves. Both of them are tied intrinsically to the transhuman nature of the setting, and so are totally appropriate to be given focus with their own rules.

The character’s Rep-Rating is an abstraction of the complex system that exists in the setting for tracking a person’s contributions to culture and society. Rep-Ratings are used in place of money, as well as calling in favors. They can also be used to limit membership or acceptance into various social institutions, schools, etc. People can give one another bumps or hits to their rep ratings pretty much at will, although it affects their own Rep-Rating when they do so.
Sleeves are new bodies that a mind can be downloaded into. They come in two types: biosleeves and cybersleeves. In order to utilize them, a character needs to undergo Apotheosis - effectively digitizing their mind. There are a number of stock sleeves available for characters, each with a cost, aspects, physical skills, built in augmentations, points for customization and any special rules. Not all characters are Apotheosized, although many augmentations can be purchased without the need for a sleeve.

Character Creation

As part of this review I’ve created a character, straight out of the rules and following the steps listed in the book. Nova Praxis comes with a form-fillable character sheet at the end of the PDF, and the same sheet is available as a stand-alone PDF. You can see the completed character here.

One thing I like about character creation in Nova Praxis is that various components - such as skills - are listed right there in the appropriate step. There’s lot a not of flipping between sections. The only exception is stunts, which makes sense. If they were listed with the stunt selection step, you’d just have to flip past all of them to get to the next section.

Unlike Fate Core, Nova Praxis does not include the character concept as one of its aspects. What it does with aspects though is something I’ve always liked: the aspect alphabet. While not hard rules on what the aspects have to be, they provide a nice guideline for the kinds of aspects that make well-rounded characters. The aspect alphabet goes in a bucket list of cool things to do for any Fate game, along with the mad-libs style template for phrasing invokes and compels from Fate Core.

Beyond aspects, characters have a starting state: Pure, Sleeved or as a SIM (basically software). The inclusion of an option and support for playing a character that is basically pure software is really interesting, as SIMs can control surveillance systems, download themselves into sleeves, and control drones. Each state has it’s own benefits in terms of bonus skill ratings, refresh and free stunts. After the state is determined, the player chooses skills. There are 20 skills total, plus three physical skills. The separation of the physical skills seems like it was a good way of dealing with characters that can have a wide-range of physical abilities (or, in the case of SIMs, none at all). Likewise, sleeves and drones have at the very least their own allocations of physical skill ranks.

To make it easier to distribute skill ranks, there are three skill sets (Specialist, Expert, and Generalist). The skill ranks between the sets are not the same - Specialist grants 22 ranks, with the highest skill rank at 5. Expert grants 30 with a max rank of 4, while Generalist gives 38 and a max rank of 3.




Finally you choose stunts, determine your character’s allegiance, choose gear and calculate starting Rep-Rating and stress boxes.

When creating a character I ran into an annoyance and a couple of issues. The annoyance was the character sheet - while it covers all the basics, it could have really used dedicated spaces for the character’s current state and allegiance. As it stands I jammed them under Notes. That’s relatively minor.

One of the issues was when calculating Physical stress. The first time that it's explicitly stated that humans are Size 0 is on page 151, under "Lifting Things" and there is no size chart in the game aside from vehicles (which starts at Size 1). It took some searching to find this out, and only after that I remembered that humans are Size 0 in Strands of Fate. Again, this may be changed in any revised PDF that may exist, and it's far from a showstopper. Still the character creation process is fairly straightforward, and the layout and writing make it relatively painless (aside from the dilemma I face any time I create a character in a vacuum).

Finally, there’s choosing starting gear. The method used to determine how much gear the character has is to determine the highest cost that the character can purchase and then choose one piece of gear for each step down to 0. So if, like my character, the starting value was 7 I would choose one piece of gear that costs 7, then 6, then 5, etc. I was barely able to squeeze in the types of items I thought this character would have, and had to do a lot of rearranging to fit in with the n = n - 1 pattern. The personal computer had to go in a slot one higher than it should have (so I added an aspect modification, which increased the cost by 1), and I left the 1 and 0 slots empty. To be fair, I restricted gear purchases only to what was actually listed without making anything up, which might be an unrealistic situation (more on the gear selection below).

Gear


There is a whole chapter devoted to gear, and it gives some decent guidelines on restricted items, modifying gear, augmentations, as well as building sleeves, drones, and vehicles. The examples are rather sparse for weapons and equipment (one of the reasons that I struggled with equipping my character - I wanted to do it straight out of the book without adding anything). Strands of Fate actually has a slightly more varied equipment list, with a few items that would definitely have been useful in Nova Praxis (such as equipment kits).

Now I’m not a gearophile, but when there is an equipment list I like to see a good mix of generalized gear and special, setting-specific items. For a game like Nova Praxis, this would have been especially helpful. Personally, I would just wind up filling in the blanks with items from Strands of Fate, or other games such as Blue Planet, Jovian Chronicles, etc. Similarly, there are only a handful of sample drones and vehicles given. While the rules are there to build your own, it would be nice to see at least a small variety of stock vehicles for immediate use, as well as to get a feel for how “canon” vehicles and starships are statted out.

Some Room For Improvement

There are a few things I would have liked with a little more meat in Nova Praxis. First, some more utilitarian illustrations or description to give a better feel for the setting. One thing that I find with some settings is the zoom level is far enough out that there’s no real impression of how things are “day to day”. In contrast, Blue Planet does a good job of conveying what life on Poseidon is like in just the Player's Guide. The same goes for Jovian Chronicles in terms of living in various installations, what shipboard life is like etc. I suppose the difference is that both of those game lines are well developed with multiple books, while Nova Praxis packs everything into one. Still Voidstar might have included a few zone maps or illustrations of locations, vessels, stations, etc. The same goes for more example vehicles. Similarly, while each House has it's specialties listed there's little indication if there's any overlap. Is House Dalianis the only starship manufacturer? Does House Jinzhan manufacture them and, if so, how are they different? Likewise, I thought that the information on compilers was a bit on the skeletal side - enough to grok how they affect the setting and are used, but still leaving me with a couple of questions (particularly regarding PCs purchasing them).

tl;dr

Nova Praxis is a solid post-cyberpunk, transhumanist style roleplaying game. For anyone familiar with the genre it doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, but it does offer a good foundation for nearly any style of game that a group might want to run. While the setting could definitely work with nearly any system with minimum fuss, the tailored version of Strands of Fate that it is built on serves the game very well. The PDF is extremely well designed and organized, even if the links are a little on the busy side - just not enough to be a true distraction.

Nova Praxis is available from
DriveThruRPG for $14.99, as well as in digital and hard copy from the Void Star store.