Dystopian Universe Beta: Character Generation

Disclaimer: This post concerns the beta version of an unreleased game. The commentary below may not reflect the contents of the game’s released version.

Last week we had our character creation session for the Dystopian Universe RPG. Whilst we were missing a player, that didn’t prevent us cracking on with a systems overview and setting generation. Our fifth player, a Fate veteran, didn’t require quite the same level of education, and has now mostly confirmed what his character is going to be too.

I’d like to talk a little more about the characters we’ve created, and my hopes for the game ahead… though the secret elements of Dystopian Universe character generation prevent me saying too much, as my players might be reading! But first, a brief overview of the game itself.

 

DYSTOPIAN UNIVERSE OVERVIEW

The RPG is set in the same universe as The Resistance, Coup and One Night Revolution – a cyberpunky, technothriller setting of deception, infiltration and social manoeuvring. The board games are thin on fictional context – so much so that adapting an RPG from it is a bit baffling, to be honest – but the RPG adds plenty of setting detail in to fill out the blanks. It centres the action on a future version of Paris (where else to host a Resistance, Coup or Revolution?) where thanks to mandatory neural surgery, augmented reality has become commonplace… so much so that the citizenry have forgotten the ugly, smelly, depressing reality they truly live in. The city has transformed into a hierarchical arcology, with the corporate elites at the top, the wage-enslaved unwashed masses at the base, and the exiled non-augmented (and Resistance fighters) scrabbling around the sunken ruins of old Paris. The PCs are cast as Resistance fighters, battling to overthrow this oppressive system.

As set-ups go, it’s interesting stuff, but as I said it’s all content invented for the RPG, not from its source material. What it *does* inherit from its source material is a tone of suspicion and hidden information, where anyone could be a government informant, and choosing to believe another player could be fatal. That’s a compelling base to build an RPG around, and whilst the system used will be very familiar to existing Fate players, there are a number of interesting tweaks that help achieve this atmosphere…

  • First and foremost, the game uses traitor mechanics to encourage PCs to expose or betray one another. Everyone gets dealt a secret at the start of play, with even the secrets of loyal Resistance members threatening embarrassment at best, grave personal loss at worst. These secrets give players ways to earn extra XP, at the risk of casting suspicion upon them (whether warranted or not). Certain triggers cause you to discard your secret – spies can become double agents, loyalists can “come clean” or be forced to clear their name – but if you do, you draw a new secret, which allows for formerly loyal PCs to BECOME spies during play (or for double agents to be triple agents!). Because you only get a limited amount of control over which secret you end up with, it is possible for a random draw to mean you end up with a character radically different from the one you thought you were playing. My hope is that this will prove to be liberating rather than prohibitive.
  • Instead of skills and actions, the game has “Means” and “Ends”, a neat bit of flavour that has subtle mechanical implications. The four means are Fight, Manipulate, Manoeuvre and Observe; the four ends are Cause Harm, Avoid Danger, Create an Advantage and Resolve Uncertain Outcome, which map to the classic actions of Attack, Defend, Create and Advantage and Overcome respectively. What’s cool though is that whilst any means can be used for any ends, each ends has a specific means which confers an extra advantage when employed: Fight is better at Causing Harm, Observe is better for Creating an Advantage etc. And the Cause Harm actions works very differently – instead of tracking stress and consequences, characters have conditions, with specific mechanical penalties endured when they suffer harm. And since characters of different social statuses have different conditions, it’s another way of illustrating how harshly stratified the setting’s social hierarchy is. “The rich don’t even bleed like we do.”
  • Like The Resistance, the game revolves around a formalised mission based structure. Get the mission, do your prep, accomplish your objectives, debrief and squabble. It’s a nice reflection of the source material, and I like how it relegates the personal goings-on of the characters as second the Ultimate Objective of Revolution. Sounds like good justification to inform for the government to me!
  • The prep scenes that precede each mission are another great way to engage with the setting, as you choose between picking up high-tech equipment, conspiring to recover from social disadvantage, or seeking favours from the setting’s true overlords: The Duke, The Ambassador, The Assassin, The Captain or The Contessa. The game has rules for cybernetic augmentation and making contacts within the Resistance too.
  • To generate a character, players choose from one of nine playbooks, a set-up inspired by Apocalypse World (explicitly, in the beta document at least). The available choices of character immediately set expectations for the setting – for example, there are three playbooks each for the social classes of elite (La Société), citizen (Les Citoyen) or exile (Les Exiles), which again demonstrates how important class is to this game – but they also make character generation much, much faster. This is essential for a game where sudden betrayal or exposure can end your character’s story with shocking haste.

Which brings us neatly onto…

 

OUR CHARACTER CREATION

The five starting characters in our game are:

  • La Paon, the Cleaner, better known by his street name “La Corneille”. Member of La Société, he is a silent assassin employed by corporate overlords, now in search of a new master.
  • Lady Matilda Lorraine, the Blueblood. Toast of La Société, she believes La Resistance will help her find answers and revenge for the murder of her children.
  • Chevalier, the Officer. Another La Société member, he commands one wing of the government’s intelligence service, but secretly works with La Resistance to achieve more moderate reform.
  • Aleron, the Hacker. One of Les Citoyens, he belongs to a small criminal fraternity allied with La Resistance, and prizes his anonymity above all else.
  • Simone, the Naturel. Living amongst Les Exiles, she and her family are devoid of any augmentation whatsoever, and intend to show the rest of Paris the beauty of living entirely within reality.

Whether or not they’ll remain the player party depends on the campaign’s death toll! Which at this stage is difficult to tell. I wouldn’t dream of revealing everyone’s secrets at this stage, but I think it’s safe to say that we have a very interesting network of clashing personalities and agendas.

After character creation, we collaborated on setting generations – specifically, statting out the government and La Resistance, and determining what made our Dystopian Universe unique. Both organisations have an advancement tree, unlocking various abilities for all members of that organisation over the course of the campaign, and setting generation involves choosing initial advances for those organisations too.

For La Resistance, the players envisioned an ideologically passionate and popular movement that nonetheless struggled with diverse opinions and political infighting. For the government, someone came up with the gleefully repellent idea that the citizenry were barely eating enough to survive, and that the government was using augmented reality to create the illusion of fully fed citizens, when the majority were in fact walking corpses. Dystopian indeed! We also leaned heavily into government surveillance, which should give Chevalier’s intelligence network (the DGSI) plenty to do…

I was hoping that the accelerated pace of character creation would give us time for a quick mission, but by the time setting generation was done we only had an hour or so left. So after reading out the player advice section, and running through a few games of One Night Revolution, we decided to pick up with our first mission next time instead.

I’m looking forward to playing. There are a few rules holes, expected for a beta, which I was hoping to get answers to, but it’s looking like I’ll have to make a judgement call myself. I’m also hoping that we get enough time to complete the whole mission with time to discuss at the end, because we only have time for three sessions before the beta closes, and only getting through one or two missions would be of limited usefulness. Either way, I’ll be submitting my feedback, and cataloguing my progress here if I get a chance.

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