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Thursday, 6 May 2010

What's Your Stand?

@ctiv8 is the result of a challenge made to the designer, James “Grim” Desborough. It is not his first, but where Hentacle - The severely adult card game for hentai-loving reprobates came out of being challenged to create a game based on that most outré of Japanese anime genres, the challenge here was to create an overtly political game. Not political in terms of politicking and jockeying for power, but in taking a stance that is explicitly political and expressing it within the game.

Published by Postmortem Studios, in @ctiv8, that stance is best described as “militantly liberal;” and if not anti-political, it is both anti the current state of both politics and democracy. It takes the idea that both have failed the electorate, and because of this, many have turned to other means. In an age of single issue politics, when all politicians seem alike and never seem to listen to the voice of the voters, these means take the form of activism. Primarily radical activism, in which the activists take the law into their own hands, deciding for themselves the rights and wrongs of an issue. Whatever the cause in question -- an anti road protest, free trade, anti-corporate, anti hunt, green issues, race rights, animal rights, and so on, ordinary (and not so ordinary) members of the public have had enough and are taking direct action. Their point of congregation is “@ctiv8.”

Inspired by the dispersed nature of online communities and file sharing software, “@ctiv8” is both one of these communities and a piece of software. Once downloaded and installed, it gives the surveilled, vetted, and profiled new member access to this self-regulating community which comes together over an issue and organizes a group of individuals best suited to dealing with it. Sometimes this may mean co-operating with other groups and parties that may have the resources to help and agree with the issue, but might hold to less palatable politics. The dispersed nature of “@ctiv8,” which operates on a high degree of trust, makes it difficult to infiltrate.

Set if not in the here and now, then this evening after you have finished work, @ctiv8 casts the players as members of this global anarchist conspiracy willing to do what it takes to make the world a better place. Not just the one member, as @ctiv8 uses troupe play, with it being suggested that a roster of characters be created from which the most suitable activists can be drawn. This can be as Experts, Sponsors (providing both equipment and money), Placements (whose position helps get a task done), or Volunteers (who have nothing but enthusiasm to add). Besides the use of multiple characters, @ctiv8 is radical in that character cannot earn experience or improve, and is wholly intended to be disposable.  To further support the use of multiple, different characters, it is suggested that the game be run as a series of episodes.

Rather than beat you over the head with its political stance, @ctiv8 points the reader towards its inspirations -- the comic book (and television pilot) Global Frequency, internet communities, the act of filesharing, and particularly, the news. Indeed, the 10 adventure seeds were all mined from the BBC news site from a single day in August, 2005. Of course, both players and GM are free to interpret these stories as they want, especially if they disagree with the game’s political stance. It is also entirely possible to play @ctiv8 as a more traditional conspiracy RPG, and there is already a “them versus us” structure built into the game.

Mechanically, @ctiv8 uses the “Xpress System,” a new set of rules that will appear in future Postmortem Studios releases. They may also include the experience point system missing here. A dice pool system, six-sided dice are rolled to score successes. The pool size is determined by one of ten paired attributes, the target by the skill value which lowers it from a default level of six. The range of both attributes and skills is between one and six. Any successes rolled can be re-rolled once and counted towards the total, with three successes being counted as an average result. The difficulty or ease of a task will lower or increase the target, and even add or subtract dice if particularly easy or difficult. Dice can also be added for skill specializations (for example, Guns/Pistol) and skill focuses (Guns/Pistol/Glock 17). The accompanying combat system is short, bloody, and brutal, emphasizing in particular, the time it takes to heal.

Character generation consists of purchasing ten paired attributes made up of active and passive statistics, buying skills, and finally creating merits and flaws. There are different pools for both attributes and skills, and points from either can be spent on merits and flaws. Both of the latter need be designed by the player and agreed upon by the GM, and can be fairly expensive. Alternatively, a quick play method is given, which includes the numbers for attributes and skills. They only need to be assigned. The Xpress System is rounded out with rules for vehicle chases, and a short equipment list.

Physically, @ctiv8 is decently presented, its activism given a nod in the front and back cover, a collage made up from LiveJournal icons, and in the method of introducing “@ctiv8,” as a chat room discussion. The internal artwork is reasonable, but one problem is the book’s last two pages. They are blank. Room then, for the character sheet which is absent, and maybe even some more seeds or a fuller scenario. Perhaps even similar to the support already provided weekly for @ctiv8 in form of a news story expanded and developed into a gaming friendly format. GM advice is present, and fundamentally addresses the problem of running a game in which making a change or difference is the objective. How far can changes be effected before the world is no longer our own? Even despite this advice, finding a balance between an immutable world and a thoroughly altered world, is a hard task.

In examining @ctiv8 you have to answer a single question. Has the author created a political game in answer to the gauntlet thrown down before him? Well, yes, but not unconditionally so. The problem is still that beyond taking the stance, the game cannot follow through on it without veering away from its core concept of making a change. How often can a change be made before the world itself becomes unrecognisable? If making the big change is unrealistic then, perhaps the steps need to be much, much smaller -- deal with the big issues at the heart of the game in increments. Such increments would correspond to the suggested episodic structure of the game. At this level, then the players can execute change and be political, making @activ8 is a political game about small changes.