Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Cold War Now

In the wake of World War Two and deep into the Cold War, the world’s superpowers—as well as remnants of Nazi Germany—enacted programs that would strengthen their positions in the event of the then much feared possibility of a nuclear war. In particular, they created super-soldiers augmented with technologies developed from Nazi bioscience, the CIA’s mind control programs, British Intelligence’s experiments with alien technology, and the KGB’s study of exotic radiation, and then placed them into cold storage until they could awake, ready to defend their particular country in the new post-apocalyptic world. These augmented super agents are known as Sleepers. Yet that war never came and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequently, the Soviet Bloc, each of the world’s superpowers was left with technologies and programs that would be embarrassing to admit that they had ever possessed, let alone developed. So they signed the Pariah Treaty, a secret agreement under which they would not only abandon the development of their morally questionable technologies, but would also actively work to terminate programs using them—with extreme prejudice.

The secrecy of the various sleeper program means that a great many records have been lost and so some Sleepers and the associated knowledge of their creation have not been found. Some remain in hibernation, the location of their facilities unknown, but others have awoken and work from behind the scenes to guide the world their ends. So even as the various intelligence agencies of the world’s superpowers disavow all knowledge of such programs, SS-Werwolf, the original Nazi Sleeper program sows chaos in order to destabilise world order and grab power; Octagon exploits the sleeper technology for financial gain; and the Circus, a cabal within the British establishments actively seeks to track down and eliminate Sleepers, whether awake or still in hibernation, plus all related technologies. Then there is Obsidian, an independent agency that sees Sleepers not as morally embarrassing leftovers from the Cold War, but as victims of the Cold War, and its mission to find, wake up, rehabilitate, and prepare Sleepers for a future that they were never prepared for. This was Obsidian’s original mission, one it still carries out, but now it also works to prevent Sleepers and Sleeper technology from falling into the wrong hands as well as recently awoken Sleepers going rogue and using their augmented abilities on the population at large…

This is the set-up for Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold, an RPG published by Death Spiral Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It combines classic conspiracy themes with elements of horror, alienation, and future shock against a framework of elite squad special forces-style covert operations and rapid if secret technological development. The players take on the role of Sleepers who are members of Obsidian, undertaking missions to save other Sleepers and to protect the world from potential Sleeper threats. In addition to this, they will set up their own base and not only protect their reputation and secrecy, but also direct the scientific development of technology recovered whilst on their missions. From this development will come weapons and devices that will aid them on their missions. This essentially gives Sleeper the feel of the X-COM series of computer games.

To create a character a player first decides upon the character’s origin, that is which program created him. This defines the technology that the character’s power is based upon and where the Sleeper is from. The Sleepers of NATO’s Nectar V use powers derived from Nazi bioweapons technology and are primarily from mainland Western Europe; the Sleepers from the CIA’s MKJESTER are a mix of Americans and Russian defectors and possess mental abilities; Grey Dust of British Intelligence used alien technology to give British and Commonwealth Sleepers bizarre powers; and the KGB’s Last Light program gave its Soviet Bloc sourced agents energy based powers derived from exotic radiation. Three powers are given to each program, so for example, Nectar V Sleepers typically have ‘Entrail Burst’, ‘Bioartillery’, and ‘Vampirism’. The first of these enables a Sleeper to explode his altered internal organs and ensare targets with them; the second to fire explosive cysts at his targets; and the third to inflict damage upon himself to gain superspeed, but then feed upon others to heal himself. There is a certain gruesome nature to many of these powers.

Now whilst these powers were created by the particular programs, a player is free to choose any origin and any of the powers in the RPG as long as he can explain how he came have that power with that program. So an MKJESTER Sleeper with the Radiation Burst power might be a Russian defector, whereas a British Grey Dust Sleeper with the Teleportation power might be the result of the alien technology rather than Last Light radiation experiments. What this means is that there is no mechanical effect to choosing an origin for the character. There may be roleplaying and storytelling effects to choosing an origin, but not a mechanical effect because if it can be effectively explained as to how a program developed a power, the choice of origin does not limit choice of power. Perhaps a mix of powers available to all programs and powers limited to particular programs might have been a way of making a character’s choice origin more important.

Then six set numbers are assigned to the Sleeper’s attributes—Athletics (dexterity and physical skills), Physique (constitution and strength), Nerve (composure and charisma), Focus (intelligence and concentration), and Shooting (guns and artillery). Each of these attributes covers several skills, so Athletics includes Melee, Mobility, Sprinting, Stealth, and Throwing, whilst Nerve includes Fate Point, Intimidation, Persuasion, Spotting, Vehicles, and Wounds. A Sleeper can use any of these skills, but at character generation, a player selects four at which the Sleeper is particularly adept as his Specialisms. When a character makes a roll using one of the four selected Specialisms, he rolls better dice. Some Specialisms are not actually skills, but improve the character in other ways. For example, a Specialism in Bionics increases the number of Bionic devices that a character can have implanted in him later in the game when they are developed; Carry increases the amount that a character can carry; Wounds increases the amount of damage a character can suffer; and Fate Points the number of Fate Points he has in the game. Once done, all a character needs is some starting equipment—a primary weapon, a sidearm, and some armor, plus standard equipment that might needed on a mission—and a codename, this varying according to the character’s origin.

Mongoose was inducted into the KGB’s Last Light program from the gulags where he had been born, orphaned, and later released before being convicted as a thief and a member of the Bratva, the Russian mafia. He is a trained engineer as well as a thief and burglar. His Teleportation power enables him to get into places better than he could before. Although he is trained in the use of firearms, he prefers to use knives. Thin, almost gaunt, he has never lost his grey gulag pallor. 

Athletics 4
Melee •, Mobility •, Sprinting, Stealth •, Throwing

Physique 3
Bionics, Carry, Resilience, Wounds

Nerve 3
Fate Point, Intimidation, Persuasion, Spotting, Vehicles, Willpower

Focus 3
Concentration, Engineering •, First Aid, Investigation, Science

Shooting 2
Artillery, Assault Rifle, Handgun, Machine Gun, Shotgun, SMG, Sniper Rifle

Melee Defence 11 Resilience Defence 9
Stealth Defence 11 Willpower Defence 9
Maximum Bulk 18 Maximum Wounds 6

Glock 17, Combat Knives, Knuckleduster, Baton

Alternatively, a player can simply select one of the twelve pre-generated characters instead. The twelve showcase Sleepers from each of the four player allowed origins as well as the twelve powers. Each of the twelve Sleepers is given a background in the section describing the program he was created by. That said, character creation is very, very quick. In fact, recording the information on the character sheet takes longer than actually creating the character.

As for the powers in Sleeper, there are just twelve available to the player characters, though several NPCs have other powers, but these are not available to the player characters. Each of the twelve powers gets a double-page spread in which the mechanical effects are described on the one page, whilst on the other, is given four examples of how the power might be used. Also included is what happens when a character rolls a natural one on a check to use his power, representing the fact that the character has temporarily lost control of his power. So for example, the Create Matter power enables a Sleeper to create and sustain blocks of a concrete-like substance that can be used as cover or dropped on opponents. When a natural one is rolled, between two and eight blocks are created and scattered away from the character. The suggestions for using Create Matter include creating cover for allies, dropping a block in front of a moving vehicle to force it to stop, block off a doorway to prevent someone from escaping, and even a set of steps for getting up or down from high places. Essentially there should be no real limit to how a power can be used except a player’s imagination and if the power can feasibly do it, then the GM should allow it.

The core mechanic in Sleeper is very simple. To attempt a skill test, a character rolls a ten-sided die and adds his attribute to beat a target number. An easy task is six, average is eight, hard is ten, and very hard is twelve. A roll of four or more above the target number is a critical success, whereas a roll of a natural one is a critical fumble and results in a catastrophic rather than fatal effect. The results of both critical successes and natural ones are given for the use of both powers and combat rolls, but out of combat, the GM will need to be creative as none are given. 

In general there is an emphasis in the rules on the characters succeeding rather than failing or at least not failing very badly. This can be seen in the natural one rule where such results are catastrophic, but not fatal, and also in the rules for group tests. Here it is the character with the highest attribute or appropriate Specialism who makes the roll, possibly with bonuses if other characters successfully help him. In addition, characters also have Fate Points, which allow a die to be rerolled, an extra die to be added to a roll, make a short move at any time during combat, and to buy off a condition, a Death Counter, and so on. The GM has his own Fate Points to spend on the NPCs.

Combat is where Sleeper gets complex as it takes on a tactical aspect. Although it does not have to be, Sleeper is designed to be played out on battle maps of squared grids marked with the terrain, with movement and range for weapons being given in squares. There is also a page full of Target Numbers and Conditions to take into account and taking these into account and keeping track of them is where the game does get complex. Otherwise combat is as relatively straightforward as the skill mechanic, but in each round a character has three actions—a movement action, a combat action, and a power action. More than the one die is rolled when a character takes a sustained or rapid fire action, or fights with more than one weapon in melee combat. In this case, each extra die rolled has to beat the same Target Number as the skill die to successfully hit a target. Then for each hit, one or more damage dice are rolled—depending upon the weapon employed—to beat the value of the armour worn by the target. Successful rolls inflict wounds on the target.

Combat is nasty, but not immediately lethal. The Armour Values for standard armour ranges between three and five and weapons like the Glock 17 does 2d6 damage, the AKM 2d10 damage, and the Barrett M82 does d12+2d8, so wounds can quickly mount up. Beyond this and further wounds suffered accrue a character Death Counters, the equivalent of critical injuries. A character character can recover from these from round to round, but they can get worse and a character who accrues three Death Counters, whether from from injuries or his current wounds bleeding out, falls unconscious. This is in addition to conditions like Confused, Dazed, Stunned, and Scared. These conditions can be dealt with First Aid and aiding an ally in the field as can some wounds, but there will be some injuries that can only be recovered from during downtime. 

Overall in play, combat is simple and straightforward, but its intricacies, especially the conditions do take practice getting used to and applying. Further the characters will find combat challenging, but careful tactical play and use of their powers will give them an edge.

If the primary play mode of Sleeper consists of tactical combat missions, then its secondary play occurs during downtime. At the start of a campaign the players set up and establish a secret base, including its fields of scientific research—exotic chemistry, hybridisation, micro-technology, advanced composites, quantum computing, and superconductors—and its expert personnel. Then during downtime, the game runs through a Base Cycle in which characters recover from injuries or are replaced, equipment and resources captured during the mission are applied to scientific research and development, a check is made to see if the characters’ activities on their mission alerted the authorities or other factions and might have led to a loss of resources and research as bases are raided or shut down, resources can be spent to expand or improve a base, research can be conducted, and new arms, armour, and devices can be manufactured. 

The Base Cycle ends with the world technology level rising, but before this, the characters can be assigned to specific facilities. These include the Expert Surgeon for treatment of long term injuries, the Training Grounds to change or gain a new specialism, and the Bionics Theatre to have devices implanted. Now the Training Grounds and the Bionics Theatre are important because apart from the new technology developed by the base that leads to new and advanced equipment, they are the only means by which a character can improve himself. Sleeper as an RPG does not have an experience system as found in almost every other RPG. So to increase the number of Specialisms a character has, the players need to develop the capability of their base’s Training Grounds and to get better bionics, they need to research and develop bionics and the Bionics Theatre.

The book includes a large section devoted to its future technology arranged according to the areas of research—exotic chemistry, hybridisation, micro-technology, advanced composites, quantum computing, and superconductors. They include plenty of variety, allowing the technology tiers to be revisited and explored along different avenues of research from one campaign to the next.

The world technology level is important in two ways. primarily it tracks the technology available to the opposition, but together with the secrecy and reputation rolls made during the Base Cycle, it can be seen as a measure of the technology’s emergence into the public consciousness. Since some of it is disturbing, even horrifying, then this is also some indication of the level of future shock as the globe moves towards a darker future. Otherwise, there is not a specific mechanic to handle this effect or the shock of the player character Sleepers waking up to an unexpected future and the horrors they face in this brave new world.

For the GM there is solid advice on running the game, running campaigns, and writing missions. There is also a wide selection of NPCs, both other factions and civilians as well as some scenario outlines. Notably, rules are not provided to let the GM create his own NPCs, but rather to customise and upgrade the ones given. The bulk of the GM’s section is devoted to a sample game, Operation Onyx. It sends the player characters into an office building search of some World War Two-era Nazi technology. It is a good introductory scenario that should serve well as the starting mission for a campaign.

Physically, Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold is a well presented black and white book. The artwork is perhaps a bit dark to appear in black and white, but all of it is good. The writing itself is solid.

Whether or not Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold War is successful as an RPG design comes down to one design decision—the eighteen mission campaign framework. Within the limits of those eighteen missions, the player characters will have room to encounter a variety of foes and defeat them, improve themselves slightly, and develop sufficient technology to give them an edge against their enemies. Beyond the eighteen mission campaign framework and as an RPG, Sleeper begins to feel limited in the choices it provides and what it can do. The number of powers which give the GM and players alike limited choices in terms of designing player characters and NPCs, the limited ability of the player characters to improve in terms of their skills, but not their powers, and the limited ability of the GM to create his own NPCs are all hindrances to long term play, that is, beyond that eighteen mission campaign framework.

To an extent showcasing each of the twelve powers included in Sleeper with a sample character reinforces this lack of design choices. Yet the book does point to an explanation for this, stating that whilst the GM is free to design additional powers as is his wont, the dozen given have been playtested to be balanced against each other and that designing your own might upset this balance. Further, the designers have stated that what Sleeper is not is a superhero roleplaying game with its hundreds of powers. 

Now this sounds like damning criticism. It is not. Rather it is a case of highlighting the scope of Sleeper and what it was designed to do. Outside of that scope, Sleeper does feel a little as if the designers are letting you play in their background and not much more.

Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold War draws from the same sources as roleplaying games such as Contested Ground Studios’ Cold City, Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green, and GDW’s Dark Conspiracy, and explores very similar themes. Its take upon the conspiracy-horror genre is more action orientated, perhaps slightly more pulpy, building it around two modes of play—the covert operations of the various missions and the resource management mechanics of the Base Cycle to develop new technology—that nicely support each other and can be drawn upon for roleplaying opportunities and hooks. Within its own limits, Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold presents a solid set of rules and campaign framework within which superpowered Sleepers fight to prevent terrible technology from bringing about a fearful future.