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Sunday 20 October 2019

1999: Brave New World

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


It is 1999. As the end of the millennium approaches, President John F. Kennedy has been in office for almost four decades. On November 22nd, 1963, he survived the assassination attempt on his life by a team of powersuit-wearing Dreadnauts sent by the supervillain Devastator, but his wife did not. In response, Congress enacted The Delta Registration Act, which made it a federal offence for any Delta—as those with superpowers are known—not to register themselves with the government within seven days of manifesting them. Delta civil rights were curtailed and they could be conscripted into government service of any kind. In order to control Delta activity, Delta Prime was set up as a super-powered law enforcement agency to control unregistered Deltas. A confrontation in New York in 1966 between Devastator and Delta Prime would result in the destruction of his headquarters and the surrounding four city blocks in New York, and following his escape, the declaration of martial law. It is still in force today.

The situation was compounded by a second confrontation, ‘The Bicentennial Battle’, between Devastator and Delta Prime which took place atop the Sears Tower in Chicago on July 4th, 1976. It too, would end in tragedy. The detonation of Devastator’s doomsday disintegrated everything in a twenty-five mile radius, killing millions and creating a perfectly spherical extension to Lake Michigan known as Chicago Bay. It also killed Superior, the Alpha-class Delta who had lead the attack, whilst at the same time every free Alpha-class Delta on the planet suddenly vanished. They have not been seen since.

The first Alpha, Superior had been the defender of America since World War II, transforming from a Delta to an Alpha following a traumatic near death experience, following which he flew to Berlin, killed Adolf Hitler and ended the war in 1943. He would end both the Korean and Vietnam wars early as well. Without the Alphas to keep the balance of power, battles between Deltas are not uncommon, tensions escalated between the USA and the Soviet Union. This would culminate in a limited nuclear exchange, following the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, sabotaged by American Deltas, which would leave the cities of Atlanta and San Francisco and Kiev and Minsk destroyed. 

In 1999, and at eighty two years of age, President Kennedy is effectively President For Life. The ‘Witch Hunts’ that followed the implementation of both The Delta Registration Act and Martial Law against anyone who might be a Delta continue to this day. Yet some were not prepared to simply give in and lose their freedom and civil rights. They set up a loosely organised resistance network called ‘Defiance’, its members ‘Defiants’. Although deemed a domestic terrorist organisation by the government—and there are Defiants who would advocate such actions—its primary aim is to help those Deltas who do not want to register and to spread the truth. By the end of the century, with the birth of the Internet, this is done via a website known as DeltaTimes.com.

This is the set up—known as the ‘Ravaged Planet’—for Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game. Published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group in 1999 and then by Alderac Entertainment Group from 2000, it is a superhero roleplaying game of protest and resistance in an American fascist nightmare, inspired by comics such as Kingdom Come and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, storylines from the X-Men series, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more. It is a grim, dark setting—definitely more Modern Age than Bronze or Silver Age—in which the players take the role of Deltas, those with limited superpowers who have defied the government in deciding not to sign The Delta Registration Act. Operating behind the secrecy of a mask—as much because they need to protect their civil rights as they do their identities and their families—they undertake a number of different tasks. They might be vigilantes dealing with traditional small time crime, helping find and protect other Deltas and get them out of the USA, and if they gain its trust, undertaking missions for Defiance.

As a superhero roleplaying game with a setting, Brave New World is different to most of the superhero roleplaying games which had come before it. With a very few exceptions, most had been rules sets first, with settings detailed in subsequent supplements. This though, is not the only significant difference between Brave New World and other traditional superhero roleplaying games, such as Champions, GURPS Supers, Golden Heroes, or Villains & Vigilantes. As already mentioned, such superhero roleplaying games possess rules sets—rules sets which enabled a player to create superheroes of their own design. Not so in Brave New World. Instead, heroes are built around a template or Power Package, which provides a standard set of powers. There are ten Power Packages in Brave New World—Bargainer, Blaster, Bouncer, Flyer, Gadgeteer, Goliath, Gunner, Healer, Scrapper, and Speedstar. 

Of the ten Power Packages, it is not immediately obvious what some of them are. So the Blaster, Flyer, Gadgeteer, Healer, and Speedster are obvious, but the Bouncer is the acrobatic superhero, the Goliath is the equivalent of the Brick, the Gunner is a marksman, and the Scrapper is the Brawler or Martial Artist. The Bargainer summons and binds demons into totems, which can be used to either temporarily replicate the powers of other Deltas or permanently replicate them. The Bargainer is also different in another way, as is the Gadgeteer. Heroes with the Power Packages Blaster, Bouncer, Flyer, Goliath, Gunner, Healer, Scrapper, and Speedster can all do one thing. So a Flyer is a Hero who flies and does nothing else in terms of his powers, rather than a Flyer who can zap an enemy with his energy blasts, a Scrapper is a brawler or martial artist, not a brawler or martial artist who bounces off the walls and roofs. In comparison, the Bargainer’s ability to bind and replicate powers gives him potential access to a wide array of powers, but it should be made clear that the Bargainer needs to be attuned to the totems and he can only use one at a time. Of all of the ten in Brave New World, the Bargainer is arguably the roleplaying game’s signature character archetype. Similarly, the Gadgeteer can design and build pieces of technology, for example, an armoured battle suit, but they require daily maintenance and make it time consuming to really have more than one or two running at any one time.

Besides his Power Package, each Hero is defined by their Traits, Skills, Quirks, Powers, and Tricks. There are four Traits—Smarts, Speed, Spirit, and Strength, which are rated by a number of six-sided dice plus a modifier, like 2d6+1 or 4d6. A typical Human has two dice in each Trait. Skills are divided between the four Traits and add a bonus to dice rolls of the Trait when appropriate. Initially, both Traits and Skills are rated between one and five. Quirks are the equivalent of advantages and disadvantages, whilst Tricks provide a Hero with the capability to do special things, some related to his Power Package, some not. To create a Hero, a player can simply select one of the archetypes given in the rulebook, there being one for each Power Package. Alternatively, he can divide twelve points between his Hero’s four Traits, and then for every point assigned to a Trait, he receives three points to assign to Skills associated with that Trait. This means that the higher a Trait is, the more likely a Hero is going to be better with its skills and that it is probably better to build a specialised Hero rather than a generalist. Points from skills can also be spent on Quirks, but a player can instead choose negative Quirks to gain more Skill points, possibly for positive Quirks. Then the player selects a Power Package followed by three Tricks. There are two each of these for each Power Package, for example ‘Rock Your World’ and ‘Superjump’ for the Goliath Power Package, plus a selection of General Tricks, like ‘Grapple’, ‘Make an Impression’, and ‘Ricochet’. A Hero does receive some free Skills and several skills are suggested that every Hero possesses, such as Bravery, Fighting: Barehanded, Perception, and so on.

Our sample Hero is Orlando Esposito, an art historian at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Crescent City and the arts critic for the Crescent City Tribune. He is never not seen immaculately dressed and as well as writing about various arts events, consults with the police matters to do with paintings and forgeries. He recently survived a car crash in which he suffered a heart attack. Since his recovery, he has discovered that he can run, really run, and fast. So far he has kept his identity secret and has no intention of revealing his new found abilities.

Orlando Esposito

Smarts 4d – Academia (History) 3, Area Knowledge (Crescent City) 2, Criminology 1, Etiquette 3, Forgery 3, Language (English) 2, Language (Italian) 2 

Speed 2d – Dodging 4, Driving (Personal Vehicle) 2

Spirit 4d – Arts (Painting) 3, Bravery 1, Perception 2, Persuasion (Bluff) 1 (Charm) 3, Scrutinise 3, Search 2

Strength 2d – Climbing 2, Fighting: Barehanded 2, Running 3

Speed: 7
Size: 5

Delta Reg ±0, Secret Identity ±0, Unregistered ±0; Addicted (Coffee) -1, Cautious -3, Pacifist -3, Snobby -1; Photographic Memory +5, Self-Confident +2, Voice +1

Power Package
Fast Runner: +100 Pace
Lighting Reflexes: +5 to Speed rolls for Initiative and Dodging

Tricks: New Friend, Afterimages, Burst of Speed
Delta Points: 3

Mechanically, Brave New World uses pools of six-sided dice. To undertake an action, a Hero’s player rolls dice equal to the value of the Trait. From these the highest result is selected and if appropriate, a Skill value is added to get a total. If sixes are rolled, these explode and can be rolled again and added to the total as long as the player keeps rolling sixes. Target Numbers from five (Easy) and ten (Challenging) all the way up to twenty-five (Incredible) and thirty (Phenomenal). Matching or beating the Target Number counts as a success, but for every five points over the Target Number, an extra success is attained. These extra successes can then be used to do tricks, such as knocking an opponent down or having an attack ricochet off a wall,  do a ‘Blast Punch’ if the Hero is a Blaster, and so on. A Hero also has a number of Delta Points per session, which can be used to roll another die and add it to the current total, or to save a Hero’s life.
For example, Orlando Esposito is being interviewed by Lieutenant Gregory of Delta Prime because he was seen near some Delta activity. Orlando wants to persuade the Delta Prime officer that he saw nothing. This will be an opposed roll of Orlando’s Persuasion (Charm) versus Lieutenant Gregory’s Scrutinise which is 2d6+2. This means that the Guide—as the Game Master is known in Brave New World—will roll two dice and add two to one of the results. This will set the Target Number which Orlando’s player will roll against. He will be rolling Orlando’s Spirit and adding his Persuasion to one result.
The Guide rolls 2 and 2. She adds Lieutenant Gregory’s Scrutinise of two to get a total of 4. This sets the Target Number for Orlando’s player. He rolls He rolls 3, 5, 6, and 6. The two results of 6 mean that he can roll and add to their totals, This gives him 2 and 6, which means that he can roll again. The final result is 5. So the total result is 6, 6, and 5, which adds up to 17, to which Orlando’s Persuasion of 3 is added for a final of 20. This not only succeeds, but grants three extra successes. Now normally, this is enough to persuade the target to whatever the persuader wants within reason, but Orlando has the ‘New Friend’ Trick, which enables him to make friends really easily. For every Extra Success, he gains a +2 bonus to future Persuasion checks against Lieutenant Gregory, so +6 then!
Combat uses the same mechanics. Initiative rolls are made against an Easy Target Number with Extra Successes generating extra actions, which gives Speedsters an advantage, although this is offset by the fact that the extra actions beyond those of everyone else in the combat come after everyone has acted. It does give them an advantage in that their extra actions from the next rounded can be expended to dodge attacks though. All attack rolls are made against an Easy Target Number, although this can be modified by any number of factors, most notably for hand-to-hand combat, the defender’s Fighting bonus. Damage again uses the dice pool mechanics with the highest die result used to determine the actual damage inflicted. In the main, apart from Blasters and the power armour suits built by Gadgeteers, Heroes are going to be attacking with more mundane means—guns, melee weapons, and fists.

Brave New World handles its superpowers as an extension of various aspects of each Hero. Typically, a superpower adds a bonus to Trait or Skill roll. For example, the Gunner Power Package has Crack Shot and Quick. The first adds +5 to the Gunner’s Shooting attacks, whilst the latter adds +5 to Speed rolls for initiative. These are static bonuses, but variable bonuses are offered through Tricks. Thus for the Gunner Power Package, the ‘Mercy’ Trick enables a Gunner to reduce the amount of damage he inflicts with his shots, even stunning a target, whilst the ‘Pierce Armour’ Trick enables the Gunner to fire bullets through the weak spots in a target’s armour if the Gunner’s player rolls two extra successes.

In terms of support, Brave New World there is some advice on playing the roleplaying game for players, focusing on life as a Delta and the role of a Delta, and on running the roleplaying game for the Guide. Decent enough, with an emphasis on getting the players to the table. In terms of support for the game, the Guide is given a set of seven foes to pitch against the Heroes. They include the Aquarians, a community of amphibian Deltas who live in Chicago Bay; Evil Unlimited, a support network for villainous Deltas; Deaders, corpses brought back to life by the insertion of a chipset invented by a gadgeteers, which simulates their dead brain; Armageddon Pilots of the Delta Prime who wear battlesuits maintained by Gadgeteers; the Police and the Mafia; and lastly, Vampires! Now unlike the Deaders, this adds an element of the occult which is really not present earlier in the rulebook.

Now one of the things that Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game does—and this a feature of the game line—is provide a number of secrets to the ‘Ravaged Planet’ setting. The most obvious of these is the fact that John F. Kennedy died in 1963 and has been impersonated by another Delta since, a Delta who engineered the death of Superior and other Alphas. It also identifies the editor of DeltaTimes.com, but only speculates on where exactly Deltas come from. Similarly, it speculates as the nature of Alphas before suggesting that should any Hero die, then their character sheets should not be destroyed...

Physically, Brave New World opens with a full colour comic—‘Patriot’s Last Stand!’—which depicts the last moments of Patriot, a reformed ex-member of Delta Prima turned Defiant, attempting to save the life of a newly discovered Delta. It is okay, perhaps a little stilted, but it works as a serviceable introduction. It is followed by a lengthy excerpt from DeltaTimes.com which explains the background of the Ravaged Planet. Again in full colour, as are the ten ready-to-play Power Packages archetypes. The book itself is well written and decently illustrated, a lot of the artwork having a certain angst to it.

As a roleplaying game, Brave New World is a low-powered superpower roleplaying game, which by the very nature of its Ravaged Planet setting, is fairly grim. It mechanics are quick and easy, being far more serviceable than those of Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game and Hell on Earth: The Wasted West Roleplaying Game from which they are derived. There should be no doubt that a session of Brave New World could be run today as much as it was twenty years ago and it would be fine, but just as it would be for the Guide today as it was twenty years ago, running a game of Brave New World would be a frustrating experience. Not because the mechanics are poor or the setting bad, but because Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game is extremely limited in its scope.

Now one of the criticisms made of Brave New World is that the number of Power Packages are limited, providing a limited choice for the players, but as much as that is a valid complaint, there is another fundamental problem with Brave New World as a superhero roleplaying game. It does not really explain how a Delta gets his superpowers, it being hinted that he survived a near death experience, which if so, should really be put to the player as a fundamental part of character creation. As in, “What was the near death experience your Delta experienced prior to gaining superpowers?” Now as to the limited number of Power Packages and the limited options within them, it cannot be denied that it limits player choice and once a Hero dies, a player’s choice in terms of a replacement Hero is further limited because so many of the other choices will have been taken and it will be difficult not to replicate another Hero.

In the designer’s defence , he has made it clear that this was done for both ease and speed of set-up and play, rather than opting for a complex build system. In the ‘Choices’ column of March 31st, 2000 on RPG.net, he states, “In other superhero games, balancing out hero powers has often led to character creation systems in which you need several hours and a calculator to build yourself a hero. With the power packages, even a novice player can come up with a hero in under a half hour. An experienced player can do so in about five minutes.” Which is a laudable aim, but it not only limits player choice, it also limits choice for the Guide in terms of the range of NPCs she can confront the Heroes with. Now there are a few standard foes given too, but again, they are limited in number. Further, if the roleplaying games is designed with both ease and speed of set-up and play in mind, why is this only done for the players and not the Guide? Why is there advice on getting the players together and ready to play, but nothing for them to play in the form of a scenario that the Guide can run?

As to the Power Packages, two pose problems. Bargainers and Gadgeteers essentially replicate the superpowers of other Power Packages. Now there are limitations on both—Bargainers can only use one totem at a time and Gadgeteers can only maintain a limited number of devices, but both possess a flexibility that other Power Packages lack. And with that flexibility comes complexity. Even, Bargainers are easier to use since their superpowers replicate the powers of others, but Gadgeteers can build power suits, scanners, space vehicles, teleporters, and so on. They cannot maintain all of them at the same time, but they can build them. Of course, since Brave New World is not a complex point-buy superhero system, the only advice for the Guide is that gadgets bend the laws of physics, not break them, and if a device is too powerful, dial it back down. This still gives the Gadgeteer a lot of freedom and flexibility. Something that the other Power Packages lack, and consequently, just like the Bargainer Power Package, it feels too powerful in comparison. That said, it is particularly frustrating that only gadget given as a sample device is a suit of power armour. This is indicative of the economical approach to information in Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game.

Then there is the big secret revealed in the ‘Brave New Secrets’ chapter, that President Kennedy is actually dead. It is an amazing secret. Its revelation will have a profound effect upon the USA of the Ravaged Planet’, but it has no relevance upon Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game whatsoever. Oh it is relevant to the Brave New World line, but the ‘Brave New Secrets’ chapter ends with the following:
“Of course, the heroes (and the players) don’t know any of this stuff. It’s up to you to make sure it stays that way—at least until we say otherwise.
The Information in Brave New World is released on a need-to-know basis.
We’ll tell you when you need to know.”
This is one of the features of Brave New World, each book in a line revealing the deeper aspects of the setting bit by bit. Yet this is information on a macro scale, rather than a micro scale. Essentially, the problem with Brave New World is the lack of specificity. The world and its background is really only drawn in broad details and there is a lack of detail to the world that would highlight the differences of the ‘Ravaged Planet’ in comparison to ours. What is the media like? Have the efforts of Gadgeteers changed science and technology? What businesses have benefited or suffered from the appearance of Deltas? Of course, in comparison to the overall story, these are small details, but they help paint a world and in the case of Brave New World they would contrast with our world. An example of this lack of specificity is the absence of a timeline. Various dates are mentioned in the background, but at the point when Brave New World is set, the last given date is 1989–ten years before! Similarly, no individuals—normal people or Deltas—are named beyond those in background. Nor is any place described or mapped, not even Crescent City, the city that grew up along the new shoreline of Chicago Bay in the wake of the Bicentennial Battle. Information like this would make it easier for the Guide to create scenarios given the lack of one in the rulebook.

Now some of these issues are addressed in Ravaged Planet: The Brave New World Player’s Guide, the first supplement released for Brave New World. There is a great deal of background in the supplement, in particular on Crescent City and the USA, as well as ten new Power Packages—and of course, more secrets. There can be no doubt that some of this information could be of use to the Guide in running her Brave New World campaign from the outset and arguably, some of it could have been included in Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game. If not that, then at least a scenario that the Guide could run to get her game started and help her players and their Heroes engage with the setting of Ravaged Planet. And support the easy-to-play, quick-to-play intent of using Power Packages rather than character design.

Ultimately, what undermines Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game as a roleplaying game is that it is not complete. It simply does not have enough information or the right information for the Guide to run a game or campaign in a setting that it only gives the broadest of overviews of. The Guide is left needing to purchase another supplement—Ravaged Planet: The Brave New World Player’s Guide—rather than wanting to purchase it to find out more information. In other words, it should be a choice, not a necessity. Which leaves Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game as a roleplaying game with very little for the Guide to work with, but some potential to work with, but only with further supplements. Thankfully, there are relatively few of them.

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