Do RPG mechanics sometimes get in the way of game flow, or even box-in peoples’ creativity? I’ve come across this line of questions on many occasions. The typical debate comes down to agreeing that rules abstraction is required, which I don’t fully agree with. Just look at how most games leave character psychology to the players with no rules needed to track character mood or stress. For example, I am not a fan of the cyberspace/hacking design used in many RPGs. I’ve been working on a game for years in which I am using computer language structure as a part of my vast magic system, so I decided to do a search on RPG + hacking, to see if anyone had recently made some interesting mechanics. I was pleased to quickly find something new: Cryptomancer.
“A tabletop role-playing game made for hackers, by hackers.”
After a few minutes of reading about Cryptomancer I genuinely paused to absorb what I considered to be a genius approach to handling hacking in an RPG; to focus on the reality of hacking, not to reduce the idea down to a few simple dice rolls, or worse. Within moments I had a multitude of ideas racing through my mind, plus the bonus that old designs were being influenced.
I quickly contacted various friends to discuss the game, and to find out whether they knew anything else about it. Whilst waiting for replies I read a review, checked out some Reddit posts, and then decided to buy the PDF.
The PDF is a whopping 430 detailed filled pages, so it is very great value at $10. The layout fits the theme of the game, as does the artwork, which I think helps to drive the theme home by keeping drawings stark, and utilises grey-scale to help with the mood. The same art style is used throughout, helping with the book’s consistency.
I love the front cover, besides it being beautiful, it really helps to highlight one of the special things about this game: Shards. Shards allow a user to connect to other shards that originate from the same original larger shard, this collection forms a Shardnet:
“a private network where each mortal holding one of these shards can communicate with each other silently and instantly, regardless of the distance between them.”
There is also a vast network called the Shardscape, which is akin to the Internet. I think these concepts are well explained, and are novice friendly. All throughout the book more details are continuously added, allowing a reader to build-up layers of understanding about how the Shards influence everything, from a few individuals interacting to the international scale.
The game does not use an encryption skill, or a Shard skill. Some people may be concerned that this would affect game flow, or be too confusing for new players, but the book introduces the shard concepts carefully, with some great examples about different types of encryption. I think this is a wonderful example of proving that RPG mechanics are not always needed. Just present ideas for players and let them explore them.
System & Setting
These days there are so many different RPG systems and settings that I’d be quite surprised if a game could be called unique, but I do believe that there are still ways to stand out, and niches to explore. Cryptomancer’s focus on data security, encryption, social engineering, along with some different spells and items, brings this game close to being called unique. Interestingly the game setting is introduced as Tolkienesque:
“Cryptomancer takes place in a fantasy setting very similar to most fantasy settings you are accustomed to. This was by design. We kept things simple so gamers both seasoned and new can jump right in and start hacking things. We have made some subtle tweaks to fantasy norms, based on what we think fantasy races would look like in a connected fantasy world.”
I think this was a good design decision. For people that don’t play RPGs, they are likely to have heard of Tolkien’s work, and maybe even Dungeons & Dragons. Given how much new information the game presents, reducing the products overall learning curve makes sense. I think this decision also adds another benefit, allowing experienced gamers to understand how this approach to hacking fits in settings they are familiar with. The setting is not a direct copy of Middle Earth or the Forgotten Realms, and the differences are due to the shift in the Elf, Dwarf, and Human cultures in response to Shards and the magic of Cryptomancy. Thus there is something new, even if the foundation is familiar.
“Kill all the Orcs, Hack all the Things”
I adore R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk RPG, despite the brutal skill system. The cyberpunk genre in general has dominated a big chunk of my life. I also like Shadowrun; I’m not one of those people that cannot like both. Some of the games of Mage: the Ascension I’ve ran have had the player characters (PCs) being members of the Technocracy, including some fun sessions of just playing Hit Marks. I was asked by one player whether Cryptomancer’s Internet-like Shardscape is just the Matrix/Cyberspace with a twist? I explained that both in setting, but crucially mechanically, Cryptomancer is doing things quite differently, that it is about the players learning how to exploit systems, and how to protect their own. So although Shadowrun already exists, with its fantasy races and cyberpunk themes, that Cryptomancer’s differences translate to changing how a player approaches the game, as well as them possibly learning something new.
The book highlights the idea of adding the Shards and Cryptomancy to other settings, which is the main reason I was interested in the book. I did read the setting information, because I felt it would help my understanding of the ramifications of Shards and Cryptomancy, and from this I could determine how best to implement the ideas in to my own setting. I also liked what I read of the setting, and I am planning on running some sessions in the game’s setting.
Risk & Mechanics
The game is focused on the PCs being on the run from the settings main adversaries, the Risk Eaters. These powerful mages monitor the world using Dwarven decisions engines to predict dangers to the world, and in particular to the social systems in place, so they can dispatch agents to deal with problems before they get out of hand. The party has a Risk rating, which goes up as the party do things that affect the world, especially if the PCs are not careful in covering their tracks. Whilst the Risk Eaters are an inevitable enemy, with a combination of luck and care a party could keep the threat at bay for a long-time.
At this point I think I should mention the system mechanics, I’m only introducing skill checks since they tie in to the Risk rating, a percentage score. In Cryptomancer any skill check always uses a pool of 5 dice. When a character makes a skill check, their skill rating is used as the basis of the dice pool, adding a d10 for each skill point. If they have less than 5, then they add the remaining dice with d6s to take the dice pool to 5; the d6s are known as Fate Dice.
For example: a character making an Acrobatics check has an Agility of 5, then they roll 5d10, but if their Agility was 3, then roll would be 3d10+2d6.
For a trivial action the target on the dice is 4+, for challenging a 6+ and a tough check is an 8+. Add up each dice that successfully hits the target, but deduct a success for any botch. A botch on a d10 is a roll of 1, and on a d6 (fate dice) any roll of a 1 or a 2; fate is dangerous to rely upon!
For example: continuing on from the Agility of 3 with a challenging target of 6, the player rolls 3d10+2d6. For this example the dice result is d10(6, 1, 3) + d6(2, 6), meaning d10(successes of 1, -1, 0) + d6(-1, 1) for a total of 0 successes.
With 1 success an action is successful, whilst 3 successes means it is a dramatic success. Likewise if the pool total is -1 then it is a clear failure, whilst -2 means a dramatic failure. A player can choose to Defy Fate, which will raise the party’s Risk rating by 1 for each botch removed from a dice result, so a buying off a result of -2 will raise the Risk rating by 2. I particularly like this part of the system, and how it all fits together. I think it does several interconnected things:
- Keeps things simple, which is particularly good for inexperienced players
- I’ve met many veteran gamers who dislike having large dice pools.
- It results in an interesting bell curve. I am not keen on systems that have no bell curve due to rolling a single dice, ‘they have unnatural fate’. I’ll expand on this semi-joke, but important point, another time 😉 I do play and enjoy D20, Cyberpunk, etc., it’s just I prefer using several dice since they give reliable averages.
- Players have a choice, often they are about deciding between short-term vs long-term issues. There are other games that use fate systems like Warhammer, or Deadlands chit system, etc. This system’s Fate linked to Risk is like a Doomsday Clock.
- The mechanics help to keep the game’s theme, the gravitas of long-term risk to the party, which just builds, and builds. Our world has become increasingly obsessed with risk over the last few decades, now more than ever, people strive to manage risk, which is an understandable thing, but when obsessed over …
Hacking systems is a common part of RPGs, so there is nothing stopping a group from tweaking the Risk Eaters from being a bit like Cthulhu crossed with 1984, to a lesser threat. Be careful to avoid turning the Risk Eaters from a Cthulhu like threat to something more akin to Hello Kitty.
I love a good Downtime system. As a Play-By-Mail fan, I typically see downtime as something major, and equal to everything else in a tabletop game. Downtime is a great chance for strategising, as well as a good place to highlight whether the PCs have things to discuss; I’ve had downtime lead to whole sessions of PCs discussing things that have been bugging them, and working out major plot points. Downtime can be thought of as a break in the weather, the calm before the next storm. There are plenty of things in the Cryptomancer Downtime system to think about, and for people like me that love this this often ignored part of role-playing, I am sure you will enjoy the options, and maybe you’ll hack your own.
Writing & Design
Overall I really like the writing style. I think it does a wonderful job of introducing concepts and overall the book has clear explanations. As there is so much being covered, not just the classic tabletop RPG aspects, but also encryption/security explanations, the book could be accused of being a bit much for some. I think it is fair to say that the book is not perfect (what is?), so I don’t want to give the impression I think Cryptomancy is the exception. I think a valid criticism could be a lack of rules being repeated, or some more rules summaries, and maybe more things could be in the index. I suspect this was an intentional decision mostly down to the issue of preventing an already large book becoming even bigger.
Many design reasons are explained, which I appreciate, and I think this also helps with explaining a topic, by providing extra context. I don’t believe that these design explanations were defensive in nature, or so numerous that they distract from the game explanation, so I am sure most readers will appreciate their inclusion.
Whilst reading comments on the game I was intrigued that the character sheet had been highlighted as being something that was a bit different, complex even. For me, the character sheet is well designed, having a distinctive attribute & skill section, it also has sections for core character points of interest and utilises white space well.
Cryptomancer also has a system for Safehouses, a good place for the party to carry out downtime. Safehouses have their own sheets to help keep track of things, and given the likely lifestyle of the PCs, it is a rare place of safety for them, and something else for them to care about. The sheet is quite detailed, but has been laid out well, utilising space and boxes well to help differentiate information.
I think the game succeeds in its goal of spreading understanding of encryption and cybersecurity to the RPG community, and maybe vice versa. Whether a player is new or an experienced role-player, there is definitely something in this game for everyone; that is a rare thing, and thus Cryptomancer is something I highly recommend. Additionally there is a free expansion book: Code and Dagger, and with Code and Dagger vol. 2 on the way, this game’s value keeps increasing.
You can buy the game at http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/186678/Cryptomancer