The Influence Of Other Mediums & Modular Design

Art by Simon Sweetman

Art by Simon Sweetman

I am a latecomer to tabletop roleplaying games. I was similarly late in my discovery of cyberpunk. The first cyberpunk book I read was probably Altered Carbon six or seven years ago. As such, when I designed The Veil I was only aware of The Sprawl, a Powered by the Apocalypse game with different design goals from my own. Later, when the Kickstarter was launched, I was made aware of Headspace.

But from the get-go, it was clear what I was making was very different from everyone else. It was designed in a vacuum for my own use. At the time, I had no plans what-so-ever so publish it, either. That came later after it was already done. The only cyberpunk game I’d played before was Shadowrun and it was not my cup of tea. Making the primary influences all visual media or literary works. Popular designs like Cyberpunk 2020 weren’t on my radar or a part of my goal. I wanted to be able to tell a cyberpunk story that revolved around the characters and went from there. While the characters lives should be intertwined, I didn’t particularly need to have them all in a group; I wasn’t seeing that in the literature I was consuming.

Some people may not be aware that The Veil was always going to be a modular design. The original intent I had was massive in scope, making one book inviable as I talked with my brother Kyle about my goals. In the end, even the core book exceeded our initial page estimates, one book would not be possible in so far as manufacturing an affordable good product regardless.

What I had initially always wanted to do was design a game that took a lot of inspiration from one of my favorite movies: Cloud Atlas. A story which spans vast amounts of time, binding together many characters and themes, and builds up and collapses as you move from one to the next. but I needed it to be emergent. I had no interest in creating too specific a story, but it clearly needed a structure to facilitate gameplay as well.

In the end, modular design was the only viable solution; and so it was that one game became three. The subsequent games acting to reframe the fiction each time with the goals of allowing for players to springboard off a new concept, but which also connects the established fiction when it advances the timeline.

Art by Jesse Ross

Art by Jesse Ross

The Veil core book has 12 playbooks, each with tropes and flavor that vary widely. They are meant to be the primary ingredients of the setting. Almost all of which are inspired by literary works or are from playbooks I really liked from Apocalypse World, just with my own twist on the design. The goal was to allow for many different kinds of cyberpunk fiction, all intersectional by incorporating tropes from other genres if possible. Because I hadn’t begun consuming cyberpunk from its roots but began from post-cyberpunk works that either deconstruct the genre or incorporate elements from other genres to iterate on the established tropes and motifs from the original sub-genre.

Cascade has the player characters wake up in a future foreign to them in a body that is not their own. They don’t have all of their memories, either. Naturally posing questions to the player through their character. These questions are the heart of the experience and advancement system and there are an additional 6 playbooks taken from other sources as I consumed more of the sub-genre. It also introduces a flashback mechanic as a way to connect the previous fiction.

Finally, Inheritance (on Kickstarter right now) moves the fiction even further into the future and leans into biopunk fiction. The fictional positioning from cybernetics is replaced with biological enhancements. The characters are bioengineered people designed to take on challenges in a future where civilization has expanded into space. The 6 new playbooks take tropes from roleplaying games this time, albeit with a biopunk spin. The player characters are also imprinted with memories, allowing the players to take moves from other playbooks and have it make sense; even with moves from the previous Veil books. With these memories, and the use of flashbacks, this story also becomes something that connects to the previous fiction, if the players wish it. It could also be a stand alone story using the book and the core rules, just as with Cascade.

Art by Alessandro Rossi

Art by Alessandro Rossi

This approach to design has a lot of benefits, in my opinion.

For one, the customization of any given character is now immense with each book, especially with the last. So long as the character taking moves from other playbooks also makes sure that it makes sense in the fiction (something you do in any PbtA game, of course), they have 21 other playbooks than their own to use.

Secondly, the story is still emergent. Players play to find out, but there is scaffolding to springboard off of, too. And this scaffolding actually functions at a meta-level to help create a cyberpunk story, even if you aren’t aware of it, by connecting each story it becomes one. Each reframe further alters the story to a cyberpunk one.

You begin with a world with a structure largely determined only by the initial playbook decisions and the setting playbook choices. There are tools in the facilitator section (the MC) which talk about structuring a cyberpunk story, with direct examples of doing so using Neuromancer. There are cybernetics as tags on each playbook that come with negative ones which work as the downsides of the technology. But the heavy lifting is placed on the players. It’s designed so that you need to work together to create the setting, choosing playbooks that fit into the world or choosing playbooks and making the world make sense for the choice of playbooks. Either way, there is the most agency available to the players in the core book, no doubt about it.

Cascade then restricts it. You extrapolate your fiction to radical extremes from the core book if you had played The Veil and are now playing Cascade. Depending on how far you choose to advance the timeline and when you choose to use Cascade, how much it restricts agency varies.

Maybe the previous character(s) died; maybe you got what you wanted from the story and wrapped it up; or perhaps you left it on a cliffhanger and you intend to use flashbacks and memories as a way of doing an epilogue. As the current characters “remember” what happened, the player narrates what happened previously, for example. Or maybe the story is about discovering what happened to the previous characters and flashbacks are used to flesh out the character, instead; narrating back story elements as they are thought up and are relevant to the story.

This concept is clearly inspired by Altered Carbon, a novel with heavy transhumanist themes and ideas. This reframe corrals the fiction into one that is more emblematic of cyberpunk fiction and tropes, even if it did not resemble cyberpunk when playing the core Veil game, somehow, it now does. And the story still is not yet over if you then also move the fiction to the next game.

Inheritance does something similar to Cascade with its reframe of the fiction. The player characters have less agency yet again. They are genetically engineered people designed for a specific purpose. They’re made to carry and deal with the weight of other peoples problems, regardless of their own. They are more deadly, more competent. The old character, should the players roll with the notion that the previous character is a part of the imprinted memories of the new character, also reduces the original characters agency.

They have become only a memory, weaponized against the new character in a sense because these selective memories are designed to have them perform their function, chosen for them by other people before they were even born; further invoking a cyberpunk trope with the scaffolding that is there to help the players understand what they do in the game.

Art by Simon Sweetman

Art by Simon Sweetman

Player characters in Inheritance might be bounty hunters that take any job or people who try to break free of their imprinted identities, retrieving some of that lost agency. They can take moves from the other playbooks and explore facets of their previous character with memories if they want. When could regain an old move from their previous character and use the memory and questions mechanic to give that mechanical weight.

The mechanics are arranged to allow for many emergent possibilities.

While there are also downsides to this approach, the goal that I was most interested in feels like it has been achieved. The cyberpunk Cloud Atlas framework I conceived of around 5 years ago is now almost complete. Had this been one book instead of a modular design it would not have worked as well, in my opinion. You can play a game of The Veil in many ways. Some may choose to not even use the supplemental material. Others might do a campaign that uses all three. There might be 3 characters, or 1 character across all that fiction.

The design itself was an emergent process for me. One which is immensely cathartic to finally be realizing. At the expense of a focused story in the core book I think there is instead a unique design personalized to what I want. I’m glad other people also want to play what I want to play. It’s a game that isn’t for everyone. But what game is?

If you’re interested in The Veil the current Kickstarter has the first two books discounted and the third book is reduced in price from retail price and all of our products have a discount as well.

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