Publisher: Contested Ground Studios
Review Dated: 26th, June 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 19
Average Score: 6.33
Technically, a|state is a very good game. It has the depth, the flavour, the involvement, the mechanics and pretty things like illustrations and layout needed to be a very good game.
This doesn’t mean a|state is bound to be a hit though. In fact, I’m so far behind in reviews that the impressive hardback has been out for a while – it’s been well received by those in the know but I’ve not heard of any shop struggling to re-stock it.
A|state is just a little too different from Tolkien-esq fantasy to appeal to Joe Gamer who only plays Tolkien-esq fantasy (often as a Ranger who’s village was attacked by orcs).
So, no, a|state isn’t a generic fantasy game. It’s a dark sci-fi (of sorts). It is a post-apocalypse game. Actually, it’s post two apocalypses! The City first survived The Shift. Then it survived the Bombardment. Or did it? If you need to have answers then you’re going to be unsettled by a|state – it doesn’t spell everything out.
People can’t leave the city. Why? If they try – they die. Why? That’s a secret. There are other secrets too – ones which the book does share, but big questions remain unanswered. I’m more than happy to work with that.
As a GM I’ve all the information I need; I can run adventures in the city. As a GM I’ve got the atmosphere of mystery and suspense I need to – because the book keeps me in suspense.
I think it’s fair to say that a|state is a clever game. People will debate whether it’s too clever. Take the book’s sections; The Preface, The Precepts, The Place, The Procedure, The Players, The Product and The Prescription, for example.
Are they meaningful names or just a touch too clever? I think they’re meaningful enough – but then I like clever games. This is a game which talks, at length, about the setting before mentioning such things as mechanics or character generation.
Even as a|state talks about the setting it does so by leaping in the deep and talking about events and places only introduced later. The game talks about Simils long before we’re told about The Shifted.
The Shift was a (I theorise) supernatural/super-science apocalypse and The Bombardment was a very physical one. As a result of The Shift there are Shifted in the City.
This is one area where a|state is something other than just a low-tech cyberpunk. Some of the Shifted can be described as ghosts, others seem rather more demon and there is one type of The Shifted, the infamous Simils, which aren’t so vague, are armoured, scary robot-like creatures which can be hired if you’re able to pay them.
Then there are the macrocorporations. These are the giant companies which control (almost) all the resources in the city and therefore have a vast amount of power.
The relations between the macrocorporations are important and interesting. There’s a balance of power. There are horribly unpopular and untrusted macrocorporations and then there are the fairly unpopular and untrusted macrocorps. This is a City where the media might give away TVs to poor families just to keep them watching the adverts.
The City may have gone through an End of the World drama but technology is good enough for TV. In fact, technology is much better than that, the macrocorps can arm their troops with fearsome weapons.
Since it is impossible to leave the city the technological advancements in transport is interesting; boats and boat racing is big money in the city and the populace has access to fast trains. This isn’t a straight-laced sci-fi game though and you can easily play a|state with any of this.
Vast swathes of the City make do with gaslighting – or no lighting at all. Communication is a nightmare too. Even for those rich enough to have access to the telecommunications network there’s the gauntlet of automated, often slow, sometimes ancient exchanges. It’s not easy to call for backup in the City. Computers, too, are interesting.
Many of the important machines run on punch card like technology – and do so on purpose to avoid hacking and virii. The populace as access to trains (if they don’t mind rather brutal security) but there’s the suggestion that no one knows how to make any more. Are trains being broken up to provide spare parts to the surviving fleet? The weapons that the street gangs will fight over are sparklocks, flintlock type weapons which are almost as dangerous to their user as their target.
Let’s take a step back. We have an atmospheric city which the players can’t leave. This is unbelievably handy for the GM! The game actually locks in the atmosphere by locking in the players. Even travelling around inside the City can be an adventure in its own right.
There are the mysterious The Shifted with as agenda that isn’t there for any rules lawyer to read – and I find this particularly handy too (though, yes, others might not). Even if the players begin to move up through the ranks of the macrocorps or street gangs it is unlikely that a simple telephone call can solve their problems (it’s unlikely they’ll ever make a simple telephone call). Information can be got from computers but it isn’t easy.
What we have here is a game designed to protect itself. The atmosphere, style and flavour of the game are self-fulfilling. I feel that as the GM I can sit back and concentrate on my plot.
I like a|state for the flavour. I think the game’s mechanics will appeal to many gamers who like the nuts and bolts to be right too. A|state is one of those games which goes to a balance between simple and quick rules (it’s a d100) and those games which strive for realistic and fair rules.
For example, if you mess around with guns then you’ll be working with penetration values against armour. There’s no shortage of gun stats either. A|state has the selection of skills and equipment you would expect to find in any 254-paged hardback.
This is a good looking game. It’s a white hardback – that’s rare. The strangely tattooed and red-faced man, positioned off to the right, on the front cover is dramatic in its simplicity.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but just a glance at a|state will tell you it’s going to be different. I like the layout. The use of white and whitespace continues but I don’t feel as if I’m being cheated for content.
There’s plenty of content in a|state, it’s just unhurried and given that the game was several years overdue one might suppose that the content has been carefully grown, trimmed and edited. I’m not so fond of the digital artwork. I recognise quality. It’s just that where I enjoy embracing a|state’s idiosyncrasies elsewhere, I just can’t bring myself to do it here.
I don’t often do this but I think the best way to express a|state’s unique style is to quote the blurb from the back of the book.
“Welcome to The City…
A sepiatone world lit by guttering gas lamps and the flickering filaments of electric bulbs. A closed world, isolated and alone.
A world of contrasts and contradictions. The citizens live their lives in a tangle of technological obscurity.
A world of pain, fear, longing and hatred. Where the basest human emotions rise to the surface, where men will cripple each other for a dull shilling.
A world of superstition, folk tales, wild religion and rampant rumour. The shift and The Bombardment are apocalyptic legends from the far past, feeding the nightmares and fantasies of current generations.
A world of strangers and beings who do not belong. The Shifted, strange entities, whispered about in pubs and taverns, lest the very mention of their name summons them from the dark.
You will never forget The City.
But The City will forget you. “
I’ve said this already – I like a|state. I would want to be careful with who I played the game wit though.
I have the feeling that some perfectly capable gamers I know would find it impossible to get into what I perceive to be the a|state mindset. A|state is going to become, I think, one of those collectable and RPG connoisseurs.
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