Mixing sci-fi and fantasy is often a risky gamble, but it has worked for some stories. Having the game Cryptomancer described to me as “Computer Hacking Meet Tolkien,” I was already wary. I am admittedly not a fan of Tolkein, and Shadowrun often comes off as too clunky for my taste, so I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when one of my Patreon Backers suggested the game.
After reading Cryptomancer, I’m glad I spent the time on it, both reading and reviewing it for all of you. In fact, it’s enough to get me to back Chad’s next game, Sigmata, on Kickstarter.
Hopefully you’ll see why I dug this by the time you finish this. Go on, keep reading!
Cryptomancer is an RPG set in a fantasy world of dwarves, elves, and humans, but the Mythic Age of yore, filled with heroic deeds and amazing battles, is gone. In its stead is industrial growth, specialized products, business deals, and clandestine espionage instead of open warfare.
The three races are still a bit secluded, but with the discovery and usage of Shards (and a connected Shardscape, an internet facsimile), communication channels have opened up a bit more often to allow communication between the races to people they’ve never met and also allows trade to flow…as well as war, espionage, and other things that come with being mortal.
Even with these gaps being bridged, there’s something more nefarious than a greedy noble or a disillusioned worker: The Risk Eaters, a shadowy organization that is rumored to keep the world running as they see fit by “removing” any threat that gets in the way.
Your character is targeted by the Risk Eaters, whether for a specific deed or because it was “decided” by the machines that you were a threat. Now you are on the run and fighting back any way you can.
==What You Get==
Cryptomancer weighs in at 430 pages, making it a decent sized rulebook. Like most books of it’s type, we are given an overview of the world, a game mechanic, and GM tips to run the game.
The mechanical portion includes a simple way to handle races (no difference between the three) and skills (there are no skill ratings). From there, we are given four Attributes, each split into two secondary attributes to cover how a character will perform a task. The main attributes are used for specific situations, like resisting magic via Willpower, while the secondary attributes determine hit points, Mana (yes, we have an MP system!), and capabilities with specific “skills” (essentially actions).
The rolling mechanic is easy to grok for anyone who’s played either World of Darkness or FFG’s Star Wars/Genesys system. You always roll five dice; for each point of an attribute, you roll a d10, and the remainder are set to d6. The goal is to roll over the difficulty, which is set to 4, 6, or 8 depending on the challenges faced. Like World of Darkness, any die that appears as a 1 cancels a success, and failing a roll with extra 1s results in a botch. This can get rather dicey (ha) when the d6s are used, as a 1 or 2 always cancels a success, but a 6 always succeeds, adding a certain degree of luck for anyone who isn’t horribly skilled at a task.
Unlike World of Darkness, players have shared a resource of Risk (add successes to a failed roll at the cost of unwanted attention) as well as Assets (things the group has, like assistance or a lab in the safe house), which can influence the roll.
Progression is an “everyone at the sametime” approach, and is done at the end of each session with bigger rewards/upgrades after multiple sessions. If you’ve played any game that ensures XP per game and/or Milestones (like Fate), then you have an idea how this works…only it’s the same across the party and not individually.
Setting-wise, we have something that takes everything Shadowrun did right and removes everything Shadowrun did wrong. Instead of doing jobs and striking at corporations, players are promoted to try to take down something that is unjust and literally ruling the world.
Imagine settings from books, films, and games like Minority Report, Equilibrium, V for Vendetta, and Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Shadowrun, and you’ll have an idea. There’s a way to determine a person’s value (Winter Soldier’s Project Insight algorithm) and to determine if they will be a threat before they act on it (Minority Report), but it’s held by a shadowy organization that uses this to steer the world as they see fit (and for profit, of course). They control the governments in shadowy ways, and try to keep people where they are and under control.
Unlike most games, the game and book itself can be considered an educational tool. The game heavily emphasizes security with regards to technology and the internet, borrowing from real world concepts and adapting them to fit in with this fantasyscape but presenting it via a game analogy. In between rules, we are given setting information with a basis in real-world cybersecurity that is relevant both in-game and in our reality.
For example, there are nods to ciphers (of course), but there’s also the idea of “keypasses” that act as a form of password. Without knowing the correct pass, you are unable to decipher the text written or the message projected via the Shardscape. Of course, if you know the pass, then you can (with some exceptions) intercept and understand the message.
In-game, this is called Cryptomancy. Magic and technology mesh together to overcome security methods, and cryptomancers on both sides of the fence are striving to break the other one down while protecting themselves.
Basically, real-world IT, but with magic spells.
As previously mentioned, I think this game does Shadowrun better than Shadowrun. The setting is vague enough to be easy to use (with a plethora of real-world elements tossed in) while also be specific enough to have an actual game. You don’t need company sourcebooks or a convoluted hacking system to have a good game, and Cryptomancer proves that.
I’m also a fan of the game from a mechanical point of view. It is math-lite, making this exceptionally easy to track and teach. You’re not tracking thousands of XP, piles of hit points, spell slots, or derived attribute bonuses. You don’t need piles of tables, charts, or the like to track the game. In fact, I think a single-sided sheet of “tables” for the GM and a half-page cheatsheet covers everything you’d need for a convention game. Any game that makes my burden less gets points in my book.
The game also has some great built-in balancing mechanics. Artifacts and relics come with a downside in exchange for their power, spells need to be acquired (often by a teacher, and sometimes they can be tracked), some recovery items can cause addiction, and all projects and healing can only be done during “downtime” (8-hour intervals). There’s also a literal risk vs reward setup with gaining extra successes, while adds to that feel of danger in the game.
Like many modern games, a number of restrictions from classic fantasy games are thrown out. You don’t need to be an Elf or a Wizard to have magic, you just buy the spell as you would any Talent (think Feat/Advantage/Stunt). You don’t need to be a Fighter to wear armor, you just put it on. The list goes on, but we basically have a freeform game that includes narrative mechanics to go alongside the crunch that players want, and I absolutely love it when that happens.
Finally, I am fond of the educational side of the game. As someone who works with the public to resolve IT issues, the lessons in here regarding security (changing passwords, not sharing passwords, importance of secure communications) are things I see every day and wish more people understood. While it isn’t going to cover everything (especially since we are given said information in-setting), it does give some great best practices to consider in an entertaining presentation that is filled with both advice and modern (and timely!) commentary.
While Cryptomancer has many great things going for it, it does have a few bits that fall flat.
One of the first things that you may notice is that it is a bit lackluster in appearance. The book is really “art lite”, with a single (but decent looking) artwork at the beginning of a chapter and it is used in the margin throughout the chapter. While that element is nice to keep track of where you are, it is a bit frustrating when you consider that the majority of this book is text, and what art you do get to break it up is greyscale.
A pet peeve of mine when it comes to gaming is how quickly (and easily) you can lose a character. I like it when it occurs at a dramatically appropriate time, and prefer an “If, Not When” approach as it allows players to become more attached to their characters.
Sadly, Cryptomancer, with the rules-as-written, has the “When, Not If” approach to characters. While combat lethality is a given (and the game can be lethal; I’m okay with that), players are basically on borrowed time. Each time they do something that draws Risk, whether by a specific action or adding Risk to their pool, their chance for a Risk Event goes up (it’s a %). Each time an Event occurs, the group is bumped up the line regarding how much of a threat they are, which changes their opposition’s capabilities as well as how the Risk Eaters will work against them.
It’s not so bad at first, but once you hit the fourth tier, it’s basically game over: you are branded a heretic, you are sought out by armies, and lightning-shooting siege weapons will lay waste to anywhere you are.
This is one of the more frustrating parts of Shadowrun, and while it is fitting (i.e. more notoriety, more powerful opposition), I’m not a fan of the “Well, the dice brought you to this point, so prepare to die.” I’m sure I can hack it out, and there are notes on this in the but having that detracts from the enjoyment.
While a part of me likes the setting being slightly vague and open, I do feel that it does leave something to be desired. We lack a map of the world, and while we are given a part of the world (and it’s major players) via a psuedo-adventure, I feel it leaves things a bit too open. While this gives the GM plenty of leeway to make the setting in their image, it does make the setting feel more “generic” than it really is.
For a non-techie, there are some parts of this book that may be slightly hard to grasp. Even as a techie, I had to re-read a few portions just to be sure I understood it. While it is a medieval~ish fantasy setting, there’s some real-world level technology tossed in, and because of how it is used, it may not be for everyone.
Between the character lifespan and the level of technobabble incorporated here, you really do need the right group to play this, which is a detraction point for me.
All said and done, I’d have to give Cryptomancer a solid 3.5 Buns.
The game has many great qualities, ranging from being light with regards to requirements, the narrative elements, implementation of shared resources (really, I love the Assets mechanic), and a sneaky way to educate the populace (both about technology and throwing some political commentary).
Even with that, the idea of potentially quickly losing characters, the need of the “right” group to handle the elements of the game, the presentation being lackluster, and the setting being a bit too vague at times, drops the score. Still a respectable score, but it’s not an end-all, be-all game.
Cryptomancer, created by Chad Walker, is currently available on DrivethruRPG as a PDF for $10 or as a Hardcover book (with PDF) for $35. Chad has also recently launched a Kickstarter for his next game, Sigmata, which is a game of people rising against a fascist regime in an alternate history USA set in the 1980s (with stretch goals for other locations/times).
Chad was kind enough to inform me that Sigmata will be using a cleaned up and streamlined version of Cryptomancer’s mechanic, and judging by the Kickstarter, we’re looking at full-color artwork this round. I for one am excited to see it and have backed it as of this writing, because it reminds me very much of the games Brave New World, Grey Ranks, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War. I am curious how he’s going to handle this idea, doubly so as he clearly likes to make his games timely and while offering educational notes within said games.
If you like the ideas he’s presenting, go check out his work!
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