Shock: Social Science Fiction from GlyphPress was on my wish list for quite some time, and when I finally got my grubby little paws on a copy I was overjoyed. As the name implies, it’s a science fiction game that focuses more on the social storytelling aspects of RPGs than traditional games. Shock: seeks to do a lot of things that are non-traditional and pulls them off elegantly:
1) It tries to do science fiction right. That is, the best examples of science fiction are exercises in “What if?” Action adventure space operas are fine, but the truly memorable classic stuff is all about viewing a world different from ours and exploring the results of this deviation. That’s why fantasy and horror are often classified as science fiction. They’re just a smaller subset of “What if?“s. Too often sci-fi games are more about space operas with rocket launchers than exploring the big “What if?“. Shock: chooses the later path.
2) It’s unmoderated. In most traditional RPGs, there’s a player who’s job is to moderate the other players, make sure the rules are followed, represent the fictional world, etc… Shock: distributes this function equally between all players, eliminating both the labor and authority disparity created by the old system. Shock: isn’t the first game to do this, and it’s not an ideal setup for every game, but it definitely adds something to THIS game.
3) It’s no-prep. Related to the fact that Shock: is unmoderated, there is no prep work involved in playing Shock:. You can literally say “Hey! Let’s play Shock:!” Sit down, and do it. It’s not even a cumbersome rules set , so the barrier to entry for new players is low as well.
4) It’s story-focused. Shock: is more concerned with exploring that “What if?”s and telling the stories of the characters, than advancing or garnering success for said characters. Much like classic sci-fi, Your characters can fail every step of the way, the story continues, and it’s still a satisfying game.
5) It features dual-axis conflicts. Usually in RPGs, player characters are pitted against moderator characters in direct conflict. Since Shock: is unmoderated, it’s dynamic is different and since every conflict is played vs player and is significant, the mechanics are set up to ensure that both sides of the conflict can succeed simultaneously.
6) It’s engaging to watch. Shock has a system built right in through which people who aren’t playing (both players waiting for their turn, and people who literally aren’t playing, from someone watching the game to get the feel for it, to the guy who walks by and stops to listen) can influence the action in minor ways. These rules are extra simple, but keep spectators more engaged than they otherwise would be if they were excluded.
Shock: plays via a simple step-by step process.
1) Design the world: to define the world of Shock: You have to first decide on what issues you want to make important. As a group, you decide on some current events that you’d like to explore. You could choose “War protests”, “Cloning”, “Women in religious authority roles”, “Internet pornography”, “copyright infringement”, whatever. You assign these to the rows on a Grid and assign each issue an owner. Whenever a question arises about that issue in your fictional world, the owner is the expert that has final say. Next, in the same fashion, the group chooses Shocks. Shocks are the ways in which the world of Shock: is different from our world. You might choose “ubiquitous computing”, “Cybernetics”, “Unicorns are real”, “Humans are slaves to Dino overlords”, whatever floats your boat. Just like Issues, Shocks are assigned owners and are placed on the Grid (as columns). To finish the world, you choose Praxis. These are the opposing forces through which everyone in the story effects the world. You can make them whatever you want, “Emotion vs Reason”, “Denial vs Acquiescence”, “Savagery vs Civilization”, etc… whatever suits the theme of your fictional world.
2) Make characters: Everyone picks an intersection where an issue and shock (neither of which they own) meet on the Grid and makes a character effected by those two factors. So if I chose the intersection of “Women in religious Authority Roles” and “Humans are slaves to dino overlords” I might make a dino brood mother struggling in a political gambit to become the leader of a cult, or maybe I’d make a fire and brimstone traditionalist preacher trying to both keep my dino-outlawed religion from being discovered by our overlords while at the same time, resisting the attempts by women to gain a position of authority within my congregation. You then choose a story goal for your character (my brood mother wants to control a flock of followers and have defended it from her rivals, my preacher wants to root out dissent amongst his flock). You flesh out a few details, and you’re finished.
3) Make antagonists: Everyone designs an antagonist that represents the total of the forces working against the player sitting next to them. Thus, as my antagonist, you would make a powerful traditionalist dino opposed to my brood mother’s power-play, or a fiery woman zealot determined to betray my brimstone preacher to the dino overlords and take his position for her own.
4) Play: Take turns in narrated protagonist-antagonist conflict. The protagonist can do whatever they like, but it’s the job of the antagonist to instigate conflict if the protagonist fails to do so. As my brood-mother I begin describing my power-play. When I get to the part about having my hatchlings eliminating a weak male and taking his territory, my antagonist and I resolve conflict and my turn ends. If I narrate my preacher going about business as usual, my antagonist stirs things up by reporting my illicit activates to the dino overlords bringing their velociraptor enforcers down on me. We resolve conflict and my turn ends. This continues until your antagonist is nearly out of resources, then you play out the final conflict for your story goal.
So are there faults in Shock:? Well, maybe. It’s a matter of taste instead of a definite issue. Shock: is strongly non-traditional. That makes it a hard sell for gamers that prefer more normal games. At the same time, Shock: does occasionally come off as a tad pretentious. Take this excerpt from the manual as an example:
Shocking Gender: Shock: uses genderless personal pronouns when the gender of a person — a character or a player — is unknown or is irrelevant. In these cases, Shock: uses the genderless personal pronouns preferred by many contemporary gender theorists, using “zie” instead of “she” or “he”, and “hir” instead of “he” or “she”. If this is disorienting to you, that’s what a Shock is. If it’s not, you’ll feel right at home playing the game.
Further, the unmoderated structure of Shock: does lend itself to spotlight hogging and other nonsense. It’s not a game to play with several kinds of problem player.
So, perhaps Shock: isn’t a game for all players or all occasions, but it’s highly innovative, is worth a read just for it’s more novel devices, and is an easy pickup game in most situations.