Earlier this year, Dias Ex Machina  (DEM) games posted a press release for their upcoming RPG, NeuroSpasta  (take a look…I’ll wait). NeuroSpasta is a Sci-Fi game, and the first Sci-Fi product based off the GSL. This is not DEM’s first attempt at moving the GSL past fantasy. Their first product, Amethyst  is a combination of Fantasy and Modern settings, which is due out in the Fall; available through Goodman Games . Previously, here on the Stew, I reviewed their Free RPG Day offering, Hearts of Chaos , which showed that there is room in the GSL for modern weapons, and for more complex themes.
Recently, I have had the chance to talk with Chris Dias from DEM, about NeuroSpasta, and Chris was kind enough to give us an exclusive look at the NeuroSpasta logo, as well as taking some time to answer some questions about the game. So let’s first take a look at the Nick Greenwood  logo (click for full size):
Awesome. We will talk more about the logo in the questions below.
And now lets get down to business with Chris with some questions about NeuroSpasta (NS) ….
Describe the NS setting? What movies/books/tv shows inspired this setting?
NS tracks its history back to an old cyberpunk game I created called “Necropolis” which was set in a failing futuristic city built from the ground up as an icon of progress. When we planned out our future projects, it was immediately obvious that the first game was to be a cyberpunk/modern game. I turned to dust off Necropolis but discovered the setting lacking after these past <cough> fifteen years. At the same time, I was a huge fan of the neo-cyberpunk movement that has been gaining momentum in various parts of the worlds, specifically in France and Japan. The dystopian ideals have been supplemented by philosophical uncertainties about human identity and consciousness. Where old cyberpunk games have used films like Blade Runner, Hardware, and Robocop as inspiration, NeuroSpasta looks to its current generation as motivation. However, our titles are slightly more obscure. This includes Chrysalis, Renaissance, Ghost in the Shell, and Appleseed, the latter two readers probably know the best. With the works of Masamune Shirow , we admittedly got inspiration given his similar approaches to technology and its effects on the human consciousness. There is also an obvious comparison between this and The Matrix series.
I couldn’t tell you at what point the light bulb came on, but I was probably on Wikipedia, that much I can admit. NeuroSpasta takes place mostly in the city of Archon, which is a sovereign city-state built from the ground up to be the headquarters of the United Nations. It is politically neutral and holds embassies from nearly every UN country. This has turned the city into a political microcosm. The players can take the role of anarchists, spies, or law enforcement. The game assumes the latter, creating a counter-terrorism unit tasked with keeping the peace in a city which has become the target of every single voice of opposition on the planet. Being set 80+ years in the future, the setting also a speculation on the progress of the human race, socially, politically, and technologically. We wanted to make the setting believable, so there are no aliens and no time travel. Cars still drive on wheels. But the globalization of the planet will continue and in this setting, nearly every resident of every industrialized nation, like having a cell phone, has a cybernetic link to the internet that allows them constant communication with the global community. This link is so well integrated; it permits the adjustment of sensory input, allowing the fabrication of reality without the need of holograms. You can record your memories and upload them to social networks like you-tube. You can control vehicles and even human-like robots through this neural connection which is basically a “super-iPhone” in your brain. This has created a new unified community that paranoid nations are being increasingly threatened by. These networks are also not bulletproof and some nefarious persons (like certain player characters) can hack into these brains and hijack them, allowing someone to directly affect someone else’s mind without ever leaving a mark.
Why was NeuroSpasta designed with the GSL vs. using the OGL?
NS was designed based purely on the idea that no one else was doing it. With the 3.X system and the OGL, nearly every type of game and its poor imitation had been created, so creating another science fiction game in that market didn’t make much sense. D20 Modern had been released and I used it for the basis of a free cyberpunk RPG on my old gaming page. There was no real challenge…and no market, in my opinion, for it. A 4th Edition rule set that allows people to create modern and science fiction games along with presenting a new setting unlike anything out there for GSL was too much to resist. Also, Amethyst had been made and tested to so could use it as baseline to build this new game. It ended up being a lot more work than we were suspecting as we had to ponder money sinks–probably the most difficult aspect of the production. Besides, we had embraced 4th Edition and to go back to OGL didn’t make any sense. It is a far easier rule system to write for.
A lot of people are wondering about how the GSL can be adapted for a Sci-Fi game. So let me ask you two questions: First, what features really separate NS from the core GSL?
From a purely mechanical point of view, the most dramatic alteration is the ladder system. This involves trimming the number of available powers per level with classes from three or four to one or two. This allowed us to create ten distinct classes instead of only five in the same space. This may seem limiting but players can expand their repertoire with their ladder. A ladder was originally meant to offset the lack of magic items and to discourage the need of gamers to be based around a selfish desire to gain money. It awarded special abilities through character generation. It expanded to be able to offer alternative power choices based around a similar theme as well as the capacity to alter the class you have selected. So you pick a ladder at the same time you pick class (actually, you should pick a ladder first). Ladders are very generic and are focused more on who you are as person and how you act, not the role you play in the game. They are based around your two most dominant ability scores. We have included six with examples like Juggernaut (Con/Str), Savant (Int/Wis), and Runner (Dex/Int). As said, these offer more options which give you the same variety (if not more) from traditional GSL classes. This includes being able to adjust your primary attribute for attack powers. Instead of 10 classes, we now have 60 class combinations as a ladder can radically change how your character acts. Yes, it adds a level of complexity to character creation and growth but we believe people will embrace this new level of adjustability.
Additionally, our classes have, on average, less hit points to contend with and there is a lower damage curve through paragon and heroic tiers to compensate for this. This makes survivability more based around intelligence on the combat field over raw constitution, forcing players to take cover and strategize over the nonsensical suicide runs seen in first person shooters. We also have no enhancement, both for AC and for attacks. Our “monsters” reflect this. We have also implemented a hardness and armor penetration system to try and deal with higher capacity weapons like rocket launchers as well as making opponents like tanks and powered armor that much more difficult to take down. This begs the questions, how compatible is it with standard D&D? Throughout the heroic tier, there is very little that changes. Once paragon hits, NS characters will start to feel the tightness of low hit points and no magic weapons. NS was not designed to be 100% compatible with D&D although we will be including a quick-adaption page for those wanted to through NS characters into a fantasy setting (although for that, I would recommend Amethyst, which is designed from the ground up to be that way).
Beyond that, we have the obvious departures with the setting. This is pure science fiction with guns, cars, and robots. We have computer hacking which, of course, had to be built from the ground up, though still familiar with the rest of the GSL.
Second, what features of NS stick firmly to the GSL?
NS is still 100% GSL compliant, so classes still look and function like classes. Combat is unchanged save for the implementation of armor penetration and hardness. Most of the feats from official WOTC books are still applicable as are all the skills. Our races are presented in the same fashion. Monsters are still offered as solos and elites and minions, although ours don’t have tentacles or fiery breath.
DM’s who are fans of 4e say that tools like the Encounter Budget, and the monster powers make 4e a lot easier to DM, in game and during prep. Compared to D&D 4e, what are the similarities and differences to GMing NS?
Building encounters in NS is exactly the same as D&D. You might see more minion types and I hope GMs present combat in a way where opponents don’t run headlong into combat but use cover and flanking maneuvers like the players would. Making monsters has been tricky as ours are mostly “guys with guns” so it was a challenge to make them interesting and unique.
What kind of GM is this game created for: New vs. Experienced, Storytellers vs. Tacticians, etc?
Like Amethyst, the type of GM is dependent on how much work someone is willing to put in. You can just create an action-game with no plot. A story-teller will be able to push the setting to its limits, exploring the philosophical elements that we have presented. I know that the adventures I am writing for it are more story-based but I also know perfectly well how much adaptation a GM does when running a game from a book. Yes, NeuroSpasta has layers of philosophy but it also has robots, cybernetics, and rocket launchers. It’s a balance, you see…
For D&D 4e the default adventure is the Dungeon Crawl. What is the default adventure structure for NS?
NS tries to be more about the role playing and less about the combat. This is reflective in our classes as at least two of them have few to no attack powers that actually cause damage. In Amethyst, we have a class that enables other characters to act and do so in a combined and coordinated fashion, but not to fire a weapon himself. We want players to know that just because they are not firing a gun does not mean they are useless. So, I am conceiving our adventures to be more about mystery and the suspense other the balls-out action. If we were to make a movie analogy out of it, I would present NS as being like the Bourne or Mission Impossible (1 and 3, not 2) series instead of the recent James Bond films. The challenge is to create stories which are so interesting, that players will neither notice nor complain at the lack of combat one week.
Amethyst centers around the struggle of Chaos vs Order, and the introductory adventure Hearts of Chaos, has a tricky moral decision in it. What is the central theme of NS? Will we see more tricky moral decisions in future NS storylines?
The morality of Amethyst is fairly direct. NeuroSpasta is more ambiguous but much more complicated. This includes concepts of free will, consumerism, self-identity, and the definition of what makes one human. The variety of organic and synthetic representation in the setting has brought an examination of the definition of humanity and the mark of a civilized being. There are an increasing number of humans on the planet in the setting that are no longer being productive. These individuals stop generating new memories in exchange for experiencing the memories of others. Those generating new memories are now able to transmit their likeness to other places in the world without ever leaving their home. What defines a human being if it wasn’t memory? Personality is shaped by genes but also by life events. Memory was now an open domain for all to experience any event anyone else wanted to share. At the same time, a person’s heritage and race was also in question as a definition of one’s self. Beyond plastic surgery and sexual identity operations, people could now change everything about them. Some did it via virtual imagery, some through a slave robot, but many allotted to swapping their body out altogether. The only part organic that remained was the brain. Sexual preference, racial profiling, and gender roles simply didn’t matter in the wake of undefined human identity. Alarmist feared a growing insanity was about to burst–as individuals with no roots, heritage, or race would turn to anarchy. Although a few did, most…turned to Archon. A city with no heritage was the perfect refuge for those people abandoning their old lives. Prosthetics could still be defined as human, as they had a human brain. But a human brain in an artificial body filled with synthetic and surrogate memories can hardly be considered human. Mankind had just learned to accept the growing nugenic population–people whose god-given genes were modified against nature’s will by parents looking to improve upon the design.
Then we have Virtuants–created in a program simulation similar to the basic building blocks of DNA. The basic disposition is formed using algorithms meant to mimic a newborn. The synthetic personality is then grown with artificial and surrogate memories, shaped by the disposition and memories, into the exact final form as ordered by the buyer. Virtuants are aware of their purpose and are raised with the desire to carry it out, forgoing the need of parameters and failsafes. They have true personalities, not a series of programmed responses. They act human and look as human as most others encountered, yet society refuses to accept them as such.
As this new consciousness grows and expands, newer extremes have emerged. This includes humans with no body, wired directly into a machine without a prosthetic, or humans that have implanted so many of their memories in digital storage, they have been able to swap out more and more of their own organic brain. If a human is able to transfer his or her intellect to a machine, would that intelligence have rights? What would define it as being human?
Focusing a bit of attention at the top of the article, Nick Greenwood created the logo for NeuroSpasta. Can you explain how the logo was conceived? Did you provide specific instructions, or did Nick work something up from some descriptions of the setting?
The title of NeuroSpasta is Greek for “string pulling”– a term used in puppeteering. I originally found the words while searching for power names for an Amethyst monster. When I looked at the setting of this new game, I thought back to that title. Since the setting was about manipulation of both game mechanics and human consciousness, the title simply made sense. Plus with word “Neuro”, people could associate it with the cyberpunk setting that it is. Given the origin of the word, I presented an idea to Nick that it should be a robot hanging off of these cables. The religious iconography is also intentional. The first sketch looked like Richard Nixon waving goodbye after leaving the White House. I think he really knocked it out of the park but it also took him longer than any other logo he had worked on previously. The response has been dramatic and it just goes to show how a good image can promote a product.
Talk to us about the development of NS, where are you in the process? What are the challenges you are currently working out? What milestones are coming up?
There have been some hurdles. For a short time, we had brought on a political adviser to fact check our ideas. Although he was able to provide some insight, unfortunate life events prevented him from completing the task and that set us back quite a ways. The amount of research involved in presenting the setting was mind-blowing. The UN Charter is not a relaxed read, let me tell you. The same goes with many of the technical and philosophical concepts presented. One big inspiration were the works of Adam Curtis. Curtis is a BBC producer responsible for some amazing documentaries like The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. We ended up making some claims of the possible future readers may not agree with or like in the slightest bit. Both Amethyst and NeuroSpasta cannot be accused of being objective. Its very subjectivity is what I am most proud of.
From a game mechanics point of view, what we have remaining are opponents (monsters). This is in under the responsibility of Conan Veitch. While my comrade provides input on every level of the production, opponents are his solitary concern. The challenge is the fundamental flaw of modern games: Guys with guns. How do you create opponents in a science fiction scenario that can offer the type of range fantasy monsters do? So that has been the current conundrum. We have tackled that in a variety of different ways. Of course, we have power armor and tanks, melee and ranged fighters, but without taking too much space, we allowed the customization of different opponents dependent on whom they are and where they are in the world. This means you can use the same monster entry for a religious terrorist as a drug cartel guerrilla simply by swapping a single ability. As for the other aspects of the game, ladders, classes, feats, weapons, armor, cybernetics, equipment, programs, robots, and skills are all done. By the publication of this interview, we will be opening doors for playtesters. They will receive a special NeuroSpasta introductory module to play and test. Based on their analysis, we will select those testers to receive the actual playtest package.
I want to say thanks again to Chris for taking the time to answer some questions, and sharing the logo of NeuroSpasta with us. Chris as told me that those interested in the introductory module, should check out the DEM  website and keep an eye out for the posting of the module. If you have any other questions about NeuroSpasta, or Chris, please put them in the comments, and we will make sure that they get to Chris, and that we get answers back to you.