Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Human Than Human: Body Modification in RPGs

Only .001 essence left? No sweat, I've got a Willpower of 6...

I tend to play mainly sci-fi or modern style games. I rarely play fantasy, as it holds little interest for me unless it's a setting like Iron Kingdoms where there's a fair amount of technology. Aside from my fetishistic love for technology and machines, one of the things I find most compelling about these games is the theme of human modification that runs through them. Think about it. Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Rifts, and a dozen other games like them all allow the player to make a Faustian bargain wherein they trade greater or lesser degrees of their humanity for some amount of power. Why? What would drive a person to graft machine parts to their body or submit to dehumanizing brain implants or accept a swift and painful death by narcotic overdose? That's the question I'm curious about, and what I want to talk about today.


I think one of the best examples of this question is found in Palladium Books' Rifts. Back in the day, before it became the bloated train wreck it is today, Rifts was a great game with a very, very ugly premise. That premise was that, essentially, you needed to become a monster to fight one. That the best way to protect your family, friends and neighbors was to become something other, to completely trade away your humanity for super-human powers that would eventually melt your bones or burst your heart or drive you mad. Tough call, eh? How much do you care? How deep is your love? How much do you desire fame or infamy or revenge? Enough to trade away the ability to feel the touch of the wife or child you're defending? Enough to sign your own death sentence? Compelling stuff, and it's still there in Rifts buried under all the magic using dinosaurs and giant robots with crotch cannons.

Sad thing is, this isn't really discussed much in favor of the aforementioned dinosaurs and dick-guns. There's no real down side to playing these characters, not in a rules sense. Sure, Juicers die young because the drugs they use consume their bodies at an alarming rate. To your typical Rifts player however, the five to seven year life-span of a Juicer isn't much of a downside. Think about it, how long does your average campaign run? Not long enough for Last Call. Same goes for Crazies, super soldiers who accept brain implants which improve their natural abilities and make them psychic at the cost of their sanity. Of course, in typical RPG style, the mental illnesses that Crazies can accumulate are treated in a flip, offhand manner and all crazies end up being wacky, unreliable sociopaths who spout non-sequiturs all the time 'cause they're sooooooo crazy. Then of course there are the Rifts Cyborgs who have no drawbacks, at least none as written in the rules, and are free to become walking tanks without so much as a twinge of conscience.

Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, two of my favorite games, are the opposite side of this coin. Each has a specific attribute, Essence in Shadowrun, Humanity in Cyberpunk, that is essentially a reflection of the character's soul. The more metal you graft on to your body in the form of cyberware and bioware, the more of your soul is whittled away. Every time you get a new implant you die a little more inside, and it is reflected in your stats and in social interaction difficulty modifiers, among other things. For example, my SR character Yuri started with the standard six points of essence. During character creation as part of his backstory, I bought a shitload of cyberware for him. Essentially he was blown up and had to be reconstructed. His essence as it stands now is .64. Yes, you read that right, he has less than one point of essence. This causes all manner of trouble for him in social situations, gives him some serious psychological problems and makes him a hoot to play. The essence loss rules are there to give me as a player a framework to work within. They encourage me to play Yuri's illnesses, and reward me when I do. It's stuff like this that brings the idea of becoming a monster to better fight one closer to home when you see it have a concrete effect in game.

I know what you're going to say. But, Jason. You don't need rules for that, that can all be handled through role-playing! I agree, but role-playing needs a solid foundation of rules to rest on or there will be total chaos. If there's no incentive in the rules for a player to make hard choices and to role-play out the consequences of those choices, why should they? Why should they buy the whole cow when the get the milk for free? Gamers are, on the whole, lazy and won't go out of their way to hamstring a character unless they get something out of it like extra build points or XP. Rules like these also force the characters to actually make the hard choices. Is this new implant really worth yet another piece of my soul? Is the cost/benefit ratio beneficial enough? It better be, because once that piece of you is gone it's gone, and there are precious few ways to get it back. That right there, that choice, is a good motivator right there. So, next time you're at the cyberstore looking at this season's hot new eyes, ask yourself, are they worth it?

1 comment:

Levi said...

This is a great point and it goes way beyond just body modification. As you hinted there are other aspects like mental and social disorders that can and should be taken into account.

I have a player in my Fantasy game right now that was written up under another GM. I allowed the character as I had a small group and this player hates to write up new characters. I think it is weird for a gamer to dislike writing up characters, but I digress. This character was allowed to take three phobias for two extra skills each. Unfortunately the game system, Palladium Fantasy, doesn't have any real consequences for the phobia. There is a saving throw to rolled against when the character encounters anything he is afraid of, but there is really no definition of what happens if he fails. It is all vague. And, the player doesn't really play it up either. It is basically an excuse to want to attack anything related to his phobias. It is little more than a stat and annoying game mechanic.

I think some players will self moderate this kind of thing and it can work out well regardless of the rules. For my current player, the rest of the group is role-playing their reactions to his odd behavior and are forcing him to as well. At least a little now.

But I agree, the game mechanics should support the effect of things like body modifications and insanity. I think if this was better defined my player would play the character differently.