Blade Runner looms large over the RPG landscape. Two of the hobby’s biggest games, Cyberpunk and Shadowrun were inspired by Ridley Scott’s science fiction neo-noir full of high tech devices and low life characters. When Free League Publishing announced a Kickstarter for Blade Runner Role Playing Game it was met with excitement but also a little bit of trepidation. Could the game do anything new with the well worn tropes that have been used in games since the 80s? Would players want to take on the role of cops in a time when police abuses of power and systemic corruption are regularly on display? My review copy of the core book and Starter Set recently arrived and I eagerly dug into Tomas Harenstam and Joe LeFavi’s take on a classic setting. Did the game pass the Voight-Kampff test? Let’s play to find out.
Blade Runner Role Playing Game is set in 2037, smack dab in the middle between the original film and its recent sequel. The era is vaguely defined by some of the additional materials like the animated series and the short films that played before Blade Runner 2049. The most important thing to know is that Replicants, at least the new ones made by Wallace Corporation are once again legal on Earth. In fact, some of them have joined the Replicant Detect Unit aka the Blade Runners in an effort to show that Wallace has “fixed” the issues in the older models and to earn back the public trust. Humans and Replicants now work together to hunt down the last remaining few older models, crack down on illegal technology derived from Replicants and to keep an eye on the new models to make sure they do what they’re supposed to be doing. The time period does an excellent job in murking up the morality of what Blade Runners are doing to pull the noir themes to the forefront rather than the cool tech or cops and robbers morality. The art from classic Free League collaborators like Martin Grip continues the dark beauty of these books that started in the ALIEN line.
The system uses the newer version of the Year Zero rules first seen in last year’s Twilight: 2000 reboot. Rather than pools of 6 sided dice, players roll a pair of dice to try and beat a target of six or better on each die. Folks hoping to mash-up ALIEN and Blade Runner were crestfallen when this detail came out but I think that the newer system speeds up play. Having run a few Year Zero games, rolling dice, counting successes, deciding to push and reroll can slow things down. Rather than a key item, characters get a key memory and a key relationship they can use to gain extra rerolls. Here’s where Blade Runner digs into the source material a bit with making memories a key component of play. Players have to justify the reroll by incorporating elements into why they can reroll, which connects their character to the current case in some form. A replicant character might decide they person they’re pursuing is in their false memory and might push themselves to run harder to ask them questions about the person whose memory they have. The human might see their ex-lover even though they know the lover went to the Off-World colonies. Are they back? Is it a mistake? All of these choices deepen the case of the week format of the main game while also offering some great role playing opportunities outside of the investigation.
The focus of the game stays on investigation rather than techothriller heists of other cyberpunk games. The structure of play reminds me a bit of the Android board game from Fantasy Flight Games; players take shifts to investigate crime scenes and then have one “off-shift period” where they handle their personal business. The game seems built to run with split parties where the whole crew is rarely in the same place at the same time. While never splitting the party might be a maxim of many RPGs, here it helps cover the sprawling investigations of films like LA Confidential. It also makes this game much more useful to smaller groups of 2-4. Time management is important as well, since every case has a countdown element that ticks down what’s going on while the blade runners are doing legwork. Take too long and the case might go unsolved or escalate into something that’s taken out of their hands.
The main characters aren’t built to be heroes. There’s some of the usual tough cop talk in the book but that can be chalked up to the setting. It’s meant to be a game where the players are conflicted by the things they do and come to grips with the fact that maybe they aren’t always in the right. Rather than a morality meter as seen in games like Vampire The Masquerade or Force and Destiny, Blade Runner RPG installs the tension within the XP system. There are two ways to improve your character: promotion and humanity. Promotion points give you access to better equipment, resources and favors to do your job, while humanity reflects your character’s personal improvement. The former are awarded when you do the things a Blade Runner is supposed to do, like turn in a secret Replicant, while the latter are given out when you do things a person might do, such as let that illegal Replicant escape and live their life. The one weakness of this system is that players can;t ever really be fired from the Rep Detect Unit since that would push the character out of the premise of the game. I would have rather seen a discussion of how a “retired” character can contribute to the narrative and a player might try to integrate a Blade Runner just like so many long running cop shows have had to do.
Blade Runner Role Playing Game stands out from other dark future games by focusing on investigation and murky definitions of humanity, making it an excellent representation of the source material.