While it seems increasingly difficult to find a crew to delve into role playing games these days, they hold a special place for me.
Few gaming experiences have been as well-remembered as the first months of playing Dungeons & Dragons, and the pure combination of wonder and amazement that provided.
There have been other RPGs since then of course, and in most every case they have been fun because you become immersed in the world of the game, and the character you play becomes near and dear to you.
As a result I often look at RPGs on Kickstarter, and on one such excursion GeneFunk 2090 from CRISPR Monkey Studios.
There was some great art to the game that was advertising itself as a ‘Biopunk RPG’ so I looked a little deeper.
That led to the biggest discovery, that the studio doing the game is based in Saskatoon, which made me curious to learn more.
To begin with the game “is a biopunk/cyberpunk RPG and setting made using the D&D 5E Open Gaming License. Players take on the role of elite mercenaries that specialize in investigation and violence. No magic or fantasy, but tons of cybernetics, genetic enhancements, nanobots, drones, hacking, androids, high tech guns and armor, and other amazing tech,” explains a quick intro on the successful Kickstarter page.
Comparisons of course are natural, and this one immediately had me thinking a game in the same vein as Shadowrun, a long-running RPG, many will know.
So next I contacted James Armstrong regarding the game he has been involved in creating, to find out some information first hand.
He said the game is certainly Biopunk on nature.
“I love biology, and the idea of genetic engineering,” he replied via email. “I actually have a M.Sc. in molecular biology, partially because I was interested in understanding the science behind genetic modification.
“Also, I’ve always loved speculative fiction, especially of the biopunk variety, from Brave New World, to Cronenberg movies. While I first started this game in 2001, I can tell it’s only now that biopunk is starting to come into the zeitgeist. There’s currently a Netflix special on biohacking, Jaimie Metzl is on Joe Rogan speaking about his “Hacking Darwin” book, and CRISPR is part of school curricula.
“There’s been an open niche for biopunk RPGs, especially near-future ones and I wanted to address that, and see where I could take it. Endogenous DNA computers, genetic enhancement, mind-hacking, transgenic beasts, and anything else I could think of.”
Not surprisingly Armstrong comes at creating an RPG based on his own long held interest.
“I’ve been an RPG fan since I was in Grade 3,” he said. “It was the Dungeons and Dragons box sets, red and blue. My older brother brought them home and I was immediately fascinated by the art, and the idea that I could be a character in a fantasy story.
“From there, it was the Marvel Super Heroes game, T.M.N.T, WEG Star Wars, and whatever else I could get my hands on! I’ve made plenty of my own systems along the way as well.”
So where did the germ of the idea for GeneFunk come from.
“It was really a convergence of creative influences, and an open niche! I grew up reading the Eastman and Laird T.M.N.T. graphic novels and RPG, loved cyberpunk fiction of every kind, and felt the Gattaca movie was well ahead of its time,” related Armstrong. “I wanted to play in a world filled will genetically enhanced humans and ubiquitous biotechnology.”
Armstrong went into the creative process with a vision.
“Create a modern take on the cyberpunk genre using the 5e ruleset, with a biopunk twist,” he said. “While I love the 80’s vision of cyberpunk, most cyberpunk games I see tend to fit into this mold. It could use some updating, some new spice!
“It’s now apparent that a great deal of human enhancement will be at the genetic level, not necessarily grafted-on chrome arms and robot bodies. I want to show how the world might look if that genetic enhancement started before birth, and how biologically specializing humans might affect society, (and) an informal genetic caste system that emerges from a global market economy.
“I also wanted to make some of the cyberpunk tropes a little more fluid. Rather than an explicitly dystopian world, I wanted to showcase a series of double-edged swords. Not technological and capitalistic doom-and-gloom, but something more ambiguous, with some parts being wonderful, and other parts being nightmarish, depending on your perspective. There are pros to living in a technological wonderland. Who need’s Huntington’s disease? Alienation due to a collapse of a common human condition? Yes. Ultimate expression of personal identity and diversity through a fluid human form? Also yes.”
With such a vast vision to capture the game took years to develop – 18-years in fact.
“I started in 2001,” said Armstrong. “I have homebrew versions of it in 3.5e and 4e as well, but once 5e came out, I knew it fit with the mechanics well and I wanted to take it to the next level. Granted, many of those years only had very part-time development, I really kicked it into high-gear over the last three years.”
So what was the most difficult aspect of designing the game?
“Capturing the powerful nature of genetic enhancement at character creation,” said Armstrong. “I wanted a character’s base genome to provide a great deal of mechanical influence, much more so than a D&D race does. Genetic enhancement is unambiguously superior in GeneFunk, and I needed the mechanics to capture that. As such, starting characters are more powerful than they are in D&D. They’re not close to X-Men level or anything like that, but they certainly won’t be spending level 1 killing boars.”
But the game is more than fights and battles.
Asked what is the best element of the game Armstrong said “the biohacking, and the great variety of different genomes and upgrades.
“There are 42 genetic enhancements and 58 upgrades. There’s even a tool included for players and GMs to make their own genomes.
“Being able to play a character with completely different abilities at level 1, each time you make a character, is great for replayability. I’ve always loved the meta-game of making characters, I’ve probably made 10 characters for every 1 I’ve played, regardless of system.
“Also, diversity is fun! D&D groups are often a hodge-podge of dragon born, tieflings, gnomes, and goliaths, even if a campaign world might describe these races as rare. I built it so that there is baked-in fluff to support the fact that you’re a party of genetic weirdos, stylishly exotic appearances and all.”
The vibrancy of a new game world, and the built in diversity of characters to play make GeneFunk a game well worth looking into. Like any RPG the experience of course is only partly dictated by the ruleset, the game master, the one guiding things much as the director of a stage performance, being at least equally important to the overall experience.
It will help to know the base rules of 5e, the most recent incarnation of D&D and one admittedly turned me off the game completely. While I think 5e homogenized D&D into a world of overpowered clones, in a different world setting the core rules can shine.
So check out GeneFunk, it may not be the setting for every taste, but it offers an interesting vision of a future which may be closer than we think.
Check it out via the GeneFunk 2090 page on Facebook.