Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Nova Praxis Enhanced PDF

I don't do a lot of reviews, but I feel compelled to do so in this case. The game I'm reviewing, Nova Praxis, a FATE-based ruleset, is just that good. And the delivery system, an enhanced PDF, is really amazing in terms of its clean aesthetic and overall usability. Color me very, very impressed.

What is Nova Praxis, anyway?

Nova Praxis is dystopic human future-based world produced by +Mike McConnell for Void Star Games (listed as such on RPG Now, though Void Star Studios is the company).

All of the major sci-fi themes seem to be allowed for, from Cyberpunk netrunning to safari-style dinosaur hunting on distant colony worlds. From transhumanists yearning for post-human perfection to body-Puritans who bomb the labs where that post-human potential is realized. The information about the setting is based on a "default setting." You are members of a group of operatives working for one the major corporate "houses" of the Coalition, engaging in a Shadow War against other Houses and their operatives. You do the dirty work that makes things work for the Houses, that keeps people in their places, that preserves the Powers That Be from shame or blame, while further helping them to cement their influence.

The default setting is interesting in and of itself. It reminds me quite a bit of elements of Cyberpunk mixed with with the various versions of the space opera genre embodied in our favorite TV shows, comics, films, RPGs, and other sources. The author is very clear about this in his response to critics claiming he ripped off other systems/settings:
Eclipse Phase didn't invent the concept of the Technological Singularity (ask John von Neumann who first talked about it in the 50's), nor the idea of transhumanity. In fact, Eclipse Phase very clearly "rips off" aspects of Altered Carbon, Revelation Space, and many others. And so did Nova Praxis. And Nova Praxis also goes on to "rip off" Mass Effect, Deus Ex, and other inspirational sources. That's how fiction works.
Yep. Couldn't agree more. Ain't nothing new in the world that ain't been said already, and I think that's absolutely awesome. That's why we can have things that we share. That's why we can make cool things together. That's why subcultures like the OSR exist. That's why everyone can take something old and make it new again in very personal and interesting ways (or, alternately, in stereotypical and boring ways. YMMV.).

Also, props to Mike for doing a great job editing his text. It's easy to read, well-organized, and almost completely free of spelling and grammatical errors. This warms the cockles of my little, black heart.

How useful would this setting be to me?

The setting is detailed and well-realized, and the elements of the setting are diverse. There's a lot to see here, and a lot of possibilities for tweaking the setting to one's own personal tastes. You get bits like this, about the colony world of Proch:
Large reptiles and ferocious mammals still roam the forests of Proch. These large, at times massive, creatures have become a source of much interest for many of the Coalition’s people. The creatures have provided scientists with many hours of amusement, and a gruesome end to more than a few would-be adventurers.
Land of the Lost/King Kong in motherfucking space, people! That's what I'm talking about.

And this about Earth:
Today, it is believed that no human remains alive on Earth. Mankind’s cities are dens of technological terror, shattered wastelands haunted by murderous machines. Even rural areas are patrolled by aerial recon drones that are programmed to kill anything larger than a house cat.
Hello, Terminator! And the possibilities go on and on.

The description of the rest of the setting provides all sorts of possibilities for just about anything from sci-fi and beyond. You could run a fantasy game, for example, or space pirates, or palace intrigue, or bodice-ripper romances, fergawdsake. Now, mind you, you'd have to come up with ideas for your own, but I think most of my readers are already able to do that, and used to doing so.

Given that it's a FATE-based system, you literally can play just about any character imaginable and any setting imaginable. You could be a giant, monster-fighting robot, a hard-bitten investigator, an technomancer, whatever. If you can imagine it, and you can tie it to the sprawling sci-fi setting embodied in Nova Praxis, you can play it. So, bottom line, this is a very dynamic setting. There are a lot of fiddly bits that you could develop to make it into your Perfect Game. You could do that a whole bunch of times. The number of plot hooks available in the setting descriptions just about guarantees that.

What about this FATE thing? Why would I play it?

I'm fairly new to FATE system-based games. I was somewhat put off by it, initially, as it's a bit complex, and the terminology and assumptions so different from what I'm used to. I had to tweak my brain to deal with the idea that The Story is what's important, that having fun means everybody being able to tell that story (not just or mainly the GM). Mind you, I'm making sweeping declarations with that sentence. I know that. I know that all rulesets allow for that, provided that the GM/players roll it that way. However, just like some other games I've been intrigued by in the last year or so, like +Joshua Macy's SFX! system and its various permutations (e.g., Zap! or Zounds!) or +Rafael Chandler's Disciple 12 system for Spite, this is a ruleset that aims at a cinematic/narrative aesthetic for the gaming experience.

What that means for the GM and players is a bit more flexibility in applying the ruleset. The rules are more procedural than canon, if you see what I mean. They don't define what you can do, but how you accomplish doing what you want to do. I like that. I like it a lot. But it took me a few read-throughs of these kinds of games to really grok the point of it all. At first, it seemed to nerf the deadlier aspects of other RPGs, making the games more about cool shit than about consequences of doing that cool shit. Like there's nothing in there specifically about wounds and death and hit points and specific rules for magic and that kind of thing. The flexibility of the ruleset in application actually put me off! Where the hell was the crunch?

However, I've come to realize that was a bit more about the failure my imagination to capture what I could do with the system. It was about me and my players figuring out what's cool for us, not about having to adhere to what I've come to associate with story-gamey sorts of things I don't much care for. I think I had it wrong. I could use the FATE system to play any fucking game I wanted to. That's what it's designed for. If you can't have fun with it, then you probably need to figure out why you are no fun to be around.

Oddly enough, I think I arrived at this insight by playing DCC, which is almost the opposite in terms of how it accomplishes the very same thing: Make the characters awesome and make the setting random and gonzo. Oddly enough, they are very similar in the way they "feel" to me. There's a real sense of wide-open space here, a feeling that I could explore a lot of different territory in gaming. Maybe it's that the main influences seem to be about the stories (e.g., Appendix N fiction in DCC and the codification of narrative/cinematic structure in the FATE system), rather than the rules.

As a side note, I'm intrigued that FATE creates a linguistic/cinematic language to describe gaming behaviors. It uses generic game actions and character and setting building options to allow the players and GM to build and do just about anything, as I've said already. It also codifies that stuff into terms that are of professional interest to me, personally. I deal with rhetoric and persuasion, the relations between symbol-systems and power. This system seems to codify, in many ways, how we use archetypes and memes and various aspects of game theory to build conceptual worlds, objects, aspects, and so forth for real people. These people are given a way to think about and embody things found in our Internet-based versions of community and collective identities and so forth. I'm not certain where I want to take it, but I'll be damned if that's not fascinating.

What's this enhanced PDF thing?

You can get Nova Praxis "pay what you want" on RPG Now. However, the enhanced PDF is only $14.99, and it's pretty amazing. This sort of thing may be old news to some of you tablet-slinging veterans of the Nook/iPad wars, but I'm a humble lover of gigantic desktop towers. I've only recently gotten a laptop, even, and that's for work.

Anyway, the enhanced PDF consists of about 270 pages of material, and embedded system of menus and links that's intuitive an easy to use, standard PDF book marks, standard, linked table to contents, a fillable, savable character sheet, among other features. It took me a little bit of time to get used to (I'm only a simple cave man and your advanced technology is puzzling to me.), but now I don't know why everyone's PDFs aren't like this one. It's groovy!

Why should I go out and get this thing?

I don't know. Maybe you shouldn't.

If the idea of playing in the FATE system makes you queasy for whatever reason, then probably you are ill-disposed to begin with. However, the setting itself is a very interesting one for any kind of sci-fi based game. You could use it with rules from other systems pretty easily,  I think. For fifteen bucks, that might be worth it to you.

If you like well-written and elegantly produced games at low, low prices, you should get this.

If you like sci-fi gaming in general, get it.

Fuck it. I'm not going down the entire list for you. Just go check it out. The regular PDF is pay what you want. Pay or don't. If you like it, and if you're intrigued, buy the enhanced PDF. It's very nice.