Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Modiphius’s Ambitious Dreams And Machines Is The Hopeful Sci-Fi TTRPG We Desperately Need

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Can you make a hopeful world in the post-apocalypse? Dystopias remain one of the most common settings for TTRPG’s, offering the ability to create fantastic stories and dangers without losing a tough of the familiar. Even as we seem to rattle closer to a dystopia in real time (take your pick which one) we’re drawn to settings like Fallout, Apocalypse World, or Forbidden Lands. But there’s also been a movement towards the more solarpunk end of things. Titles like Horizon Zero Dawn show off that there can still be a light flung far into the future and that it’s not our destiny to be wiped away by our own stupidity. This is the sort of setting that Dreams And Machines, one of the biggest pieces of original TTRPG content of recent years, has chosen. Published last year by Modiphius, it recently released its first adventure and to help prepare for it I thought I’d finally take a look at a game that I think got deeply overlooked by the tabletop community.

Welcome To Evera Prime

The setting of the game is a distant planet called Evera Prime that was once a colony of Earth. You see, Dreams and Machines is double post-apocalyptic. First, the methods of travel that allowed Earth to colonize the universe broke down and led to isolation of its distant colonies like Evera. After several decades the colony was able to become self-sustaining thanks to The Builder, a sophisticated AI that controlled almost every aspect of society including the powerful machines that did much of the work.

You can guess how that turned out.

So now the humans of Evera Prime find themselves living in a strange mix of low tech and high tech, scraping together as much of their society as they can without getting the Builder and other malicious machines on their ass. Each group of humans has responded to this new normal in different ways, and the Evera Prime of the game’s setting is a creative mishmash of human folk cultures, tech futurism, and a bit of good old fashion apocalypse punk.

The world of Evera Prime is interesting in that it approximates quite a few fantasy tropes (dungeons, trolls, magic) but with ruins, robots, and extreme tech that relies quite a bit on Clarke’s Third Law. The keyword throughout the whole game is community. Everyone in the game is, in one form or another, struggling together.

When I spoke with creator Chris Birch at Gen Con, he mentioned that one of his outright goals for the game was to make something hopeful. Not soft or cloying or without excitement. But a game and setting where people weren’t doomed and dying and that everyone at their core was trying to do better. There’s always exceptions, of course, but it’s a quite refreshing take on a genre that can be a bit gloomy. This is emphasized by a Greek Chorus character named Kari who comments on the book as you go along with doodles, drawings and stickers. Unlike similar characters from D&D book, she’s a kid so she’s headstrong, silly, and quite a bit optimistic about everything. It sets a great tone.

An Everan Is You

Humanity loosely splintered into several factions, each with their own approach to the dangerous new world. These factions are the Dreams And Machines equivalent of ancestries and form the origins of Player Characters.

  • Everans: Essentially the “humans” of the game, the most numerous and most diverse group on Evera Prime. They’re a friend to everyone and extremely adaptable, able to make more bonds and use more complex tech without experience. They also wear clothing that makes them harder for machines to detect.
  • Dreamers: These humans saw the follies of relying on technology and decided to shun it almost entirely, living in remote and isolated settlements. They are better at survival in the wilderness and first aid as natural rangers and biologists. Their lack of tech makes them harder for machines to detect.
  • Archivists: This group is essentially the exact opposite of the Dreamers, acting as scientists and engineers. They understand the machines and technology best and are essentially the high elves of the setting. They can use the GLIFs (which are the closest thing to magic the game has) to do things nobody else can.
  • Spear: Spears are warriors and hunters, akin to a Wood Elf. They work a fierce fighters to defend themselves and other humans from machines and roaming ruins to keep dangers from rising up at the jump. They get bonuses to combat, movement, and access to a chemicals that raise their spirit.
  • Rivers: The traders of the game, Rivers move around trading secrets and goods. They start with extra coin and access to things nobody else has.

Classes take the form of Archetypes. These are the more rogueish Fixers, handy and self-sufficient Gatherers, the treasure hunting Grabbers, unwavering Guardians dedicated to defending their homes, the talkative and persuasive Mediators, and the Techs that understand and make technology a key part of their lives. Combined with the above origins you create your character, gaining talents, bonuses to skills, and the attributes you need to survive. You’ll also get a Temperment, which dictates what drives you, your bonds, and even what you do when you’re exhausted.

Double The 20s

The game uses the 2d20 system like most Modiphius titles. You roll those two dice when you need to make a check (attacking, skills, basically everything) and if one or both roll below the requisite attribute you succeed. There’s no “crits” like in some games, instead a 20 represents an extra complication your GM will have you overcome. Doing so often leads to bonuses and growth for your characters. But there’s a few quirks to the system worth pointing out.

Spirit

Spirit is the resolve of your character, something that you’ve got to track just as much as your health. You use it to help resolve tests with extra dice or rerolls and even by ignoring injuries or consequences. If it drops too low, you become exhausted. But that exhaustion is what leads to growth and the betterment of your character.

Scenes

Dreams And Machines doesn’t follow a linear path like a lot of games. Instead, it has the GM move you between different scenes and acting them out as they happen. This can mean the introduction of totally new characters for all involved. There’s no initiative (though there’s an option to create it) with the GM deciding the order of action based on context. Combat is its own scene, pitting your fight skills against opponents. These are fairly straightforward checks like the rest, but enemies and defending heroes are able to counter-attack, which uses built up momentum to respond. This is how injuries and deaths can occur.

Truth

Truths are a key part of the game and knowing them, learning them, and seeking them out are a big part of what drives many of the characters. Sometimes they are JUST things that are normal setting and story like in other games, but often Truths reveal VITAL things about everything from locations to people to even items. It is around these truths that a GM builds every scene, and it is with them that they define what is possible.

Dreams And Machines is a rich, dense world that I don’t think I’ll be able to put down just yet. There’s so much creativity bursting out of the game from the setting to the writing to the character design. It perfectly balances action and adventure while asking deep, interesting truths about the world and how we react to it. As a game I like the way it is able to emphasize community and assistance. It puts your character at the forefront. Their class and their lives are not defined by combat and looting but by their values. At the same time it puts up enough guardrails that you still feel accomplished and get a great sense of forward progression. All of that AND a cool aesthetic? I have no idea why people haven’t picked this up sooner. So if you get a chance, please go check this out. You won’t regret it.

You can grab the game’s Kickstart free on the Modiphius Shop, where you can also pick up the Player’s Guide, Gamemaster’s Guide (which I intend to cover in a future article), and other accessories for the game. There’s also a Starter Set that contains everything you need to play the game in one box, which has an MSRP of $38.71. You can also grab PDF’s of the Player’s Guide, GM’S Guide, and Starter Set on DriveThruRPG.

Images via Modiphius

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