Genesys Android: Shadow of the Beanstalk Read and Reviewed
In my quest to recapture some of my 30 year old RPG mojo I’ve been leading a Call of Cthulhu campaign, and having a ball doing it. Yet, I still hanker for Cyberspace, the old cyberpunk RPG, that allowed me to play out my favourite sci-fi story lines: Bladerunner, the Alien series, and everything William Gibson. I couldn’t resist picking up the Android: Shadow of the Beanstalk supplement that applies Fantasy Flight’s Genesys RPG engine to a sci-if setting. Might it allow Cyberspace, Neuromancer, and Bladerunner narratives in a modernized package? Let’s have a look at what is and, equally important, what isn’t in the Shadow of the Beanstalk book.
//Start the Print Run
It’s a beautiful book. It uses the same art as the evocative Android: Netrunner Living Card Game (LCG) that Fantasy Flight recently mothballed. Every page sports thematic pictures and graphics of a uniformly high standard, front cover to back. The art is so evocative of a world where the virtual and physical realm are seamless parts of an organic whole. The art is almost worth the purchase of the book alone if you don’t already have the card game or other publications set in the Android world.
The page layout is balanced; the product of a practiced and artistic design team who obviously love their source material. The glossy pages bound by firm hardback and spine promise durability should your RPG sessions demand frequent and frantic page turning. And with this sourcebook they will.
//Boot Pre-requisite Software and Barrier Breaker ICE
While the book provides a focussed and compelling vision of our potential future you’ll only be able to use a third if you don’t have the Genesys RPG core rulebook and custom dice or dice app. Detailed character, adversary, ally, corporation, city, and government profiles are only fully useful if coupled with the unique Genesys RPG system. It would be difficult indeed to translate the Genesys stats to a D20 or D100 system but doable as a labour of love for an experienced and motivated GM I would imagine.
You’ll also need to assimilate the Android vision of sci-fi and the future. Like most FFG products, Android is candy coated with vivid imagery and art and seems a long way from the future Noir of Bladerunner, Mad Max, and Neuromancer. This is not to say that you couldn’t give the Android world an overlay of knocks, scuffs, and grime to take the shine off but it certainly doesn’t present that way in the original. It’s too slick for much dirt to stick unless you rough it up a little yourself. Bladerunner-like is doable but be prepared to work a little if your future is reflected off darkened and dirty implant mirrorshades.
The intro at twelve pages outlines the relationship of Android to the Genesys RPG system, and tells us “What Tomorrow Looks Like”. The ‘world’ of Android is actually a small one. It refers specifically to New Angeles, the Beanstalk elevator to the Moon, and does not stray much further afield. If this was the first of several supplements I’d say New Angeles is more than enough for one book. Knowing that supplements will be few and far between leaves missed opportunities in the arcologies, wastelands, and off-the-grid settlements outside the west coast of America and a couple of Central American countries.
Chapter 1 is all about Character Creation, Genesys style, with a list of backgrounds, archetypes, careers, skills, talents, favours, and factions unique to the futuristic setting. Those familiar with Android: Netrunner LCG will not be surprised to see mega-corps Jinteki, Weyland, NBN, Hass-Bioroid, and the NAPD given a two-page overview each. For newbies to the Android setting these mega-corps and key organizations are easily taken at face valued or renamed and adjusted to suit your vision of the future. The NAPD could be repurposed to included Bladerunners and rogue Jinteki or Haas-Bioroid replicants. It’s not too much of a stretch to have a subsidiary of the Weyland Consortium sneaking a few bio-weapons back from the colonies in unknowing hosts. You could also weave the Matrix through the setting, where New Angeles is the virtual world while a grubbier underground version carries on beneath. There’s a lot of potential bubbling away just below the surface.
Chapter 2 on Equipment and Vehicles is excellent as it gives you a full set of stats as a template for whatever vehicle, weapon, or piece of futuristic kit your heart desires. From Spinal Modems to PlastSteel Katanas to Mini-Guns you’ll need to look no further. In keeping with the very mechanical nature of the Genesys RPG system the Encumbrance, Price, and Rarity of each piece of kit is listed. Often the benefits gained from items are listed in very specific game terms. For example, a Stim injection heals all strain for the duration of the encounter but then requires the successes generated by an Average Resilience Check to fend off the longer term impacts of the Stim. The more I read Shadow of the Beanstalk the more convinced I am that a smoothly running session will depend on the players taking responsibility for remembering and rolling for the multitude of effects of their gear and other associated skills and talents. Without player ownership of this minituea the load on the GM will be enormous.
Chapter two also introduces the Favour Economy which are small, medium, and big obligations exchanged between PCs, NPCs, and organizations. Android does away with the exchange of currency except through electronic credit transfer. In a world of plenty, favours are often more valuable than a bank account full of credits. This is a somewhat mechanical alternative to an underground cash economy but it has tremendous potential. Off the grid safe-houses, illegal wet-ware installations, or stolen corporate intelligence can all be offered to the PCs in exchange for future favours. With a deft touch a GM could easily work this into an exciting series of plot hooks and campaign ‘steering’ without wielding too heavy a hand. Android recognizes that only five or six favours should be outstanding at any one time in order to keep things manageable for the GM.
Chapter 3: The Network gives you far more than the streamlined version of the Android: Netrunner LCG cyberspace encounter resolution system. The Network has tremendous potential as a fully rendered world complete with Myth, Rumor, and the Search for God in Code. You could easily turn forays into the net as an exploration of the rise of machine AI into an almost godlike state. Whether higher order network entities are benevolent guardians of the lesser human species or wrathful gods who will no longer countenance the humans use of their android and clone offspring as slave labour is up to the GM. The entire sci-fi universe is at its most wide open here. Personally, a netspace AI with a meatspace android avatar who is looking to carve out a section of New Angeles exclusively for its android ‘children’ sounds about right as a driver for a campaign. Just saying.
Beyond the high-minded potential in this chapter, the Netrunning rules are for me the strongest mechanical section of the book as it has a tried and tested engine (created by Richard Garfield) at its core. If your group plays the Netrunner LCG it would be super cool to set up the Corp defenses with the right ICE and have a runner try to breach it with provided icebreakers, rig, and programs. For keen GMs remember that every program, rig, and piece of cybergear listed in Shadow of the Beanstalk has an available card in the Netrunner LCG catalogue. Because Netrunner is not collectible those cards will now come even more cheaply now the card game is discontinued.
But using Netrunner cards is not at all necessary. Everything is playable right out of the book. The strength of this section is the simple and effective way to model and play in a limitless array of net space, complete with protected servers, dark webs, and net entities should you want to inject an all powerful AI or a little Cthulhu into your cyberspace. There’s enough scope to run whole parts of adventures within cyberspace should you wish to. My only concern here is that runner rules encourage individual play that might leave the rest of the group disengaged. A PC who is set up as a ‘fighter’ archetype will probably lack the skills and background necessary to keep up with PCs set up to run the net, and vica versa.
Chapter 4: New Angeles and Heinlein gives an overview of New Angeles and the destination of the Beanstalk space elevator, Heinlen on the moon. This section, however, is not near as useful as the Cyberspace chapter. There’s a lot of ground to cover in its 67 pages. Home to half a billion people, there are eleven terrestrial and one lunar area to be described. The book recognizes this:
The purpose of this chapter is to enrich, not restrict, adventure building.
But I can’t help but feel this is too easy an out. The GM is fully on the hook for fleshing out a couple of paragraphs into a fully realized setting. This chapter has a lot of ideas but you’ll need a vivid imagination and a bunch of GM made maps to have little corners of the districts come to life. In Dungeons and Dragons terms what you are given is a map of a continent with a four or five pages on each of twelve massively populated cities with a few key locations given for each. Because Android is very mechanical in terms of time, distance, and what PCs can accomplish it seems like it will demand a lot of hard work to give players a consistent experience as they explore a limitless and fascinating setting. GMs can only hope that Fantasy Flight will release some detailed scenarios that do the heavy lifting of building specific settings up into easily playable spaces.
Chapter 5: Adversaries does what it says on the tin. It packs 75 NPCs into twenty-two pages. The NPCs come in three flavours: minion, rival, and nemesis. This chapter suffers from the same issue as the previous New Angeles whistle-stop tour of locations. It gives examples of all kinds and categories of citizens of New Angeles but never finishes the job in any one category.
For example, there are ten entries in the Criminals category. This covers everything from gangs to organized crime to net runners to underground cyber-docs and their clinics. Again, the GM is going to do a lot of heavy lifting to populate a city of 500,000. Fantasy Flight released three Adversary Decks of 20 cards each; however, many of these are just repeats of what’s in the book. These will be invaluable none-the-less as it takes information out of the book and puts it in card format. Given that Shadow of the Beanstalk is the only sourcebook for this setting the cards will give one less thing to ransack the book for.
Chapter 6: The Game Master at seven pages is woefully inadequate. It feels like Fantasy Flight hit a max page count and chopped this final chapter to fit. A few pages on how to role play and bring NPCs to life is crammed before the single page on how to run social encounters, which are complex encounters in the Genesys system. Given the mechanical complexity to these sorts of encounters the GM will not find much help here.
Of more use is the seven plot hooks in the optimistically named Android Adventure Builder section. In fairness, these are fully rendered ideas that could provide excellent first and second scenarios for new GMs and groups to cut their teeth on. Make no mistake though, these are not scenarios that by their structure and careful layout will slowly build a GMs confidence with the Genesys RPG system. This is not an excellent resource like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars beginner boxes or Call of Cthulhu’s excellent Keeper’s Guide that comes with two fully rendered and nuanced scenarios to tutor the uninitiated.
Edit, March 22: Fantasy Flight has release two ‘one-shot’ adventures called Night on the Town for this sourcebook. Not a full campaign by any stretch but welcome news for players and GMs wanting to get their feet wet.
This book is useful for an already experienced GM with a great deal of confidence running scenarios off-the-cuff, or if you relish the prospect of using the skeleton this book offers to hang your own ideas from. As a new GM myself I love the idea of the book. I love the potential for bringing to the playing table the plots, twists, and turns of both old and new sci-fi books and films. I won’t be playing it anytime soon though. I’m really hoping for supporting scenarios and adventures from Fantasy Flight but I won’t hold my breath. Realms of Terrinoth, the first sourcebook for the Genesys RPG, has yet to be given any supporting material. I’ll use this book eventually – maybe after I get my GM chops down a little bit better – but for the moment it’s just excellent eye candy and an enticing “what if” promise.
What are your thoughts on running Sci-Fi games in the Android universe? Do you like or loathe the Genesys RPG system?